Thomas Aquinas in China


Thomas Aquinas’s commitment to the importance of reason and its universal role in defining what it means to be human makes him an attractive thinker for contemporary Chinese scholars.

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The number, depth, and rapidity of changes in Chinese society over the last decade may obscure an unusual change within the academy: a markedly increased interest in the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

Although it may seem strange to many in the West, contemporary Chinese scholars find Thomas’s thought not simply fascinating, but of enduring relevance. I have just spent one month at four Chinese universities, speaking of the ways in which Thomas’s understanding of the relationship among philosophy, theology, and the natural sciences can be used to disentangle contemporary confusion about the philosophical and theological implications of evolutionary biology and cosmology. In Shanghai, Beijing, and Wuhan, I found receptive, enthusiastic audiences.

Most Chinese graduate students who study Western philosophy specialize in either German philosophy, with an emphasis on Kant or Hegel, or in some form of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, especially the philosophy of mind. Still, I encountered those who were learning Greek and Latin in order to read Aristotle and Aquinas in their original languages. One evening in Beijing, I discussed passages in Aristotle’s Physics with students who were taking a graduate seminar on Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘On the Soul.’ One student from Fudan University in Shanghai wants to compare the ways in which certain Chinese thinkers search for metaphysical foundations of ethics with the way in which Thomas Aquinas does; another in Wuhan is examining the different senses of “science” in Thomas’s works. The number of those studying Thomas may be small, but, as Aristotle observed, a beginning is more than half.

Wuhan’s Thomas Study Center

At the University of Wuhan, I spoke at a three-day conference dedicated to Thomas Aquinas and medieval philosophy. The conference was jointly sponsored by the Thomas Study Center in the Department of Religious Science in the School of Philosophy of the University of Wuhan, Fu Jen Catholic University of Taiwan, and the Li Madou Center in Italy. That there is a Thomas Study Center at a major Chinese university, and that it has been in existence for nearly two decades, may itself be surprising to many.

At the Wuhan conference, there were twenty-four presentations: seven by scholars from the West and seventeen by Chinese scholars. Although those of us from the West emphasized philosophical issues, there were Chinese contributions on the imago Dei, the doctrine of the Trinity, and theological application of Thomas’s theory of language. As might be expected, there was an especially strong interest in Thomas’s moral philosophy and theology, since the study of ethics continues to be of prime importance in Chinese philosophy. Several speakers, both from China and the West, offered analyses of Thomas’s understanding of the relationship among the classical philosophical virtues and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. All but one of the Chinese speakers gave their presentations in Chinese, a sign of the penetration of Thomistic thought into contemporary Chinese academic culture.

Although the international conference was a first, the Thomas Study Center at Wuhan has sponsored a Chinese translation of Thomas’s initial metaphysical work, On Being and Essence, and has recently completed a translation of the Summa Theologiae. These translations complement those produced in Taiwan and Beijing. In many ways, Wuhan has become a center for the study of Thomas Aquinas in mainland China. But the work in Wuhan is supplemented by programs in Western philosophy and religions at Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Shandong University, as well as programs in Hong Kong. There are individual scholars at other Chinese universities, such as Fudan University and Shanghai Normal University, who are making important contributions to the study of Thomas.

Jesuits in China

The Li Madou Center in Italy, one of the organizers of the conference, uses the Chinese name of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the great Jesuit missionary in China who, along with his fellow Jesuits, made important contributions to cultural exchange between China and Western Europe. In a way, the Jesuits in the seventeenth century were the first to introduce the thought of Thomas in China, both implicitly and explicitly.

In 1603, Ricci published in Chinese an extensive catechism, The True Significance of theLord of the Heaven” (Tianzhu Shiyi). The book takes the form of a dialogue between a Christian scholar and a Chinese scholar; throughout, Ricci exhibits a Thomistic approach to theology, as the Christian scholar responds to questions from his Chinese counterpart. Another seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary to China, Lodovico Buglio, translated into Chinese substantial portions of the Summa Theologiae.

The Jesuits were convinced that Chinese culture, especially in its Confucian foundations, offered a sophisticated, rational account of ethics and provided a kind of natural theology that Christian faith could build upon. Unfortunately, Jesuit activity in China was relatively short-lived, as the Jesuits first lost the intellectual battle within the Catholic Church over the question of accommodations to Chinese culture (the famous Rites Controversy) and then were suppressed as a religious order by papal decree in 1773. By the time of the restoration of the Jesuits in the nineteenth century, their role in China was in the past.

Thomas Aquinas, Classical Culture, and China

There is a parallel to be drawn between the Jesuits in China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and current Chinese interest in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Jesuits came to China as missionaries, hoping to spread the Gospel of Christ and to seek converts among those whom they met. In the process, they came to a profound respect for Chinese culture and sought to accommodate that culture to the truths of Christianity—and vice versa. This involved an intellectual engagement, not simply the taking on of certain Chinese customs (e.g., worship of ancestors) and the traditional dress of the mandarins.

In thirteenth-century Europe, Thomas Aquinas “traveled,” as it were, to ancient Greece and Rome in his search for wisdom. He was, first of all, a theologian. But as he sought to understand better what he believed, Thomas was always keen to examine the best of what had been thought about nature, human nature, and God.

Thomas discovered rich resources in the thought of Plato, Aristotle, and other authors of the ancient world. He looked as well to his near contemporaries in Islam (e.g., Avicenna and Averroes) and in Judaism (e.g., Maimonides). Thomas found especially in Aristotle a way to deepen his own understanding of the world and of God. One of his large works, the Summa Contra Gentiles, is an excellent example of the way he uses reason to engage those who do not share his faith. Throughout his theological works, Thomas often employs philosophical discourse to make and support his arguments. His extensive commentaries on many of the works of Aristotle indicate the value he found in ancient thought.

Thomas’s commitment to the importance of reason and its universal role in defining what it means to be human makes Thomas an attractive thinker for contemporary Chinese scholars. They can see in his celebration of rational discourse a fruitful opening for dialogue with those who come from radically different cultural traditions. In various works, Thomas points out that reason alone can lead to certain fundamental truths about God. Furthermore, he thinks that reason can defend the mysteries of Christian faith, such as the Incarnation and the Trinity, from philosophical claims of their absurdity.

His extensive analysis of the relationship between reason and faith, philosophy (including the natural sciences) and theology, offers exciting prospects for those confused by claims about the incompatibility of faith and reason, or for those who mistakenly think that there is and has been “warfare” between science and religion.

Creation and Intercultural Dialogue

Although many of those at the Wuhan conference spoke about ethics, I spoke about creation and metaphysics. My initial premise was that all peoples at all times, in various ways, concern themselves with questions of origins and that the approach Thomas takes to questions about the ultimate origin of all that is remains of seminal importance.

Thomas’s analysis of creation—that is, of the act by which God causes all that is to be—is an excellent example of his understanding of the relationship between reason and faith. Thomas distinguishes between creation’s being understood philosophically, in the discipline of metaphysics, and its being understood theologically. From his earliest discussion of the topic (in the mid-1250s) to his final works, Thomas claims that “not only does faith hold that there is creation, but reason also demonstrates it.”

Thomas distinguishes the doctrine of creation from what might be called creation myths or stories: those accounts of the world’s origin and development found in traditions of the Ancient Near East and, by extension, of related accounts in the Americas (such as the Aztec and Incan), Africa, Asia (especially Chinese and Japanese), as well as the narrative in the opening of the Book of Genesis. Various “creation stories,” such as those in Genesis, may be a source for theological and philosophical reflection, but they remain distinct from theology and philosophy, properly speaking.

A Philosophical Account of Creation

The philosophical sense of creation, forged in the discipline of metaphysics, affirms that all that is, in whatever way or ways it is, depends completely upon God’s causal agency. Thomas thinks that, starting from the existence of things in this world, reason can lead us to the necessity of a Cause of the very existence of all things.

For Thomas, God’s creative act does not produce a change in and among things, or, as he often observes, creation is not a change. The natural sciences study change, and all change requires a prior something that changes. But, as he wrote: “Over and above the mode of becoming by which something comes to be through change or motion, there must be a mode of becoming or origin of things without any mutation or motion, through the influx of being” (On Separated Substances, c.9).

Thomas thinks that this philosophical understanding of creation prescinds from any question of the world’s temporality. Contrary to many in his own day and today, he thinks that an eternal, created universe is intelligible. Those contemporary cosmological theories that employ a multiverse hypothesis or an infinite series of big bangs do not challenge the fundamental feature of what it means to be created: the complete dependence upon God as cause of existence. An eternal universe would be no less dependent upon God than a universe which has a beginning of time. To be created out of nothing does not mean that a created universe must be temporally finite. Whether the world is eternal or temporally finite concerns the kind of world God creates, not whether or not the world is created.

On the basis of faith, Thomas believed that the universe had a temporal beginning. In fact, he believed much more: that creation is the act of the entire Trinity and that it is a manifestation of God’s love. His philosophical sense of creation, however, offers an understanding not necessarily connected to any particular religious tradition, an understanding that, in principle, is open to reason alone. Although the Christian theological sense of creation depends upon revelation and is only grasped fully within the context of faith, the theological sense incorporates and affirms the philosophical.

The philosophical account of creation that Thomas sets forth offers an especially fruitful venue for scholars in the East and the West to discover connections in thinking about the origin of the universe. Indeed, it can help them to recognize the value of ultimate metaphysical questions, if not of metaphysics itself. In this enterprise, we can find the resources to overcome various forms of scientism that needlessly limit our access to reality only to what the empirical sciences tell us.

However much human thinking is embedded in particular times, places, cultures, and languages, rational inquiry is able to rise above these particularities. Granted, we need to be very careful in drawing comparisons across cultures, religious traditions, languages, and historical epochs. Yet this does not mean that the task is, in principle, impossible. The principles Thomas sets forth for informed discourse about the relationship between reason and faith, and, in particular, about creation, are not limited to Paris in the thirteenth century. They can continue to be employed anywhere in the world today.

In preparation for the November meeting of the heads of nations of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), the Chinese government took extraordinary steps to reduce air pollution in Beijing. The result? Dramatically clearer and bluer skies in Beijing, which the Chinese press referred to as “APEC blue.” Similarly, the Chinese academic world is helping eliminate the fog of misperceptions that obscures the thought of Thomas Aquinas in both East and West. The meeting in Wuhan and the ongoing scholarly work of Chinese universities are helping to reveal the clarity and profundity of Thomas’s philosophy and theology: a real “Thomistic blue.”

William E. Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion of the University of Oxford.

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