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How to read Thomas without violent consequences? - Interview with Mark D. Jordan

Mark D. Jordan is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (USA). Before coming to Emory, he taught at the University of Dallas and the University of Notre Dame.His academic interests circle around the varieties of moral rhetoric, the history of Christian teachings on sex, and the relations of theological writing to power.
What are you doing at this moment? Are you currently doing any research on Aquinas?

I am writing a book on power in Thomas's written pedagogy and its reception. The book begins from the question, How should we read a corpus that has been misread so often and with such violent consequences? The question is not a historical puzzle so much as a challenge to our understanding of what Thomas meant to accomplish in writing as he wrote. So I am concerned not so much with the genealogy of misreadings as with the possibilities in Thomass texts for resisting them. I want to show that Thomas is a more deliberate and more disconcerting writer than institutional 'Thomisms' require. He is precisely not an advocate of totalizing discourses or the violence that they sometimes authorize.

What courses are you teaching this semester?

In the fall, I will be teaching an introduction to the study of religion that emphasizes religious rhetoric. In the spring, my doctoral seminar will be on negative theology. Thomas will figure prominently in both courses.

In what way were you introduced to the thought of Thomas and whom do you consider to be your teacher in Aquinas?

I was first attracted to Aquinas, I think, by some pages in Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. As an adolescent, I was enchanted by Merton's descriptions of this remarkable book, the Summa theologiae, and of its ideal of an integral 'Catholic philosophy'. I was led by Merton to read some pieces of Maritain and Gilson; from them, to an anthology of texts from Thomas himself. By the time I entered college, I was already enthusiastic about what I understood of the Thomist project. Of course, I understood very little. My more academic study of Aquinas was guided not so much by the grand projects of Maritain or Gilson as by an ideal of close reading. The ideal held that philosophical and theological texts are persuasive acts in which all the compositional details matter. They are as fully rhetorical as political speeches or passionate sermons. This ideal was taught to me by Jacob Klein through the Platonic dialogues. It was reinforced when reading Aristotle under the direction of students of Richard McKeon. The example of Bernard Lonergan was also decisive, especially in emphasizing how shifts in detail show Thomas's own learning across texts.

What is the most important thing you learned from Aquinas?

In thirty years of reading, I seem to return to four points.
First, the radical limitation of our languages in regard to God can be remedied in part by a comprehensive, hierarchical pedagogy of affirmation and negation-but only in part.
Second, this hierarchy enacts the hunger in philosophy for a higher knowledge, which is only imperfectly represented by our fragmentary theology-when that theology is done well.
Third, the hierarchy of affirmation and negation would be best taught in a community that seeks to bring together contemplation and action, metaphysics and morals. When it cannot be taught in such a community, it should be written as a hope for that kind of community-and so with corresponding humility.
Fourth, Christian wisdom ought to be characterized by respectful attention to whatever seems helpful in every part of human thinking, though it should steadfastly resist any claims for completeness-including its own.

What works of Aquinas are you most familiar with?

I wrote my dissertation on the (so-called) Summa contra Gentiles; that text remains as familiar as an old friend. Since my dissertation, I have written on works as diverse as De veritate 1, the literal expositions of Aristotle, De regno, and Contra errores Graecorum. I have spent most of my time in recent years with the secunda pars of the Summa theologiae.

What is the importance of research in Aquinas for our times?

I can address this question only as a Catholic thinker, someone for whom Aquinas can never be merely an object of antiquarian curiosity. I am not interested in trying to fit Thomas into some historical narrative. Nor do I want to treat Thomas as part of the spoils of Egypt, taking from him bits and pieces for the construction of some new system. My hope is rather to read Thomas's text well enough so that he works through them once again as a teacher of Christian wisdom. The Christian churches very much need such teaching now-as an antidote to authoritarianism, as a testimony to intellectual wholeness, as an exhortation to honest writing, as an example of charity.

What are your expectations of the Thomas Instituut?

I know the Thomas Instituut as an intellectual community animated by several important tasks. One is to insist on the importance of Thomas as theologian in the face of many philosophical 'Thomisms', from the ultramontane to the analytical. A second is to direct attention to the multiple receptions of Thomas, which continue to determine our contemporary readings. A third task is to bring together in peaceful and productive conversation very diverse 'schools' of Thomistic interpretation. May the Instituut continue with these good works!

What do you think of the internet in general and especially of the Thomas Instituut website?

The internet has exactly the character of the prevailing 'media': it offers instant access to endless 'information', most of which is unreliable or impertinent (when it is not aggressive advertising). To use the internet well requires more cunning and a wider culture than to use a large research library. It is marvelous to be able to consult whole-text databases or references works online. It is distressing to find, right alongside them in an illusory present, so much that is decontextualized or distorted. My wish for the Instituut website is that it would continue to organize its resources and to lead its users.

Can you give the titles of some of your publications so that readers may get to know more about your work?

My basic notions about philosophical language in Thomas can be found in Ordering Wisdom (University of Notre Dame Press, 1986). I talk about Thomass moral pedagogy in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (University of Chicago Press, 1997), Chapter 7, as earlier in the introduction to my translation of Summa theol. 2-2.1-16, entitled On Faith (University of Notre Dame Press, 1990). Three programatic essays that will be reworked in the new book are: The Alleged Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1992); Theology and Philosophy, in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas (Cambridge University Press, 1993); and The Competition of Authoritative Languages and Aquinas's Theological Rhetoric, Medieval Philosophy and Theology 4 (1994): 71-90.

July 17, 2001
Harm Goris