Thomas Aquinas comes up a lot these days.*   Some of it is generated by a small community of passionate people who want to reclaim his project. Thomas_Aquinas_by_Fra_Bartolommeo

This, in turn, prompts some – such as John Caputo in an interview with us – to come up with a legendary one liner that accused this group of ‘retreating into the hills of Thomism’. 

The most insightful address I have encountered recently comes from Umberto Eco in the book Travels in Hyperreality. In a chapter entitled “In Praise of St. Thomas” he outlines how Thomas interacted with his world and how he navigated the difficulties of his inherited order (mendicants) , his Age, and his own limitations.  Three passages from the 1974 essay that inspired me were:

  – Thomas, was neither a heretic not a revolutionary. He has been called a “concordian”. For him it was a matter of reconciling the new science with the science of revelation, changing everything so that nothing would change. 

– Nobody ever said that Thomas was Galileo. Thomas simply gave the church a doctrinal system that put her in agreement with the natural world. 

–  So it is surely licit to ask what Thomas Aquinas would do if he were alive today; but we have to answer that, in any case, he would not write another Summa Theologica. He would come to terms with Marxism, with the physics of relativity, with formal logic, with existentialism and phenomenology. 

He would comment not on Aristotle, but on Marx and Freud. Then he would change his method of argumentation, which would become a bit less harmonious and conciliatory.

And finally he would realize that one cannot and must not work out a definitive, concluded system, like a piece of architecture, but a sort of mobile system, a loose-leaf Summa, because in his encyclopedia of the sciences the notion of historical temporariness would have entered.

I can’t say whether he would still be a Christian.

But let’s say he would be.

I know for sure that he would take part in the celebrations of his anniversary only to remind us that it is not a question of deciding how still  to use what he thought, but to think new things.

Or at least to learn from him how you can think cleanly, like a (person) of your own time.

After which I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.

This actually is an approach to the past that has some general applicability. I have heard it said that best way to honor founders of any movement is not to simply repeat what they did but do the kind of thing they did in their time for our time. Aquinas

As a contextual theologian, I have said (over and over again) that honoring the apostles and the early church’s mothers and fathers is not in simple doing what they did in their culture – but in doing in our culture the types of things they did in theirs.

Rote repetition – regurgitation is not honoring. It is closer to idolatry. 

Repeating in the 21st century what they said in the 8th century isn’t as faithful as one might like it to imagine. This is due to the nature of our message. Our message is incarnational and thus our models and methods must match that!

The container must match the content. 

I’m not that into Aquinas. I think it’s because of the approach of those who are a little too into him.  But if they were to change to Eco’s approach and engage contemporary science and incorporate real scholarship, then I might get into Aquinas as well.

I just have no interest in reclaiming a romantically imagined version of the past. I am very interested in engaging the living now and emerging near future.

* Saint Thomas Aquinas, (1225 – 1274), also Thomas of Aquin or Aquino, was an Italian Dominican priest, and an immensely influential philosopher and theologian in the tradition of scholasticism, within which he is also known as the “Dumb Ox”.