Thomas Aquinas might cycle on the footpath (but Immanuel Kant wouldn’t)

Bike commuters in London; Credit: Paul Kubalek; Licence: Creative Commons

My mother taught me that it was ok to steal.

The nuns taught my mother that it was ok to steal.

Thomas Aquinas taught the nuns that it was ok to steal.

I suspect that some context is needed here.

In the Summa theologiae 2a2ae, q66, where Aquinas deals with the morality of theft and robbery, he considers whether it’s lawful to thieve in a case of necessity.

Aquinas argues that:

In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common (2a2ae, q66, a7, co)

He gives qualified acknowledgement to property rights (albeit in a way that would make most red-blooded capitalists blanch). But he argues that in cases of “manifest and urgent” need, when no other remedy is available, a Christian may take the property of another in order to help him or herself or neighbours in need. It is clear from the context that Aquinas isn’t thinking of poor people robbing each other, but of those who have more than they need forfeiting their surplus to those who don’t have what they need. Here he quotes Saint Ambrose’s reproach to the wealthy:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

What the mediaeval church thought happened to our “wealth creators,” Chartres Cathedral, South Portal; Credit: Nick Thompson

This is what the nuns taught my mother and what my mother taught me. As a theologically minded child, I engraved it upon my heart.

I mention all of this to draw attention to a broader point: that Aquinas is always sharply aware of the distinction between the letter and spirit of laws (as well as other rules and regulations).

When lawmakers make good laws, they do so with the intention of promoting the welfare of their subjects – i.e. of upholding the common good. But lawmakers can’t foresee all of the individual circumstances to which those laws will be applied. This means that in some cases, a law may have to be “bent” or even broken in order for the original intention of the lawmaker to be fulfilled. In other words, the spirit of a good law must always take precedence over its letter.

This in its turn is a round-about-way of coming – at last! – to an ethical dilemma I contemplated on my bike-ride into work this morning: all other things being equal, would Thomas Aquinas approve of biking on the footpath?

Dear reader, as you have probably already guessed, I am no ethicist, and I seek your judgements on this matter of great import (to me at least).

Most mornings I bike to work along Ash, Rata Street and Great North Road. If I travel in rush hour, the traffic is chaotic. Because of the geography of the Whau Estuary, I have little other choice but to take this road.

What worries me is not just the frenetic lane changing and sheer volume of traffic.  The route includes many “pinch points” (it’s narrow) and it’s easy for a cyclist to be hemmed in against the gutter, because traffic can’t pull out far enough to pass you safely.

For both reasons there are a few places where it seems safer to bike along the footpath for 100-200m during rush hour.

But if I do that, I’m breaking the law.

(I should say that I’m not alone in this; school kids and the elderly cyclists in that area also use the footpath; for their sake, I’m glad they do)

If the kids, the elderly cyclists and I were to observe Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (crudely put: don’t do anything that’s not universalisable) none of us would be on the footpath. That’s because a footpath full of cyclists would be dangerous to pedestrians. And in general, that’s sound advice. As a pedestrian, I get a bit antsy if I feel hemmed in by a cyclist on the footpath – especially one travelling at speed. It’s not safe, and the intention of the lawmaker is that everyone – pedestrian, cyclist, motorist – should be able to travel in a way that is as safe as possible.

(Photo credit:; Licence: Creative Commons)

But, what if it is clearly safer to ride on the footpath – especially in the case of school children? What if there are no pedestrians on the footpath, or if I dismount and walk while I’m passing pedestrians? Is the intention of the lawmaker not better fulfilled by a bit of judicious law-breaking?

In general New Zealand public discourse about any kind of rule-breaking is crudely and savagely Kantian. In fact, I’m not sure I’d even dignify it with that term. Anyone reading the letters to the New Zealand Herald would be hard pressed not to conclude that New Zealanders – religious or heathen, conservative or liberal – are on the whole self-righteous, censorious and punitive. Not for us the humane casuistry and good sense of the tradition that Aquinas represents.

So I feel sure that New Zealand public opinion would gladly see me heavily fined for meandering along the footpaths of west Auckland during rush hour.

But I’m not sure what Aquinas would say.


Birds do it

Birds perching on a sprouting vine from British Library Add MS 1885 f. 14r

I’ve been asked to write a post about Saint Valentine’s Day.

Those who asked me to do this, should have known that this was like asking Mr Scrooge to write a post about Christmas.

My reluctance is not for lack of romantic spirit, but from an inborn resistance (somewhere deep in my Presbyterian genetics) to being hustled into organised festivities – especially by card companies, florists and the media-industrial complex.

So let me proceed with my hatchet-job.

Valentine’s day very likely has as much to do with a saint called Valentine as Boxing Day has to do with Mike Tyson.

Mediaeval Christians marked their year – not as we do with financial years, civic holidays and weekends – but with festivals of the church. So, for example, in some of the mediaeval British universities like Glasgow, the first term of the university year was known until recently as the “Martinmas term” because it contained the feast day of Saint Martin (11th November), one of the four days of the year on which rents were paid.

Calling a day Saint Valentine’s day means no more than saying that there is a feast day of romantic love on the 14th of February – which also happens to be Saint Valentine’s Day.

The lack of any more intrinsic connection with Saint Valentine is evident in the fact that the most popular mediaeval collection of saints’ lives, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden legend (late 13th cent.) tells a story about a Saint Valentine that makes no mention of any deed that could be construed as romantic. Here Valentine is just a “right noble knight of God” killed by the “Emperor Claudius” in 268.

In the 17th century the Bollandists, a group of Catholic scholars seeking to defend the church against Protestant charges of superstition, took a historico-critical flamethrower to the lush jungle of mediaeval hagiography. Their multi-volume Acta sanctorum identified seven different Saint Valentines – all of whom might be the one commemorated on 14th February.

  1. Valentine the bishop martyr of Baga and Taurus (Toro?) in Spain
  2. Valentine the presbyter and martyr of Rome
  3. Valentine the bishop and martyr of Terni (Interamna) in Umbria
  4. Valentine the martyr whose head is venerated in Jumiège in France
  5. Valentine the martyr “Socuellami in Hispania” (can’t work out what the modern Spanish place name is; suggestions welcome)
  6. Valentine the martyr of the Somme and Armentières
  7. Valentine, one of 24 soldier martyrs of Africa

The Bollandists’ Valentine, presbyter of Rome, defends his faith, baptises people and heals the blind, but doesn’t do anything that could be construed as particularly romantic.

Jacopo Bassano, Saint Valentine baptising Saint Lucilla, 1575

Given time and application, one could probably comb through lives of the other Valentines in search of the vaguely eroticisable. But we probably don’t need to, because Henry Kelly, Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine (1986) thinks we’re barking up the wrong tree. According to Kelly, it’s not Valentine, but Chaucer we have to blame for Valentine’s Day.

Kelly’s basic argument is that, when Chaucer spoke about Saint Valentine’s day, he was referring to yet another Valentine (number eight) whose feast day was celebrated in Genoa on 2 May.

All over Europe, the “merry month of May” was associated with the stirrings of spring and of the loins – in a way that the still wintry 14th February was not.

In his poem Parliament of Fowls Chaucer describes a dream in which he enters the Temple of Venus where all of the birds are choosing their mates for spring, and he remarks:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,

[For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose its mate] (Parliament, l. 309-310)

Kelly then argues that Chaucer’s poetical admirers spread the association between Saint Valentine and the birds (and the bees) through aristocratic courtly love poetry. Valentine’s Day filtered from there into the popular culture of Catholic and later Protestant England. The feast was well established by the 17th century.

Because the Valentine of 14th Feb was better known than the Valentine of 2 May, things drifted backwards a few months, and the romantic elements began to find their way into the story of a single early Roman martyr called Valentine commemorated today.

So, for example, the 18th century Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler tells us that:

To abolish the heathen’s lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls in honour of their goddess Februta Juno, on the 15th of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets [slips of paper; the original “Valentines”] given on this day

Even if Kelly is wrong in blaming Chaucer for Valentine’s Day, there’s not much evidence for the a romantic Valentine before the early 15th century.

Still, I must admit that I am warming to the idea of a Chaucer’s Day. Who wants to join me in sniggering at the rude bits in the Miller’s Tale? After the deluge of Valentinomania, it would feel quite cathartic.

Detail of a miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer; from Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes, England (2nd quarter of the fifteenth century), Royal 17. D. vi, f. 93v. – See more at:

Another public lecture!

Theology staff are delighted and excited to be hosting two very distinguished scholars next month – Professors Carol and Eric Meyers from Duke University are visiting the University of Auckland and will be delivering a public lecture on 4 March that promises to be absolutely fascinating. We can’t wait! More details below.

Theology at the University of Auckland Public Lecture

Tuesday 4 March, 6pm

Venue: Arts 1, 14a Symonds Street, room 209 (206-209)

Holy Land Archaeology: Where the Past Meets the Present

Professors Carol Meyers and Eric Meyers (Duke University, North Carolina)

E  and C  meyersArchaeology is commonly understood as the study of human life in the past by analyzing the material remains of the past. But it is not usually recognized that the archaeological quest for the past is inevitably shaped by the excavators’ present. Professors Carol and Eric Meyers will use four case studies to illustrate the intersection between the discoveries at ancient sites and the pressures of the modern world. They will first present the stunning mosaics of the Beth Alpha synagogue in the context of the early Jewish settlement of the “Promised Land.” Then the excavations of Hazor, the largest biblical-era site in Israel, will be set against the background of the early days of the State of Israel. Next, the ruins atop the towering plateau of Masada near the Dead  Sea will be considered in light of the nationalist loyalties of the excavators. Finally, the discoveries at Sepphoris, a major Galilean city in the Roman and Byzantine periods, are viewed in relation to the turmoil in the Holy Land since the first intifada.

 CAROL MEYERS holds the Mary Grace Wilson Professorship in Religion at Duke University. She is a specialist in biblical studies and archaeology, as well as in the study of women in the biblical world. Author of many books and articles in these fields, one of her most recent works is Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (OUP, 2012). She is a trustee of the American Schools of Oriental Research and of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, serves on the board of directors of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, and is immediate past-president of the Society of Biblical Literature.

ERIC MEYERS holds the Bernice and Morton Lerner Chair in Jewish Studies at Duke University. His specialties include biblical studies and archaeology with a focus on the Second Temple and Greco-Roman period. His most recent publications include co-edited volumes Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, vol. 3 with Mark Chancey (Yale University Press, 2012) and The Pottery from Ancient Sepphoris (Eisenbrauns, 2013) with Carol Meyers. He is the past three-term president of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

For more details about the conference please contact

PDF flyer available here: Meyers Public Lecture (2)

Public lecture

Theology at Auckland is teaming up with Laidlaw College to host a public lecture on Thursday 20th February at the University of Auckland. Dr Richard Egan (University of Otago) is the Keynote speaker at the Theology, Spirituality and Cancer symposium, which is taking place in Auckland on 20-21 February [details here]. This will be a marvellous opportunity to hear from a physician who is really leading the way in New Zealand in exploring the significance of spirituality within the medical and healthcare professions.

Richard Egan, School of Medicine, University of Otago

Exploring the spiritual terrain of the cancer experience; stories and statistics

Thursday 20 February, 7.30pm
Library Theatre B10, Alfred Street, The University of Auckland


Cancer affects everyone differently but what is evident is that it turns most people’s lives upside down. For those with cancer, along with their family/whanau and friends, the cancer experience may challenge their beliefs and values, a sense of who they are, and their meaning and purpose in life. For many, the cancer experience is not only a reminder of their own mortality but it also provides a sense of connectedness. Our work with people who have experienced cancer suggests these are the elements that begin to define the spiritual terrain for people traversing the cancer landscape.

This presentation will consider people’s stories and will be supported by population based statistics, combined with contemporary ways of seeing health and well-being as a means to explore the often considered profound spiritual experience of cancer.

Richard Egan is a lecturer in health promotion at the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago. Working in the Cancer Society Social and Behavioral Research Unit, Richard teaches Undergraduate and Postgraduate health promotion. His background includes five years working as a health promoter/professional advisor in a Public Health Unit and five years secondary school teaching. Richard’s academic interests centre on supportive care in cancer, health promotion and the place of spirituality in health and well-being. Richard is a mixed methods researcher, with a particular focus on qualitative research.

For more details contact:

PDF Flyer available here: Richard Egan Lecture.