Saturday, September 1, 2007

A tale of two (complementary) theological anthropologies: Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas

Last night, after re-watching the entire second season of the original U.K. television series The Office, which makes me realize what an absolute comic genius Ricky Gervais is, prior to drifting off to sleep, I opened the most recent issue of Christianity Today, the premiere evangelical magazine in the U.S., that I look forward to receiving each month. Among the several good articles I read one stood out, The Good Life: Augustine says we must love the very best the most, by Daniel H. Williams. This article really brought home to me why I am a more of an Augustinian than a Thomist. Now, I do not want to take an absolute stance because there is much in the Angelic Doctor's unsurpassed synthesis that is of great value and that, frankly, is indispensable for any Christian who is seeking to understand her/his faith.

St. Thomas Aquinas
In Philosophy, even in this day an age, one is, at least to some degree, either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. So, in Christian theology even now, one is either primarily an Augustinian or a Thomist. Of course, the Plato/Aristotle distinction is operative in the Augustinian/Thomist dichotomy; with Augustine being the Platonist and Thomas the Aristotelian. Perhaps what distinguishes Pope Benedict XVI and his dear friend, whose closest collaborator he was, Pope John Paul II, is that John Paul had a primarily Thomistic outlook, while Benedict is an Augustinian through-and-through. One of the issues most central to this theological split is anthropology, the nature and orientation of the human person. Jesuit theologian, Fr. Karl Rahner, was a Thomist. In fact, he called his theological method "transcendental Thomism." In his CT article, Williams writes of Rahner's theological anthropology, that he "held that human beings have a fundamental orientation toward goodness, truth, and love, and that at the soul's bottom there exists an orientation toward God." For Rahner, according to Williams, "people merely have to be reminded of the good, and they will seek it."

Augustinians, such as myself, while not necessarily dismissing the fundamental goodness at the bottom of the human soul, see that people do not always seem to be oriented toward the good, toward God. Some Augustinians, Calvinists, to take but one example, argue for the total depravity of the unredeemed human soul. It is not too much to insist that the facts on the ground often seem to support this thesis. Human history shows us, Williams observes, that "letting humanity choose whatever works to its own advantage results in the primacy of self-interest and personal gain." Further, unless we are obliged "as well as enabled to see what is good, [we] will not freely choose it, because it will not immediately seem to be in [our] self interest."

Augustine certainly seems to be more in tune with St. Paul, especially in the theology expressed systematically in his letter to the Romans. Williams uses Romans 3,10-12, in which Paul quotes Isaiah, to make just this point: "There is no one just, not one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have gone astray; all alike are worthless; there is not one who does good, (there is not) even one."

St. Augustine

Williams is correct to point out that Augustine though "often thought of as a philosopher and theologian," was actually "a pastor for most of his life." Therefore, dealing with matters like "sustaining faith, practicing Christian virtues, and teaching the truth were especially important to him, just as they are for believers today.". Whereas, St. Thomas was a professional theologian who spent his life in either cloistered or academic settings. By acknowledging these facts I do not want to push the ivory tower vs. the street argument too far, but I do think it is an important aspect to keep in mind on this point concerning our orientation to the good. Nonetheless, as Catholics we are et, et, not either/or, reasoners. One can easily see these two perspectives as mutually enriching. They are certainly not mutually exclusive. As one engaged deeply in pastoral ministry, I can honestly write that sometimes, in my ministry to people, my sight of the forest is obscured because of the trees. In such cases, looking at things from a bigger perspective is not only important, but crucial.

Cutting to the chase, Williams notes what Augustine writes, in a somewhat proto-Thomist manner (i.e., using a syllogism), in his book On the Nature of the Good: "Every nature is good, and every good thing is from God. Therefore, all nature is from God." For Augustine "no physical object or thing can be good or bad in itself." From this Augustine reached two conclusions: "(1) that it is our will that takes good things and makes them bad by our absorption with them and thus our perversion of them, and (2) the relation of our affections to the sensible world can only be determined by having a proper relation to all physical things in light of their Creator."

All-in-all a great article for me right now, especially in light of my recent writings about matters spiritual that reveal a definite Augustinian sensibility. I hope that in these writings I achieve a balance and do not obliterate the reality (i.e., by insisting that we become who we already {really} are) that we possess, because we are created in imago dei, which sin never completely obliterates, though it can obscure and hide it well, a fundamental goodness.

1 comment:

  1. I opened the most recent issue of Christianity Today, the premiere evangelical magazine in the U.S., that I look forward to receiving each month.

    I usually look forward to it every month too, but with football plastered all over the cover, I thought it could wait to be read.

    However, your post here has gotten me past the cover, so I shall read Williams's article.

    Augustine comes to me through my few Reformed friends (Western NJ is silly with them) and from Garry Wills's devotionals, sprinkled so masterfully with quotations.

    Και ιδου, September's CT has a piece on Saint John's Bible!

    Yeah, I can't skip this issue ... just because there's football on the cover.

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