Scott Hahn’s “Angels and Saints”: Taking a Fresh Look at Aquinas

Detail of St. Thomas Aquinas from the St. Peter Martyr Altarpiece by Fra Angelico (1427-1428) San Marco, Florence

Detail of St. Thomas Aquinas from the St. Peter Martyr Altarpiece by Blessed Fra Angelico (1427-1428)
San Marco, Florence

In his new book Angels and Saints: A Biblical Guide to Friendship with God’s Holy Ones, well-known Catholic theologian Dr. Scott Hahn examines both the theology of the angels, the communion of saints, and the lives of a number of these figures.  He does so, appropriately enough, by looking to the Scriptures as a touchstone: Dr. Hahn, as you may know, is the founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. As the next stop on the blog tour celebrating the release of his latest book, it falls to me today to share some thoughts about Dr. Hahn’s chapter on St. Thomas Aquinas – and be sure to check out the previous and forthcoming stops on the blog tour as well.

It is hard to imagine how one could write a single chapter encompassing everything there is to know about St. Thomas Aquinas.  For starters, he is among the most prolific writers in Church history and, as Dr. Hahn notes, Aquinas kept several secretaries at a time writing to his dictation on a near-constant basis.  Fortunately for the reader, Dr. Hahn does not attempt to give us the equivalent of a ten-page summary of the Summa Theologica, in examining the life of this great Doctor of the Church.

Instead, Dr. Hahn takes and runs with the very interesting argument, so often overlooked by those who focus on Aquinas as a philosopher, that Aquinas would probably have considered himself to be a Biblical theologian.  As an example, Dr. Hahn points to Aquinas’ “Treatise on Law”, believed by many to be heavily dependent on Aristotelian thinking.  While it may seem that the Angelic Doctor, as Aquinas is affectionately known, frequently quotes Aristotle in this work, in fact Aquinas quotes from Scripture almost seven times more often in the text. Dr. Hahn then goes on to examine a shift in the law, as described by Aquinas, from the Old Testament law to that of the New Testament, as the fall of man through our first parents leads to prescription, followed by salvation, as God and man rebuild their relationship.

What particularly struck me, in reading Dr. Hahn’s reflections about St. Thomas Aquinas, was the succinct explanation of Aquinas’ understanding of how the created and material point to the infinite and spiritual, one that resonated with me a great deal as someone interested in the study and appreciation of Western culture.  “Thus, nature and history are more than just created things,” writes Hahn, “they have more than just a literal, historical meaning.  God fashions the things of the world and shapes the events of history as visible signs of other, uncreated realities, which are eternal and invisible.”  Dr. Hahn goes on to quote Aquinas himself, who wrote, “As words formed by man are signs of his intellectual knowledge, so are creatures formed by God signs of His wisdom.”

Throughout his latest work, Dr. Hahn points to the Biblical basis for the relationships which Christians enjoy with the angels and saints.  He goes beyond simply giving biographical summaries on these individuals, into providing examples of how each of them led lives closely tied to the Scriptures.  Whether you are learning about them for the first time, or they are old and dear friends, you will come away from this book better-informed about what Christians believe about the angels and saints, as well as having a deeper insight into their lives.

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GIVEAWAY!

For a chance to win a free copy of Scott Hahn’s new book, Angels and Saints, register with your name and email address by following this link.  Only one entry per reader, please.  Entries must be submitted by 11:59 pm on Thursday, June 5th.  The winner will be announced on Friday, June 6th.

Nine Inch Nails and the Attraction of Nothingness

This past Saturday evening, as happens from time to time, I returned home from a late night of pub karaoke feeling pretty wired.  I sang three songs that evening, and was still somewhat jittery from the experience.  Those of my readers who have done any performing or public speaking know that there can be a kind of shakiness and high-alert feeling you carry around with you, even an hour or two after you’ve stepped out of the spotlight.

Because I was very much awake, I turned on the television to find something to watch until I felt ready to go to bed. I happened upon “Austin City Limits”, the PBS show featuring live concert performances from Texas’ capital of weird, and a performance by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.  Much to my surprise, I sat down and watched the whole thing from start to finish.  I came away strangely impressed by what I heard, but glad that I have been able to choose a different way to confront the deeply human concern we all share over nothingness.

Back in high school, when Nine Inch Nails – or “NIN” – first became popular, I was never attracted to their music.  NIN was a very different sort of group from the metal hair bands and pop-rap acts of that time, even though they went on tour with Guns N’ Roses, of all people.  My musical choices tended to be less on the full-out-sensory-assault end of the spectrum, where acts like NIN tended to congregate, and more on what the British refer to as the “shoe-gazing” end of things.  So when I sat down to watch this concert, I had no clue what to expect.

For starters, I was blown away by how engaging the band was.  NIN frontman Trent Reznor – who looks better now at nearly 50 than I remember him ever looking in his 20’s – is a dynamic, charismatic performer, reminding me of a more techie, introspective version of punk legend Henry Rollins.  His bandmates and back-up singers were, like him, all intense, focused musicians: and they had to be.

The music itself was unbelievably complex.  There was hardly anything melodic about it, even when there were actual choruses.  There were unexpected rhythm/volume/pitch changes, and unusual combinations of harmony and dissonance.  This was combined with a lyricism which, while unfortunately often scarred by profanity, expressed a very deep understanding of very human things: pain, loss, etc.

In a brief interview, Reznor commented that the band’s new album, from which the concert took its material, was probably the closest he had ever come to creating a musical composition based fully on dreams and stream-of-consciousness thinking.  That certainly came across during the show, particularly in its semi-conscious waking and nightmarish moments.  However there was also something else going on.

There is an underlying tension in all of mankind regarding the fundamental question of meaning versus nothingness.  How you choose to answer that question is going to have a significant impact on how you treat yourself, other people, and the world you live in.  And this debate, this exploration of whether there is any meaning out there, is something Reznor and his band tapped into rather powerfully in this performance.

To their credit, if one can move past the regrettable language and imagery in some of their lyrics, NIN do so in an almost contemplative way.  Despite the level of sheer noise they can achieve, particularly when expressing anger and frustration, this is not a toe-tapping kind of music, but rather something demanding that the listener actively engage his brain.  Is it pleasant? Well frankly, no: it’s decidedly unpleasant. But is it real? Oh, very much so.

This kind of creative exploration is in fact as old as mankind itself.  Look at the Book of Job or some of the Psalms, study the black paintings of Goya, or read the work of Virginia Woolf or Charles Baudelaire [N.B. whose birthday is today.]  Throughout human history, you’ll find men and women staring into the abyss, and not finding it easy to avert their eyes from the possibility that there may very well be no meaning to all of “this” around us.

I see and understand what Reznor, et al., are trying to say.  And quite frankly, I respect them for saying it.  Here, there is no papering over the hard things in life with a shallow, feckless sort of veneer, as so often occurs in contemporary culture.

Where we part ways, however, is that I am a Christian, and a Catholic one at that. So even as I witness, and at times experience first-hand, the kind of painful emotions which Reznor describes in his music, I choose to find hope and meaning in such suffering.  Rather than simply pointless, cruel occurrences, these are opportunities for me to come to understand Christ better, and hopefully draw closer to Him.

That doesn’t mean I always succeed, of course.  I can complain and moan and…well yes, swear….about perceived slights, abuses, or injustice, when I give in to such feelings.  However I hope that, over time, I’m getting at least a tiny bit better at accepting these things, even if I am very far indeed from perfection.

That being said, one has to give credit where credit is due.  I wouldn’t recommend picking up the new NIN album to listen to in the car on the way to work, any more than I would recommend you purchase a print of “Saturn Devouring His Children” by Goya to hang over the dining room table.  However the fact that a rock music concert caused me to pause, listen, and reflect, is something which for me, does not happen very often at all. And in the end I’m actually rather grateful I had that opportunity.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS'  "Austin City Limits"

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS’ “Austin City Limits”