Why Thomism?

Thomas Aquinas

Asking “Why Thomas Aquinas?” is like asking “Why Shakespeare?” Spell out all of the reasons for reading the Bard, and you’ll hit upon most of the reasons for reading English Literature. So, too, describe all of the ways in which the Angelic Doctor repays study, and you’ll come close to showing why Theology in general is worthwhile.

This in itself is suggestive of one of the great virtues of St. Thomas’s thought, namely, its breadth or comprehensiveness. Most theologians make one or two topics their specialty and then branch out from there, so that, wherever we are in their oeuvre, we notice a bias or bend in their thinking—always tilting back toward one or other of those favorite themes. Thomas, by contrast, presents the whole of sacred doctrine in such a way that no element usurps the place of another, each being duly proportioned to each. And, incredibly, he does this without sacrificing depth or detail or analytical rigor. He has a profound interest in the nitty-gritty not in spite of the fact that he sees the big picture, but rather precisely because, for him, everything is connected; truth is unified; theology is a compendious whole, embracing God and everything in relation to God. Indeed, for those inured to the balkanization of the modern academy, dipping into St. Thomas can be both liberating and disorienting—like exploring a huge castle after being confined for years to just one or two of its rooms.

In this regard, we can apply to St. Thomas what Sherlock Holmes said of his brother Mycroft: “All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience.” Of course, Thomas himself would disapprove of such intemperate speech, but, admitting the hyperbole, we might say that a certain degree of “omniscience” is merely a corollary of the comprehensiveness we have just described. Thomas could put everything together because he knew practically everything there was to know, from Scripture to the Greek and Latin Fathers, from the pagan philosophers to the great Jewish and Muslim thinkers. In fact, a principal benefit of reading St. Thomas is that he sums up so much of what came before him. He not only enlightens, but also educates and informs, the reader. Since he approaches every question dialogically—first stating objections, then citing an authority, then presenting his own position, and finally replying to each objection—we necessarily learn a great deal about his interlocutors’ opinions. One quickly discovers that, just as Thomas receives truth from any quarter (“by whomever it is spoken”), so he never refutes falsehood by recourse to a straw man. He can state opposing viewpoints so persuasively—often more persuasively than those who espouse them—one is sometimes left wondering how he will muster a reply.

If all of this makes St. Thomas seem a bit intimidating, we hasten to add that his writings are by no means accessible only to experts. Just as a great piece of music, art, or literature can be enjoyed, albeit on different levels, by both connoisseur and layman, so the theology of the Common Doctor. In fact, Thomas wrote his most mature work, the Summa Theologiae, for the instruction of beginners, and its brief prologue reveals what a passionate teacher he was:

We have noticed how students of sacred doctrine are greatly hindered by the writings of various authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments; partly because the things they need to know are not taught according to the order of the subject matter, but rather according to the plan of the book or the occasion of the argument; partly, too, because frequent repetition brings weariness and confusion to the minds of readers.

Thomas himself certainly avoided these pitfalls. Although modern readers, accustomed to the rhetorical fireworks and flourishes of a journalistic age, may have to adjust to the quiet sobriety of his style, they will find more than adequate recompense in its clarity and concision, in his orderly arrangement of material and minimal use of technical vocabulary. This last point may come as a surprise, since medieval theology is popularly perceived as a veritable quagmire of technicalities, but in fact one can get through most of the Summa with the help of just a few basic distinctions—the types of cause, form–matter, and act–potency. Then, too, St. Thomas has been around long enough, there’s no need to go it alone; excellent introductions to his work abound.

But, one might wonder, is it really practical to read St. Thomas? Will doing so bring one closer to God? At first, his concise and dispassionate style, so suited to abstract reasoning, might seem an unlikely vehicle for “Spirituality,” or at least for what we now designate by that term (i.e., a vaguely religious search for emotional fulfillment without any necessary connection to the truths of the faith). Upon reflection, however, it is even more unlikely that great spiritual riches should be absent from the writings of such a great saint, who often wept during Mass, who was the recipient of mystical graces in prayer, and who penned what is perhaps the most moving poem ever written about the Eucharist (Adoro Te Devote). In point of fact, the spiritual value of his theology is immense, as is illustrated by a cursory glance at just a few of its themes:

  1. Exitus–Reditus: All things come from God (exitus) and, in different ways, return to him (reditus); but for us human beings this coming forth and returning has a special relation to the inner life of the Trinity. In fact, the coming forth of the Son from the Father (procession of knowledge) and the coming forth of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son (procession of love) are the cause and exemplar of (1) our coming forth from God as creatures who are capable of natural knowing and loving; and (2) our returning to God as creatures capable of supernatural knowing and loving.
  2. Deification: In returning to God, we are made like him. Thomas, following the Church Fathers, does not hesitate to call this transformation a “deification”: “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity [2 Pt 1:4], assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods” (Opusc. 57, 1–4). Since this destiny infinitely exceeds anything we can accomplish naturally, the cornerstone of the moral and spiritual life is not our own moral effort, but rather God’s grace.
  3. Communion and Friendship: Being made like God—being “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rm 8:29)—is not an end in itself; rather, it is for the sake of, and cannot occur apart from, communion with him. We are made like God so that we can be with him and enter into his life—the eternal exchange of knowing and loving among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even now, through the divine presence and action in our souls, we enjoy something of true communion, or friendship, with God and his saints. (Remarkably, St. Thomas was the first theologian to define supernatural love as a kind of friendship.)
  4. Human Flourishing: Friendship or communion with God does not impede, but rather enhances, our natural human development and flourishing. Grace perfects us as the kind of creatures we are; it does not turn us into something else. Moreover, although the purification and elevation of our nature involves a participation in Christ’s Passion—accepting suffering out love for God and neighbor—this itself both deepens and enlarges our humanity.

So why Thomism? Well, if Thomism means carrying on the work of so great a teacher; if it means developing his thought in response to the needs of our day, in answer to questions that he never asked; if it means drawing upon the resources of a long, variegated, and still vibrant tradition; if it means recognizing the truth, whoever speaks it, and putting secular wisdom at the service of Christ; if it means manifesting the luminously rational character of the faith and, thereby, illustrating how far the divine mysteries transcend human understanding; if it means contemplating God and everything in relation to God, with reverence and awe; if it means handing on to others the fruits of this contemplation; if it means all of these things and more, then perhaps the real question is, why not Thomism?

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