On Spiritual Intuition In Christian Philosophy

Author: Christopher Dawson


Christopher Dawson

The problem of spiritual intuition and its reconciliation with the natural conditions of human knowledge lies at the root of philosophic thought, and all the great metaphysical systems since the time of Plato have attempted to find a definitive solution. The subject is no less important for the theologian, since it enters so largely into the question of the nature of religious knowledge and the limits of religious experience. The Orthodox Christian is, however, debarred from the two extreme philosophic solutions of pure idealism and radical empiricism, since the one leaves no place for faith and supernatural revelations, and the other cuts off the human mind entirely from all relation to spiritual reality. Yet even so there remains a vast range of possible solutions which have been advocated by Catholic thinkers from the empiricism of the medieval nominalists to the ontologism of Malebranche and Rosmini. Leaving aside the more eccentric and unrepresentative thinkers, we can distinguish two main currents in Catholic philosophy. On the one hand, there is the Platonic tradition that is represented by the Greek Fathers, and, above all, by St. Augustine and his medieval followers such as St. Bonaventure; on the other, the Aristotelian tradition which found classical expression on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. But it is important not to exaggerate the divergences between the two schools. Both of them seek to find a <via media> between the two extreme solutions. St. Bonaventure is not a pure Platonist, nor St. Thomas a pure Aristotelian. The former rejects the doctrine of innate ideas, while the latter finds the source of intelligibility in the divine ideas, and regards the human mind as receiving its light from the divine intelligence.[1] Hence although Thomism insists on the derivation of our ideas from sensible experience, it is far from denying the existence of spiritual intuition.

Human Intelligence Is Intuitive By Nature

On this point I will quote the words of a French Dominican, Pere Joret: "Let us not forget," he writes, "that the human intelligence, also, is intuitive by nature and predisposition. No-doubt, as it is united substantially with matter, it cannot thenceforth know except by proceeding from sensible realities and by means of images. But, apart from this, our intelligence is intuitive. Its first act at the dawn of its life, at its awakening, is an intuition, the intuition of being, or, more concretely, of `a thing which is,' and, at the same time, as though it already unconsciously carried them in itself, there suddenly appear with an ineluctable certainty the first principles" of identity, contradiction, causality, and the like. It is from our intuition of first principles that all our knowledge proceeds. St. Thomas says: "As the enquiry of reason starts from a simple intuition of the intelligence, so also it ends in the certainty of intelligence, when the conclusions that have been discovered are brought back to the principles from which they derive their certitude." Pere Joret insist on the importance of the intuitive faculty as the natural foundation of religious experience. It is not itself mystical, but it is the essential natural preparation and prerequisite for mysticism. The failure to recognise this, which has been so common among theologians during the last two centuries, has, he says, been deplorable not only in its effects on the study of mysticism, but in its practical consequences for the spiritual life.[2]

It is easy to understand the reasons for this attitude of hesitation and distrust with regard to intuitive knowledge. If the intuition of pure being is interpreted in an excessively realist sense, we are led not merely to ontologism, but to pantheism—to the identification of that being which is common to everything which exists with the Transcendent and Absolute Being which is God. And the danger has led to the opposite error of minimising the reality of the object of our intuition, and reducing it to a mere logical abstraction.

Here again it is necessary to follow the middle way. The being which is the object of our knowledge is neither wholly real nor purely logical and conceptual. The intuition of pure being is a very high and immaterialised form of knowledge, but it is not a direct intuition of spiritual reality. It stands midway between the world of sensible experience and the world of spiritual reality. On the one hand it is the culminating point of our ordinary intellectual activity, and on the other it leads directly to the affirmation of the Absolute and the Transcendent.

Hence it is always possible, as Pere Marechal shows, that the intuition of pure being may become the occasionor starting-point of an intuition of a higher order. But it is difficult to decide, in concrete cases, whether the supreme intuition of the Neoplatonist or the Vedantist philosopher is simply the intuition of pure being interpreted in an ontologist sense, or whether it is a genuine intuition of spiritual reality. There is no <a priori> reason for excluding the latter alternative; indeed, in some cases it seems absolutely necessary to accept it. Nevertheless, this higher intuition is not necessarily always the same. It is possible to distinguish several different types of intuition, or to find several different explanations of it. In the first place there is the possibility of a very high form of metaphysical intuition by which the mind sees clearly the absolute transcendence of spirit in relation to sensible things and the element of nothingness or not- being which is inherent in the world of sensible experience.[3] This form of intuition seems adequate to explain the spiritual experience which is typical of the oriental religions, e.g., the intuition of advaita—non-duality, which is characteristic of the Vedanta. But there are other cases which suggest a higher form of experience, and one which is more strictly comparable to the higher experiences of the Christian mystic. In such cases the obvious explanation is that such experience is mystical in the full sense of the word, since we need not deny the existence of supernatural grace wherever the human mind turns towards God and does what lies in its power—<facienti quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam.>

But while we must admit the essentially supernatural character of all true mystical experience it is still possible that this higher experience may have its psychological roots in a rudimentary natural capacity of the soul for the intuition of God. This is certainly not the common theological view, but there are, nevertheless, Catholic theologians such as St. Bonaventure and, above all, the great medieval mystics of Germany and the Low Countries, who teach that the human soul possesses by its very nature a real but obscure knowledge of God. St. Bonaventure argues that Aristotle's theory of the sensible origin of all human knowledge only holds good of our knowledge of external reality, not of those realities which are essentially present to the soul itself; consequently, "the soul knows God and itself and the things that are in itself without the help of the exterior senses."[4] <Deus praesentissimus est ipsi animae et eo ipso cognoscibilis.>

The Soul In Immediate Contact With God

The medieval mystics base their whole theory of mysticism on this doctrine of the knowledge of God essentially present in the human soul. Underneath the surface of our ordinary consciousness, the sphere of the discursive reason, there is a deeper psychological level, "the ground of the soul," to which sensible images and the activity of the discursive reason cannot penetrate. This is the domain of the spiritual intuition, "the summit" of the mind and the spiritual will which is naturally directed towards God. Here the soul is in immediate contact with God, who is present to it as its cause and the principle of its activity. It is, in fact, a mirror which has only to be cleansed and turned towards its object to reflect the image of God. In the words of Ruysbroeck: "In the most noble part of the soul, the domain of our spiritual powers, we are constituted in the form of a living and eternal mirror of God; we bear in it the imprint of His eternal image, and no other image can ever enter there." Unceasingly this mirror remains under the eyes of God, "and participates thus with the image that is graven there from God's eternity. It is in this image that God has known us in Himself before we were created, and that He knows us now in time, created as we are for Himself. This image is found essentially and personally in all men; each man possesses it whole and entire, and all men together possess no more of it than does each one. In this way we are all one, intimately united in our eternal image, which is the image of God and the source in us all of our life and of our coming into existence. Our created essence and our life are joined to it immediately as to their eternal cause. Yet our created being does not become God, any more than the image of God becomes a creature."[5]

God As Its Eternal Origen

The soul "in its created being incessantly receives the impress of its Eternal Archetype, like a flawless mirror, in which the image remains steadfast and in which the reflection is renewed without interruption by its ever new reception in new light. This essential union of our spirit with God does not exist in itself, but it dwells in God and it flows forth from God and it depends upon God and it returns to God as to its Eternal Origin. And in this wise, it has never been, nor ever shall be, separated from God; for this union is within us by our naked nature, and, were this nature to be separated from God, it would fall into pure nothingness. And this union is above time and space and is always and incessantly active according to the way of God. But our nature, forasmuch as it is indeed like unto God but in itself is creature, receives the impress if its Eternal Image passively. This is that nobleness which we possess by nature in the essential unity of our spirit, where it is united to God according to nature. <This neither makes us holy, nor blessed, for all men, whether good or evil, possess it within themselves; but it is certainly the fist cause of all holiness and all blessedness.>[6]

According to this view, every man naturally possesses an immediate contact with God in the deepest part of his soul; but he remains, as a rule, without the realisation and the enjoyment of it.

His soul is turned outwards to the things of sense, and his will is directed to temporal goods. It is the work of grace to reconstitute this divine image, to bring a man back to his essential nature, to cleanse the mirror of his soul so that it once more receives the divine light. Nevertheless, even apart from grace, the divine image remains present in the depths of the soul, and whenever the mind withdraws itself from its surface activity and momentarily concentrates itself within itself, it is capable of an obscure consciousness of the presence of God and of its contact with divine reality.

This doctrine is undoubtedly orthodox, and involves neither illuminism nor ontologism, still less pantheism. Nevertheless, it runs counter to the tendency to asceticism which has been so powerful since the Reformation, and it is also difficult to reconcile with the strictly Aristotelian theory of knowledge and of the structure of the human mind as taught by St. Thomas. Recently, however, Pere Picard has made a fresh survey of the problem, and has endeavored to show that St. Thomas himself, in his commentary on the Sentences, admits the existence of this obscure intuition of God, and uses it as a proof of the soul's resemblance to the Trinity which was so often insisted on by St. Augustine.[7] He does not, however, base his view in the argument from authority so much as on general theological considerations, as the hypothesis which is most in harmony with the teaching and experience of Catholic mystics. Certainly, it seems, the existence of an obscure but profound and continuous intuition of God provides a far more satisfactory basis for an explanation of the facts of religious experience, as we see them in history, than a theory which leaves no place for any experience of spiritual reality, except a merely inferential rational knowledge on the one hand and on the other a revelation which is entirely derived from supernatural faith and has no natural psychological basis.


1. St. Thomas himself insists on the fundamental agreement of the two theories.

2. F. D. Joret, O.P., <La Contemplation Mystique d'apres St. Thomas d'Aquin.> Bruges, 1923, pp. 83-90.

3. M. Maritain admits the possibility of this kind of intuition, but he regards it as an anomalous form of experience which is neither metaphysical nor mystical. Cf. "Experience Mystique et Philosophie," in <Revue de Philosophie,> November, 1926, p. 606.

4. Bon. in II Sent., d. 39, q. 2.

5. Ruysbroeck, <The Mirror of Eternal Salvation,> chap. VIII.

6. Ruysbroeck, <The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage,> Bk. II, chap. LVII (trans. C.A. Wynschenk Dom).

7. Cf. "La Saisie immediate de Dieu dans les Etats Mystiques." by G. Picard, in <Revue d'Ascetique et de Mystique,> 1923, pp. 37-63 156-181. The subject is also discussed by Pere Hugueny. O.P., in his introduction to the new French translation of Tauler (Vol. I, 73-154). He concludes that Tauler's doctrine is based upon that of Albertus Magnus, and diverges on several points from that of St. Thomas.

Taken from the Winter 1994 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, John J. Mulloy, Editor.