If Aquinas Were Around Today

Thomas Aquinas comes up a lot these days.*   Some of it is generated by a small community of passionate people who want to reclaim his project. Thomas_Aquinas_by_Fra_Bartolommeo

This, in turn, prompts some – such as John Caputo in an interview with us – to come up with a legendary one liner that accused this group of ‘retreating into the hills of Thomism’. 

The most insightful address I have encountered recently comes from Umberto Eco in the book Travels in Hyperreality. In a chapter entitled “In Praise of St. Thomas” he outlines how Thomas interacted with his world and how he navigated the difficulties of his inherited order (mendicants) , his Age, and his own limitations.  Three passages from the 1974 essay that inspired me were:

  – Thomas, was neither a heretic not a revolutionary. He has been called a “concordian”. For him it was a matter of reconciling the new science with the science of revelation, changing everything so that nothing would change. 

– Nobody ever said that Thomas was Galileo. Thomas simply gave the church a doctrinal system that put her in agreement with the natural world. 

–  So it is surely licit to ask what Thomas Aquinas would do if he were alive today; but we have to answer that, in any case, he would not write another Summa Theologica. He would come to terms with Marxism, with the physics of relativity, with formal logic, with existentialism and phenomenology. 

He would comment not on Aristotle, but on Marx and Freud. Then he would change his method of argumentation, which would become a bit less harmonious and conciliatory.

And finally he would realize that one cannot and must not work out a definitive, concluded system, like a piece of architecture, but a sort of mobile system, a loose-leaf Summa, because in his encyclopedia of the sciences the notion of historical temporariness would have entered.

I can’t say whether he would still be a Christian.

But let’s say he would be.

I know for sure that he would take part in the celebrations of his anniversary only to remind us that it is not a question of deciding how still  to use what he thought, but to think new things.

Or at least to learn from him how you can think cleanly, like a (person) of your own time.

After which I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.

This actually is an approach to the past that has some general applicability. I have heard it said that best way to honor founders of any movement is not to simply repeat what they did but do the kind of thing they did in their time for our time. Aquinas

As a contextual theologian, I have said (over and over again) that honoring the apostles and the early church’s mothers and fathers is not in simple doing what they did in their culture – but in doing in our culture the types of things they did in theirs.

Rote repetition – regurgitation is not honoring. It is closer to idolatry. 

Repeating in the 21st century what they said in the 8th century isn’t as faithful as one might like it to imagine. This is due to the nature of our message. Our message is incarnational and thus our models and methods must match that!

The container must match the content. 

I’m not that into Aquinas. I think it’s because of the approach of those who are a little too into him.  But if they were to change to Eco’s approach and engage contemporary science and incorporate real scholarship, then I might get into Aquinas as well.

I just have no interest in reclaiming a romantically imagined version of the past. I am very interested in engaging the living now and emerging near future.

* Saint Thomas Aquinas, (1225 – 1274), also Thomas of Aquin or Aquino, was an Italian Dominican priest, and an immensely influential philosopher and theologian in the tradition of scholasticism, within which he is also known as the “Dumb Ox”.
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Bryce Walker
Bryce Walker

Bo: As presented here, Eco's thoughts are highly speculative, which he seems to admit, and which I think cannot be stressed enough. That aside, Eco seems to be describing action that would have been more befitting of the Averroists rather than Thomas, whose Dominican commitments led him to take what was helpful in Aristotle and use it to teach theology (the purpose of the Summa). Also, the systems that Eco posits that Thomas would have engaged seem to be too restricted. Would he have moved forward with analytical or continental philosophy? Would he have even used a Western philosophical formulation? And can we assume that he would have preferred Marxism to other philosophical options? Would his dive into physics caused him to emerge with the opinions of a Richard Dawkins, or would he have helped Alistair McGrath respond to Dawkins? All that is to say, such speculative endeavors tend to create (often unintentionally) portraits that are complex hybrids between the author and the historical figure.


A quick addendum: First, I am neither a Thomas scholar nor a Thomist. Second, Eco is a brilliant person. I am assuming that he has addressed these somewhere and I am not seeing the nuance of his thought in the summary here (no fault of yours...just the fault of summary itself).

Da stand das Meer
Da stand das Meer

Some great quotes from Umberto Eco here (which I hadn't heard)! Completely with you on the idea that Tommy Aq. would be mixing it today with quantum physics, phenomenology and engaging with the John Caputos and Jean-Luc Marions of this world.


I'm also with you in the sense that if you put him in a debate with Slavoj Zizek, he wouldn't necessarily be using the same kinds of argument (and certainly not the same tone) as RadOx. One of the main reasons is that the latter seem not to be interested in the fact that Aquinas was not only an intellectual, but also a mystic. When he had his famous glimpse of the Beatific Vision in the final years of his life, it made him say that everything he had written ABOUT God was straw compared to direct experience OF God. What's strange about RadOx - and this is their 'fatal flaw' for me personally, is that for all the rhetorical fireworks and some stimulating ideas, in terms of spirituality they're a step backwards compared to their main influences (De Lubac, Balthasar, Rowan Williams). The vision of Christianity that comes out runs the risk of committing the worst of theological sins - intellectual pride. It's worth recalling that Aquinas's life was shortened by the fact that he trekked around Europe barefoot hauling his heavy parchments on his back. Humility - that's what's crucially lacking among many, although of course not all, latter-day 'Thomists'. Just my opinion here.


Just one other point: for those of us who take the words 'communion of saints', Thomas IS alive today (just like MLK, Mother Teresa and all the others in that great cloud of witnesses). Just not in the flesh ...




Peter B.


Very interesting. "changing everything so that nothing would change" sums up Radox perfectly invoking postmodern theory to support reactionary world-views and politics. I need to get this Eco book .

BoSanders moderator

 @Bryce Walker  Thank you for the amazingly deep comment!  

You will be happy to know that that Eco DOES deal with Averroes quiet a bit!

You will not be happy to know that he does the same thing with Averroes that he does with Aquinas :)


And you make a good point - but let me just say this: we do not know WHICH philosophy or which side of science Thomas would be on... BUT we do know that he WOULD be enganging them!   



I would love that. I could also revert to my government name of "Walter" or "Wally" but I think Eberle will suffice, Sanders ; ) Like Zizek says, what the radical message of Christianity involves is "In Christ, nothing changes yet nothing remains the same." The Christian sees the artificiality of social constructions and systems of exploitation as a foundation for the "universalism" Paul speaks of. The point is not cementing these structures but seeing them for what they are (nothing changes) and in this new disposition toward the world we have the foundation for "nothing remaining the same" for the world as it is cannot continue unchanged if, proverbially, people begin to realize the emperor has no clothes. Nothing is changing in that the emperor never HAD clothes, but everything is different once people realize this. If any of that makes sense. 

BoSanders moderator

 @BoEberle 1) that is the best line in the chapter :)  2) I will will Xerox it and send you the chapter ... the rest of the book is about other things !   -Sanders 


p.s. I suggest going forward that you become 'Eberle' and I become 'Sanders' instead of BoEast and BoWest  ;p  

Bryce Walker
Bryce Walker

 @BoSanders Thanks for clarifying, Bo. Yeah, it's curious that he would treat Thomas and Averroes similarly (at least in light of the project of Averroes followers of attempting to study Aristotle apart from theology, which Thomas seemed to disagree with). And I think you are right: Thomas would be engaging the thinkers of our day. I hope that all Christians, as they are able, do the same.


"Everything changes so that everything reamins the same," for contemporary (misguided) Thomists like RO folks becomes, in the emperor analogy, changing the way people think, their assumptions, methodology, etc. so that in a world where it is seemingly easier to discover a man is naked (due to technological, scientific, and philosophical advancement) ACTUALLY he is not, he is still fully clothed! Nothing changes!