Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Organized Summary

No, that title doesn't refer to my post for today but rather to St. Thomas Aquinas's 6200-page summary of Christian theology, the Summa Theologica. Sixty-two hundred pages. If you read one page a day, you would finish reading the Summa in seventeen years. If you read one page each minute (good luck!) without sleeping or any other breaks, it would take you over four days to read the book. It's five times as long as War and Peace, and yet Thomas calls it a summary and says in the preface that it's suitable for beginners.

It's going to take me about thirteen years to finish the whole thing, and I certainly couldn't understand anything in it at first. But Thomas's characterization of the work is defensible: any student of his era who was ready to tackle it would have studied the philosophy and theology necessary to make it accessible, and a person like me making his way through it over the course of many years never gets lost because of its tight organization.

The whole work is divided into four (slightly awkwardly numbered) parts and each part into a few large treatises: the Treatise on God, the Treatise on the Trinity, the Treatise on Man, the Treatise on Grace, and so on. Each treatise is divided into "questions," each of which covers one subtopic. The Treatise on God, for instance, includes questions on the perfection of God, the goodness of God, the eternity of God, the will of God, the justice and and mercy of God, etc. Then each of these questions is divided into several (usually four to six) "articles." Each article asks a question, gives reasons for answering it one way (which will prove to be the wrong way), then cites a short reason for the opposite answer, followed by the heart of the article outlining what Thomas hopes is a sufficient justification for the second answer, and finishes with short rebuttals to the first, incorrect attempts to answer the question.

Today's reading included an article asking if habits sometimes come directly from God. At first, Thomas says, it seems the answer is no. God gave humans natural means of developing good habits; why should He bypass the system He created? Thomas counters this preliminary answer first with a passage from Ecclesiasticus saying that God filled someone with wisdom and understanding, showing that God sometimes doesn't wait for his children to learn things on their own. What follows is a brief, clear description of two situations in which it makes sense for God to bypass nature and simply implant a habit. The first regards human disposition in favor of God and ultimate happiness; such disposition lies beyond man's natural powers and must come by direct divine infusion, he points out. Second, God sometimes wishes to display his power miraculously, and so He might, for instance, heal someone without the help of a physician or give the Apostles knowledge of various languages without studying them. The article ends with pointed responses to the first arguments. Two days ago I learned what Thomas means by habit. Yesterday, I learned where in our bodies or souls various habits reside. Today I learned and have become convinced that habits come sometimes from nature, sometimes from human actions based in nature, and sometimes by direct divine intervention.

Bit by bit in this way, Thomas builds up his story. The message of the entire work goes something like this. God is perfect and self-sufficient. From his essence of love, though, He created a world that displays in its wondrous diversity countless aspects of his glory and wisdom. Everything other than God that exists came from God and must be directed back to God in order to fulfill its purpose. Man and some angels, however, engaged the will that sets them apart from the rest of creation and sought fulfillment elsewhere than in their Source. Man was created to know God and find perfect happiness in the vision of God's Blessed Face, but such knowledge is beyond man's intellectual capabilities, and redirecting his will to God is beyond the power of man's will. So God provides grace (partly explained in the article I read this morning) for restoration. The Blessed, who come to know God in this grace, live lives of faith, hope, and love, and in the end of time God resurrects their bodies, reconstitutes their uniquely human beings, and rewards them with eternal enjoyment of presence before his Face.

The organization of the book follows the history Thomas outlines. Just as a man starts from God, departs from God, and returns to God, so Thomas's theological summary first describes God ("describes" is not the right word, but with God, Whose essence is beyond our complete comprehension, it is impossible to find the right word), then man, and then the reunion of man with God. What plan could be simpler?

In the hands of a lesser intellect (which would mean almost anyone else you can imagine), a detailed philosophical examination of this theology would become hopelessly knotted somewhere around page 1100. But Thomas keeps every thread straight and in its place. When I read yesterday that habits are more than powers, I checked my notes from previous years and found in Part I, Question 87, Article 2 that I had written, "The human intellect does not know itself by habits (which are between powers and act)." I think Thomas must have had the whole picture clear in his head the entire time he wrote, just as the grown oak is encoded in the acorn, and then watched the organism grow and branch and blossom as he set it to paper.

I climb up this stately oak annually, each year reaching higher branches, and the view is almost overwhelmingly beautiful. Each yearly ascent gives me courage and inspiration to press on in life, praising God both for the blessings of creation and for his grace, and yearning for ever better views until I reach the ultimate vision: the reward of the vision of his Face and knowing Him as I am known.

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