“The key error is to oppose the transcendence of God with his real presence in the world. Religious awe is set in opposition to spiritual intimacy. Against this false opposition, the Church Fathers developed a deeper understanding of the mystery of creation. God’s transcendent mystery is distinct from the finite world, but not antithetical to it. In fact, it is precisely because God is the cause of all that exists that he can be intimately present to all that is.” —Thomas Joseph White, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism.1
“The goal of the physical creation from the beginning, then, was the creation of the human person. The goal of the creation of the human person was to establish an ecclesial community with God effected by grace. The goal of the life of grace was to permit human beings to live in stable friendship with God in view of the grace of the beatific vision, the deifying vision of the blessed Trinity. This beatifying vision given to the human soul of the human person would in turn affect the human body, and indirectly the whole physical cosmos.” —Thomas Joseph White, The Light of Christ, 2017.2
During a time in which the intellectual claims of Catholicism and its philosophical foundations are downplayed and, surprisingly, even somewhat denigrated in Church circles, we find a remarkable number of books and studies going in precisely the opposite direction. They spell out the intellectual claims of Catholicism with a remarkable overall clarity. There are older books such as Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity, Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, and Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. We now have books including Robert Royal’s A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, Tracey Rowland’s, Catholic Theology, Robert Sokolowski’s The Phenomenology of the Human Person, David Walsh’s The Being of Politics and the Politics of Being, and Robert Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God. These books, among others, present profound considerations about the inherent consistency of the Catholic mind.
Into this latter group falls the new book by the Dominican scholar Thomas Joseph White, entitled The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism. The term “Catholicism” in the sub-title is significant. While the book deals with Protestantism and Orthodoxy, as well as other philosophies and religions, it is primarily about Catholicism—what it is and what it maintains about itself. I have called it “more than an Introduction”, though it is certainly an excellent introduction to Catholicism. The book presents a far-reaching unification of why things within Catholicism cohere, why its peculiar practices and teachings fit together, why they do not contradict reason but enhance it. The book is by no means “triumphalist” in the pejorative sense. But neither is it a book that backs off from stating what is true just because its truth is grounded in reason and revelation. White’s understanding of intelligence is not one that cuts off elements of the things we need to know simply because its source is revelation. His philosophy is a philosophy of the complete whole, not just of that part of the whole that was not itself addressed by revelation. Whether one agrees with it or not, to not even to wonder what it claims would betray a remarkable intellectual prejudice.
White is a very clear and precise thinker. He has managed, in this readable volume of some three hundred pages, to touch on the basic historical, theological, and philosophical facts and understandings that make sensible and persuasive what Catholicism maintains about itself and the world. The book is not polemical in tone; White sets down what is held followed by the reasons why it might make sense to hold it. He wants to know what exactly the various elements of Catholicism mean. But he also knows the objections to these views, and he consistently presents brief but well-thought-out responses to them.
The Light of Christ displays a minimum of academic apparatus. When one has finished reading this incisive book, he recognizes (not unlike reading Josef Pieper) that the author is very erudite. The book constantly makes the reader aware of the tradition upon which it is based. Yet the arguments are presented in a way that any normal person can, with some diligence, understand them. It follows the tradition of Aquinas, who is very much present in these pages. It states the arguments against the truths and ways of life that are presented in whatever issue is taken up. White does not hide the failures of individual Catholics, the difficulty in understanding every argument, or the lack of brilliance of many bishops and popes.
We dwell in a world that displays considerable disorder. The Church is first concerned with sinners. Her members are subject to and too often indulge in sins and errors. This fact of fallen-ness is a central reason for there being a Catholicism as we know it. The likelihood is that truth will not always be willingly embraced or understood, even if heard or listened to. The Incarnation, as presented to us, was made present among us as a divine initiative that responded to the fact that some human disorders of soul and errors of mind could not be solved by human thought and enterprise alone.
At every level, the book makes the reader conscious of the meaning and need of grace to reach an adequate understanding of what divine revelation reveals about the final end of man. Primarily, the book sees the need of grace for finite creatures to reach a goal that is, at bottom, above the capacity of their kind of being. Yet, grace never is pictured as something that deprives us of freedom or that instills in us an automatic necessity in all our works, good or bad.
The book is divided into seven parts: 1) faith and reason, 2) the Trinity, 3) creation and the human person, 4) Incarnation and atonement, 5) the Church, 6) social teaching, and 7) the last things. A divine “logic” is found in the way one topic leads to the next. All elements of revelation are coherently interconnected and depend on each other. The book is written by a theologian, that is, by a man who takes as his primary source of information and reflection what is presented in the revelation to the Jews and subsequently to the Christians.
The author believes that what he writes is true and about true things for which direct or indirect evidence exists and can be and is presented. From his epilogue on prayer and the carefulness with which he treats the Blessed Mother, we can see how seriously White takes the admonition of St. Pope John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, that theology leads contemplation. It is not merely a quaint body of interrelated facts. This approach means that we begin with the picture of God, man, and the cosmos as it is found in this revelation. But at no point is there any intimation that what is found in this revelation cannot, on careful reflection, be seen to make sense. We are not dealing with a “blind” faith, but an informed one.
These truths found in the sources of revelation are often presented in the form of stories, histories, myths, poetry, allegory, or analogy. But it is clear that this faith/knowledge, as it is presented, often needs clarification in the light of man’s own experience and rational powers. We need to know it is at least negatively credible, that the arguments against it are themselves not defensible in reason. Catholicism may indeed, as Chesterton had already suggested, be the last real defender of reason in the modern world, a world that has come to evaporate from its own mind any hint of an intelligence reflected in the order of things or any historical memory of how men came to know the truth of things in the first place.
White’s discussion of the Trinity is excellent. We do not argue to the Trinity from reason. We receive its reality from revelation—then we think about it. The Divinity has a complete inner life. We understand it more as love and friendship than power and arbitrariness. The otherness within the Godhead is expressed eternally in the procession of Persons. Creation, the cosmos, that very cosmos, as White cites several times, that seems to have begun some 13.7 billion years ago, does not explain itself or its own order, though obviously there is some intelligibility to it that the human mind can understand. Otherwise we would not bother with it.
Indeed, in the beginning, nothing existed but God—the God Who is. God’s initial purpose was not to create a physical cosmos but to associate with Himself in His inner Triune life other rational beings who were not gods. The cosmos turned out to be the place wherein this plan worked itself out. White is very good on the question of the origins of human life and particularly on what the world might have been like had Adam not sinned. This alternate salvation history was a real possibility. But again, the person, human or angelic, to whom it is offered, is really was free to accept or reject this ultimate purpose for his creation.
Thus, it follows that we must look to revelation to see what came next after the opening drama. The initial purpose of God in creation—to associate other free beings with Himself—did not change even when it was rejected. What “changed” was the way God chose to deal with finite persons, a way that would lead to the Cross. He decided to send His Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, to become flesh and dwell amongst us. This “plan,” as it is often called in Scripture, led through the Jews, the life and death of Christ, the Resurrection, the establishment of the Church and its sacraments, to how we live in this world in the meantime, in the time in which we are.
Christ was not a myth. The God/man did exist in this world. We know the times and dates and personalities surrounding Him and His locality. White is careful to explain the relation of Christ’s divine and human natures to His personhood as one being. These are not indifferent or esoteric issues, but establish the credibility of who Christ was. As Benedict XVI memorably affirmed at the end of his Jesus of Nazareth, when we have examined all the evidence, dealt with all the objections, we can only conclude that indeed Christ was exactly who He said He was. This conclusion is likewise White’s judgment.
White gives a very useful and informed explication of the seven sacraments in the life of the Church, as well as a reflection on the Church’s founding in the Apostles and its subsequent development. In reading this illuminating book, we are aware that we are dealing with ultimate, not temporal, things except as they relate (as they often do) to the purpose of our human existence, namely to be invited into the life of the Trinity. The last section of the book is on the last things—heaven, hell, death, and purgatory. White makes them vividly alive. At the same time, he explains why they are not illusions.
As we read this book, we become conscious that each of our lives is indeed caught up in the final purpose and drama of our, to us, unexpected existence—in why we are rather than are not. This awareness is why I think that this book is “more than an Introduction,” both in the sense it is based on solid scholarship and in the sense it deals with thought that leads to prayer and contemplation. Our lives and our prayers will likely manifest serious disorders if they are not based in what is true, if we do not take into consideration both what is revealed to us and what we can see makes sense about it. Thomas Joseph White’s book is a real contribution to the Catholic mind and, through it, to mind as such.