Dr. Robert Hickson
God and the Knowledge of Reality (1973) by Dr. Thomas Molnar:
An Inchoate Young Scholar’s Brief 1975 Review of the Book’s Trenchant Substance
Author’s Note on 3 June 2021: After unexpectedly recently discovering my June 1975, 4-page book review of Dr. Molnar’s profound little study—my review being written while I was still a callow young man then just returning from travels and from study in Spain (shortly before the consequencial death of General Francisco Franco on 20 November 1975)—I have now come much further to see the timeliness of Thomas Molnar’s 1973 book, as well as its enduring timelessness. For, in part, he speaks of new revolutionary forms of dynamic gnosticism and the allure of converging monisms and tempting hermeticism; as well as the consequential distortions of German Philosophical Idealism, especially the occult dialectics of Hegel. Dr. Molnar, by contrast, clearly and pursuasively favors a moderate philosophical Realism and its fuller ongoing restoration, as is to be seen in Saint Thomas Aquinas and Josef Pieper.
A Tale of Two Cities1
GOD AND THE KNOWLEDGE OF REALITY2
Why are real things, all real things, incapable of being finally grasped?… Why is a finite spirit unable to acquire, in the last resort, such a comprehensive knowledge? The answer is: because the knowability of Being, which we are attempting to transform into knowledge, consists in its being creatively thought by the Creator. —Josef Pieper
St. Augustine once wrote a book he might have called A Tale of Two Cities. His title actually spoke of only one city, The City of God, but his contents spoke of two cities, two orders of society, one divine and one human, apart until human history ends. Between these two cities are connections, yet key separations and distinctions, with no merger in substance, with no reduction to only one city. Between these two cities, therefore, there must also be tensions, indeed furious tensions.
The particular genius of G. K. Chesterton was in his depiction of orthodoxy’s heady adventure, its special romance, its many mysteries of paradox whose sacred tensions must remain for man unresolved. Romano Guardini always spoke of preserving in its entirety the mystery of Revelation, the holy profundity. The essence of most forms of unorthodoxy is simplification, reduction of orthodoxy’s furious tensions. Guardini said that “every dogmatic error is basically directed against mystery. It always tries, in one way or another, from one viewpoint or another, to dissolve the mystery of Revelation.”
In the tradition of Chesterton and Guardini comes this fecund book, little and patient and modest, ostensibly about restoring man’s philosophical enterprise, but constantly pointing to the difficult adventure “at the fount of their premises,” into several non-orthodox formulations which attempted to achieve a treacherous simplification, which tried to resolve mysteries of paradox into some false union or absolute. Thomas Molnar’s God and the Knowledge of Reality (1973) shows how a genuine philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. Reading it will be a refreshing, sobering and challenging experience for anyone who has reflected on the relation between a personal, transcendent God and the philosophical tradition of realism; on the implications and consequences to philosophy of God’s lovingly and freely willed act of Creation, His design of several special and finite natures whose essences come from the generosity of His Being.
Molnar’s central insight, which is certainly demanding, is also essential for modern man. Wishing to combat monism, a simplifying worldview that has always especially tempted and threatened men of thought—and has particularly deformed much of modern philosophy—Molnar conceives of his task thus: “the restoration of the philosophical enterprise,” attempted “through a return to reason and hence to the possibility of knowledge.” He seeks a return to a position he calls “moderate realism.” Like Jacques Maritain, he has an interest in the degrees of human knowledge because human knowledge can only exist in degrees. Moreover, the notion of degrees itself implies an inherent limit, whereas a complete comprehension is only possible through an identity in substance with the object of knowledge. This latter striving for fusion comes from the temptation to monism.
With his gradated understanding of knowledge, Molnar probes deeper premises involving the very possibility and limits of human knowledge. His probing descends to fundamental questions: questions about being, created nature, human history, temporality and especially about God.
Molnar argues that all conceptions of God except that of the personal, transcendent, Creator-God must finally warp man’s efforts to know reality (and to know what he cannot know of reality). If there is a personal and transcendent Creator-God, He guarantees man access to knowledge of reality; but because created reality is finite, that access is necessarily limited. Given any other understanding of God, or a denial of God, man resorts to desperate expedients and drifts into deadly, simplifying paths; man’s self-deceptive anfractuosity of mind and sentiment diminishes God and the extra-mental creation. Concurrently, man assumes more centrality: he attempts to contain, systematically, a fuller and more direct knowledge; he presumes to set his own limits from within; he naturally gathers a larger presumed sense of autonomy. It is paradox at work: insofar as the subjective self increases and the non-self lessens, man himself is attenuated. He grows inattentive to the personally mediating, yet finally limiting abyss of light, which is God. There is left only an abyss of darkness, or a cold abstraction of deity, or the silence of otherness.
Molnar argues that the “God-problem” in philosophy is ever recurrent, though it be denied, though it be secularized into some other reductive Absolute such as history or the disquietude and incompleteness of Being. His thesis links the postulates of the God-problem to consequent speculation on the knowledge-problem and, finally, to the problem of the good society, or the political problem.
Molnar sees two “limit formulations” in categorizing the problems of God’s existence: His role in the creation of the world, and His relationship to man. One is the completely transcendent God, the other is the completely immanent God. Each of these two initially separate positions has been widely held throughout history. Molnar provides an intriguing historical exegesis of both of them, of their influence, and, most importantly, of their ultimate reducibility to one another.
Briefly, he sees that the wholly transcendent God is reduced to an immanentist conception of God, and that the latter rests on monist doctrine. The key images or conceptual words of the monist include: fusion, coalescence, merger, unmediated and substantial union.
Opposed to these monist ideals are the ideals of orthodoxy and philosophical realism and, thus, of St. Thomas: distinction, articulation, mediation through finite forms, and, at the most, an analogical union of natures separately created. The paradox and tension inherent in orthodoxy’s understanding of a personal-transcendent God are reflected in His acts—the creation of the world, the Incarnation—and in the mediational forms of Catholicism—the sacraments, the institutional Church itself. Monist doctrine, by contrast, is always tempted, because of its premises of consubstantiality, to burst through boundaries or forms of mediation in order to make the direct connection of the complete transformation.
Since Molnar is convinced that we live still today inside of the Hegelian, dialectical worldview, he focuses on the speculation of this subtle, monistic genius. He hopes to awaken us from dogmatic slumber amongst the illusions of the Hegelian “Cave.” He elucidates the multiple monistic antecedents of Hegel—the traditions of esoterism (Hermeticism), gnosticism, archaic religions, and monistic (as distinguished from “theistic”) mysticism.
In addition to Hegel, much of German philosophical idealism is treated, including Kant, Schelling and Fichte, as well as the inadequate oppositions this idealism provoked, such as Bergson, Husserl, Barth, Heidegger and Sartre.
What happens when a more or less religious spirit is lost from monism? What happens when it is even more secularized than in Hegel? Then we witness how much more treacherous and dynamic and collective the monistic temptation becomes. Society as a whole becomes the unit of analysis. Unique, created personhood becomes an obstacle to collective fulfillment within the historical process itself. A diversely constituted and unchanging human nature is seen to be an illusion. The impulse of monism to collapse distinctions, to facilitate mergers, to reabsorb “fragments” gathers momentum. The signs of this demiurgic monism can be seen in the leveling process, in the uniformity of centralization, in mathematical models of society.
The reader of Thomas Molnar’s book will see with startling lucidity some of the deepest roots of the contemporary anti-institutional, anti-sacramental, anti-sacerdotal impulse. He will see that these positions are not merely emotional preferences or strictly political egalitarian and democratic notions. Often there is a deeper doctrine and a longer tradition underlying such urges.
“Man is nothing but . . .; nature is nothing but . . . ; history is nothing but . . .; God is nothing but. . . .” Reductive thinking flourishes. The monistic transposition means that mental processes are not only seen as identical with historical processes and extra-mental reality, but are actually seen as able to transform history and society. A special kind of knowledge is presumed to have a power which can transmute the “constitution of being” into something better and more complete. A gnosis, such as presuming to recognize the whole blueprint of history, becomes the necessary plan for revolution. “True freedom” comes only in recognizing this necessity. (And here we cannot forget Marx, though he is not usually considered a philosophic idealist.)
At this point we see the apotheosis of monism: Man the Creator: man daring to make being less imperfect than Creation by erasing the distinctions between nature and artifact, between natural thing and artificial thing.
It is therefore at this point that we can see the fundamental opposition between the monistic and immanent mentality and Catholic orthodoxy. Thomas Molnar’s book, like the works of St. Augustine and Chesterton and Guardini, will lead the thinking Catholic to see the adventure to which orthodoxy calls him—which, on the intellectual level, is the challenge to Faith to draw on Reason for aid in restoring the philosophical enterprise.
© 1975 Robert D. Hickson
1This Review-Essay was first published in Triumph Magazine, in the Issue of June 1975, pp. 26-28.
2Thomas Molnar, God and the Knowledge of Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1973)