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Books: A slimmer Aquinas still looms large

By Thomas F. O’Meara, OP
University of Notre Dame Press, 302 pages, hardcover $36, paper $16.95

For anyone associated with Catholic thought, Thomas Aquinas looms large and central, unavoidable. The 13th century Dominican’s application of Aristotle’s method of rational investigation to Christian belief produced a synthesis so comprehensive and orderly that it became the starting point for most subsequent theology in the Catholic church. This was true both for adherents and those reacting against Thomas or the many Thomisms deriving from him.

Anyone schooled in Thomas seems grounded ever after in both his vision and approach. For others who sense the “serene power” of a Thomistic education but have little hope of plunging into the Summa, O’Meara’s excellent book offers both an introduction and an invitation to consider the real Thomas, recovered from hagiography and the polemics that have made anything associated with scholasticism so unapproachable for so many.

Reflecting his teacher’s gift for orderly exposition, O’Meara divides his subject into five parts: 1. Life and career; 2. Patterns in the Summa; 3. The theological world Thomas lived in; 4. Subsequent traditions, schools and students; 5. Thomas today.

Thomas Aquinas, the person, is known mostly through his own writings, which paradoxically are so transparent to the underlying method of discourse he used that the ideas being examined often seem to unfold by themselves, absent any human author. Thomas’ genius, O’Meara points out, lay in his intuitive grasp of the patterns suggested by the subject itself, whether this was the natural world or the breathtaking theological vision of grace perfecting human nature in Christ.

The key to reading the Summa is to see this Christology and the great circle of emanation and return that structures Thomas’ vision. Like history’s great musical geniuses, Thomas intuited the whole first, and could then order the parts within repeating patterns and variations. Like a great cathedral, the Summa combines stone and light, matter and spirit, nature and grace, within a plan whose unity and beauty flows from its intelligent design.

O’Meara rescues the original Thomas from later and lesser derivatives by pointing out that he was first and foremost a theologian, a “master of the sacred page” whose discourse proceeds not from any absolute philosophical system but from his personal encounter with God in Christ through the scriptures and the sacraments. Thomas was first a preacher who found Aristotle useful in ordering his theological insights.

Along with his commentaries on scripture, the Summa served as a theological primer for training preachers. Later use of Aquinas as a war club in quarrels with modern philosophy and science is inappropriate and unfortunate.

Thomas’ commitment to empiricism and inductive learning is also important at a time when some who claim him and use his thought to argue from authority against a corrupted and materialistic world miss his generous accommodation of the “modern thinking” of his own age and his love of material creation, new technologies of exploration and intercultural dialogue.

We can only imagine what Thomas might have done with Internet access to global thought, with the computer’s power to extrapolate insight from enormous amounts of data and modern science’s ability to measure and analyze natural reality. One thing seems certain, that Thomas would not have withdrawn in judgment from our complex world or insisted on scholastic terms and method as a prerequisite for any dialogue with others.

O’Meara’s careful research dispels popular notions about Thomas, including his supposed physical girth, that he was ever called a “dumb ox” or regarding the circumstances of his death. It is most unlikely, O’Meara concludes, given the pace and productivity of his brief 50-years and the known ascetic practice of the early mendicant orders, that Thomas was fat. “He seems to have been tall, large, blond and balding,” O’Meara writes, noting that during his travels across Europe he walked an estimated 9,000 miles.

His productivity reveals a disciplined, generous and patient scholar, one who could maintain his inner focus and peace in the midst of fierce controversy but who was by no means detached or lacking in feeling and sociability. Thomas loved research and teaching and seemed able to find balance and proportion in his treatment of any subject. He was a bold and creative innovator who was also deeply loyal to the church he served all his life.

Historical accounts suggest that Thomas suffered a stroke or had a brain tumor toward the end of his life. His health may have been compromised by overwork. He died after being struck on the head by the limb of a tree. His final silence may have had a mystical aspect, and it certainly adds a note of paradox to his life of eloquence.

The Thomas we find revealed in this book engages us not because he was a genius but because he encountered Jesus Christ and the light of the gospel in so direct and clear a fashion. This is the key to understanding his enormous and still relevant contribution to both church and world.

Pat Marrin is editor of Celebration, an ecumenical worship resource published monthly by the NCR Publishing Company.