Saturday, October 25, 2008

Philosophy of St. Thomas - Summa Contra Gentiles - Providence

It often happens that a proposition seems terribly obvious once it's expressed clearly to us. What St. Thomas has to say in the Summa Contra Gentiles about Providence, and order, and law, is like that. The entire third book of SCG is on this subject, and this modest post is by no means going to attempt anything like digesting the whole of the book. Instead, this is based upon my notes from a few portions of it.
God moves all things to their ends, and He does so through His understanding, for we have shown above that He does not act through a necessity of His nature, but through understanding and will. Now, to rule or govern by providence is simply to move things toward an end through understanding. Therefore, God by His providence governs and rules all things that are moved toward their end, whether they be moved corporeally, or spiritually as one who desires is moved by an object of desire (III-64, 4).
It's not just that by his providence God directs all things, but more importantly that they are directed toward their end - for the fulfillment of God's purposes both for them and for his creation. We sometimes (and Protestants maybe more often) will talk about God having a plan for our lives, but what it means to have a plan is to have a goal, a purpose, an end in view that is to be accomplished.
[5] Moreover, that natural bodies are moved and made to operate for an end, even though they do not know their end, was proved by the fact that what happens to them is always, or often, for the best; and, if their workings resulted from art, they would not be done differently. But it is impossible for things that do not know their end to work for that end, and to reach that end in an orderly way, unless they are moved by someone possessing knowledge of the end, as in the case of the arrow directed to the target by the archer. So, the whole working of nature must be ordered by some sort of knowledge. And this, in fact, must lead back to God, either mediately or immediately, since every lower art and type of knowledge must get its principles from a higher one, as we also see in the speculative and operative sciences. Therefore, God governs the world by His providence.

[6] Furthermore, things that are different in their natures do not come together into one order unless they are gathered into a unit by one ordering agent. But in the whole of reality things are distinct and possessed of contrary natures; yet all come together in one order, and while some things make use of the actions of others, some are also helped or commanded by others. Therefore, there must be one orderer and governor of the whole of things (ibid., 5-6).
The point here is that order in creation requires an agent who has done the ordering. The fact that the whole of creation is orderly, and integrated, and that things "just work" ("always, or often" - or most of the time) is a clear indication that creation is not just a patched-up mess of random bits, but is ordered - and if it is ordered, there must be one who has done the ordering.
Furthermore, as we proved above, God brings all things into being, not from the necessity of His nature, but by understanding and will. Now, there can be no other ultimate end for His understanding and will than His goodness, that is, to communicate it to things, as is clear from what has been established. But things participate in the divine goodness to the extent that they are good, by way of likeness. Now, that which is the greatest good in caused things is the good of the order of the universe; for it is most perfect, as the Philosopher says. With this, divine Scripture is also in agreement, for it is said in Genesis (1:31): "God saw all the things He had made, and they were very good," while He simply said of the individual works, that "they were good." So, the good of the order of things caused by God is what is chiefly willed and caused by God. Now, to govern things is nothing but to impose order on them. Therefore, God Himself governs all things by His understanding and will (ibid., 9).
God made all things for the sake of communicating his goodness to them. We may be sure, as Scripture says, that "for those who love God all things work together unto good" (Rom. 8:28). God has not made us for evil purposes, but for good. Our biggest problem in remembering this is that we are so shortsighted. We can't see past our own noses. We all have ADHD when it comes to trusting in God's purposes for us: we are "easily distracted."

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