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Aquinas Doesn't Want Us To Possess Knowledge

We are a consumer culture; this is becoming more and more obvious all the time and is rightfully being challenged by the Church. Though we are beginning to see the dangers of consumerism, it still affects much of what we do. Even the choice to attend NTS is in some ways a consumer-act. We are here seeking to gain knowledge, to obtain the classes necessary for ordination requirements, and/or to become the person we want to be.

We are so stuck in a shopping mindset we believe knowledge of God is a matter of possession— of possessing more information, hermeneutical tools, completed courses, a Greek New Testament (and hopefully the ability to read it), etc. If we want to know God (or about God) we need to consume more. 

As is probably obvious, I’ve been thinking about “knowledge” lately … and, yes, I’ve also been doing some shopping. One of my products of purchase led me to an interesting quote from Aquinas:

“‘True’ expresses the correspondence of being to the knowing power, for all knowing is produced by an assimilation of the knower to the thing known, so that assimilation is said to be the cause of knowledge.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate)

This is a strange sentence, mostly because it looks like he gets it backwards. We generally think that in order to know something, the goal is to get that something inside our heads—to “wrap our minds around it”—but Aquinas seems to say that when we know something, we are actually getting inside the “thing known.”

In fact, the main objective of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica was to bring the reader to the proper place to know God. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The Summa is from beginning to end a work of instruction designed to develop in the reader the moral and intellectual virtues correlative to a proper understanding of God” (Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe, 175). Which is to say firmly that God is not a collection of facts for us to take in, but that we have to be made fit to encounter God in order to know God.

How, then, are we made fit? 

Primarily through worship. We tend to think that we worship God because we know who God is, but that’s a bit presumptuous. We worship God because we recognize just enough to understand that we don’t know who God is; moreover, we worship because we realize we’re not even worthy to know God.

Worship is not just about singing songs, but is best described as prayer. In prayer we utter words of praise and petition to God. But we also learn to offer our whole life to God as a prayer. This requires training, as Aquinas saw, because we don’t naturally want to offer ourselves to God; quite the opposite, we want to take our lives from God as our own possessions. 

So, although we may have come to NTS as consumers, to gain and “possess” knowledge and education, we are actually being trained for something different—to give up our seeking of possessions and instead learn to pray. At NTS, every class is an exercise in prayer (often an intellectually tiring one), not only because classes begin and end with it, but because in class we learn how to offer every part of ourselves to God to be transformed.

So, while we may come to “take in” every letter, I hope we are made to be “a letter of Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:3), witnesses of God’s truth.

While we come to consume, I hope we become consumed in the triune life of God.

And while we come to gain, I hope we are made into fitting gifts to offer to the giving God.

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Reader Comments (1)

As I get older, I have become more aware that my best 'answers' to the questions about God graciously asked of me by those I love, are less about what I have learned in my study of God or his Word, and more about how little it matters what I know in my head in contrast to what I can live from my heart. Do I really know it if I can't walk it?

07.28.2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

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