The theological virtues come first because they are the ones
that get us into the habit of correctly setting the ultimate context
for the rest of our actions.
Faith is not so much about believing in God or believing in a
set of propositions, even though that is obviously a part of it,
and Aquinas clearly thinks that faith has an intellectual content
that can be stated. Faith is more a matter of being willing to
ask the ultimate questions and then being drawn to the answers
formulated over time by religion because we think they are true.
Faith starts with the willingness to recognize and question
the core mysteries at the heart of existence: why we exist at
all and how to make meaning out of our existence. As a result,
it puts on our radar the yearning for the answers to these ultimate
and the consequent intuition that draws us to the words, ideas,
and rituals of the religious tradition that attempt to answer
them. We can't know the answers to the ultimate questions like
we can know scientific answers, which build bodies of knowledge
over time. Religious answers are more like wisdom, with "learners
gradually absorbing over time what their teacher already knew"
(2a2ae, 1, 7). But with the habit of faith, we are willing to
ponder such questions in our hearts and minds. Quoting Augustine,
Aquinas says that belief is "giving assent to something
one is still thinking about."
But assent we do, uncertain as we may be, because essentially
we judge the description of reality provided by religion to be
true. And that is indeed its purpose (and the reason why a religion's
intellectual content is important): to stare into the mystery
of life and describe its most basic fabric. Aquinas looked back
into the rich tradition of Scripture, the early Church Fathers,
Augustine and others, and saw a blueprint for reality: a universe
created as good, with a God happy and self-aware, thinking us
into existence so we can enjoy the same happiness, in a world
where we are meant to cherish one another and thereby flourish
and grow towards the divine. As Aquinas considered all these things
and looked around at his own world as he grew into adulthood,
he thought, yes, I believe that what the Christian tradition teaches
is true. He had faith.
Faith preceeds hope and charity because it is willing to paint
the canvas of reality wide enough to ask the ultimate questions;
hope then follows.
Hope is the habit of acting like what we assent to with faith
will actually come to pass; that we both actually have a shot
at flourishing into happiness and then choosing to act accordingly.
It is the habit of embracing a higher standard of behavior because
we believe that if we do, we will in fact turn into better, happier
versions of ourselves, even if we know we'll never be perfect.
"The perfection of hope lies not in achieving what it
hopes for but embracing its standard." (2a2ae, 17, 2)
And the happiness we hope for is a happiness for ourselves, not
someone else: "hope bears directly on good desired for ourselves"
(2a2ae, 17, 3).
As Aquinas has said, talking about God tells us more about ourselves
that about God; I think the same is true when talking about eternity,
which presumably is the state of things outside space-time. Aquinas
says that when we experience eternal bliss, we will no longer
need faith or hope, since we will experience what we believed
would come and the thing we hoped for. But we will always have
Charity is the habit of choosing to be vulnerable enough to be
drawn to the good, to love it, and to act accordingly.
Aquinas speaks of the love of charity as being like the love
of friendship. When we love our friends, we open ourselves to
enjoying them for their own sake and we wish good things for them.
This is exactly the attitude he thinks we should have towards
creation, all of its creatures, and God.
In agreement with Augustine ("Charity I call a movement
of the soul towards enjoying God for his own sake"), Aquinas
says that "the ultimate goal of man is to enjoy God, and
to this charity directs him." (2a2ae, 23, 7)
When we allow ourselves to be aware of and open to the goodness
in the world, we we are drawn to it and want to cherish it, and
in this knowing and loving we are happy. So we want to get into
the habit of loving goodness and loving others, including ourselves,
because we are all good creatures of God.
Charity is not essentially about being nice or giving money away;
it is not primarily even about others, even though such behavior
follows. It is primarily about our relationship to God. "Charity
is friendship first with God and secondly with all who belong
to God." (2a2ae, 25, 4). Charity of course naturally extends
to authentic love of self, including our own bodies (the "temples
of the Holy Spirit" as the nuns used to say) and to love
of neighbor; cherishing others encourages their own willingness
to be drawn along their own path to beatitudo.
Just as the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the
Son, charity is the love between rational creatures and the universe
in which they find themselves. If we are the self-awareness of
the universe, if we love it and the mysterious cause of its existence
we call God, then we become like the Holy Spirit. It is in this
way we become like God. People who are willingly vulnerable enough
to love the good are happy; happy people are loving; it's what
we were meant to be.
Faith is "a good willingly pursued and a truth mentally
(2a2ae, 4, 1)
"Faith is what you have when it seems good to you to embrace
what is taught by the content of Christian teaching ..."
Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, p 285