Homily from the Feast Day of Thomas Aquinas by Thomas Ryden
Since moving to Knoxville, I have found a new favorite store. With the prevalence of online shopping, it is kind of a novel thing to have an actual, brick and mortar store be a favorite. Stores today have to make an effort to get people to actually come into them. And let’s be honest, having Amazon Prime able ship you something in two days is a big deterrent from heading out to the store. I mean, you can even get your groceries delivered to you! Have you seen these curbside pickup grocery services? I cant get around the produce section anymore because there are sooo many Kroger employees clogging the aisles. They are always polite and happy to make space for me, but there is just so many of them because so many customers are opting to wait at the curb instead of actually going into the store.
Stores that rely on customers coming in now have to be creative, because in order to get people in the door, you must provide an experience in addition to a product. This is why farmers markets still do well. I will never get hearing someone talk about a trip to IKEA as if it were a vacation to Disney World; I’ve never been, but they apparently have meatballs and people stay for three hours, at least that’s what I hear.
But this brings me back to my new favorite store. I got hooked by this store not by the products it carries, but through the experience it brings me. This is my experience: when I walk into this store, I transform into a grizzled adventurer, looking for lost treasure. I am speaking of course about Bargain Hunt, the discount store that sells discarded and unwanted items from department stores over-flowing stock rooms.
You would think this would be a boring and unexciting place full of useless junk, but in fact for me, the opposite is true. The reduced price merchandise is organized in such a haphazard manner, that the shopper has to quite often literally dig through piles of stuff to find what he or she is looking for. And there for me is the appeal. Sure, there is a lot of junk here, but maybe if I dig through it all, I will find a hidden gem! For example, when needing white elephant gifts for our Christmas party we had with our high school students, I was able to secure for a sum of less than four dollars, a stuffed animal version of Jabba the Hutt, the space slug from Star Wars, and a picture frame that for some reason was fashioned in the shape of a denim jacket, the latter costing less than fifty cents.
But even when I leave Bargain Hunt empty handed, which is most of the time, I have a smile on my face because I feel like I’ve just gone on an adventure. I feel like an explorer, looking for buried treasure. I am feeling a small sense of wonder.
St. Thomas Aquinas is a man who really captures what it means to live as a Christian with a sense of wonder, wonder not at the silly trinkets that can be found in the bargain bin, but wonder at the treasure trove revealed to us by our Heavenly Father through the Scriptures and through the natural world. St. Thomas Aquinas embodies the holy wonder of a life spent in seeking out the truth of God. He is one of whom Jesus speaks when he says in the Gospel of Matthew, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). St. Thomas shows us how we can be pursuers of God through the careful study of the Bible and the world, bringing out the treasure that God reveals to us.
St. Thomas was born into a rich family in the early half of the 13th century and was very quickly drawn in to the life of the Church. He received an extensive education in philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, and geometry, in addition to his religious education. To say that he was well-rounded would be a serious understatement. Aquinas flourished in this environment and was quickly recognized for his talents. Going against the expectations his family had for him, which were for him to become a local and powerful religious leader that would add to the influence of the family, he delved further into his studies, while also entering the Dominican order. He lived a life of preaching, teaching, and writing.
St. Thomas has had a profound impact on Christian theology and he ranks among the most influential Western Christian theologians and philosophers of all time. This is due largely to his prolificness as a writer of many books including the theological standards the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles.
We could spend all day on the various contributions Thomas made to theological thought, but I want to focus on a couple of specific areas where he serves as a good example for us to follow today.
The first aspect of his thought that is relevant for us is his view that reason and faith are not two opposing forces but instead work in concert to point us towards God.
Unfortunately, we live in a day where this sentiment has been cast aside by many. There are those who put their trust solely in the observable universe, suggesting that trust in anything that cannot be experienced through the five senses is folly. Likewise, there are some who prefer to check their brains at the doors of their churches, thinking that critical thinking is a detriment to faith.
These of course are the extremes, but they represent dominant narratives in our current day and age. St. Thomas serves as a moderating voice between the two positions, arguing that both reason and faith are in fact gifts from God. Hear him when he writes in the Summa Contra Gentiles: “Since, therefore, only the false is opposed to the true, as is clearly evident from an examination of their definitions, it is impossible that the truth of faith should be opposed to those principles that the human reason knows naturally” (Summa Contra Gentiles 1.7.1).
I heard someone put this another way: “all truth is God’s truth.” What does that mean? It is a call not to be afraid of always seeking the truth, always learning, always finding out more about the world that God has created. If something is true, that thing is a reflection of the way in which God made the world.
Religion, not just Christianity, has a reputation of being resistant to change, and in a culture where the winds of whim are constantly changing, this can be a necessary asset, but when our love for control over our circumstances causes us to reject things that have been revealed to be true, as with the discoveries of Galileo and other examples in Church history, we reinforce the biases of the hyper-rational toward religion.
Instead, Thomas embraces both faith and reason as being gifts of God given to us to understand Him better. This holding of both reason and faith at the same time is echoed in St. Paul who says in his first letter to the Thessalonian church: “test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
Aquinas was also well known for practicing what is called “natural theology”. This is the practice of looking at the world and making a case for the existence of God apart form an appeal to religious or biblical authority. Now, it goes without saying that if we only depend on natural theology, we have in some sense missed the point, because our faith journey is ultimately about submitting to the religious authority of Jesus Christ, and a faith built on rational arguments alone is no faith at all, but rather a monument to our own sense of reason.
But natural theology as exemplified in Aquinas is helpful for two reasons. First, it helps in our dialogues with those who don’t yet share our faith, those for whom religious authority means nothing. I am reminded of the opening sections of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, in which he begins from the innate sense of right and wrong in human beings and makes the argument that that sense must come from a source. Aquinas’ arguments were of a similar fashion. One such argument is Thomas’s argument for God as the first efficient cause. The argument goes something like this: everything that exists or happens is the result of something else existing or happening. You and I are here because our parents were here, the ball rolled down the hill because the child kicked it, etc. Aquinas argues that there must be an original, efficient cause, from which all other causes flow. Otherwise, there is only an unending chain of causes and effects throughout time ad infinitum. Such arguments can open a door of dialogue with someone for whom the Bible or Christian religious authority do not yet carry any weight.
Natural theology is helpful also in giving us more opportunities to worship and stand in awe of God. In delving into philosophical questions, in seeing the order of the universe, or even in observing a beautiful sunset, we are given opportunity to offer praise to our Creator who has made the universe in this way. From this perspective, we do not pursue knowledge for its own sake, for that knowledge is the knowledge that puffs up. Rather, we pursue knowledge because it reveals to us more fully the nature of God, and this revelation is cause for worship.
Among the many things that St. Thomas shows us through his life and work, most important may be the lesson he learned near the end of his life. In the midst of his career as an imminent writer and academic, he had a mystical vision about which much is not known. What is noted is a change in Thomas’s life from that point on, what was all in all a brief time. Remarking to a friend, he said that in comparison to the experience of God he had in this vision, all of his written works, which have now survived centuries, were like straw. In the face of the direct revelation of God, he looked at all his work, all his striving, as worthless. This is because St. Aquinas knew to keep the main thing, the main thing. All of his work was in pursuit of God, but it is encountering God that truly matters. It was in encountering God that Thomas found true meaning.
Jesus says that in order to enter his kingdom, we must become like little children. Some might interpret this to mean that Christians are less sophisticated, less mature, or less educated than their non-believing counterparts, but I don’t believe this to be so. Instead, I think part of what Jesus means by “becoming like a child” is recapturing the sense of childlike wonder that pervades young persons and centering that joy on the pursuit of God. This is how Aquinas saw his academic work, for he writes: “For to be able to see something of the loftiest realities, however thin and weak the sight may be, is…a cause of the greatest joy” (SCG, 1.8.1).
Do you remember the joy of discovering new things as a child? For me, the image that comes into my head is of my dad and I, sitting in our cul-de-sac with the telescope, looking at the stars. Dad had found one of those large white telescopes that someone was throwing away and had fixed it up. We had figured out a way to turn off the streetlights on our street, shining a flashlight on just the right spot to trick them into thinking it was morning. Then we looked at Orion, the Big Dipper, and most memorably, the spot on Jupiter and the rings around Saturn. I was awestruck by these things that were so far away, and I was given a sense of joy, realizing the greatness of the Creator of all these things.
This was the wonder that was so present in the work of Aquinas. In everything he did, he pursued truth to its fullest, in religion, science, or philosophy, knowing that in the pursuit of truth, he would encounter God. May we do the same in our pursuits, whether they be academic, practical, or otherwise. Let us be filled with wonder at the beauty of our Creator, and let our pursuit be of Him and His kingdom.
Brown, Christopher M. “Thomas Aquinas”. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, https://www.iep.utm.edu/, January 20, 2018.
“Thomas Aquinas”. Holy Women, Holy Men. The Church Pension Fund, 2010.