This is part of an ongoing series in which I read and interpret Thomas Aquinas’s SUMMA THEOLOGICA for butt joke aficionados. See this post for more information.
Let’s take care of the important stuff first.
Last week, there was a significant backlash agains the very first post in this series because, despite the title, the post (gasp!) DID NOT CONTAIN A SINGLE BUTT JOKE.
While this was technically true (though a Kim Kardashian joke must count for something, right?), I think my readers were a bit too literal-minded with regard to the phrase “butt jokes” in the title of this series. While there will indeed be jokes about literal butts in this series, I tend to think that any sufficiently childish joke is a butt joke in spirit.
But because I know that won’t satisfy the folks in the peanut gallery, let’s get this out of the way:
THERE. A BUTT JOKE. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW, YOU WORTHLESS GROUNDLINGS?
And so, my friends, we proceed with the Summa‘s first question’s second article (or whatever):
SECOND ARTICLE [I, Q. 1, Art. 2]
Whether Sacred Doctrine Is a Science?
The question being asked here is whether theology can be considered a “science” — whether it’s earned its “-ology,” if you will. You and I live in an age when “science” is defined a bit more narrowly than it was in Aquinas’s day, so your mileage may vary on this question.
Objection 1: It seems that sacred doctrine is not a science. For every science proceeds from self-evident principles. But sacred doctrine proceeds from articles of faith which are not self-evident, since their truth is not admitted by all: “For all men have not faith” (2 Thess. 3:2). Therefore sacred doctrine is not a science.
Probably most contemporary thinkers would agree with this objection (but the fact that it’s an objection should clue you in to the reality that Aquinas doesn’t). Science follows the evidence where it leads, the argument goes. However, theology tends to take its tenets on faith.
This, of course, is a false dichotomy. Nothing is purely a matter of evidence or purely a matter of faith. But there I go, being all postmodern!
Obj. 2: Further, no science deals with individual facts. But this sacred science treats of individual facts, such as the deeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and such like. Therefore sacred doctrine is not a science.
I’m honestly not sure what this bit is driving at. Science deals in theories, but theories are built from laws, and laws are built from individual facts. Similarly, while the Bible and such have specifics, doesn’t theology work from the specific to the general? Presumably Aquinas will address this in the next few paragraphs, but YOU GUYS I’M ON THE EDGE OF MY SEAT.
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Trin. xiv, 1), “to this science alone belongs that whereby saving faith is begotten, nourished, protected and strengthened.” But this can be said of no science except sacred doctrine. Therefore sacred doctrine is a science.
I’d have to say I’m skeptical of this argument. He seems to be saying, “Augustine called it a science; therefore it must be a science!” And this is where we get to the inherent squishiness of language, which is something we postmodernists love to talk about, but something medievalists and the Scholastics would loathe. If, for example, I said “the science of music,” you would know what I meant, even if I was using a somewhat different definition for the word science than most physicists would prefer.
Once we start arguing about the definitions of words, things get silly really fast.
I answer that, Sacred doctrine is a science.
Whew. Glad we got that cleared up.
We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from the principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from the principles established by geometry, and music from the principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed.
For my take, there’s really a continuum in human knowledge: at one end there’s the stuff that’s directly observable, and on the other there’s stuff you just have to believe because someone smarter than you told it to you. Most facts fall somewhere in the middle for most people. Very little is readily provable, and very little requires absolute blind acceptance.
Aquinas, for his part, is saying that science that builds on received knowledge is still science, and the theologian moving bits of Scripture around is no different than, say, the computer technician moving bits of electronics and math around.
I have no objection to this, though I could see how someone would. Keep your eye on the spectrum, though — what you know consists 99% of stuff that really smart people (or possibly really dumb people!) have told you.
Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.
Man, is there anyone more annoying than the “Music is just applied math!” crowd? Yeah, music is exactly like math, EXCEPT NOT BORING.
I kid, I kid. Math is actually fun.
It’s music that’s boring.
Reply Obj. 1: The principles of any science are either in themselves self-evident, or reducible to the conclusions of a higher science; and such, as we have said, are the principles of sacred doctrine.
We just talked about this. GEEZ, DO I HAVE TO SPELL IT OUT FOR YOU?
Okay, fine. Let’s talk about Isaac Newton for a second. He famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” What he meant, if you’re unfamiliar with the quote, was that he arrived at his principles of physics by taking what had been discovered before him and building on it. If he had spent every moment of his life rediscovering early physics, we wouldn’t have the modern theory of gravity.
So, just, think about that. I guess.
Again that’s not exactly what Aquinas is talking about here, but it’s a pretty good analogy. Newton’s physics weren’t not-science simply because he built on the knowledge of others.
Reply Obj. 2: Individual facts are treated of in sacred doctrine, not because it is concerned with them principally, but they are introduced rather both as examples to be followed in our lives (as in moral sciences) and in order to establish the authority of those men through whom the divine revelation, on which this sacred scripture or doctrine is based, has come down to us.
This is arguably the crux of it: being a Christian isn’t about sitting around and believing really hard that Noah built an Ark. There’s value in knowing about Noah and his Ark, because the story teaches us about the faithfulness of God and the virtues of steadfastness and obedience and that rock monsters are really cool, but the facts of the specific story aren’t the main point.
To use a science analogy: physicists don’t roll balls down tracks because they care about that specific ball rolling down that specific track. The intent is to collect large amounts of observations so that general principles can be drawn from them.
And we’re done! See you next week!