We like to ask questions, don’t we? We’re inquisitive, wanting to figure out what’s going around us and within us. One of the things I love about hanging out in school with the kids is the simplicity but directness of their questions. Every once in a while, you come across the child who can’t stop asking “Why?” Every answer is greeted with another question; sometimes it’s hard to tell if the child really wants answers or they’re just saying “Why” to keep you talking. But giving answers is a pretty insightful process.
For example, take this line of questions that is pretty common: Why do we have to go to Mass? Well, a lot of reasons, but one of them is that it’s a way for us to give thanks to God and show that we are keeping our priorities straight. Why? Well, because when Jesus came, He noticed that we were putting an awful lot in front of living and loving the way we were called to be, so He wanted to help us straighten out our lives. Why? Well, because He wanted us to know what really matters. Why? And on and on. If you’ve been in this situation, you’ve probably noticed that if you don’t want to go on forever, the answers you give have to be moving in a direction, moving from small to big. At a certain point, it gets to the final stuff: “Because God wants you in heaven.” “Why?” “Because God loves you, and that’s why God made you.” Done.
St. Thomas Aquinas is my favorite intellectual saint. He was a man of questions, always asking, connecting the dots, inquiring, seeking to know. It’s an absolutely essential part of our Catholic Tradition to ask questions, to probe the mysteries of life, to ponder and wonder and reflect. His massive major work is called the Summa Theologica. In English, it’s five thick books long, and the entire thing is questions. He asks a question, then proposes all of the potential objections he can think of, looks at what the whole history of our faith has said, and draws out the best answers. It’s a magnificent method, both because of its far-reaching implications and because it’s so practical. The Summa isn’t easy to read, mostly because he’s also probably one of the brightest believers to ever live, but boy did he give us a gift in answering literally hundreds of the biggest questions about our faith using the theology and wisdom of countless sources.
At the beginning of the second part of the Summa, he opens with a topic that a lot of people consider the big one. The title of the series of questions is “Of Man’s Last End.” It’s a treatment of a whole bunch of questions that come together to identify the meaning of life.
Throughout the questions, he comes to a number of important answers, concluding that whatever we call the “ultimate end” or final goal of life, must be something that has nothing beyond it, that is perfect, that completely fulfills the sense of need or longing that we all experience deep within. The way he answers the questions is insightful and resonates with what we feel within our hearts. He concludes that ultimately, we all want to be happy. And isn’t that true? We might use a lot of other words for describing it — he does as well, sometimes calling it fulfillment or satisfaction. The point is, our deepest desire is to be happy or fulfilled. On that basis, Aquinas asks, what can actually make that happen in a real, ultimate way? Leveraging the wisdom of hundreds of years of theology, Aquinas draws together a bunch of debates and concludes that the best answer to the question, “What truly makes us happy?” is this: “To know and love God.” It’s what we were made for, and it’s what will ultimately satisfy the movements of our restless hearts in a complete way. Right there, we have the ultimate, broadest, most final answer to all of our questions.
Next time you’re answering a chain of questions, especially “Why” questions, keep that ultimate answer on the horizon as you navigate through the intermediate answers. In the end, with each broadening question and answer, our chain of responses has to be moving in the direction of concluding, with Aquinas and the whole Catholic Tradition, that the ultimate meaning of life is to know and love God. If our answers are leading us to a different conclusion, that means something in our reasoning is off track. And that means, at least to some degree, our lives will never be as full and free and joyful as they were made to be. But that’s a topic for another column. God bless you until then.