Beginning to Study St. Thomas Aquinas

Beginning to Study St. Thomas Aquinas

One of my primary projects in the Aquinas blog of this website is to discipline myself to systematically read through every single article, in order, of St. Thomas Aquinas’s masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae.

(Note: you will often see this work referred to also as the Summa Theologica, which is a slightly different form of the title. Theologiae is a noun, in the genitive case, which makes this form of this work’s title to be Latin for “Summary of Theology.” Theologica, on the other hand, is an adjective, which makes that form of the title mean “Theological Summary” — not a heck of a lot of difference.)

aquinasstainedglassEven secular scholars acknowledge Aquinas’s theological masterpiece to be one of the “Great Books” of Western civilization, worthy of a place alongside the works of such giants as Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. (The Encyclopedia Britannica edition of the Great Books devotes two whole volumes of its 54 volumes to the bulk of Thomas’s Summa.)

Any interested readers of this blog who elect to join me in my plodding pilgrimage through Thomas’s tome will be richly rewarded, I can assure you. (I say “plodding” because the work in question is vast in bulk, comprising 521 questions (119 questions in Part I, 303 questions in Part II — 114 in the First Part of Part II and 189 in the Second Part of Part Two — and 99 in Part Three), with each question further divided into   We will not only read the words of St. Thomas himself, we will also consult the classic commentaries on the Summa, such as . By the time we reach the end, we will have had a master course in Catholic theology, and will have acquired a wisdom in the truths of God all too rare in this theologically illiterate age. Thomas will have drawn for us a highly detailed and amazingly precise roadmap to guide us safely past the snares and through the swamps of our times.

But before diving into the Summa, it seems smart to find gain a bird’s-eye view of the man and his work. Is there a book that will do this for us?

In fact there are several.

First of all, there is F.C. Copleston’s 1955 work Aquinas, available as a Penguin/Pelican paperback. You can find used copy

One of the most respected experts on St. Thomas Aquinas is the European scholar Dr. Josef Pieper. Among his many influential works is the classic Guide to Thomas Aquinas, published originally in german and translated into English in 1962. (Interestingly, the Imprimatur for the English translation was granted here in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I live, by the then-bishop of Scranton, Jerome D. Hannan.)

To be continued


Erroneous assumption?

Erroneous assumption?

Today, August 15, in the Catholic calendar is the feast day of the Bodily Assumption of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, into heaven at the end of her earthly life.

So is Reality a Café or a Baseball Diamond? Part 1

So is Reality a Café or a Baseball Diamond? Part 1

Attention, all you sports fans! In the interest of reaching out to all of you who already adhere to our country’s most popular (and most zealously practiced) organized religion (professional sports), allow me to pitch you the following proposal: that this website’s analogy to a café be supplemented (though not supplanted) by a second metaphor: that of a baseball diamond. (And since we serve pancakes here at Reality Café, the cry “Batter up!” can serve double duty.)

Permit me to elaborate.

battingstanceEveryone knows that the ultimate goal of every baseball player when it’s his or her turn at bat is to make it all the way home. To do that, he/she needs to bring a bat up to home plate, to assume the proper stance in the proper place (the “batter’s box”), to see the ball coming, to swing at it successfully enough to connect with it and send it flying forward within the foul lines, and then to make the rounds of the bases, from first to second to third and then home, without a) hitting a pop fly that’s caught, or b) being tagged “out” as he or she is running the bases, or c) having the inning end while he/she is still stuck on first, second, or third base.

I believe that the path to perceiving religious reality is a lot like that.

In an earlier, more epistemologically* innocent age, books of Christian apologetics** generally began with getting you to “first base” by making the case for the existence of God (the case for theism). Nowadays, unfortunately, in our presumably “postmodern” era, such an approach is considered philosophically naive. Why? Because many today assert that human reason is too hopelessly subjective to make sense of such a question (i.e., “Does God actually exist?”). Or they assert that there is no such thing as objective reality — either God or anything else — outside each person’s mind.

thethinker(* Epistemology is the branch of thought that deals with how we can know things to be true, or whether such knowledge is even possible. ** Apologetics is the branch of religious thought which deals with demonstrating and defending the truth of a particular religion, and answering the various objections raised against that religion’s claims.)

Therefore, before one can even get to first base, spiritually speaking (that is, to a defensible belief in God), some prolegomenary (preliminary) matters must first be established — exactly as in baseball. In baseball, one does not simply begin running towards first base. You only qualify for that action by first bringing a bat up to home plate, taking the proper stance in proximity to the plate (standing in the “batter’s box”), by seeing the ball, by successfully swinging, and by hitting a “fair” ball. No one would bother holding or hefting a bat that he didn’t believe existed, or didn’t believe could actually hit the ball. And no one would swing at a ball that he didn’t believe existed, or didn’t believe could actually traverse the space between the pitcher’s hand and home plate.

ballglove&batSo too in the spiritual realm. The first task of apologetics can no longer be to establish the existence of God. That’s starting with the player already running to first base. The logically prior task is first to establish the existence of objective truth (represented in this metaphor by the baseball). The second task is to establish the existence and general reliability of human rationality (represented by the bat). The third task is to learn to take the proper stance, in this case, one of intellectual honesty and spiritual openness. And the fourth task is to establish the fact that reason can actually perceive the truth and connect with it, make contact with it, as the bat does with the baseball.

Only when one believes in 1) the ball (objective truth) and 2) the bat (reason as the divinely-provided instrument for connecting with the truth), and 3) the fact that the ball and the bat go together — are in fact the proverbial “match made in heaven” — will one swing for the bleachers, or at least bunt. (I mean, of course, use one’s mind to entertain a rational argument for the existence of God).

baseballplayerrunningOnly after those preliminary arguments about the nature of truth and the competence of reason have been successfully made can a person be in a position to then make a run for first base — to believe in a God who really, absolutely, objectively exists.

Now, I personally yearn — achingly, desperately yearn — for true, deep, and complete unity among all human beings. Probably you do, too. And I hope, in the course of our conversations, to demonstrate to your satisfaction that no one desires such unity among all the members of the human race more than does God Himself.

But here we encounter the first of several sad divisions among human beings (sad, but surmountable, so don’t despair). For many have made it to first base (i.e., have come to believe in God) while many still have not — or at least not yet. These others are still back in the batter’s box, striking out, or not even swinging, perhaps even blind to the ball whizzing by them. The distinction, and division, between theists — believers in God (from the Greek word for God, theos) — and non-theists is a sad one … sad but unavoidable in a world where some make it to first base while others do not.

And even for those who’ve intellectually made it to first base the game isn’t over. For while getting to first base is necessary, it’s not sufficient. (The concept of something being “necessary but not sufficient” will be an oft-recurring refrain through this website’s little essays and discussions.)

crescentstarofdavidcrossHere’s why: if one were to poll the people all excitedly chattering on first base and congratulating themselves on their good fortune in having made it there, we might be surprised to discover that they represent more than one religion, and that each of these different religions claims to be the true theism (the true belief in the one true God). There is, for example, Judaism. There is also Islam. And there is Christianity (to name but the three most well-known varieties of theism).

jesusofnazarethChristian apologists, therefore, realize that the apologetic task isn’t finished when one has gotten people to first base by successfully making the case for theism. One must proceed to then make the case for Christianity as the correct theism. This of course means making the case for Christ as the true, unique, and definitive incarnation and revelation of God to humankind.

Those who are persuaded by that case will then make the run from first base to second base — from “mere theism” to “Christian theism.” In so doing, of course, they will not be leaving theism behind: they will be advancing to what Christians believe to be “theism come into its own”  — to what is in fact the only authentic, coherent, fully-formed theism (for reasons I’ll explain when we get to that point). But they will necessarily be leaving behind those who don’t follow them in that particular leg of their intellectual and spiritual journey, and thus a second sad division ensues: between theists who are Christians and theists who are non-Christians.

Should one avoid creating this division by simply staying on first base and settling for a nice generic theism upon which all theists can agree?

onewaysignNo, because staying on first base doesn’t really solve anything. The fact is that Christianity on the one hand, and Judaism and Islam (and any other non-Christian theistic religions one might wish to include) on the other hand, make competing and conflicting claims about Jesus Christ — claims that each person must ultimately accept or reject.  (Jesus Christ himself doesn’t allow “sitting on the fence” as a third option; see Matthew 12:30.) Christianity astoundingly claims that Jesus Christ is none other than Almighty God in the flesh, and that He is thus the one and only Savior through whom liberation from sin and a completely authentic life can be achieved (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 John 5:11-12).

Whether we’re Christian or non-Christian, let’s be honest: that’s a staggeringly absolute, audacious, and exclusive claim, regardless of whether or not we think it’s true. But if it is true, then one has no choice but to move forward from first to second base. In doing so, as I’ve already stated, one is not leaving theism behind: one is running toward the only authentic theism, and leaving behind inauthentic theisms that don’t, ultimately, deliver the goods (i.e., God Himself: the Supreme Good).

demonsetchingAnd if the run toward second base is indeed a run toward more Truth, then one might well expect all sorts of negative forces to be arrayed against you to keep you from making it to second base — forces that Christianity identifies as “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”

By “the world” is meant society configured in a stance of opposition to Christ. By “the flesh” is meant our own fallen human nature, which left to itself will always choose the path of least resistance, rather than swim upstream. And by “the devil” is meant that brilliant fallen angel, that prince of darkness and hater of light who will deploy every error imaginable in order to keep us from discovering and embracing the truth.

So getting to second base won’t be easy. These forces will do their utmost to trip us up and tag us out. We’re going to have to “steal” second base. That’s one of the interpretations of Jesus’ words to the effect that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and [only] the violent [the forceful, the energetic] bear it away [or, are taking it by force]” (Mt 11:12). And that’s going to mean leaving behind the current political correctness of pretending that we can all camp out permanently on the first base of an undifferentiated theism.steal2ndbasesign

(This essay is continued in the next post, “Making It Home: Café or Baseball Diamond, Part 2.”)


The Reality Café Dream

The Reality Café Dream

For many people, “religion” has left a bad taste in their mouth. They see a world where people wage war over their conflicting beliefs, where injustice seeks to justify itself theologically, where suffering is inflicted in the name of an unfeeling god. And “church” too often carries connotations of cruelty, condemnation, and corruption, heartlessness and hypocrisy, and other toxic attitudes and behavior.

By contrast, a café or restaurant — a place where you can gather with family or friends to enjoy your favorite food, laugh and engage in animated conversation, celebrate life, share your latest joys and struggles with people you trust and you know care about you, and generally have a great and memorable time — has a universal appeal.

I recently had a dream in which someone gave me several million dollars to open a chain of restaurants named Reality Café, in big cities and small towns alike, where people of all beliefs or none could come together to discuss in a friendly and honest fashion the Big Questions of Life: who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, and how we can find happiness, meaning, and fulfillment in our lives.

The concept of Reality Café was that you (and any friends you might wish to invite) could come into a warm and welcoming environment, order your favorite food and drink, and it would be “on the house,” so long as you were willing to engage in a delightful discussion — fragrant with friendliness, tasty with truth, sizzling with sagacity, seasoned with wit — with select dinner companions, a discussion that would advance you in a structured, step-by-step fashion from wherever you were in your beliefs (or non-belief) to wherever you need to be.

The conversation would proceed from the “appetizer” phase to the “soup and/or salad” phase, then on to the first main course, the second course, and so forth, culminating in the top-it-all-off final dessert-like dénouement of the discussion. (For a more detailed explanation of that sequence, please see this website’s August 30 and 31 blog posts on “So Is Reality a Café or a Baseball Diamond?”, Parts 1 and 2.)

While I’m waiting for that multi-million-dollar donation to drop into my lap to make my restaurant-chain dream a reality, in the meantime this website seeks to be the online equivalent of such an idea-ingesting experience. Although (alas!) I cannot yet provide the literal culinary content, I do hope to serve up a literary likeness thereof, an appealing banquet of belief-themed conversations that can gently, lovingly, respectfully, yet purposefully lead each of us (myself included) toward an ever more coherent, consistent, authentic, and rewarding grasp of reality.

Bon appétit!

Making It Home: Is Reality a Café or a Baseball Diamond, Part 2

Making It Home: Is Reality a Café or a Baseball Diamond, Part 2

As I continue to unfold my analogy of rounding the bases of a baseball diamond as a representation of  the logical steps one must proceed through to arrive at the correct religious position, please don’t misunderstand either this or my previous post. I’m not claiming to have proven anything yet.

Theoretically speaking, there might be no such thing as objective truth. Reason might not be able to reliably deduce anything. There might not be a Supreme Being like God. Christ might not be divine, but merely a man and no more. Or someone might accept the first point (the existence of objective truth), but not the second (the reliability of reason); or accept the first and second but not the third (the existence of God); or accept the first three but not the fourth (the deity of Christ).

logicsignI haven’t yet made arguments for any of the above. I’m simply sketching out the logical sequence in which those arguments need to be made, the order in which in fact they traditionally have been made. There’s no point, for example, in beginning by seeking to prove that Christ is God to someone who doesn’t believe that such a being as God exists. Likewise, there’s no point in arguing for the existence of God with someone who doesn’t believe in the validity of rational arguments, or believe in the existence of anything outside his or her own subjectivity.

womanshopping(I say “his or her” out of deference to the current craze for always insisting on inclusive language, but in my experience it’s only been males who fall for the easily-refuted — in fact self-refuting — delusion that there is no such thing as objective reality that exists outside of ourselves. Women tend to be much more intelligent and intuitive than men on this point, and all women automatically accept that a whole world of objective reality exists outside of themselves, which is why women go shopping.)

(For the demonstration that the denial of objective reality is self-refuting, see the next — forthcoming — post in this series, “Do You Object to Objective Truth?”)

So back to our now-familiar baseball analogy. If the case for Christianity as the true theism (which we’ll be making in upcoming posts) successfully convinces us, we’ve made it to second base. But just as when we previously arrived at first base, we discover that the game’s not over yet. Just as on first base, there’s a confusing cacophony of voices on second base, all claiming to represent the Christianity we’ve come expecting to embrace. There are Quakers and Baptists and Pentecostals and Methodists, independent fundamentalists and Congregationalists and Disciples of Christ, Lutherans and Presbyterians and Anglicans, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox and Catholics — to say nothing of the relatively recently-minted Christian sects (most of them “made in the USA”): Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists and still others. What do we do with these conflicting claims?

scrollOne obvious approach would be to study the original “founding documents” of Christianity (the books making up the New Testament), and perhaps the writings of the early Christians who received, reflected on, and taught the New Testament (the men we call the “early Church Fathers”), to ascertain what they believed. One would want to know what original Christianity looked like, and when and where other forms began to diverge from the original article — began to stray from the “straight and narrow” way.

Protestantism (in its tens of thousands of varieties) claims that Catholicism (in the West) and Eastern Orthodoxy (in the East) represent this gradual divergence from the original Faith, until having crossed a line they collapsed into a contaminated mess of medieval superstition that was no longer faithful to Scripture, and that Protestantism was, beginning 500 years ago, a recovery of the pristine  purity of the gospel (the “good news” of the Christian message), which obliged it to break away from the rottenness of Roman Catholicism in the Western Church.

That’s a position I well understand, having held it with fierce conviction for 14 years, from the age of 14 to the age of 28. (The first 14 years of my life I was raised in, and professed, no form of Christianity, either Protestant or Catholic, or any other religious faith, for that matter.) When I became a fervent Protestant as a freshman in high school, I discovered and made my own the attitude toward Roman Catholicism expressed by the original Protestant Reformers: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, and others.

Catholics, of course, take a very different view of the matter. (To be continued)


Confidence Amidst Chaos: How to Have Peace in a Peaceless World

Confidence Amidst Chaos: How to Have Peace in a Peaceless World

Welcome to Reality Café!

Welcome to Reality Café!

Greetings and welcome! Whether you are a believer or a skeptic, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, atheist, agnostic, New Age, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Vatican II Catholic, traditional Catholic, or not sure, you are welcome here, and I care about you. Having come to believe in God (by God’s grace), I believe God loves us just the way we are, but I also believe He loves us too much to leave us that way (since none of us has yet become all we’re meant to be).

womancryingAnyone who’s been living on this planet for a few years has discovered that amidst the many joys of life there are also many disappointments, failures, pain, and suffering. There are people I care deeply about all over the world who struggle with one or more of the following: doubt, guilt, anxiety and/or depression, physical or mental illness or disability, poverty, unemployment, career failures or other reversals of fortune, addictions (drug, alcohol, sexual, etc.), failed marriages, abortions, children born out of wedlock, children who have committed suicide or who have abandoned the beliefs and values with which they were raised, incarceration for crime, a destroyed reputation … the list could go on and on.

My heart goes out to each and every one of them, as well as to all people who are tormented by any of these things but whom I’ve never met.

silhouettekneelingWithout wishing to sound superficial or glib, I do believe — and know, from my own 56 years of lived experience — that in the midst of our sufferings there can nevertheless be serenity, security, and genuine emotional and spiritual healing and wholeness. And I believe that true, deep, lasting happiness, both here and hereafter, is only achieved when our hearts and minds — our entire lives — are freely, fully, and finally conformed to God’s mind and will.

I understand that you may not believe that yet. Come on in to Reality Café with an open mind, and let’s talk!

Best wishes for your happiness now and always,
Gerry Matatics