Firing up Twitter this morning, I was greeted by two things: @RichardDawkins embroiled, yet again, in some controversy or other, and @CatholicEW – the account of our very own Successors of the Apostles – tweeting away merrily on the subject of St Thomas Aquinas’s feast day. I have written here before about the Bishops’ Conference (CBCEW) not getting the credit it deserves from bloggers.
But once again, they’ve come up trumps. Rather than spend a long time getting to the bottom of the latest Dawkinsian storm-in-a-Russell’s-teapot, the CBCEW’s cheery tweeting (including a joke so good they made it twice) nudged me into contemplating higher – indeed, Angelic – things instead.
I was reminded, in particular, of two things.
The first is that, while not a theologian renowned for his zingers, Thomas is in fact responsible for the greatest intellectual gag of all time: “The argument from authority is the weakest…” – wait for it… – “according to Boethius” (Summa Theologiae 1a, q. 1, a. 9, for those of you following along at home). Truly, it’s the way he tells ’em.
The second point is rather more serious, and tells us something important about the nature (and limits) of theology.
Early on in the Summa Theologiae, St Thomas Aquinas defends the use of metaphors, analogies, and other “such similitudes” when talking about God (ST 1a, q. 1, a. 9). He couldn’t not do, really, since Scripture does it all the time. God is not, after all, an actual Rock or Mighty Fortress (eg, 2 Samuel 2.22-3). Furthermore, since all our thinking and talking is doomed to fall short of the Almighty – “God is above whatsoever we may say or think of Him” – all our language about him must, to some degree, be metaphorical.
But Thomas, curiously, goes rather further than this. Given that we cannot but speak about divine matters “through a glass darkly”, he argues that we should therefore choose our analogies very carefully. And what we must not do, is risk our analogies being confused with the real thing. We would, he thinks, do well to remember that “What He is not is clearer to us than what He is” (ST 1a, q. 1, a. 9).
It would be tempting, for example, for theologians to try to explain things by likening God to, say, the Sun or the Universe. But that is the very last thing we should do. The trouble is, people might think we are actually saying that our God is the Sun or the Universe (or, at the very least, that he is more like them than he isn’t).
Rather, Thomas says, it is better to describe God in terms of ‘similitudes drawn from things farthest away from God’ (ST 1a, q. 1, a. 9). Describing God as a Rock or a Mighty Fortress might tell us something true and important about his steadfastness and strength, or perhaps the safety of those who dwell within him. But no one will end up thinking that God is really a big stone or a manmade structure.
This is a critical, and typically Thomas-ish, insight. Incidentally, It is also one I like to think I took to heart in my recent book The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic, which ranges from the McDonald’s menu, to the Nineties line-dancing smash hit “Achy Breaky Heart”, to the cinematic oeuvre of Chevy Chase to make some salutary dogmatic points. (Trust me, the book’s not actually as godawful as that description probably makes it sound. Indeed, what could be?)
But it is not, of course, wholly original to Thomas: as he would himself be the first to tell us, the Church Fathers got there first. Hence St Athanasius, to give my all-time top example, solemnly informs us that Christ is like asbestos: anxious to save us from the fires of hell, he gives to us, through the Incarnation, his own “flame-retardant” nature (cf On the Incarnation, 44).
As is well-known, and as I expect every blog today will recall, towards the very end of his life Thomas was granted a mystical vision, and thereafter refused to write another word. Asked why, he answered: “Everything I have written seems to me like straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”
Two final thoughts. Firstly, “like straw” is itself an excellent example of a “similitude drawn from things farthest from God”. And secondly, would that more of us were able to produce such marvellous, enlightening “straw sculptures” as the Angelic Doctor.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.