(From a paper I read at ETS 2013 in Baltimore, as part of a panel responding to “Hillbilly Thomist” Fritz Bauerschmidt’s new book on Thomas Aquinas.)
The Oxford University Press series Christian Theology in Context promises to situate theologians in their cultures and histories, to “understand how theologies are themselves cultural products” and how theological texts are “forms of cultural power, expressing and modifying the dominant ideologies through which we understand the world.”
The series description opens with references to the sociology of knowledge and the discipline of cultural studies, and even launches out with a quotation from Karl Marx, reminding us that “life determines consciousness.” As manifestoes go, it sounds pretty subversive of settled orthodoxies. But the series itself has not been programmatically subversive in any predictable way, proving instead to be an equal-opportunity subverter of orthodoxies, calling into question not only the ancient orthodoxies of Christian doctrine, but recent orthodoxies of critical scholarship. So while it has included some volumes that throw traditional theological figures into surprising cultural relief, it has also carried out its promise of “radically interdisciplinary analysis” by giving us rich readings of theologians in their ecclesial, spiritual, devotional, and in this case, monastic contexts.
Bauerschmidt’s Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason, and Following Christ is a book of this latter kind: it serves as an introduction to Thomas Aquinas and an overview of his work, but it does so by situating him a context often ignored. Thomas’ theology is, according to this book, “without reserve a theological project oriented to Dominican ends,” (x) and he is “a theologian who is aware in all that he writes of the evangelical purpose of the community of preachers to which he has given his life” (x). Acknowledging that “depending on the background, different aspects of Thomas’ thought stand out more vividly” (315), Bauerschmidt has tried to show “how Thomas appears when set against the background of the methods and aims of the thirteenth-century Order of Preachers” (315). The result is
a Thomas whose project is more ‘evangelical’ than philosophical –or perhaps philosophical in order to be evangelical—a Thomas for whom Jesus Christ is the one thing necessary, a Thomas who for all his affirmations of the world’s goodness is still a restless wayfarer who yearns for God’s kingdom. (315)