Dr. Ables’ review brings Rev. Dr. Mongeau’s Embracing Wisdom and Thomas Aquinas into direct conversation with modern Orthodox theology.
Embracing Wisdom: The Summa theologiae as Spiritual Pedagogy
Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2015
A few years ago in graduate school, I spent months tracking down the origins of a curious little echo chamber in 20th-century trinitarian theology. Starting with Karl Rahner and recurring through many luminaries—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—one encounters the same argument repeatedly. The argument was really a story, a story of decline and discovery, as theologian after theologian decried the shortcomings of Western trinitarian theology and found refuge and renewal in the trinitarian thought of Orthodoxy. I eventually traced this narrative to the writings of Vladimir Lossky and the exiled Russian Orthodox community in Paris, emanating from the St. Dionysius Institute and the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius. It made its way into an essay by Rahner, and the rest was history.
This particular narrative of trinitarian history is not directly relevant to Mongeau’s masterful work; what is significant, however, is how the reception of Parisian Orthodox thought in Germany and France seemed to trade on a deep suspicion of two canonical Catholic figures: Augustine and Aquinas. Indeed, as I dug further into 20th-century Orthodox thought, the allergy to Thomas seemed to be the common denominator among these Orthodox and their Western interpreters. And no wonder. With the promulgation of Aeterni Patris and the Neo-Thomist revival in Catholic seminaries, the fastidious manuals of the schools seemed the very antithesis of the apophatic, mystical, doxological theologies being developed by Lossky, Florovsky, and other Orthodox—and their Western readers.
The curious thing, however, is that just as Neo-Scholastic manuals proliferated, a minority report in Thomism was developing at the same time, one much more aligned to Eastern thought, for it was spiritually oriented, pedagogical and doxological in spirit, and even embraced a strain of mysticism—Pseudo-Dionysius was, after all, as important to Thomas as he was to Palamas. Jean-Pierre Torrell even made a point of comparing his Thomas to Eastern Orthodoxy:
When Thomas says that theology is principally speculative, he means that it is in the first instance contemplative…. Research, study, and reflection on God can find their source and their completion only in prayer. The Eastern Christians like to say that of theology that it is doxology; Thomas would add [that contemplation] is completed in song. (Jean-Pierre Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, The Person and His Work, trans. Robert Royal [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996], 157.)
Torrell was a pioneer in an approach to Thomas that saw the thought of the Dominican master as fundamentally pedagogical, and he saw that the very structure of the Summa follows a trajectory of contemplative ascent. This was not the Thomas of the Neo-Scholastic manuals, casuistry, and the “Five Ways” extracted in philosophy of religion textbooks; this was a Thomas who preached, prayed, and taught young mendicants to do the same.
Torrell has had many thoughtful readers over the years; into their ranks one can now place Gilles Mongeau, a Jesuit and former professor of theology at Regis College in Toronto. Mongeau’s insight is that it is not enough to see the Summa as a kind of contemplative spiritual exercise; by studying Thomas’ use of rhetoric, Mongeau argues that Thomas intended for the Summa to perform spiritual transformation for its readers; that is, it mediates the experience of God through its literary structure.
This is an audacious claim; for outsiders, the Summa reads more as a kind of esoteric code, part Aristotelian metaphysics, part Augustinian ventriloquism, buried in an opaque disputational form, more likely to mediate exhaustion than ecstasy. So Mongeau sets out to show how the structure and the flow of this massive document is oriented around the incarnate Word: it is driven by christology to unify the intellectual and spiritual lives of its reader in “a wisdom that makes one holy” (ch. 1). In this scheme, adequatio mentis ad rem is not simply an abstract epistemological principle; it is an expression of how the spiritual pedagogy forms the heart by contemplation of the mystery of God in the incarnate Christ.
For Aquinas, the Word incarnate in Christ encompasses all of created reality; this explains the long road from the so-called cosmological argument to the articles of the Tertia pars that cover the ascension and exaltation of Christ, for these mysteries are the pinnacle of Thomas’ cosmic vision. Knowledge of all created reality is wrapped up in the Summa’s pedagogical vision; as so the reader of the Summa must undertake the same task in his or her time. In other words, a knowledge of Thomas’s culture and context is indispensable for understanding his work. (One discerns the influence of Lonergan in much of Mongeau’s thought.) Thus Mongeau starts big—analyzing the very concept of culture through the work of Kathryn Tanner and Alain Michel in chapter 2—so that he has the tools in hand to help us understand the contextual tools available for Aquinas’ project. Chapter 3 is an erudite, sophisticated analysis of high medieval Christian culture; it discusses Mary Carruther’s work on memoria and the monastic practice of compunction and rumination as the irreducible background of so much medieval theology. (I looked in vain for a gesture to Anselm’s prayers here.) Mongeau then moves onto the socioeconomic transformations of medieval society, the rise of the mendicant orders, and the reform movements that culminated in Lateran IV. This chapter, by the way, was one of the best summaries of the spectacular transformations of the early and high medieval periods I have read in quite a while; it alone makes this book a superb resource for students of the Middle Ages, Thomist or no.
But this is all warm-up. Following a close analysis of Thomas’ rhetorical strategies and insightful looks into his writing habits (Mongeau relates, via Carruthers, a vivid picture of Thomas’ frustration and anguish trying to interpret Paul, the apostle literally driving the angelic doctor to tears), Mongeau at last gets to the Summa itself. Continuing to follow Carruthers, he shows how the minutiae of the Summa’s construction (think respondeo and sed contra, but also citation practices and the organization of questions, and so on) builds to the scope of Thomas’ vision: the Summa ushers the reader into the knowledge of God through the vestiges in creation, through the imago Dei in human beings, and finally in the incarnate Word Himself. From here, Mongeau moves through an overview of the structure of the Summa, guiding us in the pedagogical progression from the Prima pars, grounding sacra doctrina and the relationship of scientia and sapientia in the incarnate Word, to the Tertia pars, in which Aquinas at last drills down into christology proper. At each step in this progression, Mongeau balances a bird’s eye perspective (he is covering the entirety of the Summa, after all) with a close analysis of Thomas’ rhetorical techniques and strategies. It is an impressive feat.
Chapters 7–9 are in many ways the heart of Mongeau’s book, reflecting the importance that the christology of the Tertia pars has for the progression of the Summa itself. There is dogmatic work to be done, of course, and Thomas does that work, covering every aspect of traditional christological concern. Just as important, however, for Mongeau is Aquinas’ goal of conforming the reader to the imitatio Christi: the contemplative and pedagogical goals of the Summa’s rhetorical program are always in sight here. As Mongeau notes, in one of many nods to Torrell, Thomas is working beyond the dialectical concerns of the schools and their Sentences commentaries to something closer to the patristic contemplation of the mystery of Christ. I should note how helpful Mongeau’s analysis is here for understanding the basic teachings of Aquinas on any given aspect of his christological dogma. It would go against Mongeau’s carefully constructed argument to do so, but—if one wanted a refresher on (say) Thomas’ theology of the atonement, or needed to reach for a quick resource for classroom use—Mongeau’s step-by-step discussion of Thomas’s christology is as lucid and accessible as one is likely to find anywhere.
I recently made a slightly catty remark about the endless proliferation of Aquinas studies in recent memory (of making many books on Aquinas there is no end …). It’s an unfair statement to make, especially for an Augustinian like me; but for a sympathetic outsider to the angelic doctor, it can be difficult to discern what makes a given study on Thomas stand out. I had no such issues with Mongeau’s book. It dramatically altered my understanding of the Summa, and gave me tools and motivation to continue to wrestle with the thought of this most medieval of men.
My sympathies, perhaps, still lie with Thomas’ Franciscan contemporary, Bonaventure, but Mongeau’s book is simply indispensable for showing the permanent and revolutionary contribution of the Dominican master.
I began this review, mindful of Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s audience, pondering the difficulty that 20th-century theology had with Aquinas, and even how he seemed to represent something of an ecumenical barrier. But Mongeau’s vision gives us a Thomas with a breathtaking christological vision that takes all of creation up into contemplative ascent.
That, surely, warrants a closer look at the divisive figure. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Visit the PIMS website for information on ordering this book.
Gilles Mongeau, SJ has written for Orthodoxy in Dialogue here.
Travis E. Ables holds a PhD in Theological Studies from Vanderbilt University in Nashville TN, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Regis University in Denver CO. He specializes in the theology of Augustine, medieval mysticism, and reform and heretical movements in the early and medieval Catholic tradition. He is the author of Incarnational Realism: Trinity and the Spirit in Augustine and Barth and the forthcoming The Body of the Cross: Holy Victims and the Invention of Atonement. He also rides his bike a lot.
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