Anyone who has attempted to read the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas knows that his work can be challenging. Without proper guidance and encouragement, it is all too easy to abandon the scholastic philosophy that is synonymous with his work. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, is well aware of the difficulties: “Reading (St. Thomas) all by yourself is difficult, unless someone makes it easy.” Practical Theology makes the 4,000 pages of St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica not only understandable, but reveals to the reader that his work as relevant today as it was more than 800 years ago. Kreeft emphasizes that this book was written as a kind of spiritual guide rather than an academic exercise, a collection of “choice gold nuggets . . . (that) . . . can help you become a saint.”
The book’s length and the rather severe image of Aquinas (by Piceno, 15th century), which dominates the cover, may serve to discourage the casual browser. However, even a brief perusal of its pages will whet the appetite of readers who appreciate solid theological analysis applied to the issues of day-to-day life, bridging the apparent chasms between faith, reason and practice.
Kreeft’s writing style is that of a highly competent teacher with a deep knowledge and love of his area of study. The deliberately provocative introductory questions for each topic are sure to prompt active reading of the text. (Example: “Does passion make us more or less responsible for sin?”) Although the author does not compromise Aquinas’ pursuit of the well-known ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness, his explications are engaging and challenging. In navigating the shoals of the eternal questions regarding how one should live, the reader has a sense of security that derives from trust in a well-built watercraft and experienced captain.
The 350+ topics are arranged in such a way that it is possible to explore an area of interest in some depth. For example, if one is interested in the nature of love, Kreeft has written 11 short (one- to two-page) topical explorations including, “How to love one’s enemies,” “Loving your body,” and “Love of spouse compared with love of self.” If the reader is interested in only one of the topics, each has a self-sustaining quality.
Every topic’s discussion is an amalgam of some of Aquinas’ original writing (clearly indicated in bold type) with Kreeft’s commentary. Where appropriate, clarifications are embedded within Aquinas’ original writings. What emerge are seamless and accessible texts of pedagogical utility. One wishes that more study texts would adopt this effective and user-friendly format.
True masters of a field of study are able to effectively communicate with non-specialists and Professor Kreeft clearly belongs in that category. Accordingly, Practical Theology is a book for anyone who seeks wise and practical direction for the very human journey, for living well in the lights of both reason and faith. While readers may not always be in agreement with what at times may be perceived as the author’s categorical conclusions, Kreeft’s expertise and honest pursuit of truth is never in doubt.