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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Thomas Aquinas

My fellow friar, Fr. Jim Wheeler, has put a sign in our yard promoting “Catholic Radio.”

When I listen to the local Catholic radio station occasionally, I notice that it is sponsored by EWTN, Mother Angelica’s organization. Some of the speakers I have heard have an attitude that I would describe as “triumphalist apologetics.” They speak as people who know the answers, and are proud that they do not have to take a back seat to anybody intellectually. They have Thomas Aquinas.

This is unfortunate. Their attitude is not conducive to a real dialogue with people who might not agree with them.

Their attitude can be improved, but their use of Thomas Aquinas bothers me.

Part of the reason that Thomas bothers me is that he was a member of the Dominican Order, and I am a member of the Franciscan Order, and the two Orders have traditionally been rivals intellectually. Sixty years ago, when I was studying philosophy in our Cleveland seminary, my instructors based three years of course work on the Franciscans John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. In our last semester we took one course in Thomistic thought. True, Pope Leo XIII said, back in 1897, that Thomas should be the basis of all Catholic thought. My Franciscan forebears, operating out of centuries of Scotus, couldn’t do that. Pope Leo’s infallibility did not extend that far.

But Thomas bothers me also because he and Scotus and Ockham are all thinkers from the middle ages, and there are centuries of philosophical development between them and us. After I was ordained I was told to get a degree in sociology, which I did, and I taught that subject for 35 years. But I was a close friend of a friar-philosopher here in Quincy, Fr. John Joe Lakers, who wrote a lot of material about the drawbacks of medieval models in our time.

“JJ” studied at Oxford, and got a background in the philosophy of language. In later years he got interested in “postmodernism.”

I have seen the term “postmodern” used in Catholic publications as a stick to beat other thinkers over the head with. It’s as though you just have to use the word “postmodern” and you think “stupid,” if not downright evil.

The postmodernists are accused of saying things like “there is no such thing as truth.” Some of them probably did say that, because people who call themselves postmodern sometimes liked to startle their readers into original thinking. But what the postmodernists were really saying was “any time someone claims to be speaking the truth, look out, because they are hiding a desire to control someone else.” That is not the same thing as saying there is no truth.

Postmodern thought has connections with sociological theory. One of the oldest principles in sociology is the statement by W.I. Thomas, which he wrote around 1918, “If people define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.” If you think someone is coming at you with a knife to kill you, you are likely to defend yourself, even if the person is not in fact coming at you to kill you. This means also that two people can look at the same thing and define it differently.

Courts of law operate on this principle all the time. The prosecutor and the defendant tell different stories about an event. They may each really think their story expresses what happened. The purpose of the court is to apply the rules of evidence to the two stories and try to determine which story is closer to what really happened--to the truth.

In 1966 Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann published a book titled The Social Construction of Reality. The title tells it all. “Reality” is a story shared by a group of people.

The medieval scholastic thinkers, and Plato and Aristotle before them, thought that they could formulate a story about any event that everyone everywhere would have to accept as true. They claimed to speak from a godlike perspective, one that would see and describe reality in terms that would be true for all time and in all places. They wrote in Latin, so their stories were shaped by the Latin language. Today we know that every language causes its speakers to see events in slightly different ways.  

Aquinas and Scotus, following Plato, thought that behind the “reality” that we observe is a real reality, the world of ideas. The things we humans experience are shadows of those real realities. Those realities never change. Because they never change, we can deduce not only our understanding of the physical world and the world of plants and animals, but also the world of human moral behavior, “natural law.” Everybody knows that some behaviors are just wrong, in that world of ideas.

Ockham challenged that theory. He said that there is no world of ideas out there. What we call universal ideas are stories that we create from our experiences. We observe first, and then we generalize.

Ockham’s challenge seems to throw everything up for grabs. It makes our most cherished beliefs the result of groups of people telling the same stories about things. What happens if those people tell different stories?

Things are not totally up for grabs. We have two institutions that keep our story-telling under control--never under complete control, but control enough for us to get through life without killing each others. The two institutions are the courts, which I mentioned above, and science. Science attempts to evaluate any story we tell by using observation.

I keep using the term “story.” That term is central to the way we humans deal with reality. For example, every scientific theory is a story, a fiction. It is a story evaluated by observation. No scientific theory can be proved true for all time. One incongruous observation can demolish a theory. That doesn’t mean that science is useless or evil. We have gotten a lot of mileage out of the scientific advances of the last two or three centuries.

Scientific work has expanded from the physical universe to the human world, including the psychological and sociological realities among which we live. By trying to use Thomas Aquinas as the basis for our thinking, we shut ourselves off from the intellectual world around us. We open ourselves to isolation and ridicule. Thomas Aquinas himself was accused of heresy by the University of Paris because he was using a pagan thinker, Aristotle, to describe the world in new ways.

The Church got along for a thousand years before Thomas Aquinas. For that matter, it got along for 250 years before the Council of Nicea formulated the Nicene Creed. The early Christians took people’s experiences of Jesus and struggled to let those experiences shape their lives. Those Christians told all kinds of stories about Jesus: he was just a man, he was just God pretending to be human. Nobody had a claim on any story. Things were messy.

They are still messy. The last couple of hundred years have caused us to tell the stories of Jesus in ways that were ever told before. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus read most of Scripture as historical truth, and they built some remarkable thought systems on that basis. Scripture is literature, stories and other literary forms told by human beings with their cultural backgrounds and biases. I still believe that God’s Spirit moves among all the messiness. Conversation requires humility and openness to changing one’s mind. If we are going to converse with the physicists and psychologists of our day, we cannot begin with the claim that we know the important truths about human life and nobody else does.