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Course: Thomas Aquinas

It is difficult to think of a theologian who has had more of an influence on the trajectory of Christian thought in the western churches than Thomas Aquinas. By taking Denys Turner as a guide, this course explores Thomas's theology in all its stunning complexity. We begin with two of Thomas's forebears—Augustine and the Pseudo-Dionysius—whose accounts of desire and of God's mystery constitute the spiritual engine of Thomas's theology. The course then treats Thomas's account of the human being, of God, of grace, and of Christ, paying particular attention to Thomas's materialism (following Turner). We conclude with a discussion of what is arguably the climax of Thomas's theology: his doctrine of the Eucharist. 

 

Class One: Augustine and the Restless Heart

Reading: Augustine, Sermon 34, in The Works of Saint Augustine, trans. Edmund Hill, vol. III/2.

Class Summary 

 

We begin by exploring St. Augustine's theology of the cor inquietum (or 'restless heart'), paradigmatically summed up in that famous phrase from his Confessions: "our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee."

 

 

Class Two: Dionysius and Apophatic Theology

Reading: Dionysius the Areopagite, The Mystical Theology, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (Classics in Western Spirituality).

Class Summary 

 

How is it that we talk about God when God is beyond all our talk? The stunning work of the Pseudo-Dionysius has been a touchstone for this conversation for centuries. In this class, we take a look at his Mystical Theology and discuss so-called 'apophatic' and 'cataphatic' strategies of speech regarding the God whom Dionysius describes there as "the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence."

 

 

Class Three: Introducing Thomas

Reading: Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, Chapter One: A Dominican

Class Summary / Video Recording

 

One of the great benefits of Turner's book is the way it shows Thomas's life and theology to be of a piece with one another. The whole of Thomas's theology is colored by his identity as a Dominican, a group of itinerant preachers devoted to the poor Christ, and his Summa Theologiae was arguably conceived of as a syllabus for their training. More, the apophatic silence whose strategies Thomas had learned from the Pseudo-Dionysius find not only pride of place in his thought but also profound manifestation in his own life, in the stunning silence that crowns the end of his life and career.

 

 

Class Four: Thomas on Anthropology and Matter

Reading: Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, Chapter Two: A Materialist

Class Summary / Video Recording

 

One of the hallmarks of Thomas's theology, Turner argues, is its consistent materialism: not a crude materialism which insists that nothing but the world is the case but, rather, an insistence on the meaning-bearing capacities of the material world. In this class, we introduce the Aristotelean underpinnings of this materialism, as well as its ramifications on his account of the human person: body and soul.

 

 

Class Five: Thomas on the Doctrine of Analogy

Reading: Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, Chapter Two: A Materialist

Class Summary / Video Recording

 

One of Thomas's greatest achievements was his clarification of how theological language works. In speaking of God, he argues, we use words that are regularly utilized to describe parts of creation (such as 'good' or 'wise') to describe God analogically: according to a relationship of similarity within dissimilarity (as in "my love is like a rose," for example). All of Thomas's talk about God, then, is shot through with apophatic silence.

 

 

Class Six: Thomas on the Body, the Soul, and the Resurrection

Reading: Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, Chapter Three: The Soul

Class Summary / Video Recordings (1) (2)

 

Returning to Thomas's account of the relationship between the body and the soul and to his profound theological materialism, in this class we take a closer look at how these positions shape his account of the resurrection of the dead. In comparison to many of his contemporaries, Thomas's account arguably restores the emphasis on the resurrection characteristic of New Testament depictions of the 'life of the world to come.'

 

 

Class Seven: Thomas on the Doctrines of God and of the Trinity

Reading: Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, Chapter Four: God

Class Summary / Video Recording

 

Much modern confusion is born of a profound misunderstanding regarding what theologians mean by 'God,' supposing that by 'God' we mean one more being in the catalogue of beings within the universe, rather than (as Thomas would have it) that without which there would be nothing at all. In this class, we take a look at Thomas's doctrines of God and of the Trinity, as well as their implications for a doctrine of creation.

 

 

Class Eight: Thomas on Friendship and the Doctrine of Grace

Reading: Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, Chapter Five: Friendship and Grace

Class Summary / Video Recording

 

For Thomas, 'grace' is more than just the forgiveness of sins; it is the means by which we come to share in God's own life, elevating us up to God's own level, as it were, such that we can become friends with God. In this class, we take a look at Thomas's understanding of the friendship-love which he believes God intends to realize between Godself and human beings, as well as his account of grace and human free will.

 

 

Class Nine: Thomas on Grace, Prayer, and Moral Theology

Reading: Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, Chapter Six: Grace, Desire and Prayer

Class Summary / Video Recordings (1) (2)

 

For Thomas, living a moral life is less about following a list of rules than about living a life of virtue that realizes our flourishing as human creatures. In other words, it is about living a life of deep, true happiness. The problem is that we humans are befuddled as to what it is that will make us truly happy, and our wills are bewitched by objects of desire that will not satisfy us. Given that 'the good life' is, in this sense, about getting what we want, moral re-formation is about learning anew what it is that we really want, what will really make us happy—and prayer, for Thomas, is a potent technology for such discovery.

 

 

Class Ten: Thomas on Christ

Reading: Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, Chapter Seven: Christ

Video Recording

 

Thomas's Christology brings together so many strands of his thought: his understanding of the relationship between God and creation, his understanding of the moral life as about becoming a fully flourishing human being, and his understanding of grace as uniting us with God and bringing our wills into alignment with the divine will. Jesus is the portrait of the fully human human being, revealing one of the paradoxes animating Thomas's theology: being fully human means being more than merely human. In this class, we look at the larger context of Thomas's reflections on Christology, focusing on his answer to the question of why God became human.

 

 

Class Eleven: Thomas on the Eucharist and Eschatology

Reading: Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, Chapter Eight: The Eucharist and Eschatology

Video Recording

 

For Turner, the climax and pinnacle of Thomas's theology is his doctrine of the Eucharist, which Thomas understands to be God's transformation of ordinary objects of everyday life—bread and wine—such that they are now the bread of life and cup of salvation, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In the Eucharist we find the culmination of Thomas's materialism: here, above all else, is matter alive with meaning, is matter articulate.

 

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