The term ‘philosophy’ is typically either misunderstood or ignored. In mundane settings it stands for one’s personal stance on something as in “your philosophy of child-rearing.” When it is understood as an academic pursuit of some rigor, it is also construed as boring, impractical, or irrelevant. In the context of the local church, it is sometimes reckoned as one of two great challenges to a life of faith (the other being ‘science’). I have some sympathies for all of these understandings, and yet, in our little corner of the world at SES, we find something incredibly attractive about philosophy; both its rigor and its relationship to the life of faith. In what follows I’d like to open a window into this latter experience of philosophy, namely, the way philosophy can play a role in the Christian’s devotional life.
To be sure, not just any philosophy bears such fruit. There are some traditions that are inherently non- or anti-Christian. To use the term ‘philosophy’ generically is to obscure the fact that within the scope of traditions properly labeled “philosophy” or “philosophical,” there is an extremely wide range of ideas. This is similar to the term ‘science’, which when used generically masks many of the differences among the natural sciences (it is used equally of quantum dynamics as it is of marine biology). Here we will focus on one very narrow band of a philosophical tradition, existential Thomism. The task at present is to unearth a single sample of how philosophy might provide fertile ground for Christian devotion.
In an article titled “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” Thomist philosopher Edward Feser defends a Doctrine of Divine Conservation against a Doctrine of Existential Inertia. He writes,
The Doctrine of Divine Conservation (DDC) holds that the things that God has created could not continue in existence for an instant if He were not actively preserving them in being. DDC is a standard component of classical philosophical theology. St. Thomas Aquinas holds that:
Now, from the fact that God rules things by His providence it follows that He preserves them in being… [T]o be is not the nature or essence of any created thing, but only of God….Therefore, no thing can remain in being if divine operation cease. [Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III]…
According to DEI [Doctrine of Existential Inertia], the world of contingent things, once it exists, will tend to continue in existence on its own at least until something positively acts to destroy it. It thus has no need to be conserved in being by God.
What follows in the article is an elaboration of how DDC undergirds Aquinas’ famous “five ways” (proofs for God’s existence) and arguments against DEI. Since this is not an essay about philosophy but rather an essay demonstrating the fertility of philosophy for Christian devotion, we’ll leave aside any detailed review of Feser’s argumentation. I will simply stipulate that Feser is correct and that the DDC is the better position. With this stipulated we can return to the main thesis: philosophical study provides grounds for Christian devotion.
Undeniably, those not interested in a detailed analysis of issues of philosophical theology would be wholly unmotivated to read the entirety of Feser’s article. The short snippet above might be enough for a reader to conclude that philosophy is indeed as rigorous and boring as we were warned above. However, if we return to Feser’s main point and draw it into the context of one’s personal theology, then we will begin to see the beauty behind the analysis.The point that Feser makes, following Aquinas, is that at every moment of its existing every creature is an effect of God’s causing it to be. This has two very practical implications, one apologetic and one devotional.
The Christian apologetics implication was played out for me in a discussion with an agnostic psychology student at a large state university. She stated, “For me, there is just no evidence that God exists.” Being a student of Aquinas and affirming the DDC, my retort was “that is because you have a wrong view of causality. If you had a correct view, then looking at yourself in the mirror would be evidence that God exists.” In my mind was the DDC, at every moment of its existence every creature is evidence of God’s causal activity.
Now we come to the main thesis. The personal devotion point is made eloquently by theologian Andrew Murray. He writes in the opening pages of his wonderful little book Humility,
[A]s God is the ever-living, ever-present, ever-acting One, who upholds all things by the word of His power, and in whom all things exist; the relation of the creature to God could only be one of unceasing, absolute, universal dependence. As truly as God by His power once created, so truly by that same power must God every moment maintain. . . . The life God bestows is imparted not once for all, but each moment continuously, by the unceasing operation of His mighty power. Humility, the place of entire dependence on God, is, from the very nature of the things, the first duty and the highest virtue of the creature and the root of every virtue. And so pride, or the loss of this humility, is the root of every sin and evil. . . . Humility is not so much a grace or virtue along with others; it is the root of all, because it alone takes the right attitude before God. . . . God has so constituted us as reasonable beings, that the truer the insight into the real nature or the absolute need of a command, the readier and fuller will be our obedience to it.
It is here, then, in Murray that we see the once dry and dusty doctrine converted into an aspect of Christian wisdom. The theologian takes the insight from the philosopher and transforms it into a principle of practical devotion. Murray reminds us that given something like a doctrine of divine conservation, it is our duty to simply recognize the metaphysical structure of the created order. God continuously gives existence to all things and life to all living things; we are wholly dependent upon God for every moment of our being. What follows from this for any “reasonable being” is an attitude of humility, which is “the root of every virtue.” And the pursuit of the virtues is a major focus for the Christian devotional life.
There are philosophies and philosophical traditions that clash with Christianity. At SES, however, we find that our existential Thomism fits seamlessly with our devotional life. Indeed, this particular tradition enables us to see with depth these important theological truths, and the deeper one sees this truth the more profound its effects on one’s inner spiritual life.
 Edward Feser, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,” Journal of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 85, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 237-267.