Bonaventure on the Mind's Journey into God (Notes: 75)


Bonaventure or “Good Fortune” was not this Theological Master’s real name, rather, it was something given to him when he joined the Franscian Order. (Due to not being able to spell his real name, though, I will simply go this pen name.) He held his order’s chair as the university of Paris from 1254-57. Though, he later left his position to become Minister-General, his order’s highest post in 1257 and held it until his death in 1274. Because Bonaventure did so much to guide the order onto its later path, many Franscians thought of Bonaventure as a “second founder” after St. Franscian himself.

Bonaventure’s treatise The Mind’s Journey into God, dates early in his career as Minister-General and contains content which one would not write as a university professor. However, as professor Williams remarks, it is an excellent text from which to grasp Bonaventure’s thought process. Intellectually, the book concerns itself primarily with Augustinian Neo-Platonism but occasionally uses Aristotelian ideas when it suits the structure.

First and foremost, it is a mystical and contemplative text designed for use by the order. On its surface, it seems to be systematized but such a super-structure vanishes upon closer inspection; Bonaventure’s method of organizing changes page to page and so the alleged consistency is shown to be inconsistent. Ultimately, Bonaventure’s drive is to compel the reader to behold the awesomeness of God through a contemplation of the images and text. But, if there is anything which is consistent throughout the work, it is the importance of the number six.

From the Book of Isiah, Bonaventure takes the image of the six-winged seraph. He uses it to stand for six progressive illuminations by which human beings can come to know God (six is significant for mathematical reasons as well, since three is the Trinity and two times three is six). But, six is also the number of Man (humans were created on the six day of creation).

So, let’s look more closely from the passage from Isiah:

“In the year that King Isaiah died, I saw the lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said, ‘holy, holy, holy is the lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.’”

As one may have noticed, the six wings are in three pairs. All in the service of glorifying God. Each pair of wings corresponds to a different level in the hierarchy of being. The pair facing down indicates the traces of god’s activity which can be found in the sub-rational world. Here is where we contemplate God outside of us or below us. The second pair represents the image of God born by the human intellect. This is where we contemplate God within us. The third pair, meanwhile, represents God himself and is where we contemplate God above us. In this conceptualization, the aim of thinking is always God-oriented.

The first steps to obtaining knowledge of God involves knowledge of the Sensible world; this is the bottom pair of wings directed downward. Here, Bonaventure distinguishes these wings by saying they are vestiges of God. To Bonaventure, the sensible world is un-explaining and so requires super-sensible ways of being explained. Hence, he is keen on finding ways to explain this super-sensible by examining sensible things and reasoning upward to what God must be like. Bonaventure realizes the ancient philosophers had a focus on the sensible but believes they got it wrong in that they had a focus on the sensible to explain the ordering of the world instead of the origination of the world (to the ancient thinkers, God was merely that who formed things based on the perfect designs of the Forms; he wasn’t really a creating entity on to himself).

One of the controversies with Aristotle, one will remember, was that he thought the Earth lacked a beginning in time, whereas Christian doctrine taught that it had a beginning set in motion by God. Bonaventure, though, believed that he could prove philosophically that the Earth had a beginning.

His argument is characterized by professor Williams like this: “supposed I asked you to walk a really long way and to let me know when you’re done. When will I hear back from you? In a really long time. But then supposed I ask you to walk an infinitely long way and then to let me know when you’re done. When will I hear from you? Never. However long you keep walking, you will never manage to traverse an infinite distance. So, as Bonaventure says, with Aristotle saying that the world is infinitely old he is saying that the world has managed to traverse an infinite distance of time. Ergo, it is impossible.”

The second wing on the first pair of wings represent the vestiges or footprint of God as evidence for providing God’s presence in sensible things. God is not merely the originator of sensible things but is actively at work within them. We take into us the likeness of sensible things; the things themselves don’t come into our consciousness but representations of them come into our consciousness. Because there is nothing which human beings can’t take up into their being, then, the likeness of the whole world is available to us through sensation. In this way, sensation detaches the sensible thing from its specific place and time and allows the universal elements to be represented into human consciousness. Therefore, it is the sense who take that first step to understanding sensible things by universalizing what can be universalized.

None of this would be upsetting to an Aristotelian though it is what Bonaventure does next with it that creates some fuss.

Bonaventure invites us to see the generation of a sensible likeness in the sense organ as a generation of the eternal generation of the word, that is, the second person of the Trinity, in God. Because God is light and the sense organ which perceives light generates a likeness, divine light begets light.

How does this follow logically? It does not. Provided, this is a hint not an argument, so it does not follow any stern logic. Generation provides you with a semblance of an idea not the idea itself. The force behind Bonaventure’s book is to try and get you to take the journey yourself not to explicitly argue for the journey.

On to the second pair of wings, of contemplating God inside of us. This is the stage where we obtain knowledge of god by considering god as born by the human intellect. The first wing of this pair stands for God understood as imprinted on our natural powers. The second wing stands for a God as formed by supernatural grace.

Of the first wing, Bonaventure provides an account which seeks to integrate Augustine with Aristotle.

He begins by describing the activity of the intellect in Aristotelian terms. The first such activity is the learning of concepts; the human mind builds concepts and then everything else builds on that. The second act of the intellect is putting those concepts together to build statements or propositions. Things which can be true or false. The third activity of the intellect involves the formation of arguments or inferences; this involves putting statements or propositions together in a way which is logically connected. So far, all of this has been Aristotle and Bonaventure has been fine to take these things from Aristotle, though believes that Aristotle did not tell the whole tale and that none of this has a purpose if it is not illuminated by Truth. For Bonaventure, this comes in at the second level of the activity of the intellect or the making of judgements which involve truth or falsity. So, in a sense, Bonaventure argues that there is no “truth” with a small “t” that does not comes from “truth” with a big “T”, God.

This is Bonaventure’s first Augustinian move, that our natural activity cannot come without a supernatural light. Though, as a second move he also takes the idea of memory constituting a kind of manifestation of God’s light in the sense that it exists as that semblance of something greater.

The second wing of the second pair involves the image of god formed in our intellectual powers as formed by grace. Our natural powers, to Bonaventure, must be restored from their fallen and broken condition by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. To note, these are things which are not acquired by our own efforts, these are not gained by practice. These theological virtues must be given to us by God. These are infused virtues. God must “pour them in” as the lingo went. Part of the acquisition, then, of these virtues can come only through a divine refurbishing of the human mind, something which comes through a study of the Bible.

On to the final pair of wings: God as in himself.

In the first wing of this pair, Bonaventure considers what he calls the essential attributes of God. This means thinking about God as being. Such is the Old Testament way of looking at God. This method focuses on unity and is heavily focused on ontological matters (something which only the Augustinians takes seriously at this point as the Aristotelians view it as misguided). To Bonaventure, the unity of God is so great that it must be onto itself and wholly one.

On the second wing of this final pair, Bonaventure considers what he calls the Proper Attributes of god.

As opposed to the essential attributes which thought of God as being, the Proper Attributes think of God as goodness. This is the New Testament way of looking at God, as espoused in Luke 18:19 (“No one is good but God alone”). Thinking about God as goodness emphasizes God as a plurality of persons. It is a sort of “supreme sharing”, then, as articulated by Pseudo-Dionysius, enacted by God which allows for divine reason to propagate and be communicated by the Trinity.

Ultimately it is difficult to characterize Bonaventure’s approach as either theological or philosophical. Why is because of his lack of recognizing of a clear division of labor between the two. Bonaventure, for instance, prefers to think of philosophy as encompassing all aspects of God. Philosophy, then, simply provides us with a springboard for thinking about God.