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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: 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.)