What the Lord is transcends what we understand of Him

By  Michael Higgins
  • February 19, 2007

At the recent meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Washington, discussion was rife in the corridors and around the dining table on the relationship of reason and faith. The times demand it.

The fact that the meeting occurred within the octave of the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas struck me as an opportune moment to do my own riff on the subject. Aquinas speaks to all of us in the academy because, as the British Jesuit historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston notes in his work Aquinas: “Aquinas was a university professor and teacher, and his works bear the impersonal and objective stamp which one naturally associates with writers of his profession. There was no obvious drama in his life comparable to that for which Socrates is always remembered. Nor was he one of those strange, lonely figures like Nietzsche, whose personalities exercise a constant attraction for biographers and psychologists.

“Aquinas knew the cut and thrust of scholarly life. He knew the dangers inherent in challenging the intellectual orthodoxies of his age. He was a master systematician, for whom no body of knowledge was forbidden territory. He delighted in discovery; he was bold in his expostulations and syntheses; he was prolific (he had the rare ability to dictate to four secretaries at once). He knew something of personal determination and had the intellectual temerity to draw not only on the work of the philosopher Aristotle but on his great Muslim and Jewish commentators. St. Thomas deplored all forms of intellectual myopia and remains a model of the enterprising, tenacious, receptive and unblinkered scholar.”

Donald Nicholl, both an historian and religions scholar, tells us something about Thomas’ understanding of the intellectual’s quest for truth that can be liberating for those who labour in the vineyards of inquiry and experimentation. In his masterful The Beatitude of Truth: Reflections of a Lifetime, Nicholl remarks on Thomas’ assertion that the beatitude — blessed are those who mourn — is unique for those whose calling it is to extend the boundaries of knowledge.

Why, it is reasonable to ask, are intellectuals classed as those who mourn? The answer Thomas gives is that, whenever our minds yearn toward some new truth, we become afflicted with pain, because our whole being wishes to protect the balance of inertia and comfort which we have established for ourselves; and the pain is the symptom of our distress at its disturbance. Moreover, we experience a sort of bereavement when those formulations, images and symbols have, over the years, become part of ourselves. And we mourn that loss as we would mourn the loss of a limb.

Thomas understood, as I see it, that knowledge is tantalizing; we become accustomed to our theories, paradigms and models, we appropriate what we know and become settled, perhaps even comfortable, with our intellectual constructs. But if intellectuals are to be truly faithful to their calling as questers of the mind then these paradigms, theories and models will have to be abandoned because to mourn, in this sense, is to accept the limitations of our horizons, the need to forgo the easy certitudes that can stifle the intellectual curiosity that is the raison d’etre of scholars.

Aquinas himself knew something of the ferocity of debate, the dangers of spiritually constrictive authority, the liberation that attends openness to foreign ways of knowing. With startling prescience his repudiation of intellectual dogmatism rings true for our riven times: “The ultimate human knowledge of God is to know that we do not know God, and that insofar as we know, what God is transcends all that we understand of God.” No comfort that to the religious zealots who divide our world.

As we wrestle with the implications of the reason and faith debate — theological, political and cultural — we would be well served by remembering the Dumb Ox, whose “lowing can be heard all over the world.”

(Higgins is president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.)

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