Recently I taught theology in South Africa, at St. Joseph’s Theological Institute in Pietermaritzburg. Hot and humid in late summer, 50 miles from the Indian Ocean, Pietermaritzburg in the state of KwaZulu-Natal is the city where in 1893 Gandhi was thrown off a train because he was not white, an event that set in motion his life’s work. Nearby is the place where young Winston Churchill, serving as a war correspondent, was captured during the Boer War.
Founded and directed by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the school where I taught a course on the theology of Thomas Aquinas and part of a course on the theology of ministry serves a group of religious orders. It is set up like the academic unions established in Chicago and Washington for theological studies. The buildings are attractive with airy classrooms and a good library. Part of an ecumenical cluster of seminaries and sharing programs with the theology department of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the school had just acquired state accreditation.
At the end of my course on Aquinas, prompted by the students’ questions about the relationships of church and theology to Africa, I asked them to write a page or two on what they thought Aquinas’s contribution to an African theology might be. Not a few began by saying that the independent thinking of Thomas Aquinas would strengthen the resolve of Africans to develop their own theology. Centuries before, he had given theology a new expression, a new mentality; he used past theologians in such a way that they addressed with him cultural questions of Europe’s vibrant 13th century.
“Africans are trying to see how it is possible to be a Christian but remain an African. African theology is a study and a search for who God is for Africans without Africans losing who they are.” The students saw Aquinas as someone open to new ideas, as a theologian who accepted diversity in human life. “One could think that Aquinas is writing for the contemporary society, for he is open to modern questions of technology and science. Africa is now experiencing the impact of secularization and globalization. African theology should assist the church to be a global community, building upon Aquinas to help the African church make sense of globalization.” How paradoxical that Aquinas, who had been held up by some as the sole or perennial theologian, might legitimize setting aside the monopoly of Greek and Western perspectives.
Each African country, students wrote, must free itself of the original missionary imposition that “everything traditional was bad and was to be abandoned, that traditional religion was ‘paganism.’” Aquinas’s appreciation of the human being as a special creation of God “liberates people to see themselves as being loved by God in a special way and then as being offered the further presence of grace.” For Aquinas, the image of God lies in intelligence and freedom opening onto a further life for men and women, the life of grace with the gifts and charisms of the Holy Spirit. Grace flows into a personality holding treasured African aspects of dignity, celebration and family. Grace can also counter violence: civil wars, abuse of children and women, neglect of the poor. The individual as the image and friend of God does not permit collective or ethnic mistreatment of others. Aquinas’s theology of a generous God and a searching human person encourages the exploration of the diverse worlds making up Africa.
Aquinas’s theology presents grace as a life principle and not as a transitory force running from a celestial electric company to a needy creature. Grace and the person receiving grace will find their own expressions in Africa. The students saw that Aquinas’s psychology affirmed the individual and that his theology of grace highlighted the dignity and limits of each graced individual. The African is life-affirming, generous, active. “It is not suitable,” St. Thomas wrote, “that God provide more for creatures being led by divine love to a natural good than for those creatures to which that love offers a supernatural good. For natural creatures God provides generously...kinds of forms and powers which are principles of acts so that they are inclined to activity through their own beings.... Even more for those moved to reach an eternal supernatural good he infuses certain forms or qualities of the supernatural order according to which easily and enthusiastically they are moved by God to attain that good which is eternal.” That is African thinking.
Aquinas gave to his Summa Theologiae the form and plan of a journey, and he wrote that our life on earth is a journey. The theme of journey is important to Africans. Whether in Malawi or Zimbabwe, Africans are often on journeys, daily journeys. There are different kinds of rites of passage, and along with the sacraments these mark life as a journey. The ancestors accompany people on their journeys. They are graced individuals who have gone ahead into the eschaton.
Africans, as part of the human journey, enjoy and complete Jesus’ work—but they are not adjuncts to European history. The Summa Theologiae holds “hints that all tribes and nations are called to be open to the grace of God.” Africans do not accept any marginalization, and they ask about how in the past and the present they are part of salvation history (this seemed more important to them than being part of the history of the church). The students saw that an African attitude toward technology and economic growth will influence how Africans think about Christianity. “Anthropology is the biggest question for the church in Africa, and its theological development, ‘inculturation,’ is on everyone’s lips in universities and seminaries.” A long human history, a diverse history of salvation includes African history, where humanity began.
The history of salvation leads to Aquinas’s contributions to a theology of salvation outside of baptism. Because of the religious diversity of Africa, a theology reflecting on how grace is widely present is important. “God wills that everyone should be saved,”one student wrote, “and makes sure that every person has some knowledge of God. If salvation is for the entire human race, then Africans did not need the West to tell them about God. Africans had their own understanding of God and their own ideas about salvation.” A history of grace raises the issues of predestination and the universality of grace. At the same time speculative theology spills over into the pastoral theology of the reception of the sacraments. “The opinion that someone dying without baptism goes straight to hell and that there is no salvation for any unbaptized person is useless,” another student noted.
For the young African theologians, priests and lay ministers in my class, Aquinas was a thinker accompanying them on their journey into new understandings of personality, grace and culture. To exemplify his contribution, they did not offer a sentence or a definition from a particular article in the Summa Theologiae. Perspectives, principles and thought-forms are influential, not proofs but ways of seeing.
The theology of Thomas Aquinas appeared in a second way during my time in South Africa. I gave a number of lectures on the theology of salvation outside of Christianity. South Africa is a laboratory of religion and religions. Along with the Christian churches, large and small, there are the African religions, as well as the Hinduism and Islam of the many men and women of Indian origin. Nothing could be more important or more difficult than thinking about how Christ is at the center of a lengthy salvation history inclusive of all. I could hardly theorize theologically about a world of such breadth, one so distant from my experience in the United States. In lectures I traced a tradition (perhaps the tradition) in the Catholic appreciation of grace outside of Christianity, a line reaching from Aquinas through Francisco de Vitoria, the Dominican theologian and jurist (c. 1453-1546), and Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican defender of Indians in the 16th-century Spanish colonies (1474-1566), to theological textbooks from the years around 1900 and on to Karl Rahner, S.J.
Aquinas treated this topic in the context of baptism and faith, and when he discussed Jesus Christ’s leadership of the human race and the psychology of an individual initial meeting with grace.
What about human beings in other religions who could not have heard of the Gospel? “Even if they did not have an explicit faith,” Aquinas wrote, “they had an implicit faith in divine providence and believed God to be the liberator of people according to ways which pleased him, and according to which he had revealed himself to some knowing the truth.... Cons-equently the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation was to be believed in all ages and by all peoples in some fashion but in ways differing with the differences of times and peoples.”
One night after I had outlined this tradition of wider salvation, I discussed with other teachers the enormous problem of how tens of millions of people in this diverse country, pursuing their own religions, are related to the incarnate Word. How is Christ to be presented not as narrow, condemnatory and sectarian but as the light of the world? The faculty—young, well educated, open and most from Indian and African backgrounds—had many ideas. I will never forget the end of the evening’s discussion. We agreed that these Thomist approaches had been important and helpful—their long history showed their value. Weren’t they exhausted? They could go no further, and no new reformulations of, for instance, implicit faith, were likely to help. Limited in their Greek metaphysics and Latin logic, these conclusions could offer little to our world, which is so much larger than Justin Martyr or Las Casas could imagine. This metamorphosis in the history of theology had completed its mission. Original ideas were needed—and they would come not from Cologne or Cleveland but from Catholics living today amid the world’s religions and aware of the complexity of the history of salvation.
It seems that a theologian of the past can be important to others if his theology displays potentiality and universality. Aquinas’s theology can assist peoples of other cultures to understand the loving plan of the Trinity, to live out of God’s life in our life and to perceive the generous extent of grace in history and humanity. Aquinas himself said that a translator retains the meaning of the truths in what is being translated even as the style and genius of the new language are fully engaged. No matter how seminal the Greek mentality of the West, Plato or Aristotle, there will be new ways of looking at Christian faith.
During one class, I was working to hold my students’ attention while teaching about the causes of grace (God is the sole true cause of grace, and people and liturgy are modest channels of that grace). The afternoon was building up to the daily thunder and lightning storm of late summer passing into autumn. I walked over to a large screened window and looked across an ordinary field. Outside, not 50 yards away, a colorful baboon, three or four feet tall, was staring at me. I was shaken by seeing up close something quite different from a Midwestern squirrel or rabbit. Had the ape been drawn to the classroom by Aquinas’s lofty view of created causes? God’s power works in creatures’ forms, in their species acting out their lives and destinies. On the baboon, as on us all, each in a particular way, whether in nature or grace, whether as a composer of music or a teacher, God bestows, in the words of Aquinas, “the dignity of being a real cause.”