At the time it was founded, Pennsylvania was one of the first colonies to offer religious freedom and tolerance. Since many Catholics faced persecution back home, this made the colony an attractive alternative. In Pittsburgh especially, we can still see the strong influence of the Catholic faith today. Along with scores of cathedrals, churches and schools, there are institutes such as the St. Augustine Friary, Aquinas Academy Catholic School and Saint Thomas More Church, each named for revered saints of early Christianity. But each of these men was known for another reason as well. They were philosophers; great thinkers in their own right. As we continue the study of Jesus as a moral philosopher, how did the landscape of philosophy change when Christians arrived on the scene?
In fact, there is not much to say about Augustine separate from his religious beliefs. The truth is, he wrote extensively on almost every subject imaginable, but in every instance he wrote on the basis of his faith. Therefore, he did not have a main philosophical theory or viewpoint that was not intrinsically Christian. Yet he should not be ruled out as a philosopher. Augustine, to this day, remains a source of constant and eager study.
THE JESUS RATIO:
This one is easy. Augustine worshiped Jesus as his Savior in everything he did. Anti-climactic as it may be, in this particular case, there isn’t much to argue. Let’s move on to Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)
Aquinas hugely respected, and was influenced by, Aristotle. He believed that truth is inspired by God but that God reveals this truth through reason, which is made complete in faith. He taught that both reason and faith are completely necessary to understand God; since God created everything, we can study his creation – the world around us – to better understand Him.
He also believed that the ultimate purpose of humanity is a personal and eternal relationship with God. He taught that if we seek happiness through knowing God, we will automatically desire to do what is right and act rightly, because to know and love God inspires one to love what is right.
THE JESUS RATIO:
Perhaps in studying Christian philosophers, the question of Jesus’ influence must necessarily be altered slightly. In the many centuries after his life, it is probably more pertinent to ask, did his supposed followers preserve Jesus’ teachings truthfully or not? In other words, was later Christian philosophy providing an accurate picture of Christ’s teachings as philosopher?
As far as truth being inspired, Jesus approached this topic each time he spoke of the Holy Ghost. In Mark 10:11 he said, “Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.” This was reiterated in Luke 12:12 when Jesus declared, “The Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.” Finally, when he was preparing to leave this world he left his disciples with the following words in John 14:26, “The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” Over and over, Jesus taught that the Holy Ghost would inspire what was necessary, at the time it was most needed.
What about the ultimate purpose of man being an eternity with God? Well, Jesus famously said in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Does that mean that everlasting life should be spent in eternity with God? In Luke 23:43, Jesus told the dying thief on the cross, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
Finally, we come to Thomas Aquinas’ belief that loving God will engender the desire to do right. What was Jesus’ original teaching on this subject? Well to be honest, it was identical. In John 14:15 he said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” In fact, the entire chapter of John 14 deals with an eternity in Heaven with God and proof that a person truly loves God. Verse 21 states, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me,” and verse 23 plainly affirms, “If a man love me, he will keep my words.”
So Thomas Aquinas understood the lessons well, and the philosophy he helped to further was in fact, that of Jesus Christ.
Thomas More (1478-1535)
Unlike Augustine and Aquinas, Thomas More lived in a time when the term “Christian” no longer had a single definition. It was during his lifetime that the Protestant Reformation exploded.
Dissent within and against the Roman Catholic church had been bubbling up for more than a century before More was born. The 1300s were marked by the Western Schism – in which two different people claimed papal authority, causing significant damage to the church’s reputation and of course, creating a rift in the church – and the earliest signs of Protestant revolt, most notably by the followers of John Wycliffe. In 1517, Martin Luther posted “The Ninety-Five Theses” and in 1534, just before the end of More’s life, Henry VIII declared England to no longer be a Catholic nation, and created the Church of England.
More himself was staunchly Catholic. He considered entering the priesthood at one point and engaged in self-flagellation and other religious acts designed to impose suffering on oneself. He railed against Martin Luther both personally and in writing, on behalf of King Henry VIII. Later, when Henry renounced the pope’s authority, More was convicted of treason because he would not sign the document renouncing the Pope’s authority. This was More, the man. But what of his philosophy? Did the fact that he was forced by events of the time to fiercely defend his religion have an impact on his moral beliefs?
Everything of Thomas More’s philosophy can be attributed to his immortal book, “Utopia.” In it, More emphasizes equality of persons and communal ownership, which some have interpreted as a precursor to socialist thinking. He interestingly, and somewhat hypocritically, promotes freedom of religion but condemns atheism. Odd for someone who, in the strongest language possible, condemned Luther for choosing to reform his faith. But that was More. Since we have already examined Jesus’ take on human equality, all that remains in the comparison to More is to determine what was Jesus’ view of religious freedom.
THE JESUS RATIO:
You might think that someone who claims to be God incarnate would obviously not tolerate anyone having any other conflicting beliefs, right? Well, it depends on what you mean by, “tolerate.” This is where the famous question of free will comes into play, but we’ll look at that issue in detail later on. For now, we simply need to know if Jesus taught that everyone had a right to their own beliefs or not. Of course Jesus wanted everyone to believe in him. But what if they didn’t?
If tolerance means pretending that all conflicting thoughts can somehow also all be true, then no, Jesus was not tolerant. He said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But if by tolerance you mean, allowing individuals to make their own choice rather than attempting to force one belief and persecute those who did not conform – as would become the immediate reaction to the Reformation, from both sides – well, that’s another story.
Jesus made no secret of his teaching that he was the only hope for salvation. But he never once forced himself on anyone – quite the opposite, in fact. The gospels are full of accounts of Jesus telling people that it was up to them to follow him, that because they sought him out their faith was blessed, and that all that was needed to find salvation was belief – belief, not acceptance of something imposed. An example of this is found in Mark 9:23 in which a man comes to Jesus to heal his son – and by the way, it is important to note that the man came to Jesus, not the other way around. Jesus tells him, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.”
Jesus allows for each person to make up their own mind, but that does not mean they are right. In what could be called a rather depressing and bleak statement, Jesus summarizes religious freedom in Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
Jesus’ teachings, as reflected in the words of his followers centuries later, include humanity’s happiness fulfilled through closeness with God, the inspiration of right living through knowing God and freedom to make one’s decisions without imposition. These thought are more controversial, perhaps, than those examined previously – not everyone would agree that God is important – however, it must be admitted that freedom and righteousness are excellent goals.
Next time: The deification of reason…or not?