Stuffy Uncle Thomas and His Theological Boxes

[Disclaimer: this is one of those “I-haven’t-finished-the-book-yet-so-it-might-still-be-coming” posts. So please don’t reply with comments of the “you-idiot-just-read-this-section-that-comes-later” variety.]

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The natural desire of the rational creature is to know everything that belongs to the perfection of the intellect, namely, the species and the genera of things and their types, and these everyone who sees the Divine essence will see in God. But to know other singulars, their thoughts and their deeds does not belong to the perfection of the created intellect nor does its natural desire go out to these things…”

Thomas Aquinas, ST Ia, Q. 12, A. 9, Ad. 4

This sounds like a certain kind of intellectual dictating what is right and good to the rest of the world, namely, “knowing everything,” by sorting and categorizing things. There is another kind of knowledge, though, the knowledge that revels in particularity, or what Aquinas here calls “singulars.”

This passage is key for understanding a genre mistake of Thomas. His method of discourse has no conceptual space for history, fiction, poetry, contextualization, the depth of a human person, or any other kind of particularity, except the unintentional particularity of the Latin language. [Oops Thomas!] This is embodied in the very structure of his argumentation, organized as it is into little sorting boxes.

I know I have a long way to go in ST, but until we get to the Incarnation, Aquinas’ theology of history, or his explication of things in their particularity, it’s going to be tough going for me.

One final pea shooter shot at the greatest theologian of all time: Thomas, you say that “the natural desire of the rational creature is to know everything.” Well, that may be true for an enneagram 5, but surely it is not the only truth for all people everywhere? Why wouldn’t you say that “the natural desire of the rational creature is to be known, or to be loved?” And how, HOW, does sorting things into “species” and “genera” enable you to love your neighbor? It might in some occasional instances, but not as a general rule! On the contrary, what you say “does not belong” to us — “to know other singulars, their thoughts and their deeds” — is a basic action of Christian love!

On the Song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”

This Sunday in worship we sang the song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” It’s a short song, only thirteen bars long, which can be repeated as many times as needed. The legend is that the song was written by an anonymous homeless man in the rough part of 1970s London. On the surface, it is deceptively simple. The melody sounds trite, sing-songy, even a bit silly. And yet I have found it to be one of the most profound sacred songs I have ever encountered.

Why? I could say that it might be the musical oddities pulsing under the surface –– the fact that the song is an irregular thirteen bar phrase, or the fact that the full cadence is in the middle of the piece, both of which make the song sound off balance with itself. While these structural things do make the song unfold in interesting ways over time, I wonder if there are other things going on, too.

First, the silliness. If you ever get the chance to listen to the original field recording (as it is captured in composer Gavin Bryars’ 1971 arrangement), you’ll notice right away that the singer has a funny British voice. (Not that British people have a funny voice by default, but his voice sounds like a parody of a drunken British person.) But there he is, singing over and over, “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet…” There is something Dostoevskian about the song, the way that it places faith in the mouth of the buffoon, the despised, the silly. It is the gospel as the ultimate carnivalizing of the world’s idolatrous seriousness. I love making people sing this song in church (it’s good for them!) because it slams together the comic and the transcendent in uncomfortably close proximity. What are we singing about? Are we singing about something happy[-go-lucky], –– that Jesus loves me –– or are we singing about something deathly serious –– that the Son of God died a violent death that involved copious amounts of human blood? I believe the answer is yes-to-both, and I love the way that singing this song over and over again turns the two sides of this coin over and over again, depending on the emotional vantage point of the singer. 

Second, the simplicity. The song only contains sixteen words. It’s the opposite of a systematic theology, and yet it contains all of the Christocentric rigor that many systematic theologies lack. But even beyond that, the song has an apophatic quality to it. After you’ve sung it over and over, you may find yourself walking past the place of talking about God, past the place of “knowing” God, to what the Eastern fathers called “the divine darkness,” or what an anonymous 14th-century mystic called “the cloude of unknowyng.” This is the cloud on Mount Sinai that enveloped Moses, the cloud in the gospels that enveloped the disciples during the Transfiguration. It is the intimate embrace of God that C. S. Lewis hints at in his novel ‘Til We Have Faces. It is an experience of the fact that, at the bottom of it all, God is resolutely for us, as when the voice says to Jesus, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” I’m going to play it safe and not say that I’ve had this experience in its fullness, but I will say that this song has brought me close on occasion.

So every couple months we’ll bust out this song and have everybody sing it in church. No one knows who wrote it (sometimes, at my most fanciful, I like to pretend it was an angel). I’m sure some people will be impatient with it, others will feel like their intelligence has been insulted, and others will wish we were singing something with more ‘content.’ But I’m going to keep sneaking it in, in the hopes that through the song, some will encounter God in a deep, rich way.

two kinds of gods

Warning: this is a very polemical post. Stop reading now if you still want to like me to some extent.

In seminary I encountered two gods, and each member of the faculty worshiped one of them.

One is radically open and immanent, the other sovereign and transcendent (while also being sufficiently immanent).
The irony is that both gods are ‘useless’ to us. The first is useless because it provides us with nothing but a way deeper into the morass of our own broken lament and the chaos of the created world. The second God is useless because we can’t make that God do anything for us; the second God acts in radical freedom to save us. And yet only the second God can save us. The first god will only prove to be an idol of our construction, betraying us until the end. The first god is able to empathize with us because it is us, but is powerless to confront evil, because it is only us and/or structures and being of the universe. The second God is able to empathize with us because he defines and even is our humanity in Jesus Christ, and is powerful enough to confront evil because he also is not us.