Regular Faculty

When You Come to the Fork in the Road, Take It! St. Thomas Aquinas & DSPT at the Intersection of Philosophy and Theology

Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, OP
Assistant Professor of Theology, DSPT, Regent of Studies, Western Dominican Province 

The mission statement of DSPT states that “the School draws its students into the rich tradition of classical philosophy and Catholic theology, especially as exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas, and from this tradition engages contemporary scholarship and culture in mutual enrichment.” Why should the work of St. Thomas Aquinas be of interest to us today? Why does DSPT take St. Thomas as a model?

Saint Thomas Aquinas

First, let us consider the situation of today: there have been great advancements in knowledge, particularly knowledge of the natural world – even a proliferation in the kinds of knowledge available (think of nuclear physics or genetics, to take some obvious examples). No one can master all of it; in fact, no one can master even a large minority of this knowledge. Thus, this great explosion of knowledge leads inevitably to a kind of fragmentation.

Yet every human person naturally wants to understand all of this – at a more fundamental level. How do all these pieces fit together? Where do they come from, and what is their purpose? Fundamentally, these are questions of philosophy, questions that none of the particular forms of natural science is equipped to answer. Those engaged in philosophy recognize that, throughout history, people have turned to religion and faith when pondering these questions. And it is in theology that the answers that faith offers are most clearly and extensively expressed.

Now in the West, at least, there is a classic answer to these questions: God is the meaning, source, and end of all. Revealed, Christian faith in particular sees Jesus Christ as the ultimate answer – an answer that remains compelling, mysterious, and humbling. Persons of faith, then, have a kind of gift of intuition into these ultimate questions – and they usually begin with this intuition before engaging in rigorous study of it. When we try to make sense of that intuition, in a reflection that is coherent and disciplined, the intuition of faith matures into theology. We then ask (and are asked), how this faith fits together with all of our natural, “scientific” knowledge of the world. For both of these kinds of questions – the inner coherence of faith and its correspondence with other kinds of knowledge – we require some kind of philosophy. That is because we always employ human ways of thinking whenever we do theology – even if we believe that such thinking may be divinely assisted.   

So, there are these two paths toward a unity of knowledge: one path, philosophy, coming from countless forms of human inquiry and research, and the other path, theology, coming from the deep insights of faith. Each of these paths leads to the other. The meeting point, the intersection of those paths, is precisely where we can glimpse an overarching view of the whole – and this intersection allows each discipline to get a better bearing on its own field of inquiry. In this life, neither discipline provides a view that is exhaustive or omniscient. Even the intersection between the two is only a point along the way – but all roads to wisdom must at least pass through it. This is why Yogi Berra’s paradoxical advice, playfully given as the title to this piece, is in fact surprisingly apt here: it is the very intersection between philosophy and theology, this “fork in the road,” that we must consider carefully.

This is precisely where St. Thomas Aquinas is a model for us. St. Thomas studied the latest philosophical developments of his day, critically examining them and integrating their best insights with the faith tradition that he had received. In this, he arrived at a new yet faithful articulation of Christian belief. This is exactly what we at the DSPT seek to do today: it is why we are a school of both philosophy and theology, where the interrelationship between the two disciplines can be explored (without fusing or confusing the two) and why we seek to be informed by lay leaders in diverse disciplines at our annual Convocation of the College of Fellows. This is also why DSPT is hosting a Colloquium – quite literally, a conversation – on the topic of the intersection of philosophy and theology, this summer (“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” July 16-20, 2014). In fact, the Colloquium itself is structured to foster such conversation between philosophy and theology: each philosopher giving a presentation is paired with a theologian who will offer a response on the same topic. The Colloquium is a very visible example of what we as a school try to do every day.

Certainly, conversing intelligently at this intersection is difficult and daunting – for it is not always easy to translate between the languages of philosophy and theology! For this reason, we unhesitatingly invite others to join us at this intersection, where St. Thomas dedicated his life, to help us to meet the challenges we face today in pursuing the path toward wisdom.  

Image: Saint Thomas Aquinas, Protector of the University of Cuzco, 1690 – 1695, Cuzco School.