Charity: The Supernatural Virtue

For those that know me well, you know that my intellectual and personal heroes are Saint Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – what I have not-so-aptly deemed my “intellectual trinity.” Recently I have been reading Kent Dunningham’s new book, Addiction and Virtue which correlates the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of habit to the contemporary pandemic of addiction. In the latter portion of the book, Dunningham asks an important, albeit nonconspicuous, question: “How are the immanent practices of daily life to be related to the transcendent quest for right relationship with God?”[1]

Dunningham’s question is one I have been pondering (in a far less eloquent fashion) for some time. At first, I was somewhat put off by the manner in which it was asked as it used the overly clichéd term “relationship with God.” While I find the term theologically appropriate, I also find it to be abused and much of the cause of the “buddy-buddy” portrait of Christ that is so prevalent in our churches. While I understand while this is captivating to some, I find that it undermines the reverence that we ought to have for God. But as I previously mentioned, Dunningham embeds his thesis in Thomistic thought, a worldview which I gravitate towards (especially in an existential light).

Aristotle tried to answer the question stated above. Aristotle, however, polarizes his response for he says the goal of human life (eudemonia) is to develop the intellectual and moral virtues. Yet, in the later books of Nicomachean Ethics, it is said that the goal of human flourishing is the contemplation of the divine. The two answers seem to be at odds with each other. Bridging the gap that Aristotle created is Thomas Aquinas. Thomas, the reconciler of the brilliant Aristotelian thought to Christianity, develops one of the theological virtues – love – as the connection between the immanent tasks to the transcendental task. The Thomistic virtue of love is characterized as supernatural. The word that Thomas gives the virtue of love is “charity.” For as Dunningham writes, it is charity that “capacitates human beings for participation in the life of God.”[2]

            Referring back to my previously mentioned issue with the term “relationship with God,” it is Thomas that perhaps best defines what this means and the definition is indebted to charity. For charity itself is the ontology of the friendship between God and humanity. For this friendship between God and humanity is not the shallow portrait that Western culture often exhibits. Rather, friendship between God and human beings is precisely charitable as it stems from God’s ability to communicate with creation. God makes himself known to creation which then generates the ability for humanity to strive towards God. The opposite is impossible. Charity is principally founded in God’s perfect goodness, not in the virtue of humanity.[3] While this theological point may be quickly accepted, it must not be passed over with haste. For this line of Thomism declares that humanity does not possess the natural capacity for charity, but rather charity finds its ontology in the supernatural work of God and is then made known through divine communication. For charity is a “supernatural virtue because it directs persons to their supernatural end of fellowship with God.”[4] By substantiating charity in God’s character, Thomas writes that, “no virtue has such as strong inclination to its act as charity has, nor does any virtue perform its act with so great pleasure.”[5]

Unlike many of Thomas’s virtues, charity is not an intellectual or moral virtue. Rather, Thomas purports that charity is an appetitive virtue – one which is infinite. This may sound puzzling. How can a virtue (or any human component, for that matter) be infinite? For this virtue is essentially a bottomless pit, a never-ending stream of human longing. Thomas posits that if humanity was finite in every possible way then God’s gift of charity would be inaccessible. Humanity has unlimited desire, a desire which reaches out for God’s grace. Only something absolutely infinite, God himself, can ever possibly satisfy this infinite desire. As was stated earlier, charity itself comes from God’s perfect character. This is the establishment of the relationship between God and humanity. For charity directs the infinite human desire to the ultimate infinite source – God himself. But since humanity’s desire is infinite, the desire always longs, always wants more. And it is there that God awaits and greets.

It would be rare for culture to view charity and love in this manner. And to be fair, this line of Thomism seems to only establish an individual charity with each specific person. Yet this is hardly the case. As Thomas writes, “God is the object of charity, while our neighbor is loved out of charity for God’s sake.”[6] I will quote Dunningham at length to explain:

              The life of charity does not therefore involve a separation between the transcendent and the immanent but rather institutes a link between the two. The movement toward God that is constitutive of charity does not imply a movement away from the this-worldly but rather a more sufficient movement towards the goods of this world as well.[7]

Acting out of charity is therefore a transcendental and immanent act. The result here seems to be twofold. First, it seems as though an act of charity from one person to another makes the initiator more like the source of charity itself – God. This moves forward the person’s infinite desire toward the infinite source of goodness. Second, charity also implies that charitable acts between individuals embody a relationship that resembles God’s own charitable acts towards creation. It is the outpouring of one to another. For the giver will grant freely to the recipient something in which was not otherwise available. And in this resemblance comes a unifying bond – God’s original charity bringing the otherwise separated together. Furthermore, just as charity is the giving of a relationship to humanity, charity given amongst humanity is a special bond created in this image. This should be widespread and become, as Karl Rahner, “corporal, historical, and social.”[8]

What comes to light with this understanding is a holistic outlook on relationship. For God, the source of charity, grants a relationship with his created individuals who, in turn, initiate charitable acts towards others – an act impossible without God. God is therefore involved in all charitable acts, regardless of whether the individual is cognitively aware of this or not.  Charity is love – a  love stemmed from God and seen evident in us. For we can relate with each other because we can relate with God.

[1] Kent Dunningham, Addiction and Virtue: Beyond Models of Disease and Choice (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Academic, 2011), 143.

[2] Ibid., 144.

[3] ST 2-2.24.2.

[4] Dunningham, Addiction, 145.

[5] ST 2-2.23.2.

[6] ST 2-2.23.5.

[7] Dunningham, Addiction, 147.

[8] Karl Rahner, Nature and Grace (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 90.

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