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about

A little about me and how I got started on all this, about reading Aquinas, and some other Aquinas sources.

the author

I'm a baby boomer Roman Catholic, raised on the South Side of Chicago, where in the old days there was a church about every four blocks complete with bells and smells and a permeating sense of sacred space. I was educated by the Adrian Dominicans in grade school, the School Sisters of Notre Dame in high school, and the Jesuits at Loyola University. I later picked up an MBA at Northwestern (no religious orders involved with that one). I've spent most of my adult life working with computer software, both as a software developer and manager and later as a technology writer. I still live in Chicago, even though I have emmigrated to the North Side.

how I got started on Aquinas

I landed on Aquinas via an odd path. When John Kerry was running for President in 2004, a small number of bishops opined that he should not be allowed to receive Holy Communion because of his position on whether abortion should be criminalized. Hearing that struck me as questionable theology, from the memories I had from grade school and the Baltimore Catechism (every Catholic of a certain age had to memorize the Baltimore Catechism in grade school). This led to me digging up a copy of it on Amazon and set off a long trip down memory lane and a somewhat random attempt to figure out exactly what Catholics actually believe in these days.

And it seemed that everywhere I looked, Aquinas popped up. He's all over the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, he's one of thirty three Doctors of the Church (i.e., people in the 2000-year-old tradition who have most influenced it intellectually or spiritually), his work has been identified as official Catholic teaching, and he was the most quoted theologian of Vatican II. So I figured that if I wanted to really know Catholicism, I was going to have to do Aquinas. And I thought, well, I'd just go to the text and see what the guy had to say. Right.

You can buy the Summa Theologica (his own summary of his thought) for about $150 for the five volume set or for about $100 for the paperbacks. Or there's the sixty one volume Oxford Blackfriars edition, with the full Latin text on the left-facing page and the English translation on the right-facing page, to be republished in early 2007 with a pricetag of $1800.

Not wanting to plunk down that kind of money and wanting to start with one rather than five or sixty one volumes, I settled on the Brian Davies book The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (see below). This is still the best summary I've seen, rigorous but readable, and the one that I think brings you closest to the sense of the text of the Summa itself. The Summa Theologiae, A Concise Translation, has also been a key resource, as it is the text of the Summa itself (abridged) in a somewhat perkier translation.

reading aquinas

Reading Aquinas takes a certain amount of endurance. He's a tough guy to get your head around. There's a lot of text, it was written around 750 years ago, and he covers his topics debate style, laying out and demolishing opposing points of view as well as stating his own, which makes for an intellectually rigorous but not very flowing format. Aquinas also comes with his own baggage. He's had a cyclical popularity in the Church and apparently these days his stock is at a rather low ebb. (From what I can gather, for the past hundred years or so the Church has been ramming the hair-splitting, tedious bits of him down the throats of every Catholic priest and nun on the planet; the mention of Aquinas to a nun or priest of a certain age these days often brings on a fearful shudder.) The broad, lovely, and often insubordinate sweep of the heart of his thought seems somehow to have gotten lost.

why I did the blog

I think the Summa is a work that a lot of people today would drink up if it were more accessible. While I'm theologically naive (or as theologically naive as one can be after 16 years of Catholic education) and can't really compare Aquinas properly to the other great theologians, he totally blew me away. I love his view of creation as thoroughly good, his common sense, his hope, and the breadth of his thought (e.g., the Theory of Everything). And I love that he sounds like he was happy and sane. And more personally, it tickled me that he sounded like an engineer. Being a propeller-head myself, I've spent most of my adult life around computer systems people and engineers, and his careful precision is very familiar. The Summa, when you get to the guts of it, has a really tight design; it has low complexity in each of its parts and an extremely high coherence between the parts. Like all great information systems, the beauty is in the connections.

And so much of it was a surprise to me! Religion being about happiness? God thinking the universe into existence? The Trinity as the self-knowledge / self-awareness of God? Grace as starting with healing? Morality as the rules for turning into who you're supposed to turn into? Amazing stuff. His ideas are grand, logical, based on the evidence and common sense. I think of it as theology for the sane: using reason in its fullest sense to seek happiness in its deepest sense.

So why is an amateur taking a crack at explaining Aquinas? Because I can! It's interesting! It's gloriously systematic! It resonates with a scientific view of the world! If Star Trek had a theologian, it would have to be Aquinas. And it makes me happy, so it might make you happy too. Aquinas saw the world as a joyous, flourishing, rationally coherent place, and despite the fact that he is separated from us in time, it is still the same world. There's a lot to be learned in his vision of it, so I'm happy to describe it as clearly as I can.

- Jeanne Follman, Chicago, IL

Some Books

Here are a few books and links that I've found useful. And of course, there's Google; googling Aquinas variously returns between five and ten million hits.

The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, Brian Davies

Aquinas, Brian Davies

Thomas Aquinas Theologian, Thomas O'Meara

Aquinas and His Role in Theology, M-D Chenu

Happiness and Contemplation, Josef Pieper

The Silence of St. Thomas, Josef Pieper

Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, Jean-Pierre Torrell

Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, G.K. Chesterton

God Matters, Herbert McCabe (not specifically on Aquinas but definitely informed by him)

Summa Theologiae, A Concise Translation, Timothy McDermott editor; check out the Table of Contents for a nice outline of the Summa

Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 Volume Set. This is the big one.

Text of the Summa Theologica

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