November 26, 2005

Thomas the Day Dreamer (Part 1)

G. K. Chesterton was an excellent writer, and this is very apparent in his book on Thomas Aquinas, aka "The Dumb Ox". I love the way Chesterton describes Thomas as one who was sometimes "absent-minded" and a "day dreamer." I suppose the following quote stands out to me because I tend to day dream when I am around family members during the holidays. Our holiday practices seem to be like modern shells devoid of their pre-modern substance. We go through the motions and externals without thinking about the significance of what we are doing, or about the transcendent origins of the truths contained in the traditions.

Since no one in my immediate family is a Christian, it is normal for the conversations to be largely trivial and uninteresting. You might call the conversations "small talk." I understand how some may interpret my descriptions as being condescending, but they are not. They are capable of understanding anything that I can, but they don't want to.

Most people, particularly in my culture and family context, engage in small talk to avoid potentially painful thinking (topics that would trouble their conscience), or thinking that may disrupt "peaceful" relationships. It seems as if conversations are deliberately kept at a superficial level so that everyone can just get along and not be troubled by ultimate questions. Occasionally I try to tactfully introduce topics concerning ideas, but usually things quickly return to a focus on people, events and other trivialities as we mindlessly sit in front of the television. So, for the most part, I find myself going through the motions of our cultural activities while day dreaming about ideas. I tend to be absent-minded in this regard. Chesterton's descriptions of Thomas have helped me to understand a little bit about myself.

Here is an excerpt from Chesterton's book that I think is outstanding:
The pictures of St. Thomas, though many of them painted long after his death, are all obviously pictures of the same man. He rears himself defiantly, with the Napoleonic head and the dark bulk of body, in Raphael's "Dispute About the Sacrament." A portrait by Ghirlandajo emphasises a point which specially reveals what may be called the neglected Italian quality in the man. It also emphasises points that are very important in the mystic and the philosopher. It is universally attested that Aquinas was what is commonly called an absent-minded man. That type has often been rendered in painting, humorous or serious; but almost always in one of two or three conventional ways. Sometimes the expression of the eyes is merely vacant, as if absent-mindedness did really mean a permanent absence of mind. Sometimes it is rendered more respectfully as a wistful expression, as of one yearning for something afar off, that he cannot see and can only faintly desire. Look at the eyes in Ghirlandajo's portrait of St. Thomas; and you will see a sharp difference. While the eyes are indeed completely torn away from the immediate surroundings, so that the pot of flowers above the philosopher's head might fall on it without attracting his attention, they are not in the least wistful, let alone vacant. There is kindled in them a fire of instant inner excitement; they are vivid and very Italian eyes. The man is thinking about something; and something that has reached a crisis; not about nothing or about anything; or, what is almost worse, about everything. There must have been that smouldering vigilance in his eyes, the moment before he smote the table and startled the banquet all of the King.

Of the personal habits that go with the personal physique, we have also a few convincing and confirming impressions. When he was not sitting still, reading a book, he walked round and round the cloisters and walked fast and even furiously, a very characteristic action of men who fight their battles in the mind. Whenever he was interrupted, he was very polite and more apologetic than the apologizer. But there was that about him, which suggested that he was rather happier when he was not interrupted. He was ready to stop his truly Peripatetic tramp: but we feel that when he resumed it, he walked all the faster.

All this suggests that his superficial abstraction, that which the world saw, was of a certain kind. It will be well to understand the quality, for there are several kinds of absence of mind, including that of some pretentious poets and intellectuals, in whom the mind has never been noticeably present. There is the abstraction of the contemplative, whether he is the true sort of Christian contemplative, who is contemplating Something, or the wrong sort of Oriental contemplative, who is contemplating Nothing. Obviously St. Thomas was not a Buddhist mystic; but I do not think his fits of abstraction were even those of a Christian mystic. If he has trances of true mysticism, he took jolly good care that they should not occur at other people's dinner-tables. I think he had the sort of bemused fit, which really belongs to the practical man rather than the entirely mystical man. He uses the recognized distinction between the active life and the contempletive life, but in the cases concerned here, I think even his contemplative life was an active life. It had nothing to do with his higher life, in the sense of ultimate sanctity. It rather reminds us that Napoleon would fall into a fit of apparent boredom at the Opera, and afterwards confess that he was thinking how he could get three army corps at Frankfurt to combine with two army corps at Cologne. So, in the case of Aquinas, if his daydreams were dreams, they were dreams of day; and dreams of the day of battle. If he talked to himself, it was because he was arguing with somebody else. We can put it another way, by saying that his daydreams, like the dreams of a dog, were dreams of hunting; of pursuing the error as well as pursuing the truth; of following all the twists and turns of evasive falsehood, and tracking it at last to its lair in hell. He would have been the first to admit that the erroneous thinker would probably be more surprised to learn where his thought came from, than anybody else to discover where it went to. But this notion of pursuing he certainly had, and it was the beginning of a thousand mistakes and misunderstandings that pursuing is called in Latin Persecution. Nobody had less than he had of what is commonly called the temper of a persecutor; but he had the quality which in desperate times is often driven to persecute; and that is simply the sense that everything lives somewhere, and nothing dies unless it dies in its own home. That he did sometimes, in this sense, "urge in dreams the shadowy chase" even in broad daylight, is quite true. But he was an active dreamer, if not what is commonly called a man of action; and in that chase he was truly to be counted among the domini canes; and surely the mightiest and most magnanimous of the Hounds of Heaven.
G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas "The Dumb Ox" (New York: Doubleday, 1956), 98–101.

See also Thomas the Day Dreamer (Part 2)


Laura said...

Your experiences sound very familiar. The only difference is that my immediate family (a younger sister, both parents) are, um, moderately anti-intellectual Christians. I think it's more apathy or uncertainty than active disdain of learning, though.

A question: when you say, "They are capable of understanding anything that I can, but they don't want to," do you mean ideas in general, or about religion and theology? I've been meditating on 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 for a while, and I've understood "spiritual things" to mean the gospel and all subsidiary doctrine that could be tinged by that same evangelical offensiveness. "The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned..." I guess I want to make sure that I'm rightly interpreting what it is that is spiritually discerned.

Tony Byrne said...

Hi Laura,

To answer your question, I think I had both in mind. I believe they can intellectually grasp any ideas, whether theological or in general, that I can. I don't mean to imply that they can discern the spiritual significance of the truths (something of the relational dimension - knowing God through truth), but only that they can understand the information and assent to it as true.

Lately, I have been meditating on the issue of the heart in the knowing process. Don't get me wrong. I am not making the usual dichotomy between head and heart that goes with pietism, as if we need to go with our intuitions and feelings as over against rational judgement. Rather, I believe the order of our affections impact what we want to learn. It's usually not difficult to know something or someone we love and make a priority. Just as Jacob persevered 7 more years to get Rachel, so the lover of God endures to get the knowledge of the fear of the Lord. Our affections impact our priorities, and our priorities determine what we select to ultimately know or despise. This subject is what I have been reflecting on lately.

Even though mankind is fallen, the image of God in man is not obliterated. This truth is evident in the Genesis description of the Noahic covenant (Don't murder, for man is still the image bearer of God, even though he's fallen). Fallen humans still have the capacity to think, to will and to know (they are so constituted by God), even though all of their faculties are polluted by sin (thus giving them a moral inability). This sinful pollution touches the affections and priorities. Human beings dead in sin do not want to know God because they do not love God. Lovers of God have eternal life, and this quality of life is not less than desiring to know the one true God.

Unbelievers, so to speak, don't have a heart to know God (right affections toward him), even though they have a mind to grasp various theological propositions. When I was talking about my relatives, I am faulting their affections and perverted priorites (idolatry), not their mental capacity to know things. I think you will find the same kind of criticism in Paul's comments to the Corinthians. While he admits their inability to grasp the spiritual significance of things, he condemns their spiritual blindness because he knows they love other things rather than God. I am inclined to think that Paul is referring to a moral inability rather than to a constitutional inability. He says that they consider gospel truths to be foolish. They grasped some of the gospel propositions, but it did not make sense to their autonomous and carnal worldview. They had a mind to know God and things, but their hearts are repelled from being attracted to ultimate truth, much like magnets repel one another if not properly matched.

I hope that clarifies my point. Just as you have appreciated recent challenges to think through the issues of anti-intellectualism and rationalism, so I appreciate you challenging me to think about the unbelievers capacity to know. If your interested in a good sermon on the Corinthian passage, be sure to check out Dr. S. Lewis Johnson's sermons here:

1st Corinthians

Laura said...

Thanks very much for the thoughtful response. From one's meditations to another's...and I may just check out that sermon.