‘Summa’ 2.0: A new generation reads Aquinas
Late have I loved him—or later, at least, than a lot of people. I was 27 years old when I first sat down to read the work of St. Thomas Aquinas seriously. At that point, having grown up in the Bible-soaked world of evangelicalism, and having gone off to earn degrees in philosophy and literature, I felt that I understood the Bible and the Western intellectual tradition, at least in broadest outline, as undergrads learn them. And I already had spent some time struggling to understand how these things could work together, as I tried to organize what the philosophers called “a good life.” All this, as it turns out, was the perfect set-up for my introduction to Aquinas. I recall racing through pages of the Summa Theologiae, feeling a kind of electric hum. Once or twice, I found myself whispering out loud, “He’s a genius.” And so, 700 years or so after Aquinas wrote the words I was reading, I had the remarkable sense that I had discovered him for the first time.
As I became a regular reader of Aquinas, I began to see the kind of overall coherence that is present in his work and in the work of only a few of the greatest synthesizing minds. Particularly in the Summa, a work composed at the end of his life (he died in 1274), the connections seem endless: so many sections of the text easily could be inserted as an extended footnote at any number of other points.
I marveled as he made specific connections I felt I should have seen, but had not. Since I was a child, I had known well the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel: “I no longer call you servants. I have called you friends.” A signal text, it laid the ground for real and intimate connection to God. As I made my way through Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, though, it simply never occurred to me, as it had to Aquinas, that the detailed account of friendship outlined there made possible an even richer interpretation of the Evangelist’s account. To me, this sort of interrelatedness did not look like cold, mathematical logic. It looked like profound intellectual care and commitment to connection. It looked to me like someone else who was trying, as I was, to pull things together and aim for the good.
At the same time, I could see how lightly Aquinas carried his genius—a feeling sometimes at odds with my own experience in academia. As much as I loved ideas, self-importance and bickering among academics already had begun to push me away. Perhaps I was oversensitive, as so many in my generation seemed to be. Growing up just behind the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, and watching them become the excesses of the 1980s, I was suspicious of both systems and agendas and of those whose egos seemed closely connected to either one.
In Aquinas, though, I could see that even as he constructed a certain “system,” he was not focused on the system itself. He encourages us to aim higher while at the same time recognizing what we cannot do. The way he makes use of a principle of analogy to describe speech about God sets a parameter early on in his Summa: all of his complex intellectual claims may be true, more or less, but they can never be truth itself. This is more than just general modesty about intellectual pursuit. This is, for Aquinas, intimately connected to the notion of admiratio, an underappreciated theme in his work.
A friend well-versed in Aquinas and in medieval Latin recently suggested to me that the best translation of admiratio may be “gobsmacked wonder.” In a sense, this is the response that Aquinas wants most of all to make room for. Desire for God permeates the whole endeavor. Yet this focus does not leave earthly things behind. It leads one to deal not with God in isolation, but with “all things in light of God.”
Seen in this light, it is not just God, but all those we encounter and, in the end, all of creation that demand our admiratio. They exceed us even as we are a part of them. Although many of us have the inclination and the leisure to do a lot of thinking about this, our intellectual efforts, when done rightly, are done not in a sterile way but in wonder and delight. Appropriately enough, reading Aquinas is itself a type of formation in this process. His deployment of his powerful intellectual gifts, his simultaneous recognition of their limitations, his pointing toward the mystery beyond his own gifts—all this delivers his message and at the same time constitutes his own embodiment of it.
A Community of Beginners
It is perhaps important to note that I am not alone in this experience of reading Aquinas. My generation never memorized Thomism as a set of propositions; nor did any of us learn to breathe in a Thomistic atmosphere. We found him along the way. A new moment in the long story of Thomism is emerging, as more and more younger scholars are reading his works, seeing both old and new possibilities. Aquinas is drawing us in, in a way both like and unlike the way he has drawn people in since he was teaching in Paris.
In some cases, Aquinas also draws us toward one another. Perhaps this is not surprising. As noted above, Aquinas gives us some of the most rarefied concepts in the everyday language of friendship. The Summa is not written in simple, declarative paragraphs. It relies on, and actually incorporates, the form of debate and discussion with others. At the same time, it relativizes agreement in an interesting way. “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject,” Aquinas says in a commentary on Aristotle. “For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.”
Perhaps it is no accident, then, that one of my most fruitful experiences reading Aquinas developed from a small annual gathering of scholar-friends. Looking for another way to come at our practice of study, we began with certain aspects of a medieval studium generale, but above all, we have centered ourselves on close study of Aquinas in the context of our friendships with one another and of prayer. Our days together involve slow, careful reading of Thomistic texts, with generous doses of exploration, disagreement and questions about their relation to contemporary theological conversation, as well as regular prayer. Our evenings are set aside for unhurried meals, with a little more disagreement and a good bit more laughter. We frequently are joined by students as well, and looking for ways to befriend and mentor them has become a natural extension of our work together.
We may not be what you think of when someone speaks of “Thomists.” We ourselves are unsure whether that is what we are, and we differ among ourselves on that question. We do know that we are great fans of Aquinas and consider ourselves to be his students. At this point, 20 years after my first reading of the Summa, I feel as if I am still a beginner. Happily, I am in good company.