Five Ways Aquinas Has Taught Me

I’m often familiar with a person’s reputation before I make that person’s acquaintance. It happens with people and, just as often, it happens with authors (though I suppose they are people too). Recently a string of authors–people I’d come to respect a great deal–spoke reverently of an writer whom I hardly knew. That person was Thomas Aquinas. Now, him and I are not total strangers–I was assigned part of his Compendium of Theology in college–but I haven’t touched his Summa Theologiae and felt I hardly knew him. But as I read Robert Farrar Capon, Denys Turner, G.K. Chesterton and Herbert McCabe, new discoveries themselves, I got to know Aquinas too, whose personality animated the pages of each successive book. Taken together they rendered a writer of unusual clarity and sense.

St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225 - 1274 CE
St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225 – 1274 CE

I’m embarrassed to admit I have not opened any of the Angelic Doctor’s books since these commendations. I expect I will and that I’ll be the better for it. For now, though, he intimidates me. Neither his style nor his subject matter make him easy to read (Flannery O’Connor, who read him every night before bed, notwithstanding) and I mostly read at whim. Still, I’ve learned a great deal from the “dumb-ox” and his winsome 20th century disciples. I don’t think the fact that my friendship remains at one remove should preclude me from sharing what I’ve learned (though I apologize to all serious students of the man and particularly Denys Turner). Without further ado, here are five ways Aquinas has taught me about God.

01.    God is beyond category. (Or, why God is not the best.)

One often hears that God is “ the biggest,” “the strongest,” and “the best.” The question to ask is, of what? To say that God is better than this morning’s sunrise, a Monet, or a farmhouse ale is not to compliment the divine. It is a category error. For God to be superlative is to presuppose that God shares something with what he is compared to. But what could God and any thing have in common? As Pseudo-Dionysus wrote, God is beyond both similarity and difference. There are, of course, places in Scripture where God is said to surpass other things, but this is only to point to the fundamental distinction between Creator and creation and the distance between them. Aquinas rightly recognized that the distance is infinite. God is beyond category.

02.    Creation describes God’s relation to the world, not simply a past event. (Or, how to not be a deist.)

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” So begins Genesis and with it the interminable debates about what happened way back when. What’s interesting, though, and usually missing from these debates, is that Jews and Christians have traditionally interpreted these verses to mean that God created out of nothing. (Actually nothing, not inchoate pre-matter, a blander version of Play-Doh, but nothing at all.) Creation ex nihilo, says Aquinas, implies that all that is receives its being from the one Christ called Father. Without God’s loving attention at any moment I, my copy of Aquinas’ Compendium, and the dust gathering atop it, would cease to be. Creation describes that fact. Though ‘creation’ is also used to describe the beginning of the world, its more important meaning is one of relation: the loving attention God gives to all that is in each successive moment. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” 

03.    God’s freedom does not compete with our freedom; it enables it. (Or, how I stopped worrying and learned to love God’s will.)

Denys Turner's excellent biography
Denys Turner’s excellent biography

Christians get in all sorts of binds when they talk about the sovereignty of God and free will. Often, I suppose, that’s because God and humans are seen as part of some category, only God’s nearer the front than humans. On the one hand, then, there’s a great deal of anxiety about knowing and doing God’s will, and on the other, the (terrible) certainty that everything that happens must be God’s will. Thomas insists that this view is all wrong: God’s freedom does not compete with my freedom; it is its source. Just as God is beyond all category, God’s will and mine do not exist on the same plane, which means they cannot come in conflict. Any event, says Thomas, following Aristotle, has a number of causes. For instance, if I were to jump out of an airplane, the muscles in my legs, my decision to jump, and God’s continued will that I exist in that moment would all be causes of one action. Put negatively this means that nothing I do can transgress the bounds of God’s intent. Positively it means that God’s will can never be frustrated. 

04.    A soul is the life of a body. (Or, why your soul is not going anywhere.)

There’s a terrible C.S. Lewis quote that, like most terrible quotes associated with the man, is misattributed. It goes like this: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” It’s a particularly blunt summary of a tradition that places the body and soul in hierarchical if not entirely oppositional terms. One wishes Paul had chosen less confusing words than “the flesh” and “the Spirit,” but the blame lies with gnostic and Platonist metaphysics and their cultural progeny. What Aquinas offers is a different way to talk about the relation between bodies and souls. The soul, he says, is the body’s life, what makes it go. It isn’t a distinct entity. Which is why, when you die, your body must be resurrected for you to enjoy life with God forever. There is no ‘you’ without your body. 

05.    Our desires and the virtues find their end in God. (Or, how to not choose between happiness, virtue, and immortality)

We might categorize Christians in three groups: those that emphasize happiness, others that stress virtuous living, and still others that want to talk only about God. Each tends to view the others with suspicion, cognizant that each is missing something. Aquinas would trouble our scheme. For him, desire, virtue, and God are all bound up together. What we desire, says Aquinas, drawing on Augustine, is God, who is the end of our happiness. But we throw up all sorts of obstructions by our vicious conduct. The virtues, for Aquinas, are the means by which, through God’s grace, we live happily. The aim of both our desires and the virtues is God. We can only attain this aim once, as Job puts it, our flesh is destroyed. Yet in our flesh shall we see God.

Wit and Wisdom

I recently reread G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. I’d liked it when I first read it a few years ago, but at the time I hadn’t been sure what to do with some of Chesterton’s more dubious assertions and hadn’t given it too much thought. I’m not sure I’ll give it too much thought this time either—I don’t think it’s the sort of book that needs it—but I do want to register here that I found it thrilling this time, from start to end. The man has style. Unlike most of the books I read—serious books about serious subjects—Orthodoxy is blessedly free of self-seriousness, however serious the subject matter. I can’t think of another nonfiction book I’ve found half as fun. That’s a testament to Chesterton’s command of English, since sustaining a light tone without being merely frivolous is a good deal harder than telling it straight. Of course, Chesterton puts it better himself: “Solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy; hard to be light.”

the man himself
the man himself

There are plenty of one-liners in Orthodoxy. My favorite is this subtle jab: “Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.” It’s for good reason that Chesterton is still so often quoted today; He was a wit. But this might give the impression that Orthodoxy consist entirely of verbal slam-dunks, when each one-liner requires a great deal of preceding play to come off. Nearly all of them come at the end of a paragraph, as summaries of an argument he’s just laid out, and the paragraphs are just as lively as his famous one-liners.

At the end of a digression on language that begins the chapter “The Romance of Orthodoxy Chesterton writes this: “The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.” Orthodoxy is written with that principle in mind, which is one of the reasons it is so readable. Chesterton chooses short words whenever he can and avoids jargon altogether. The whole book is a good reminder that clarity of prose demonstrates clarity of thought and that confusion on the reader’s part often indicates the same on the author’s. 

But all this might lead one to think that Chesterton is merely a stylist, or worse, a sophist. Chesterton’s fondness for paradox might lead one to the same conclusion, since paradox is so often employed today by people too indiscriminate to tell the difference between a contradiction and a paradox or too lazy to do the same. There’s muscle, though, beneath the lovely skin of Chesterton’s prose. His wit is full of wisdom. Take this passage:

“We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening. No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?”

a fortunate find at Open Books - Pilsen
a fortunate find at Open Books – Pilsen

There’s something essential here about what it’s like to be a Christian, to believe that evil and good and sin and grace are real and to act accordingly. And it captures the excitement of living between these convictions, refusing to settle for just one or the other.

Sometimes one feels that Chesterton thought it would be too much effort to get up from his writing desk and see whether what he’d written was, in fact, the case. Sometimes he’s wrong. But he takes chances, and there’s something to be said for that. Much writing today is so modest in its claims one wonders if the writer has—not an excess of scrupulosity—but a lack of courage. I suppose I put up with some of the shortcuts Chesterton takes since I think he’s headed in the right direction. That direction is, of course, orthodoxy. It is as true today as it was in Chesterton’s time that orthodoxy seems a dull thing; a conformity to the theological standards of a bygone era. All the fun seems to be in rebellion. Orthodoxy, whatever its faults, demonstrates that precisely the opposite is the case. In Chesterton’s words, “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” Perhaps the best thing to say about this book is that, for all the wild gymnastics of its prose, Chesterton sticks the landing.