by Philip Trower
I did not begin to study philosophy until I was in my fifties. I began to because I found that without some knowledge of modern philosophy it was impossible to understand what was going wrong with the implementation of Vatican II and to understand modern philosophy presupposed knowing something about philosophy in general.
It was then that I first came across the notions of ‘contingent’ and ‘necessary’ being together with their relationship, and ever since I have found them the most helpful in the whole of philosophy in regard to the existence of God and the subject of this article.
‘Contingent’ being is anything that does no have the ultimate explanation for its existence in its self, in other words everything except God. God on the other hand is the one absolutely necessary being because he has to exist for there to be anything else. He does not owe his existence to some cause outside himself, and in a sense one cannot even say he is the cause of his own existence. He is existence itself.
For me all this throws a flood of light on the need for and inevitability of God’s existence. Once you have grasped the meaning of the distinction, as I see it, there is no wriggling out of affirming the necessity of a First Cause. There have, it is true, been thinkers wacky enough to affirm that everything we see and experience is an illusion. But not the bulk of our poor non-believing brothers. The most hard-line will not deny that the things they touch and see are really there. They accept the fundamental metaphysical principle “things exist.” Their problem is why, if everything which they accept as existing does not have to exist and therefore must have a cause (i.e. it is contingent, not necessary), the totality of contingent things can be contingent or causeless.
My reason for starting with these matters philosophical is because of the way they can help us to understand the nature of spiritual experience which has come to be known as the ‘noon-day devil’, an expression taken from psalm 90 v.5-6. It is used to describe the state of spiritual weariness or torpor of soul known as ‘acedia’ or ‘accidie’ which can so easily overtake us in middle-age or the middle of the day. Actually what I have in mind is more widespread and commonplace. But I like the name, and the devil certainly has something to do with it. I am talking about the way the world looks when we are immersed in our daily duties or the duties of our state and the supernatural world ---God and the things of God --- seems remote and far away. The relationship between the natural and supernatural worlds is turned upside down so that what is necessary, the supernatural, comes to feel contingent and what is contingent, this world, necessary.
When we fall into this state of mind we feel as if this world and everything to do with it has to be and will continue forever. There will always be buses, trains, cars and airplanes, running on or off time. Just as there will always be supermarkets providing the goods we are accustomed to and offices filled with people working on computers. They are part of an everlasting ‘necessary’ quasi-divine order. None of it needs a cause or explanation.
At the same time the supernatural world seems remote and distant. Of course we still believe in it, and may from time to time send up a prayer of praise, thanksgiving or entreaty. But it feels as if it were attached to the natural order from outside and dependent for its existence on our act of belief like something ‘contingent’.
Never till I stumbled on the distinction been natural and contingent being had I understood the nature of the experience I have been describing so well.
What of course we are really dealing with is a psychological rather than a theological or spiritual problem, and one which Newman deals with at length in his Grammar of Assent. In a way Blessed John Henry was as great a religious psychologist as he was a religious thinker and theologian.
In the Grammar, you will remember, he traces the paths by which, via ‘antecedent probabilities’ and other steps, we come to say Yes or make our assent to the propositions which the Church puts forward for our belief. In doing so he makes a distinction between what he calls ‘notional’ assent and ‘real’ assent. Both kinds of assent are genuine. But they differ in psychological tone or affectivity.
To take an example from natural life, our assent to the fact that an earthquake has taken place somewhere is different in kind if someone tells us about it or we read it on a hoarding advertising a newspaper from what it will be if we see the results on TV. Similarly we know that old people were once children and most children will one day be old, but when we are actually with them it is hard to believe. The fact remains ‘notional’. The same with death. No one but a nut will deny he is going to die one day. Nevertheless with the majority of us for most of our lives this idea too remains ‘notional’.
That is why meditation is so crucial for the survival and spread of the faith. It lifts the truths of faith from the ‘notional’ to the ‘real’ level. Meditation makes them ‘real’ to our minds and hearts and it is their reaching the ‘real’ level which impels us to act.
I have gone into all this in some detail in the hope that next time some truth of faith or the supernatural world as a whole seems faint and far away it may help you to understand why it is not necessarily due to lack of faith or a reason for getting upset. On the contrary our faith, when ‘notional’ can be greater and our assent can be more meritorious.
‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Copyright © Philip Trower 2015
Version: 14th March 2015