Dr. Mark F. Johnson

Interview with Dr. Mark F. Johnson


1. Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

I am associate professor of Theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee , Wisconsin ( USA ). I was born on April 22, 1961 , the son of a US Army officer, who was then assigned to duty in West Germany (as it was called at the time). I spent almost the entirety of the 1970's in Europe , in both Germany and Italy ; it was then that I fell in love with Europe , its languages, art, and music. Although I went to college intending to specialize in the performance of the organ, I soon changed my mind, and developed a love for learning, especially a love for the doctrine of St. Thomas ; it was this that led me to go to Toronto to the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies for my graduate work (Ph.D., 1990). I taught at Saint Joseph 's College ( Rensselaer , Indiana ) for six years, and have been at Marquette since 1996.

2. What research are you doing at this moment and/or what courses are you teaching?

I get to teach graduate seminars on various topics now and then; a few years back I taught a seminar on the moral universe of St Thomas , and then, a year later, on his Christology. Of course, when it comes to Thomas's work, almost any part has some genuine contact with any other part.

As regards my research I have been slowly working over the last ten years towards a book on the whole "big picture" of Thomas's account of the moral life. I'd like in my monograph to present the moral universe as Thomas saw it to be, and that universe is not the filtered, philosophized universe that interests us today; it was rather the cluttered and messy universe ruled by the God and redeemed by the passion of his Son. For me the pastoral literature left behind by Thomas should be read and treated as of primary importance in interpreting him. This is why, when I do finish my book, I imagine that reviewers will accuse me of having made the Tertia pars of the Summa theologiae to be an extension of the Secunda pars. There are worse crimes.

3. What is the most important thing you learned from Aquinas?

At the risk of irksome oversimplification, it is this: that the bewildering diversity of the created order, and the chaos of human history, will be rendered unified, intelligible, and sweet in the next life, if the divine mercy allows us to rest in the glow of God's face.

4. In which way were you introduced to the thought of Thomas and whom do you consider to be your teacher in Aquinas?

I got a hint of the existence of Thomas during my college years at Cornell College in Iowa , as a student of William E. Carroll; it was he who emphasized to me the importance of the compatibility of faith and reason, both in Aquinas, but also, importantly, in Galileo. To this day I know more about Galileo than I do Descartes. Of course there were other teachers.

I went to Toronto to be a student of the great Dominican, James A. Weisheipl, who sadly died a year or so after I got there (likely from the prospect of having to direct me as a student!). But God provided. I was a student of Leonard Boyle, Osmund Lewry, and most importantly, Lawrence Dewan (all three Dominicans). I also studied with the Basilian priest, Walter Principe, and the layman James Reilly. I've been also truly blessed to have great colleagues and friends who communicate with me. Fr Dewan remains to this day my constant guide and counselor on the reading of St Thomas . He is an excellent model of how to be a student of Thomas.

5. What is the importance of Aquinas for our times, especially in relationship to your field of research?

In the field of ethics, especially, these are good times for Thomas, because both Catholic and Protestant authors are reading him, as are philosophers (especially in the analytic world). The virtue-ethics craze continues to steer people Thomas's way. And of course, you can't have a discussion about natural law in a broadly Christian context without mentioning Thomas's name. So there is, and will remain, a wide audience for his writings. I just hope that people will remember the Cross; Thomas did, twice a day.

6. How would you describe the current status of Thomism in your country and/or in general?

Here in the USA things are good, at least in the sense that many authors are reading about Thomas and studying him; of course there is no uniform method that allows all readers to have a clear sense of what Thomas actually meant on this issue or that, or how we best employ his teaching on this or that issue. So there is at times almost a Tower-of-Babel diversity amongst readers of his work. There is a marked increase in theological study of Thomas these days, partly under the influence of Fr. Torrell's writings, and I'm naturally excited about that (Fr. Principe in Toronto was a close friend of Torrell's). In the philosophical world I think that, here in the USA , Thomas is benefiting from the continued reading of Aristotle by English-speakers, who are now turning to Thomas as a reader of Aristotle (and therefore to his commentaries on Aristotle).

If I have a worry it is that the new emphasis upon the "theological" Thomas may encourage students not to do the necessary philosophical study that Thomas himself did. Sure, work on the doctrine of the Trinity, but make sure that you're reading and studying the De substantiis separatis, and other metaphysical writings. Everybody should be studying the Scriptum on Boethius's De trinitate, especially questions 5 and 6. And no one should be allowed to read the Secunda pars until they've read the De anima, Thomas's commentary on it, and the Disputed questions De anima.

7. Which publications of yourself do you consider to be the most important for Aquinas' researchers to read?

I've written items of interest here and there. Perhaps some that will be useful to readers are:

"Another Look at St. Thomas and the Plurality of the Literal Sense of Scripture," Medieval Philosophy and Theology 2 (1992): 118-42

"God's Knowledge in Our Frail Mind: The Thomist ic Model of Theology," Angelicum 76 (1999): 25-46.

"An Accomplishment of the Moral Part of Aquinas's Summa theologiae," in James R. Ginther and Carl N. Still eds., Essays in Medieval Theology and Philosophy in Memory of Walter H. Principe: Fortresses and Launching Pads ( Aldershot : Ashgate Publishers, 2004), pp. 85-104.

Most of all I ask the readers for their prayers as I work away on my monograph: Nature, Grace, Sin and Glory: The Moral Universe of St. Thomas Aquinas.
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