Reviewing Aquinas

Well, we’re finishing with Aquinas forever for now. It’s not quite the end of the Prima Pars, but we’re close enough – 45 posts in total, counting this one but not the ContraPoints article. It’s just about a year of Aquinas, all up, and it’s definitely time to move on to something else. I do have a plan for the future – it’ll be a bunch of assorted Luther works next, and then Calvin’s Institutes after that. I also want to get back into alternating between theologians and non-theologians, so I’ll stick Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution in between Luther and Calvin. Might change things around when we get there, but that’s the plan as of today. For now, let’s have a look back at some of Aquinas’s thought.

I think it’s been pretty clear throughout that some of Aquinas’s ideas are a bit wacky. Towards the end they got wackier, and I think my presentation of them kinda reflected how I was finding them. ‘Did Adam Poop’ is still something I’m very proud of. But I haven’t really gone through and thrown any heavy rocks at the more foundational ideas – that’s really what I want to do today. For instance, I don’t like the idea that perfection is singular. A bunch of the stuff that Aquinas says around the Garden of Eden kinda hinges on that notion, and Aquinas wouldn’t have himself so tied up in knots if he jettisoned that idea. So for instance Aquinas poses this problem: if humans are perfect in the Garden of Eden, why do they only develop the virtues of repentance and forgiveness after the Fall? These added virtues mean that humans are actually paradoxically better off after the Fall, because more virtue is better than less. I see why he’s getting upset about that idea, but for me the solution is to jettison the theory of singular perfection. I don’t know what you’d replace it with, but I’m not convinced it’s totally helpful – and, I mean, you know, I’m also not convinced it’s true.

As a related idea, I’m also not fond of Aquinas’s approach to hierarchy. It’s tied into his approach to perfection, basically expanding the core premise out into a comprehensive ranking of every existing thing. Men are better than women, animals are better than plants – I just don’t think we need to have this hierarchy of greater and lesser types of being. Not seeing a lot of value in it, personally. I’m not trying to suggest all things are equal on all fronts – obviously difference exists – but I don’t think difference is necessarily hierarchical. It might be hierarchical within one individual trait, such that you might be faster or slower than me. I think the problems start when you try to rank the relative value of different characteristics, such as, say, speed and height, or animals and plants, or poor people and the monarch. At that point, I think you’re better off reaching for other metaphors. Ecosystems, instead of hierarchies. There’s actually one really interesting little bit where Aquinas refers to the food chain as part of his hierarchy of existence. Animals eat plants, he says, and humans eat animals and plants because they’re better. But of course he doesn’t mention that when humans die, we go back to the earth and we get eaten by bugs, which are pretty much at the bottom of Aquinas’s hierarchy. I dunno – he just brought up the food chain, and it struck me that it’s really more of a food cycle. The hierarchy is better thought of as a network.

Predestination is another obvious contender for Things That Seem Bad, but I actually kinda like Aquinas’s theory of predestination. Again, I don’t necessarily think it’s true, but I think it highlights a bunch of problems with all the other theories of salvation. That is, all the bad things that we can say about predestination also seem to apply to your garden variety theories of salvation. Like your basic Christian who doesn’t really read much will say something like this: salvation is available for everybody, but you have to accept it, and God can’t force you to be saved because you have free will. But that’s not entirely true. Paul had his Road to Damascus moment – are you telling me that even after literally seeing Jesus Paul still had the choice to reject God? That seems unreasonable. It seems pretty clear that God actively interferes in individual lives to convert people via miracles and explicitly supernatural events. You’ll also often find people saying that God put someone on a path to finding Christ, or that God put the right person in the right place to help someone else come to God. Frankly, it sounds like God spends a lot of time actively bringing people into the fold, into salvation. So how does God choose who gets converted or attracted or drawn in, and who doesn’t? Suddenly, predestination.

At the same time, there is a bunch of stuff I really like about Aquinas. He’s way more organised than Augustine. I also quite like the ideas of necessary and contingent events, along with necessarily contingent events and all the rest of it. I think that’s brilliant. There’s a bunch more mental gymnastics, logical problems and so on too – at least that’s been my experience. Lots of really bold attempts to address apparently paradoxical or contradictory elements of the faith, particularly when they stem from various parts of the Bible. I dunno – I enjoy Aquinas, anyway. I’ll be updating the Theology Index with the rest of his posts soon, and beyond that, we’re on to Luther or something next. I’ve got a week to figure it out, so we’ll learn about what I’m going to do probably within an hour of each other. Brave new world.

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