God’s “dumb ox”

I wonder who would make the best patron saint for the Science and Faith column. The first candidate who springs to my mind is Thomas Aquinas (13th century). And I have several good reasons for this.

I like his instinctive refusal to accept establishment ideas lying down; his objective was the truth. While he was expected to become an abbot to swell his family’s coffers, he joined the Dominicans – an order taking a vow of poverty. He was even kidnapped by his relatives, but succeeding in escaping.

Both the Dominican and Fransiscan, mendicant orders, were very unpopular with a church which had become fat and comfortable in its position of power and profitable revenue. Not only was Thomas frequently attacked during his life, he was condemned after his death – although this was corrected before long.

Intellectually he was something of a rebel. Much of the philosophy and the theology of his time was NeoPlatonist. That is, it focussed on the ideals of mystical perfection, and regarded the world as very second rate. But Thomas was not afraid of taking a pagan philosopher, Aristotle, as his starting point. Much truth, he believed, could be learnt from studying the realities of this world, because it was a fundamentally rational example of God’s work. What we knew from Revelation would then deepen and complete the picture.

He welcomed the work of recent non Christian philosophers – Islamicists like Avicenna and Averroës, and the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides. Indeed he referred to Averroës simply as “The commentator” – because of his superb commentaries on Aristotle.

But I reserve my highest admiration for the methodology of his work. The scholastic approach was characterised by adversarial debate. You proceeded by pitching different points of view against each other, and seeing which view survived the test. Thomas developed this to its highest form. Typically he would start by presenting the very strongest arguments  against the position he held. And he had to do this genuinely, giving himself the least quarter. He would explain his points, giving full reasons. Finally, he would take the objections one by one and demonstrate their inadequacy.

But you can see what I mean by Googling Summa Theologica, and reading for yourself. It’s challenging and stimulating reading. Dip where you like.

In his early day, his teacher Albertus Magnus said: “We call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”

Finally, right at the end of his life, he reported that he had had a vision. He had been shown that everything he had written (over 8 million words) was so much straw. He was not told that his teaching was untrue – merely that it has fallen infinitely short of the full reality of truth.

On this blog we would not dare to compete with Aquinas, but we can share his readiness to question establishment positions, if that is where truth seems to lead. We do believe that good science leads us towards the wonder of God and not away. We are enthusiastic to look at contributions from any quarter – Catholic or otherwise. We are set up in such a way that objections and debate are strongly encouraged. And our friend Advocatus Diaboli is growling in the wings if he feels we aren’t being tough enough on ourselves. But withal, we acknowledge that however hard we try we shall always fall short of the truth that we seek

I wonder whether you agree that Thomas Aquinas is a good patron saint for us. And perhaps you have some sub patron saints to add. I look forward to your suggestions.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Quentin queries, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to God’s “dumb ox”

  1. peterdwilson says:

    Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas were my first thoughts too, but how about the Church’s first practical experimentalist, another Thomas, the Twin?

  2. JohnBunting says:

    I nominate Marin Mersenne, 1588-1648. A French monk of the Minim order, remembered for his work in music theory, in particular his formula for the frequency of vibration of strings, in terms of the string length, weight and tension; and in mathematics, especially for his theory of prime numbers.
    He maintained extensive correspondence with many eminent philosophers, theologians and scientists of the time, including Descartes and Galileo. If he was with us today, I’m sure he would be running a superb web-site.

  3. Superview says:

    Must it be a Saint? I think we need as a patron someone who has not been embraced by the establishment and who risked everything to speak his or her mind against evidently wrong reasoning or unforgivable abuses and corruption of the truth, even if, being human, he or she was sometimes imperfect themselves. Others with a better knowledge of Church history than I will surely have numerous candidates with these credentials, but what about Martin Luther for starters – or his namesake Martin Luther King?

  4. st.joseph says:

    Father Edwin Gordon. Author of Upon This Rock and The Catechism of the Holy Rosary. Also he has written extensively for the Homiletic Pastoral Review.,one of which is ‘A Return To St Thomas’.
    He begins by saying that ‘ Much of the theological uncertainty so prevalent today is the result of abandoning the basic principles of the philosophy of St Thomas. He wrote that in April 1979. He also says ‘By all means let us put before our students the conflicting idealogies of our time, but always after a thorough foundation in the perennial Philisophy and method of St Thomas.

    I havn’t dipped into the Summa Theologia yet as I have just read the blog, but a while ago I bought the Introduction the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas- John of St Thomas,
    Translation and Introduction by Ralph McInerny I found it a bit deep for my mind but will have another go on the Web! as Quinten suggests. Thank you Quentin

    I happened to hear the lecture on Radio 4 on Monday with Michael Rees ‘What we will never know’ and I found it very interesting, but it was only speculation, then I thought afterwards that as far as my brain was concerned it was not for me as interesting as it was and then what came into my mind was how far do we go before we ‘go too far’. I thought of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when God said to them ‘You can eat from all the trees in the garden except the Tree of Knowledge! I dont believe that He gave Adam a set of Rules only advice, as God gave him the intellect and Reason to enjoy and how to look after all the other bautiful things in the garden.See where that took us . Has anything changed!
    I associated that with mans need to find the truth about every thing that exists. In fact even to the extent to go beyond theirselves and become ‘God.
    I am saying we should not seek the Truth.

    In the 1960’s when the Abortion Act came into force, many pro-lifers would have been called ‘dumb ox’s’. but thank God light has been shown to more people now that it is an evil act- if one needs to find the truth-go to the http://www.priest for life, and it will be found there.
    On The Priest for Life Programme on E.W.T.N.a few months ago,a picture of a aborted baby during the abortion grabbing hold of the surgeons finger. Quite amazing.

    Early in 1960 when I was married for three months I went to the doctor as I was late with menstruation. The doctor said to me ‘You must be pregnant’ Oh no I said I have only been married three months(I thought it was maybe the change of air from London) The doctor said ‘well if you are not using contraceptives you will be pregnant. I quickly replied ‘Oh no I wouldnt do that I’m a Roman Catholic. How ”Dumb is that!

    I was pregnant! I am pleased to say I didn’t remain dumb but searched for the Truth and knew that God would not leave us wanting and thanks to Science Fertility Awareness became more proficient and is equal to any other method of Artificial contraception- with no side effects -free and no health risks.
    Thanks to revelation. But as I say that, When I was studying it in the early eighties an promoting it wherever I could- people used to say ‘how quaint’ living in the past-and was often thought of a a ‘Dumb Ox’ Thankfully things have changed now!

    I dont know what the moral of all this is if there is one only we must keep on searching for Truth within the Reason God gives us in as much as our capabilities He allows with His Grace.

    Maybe after reading Father Gordon’s article St Thomas would be a patron Saint for the Blog. However If I was to choose one who I believe is a Saint not cannonized, it would be Mother Angelica, who started The Eternal Word Television Station.
    What a wonderful acheivement she did with only I think 200 dollars in a garage I believe, and look at it now.
    Every subject made possible to see, everything that Catholics need to know about our Faith and others too. How many Souls has the programme converted? It is definitely the work of The Holy Spirit.Every thing one could ask for. Especially for the housebound
    I will throw in this one for good measure. Quentin would be a choice for Patron- as he puts all the effort into the first comments.I will throw another one for good measure and I hope he will not mind- but John Candido must be a ‘Saint ‘ for not losing his patience with me for harping on at him all the time! Sorry John!

  5. st.joseph says:

    Correction. I am ‘not ‘saying we should not seek the Truth

  6. tim says:

    If we are to have a patron saint for the blog, then I think the first requirement is to have a regularly canonised saint. I’m reminded of the old (well pre-Vatican II) story of the parents who wished their daughter to be baptised Hazel. Their parish priest was not impressed: “What! Three hundred and sixty-five glorious saints in the calendar and you want to call the child after a nut?”.

    I vote for St Thomas.

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