Sometimes the student becomes the master. That was the case with the relationship between Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Albert the Great. Saint Thomas Aquinas is arguably one of the greatest theologians who ever lived. But in our efforts to honor the student, Aquinas, let us not forget his teacher, Saint Albert. So renowned was Saint Albert as one of the great, respected scholars of his age, that during his lifetime itself, he was already being honored with the title ‘Great’.
Saint Albert the Great made numerous contributions to the fields of science and philosophy. He is credited with helping formulate a systematic study of minerals. At a time when most of what was known about the natural sciences came from ancient classical texts, Saint Albert studied plants and animals and supplemented what was known about them with his own research. In fact, on account of the vastness of his expertise and knowledge in the fields of philosophy, theology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, minerology, botany, zoology, and so on, Pope Pius XII named him the patron saint of scientists.
Yet, by always studying the things of this world with an eye on things from above, Saint Albert was among the forerunners in concretely explaining the relationship between faith on one hand, and philosophy, reason and the sciences on the other. As Catholic author Kevin Vost wrote in his biography of Saint Albert, “For Albert, there was never conflict between science and religion, faith and reason, the material and the spiritual realms … for him ‘the whole world was theology,’ because ‘the heavens proclaim the glory of God’.”
Saint Albert’s main approach to science was empirical, meaning that he tested his scientific theories by observing things in the world around him (keep in mind that thirteenth century scientific studies lacked the sophisticated laboratories and equipment that we have today). As he once wrote, “In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power: we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent (inherent) causes can naturally bring to pass.”
However, ascribing a natural cause to thing that happen in the world, without directly attributing God’s hand in that occurrence, did not sit well with many of Saint Albert’s peers as they felt such actions robbed God of the glory due to him. Yet, from Saint Albert’s perspective, there was no need to force a supernatural cause upon something that had a natural explanation which was more plainly apparent. By simply examining, categorizing, and describing the world and phenomena he investigated, Saint Albert opened the doors for future research to take forward the results and ideas he put forth in his writings (for the record, his published works totaled over 20,000 pages of writing).
Even in our modern times, Saint Albert’s influence has continued to hold sway in the discussion of the relationship between faith and reason. For instance, Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both recognized this great saint as being among the first to recognize that philosophy and the sciences needed to be viewed distinctly from theology, if they were to perform well in their respective fields of research. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, “Saint Albert the Great reminds us that there is friendship between science and faith and that through their vocation to the study of nature, scientists can take an authentic and fascinating path of holiness.”
From a Christian thought perspective, it is Saint Albert’s commentary on the entire corpus of Aristotelean philosophy that is most noteworthy. The very fact that he studied and explained Aristotelian philosophy was radical and revolutionary in the thirteenth century. Most Christian thinkers during that time in history were suspicious of Aristotle’s philosophy because of its pagan roots. However, Saint Albert explained that when something is truly rational, it is compatible with Christian teachings as revealed in the Scriptures.
By unpacking Aristotle’s philosophy, Saint Albert paved the way for the acceptance of Aristotle’s philosophy in medieval Christian studies. The significance of this point in particular cannot be overstated, as they served as a crucial part of the subsequent theological writings and explanations put forward by Saint Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotelean methods and principles to systemize the study of theology. In other words, Saint Albert laid the groundwork, upon which his student Aquinas built, which has since helped generations of theologians and Christians gain a deeper understanding of the mysteries and gems of our faith, by looking at doctrinal concepts and ideas from a rational and philosophical point of view.
Saint Albert’s witness stands out most profoundly because he demonstrated that as much as theological studies that delve into the deepest mysteries of our faith are distinct from the study of philosophy and the natural sciences, the two go hand-in-hand, forming a part of man’s thirst for truth, happiness, and ultimately, God himself. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
“How many scientists, in fact, in the wake of Saint Albert the Great, have carried on their research inspired by wonder at and gratitude for a world which, to their eyes as scholars and believers, appeared and appears as the good work of a wise and loving Creator! Scientific study is then transformed into a hymn of praise.”