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The Xavier Zubiri Review, Vol. 14, 2016-2018, pp.


Zubiri and Systematic Theology1

Thomas B. Fowler
Xavier Zubiri Foundation of North America
Washington, DC USA


Zubiri’s theological writings are extensive, and theological questions were always of im-
portance to him, undoubtedly because of his holistic view of knowledge. Though he wrote
on many theological matters, he never formulated his theology in a systematic way. Zubiri
recognized the importance of theology for understanding of the human condition, and at
the same time how it has in many ways been displaced by “secular” knowledge, even
though that knowledge does not fulfill the same function. This paper lays groundwork for
construction of a systematic theology based on Zubiri’s philosophy and some of his theolo-
gy works.

Los escritos teológicos de Zubiri son extensos, y las cuestiones teológicas siempre fue-
ron importantes para él, indudablemente debido a su visión holística del conocimiento.
Aunque escribió sobre muchos asuntos teológicos, nunca formuló su teología de una mane-
ra sistemática. Zubiri reconoció la importancia de la teología para la comprensión de la
condición humana y, al mismo tiempo, cómo ha sido desplazada en muchos sentidos por el
conocimiento “secular”, aunque ese conocimiento no cumple la misma función. Este docu-
mento prepara las bases para la construcción de una teología sistemática basada en la filo-
sofía de Zubiri y algunas de sus obras de teología.

Introduction without faith; it is part of the very

Theology is the intersection of faith process of faith, which seeks an ever
and knowledge. We have faith, but we deeper understanding of God’s self-
wish to know more about God and His disclosure culminating in Christ. It
follows that theology is more than
ways, and thus deepen our faith as well as
simply an effort of human reason to
be better equipped to apply faith to life’s
analyze and understand, along the
situations and problems. But theology is
lines of the experimental sciences.
a different kind of knowledge than that of
God cannot be reduced to an object.
experimental science, science, or the hu-
He is a subject who makes himself
manities; and it requires a different dispo-
known and perceived in an interper-
sition. As Pope Francis has said, sonal relationship. Right faith orients
Since faith is a light, it draws us into reason to open itself to the light which
itself, inviting us to explore ever more comes from God, so that reason, guid-
fully the horizon which it illumines, all ed by love of the truth, can come to a
the better to know the object of our deeper knowledge of God. The great
love. Christian theology is born of this medieval theologians and teachers
desire. Clearly, theology is impossible rightly held that theology, as a science

42 Thomas B. Fowler

of faith, is a participation in God’s and life—something that we do not already

own knowledge of himself. It is not know. Great Christian theologians of the
just our discourse about God, but past have been able to carry out this task;
first and foremost the acceptance and one need only think of Augustine, Basil,
the pursuit of a deeper understanding Aquinas, Suarez, and others. But times
of the word which God speaks to us, change, as does the intellectual climate;
the word which God speaks about knowledge progresses, and the attitudes of
himself, for he is an eternal dialogue people shift. So theology must be renewed
of communion, and he allows us to periodically. In our own day, unfortunate-
enter into this dialogue. Theology thus ly, due to several factors including ossified
demands the humility to be “touched” thought, a perceived paranoia about the
by God, admitting its own limitations modern world, and a failure to engage ma-
before the mystery, while striving to jor elements of contemporary knowledge,
investigate, with the discipline proper we find that at the beginning of the 21st
to reason, the inexhaustible riches of century, religion (and theology) are often
this mystery.2 associated with anti-intellectual attitudes,
Theology considered as a whole is thus not obscurantism, fantasies, ignorance, rear-
an arid academic exercise, but something guard activities and rigid thought pat-
which must touch the deepest part of each terns. That is what this book seeks to
human person. In this way it strengthens change.
and illuminates faith, satisfies our desire It was not always so. From its earliest
to know more about God, and profits us by days, Christianity sought to engage the
giving guidance for daily life and the ever- “secular” world, but because Christianity’s
changing problems of the world. roots were radically different, its approach
Nonetheless there are components of to worldly knowledge was likewise differ-
theology that aim at those who do not yet ent. Pagan and pre-Christian religions
have faith, or whose faith is very weak. tended to diefy forces of nature, whose
For example, proofs of God’s existence are corresponding gods had to be placated by
a cornerstone of theology, aimed at non- various ritualistic activities such as sacri-
believers with the goal of converting them. fices, based on longstanding custom. This
Constructing theology starting from basic was almost a stimulus-response type of
human experience is also important to action: sacrifice in case of floods,
grow each believer’s faith. Hence theology, droughts, famine, or war; otherwise praise
to be relevant and compelling, must start the Gods and hope that they will stay
from humanity’s current state of away. Any notion of “understanding” the
knowledge, the situation of belief that is gods was hopeless—a situation that led, in
common, the general attitude toward reli- Greece, to the crisis of faith represented by
gion prevalent in the epoch, and of course the plays of Euripides. In practice, Greek
sacred writings, tradition, and accepted religion turned into a sort of secular pur-
doctrines. This means that it must be suit of arêté—excellence, quite divorced
grounded in experiences, knowledge, and from the gods.3 Even in Hebrew thought,
belief that are fundamental, widely accept- there was little appetite for a rational un-
ed, and beyond question. It must also derstanding of God; God was to be wor-
cohere with and indeed illuminate other shipped as the one true God, but not sub-
forms and sources of knowledge, and serve jected to rational inquiry. The work of
as an inspiration to seekers of knowledge religious leaders was confined to moral
of all kinds. It must accord with Scripture guidance and correct ritualistic practice.
and tradition, and above all it must tell us Recent remarks by Pope Benedict clarify
something intellectually sound and en- the situation:
lightening about God, the world, morality,


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 43

Theology calls into question the mat- ented it more toward philosophy. Indeed,
ter of truth; this is its ultimate and the Gospel of John opens with the phrase
essential foundation. Here an expres- “In the beginning was the Word [Logos],
sion used by Tertullian may help us to and the Word was with God, and the Word
take a step forward: Christ did not was God”, very suggestive of Greek philo-
say: ‘I am custom,’ but: ‘I am the sophical thought—the highest form of
truth.’ The pagan religions were cus- “secular” knowledge at the time. Working
tomary by nature. ... They observed out the relationship between secular
the traditional cultural forms, hoping knowledge and Christian theology took
in that way to maintain the right rela- more than a thousand years, and it con-
tionship with the mysterious world of tinues today.
the divine. The revolutionary aspect of Today one aspect of the widespread
Christianity in antiquity was precisely abandonment of Christianity is that belief
its break with ‘custom’ out of love for in truth is on the decline. When truth
truth. The Gospel of St. John contains ceases to be paramount, power fills the
the other fundamental interpretation vacuum. So it is not surprising that reli-
of the Christian faith: the definition of gions such as Islam (which has always
Christ as Logos. If Christ is the Logos, had a problem with truth) have relied up-
the truth, then man must correspond on force and conquest for their spread,
to Him with his own logos; that is,
rather than preaching. Science itself,
with his reason. 4
which originated in the West, could only
Once the commitment to truth is made, flourish because of its close ties to truth.
rigorous engagement with the “secular” The politicization of science, so evident in
knowledge of the world is imprecindable. debates over “climate change” and evolu-
Christianity recognized this from the be- tion, as well as the rise of non-verifiable
ginning. In the early centuries it was con- theories, illustrate what can happen when
frontation with the pagan knowledge of the truth is no longer respected. Zubiri ob-
ancient world. In the Middle Ages it was serves that man’s fundamental impulse is
Aristotle and the Islamic tradition of com- toward truth, which, correcting Nietsche,
mentators. Now it is science and technol- he terms the “will to truth”.6 When truth
ogy. This does not mean that such secu- is rejected or suppressed, we get
lar knowledge is the highest form of Nietsche’s “will to power”.
knowledge, or that all of it is true; only The relationship of secular and theo-
that it is a form of knowledge, and thus logical knowledge immediately poses the
part of the truth about the world and reali- question of just what the Logos is, and
ty. As Benedict notes, how it will illuminate or explain faith.
From this we can understand that, by “Logos” is a Greek word that refers to all
its very nature, the Christian faith had to aspects of what we would term “reason”,
generate theology. It had to ask itself “description”, “explanation” “theory”, or
about the rationality of the faith. ... Thus, “inference”, among other things. Logos is
although the fundamental bond between thus a very broad concept. If Christianity
Logos, truth and faith, has always been is to integrate Logos, truth, and faith,
clear in Christianity, the concrete form of some idea of what each of those is must be
that bond has produced and continues to determined; “truth” as well as “faith” are
produce new questions. 5 likewise difficult concepts, to which we
Such an orientation toward truth ra- shall turn later. Christianity, in fact, is
ther than ritual or custom put Christianity radically rooted in truth and the quest to
on a completely different developmental understand faith:
track than the pagan religions of the time, The first item in the alphabet of faith
including the mystery religions, and ori- is the statement, “In the beginning


44 Thomas B. Fowler

was the Word”. Faith reveals to us love sees, love is an eye, and experi-
that eternal reason is the ground of all ence gives us more than reflection.10
things or, put in other terms, that
This love is not just a pleasant feeling, but
things are reasonable from the ground
an imperative, a call to action. This is
up. Faith does not aim to offer man
what really set Christianity apart, and still
some sort of psychotherapy; its psy-
chotherapy is the truth. This is what does. And for this reason the Church has
makes it universal and by nature mis- always engaged in works of corporal mercy
sionary. It is also the reason why and assistance, including hospitals,
faith is intrinsically “quarens intellec- schools, aged care, relief activities, and so
tum,” as the Fathers say, that is, in forth, especially with respect to the poor.
search of intellection. Understanding, This does not seem so remarkable now—
hence, rational engagement with the we expect that government or some other
priorly given Word, is a constitutive organization will take care of such societal
principle of the Christian faith, which needs—but it was radical in the days of
necessarily spawns theology.7 the Roman Empire. Then society was or-
ganized around patrons: except for the
Theology, in the sense of “talking poor, each person had a patron that he
about God” or “talking about the gods”, is served, and who dispensed favors to him,
not absent from other religions. Homer, in and in turn he was patron of those lower
a sense, was theology for the pagan world; on the social ladder. No one worried about
the Mahabharata discusses religious and anyone except those whom he served, and
philosophical matters in the Hindu con- those who served him. Pagan religion and
text; and of course the Old Testament temples were not geared for social ser-
praises God’s ways and narrates God’s vices. If misfortune befell someone, that
intervention in history, just to cite three was just what the gods desired—no com-
examples. But Christianity made this munity was there to help. Many were at-
need to understand in a systematic and tracted to Christianity because it showed
rational way more urgent, because Jesus love for the downtrodden and unfortunate.
is the Logos. Theology, as a quest for ra- Of course theology does not have the
tional understanding, is unique, “a specifi- same position in the faith as does Scrip-
cally Christian phenomenon which follows ture or other forms of Revelation. As the
from the structure of the faith.”8 This International Theological Commission has
linking of religion and logos was radical, so well stated:
because for the first time it enabled the
full force of “secular” knowledge to be Theology is scientific reflection on the
brought to bear on religious questions, divine revelation which the Church
and showed that ultimately there is no accepts by faith as universal saving
division—truth is one. truth. The sheer fulness and richness
There is another facet of Christianity, of that revelation is too great to be
even more important, that shaped it from grasped by any one theology, and in
the very beginning. “For God so loved the fact gives rise to multiple theologies as
world that he gave his one and only Son, it is received in diverse ways by hu-
that whoever believes in him shall not per- man beings. In its diversity, neverthe-
ish but have eternal life.”9 The notion of less, theology is united in its service of
the one truth of God. The unity of
love is so essential the Christianity that
theology, therefore does not require
without it, the faith would be a mere shell:
uniformity, but rather a single focus
…in the end love sees more than rea- on God’s Word and an explication of
son. Where the light of love shines, its innumerable riches by theologies
the shadows of reason are dispelled; able to dialogue and communicate
with one another. Likewise, the plu-


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 45

rality of theologies should not imply for you were become my helper. And I
fragmentation or discord, but rather entered, and with the eye of my soul
the exploration in myriad ways of (such as it was) saw above the same
God’s one saving truth.11 eye of my soul, above my mind, the
unchangeable light. Not the common
Thus theology is a quest for understand-
light, which all flesh may look upon,
ing, one which is vitally important, but
nor, as it were, a greater one of the
never completely finished or exhausted.
same kind….but different, very differ-
At the outset, we may note one ex- ent from all these. Nor was it above
treme position on the notion of logos, that my mind as oil is above water, nor as
of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza heaven above earth; because above it
was not a Christian theologian by any was, because it made me, and I below
means, but his great work Ethica Ordine it, because I was made by it. He who
Geometrico Demonstrata (1677) attempts knows the truth knows that light; and
to expound a philosophical/ethical sys- he that knows it knows eternity.12
tem, including some doctrines we would
term “theological”, using a strictly deduc- What is thus seen by the mind cannot be
tive method based on the paradigm of Eu- given rigorous logical treatment—the vi-
clidean geometry and incorporating many sion goes far beyond what can be effective-
ideas of Cartesian philosophy. Spinoza ly captured this way—and for this reason
assumed certain axioms and then pro- theology of Augustinian inspiration has
ceeded to deduce conclusions using rigor- always been skeptical of excessive use of
ous logical arguments. This approach, logical deductions when dealing with theo-
had it been widely adopted, would have logical matters.
turned the Logos into an abstract, non- Christian theology of Aristotelian in-
personal mathematical entity quite far fluence has taken a more systematic and
removed from anything in the Bible. logical tack, with the work of St. Thomas
In general Christian theology has tak- Aquinas (1225-1277) being the best-
en a less mathematical approach, and known example. Aquinas’ starting point
traditionally has relied more on Greek was the framework of Aristotelian philoso-
philosophical thought. As such it tends to phy (substance and accident, being, actu-
fall into one of two major categories, in- ality and potentiality, substantial change,
spired either by Plato or Aristotle. St. Au- causality, etc.), and his procedure was to
gustine (354-430) is perhaps the best- start with the basics (existence of God),
known Christian theologian of Platonic and build up theology by carefully carving
(and Neo-Platonic) inspiration. Augustine out small questions and treating them
tells us credo ut intelligam (“I believe in with the methods of disputation common
order to understand”), thus positioning the in European universities of the Middle
logos in a subordinate though still im- Ages. The paradigm for this type of expo-
portant role. For Augustine, the logos sition in Western thought has become
functions as a way to give expression to Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274) Summa
and some understanding of what is “seen” Theologica. St. Thomas starts from the
by the mind; its purpose is not a systemat- general situation prevalent at the time,
ic exposition based on deduction— which was a belief in the God of Abraham
something not found in Augustine’s writ- (whether from the Muslim, Jewish, or
ings. In a manner reminiscent of the Myth Christian traditions). He also grounds his
of the Cave from Book VII of Plato’s Repub- work on what was widely considered the
lic, Augustine tells us: foundation of all secular knowledge at that
time, namely Aristotle’s metaphysics. Un-
…I entered into my inward self, you fortunately much has changed in the last
leading me on; and I was able to do it, 750 years: Aristotle is no longer the un-


46 Thomas B. Fowler

questioned source that he once was; a new human knowing. How do we come to
type of knowledge has emerged that know? Where do we start? What levels of
scarcely existed in St. Thomas’ time, knowing are there? What is our primary
namely empirical science; and the world access to reality? With these questions we
does not so universally acknowledge the immediately confront fundamental prob-
God of Abraham. Recognizing this situa- lems of human knowing and truth. While
tion, Zubiri set out to remake theology and knowledge of God utilizing reason or “log-
in the process had to remake philosophy os” is now and always has been a primary
as well. goal, at least in the Western tradition, this
In Aquinas’ time, there were few athe- does not mean that reason is the first or
ists or agnostics; faith was the norm, best approach to theological knowledge (or
whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. any form of knowledge); and clearly reason
Paganism still existed, but it was only nec- has significant limits when utilized in the-
essary to convince the pagans of the supe- ology. We may be constitutively in a situa-
riority of the notion of one God. Moreover, tion of fides quarens intellectum, as St.
the only real forms of systematically orga- Anselm noted, but that does not mean
nized knowledge were philosophy (mostly that “reason” is a univocal force for such
Greek philosophy), theology, what today understanding. A fundamental limitation
we would call “elementary mathematics,” of Greek thought—and it does not matter
and grammar. The Trivium comprised the whether one leans to Platonism or Aristo-
first three subjects taught in medieval telianism—was its implicit assumption
universities: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. that reason alone—i.e., thinking—about
Logic is part of philosophy, and rhetoric experience could penetrate the secrets of
was more of an art form than systematic nature. Because of this assumption, em-
knowledge. The Quadrivium, consisting of pirical science never really took root in
arithmetic, geometry, music, and astron- Greece, despite the unquestioned abilities
omy, was thus primarily mathematics. of and early steps taken by Greek thinkers
There was nothing comparable to modern such as Eratosthenes (c 276-195 BC) Ar-
science, which now often lays claim to chimedes (c 287-212 BC), and Hipparchos
being an explanation of all things insofar (c. 190-120 BC), among others. This atti-
as they can be explained, thus obviating tude led to the substitution of metaphysics
the need for theology and most of philoso- for what we now call “science”, and to dis-
phy. (Whether this claim is in any way torted views of reason with respect to the-
legitimate is highly questionable, of ology. In particular, it was interpreted in
course.) But there was the need to inte- the West in a particular way, namely that
grate the new secular knowledge of those the first duty of theology was to prove the
days—primarily Aristotelian philosophy— existence of God. This was not the case in
into the intellectual framework of Chris- Eastern theology, with its greater empha-
tian thought and theology, a task carried sis on the deification of man through
out with great skill by medieval philoso- Christ.
phers and theologians. Scholastic philos- Indeed, Zubiri has argued that the
ophy and theology, or just Scholasticism, traditional paradigm of knowledge in the
as it has become known, continued to our Western tradition, based on reason in the
own day, with many famous exponents sense of rational explanation, is incorrect.
including Francisco Suárez (1548-1617), This will be discussed at length below, in
and more recently Etienne Gilson (1884- the section “Philosophical Background”.
1978) and Jacques Maritain (1882-1973). Before delving into that topic, let us first
These divergent views of theology discuss what systematic theology is and
clearly indicate that a critical ingredient why it is needed.
has been missing, namely, an analysis of


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 47

I. What is systematic theology? version of Christianity reserved to, en-

trusted to, or invented by intellectuals.
A systematic theology is a comprehen-
The Faith confessed by the Church is the
sive explanation of theological doctrines
Faith that belongs to all believers.
based on a generally accepted intellectual
Among the subjects typically included
framework. Its purpose is to manifest the
in any Christian systematic theology are
internal coherence of all aspects of the
the following:
Faith,13 and to show how the Faith relates
to other branches of knowledge. In some  Man’s knowledge of God
cases this type of theology exposition also  Existence of God and appropriate
provides a justification or partial justifica- proofs
tion for certain theological doctrines. The  What the sacred is
intellectual framework usually comprises a  The role of Scripture and tradition
number of philosophical assumptions  Basis for and sources of morality
about the world, which are considered  Behavior norms for man individu-
self-evidently true, or at least so incontro- ally and in society
vertible as to form a solid foundation for  Authority and the Church
the theological inferences drawn from  Sacraments
them. These are then combined with  Theological knowledge and its re-
scriptural passages and received tradition lation other knowledge
to yield a comprehensive understanding of
theology. Theology thus provides faith Christian churches differ in their ex-
with both understanding and justification. planations of these subjects, with more
Of course, no intellectual understanding of emphasis on scripture and individual in-
most theological subjects is ever complete; terpretation in Protestant traditions, and
the element of mystery and incomprehen- more on tradition, sacraments, and
sibility is always present. Moreover it is Church authority in others (Catholic, Or-
subject to renewal as new insights come thodox). Some non-Christian religions
from the growth of secular knowledge and also discuss these same subjects in their
the unfolding of history. In the words of systematic theological expositions. In
St. Irenaeus of Lyon (c.133-203), perhaps general, the received intellectual frame-
the first to develop a systematic Christian work is taken as the basis to establish
theology:14 man’s knowledge of God, especially God’s
existence, and then exposition moves to
…that well-grounded system which the sacred, morality, sacraments and rea-
tends to man’s salvation, namely, our sons for accepting Scripture. Once Scrip-
faith; which, having been received ture has been accepted, reasoning based
from the Church, we do preserve, and on the intellectual framework (e.g., causal-
which always, by the Spirit of God, ity) can be used to establish other doc-
renewing its youth, as if it were some trines.
precious deposit in an excellent ves- Undoubtedly the best-known example
sel, causes the vessel itself containing of a systematic theology is, as indicated
it to renew its youth also. For this gift above, the Summa Theologica (1265-1274)
of God has been entrusted to the of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). In
Church, as breath was to the first
this great work, St. Thomas takes as his
created man, for this purpose, that all
starting point (intellectual framework) the
the members receiving it may be vivi-
philosophy of Aristotle, together with other
fied…[Italics added]15
common knowledge of the time. On this
St. Irenaeus also noted against the Gnos- basis, in a logical, precise manner, he de-
tics of his time—and this is an ever- velops his theological/philosophical sys-
present danger—that there is no superior tem, beginning with the existence and


48 Thomas B. Fowler

nature of God, and ranging over the sac- cation of intelligence used by St. Thomas,
raments and moral issues. and of course because ratio (reason) is our
Prior to embarking on a discussion of primary access to reality, and (intellectual-
St. Thomas’ theology, it is useful to exam- ly at least) to God, rational proofs of God’s
ine the underlying assumptions of that existence should thus be the starting point
theology, and most others in the Western of any systematic theology. God then be-
tradition. These assumptions are so deep- comes a reality-object which is “out there”.
rooted that rarely is any thought given to Much of Medieval theological effort (and
them; they are considered so self-evidently theological effort up to our own day) was
true that none is really needed. The first devoted to such proofs, such as the five
assumption is that it is reason—rational proofs of St. Thomas, as well as St. An-
thought—which puts us into contact with selm’s famous ontological argument, and
reality. Such rational thought may be Scotus’ proof in De Primo Principio, based
philosophy, science, or something else; on the notions of possible and actual.
but in every case, without this accom- St. Thomas also utilized other Aristo-
plishment, we would not be in contact telian notions. Among them is the idea
with reality. This view naturally leads to that things in the world are separable and
the belief that rational proofs of the exist- act upon each other; this is the idea of
ence of God are the first step in knowledge substance. With respect to change, or
of God and thus in any theology. The sec- movement, he adopts Aristotle’s notion
ond assumption is that reality is made up that movement is a state of the moving
of discrete things or entities, which inter- thing, which consists in passing from po-
act in various ways. They may be souls, tency to act. He also adopts Aristotle’s
material bodies, monads, atoms, quarks, basic physics, according to which sub-
or something else; but in every case, they stantial change (e.g., wood burning to ash
are entities which are “out there” and in a fire) is the result of something losing
which we have to understand. Knowing its substantial form, going to prime mat-
about reality is thus knowing about these ter, and then back up again with a new
things and how they work. Zubiri refers to substantial form. He accepts Aristotle’s
the first belief as the logification of know- (and the Greeks’) view that reason, unaid-
ing and the second as the entification of ed, can penetrate to the truths about how
reality. He rejects both, and this leads to the world works. Perhaps most important
a radically different systematic theology. for his theology, St. Thomas adopts Aristo-
To return now to St. Thomas, we note tle’s reasoning about causality, together
that St. Thomas accepts Aristotle’s philo- with some of the ideas from the Arabic
sophical principles as more or less as syn- philosophers about the productive power
onymous with reason itself. Perhaps the of causes. St. Thomas believes that caus-
most important of these principles—or es are “out there”, that we can perceive
better, underlying assumptions—is the them, and that, indeed, everything that
notion of sensible intelligence. This para- happens is caused by something. Causali-
digm of knowing is the belief that all ty in this strong sense is used by St.
knowledge originates through the senses, Thomas throughout his philosophy and
which require the mind (reason) to assem- theology; in particular, it plays a key role
ble sense data into something that pro- in the second of his famous five proofs of
vides us with access to reality. According the existence of God,16 and in his explica-
to this paradigm, the senses deliver con- tion of the Sacraments and sacramental
fused content to the intelligence, which efficacy.
then figures out or reconstructs reality. In many ways, causality is the key
The Scholastics said, nihil est in intellectu metaphysical notion for both Aristotle and
quod prius non fuerit in sensu nisi ipse St. Thomas, because it is the basis of
intellectus. This is the version of the logifi- change in the world and at the same time


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 49

our knowledge of it. St. Thomas’ principal is a special case of St. Thomas’. St.
contribution to the theory of causality has Thomas also utilizes other vocabulary and
to do with creation ex nihilo, which is a concepts of Aristotle’s metaphysics, in-
fact of Revelation and which Aristotle nev- cluding the notion of change as reduction
er considered. Aristotle’s definition of effi- from potency to act (first proof), the notion
cient causality requires that one thing act of separable substances (first proof), cer-
on another, already existing thing, to bring tain ideas about possibility and necessity
it from potency to act. St. Thomas basi- (third proof), distinct degrees of being and
cally generalizes the notion of efficient notion that higher cannot come from lower
causality to mean contributing being to, or (fourth proof), and convergence of cosmos
contributing to the being or becoming of toward an end (fifth proof). A detailed dis-
something else. Or in other words, effi- cussion of causality may be found in Ap-
cient causality in the sense of creation pendix A, and further discussion of Aqui-
does not refer to motion and applies to the nas’ proofs is given in Chapter 3. Table 1
entire being of the effect, whereas ordinary summarizes the differences between Aqui-
efficient causality has to do with motion nas’ theology and that based on Zubiri’s
and applies to only part of the being of the philosophy:
effect.17 Thus Aristotle’s efficient causality

Theology area St. Thomas Zubiri

Philosophical framework for Vocabulary and concepts of Sentient Intelligence
theology Aristotle’s metaphysics
Nature of change Passing from potency to act Not necessarily state of chang-
ing thing
Nature of things Separable substances Reality is open; no division into
substances except human per-
Nature of causality Deterministic, real production of Functionality
effects, uniform, every effect
must have cause
Power of real [mixed with causality] Dominance of real
God’s Existence Five proofs based on Aristoteli- Religation
an metaphysics
Sacramental efficacy Causality Power of the Real
Nature of Man Racional animal Reality-conscious animal
Basis of Church Reality by postulation
Basis of man’s knowledge Sensible intelligence Sentient intelligence
Man’s contact with reality Rational Sentient
Table 1. Comparison of Systematic Theology based on St. Thomas and on Zubiri

The differences between St. Thomas’ ries, “All men by nature desire to know.”
and Zubiri’s outlooks and philosophies This natural curiosity—really a thirst—
suggest that a significantly new approach applies to knowledge about God and world
to theology is required. as well. It is reflected in creation stories
and myths which appear in every culture,
II Why is Systematic Theology Needed?
and in the medieval expression attributed
Aristotle begins his metaphysics with to St. Anselm, fides quarens intellectum,
a phrase that has echoed down the centu- faith seeking understanding. Faith pro-


50 Thomas B. Fowler

vides basic knowledge about God, moral their relationship to Christianity,

behavior, and humanity’s origin and place and eucumenical concerns.
in the world. But most people seek more,
This is a rather long list, and one
and so there is a need to elaborate this
which requires the best efforts of extreme-
basic knowledge about God and the world ly able thinkers over long periods of time.
in order to tell a more complete, and per- Furthermore, as noted above, the work is
haps a more compelling story about our always incomplete, since the march of
present situation, to take into account history and the progress of science con-
secular knowledge, and in addition, to give tinue, along with further reflection on sa-
moral guidance about contemporary prob- cred texts and earlier theological writings.
lems that sacred writings do not address. But the key point is that theology
And all of this must be done in a coherent must be relevant to current circumstances.
manner based on a justifiable, self-evident This does not mean that theology just be-
philosophical basis. Thus there is a need comes a byword for contemporary beliefs,
for a systematization of knowledge about and changes accordingly over time. In-
matters relating to God, the world, and deed, one of its main functions is precisely
human conduct, one which can be updat- to challenge these beliefs. Rather, it
ed regularly. In Western Civilization, this means that theology must engage the con-
inevitably takes the form of rational expo- temporary world and show how its subject
sition, because of the priviledged place matter is not only relevant to that world,
that rational knowledge has in our cul- but actually essential to its understanding
ture. Thus there are the following subject of reality and its proper functioning. In
areas, of which our innate desire to know today’s world (early 21st century), theology
calls for an explanation: seems remote from most people’s
 Explain and elaborate the creation thoughts, and few believe that it has much
story relevance to daily life. This problem goes
beyond systematic theology, of course; but
 Give rational and/or other justifi-
it clearly reveals that theology has failed in
cation for the existence of God
its two objectives. Yet the openings are
 Explain more about God (infinite, clearly visible: the financial crisis that be-
infinitely powerful, all-knowing, gan in 2008 had deep roots in a moral
etc.) failure, the indebtedness of peoples and
 Expand moral guidance from sa- nation states has moral as well as eco-
cred writings to cover all aspects nomic roots, and the policies of those na-
of modern life, including political tion states to deal with contemporary
organization problems also cries out for moral guid-
 Explain and elaborate with ration- ance—all of which must be grounded in a
al discussion key beliefs such as solid theology.
sacraments Traditionally theology has been called
“The Queen of the Sciences”, indicative of
 Explain relationship of secular
a normative function. Unfortunately today
knowledge (such as science) with
“science” refers almost exclusively to em-
knowledge stemming from sacred
writings, tradition, fathers of the pirical sciences such as physics, chemis-
church, and other sources try, and biology. Few in these sciences
would consider that theology (or philoso-
 Discuss the nature of mystical phy) exerts any real normative function, or
theology, its scope and limits recognize any such pretension. The Gali-
 Discuss other confessions and leo affair still looms large in this context,
other religions, with respect to and is invoked whenever theologians stray
their beliefs (correct or incorrect), too far into what is regarded as the exclu-


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 51

sive territory of science. This is a signifi- tween faith and what might be termed
cant issue, in light of the influence of sci- “secular knowledge”. Human understand-
ence in today’s environment, and the pres- ing (primarily philosophy) underpins the-
tige that science enjoys: what role does ology by assuring us that our theological
theology have with respect to knowledge knowledge is sound, while at the same
such as science? What is the nature of time showing its limits—limits which are
the boundaries between science, theology, transcended by faith and by mystical ex-
and philosophy? Should theology seek to perience, for example.
imitate or emulate empirical science? “Faith” is a frequently used word, and
Continuing Pope Benedict’s remarks: has several related definitions. A common
dictionary definition is “something that is
[For St. Bonaventure there was a]
believed, especially with strong convic-
despotism of reason, when it becomes
tion”.18 Thus one can have faith in democ-
supreme judge of all things. This use
racy, capitalism, communism, or some
of reason is certainly impossible in the
context of the faith because it seeks to other politico-economic system. A related
submit God to a process of experi- definition is “allegiance to duty or a per-
mental trial. In our own time empiri- son, loyalty”; thus one can have faith in
cal reason appears as the only de- one’s leaders, and specifically, belief that
claredly scientific form of rationality. they can do what they are expected to do
... It has led to great achievements, (or what you would like them to do). In
and no-one would seriously wish to this sense, “faith” really means “confi-
deny that it is just and necessary as a dence”. In religious contexts, the diction-
way to understand nature and the ary defines faith as “belief and trust in and
laws of nature. Nonetheless there is a loyalty to God”, which is very common in
limit to such a use of reason. God is the Old Testament, for example, “You are
not an object of human experimenta- the LORD God, who chose Abram and
tion. brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans
and named him Abraham. You found his
In other words, there are limits to heart faithful to you, and you made a cov-
what reasoning based on experimental enant with him to give to his descendants
methods can achieve. Curiously, even the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amo-
science itself is encountering these limits. rites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites.
Current theories in high-energy physics, You have kept your promise because you
such as Supersymmetry and String Theory are righteous.”19 In the Abrahamic tradi-
have either failed to make experimentally tions, faith thus involves a belief in a per-
testable predictions, or have claimed that sonal deity, one who spoke to Moses. An-
such predictions are probably not possi- other definition is “firm belief in something
ble. for which there is no proof”, though the
connotative meaning of this definition de-
III. Relationship Among Faith, Theolo-
pends heavily on what one intends by the
gy, and Understanding
phrase “no proof”.
Clearly any type of systematic theolo- The New Testament moves more in
gy involves faith (for which we seek under- the direction of the last definition, though
standing), theology (in the etymological keeping emphasis on belief and trust in
sense of “knowledge of God”), and human and loyalty to God. Jesus frequently
understanding (what can we know and comments on faith or its absence: “Jesus
how do we know it). The basic premiss is turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daugh-
that faith gives the essential (but perhaps ter,’ he said, ‘your faith has healed you.’
minimal) knowledge of what is necessary And the woman was healed at that mo-
for salvation, while theology is an expan- ment.”20 “…Because you have so little
sion of that knowledge and a bridge be- faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as


52 Thomas B. Fowler

small as a mustard seed, you can say to thing to be believed by one person, i.e., an
this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ object of faith for him, but actually seen
and it will move. Nothing will be impossi- (or been seen) by someone else. St. Thom-
ble for you.”21 St. Paul often speaks of as uses the examples of the Trinity and
faith in remarks such as, “And if Christ angels; but even in our world we have faith
has not been raised, your faith is futile; (in this sense) in many things we have not
you are still in your sins.”22, “They must seen, but that others have (such as the
keep hold of the deep truths of the faith Great Pyramid of Egypt or the surface of
with a clear conscience.”23 And especially the moon. In religious contexts, however,
his famous remark in Hebrews chapter 11: “faith” refers to belief that something ex-
“And what is faith? Faith gives substance ists, something which we as living humans
to our hopes, and makes us certain of real- have not seen or experienced, but expect
ities we do not see.”24 In all cases there is to see or experience at some point, such as
implied the notion that faith will cause one God, heaven, etc.
to act in certain ways; it is not a neutral With respect to religious faith, it is not
belief: “You foolish person, do you want simply a belief in just anything that has
evidence that faith without deeds is use- not been seen or experienced, such as
less.”25 This connection with action arises quarks; rather, it is a belief—confidence—
because the realities (such as God) about in something that has transcendence and
which we are made certain by faith eo ipso power over us and the world, something to
impose obligations upon us. That is, if which we owe respect and obedience. Je-
God exists, we must act in certain ways or sus explicitly brings in the notion of power
risk punishment. In turn, we have expec- when answering the High Priest at his
tations of them, unrealistic perhaps at trial, “You shall see the Son of Man at the
times, but expectations nonetheless—this right hand of the power” (Mt. 26:64).
was one of the great themes of the Old Similarly, when confronting Pilate, Jesus
Testament. Obviously, this was a charac- says, “You would have no power over me if
teristic of pagan belief everywhere— it were not given to you from above.” (Jn
witness the rituals and sacrifices that all 19:11). The notion of power—which re-
such religions had, on all continents, and curs throughout the Bible—is key to un-
as such it is a general characteristic of derstanding faith. Power in the Bible is
religious faith. In fact it touches a key only related in an analogical way to the
notion, that of the power of the real, which notion of power in physics, namely energy
is a fundamental part of our experience. per unit time (e.g., 1 watt = 1 joule per
Today it is common to hear expres- second), or amount of work that can be
sions such as, “He puts his faith in sci- done in a given time (1 horsepower = 746
ence” or “He puts his faith in modern med- watts). Power in the Bible does concern
icine”. The meaning of these expressions the ability to do things, but not in the
is fairly clear: the person believes that same sense as in physics. Rather, it does
science or medicine is the (or a) source of so in a sense that transcends such ability,
knowledge, i.e., of truth, and such and reaches to something more funda-
knowledge can be used to achieve desired mental, namely reality in a fontanal sense.
results in the world. Jesus “seated at the right hand of the
St. Thomas emphasizes that faith is Power” captures the triple notions of tran-
not of what is seen, nor of what is known scendence, reality, and fontanality.
through science. Quoting St. Gregory, By implication there is an element of
who says, “when a thing is manifest, it is fear involved. But we do not merely as-
the object, not of faith, but of perception,” sent to the existence of such a transcend-
he points out that “there can be no faith ent thing; we effectively surrender our-
about things which are an object of sci- selves to it, at least in the Abrahamic reli-
ence”. It is nonetheless possible for some- gions: “Faith is not assent to a judgment,


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 53

but surrender to a personal reality.”26 logical sense, but they are blind in the
Moreover, this faith involves a belief in spiritual sense, in the sense of faith. The
truth; while it is possible to believe things man born blind not only gains sight in the
(theories, assertions) that are not true, phenomenological sense, but also begins
this is not considered desirable and no one to see with the light of faith.
would even want to have faith in what is Seeing is also important in mystical
untrue. But what is truth in this context? experiences, and in apparitions of the Vir-
Not the truth of a judgement, or a testi- gin. At Lourdes, Bernadette could see the
mony, or what a person says or does. Virgin, but the crowd around her could
Truth is what the “person himself [is] qua not. Similarly at Fatima, the children
reality. Hence, faith is, intrinsically and at could see the Virgin but the crowd only
one and the same time, loving and believ- saw unusual fluttering of leaves on the
ing…faith is the surrender to a personal holm oak tree above which she appeared.
reality qua true.” 27 As these examples indicate, human beings
Faith also involves seeing, as in the are capable of seeing in ways that go far
expression, “seeing with the eyes of faith”. beyond day-to-day experience, and that
“Seeing” is a metaphor that recurs reality itself is not just a zone of things.
throughout the Old and New Testaments. Therefore religious faith in the Abra-
Seeing means that we are able to under- hamic traditions involves the following
stand at a deeper level, that we gain elements:
knowledge of matters that goes beyond 1. Transcendence
immediate phenomenological experience. 2. Power
As Pope Benedict has written:
3. Respect
When we put our confidence in what 4. Fear
Jesus sees and believe in his word, we 5. Obedience
are not in fact moving around in total
6. Truth
darkness. The good news of Jesus
corresponds to an interior expectation 7. Surrender
in our heart; it corresponds to an in- 8. Love
ternal light in our being that reaches 9. Reality
out to the truth of God. Certainly, we 10. Personal reality
are before all else believers “at second 11. Seeing beyond the ordinary
hand”. But St. Thomas is right to de-
scribe faith as a process, as an interi- Note that in other religious traditions,
or path, when he writes: “The light of such as Buddhism, several of these ele-
faith leads us to see”.28 ments are absent or greatly attenuated.
For Buddhism, they are: fear, surrender,
He refers to the episode of the Samaritan love, and personal reality. For Deism,
woman (John 4:4-42), in which the woman absent are respect, fear, obedience, sur-
believes because of what Jesus tells her, render, love, and personal reality.
and then goes to her village and spreads We can synthesize these various
the news. The villagers welcome Jesus meanings of faith in the context of Christi-
and after their experience with him, tell anity by first enumerating the salient
the woman that they believe not because points:
of the woman’s words, but because of their
direct encounter with Jesus. In such a 1. Belief in realities not yet seen or di-
living encounter, “faith is transformed into rectly perceivable by the senses,
‘knowledge’.”29 The parable of the man which simultaneously are trans-
born blind (John 9:1-41) also deals with cendent and impose obligations up-
seeing and blindness on multiple levels— on us.
the Pharisees can see, in the phenomeno- 2. Trust in and loyalty to God


54 Thomas B. Fowler

3. Belief in God and God’s ability and experience of the power of the real, and (2)
desire to use His power to help us our direct contact with reality through our
4. Surrender most basic way of knowing, what Zubiri
calls sentient intelligence. From there a
5. Truth
complete development of knowing at all
We now turn to a more detailed dis- levels can be inferred—and knowing at the
cussion of the philosophical background level of reason is but one of three levels. A
needed for a grasp of theology. more complete understanding of critical
concepts such as causality and essence
V. Philosophical Background for Theol- follow, as does much clarified notions of
ogy reality and truth. In addition, it is possi-
ble to develop the notion of personhood
Any discussion of theology, and any and all of its attendant concepts from our
theology, must start from a framework of direct experience of reality. Thus, Zubiri’s
knowledge. This knowledge includes data philosophy, even at the outset, is linked
about the world, truths known, and proper intimately to experience, truth, and reali-
methods of reasoning, because theology is ty—three key aspects of Christianity. Let
not a literary creation, but elaborated us explore Zubiri’s philosophy in greater
knowledge based on these sources. “Prop- depth, and examine its connection to the-
er methods of reasoning” comprises logical ology.
arguments such as induction, deduction,
and inference to the best explanation. It V.1 Poles of Zubiri’s Thought
goes considerably beyond traditional syllo- Roughly speaking, there are two poles
gistic logic, which is unable to show the of Zubiri’s thought: (1) that which is most
validity of even simple arguments such as radical in Aristotle, his conception of es-
“All horses are animals, therefore all heads sence as the tØ tˆ Çn einai, what makes a
of horses are heads of animals”. “Truths thing be what it is; and (2) the phenome-
known” refers to both revelation and nological concept of reality. His own radi-
truths that can be known through philos- cal innovation was to weave these two into
ophy, and for this reason all theology ul- a unified whole via the new concept of
timately involves a philosophical under- sentient intellection. But Zubiri radically
pinning, which gives us knowledge about rethinks both Aristotle’s and the phenom-
the world, about knowledge itself, and enologists’ legacies; so his concept of es-
about transcendental matters, including sence, his concept of reality, and his con-
God, insofar as these can be known with- cept of intelligence differ in many respects
out the aid of revelation. The solidity of from the originals.
the theology ultimately is a function of the (1) Zubiri points out that Aristotle be-
solidity of the philosophical framework. gins by conceiving of essence as that
St. Thomas built his theology on the phi- which makes a thing what it is, in the
losophy of Aristotle, which, as we have most radical sense. Later, however, Aris-
seen, has a number of serious problems totle links his metaphysics with his epis-
that have come to light as a result of the temology by claiming that essence is the
progress of knowledge in the last seven physical correlate of the definition (of a
centuries. thing). Knowledge is then of essences via
Therefore we must start with a radi- definition in terms of genus and species;
cally different philosophical framework, the most famous example is of course
and thus our theology is radically different “man is a rational animal”. Zubiri com-
than what is commonly encountered. ments:
First it starts with two key aspects of hu-
man experience that are usually ignored or When the essence is taken as the real
considered as secondary: (1) our direct correlate of the definition, the least


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 55

that must be said is that it is a ques- to the second pole of Zubiri’s thought:
tion of a very indirect way of arriving Phenomenology.
at things. For…instead of going directly (2) Zubiri takes three critical ideas
to reality and asking what in it may be from phenomenology (Husserl, Ortega y
its essence, one takes the roundabout Gasset, and Heidegger). First is a certain
way of passing through the definition. way or “idea” of philosophy. In particular,
he accepts that phenomenology has
For Zubiri, this is not merely a rounda- opened a new path and deepened our un-
bout way, but something worse: derstanding of things by recognizing that it
is necessary to position philosophy at a
…it is a roundabout way which rests new and more radical level than that of
on an enormously problematic pre- classical realism or of modern idealism
supposition, namely, that the essen- (primarily Hegel).32 This also becomes the
tial element of every thing is neces- basis for Zubiri’s understanding of the
sarily definable; and this is more than relationship of science and philosophy.
problematical.31 Secondly, he accepts that philosophy
In fact, Zubiri believes, the essence in gen- must start with its own territory, that of
eral cannot be defined in genus-species “mere immediate description of the act of
form, and may not be expressible in ordi- thinking”. But for him, the radical philo-
nary language at all. He believes that es- sophical problem is not that proclaimed by
sences—in the radical sense of determin- the phenomenologists: not Husserl’s “phe-
ing what a thing is, and thus how it will nomenological consciousness”, not Hei-
behave, what its characteristics are, and degger’s “comprehension of being”, not
so forth—can be determined only with Ortega’s “life”, but rather the “apprehen-
great difficulty; and much of science is sion of reality”. He believes that philoso-
dedicated to this task. Specifically, Zubiri phy must start from the fundamental fact
believes that it is necessary to go back to of experience, that we are installed in real-
Aristotle’s original idea of essence as the ity, however modestly, and that our most
fundamental determinant of a thing’s na- basic experiences, what we perceive of the
ture, what makes it to be what it is, and world (colors, sounds, people, etc.) are
expand on this concept in the light of real. Without this basis—and despite the
modern science. fact that knowledge built upon it can at
But this critique indicates that there times be in error—there would be no other
is a deep realist strain to Zubiri’s thought, knowledge either, including science.
a belief that we can, in some ultimate However, at the most fundamental level,
sense, grasp reality. The problem arises in that of direct apprehension of reality, there
connection with our belief that what we is no possibility of error; only knowledge
perceive is also real—a belief upon which built upon this foundation, involving as it
we act in living out our lives. This com- does logos and reason, can be in error.
pels Zubiri to make an extremely im- Zubiri points out that it makes sense to
portant distinction with respect to reality: speak of error only because we can—and
between reality in apprehension (which he do—achieve truth.33
terms ‘reity’), and reality of what things But because the world discovered to
are beyond sensing (true reality, realidad us by science is quite different from our
verdadera). Zubiri believes that the failure ordinary experience (electromagnetic
of past philosophers to distinguish these, waves and photons instead of colors,
and consequently, their failure to recog- quarks and other strange particles instead
nize that they refer to different stages of of solid matter, and so forth), a critical
intellection, is at the root of many grave problem arises which thrusts Zubiri to-
errors and paradoxes. This leads directly wards a radical rethinking of the notion of


56 Thomas B. Fowler

reality. This is one of the main themes of the principal step in his restructuring of
Sentient Intelligence. philosophy. This task goes far beyond any
The third idea—perhaps ‘inspiration’ type of Kantian critique—something that
is a better term—which Zubiri draws from Zubiri believes can only come after we
phenomenology has to do with his radical- have analyzed what human knowledge is,
ly changed concept of reality. For Zubiri, and how we apprehend. For Zubiri, per-
reality is a formality, not a zone of things ception of reality begins with the sensing
as in classical philosophy: process, but he rejects the paradigm of
classical philosophy, which starts from
In the first place, the idea of reality
opposition between sensing and intelli-
does not formally designate a zone or
gence. According to this paradigm, the
class of things, but only a formality,
senses deliver confused content to the
reity or “thingness”. It is that formality
by which what is sentiently appre- intelligence, which then figures out or re-
hended is presented to me not as the constructs reality. As we discussed earli-
effect of something beyond what is er, the Scholastics’ motto was nihil est in
apprehended, but as being in itself intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu nisi
something “in its own right”, some- ipse intellectus. This is sensible intelli-
thing de suyo; for example, not only gence, and according to Zubiri, the entire
“warming” but “being” warm. This paradigm is radically false.
formality is the physical and real Zubiri’s point of departure for his re-
character of the otherness of what is thinking of this problem is his observation
sentiently apprehended in my sentient that in our experience of the world we
intellection.34 have direct contact with reality—we do not
have to “get to” reality through some com-
This conception of reality is, so to speak, a plicated chain of reasoning based on sense
radical “paradigm shift”, because it means data—the epistemological problem that
that there are multiple types of reality and Western philosophy never solved. The
that many of the old problems associated things we perceive: colors, sounds, sights,
with reality are in fact pseudo-problems. are real in some extremely fundamental
Zubiri notes that sense that cannot be overridden by subse-
The reality of a material thing is not quent reasoning or analysis. That is, there
identical with the reality of a person, is associated with perception an over-
the reality of society, the reality of the whelming impression of its veracity, a type
moral, etc.; nor is the reality of my of “guarantee” which accompanies it, that
own inner life identical to that of other says to us, “What you apprehend is reality,
realities. But on the other hand, not a cinema, not a dream.” This of
however different these modes of reali- course is exactly what Kant thought im-
ty may be, they are always reity, i.e., possible, but which has always been the
formality de suyo. experience of mystics such as St. Teresa of
Ávila—Zubiri’s “great friend”, according to
Much of Zubiri’s great work Sentient Intel-
his wife.
ligence is devoted to analyzing the process
Implied here are two separate aspects
of intelligence, and explaining how its
of perception: first, what the apprehension
three stages (primordial apprehension,
is of, e.g. a tree or a piece of green paper,
logos, and reason) unfold and yield
and second, its self-guaranteeing charac-
knowledge, including scientific knowledge.
teristic of reality. This link to reality must
V.2 Sentient Intellection: Direct Con- be the cornerstone of any theory of the
tact with Reality intelligence:
Zubiri seeks to reestablish in a radical By virtue of its formal nature, intellec-
fashion the basis for human knowledge, as tion is apprehension of reality in and


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 57

by itself. This in a The union of content and formality of

radical sense an apprehension of the reality gives rise to the process of knowing
real which has its own characteris- which unfolds logically if not chronologi-
tics....Intellection is formally direct cally in three modes or phases:
apprehension of the real—not via rep-
resentations nor images. It is an im-  Primordial apprehension of reality (or
mediate apprehension of the real, not basic, direct installation in reality, giving
founded in inferences, reasoning pro- us pure and simple reality)
cesses, or anything of that nature. It  Logos (explanation of what something is
is a unitary apprehension. The unity vis à vis other things, or what the real of
of these three moments is what makes primordial apprehension is in reality)
what is apprehended to be appre-  Reason (or ratio, methodological explana-
hended in and by itself.35 tion of what things are and why they are,
Thus what we have is a fully integrated as in done in science, for example)
process with no distinction between sens- This process, shown schematically in
ing and apprehension. Zubiri terms this Figure 1, is mediated by what Zubiri calls
sensible apprehension of reality. The fun- the ‘field’ of reality. The reality field con-
damental nature of human intellection can cept is loosely based on the field concept
be stated quite simply: “actualization of from physics, such as the gravitational
the real in sentient intellection”.36 This field, where a body exists “by itself”, so to
actualization of the real Zubiri calls “pri- speak; but also by virtue of its existence,
mordial apprehension”; it is the basis for creates a field around itself through which
all other knowledge, including science, it interacts with other bodies. The two are
theology, and other higher forms. Primor- inseparable and should be considered as
dial apprehension is not these types of different aspects of the same reality. So in
knowledge, but is essential to them be- the case of the field of reality, a thing has
cause otherwise they would not be reality- an individual moment and a field moment.
based. The fact that we have direct con- The individual moment Zubiri refers to as
tact with reality will be important for cer- the thing existing “by itself” or “of itself”;
tain theological questions. de suyo is the technical term he employs.
There are three moments of the actu- The “field moment” implies that things
alization of the real: cannot be fully understood in isolation.
 affection of the sentient being by what is This is in stark contrast to the notion of
sensed (the noetic). essence in classical philosophy.
Roughly speaking, primordial appre-
 otherness which is presentation of some-
hension installs us in reality and delivers
thing other, a “note”, nota (from Latin
things to us in their individual and field
nosco, related to Greek gignosco, “to
moments; logos deals with things in the
know”, and noein, “to think”; hence the
field, how they relate to each other; and
reason tells us what they are in the sense
 force of imposition of the note upon the of methodological explanation. A simple
sentient being (the noergic). example may serve to illustrate the basic
Otherness consists of two moments, ideas. A piece of green paper is perceived.
only the first of which has received any It is apprehended as something real in
attention heretofore: content (what the primordial apprehension; both the paper
apprehension is of) and formality (how it is and the greenness are apprehended as
delivered to us). Formality may be either real, in accordance with our normal beliefs
formality of stimulation, in the case of about what we apprehend. (This point
animals, or formality of reality, in the case about the reality of the color green is ex-
of man. tremely important, because Zubiri believes


58 Thomas B. Fowler

that the implicit denial of the reality of, them by modern science is a great scan-
say, colors, and the systematic ignoring of dal.)

Arousal Tonic Response


Impressive apprehension
of reality

Real Otherness Force of imposition

affection of reality of reality
(Through this, (Through this, (Through this,
human intel- what is appre- reality is ratified as
lection is hended is real) truth, imposed on us
sentient) by reality itself

Content Formality

Reality (man) Stimulation (animals)


(Modes of
sentient Logos


Figure 1
Sentient Intelligence in Zubiri’s Philosophy

As yet, however, we may not know ence. In turn, reason via science explains
how to name the color, for example, or the green as electromagnetic energy of a
what the material is, or what to call its certain wavelength, or photons of a certain
shape. That task is the function of the energy in accordance with Einstein’s rela-
logos, which relates what has been appre- tion E=h. That is, the color green is the
hended to other things known and named photons as sensed; there are not two reali-
from previous experience; for example, ties. The characteristics of the three
other colors or shades of colors associated phases may be explained in more detail as
with greenness. Likewise, with respect to follows:
the material in which the green inheres,
we would associate it with paper, wood, or  Primordial apprehension of reality is the
other things known from previous experi- basic, direct installation in reality, giving


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 59

us pure and simple reality. This is what is the highest level of understanding; it
one gets first, and is the basis on which encompasses all of our ways of under-
all subsequent understanding is based. standing our environment. One natural-
Perhaps it can most be easily understood ly thinks of science, of course; but long
if one thinks of a baby, which has only before science as we know it existed,
this apprehension: the baby perceives people sought explanations of things.
the real world around it, but as a conge- And they found them in myths, legends,
ries of sounds, colors, etc., which are re- plays, poetry, art, and music—which are
al, but as yet undifferentiated into chairs, indeed examples of reason in the most
walls, spoken words, etc. It is richest general sense: they all seek to tell us
with respect to the real, poorest with re- something about reality. Later, of
spect to specific determination (ulterior course, came philosophy and science;
modes augment determination, but di- but no single way of access to reality, in
minish richness). In it, reality is not ex- this sense, is exhaustive: all have a role.
hausted with respect to its content, but Reason, for Zubiri, does not consist in
given in an unspecific ambient trans- going to reality, but in going from field
cending the content. This transcendence reality toward worldly reality, toward field
is strictly sensed, not inferred, even for reality in depth. If one likes, the field is
the baby. Primordial apprehension is the the system of the sensed real, and the
basis for the ulterior or logically subse- world, the object of reason, is the system
quent modes. of the real as a form of reality. That is,
the whole world of the rationally intellec-
 Logos (explanation of what something is tively known is the unique and true ex-
vis à vis other things, or as Zubiri ex- planation of field reality.
presses it, what the real of primordial
In Zubiri’s word’s, reason is “measur-
apprehension is in reality). This is the
ing intellection of the real in depth”.37
second step: differentiate things, give
There are two moments of reason to be
them names, and understand them in re-
distinguished (1) intellection in depth, e.g.,
lation to each other. As a baby gets old-
electromagnetic theory is intellection in
er, this is what he does: he learns to
depth of color;38 (2) its character as meas-
make out things in his environment, and
he learns what their names are, eventu- uring, in the most general sense, akin to
ally learning to speak and communicate the notion of measure in advanced math-
with others verbally. This stage involves ematics (functional analysis). For exam-
a “stepping back” from direct contact ple, prior to the twentieth century, materi-
with reality in primordial apprehension al things were assimilated to the notion of
in order to organize it. The logos is what “body”; that was the measure of all materi-
enables us to know what a thing, appre- al things. But with the development of
hended as real in sentient intellection, is quantum mechanics, a new conception of
in reality (a technical term, meaning what material things was forced upon science,
something is in relation to one’s other one which is different from the traditional
knowledge). It utilizes the notion of the notion of “body”. The canon of real things
“field of reality”. The reality field is a was thus enlarged, so that the measure of
concept loosely based on field concept of something is no longer necessarily that of
physics: a body exists “by itself” but by “body”. (Zubiri himself will go on to en-
virtue of its existence, creates field large it further, pointing out that person-
around itself through which it interacts hood is another type of reality distinct
with other bodies. from “body” or other material things).
Measuring, in this sense, and the corre-
 Reason (or ratio, methodological explana- sponding canon of reality, are both dy-
tion of what things are and why they are, namic and are a key element in Zubiri’s
as is done in science, for example). This quest to avoid the problems and failures of


60 Thomas B. Fowler

past philosophies based on static and un- at the level of primordial apprehension.
changing conceptions of reality. Though poorest in specific detail, it is
It is important to understand that for richest in raw content, as illustrated in
Zubiri, our primary contact with reality is Figure 2.

Richness of
of content

Logos Reason

Figure 2. Three levels of sentient intelligence

This means that Zubiri has, in an down. Our fundamental source of

even more radical way than Kant, made knowledge about the world is our direct
his own “Copernican Revolution”, because contact with it, not the highest level of our
in Zubiri’s thought, the traditional ground- intelligence. This is illustrated in Figure 3.
ing of knowing has been turned upside

“Logification “Entification Logos not pri- Reality broader

of intelligence” of reality” mary way of than being
contact with
Reality reality Being
Intelligence Logos
grounds grounds

Logos Being Intelligence Reality

Concipient Intelligence Sentient Intelligence

Figure 3. Zubiri’s “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 61

V.3 Reality tact with reality, but not with all reality.
Given Zubiri’s radically new approach Rather, it leaves us open to all reality.
to philosophy, and his analysis of intelli- This is openness to the world. All things
gence as sentient, it is not surprising that have a unity with respect to each other
his concept of reality is quite different from which is what constitutes the world.
that of previous philosophy as well. As Zubiri believes that reality is fundamental-
mentioned above, he rejects the idea of ly open, and therefore not capturable in
reality as a “zone of things”, usually con- any human formula. This openness is
ceived as “out there” beyond the mind, and intimately related to transcendentality:
replaces it with a more general notion,
...reality as reality is constitutively
that of formality. “Reality is formality”, he
open, is transcendentally open. By
says over and over, and by this he means
virtue of this openness, reality is a
that reality is the de suyo, the “in its own
formality in accordance with which
right”; it is not the content of some im-
nothing is real except as open to other
pression. Anything which is “in its own
realities and even to the reality of it-
right” is real. This de suyo, the formality
self. That is, every reality is constitu-
of reality, is how the content is delivered to tively respective qua reality. 39
us. Our brains—Zubiri refers to them as
organs of formalization—are wired to per- Reality must not be considered as some
ceive reality, to perceive directly the “in its transcendental concept, or even as a con-
own right” character. It does not emerge cept which is somehow realized in all real
as the result of some reasoning process things:
working on the content; it is delivered to-
…rather, it is a real and physical mo-
gether with the content in primordial ap-
ment, i.e., transcendentality is just the
openness of the real qua real....The
This includes reality in apprehension,
world is open not only because we do
as well as reality beyond apprehension. not know what things there are or can
But always, the character of reality is the be in it; it is open above all because
same: de suyo. It is therefore something no thing, however precise and detailed
physical as opposed to something concep- its constitution, is reality itself as
tual. And this is true whether one is such.40
speaking of things perceived at the level of
primordial apprehension, such as colors, Sentient intellection is transcendental
or things perceived in ulterior modes of impression, in which the trans does not
apprehension such as reason, where ex- draw us out of what is apprehended, to-
amples might be historical realities such ward some other reality (as Plato thought),
as the Ottoman Empire, or mathematical but submerges us in reality itself. The
objects such as circles and lines: both are impression of reality transcends all its
real in the same sense, though they differ content. This impression of reality is the
in other respects (mathematical objects object of philosophy, whereas the world as
are real by postulation, whereas historical such-and-such is the object of science.
entities are not). Moreover, reality is inde- For Zubiri, the fundamental or consti-
pendent of the subject, not a subjective tutive openness of reality means that the
projection, but something imposed upon search for it is a never-ending quest; he
the subject, something which is here-and- believes that the development of quantum
now before the subject. Logos and reason mechanics in the twentieth century has
do not have to go to reality or create it; been an example of how our concept of
they are born in it and remain in it. reality has broadened. In particular, it
When a thing is known sentiently, at has been broadened to include the concept
the same time it is known to be a reality. of person as a fundamentally different
The impression of reality puts us in con- kind of reality:


62 Thomas B. Fowler

That was the measure of reality: pro- impression does not mean that it isn’t real.
gress beyond the field was brought It is, because it is de suyo. And what is
about by thinking that reality as real in impression forms the basis for all
measuring is “thing”. An intellection subsequent knowing, including science.
much more difficult than that of Still, we are quite interested in what is real
quantum physics was needed in order beyond impression, which may be some-
to understand that the real can be re- thing else, or the same thing understood
al and still not be a thing. Such, for in a deeper manner. For example, elec-
example, is the case of person. Then tromagnetic theory tells us that colors are
not only was the field of real things the result of photons of a particular energy
broadened, but that which we might affecting us. But, according to Zubiri—
term ‘the modes of reality’ were also and this is extremely important—there are
broadened. Being a thing is only one not two realities (the photons and the col-
of those modes; being a person is an- ors), but the colors are the photons as per-
other.41 ceived. Reason is the effort to know what
Not everything that we perceive in im- things are “in reality” that are known in
pression has reality beyond impression; primordial apprehension. This is illustrat-
but the fact that something is real only in ed in Figure 4.


In impression Beyond impression

• Fact that something is • May be something else, or

real only in impression same thing understood in
doesn’t mean it isn’t real deeper manner
• Basis for all • Reason is effort to know
subsequent knowing, what things known
including science primordially are “in reality”

Figure 4. Reality in impression and reality beyond impression

V.4 Truth dual truth, is a derivative notion, which

Truth, like reality, is much different in must be grounded upon something more
Zubiri’s approach. The traditional view fundamental. For Zubiri, the priority of
has always been that truth is some sort of reality is always paramount, and hence
agreement of thought and things. Zubiri the primary meaning of truth, real truth, is
believes that this view is incomplete and impressive actuality of the real in sentient
not sufficiently radical for two reasons: (a) intellection. It is a quality of actualization,
“things” as understood in this definition not agreement of two disparate things,
are the product of ulterior modes of intel- which as the ground of truth has always
lection, and (b) “thought” is not univocal, posed insuperable verification problems.
being different in the three modes. The All other truth is ultimately based on this
notion of truth as agreement of two things, real truth, this actualization. As such,


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 63

real truth is imposed on us, not con- asserted about that thing.42
quered; dual truth, a derivative form of
The two aspects of truth for Zubiri are
truth, we conquer through our own efforts.
shown in Figure 5.
Real truth must be sought in primordial
Truth and reality are not identical in
Zubiri’s philosophy, because there are
…the real is “in” the intellection, and many realities that are not actualized in
this “in” is ratification. In sentient in- sentient intellection, nor do they have any
tellection truth is found in that prima- reason to be so. Thus, not every reality is
ry form which is the impression of re- true in this sense. Though it does not add
ality. The truth of this impressive ac- any notes, actualization does add truth to
tuality of the real in and by itself is the real. Hence truth and reality are dif-
precisely real truth….Classical philos- ferent and not mere correlates, because
ophy has gone astray on this matter reality is not simply the correlate of truth
and always thought that truth is con- but its foundation on account of the fact
stituted in the reference to a real thing that “all actualization is actualization of
with respect to what is conceived or reality.” 43


Character- Forms of dually

istics Totality Coherence Duration modalizing real Real is Real is truth- Real is
truth authenticating stating verifying
Ratified in real
truth richness “what” stability
concept to judgment to explanation to
Path thing thing thing
Way of
ratifying manifesting firmness steadiness

Authenticity conformity or Fulfillment or

Real or Simple Truth veridictance verification
[Task of logos] [Task of logos] [Task of reason]
The real in intellection through ratification;
Attained in primordial apprehension

Dual Truth
Attained in ulterior modes of apprehension
~leave the real, go toward its concept

Figure 5. Real truth and dual truth in Zubiri’s philosophy

V.5 Knowledge and Understanding dynamic and limited. It is dynamic be-

cause the canon of reality, like reality it-
Zubiri believes that one of the princi-
self, can never be completely fathomed
pal errors of past philosophers was their
and is always subject to change and en-
excessively static view of knowledge—a
largement. It is limited because as human
conquer it “once and for all” approach.
beings we are limited and must constantly
Typical of this mentality are the repeated
search for knowledge. The phrase “ex-
attempts to devise a definitive list of “cate-
haustive knowledge” is an oxymoron:
gories”, such as those of Aristotle and
Kant, and Kant’s integration of Newtonian The limitation of knowledge is certain-
physics and Euclidean geometry into the ly real, but this limitation is some-
fabric of his philosophy. Rather, thing derived from the intrinsic and
knowledge as a human enterprise is both formal nature of rational intellection,


64 Thomas B. Fowler

from knowing as such, since it is in- tion. Articulating the relationship between
quiring intellection. Only because ra- them has been a difficult problem for at
tional intellection is formally inquir- least three centuries of Western philoso-
ing, only because of this must one al- phy. For Zubiri, the relationship is as
ways seek more and, finding what was follows: reality unfolds in events observed
sought, have it become the principle by the sciences, which indeed allow us to
of the next search. Knowledge is lim- observe aspects of it which would other-
ited by being knowledge. An exhaus- wise remain hidden. But this unfolding of
tive knowledge of the real would not be reality is no different from its unfolding
knowledge; it would be intellection of through personal experience, poetry, mu-
the real without necessity of sic, or religious experience. All human
knowledge. Knowledge is only intel- knowing is of the real, because reality is
lection in search. Not having recog- the formality under which man appre-
nized the intrinsic and formal charac- hends anything. In man’s quest for under-
ter of rational intellection as inquiry is standing, the utilization of scientific con-
what led to…subsuming all truth un- cepts, amplified and interpreted, only sup-
der the truth of affirmation.44 [Italics poses that the sciences are an appropriate
added] way of access to reality. Philosophy, in
Understanding is also a richer and turn, reflects on the data offered by the
more complex process than heretofore sciences as “data of reality”. But philoso-
assumed. Indeed, oversimplification of the phy is not looking to duplicate the efforts
process of understanding has led to major of science. Both philosophy and science
philosophical errors in the past. Under- examine the “world”, that to which the
standing requires (1) apprehension of field of reality directs us. But science is
something as real (primordial apprehen- concerned with what Zubiri terms the
sion stage), (2) knowing what that thing is “talitative” order, the “such-and-suchness”
with respect to other things (logos stage), of the world, how such-and-such thing
and (3) what it is in reality itself (reason behaves; whereas philosophy is concerned
stage). Traditionally only the latter is con- with the respective unity of the real qua
sidered. Zubiri comments: real, with its transcendental character,
what makes it real.46 Philosophy (and
Understanding is, then, the intellec- theology) thus ask questions that cannot
tive knowing which understands what
be meaningfully be expressed in scientific
something, already apprehended as
language. But both philosophy and theol-
real, really is; i.e., what a thing is in
ogy rely to some extent on science to tell
reality (logos) and in reality itself (rea-
us about the world. What science tells us,
son), the real thing understood in
for example about causality, needs to be
both the field manner and considered
incorporated into the vision of reality that
in the worldly sense.45
philosophy seeks.
Understanding, then, requires sentient To a great extent, the belief that reali-
intellection and cannot exist, even for sub- ty is closed supports two long-standing
jects such as mathematics, without it. philosophical doctrines, which Zubiri
This insight reveals clearly Zubiri’s radical terms entification of reality and logification
departure from all previous thought. of the intelligence. Entification of reality is
the belief that reality is ultimately com-
V.6 Zubiri and Science posed of stand-alone entities, such as the
billiard-ball particles of Laplace’s Demon,
The scientific and the metaphysical
or Aristotle’s substances. Logification of
are closely connected, because both are
the intelligence is the belief that
forms of knowledge emerging from the
knowledge in the proper and primary
reason or third mode of human intellec-
sense is only at the rational level; any oth-


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 65

er “knowledge” would be inferior and of ational method of verification, so scientific

relatively minor importance. knowledge is the only knowledge available,
Typically, those who reject other forms since non-scientific statements cannot be
of knowledge in favor of science exclusively so verified. This leads to a leveling of
have have a straightforward view of sci- knowledge:
ence: science is objective knowledge about
…science begins by breaking down
the world. Advocates of this view also
[the] world so as to reduce it to its just
claim that truth is an agreement of
cognitive proportions. These just pro-
thought with things. Now, Zubiri would
portions are expressed in the term
agree that science is objective knowledge
“the facts:” what is before me, only in
about the world; where he disagrees con-
virtue of being there and insofar as it
cerns the level of the knowledge delivered
is there, without the least intervention
by science. For those who accept (implicit-
on my part. Now, the facts thus un-
ly or otherwise) the logification of the intel- derstood tend to be reduced to empiri-
ligence, there is only the one level, that of cal data. Scientific truth will consist
rational knowledge. In Zubiri’s philoso- in nothing but agreement with these
phy, this is not so; science is not the pri- data, and science will be simply a
mary source of knowledge. There are knowledge about their ordered con-
three levels of knowledge: primordial ap- catenation. The reduction of things to
prehension of reality (direct contact with facts, and of facts to sensible data,
reality), logos (defining what things are leads inexorably to the idea of an in-
with respect to other things), and reason tellectual life in which all branches of
(methodological explanation of what things knowledge are equivalent and whose
are and why they are, as in done in sci- overall unity is given only in the ency-
ence, literature, and theology, for exam- clopedia of complete knowledge.47
ple). So science, a form of reason, must
build on what is the primary source, pri- For Zubiri, there are three serious prob-
mordial apprehension. Moreover, since lems with any positivistic approach such
the truth attained by reason is not what as this: (1) The meaning of statements
he terms “real truth”, i.e., absolute truth, cannot be identified with their method of
it is not infallible—further developments verification, because this represents a
can force revisions. This allows Zubiri to hopeless confusion of the three levels of
overcome one of the major objections to human intelligence. Verification methods
realism as a theory of science: the history involve concepts of reason, whereas the
of science is replete with examples of new meaning of statements arises at the level
theories replacing old ones because of new of logos, coupled of course with primordial
discoveries and new evidence. Under any apprehension of reality.48 (2) We are not
realist philosophy in which rational dispossessed of knowledge of things, but
knowledge is the “gold standard” of have it through primordial apprehension
knowledge, this is inexplicable. But for (though not in the scientific sense, of
Zubiri, scientific theories are not our pri- course). (3) There is no one-to-one map-
mary source of knowledge of the world; so ping of facts to sense data, because this
their replacement as science progresses again represents a confusion of levels of
does not pose an epistemological problem, human intelligence. The senses do not
as it does for the advocates of any philoso- deliver “data” to us because they do not
phy of science making it (science) the pri- “deliver” anything at all: that is the para-
mary access to reality. digm of sensible intelligence, based on a
In some cases, advocates of science as presumed separation of sensing and
the source of all knowledge assume a more knowing. We do not have to infer reality
positivistic attitude: the meaning of a based on data delivered to us, on the mod-
statement is intimately related to its oper- el of an information technology system


66 Thomas B. Fowler

with remote sensors, because we are im- those he adduces with respect to
mersed in it; the sensing and knowing are knowledge in general. Zubiri believes that
part of a single, integral process: sentient any attempt to base theology on complex
intelligence. rational arguments, such as the proofs of
Moreover, reality, in Zubiri’s philoso- the existence of God by Aquinas or Scotus,
phy, cannot be entified, and thus broken fails because it makes too many contro-
down into logical atoms, be they sense versial philosophical assumptions at the
data or billiard-ball particles. Reality is, outset, as do attempts to ground human
rather, something open. Reality cannot be knowledge in general on theories at the
considered as some transcendental con- level of reason. Rather, one must start
cept, or even as a concept which is some- from something much more modest,
how realized in all real things: namely something in our personal experi-
ence. For Zubiri, this is our experience of
…rather, it is a real and physical mo-
the power of the real. Reality imposes itself
ment, i.e., transcendentality is just the
on us in an especially forceful tripartite
openness of the real qua real....The
way, as ultimate, possibility-making, and
world is open not only because we do
not know what things there are or can impelling. Our experience of this imposi-
be in it; it is open above all because tion, our experience of the power of the
no thing, however precise and detailed real, is our experience of the ground of
its constitution, is reality itself as reality.50 This experience of the power of
such.49 the real leads us immediately not to “God”,
but to what Zubiri terms “Deity”. Knowing
So the idea of being able to capture it in a what this “Deity” is necessarily comes lat-
complete way, or to say all that can be er, and may require additional sources of
said about it utilizing rational knowledge knowledge. In this more modest ap-
such as science, is doomed from the start. proach, one does not seek lofty goals, but
There will always be knowledge about the simply to analyze basic human experience,
world which cannot be subsumed under given our experience of the power of the
science (or any other form of rational real. The relationship between knowledge
knowledge), or captured in any human acquisition in normal situations, and of
formula. Zubiri notes that art, literature, God is illustrated in Figure 6.
and music are other examples of rational Eschewing philosophical frameworks,
knowledge that tell us about the world— Zubiri bases his theology on an analysis of
tell us different things about it than sci- human reality, which lead us to its
ence does. Hence, the fundamental or grounding reality just discussed: some-
constitutive openness of reality means that thing ultimate, possibilitating, and impel-
the search for it is a never-ending quest; ling. Because reality is grounding, it serves
he believes that the development of quan- as the real ultimate support of my life. It
tum mechanics in the twentieth century will also serve to make my self-realization
has been an example of how our concept possible, and to impel me towards my real-
of reality has broadened. ization. These three characteristics have
an intrinsic unity; they form the ground of
V.7 God and Theology
reality. On our human side this consists in
Theology in the Western tradition is being “religated” (fr. Latin re-ligare, re-tied)
generally regarded as a rational enterprise, to my ground in order to be. From the side
much like science, and as such often of reality to be a ground means that it has
starts with demonstrations of the exist- power over me. The power and strength of
ence of God, such as the so-called “cosmo- the real as a dominance moves me to real-
logical proof.” For Zubiri, this approach is ize myself as a person.51
wrong for reasons that are analogous to


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 67

Theology Human knowledge

in general

Rational apprehen- God Reason


Second stage of Deity Logos


Fundamental hu- Religation, power of Primordial ap-

man experience the real prehension

Figure 6. Knowledge acquisition stages in ordinary knowledge and theology

For Zubiri this first step, somewhat sense. While scientific and theological
analogous to primordial apprehension, is knowledge are both knowledge at the level
thus the recognition that each person is, of reason, for Zubiri, they are different in
in his very constitution, turned toward a their object, structure, and method of veri-
reality that is more than he is, and on fication. Both seek to tell us about reality,
which he is based. This reality is that though not necessarily the same reality.
from which emerge the resources he needs By analyzing these difference, we can gain
to make his personality, and which sup- some insight into the reasons for potential
plies him with the force necessary to carry conflicts, and how to resolve them.
out this process of realizing himself. Such Scientific knowledge is based on pos-
turning of a person to reality is religation. tulation, and is subject to verification us-
It is a turning toward some ground not ing methods appropriate to postulation.52
found among things immediately given, In the case of science, those methods re-
something which must be sought beyond volve around experimentation. But we do
what is given. This gives rise in the first not postulate anything when dealing with
place to the notion of “Deity”. Later, the theological knowledge. For example, we do
theist will call this ground ‘God’. With not say, “Let’s assume there is a God” or
respect to religions, nearly all offer a vision “Let’s assume there are many gods” and
or explanation of this ground, and there- then look for consequences. Rather, as
fore there is some truth in all. Zubiri emphasizes, the ultimate source of
It is only when this fundamental theological knowledge is direct human
ground of religious faith and knowledge experience. This is not direct human ex-
has been recognized that construction of perience of God, as in a mystical vision
any sort of “rational” theology makes (though that is not excluded), but rather


68 Thomas B. Fowler

our direct experience of a power outside of In theology, we utilize this direct expe-
us: rience, and also reported direct experi-
ence, as in sacred texts such as the Bible.
Natural Theology has generally ap-
So for example, key theological infor-
proached God in a conceptual way,
mation comes from reports of experiences
making of Him what Zubiri calls a
such as those of Moses on Mt. Sinai. On
“reality-object” and concentrating all
its efforts in establishing ways of the basis of direct and reported experienc-
“demonstrating” His existence….[O]n es, inferences are drawn, and large-scale
the contrary, God, if He is something, theological structures erected. Such infer-
is not a “reality-object”, but what he ences often—indeed usually—go beyond
called “reality-ground”, a ground to direct experience, and refer to things in
which, if it exists, we will be “re- the world, what Zubiri terms “reality be-
ligated” (religados), that is, re- yond apprehension”. These inferences will
connected. In contrast to the demon- inevitably be influenced by the general
strative ways, purely idealistic, Zubiri state of knowledge at the time, and by the
proposes the way of religation, for him world in which the theologian lives and
the only one truly real.53 with which he is familiar. Often the infer-
ences are directed at explanation of “ori-
In Zubiri’s view, we are religated to reality, gins”—how the world came to be, how man
because reality imposes itself on us in an came to be, and why he is as he is. Thus
especially forceful tripartite way, as ulti- the geocentric theory of the universe,
mate, possibility-making, and impelling: based on a set of observations, was used
The experience of this imposition, of in conjunction with certain Biblical verses
this power of the real which is a fact, to construct a vision of the heavens. Con-
is…the experience of the ground of re- flict can therefore arise when new
ality, the fundamental experience knowledge of the world is inconsistent
which each man possesses as a theist, with earlier knowledge, rendering the in-
an agnostic or an atheist. The diver- ferences and vision untenable. The prob-
gences begin at the time of intellectual lem, therefore, is to keep the core beliefs
discernment and volition when con- and exercise great care with inferences.
fronting this fundament. For the the- Inferences easily turn into extrapolations,
ist, the experience of the fundament is and extrapolations lead to problems be-
an experience of God, a God which is cause they are often unverifiable and far
not transcendent “to” things, but removed from the original source of the
transcendent “in” things. To reach knowledge. As mentioned previously, sci-
God it is not necessary to leave the ence and theology both seek knowledge of
world, but to enter more into it, reach- reality beyond apprehension, but not nec-
ing its foundation or ground. God is at essarily the same reality. For example,
the bottom of things as their ground; science does not look for God to appear in
and in his experience of things man some experiment; by the same token, the-
has the fundamental experience of ology does not seek to discover new suba-
God. The life of man is woven into his tomic particles. But extrapolation can
experience with and of things; and as lead to much blurring and overlap.
this experience is in itself an experi- This focuses attention directly on a
ence of God, it turns out that the life key difference between theological and
of each man is in some way a contin- scientific knowledge, their respective
uous experience of God. This means methods of verification. Verification is
that the real God of each person is not “clearly encountering or finding something
a concept or the result of reasoning, which one is already seeking.”55 For sci-
but the very life of man.54 ence, verification takes the form of the
experimental method. For theology, verifi-


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 69

cation is usually by means of authority, fully deterministic.

either individual, local leader (e.g., Pastor), As a consequence, man’s role in the
church council, or church leader (e.g., universe is different; and between persons
Pope). While this may suggest that theolo- (and only between them) there is a strict
gy will always be on the losing side in any causality, which in turn implies a moral
confrontation, as it was with the geocen- obligation. This causality is not a simple
tric theory, that is not necessarily the application of classical notions of causality
case. Because all postulations ultimately to persons, but something irreducible to
break down, theology has the potential for the causality of classical metaphysics, and
greater certainty than forms of rational still less reducible to the concept of a sci-
knowledge such as science. This comes entific law. This is what Zubiri refers to as
about in the area of moral experience and personal causality: “And however repug-
human causality.56 nant it may be to natural science, there
The originality and vigor of Zubiri’s is...a causality between persons which is
approach can be gauged by comparing it not given in the realm of nature.” The key
to “classical” theology, as shown in Table characteristic of this type of causality is
1. that we can know it in ways that we can-
not know about other aspects of reality.
V.8 Human Reality
Indeed, personal causality—and our
For centuries it was believed that knowledge of it—is the ultimate basis for
what is real “beyond” impression compris- morality.
es “material bodies”, envisaged as made
up of some sort of billiard-ball type parti- VI. Conclusion and Next Steps
cles. The development of quantum me- With this as a basis, it is possible to
chanics forced a change in this picture, begin construction of a systematic theolo-
though not without considerable contro- gy based on Zubiri’s philosophical founda-
versy. A much more difficult effort was tion. This theology will differ in many
required to recognize that something can ways from that of St. Thomas because it
be real and yet not be a thing, viz. the starts from a different philosophical out-
human person. The human person is a look, namely sentient intelligence rather
fundamentally different kind of reality, one than sensible intelligence, and is able to
whose essence is open, as opposed to the utilize knowledge about the world gained
closed essences of animals and other living since the 13th century. The first step, an
things. An open essence is defined not by analysis of proofs of the existence of God,
the notes that it naturally has, but by its has already been written.57 Other topics
system of possibilities; and hence it makes include
itself, so to speak, with the possibilities.
“Its-own-ness” is what makes an essence • Basis and Sources for Theology
to be open. This open essence of man is • Relation of Man and God
the ground of his freedom, in turn the • Moral Theology
ground of his moral nature. Zubiri terms • Sacramental Theology
the set of notes defining the essence of • Dogmatic Theology
what it means to be a person personeity,
and personality the realization of these • Mystical Theology
notes by means of actions. A person, for • Human Life and Destiny
Zubiri, is a relative absolute: “relative” be- • Law, Legal/Political Systems and
cause his actions are not entirely uncon- Social Justice
strained, but are what make him the kind • Theology and Science
of person that he is; “absolute” because he • Theology and Humanistic Disci-
enjoys the ability to make himself, i.e., he plines
has freedom and is not an automaton,


70 Thomas B. Fowler

• Other Theological Traditions • Theoforum, Volume 40 No. 1

• Contemporary Issues (2009). Special issue devoted to
Zubiri and his theology.
We hope to publish essays on these • Guillerma Díaz Muñoz, Teología del
topics in future volumes of The Xavier misterio en Zubiri, Herder, Barcelo-
Zubiri Review, and invite readers who wish na, 2008.
to contribute to contact the editor. Mean- • Francisco Ortega, La teología de
while readers may wish to consult the fol- Xavier Zubiri, 2ª edicíon, Edicíon
lowing sources: Hergué/Editorial Andaluza, 2005.


1 The text of this article will appear in a revised bleday Image Books, 1973, p. 144-145.
from in a forthcoming book on Zubiri’s theol- 13 Pope Benedict XVI, The Fathers, Our Sunday
ogy, co-written by several Zubiri scholars. Visitor, 2008, p. 26.
2 Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, Section 36. 14 Ibid.
3 Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way to Western 15 St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, Book 3,
Civilization, New York: Mentor Books, 1948, Ch. 24,
ch. 15.
4 Address of Pope Benedict upon conferral of 4.htm.
Ratzinger prize, 30 June 2011, as reported 16 Summa Theologica, Q2, A3.
by Vatican Information Service, “Faith Con- 17 Francis Meehan, Efficient Causality in Aristo-
ducts Reason to Open Itself to the Divine”, tle and St. Thomas, Washington, DC: Catho-
http://visnews- lic University of America Press, 1940, p. 187. 18 Websters Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary,
Springfield, MA: Merriam Webster, 1985, p.
5 Address of Pope Benedict upon conferral of 446.
Ratzinger prize, 30 June 2011, as reported 19 Nehemiah 9:7-8, NIV, 2010.
by Vatican Information Service, “Faith Con-
ducts Reason to Open Itself to the Divine”,
20 Mathew 9:22, NIV, 2010.
http://visnews- 21 Mathew 17:20, NIV, 2010. 22 I Cor 15:17, NIV, 2010.
reason-to-open-itself-to.html. 23 I Timothy 3:9, NIV, 2010.
6 See the article on this subject in this issue. 24 Hebrews 11:1, New English Bible
7 Pope Benedict XVI, Benedictus, Ignatius 25 James 2:20, NIV, 2010.
Press, 2006, p.78.
26 Xavier Zubiri, Man and God, tr. Joaquin
8 Ibid.
Redondo, Thomas Fowler, Nelson Orringer,
9 John 3:16, NIV. Lanham, MD: University Press of America,
10 Pope Benedict XVI, The Fathers, vol. II, Hun- 2009, p. 159; Spanish original El hombre y
tington: OSV, p. 31. Article on the Pseudo- Dios, p. 212. (hereafter, MG).
Dionysius the Areopagite. 27 MG, p. 161; Sp. p. 214.
11 Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles, and 28 Joseph Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis
Criteria, Chapter 1, §5, available at of Cultures, tr. by Brian McNeil, San Francis- co: Ignatius Press, 2006, p. 110.
ary/view.cfm?recnum=9879#INTRODUCTIO 29 Ibid, p. 111.
30 Sobre la esencia, Madrid: Alianza Edito-
12 Confessions, book 7, Ch. 10, tr. by J. G.
rial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones,
Pilkington, quoted in An Augustine Reader,
1985, p. 89-90 [English translation by A. R.
ed. by John J. O’Meara, Garden City: Dou-
Caponigri, On Essence, Washington, DC:


Zubiri and Systematic Theology 71

Catholic University of America, 1980, p. 48 Of course, the meaning of some statements

113.] may involve reason, but ultimately meaning
31 Ibid. has its roots at the level of logos.
32 Diego Gracia, Voluntad de Verdad, Barcelo- 49 Xavier Zubiri, Inteligencia y razón, Madrid:
na: Labor Universitaria, 1986, p. 89. Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y
33 Xavier Zubiri, Sentient Intelligence, tr. by Publicaciones, 1980, p. 20; English transla-
Thomas Fowler, Washington, DC: Xavier Zu- tion, Sentient Intelligence, tr. by Thomas B.
biri Foundation of North America, 1999, p. Fowler, Washington: Xavier Zubiri Founda-
83ff (hereafter, SI). tion of North America, 1999, p. 248. (hereaf-
ter, SI).
34 SI, p. 63.
35 SI, p. 94.
50 Xavier Zubiri, Man and God, op. cit., back
cover summary.
36 SI, p. 4, 84, 100, 243.
51 From the Translator’s Introduction to Man
37 SI, p. 257.
and God, op. cit.
38 SI, p. 256-257.
52 Thomas Fowler, “Reality in Science and Real-
39 SI, p. 248.
ity in Philosophy: Importance of the Concept
40 SI, p. 248. of Reality by Postulation”, The Xavier Zubiri
41 SI, p. 261. Review, Vol. 7 (2005), pp. 41-56.
42 SI, p. 84. 53 Xavier Zubiri, Man and God, op. cit., back
43 SI, p. 193. cover summary
44 SI, pp. 261-262. 54 Ibid.
45 SI, p. 363. 55 SI, p. 336.
46 SI, pp. 48-49, 197, 219. 56 Thomas Fowler, “Causality, Personal Causa-
47 Xavier Zubiri, Nature, History, God, tr. Tho- lity, and the Science/Religion Dialogue”, Me-
mas Fowler, Lanham, MD: University Press tanexus Conference, Madrid, 2008.
of America, 1980, p. 17; original Naturaleza, 57 Thomas Fowler, “The Existence of God in
Historia, Dios, Ninth ed., Madrid: Alianza Zubirian Theology”, The Xavier Zubiri Review,
Editorial, 1987, p. 41 (original edition, p. 16). vol. 12, p. 47-83 (2010-2012).