Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: The Journey of the Mind to God by Bonaventure

The Journey of the Mind to God by Bonaventure

Saint Bonaventure was a medieval Franciscan theologian. He wrote this brief but dense work inspired by Francis of Assisi, who often focused on seeking peace as a way to God. Bonaventure meditated on this peace and found a way to the mystical contemplation of God. He describes six steps that lead to God.

The first step considers the very faint image of God in the "vestiges of the universe." By our human sense powers, we come to a knowledge of the world and perceive the orderliness and abundance in the universe. Bonaventure's idea here isn't how we can see an intelligent design to the universe, but how the rationality and immensity of it is reflective of higher and more perfect things, leading to the highest and most perfect God.

The second step looks to that faint image of God in the visible world. How is this different from the first step? Bonaventure explains--in this step we see the universe not as a product of God but as God is present in the universe. After some scientific explanations (which, quite frankly, are no longer valid), he cites Augustine's argument that numbers can be found in all things, and these numbers reflect an order and harmony that leads to God.

The third step sees God's image in our natural powers--memory, knowledge, and desire. Memories are made in the present and include the past; memories also give a hint to the future. So memory gives a shadowy reflection of the eternity in which God lives. Knowledge seeks the truth of things, understanding what they are and how they are related to one another. Truth relies on knowing the being of things (which ultimately relies on the Supreme Being) and the relationship they have to each other (which is a shadowy reflection of the Trinitarian community of the Godhead). Desire is always for the good and must focus on the highest good for man, happiness. That happiness can achieve fulfillment if it has the greatest good as its object, the unchanging and infinite good found in the Supreme Being. Our natural intellectual powers are an image of God.

While the third step is attained through philosophical reflection, the fourth step sees God's image in the human soul perfected by grace,. This step is attained through the gift of grace. A deeper understanding of our relationship to others and to God comes with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These virtues cannot be acquired through human effort but are a gift from God that we accept. Contemplation of Sacred Scripture reinforces and deepens the impact of grace on the soul.

The fifth step looks at God Himself in His essential attributes. Like the third step, this contemplation looks with a more philosophical eye at the primary name of God given to Moses at the burning bush: I am who am. God is Being, pure and simple. Pure being has no potency or division; it cannot be improved or added to. As such, it must be eternal and unchanging. God is one.

The sixth step looks at God as the Good, that is, the highest and most perfect good. Such a good must exist (Bonaventure cites Anselm's famous argument) and also be self-diffusive. This supreme self-diffusion is the starting point from which Bonaventure explains the Three Persons of the Trinity and shows how They can be co-equal and distinct. This is the highest level of contemplation, where the mind is illumined most perfectly.

Of course, a person's ascent to a mystical understanding of God requires not only the intellectual insights described. Bonaventure says in his prologue that only a prayerful and purified spirit can make this ascent. A life of holiness both in prayer and in act is prerequisite for the journey of the mind to God. He reiterates this dependence on divine power in the final chapter. By contemplating Jesus Christ and relying on the grace He provides us, we are able to come close in this life to the vision that we will have in Heaven.

The text, like many medieval writings, is very terse and has some technical language common in medieval philosophy and theology. So reading it isn't the easiest thing but it is very rewarding.

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