Years ago, as I wrestled with weighty philosophical problems, I studied St. Thomas Aquinas’ magisterial Summa Theologica. It’s an extraordinary effort to understand everything. I’m not a Catholic, nor am I religious in any ordinary sense of the term, although I happily regard myself as a mystic in rationalistic clothing. Still, I love Aquinas, I love his style of thinking. He’s so expansive and fair-minded and non-combative. He proceeds by means of objections and rebuttals, and by engaging points of view that threaten his position and belief. I suspect that he’d have very little patience for ideaologues and sectarians. According to one source, Aquinas was born some time between the end of 1224 and the beginning of 1225. I can think of no better tribute to Aquinas on this day, so close to his birthday, than to adopt his form of exposition and state an argument as clearly as possible.
Article 1. Whether theology is intellectually bankrupt.
We proceed thus to the First Article: It seems that theology is not intellectually bankrupt.
Objection 1. A science has intellectual content when its subject matter can be clearly defined and treated through rational inquiry, through logic, reasoning, and empirical observation. The subject matter of theology is God and His effects, and can be treated through rational inquiry. Therefore, theology is a science with intellectual content.
Objection 2. Further, a science has intellectual content if it enables us to make surprising insights into other domains of knowledge. Theology allows us to make surprising insights into cosmology, biology, and especially human morality. Therefore, theology has intellectual content.
On the contrary, the subject matter of theology is poorly defined. For we don’t know if God exists, whether He’s part of the world or beyond it, whether He’s matter or spirit, whether He’s personal or impersonal, or whether He’s simple or complex.
I answer that, sciences have different subject matters. Geometry has the nature of shape and figure as its subject matter; logic, the formal rules of thought; physics, matter, energy, and time; history, past actions of people in society. While all sciences aim at truth, they don’t have the same degree of certainty. As The Philosopher says, we must be content with the “degree of exactness that fits the subject matter in each area and is proper to the investigation.” Geometry is more precise than physics, which is more precise than history, psychology, or philosophy. Yet all sciences attempt to explain features of reality. Theology professes to be a science about God and His effects. But the subject matter of theology is so poorly defined that it’s not amenable to rational inquiry. Further, there is no impartial method for resolving disputes about purported matters of fact (God is a trinity vs. God is Yahweh, etc.). Indeed, not a single “theological” fact has ever been identified, let alone explained. Therefore, theology isn’t a science and doesn’t explain any features of reality whatsoever, including the nature and existence of God, the origin of the world, the purpose of humanity, or the nature of good and evil. At best, theology is a possible science, emphasis on possible.
Reply Obj. 1. Sciences have a well-defined subject matter and explain features of reality through rational inquiry. But theology’s subject matter is poorly defined, as already noted. Therefore, theology isn’t a science and doesn’t expand our knowledge of the world.
Reply Obj. 2. Because theology isn’t a science, it doesn’t allow us to make surprising insights into other domains of knowledge, including cosmology, biology, or even human morality. God-concepts lack percepts, to invoke Kant. That’s why rational inquiry passes over them in silence, assuming a spirit of politeness prevails.