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ROOTED HEARTS/PLAYFUL MINDS:
CATHOLIC INTELLECTUAL LIFE AT ITS BEST
by Mary Jo Weaver

    Is the God of practice different from the God of prayer? A survey of medieval thinkers makes the answer clear.

    MARY JO WEAVER is a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, where she has been since 1975. She has published two books on the modernist controversy at the turn of the century, two more on the women's movement in the American Catholic Church, and most recently, two books on conservative and progressive American Catholics at the end of the twentieth century (Being Right: Conservative American Catholics was published in 1995, and What's Left: Progressive American Catholics should be out by late 1998). This essay was presented as the keynote address for the 1996 summer institute of Collegium, a grouping of faculty members from Catholic colleges and universities that meets annually at Fairfield University to talk about ways to enrich intellectual and spiritual life on the campus.

A ninth-century Irish poet left us a rather dispiriting ditty about Catholic intellectual life. Here's what he said:

        'Tis sad to see the sons of learning
        In everlasting hellfire burning
        While he that never read a line
        Doth in eternal glory shine.

The notion that the intellectual life is a soul-endangering business has been around for a long time, echoed and re-echoed in times of turmoil. My own position on this matter is given away in the title: "rooted hearts and playful minds" means that we can welcome and explore new (even earthshaking) ideas if we have our feet planted in the riverbed of tradition. I hasten to add that my view has not been the one routinely expressed in Christian history. Let me begin, therefore, by reflecting on two famous quotations that exemplify different aspects of fear in relation to thinking. I will then take a bird's-eye view of Catholic intellectual life in the middle ages which, I hope, makes clear why many Catholics look wistfully back to the thirteenth century as a golden age. We can then ask how certain aspects of medieval theology might help us to think about Catholic intellectual life today. Let's begin with two theologians who were not happily disposed to intellectual life, one from the early church and one from the late middle ages.

"What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" asked the third-century apologist Tertullian, trying to pretend that his strenuous defense of Christianity was in no way indebted to his classical education.

"I would rather feel compunction than define it," said the fifteenth-century canon Thomas  Kempis, eager to show that The Imitation of Christ, rooted in humility, should not be undermined by scholarship.

Each of these quotations illustrates a major anxiety about Christianity and the intellectual life: Tertullian feared that Christianity would be corrupted by contact with a non-Christian system of thought; Thomas  Kempis worried that studying, in itself, would distract one from the important work of becoming holy. Both writers lived in situations in which the church was under siege and neither of them could have turned to the institutional church for clarity or support. Each was concerned to protect the ordinary life of most Christians. Their sympathy for the life of an intellectual -- someone who reads, writes, and argues in order to understand ideas -- was, therefore, limited. I think they are both worth considering, however, because the substance of their positions is still with us. In the contemporary church we still meet the idea that intellectual life should be sectarian, that is to say, separate from the world around it and confined to its own enclave. In addition, we occasionally find the view that the world of ideas is unnecessary because it competes with and may well sabotage the world of grace.

Tertullian: Brandishing the Sword of Condemnation

Tertullian, a Roman citizen living in Carthage, was the most important Western theologian before Augustine. A natural talker and a quick-witted lawyer who loved to argue, Tertullian was a well-educated man who knew history, archeology, medicine, literature, and Greek philosophy. I think of him as an arrogant and ambitious man who knew where he was going until he stumbled onto Christianity.

Like many Roman citizens, Tertullian went to the local games, to the entertainments devised by the emperors to keep the people amused. But, he was not amused. Tertullian was deeply moved by the heroic deaths of Christian martyrs who were at the mercy of lions, bears, wild boars, and gladiators. They did not scream and cry, but accepted death with an eerie kind of joy, willing to suffer because their Lord had suffered to redeem them. Here was a phenomenon that made absolutely no sense, something that all Tertullian's education and strapping powers of reason could not explain. The courage of the martyrs was, finally, so mysterious and compelling that Tertullian, an impetuous man, joined this new religious movement. When he reflected as a Christian on the persecutions, he saw their political power: far from obliterating this new religion, they only gave witness to the wonder of Christianity and the constancy of its adherents. Later he would write the mantra of martyrdom: "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."

Tertullian, a natural zealot, was not given to laxity. As he saw it, Christianity required nothing less than total commitment: one could not be both a philosopher (pagan) and a believer (Christian). Christian life demanded the same dedication as Christian death. Early into his new Christian life he wrote his Apologeticum, a passionate defense of Christianity that contains his famous question, "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" In his zeal, he wanted to believe that his conversion to Christianity was so total and complete that he could relinquish his past and scorn his education. Of course, he could not do that. His status as the founder of Western theology is totally indebted to his background and training: his brilliance lay in his ability to make distinctions, to use the logic and reason he learned from classical pagan philosophers. We could say that he was an intellectual in spite of himself.

Tertullian's views on the usefulness of pagan philosophy may have seemed reasonable to a community under siege, but finally, they were not realistic, and the early Christian community did not adopt them. In fact, as the church grew and came to embrace some of the language and methods of pagan thought, Tertullian's position became increasingly isolated and sectarian. Not surprisingly, he wanted his new religion to be that way as well: Christianity, he thought, should be prophetic and counter-cultural; it should have no commerce with the world. But, Catholicism turned, instead, toward the world: it emerged from the persecutions with confidence in itself, able to hold its own. Christianity developed with positive attitudes toward the surrounding cultural realities. In time -- ironically, in part because of Tertullian's work -- it learned how to adapt pagan philosophy to its own ends, and how to welcome new ideas and use them.

Tertullian and his rigid, sectarian view of the church got left behind; but his question -- "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" -- is perennial. If we are going to talk about the intellectual life, we have to ponder the relationship between ideas and belief. We have to consider the consequences of opening our minds to outside (even hostile) queries and ideas, and we have to weigh the outcome of refusing to open our minds to new thinking. Christianity, at its best, is confident in meeting new ideas and new systems of thought; but it is also capable of being -- as Tertullian was -- fearful and condemnatory.

Thomas  Kempis: Hiding Out in Humility

Thomas  Kempis, a fifteenth-century German canon, lived most of his life in what would soon become the territory of the Reformation. We remember him because he wrote one of the great classics of Western devotional literature: The Imitation of Christ is, after the Bible, one of the most widely read religious books ever written. In an age where much spiritual writing was deadened by excessive intellectual speculation (about the nature of the soul, the function of the will, the gradations of virtue and good works), The Imitation of Christ was refreshingly free of intellectual preoccupation, and quite tuned into religion as an affective experience.

Thomas  Kempis was more interested in feeling than in thinking, possibly because the church during his lifetime (1380-1471) was largely unreliable as a spiritual guide. The institutional church -- at its zenith in the high middle ages, the most powerful international institution history had ever known -- had fallen on hard times. Three atrocious periods of degradation in the history of the papacy followed one upon another throughout Thomas  Kempis's lifetime: the Avignon papacy ended as he was born, the Great Western schism lasted until he was thirty-five, and for the rest of his very long life, the papacy was in the hands of a series of those corrupt, self-aggrandizing men known collectively as the Renaissance popes. Perhaps it was just not a good time for thinking. The three great areas of Catholic life -- institutional, intellectual, and devotional -- were virtually moribund. Perhaps the best advice was precisely what Thomas  Kempis suggested for his readers: imitate the virtues of Christ, do not think too much, turn your attention to your inner life, and let the rest of the world go by.

Let me pause a moment over the "three great areas of Catholic life." John Henry Newman, in the preface to the third edition of his Via Media, described the life of the church as a dialectical interplay among the theological, devotional, and hierarchical elements, all three of which are essential. Similarly, Friedrich von Hgel described the three necessary dimensions of all vibrant religious traditions as mystical, intellectual, and institutional, what we might call the devout faithful, the theologians, and the hierarchy. The Catholic church, then, is comprised of those who pray, those who think, and those who rule, functions that are by no means mutually exclusive, but which have certain particular dynamics attached to them.

During the life of Thomas  Kempis, all three of those dimensions were in terrible shape. The hierarchy -- the system that claimed to know and carry out God's will on earth -- was thoroughly worldly and of little use to a simple, pious person trying to lead a good life and get to heaven. The theologians -- the intellectuals whose business was ideas -- were embroiled in divisive arguments among themselves about the future structure of the church, the nature of theology, and the pathways to holiness. The faithful were left to languish alone. Since priests were often uneducated and without guidance or support, the ordinary Christians were dangerously close to superstition in their beliefs and practices and all too willing to believe in witchcraft.

Thomas  Kempis's spiritual advice to ordinary Christians was, therefore, useful. His underestimation of intellectual life and his disvaluation of culture, however, are not hallmarks of good tradition. His understandable points of emphasis do not allow for any genuine scholarly life within the Christian vocation. Although he, himself, loved to find a quiet corner in which to read a book, he gives his readers the impression that reading and thinking are useless and dangerous distractions from the true Christian life of virtue. His notion that he "would rather feel compunction than define it," challenges us to consider how the intellectual life fosters the Christian vocation to follow Jesus and lead transformed lives. Implicitly he asks us to consider the extent to which the life of the heart is connected to the work of the mind.

The Intellectual Life of the Church

Let me put this link between spirituality and intellectual life -- between praying and thinking -- in context by looking very briefly at some important figures in the history of theology, and then turning some of their ideas to our own time. I am restricting my view to intellectual history, and a bird's-eye view at that. These short, impressionistic pictures of the work of Anselm, Abelard, Bonaventure, and Aquinas are meant to help us raise some rhetorical questions about Catholic intellectual life and to give us a general basis for discussion.

Anselm (1033-1109) was a Benedictine monk, a native of northern Italy, prior of the abbey of Bec (in Normandy), and eventually archbishop of Canterbury. When he was asked to describe theology, he came up with the phrase fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. In the theologian, he argued, the intellect moves to understand what has been placed before it by way of revelation or religious experience. What does that mean? How is a theologian supposed to understand faith? May he or she put questions to it? Can one expect to find contradictions in it? If there is an apparent conflict, how should it be settled? In Anselm's day, perhaps it was enough simply to explain a point of belief -- to write treatises on, say, the Incarnation, that enabled a newly converted people, or an emerging literate upper class to understand more deeply the substance of their faith. For our purposes, Anselm can be an exemplar of the first impulse of medieval theology: education and explanation. We start with the presumption of belief and seek to deepen our understanding of it.

A generation after Anselm we find Peter Abelard (1079-1142), the great intellectual light of the Cathedral school of Paris, remembered today more for his affair with Heloise than for his theology. Abelard introduced something new into the theological project and saw it as a method for asking questions. Using Aristotelian logic and dialectics, he argued that the business of theology was to raise questions about anything touching faith. Theologians could query dogma, morals, spirituality, liturgical practice, and church structure; they could inquire about the nature of God, the redemptive work of Jesus, and the influence of the Holy Spirit in Christian life. For Abelard, faith is still seeking understanding, but in a whole new way. "By raising a doubt," he said, "we arrive at an inquiry, and by inquiring, we grasp truth."

But in raising questions in search of truth, Abelard uncovered something that other people had ignored: contradictions. Since "faith" was handed down by way of the Bible and tradition, through Scripture and commentaries over a thousand-year period, it was possible to find in "faith" a host of contradictory opinions. The early Christian fathers and other authorities wrote on all parts of the Bible and gave their opinions on various aspects of Christian life, but as those writings came from different times and places, they were often at odds with one another. Abelard made those differences visible, literally. He printed biblical texts and posed a question about them. He then lined up on one side all the fathers who agreed with the point, and on the other side, all who disagreed. His most famous book, Sic et Non (Yes and No) challenged theologians to decide the outcome by way of logic and argument. Abelard's way of doing theology, therefore, was different from Anselm's, more concerned with posing questions than with crafting explanations.

It is easy to see why not everyone roused themselves to embrace Abelard's new method. His contemporary, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the founder of the Cistercian order and a major religious reformer, was so scandalized by Abelard's work that he had it condemned and burned. Bernard's eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs, his great vision of the relationship between God and the soul, says that love is meant to return to its origins. Our relationship to God is an intimate one, sensuous and satisfying. Secure in this relationship, Bernard loved the church as a bridegroom should love his bride, with a fierce, protective passion. Abelard's path was not the mystical one and Bernard had little use for it. Bernard and Abelard embody the classic conflict between the contemplative monk and the university professor: on the one hand the silence of the cloister or the desert and on the other hand the loquacity of the lecture hall or the city. If monks, perhaps, talk too little, intellectuals may talk too much. Bernard was deeply scandalized by activist clerics more preoccupied with intellectual virtues than with moral ones. This new direction in theology was so contradictory to what he stressed in his Cistercian reforms of monasticism that he felt obliged to get Abelard condemned by a synod of French bishops. It is also possible to see their conflict as one between an ecclesiastical authority figure and one who worked, not outside, not against the church, but without keeping an eye at all times on what the hierarchy was thinking.

Moving to a new generation, we find Bonaventure (1221-74), a young Franciscan friar, whose approach to theology was significantly different from both Anselm's and Abelard's, though indebted to both. Bonaventure was a brilliant scholar who followed Abelard as the major theologian at the university of Paris and was more than willing to use Abelard's scholastic methods of debating to delve into contemporary theological questions. As a disciple of St. Francis of Assisi, however, and the minister general of his order, he felt that speculative theology had no value for salvation unless accompanied by humility, a virtuous life, and growth in prayer and contemplation. He had neither Abelard's chutzpah nor his arrogance. For all his brilliance and intellectual prowess, Bonaventure believed that any fool's love for and knowledge of God might well surpass that of any humanly wise man. He recognized the limitations of the theological project, therefore, and more importantly, in an intractable tangle, he revered and privileged mysticism.

With these three early medieval theologians, we have three different approaches to the highest form of Catholic intellectual life in the Middle Ages. Although there is some overlap among them, let us imagine three ways of doing theology: one can craft cogent explanations, or argue one's way through contradictions, or find one's way to God through mystical prayer. In addition, in the works and lives of these thinkers, we find two different approaches to the newly discovered works of ancient Greek philosophers: Abelard was willing to rush headlong into Aristotle's work while Bonaventure was more cautious. What is needed is a fearless intellectual who can handle Greek philosophy and also understand the mystical impulse from deep within himself. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), a Dominican friar, was as mystical as Bonaventure and as enthusiastic about Aristotle as Abelard. Using newly discovered texts of Aristotle, willing to read and understand the thought of Islamic intellectuals like Averroes (1126-98) and Avicenna (980-1037), or Jewish theologians like Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), refusing to privilege Aristotle over Plato, or vice versa, able to raise questions and to work out complex explanations, willing to spend as much energy writing a hymn as he did meeting metaphysical objections to his positions, Thomas worked out a masterful synthesis of all theology. His life, dedicated to the production of the Summa contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologiae was a testament to the power and necessity of intellectual work in the church. Yet, before his death, with his work still unfinished, he said, "All I have written seems to me like so much straw compared with what I have seen."

Like Tertullian, Bernard, and Bonaventure, Thomas knew by experience that theology as a science was not salvific of itself and that the proud theologian was a living contradiction in terms. Like Thomas  Kempis, Aquinas knew that in practical terms it was certainly better to feel compunction than to define it in accurate theological terminology, but he refused to let himself be trapped into an either/or situation. He was a both/and Catholic thinker who knew how to stress intellectual values when doing theology and when defending the faith against "Gentiles" of several varieties; but he knew from his monastic experience that speculative knowledge of divinity was relatively worthless when compared to the theology of mystical experience brought about by faithful attendance in choir, private insistent prayer, and, above all, by the gift of the Holy Spirit to the devout soul. In his own times, Thomas was known for his "novelties" in theological speculation. He was not afraid of the present or the future, not fearful about reading Christian or pagan thinkers, but he fully grasped the linkage between spirituality and the intellectual life and wanted to use all of his God-given powers in explicitly defending and living the faith "once and for all delivered to the saints."

Intellectuals at Prayer

How does Thomas Aquinas help us to think about contemporary Catholic intellectual life? Not, as some conservatives assert, by slavishly imitating the methodology or structure of his Summa Theologiae, but by extracting the principles of his scholastic method in order to produce sermons, lectures, and books worthy of the twenty-first century. I find in Thomas a good model for modern times for three reasons. First, he grounded himself thoroughly in all the great sources and thinkers of the past (the Bible, the fathers of the church, Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides). Second, he immersed himself in the controversies of his own age at a variety of levels in order to engage the best minds of the time. Third, he remained utterly faithful to the daily life of a canon regular and to indefatigable meditation on Holy Scripture. Put another way, he knew how to combine his faith and his work, he was able to hold the disparate aspects of unresolved problems in creative tension, and he was alive to the agitated controversies of his own day.

Thomas knew how to combine faith and work or, as we might say, theory and practice. The great Catholic theologians of the twentieth century -- Karl Rahner, Hans urs von Balthasar, Jacques Maritain, Romano Guardini, John Courtney Murray, David Tracy, Bernard Lonergan, to name a few -- have or had a well-developed inner life as well as a blazingly intelligent approach to the theological problems of the post-Kantian, post-Newtonian world. It is fascinating to find this linkage between theory and practice in modern theologians precisely because modern universities tend to separate theory from practice and then jettison practice. "Real" mathematicians don't do applied math, English professors prefer literary theories to literary texts. Religious studies departments tend to distinguish themselves from departments of theology because they have uncoupled the theory and practice of religion. As I sometimes tell my students, "we don't believe anything, we're just interested in people who do."

Yet, the ability to combine belief and intellectual work is one of the hallmarks of a Christian intellectual. It means that, with a grounded faith, we can look at anything without fear. Karl Rahner addressed the enormous problem of belief and unbelief in the modern world, and wrote compelling books on silence, the inner life, and prayer. Unlike medieval theologians who were lionized by their intellectual peers, Rahner did his work in a relatively hostile environment where theology was not a respected dialogue partner. In the modern university, theology is sometimes perceived as an arcane way of shoring up a dying subculture, a discipline with a territory of credibility limited to the realm of the emotions. Yet, Rahner aspired to make theology respectable in a modern, secular world even as he made it insightful and functional for believers.

Rahner's project is similar to the one that Thomas attempted within a culture of belief, with this major difference. Aquinas could begin from the assumption that everyone believed in God. Rahner knew from the outset that he could not begin with God -- the traditional starting point of theology -- but had to find a first move that everyone could understand. So, he began from human experience and transformed the theological enterprise in the twentieth century. I cannot explain Rahner's work as such, but I think it is important to see him as one who knew how to combine theory and practice. He was grounded in his own beliefs and, like Aquinas, was fearless in looking at new or threatening ideas. For Thomas those ideas came from ancient sources and Islamic philosophers. For Rahner, they came from the post-Enlightenment philosophy and post-war bewilderment and hostility to the very notion of God's existence. He did not retreat into piety, and he did not pretend that he could find the clues to solve these problems in the methods and assumptions of earlier systems.

Thomas knew how to hold the disparate aspects of unresolved problems in creative tension. I think Aquinas knew that he did not have to settle the difficulties of his age for all times, and understood that it was possible to be up against something so intractable that it might not come into perceivable contact with resolution until he was dead and gone. In this light we can focus on important Catholic thinkers who were under clouds of suspicion in their own lifetimes. John Courtney Murray, Teilhard de Chardin, and John Henry Newman were all insightful intellectuals whose work was misunderstood and whose voices were silenced by religious authorities. Perhaps because they were both daring and obedient to ecclesiastical authority, they are sometimes cited approvingly by thinkers on opposite sides of contemporary issues.

John Courtney Murray, perhaps the greatest American Catholic intellectual, was a doctrinally conservative, politically liberal Jesuit who set out to tackle the enormously difficult problem of religious freedom in the twentieth century. Those born after 1960 may not remember a Catholic church that was hostile to American values of church/state separation and that would have preferred American Catholicism to be activated within a theocratic system rather like that of medieval Europe. The acceptance of religious freedom as found in the American system of government -- The Declaration of Religious Freedom -- that was shepherded through the second Vatican council by John Courtney Murray, was a hard-won and remarkable victory. The notion that American soil was a fruitful place for the growth and embellishment of Catholicism was not a welcome view in the 1950s, and for some years prior to the council, Murray's work was considered so dangerous that he was forbidden to publish any more on the subject.

About the work of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and John Henry Newman I will only say that, like Murray, each of them was too optimistic about the church's ability to welcome conflicting new ideas. Unlike Murray, neither of them lived to see his ideas gain general acceptance within the church. Teilhard's synthesis of science and theology advanced a new cosmology that horrified the institutional church in the 1940s and '50s. His ideas about the designs of God, the spiritual nature of the human race, and the interactive nature of the universe seemed too radical in his time and, like theologians before him, he was silenced. Today, as theologians tackle the religious significance of quantum mechanics and chaos theory, Teilhard's works are often seen as prophetic.

Newman's ideas for a Catholic university, his thoughtful reflection on the possibility of belief in an agnostic age, and his work on the development of doctrine were frightening to ecclesiastical leaders in the nineteenth century. Pope Pius IX, who called himself "the prisoner of the Vatican" and acted rather like Tertullian brandishing the sword of condemnation against the outside world, wanted no part of them. Newman was ignored. He was able to hold on to his integrity because he was committed to the dialectical process between theological and political aspects of the church. Taking the long view, he could afford to be patient under duress. His great statement of principle, found in The Idea of a University, is this:

    a believer is sure, and nothing shall make him [or her] doubt [so that] if anything seems to be proved by an astronomer or geologist, or chronologist, or antiquarian, or ethnologist, in contradiction to the dogmas of faith, that point will eventually turn out, first, not to be proved, or secondly, not contradictory, or thirdly, not contradictory to anything really revealed, but to something that has been confused with revelation.

Newman, in other words, thought that truth could not contradict truth. If it often seemed to do so, he counseled patience in the moment.

Let me say more about the silencing of theologians and the patience demonstrated by Murray, Teilhard, and Newman. Intellectual life in the American Catholic church, including theological speculation, is no longer easily silenced. Partly because theology is increasingly the province of lay thinkers rather than priests, it is not an easily controlled discipline. Also, American Catholics no longer believe in the old hierarchical principle that the institutional church is always right. Finally, American Catholics in general do not cozy up to the idea of silencing people. I must part company with the very models I just held up for admiration when I say that I do not think we should tolerate the silencing of theologians. Catholic thinkers must give serious attention to institutional authority when that authority collides with their intellectual conclusions. But, if the church has a right to silence a theologian, that right cannot be exercised willy-nilly every time someone raises a query. In the last twenty years, the Vatican has often acted in a high-handed manner that is not only unjust to the theologians, but also undermines legitimate authority and compromises the church's integrity with its members. The best thing to say about the attempts to silence priests like Hans Kng, Charles Curran, Edward Schillibeeckx, Leonardo Boff, Richard McBrien, and most recently Tissa Balasuriya, is that it may have precipitated a new dialogue on due process and the legitimate aims of intellectual life and religious authority. One of the lessons we can learn from the women's movement within the church and from the nervous over-reaction of the Vatican to issues like women's ordination, is, in Leonard Swidler's phrase, that we need to replace the old adage -- "Roma locuta, causa finita" -- with a new one, "Roma locuta, causa stimulata."

Let me return for a moment to the three dimensions of a vibrant religious tradition that I mentioned earlier. As Catholics, we all have obligations to piety and to a life of prayer, or as Vatican II would have it, we all have vocations to holiness. The general life of the faithful in the church has made its way through the centuries within a dialectic between those whose job it is to guard the traditions, and those whose job it is to push the envelope. Meriol Trevor, characterizing the opposing parties of the modernist crisis, called them the prophets and guardians; Rosemary Haughton in The Catholic Thing called them Holy Mother Church and her wild sister, Sophia. In the last several centuries the popes and Vatican officials have represented a classical notion of order, protecting the status quo, while the great crowd of mystics, monks, theologians, feminists, intellectuals, and activists have represented new directions and possibilities. This is the dialectic. This is the way things happen in the church and have always happened, and if I understand history correctly, the generative spirit does not come from above, but from below, from that crowd of witnesses I just mentioned.

What keeps this whole frustrating process Catholic is the willingness to stay in conversation even when the dialectic gets fierce. Put another way, the stubborn refusal of the papacy to accept or entertain some new ideas is functional. Its job is to call for obedience and conformity, whereas the agitating work of intellectuals who keep bursting out with new questions and ideas is also functional: their job is to be creative and pushy. Neither of these jobs is better or nobler or more necessarily concerned with the life of the faithful than the other, and each is quite capable of squelching genuine religious spirit.

Aquinas was a modern thinker in his own world, willing to take on the problems that were presented to him by his culture and to address them. He was not afraid of big or dangerous questions. Pressing that confidence into contemporary issues, I believe that today Thomas would be working on the kinds of questions posed to theology by way of science (the new cosmology), and that he might well be interested in the issues raised by theologies of suffering and liberation (feminist and third world theologies). In the realm of science, he would be reading some of the new physics and be willing to ask about the kind of cosmic history we are implicated in. He would not be frightened by the post-Einsteinian universe in which nature is intrinsically active, fluctuating, open-ended, surprising, and interactive. I think he would be fascinated -- as we should be -- about the ways in which we have to change our ideas about God once we leave the tidy bounded world of Newtonian physics, i.e., we have to be prepared for a God who is a lot chancier and more ambiguous than God was imagined to be in a world of fixed physical laws. He would see to it that theology and Catholic intellectual life in general would acknowledge that we are involved in a galactic story of great complexity.

I believe that Thomas would also be drawn to theologies from the margins, especially feminist and third world perspectives. I think he would find the work of Elizabeth Johnson congenial, especially since he, himself said that "all affirmations we can make about God are not such that our minds may rest in them, nor of such sort that we may suppose God does not transcend them." He would welcome, I hope, the opportunity to purify God-talk that Johnson gives us, and would applaud the intention to guard the complexity of religious symbols so as to create a greater sense of the mystery of God.

A Last Word

Having made these suggestions, let me conclude by reducing my main point to a question: is the God of practice different from the God of prayer? I don't think so. Intellectuals, who are grounded in their faith, can take on problems of piety, history, politics, and philosophy without fear. When I hear the word faith, I must admit that I think of Brian O'Lynn in Oliver St. John Gogarty's short poem, "Faith":

        Brian O'Lynn as the legends aver
        Was crossing a bridge with his wife and his cur.
        The bridge it collapsed and the trio fell in:
        "There's land at the bottom," said Brian O'Lynn.

Rooted in faith, we can take on the problems of the world. The institutional church, which seems constantly baffled by the world, will not like what we do, but that does not mean we should not do it. We should. Catholic intellectual life has a history of daring visions of the future even as it has reverenced its past. Put another way, when the heart is rooted in God, the mind is free to play. Free to have fun. Let me end, as I began, with a bit of doggerel, this time from Hilaire Belloc. Actually, with apologies to Mr. Belloc, since I want to wrench his quatrain from its papist intentions and make the "Catholic" a lower-case word.

        Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine
        There's lots of laughter and good red wine
        At least I've always found it so
        Benedicamos Domino!