Today, I found a book I read in 1993, The Summa of the Summa. It is a brief summary (consisting of merely 532 pages!) of the most famous work of the great theologian, Thomas Aquinas. Peter Kreeft prepared the summary and his notes are a vitally important part of it. If one reads this book with Timothy McDermott’s paraphrase of the Summa, he may begin to understand Thomas Aquinas’s mind.
I picked that old book up today because I realized that Thomas Aquinas may be another Italian lurking in the shadows of Chasing Francis. I’ll tell you why in a moment. First, I’ll share what I wrote nearly twenty years ago about Kreeft’s book:
“The central issue in any discussion about Christianity involves deciding whether it is true. Most people understand that believers find faith comforting. The question is whether it is true. Aquinas’s common sense test for determining whether we know the truth about something is to learn whether the thoughts in our heads about it correspond with reality. This is a vital test, because Christianity cannot be comforting if it is not true. If it is not true, it is a form of madness. For mature adults to order their lives around some ‘universal end’ or ‘in hope of the general resurrection from the dead’ is a willful delusion of self if none of these things are true. In that case, Christianity exists to maintain an intellectual dysfunction we need to outgrow. I enjoy the likes of Robert Schuller and his message of positive affirmation. However, his success is based on a strategic and thus deliberate avoidance of the uncomfortable question every intellectually honest person must ask of the ideology he embraces: ‘is this based upon something real?’ If it is not, Schuller and Christianity’s other inspiring speakers are making a living inspiring people with amusing speeches about nothing. That even Christians have become uninterested in asking tough questions about what is real reveals that believers have been silently concluding that Christianity will cease to comfort us if we ask it or its defenders serious questions. We are afraid to accept the answers. So we have come to accept a version of our faith that is superficial, insipid, intellectually vacuous and ultimately meaningless. Either that, or we are slothful about being transformed by the renewing of our minds. In either case, popular Christianity has become, as our critics claim, a sort of mild morphine we embrace for no greater reason than that we find it comforting.”
Why would Aquinas, one of Christianity’s most passionate defenders, provoke such a response?
I won’t bore you with my reflections on what I have learned trying to read Aquinas. He was Italian. He was born in 1225 into a family known more for producing military officers than saints. However, he was drawn to his uncle’s way of life, who was an abbot. And, he utterly reordered European thought.
In many ways, we could say that Reformed theology was a reaction to some of his ideas. At the same time, his work helped form the intellects of the very reformers who challenged him. Behind both Aquinas and the reformers was Augustine, but that is a theme for another day! What I want to make clear about Aquinas in this blog is that people still study him; not only for his theology but for the philosophical structures he developed. He remains formidable, even after one discounts the limitations of his medieval understanding of science. He believed Christianity was true and his reasons for thinking this still shakes the foundations of secularism.
Not many Christian leaders, Protestant or Catholic, wrestle with the likes of Aquinas now. We study trends, demographics and management theories. We argue politics. We do fund drives. Then, one day, we ask ourselves why we are doing all of that. The malnourishment of our soul erodes the energy to keep it up.
The elders of the church in Chasing Francis thought their pastor was losing his faith. What was actually happening was that he was recovering his faith. What he was losing was faith in a form of Christianity American believers have found increasingly attractive, but which only superficially resembles any form of the faith embraced and confessed by past generations.
Whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant, Christians throughout history have offered a robust structure of thought that one could examine, debate, and if he accepted it, embrace. In place of these structures of thought, lifestyle and spiritual formation, we have been steadily remolding our faith into a market-driven product for consumers. As a result, many of us are only marginally interested in whether those who preach Christianity actually live it. We are not at all interested in studying it ‘when we rise up and when we lie down’. We are downright hostile to the idea that Christianity might more important than our money, our chosen way of life, or even life itself. The faith is peripheral rather than central to our lives, and this shift mutates the faith into something historically unrecognizable.
This pastor in Chasing Francis discovered he could no longer sustain the ever-maddening competition for America’s diminishing Evangelical population. He was tired of clichés, silliness, masking political commentary with a religious veneer and turning the house of God into a flea market.
Were John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and Jonathan Edwards to enter one of our market-driven churches, they would find plenty to disagree about among themselves. But all of them would be horrified to discover that the people on our pews no longer know what Christianity teaches. They would be more horrified to learn that many of our preachers do not know what Christianity teaches. But they would not even begin to comprehend that our loss of biblical, theological and intellectual formation has been a deliberate part of a strategy to attract religious consumers into the church.
If schools granted medical degrees to people whose real specialty was business administration, marketing or entertainment, there would be a public outcry. We know it may be possible to amuse a cancer patient, become his personal friend, and make his hospital experience pleasant without ever curing his disease. A hospital that operates by such priorities might teach us there are things we can do to make a patient’s experience more comforting and that would be profitable for everyone. However, we would think it grossly unjust for doctors to stop treating disease in order to be liked, or worse, in order to gain more patients.
The elders of the church in Casing Francis were horrified when their pastor realized he was doing precisely this – pandering to religious consumerism while neglecting the people’s eternal needs. What the elders could not grasp is that their pastor had awakened from a spiritual stupor. He wasn’t going crazy. He was becoming a disciple.
I read a book review this morning on the Amazon site. It is about a new book on the state of American Christianity and is called Bad Religion. I have not read it. For all I know, I may I disagree with every word in it. I just know I deeply resonate with the review. So I end my blog by passing it along to you. I believe it deserves our careful consideration.
“As the youngest-everop-ed columnist for the New York Times, Ross Douthat has emerged as one of the most provocative and influential voices of his generation. In Bad Religion he offers a masterful and hard-hitting account of how American Christianity has gone off the rails—and why it threatens to take American society with it.
Writing for an era dominated by recession, gridlock, and fears of American decline, Douthat exposes the spiritual roots of the nation’s political and economic crises. He argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.
These faiths speak from many pulpits—conservative and liberal, political and pop cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”—and many of their preachers claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity—not the real thing. Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, Douthat argues, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption.
In a story that moves from the 1950s to the age of Obama, he brilliantly charts institutional Christianity’s decline from a vigorous, mainstream, and bipartisan faith—which acted as a “vital center” and the moral force behind the civil rights movement—through the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s to the polarizing debates of the present day. Ranging from Glenn Beck to Barack Obama, Eat Pray Love to Joel Osteen, and Oprah Winfrey to The Da Vinci Code, Douthat explores how the prosperity gospel’s mantra of “pray and grow rich,” a cult of self-esteem that reduces God to a life coach, and the warring political religions of left and right have crippled the country’s ability to confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline.
His urgent call for a revival of traditional Christianity is sure to generate controversy, and it will be vital reading for all those concerned about the imperiled American future.”
This is what the pastor in Chasing Francis discovered. Christianity is not only a communal experience and a weekly comfort. It is a structure of thought. It is a system of belief that must be deliberately taught, learned and adopted. If Christianity no longer offers this, then many now wonder if it offers much of anything; except, perhaps, a living for those of us who market it.