The Role of Faith in Choosing Whom to Read

I’ve pretty much given my life this year to reading Thomas Aquinas. You can tell I’m not a Thomist, or even very sympathetic, because I haven’t prostrated myself before his memory with a long, overly-dramatic title, like “The Blessed Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas”. He is, of course, those things to the Catholic tradition as Pope Leo XIII made him the exemplar of philosophical and theological teaching. Of course Aquinas is very important to Western (philosophical) theology in general, as well, and is often taught in broadly secular philosophy of religion courses. The question I’ve had while reading him, however, is why am I reading him? Or, more precisely, why would anyone read Thomas Aquinas unless they were already sympathetic to his project?

The answer to this isn’t entirely obscure (though, perhaps, my reason for asking it remains so for now). I’m reading Aquinas because when I recently read him for a course I didn’t find what I expected to find. This lead me to read some more and to find some lines of thought that I think are helpful for thinking about the congruent problems in philosophy of nature and philosophy of religion. There is also a heuristic reason I’m using Aquinas in this project; he stands as a kind of crystal for ideological statements about the power of certain forms of thought, specifically Catholic metaphysics and politics. By challenging this reading through a perverse cross-breeding of Spinoza I hope to challenge, maybe even destroy, two equally annoying ideological positions – what can be called the debate between ideologues of transcendence/analogy and ideologues of immanence/naturalism. The success of this project is far from guaranteed and I find myself coming constantly to my own ideological register, always unsure of whether or not I’ve surpassed it.

That is why I am reading Aquinas, but why would anyone else read him? While most courses overemphasize the natural theology or purely philosophical (i.e. without revelation) nature of Aquinas’ thought, it would be a mistake, and not merely an anachronistic one, to completely go the other way and claim him to be a theologian on par with Karl Barth. Simply put he is part of the history of philosophy and is important for understanding the development of Western thought. But is there any reason to read him in any depth outside of purely historical reasons? Stated otherwise, does his thought work? Does it demonstrate anything? Or is it hopelessly dependent on outdated science? Even theologically I wonder if it works in the dogmatic register. I’m not convinced that Aquinas has a particular Christian understanding of God as he often lapses into speaking about God as if God were only the Father, that the incarnation is a sort of secondary quality of God, but then always back tracks and affirms the creedal dogmatics. Still, I remain unconvinced that he isn’t here just going through the motions of affirming the Christian God, while if he was faithful to his own system he may find himself to be a bit more heterodox.

Now, this seems clear to me when I read him, but I also recognize that I’m reading him with a project in mind and that I’m looking for the cracks in his system rather than for its consistency. But I wonder if people read Aquinas, or really whomever, with the plan of making sure they answer all the questions that need to be answered. I wonder if anyone would read Aquinas if they didn’t already have some sympathy for him, or rather for what he is supposed to be. Do we read these figures to assure ourselves of our faith and belief in what we know they stand for? And, if so, why? After all, we don’t need Aquinas or Deleuze to say things we can say with our own arguments. Why not simply make the argument? Do we really have to first make a decision, say to be Catholic, and then work out its truth from there? Or can we refuse the decision and let the truth come without then falling into the infinite deferral of liberal thought?

I can’t say for certain yet if I regret giving my life this year to Aquinas. I’m not sure if my leap of faith has failed or if I simply never took one in the first place.

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32 Responses to “The Role of Faith in Choosing Whom to Read”

  1. R.O. Flyer Says:

    You might want to have a look at Eugene Rogers’ Thomas Aquinas
    and Karl Barth: Sacred Doctrine and the Natural Knowledge of God. Also, take a look at Henri de Lubac’s interpretation of Aquinas.

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I’ve read both (well, depends what de Lubac you mean), but thanks. Care to expound on how you think they answer my questions?

  3. Daniel Says:

    “I hope to challenge, maybe even destroy, two equally annoying ideological positions – what can be called the debate between ideologues of transcendence/analogy and ideologues of immanence/naturalism.”

    I wish you all the best in this noble endeavor.

    I think the question of “Why read X” is interesting for any figure with an imposing corpus; it seems easy to answer questions like “Why read Descartes” with “Because everyone else does” — reading certain figures is just part of what it is to be participating in the conversation of Western Philosophy. But when reading X will take a substantial commitment of time & energy, it’s a lot harder to say. “A leap of faith” certainly seems like part of it.

  4. augustinian Says:

    Everyone reads Aquinas too, though, don’t they? At least, Descartes did. Difficult to get Berkeley too without understanding Aquinas (although all too many people make a stab at it).

    Actually, I first started reading Aquinas for exegetical purposes: to find out his take on Scripture and on Augustine. He is to my mind unparalleled on the latter.

    I regularly read people I’m fairly sure I’m going to have serious disagreements with, and that goes for Aquinas too. But it’s important to read hoping to be proved wrong.

    For the record, the people that got me reading Aquinas were Nicholas Lash, Rowan Williams, and (most of all) Herbert McCabe.


  5. Adam Says:

    R. O. Flyer, If you decide to comment here again, try to make it less pointlessly pedantic.

  6. jeff biebighauser Says:


    It’s been a while, but isn’t that precisely how Thomas starts the Summa: by explicitly stating that if you’re not already sympathetic to what he argues, you’ll get little of value from it?

    Re: his subconscious heterodoxy, you might well be right. Certainly just about every Orthodox theologian in the world thinks you are.

  7. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    Yeah, you could take ST 1, q.1, a.8 in that way. Mark Jordan has also written on Aquinas’ defense of esoteric writing (hiding what you’re saying so that you don’t throw pearl before swine). I’m not convinced by the validity of all that though. Can I start my doctoral dissertation that way?

    But, and this is really my fault, I’m not trying to say something about Aquinas. Thomists kind of creep me out, ok really creep me out, but this happens with Heideggerians as well and so on and so forth. I was trying to remark on a general question from my local experience.

  8. R.O. Flyer Says:

    Yowzers, Adam! Suggesting that one reads an important theological work on Aquinas in response to a post on Aquinas is pointlessly pedantic? Give me a break. I mention Rogers’ work because I find it quite compelling. I am responding to the assertion, “While most courses overemphasize the natural theology or purely philosophical (i.e. without revelation) nature of Aquinas’ thought, it would be a mistake, and not merely an anachronistic one, to completely go the other way and claim him to be a theologian on par with Karl Barth.”
    I fail to see how such a comment is irrelevant to the conversation. Chill out, man.

  9. Adam Says:

    One way to clarify the relevance of your comment might’ve been to say something like, “I think these books do not fit with your claim about natural theology vs. Barth” — for example. As it stands, it seems like completely unmotivated pedantry, and Anthony’s response reflects that perception.

    (We here at AUFS have an eagle-eye for bullshit comments. It is contrary to our longstanding policies and practices for us to “Chill out, man” in this regard.)

  10. jeffrey biebighauser Says:

    That would be a terrific start to a PhD. Use the pearls before swine, too. Genius.

    “After all, we don’t need Aquinas or Deleuze to say things we can say with our own arguments. Why not simply make the argument? Do we really have to first make a decision, say to be Catholic, and then work out its truth from there?”

    I think yeah, you do. Nobody can just pull an argument out of nowhere; this is to disregard the intellectual tradition. It’s certainly fair enough to say that you’d like to do more than commentary – and more people should aspire to more constructive work, for certain – but I think it’s admirable that you’re trying to critique the transcendence/immanence question from the inside out, and that does obviously involve trying to be at least initially sympathetic to the ideologies on both sides.

    R.O. Flyer – it’d be hard to read the bit of Anthony’s post about Aquinas and Barth as anything *but* a well-informed critique of a crude reading of Rogers.

  11. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    It was pretty pedantic.

    I’m not saying Rogers’ book is bad. It is a very interesting reading of Aquinas, but it is also just that – a reading of Aquinas. It isn’t really my goal to disprove these very pure theological readings of Aquinas, but I disagree with the connections Rogers creates between Barth’s theology and Aquinas’. But the perversity of his reading is very admirable and I’m sure if I ever publish what I’m working on some young asshole on the internet, like myself, will say they aren’t convinced by the connections I’m making between Aquinas and Spinoza. Pearls before swine.


    I’ll try it out at the annual review and see how it plays.

    You’re right that we don’t pull an argument out of nowhere and of course we engage with these people because we are part of the intellectual tradition with them. Over-writing lead me to the mistake you are pointing out. If I was trying to be less clever I might have simply asked the question more clearly about decision. What bothers me about the (post-MacIntyre?) scene those of us doing philosophy and theology (or metaphysics and theology, or whatever)are in is this idea that everything has been decided before hand. So for an immanentist we’re expected to simply explain how our tradition is right, maybe tweak it here and there, but on the whole the truth is known and we’re just sweeping up after the fact. It is the same the “analogists” and so on and so forth. Not that this should be confused with a condemnation of figure PhD’s. Of course there is an inherent value in working through another thinker’s system and thinking it anew (Deleuze called it an apprenticeship) and defending the continued reading of that thinker to those who may be outrightly hostile to the existence of books by whomever. Maybe it is an aporia deciding between this apprenticeship and ideology; certainly it is an aporia that can be worked through.

  12. R.O. Flyer Says:

    Good to know you’ve got an “eagle-eye for bullshit comments.” What hospitality to newcomers you have here at “AUFS”!

  13. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Or you going to keep whining about the lack of hospitality or say something interesting?

  14. Adam Says:

    If you’re upset, then maybe you should find another blog to comment at. That way, you don’t have to put up with our rudeness, and we don’t have to waste time defending our backward ways.

  15. R.O. Flyer Says:

    Rogers’ work is a refreshing interpretation of Aquinas, one that I think is fairly consonant with de Lubac, and challenges much of what passes for Thomism today.In Rogers’ reading, question one of the Summa theologiae (I.1. 1-10) commits Thomas to a thoroughly biblical framework, which is also implicitly christoform in orientation. Aquinas’ use of Aristotle in question one is, according to Rogers, “nothing other than a term of relation.” The idea that “sacred doctrine is scientia” (I.1.2) is structured in such a way so that “the more Aristotelian it is, the more scriptural it is.” Furthermore, this presupposes that “the more Aristotelian it is, the more christoform it is.” Even though Aquinas does not explicitly address Christology until the Third Part of the Summa, it is nonetheless presupposed in everything that precedes it. For instance, in question one Aquinas remarks that “Christ, as a human being, is the way that has been stretched out for us into God” (I.2). As Rogers rightly points out, “Because he thinks more like a mathematician and less like an after-dinner speaker: the christological presupposition can very well go without saying when Thomas programmatically announces it, like a negative sign before a parenthesis, and therefore constantly implies it.” Thus, in Rogers’
    view, the entire Summa is Christologically shaped and everything that is not explicitly such “follows the road that Christ has stretched out” and “leads to the christology that stands at the roads end.” After all, in Aquinas’ own words, Jesus Christ is “the consummation of the whole theological enterprise” (III prol). As D. Stephen Long rightly asserts, “If we do not read the prima pars in light of the Christology in the tertia pars. . . we will have failed to read Thomas well.” Similarly, Joseph Incandela, points to an important hermeneutical principle one must keep in mind when reading Aquinas. He argues that Aquinas’ philosophical reasoning on the five ways is directly related to the way who is Jesus.

    Far from demonstrating the self-sufficiency of natural reason, when read in this Christological light, Aquinas’ five ways and, indeed, the whole Summa, illustrates the limits of natural knowledge. Indeed, the first part of the Summa is rendered intelligible only when read in light of the Christological presupposition that structures it. For Aquinas, the principal intention of all sacred doctrine is finally knowledge of God, for God is can only rightly be seen as the “principium rerum et finis earum” (the beginning and end of things). Such a stark division between “nature” and “grace” and philosophy and theology that is so pervasive in the work of some neo-Thomist moral theologians was utterly foreign to Thomas’ own understanding. Such a division was not possible for Aquinas precisely because, as Long points out, “as the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ is the Wisdom in which, through which and toward which all creation exists.” The attempt, then, to begin theology from the perspective of “pure nature” and to see it as a self-contained ontological reality, as later interpreters of his work have done, is to do a tremendous disservice to Aquinas’ whole project.

    Happy? Or is that too long and pedantic?

  16. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    What course did you write that for? Why are you worried about us being happy? And that’s a perfectly fine way to enter into a discussion that isn’t pedantic. I will however ask you to back up the “rightly asserts”.

    In some ways Rogers’ reading is very convincing, but once you start to read more and more books on Thomas you realize that they all do some form of this “key to reading the whole of this man’s massive, probably way too massive, opus”. I find it to be more of a heuristic device than “the real, true Aquinas”. Rudi te Velde does it with the concept of creation in his books, but I think it leads to a more subtle argument that accounts for more of Aquinas’ thought (which is often less ‘revelation based’ than Rogers’ argument would allow) than Rogers’ account. Te Velde’s reading accepts that Thomas often does argue from non-theological grounds and about non-theological issues, but that these remain within the theological problematic of creation (creation itself being a word of faith). I follow te Velde’s view more than Rogers’ view, partly because I think te Velde allows Thomas to be both a theologian in the Christian tradition (thus concerned with the incarnation and the person of Jesus Christ over all) as well as a “natural” philosopher. Thomas is clearly doing both and in so doing expands the notion of “the natural” the “the creational”.

  17. Alex Says:

    I actually think Adam and Anthony are being fair. Anthony posts a long comment saying he has spent an entire year (a year!) reading Aquinas and associated Thomists, and you dismissively reply by spouting two of the most well known and vastly influential (in the case of Lubac) commentaries on him. It was just seemed completely dismissive.

    Why not answer the question rather than point out to Anthony (who has spent a whole year reading this stuff!) thing that has been well know since Lubac – eg we can’t have a pure philosophical Aquinas and that Aquinas never posits a pure nature etc? Why should we read him?

    Does anyone know about the controversy between Thomas and the church of his time which required him to amend some sections of his writings?

  18. R.O. Flyer Says:

    Good eye, I wrote it for a course on Thomistic moral theology. Don’t worry, I am not “worried” about your happiness any more than you are worried about the pedantry of your commentators. You may very well be correct in saying that Rogers’ relating Aquinas to Barth is more of a “heuristic device than ‘the real, true Aquinas’.” In fact, I think Rogers might even admit to this. I’ll have to read te Velde. Sounds interesting.

    I am somewhat of a Barthian (though I lean on von Balthasar and de Lubac quite a bit) and I attend one of the most “Thomist” graduate programs in the U.S., so I am especially sensitive to the question “what is the value of Aquinas today?” In fact, I find myself asking this question almost every day. If we want to understand the Western philosophical and theological tradition Aquinas of course cannot be ignored. What I find compelling about Rogers is that such a reading lends itself to at least a more ecumenical Aquinas.

  19. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I realize that my own post was not very clear. I’m not sure if I can formulate the question any clearer yet, but I’m not challenging the value of Thomas today. One can always come up with some value, and the easiest is historical value, but for me the question might be formulated: what value is there in deciding ahead of time what the truth is? I guess I find this a lot with Thomists. The most annoying example is Maritain’s “critique” of Bergson which can be boiled down to – he’s neither Thomas nor Catholic.

  20. R.O. Flyer Says:

    Alex, I am new to this blog and I usually don’t presuppose that people blogging on Aquinas have read the whole slew of secondary literature. Even if they have spent a whole year on the guy! If I had known the caliber of discussion that takes place here, I would have been less inclined to offer some secondary reading on the subject. Please forgive me for underestimating the extent of your research, Anthony. I am OK to move on from this, if you are. Do I pass muster?

  21. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I think we can all move on. It’s really not a big deal. It’s just a fucking blog and the other comments you’ve left are interesting.

  22. ab Says:

    i’m a little curious about your project, and was wondering if you could clarify something.

    “I hope to challenge, maybe even destroy, two equally annoying ideological positions – what can be called the debate between ideologues of transcendence/analogy and ideologues of immanence/naturalism.”

    since the theory of immanence already accounts for how the transcendent arises, and thereby dissolves the dichotomy, i’m curious what the problem is that you’re looking to develop. (perhaps you’re already said this in previous posts? i have to admit, even as a lurker on a few blogs, i’m a pretty half-assed lurker.)

  23. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    Sort of kind of drunk right now, but I do have a response. Check back in like 12 hours?

  24. ab Says:

    great –looking forward to it!

  25. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    The problem with accounting for one through the other is that partisans of both orientations have accounts for how one is generated by the other. Aquinas, for instance, has an account of immanence that does not attempt to destroy it at all. Sad I couldn’t write that drunk.

    Who are you thinking of in terms of the theory of immanence?

  26. augustinian Says:

    I’m not sure Jeff’s right about not being able to ‘just make an argument’. I reckon it’s always worth a shot. I regularly write my arguments as exegesis of other people, and then erase the exegesis in order to just keep it as an argument. Simply because my exegesis has erased my sympathy (obviously not always). But that ‘original sympathy’ doesn’t come out in the writing.

    There is a point at which we need to check we are all speaking the same language, but it doesn’t have to be a constant exercise. Justifying as much as possible of what you say, on the other hand, is. The best example I can think of is Philip Goodchild’s ‘Capitalism and Religion’ – what a beginning!

    So: yes to Jeff if we’re only talking about thinking, but no if we’re only talking about reading and writing. And hurrah for Anthony’s aspirations to avoiding argument from authority! Let’s all get seriously stubborn.

  27. ab Says:

    i’m thinking of deleuze. the way i understand him is that the claim is not just that he’s giving an account for how the transcendent is generated, but that there is nothing truly transcendent. (so, in contrast to what you said about aquinas, deleuze does destroy the transcendent.) it seems to me that it is the transcendent that requires the dichotomy (it must be transcendent *to*), whereas deleuze’s notion of immanence is not that it is immanent to anything. it makes me think of nietzsche’s “how the true world became a fable” (is that the title?) where he says that with the destruction of the one, you have the destruction of both or, in other words, of the dichotomy between them. the question is whether you’re convinced by deleuze’s argument. and, of course, if you agree with my interpretation of it.

  28. ab Says:

    i guess i should have said that i DO know you’re interested in deleuze too (which is why i like looking at your blog), so i’m curious to know what problems you see in him in regard to this issue.

  29. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Well, I don’t think I agree that Deleuze destroys the notion of transcendence. He sees the transcendent, in What is Philosophy?, as generated by the immanent and used by thinkers to “recharge” the plane of immanence. So, it seems to me that Deleuze clearly has a place for transcendence, but as a fabulation of sorts. That would be one thing I suppose.

    The thing about Deleuze’s notion of immanence, and this was pointed out in Philip Goodchild’s Gilles Deleuze and the Question of Philosophy, is that it looks an awful lot like transcendence. Deleuze himself even says that philosophers seek after immanence. So it opens the question of what to do with those after Deleuze who simply assert immanence. In my research I’ve found a connection between the relationship of immanence and transcendence in Aquinas and Spinoza that looks, and I think is, the same as the apophatic “dialectical” dissolution of the pure identity of both. I think this may be closer to Laruelle’s notion of “radical immanence”. We’ll see though.

  30. Charles R Says:

    By pointing out that Goodchild pointed it out, what did this do to your own argument’s construction? Is this what you mean by surpassing your own ideological register?

    I like the subtlety of your post, in that you found in reading Aquinas what you did not expect to find, and in so finding this came to have another voice and way of thinking that supplements your own project. But then you begin to wonder if there is possible a position that has no expectation in reading Aquinas, distinct from your own position of expectation where you have a project in mind and distinct from the already committed believer whose expectation is to find answers they believe he provides. Why isn’t this itself an ideological picture: the reading of no expectations? The reading of no mediations? Or, is that how you conclude the original post?

  31. ab Says:

    thanks –i’ll be looking forward to it if you do further posts on this.

  32. cantueso Says:

    I do not think that Aquinas is widely read. When I tried to get quotes of his work, I found the same ten sentences, on all the web pages I checked.

    And they were pretty! So I also tried to find out whether they were real, but could not.

    “If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.”

    “Reason in man is rather like God in the world.”

    “Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine.”

    “Our hearts irrigate this earth. We are fields before each other.”(??!!!)

    JPII said that Aquinas was underrated. I read Aquinas only a little on (natural) law.

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