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Principles of Catholic Theology, Book 2: On the Rational Credibility of Christianity, by Thomas Joseph White, O.P., was released on March 15. Sam Zeno Conedera, S.J., recently interviewed Fr. White about the book for First Things. The following has been edited for clarity and length. 

Sam Zeno Conedera: What do you consider the greatest challenge to the “rational credibility of Christianity”?

Thomas Joseph White: Challenges to Christianity change from epoch to epoch and across different cultures in a given age, including our own. Today in the northern hemisphere there are two central challenges to Christian belief that are prevalent, culturally speaking. The first is what Pius IX called “indifferentism,” the idea that all religions and worldviews are equally arbitrary or implausible. At base this is a form of skepticism that leads to spiritual resignation; it is the mark of intellectual discouragement and malaise or despair. It frequently arises from affluence and cultural distractions such as wealth, pleasure, and ambition. The culture of secular liberalism may hope to aspire to something more than this, but it is not clear that it succeeds. 

The other challenge is scientific naturalism, the hypothesis that human beings are merely highly complex material entities, evolved from random and accidental cosmic processes of physics and biology. The laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are the best and virtually the only resource we have to explain reality, and there is no other answer to why human beings exist. Enjoy the view; you will be dead soon. 

Most people fail to believe either of these notions in their pure form, but many find their intellectual and spiritual lives stilted by one of them or some combination of the two. This effectively keeps many people today from being religious or from taking Christianity seriously at an intellectual level. It also should be said that most people have almost no access to Christianity in a university context or in their work environment, however intellectual the latter may be. Our specialized university and work formation play little to no part in our quest for meaning. 

How do you seek to integrate philosophy and theology in this second volume of Principles of Catholic Theology?

This book engages with basic philosophical and religious questions. Why not be an atheist? Should we believe that reality is ultimately impersonal rather than personal, as some Eastern religious traditions assert? Why is there any problem with that? Or if human beings are not merely material entities but animals who have personal immaterial souls, what does that tell us about the nature of reality? Is reality “personal” at base, and is it truly reasonable to believe in God, the Creator of all things? Is it reasonable to believe in divine revelation, the idea that God can reveal himself to us, and even the notion that God has become human? I look at answers to these questions both from outside Christianity and from within—from the Catholic theological tradition and from classical philosophical arguments. The two approaches are meant to complement one another, not compete: grace and nature, faith and reason, theology and philosophy.

How do the saints illustrate the aforementioned integration?

The testimony of the saints, as I argue in the book, is one reason why a philosophically reflective person should take Christianity seriously. The saints seem to live successfully contemplative and virtue-driven spiritual lives, based on their supposed union with Christ. In this sense they are “achieved philosophers” of a sort, examples of how one might live a philosophically noble life. On the view of philosophy that I advance in this book, the human being is oriented toward virtues, be they intellectual, moral, or artistic. Virtues are stable dispositions for excellences that lead to human flourishing and happiness. Human beings flourish as they develop stable capacities for excellence in their theoretical thinking, their artistic and work endeavors, and their moral relationships with others, including God above all. The more intensive these virtues and the more extensive (affecting all their lives), the happier human beings can become. The saints frequently display an amazing capacity to sustain higher life in the virtues of contemplation, charity, justice, and spiritual happiness, over the course of long lives and in difficult or adversarial circumstances. In this sense, they seem the most human of all. 

The saints demonstrate that it is possible to live in view of the final life goal, of seeing God face to face. Shouldn’t a philosopher be interested in knowing if God exists? Shouldn’t he want to know God’s eternal goodness immediately and not merely mediately, through God’s finite effects in creation? Any person who is reasonably interested in why we exist and what we should live for can begin to consider philosophically the claim that we are creatures who naturally wish to know God in himself. If we are truly able to contemplate and love God in this life in view of the eventual beatific vision, as a gift of grace, then this life is a deeply humanizing enterprise that ennobles us, not one that diminishes us. 

How would you characterize the genre, aims, and audience of your four-volume work Principles of Catholic Theology?

Contemporary Western culture is suffering from a kind of doctrinal and philosophical amnesia in regard to the Christian intellectual tradition. It is largely unstudied and unknown, even among professing and practicing Christians. This series of books is an invitation to reflect from a modern Thomistic point of view on basic questions about the nature of God, the Trinity, creation, human nature, the mystery of Christ, the Church, grace, and the Virgin Mary, to help remedy this defect or absence of deeper reflection on Christianity and the Catholic intellectual tradition. Of course, many others are involved in this kind of project. 

Your latest book is being published in Catholic University of America’s “Thomistic Ressourcement” series. Could you briefly describe this ressourcement?

The technical answer is less interesting but worth stating: This increasingly influential book series is edited by Matthew Levering and me, and it reflects a renewed approach to the study of St. Thomas as a resource for theology today. The aim is to look at Aquinas historically, on the one hand, within his time period and as an interpreter of Scripture and the Church Fathers, while also, on the other hand, seeking to understand Thomistic principles and their contemporary applications and fruitfulness in modern theological contexts. So it is both “pro-historical study of Aquinas” and “pro-doctrinal interpretation of Aquinas” with a view toward his contemporary relevance. 

The second and more interesting answer is sociological. It seems that there is a new interest in Thomism, especially in the English-speaking world, and many new books are appearing on St. Thomas’s thought. Why is this? I think it has to do with the recognition that the Church is still looking for a more adequate response to modern intellectual challenges, both within and outside the Church. We see many people recognizing the need for a better grounding in classical philosophical and theological principles, as well as a way of engaging with the many licit discoveries of the modern sciences and the insights as well as challenges of contemporary philosophy. A lot of modern theology of the twentieth century is just unable to respond to the stress of all these challenges. A nuanced appropriation of Thomas Aquinas and of the Thomistic tradition seems helpful to many people on this front.

Your writings are firmly grounded in Thomism while simultaneously engaging with a wide variety of religious traditions and philosophical trends. In what way does your work contribute to the progress of the Thomistic tradition of inquiry?

Thomism is grounded in a set of principles—those found in St. Thomas himself, many of which he draws from the Scriptures and Fathers, as well as classical philosophers such as Aristotle. Aquinas’s articulation and coordination of these principles leads to great insights about the nature of reality, both natural and supernatural, human and divine. There are many things he does not consider, but insights from more recent philosophy, theology, modern science, and natural history can be understood or placed in relation to the principles of this thought in ways that are convergent and mutually beneficial to each other. The aim in the end is not to follow any particular thinker but to understand the nature of reality, and Aquinas, doctor communis, is very helpful for this, though by no means alone in the project. No one is alone in the search for truth, and solitary projects always fail in the end.

Other great theological schools of thought (Bonaventurian, Scotist, Suarezian, etc.), which in the past have been partners in theological dialogue, have not experienced the revival that Thomism has undergone in recent decades. What advantages and disadvantages does this present for Thomists?

I think there are three things to note here: First, the re-discovery of Aquinas in our own time has also led to new interest in other scholastics, such as those you mention, as well as more recent figures, such as Matthias Scheeben and Charles Journet. So renewed interest in St. Thomas is probably beneficial for the recovery of other traditions.

Second, those who study Aquinas or promote some form of “Thomism” inevitably benefit from learned interlocutors and loyal critics of other traditions and schools of thought. There is a lot of convergence between Aquinas and Bonaventure, not quite as much between Aquinas and Scotus, though some. But in either case, the comparisons are illuminating and challenge us to think again about what we believe to be true about reality. That is precious and needed in the Church, so we could be helped by some revival of the Victorine and Franciscan traditions, to be sure. 

Third, and cutting back a little against the grain of the last remark, there is something in the intellectual life akin to biological life. The healthier variants tend to preserve life and persevere over time. Better scientific theories gain traction because they afford a better window into the truth about material reality. St. Thomas has staying power and his principles exhibit vital growth (what Newman called “chronic vigor”) because his work is rife with insight, at once philosophical, theological, and mystical. This fruitfulness is something we can take forward into new conversations, with other major religious traditions, with contemporary naturalists, with alternative philosophical claims about human nature. That is something I try to undertake in this book.

Sam Zeno Conedera, S.J., is assistant professor of history at Saint Louis University.

Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is the director of the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum in Rome. 

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