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Lost among the Stars

Among the many things that impress me about Thomas Aquinas is the sheer volume of his writings: not only his two very large Summas, but many commentaries on Aristotle and on books of the Bible, plus very much besides.  And he did all this writing without having the use of a computer (unless, unbeknownst to us, angels provided him with one).  Further, the high frequency of his quotations and citations from Aristotle and the Bible suggests that he had a memorized knowledge of the complete Bible and the complete works of Aristotle.  Otherwise how could he have found time to look up his thousands of references?

This was a man who died when he was not yet fifty years old; in other words, he lived only half an adult lifetime.  How could he possibly have done all this work in the few years between his mid-twenties and his premature death at forty-nine?

A clue to the answer may be that he was an unmarried man.  More often than not, great philosophers were unmarried.  For example: Plato, all the medieval theologians (Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, etc.), Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Newton, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche.  Can it be that it is the state of single blessedness that gives one the mental freedom to become an intellectual giant?

Socrates was married, but Nietzsche said that the point of this marriage (which was according to legend unhappy) was to prove that it is unwise for a philosopher to marry.  And Bertrand Russell married four times, as if to make up for the non-marriages of three other philosophers.

I have often reminded my wife (with whom I will this year be celebrating fifty years of marital bliss) that I gave up my chance to be a great philosopher on the day we became a wedded couple.  But such is the madness of true love.  She has often expressed her condolences, but she has comforted me by assuring me that she doesn’t mind my insignificance. She has no regrets that she didn’t marry Descartes.

Someplace in his immense volume of writings, Aquinas justifies the study of natural science on the grounds that nature is an image or reflection of God, its Creator, and that to study nature is, therefore, an indirect way of studying God.  Now I cannot give you a citation for this remark.  I accidentally stumbled upon it years ago, and I’ve never been able to find it again.  I apologize for this lack of citation.

According to the standard conception of God, God has three salient characteristics: he is infinitely good, infinitely intelligent, and infinitely powerful – omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent.


To get an impression of God’s goodness, we should study the lives of great saints and heroes.  To get an impression of God’s intelligence we should study the structure of atoms and the complexity of organisms, especially the human organism. But for getting an impression of the immensity of God’s power, there is nothing like the study of the immensity of the physical universe.

I confess that my knowledge of astronomy is very limited and very amateurish, and has been gained almost totally from Wikipedia, which assures me that the universe is about 14 billion years old (dating from the Big Bang), that it contains billions of galaxies, that each of these galaxies contains billions of stars, and that there is a good chance that many of these stars (just like our star, the Sun) have planets revolving around them.  I am also assured that the expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating, so much so that eventually the galaxies will grow so far apart that they will no longer be able to see one another.  All this astounds me.  And if this universe is an image of God (as Thomas Aquinas has assured me), then I am astounded by the immense power of God.

But I wonder how all this can be reconciled with Christianity, which tells me (or at least seems to tell me) that we human beings are the focus of God’s intention, and that he is terribly concerned about our sins.  He is so concerned, in fact, that he condescended to become human and to suffer and die in atonement for our many sins.  Then this God-man rose from the dead.  He makes supernatural aid (we call it grace) available to us so that, by accepting this offer of grace (which is to say, by not rejecting it), we may become holy and live forever in a state of holiness. Making human beings holy seems to be the whole point of the universe.

Now how can this Christian story be reconciled with the picture of the universe given to us by modern astronomy (as mediated by Wikipedia)?  Isn’t our Christian view of things excessively geocentric and excessively anthropocentric?  Isn’t it likely that rational beings inhabit some of those millions or billions of other planets that probably exist?  If so, why should God be more concerned about us than about them?  And isn’t it probable that those other rational beings have, like us, sinned?  And wouldn’t this mean that God has become one of them, and has suffered and died to atone for their sins?  And has risen from the dead on their planets?  And has made grace available to them too?

And given the great number of other planets and the great number of sinful races dwelling on them, doesn’t it follow that God is endlessly suffering and dying and rising from the dead?  Doesn’t it follow that the universe is a vast theater of sin and redemption and attempts at holiness?

Now I wouldn’t want anybody to take me too seriously when I speculate along these lines.  But given the enlargement of the universe that astronomy has discovered in the last half-century or so, we will soon have to think hard about Christianity not only as a terrestrial religion, but a literally universal religion.


*Image: The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas by Andrea di Firenze, c. 1366 [Spanish Chapel (Cappellone degli Spagnoli), Santa Maria Novella, Florence]

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.