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The Fruits of Study: Michaelmas Term 2019

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Study is a fundamental aspect of Dominican life, not merely as an academic exercise but as a privileged means to deepen our contemplation and sharpen our preaching. One of the mottos of the Order of Preachers is Veritas, ‘truth,’ which reflects our conviction that the search for truth can lead us to God. With term now finished, the student brothers share particularly useful or striking insights gained in the course of their studies.

Br John Bernard Church: The Origins of the Universe

One of the more thought-provoking essays I had to write this term was on the origins of the universe. The task can be frustrating, as asking such vast questions quickly makes clear the limitations of our concept of God: often all we can say with confidence is what God is not. The exercise brought to mind St John of the Cross, who describes a faith which frees the intellect of purely human ways of knowing. If we remain aware of how far human reason can take us, it seems a fruitful approach is not so much searching for every answer, but learning to ask the right questions. Indeed many philosophers are worryingly content to reject the legitimacy of even asking ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’. As a result, I tried to defend being puzzled about the universe, and why it is right to ask why.

Br Gabriel Theis: Salvation is offered to all

One of the things that struck me this term was learning about Thomas Aquinas’s broad understanding of membership in the Church. He thinks that, on earth, every human being is a member of the Church, either actually or potentially. This gives us a very positive understanding of salvation for every human being, but it also makes clear that membership in the Church allows of degrees, since we are closer to God, and so more closely linked to the Church, the more we love God and believe in Him.

From this we can learn that, although we sometimes sin, and some people even reject God’s love altogether, there is a place for every human being in the Church. St Thomas’s view on this point surprised me, and I must say it has made me love the Church even more, because it gave me a better understanding of why it makes sense to want to be part of the Church and be obedient to her. It is not a small sect for a spiritual élite, but a place for the whole of humanity to the degree that it is linked to Christ.

Br Bede Mullens: divine omnipotence and the univocity of being

This term I learnt, or learnt again, that when God does something, he doesn’t have to try to do it – he just does it. We tend to define God’s omnipotence as power to do whatever He wills; equally importantly, it is also the power to do so just by willing it. The idea struck me in some spiritual reading, and helped me join up some disparate elements of my formal studies. Start with the abstruse: Duns Scotus’s doctrine of the univocity of being. The idea is that before anything else, we have to know that a thing somehow is, that it is ‘being,’ and this concept of being applies equally to everything, God and creatures, humans and anemones.

By contrast, much modern philosophy supposes that space and time come first, and being is only ever spatiotemporal being. If (with Scotus) we can think of it the other way round, then space and time do not have to limit and characterise all being. God, who is the source of being before space and time, works his will without regard to the limitations of space and time. Take two Old Testament stories, which I have also been studying – Jonah and Ruth: Jonah, the man that tries to run away from God but finds that no distance in space will separate him from the Most High; Ruth, the unwitting ancestress of David and through him of the Christ. Though generations intervene between the events, God is already effecting his single design in the lifetime of Ruth.

Br Albert Elias Robertson: Aquinas had the humility to change his mind.

In the summer I began to engage again with the Tertia Pars, the Third Part of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. After reading his Commentary on St John’s Gospel, I wanted to go back over some of the things he says about Christ’s life. It was also because our Aquinas Study Week had looked closely at this part of St Thomas’ work. What has really struck me over the past six months is to encounter Aquinas sometimes acknowledging that he’s changed his mind, and you can see this in the Tertia Pars.

Like all other students at the time, Aquinas commented on The Sentences of Peter Lombard as part of the standard process of university education.  In his Commentary on the Sentences he’s not the first to go “beyond Lombard,” but he’s the first to do so with such firm resolution. Just two pages of the Sentences occasion Aquinas to pose 41 questions developed over 88 pages of his Commentary. But as well as giving an expanded horizon, St Thomas is not afraid later on to say where he thinks Peter Lombard is wrong - such as whether creatures can create ministerially (ST I, 45, 5, resp.). But in the Tertia Pars, Aquinas admits that sometimes he agreed with Lombard, but has since changed his mind. 

The last six months have taught me that Aquinas is not a static figure, but rather someone who does not always have a fixed opinion about things, with ideas that develop over the course of his life. I think the key to St Thomas’ system is that it’s generous - and part of this generosity is found in his reflection on his own ideas and system, and having the humility to admit a change of mind.


Annie commented on 21-Dec-2019 09:19 AM
Thank you Brothers, your insights are helpful. I will pray for you on your journey, perhaps you can for me too . May the peace and joy of the Christchild be yours

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