Aquinas was a philosophical outlier who incorporated the ancient Greek thinkers into his theological/philosophical writing. That he borrowed heavily from the pagan Aristotle’s system was quite remarkable—and more than once questioned. That he received Greek philosophy from Islamic scholars is even more remarkable. To summarize his understanding of reality, he adopted Aristotle’s approach that every created thing is real in itself, and that from the similarities of things it is possible to deduct general principles and norms. For Aquinas, the end or ultimate purpose of all created matter was God, who was the perfect embodiment of all things. We utilize Aquinas’s system in Catholic schools, where everything—the arts and the sciences--taught under its roofs is a window on the wonder of God. Religion is not (or should not be) relegated to last period as a standalone subject of the day, unrelated to geometry, history, or Shakespeare.
The Church cherished Aquinas’s philosophy for at least two reasons. The first was the precision of its language involving the sacraments, and particularly the mystery of the consecration of the bread and wine, Transubstantiation. Aquinas and Aristotle agreed that all things have substance and accidents [or measurable externals.] Consequently, the words of the priest changed the substance of the food into the body and blood of Christ, without changing the accidents—the taste, texture, weight, etc. of unleavened bread and fermented wine.
The line between philosophy and theology was very thin in medieval times, and the second advantage of the Thomistic scholastic system of thought was its unity of authority: with the meaning of all reality summarized in Aquinas’s writing, the Western Church enjoyed a high level of certainty in its teachings and laws, enabled to declare them timeless and changeless for all eternity. Again, we see this claim of timeless and changeless authority asserted even as we speak; Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the family, was harshly criticized for his perceived reservation about denying Eucharist to those in second marriage without annulment. The criticism was and is the perception that Francis does not recognize the timeless, ageless, and absolute nature of the Church’s teaching on divorce, unchangeable because the essence of moral law is changeless.
Even in Aquinas’s time, though, there were hints that the Aristotle-Aquinas monolith was not foolproof. All thinkers of the fourteenth century were familiar with the principle of analogy: that we can never define God precisely, but only provide human ideas or explanations of what God might be like. A philosophical-theological system is not the exact same thing as the thing itself, in this case the mind and essence of God and his creation. Aquinas knew this well. In fact, toward the end of his life he began having divine visions while saying Mass, and shortly before he died, he referred to his body of work as “straw” in comparison to his mystical experiences of the Christ of the altar. Mysticism, a powerful force in late medieval times, defied systematization, and thus was regarded as a serious threat to Church order. [There will be several posts on medieval mystics down the road.]
To critique the thinking of Thomas Aquinas involved critiquing the official Church, a rather dangerous business in the fourteenth century when the Inquisition, staffed by Aquinas’s own Dominican order, was well established in its work of preserving academic and ethical order in the Church. A man needed “cover,” so to speak, and thus it is not surprising that such a counter-thinker would emerge from the other burgeoning medieval order, the Franciscans. William of Ockham (1287-1347) is best known today for “Ockham’s Razor,” the handy principle that states, in so many words, the simplest explanation is usually the best one. It is helpful to our purpose here to understand that Ockham and his Order were immersed in controversy with the Avignon popes over the issue of poverty. After the death of St. Francis of Assisi in 1226, various popes had softened the uncompromising position of St. Francis on the issue of ownership of property. One wing of the Order, the “Spiritualists,” had broken off and eventually dissolved, contending that not even a pope had the power to dissolve vows or contradict the words of Jesus in Scripture.
However, once the papacy moved to Avignon in 1309, the royal luxurious standard of the French papal court became a general matter of concern, and the Franciscan identity as poor men and beggars was renewed and intensified throughout the order. The friars in general contended that poverty must be real, not symbolic or spiritual, and their austere lifestyle and preaching were seen as a rebuke to the excesses of Avignon popes. Ockham and his superior Michael of Cesena found it necessary to flee to Bavaria and the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor. Ockham recommended that the emperor have supreme control over church and state; he was excommunicated for his trouble but was never in significant danger. He died, ironically, just before the arrival of the Black Plague in 1347.
Ockham viewed the world through different glasses than Thomas Aquinas, no doubt impacted by events swirling around him, and his philosophy and world view are considerably different. In the first instance, he believed that scholasticism was too ambitious in its claims and provided the Church with an unhealthy sense of never needing reform. But he went further and questioned the very idea of “universals.” Ockham stated that the only truth one could know about a thing was its name, hence his philosophy is known as nominalism (from the Latin, nomen, “name.”) He denied the ability to take observations to a higher plane, e.g., the establishment of universals and laws. Ockham did not deny God or religious observance, but he held that reasoned propositions like those used by St. Thomas could not speak with certainty about God.
Ockham was influential in his day, but more so after his death. He made a distinction in the ways we can know God. Aquinas had maintained that reason [the mind], properly informed and disciplined, could come to a knowledge of God. Ockham, on the other hand, held that free will brought access to God. For Ockham, experience of God was wedded to the subjective human situation of obedience to God’s law made known in Revelation. A baptized person could choose to obey or not to obey the revealed mind of God in the Scripture. The Spiritual Franciscans held similar views, arguing that the words of Jesus [“sell everything you have, and come follow me…”] trumped the exhaustive body of principles and laws formed by the Church over the centuries.
Ockham opened the door to a freedom of conscience and thought that would be branded as problematic by the Church [though, interestingly, never outright heretical.] He influenced a shift toward the supremacy of human conscience that Luther, well versed in philosophy, would utilize in his teaching on the priority of Scripture in the working of the human conscience. Luther believed that scholasticism was a negative force on the Church, an unjustified and unbiblical intrusion in much the same way as the Spiritual Franciscans had two centuries before.
Ockham has left one more impact upon us today: the separation of religious experience from science and the secular arts. Philosophers from the Renaissance till the present time have labored to find a system of thought that includes some way to integrate a divine being. In American culture, we seem to bracket religious data and experience as unrelated to secular life. The challenge of evangelization, it seems, must begin with some agreement on the nature of reality. We still need our interpreters to square circle.