James Carse, a retired academic who ran the Religious Studies Program at New York University for 30 years, just came out with a new book titled, The Religious Case Against Belief. In an interview at Salon.com, he said something about Thomas Aquinas that I thought was interesting. He said that Aquinas was a poet. Here’s the Salon question and his full answer:
Salon: You also say poets are the real visionaries of the world. And you make the case that religion, at its root, is inspired by its poets.
James Carse: You know, my entire career was at New York University, but I only taught the history of Christianity once. That’s when one of my colleagues was not available. So I went back to my graduate study of St. Thomas Aquinas. And I loved it so much. When we got to Thomas in the class, I began to notice that the students — most of them were Catholics — had stopped taking notes. They stopped moving. It looked like they stopped breathing. They’d never realized that there was so much beauty behind the Catholic teaching. They thought it was about doing something right or wrong, rather than this great cathedral of language within which they could understand their very individual experiences. It struck me that what was great about Thomas is not that he was right or wrong, but that he’s a poet. It’s just beautiful work. It’s an artistic creation of the greatest achievement. And when you take that insight and look across the traditions, you find people of very great poetic insight. The great religious figures are not philosophers, they’re not historians, they’re not institutional leaders in any sense. They are people who inspire the imagination and therefore deserve the word “poet.”