Absolutenessof Christian over and against all other Religions and Beliefs —Examining Thomas Aquinas’s Views
Thequestion of Christian absoluteness has been one of the very sensitiveand, perhaps, the most debated areas in theology. Indeed, it isarguable that the issue of Christian absoluteness is as old as thereligion itself, transcending the Renaissance period and the 20thcentury, and extending to the 21st-century discussions. ErnestTroeltsch, in “The Absoluteness of Christianity (1901)” providedsome of the impressive views in defense of Christian absoluteness.His views were positively taken by Christian communities who, for along time now, have been espoused to the notion that Christianity is‘absolute,` ‘normative,` ‘unique,` and ultimately superior toall other religions and gospels in the world1.However, after the first popular publication, it did not take longbefore Ernest Troeltsch’s intellectual journey turned around. Theturnaround is particularly demonstrated how the implicit dogma he hadsteered had now become questionable. In the lecture he prepared todeliver at Oxford University in 1923, he criticized the position hehad held earlier, now opting for a different view that Christianity,if absolute, was just like other religions in the world2.Therefore, his opinion paved the way for the concept of ‘relativeabsoluteness.` The fact that he died before delivering his lecturehas served as a thesis for the protagonists to argue that it was allbecause he had gone against the will of God.
Althoughthe Christian adherents still cling to the view of its absoluteness,often marked by the biblical expression such as “Jesus is the onlyway, the truth, and the life3,”their mind tends to be filled with a mixture of segments and layerscharacterized by varying degrees of self-critical reflections andconsciousness. The intellectual world has been progressive regardingways that Christianity should be conceived about other faiths in theworld, yet it has only been characterized by growing volumes ofliterature that have not done much other than advancing the debate.Therefore, the issue of whether Christianity is absolute remainsmostly in crisis and warrants further attention.
Aspart of the process of finding answers to the question, this essayopts to delve into the discussion of adherent-deity relationship byengaging a cross comparison of practices in different faiths. ThomasAquinas provides various a wide-ranging debate concerning theChristian religion and beliefs. Considering Thomas Aquinas’sperspective lends itself as the most relevant in conceptualizingChristian-deity relationships, this essay hopes to argue that thefaith’s absoluteness, if it exists, does not subvert or negate theabsoluteness of other religions.
ThomasAquinas’ View on Christianity and its Beliefs
Thomas,an Italian Catholic Priest, discussed the nature of Christianbeliefs, the role of the deity and the significance of faith andreasons. He stood for the belief that truth is only known throughreasons and faith. In this case, reason is bone on naturalrevelation, while faith to supernatural revelation. The supernaturalrevelation, as he asserts, is a derivative of the Holy Spirit and isavailed to the adherents through the Holy Scriptures and thetraditional church ministry. On the other hand, the naturalrevelation defines the truth that is available to all the people andis hinged on the power of reason inherent to human nature4.
Thenatural revelation could be applied in rational ways to confirm theexistence of God. While it is possible for one to ascertain theexistence and attributes of God based on reason, certain specificscan only be deduced through supernatural revelation, that is, God’srevelation through Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit. The components ofChristianity such as incarnation, charity, and trinity can only berevealed through the Christianity teachings, and cannot be otherwisededuced by any other means5.
However,faith often precedes philosophical reasoning because it is notpossible for a non-Christian to offer a proof for the existence ofGod. Nevertheless, the reason should come before internal faithbecause it is not possible for one to believe in God or the gospel ifhe does not find evidence that it is true. The essence of this viewis that both reason and revelation are important — they both gotogether to help believers to nurture truth and have an understandingof God. However, for the concept of reason, faith would be belittledas a commitment to facts that are non-intelligible. It is only whenone reasons about revelation truth that one will be able tounderstand it well, and that is also when one can truly have faith inthat gospel.
Anotherfascinating viewpoint of Thomas pertains to the issue of preservingnature within grace. He asserted that the revealed knowledge does notsubvert the truth and position of the human science — if only, itestablishes and fortifies it in many ways. In one way, revealedknowledge provides alternative approaches to same truth withoutcanceling the other, for instance, it is possible to have twoscientific approaches to God. In another way, it justifies theexistence of premises for two experimental methods — one of thecriteria functions based on the power of natural reason, while theother on divine revelations. Also, these two methods can also existseparately because they differ in the genus. In this case, sacreddoctrine (faith) should be conceived as being operationally differentfrom theology, which is mostly philosophical. Faith and reason onlyexist to complement each other, rather than contradict — they onlygive different perspectives over the same truth6.
Asfar as creation is concerned, Thomas held the belief that God was themaker of the entire universe and all that exists within it, includingwhat is visible and invisible. Like Aristotle, Thomas also argued itwas possible life could result from non-living or plant life, asposited in the in the spontaneous generation theory. Thomasdemonstrated various ways in which God is manifested in human life.In his first assertion, he considers that since there is no infinitecause for continuous motion, there must be a first mover that cannotbe hindered by anything else, and this is what everyone shouldunderstand by God. Secondly, because nothing could cause itself,there must have been the first cause, which is God. Thirdly, sincenothing can exist unnecessarily or necessarily by itself all thethings human find unnecessary must seem necessary to whoever musthave created them, and that can only be God. Fourthly, if people candeduce the gradation of things such as good, better, strong, thenthere must be a superlative that matches the truest and noblest ofall things existing, that is God. Lastly, the fact that naturecomprises of ordered things, governed by the principles of naturallaw, it must be under the power of one is aware of nature, who canonly be God7.
Thus,Thomas believed that although man was totally deprived, the humanrationality was not all destroyed. He reasoned that, if it were, thenman would no longer be as sensitive to what amounts to sin or even beaccountable for their sinful actions. Thomas proceeded to assertreason is still important since it enables man to demonstrate theexistence of God, while divine revelation lays the ground forbelieving in God. Reason creates the allowance for one to believethat something is true, while revelation provides the basis tobelieve in the truth. In essence, although it is not possible for oneto reason to believe in God, he can always find the reasons for thebelief. The adherents can always find reasonable premises for theirfaith from historical and experiential evidence, as well as throughphilosophy and miracles8.Therefore, based on Thomas, revelation comes in two ways —objectively and subjective. Objective revelation is derived from theBible, while personal revelation originates from the cognitive (basedon the five senses of perceptions) and Nurius (based on reason andgrace).
Therefore,Thomas Aquinas presents various interesting points that are worthconsidering whether they show Christianity as the most absolute overother faiths and doctrines. One of the areas is the revelation.Thomas Aquinas discusses that revelation is inherent in Christianpractices. Therefore, it is of particular interest to questionwhether revelation is unique to Christianity. By any chance, is itreflected in other religions such as Islam or Hinduism? Another pointthat Thomas Aquinas discusses is the view that God is the creator ofthe universe and everything that lies within it. In examining thispoint, it will be prudent to question whether the perception of theChristian adherents regarding God is any different from the view heldby other religions. The central issue is do other religions also havea deity? What is the role of the gods? Would role of such deitiesdiffer from the role expectations of Christians concerning God? Thelast argument that Thomas Aquinas discusses is the perspective of theplace and significance of faith and reason. Thomas Aquinasparticularly notes that faith and reason only exist to complementeach other, rather than contradict — they only give differentperspectives over the same truth. Based on this view, it will be ofparticular interest to question whether other religions could receivethis view. In essence, do other religions, such as Islam, espousethemselves to the fact that faith and reason are inseparable and areall needed to achieve the purpose of worship? What are thealternative view, if they exist.
IsRevelation only seen for Christians?
Ashas been noted, Thomas discusses the aspect of revelation, which mustnow be considered whether it could qualify as any unique characterfor Christian absoluteness. The aspect of revelation does not standout as unique elements of Christianity because they are alsoacknowledged in other religions such as Islam and Judaism. Therefore,to a large extent, Christianity should be accorded a status that isequivalent to other faiths. First, all these religions also believein God, as well as the act of the prophets. Logically, the truth isconveyed to the adherents through revelations. Indeed, thecorresponding gospels — Psalms, Torah and Evangel — are ideallythe revelations of God. Believing in these teachings and revelationsis part of spiritual journeys9.
Accordingto Islamic teachings, the phenomenon of prophecy is a universalconcept that tends to characterize every religion. The view thatevery individual is responsible for his actions is also a common one.The justice of God is also taken to be absolute. Therefore, it seemseven other religions have deities just like Christians do, for whichadherents relate in the same way. The supporters see as possessingpowers that surpass those possessed by ordinary human beings, whointeract with people in the manner that can positively or negativelyenhance the human life. The outcome of such relationships confers thebelievers the status of consciousness that are beyond the limits ofthe ordinary life preoccupations. In other words, a deity is a beingin possession of natural, preternatural and supernatural powers, aswell as superhuman qualities. Typically, deities are accordedsacredness, divinity, and holiness. Adherents believe that, throughreligious practices, they communicate with the deities, who thenrespond to their entreaties in a manner that is supernatural10.
ThePlace of Reason in Relation to Faith
Theaspect of reason is also a key point that Thomas focuses on. Inanswering the question of whether the reason is unique toChristianity practices, would delve into the purpose of deity-humanrelations. There are certain attributes of deities that transcend allreligions. For instance, the most common view is that deities areholy, omnipotent and sacred, the attributes that can be revealedthrough reason. The deity is either visible or invisible andmanifests his presence through revelations, as well as throughscripture reading. While many people are drawn to religion fordifferent reasons, they will tend experience that gravitates towardsreligion’s sacredness. The believers see the manifestations of therevelations based on the impact of the religion on the courses oftheir lives. Typically, religion can be considered to serve variouspurposes, notably, as the source of the hope, altruism, eternalhappiness, salvation and courage to people. This situation isexperienced in Christian lives and even Islam and would typically beassured by revelations based on reason and hope11.
Thedeity provides a frame of what the followers can expect about life,as well as the reason to for worshipping. The point of religious hopeis considered to be one of the motivators for people to seektransformation in personal life for what is revealed to them. Adeity, in such a case, exists to assure or represent possibility indelivering what is hoped for. Such an attribute requires that thegods manifest themselves as supernatural so that the adherents canlook to them as the only source of hope. Divinities are needed tobridge the gap between hope and despair, and uncertainty among thefollowers.
Deitiesare considered to be immortal and possess consciousness andattributes that can help deliver human needs. Natural events, whosecauses were not well understood, such as catastrophes and lightning,earthquakes and flood, have been attributed to the forces of thedeities, which can be considered to be a source of reasonedrevelation because they cannot occur by themselves. Deities have beenconceived to perform miracles and determine the fate of human lifeaspects. Divinities are considered to the author of human life, thegivers of the laws that govern human beings and morality and thejudges of the behavior of people. They are also believed to be thecreators of everything in the universe.These views are revealed in Thomas Aquinas’s discussion, who alsoto suggest the essence of applying reason of the course and existenceof nature of events in human life to justify the existence of God12.
Inconclusion, the aim of this paper has been to examine the question ofChristian absoluteness based on Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of thereligious beliefs and practices. This essay has been written at thebackdrop of the fact that the question of Christian absoluteness hasbeen one of the very sensitive and, perhaps, the most debated areasin theology. Indeed, it is arguable that the issue of Christianabsoluteness is as old as the religion itself, transcending therenaissance periods and the 20thcentury, and has now extended into the 21 century. Although theChristian adherents still hold on the view of its absoluteness, oftenmarked by the biblical expression “… the only way, the truth andthe life”, they mind tends to be filled with a mixture of segmentsand layers characterized by varying degrees of self-criticalreflections and consciousness. The intellectual sphere has beenprogressive regarding ways that Christianity should be conceived tobe relative to other faiths in the world, yet it has only beencharacterized by growing volumes of literature that have not donemuch other than advancing the debate. Therefore, the issue of whetherChristianity is absolute is still debated and warrants furtherattention.
Thisessay has successfully argued that Christian absoluteness if itexists, will not subvert or negate the absoluteness of otherreligions, not even science. As has been seen, Thoma Aquinas, as aninfluential figure in behind Christian absoluteness, presents variousinteresting points that are worth considering whether they showreligion as the most absolute over other faiths and doctrines. One ofthe points is the revelation, which invites the question of whetherrevelation is unique to Christianity. Another point that ThomasAquinas discusses is the view that God is the creator of the universeand everything that lies within it. In examining this point, it wasprudent to question whether the perception of the Christian adherentsregarding God is any different from the view held by other religions.The last argument that Thomas Aquinas discusses is the perspective ofthe place and significance of faith and reason. Based on this view,it was of particular interest to question whether other religionscould receive this view. In essence, do other religions such as Islamespouse itself to the fact that faith and reason are inseparable andare all needed to achieve the purpose of religion? A cross comparisonof the Christianity and other faiths based on this point fails topresent any evidence that Christianity is absolute.
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Berger,Peter. TheSacredness Canopy: Elements of the Sociological Theories of Religion.NewYork: Anchor, 2012
Boyer,Per. ReligionExplained.New York: Basic Books, 2014
Hodgson,Peter,& KingRobert.ChristianTheology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. FortressPress, 1994.
Hodgson,Peter,& King,Robert.Readingsin Christian Theology. FortressPress, 1985.
Manuel,Charles. ThePower of Identity. Malden:Blackwell, 2012
Reichberg,Gregory. "Thomas Aquinas between Just War and Pacificism".Journal of Religious Ethics. 38(2010): 219–241.
ThomasAquinas. Summa Theologica. "Of Cheating, Which Is Committed inBuying and Selling." Translated by The Fathers of the EnglishDominican Province. FordhamUniversity Press, 2000
Thomas,Aquinas. Mary T. Clark, ed. An Aquinas Reader: Selections from theWritings of Thomas Aquinas. Fordham University Press, 2000.
Weber,Mer. TheSociology of Religions.Beacon Press ,2013.
1 Hodgson, Peter, & King Robert. Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks ( Fortress Press, 1994), pp 34
2 Hodgson, Peter, & King, Robert. Readings in Christian Theology (Fortress Press, 1985), pp 34.
3 Ibid, pp 34
4 Thomas, Aquinas. Mary T. Clark, ed. An Aquinas Reader: Selections from the Writings of Thomas Aquinas ( Fordham University Press, 2000) ,, pp78
5 Thomas, Aquinas. Mary T. Clark, ed. An Aquinas Reader: Selections from the Writings of Thomas Aquinas ( Fordham University Press, 2000), pp 17
6 Aquinas, Thomas"Question 75, Article 1". In Literally Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas (Oxford University Press, 1920), 47.
7 Reichberg, Gregory. "Thomas Aquinas between Just War and Pacificism". Journal of Religious Ethics. 38 (2010): pp 240.
8 Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. "Of Cheating, Which Is Committed in Buying and Selling." Translated by The Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Fordham University Press, 2000), 36
9 Berger, Peter. The Sacredness Canopy: Elements of the Sociological Theories of Religion (New York: Anchor, 2012), pp 34
10 Weber, Mer. The Sociology of Religions (Beacon Press , 2013), pp 89
11 Boyer, Per. Religion Explained (New York: Basic Books., 2014), pp 340
12 Manuel, Charles. The Power of Identity (Malden: Blackwell, 2012), pp 87