Sunday, July 01, 2007

Preambles of Faith

I've just recently finished reading Ralph McInerny's Praeambula Fidei. In many ways it's a decent book, but it struck me as poorly organized. The nominal concern of the book is to restore to their proper place the praeambula fidei that philosophy provides for theology. It starts out with something like this, drifts off into a mixture of rant against Etienne Gilson and defense of Cajetan, finally drifts back into considering "in what sense metaphysics is a theology, the sense that makes the praeambula fidei the crowning and defining term not only of metaphysics but of the whole of philosophy" (p. 168), to this end discusses Aristotle's Metaphysics and Aquinas's commentary on it, and never actually ends up saying much about the preambles of the faith, since it then ends relatively abruptly with a triumphant declaration of a need to return to a more Aristotelian, and less Gilsonian, Thomism. It's a book that impresses in its parts but fails to impress as a whole. It never properly unfolds, being torn between separate ends; on the one hand, it is supposed to be re-asserting the place for the preambles on the faith, but on the other, McInerny is clearly more interested in re-asserting a historical thesis about the relation between Aristotle and Aquinas, and the two keep messing each other up, with the latter usually coming out on top. One could just as easily imagine the book being called, Gilson Was Being Stupid: The Superiority of Aristotelian Thomism over Existential Thomism, as its actual title, Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers.

If we follow the table of contents, the argument is supposed to break into three parts:

(1) The Doctrine of the Praeambula Fidei
(2) The Erosion of the Doctrine
(3) Thomism and Philosophical Theology

The first part works very well, although it is surprisingly brief for a discussion so central to the nominal theme of the book. The second part makes for fascinating reading on its own, but never properly defends the initially implausible thesis it seems to imply, that the reason that Catholics tend not to appreciate the preambular character of metaphysics anymore is the fault of Chenu, Gilson, and de Lubac, particularly by Gilson's characterization of the esse/essentia distinction. How exactly existential Thomism manages to do this remains throughout unclear. The idea is pretty clearly that it reverses the genuine Thomistic relation between metaphysics and theology by making certain key aspects of Thomas's metaphysics dependent on theology, but, as this is in some measure dependent on Gilson's readings of Aquinas's view of the He Who Is of Exodus, and Being as a name of God, and McInerny never really gives us an alternate reading, preferring to focus on other texts entirely, we really don't ever get a clear articulation of the reasoning on which McInerny is relying. And then the book gives an interesting and worthwhile discussion and defense of Aquinas's Aristotelian view on metaphysics.

In short, the book suffers from a failure to distinguish (1) a salutary critique of anti-commentator polemic on the part of existential Thomists; (2) an interesting and plausible argument for giving Aristotle a greater prominence in studying Aquinas; (3) another interesting argument that Aquinas gets Aristotle right, or comes much closer to it than most people give him credit for; (4) a claim, only vaguely argued, that existential Thomism is not really consistent with the doctrine of praeambula fidei; (5) a claim, not really argued at all as far as I can see, that existential Thomism is the major historical reason for Catholic loss of interest in metaphysics as providing such preambles; and (6) a much-needed account, one nonetheless not found in the book, and only on occasion even vaguely gestured at, of how we are to understand Aquinas's theological discussions of being if McInerny is right. These various lines of thought lead to some very interesting discussion at times, but they need to be distinguished before being united; and the failure to do so makes the book seem jumbled and rambling. One learns remarkably little about the preambles of the faith; it is as if the discussion keeps bringing up points that, when developed in full, will contribute to one's understanding of the doctrine, but which are rarely developed as they should be.

That's a fairly negative set of comments. I don't want anyone to get the idea that it's a bad book -- it is an enjoyable read, and you will learn a great deal reading it. But it fails in fulfilling its purpose; it's a great failed book. And this is from someone like myself, with an immense amount of sympathy for much of what McInerny is trying to defend. But there are a number of issues that are raised that are simply not properly addressed -- the connection between the philosophy of being and the theology of being, mentioned above, for one; and how this relates to Aquinas's definitely Platonistic moments, for another.

In any case, it's interesting that there's currently an interesting discussion of McInerny's argument in the comments at "Godsbody". As arguments in comments boxes seem often to be, it's often interesting and informative, often unhelpful and petty, stopping and starting, sometimes making progress and sometimes chasing red herrings. But it's worth reading.

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