When I was an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo, I took a number of philosophy courses “across the river” (as the philosophers at the university derisively referred to it) at St. Jerome’s, the Catholic college affiliated with the university. I probably haven’t taken the full measure of how much influence one of my teachers, F.F. Centore, had on me there. It was he who introduced this Protestant to St. Thomas Aquinas. More proximately, he introduced me to the remarkable work happening at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. This was something of a North American outpost for the work and influence of Étienne Gilson and the Thomist renewal he spawned.
It was almost certainly from Dr. Centore that I learned of a marvelous, if minor, text from Aquinas: his commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate, translated by Armand Maurer and published by PIMS. (There’s an online version available in a different translation.) Ostensibly a commentary on Boethius’ treatise, Aquinas’ work is a primer on the relationship between faith and reason, asking questions from a slightly different angle than he does in the Summa.
(For those unfamiliar with Aquinas, most of his works have a structure akin to a catechism: each “unit” within the larger treatise is framed by a question, and the sub-explorations within the bigger question are called “articles,” but still framed as questions. In the best spirit of medieval scholasticism, he often begins by addressing objections, then lays out his own position, then finally replies to the objections. It can be a strange format for modern readers; as a reading strategy, I often encourage students to go straight to the heart/body of the question (“I say that…”) and then read the objections and replies, which make more sense when you understand just what Aquinas’ argument is, and hence what the stakes are.)
This week, I thought it might be helpful to summarize the beginning of Aquinas’ commentary, published as Faith, Reason, and Theology. It is an interesting exploration of the plausibility of faith–even if, in conclusion, I express concerns about the limits of such an exercise in our own cultural context.
Let’s look at just the first three questions he asks.
Question 1, “On the Knowledge of Divine Realities,” puts us on the terrain of epistemology. Can we know God? How can we know God? What can we know of God?
Here, already, is a first place to note that questions of plausibility are always contextual. Every question begins from assumptions. What motivates Aquinas’ questions? What does he already assume? Would these be the questions we’d ask today if our topic was “knowledge of divine realities?” What doesn’t Aquinas ask? What would it look like to re-write this “in a secular age?”
But let’s table that until after we hear his questions (and answers).
Article 1: Does the human mind need a new illumination in order to know the divine truth?
Notice the key phrase here: “new illumination.” The adjective new is important. “New” with respect to what? Well, with respect to nature, what is given to creatures qua creatures. But that also means that Aquinas thinks of our natural state–our “created” state–as already illuminated in some way, characterized by a “natural” illumination. (You might almost say Everything is Illuminated.)
If the answer to this question was “Yes,” then it would be saying that creatures qua creatures, simply as creatures, would be unable to know God. But then the Creator would have created creatures unable to know him.
Hence Aquinas answers in the negative: no, a “new” illumination is not needed. However, he has an interestingly complicated sense of what is “natural,” precisely because, for him, nature is created. So even “the natural” is (already) divine. So the mind doesn’t need a “new” illumination only because it already has—qua created—a natural illumination. This is not a “modern” nature which is autonomous, independent, and self-sufficient, but rather a nature that is originally “gifted” by God. And this is true of humanity qua humanity
Aquinas builds on the Aristotelian notion of the “agent” intellect, a picture of the mind with a built-in lamp so the mind itself illumines intelligible realities. However, what can be known in this way is proportionate to the intellect: so some truths can be known by means of natural illumination; others require “new light” (i.e., revelation). For Aquinas, by “natural” illumination we can know that God exists, or that God is one. But such natural illumination could never divine that God is Triune; that would require revelation (i.e., a new illumination).
(A critical aside: Aquinas attributes the “darkening” of the mind’s light to the union of the soul with the body, as if the body is to blame. This is one of the places where Reformed epistemology diverges from the Thomistic account–in how we explain the “noetic effects” of sin. But that’s for another newsletter.)
Article 2: Can the human mind arrive at a knowledge of God?
This article is Aquinas’ negative theology, his via negativa, emphasizing the limits of our knowledge of God even while affirming its possibility. (In other words, unlike some “postmodern” thinkers, Aquinas’ negative theology does not end in skepticism.) As he puts it in a response to an objection (4), “negative terms are true of God, while affirmative terms are inexact”—not false, but inexact. What we should appreciate here is Aquinas’ deep sense of the transcendence of God and the limits of human language and concepts.
What we can know of God, Aquinas says, is by analogy precisely because the essence of God exceeds our epistemic capacity. So we have intimations, approximations. Elsewhere Aquinas says we can “touch” God but could never “comprehend” (encompass) God. We can know that God exists but not what God is. Aquinas’ epistemology walks a fine line between hope and humility. Epistemic hubris has no place here.
Article 3: Is God what the mind first knows?
It’s a little tricky to understand the motivation for this question if you don’t appreciate the historical tradition Aquinas is working in. In Bonaventure and (perhaps) Augustine, Aquinas’ hears the claim that God is not only the first condition of our knowledge (by giving “original” illumination) but also the first object of our knowledge. As a good Aristotelian empiricist of a sort, Aquinas doesn’t buy the latter because we first know what is closest—and God couldn’t be “further” from us in the scale of being. We begin first from his effects and reason to God last as the ultimate Cause. In other words, the order of knowing is the inverse of the order of being.
Aquinas grants that God is the original condition of knowing, but points out that the conditions of knowing are not our first objects of knowledge; indeed, they are often recognized last. And that takes some hard epistemic work. Everything is illuminated, but nothing is obvious.
As I said, I think it is an interesting exercise for 21st century readers to return to Aquinas, particularly this sort of endeavor where he is raising questions about what is believable, what is knowable. But every exploration of plausibility is relative to a context; to argue for something as believable means entering into the questions of what makes it hard to believe. In a sense, it requires that we step into the shoes–the epistemic standpoint–of those who not only don’t believe but can’t believe and try to discern what makes belief in God implausible.
This is where Aquinas account seems less relevant for us, simply because his interlocutors are asking such different questions than ours. It shouldn’t surprise us that the questions unsettling 12th-century Europe are not those percolating for us in 21st-century North America. Or let me be more precise: I think the substance of Aquinas’ endeavor is less relevant for us. But there is much to learn from the spirit of his task as an exercise in epistemic empathy.
As a nod to my own debts, I still commend Étienne Gilson’s classic book, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. From a strictly scholarly standpoint, it is dated; but it remains a helpful entree into the spirit of Aquinas and the retrieval of Thomism for a contemporary age.
A little more advanced and distinctive, I’d also recommend Mark Jordan’s collection of essays, Rewritten Theology: Aquinas After his Readers. You might begin with chapter 4, which began as the Etienne Gilson Lecture at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.