Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
In our time we struggle to reconcile the relationship between science and religion; in the middle ages the conflict was between theology and philosophy. While many medieval thinkers concluded that the two types of knowledge were in direct opposition to each other, the master theologian Thomas Aquinas asserted that “both kinds of knowledge ultimately come from God” – and are thus not only compatible, but can work in collaboration.
Aquinas reasoned that
• God is not a ‘being’ or even a ‘Being’; God simply is.
• The infinitely transcendent God is also present in and to this material world.
• Through God’s infinite, life-giving love, all creatures participate in the life of God.
This is where Aquinas’ Latin can help us:
• Ens (a noun) means entity, something that has existence. If we think of God as ens, we limit God to a particular something, a being; but God is not one Being among many beings.
• Esse (a verb) means to be. When we think of God as Esse, we image God as Verb: God is to-be. (The infinitive form emphasizes God’s infinite divine aliveness – in time as well as space.)
• Participatus (the Latin root of participate) means to have a share in a larger whole, or to possess something of the nature of a person, thing, or quality. Aquinas wrote, “All beings apart from God are not their own being, but are beings by participation.”
For Aquinas, God is everywhere and is in all things:
• “God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as an agent is present to that upon which it works… as to ignite is the proper effect of fire.”
• “God fills every place; not, indeed, like a body, for a body excludes the co-presence of another body. When God is in a place, others are not thereby excluded from it.” The divine presence spills over beyond the interior of creatures, filling everything; hence, while “God is in all things…it can also be said that all things are in God.”
God as Trinity
• The first Christians experienced God as Father/Creator, Jesus/Redeemer, and indwelling Holy Spirit.
• Reasoning from these varied experiences of God, Christian theologians as early as the 3rd century were imaging God as Trinity – that is, as a community of three ‘persons’ united in love.
• In the 13th century Aquinas saw the trinitarian God, whose very character is Love, as the active wellspring of all life.
• Aquinas taught that the life and love of God is communicated to the world not just through its original creation, but through God’s ongoing invitation to participate in divine community.
• Contemporary theology calls this model of the God-world relationship panentheism, from the Greek pan (all), en (in) and theos (God): all-in-God.
• Panentheism sees the created world as indwelt by God’s Spirit while also encompassed by divine presence; that is, the God who dwells within the world also transcends it at every point.
• Within the world, the creating Spirit is present to all creatures, bringing them into existence; and all creatures, in their daily being and doing, continuously participate in the life of the One who is sheer, exuberant aliveness. (Already in the first century, St. Paul was thinking of this mutual indwelling when he said that in God “we live and move and have our being” Acts 17:28.)
• Observing the marvelous diversity of creatures in the world, Aquinas concluded that their very differences express the divine goodness: “For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided.” Contemporary theologian Denis Edwards (author of The God of Evolution: A Trinitarian Theology) follows Aquinas when he notes that “no one creature, not even the human, can image God by itself. Only the diversity of life – huge soaring trees, the community of ants, the flashing colors of the parrot, the beauty of a wildflower along with the human – can give expression to the radical diversity and otherness of the triune God.”
• Thus Aquinas’ idea of participation is still a major influence on contemporary Christian thinking: the natural world exists because it participates in the Esse of God: the whole world exists due to a continuous act of love on the part of the Creator Spirit – indwelling the creation, sustaining its life, and cherishing its ‘entangled bank’.
The world as God’s dwelling place
• Seeing the world of beasts, birds, plants, and fish with the eyes of faith leads us to conclude that the natural world is not merely ‘natural’ (that is, of lesser spiritual significance than the ‘supernatural’). Rather, the natural world bears the mark of the sacred, because it is imbued with a spiritual presence. In its own way, the whole cosmos is a sacrament and a revelation.
• The insight that plant and animal species exist by participation in the life-giving power of God allows nature’s sacramental character to emerge.
• Christian sacramental theology has always pointed to simple material things – bread, wine, water – which, graced by the Spirit of God, can be bearers of divine grace.
• Such ordinary things are able to communicate divine grace because the whole physical world itself – not just things (enses) used in worship – is permeated with the presence (Esse) of God.