[Editor’s Note: Dominican Father Gregory Pine is Assistant Director of Campus Outreach for the Thomistic Institute. He is the former associate pastor at St. Louis Bertrand Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also served as an adjunct professor at Bellarmine University. He has published articles in Nova et Vetera, The Thomist, and Angelicum. He is also a regular contributor to the podcasts “Pints with Aquinas” and “Godsplaining.” He spoke to Charles Camosy.]
Camosy: Not that long ago, it would have been absurd to do Catholic theology–or even Catholicism itself, in some sense — without at least a basic grasp of Thomas Aquinas. But especially in the last several years, there seems to have been a strong and widespread move away from that sensibility. Do you share a similar sense of this change? If so, what do you think is behind it?
The thought of St. Thomas Aquinas has had a mixed reception over the centuries. For many years after his death at the end of the thirteenth century, his thought was well-received in the Dominican Order, but not so well-received outside the Order. In the sixteenth century, there was a kind of renaissance of his thought, and many professors in Europe and the New World used his Summa Theologica as the textbook of theology. A period followed during which many lost interest in reading St. Thomas himself, and it wasn’t until the late-nineteenth century that new enthusiasm emerged. In the mid-twentieth century, St. Thomas’s thought was again deemphasized, but it has begun to make waves again in recent years.
St. Thomas’s teaching is often billed as a perennial philosophy, one that keeps cropping up through the ages because it corresponds to the mind and heart of man. Now, contrary to what some might expect, there’s no clear story of decline and fall on the one hand or inevitable progress on the other. I think what we see is a cycle of rediscovery. St. Thomas offers insight and inspiration in every age, but some generations have less interest in his teaching or what is falsely advertised as his teaching. For whatever reason, his wisdom can be obscured in certain ages, so it takes a fresh presentation and a new effort at translation to bring him back into the conversation. But once he is introduced, many people find his philosophy and theology to be holy teaching.
Why? Well, because it’s thoroughly ecclesial and content-rich. St. Thomas — perhaps better than any other theologian before or since — synthesized the wisdom of Scripture and tradition with the profoundest insights of antiquity. He quoted the Scriptures with searching insight. He incorporated the teachings of Church councils and Eastern fathers previously forgotten. He incorporates pagan, Jewish, and Islamic philosophers to great effect. He is said to have “inherited the intellect of all” and to present theology in a compelling way that is wise. I think it’s for this reason that he continues to recur in the tradition, and why there’s a steady diet of St. Thomas on offer.
I’m excited that the Thomistic Institute is being proactive in trying to address this. Can you tell us about your new program, “Aquinas 101”?
In short, it’s a video course that introduces the interested viewer to the thought of St. Thomas. All told, it’ll be about 85 short videos, with accompanying readings and podcasts. The idea is that it’ll give you a basic mastery of the essentials of Aquinas, walking you through: 1) Who is St. Thomas and why is he important? 2) An introduction to his philosophy; 3) A walkthrough of his masterwork – the Summa Theologiae.
Each video features a Dominican friar and is animated to illustrate the concepts described. We’ll post the videos online at a rate of two per week over the course of the year. All the content can be found at Aquinas101.com. You can also enroll in the course and have two emails sent to you each week with the videos and reading. The whole course is free.
It is totally understandable that Thomas Aquinas can be intimidating to some folks. What might you say to those who feel this way? Should they nevertheless consider this program?
I think many are intimidated by Thomas Aquinas, because, well, he can be intimidating. He uses some technical language that can sound purposefully obscure. His style of writing can be a bit foreign to our sensibilities. And, the genre of his philosophical and theological works can seem overly complicated.
I think we can draw an analogy here with translation. Many great works of literature would be lost on us were they not translated. Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Comedy, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—without translations, these texts would only be accessible to a select few. But, thankfully, we have them readily available, and they enrich our lives in significant ways.
St. Thomas also stands in need of translators. In his case, though, we don’t need only to bring him from Latin into English, but we also need to translate certain aspects of his vocabulary, style, and genre for a modern audience. Once this work has been done, we gain access to the riches of his teaching and can learn to read him on his own terms. This is precisely the point of Aquinas 101–to help the interested viewer in bridging the gap.
Do you envision this being more of a strict academic study, or will it be connected to prayer, virtue, and other “habits of the heart”?
The hope is that this helps those who take the course to be happy. It’s not so much a matter of learning what one historical figure taught, but rather of learning who God is and how he reveals himself. The reason we’ve chosen St. Thomas is that he’s especially good at facilitating this encounter.
St. Thomas teaches that we can observe an order in the world: All things go out from God in creation and return to him in Christ, the moral life, and the sacraments. The study of philosophy and theology, then, is a privileged way of conforming one’s mind to the very way that things are. St. Thomas calls this conformation truth. St. Thomas teaches further that what is loved must first be known, and thinking well about the truth affords one the opportunity to love better and to participate better in the plan of God as it unfolds in our midst.
What is more, we want the study to be delightful. Contrary to what many authors have suggested, virtue isn’t so much a matter of doing really difficult things with great effort. Rather, it is a matter of acquiring the habits of mind and heart that incline one to the good in such a way that it becomes second nature. The virtuous person pursues the good easily, promptly, and joyfully. And so, we’ve spaced and curated the lessons so that they help to grow in the viewer the habits of study which facilitate this transformation.
For St. Thomas as well, prayer is not something to be thought of apart from study. Both are part of the self-same contemplative gaze on God. Growth in study enriches prayer, and prayer kindles a deeper love for the truths learned in study. That’s not to say that you need to be smart to love. Such is certainly not the case. But it is to say that it matters what you think. And, when you think well about God—and learn to appreciate more deeply the mysteries of revelation—it ultimately redounds to a greater love.
Where can someone go who is interested in learning more about the program?
You can go to the website, Aquinas101.com. There you’ll find the Aquinas 101 course, which we’ve also divided up into six short courses for those who would prefer to take it in chunks. There’s information on how to enroll and what to expect. I hope that you enjoy it and that you find it enlightening and inspiring.
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