Saint Thomas Aquinas


from Neil

These brief comments, for the feast day of St Thomas Aquinas, are meant to answer the question: Why would any normal person want to read the Summa Theologiae? I am hardly an expert on Thomism, and perhaps I barely qualify as normal, but I do want to try to give a substantive answer instead of merely gesturing at the sheer importance of Thomas’ role in the history of Christian thought. The following is largely borrowed from the Anglican theologian Anna Williams (the quoted words, save for those from the Summa, are hers).

Reading Aquinas, Williams says, can help us overcome the damaging separation of spirituality from theology that we can presently see in the world around us – and perhaps within us. If we unconsciously keep prayer separate from our creeds, proclamation, and worship, these practices become diminished, rationalistic concerns of the mind alone. And prayer itself loses resonance; while it might remain the form and sign of our belief, it cannot continue to teach us or lead us more deeply into our beliefs any longer. Does it seem odd to mention Thomas Aquinas in this context? It is true that Thomas has been caricatured as a “hairsplitting philosopher” by those who have failed to notice that many articles of the Summa have a very practical focus on subjects like gluttony. But the Summa consistently refuses to divorce contemplation from understanding; it is itself a work of mystical theology that can help us take the old saying, lex orandi, lex credendi, seriously once more. “As we pray, so do we believe.”

First, notice the method. Thomas begins by describing the point of theology, “Man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon knowledge of this truth” (I.1,1 resp.). Theology is nothing less than an unceasing contemplation of God. This is an active participation in God’s own self-knowledge, which (because of the doctrine of divine simplicity) is God’s own self. Thomas begins the Summa with the doctrine of God, and its end concerns the Son of God, who brings us to God. In between, Thomas considers the goal of human life and describes the different ways of life that serve as means by which each one of us finds his or her way to God. Thomas does not distinguish between theoretical and practical knowledge at all during this process – God’s own self-knowledge is also the knowledge of all the things that God has created. Thus, a discourse on Love is simultaneously a consideration of the ways that we must love our neighbor to concretely unite ourselves to this Love. Theology is not an impassive sort of knowledge about God; contemplation is itself, Williams says, “part of the larger process whereby God draws humanity towards himself: the gracing of nature that we may come to glory.” Contemplation includes the love that comes from gazing at God’s beauty. It means to bring us to union with God.

For God himself wants intimacy with his creation. The famous “Five Ways” of the first part of the Summa are less proofs of God’s existence than evocations of divine desire. Each “way” – the First Mover, the Efficient Cause, the Necessary Being who freely gives being to all, the Highest Being who shares goodness and perfection, and the Divine Intelligence who orders the universe – is a subtle description of the God who desires union with his creatures, ending with the antiphon, “this everyone understands to be God.” The human being, Aquinas asserts in the second part of the Summa, is ordered towards this union with God. But it is only in Jesus Christ, the subject of the third part of the Summa, that God and humanity actually meet. Aquinas quotes Augustine, “God became human that we might become divine” (III.1,2), and asserts that, in the Incarnation, creation finally responded to God’s goodness: “The mystery of the Incarnation … [was] through His having united Himself to the creature in a new way, or rather, having united it to Himself” (III.1, 1 ad 1). Williams writes, “The corrective clause indicates that Thomas views the hypostatic union not so much as God’s descent as the foundation of humanity’s exaltation.”

This “exaltation” is why a normal person should read the Summa. Thomas reminds us that, whenever we speak of God, we should be practicing contemplation, a “unitive force, one that draws us beyond ourselves, towards an Other.” Thomas is not really concerned with directing apologetic arguments about Christianity’s plausibility against cultured despisers, only with “the transformative possibilities of the contemplation of God: how the believer may not only assent to the propositions of faith but may be joined to God through faith.” His concern is to show that the entirety of human experience is meant, through the Incarnation, for nothing less than theosis, deification. At a time when we can speak incessantly about doctrine without spirituality, knowledge without contemplation, and catechesis without prayer, this is more than welcome. St Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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