Among all human pursuits, the pursuit of wisdom is more perfect, more noble, more useful, and more full of joy.Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles
Perhaps we are all familiar with the nascent graduate student who loves thinking about God, who wants to be a teacher, and who, if he is to be a teacher, must have an advanced degree in theology. Here I am thinking of lay persons. He or she will make an appointment, and will ask where he should pursue his degree. Dissimulation will follow. We know that for the sake of his or her future—surely he will want marriage and a family—that we must recommend a PhD Program, a program in the history of doctrine or the sociology of religion or that citadel of relativism called comparative religion or that platypus of learning known as Catholic Studies. And we will make this recommendation with the hope that along the way our prospective graduate student will learn some theology, for in most of the programs enumerated above he or she will hear of theology as the revealed doctrine of God to which intellect owes obedience only occasionally and not often in a positive light. Theology-like topics will be treated as interesting, sometimes important, historical or cultural artifacts, as psychologically important, as examples of a genre called religion, and it will be possible for our graduate student, if he is a faithful Catholic, to be fed inferential crumbs that suggest these things were once really believed and really stoked the fires of life. But the task of learning anything of Sacred Doctrine will be all his, because his professors will more often than not be embarrassed by the existence of faith, which they will, as half-conscious followers of Schleiermacher, consider mere feeling generated by those who must depend upon some strong illusion, or else emotional attachments having no value as truth and no status as science. It must be said with regret that should our graduate student choose a Catholic faculty in the United States rather than some mythical secular foundation, his fare might not be too different, although there would be numerous exceptions. His danger in our American faculty would be that, in addition to all the weaknesses above recited, he will receive on what seems to be the authority of the Church a dose of gentle and plausible modernism, usually involving the idea common since Schweitzer that the conviction that Christianity might be proved historically true by the Second Advent has been largely abandoned, so that the purpose of theology is to teach mankind, in the words of the Renew Prayer, to recreate the earth, a project which would seem, given the difficulty the average Catholic has in staying out of sin day by day, to involve an unjustified sanguinity.
Wherever our prospective student turns he will be met not by credulousness, not by unwarranted fervor, but by embarrassment, by an attempt to make theology fit, to tame it into something that it is not.
Now this is a problem for which I have no solution beyond pointing out that there are one or two places that might be exceptions. My purpose here is to reconsider in a reflective and simple way the nobility of Sacred Doctrine as it is proposed by St. Thomas in that excellent work for beginners the Summa theologica. I do this because I want to remember the majestic and honorable and preeminent place of Sacred Doctrine. And in the case of the advice we would give our prospective graduate student, we would have no choice but to direct him to the study of theology as the noblest science, superior to every other science because its object is the God of Glory and because it is of all science most certain, resting as it does upon the revealed word of God.
If he decides to study theology, his career will be limited; he will find work, if at all, in a Catholic College, but he will also have found joy. Our work as teachers is to remind our theoretical student that a choice lies before him. He may either study something historical or sociological that passes itself off as Sacred Doctrine or at least as a substitute for it. Or he may study Sacred Doctrine intrinsically noble, perfectly engaged with reality human and divine. But he will need to be convinced of the instinctive nobility of theology in a world that denies its existence and its relevance.
We might initiate this conversation by noting that St. Thomas’ first question begins by asking the very question that my hypothetical professor of religious studies might well ask, anticipating, of course, an answer in the negative: is there anything that lies beyond philosophy, beyond the grasp of reason, beyond the confines of this world’s history, that is either knowable or worth studying? And Thomas knows that somebody will say, “Don’t be ridiculous, philosophy, natural knowledge, covers it all; there’s nothing out there to study, Sacred Doctrine is just a superstition.” And our gainsayer might also point out that philosophy can tell us all there is to know about God, for instance that He exists. Aristotle has already done all that. No need for a discipline beyond philosophy.
Against this St. Thomas cites a text from ii Timothy: all scripture is profitable for instruction. And we might say, “What kind of argument is that?” Well it isn’t an argument, it’s an authority, and the assumption it undergirds is that the most important book in the world isn’t philosophy and isn’t simply the work of human reason. This sounds jejune, but is it? That the Bible is not a work of human reason is obvious. Human reason doesn’t talk about the prophetic vision of a new creation, missions to Nineveh, the transcendent wisdom of God, God becoming man, miracles, the Resurrection, Pentecost, regeneration through grace and faith. Somebody might say, “Of course theology isn’t reasonable; it’s a work of human imagination, human fantasy.” But find, please, another story told by fantasy or philosophy in which God is love, in which the Creator of the world prefers small things, in which being sorrowful is a great good, in which taking up one’s cross is the heart of the matter, in which obeying the civil authorities is commanded while resisting their ultimate claims is rewarded with martyrdom.
So to this claim, that there is at least one book that speaks from beyond the confines of philosophy, Thomas adds an argument that appeals to the very shape of human nature. We all know that there are things about human life that exceed reason’s grasp; indeed most things important to the human heart, although moving significantly within the range of reason, exceed reason’s grasp. The nobility of Sacred Doctrine begins with its refusal to consider man a clever animal, at home in the world, bound by history, confined to this created order, and with the consequent refusal to limit knowledge to human reason. What St. Thomas is doing is validating every vision of glory man has ever enjoyed and putting to shame those cynics who warn us not to aspire to anything beyond our animal nature. Thomas will in the long run tell us that it is our destiny to see God and to rejoice in the New Creation, that beyond every partial human longing there is a face we long to see and a voice we long to hear. If we are to see that face and hear that voice, it will be because we desire and have been given knowledge that lies beyond human reason.
This, far from being a dead topic, is at the heart of the contemporary debate, and answering this question involves the defense of the noblest aspects of both truth and human nature. One might range on one side Walker Percy, convinced that the contemporary pursuit of spurious transcendence through drugs, sex, and travel is an indication of our inexpungeable longing for a homeland that is elsewhere, and one might add the testimony of Tolkien that he had never known a man in whom there was not something of the exile.
And it is the power of this idea that challenges those who do not believe there is anything beyond philosophy. One can see the entire intellectual history of the period after 1830 as an attack on Question One, Article One. What after all, was the effect, if not the purpose, of Darwinism other than to display mankind as products not of a loving God, as children not of a loving father but of the serpent? Catholics may be interested in reinterpreting evolution so that it includes some kind of design, but Darwin was not. Add Freud’s argument that religion cannot touch reality but always represents illusion. Add B. F. Skinner and John Watson, and what does one have but an extended argument that there is nothing beyond natural knowledge, because there is nothing there to know? Whatever the particular scientific truths these men may have discovered they are, accidentally or deliberately, the enemies of the noblest insights of the human race. Sacred Doctrine, theology as such, in its first principles is a defender of the eternal and noble aspiration of the human heart for knowledge of God in an Eden that lives in imagination, and of the eternal human admiration for those who prefer some better country to the violation of conscience.
Associated with the majesty of Catholic doctrine is a noble tenderness for the ordinary, and especially for the unphilosophic souls who are the human race and for whom Christ died. It is the nobility of Sacred Doctrine that it speaks directly to the poor and the unphilosophic by revealing the truths necessary for salvation. In this it is unlike any other philosophic enterprise as it is presently practiced. In modernity the tendency of knowledge is to create an ever more tightly defined elite engaged in a conversation none but they can understand. The duty of Sacred Doctrine is to speak to all sorts and conditions of men, urging the truths that alone can heal their souls. The average Christian will never read the Journal of the Academy of Religion—many cannot indeed even read—to say nothing of the Thomist. Philosophy pursued as an ultimate end tends first to Gnosticism and then to unbelief. It is the nobility of sacred science that like its divine author it condescends, which is why St. Thomas proposes “to treat of the things which belong to the Christian religion in such a way as benefits the instruction of beginners.”
So in question one, article one three things that establish the nobility of Sacred Doctrine are presented. Sacred Doctrine exercises a divinely given guardianship over the fact of the soul’s eternal destiny, a destiny that lies beyond nature and beyond history; transcendence of the human soul. Sacred Doctrine finds its sources in tradition and in a book that is not a philosophy book. In imitation of our teacher who asked children and the child-like to come to him, Sacred Doctrine condescends to teach the least intellectually involved of our brothers and sisters. This is the nobility of Sacred Doctrine.
Of course attacks against its method and content have been perennial, and St. Thomas answers these charges in subsequent articles. Can anything be noble if it is superstition or just an opinion? Science and scientific are powerful words in modern times. When Herbert Spencer said that science yielded knowledge, all else opinion, he knew that certainty, or at least reliability, was the mark of science. So when St. Thomas asks if Sacred Doctrine is a science, he is asking if it is real knowledge, a proposition which our contemporaries might deny, but which they can deny only by redefining science, since a science is any intellectual endeavor with first principles and a consistent method.
And then there is the lurking suspicion in the minds of moderns that the object of theology cannot be God who is unseen, but must be something historical. The idea that the subject of Sacred Doctrine is not God but church history or human experience was as much in evidence in 1270 as today and is as misleading now as it was then.
And what of the fact that the truths of the Catholic faith are routinely contested? If truth is indeed certain, it should be so overwhelmingly self evident that argument would be out of court. To which Thomas replies that Sacred Doctrine argues with those who accept at least some of its principles, for then we are concerned mostly with the conclusions of agreed principles, never with those who deny its first principles. These cavils are all old arguments, none of them without force but none capable of withstanding the true consideration of what Sacred Doctrine is and does.
Now let us return to the quandary of my imaginary graduate student. Concern for his future may drive him to the local state university and to a degree in religious studies. But what we his teachers in Catholic institutions can do is to instill in him the courage to teach Sacred Doctrine whenever and wherever possible for what it is: the most certain discipline, the noblest, and a source of joy. Let the secularists apologize for their fear of God; perhaps He will get them all in the end. But the body of knowledge based on Scripture and tradition, represented by the Apostolic Fathers, the Great Alexandrians, Leo, Gregory, Ambrose, the Cappadocians, Anselm, Thomas, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus and the great spiritual writers, St. Thomas More, St. Francis De Sales, is a noble body of achievement more significant than anything the religious studies program can produce. These things we need to teach to our hypothetical graduate students. And one thing more: to study Sacred Doctrine is to seek knowledge of its object and source in reality, not only in books. Doing Sacred Doctrine means striving through prayer, good works, and the use of the sacraments to know.