Religion meets philosophy in study of old text

By Daniel Silliman


The differences were both more and less than the professor expected.

Alexander Hall, a professor at Clayton State University, found that the 13th Century religious writings of Thomas Aquinas -- the famous philosopher -- were written in exactly the same style as his more well known philosophical texts, but he said he could also see Aquinas' spiritual side showing through.

"His Christianity comes out," Hall said. "He starts talking about faith, hope and love ... but it reads just the same as his philosophical work."

Hall has translated Aquinas' commentary on Psalm 32, a little studied text, written in Latin, which wasn't available in English. The translation will soon be published online, as part of a cooperative project putting more of the famous thinker's works, including his Bible commentaries, into readable and publicly available formats.

Hall is an expert in the European philosophy of the middle ages, having written books and encyclopedia entries on Aquinas. With the translation work, though, he returned to one of his original reasons for studying the old Latin writings.

"At the point in my life when I went into philosophy, I always wanted to engage the religious side of things," said Hall. "And if you want to do religion, working with saints is a good way to go."

Aquinas was a Dominican monk, who lived during the 1200s. As a philosopher, he's famous for coming up with arguments for the existence of God and for promoting the ancient, non-Christian philosopher, Aristotle, in the Western world. He's been declared a Roman Catholic saint and the official philosopher of the church.

Hall isn't a Catholic, he said, but he's interested in the way Aquinas thought, and in the way his philosophical side was connected to his religious thoughts.

"He thought that philosophy could acquire certain truths about the world we live in, and when he was thinking as a philosopher, he would set aside the Bible ... but you can always kind of see the Dominican at work, in some ways," the professor explained.

The juncture between philosophy and religion, like the points of contact Hall saw in the Psalm, are an important part of understanding the philosopher.

According to Hall, Aquinas advanced scientific and empirical thinking in the Christian world, showing how non-religious reasoning supported Christian doctrine. While some of the medieval thinkers were trying to say philosophy was opposed to God and heaven, Aquinas demonstrated the two types of thinking worked together.

Aquinas has continued in a mediating role in recent history, as 20th Century Catholics used his writings to argue for a rational basis for the Christian faith.

"Aquinas was being studied as a way to enter into dialogue," Hall said. "Students are surprised a medieval thinker had such an organized approach to things. They often find themselves attracted to such a clear exposition, and they're very attracted because they've never studied their religion in such a systematic way."

On the web: www4.desales.edu/~philtheo/loughlin/ATP/