Aquinas and His Role in Theology- Marie- Dominique Chenu
Part X- Ex Occidente Lux
In a real sense, four years ago I turned my back on the Christian West in favor of Byzantine Christianity. I never broke communion with the Western Church, but I felt that the Western Church in all of its manefestations was misguided. I felt that in liturgy, spirituality, and theology, the West no longer had the vision of the early Church. Part of this was due to a disillusionment with Roman Catholic traditionalism. While I absorbed the ancient ethos of the Roman Church through the traditional liturgy, this Patristic witness was often overshadowed by Counter-Reformation propaganda and politically reactionary agendas. The scholastic "Thomistic" theology of most Latin traditionalists is taught in an almost Talmudic manner: we were not really expected to understand what we read, as long as we memorized it and believed that it was right. Everything else was modernist and not to be trusted. You can see why I severely mistrusted St. Thomas after my seminary years.
When I decided not to become Orthodox, and before I entered the monastery, I decided that I would have to study if the West was indeed "heretical". In order to do this, I had to go back to the roots of what divided the East and the West. For me, that meant going back to Aquinas. But how should we approach Aquinas? Through which theoretical lense should we look, and who is a reliable guide? I found one in the Dominican theologian Marie-Dominiqe Chenu, probably the greatest Roman Catholic theologian of last century, in his book, Aquinas and His Role in Theology.
Chenu presents Aquinas as a product of his time. He also presents the change in Western theology in the second millenium as something profoudly centered in the Gospel and the spirit of the early Church. For Chenu, the Incarnation is the central event in theology. The changes in the Western Church after the schism of 1054 were the result of the Gospel reacting to the new conditions in which the Church found itself. No longer could theology and spirituality remain in the countryside and the monastic cloister, but rather it had to expand into the towns where a new society was emerging. For Chenu and for Aquinas as members an urban mendicant order, the Dominicans, change is not necessarily a defection from the Faith. It can be, on the contrary, the movement of the Holy Spirit expanding one neglected aspect of the Faith as opposed to another.
Central to Chenu's theological history is the emergence of Nature as something good in itself and not just a symbol of other-worldly goodness. Aquinas at one point in the Summa Theologiae that things are not just good because they particpate in God's goodness, but the goodness is their property in every sense. In another passage, Aquinas locates the virtues not above the carnal passions, but rather IN them. In the new theology that emerges out of the twelfth century, the world becomes something to study in itself because it was created by God. Someone once said that Aquinas can best be given the title: Doctor Creationis, the Doctor of Creation, of its goodness, order, and beauty.
The role of the power of the intellect in Aquinas also influenced me very much. In it, the intellect is not just a dull tool weakened by original sin, but rather a participation in the knowing of God. Although Aquinas, through Dionysius, was very much aware of the infinite difference between the created and Uncreated orders, he nevertheless was confident that we in some real way participate in the intellect of God. Aquinas did not believe in a higher faculty above the intellect, so at least in my opinion, he does not put the "things of God" in a realm entirely different from the one we are in now. For the Angelic Doctor, the beatific vision is merely an augmentation (though supernatural) of the powers we already have in order to see God as He is. In this way, Aquinas makes Christianity human again, not in the sense of "pulling it down to our level", but rather by recognizing that being human means being made in the image and likeness of God.
So does this mean I am a Thomist in the full sense of the word? Chenu, at the end of his book, Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century, wrote that,
The statues of Reims would have been out of place in the tympanum at Vezelay, no less than the masters would have been in monastic cloisters. But the two Christendoms of feudal Vezelay and of urban Reims, each with its own understanding of faith and mode of expression, formed part of a single church (p. 309).
Chenu thus says that the plurality of monastic (or traditional) and scholastic praxes does not divide the Church, but rather adds to the richness of the expression of the Christian Faith.
In this way, in my eyes, the Western Church was definitively redeemed. While Chenu would take his ideas too far in helping to draft Gaudium et Spes at the Second Vatican Council, his ideas are too persuasive to be discarded totally. In perceiving and studying the change that occured in the Western Church from the twelfth century onward, he put them in the context of the Incarnation of the Word of God in history. For me, this was another aspect of the Gospel that I was perhaps ignoring in my obsession with Byzantine icons and monastic spirituality.
To take the world as it is, to affirm it as it appears to us, glorious though fallen, is a very lofty and Patristic labor. This is the charism that Aquinas and the Christian West have in Christianity.