In his very first sentence, Denys Turner, professor of historical theology at Yale University, tells us that in his portrait of that most Catholic of Catholic philosopher-theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), “I have not until undertaking this work given more careful consideration to an intended readership.” That is you and me, the nonspecialist looking for conversations, written or oral, about the foundational questions mostly skipped in homilies, pamphlets and catechisms but noisily raised by the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett) and by almost any report in the Tuesday New York Times science section on neuroscience and its neuroimaging informing us that we have lost our minds to our brains. Before offering a judgment about Turner’s success, let’s talk about what he’s done.
He is modest. He calls his portrait a “caricature,” but redefines the term to mean not distortion but exaggeration, as a teacher might do in an early morning class. This works wonderfully for his account of Thomas the man, the Dominican and the saint. We learn that Thomas disappointed his ambitious parents when he joined the recently formed Dominicans, who sided with the era’s 99 percent with their off-putting vow of poverty and their street-preaching, that he did grow fat and balding, that he knew no Greek, that he unhesitatingly drew on Arabic sources of Aristotle, that his sermons were “mercifully short,” that he was not scintillating, that he had a plodding deadpan style, that he too thought of himself as a “dumb ox,” that he didn’t complete his Summa Theologiae and that this very incompletion was symptomatic of his non-self-promotional personal and professional style.
Thomas was the smartest person in the room, but he always took the last seat in the last row. So—how did Thomas the Unlikely become the founder of that periodically discarded only to be rediscovered philosophia perennis called Thomism? A deep Catholic sensibility is part of it. Thomas’s philosophy aces the F. Scott Fitzgerald criterion that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” In his own little paradox, Turner characterizes Thomas’s thought as combining both the Protestant either-or and the Catholic both-and.
Turner has three tightly intertwined middle chapters (“A Materialist,” “The Soul,” “God”) where we learn, among other things, why Thomas had no rational problems with Aristotle’s argument that the world was eternal; why he did have rational problems with the many Platonist Christians who, in their deference to Genesis, opposed Aristotle; why Thomas emphasized that humans are rational animals (the author’s constant emphasis); why “Thomas the Materialist” is the key to his philosophy and theology; why many of his academic colleagues and some bishops considered his teaching dangerously heretical; why Thomas argued that the soul’s immortality is insufficient for the survival of a personal “I”; that for Thomas the existence of God is rationally debatable, even if he knows as a matter of faith which side ought to win; that rationally monotheism is no easier to establish than the Trinity; that while humans must ask questions about a creator—why is there something rather than nothing?—the answers are not inevitably provable; that for Thomas this negative theology is the exact inverse of atheist denial; that regarding free will, both God and “I” are the causes of my free action.
In all these complex and paradoxical philosophical reasonings, Turner, always the conscientious teacher, assists the reader with apt analogies and punchy one-liners. Still, these middle chapters remain oceans away from beach reading.
Turner’s Chapter 6, “Grace, Desire, and Prayer,” begins, “It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of friendship in Thomas’s moral theology and the role that friendship plays in his theology of grace.” This chapter warrants a slow reading and prepares us for what I took to be perhaps the contemporary core of Turner’s Portrait: Thomas’s teaching on the eucharist, which is the culmination of both his philosophical reflections and his spirituality.
After that Thomas wrote not one more word, leaving his Summa incomplete. He died three months later. Turner argues that Thomas’s “elected incompleteness” signified not (as the legend has it) that his reflections on the Eucharist unmasked his heavy thinking “as straw,” but rather that he had brought them to the edge of the soul-filling silence of mysticism. In terms of Thomas’s apotheosis embrace, Turner then reflects on what the term “transubstantiation” can and cannot tell us today and whether it obscures the depth of what Thomas, the Council of Trent and today’s church mean by the Eucharist. This chapter alone almost—but it’s still an almost—eases the underlinings and double-readings required by the preceding chapters.
Here is an apt way to decide if you want to buy this worthy and demanding book. Download Part 5 of the 2004 BBC program “The Atheism Tapes,” in which, like Aquinas, Turner in his conversation with the neurologist Jonathan Miller presents a portrait of the honest seeker who refuses to sever reason and faith and is comfortable with a rational silence. Turner closes Aquinas with suggestions for further reading, helpfully arranging the sources by their pertinence to each of his chapters. A reader could profitably spend a semester with this book.