Thomas Aquinus (1225 -1274), a role model for Catholic priests, exemplifies how faith and reason can go hand in hand in the age of science. Pope Benedict XV made the declaration : “The Church has declared Thomas’ doctrines to be her own.” Considered by many the Catholic Church’s greatest theologian, his theology has particularly influenced Western thought right through the Renaissance and beyond.
Far from today’s raging debates on Creationism and Intelligent Design, Aquinus’ logic of science and God was simple. He viewed God as the creator of Nature, and since science is devoted to the study of Nature, it is an essential part of our religious awareness. He maintained that science was a legitimate path to God. Aquinas did not believe that a path to God could be forged without reason and faith working together. In a way he was the first religious theologian to consider faith cooperating with reason. Considering this, is it possible that Aquinas was religiously agnostic? And if so, does this at all obscure his contributions to ethics ?
Consider this quote from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, which epitomizes his life’s work :
We cannot know what God is, but only what he is not; we must therefore consider the ways in which God does not exist, rather than ways in which he does.
If Aquinas contemplates the ways in which God does not exist, is he, in turn, acknowledging the possibility that eternal and divine law dosen’t exist? This important issue perhaps lays the foundations of philosophical agnosticism, the view that the Ultimate nature of God and reality is perhaps unknowable. This is a far cry from atheism, where a hostile rejection of religion and metaphysics is often encountered; and Aquinus merely suspends his judgment about the ultimate nature about reality till further evidence presents itself. It is precisely in this context that science and religion go hand in hand – in a spirit of conducting one’s enquiries in life with an ‘open mind’.
Thomas Aquinus however was a theologian, and the position of philosophical agnosticism he adopted was perhaps part of his theological argument for demonstrating why one cannot understand God by reason alone. As Thomas states in the Summa, “ God flees every modality (omnem formam) of our intellect.” For generations of scientists afterwards, from Newton to Darwin, agnosticism was at the heart of their intellectual efforts. The issue is particularly relevant even today, when we are in the midst of an important debate : Has science conclusively been able to reject a Divine Intellect, whether we care to call it God or not ? Beyond all creationist debates lies the fundamental sentiment that generations of human beings have experienced : is there some divine Will or purpose, or its just an elaborate accident ?
Spirituality at its core does not aim to provide ‘final answers’, but as Thomas Aquinus demonstrates, irrespective of our personal beliefs, it aims to ask the pertinent questions. Whether to call Thomas Aquinus an agnostic or not is just one of the linguistic dilemmas which necessarily does not need a definitive answer.
Agnosticism and Thomas Aquinus. On the Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of religion and Science.Link : http://www.disf.org/en/voci/1.asp
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