Thomas Aquinas and 'Teaching Bodies'

July 24, 2017
Mark Jordan
HDS professor Mark D. Jordan / Photo: Justin Knight

In 2016, the Harvard Crimson named HDS’s Mark Jordan one of the top 15 professors at Harvard University. Holding professorships at both the Divinity School and at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Jordan examines the intersection between Christianity, European philosophy, and gender studies.

For over two decades, his work has paved the way for new conversations about sexuality and marriage within a Christian framework, particularly focusing on queer theology and sexual ethics. He has a strong background in medieval theology, and he joins these two interests together in his most recent book, Teaching Bodies: Moral Formation in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas (Fordham, 2016).

HDS student Randy Rosenthal met Jordan in his office on the HDS campus to discuss this book and his relationship with reading the Summa over decades.

Randy Rosenthal: In Teaching Bodies, you read Summa Theologica backwards, starting with the end instead of the beginning. What benefit do you find from reading it in reverse order?

Mark Jordan: Part of reading it in reverse is my sense that it’s a book that has a long narrative arc that few readers appreciate because few reach the end. It’s such a big book, but modern curricula require that we teach it in such little snippets. So no one ever gets to follow the story through. Part of what I’m doing is suggesting, “Let’s jump to the end of the story and then look back from the end to see how it reveals the shape of the rest of the book.”

Another reason for reading Summa backwards has to do with a long fight about the structure of the Summa. It was fueled by the perception that Aquinas talks about Christ only in the third part. People have asked: “How can you write Christian theology and have Christ appear only at the end?” I don’t think that the characterization is true. So, another thing that I want to do is to say, “Let’s look at the part devoted to Christ, and then we can turn around and look over our shoulders and notice how Christ has actually been present in the book all along. It’s just that we didn’t know where to look for him.” Christ has been present all along in a principle of incarnation, of the importance of bodies, of how bodies are used by God for teaching.

RR: You mention there’s a narrative arc to the Summa. What is that arc?

MJ: One narrative arc is the arc of the Christian creed, which is basically the arc of human history from the Christian point of view. All of the great creeds start with creation and end with the final transformation of the world. They tell the story of the history of the world, in the middle of which stands the incarnation of Christ. The basic narrative arc that Aquinas uses in the Summa is the pattern of a creed.

The other narrative arc is the story about the human loss of our ability to learn. It is the story of sin understood as the progressive loss of the capacity to hear what God is saying. In response to this loss, God uses more and more vivid means of teaching, until God gets to the point of actually coming down in flesh. Because that’s what it takes to get our attention.

RR: Can you elaborate on this idea of teaching through bodies?

MJ: One of Aquinas’s basic convictions about human beings is that we are distinguished as intelligences created in bodies. There are other intelligences that don’t have bodies—angels, he would say—and there are other bodies that don’t have intelligence—like animals, he would say. Our unique position is we’re an intelligence made to be in a body. That implies for him that we learn through our bodies. We’re not just minds carried around on bodies like apples on sticks. We’re minds down in bodies that use bodies to learn and to communicate and to love. Aquinas’s guiding insight in the Summa is that God comes down to direct his teaching at us in exactly the way we need, appearing as a body among bodies.

That’s how we can learn best how to love the divine.

RR: How does God embodying himself as Christ help us learn as bodies? His experience is not our experience.

MJ: God appears as a human teacher among us. So, we learn from Jesus in all the ways we would learn from a skillful human teacher. Because this human teacher tells hard truths, he is executed. We then also learn from his innocence. It takes the gruesome spectacle of this innocent teacher suffering to get our attention, to move our hearts, which have become cynical and stony.

In the remembered stories about Jesus, we’ve got all the ordinary ways of learning through human language and the others means by which a teacher teaches— Aquinas considers Jesus a very good human teacher, one who really knows how to teach. But we also learn through the spectacle of suffering, which teaches us how much this teacher loves us. We learn that God is willing to inhabit this suffering human body in order to reach us.

RR: You’re saying we learn through suffering, which I agree with. But how will we learn that God loves us through suffering? When we’re suffering, it seems like God hates us.

MJ: We learn by watching Jesus’s suffering what God is willing to do for us. We also learn in our own suffering as we become aware of God’s reaching out tenderly towards us. God joins us in suffering, reaches out to us in suffering—and not only by example. Just here, Aquinas is marvelously free from modern notions about the separation of mind from passions or the intellect from the body. In Aquinas, passions and mind operate in complex interrelation. Aquinas doesn’t endorse any of the strong dualisms that oppose learning to feeling.

RR: Speaking of dualisms, your book is subtitled “Moral Formation in the Summa.” What is Aquinas’s moral teaching? What is his view of morality, particularly his view of sexuality?

MJ: I had written elsewhere, almost 20 years ago now, about Aquinas’s teachings on sexuality, especially in relation to texts before and after him. He does say harsh things in some places about sexuality, and I think you can show that they’re really not consonant with the deepest parts of his ethical thinking. Much more important, morality is not for him a set of rules. It’s not articulated as a code of propositions. It’s not universal dictates of reason. Morality is our being created to be happy in a certain way. We’re created to be happy by being with God.         

The task of Christian moral teaching is to remove the obstacles that prevent you from going home. Morality is the path back to God. This is the image that Aquinas uses over and over again, the image of the way or the path, that returns to the divine. He is completely unashamed to say that the point of morality is to move you along the way to happiness. 

For him, it makes no sense to say that ethical teaching is supposed to be entirely apart from happiness, that it is abstract duty or whatever—no, it’s about how to be happy. It’s about being the kind of creature you’re meant to be. Within that greater movement of his teaching, there are all kinds of elements that modern readers find distressing or wrong or even hurtful. I often agree with those objections, but then I want to say: “Look at the larger pattern that Aquinas is tracing. Because the larger pattern is actually a life-giving notion of what religious morality can be—not a series of prohibitions, but a series of helps.”

RR: Toward the end of the book you have this idea of moral reading as moral shaping, as in, the very act of reading this book is supposed to transform you. Can you talk more about this idea of what moral reading is, and how that leads to moral shaping over time? How does the reading itself relate to moral shaping?

MJ: That’s the question. How can the reading of the Summa shape you morally? That’s the central question of my book. I make it too easy for myself if I assume, for example, that becoming a scholarly expert on a work of ethics makes me ethical. If only! No, it’s got to be a much subtler connection.

Aquinas assumes, first, that you’re reading his book in community. He wrote it for very particular communities, starting with his own religious community of Dominican Friars as a kind of model. More generally, he hoped that people would be reading the Summa not so much in university classrooms as in Christian communities, where people were trying to live the Christian life deliberately, where they would have the helps of the Christian sacraments and the liturgy and of confession and mutual correction. So, Aquinas envisions readers in a rich, lived context of moral formation.

Within that sort of context, what reading the Summa or any similar book can do is to teach you the right language for describing what’s happening to you. From page to page, topic to topic, he offers a string of suggestions: “It’s more helpful if you speak about it this way, not that way.” Or, “Look, there are five ways of describing this. Of these five ways, probably these two are the most helpful for you.” So, the book itself invites you to articulate what is happening in your transformation.

RR: Regarding transformation, how has your reading of and your relationship with the Summa changed over decades?

MJ: Aquinas is a religious author who’s been immensely influential over many centuries for members of some of the largest religious communities. So, there is not only an enormous body of scholarship about him, there are high stakes in interpreting him.          

Aquinas remains one of the authorities to reckon with in Roman Catholicism, and because of the importance of Roman Catholicism in Christian-majority countries, he’s simply one of the authorities to reckon with in intellectual life, more generally. For me, as for anyone learning how to read Aquinas, my early decades as a reader were spent trying to master a technical body of writing that had been subjected to seven centuries of even more technical commentary. Imagine learning Christian Talmud.

One of the things that has changed with time is that I actually succeeded over 30 or 45 years in learning something about Aquinas—not everything, of course. No one can do that! There are 1,200 or 1,500 new scholarly pieces published on Aquinas every year. Still, with some portions of Aquinas, I got to know the commentary tradition tolerably well. That freed me for engaging the text on its own. Decades of apprenticeship to the commentary freed me from the commentary. So, that’s one thing that’s changed.

My motives for reading also changed. Like many young scholars starting off, I wanted to be right. I wanted to discover and possess the one true reading of Thomas Aquinas so that I could vanquish all other readers. I’m ashamed to say that it took me 20 or 30 years to undo the worst of these intellectual vices. Now, I actually don’t want to vanquish other readers. I want to offer my reading alongside theirs. I don’t want to be the expert on Aquinas. I only want to be most faithful reader of Aquinas that I can be.

I have also come to appreciate that being a faithful reader means disagreeing with Aquinas. I can read him well, I can care for his teaching—which I still do—and yet not agree with him. On sexuality, say, I have concluded that Aquinas failed his own principles. And yet his error, on something that matters a lot to me, that has had painful consequences in my life, doesn’t mean that I have to discard him as a whole.

RR: And then how does that change you personally?

MJ: I’ve grown up intellectually in company with Aquinas, right? My differing relations to his text are correlated with different spiritual relations to Christianity as a whole.

I’m now much less obsessed with self-promoting “orthodoxy” than I used to be, much more willing to admit that there must be multiple versions of Christianity, some of which I recognize, some of which I don’t—it’s not my place to render judgment. My own relation to Christianity can be flexible, free-flowing, perhaps even technically sloppy—or so my younger self would have judged!

RR: Could you tell us about what you’re going to be doing on your sabbatical this coming year and what you want to be writing about? You briefly told me that you didn’t want to write academically and would see what happens. Can you share any other information?

MJ: I can share a title, which will probably change next week. I call these writing-experiments I’ve been performing “Chapbooks of Divine Beauty.” I’m mixing genres of prose and poetry, of fiction and nonfiction, to try to represent the way in which divine beauties appear through experiences of contemporary cultural forms—I mean, in our lives as we find them.

—by Randy Rosenthal