Mercy and the Universe

by John G. Brungardt, assistant professor

In one of my philosophy classes this week, we will be discussing the philosophical understanding of God’s act of creation and the nature of the created universe. Our main author for that endeavor is St. Thomas Aquinas, medieval theologian, philosopher, and author of the Summa Theologiae, the unfinished medieval masterpiece.

One of the most fascinating passages I’ve read in this Summa of St. Thomas finds him arguing that in every work of God there is both justice and mercy. However, in a certain way, mercy comes first—mercy is the root or foundation of what God does in regard to creation all told. Why is this?

Well, here is St. Thomas’ thinking (the source is here):

«Mercy and truth are necessarily found in all God’s works, if mercy be taken to mean the removal of any kind of defect. . . . Now the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon. For nothing is due to creatures, except for something pre-existing in them, or foreknown. Again, if this is due to a creature, it must be due on account of something that precedes. And since we cannot go on to infinity, we must come to something that depends only on the goodness of the divine will—which is the ultimate end. We may say, for instance, that to possess hands is due to man on account of his rational soul; and his rational soul is due to him that he may be man; and his being man is on account of the divine goodness. So in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy.»

Now, let’s unpack that a little bit. The basic idea is that God owing a creature something must be based on something prior, some prior demand or basis that the creature possesses. So, any justice on God’s part is based on a supposition of something being there already—some basis the creature does have to make some “demand” in justice.

Aquinas gives an interesting example: a man is owed a rational soul and hands by a demand of justice as long as we presuppose that he is a man. That is, it would be naturally unjust if it were the ordinary case for human beings to be without hands, because having hands is ordered to fully realizing the expression of his rational, intellectual nature. (Just think of all the plans and activities requiring both thought and manual activity—it’s a long list.) And human nature is owed rationality because that’s what being human means to begin with. So, supposing that human nature does exist, it is owed the natural means to reach its ends. (It’s because this is true that suffering and disease—whether physical or mental—is a natural evil. Why God permits such natural evils is a question for another time, perhaps.)

However, this regress of demands made by creatures cannot go on to infinity. That is, eventually the demands of created justice (what this sort of creature needs to exist) reaches an end: namely, existence itself. This is, God does not owe a creature anything in justice in the first instance, since God is the source of the creature’s being to begin with. Before being created, the creature isn’t there already to make demands. Thus, creation cannot be an act of justice.

What sort of act is it? Creation itself must be an act of mercy, not of justice. By granting creatures existence God “removes the defect” of not existing, and taking away defects is the work of someone who is merciful.

But St. Thomas doesn’t stop there. Having considered the mercy of God “viewed at its primary source,” which is mercy, he states: “In all that follows, the power of mercy remains, and works indeed with even greater force; as the influence of the first cause is more intense than that of second causes.” That is, God’s mercy in the root act of creation carries through in the workings of all “secondary causes”—that’s creatures, including us.

So this means that any good we accomplish is not only enabled by the mercy of God, but it’s a means to transmit the mercy of God, because that good need not have existed. Parents having children, teachers instructing their students, students studying and helping their fellow students—all good works work through and spread the mercy of God.

And it seems to me that St. Thomas’ reflections about the presence of mercy in creation only become more moving when we join them to the truth about Jesus Christ as the seat of Divine Mercy.

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