Cheap Thomism

JMJ

When I first converted to Orthodoxy, entering the Church in 2002, I asked Fr Victor Sokolov (Memory Eternal!) to bless my apartment. Upon arrival, he did a sort of brief inspection of my space including a long perusal of my bookshelves. At that time my library was much larger than it now is, containing the accumulated reading of a couple of decades. (I sold my books slowly to used bookstores, including one massive, $600 buyout during a yard sale that paid for my relocation to Asheville, NC.) On the shelves at that time was a section I called “scripture” which, in addition to a KJV Bible, a JPS Tanakh, and several patristic texts, also included a Tao te Ching and a copy of The Book of the Hopi. Also on the shelf were The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Father – who knew my spiritual peregrinations – took the Narnia boxed set off the shelf and said “This is the Orthodox Truth. We say, ‘taste and see’ and no matter where you journey, looking for the Truth, you will end up in the Church if you are honest in your search.” He was referring to the Narnian story of Emeth, a young Calormene soldier who, despite never having worshiped Aslan a day in his life, finds himself in Aslan’s eternal Paradise. Aslan says to him, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash [the false god]… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” The Wiki adds, Aslan’s comment can be understood as a development of Paul’s thought in 1 Corinthians 12:3: “No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” That verse will come back in a few paragraphs.

This whole incident came to mind in a conversation with a friend, R., who was schooling me in a subject I’ve never studied: Philosophy. This is of particular importance as I’m now taking my first class in the topic. Reading the textbooks, I’ve noticed that I have read works by many of the philosophers involved, but not as topics. Rather, I read for instruction: one of the books on my “Scripture” shelf was Number LXXI of the Bollingen Series: The Collected Works of Plato. I remember once, after reading the Phaedrus, that I was at work in a bookstore. A man purchased a copy of the same text and I tried to engage him in conversation about it: he was horrified to discover I had read the text for Plato’s (Socrates’) ideas about love (usages of which appear some 230+ times in the text, depending on the translation). Rather, he insisted, you should read the text to learn about rhetoric. I’m still not sure about that, but the idea of reading a text to only learn the style or means of the text – and not the actual content – seems silly. I read the Presocratics and the Pythagoreans in College, but I read them to “try them on”. What was it like to think this way? What does it mean that the Cosmos is based on Number? I have always read books that way. What if the answer really is 42? Another friend once asked me on Twitter, “Is there any religion you have not tried?” And yes, there are rather a lot, but the journey through my quest has been fifty-six years long.

Yet the style and means (if those are the right words) are important as well as the content: this all came up in a conversation on hermeneutics. This involves the interpretive framework.

When I was reading these works in college, trying them all on, seeing what worked for me, the interpretive framework was, exactly, me. I wanted to construct a system and a map that worked for me. At this time, wrestling with issues of morality and personal praxis, I wanted a religio-philosophical system that made room for all the choices I was making in that struggle. If I decided XYZ was good, I wanted my “religion” to support me. So, a bit of this, a bit of that, add a pinch of Plato and some Taliesin, and all was good… for a little while. Then, suddenly, something was off. So I would weave in some of the Vedas, and perhaps a soupçon of Hopi, with a large side of Mary Daly. Howsabout a bowl of Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and maybe some Táin Bó Cúailnge? Why don’t we try adding some Sufism, Hildegard of Bingen, and Fr Matthew Fox, OP, (as he then was)?

At any point, as you might expect, I came out of the buffet line with a plate piled higher than my eyeballs with stuff, but no way to eat it except all at once. If you’ve ever been to a Golden Corral you know just exactly what I mean here. I’d eat it all – or toss it out – and start again. Sure, none of this was intended to fit together, but it was all true in a way. The one thing needful was a binder or mortar. Imagination can provide that or any one of several newagey text books. In situo this was a Quest for the Holy Grail, but – as I came to realize – it was really the spiritual version of Hoarding. With myself as the only measure of what was true or not, I would pick up anything that would fit and hope that later it would be possible to iron it all out into something fabulous. Later never comes though, and at a certain point, you get tired of making up stuff.

So I dropped it all. Only to find myself reading some of them again in class. Confusing, to say the least. The last time I read The Republic it was to imagine a better world. The last time I looked a Pythagoras it was to learn Sacred Geometry – as if it were true, mind you, not as a way to make really nice pictures. (The Cloisters Apocalypse as well as almost all pre-modern Christian Cathedrals are designed using these methods, for example.) What is going on now?

So last night’s phone conversation with R.

Is there Truth in there at all? Then it is our, Catholic truth. This is not some newagey relativism. This is the Catholic Faith from the earliest days:

But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach, maintain that we say that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago under Cyrenius, and subsequently, in the time of Pontius Pilate, taught what we say He taught; and should cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible — let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious.
– St Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 46, From the 2nd Century

And St Thomas Aquinas too – pulling in the “Emeth” verse I mentioned above:
Commenting on the text, “And no man can say the Lord Jesus…” (1 Cor. 12:3), Ambrose says: “Every true thing, no matter who says it, is from the Holy Spirit.”
Augustine says: “The true is that which is.” But every act of existing is from God. Therefore, every truth is from Him.
Just as the one is interchangeable with being, so is the true, and conversely. But all unity is from the first unity, as Augustine says.
Therefore, every truth also is from the first truth.

Questiones Disputatae de Veritate Q1. Article VIII. Is every other truth from the first truth?

Let’s run with that Ambrose line… Every true thing, no matter who says it, is from the Holy Spirit. Omne verum, a quocumque dicatur, a Spiritu Sancto est. In my Freshmen year Western Civ class at King’s College a group of students argued with the professor that only Christianity had any truth, and I said, “If a Hindu man tells me it’s raining, I’m going to take an umbrella with me.” That was before I even knew what Church Fathers were, or went off on my religious hoarding phrase.

The proper framework, though, is not oneself but rather Truth – that is to say – the Church’s teaching, Christian Orthodoxy. The Truth: Jesus. We do not read someone in a vacuum, to learn how to become a follower of Philosopher X. Rather we read X in the light of the fullness of Truth revealed in Christ and known to the Church. We read to see if Philosopher X may lead us into deeper truths or to see how other people – from outside of the church – grasped hints of the Truth later revealed. It seems some writers have nothing to offer because they start from horribly mistaken assumptions (such as “there is no truth at all”). Yet, even then, if we read them from within the interpretive framework of the faith we may find something of value. Or not.

St Thomas Aquinas did this work for us already. The Summa is, of course, predicated on the work of Aristotle. To understand Aristotle, though, Aquinas spoke with Muslims and Jews in his day and learned from them. He also critiqued them. Pagan, Jewish, and Muslim thought went into St Thomas’ brain and out popped Christian theology. That’s not all. His work is a summation, yes: it documents the Sine Qua Non of Catholic theology. But it’s not the faith itself. It’s not a schematic to which all things must conform.

There are two ways to work with St Thomas, then. Here’s the cheap Thomism of the title: You can study his content, or you can work with his interpretive framework. You can cite chapter and verse in the Summa (Cheap) or you can take what you learn there and go do things with it (Valuable). The latter gives us a way forward while the former seems to be inimical to the spirit in which St Thomas worked and to the spirit of his teachings. Yes, cite the truth in his content and grow, but also his style, and his means. We need to see that Thomas is writing about Love, but also we need to see how he is writing, and what work he does to get there. We need to emulate all of this process. This is costly work – and of great value.

There are those who leave the church (or refuse to come in) for a lot of reasons that have more to do with “rejection” than with “seeking Truth”. There are a lot of things out there that call to them: pleasure, money, power, and perceived freedom. In our conversation, R. noted that the faith is an organic composition, like a tree growing wider and branchier, leafier and fruitier with every day. In contradistinction, creating one’s own framework for things requires an ongoing manual process, a continual work of construction: a techne rather than a fide. Every inbound item must be edited, simplified to fit into the framework we’re building. We must constantly organise and evaluate. The end result may be a well-constructed edifice but it will be infinitely more an “organized religion” than Catholicism. It can be laid out in spreadsheets and analyzed for data. It’s a mental map forced into reality: a pattern of things seen filtered through one’s own, very personal, very subjective choices; tables of correspondence that are meaningless to others and communicate nothing.

In the organic and divinely biological framework provided by the Incarnation of God, what some of my more hippie forebears called “The Christ Event”, the entire world is an “Old Testament” leading mankind to Truth or, to paraphrase The Bible Project, we believe that all of human culture and history is a unified book that leads to Jesus. Like Father Victor said, no matter where you journey, looking for the Truth, you will end up in the Church if you are honest in your search. Jesus takes all truth to himself – for he is the Truth. Only taste and see: you cannot help but be drawn deeper into his Love. If you set out for Truth, at first your choices don’t matter one bit: you’ve made the ultimate choice already and all other things must fall in line. Eventually, you’ll find that every little choice is conformed to that initial act of your will. Find the Truth. Your freedom to do whatever you want becomes the Freedom to Achieve the Truth. Having decided to seek the Holy Grail, you find Jesus.

Where we go from there is entirely up to us: as long as we have that framework, we are resting in the Everlasting Arms, safe and secure from all alarms.

St Thomas, pray for us!

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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