Father Thomas White
Professor of Theology, The Dominican House of Studies

Thomas Aquinas’ Moment is Now

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The rational dimension of the thought of Thomas Aquinas has been popular lately among theology students: Dominican Friar Thomas Joseph White tells Big Think why the medieval scholar is the perfect antidote to our confusing times.

Father Thomas White

Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P. is one of the youngest professors at the Pontifical Academy of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., the seminary for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph and a center of Thomistic learning for both priests and laity. Fr. White is an expert in Thomistic metaphysics, Christology and Roman Catholic-Reformed ecumenical dialogue. Fr. White converted to Catholicism at age 22, while studying at Brown University.

Fr. White is the author of the upcoming Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Modern Thomistic Natural Theology (Sapientia Press).


Question: Why is Aquinas’ thought helpful in modern times?  

Thomas Joseph White: I think Aquinas’ thought is often helpful today because it helps you bring together a set of disjunctions that are typically unhealthy that we find in a lot of modern thinking. Disjunctions between, say, faith and reason. Disjunctions between science and religion. Disjunctions between spiritual or mystical dimensions of the human person, and practical reason and empiricism; between historical reason concerning the Biblical scriptures and their historical intelligibility as human texts - and the understanding of them as some way unveiling or disclosing the mystery of God. Aquinas tends to show you ways to avoid false oppositions and create a harmonious, respectful synthesis of diverse positions.

Question: How was Aquinas’ age similar to or different than our own?

Thomas Joseph White: Well the comparison of our age with the age of the emergence of the Medieval University is a delicate one because, in that time, you have the aspiration to a kind of comprehensive synthesis of preexistent Christian theological thinking - Biblical scholarship which existed at the time in a certain kind of way with a very ambitious appropriation of philosophical heritage of Aristotle, of Avisena and the Muslim philosophical movement. And you had an attempt to successfully reunite these different schools of thought into a larger vision, and in many ways it worked.

Our own age is much more an age that’s marked by, I think in the university, a hesitation or a fear of totality and the dangers of a premature synthesis and the idea of a plurality of discourses in objects of science and studies and methods that are difficult to reunite, especially given cultural diversity. So I think that we have a lot more hesitation. Of course we have an explosion of scientific information, and a plurality of philosophic schools, and an awareness of a diversity of religions that’s very different from the context of the middle ages.

Question: How is this environment leading to a resurgence in Thomism?

Thomas Joseph White: Well, I think that young people today sense that there’s a certain kind of unmooring of  intelligence that’s taking place, and they often feel that and most acutely in their university education. They’ve acquired a certain competency in a particular domain of analysis or thinking. But in terms of an understanding of the larger meaning of the whole, or a philosophical view on life, or - if they’re Christian - how that would relate to the faith they’ve received in their childhood or in their early adulthood, I think there’s a sense of the crisis of foundations or the crisis of unification of thought that’s very prevalent among young people.

I think that Aquinas then appears as a potential candidate to help give you some of the key tools for reconciliation. And I think his philosophy – I would say his philosophy in particular retains a great deal of pertinence and perennial importance. He has tremendously profound insights into the human person, into the nature of being, into the problem of what goodness is, human moral action, freedom, the understanding of the cosmos in relationship to its transcendent causality, God, [and] the problem of religiosity in human persons and how this relates to divine revelation. So I think that young people who get some initial understanding of that can see the potency of that, given the kind of vacuum of orientation that you find in contemporary academic culture.

Question: Is the Summa Theologiae still relevant?

Thomas Joseph White: Well about the Summa Theologiae - that’s Aquinas’ last work, along with some Biblical commentaries - and it’s his grandiose attempt at a synthesis theologically. I’ll say two things about it. First of all, the Summa Theologiae has a very robust and intense of cooperation of faith and reason of philosophical and theological understanding, so on the one hand it’s a really profound reflection on the mystery of Christian faith. The analysis of the person Jesus Christ in the third part of that book is simply astonishing and profound but it’s not free from a debt to philosophy. There’s an enormous amount of philosophical speculation - deep thinking about the human person, about God - that’s going on throughout, so if you want to talk about it as an archetypal model, you could say this is a person pushing you to think about the deep cooperation between reason and faith in the act of understanding the Christian mystery.

Now the second thing I’d say about the Summa Theologiae is the anthropology is really robust and attractive. Aquinas has a very strong awareness and gives detailed analysis of human emotion, imagination, sensation, and he has a sense of a physiological grounding of this in the animality of the human person. So while he’s not anything like a modern biologist, there’s a great respect for all of the vehicling of our sensation, imagination, and emotional life in and through our corporal reality. Which in a contemporary context gives you a way to interact pretty robustly with biophysiological theories of how human beings feel and even think. But at the same time, Aquinas is also going to give a very refined analysis of human concepts and thoughts and judgments and free will, intentions, choices, desires, and prayer that’s going to emphasize that there’s dimensions of us, of our person, that are not simply reducible to the material.

So there’s a really strong materialism, if I may put it that way, and a very strong affirmation of the spiritual dimension of the person including the religious dimension. And then he’s really trying to show how they are deeply interrelated, and it’s meant to be that way because we are rational animals.

Recorded on: August 20, 2009