Inner Life

Our dark times need 'fierce wisdom' of Aquinas

The universe exists for the sake of joy. So believed Thomas Aquinas, Dominican polymath and one of the Church's greatest theologians, according to US author and scholar the Revd Dr Matthew Fox. Dr Fox, a former Dominican and now Anglican priest who has spent a lifetime studying Aquinas and translating his works, speaks to Roland Ashby about his latest book The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times, what Aquinas would be saying in this time of crisis, and how we should be falling in love at least three times each day with the beauty of life.

By Roland Ashby

We’re in a “dark night of our species”, Matthew Fox says, and humanity is in urgent need of the spiritual wisdom that Thomas Aquinas offers: beauty and joy, justice and compassion.

“That title Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times I actually wrote before the pandemic hit, but I wrote it at the time that Australia was going through your tremendous wildfires last summer. So even without the pandemic we were in hard times. Climate change is making that real for everybody and it’s going to get worse, not better,” he tells TMA.

“So I think we have to buckle up and get strong and purify our intentions on this planet, decide what our real values are and what we want to pass on to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“The Sufi poet Hafiz said ‘sometime God wants to do us a great favour, turn us upside down and shake all the nonsense out’. I think the nonsense that has to be shaken out of our species today is our anthropocentrism, our narcissism, our imagining that we’re separate from or superior to the rest of nature, and that nature is here just to serve us. This is not only a falsehood but a desecration, it’s the reason why so many species are becoming extinct. And many species have been here far longer than we have, like whales, who have been here 55 million years longer than we have. And they didn’t invent nuclear weapons! How can we turn our capacity for destruction and evil into something positive for future generations, not just for humans but for all these other marvellous creatures that we’re sharing this amazing planet with?”

Dr Fox partly attributes this environmental and existential crisis to a loss of understanding God as beauty. “Pre-modern consciousness was very at home with the idea of God as beauty. And this is found not only in Aquinas and others in West, but also among Indigenous people. The Navajo people, for example, in the south-west of the United States, have many prayers around beauty. One prayer goes like this: ‘I walk with beauty above me. I walk with beauty below me. I walk with beauty all around me. Your world is so beautiful oh God.’

“So how did we lose this understanding of God as beauty? The Enlightenment killed it.”

Aquinas, he says, believed the universe is God’s house, and quoting the psalmist, “They shall be drunk with the beauty of thy house”, that we are here “to get drunk on its beauty”. “This is the via positiva, the way of coming to know God through the joy, wonder and awe of living in the universe.”

Dr Fox adds: “We should be falling in love three times each day with the beauty of the world.”

Aquinas believed the universe exists because of joy, Dr Fox says. “He said ‘sheer joy is God’s and this demands companionship’... One of Aquinas’s favourite names for God is artist. He said God is ‘the artist of artists’ and that artists love what they make.

“Joy, Aquinas says, is a response to goodness, and there’s goodness everywhere, as Genesis chapter one makes clear. And to see the world in terms of goodness is to choose joy – even though there’s struggle in life and plenty of suffering at this hard time in our planet’s history. But Aquinas said the good outweighs the bad and the beauty outweighs the suffering. That’s why we have to be hunter-gatherers for goodness and for the joy that reverberates from that.”

Aquinas even goes so far as to say that “joy is the human’s noblest act”, Dr Fox says, and that even martyrdom does not negate that. “Even being persecuted has a joy to it insofar as you are in love with justice, and you recognise that you have to pay a price to take a stand for justice, but that doesn’t diminish the joy.

“A martyr of our time, Sr Dorothy Stang, a former student of mine, was a missionary in the Amazon for 42 years before she was murdered by plantation owners for defending the forest and its Indigenous inhabitants. She was a student in my program in California but chose to return to the Amazon knowing she was a target. Despite being urged not to go back she insisted because she said ‘we must defend the forest. Without the forest there is no future.’ I was told that when she returned she would often dance in the forest and swim naked in the river. Despite knowing she was fighting a very dangerous battle, she was an eminently joyful person. So the suffering does not wipe out joy. Joy is bigger than suffering. Aquinas said joy expands the heart. There’s a direct link between joy and the vocation of the prophets, persecuted for justice’s sake. Indeed, the Beatitudes themselves are all about joy.”

Joy is also part of compassion, Dr Fox says. “Aquinas said that ‘Compassion is the fire that Jesus came to set on the earth.’ It’s fire, he says, because it requires energy, courage and moral outrage. “All the prophets were angry. Gandhi was angry. King was angry.” But their genius, Dr Fox says, was to take their anger and ‘lasso’ the anger of others, and convert into a non-violent movement, “to turn it into love”.

You can watch the full interview, “Joy and beauty at the heart of life”, on Roland Ashby’s blog Living Water, here.

Roland Ashby is the former editor of TMA and now edits the blog