Interviewing Thomas


Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy, Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality,
HarperSan Francisco, 1992, 532 pages.
reviewed by Ted Witham

In 1986, I was lucky enough to spend 13 weeks with the medieval genius, Saint Thomas d’Aquino. It was by accident. Forced to choose a Church History unit in my studies, I opted for the subject with fewest dates and chronological gymnastics: Thomas Aquinas.

What a joy it was for me to shatter my image of him as a dry-as-dust scholastic theologian, concerned about angels dancing on pinheads.

Brother Thomas came alive for those 13 weeks, a spiritual companion who enlarged the view I had of faith in Christ. His personality is quirky, warm, courageous, utterly straight. He showed complete disinterest in things such as social etiquette.

Thomas was a mystic, and a genius of the order of Albert Einstein.

But after my course I found it difficult to communicate my enthusiasm for the ‘seraphic doctor’. His writings are hard work to read, and if you wish to follow through an idea, apart from the 30-40 volume set of the Summa Theologica, you really need a knowledge of medieval Church Latin. (If you are blessed with a e-Reader, you can download the complete Summa edited by the Dominicans for 99 cents.)

That is, until Matthew Fox’s Sheer Joy. Sheer Joy is a Thomas reader that aims to make Aquinas accessible to a wider audience. In Sheer Joy, Fox “interviews” Thomas, his brother in the Dominican Order (or ex-brother, as Matthew Fox is now an Anglican)! Fox puts questions to Aquinas, the answers to which are the actual words of Aquinas.

This interview format achieves three things:

* Fox can ‘ask’ 20th Century questions to reveal Aquinas’ relevance for us.
* Fox invites Thomas Aquinas to show his skill as an interactive teacher. Brother Thomas has a warmth easily submerged in long passages of translation.
* Fox displays his enthusiasm for his mentor and the reader can catch it!

As it is a selection from the writings of Aquinas, Sheer Joy is inevitably an interpretation of the master theologian’s ideas. Matthew Fox does set out to show in what ways Aquinas is a creation mystic. The themes of the four conversations (decided by Fox not Aquinas) are the movements of mystic theology: the Positive Way, the Negative Way, the Creative Way and the Integrative Way. Fox does take the risk of distorting Aquinas by placing him in an alien framework. I think, however, that the distortion is minimal. Medieval mysticism is not so alien to Thomas, who was a great poet of the Eucharist, influenced by Francis of Assisi and the medieval archetypes of the “goddess” and the “green man”. Fox also takes pains not to limit his viewpoints to modern frameworks of understanding. In any case, the words of Thomas are so powerful as to stand in their own terms.

Matthew Fox succeeds in making Brother Thomas more accessible. Don’t, however, expect an easy read. This is serious and deep stuff demanding real thought. Aquinas is not noted for levity. A brother once tried to tease Thomas by telling him that there was an ox flying outside. Thomas ran to the window. Everyone laughed. Thomas said woodenly, “I would rather believe that an ox could fly than that a friar could tell a lie.” (No wonder they nicknamed Thomas “the Dumb Ox”.)

Thomas tells it straight. He tells it straight from the heart, but through one of the most powerful intellects in the history of Western civilisation. So do persevere with Sheer Joy. It yields depths of wisdom. Thomas yearns for every Christian to draw closer to God, and his insights can light the way.

Fox brings out Aquinas’ holistic teaching about the creation, the delight that God’s love brings to all his creatures and the conscious response of love and pleasure (“sheer joy”) mortals are invited to make to God for themselves and on behalf of all creatures. This basic indwelling of God in all things and all things in God releases creativity both in God and in humanity. Desire to work with God to bring about a better world, what Fox calls ‘social justice’ and what Aquinas calls ‘perfecting’ creation, is the task of all Christians.

Fox shows that the best way to understand Thomas is primarily as a scriptural teacher, who uses philosophy only as a tool to bring contemporary meaning to the Bible. We have the false impression that Aquinas is primarily a philosophical theologian mainly because many of his Biblical commentaries have not been translated before. Fox’s translations are lively, avoiding the muddy ponderings of much previous translation.

I received two gifts from reading Sheer Joy. One was the deep love Thomas Aquinas has for the God who reveals himself in nature and the Bible, and who abides in us in the Eucharist. The second was the burning desire that others might know the embrace of that love.

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