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Friday, February 18, 2022


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Thank you for this lucid exposition of the essentials of this seemingly intractable problem.

From what I can gather from the Summa Theologiae (correct me if I am wrong), Aquinas’ explanation relies in the denial of passion, a product of the sensitive appetite, in the souls of the saved, who operate from reason. He writes:

Mercy or compassion may be in a person in two ways: first by way of passion, secondly by way of choice. In the blessed there will be no passion in the lower powers except as a result of the reason's choice. Hence compassion or mercy will not be in them, except by the choice of reason. Now mercy or compassion comes of the reason's choice when a person wishes another's evil to be dispelled: wherefore in those things which, in accordance with reason [in possession of a perfect understanding of “Divine justice” (ST 94.2.1)], we do not wish to be dispelled, we have no such compassion (ST 94.2).

In other words, the saved view the fates of the fallen souls of loved ones through the lens of divine justice; thus, although they have not “lost all memory of the finite,” they recall the latter in a radically transformed manner, one that fully comports with the will of God. This approach allows individual souls to retain “their individuality,” while remaining fixed on “the Godhead.”

Does this solve the problem? I am not at all sure that it does, since the entire construct relies on the radical distinction between passion and reason, with the former, whatever its source, forfeited in the souls of the blessed. (Rather Platonic, no?) Is it really possible to know that this is true, from scripture or philosophy? Against it, one could argue, I suppose, that the love experienced by embodied souls is one of their essential qualities, since it very often constitutes what has refined them, allowed them to transcend their more primitive inclinations, and that such a thing, this love or loves, deserves to be preserved in some form after death.

Like you, I have no real answer, only the question and what Christ has left us: “A new commandment I give unto you. That you love one another as I have loved you, that you also love one another (John 13:34).”


Bill and Vito,

This is a very interesting topic, and for several reasons. If I recall, the SEP article is by Tom Talbott, and Talbott elsewhere used Vito’s general point to construct an argument for Christian universalism. (See The Inescapable Love of God, 1999)

Bill’s point that “the blessed, wholly absorbed by the visio beata, will have lost all memory of the finite, including the persons they loved in the sublunary” raises another intriguing question about personal identity, in this case, about diachronic personal identity.

For example, given person P, pre-mortem time t, and post-mortem time t1, suppose that P possesses an occurrent memory M of her son at t and loses M (or M becomes permanently dispositional) at t1 because of P’s visio beata at t1. Is the occurrent possession of M a necessary condition for P's maintaining diachronic personal identity between t and t1?

We could also generalize this point with respect to mental states other than memory.


That is an excellent comment which shows the resources the Thomist system has for dealing with objections. The quotation and your clear exposition of it do effectively counter my objection. The trouble, as you well appreciate, is that the counter raises further difficulties. It has been said, rightly, that Thomas is an Aristotelian on earth but a Platonist in heaven. Thomas, following A., maintains that here below anima forma corporis, that the soul is the form of the body, and thus that it is not an individual substance in its own right as it is for Plato. For Plato, a person is a soul accidentally burdened with a body, a burden that is lifted at death when the soul comes into its own beyond time, space, and matter. For Plato I am my soul. Not so for Aristotle. I am essentially, not accidentally, a hylomorphic compound. Aristotle rejects the Platonic substance dualism. For A, a human person is a composite being composed of substantial form (forma substantialis) and designated matter (materia signata). These ontological factors or 'principles' as a scholastic might say are not substances in their own right. They belong together and cannot be torn asunder. This fits somewhat with the valorization of the mat'l world in Christianity (in line with Judaism and the Old T.) with its (Xianity's) doctrines of the resurrection of the body, the Incarnation, the Ascension of Christ BODY and soul into heaven, and the Assumption of Mary which is also a bodily event.

But it doesn't fit very well since before the resurrection you've got separated souls to deal with. After death one continues on as a disembodied soul until such time as one is re-embodied at resurrection. But how is this possible on a hylomorphic ontological scheme according to which the soul is a mere form of the body and not a substance in its own right? Hence the quip about Thomas being a Platonist in heaven -- at least prior to the resurrection.

The same problem arises with God himself, the forma formarum, form of all forms. If God is pure form devoid of all matter, and thus pure spirit, how does Christ ascend BODY and soul?? Does the triune God acquire a material adjunct after the Ascension?


Thanks for the comment.

What makes a person numerically the same person over time? Thomas has no need to bring memory into it because he would presumably ground diachronic personal identity in identity of soul, the soul being the individual form of the body.

Thank you, Bill, for this exceptionally clear exposition of the problem that arises for Aquinas position on the disembodied soul, given his commitment to a hylomorphic ontology. I remember your debate with Edward Feser on this matter from some years ago and have since regarded your position on the matter as more convincing.

As for you final paragraph on the problem of reconciling the nature of God, as "the form of all forms,... devoid of all matter and hence pure spirit" and the ascension of Christ body and soul, I live with the problem all the time. In fact, I fell asleep just a few days ago musing about it in bed. Another great apparent contradiction against which to batter my little brain.

And thank you Elliot for your comment. As I indicated in my initial email to Bill, I too found Talbott's SEP article quite helpful in trying to understand the fate of the saved whose loved ones are damned. I do not know his book, but I will look into it.



Yes, it seems that Aquinas can ground diachronic personal identity in identity of soul, and hence he doesn’t need the appeal to memory. For my part, I doubt that memory is necessary for personal identity over time. In any case, this point raises another question for me. This time, it’s about subjective sense of psychological continuity.

Suppose that these states of affairs are axiologically comparable. SoA 1: a human soul experiences the beatific vision and at that moment loses all memory of pre-mortem life and thus has no sense of psychological continuity between his pre-mortem and post-mortem experiences. SoA 2: a human soul experiences the beatific vision but throughout the vision maintains at least a sufficient memory of pre-mortem life to sustain psychological continuity between pre-mortem and post-mortem experiences.

Which SoA is better in the sense of being more intrinsically valuable? It seems that SoA 2 enables the person to enjoy a better sense of self-awareness insofar as he can understand his self-improvement over time. In this respect, it seems that SOA 2 has greater welfare value for the person. But perhaps SoA 1 has overriding benefits.


You are welcome. I hope you enjoy reading the book. I recall it being quite thought-provoking. Part of Talbott’s argument is that, if God truly wills the good of the saved person, then God also wills the good of those persons the saved person cares about and thus will ensure the well-being of those persons too.


I wonder if any Catholic theologian has confronted the problem of the Ascension head on with clarity and rigor. Christ did not take off like a rocket into outer space. The divine realm is not in outer space, which is why Yuri Gagarin was barking up the wrong tree. And of course Christ did not enter a matter transmitter. Thirdly, Christ did not shed his body in the Ascension: he took his body (transfigured , transformed, subtilized as it may have been) along for the ride. But what logical sense could this make?

Before the Incarnation the 2nd person, the Logos, was a purely spiritual person. Then the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. To be precise, the Word became a man, body and soul, a particular man who ate and drank, etc. Now you might think that at the Ascension, Christ shed his human nature to resume his purely spiritual existence as the 2nd person of the Trinity. But no! The doctrine states that he ascended into heaven BODY and soul.

One question is: why is this maintained? Why does the doctrine state this? What is the theological and/ or scriptural rationale behind saying that Christ ascended BODY and soul?

And what on earth, or in heaven, could this mean? How could the purely immaterial triune God accept a material intrusion? Does this not contradict the divine immutability and impassibility?

Finally what does it mean for anything to be purely spiritual? The closest I can come to making sense of this notion is by adverting to consciousness-of. Consciousness-of is nothing objective: it is the ultimate transcendental condition of anything's appearing.


I share your befuddlement on the matter of the Ascension, and I doubt that any of the questions that you raise regarding it have been or can be satisfactorily addressed. To see what the learned Fr. Joseph White had to say, I turned to section "The Ontology of Christ Resurrected: The New Adam and the Son of God (pp. 454-464) in his The Incarnate Lord, in which he, employing Aquinas’ hylomorphic ontology, writes:

In the resurrection, the soul remains the form of the body and the body does not cease to be material. The human nature of Christ is preserved, then, and not destroyed. However, the matter of the body is “proportioned” most perfectly to the spiritual life of the soul. That is to say, the glorified human body of Christ is transformed or “spiritualized” in its very materiality, so as to be most ontologically receptive to the soul’s spiritual powers and activities.

Like you, I don’t really see that this transformed body, however “spiritualized in its very materiality” (whatever that means) it may be, can ascend “into heaven and [be] seated at the right hand of the Father,” who is, as you write, “pure form devoid of all matter, and thus pure spirit.” I understand and respect the Scholastic effort to unravel something so contradictory, to our mortal minds at least, but I do not think that one should pretend to have explained it.

Lately, I have been reading much Roman history of the 4th and 5th century, with an emphasis on the councils and bishops in their relation to the imperial power, from Constantine to Theodosius, and it has become evident to me that the prolonged, intense, and acrimonious theological battles that raged then around the nature of Christ, particularly in the East, which we now look back on as a series of struggles against heresy of one form or another, actually reflect a rather generalized disquiet and anxious grasping, whether admitted or not, of the erudite and pious men of that time to make some sense of such mysteries. I think that it is best to remember that “Le Christ sera toujours un mystère pour celui [qui] croit” (Pascal).


Thanks for reminding me of Fr. White's book, which I have in my library.

The notion of spiritualized matter does make some sense. Compare my well-tuned body to that of a ballerina. Mine is more 'gross' and less 'subtle.' Her body is a more perfect instrument for the expression of her soul than my body is for the expression of my soul. Now compare my body with that of a drug addict such as George Floyd. My body is more spiritual than his. Just look at his face: it is more animalic and brutal than mine which no one would say is angelic.

The body of a top ballerina gives us an analogical jumping-off point for some understanding of Christ's resurrected body with its four attributes of impassibility, subtlety, agility, and clarity. The body of the risen Christ is the ne plus ultra of matter's subtilization.

But this still leaves us with our problem which I don't see Fr. White addressing head-on, namely: how can Christ's maximally spiritualized risen body enter into unity with the purely spiritual and wholly immaterial God head?

I won't make any long comment here, your discussion is valuable on its own. However I want to make an observation about God, which is also tied to the question of damnation:

If God is the absolute Good and not just an irrelevant demiurge, then the rejection of him must be irrational. However scenarios like the one above, if they are indeed possible easily make the rejection rational and thus break the link between God and Goodness. Sure, forgetting her former life provides a solution for the mother in this specific case. But can we really look at it from a third party perspective and not be horrified?


I am afraid I am not following you. Vito, do you know what Dominik is driving at?

Hi Bill,

I am not entirely sure either, Bill. Perhaps, Dominik can restate or expand on his point?



I'm a complete tyro when it comes to matters theological, so you'll have to forgive me if this is a silly question - but is the fate of Christ's body in the Ascension linked to his body's presence in the Eucharist? (I'm assuming transubstantiation to be true here). His body seems to have some very odd properties - perhaps if we can understand how his body can come back to our world as part of the Eucharist we can understand how his body can leave the world in the Ascension.

Thanks for the comment, Hector. That is a very interesting speculation!

We have two problems.

One is to explain how a a body, even a body with the four attributes of impassibility, subtlety, agility, and clarity can become part of a purely spiritual, purely immaterial being. God is a pure spirit, and each Person in the Trinity is a pure spirit. So how can anything the least bit bodily unite itself with God? In particular, how can how can Christ's body unite itself with the purely unbodily Second Person?

The second problem moves in the opposite direction. How can Christ's resurrected living body, which is not a corpse or a bloodless body, enter into the gross matter of sublunary bread and wine to be literally (not metaphorically) eaten and drunk by a mortal man?


Your insight is that the two problems are structurally similar. We may add to the mix the problem of the Incarnation which is structurally similar to the first two. In all three cases we have the problem of the interpenetration of spirit and matter.

But why stop here? Quite apart from Christianity, there is the problem that we all face as regards the relation of mind and body. Nobody has ever made rigorous discursive sense of this either. There are theories up the wazoo but not one of them stands up to steely-eyed scrutiny.

Transubstantiation makes no sense, but does Dennett's claim that consciousness is an illusion make any better sense?


I think Dennett's claim makes less sense as I cannot see to what he can appeal to justify the claim. Consciousness is an illusion to whom? 'Illusion' necessarily implies a conscious thing conscious of the illusion. But transubstantiation might make sense at some level we cannot comprehend - if God exists there are necessarily things He understands that we do not and can not understand and which might appear to us as incomprehensible. Even in the physical world we are aware of phenomena we do not understand and there is no guarantee we will ever understand them, so what is wrong with insoluble divine mysteries? Atheists sometimes say this 'mystery' move is evasive but I don't see why - it follows directly from any sophisticated understanding of God. The theist is not positing 'mystery' as explanatory - merely as a descriptive label. That seems perfectly coherent to me.


Your point against Dennett is sound; I've made it myself on several occasions. A much more plausible position is that of G. Strawson who holds that consciousness is real but nonetheless wholly physical.

Your points about mystery are also good. We cannot a priori exclude the possibility that some things are beyond our ken and will stay that way: our cognitive architecture is such that things that are actual and thus possible must appear to us as impossible.

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