Yesterday was the feast of All Saints of the Dominican Order, and the order began a jubilee year in celebration of the 800th year of its foundation.
I’m fond of the Dominicans. If I were ever to join a religious order it would be them. Part of the appeal is the focus on preaching, in the broadest sense of that word – talking of the things of God, and of God’s relation to human beings. That we can talk of God is, in large part, the result of God’s first having spoken to us, so the very fact of preaching is already a witness to God’s act of self-revelation. That God can be the subject of our speech means also that we can reason about God. The Dominican tradition is not one for which faith and reason are at war – the insistence on this point is much needed in a world where both atheists and believers suppose often suppose otherwise. Rather, as Aquinas, one of the Order’s best-known sons, was to insist, faith perfects reason, just as grace perfects nature.
We can talk truthfully of God, but this does not mean that we have God sewn up, like the computer Deep Thought from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which, worries the philosopher Majikthise, might make philosophers redundant by disclosing not only God’s existence, but also his telephone number. Instead, insists Aquinas, we cannot know what God is, what his nature is, in this life. God, being the reason why there is something rather than nothing at all, lies beyond and behind all the particular ‘somethings’ to which he gives being, and falls under no shared category with them. Hence the words we use to talk of God, words we have learned in their application to the material world of our experience, are – in Herbert McCabe’s phrase – ‘second-hand’. God is always in excess of our speech. We are, says Aquinas, united in this life to Christ under grace ‘as to one unknown’.
It is therefore fitting that an Order which gave rise to the greatest post-biblical theology in Christianity also bequeathed the Church some of its greatest mystics. Meister Eckhart, Henry Suso, and Rose of Lima were all Dominicans. Indeed, to separate out the mystics from the theologians is misleading, for the point is that our talk of God flows over into an excess which can only be expressed in adoration, a reality present in every word Aquinas wrote, as well as in his admission that all these words were ‘as straw’ before the divine existence towards which they gestured.
That is what I see as being at the heart of the Dominican charism, that mystery can be communicated, truly communicated, without ceasing to be mystery. And that, in turn, is the central claim doctrine of the Incarnation.