Sermon Notes: Thought Experiment

Atheism Series 1/2
Homily for The Feast of the Transfiguration 2017


In the above homily, I attempted to describe necessary linguistic and philosophical categories. The more I contemplate the reasons behind the hemorrhaging from not only the Catholic Church but also of all religions, the more I realize that people of faith are primarily losing a battle on these two fronts. For example, the supposed debate between faith and science is a mirage; it is actually a debate between two world-views: that of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle on the one side, and that of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume on the other. The former has its modern-day evangelists of Edward Feser and (Bishop) Robert Barron among an increasingly smaller set of others, while the latter has Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris among an increasingly growing set of others. Why is this?

The first main reason for this shift is a mentality triumph of individual autonomy over corporate Sacred Tradition, following the Protestant Reformation and evidenced by both the conservative and progressive denominations and independent congregations. The second main reason for this shift is the triumph of "science," or in reality, the philosophy of Empiricism as the lens of viewing scientific facts and Rationalism as the lens of viewing mathematics and philosophy. (Dawkins for example, as a biologist, is an Empiricist and misunderstands Rationalists just as much as Christians.) This is the ultimate triumph of the three marks of the Enlightenment: (1) Rejection of Authority (particularly targeting monarchy and Catholicism), (2) Trust only in Human Reason (as defined by what the mind and senses alone can discern), and (3) Trust in Human Progress (change necessarily means the betterment of humanity). One only needs to contemplate the meaning of the image on the title page of the Empiricist Francis Bacon's book, Novum Organum, paying close attention to the direction the ships are sailing:


The careful observer will notice that, perhaps upon second glance, the ships are not sailing out into the wide open waters unfettered by the constraints of the straights, but rather from the open into the straights. One might expect the analogy to be, "being freed from superstition and released into free thought," but it's reversed! Bacon, the first Empiricist, thought physical evidence would rightly guide human reason. It should be no surprise then, that Protestantism is falling apart more quickly than Catholicism (and Orthodoxy which has essentially the same worldview) in Christianity. Protestantism first abandoned classical reasoning in favor of individual subjective reasoning, with no solid philosophical categories underlying it, or really "them," for Protestants are each composed of numerous conflicting theologies all having in common their protest against the Catholic Church. Yet all the streams of Protestantism - even conservative Evangelicals - are losing members to "secularism" or materialism (the belief that the entire universe is only made of matter); indeed large numbers of Catholic and Orthodox members who do not know their churches's philosophical heritage, and thus cannot defend and properly understand the faith and morals, are also leaving. Judaism, not being a whole system or body, has succumbed similarly. Islam, while also not a whole system nor a united body, is slower to fall - and indeed is growing fast - as "it" never has seriously undergone any widespread interaction with the Enlightenment or its subsequent reactionary philosophies. Christianity (and Islam) is growing in Africa and Asia where the Enlightenment or its subsequent off-shoot philosophies have not seriously impacted it. Interestingly, Islam is growing in the West with people either ignorant of or tired of Empiricism and Rationalism, whether they know the terms and concrete ideas by name or not.

If Christianity - of which Catholicism is the original and fullest expression - is to not only survive but grow, we as Christians must go to our roots. That does not necessarily mean only knowing the Bible and its stories, though that is important. It also does not necessarily mean only knowing the faith and morals, which of course is important too. Those, in terms of sequence, must come second and third, respectively, to knowing the philosophy and its terminology that underlies the importance of the Bible and its stories, and of the faith and morals.

Aristotle coined or refined the meanings of very important terms, referring to very important concepts, without which we would be entirely disoriented in reality. His greatest disciple, that substantial doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, clarified and expounded upon Aristotle's categories like no one else before or after him. Fortunately for a society largely ignorant of these categories, our collective ignorance of them largely leads individuals to quickly reject Aristotelian categories while the general population only slowly abandons them over generations and generations. However, we are now at a tipping point: where our entire society has abandoned too much and is too ignorant to go back unless outspoken individuals call the rest back off the brink. This is where the Catholic Church comes in.

If we are to defend our faith against the intellectual attacks from the Empiricists and Rationalists alike, indeed if we are to demonstrate that the attacks are actually against straw men not against actual Catholicism (for I could not attempt to give a cohesive defense for the plethora of Christian split-offs from the Catholic Church), and if we are to understand our own faith correctly so we know what we actually believe in and are defending, we must learn and embrace Aristotelian categories once again. If we do not make use of them, we do not have the tools to precisely and fully understand Christianity.


The argument I am making in the homily (above) is that since all matter has a form to it, the transfiguration of Christ is evidence that physics will change (and indeed already has outside time). Due to the ascension of Christ, we too will be transfigured at our own individual resurrections because time-bound (temporal) matter has "actualized" into its no-time (eternal) potentiality. This is due to Our Lord's uniting of the form of humanity and its accompanying matter (the physical "stuff" we are made of), with his divine form, at the incarnation and taking human form and matter into heaven (eternity) at the ascension.

I know, that is a mouthful and needs serious unpacking. Let's start with form and matter.

Form and Matter

Matter that is red has the form of redness (among whatever form it might also share in, such as roundness). Forms are universals, or what we say in grammar, common nouns. But it stands to reason that form can exist apart from matter, while matter must have a form. Why? Because of the alternate example of anger. Anger is a universal, a form, because we all can experience it. But "it" is not material.

Potentiality Vs. Actuality

Now let's address the necessary distinction between potentiality and actuality. Potentiality is the capacity to become or do something. There are limits to this. A car cannot potentially time travel, but it can potentially go 88 miles per hour. Movement towards potential, or "actualizing" its potential, is what is meant by "actuality."

Matter has a form, but not all forms have matter. Things have potential which can (but not must) become actualized.

If the immaterial God took on the form of human likeness, indeed a servant at that (Phil. 2:7), he did not lose his divine nature but added on to it. This changes physics. Matter in human form is by nature temporal. It decays. Yet Jesus, when shining bright during the transfiguration, appeared with Moses and Elijah - from time past! So it follows that something changed in physics itself unless this is to understood as merely a metaphor and with no historical basis whatsoever.

What happened was that when God united his divinity with humanity, he elevated the human form he himself assumed (Heb. 1:4). Matter, after the ascension, entered no-time (eternity) in human form; thus matter after and before the ascension - from our temporal view - was "always" united with God - yet we being stuck in time do not yet see the big picture. We just hear about evidence of the new physics in accounts like the transfiguration or when Our Lady - also from time past - appears at Walsingham or Lourdes. What a paradox!

Matter actualized its truest potentiality in the incarnation: eternal and yet unique. Matter is not universally everywhere due to the incarnation, but it is existing outside time and is thus everywhen. It does not create a Hindu "Brahman" or the Neo-Platonic "Nous," a kind of One-Thing of which we - sharing in the form of humanity and being made of matter- are really just emanations. Why? Because Christ has two natures, not divine only and matter being subsumed into it; nor is the divine dissolved into the physical matter to the dismay of Karl Marx. Both exist, united "unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person," to quote from the Chalcedonian Definition.

And if the form of humanity was transfigured by Christ's divinity, and if we in uniting individually to Christ via the sacraments are transformed into his likeness - his perfected and actualized humanity - then it follows that we too (having the form of humanity) can potentially be actualized into a transfigured state shining bright and outside time but with our matter in addition to form.

"Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear." - Matthew 13:43



In my homily, I made a side point about angels, and upon reflection, realized it was likely an unnecessary point. However, it is important in general to be able to reason that if non-alive immaterial forms exist (such as anger), alive immaterial forms exist (such as the angelic order - perfected ones known as "angels" and defective ones known as "demons") do as well, especially when otherwise trusted eyewitnesses have experienced or seen them. Aquinas writes in the Summa,

"There must be some incorporeal creatures. For what is principally intended by God in creatures is good, and this consists in assimilation to God Himself. And the perfect assimilation of an effect to a cause is accomplished when the effect imitates the cause according to that whereby the cause produces the effect; as heat makes heat. Now, God produces the creature by His intellect and will (I:14:8; I:19:4). Hence the perfection of the universe requires that there should be intellectual creatures. Now intelligence cannot be the action of a body, nor of any corporeal faculty; for every body is limited to "here" and "now." Hence the perfection of the universe requires the existence of an incorporeal creature.
The ancients, however, not properly realizing the force of intelligence, and failing to make a proper distinction between sense and intellect, thought that nothing existed in the world but what could be apprehended by sense and imagination. And because bodies alone fall under imagination, they supposed that no being existed except bodies, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] observes (Phys. iv, text 52,57). Thence came the error of the Sadducees, who said there was no spirit (Acts 23:8).
But the very fact that intellect is above sense is a reasonable proof that there are some incorporeal things comprehensible by the intellect alone." (Ia:50:1)

Notice Aquinas's use of the form "good" in arguing for the existence of angels. Granted, he presumes the reader has already accepted that God (the Good) exists (cf. Aquinas's Five Ways). My referencing angels in the homily was not to transition into this topic per se, but to demonstrate the reasonableness of the existence of alive immaterial beings by the use of forms. The angelic order, in addition to God himself, is a part of "heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen," to quote from the Nicene Creed. But having a reasonable faith in the existence of immaterial alive beings, like angels, is important to better understand something far more important yet paradoxically ultimately unknowable: God's divine nature (the greatest form).