The Annunciation by Leonardo DaVinci: Mary’s classic receptivity.
There remains one last piece to be developed in the metaphysics of being and the person as self-communicative. This is the other complementary side of the metaphysics of being, and especially the person, as active, expansive, self-communicating a side that has not found explicit development at all, as a positive perfection of being, in the metaphysics of St. Thomas and Thomism in general, so far as I know, although it is certainly implicit in his phenomenology of friendship. I am speaking of receptivity as a positive perfection of being.
Already in the first part of this lecture we took up the point briefly, as a necessary complement to the self-communicative aspect of all being. If there is to be effective self-communication of any being, there must be a corresponding receptivity for it somewhere in being, otherwise the process would be aborted from the start. In a word, there can be no giving without receiving. Ordinarily metaphysicians, including St. Thomas, following the lead of Aristotle, have identified receptivity with the deficiency side of being, i.e., with poverty, potentiality, a prior lack that is later filled up. Pure actuality seems to exclude receptivity, as indeed it does for Aristotle.
There is no great harm perhaps, in looking at the subhuman world this way, since there is so much truth in it due to the ubiquitous element of change, passage from potentiality to act, that is always involved in that dimension of being – though even there one suspects that that is not the whole story in the world of the new physics. But once one crosses the threshold into personal being, the picture begins to change significantly. Once one begins to analyze love, in particular the highest mode of love, the love of pure friendship, it is clear that mutuality is of the essence of this love. Friendship means essentially that one’s love is accepted, joyfully welcomed by another, and returned in kind, and the same is true reciprocally for the other person with respect to me. Receptivity, therefore, is part of the essence of the highest love.
Here the ontological value of receptivity, as not a defect or inferiority but a positive perfection of being, emerges more and more clearly into the light. There is indeed a side of imperfection included, insofar as change is involved, that is, a passage from prior non-possession of my friend’s love to later receiving it, or from potentiality to act. But if we carefully analyze this, it becomes clear that this imperfection is solely due to the change or temporal aspect, not to the very nature of receptivity as such, which at the level of personal love is not passivity at all but an active, welcoming receptivity, that is purely positive in nature, a relation of act to act rather than of act to potency. Receptivity and passivity are not identical. As Gerard O’Hanlon puts it admirably:
This is shown most clearly at the top of an ascending scale of subject/object relationships in the created sphere when one arrives at the interpersonal relationship between two subjects, at the heart of which is a welcoming, active receptivity…. the higher up the scale of created reality one goes the more this passivity (in the sense of an active receptivity) increases, and the more it may be seen, in the case of human inter-personal encounter, as a perfections.
To make this clear, all we have to do is to remove in thought the aspect of motion and change. Thus if person A timelessly gives perfection X to person B, then B does not first lack perfection and then later receive it, but always possesses it in act. And if we add that B receives X in equal fullness to A’s possession of it, then no potency is involved at all. There is only the possession of perfection X plus the purely positive relationship of active, grateful welcoming of it as a gift from A.
In a word, the love relationship, if properly understood, opens up the capital metaphysical and psychological insight that to be gifted and to be grateful are in themselves not a sign of inferiority or deficiency at all, but part of the splendor and wonder of being itself at its highest actualization, that is, being as communion. In a word, self-communication and receptivity are two complementary and inseparable sides of the dynamic process of being itself, implicit in St. Thomas’s own notion of esse as primal expansive act and perfection.
I would be the first to admit, however, that one cannot find the above development at all explicitly in St. Thomas’s metaphysics, and a fortiori not in Aristotle’s. That is why I spoke of this lecture as a “creative completion” of St. Thomas. Where does this new insight come from? I admit that I have never developed it before in my own writings on St. Thomas, nor have I seen it in other Thomists, though I am open to correction here.
Process thinkers like Hartshorne, Cobb, and Ford have been nudging me towards it for years, and I have been nibbling sympathetically, but cautiously, because I could not get the metaphysical roots clear. But the principal catalytic agent, to which I am happy to admit my full indebtedness, is the profound and daring speculation of the Swiss Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the Christian notion of God as personally Triune and as the supreme model of what it means to be.
For here we do have a case, transcending our own human experience, but revealed to us by the Source itself, of where being as receptivity is present in the Son and the Spirit at its most intense, as a pure perfection of existence at its highest, and hence of absolutely equal ontological worth and value with being as self-communicative.
For it is part of the revealed doctrine of God as Trinity that the Second and Third Persons are of absolutely equal ontological perfection as the Father. Thus within the unity of the Supreme Being the Father is subsistent Self-Communication, while the Son is subsistent Receptivity (the Holy Spirit as well in its own unique mode), but both aspects are equally valuable and integral to what it means to be at its most intense. The highest instance of being is a unity that is not solitary, like Plotinus’s One, but Communion.
Here we see in the most striking way how a specifically Christian philosophy can fruitfully shed light on a philosophical problem itself, by drawing on Revelation. The light from Revelation does not operate strictly as the premise for a philosophical argument, properly speaking, but operates as opening up for reflection a new possibility in the nature and meaning of being that we might never have thought of ourselves from our limited human experience, but which, once opened up, is so illuminating that it now shines on its own as an insight into the nature of being and persons that makes many things suddenly fall into place whose depths we could not fathom before.
More and more in recent years I have come to realize that the doctrine of the Trinity is a uniquely powerful source of illumination in both the philosophy of being and the philosophy of the person. We do not have time here to develop the numerous fruitful implications of the doctrine of the Trinity as a paradigm for human relations in community, as a number of contemporary Christian thinkers are now doing. Appreciating more fully the complementary values of both masculine and feminine is only one of these implications.
We are now in a position to step back and view this whole analysis of the expansive, self-communicative aspect of the person (and of being) in a new light. We have tried to show so far how the dynamism of self-communication is part of the very nature of being and so of the person. But the metaphysician would like to probe further, if he can, into why all this should be the case.
I think we now have the answer: the reason why all being, and all persons preeminently, are such is precisely because that is the way the Supreme Being, the Source of all being, actually is, and, since all creatures — and in a special way persons — are participations and hence images of their divine Source, then it follows that all created beings, and more intensely persons, will mirror in some characteristic way the divine mode of being.
As the doctrine of the Trinity reveals, God’s very nature is to be self-communicative love. “God is love,” St. John tells us. And the wonderful consequence is that we can now see that it is of the very nature of being as such, at its highest, i.e., as personal, to be such. This is what it really means to be at its fullest: to be caught up in the great dynamic process of self-communication, receptivity, and return that we have called communion.
For that is the way the Source of beings is and we, his creatures, cannot but tend to be like our Source as far as we can. It is fighting our own deepest drive to try to live otherwise and still become authentic, fulfilled persons. “Let us make man to our image and likeness,” as Genesis told us long ago. Our whole destiny is to fulfill the image latent within us and draw it out, as the Greek Fathers put it beautifully, into manifest likeness.
It is worth noting how far this conception of the human person is from the excessively autonomous, individualistic one of John Locke and so many modern Western political thinkers since Descartes, where the primary value is not put on relationship and communion but on self-sufficiency as far as possible, protection of one’s person and property from the intrusions of others, etc.
These things are indeed important, up to a point in a realistic view of human society as it is, with all its imperfections. But there is a radical change of perspective when these become paramount and overshadow the interpersonal sharing dimension. In a word, it is impossible to make justice alone the foundation for a viable social order. Only friendship, altruistic love of some kind, can supply the positive cohesive energy required, as St. Thomas himself maintains.
Before passing on to the next section, I would like to highlight briefly one aspect of the expansive, self-communicative aspect of the person we have outlined above. It is part of the overall expansive movement, but deserves special attention for its importance in the coming to self-knowledge and self-actualization of the person.
This is the aspect of the person as self-manifesting, self-expressive. All throughout being, the drive towards action includes a drive toward self-revelation, self-manifestation, self-expression through action. Every action in some way is self-revelatory of the active center from which it proceeds. As St. Thomas tells us over and over, the operation of a being manifests its existence and points out (indicat) its nature or essence. The substantial forms of things in themselves are hidden from us, but they shine forth through the doors (ostia) of their accidents and operations.
One might well say that action and its implications is the primary key to the whole epistemology of Aquinas. All knowledge of the real for him is an interpretation of action. I know my own self because and insofar as I act. I know other things because, and insofar as, they act on me, with all the implications thereof. The cutting of the bridge of action as the self-revelation of being is, to my mind, the single greatest flaw in modern classical epistemology from Descartes on, culminating disastrously in the epistemology of Immanuel Kant.
So too even more so for the person. It is connatural for us, giving full expression to the dynamism of existence flowing through us at its most intense as personalized, to reveal, manifest, express ourselves to other persons, to make manifest who we are, what we believe in, stand for etc., in a word, “our story.” Only when we express ourselves to others — including God, of course, who is infinitely self-expressive in his Word, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — can we come to know our own selves fully.
As we mentioned earlier in speaking of self-possession, we do not start off in luminous self-understanding but must go out to the world and other persons first, then return to know ourselves by reflecting on our actions, whether and how they express who and what we really are or would like to be.
Since it is the nature, then, of all being to reveal and express itself, it seems that if we do not do this, if we keep our interior selves locked up within us unexpressed to anyone, our very being will be diminished. “Every real substance exists for the sake of its operations,” St. Thomas tells us, which are “the goal and perfection of the substance itself.” What we do not express in any way from our inner being will tend to get sedimented over, sink further and further into obscurity, so that finally it becomes no longer available to us even within, and becomes as though it is not. Or indeed, if something negative, it can grow into a monster, corroding us from within.
It is of great importance, then, for a healthy personal development to find some appropriate way of expressing to somebody all the significant levels of being and personality within us, including the deepest and most intimate. In fact, this is one of the things that is most appreciated and treasured when we share it with others — when we share “our story” with others, and receive theirs in return. Paradoxically, it seems that what we don’t share, we tend to lose hold of.
In the realm of the person, what we don’t give away we can’t hold on to. Someone may object, “I share my deepest secrets with God, and that is enough.” That is certainly an excellent start. And in the realm of negative secrets it may well be enough. But in the realm of our positive riches, it still seems to me better, more in accord with the drive of being itself coursing through us, to give also some expression to this interior world in a manner appropriate to our status as embodied spirits, i.e., by some sensible or externally expressed symbol, word or otherwise. Thus human beings have always tended to come together to express the deepest level within them, their religious beliefs, by shared liturgical worship, symbolic by essence.
Authentic self-expression, however, does not mean just that we do a lot of talking. Psychologists tell us that Americans tend to be roughly 75% extroverts, 25% introverts. So it seems a little harder for us to talk about deep private things within us than some others. But it is important to make a real effort to do so, so that nothing of major significance within us, especially all our positive aspirations, remains totally unexpressed.
Why it should be that way, that self-possession must keep pace with self-expression, is one of the deep mysteries of being. Again the most illuminating explanation comes from the Christian revelation of the Trinity. It is the case that the Supreme Source of all being is precisely that way. The Father expresses himself with total infinite fullness in his Son, the Word, and both again in the Holy Spirit. It is the very nature of God, the supreme exemplar of what it means to be, to be self-expressive. And that is why we, his images must be also, if we too are to be and be persons fully. The image in us cries out to be made manifest.