English Version


Holy Folly: Thomas Aquinas and the Summa Theologia

By Jude Chua Soo Meng, PhD, FRHistS, FCoT

  'Religion' has, to a great extent, become a dirty word. 'God', who is at the centre of religion, has become a very dirty word. God talk is a very undesirable social phenomenon, and we should be alert to it to reject such speech and all it stands for, just as we have, over the years, become alert to people who oppress women with their kind of discourse. After all, people who believe in God behave like ruffians: they kill and they murder others along with themselves. Faith in God is like a mental disease-it disorientates you and makes you do evil things. Fortunately God is an illusion. Indeed, it is a deluding illusion. Ask any scientist, and they would tell you that careful reasoning cannot prove God's existence. Everything, including our own existence as complex beings, can be explained without invoking God. Read about God, but not to believe in Him. Read about him in religious texts, as a historian of ideas would read history, or as a student of literature would read Dante, but believe not one word of what it says. If we are to be cured of our folly, we must give up our faith in God for science. Thus argues Professor Richard Dawkins, who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

  If we are to believe Dawkins, then The Summa Theologia must be a very foolish text. It is, as a matter of fact, very much about God. Just as foolish then is its author: an oversized, perhaps geeky Dominican friar in the 13th Century named Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps Aquinas might not have disagreed with any such assessment of his folly-at the end of his life he insisted that all he has written was like straw, chaff to be burnt, and he stopped writing. He thought, in the end, foolish to have written about God. The Summa was in fact an unfinished work. The last book, as we have it now, was completed by his faithful scribe Reginald. Aquinas was not, however, motivated by disbelief when he stopped writing. At least, there is no reason to think he was so motivated-when he was badly injured on his way to the Council of Lyons he asked to be transported to a Cistercian monastery to die, since he thought it was more fitting for the Lord Jesus to find him there. So Aquinas must have been a fool through and through, to the very end. Not only did he believe in a God who created him, he thought that God loved him, and loved all creation, and was intimate with creation. Thus in the Summa one finds Aquinas struggling with neo-Platonic concepts like 'participation' and Aristotelian analogues of 'act' and 'potency' to communicate what he believed was God's immediate presence to all, as much as He was really distinct from all of creation. Creation, Aquinas would say, participated or shared of God, and received God as potency receives its actuality; and as creation's actuality God was intimately united to his work, holding it in existence, whilst at the same time separate from it. Important commentators in the Dominican tradition like Thomas de Vio Cajetan OP and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP would later warn against reading too much into the way God is united to creatures, and stress that Aquinas had always maintained a real distinction between God and creation's essence, but the fact that there was this danger is an indication that Aquinas was struggling to balance orthodoxy on the one hand and his understanding that God is ever so near. So why did he stop writing? Legend has it that before he hung his pen, Aquinas had a mystical vision which impressed upon him how inadequate his own theological science was for saying anything about God. Unlike Dawkins, Aquinas in his folly gave up on his science for his faith.

  But one suspects the Summa is anything but foolish. At least, whoever reads the Summa carefully will not charge Aquinas with stupidity. Even before he had his vision, his writings betray an acute awareness of the little we can really say and prove of God. Thus the five ways to God in the early part of the Summa never quite prove God's existence, but ends merely with the conclusion that some primary cause exists, and such a first cause is “what we call God”, as if to say that this is what people generally mean by God, but this is not quite what God completely is. Again the Summa would in many places presuppose a similar idea developed early in his On Being and Essence. Namely, that God is most properly described as unlimited existence. He is that immense and infinite source of power which stands out of nothingness and enables creation to exist. God is best described as be-ing (esse), unlimited by any determinate structure which might otherwise constrain Him. So our God-talk too should reflect that truth, and we should, Aquinas suggests, describe God as He Who Is (esse), rather than He Who is such and such a nature. Such attentiveness to the limits of discourse contrasts with Dawkins' confident but overstated assertion that God does not exist merely on the basis that creation's complexity can be explained by science.

  One finds similar ideas in Asian thought, no doubt. In philosophical Daoism, there is the suggestion of a source of the myriad beings called the “Dao”, and if it can be spoken of, or even named, then what is said cannot possibly have accurately described it.(道可道非常道) Important Chinese commentators explain that words give determination to things referred (Wang Bi 王弼:指事造形)and so the constructed concept leaves the false impression that the Dao is nothing more than that idea. Like God, the Dao also sustains all beings in existence, and even rules the world providentially so that there is a harmonious state of affairs. Such providence is really nothing more than what a Deist would acknowledge: natural laws are set in motion which more or less result in desirable ends. Aquinas' account of God's providential workings, however, is much richer and more sophisticated. For: not only are there natural laws, but there is, in man, the natural law-foundational moral principles which direct man to pursue good and to avoid evil. The natural law, he says in the Summa, is man's participation in the eternal law, which is God's providential wisdom. Thus whilst God governs all of creation, that governance is in some sense delegated to man, who must use his freedom responsibly in accordance with the natural law in him.

  But most of all, and perhaps most important of all, the Summa describes God's providence over and above his gift of nature. For his presence and his care are realized in their fullness not in his ontological presence to creation, nor merely in the natural law in man, but in his gift of grace, dispensed through the sacramental economy. At the centre of that economy is the Holy Eucharist where God's sacrificial gift of his own body and blood is offered for the fullness of our lives. But this fullness that comes through grace is not merely a fullness of our nature, but includes a further sharing of God's very own life. If we describe God's self-giving as Love, then God's aim is to turn us into lovers just as he is. The Summa is hence a study of the ongoing epic of a faithful but often unrequited Lover.

  It was while reflecting on the sacramental system that Aquinas stopped writing his Summa, just after the discussion of the Holy Eucharist and in the middle of the treatise on penance. Aquinas explains in the Summa that, of the three theological virtues, faith and hope would end, since when one sees God face to face and so possesses Him in knowledge, there was no more the need to hope for what was already possessed, nor the need to believe what one now knows. Love, however, would always remain, and indeed infinitely intensify, since love, which is that tending towards the beloved good, would become infinitely stronger with the vision of the infinite and perfect good. What Aquinas saw that caused him to abandon the Summa can only be speculation. However, it would not be incoherent to think that a mystical foretaste of heaven and the experience of infinite love might have caused a great scholar to think of his writings as straw. Perhaps for him, an attachment to human science counted as more foolish.