Friday, 6 November 2009

Thomas vs. Thomas

So, in case you were wondering about the URL for this blog, "Doubting Thomist", I thought I'd reflect a bit on it, in an effort to set the tone for this blog.

There were and are a lot of great Thomases in the Catholic faith, starting with Thomas the Apostle, and including such philosophers, monks, martyrs, and mystics as St. Thomas à Beckett, St. Thomas More, Thomas à Kempis, and, of course, the great Dominican theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas the Apostle has gone down in history as being the guy who didn't believe in the Resurrection until he could actually see and touch Jesus. Hence the expression, "Doubting Thomas". St. Thomas Aquinas, as I said, was a great theologian, who gave us the Summa Theologica and the definitive Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, known as Transubstantiation. People who follow his particular theological methods and opinions are known as "Thomists." So I stuck the two terms together to make a neat pun that seemed to sum up the intentions for this blog. Hey, it was that or "", and that just seemed a bit sacrilegious.

I find that "Doubting Thomas" gets a bit of a bad rap. Personally, I quite respect the man. True, Jesus did say that those who would believe without seeing would be "blessed". Nevertheless, He still took the time to show Thomas what he needed to see in order that he would have faith. And while Thomas maybe didn't come to that faith in the most blessed way possible, the faith he received in that experience remained unshakable throughout his life, as he travelled throughout Asia preaching the Gospel as far as India, where he eventually gave his life for his faith in Jesus.

St. Thomas, and his compatriots, the other Apostles, got to see Jesus in a real, dramatic, life-changing way that none of us will ever get to do again until we meet Him face to face at the end of life, when the opportunity to respond in faith is over. Those who choose to believe without that experience are "blessed" says Jesus, since their act of faith is full of merit for them. But what about those of us who can't just take that blind leap of faith? What about those nagging questions that we have and just can't shake? This, I think, is where that other great Thomas steps in. St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us (as does the Church as a whole) that faith is rational. It is reasonable. It makes sense. It's complicated, and often hard to understand at times, but it stands as a bastion of common sense. In the words of G.K. Chesterton's lovable sleuth, Fr. Brown, "I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God Himself is bound by reason" (from "The Blue Cross", in The Innocence of Father Brown, p. 24).

In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas brings us right back to the same source for reason and for faith as St. Thomas the Apostle left us--with the senses. Again, in the words of G.K. Chesterton,
Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody's system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody's sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confident man, that if we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind...
Against all this the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkelian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists, since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God. (Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, p. 136).
What we know, St. Thomas reminds us, begins with what we experience with our senses. The truth of what we know depends on our correct interpretation of those experiences, and right reason helps us form right conclusions. But we all start in the same place, and go on from there.

Our doubts and questions about a God that we cannot see, hear, touch, smell, or taste are only natural. So many times, however, those same doubts are chastised or ignored by the people we turn to for answers. We're told to pray about it, read the Word, ask God, or worse, that our questions mean we don't have enough faith and are therefore sinners. Such attitudes discourage our search for truth, the Truth who is Jesus Himself. Often, such answers indicate that the person asked simply doesn't know the answer, and is threatened by that fact. We like to have our theologies tied up in neat little packages, and when something pops up that we hadn't considered, it really shakes us up.

That's why I'm so glad for the Catholic Church--for St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Thomas Aquinas, and everyone in between and since. It's pretty likely someone in the past 2000 years of Catholic Tradition has given your question some thought, and just as likely that they've managed, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the logic of common sense, to give a pretty good answer.

So I encourage you to bring your questions here, and promise to do my best to answer each and every one of them with concrete, common sense answers. And if I can't answer it, I'll turn to the vast annals of the Church to see if one of the keen minds in that great cloud of witnesses can't help us out.

Sts. Thomas the Apostle and Thomas Aquinas, pray for us, and help us know Jesus better! Amen.


Edward said...

I'm very intrigued by the Thomist understanding of the natural. So much blood has been spilt in apologetic encounters over whether this or that is susceptible to a "natural explanation". But, from what I gather, the key thomist insight is this: to say something is natural is NOT to say God is uninvolved.

Moderns assume that, if God acts, he must act by intervening into the gaps in nature. After all, the natural happens... naturally!

The modern says "see, this is natural" and so our inquiry is over. The Thomist is more curious: what is it for something to be natural???

The modern scientist says "we will study things insofar as they are natural". They take the natural for granted, and then work out the details.

But the thomist will not attack this, really. The thomist, as philosopher, understakes a different kind of inquiry. They don't take the natural for granted, but seek to understand how the natural is natural.

There are pragmatic reasons for the scientist, as scientist, to simply take the natural for granted. But some confuse this with the thomist philosophical mode of inquiry being "unnecessary" or "unwarranted", as if this mode of inquiry imperils sciences. Nonsense!

I think.

Anyway, that's what interests me about St. Thomas.

Gregory said...

Hey! It's Ed! Shoulda realised that when I got the email, but it wasn't until I saw your pic that I put two and two together. For some reason, whenever I see the name Edward, I always thing "Twilight". Never shoulda read that series!

Anyway, welcome to the blog! Hope you enjoy it.

I love your comment, Ed, and think you're quite right. It seems that many times we look at "religion vs. science" as an irreconcilable bit of "doublethink". It's what fuels the Fundamentalist's utter rejection of evolutionary theory, and the Dawkinsian antipathy toward organised religion.

Rather, the Catholic position of "non-overlapping magisteria" seems to be more the right of things. That is, due to the nature of scientific inquiry, it cannot by itself answer the metaphysical questions of God, meaning, etc. It can only offer the facts about the world around us. When scientists try to do more, and create a "theology" (for lack of a better term) out of their scientific conclusions and the interpretation of the data, then they've stepped out of the domain of "science" and into the domain of "religion" or "theology" or at the very least, "philosophy". And as Dawkins himself has shown with staggering clarity, even the brightest scientists can make lousy philosophers.

And, of course, the reverse is true. Great theologians and philosophers don't necessarily have the best grasp of natural science. But since all truth is God's truth, wherever it originates--an axiom affirmed (if not originated) by St. Thomas--a correct understanding of the data gathered by the use of right reason in science and theology won't ever be contradictory.

Anyway, glad to have you about. Your insights will definitely help bring some intelligence to the blog :D

God bless

Christopher said...

As a clarification, Gregory, I think it was Stephen J. Gould who coined the phrase and underlying pragmatic philosophy of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria". The Catholic Church adopted Gould's stance, and probably to her benefit.

I'm enjoying your new venture. I think it's a great idea.

Take care,