Writing Theology after Thomas and His Readers

Since the nineteenth century, several dozen movements of intellectual renewal have claimed Thomas Aquinas. None has responded fully to the challenge laid down by his writing.

The styles or genres for retrieving Thomas have typically been borrowed without much thought from those near at hand: neo-Scholastic manuals, historical surveys, doctrinal paraphrases, philosophical systems, philological commentaries, or the essay in one or another version (from belles lettres to patches of symbolized logic). Thomisms are not alone among Christian theological or philosophical movements in overlooking the quandaries of form. Still the lack of formal invention is more culpable among self-proclaimed Thomists than among readers of many other authors or traditions. For Thomas, theological form is a central preoccupation. What kind of Thomism can ignore it? Given the history of Thomisms, medieval and modern, the question might rather be: how must Thomism as a disposition to intellectual inheritance be reconceived in order not to ignore theological form once again?

During certain decades of the last century, being a Thomist in Catholic circles meant adhering to an approved orthodoxy and the mechanisms for its enforcement. Thomism implied resistance to calls for theological renewal and innovation. So, for example, during the 1940s eminent Thomists launched attacks on the "nouvelle théologie" (which would wield such influence on Vatican II).1 More recently, on this side of the council, many of those opposed to its "liberal" documents or implementations have trumpeted

1 See the narrative by Aidan Nichols in "Thomism and the Nouvelle Théologie," The Thomist 64 (2000):1—19. Nicholas seems to assume that Labourdette and those who agreed with him held exclusive title in the term "Thomism."

calls for a return to (neo-)Thomistic orthodoxy, a "Fourth Scholasticism" (successor to those of the Middle Ages, the Counter-Reformation, and the nineteenth century).2 Fortress neo-Thomism becomes the metonym for fortress Catholicism. Even those who are not particularly aggressive about Thomistic orthodoxy can participate in defensive provincialism. When a narrow band of technical disagreements becomes the only context for reading Thomas "professionally," Thomistic expertise is the enemy of the purposes in Thomas's writing.

Thomism has often exerted itself quite explicitly to superintend or restrict readers of Thomas. Those attacks in the 1940s were not only aimed at a preference for Greek patristic sources over medieval Latin ones. They had in their sights revisionist interpretations of Thomas.3 A decade earlier, in the 1930s, Thomist rigorists (indeed, some of the same Thomist rigorists) had censured Marie-Dominique Chenu, whose attentive reading of Thomas brought to fruition a whole line of historically-instructed exegesis. The case of Chenu is worth some reflection, since it illustrates how severe the reactions of neo-Thomism can be when confronted by Thomas's own practice of theological writing. The case must also be told because it has shadowed this book from the beginning.

Chenu insisted — rightly, I think — that his methods for reading Thomas were the methods of his Dominican predecessor, Ambroise Gardeil, whose major works were published beginning in 1905.4 So when Chenu began to teach Dominicans how to read Thomas in the late 1920s, he was giving them habits of reading conceived before the turn of the nineteenth century, in the first decades after Aeterni patris. When Chenu recorded these techniques of reading in 1950 as an Introduction to the Study of St Thomas Aquinas, he was showing the results of more than six decades of work.5 Still Chenu became the target when this "historical turn" was condemned by neo-Thomists attached to Vatican offices. A privately circulated work setting

2 See the narrative in Nichols, Discovering Aquinas, p. 142.

3 See, for example, Marie-Michel Labourdette, "La théologie et ses sources," Revue thomiste 46/2 (1946): 353—371, p. 354, n. 2, which mentions Henri Bouillard, Conversion et grace chez S. Thomas d'Aquin (Paris: Eds. Montaigne, 1944) and Henri de Lubac, Surnaturel: Études historiques (1st edn., Paris: Eds. Montaigne, 1946). For a fuller picture of the reaction to de Lubac's rereading, see Kerr, After Aquinas, 134—148.

4 See the essays reprinted in Chenu, La parole de Dieu, 1 : La foi dans l'intelligence (Paris: Eds. du Cerf, 1964), 243—282. There is some discussion of Gardeil in Gerald A. McCool, The Neo-Thomists (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1994), in a chapter on the French Dominicans.

5 Marie-Dominique Chenu, Introduction à l'étude de Saint Thomas d'Aquin (Montreal: Institut d'études médiévales, and Paris: J. Vrin, 1950).

forth Chenu's "historical" method was delated to Rome. The Holy Office demanded that Chenu recant ten theses tainted by "subjectivism" or "historical relativism." In 1942, his private monograph was added to the Index of Forbidden Books, and Chenu was removed as regent of studies at Le Saulchoir and sent off to Paris to keep him away from Dominican students.6 It is not only philosophy in the city that must fear silencing.

What was so provocative about Chenu's "historical" method of reading Thomas? The Introduction is a serene book that rarely registers preceding controversies. It is also subversive. It makes plain, as Alain de Libera says, how different the conditions of medieval intellectual life were from the modern, undermining any strong assertion of the unbroken unity of Scholasticism.7 More subversively still it seeks to reactivate the teaching power in the structure of Thomas's writing.8 Instead of trying to synthesize Thomas into a system, or reduce his multiplicity to a single narrative of development, Chenu analyzes rhetorical elements one by one. If he gives a chapter to biography and institutional setting, he gives four to Thomas's genres, terminologies, authorities, and argumentative styles. He then devotes seven chapters, fully half the book, to meticulous readings of Thomas's individual works as individual works.

Chenu urges his reader to respond as a reader to Thomas. The reader's response is to be energetic and open, not foreclosed by notions of authoritative mimicry, not constrained by the pretense of copying. In case the novice reader has missed that point, Chenu proposes exercises in which he raises questions or lays out a line of inquiry without predicting how it will end. Chenu's style of reading invites a response to the dialectical enactments in Thomas's texts by discouraging the fantasy of reproducing a Thomistic system divorced from the texts. Chenu writes that he wanted to lead his readers into an unfamiliar building: the "majestic - and disconcerting -edifice of Saint Thomas's writings."9 Note the words "disconcerting" and "writings."

6 The documents and some narratives about them are contained in Giuseppe Alberigo, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Etienne Fouilloux, Jean-Pierre Jossua, and Jean Ladrière, Une école de theologie: le Saulchoir (Paris: Eds. du Cerf, 1985). Chenu's book was originally "published" in 1937, the expanded version of a talk he had given at the school's celebration of the Feast of St Thomas.

7 Alain de Libera, Penser au Moyen Age (Paris: Eds. du Seuil, 1991), p. 44.

8 In his title and his intentions, Chenu also plays against Alexandre Kojève's Introduction à la lecture de Hegel: Leçons sur La Phénoménologie de l'esprit, professées de 1933 à l'École des hautes-études, ed. Raymond Queneau (Paris: Gallimard, 1947). His relation to Kojève resembles that of so many other French thinkers during the same decades.

9 Chenu, Introduction, p. 5: "Il s'agissait d'introduire, de 'faire entrer' dans l'édifice majestueux et déconcertant de l'œuvre de saint Thomas."

Aeterni patris hoped for a neo-Thomism that was anything but disconcerting. It needed a system that could condense philosophic truths across centuries into a secure foundation, a sure defense. The encyclical's hope was redoubled when Thomism allied itself so closely to the official campaign against "Modernism," that mythical construct meant to synthesize the threats of modern thinking. (It is the mirror image of the "Thomistic synthesis.") Chenu's method of reading was condemned as a kind of Modernism; so too were revisionist interpretations of Thomas proposed by the founders of the nouvelle théologie. Of course, the "relativism" discovered in their readings was no more than the "relativism" of Thomas's own writing-practice. His structural experiments, his thoroughly dialectical pedagogies, his orchestration of multiple languages have much more in common with the nouvelle théologie than with the neo-Thomism of Garrigou-Lagrange or Labourdette. Official neo-Thomism could not even consider Thomas's main theological accomplishment, his invention of pedagogical forms. How could it possibly acknowledge a challenge to improvise new ones?

My point is not about "bad scholarly writing," though it is abundant in Thomistic scholarship. Some allies of official neo-Thomism were accomplished writers. Maritain is a refined stylist — not to say, polemicist — and a fastidious reader of contemporary literature. Yet Maritain's forms for retelling Thomas are variations on established genres of constructive exegesis. Many anti-official writings are also not formally innovative. De Lubac writes out his revision of Thomas on grace fluently and passionately, but his form is that of doctrinal retrieval or reconstruction. The same could be said, with adjustments, about Etienne Gilson and Henri de Lubac or Joseph Maréchal and Pedro Descoqs. There are exceptions, of course. Karl Rahner's Spirit in the World undoes the genre of Thomistic commentary ironically, from within (as his later writings sabotage the essay and the systematic treatise).10 Bernard Lonergan's articles on the notion of the mental "word" in Aquinas challenge the persistent reader to intellectual conversion through close reading.11 Chenu gently mocks the standard introduction to Thomas, which summarizes principal doctrines without regard for where

10 Karl Rahner, Geist in Welt: Zur Metaphysik der endlichen Erkenntnis bei Thomas von Aquin (Innsbruck: F. Rauch, 1939). The second edition was translated by William Dych as Spirit in the World (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968).

11 The articles, originally published during the 1940s in Theological Studies, were anthologized by David B. Burrell as Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967), then re-edited (and translated) by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran as Word and Idea in Aquinas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

or how they appear in the texts.12 Still the inventions are few and the unthought borrowings many. Response to Thomas during the last century was not the site of striking formal experiment — unless one counts novellas like James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Pierre Klossowski's La vocation suspendue.

It would take a long time to tell a story about the genres of twentieth-century Thomism. The story would pass along shelves of books I have hardly mentioned. For example, Thomas Aquinas is not owned by Roman Catholics, nor is his reception controlled only by the dynamics of that church's protracted agony over the modern. Throughout the twentieth century there were famous non-Catholic Thomists. During its last quarter, some of the most interesting versions of Thomas appeared outside the confines of the Catholic problematic. In "analytic" philosophy, Thomas has been read apart from earlier traditions of Catholic interpretation — and sometimes with an explicit disavowal of them. In various programs of Anglican or Protestant theology, the figure of Thomas has served to recall, that is, to propose, another way forward. But I do not see that claiming Thomas outside Catholicism has always meant responding to his challenge over theological form — or escaping the police. "Analytic Thomism" gets written in the terminologies, logics, and genres of analytic philosophy. The Thomas of "radical Orthodoxy" speaks in the hybrid tones, alternately lyrical and caustic, of (post-) post-modern contestation. Both proceed under the surveillance of complex regimes of intellectual respectability. Analytic Thomism, for example, does not have to answer to ecclesiastical superiors, but does have to convince doubting colleagues by outdoing them in rigor, in approved "moves" around stipulated topics.

So what?, an impatient reader might well ask. Isn't it peculiar to expect that a project of repetition like neo-Thomism would lead to improvisations of style or genre? Or that the reception of Thomas in academic departments could escape their standards of epistemic conduct? My argument has been that Thomas's texts are successively more thorough improvisations of forms

12 Even introductions that start off with the best intentions end up ignoring the structures for theology. Nicholas Healy insists on the importance of following Thomas's dialectic, but he then reverses the order of Summa theol. 2 and 3 in explaining what Thomas has to teach to Christian living. See Nicholas M. Healy, Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2003), pp. 40—41 and 50—51 for dialectic, but then notice the transposition of the treatment of Christ (87—103) before that of the theological virtues (119—129) and law (136—145), only to be interrupted by the sacraments (48—153), which are followed in last place by cardinal virtues (153—157). This scrambles the actually dialectical development of the Summa. A similar reordering of topics can be found in Davies, Aquinas, especially in the placement of chapters 18 and 19.

for epistemic conduct. I want to be surprised when astute readers of them fail to think first and last about form — including their chosen form for responding to Thomas. The peculiar thing for me is that we are no longer surprised.

When I reviewed the history of Thomism in the double narrative of the first chapter, I complained that Thomas had been casually rewritten without regard for his forms. My complaint now goes a step further. The failure of so many Thomisms is not that they rewrite Thomas, but that they fail to notice that his rhetorical forms demand reflective and inventive rewriting. Text-reception comes in varieties. The strongest kinds of reception do not pretend to be replications or imitations. The most appropriate response to a demanding text may not be submission. It may not even be agreement. A strong text may ask for disagreement and counter-proposal. The strongest texts, the ones that create their own genres, may require of their best readers an equivalent creation. I place Thomas's writing with the strongest, but I still want to distinguish responses to his rhetorical forms from disregard for them. Some misreading is so complete that it cannot be counted reception. This is true for a number of neo-Thomisms. Their projects prevent a priori any reception of Thomas. Before his texts can be received, they have already been consumed as mere authorizing occasions. The form of the new project has so completely screened the forms in Thomas that his texts cannot appear through it.

"Posterity" is a word I use to connect rhetorical form with its reception. All along I have used the rhetorical notion of form to describe a work's address. Address is an effect of structure, not of authorial psychology. (Indeed, the figure of the "author" is projected backward by rhetorical form as much as the ideal of a reader is projected forward.) Any serious reading of a persuasive structure must ask itself how it stands to the responses anticipated by that persuasion. Otherwise it denies at once its continuity with the embodied project of the text being read. A credible reading begins by putting its form into play before the work's attempted persuasion. To put itself into play is not the same thing as agreeing in advance to be finally persuaded. Indeed, to fall within the intended posterity of a work is not necessarily to end by accepting the text or repeating its doctrines. The text's form may not anticipate either agreement or repeatable doctrines. If it does, it may be that there are possibilities latent within the rhetorical form that allow continuous dissents from its explicit anticipations. Or it may be that the form of the work anticipates unforeseen extensions and fruitful misinterpretations.

Many self-proclaimed Thomisms never consider how they stand to the persuasive form of Thomas's major works. I infer that they cannot be counted part of Thomas's rhetorical posterity. I then contrast these Thomisms with others in which motives of appreciation or adherence are turned through reading into something better. There is no pure repetition, especially across historical or cultural distances, but the desire for repetition (like the passion of fandom) can underwrite serious reception. Lonergan retells his own turn from Molinism to Thomas.13 It feels like an epiphany to discover that Thomas's texts enact questions opposed to authoritative traditions about him. But that discovery needs to be completed by another: the quest for Thomas as original already mistakes the rhetorical function of his texts. The Summa was not written to be repeated. Its structure encourages neither doctrinal idolatry nor philological obsession. If I mean to respond to the Summa exactly and only as Thomas wrote it, my professed motive has been undoing itself all along. I have not asked clearly enough how he wrote it. I have not brought the form of my reading up against the form of his writing.

Receiving Thomas can evidently never be the same activity as Thomas composing. The space between composition and reception should displace fantasies of mimesis with a challenge to fuller response. The most self-aware reception takes up this provocation deliberately as a gift from the text. Thomas responds to his inheritance by inventing new forms. He wants to persuade his readers that the forms further the ends he learned from his authorities even as they exceed them. Our reception of Thomas ought to attempt the same. We receive Thomas most deliberately when we respond to the formal challenge posed by his inventions. The challenge is not a general imperative: "Be creative and do what you will." To claim that following Thomas today requires only engaging the latest science or proclaiming oneself a dissenter is a biographical fallacy. It is another way of reducing Thomas to a floating marker of authorization. His texts issue much more particular formal challenges to those who would inherit them.

What are the particular challenges posed by Thomas's texts? Let me name three. Each should be familiar from earlier chapters. Put together they can begin to specify the rhetorical posterity of Thomas's texts.

First, Thomas experiments with pedagogical structures for receiving authorities. He means to receive them alive rather than dead. The authorities are not objects of antiquarian interest. They do not function as bits of evidence in polemical proof.14 They form no system. They are not bronze

13 See, for example, Lonergan, Method in Theology (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1972), p. 163, n. 6.

14 So the citations in Thomas should be distinguished from the controversial function of the modern footnote as described by Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History idols. On the contrary, Thomas hopes to invent structures that carry forward the activity of the authorities — their doctrines and topics, certainly, but also their pedagogies, inquiries, and linguistic improvisations. A commonplace Thomistic formula is pertinent just here: a science or body of knowledge is a habit of starting-points or principles. Theology is a disposition to produce discourses from its principles. Thomas's theological writings are instruments for inheriting and fostering the habit of theological discourse. Creating structures for handing down theology is like creating regimes for teaching virtue. To judge that a line of writers carries on a tradition of theology is like judging that successive generations in a family or a city exhibit the "same" virtue. The rhetorical forms for inheriting authorities are no different in kind from the rhetorical forms in authoritative texts. Inheritance cannot exempt itself on a plea that it is meta-discourse. If the inheritance is essentially a habit of artfully productive principles, then the form of inheritance has got to be a form for exercising the habit.

Here is a second particular challenge: Thomas invents rhetorical forms to keep inherited theology whole. On his account of the pilgrim state of the human mind within history, theology cannot possibly be whole as an accomplished system of propositions. Theology is the work of faith, and faith is restlessness on the way to beatitude. Thomas writes through forms that keep theology whole in the only way it can be: as pedagogy, as a curriculum of ascent. A theological curriculum ought to exercise all the faculties required for the highest human end. It conceives terminologies, topics, and arguments in relation to arts or disciplines that are indispensable to that end. Thomas's theological structures do not pretend to be encyclopedic. They do not reach to include every possible science. On the contrary, they must be pedagogically selective.

The third challenge is to protect inherited "secrets" by dialectical process. The secrets are not fevered scandals or bleak denials of every surface meaning. They are acts of trust in the activity of passing on. Thomas believes that thoughtless disclosure can damage. Students will be damaged if they are led to think that there is nothing to be learned; teachers, that there is nothing to be taught. In neither case is a secret actually given away. It is rather presumed to have been betrayed. The presumption is damaging, but inaccurate. The secret has not been communicated, because it cannot be communicated to those who are not ready to learn it. A failed effort at communication damages, not by revealing a secret, but by making it

(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997). One could argue that the unreflective use of the footnote - like this one - already presumes a different relation to intellectual inheritance than the one enacted by Thomas.

seem that there is nothing to be revealed. Take this as a parable of neo-Thomism.

Putting these points together prescribes certain challenges for any Thomism worthy of the name. It cannot prescribe responses. If Thomism is neither fantastic mimesis nor the manufacture of a police badge to be pinned on the current uniform, its forms cannot be predicted. So far as neo-Thomisms are mimicry or empty authorization, adequate responses to Thomas's writings will lie outside them, beyond them. The responses will be unrecognizable to neo-Thomism and perhaps even as "Thomism" in any ordinary sense.

The rhetorical forms in Thomas's best works lead the reader to ask, what rhetorical forms of inheritance make a tradition possible? That question haunts the writing of Roman Catholic theology. Many writers pass by the question because they presume that the answer is obvious. Having a tradition means submitting to an institutional authority. The form of their writing is quotation. Other writers, suspicious of authority but obligated to it, calculate degrees of permissible deviation from official lines. Their writing is ironic quotation, copying with deliberate redirection. Others still adopt or resort to the prevailing academic forms, as if the forms for theology could be nothing other than the forms of any other respectable discipline.

Thomas invents rhetorical forms that challenge his readers to have tradition by practices of active inheritance. The challenge anticipates responses that will balance attention and innovation, that complete mimesis in self-possession. Many will find this an improbable claim, but then Catholic notions of theological inheritance have become thoroughly entangled with the legal and social persistence of institutional authority. Thomas claims authority through experimental forms of theological discourse. Those who want to claim his authority must respond, first and last, to the particular challenges of his forms. If their responses begin by ignoring his forms in hot pursuit of current authority, then they have evidently failed to meet his challenges.

This book is not an adequate response to the challenge that Thomas poses. Its form has been a via remotionis, a series of subtractions or negations. It hopes to place itself in Thomas's rhetorical posteriority by clearing a way for the beginners called to read him.

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