Book Review: “The Openness of Being”

The Openness of Being: Natural Theology Today. By E. L. Mascall. Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2022. 288 pp. $15.25 (paper).

Since their establishment in 1887, the Gifford Lectures have been devoted to the exploration of natural theology, defined on the lecture series website as “the attempt to prove the existence of God and divine purpose through observation of nature and the use of human reason.” In 1970‒1971 the lectures were delivered by none other than E. L. Mascall, Anglican priest and Professor of Historical Theology at King’s College London. These were subsequently published in 1971 as The Openness of Being: Natural Theology Today and have now been republished by Nashotah House Press just over fifty years later.

Rather than offering a purely abstract treatment of the subject, Mascall’s lectures were partly intended to “[make] a fresh survey of the field of natural theology” (vii). Thus entire chapters are devoted to engaging with thinkers who were prominent at the time, such as Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Charles Hartshorne, Leslie Dewart, and A. Boyce Gibson. Some of these figures—particularly Rahner, Lonergan, and Hartshorne—continue to generate discussion today.[1] Others, like Dewart and Gibson, have become obscure in comparison. Moreover, natural theology has continued to develop in the fifty-plus years since Mascall delivered these lectures. At times, then, they read more like a window into recent history of philosophy than a “fresh survey,” so those seeking more current literature in the field should look elsewhere.[2]

That said, Mascall’s own account of natural theology is just as salutary today as it was in 1971, and all the more so when contrasted with the transcendental Thomism articulated by Rahner, Lonergan, and others. As distinguished from other schools of Thomism, transcendental Thomism “[accepts] the basic Kantian position” that “the actual object of perception [the phenomenon] is the product of the very act in which it is perceived, so that we can never know things as they really are [the noumenon]” (64‒65). In other words, transcendental Thomists accept as their starting point “a Kantian or quasi-Kantian critique of knowledge,” so that in attempting to make their way to God they must “[begin] by investigating the conditions of the possibility of knowledge” (65‒66). Their investigations do ultimately conclude with an affirmation of Absolute being (i.e., God). However, as Mascall observes, epistemological idealism—in which “the object of knowledge [is] entirely within the mind” (14), and of which transcendental Thomism is a type—is inherently self-defeating:

Once you have refused to assume the reliability of your apprehension of beings other than yourself and have postulated that the objects of your perception are prima facie states of your own mind, you are launched on the endless process of trying ineffectually to escape from the prison of your own subjectivity. To change the metaphor, you are involved in ever more complicated gymnastics in your attempts not to saw off the branch on which you are sitting. (91)

In contrast, epistemological realism—“the view that we perceive real beings outside [our minds]” (92, emphasis original)—accepts as a given the possibility of knowledge, and by extension the “givenness” of being itself (106, emphasis original). As Mascall puts it, epistemological realists seek to explain not “whether it is possible for them to know beings other than themselves, but how it has been possible to do this already” (92, emphasis original). On this foundation of realism, one can then reason to the existence of a necessary being (that which we call “God”) on the basis that the existence of the contingent beings we see every day requires it. Mascall formulates this reasoning in the following syllogism derived from one of Thomas Aquinas’s “Five Ways” to God:

(Major premise)  If there is contingent being, there is necessary being;

(Minor premise) But there is contingent being;

(Conclusion)       Therefore there is necessary being. (111)

The logic of this argument hinges on our recognition that the ordinary beings we regularly encounter are “contingent” in the sense that they are, in Mascall’s words, “non-self-existent” or “non-self-explanatory.” That is to say, a contingent being is not “the ground of its own existence,” and therefore it must “have the ground of its existence in something else” (110). To be clear, the character of the necessary being derived from this syllogism remains to be fleshed out and is not in itself synonymous with the Christian God. Yet natural theology can rationally discern at least this much, that extra-mental material beings “owe their existence to the incessant creative activity of transcendent self-existent being, in which thought, will and power are combined to a supereminent degree and which therefore is properly to be described as personal and, without distorting the traditional use of the term, as God” (122).

Another point of Mascall’s discussion worth mentioning is that humans cannot by nature attain to union with God. Mascall’s larger emphasis is that man does in fact have a natural “point of contact with God,” over against the Barthians and others who reject natural theology. Nevertheless, while he affirms that “finite being as such has a capacity…to be elevated above its natural level by God” (which capacity is traditionally known as the potentia oboedientialis), he also notes that finite being cannot accomplish this “by its own powers” (144).

The relationship between the natural and the supernatural has been a controversial topic throughout church history, with the rise of nouvelle théologie (and Henri de Lubac in particular) in the twentieth century being just a relatively recent example. Even more recently, the irrepressible David Bentley Hart has addressed the subject in his book You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature. One of the “premises” he lays out in the introduction “in order to elucidate the perspective from which this book is written” reads as follows:

The sole sufficient natural end of all spiritual creatures is the supernatural, and grace is nothing but the necessary liberation of all creatures for their natural ends. (xvii)

To say the supernatural is one’s natural end is, as Edward Feser observes, “simply incoherent.”[3] In Hart’s case, however, this apparent incoherency can be readily explained by the fact that a few premises later he openly affirms pantheism, thus dissolving any distinction between nature and supernature altogether:

God is all that is. Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God. But God is not “the other” of anything. (xviii)

Without getting into all of the disastrous implications embracing pantheism has for Christian orthodoxy (on which Feser elaborates), Mascall provides an instructive contrast to Hart, taking care to simultaneously preserve creation’s distinction from and dependence on God:

While exerting concrete existence and manifesting the special characteristics of the particular beings and kinds of being that each of them is, they are metaphysically incomplete and exist at all only because they are the objects of incessant creative activity on the part of God. They are centres of real existential energy, but this energy is finite and received; they have real determinate natures, but their natures are inherently limited and restricted in their sphere. (145)

In sum, The Openness of Being continues to be a quality treatment of natural theology fifty years on, even though some of the particular figures discussed are no longer current. Mascall is characteristically thoughtful and informative, and any careful reader will find much to learn herein.

Notes

  1. For contemporary engagements with Rahner and Lonergan, see Terry J. Tekippe, Bernard Lonergan: An Introductory Guide to Insight (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003); Michael H. McCarthy, Authenticity as Self-Transcendence: The Enduring Insights of Bernard Lonergan (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015); Peter Beer, An Introduction to Bernard Lonergan: Exploring Lonergan’s Approach to the Great Philosophical Questions (Glen Waverley, AU: Sid Harta Publishers, 2009, repr. 2020); and John N. C. Robinson, Knowing God, Knowing Emptiness: An Epistemological Exploration of Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner and Nagarjuna (Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishing, 2022). For treatments of Hartshorne, see David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: On Postmodernism, Morality, Pluralism, Eschatology, and Demonic Evil (Anoka, MN: Process Century Press, 2017), and Donald Wayne Viney and George W. Shields, The Mind of Charles Hartshorne: A Critical Examination (Anoka, MN: Process Century Press, 2020).
  2. Some recent presentations of arguments in natural theology include William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), and Colin Ruloff and Peter Horban, eds., Contemporary Arguments in Natural Theology: God and Rational Belief (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021). For treatments of Anselm’s ontological argument, which Mascall discusses at length, see Ian Logan, Reading Anselm’s Proslogion (New York: Routledge, 2016), and Brian Leftow, Anselm’s Argument: Divine Necessity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).
  3. Edward Feser, “David Bentley Hart’s Post-Christian Pantheism,” Public Discourse, 31 March 2022, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2022/03/80430/.


James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Front Porch Republic, Themelios, and Evangelical Quarterly, as well as other publications.


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