An Interview with Fr. White on his Book, "Wisdom in the Face of Modernity"

An Interview with Fr. White on his Book, "Wisdom in the Face of Modernity"

Ave Maria University’s academic press, Sapientia, recently released the second edition of Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s book, Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology. Below, Fr. White shares some insights into what Wisdom in the Face of Modernity is about, how his idea for the work developed, and what readers can gain from the book.

Q. What is Wisdom in the Face of Modernity about?

Fr. White: The book is about our natural capacity to come to know that God exists, by way of philosophical argument and inference, as distinct from knowing God by way of supernatural faith in divine revelation.

Many philosophers and theologians alike think that it is impossible to make reasonable conclusive arguments for the existence of God. Sometimes they appeal in this respect to the critical arguments of Immanuel Kant from his Critique of Pure Reason, where he argues that all forms of argument for the existence of God are rationally inconclusive, illusions of “transcendental reason.” Wisdom in the Face of Modernity argues that Kant’s criticism does not in fact work against Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God.

“…it is inevitable that we make use of some form of philosophical reflection when we speak about God, even within Christian theology. It is important not to do so naively or in an ill-formed manner, because in this case, a poor philosophical understanding of things will in turn have negative consequences for theology.”

The goal of my book is to examine the metaphysical foundations for the arguments of Aquinas. That is to say, how does Thomas Aquinas’ study of being, of what exists, as we encounter it in the world, allow him to construct viable arguments for the existence of a transcendent first cause of all things, a Creator, He whom we call “God”? One aim of this book is to show that the arguments for the existence of God and the consideration of “divine attributes” that they lead to are important also for Christian theology. Christian theology is grounded in faith and in the principles of supernatural revelation given to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and the apostolic teaching. But grace presupposes nature and makes use of our native human resources for thinking about God. Consequently, it is inevitable that we make use of some form of philosophical reflection when we speak about God, even within Christian theology. It is important not to do so naively or in an ill-formed manner, because in this case, a poor philosophical understanding of things will in turn have negative consequences for theology. 

“Divine revelation and philosophical reflection are not at enmity with one another, but can coexist in a profound harmony and concord of mutual influence upon one another, just as grace heals and elevates our human nature.”

Aquinas’ metaphysical philosophy is a proven human instrument that aids us in our cooperation with divine revelation. His is a “Christian philosophy” which has been purified by a longstanding cooperation with the grace of God and theological tradition, even as his metaphysical arguments depend upon premises and conclusions of natural reason as such. Divine revelation and philosophical reflection are not at enmity with one another, but can coexist in a profound harmony and concord of mutual influence upon one another, just as grace heals and elevates our human nature.

Q. Who is Wisdom in the Face of Modernity’s intended audience and what will they gain from reading it?

Fr. White: This book is written primarily for graduate students and colleagues in philosophy and theology, but it is accessible to anyone who has a deep interest in the thought of Thomas Aquinas or who is engaged in the study of modern philosophy and theology.

Q. What motivated you to write and publish Wisdom in the Face of Modernity?

Fr. White: This book stems from a long-term interest in the questions of the rationality of Christian belief and the harmony of faith and reason. In many ways the book represents an attempt to spell out my own response to the alternative visions of these matters that one finds in theologians such as Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar, who each hold distinctive and differing conceptions of the relationship of philosophy to theology. I say this with great respect for these figures. Often in thinking out over time why we do not hold to the position of another person (someone like Kant or Barth) we are showing that we take their viewpoint seriously and wish to discern with care how we would respond to their arguments.

Q. Could you share one revelatory moment during the writing process?

Fr. White: My early initiation to Aquinas’ metaphysics taught me that his understanding of the metaphysical structure of reality is of lasting value and remarkable insight. To see that his arguments for the existence of God were not built on conjecture or willfulness but on a well-founded analysis of reality changed my sense of the significance of philosophy and the greatness of the Thomistic intellectual tradition. 

Q. For readers interested in becoming better acquainted with Thomas Aquinas’ thought, where should they turn?

Fr. White: Excellent introductions to Aquinas’ thought exist in English—works by people like Steve Brock and Edward Feser. The Penguin edition of the Selected Writings of Aquinas edited by Ralph McInerny provides a great introduction to his writings that is clear and accessible.

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies (Washington, D.C.). His research interests include Thomistic metaphysics and Christology, as well as Roman Catholic-Reformed ecumenical dialogue. Rev. White has authored, edited and co-edited several books, and he is also co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera (English edition). Wisdom in the Face of Modernity is available for purchase from Sapientia Press.

Sapientia Press, the academic publishing house of Ave Maria University, publishes important works of scholarship that are consistent with Ave Maria University’s commitment to Catholic ideals and academic excellence. Sapientia Press’ titles include works by prominent authors, such as Avery Cardinal Dulles and Alice von Hildebrand. Two series of theological texts are published by Sapientia: Introduction to Catholic Doctrine, and the broader Faith and Reason: Studies in Catholic Theology and Philosophy, which features substantial works in Thomistic philosophy and theology. Ave Maria University’s academic publishing house is distributed by The Catholic University of America Press.