Act and Potency in the Christian Life

In the Tuesday night Philosophy group that has been meeting since this past summer, we are now more than halfway through the course on Cosmology. We recently covered the subject of act and potency — a couple of simple words that conceal an enormity of wisdom to help us contemplate truth and navigate around manifold errors old and new.

If Heraclitus and Parmenides had understood act and potency, the former would not have reduced all things to change and the latter would not have denied the existence of change.

Opposing these erroneous opposites using the insights of Aristotle, Brother Francis considered the “problem of change” in an important Housetops article written almost seventy years ago. Brother would later develop these very same thoughts in a more leisurely way in his Cosmology course.

If you think this is merely the kind of useless esoterica that eggheads waste their time prattling on about without any practical ramifications, think again. The crimes of abortion, euthanasia, and eugenics, to name but a few, feed off erroneous thinking on act and potency. Erroneous thinking begets bad morals because ideas have consequences.

God is pure act, free of all potency, and therefore altogether immutable — and uniquely so. All material beings, and even the pure angelic spirits, have potency, but in God, “there is no change, nor shadow of alteration” (Jas. 1:17).

An acorn is an oak tree in potency. The growing tree, as it assimilates the soil’s nutrients, along with water, and sunlight, reduces those potencies to act. An acorn might end up in the belly of a hungry squirrel and not realize its potencies, or, under the right conditions, it could become a grand old tree like Charleston, South Carolina’s famous Angel Oak.

We humans each come into this world as a little bundle of potential. We have natural potencies of mind and body, only a percentage of which will be put into act depending upon our circumstances and aptitudes. The same baby, if born to Dalits in India, will be the lowest of outcasts, poor and despised, or, if adopted by wealthy Parisian parents, could become a multi-lingual physician with yachts on the Riviera. Alternatively, he could be a Chicago-based Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent. But realizing his journalistic potencies would almost certainly rule out his potential for a medical career; we are limited beings, after all.

All that is on the level of nature. We also have supernatural potencies because men are, uniquely among material creatures, oriented to an end that is beyond nature: the Beatific Vision. That Dalit baby, all poor and outcast, could become a great saint if those potencies are actualized.

This potency for supernatural life is put “in act” by the grace of Baptism. But we are not “pure act” (only God is), therefore, Baptism also endows us with further potencies for the growth and perfection of that supernatural life. The capable philosopher, Edward Feser explains, in a very good piece on the moral ramifications of act and potency1 that, “A thing’s various actualities and potentialities exist in a layered fashion and constitute a hierarchy….” Because of this, when one potency is put into act, other potencies come into existence. For instance, if I put my potential for learning Arabic in act by learning it, I now have the potency of becoming an Arab-language poet, journalist, or comic. These, in turn, make for further potencies. Supernaturally speaking, grace infuses us with a “new nature” that gives us a host of potencies “in layered fashion.”

These thoughts struck me recently as I was reading Saint Maximos the Confessor’s Four Centuries of Love (in The Philokalia, Vol. II), and came across the following five paragraphs. They represent a masterful series of brief meditations on act and potency in the Christian life.

Note how this great defender of orthodoxy strings together Biblical passages from Saint Paul to show that we have in us, by grace, “the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” that are in Christ. These treasures are like the acorn. Whether we crush that acorn or let it grow into saintly “Angel Oak” is a matter of purifying the heart by love, self-control, prayer, and other Christian exercises of piety, with the help of divine grace mediated by our Immaculate Mother.

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69.) Some of the brethren think that they are excluded from the Holy Spirit’s gifts of grace. Because they neglect to practice the commandments they do not know that he who has an unadulterated faith in Christ has within him the sum total of all the divine gifts. Since through our laziness we are far from having an active love for Him — a love which shows us the divine treasures within us — we naturally think that we are excluded from these gifts.

70.) If, as St Paul says, Christ dwells in our hearts through faith (cf. Eph. 3:17), and all the treasures of wisdom and spiritual knowledge are hidden in Him (cf. Col. 2:3), then all the treasures of wisdom and spiritual knowledge are hidden in our hearts. They are revealed to the heart in proportion to our purification by means of the commandments.

71.) This is the treasure hidden in the field of your heart (cf. Matt. 13:44) which you have not yet found because of your laziness. Had you found it, you would have sold everything and bought that field. But now you have abandoned that field and give all your attention to the land nearby, where there is nothing but thorns and thistles.

72.) It is for this reason that the Savior says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt. 5:8): for He is hidden in the hearts of those who believe in Him. They shall see Him and the riches that are in Him when they have purified themselves through love and self-control; and the greater their purity, the more they will see.

73.) And that is why He also says, ‘Sell what you possess and give alms’ (Luke 12:33), ‘and you will find that all things are clean for you’ (Luke 11:41). This applies to those who no longer spend their time on things to do with the body, but strive to cleanse the intellect (which the Lord calls ‘heart’) from hatred and dissipation. For these defile the intellect and do not allow it to see Christ, who dwells in it by the grace of holy baptism.

  1. Edward Feser’s link to the famous “Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses” is dead; here is a current link. And here is another, in Latin and English, with a commentary by P. Lumbreras, O.P., S.T.Lr., Ph.D.