We do strange things to texts that are important to us – annotate them, teach them, put them on a shelf and pretend to read them. Some of that came home as I was reading Holy Teaching by Frederick Bauerschmidt. Bauerschmidt translated and heavily annotated Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (with some significant help from the previous work of the English Dominican fathers) – giving an easy and relatively short introduction to his thought.
Bauerschmidt came close at times to drowning Aquinas’ thought in massive footnoted explanations. At times, these helped, but at times I felt as though I was reading more of his interpretation of what Aquinas thought rather than the actual teaching of the Summa. Still, I’m not going to pretend that I would have made any actual headway through the text if I didn’t have a helpful guide, so significant thanks are due to him.
What I was most amazed by is the kind of theologizing and philosophizing that Aquinas did (again, this is interpreted though Bauerschmidt, so take it with a grain of salt). He would take certain things on faith, because of revelation, and then attempt to show how they are fitting to reason – how they integrate into a larger scheme of revelation. Aquinas doesn’t seek, that is, to prove the incarnation, merely show how it might make sense that the eternal God would become incarnate. This argues strongly against the traditional image of Aquinas as seeking to merely make the faith purely logical and amenable to reason. He acknowledges that there are certain things that humans cannot know without revelation. But this does not condemn the theological task to irrelevance, but rather means that it needs to be understood as subordinate to divine revelation. That sounds a lot like some of the presuppositionalists I’ve read (although with perhaps a slightly stronger position for unaided reason). Thomist apologetics mode would sound a lot like reformed apologetics.
This make places where Aquinas disagrees with my tradition all the more astounding. I was fairly astonished to read, for example, Aquinas’ argument against the Immaculate Conception. He claims that Mary was merely made sinless immediately following her conception. I come from such a strong protestant tradition that even this sounds ridiculous.
Then I read Aquinas (who I’ve agreed with so far) upholding Mary’s sinlessness. It did, I must say, throw me for a loop. Still, reading his arguments with the most charity I could, I’m not convinced. It still seems to mar the uniqueness of Jesus to say that Mary was also sinless, in the sense that Aquinas does. That being said, Mary is still an exemplar of faith, if only for her response to the Annunciation.
Reading this text was intended to give me a break from other, more ethically oriented, books and give me something to read that wasn’t explicitly post-liberal/Hauerwasian. And then I read the dedication to Hauerwas. Hmph. Still, it also got me to read a substantial chunk of Aquinas, and understand his thought a bit better. Bauerschmidt does introduce Aquinas well here. Although I’m still not qualified to have a conversation about him, maybe I can keep up a little better when people name-drop Thomism.