The Killers, St. Thomas, & these Strange Days

Last night Bouquet and I went to the Killers concert here in Austin (thanks, Caroline, for the tickets!) and it got me thinking. At various points during the concert, but especially during the song “Smile Like You Mean It” I found myself looking around at the thousands of jumping, youthful hipsters, and thinking, “Wow. This is postmodernity.”

At a broad level, one of the things going on in theology today (though this has been going on for at perhaps a century) is that people are trying to retrieve Thomas Aquinas, and that for two reasons: first, to rescue him from the arid and stultifying “scholasticism” which can at times tend to co-opt Thomas so as to solidify certain medieval characteristics of the Roman Church, and second, to bring Thomas’ theology into our contemporary culture and discourse both to actually attend to his arguments but also (at a deeper level) to develop Christian tradition today through innovative, non-identical repetition.

This, in fact, is one of the primary agendas of Radical Orthodoxy. To postmodernize, if you will, Thomistic theology in ways that are faithful to him and to the tradition he inherited and developed.

Now, I received my M.Div from a conservative, Reformed seminary, I am grateful in many ways for the riches I received there. However, it does trouble me that, basically, the only exposure we had to Thomas was to label him as one of those nasty, medieval “Roman Catholics” who elevate autonomous “natural theology” at the expense of biblical revelation. There is so much more to the story than that, even within the Reformed tradition of Calvin and his followers.

This is one main reason I am grateful to be Anglican and to be studying at an Episcopal seminary, where Thomas’ importance (in this retrieved way, alluded to above) is second to none.

One towering example of an Anglican theologian (a 20th century one, no less, though he did rely heavily upon those Anglican Thomists known as the Caroline Divines such as Jeremy Taylor and Lancelot Andrewes) who loves and develops Aquinas is Kenneth Kirk.

In his book The Vision of God (in which he argues that “seeing God” is the “chief end” of man and thus of paramount importance for [Christian] ethics) he makes several points in his summary of Thomistic theology and its importance for ethics and Christian moral theology:

  1. Theological reasoning is analogical.
  2. B/c of this, we can learn of God by learning of (God’s) creation.
  3. Man stands as intermediate between non-intelligent matter, on the one hand, and pure, incorporeal intelligence (ie, the angels) on the other. Man’s perfection, thus, is analogically related to the perfection of “brutes” as well as of angels.
  4. Thomas is perhaps the first Christian theologian (after St. Paul, perhaps?) who takes our embodiment calmly. Up til him, the best theology could do was to say something like, “Live like angels if you can; if you cannot, then live as much like them as possible.” “St. Thomas insists on saying, on the other hand, ‘Live like men, that is, like embodied souls. And remember that souls embodied cannot behave as if they were disembodied.’ The soul, in fact, is not entombed in, but endowed with, a body. Bodily emotions and bodily goods, though not the whole of the whole of the human good, are genuinely and eternally a part of it.”“By this new approach to ethics, St. Thomas brought back the heroics of ascetic rigorism – always aspiring, often unregulated, sometimes tragically wasteful – to the test of reason, and subordinated them to the supreme rule of the beatific vision as commensurate to human nature.”
  5. Though the body is now affirmed as something to be accepted, gently nurtured, and celebrated, this does not mean that deep meditation and contemplation “is idle day-dreaming. Every Christian must bring to it the same honest endeavor, the same perseverance, as the scholar brings to the solution of his problems. Without such earnestness, prayer will forever be barren.
  6. This emphasis on meditation is for the “wayfaring man, though a fool” and not for the scholar or philosopher alone.
  7. As much as Thomas stresses the key role of meditation and contemplation, he does insist that the intuition of the divine essence – the sight of God face to face – is sternly reserved for eternity.
  8. One primary condition for success in meditative awareness in prayer of God’s presence now and for final beatific vision of God in eternity is ordered discipline
For more on St. Thomas Aquinas, see the Confessing Reader’s post here.
  1. Kirk, Kenneth. The Vision of God (New York, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1947), p. 157.
  2. ibid.


 

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