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Knowledge and the Transcendent: An Inquiry Into the Mind’s Relationship to God

Paul A. Macdonald, Jr.
Published by Catholic University of America Press in 2009

The genius of Knowledge and the Transcendent lies in its question. In a broad sense, the question is how God can transcend the human and still be known. The usual way of framing this creates something of a quandary, for the notion of transcendence is couched in terms of boundaries: What are the boundaries of human subjectivity, and what is God’s place in relation to those boundaries? Posed in this manner, God is either outside the boundaries and unknowable, or inside the boundaries and a product of our own subjectivity.

Paul Macdonald, assistant professor of religion at Bucknell University, suggests the metaphor is irresolvable, a trap, and like most traps the simplest escape is refusing to enter. Not only is the boundary model unnecessary, and heterodox, but framing the question properly escapes the quandary and avoids the resulting skepticism and subjectivity which are its fate. Escape requires a turn to intentionality rather than epistemology, asking how our concepts can be in relationship to, or about, God. One must ask first how we can be open to knowledge of God before working on the conditions of justification and meaning. For Macdonald, the turn to intentionality justifies theological realism as understood by Thomas Aquinas, or, rather, analytical Thomism in conversation with Anglo-American philosophy.

Part I explicates the history of skepticism and subjectivism in various currents of philosophy. In a sweeping and accurate history of early modern, liberal Protestant, post-modern, and post-liberal thought, Macdonald convincingly reveals their captivity to the boundary image. The difference between the various thinkers – rationalists, empiricists, idealists –is less important than their common mistake, namely, that all are hostage to the metaphor. So long as all persist in a distorted image they simply cannot solve the problem of God being inside or outside thought. Therapy, not a solution, is required.

Such therapy arrives in Thomistic intentionality, the subject of Part II. In an excellent discussion, Macdonald carefully explicates Aquinas on knowledge, in conversation with the Aristotelian and analytic traditions, to explain how human knowers have direct access to objective features of reality. In his reading, the forms and structures of material reality are isomorphic with the senses and intellect as causally informed by the world. Furthermore, while empirical knowledge provides a case of direct realism, the paradigmatic case is the beatific vision where God directly presents himself to the intellect in a unity of the mind with God. God can be seen as God is, and directly so. Beatitude poses a difficulty, however, for in claiming that God is known directly in beatitude, it would seem that our current knowledge is not so direct and thus bounded after all. Even so, God is not hidden entirely, for in reason and faith we know something of God. While our knowledge is clouded, it is knowledge nonetheless, and Macdonald explains the Thomistic synthesis admirably.

Possible objections to the account are addressed in Part III, especially in light of the discussion of faith and reason. Objections tend, as expected, to misunderstand knowledge, wrongly supposing objectivity must be an atemporal absolute, or natural rather than transcendent, or an idolatrous onto-theology. But these objections are less worrisome after the anxiety of skepticism and subjectivism receives Macdonald’s therapy.

The book is very good and I recommend it heartily. The range of scholarship and conversation is impressive, the writing and argumentation solid, and, most importantly, the therapy unique, necessary, and true. It would be interesting to put Macdonald’s account of intentionality into conversation with Thomists of a continental bent since I am not convinced such would so obviously countenance direct realism as the only genuinely Thomistic account of intentionality. One might even wonder why the continental tradition of intentionality is not engaged in what could result in fruitful discussion. But such further questions evidence the promise, not the weakness, of Knowledge and the Transcendent.

Cite this article
R.J. Snell, “Knowledge and the Transcendent: An Inquiry Into the Mind’s Relationship to God”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:1 , 150-151

R.J. Snell

Eastern University
R. J. Snell, Philosophy, Eastern University