Peter Kreeft’s new book Practical Theologypromises “358 pieces of wisdom from Saint Thomas’s masterpiece the Summa, which are literally more valuable than all the kingdoms of this world because they will help you to attain ‘the one thing needful,’ the summum bonum or ‘the greatest good,’ the ultimate end and purpose and meaning of life.” Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and the author of many books, presents “Spiritual Direction from Saint Thomas Aquinas” — in “an easily digestible sample” of Aquinas’s “distinctly religious wisdom.” He responds to questions here about it. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is your Practical Theology a self-help version of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa? An executive summary for beginners? Is it just for beginners?
Peter Kreeft: Practical Theology is as far from self-help nonsense, i.e. pop psychology, as you can get. It’s theology, and it’s Aquinas, and it’s the Summa, for goodness’ sake. I have no idea what “an executive summary” is, but I’m quite sure this isn’t it. And it’s for everybody, therefore it’s for beginners. When it comes to God we’re all beginners, especially the ones who think they are experts. Only fools think they’re sages; sages know they’re fools. (P.S. Aquinas wrote the 4,000-page Summa “for beginners.” That was not satire. It’s really a very simple book.)
Lopez: Is theology ever practical, really?
Kreeft: Theology is always practical because nothing is more practical than living in reality, living in the real world, and God is the origin, center, end, and meaning of reality. If that’s not true, let’s be pagans, atheists, or TV executives.
Lopez: You say that “if our love is right, everything else will be right.” How does the Angelic Doctor propose that we get love right? Is he the love doctor, too?
Kreeft: Augustine wrote, “Amor meus, pondus meum” — “my love is my weight,” my gravity, my destiny. How to get love right? Ask its inventor, origin, and standard, the God who is love. He told us in many ways: conscience, saints, Scripture, Church, above all Christ. Yes, he is the love doctor. And he’d tell a culture like ours that identifies that title with Ruth Westheimer that it is as right about this as it would be in identifying expertise on Einstein with Archie Bunker.
Lopez: What is an angelic doctor, anyway?
Kreeft: He’s called “the” (not “an”) angelic doctor because (a) he got the angels right, and, most especially, because (b) like an angel, he was remarkably free from lust, greed, and other foolish human passions.
Lopez: Why is Saint Thomas Aquinas such a big deal? And one of the best spiritual directors?
Kreeft: He’s big because he was very large, like G. K. Chesterton. His mind is big because he gives us “big pictures” all the time, not little crabbed clever pieces of “scholarship.” And he’s a great spiritual director because he has the personal virtues that takes: personal sanctity (love of God and His creation, especially human beings), brilliant insight into good and evil, humility and open-mindedness, absolute honesty, and the habit of saying everything as simply, clearly, and directly as possible.
Lopez: Unless you’re discerning a religious vocation, or deeply invested in Catholic apostolic work, the phrase “spiritual direction” may be foreign to a lot of Catholics, as a practical matter in their lives. Should it be an element of every Catholic’s life?
Kreeft: A Catholic is one who believes what the Catholic Church teaches. The Catholic Church teaches that the meaning of life is holiness, happiness, and heaven. Spiritual direction means help in that journey. If that’s practical only for priests or apostles, we laypeople can say, of the supreme wisdom, “The hell with it; it’s not for me.” It’s the other way round: The clergy are for the people, not vice versa. The pope is “the servant of the servants of God.”