HE IS dubbed as the “Angelic Doctor” and the “Prince of Scholastics.” To Catholics, he is the foremost Christian philosopher. But who is St. Thomas Aquinas for people of other religions in the 21st century?

During his lifetime in the 13th century (1225-1274), the great Dominican thinker commanded great authority and respect from great figures of the Church, his order and the universities. Only a year short of 50 years old when he died, his numerous body of works generated inspiration in the Catholic Church, ultimately producing a philosophical school of thought named after him (Thomism). Today, six centuries after his death, his works and legacy live on, prompting a document from the Second Vatican Council to call his philosophy the “Perennial Philosophy.”

According to UST Theology Dean Fr. Jose Antonio Aureada, O.P., Saint Thomas used philosophy to help him understand the Christian faith.

“He was a great synthesizer of opposing philosophical points of view,” Aureada told the Varsitarian. “Given what seems to be the diametrically opposed schools of thought of Plato and Aristotle, St. Thomas deduced the elements of these philosophies which he thought would help him deepen his understanding of Christianity. He saw in philosophy a kind of help to understand theology.”

In doing so, St. Thomas produced numerous works which contributed to the growth of the Catholic faith and to human reasoning, including his two most famous works, the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles. The latter work showed the Church Doctor using Islamic philosophies to aid missionaries in converting pagans to the Catholic faith.

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“St. Thomas made use of Islamic philosophies to show that there is some truth in a religion that is not Christian. That is the ability of St. Thomas — to find truth wherever it may be found,” Aureada said. “He does not believe that truth is an exclusive property of the Church; even in pagan philosophies there are grains of truth which may be used, again, to explain the Christian faith.”

Aside from Islamic philosophy, Aquinas also used Jewish and Greek philosophies prominently in his works. The saint produced works which tackled the nature and scope of knowledge (epistemology) and above all, of ethics. More than that, he contributed greatly to the theology of the Catholic Church. He developed arguments for the nature and existence of God, the nature of the Holy Trinity, the nature of Jesus Christ, and the goal of human life.

“There are aspects of St. Thomas’ philosophy which are encompassing, and therefore could be used beyond the confines of a Christian Philosophy,” Aureada said. The Saint’s treatise on the existence of God and his unitary worldview, as opposed to the binary world view of Plato, are just some of his philosophical teachings which other religions could use, Aureada added.

Thomism and other religions

Other religions are now seeing the value of St. Thomas’ theology and philosophy. Alvin Plantinga, a contemporary American philosopher, often cites the works of St. Thomas in his work. His thought is influenced by Thomas Reid, who was in turn influenced by Thomas Aquinas; and Abraham Kuyper.

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Thomas Aquinas also plays an important role in Radical Orthodoxy, a postmodern Anglican theological movement which was initiated by John Milbank. In the book, Radical Orthodoxy: Truth In Aquinas (Routledge, 2001), Milbank, along with co-author Catherine Pickstock, discusses and re-evaluates the saint’s view of truth.

Protestants have expressed admiration for the saint’s work. The revival of Thomistic philosophy both in and outside the Catholic Church is a manifestation of the perennial relevance of Aquinas’ thoughts.

“The truth behind the content of what St. Thomas has written still stands, and the manner of choosing the truth, is still relevant today,” Aureada said. “Aquinas was an open-minded person. He made use of pagan philosophies. In that way, St. Thomas was ahead of his time.”

According to Aureada, the recent upsurge in the study of Thomistic philosophy and theology may be ascribed to the late Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1995), where the Pope frequently quoted St. Thomas Aquinas. (The late Pope was a student of the Dominicans at the Angelicum, the pontifical university of the Dominicans named after St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, in Rome.)

But the revival of St. Thomas’ philosophy is not new. Aureada says that it is a trend which could last for years or decades, like what happened during the time of Pope Leo XII in the 19th century.

“The spirit of St. Thomas’ teachings is like the Eternal Sphinx of Egypt. It dies, then all of a sudden, it will resurrect,” Aureada said. “There are many periods in the history of thought where his philosophy and theology were silenced and then, all of a sudden, an upsurge of his thought would occur, a period of time where he becomes relevant.”

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Aureada thinks that the current rebirth of Aquinas’ philosophy indicates a movement to re-embrace encompassing philosophies, rather than piecemeal ones, which he says are predominant today.

“The philosophy of St. Thomas is encompassing. What we call now contemporary philosophies only study an aspect of reality. They are only able to study these, but they are unable to connect to the wholeness of reality,” Aureada said. “St. Thomas did not only study these aspects of reality but he studied the reality itself. That is why the truth that he was able to discover does not die because what it thought of as reality is the same reality that we all have today.”

But more than that, he says that the search for meaning in the modern world is a more convenient explanation for the resurgence of Thomistic thought.

“Seeking for meaning cannot really stop unless you understand what ultimate meaning is all about. People ask ultimate questions, and ultimate questions would lead you to ultimate meaning. And that, they see, I think, in St. Thomas Aquinas,” Aureada said. Nathaniel R. Melican with reports from Yve Camae V. Espeña

1 COMMENT

  1. “Other religions are now seeing the value of St. Thomas’ theology and philosophy. Alvin Plantinga, a contemporary American philosopher, often cites the works of St. Thomas in his work.”

    This is glaringly incoherent. If you are going to incorporate the title heading, “Thomism and other religions,” into your composition, try discussing the manner in which and the extent to which other religions have made use of his vast and sophisticated philosophical and theological corpus. It is widely known that Alvin Plantinga is a prominent Protestant Christian philosopher, not a Jewish or Muslim one. Last time I checked, the varying traditions which comprise the Orthodox Church and that of Protestants and Catholics are all encompassed in one Religion–Christianity.

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