Sunday, February 24, 2013

Is Theology Necessary?

The first Question in the Summa is "The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine." Thomas uses the term "sacred doctrine" and "sacred science" to mean what we would normally call "theology." Since the Summa is a book about theology, Thomas starts by exploring what theology actually is. The first Article for this Question asks whether it is even necessary? The title of the Article is "whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required?" If we were to translate this into modern terms, we would ask, "is there any source of knowledge beyond what science gives us?"

This is an incredibly relevant question today, and St. Thomas addressed it over 700 years ago. It's true that he didn't have access to the modern science we practice today, but his definition of "philosophy" is that which is known through reason, and this would include modern science.

Thomas' answer is based on the idea that the purpose of human life is directed towards God, who exceeds the grasp of human reason. "Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation" (I,1,1b). If there is an infinite transcendant God like the God of Christianity, and the purpose of human life is directed towards him, then in order to know how to reach God, we would need information from God that is beyond our ability to figure out on our own. In other words, God is a being so high above us that he must stoop down and tell us about himself if we are to know him.

Now Thomas does admit that there are "truths about God which human reason could have discovered," (indeed he will demonstrate some of those truths later) but it was still necessary for God to reveal them to us because only a few people would have the ability to figure it out on their own, and it would take a long time, and they would make mistakes. So even in the case of these truths about God that are accessible to human reason, God reveals them so that they can be accurately known to all.

Of course, most of the people who today say that modern science tells us everything we need to know don't believe that there is a God, or that the goal of human existence is to know God. Therefore, they would not be convinced by this argument, which assumes God's existence. However, Thomas will address this issue later when he demonstrates what we can know about God through human reason. If he can use human reason to show that there is a God and that knowing him is the ultimate goal of human existence, then he will have support for the argument made in this article. Many people make the mistake of looking at one of St. Thomas' arguments in the Summa in isolation, but that approach misses the interrelated structure of his work. I only hope I can capture a little bit of that in these blog posts.

Finally, I want to point out the Reply to Objection 2 in this Article. The Objection is that because philosophy deals with theological topics, there is no need for a study of theology apart from philosophy. The Reply notes that different intellectual disciplines, or "sciences" can come to the same conclusion using different means. "For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself" (I,1,1r2). Therefore, it is ok if philosophy comes to some of the same conclusions that are reached through theological study of divine revelation.

There are two things that I want to point out about this Reply. The first is that people in the Middle Ages knew the Earth was round. The second is that Thomas believes that there is one reality, and that different methods of investigating that reality should eventually lead to the same truth. John Polkinghorne makes the same point in his book, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology, where he says there should ultimately be no conflict between modern science and theology if they are done rightly because they are two ways of seeking the truth of the one world we inhabit.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Non-Encyclopedia

St. Thomas' Summa Theologiae is a kind of encyclopedia of theology. However, unlike today's encyclopedias, it did not use an arbitrary alphabetical scheme to organize the information. Rather, the medieval scholar believed all knowledge to be interrelated, and the organization of the Summa was an attempt to capture some of those relationships. It is divided into three main Parts focused on God (Part I), Man (Part II), and Christ (Part III). The second part has two halves, Part I-II and Part II-II. Each Part is made of many Questions, and each Question is divided into a number of Articles. The way I think of it is that the Question is a specific topic under consideration, and the Question is explored or articulated through the Articles.

You will see that each Article itself asks a question about the Question topic, and the Article appears to take a yes or no answer. St. Thomas will have an answer to the question, but first will list a series of Objections to his answer. He attempts to state every possible argument against the answer he will give. After the Objections comes the Sed Contra, which is Latin for "On the contrary," which are the opening words of the section. Here Thomas quotes some authority such as the Bible, a Church Father such as St. Augustine, or a philosopher such as Aristotle. Following the Sed Contra is the Body, which always begins with the words, "I answer that," where St. Thomas gives his own answer to the question. Finally, the Article concludes with Replies to each of the Objections listed at the beginning of the Article.

When I took a course on the Summa Theologiae, I first thought that I needed to focus on a yes or no answer to each Article. I soon learned that I was missing the point of the Articles. As I said before, they are a means to explore the bigger Question, and sometimes they don't have a single yes or no answer. Many times, the answer is nuanced, and what Thomas does in the Body is to make distinctions, which can lead to a deeper understanding of the topic. Sometimes, a Reply to an Objection will go into further depth into an aspect of the topic.

I will use a citation system for referring to the Summa that I learned in my class. The Parts are labeled with Roman numerals, after which the Question and Article numbers are given using Arabic numerals. Objections are indicated by an "o" followed by then Objection number, and Replies to the Objections are indicated by a "r" followed by a number. The Sed Contra is indicated by "sc" and the Body is "b." Therefore, the Reply to Objection 2 in Article 2 of Question 109 in the First half of the Second Part is I-II,109,2r2. I know this is probably confusing, but I will also include hyperlinks to the online text of the referenced article, and I think the numbering system will make sense after a while.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Medieval Solutions to Modern Problems

I heard a good definition of "modernism" on the radio yesterday that goes something like this: it is the belief that the new or the latest thing is always better than the old. Old ideas, old thinking, old ways of doing things should be discarded in favor of new ideas, new thinking, and new ways of doing things. Therefore, the assumption is that humanity will continue to advance in knowledge as time passes.

While I'm the first to admit that we know some things today that were not known 50, 100, 500, or 1000 years ago, I think it is also possible we have forgotten important things that people knew back then. I am not suggesting that we somehow go back to the past. It is neither possible or desirable to do so. However, it is a mistake to think that progress means we must forget what came before. Instead, we should recognize that the great minds of the past still have something to teach us, and their perspective may be just what we need to help us solve the problems we face today.

Last January 28th, the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, I attended the annual Aquinas Lecture sponsored by the Philosophy Department at University of Dallas. Thomas Aquinas is one of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, and arguably of all human history. The talk inspired me to begin studying his Summa Theologiae again. I had taken a course on it a few years ago, but I want to go deeper into it. After going through a few articles of the Summa, I thought I should write some posts about what I'm studying in order to share some of the pearls I'm finding there as well as deepen my own understanding through writing. My hope is that this will work into a blogging series that is beneficial to myself and others.