Book reviews

Book Review: Faith, Reason and the Existence of God

Vatican I decreed it to be a matter of faith that “God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason.” Denys Turner, in this very rich treatment of the issue of proving the existence of God takes this assertion of Vatican I as the starting-point of his deliberations. He clarifies the parameters of what Vatican I states: it neither maintains that any successful proof for the existence of God on the basis of natural reason has to date been proffered nor that any such proof will be elaborated in the future. The point rather is that such a proof from natural reason is in principle possible – and that possibility is to be accepted as a matter of faith.

This proposition does not meet with overwhelming approval in contemporary theological circles – Catholic circles included. Barthians naturally object but adherents of the nouvelle théologie also reject a more traditional reading of the proofs, in particular those of St. Thomas Aquinas. On their interpretation the existence of God is ascertainable by reason but “only within and as presupposing the context of faith” (p. 14). Turner meets these interpretations head on and develops a highly compelling argument in support of Vatican I’s position.

On the way Turner engages with a myriad of important theologians and philosophers ranging from Dionysius the Areopagite to Jacques Derrida and passing through Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. Throughout his critiques are those of one clearly steeped in the thought of St. Thomas. Turner describes the relationship between Vatican I and Thomas as follows: “Thomas is doing as theologian what the first Vatican Council was doing as magisterium” (p. 47).

Scotus’s univocal metaphysics is often criticized by those who are critical of ‘ontotheology’, an error that consists in collapsing the reality both of the Divine Being and of finite beings into a common logic. Radical Orthodoxy theologians are among those who have led the charge. Turner’s treatment of Scotus is more benign, offering less negative critical appraisal of the Subtle Doctor’s theory of the univocity. His interpretation is supported by solid textual evidence.

Notwithstanding this academic graciousness, Turner argues robustly in favour of Thomas’s analogical understanding of being and shows forth the logical validity of arguing from premises to a conclusion “related to them across the ‘gap’ between creatures and God” (p. 208). Turner’s understanding of Thomas on analogy proves however to be excessively apophatic, grounded as it is in what Thomas Joseph White, O.P., describes as “The decision to make the created dependency of esse virtually the unique determinate for the consideration of divine names” (Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology [Florida: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2009], 264).

The reader of Turner’s supremely fine study would be well-served by studying White’s analysis of Thomas on analogy, an analysis that appeals to “the progressive via inventionis of causal analysis in creatures” (ibid.). In support of this approach is Thomas’s appeal to Dionysius the Areopagite’s threefold via in On the Divine Names: the via causalitatis, the via negationis or remotionis, and the via eminentiae.

In spite of this criticism Turner’s study is a crucially important contribution to discourse concerning the relationship between faith and reason and dismantles the stance of those who deny the capacity of natural reason unaided by grace to demonstrate the existence of God.

Book Review: Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide)

71R5OQ--JZL._AA1084_Edward Feser has established himself in recent times as a force to be reckoned with in philosophical circles. His most recent book is Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. He is also the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism as well as of books on Locke and on philosophy of mind. In 2009 he published Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide) with Oneworld Publications, Oxford.

Following a chapter that introduces Aquinas’s life and works, Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide) devotes chapters to his metaphysics, natural theology, psychology, and ethics. For anyone who is familiar with Aquinas’s thought, this structure is ideally suited to inducting the student into his thought. One should not be put off by the long chapter on metaphysics – 54 pages in all. In it are covered themes that are indispensable for understanding his natural theology, psychology, and ethics: act and potency, matter and form, essence and existence, the transcendentals, final causality, and efficient causality.

The chapter on natural theology deals with all five of Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God (Summa Theologiae I, q. 2, a. 3), as well as containing a short treatment of the divine attributes (God’s simplicity, perfection, goodness, immutablity, and so on). The reader will encounter in this chapter one of the most robust defences of the validity of every one of the arguments for the existence of God (Five Ways) available in the English language. Key to understanding Aquinas’s proofs are various metaphysical concepts that have been explained in the previous chapter. This reviewer certainly has benefitted from Feser’s expertise in this area, most notably with regard to the fourth proof which scholars sympathetic to Aquinas have often found difficult or wanting. In the light of Aquinas’s teaching concerning the transcendental properties of being, Feser clears up any misunderstandings or misgivings. This chapter is a tour de force and bears witness to Feser’s deserved reputation as a master of natural theology. Both students and established scholars ought to acquire a copy of the book for the sake of this chapter alone.

Feser’s treatment of Aquinas’s psychology is also quite masterful and illuminating. Again the metaphysical concepts encountered in the first chapter are called into action because trying to understand Aquinas in this area, as in so many others, risks being undermined by the metaphysical assumptions that are commonly taken for granted these days. Feser alerts the reader at the outset that “Aquinas does not mean by soul what contemporary philosophers tend to mean by it, that is, an immaterial substance of the sort affirmed by Descartes” (131). Psychology, for Aquinas as for Aristotle, is that area of philosophy devoted to the study not simply of the mind but also of that which makes an organism to be a living thing. The mind is studied insofar as it is an aspect of this organism.

Among other things Feser ably expounds Aquinas’s understanding of the human being as a composite of body and soul: I am neither my soul alone nor my body alone but rather the unity of both. Body and soul together constitute the reality of the human person. We are not ghosts (souls) living in machines (bodies). This point is crucial not only for a correct understanding of the human person but also for understanding Aquinas’s ethical theory. Feser’s exposition easily disposes of rationalist and materialist arguments. Feser also deals with Aquinas’s accounts of the intellect and will, immateriality and immortality.

The final chapter of the book turns to Aquinas’s ethics. After discussing the notion of the good he offers a brief account of Aquinas’s natural law theory and finishes with a brief section on religion and morality. While certainly a very competent introduction, this chapter does not unfortunately scale the heights of the chapter on natural theology. Lacking is a treatment of virtue.

The final words, while a little provocative to the non-Thomist, are certainly music to the ears of Thomists:

 For Aquinas, we are not here for ourselves, but for the glory of God, and precisely because this is an end set for us by nature, it is in him alone that we can find our true happiness. And it must be emphasized that, as with other themes we’ve explored in this book, he takes this conclusion to be a matter, not of faith, but of reason itself. Therein lies the sting of Aquinas’s challenge to modernity. (192).

For anyone who wishes to equip himself/herself to engage critically with and to challenge the contemporary intellectual and cultural scene, this book is a must.

Finally, a note of caution: Feser’s book, while it ought to be required reading for any introductory course on Aquinas’s philosophy, is nonetheless very challenging for the neophyte. When used as part of course on Aquinas, however, it will prove to be very valuable.

Book Review: The Scent of Lemons

r-LEMON-TREE-large570In the last 20 years or so, the revolution in communications technology has radically changed the lives of billions of ordinary people. In many ways, this technology has made our lives easier: communication is speedier, and access to information, entertainment, and services is easier and more democratic. We talk a lot about progress and achievement in this area: smaller laptops, more multi-functional smartphones, better mobile coverage, longer-lasting batteries… What’s surprising, and a little worrying, is how little we reflect on the spiritual and ethical side of this revolution. We certainly talk about some symptoms – cyberbullying, pornography – but rarely reflect deeply on the underlying phenomena. It’s as if we are so breathless at the pace of progress in communications technology – or so absorbed in its use – that we don’t have the energy or perspective to assess these new phenomena at a non-superficial level.

Given this situation, Fr Jonah Lynch’s little book, The Scent of Lemons, is a very welcome publication. It’s written by a self-professed ‘nerd’ who is thoroughly pro-technology (he had his first email address in 1994, well ahead of the posse). As a priest and a member of ‘Communion and Liberation’, though, he has had to reflect on what communications technology is doing to human relationships. He sums up the purpose of his book with a nice example: ‘What is the difference between laughing in the company of friends, and writing ‘hahahaha’ on a chat screen?’

One of the things Lynch does best in this book is to show that the questions he is asking are relevant. Many of us assume that our tools are neutral, that we decide how to use them and that we are in command of them as long as we use them. When we extend this model to communications technology, spiritual and ethical questions simply dissolve away: ‘Of course my mobile phone use hasn’t changed me: I use it when I want to, and don’t use it when I don’t want to’. Lynch blasts this ‘neutral tools’ myth by appealing not to philosophy or theology, but to neuroscience. The discovery of ‘neuroplasticity’ shows that the tools we use and practices we engage in have a physical effect on our brain, which shapes our reactions in future. Lynch concludes: ‘Every technology carries with it a change in our approach and relationship with the world. This is precisely not neutral, since everything depends on which aspects of life are made easier and which are made more difficult, or impeded’ (36).

Lynch is at his best when he is showing this ‘life-shaping’ effect of technology: mobile phones change our attitude to appointments and ‘eliminate space’ (34); social media make it possible to put up ‘window displays’ about one’s life (59); Internet use shortens our attention span and limits our ability to read slowly and perceptively (25); images and sounds can be communicated by technology, but not touch, taste, or smell, so that ‘the scent of lemons’ is absent from our technological experience (1). In all of these little reflections, the author makes use of a wide variety of excellent commentary (and I for one will be looking up some of the books he refers to) but he always writes very personally, with an emphasis on real lived experience. For this reader, at least, such a personal reflection sparked some of my own, and got me asking some important questions, including the most important one: ‘Is this way of using the phone/laptop/television/Internet helping me to become the best version of myself?’

In short, this book is well worth getting hold of if you have any interest in the anthropological effects of technology (and maybe especially so if you don’t have such an interest). Lynch isn’t setting himself up against technology, but is firmly in favour of an informed, canny re-humanisation of technology use. We are immersed in technological practices but true freedom demands that these practices by guided by an appropriate ideal: ‘Only an ideal that is both beautiful and plausible has the requisite strength. It must be beautiful: it must have an attractive force, it must be more appealing than the alternatives. And it must be plausible, otherwise it will only be an illusion’ (85). This formation of guiding ideals for technological use is surely one of the most urgent tasks for all of us, whether Christians or not. The Scent of Lemons is a valuable contribution to this common task.

Fr Jonah Lynch FSCB, the author of The Scent of Lemons will be addressing the St Saviour’s Symposium (Dublin) on Sunday 16 March at 4pm. The title of his lecture is: ‘Body and Soul in the Internet Age’. All are welcome to attend – email stsaviourssymposium@gmail.com for further information, or to confirm attendance.

 

(The Scent of Lemons, by Jonah Lynch FSCB, is published by Darton, Longman & Todd)

 

Book Review: Art and the Eucharist

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A fairly large proportion of the artistic masterpieces which line the walls of our galleries and museums are out of place. They were created, not for the scrutiny of connoisseurs or the fleeting interest of tourists, but for the prayerful gaze of worshippers: they were made for churches.

The link between art and the Eucharist is, then, at least one of location. Yet church art is not mere decoration: the frescoes, mosaics and paintings which we find in our churches are meant to say something about the Christian mystery. It is this theologically formative function of art to which Dr Eileen Kane turns her attention in Art and the Eucharist, taking inspiration from Pope John Paul’s Letter to Artist: ‘In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art’.

The book is short – only 85 pages – and each chapter covers a different Eucharistic theme in art: ‘The Last Supper’, ‘Prefigurations of the Eucharist’, ‘Sacrament and Sacrifice’, ‘The Altarpiece of the Lamb’, ‘The Eucharist in the Church’ and ‘Stay With Us, Lord’. In the second of these, Kane looks at the ‘Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament’ by the Flemish painter Dieric Bouts: the large central panel depicts the Last Supper, but it is surrounded by depictions of Old Testament ‘types’ (prefigurations) of the Eucharistic event – Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine (Genesis 14), the eating of the Passover meal (Exodus 12), the gathering of the manna in the desert (Exodus 16) and the feeding of Elijah (1 Kings 19). Kane explains the theological connections, and Bouts’ artistic choices, clearly and simply.

Less traditional works of art are also considered. Kane offers a moving analysis of Dalí’s ‘The Sacrament of the Last Supper’. The apostles bow like ‘monks’, provoking a similarly reverent attitude in the viewer of the painting; the scene is embraced by outstretched arms, not yet bearing their wounds; the translucency and strangeness of the scene lend it a timelessness ‘which suggests that the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion which followed it, are still taking place now and will continue to take place into the future’.

Kane’s book is valuable simply for its lucid exposition of key Eucharistic artworks, but what is most memorable about this little book, for me at least, is the way it links the very endeavour of art with the Eucharistic mystery – both involve, in different ways, the elevation of the ordinary. Kane expands powerfully on this connection, which is at the heart of this wonderful book: ‘At the Mass, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the bread and wine, ‘fruits of the earth and work of human hands’, are offered to the ‘Lord God of all creation’, and at the Consecration become the Body and Blood of Christ himself. That is the greatest and most sacred mystery of all. But when, in a painting, earth and eggs, plants and metals become an image of Christ or of his mother, that too is a mystery, though of course a lesser one. In that lesser mystery lies the special affinity that exists between art and the Eucharist’.

(Art and the Eucharist, by Dr Eileen Kane, is published by Veritas.)

Book Review: Thomas Aquinas, Teacher and Scholar

9781846823084It is a curious fact that while the study of Aquinas’ work has been somewhat sidelined in mainstream Catholic theology, philosophers and historians are more interested in him than ever. This collection of Aquinas Lectures at Maynooth (2002-2010), dedicated to the memory of the great Rev. Prof. James McEvoy and appended with essays by several of his students, is a testament to this lively contemporary engagement with the thought of the Angelic Doctor. Two names stand out among the contributors: William Desmond and Eleonore Stump. Desmond writes a stunning piece on the Beatitudes, marked by his trademark originality and his commitment to philosophy done ‘in a spirit of generosity towards [the] religious ‘other’’ (31). Stump’s piece takes on the thorny question of the problem of suffering, and she explains Aquinas’ theodicy with analytic rigour and sensitivity to the real experience of suffering.

Medievalists will find much to interest them in this volume. Philipp W. Rosemann traces the changes in theology’s self-understanding by comparing a textbook from the 12th century (Peter Lombard’s Sentences) with one from the 13th century (St Thomas’ Summa theologiae). John F. Boyle considers these two thinkers again, outlining the contents of a recently-edited commentary of St Thomas on Book I of the Lombard’s work. He notes that this ‘Roman commentary’ is ‘a work of the classroom; indeed the only work from Aquinas’ classroom that is not a commentary on Scripture’ (78). The role of Thomas’ own teacher, Albert, in mediating an ‘intellectual’ interpretation of the Dionysian corpus (as opposed to an ‘affective’ reading) is investigated in Declan Lawell’s essay. Finally, among these ‘historical’ pieces, Denys Turner gives full voice to the context of Thomas’ theological work as a Dominican enterprise. The Summa is explained as ‘friars’ theology… the one scrip that mendicant preachers must carry with them… in a word, a poor man’s theology, the poor Christ as theology’ (142).

The book isn’t all history, however. Several contributors bring Aquinas’ ideas into dialogue with those of our own time. Gaven Kerr distinguishes carefully between the realism of Aquinas from the idealism of Kant, engaging along the way with a dizzying array of modern philosophers, from Quine to Maréchal. The lecture by the late Thomas Kelly is dizzying too, but such is to be expected from any engagement with Heidegger. He analyses the recently published lectures on Aquinas given by Heidegger, focussing mainly on his treatment of the Five Ways. In the course of this treatment, Kelly nuances a Heidegerrian sweeping statement (‘philosophy lacks any organ for hearing revelation’), producing one of the most memorable passages of the book:

That world and thing can become icon is our ear for revelation. Unless language can become God-talk, no revelation is possible. Unless the conditions of the possibility of language are already Godly, if I may use the word so, there is no God-talk. And, as I have suggested, unless language can become God-talk, there is no language. More strongly: unless language is always and already prayer, there is no language (236).

Julia Hynes’ piece on virtue ethics in a medical context brings things right up-to-date, defending Aquinas’ ethics against utilitarianism and deontology, noting that ‘what it was to be a person in St Thomas’ era remains the same in our time’.

It was particularly pleasing for this Dominican student to read two lectures given by Dominican friars who stand in a long tradition of Thomism. Both Liam Walsh OP and Vivian Boland OP have taught almost exclusively in the same context as St Thomas himself: Dominican studia. Their lectures (Walsh on Aquinas’ treatment of the Eucharist considered in the light of current ecumenical concerns; Boland on the doctrine of divine ideas in Aquinas) represent the continuation of a tradition of Dominican study for which St Thomas stands as the exemplar.

In his account of Thomas as teacher, Denys Turner waxes lyrical on the holiness of the ‘the theological teaching act’ performed by Aquinas, which is figured as a ‘disappearing act, a Christ-like ‘going away’ – so that the Spirit might come’ (151). To extend this metaphor, one might consider this volume of Aquinas Lectures to be a veritable ‘fruit of the Spirit’. Its contributors are as enthusiastic about their subject as the Apostles at Pentecost, and although I occasionally found myself ‘amazed and perplexed’ when reading these lectures, I was often, and happily, prompted to ask, with genuine curiosity: ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2:12).

(Thomas Aquinas: Teacher and Scholar, edited by James McEvoy, Michael Dunne & Julia Hynes, is published by Four Courts. This review, written by a Dominican student, appeared originally in The Furrow.)

Book Review: Patrick In His Own Words

54St Patrick is often described as our ‘national saint’, and as our nation becomes secularised, so does our national saint. St Patrick’s Day parades do still show Patrick wearing something approaching episcopal vestments, and some of the more fabulous elements of the hagiography are still re-enacted, but there remains little gratitude for St Patrick’s work in this country as a Christian missionary. St Patrick’s Day events have become more about celebrating our ‘Irishness’ (whatever that means) or even, with enormous irony, our pre-Christian Celtic inheritance.

The Church seems powerless to counter this trend, to re-establish an understanding of Patrick as missionary bishop, but it possesses one little-used resource which can help: St Patrick’s own writings.

Many of the writings about St Patrick were composed centuries after his death, but we are blessed to have some authentic writing of his own, composed in Latin in the 5th century. The Confession is a short text, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus even shorter, but both express a vivid, Christ-centred, scriptural, orthodox, attractive faith. Patrick reveals himself to be aware of his weaknesses – the Confession begins with the phrase, ‘I am Patrick, a sinner, the most rustic and least of all the faithful’ – but driven to preach the Gospel by the experience of God’s mercy:

Before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall. I must, therefore, speak publicly in order to repay the Lord for such wonderful gifts, gifts for the present and for eternity which the human mind cannot measure.

While the Confession is Patrick’s personal account (and defence?) of his conversion and mission, the Letter is written in anger, against the slave-trader Coroticus and his men, nominal Christians who had committed atrocities against Patrick’s new flock. Yet even in this letter of excommunication, Patrick’s deep spirituality shines through: he has come to Ireland as ‘a stranger and exile for the love of God’, and while anger does not come naturally to him, love for his ‘neighbours and children, for whom [he has] given up homeland and family’ arouses his righteous anger.

St Patrick’s writings deserve to be read by 21st-century Christians. The edition of Joseph Duffy, which includes the Latin text as well as Irish and English translations, and commentary on the text, is particularly accessible and useful. If you are a teacher, or a member of a prayer group, or parish pastoral council, or a Christian book club, why not get a copy of St Patrick’s writings and allow him to teach you to be a missionary, compelled by the love of God.

(Patrick In His Own Words, edited by Joseph Duffy, is published by Veritas)

Book Review: Lón Anama

800px-Glendalough_monasteryWe hear much about ‘Celtic Spirituality’ these days. In any bookshop the ‘Mind-Body-Spirit’ section is sure to include a fair few books promising enlightenment the Celtic way. Celtic Spirituality is usually taken to be some unique melding of pagan and Christian: nature-loving, non-dogmatic, with gods and saints happily drinking from the same cauldron. It’s a very popular image, even within the Church, but it doesn’t have the benefit of being based in fact. Practically all the Irish religious texts we have are resoundingly Christian, and are often explicitly anti-pagan. It is true, there are distinctive features of these texts, but they are nevertheless soundly orthodox. ‘Celtic spirituality’, then, is largely a work of the modern imagination.

How about the texts of the Irish tradition themselves? Once we understand them in their proper context, they really are special. Lón Anama is a collection of 77 poems and prayers in the Irish language from the 8th century to the 20th. The texts are arranged with a parallel translation into English, for those whose command of Irish is less than perfect.

A notable feature of these texts is a strong focus on the persons of Jesus and Mary. The first, by Blatmac (fl. 760) is a ‘keening poem’ addressed to Mary, mourning the loss of her son:

 

Come to me, loving Mary,

that I may keen with you your very dear one.

Alas that your son should go to the cross,

he who was a great diadem, a beautiful hero.

 

A well-known poem attributed to St Íte brings this emotional engagement with Jesus’ humanity a step further, as she imagines herself nursing Ísucan, little Jesus: ‘It is little Jesus/who is nursed by me in my little hermitage… Jesus with Heaven’s inhabitants/is against my heart every night’.

Another expression of the intimate and direct piety of this period is the poem ‘Rop tú mo baile’, translated into English in the well-loved hymn, ‘Be Thou my Vision’. There the anonymous poet requests that God be his ‘vision’, his ‘meditation’, his ‘speech’, ‘understanding’, ‘father’, ‘battle-shield’, ‘sword’, ‘honour’, ‘delight’, and so on.

Later poets are known to us by name, like Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin (author of ‘King of the Sunday) and the Franciscan Aodh MacAingil. Contemporary poets are included too, not all of whom are convinced believers. Here, the collection takes an interesting turn, as the sincere and unself-conscious piety of the Irish tradition faces up to the age of doubt. The poet Liam Ó Muirthile, for example, is disturbed, rather than consoled, by a Corpus Christi procession:

 

Is this all we’re left: a welter

of simmering emotion stirred up

with a pinch of belief?

 

We woke to our bodies long ago,

shut the door

on that stale, gutted spirituality.

But behold the bared body

of Christ, awkwardly borne,

unsettling us once more.

 

It’s worth getting a copy of this book for several reasons. Firstly, because it enables the reader to gain an accurate sense of the images, metaphors and biblical events which inspired Christian writers in the Irish tradition. Secondly, though, the fact that the collection spans nearly the whole of Irish Christian literature, it enables the reader to understand where the Christian imagination has been, where it is now, and so, where it might go. ‘Celtic spirituality’ may be a fairly rootless concept, but ‘Irish Christianity’ is a valuable one, and reflecting on the sources of Irish Christianity can lend cultural depth to the beginnings of the New Evangelisation in this old island.

 

(Lón Anama, edited by Ciarán MacMurchaidh is published by Cois Life Press)