Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thomas Aquinas: No Shoulder-Shrugger

Karen Armstrong said the following in an interview with NPR's Terry Gross:

Thomas Aquinas in his great work the "Summa Theologica," he says yes, now here are some proofs to show that something brought something into existence when there could have been nothing. But then he pulls the rug out from under our feet and says, but we don't know what it is we've proved. All we've proved is the existence of a mystery. We have no idea what God is. And that's basically the way religion was left at the time.

Religion wasn't about answering questions that we could answer perfectly well by our powers of logos, of reason and science. Religion was helping us to deal with aspects of life, facts of life for which there are no easy answers.
This is spectacularly and flagrantly wrong.

Far from throwing up his hands and declaring the presence of "mystery," Aquinas arrived at a number of specific and definite conclusions about god in his lengthy theological works. Below is a partial listing of sub-headings of one section of one of the three main parts of the Summa Theologica; the titles alone suggest an author who believes himself very much in command of the material addressed, whatever its difficulties:
Question. 2 - OF THE MODE OF UNION OF THE WORD INCARNATE (TWELVE ARTICLES)

Question. 5 - OF THE PARTS OF HUMAN NATURE WHICH WERE ASSUMED (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 6 - OF THE ORDER OF ASSUMPTION (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 7 - OF THE GRACE OF CHRIST AS AN INDIVIDUAL MAN (THIRTEEN ARTICLES)

Question. 9 - OF CHRIST'S KNOWLEDGE IN GENERAL (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 10 - OF THE BEATIFIC KNOWLEDGE OF CHRIST'S SOUL (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 11 - OF THE KNOWLEDGE IMPRINTED OR INFUSED IN THE SOUL OF CHRIST (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 12 - OF THE ACQUIRED OR EMPIRIC KNOWLEDGE OF CHRIST'S SOUL (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 13 - OF THE POWER OF CHRIST'S SOUL (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 14 - OF THE DEFECTS OF BODY ASSUMED BY THE SON OF GOD (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 15 - OF THE DEFECTS OF SOUL ASSUMED BY CHRIST (TEN ARTICLES)

Question. 16 - OF THOSE THINGS WHICH ARE APPLICABLE TO CHRIST IN HIS BEING AND BECOMING (TWELVE ARTICLES)

Question. 20 - OF CHRIST'S SUBJECTION TO THE FATHER (TWO ARTICLES)

Question. 21 - OF CHRIST'S PRAYER (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 22 - OF THE PRIESTHOOD OF CHRIST (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 24 - OF THE PREDESTINATION OF CHRIST (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 25 - OF THE ADORATION OF CHRIST (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 27 - OF THE SANCTIFICATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 28 - OF THE VIRGINITY OF THE MOTHER OF GOD (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 29 - OF THE ESPOUSALS OF THE MOTHER OF GOD (TWO ARTICLES)

Question. 30 - OF THE ANNUNCIATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 31 - OF THE MATTER FROM WHICH THE SAVIOUR'S BODY WAS CONCEIVED (EIGHT ARTICLES)

Question. 32 - OF THE ACTIVE PRINCIPLE IN CHRIST'S CONCEPTION (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 33 - OF THE MODE AND ORDER OF CHRIST'S CONCEPTION (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 34 - OF THE PERFECTION OF THE CHILD CONCEIVED (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 35 - OF CHRIST'S NATIVITY (EIGHT ARTICLES)

Question. 36 - OF THE MANIFESTATION OF THE NEWLY BORN CHRIST (EIGHT ARTICLES)

Question. 37 - OF CHRIST'S CIRCUMCISION, AND OF THE OTHER LEGAL OBSERVANCES ACCOMPLISHED IN REGARD TO THE CHILD CHRIST (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 38 - OF THE BAPTISM OF JOHN (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 39 - OF THE BAPTIZING OF CHRIST (EIGHT ARTICLES)

Question. 40 - OF CHRIST'S MANNER OF LIFE (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 43 - OF THE MIRACLES WORKED BY CHRIST, IN GENERAL (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 44 - OF (CHRIST'S) MIRACLES CONSIDERED SPECIFICALLY (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 45 - OF CHRIST'S TRANSFIGURATION (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 46 - THE PASSION OF CHRIST (TWELVE ARTICLES)

Question. 47 - OF THE EFFICIENT CAUSE OF CHRIST'S PASSION (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 48 - OF THE EFFICIENCY OF CHRIST'S PASSION (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 49 - OF THE EFFECTS OF CHRIST'S PASSION (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 50 - OF THE DEATH OF CHRIST (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 51 - OF CHRIST'S BURIAL (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 52 - OF CHRIST'S DESCENT INTO HELL (EIGHT ARTICLES)

Question. 53 - OF CHRIST'S RESURRECTION (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 54 - OF THE QUALITY OF CHRIST RISING AGAIN (FOUR ARTICLES)

Question. 55 - OF THE MANIFESTATION OF THE RESURRECTION (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 56 - OF THE CAUSALITY OF CHRIST'S RESURRECTION (TWO ARTICLES)

Question. 57 - OF THE ASCENSION OF CHRIST (SIX ARTICLES)

Question. 58 - OF CHRIST'S SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE FATHER (FOUR ARTICLES)
Aquinas developed, elaborated, and defended a dizzying variety of firm idea of what god was, including but not limited to details of his birth, circumcision, life, movements, nature, death, and post-death travels.

Aquinas did draw a distinction between what could be known by reason versus what must be maintained by faith, but whatever the mode or means of conveyance, he arrived at a great many considered conclusions about "what god is." He was not befuddled; he was not one to shrug his shoulders at the limits of reason; nor did the Catholic Church canonize him for putting a quizzical look on his face and mumbling of "mysteries."

As he put the matter in the opening of the Summa Contra Gentiles:
It is one and the same function to embrace either of two contraries and to repel the other. Hence, as it is the function of the wise man to discuss truth, particularly of the first beginning, so it is his also to impugn the contrary error. Suitably therefore is the double function of the wise man displayed in the words above quoted from the Sapiential Book, namely, to study, and upon study to speak out the truth of God, which of all other is most properly called truth, and this is referred to in the words, My mouth shall discuss truth, and to impugn error contrary to truth, as referred to in the words, And my lips shall detest the ungodly.
Over the course of thousands and thousands of words, Aquinas developed a detailed theology -- the "truth of God, which of all other is properly called truth" -- that went far beyond Karen Armstrong's pet notion of apophatic shoulder-shrugging.

Looking over those works, for all their evident shortcomings, it's tempting to wonder at what so keen an intellect might have achieved under more hospitable, less god-addled circumstances. Looking over Karen Armstrong's slapdash twaddle, different and less flattering questions suggest themselves, e.g., why is no one laughing, who is buying her books, how stupid does she think people are, and so on.

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