A Personal Witness
When I was pursuing graduate studies in Rome (can it be?) 55 years ago, on my very first outing from Rome I set foot in Orvieto. Oh, how my heart was captured by Orvieto, and still is. My younger brother, the priest martyred by Muslims in 1964 in Dacca (then East Pakistan), also loved Orvieto well, and my wife, Karen, painted a portrait of him standing in front of the black-and-white cathedral there.
It was in Orvieto (1261–65) that the young Master Thomas Aquinas turned his attention to the new doctrinal threat to Christianity, emanating from the new philosophers of the Muslim world.
At the time Frederick II was building a university in the south of Italy to support the work of such Islamic philosophers. It was through their early Arabic translations of Aristotle that these Arab greats were presenting Aristotle to the West, when the long-missing Greek texts were still largely unavailable, even unknown.
A student can still find a highly readable record of this intellectual encounter between Aquinas and Islam in his Summa Contra Gentiles, especially in book III, on Providence, and the contingency and freedom of this world. And on two contrasting views of the relation between God and man, God and human liberty, God and the contingency of the created world — the Muslim, and the Christian.
For the Muslims, Aquinas noted, all belonged to God, to his initiative and action, and nothing belonged to man. Even our insights and judgments were said to be God’s insights and judgments, which humans merely receive. But if this is so, Aquinas mused, why do I have to study so hard to acquire them? All initiative and freedom on the part of humans, Aquinas argued, seemed slighted, and in a way that told against another fundamental tenet of Islam.
That tenet is that after death there is for each human either Paradise or damnation, based on the choices and actions of humans on earth. They choose. The Judge ratifies their choice with reward or punishment. This tenet implies an immense role for human liberty and responsibility.
And what implications has that profound, axial tenet for a philosophy of man, a philosophy of liberty? And a philosophy of politics?
And yet this whole two-century-long Muslim, Christian, and Jewish dialogue (see Maimonides, too) was conducted civilly, with remarkable philosophic courtesy and mutual respect. Learning took place on both sides. In particular, Aquinas learned several key distinctions about God from his study of the Arabic philosophers.
Nowhere was Western freedom so deeply and powerfully defended until that time as in this encounter of Aquinas with Islamic philosophy in the mid-1200s. It is one of the reasons, I suppose, that Lord Acton called Aquinas “the first Whig.” The first intellectual defender of the human person, and his liberties and proper responsibilities.
Yet it was the civil context of that intellectual conversation with his Muslim interlocutors that most enchanted my younger brother and me. Indeed, Rich continued on to his ordination to the priesthood, even when after many long years of study it became clear to me and my spiritual directors that God called me elsewhere than the priesthood.
Out of our early enchantment with Aquinas and the Muslims (we studied in the same university), my brother felt the call to dedicate his life to Christian-Muslim civility and rapprochement. That is why he accepted the decision of his superiors in religion to go to Dacca, to study Arabic at Dacca University, and to begin his own teaching in Notre Dame College there, where many in Bangladesh’s elite today received early studies. My brother is still venerated there, as “Father Richard.”
One evening just a few years back, in Santa Maria Trastevere, there was a candle-lighting ceremony, at the behest of Pope John Paul II (whose secretary informed me that the pope had said Mass for my brother on his visit to Bangladesh), in which superiors of missionary congregations in Rome stepped forward one by one to read the names of the missionary martyrs from their communities during the 20th century, the century of more Christian martyrs, by far, than any previous century.