Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bonaventure by Numbers

Several years ago, in studying theories of signs (a field known as semiotics), I came across a reference to St. Bonaventure as a precursor to the modern theories, with his views of the world as sign of God. So I checked out the book, read a bit, and turned it back in, almost completely befuddled. But over the last week, I had a completely different experience. Maybe I'm more familiar now with medieval philosophy, or maybe this spring was just the right time for a connection between me and Bonaventure. On way or another, his Journey of the Mind into God made a lot of sense this time.

At multiple levels, numbers frame the content and organization of the Journey – especially threes and sometimes sevens. The goal of the book, the goal of life in fact, is the contemplation of God. To achieve this in the fullest human capacity, Bonaventure says, we rise through the contemplation of three major categories of things: things outside ourselves, things inside ourselves, and things above ourselves. Each of these three steps has two divisions, and the whole rising staircase leads to a landing of restful bliss, making seven levels in all.

All along the journey, threes nest inside each other like Ezekiel's wheels. In step 1, for instance, where Bonaventure has us observing the world as a vestige, or footprint, of God, we become aware of three divine attributes: power, wisdom, and benevolence. These attributes display themselves through three modes of observation: we contemplate the world's existence, we believe certain things about the world, and we reason concerning the excellence of existing things. While the correspondence between divine attribute and mode of observation seems clear enough – the world exists because of God's creative power, the world has its own attributes because of God's wisdom, and the world is excellent because of God's benevolence – each exercise of observation has its own threefold division, each in turn again revealing divine power, wisdom, and benevolence. (1) All things exist in weight, number, and measure, and these parameters we can simply discern. (2) All things have their origin, continuing descent, and end in God, and these facts we believe by faith. (3) The objects of creation are arranged in three basic layers: things that simply are, things that both are and live, and things that exist, live, and reason.

Bonaventure next moves into what we might call the psychology of perception. In step 2, we contemplate God’s presence in the human process of obtaining knowledge about the world through apprehension, enjoyment, and abstraction of qualities. This psychological step naturally leads us now, in step 3, to examine things inside us – in other words, ourselves. But here we enter a new way of contemplating God since the human being isn't just a trace of God's creative power, wisdom, and goodness: it is also made in the image of God. (In the terms of Charles Peirce's semiotics, we've moved from indices of God to icons of God.) And in this step, threes again abound. Here Bonaventure covers will, intellect, and memory; past, present, and future; apprehension, knowledge, and reason; counsel, judgment, and desire. And he nests threes as often as possible again. Philosophy, for instance, is divided into physical, rational, and moral; and rational philosophy (to take one example) again divides into grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar gives us the power to speak, logic the wisdom to say right things, and rhetoric the appeal to the will of our audience. And of course the threes all eventually lead back to the three Persons of God: Bonaventure (following Augustine) ascribes power especially to the Father, wisdom to the Word, and benevolence and love to the Holy Spirit.

After step 4, in which we use Scripture rather than philosophy to study ourselves, Bonaventure moves on to study things above us: angels and God Himself. In step 5, we contemplate the unified existence of God and in step 6 the diverse Trinity of God. Near the end of his outline of step 6, Bonaventure explains that we reach the limits of human understanding when we begin to consider the eternal Being joining with temporal Man. So, after comparing the appearance of the God-Man in step 6 with the creation of the first man on day 6 of creation, the wise saint leads the reader on to a day of rest: step 7, in which we abandon all words and effort, all sense and intellect, and desire the ineffable God directly.

I spent most of today’s post simply outlining Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind into God, mostly because the exercise was good for me, and partly because I couldn’t find any handy outline of the work online and hoped that I might fill that gap. I think I engage in all seven steps on occasion, but now I want to try a systematic journey. I’m not sure how I’ll do it, but maybe I’ll pick seven weeks and devote a few minutes each day to the week’s proper step. I could take nature walks on weeks 1 and 2, read some C. S. Lewis (maybe The Abolition of Man?) on week 3, do a topical Bible study during week 4, and have some quiet times of meditation for each of the last three weeks. But that’s certainly not the only way. Today is Easter, and it seemed especially fitting to write this post and think through the whole journey in a few minutes this morning.

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