Faith within Reason. By Herbert McCabe, edited by Brian Davies
Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 4, pages 736–737, July 2009
How to Cite
Fox, R. (2009), Faith within Reason. By Herbert McCabe, edited by Brian Davies. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 736–737. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00501_37.x
- Issue published online: 8 JUN 2009
- Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
Continuum , London , 2007 , $30.00 .
Herbert McCabe's death in 2001 has led to what must be his most sustained & prolific period of publications. To the four books and occasional pieces that he wrote during his fifty two years as a Dominican, this volume now represents the fourth book of his unpublished writings to appear in just six years.
The irony of this would not have been lost on Herbert, as he was a humble man and knew all to well that his perfectionism sometimes got in the way of his ability to complete pieces. As a writer he was full of ideas and insights but he liked to be able to return to what he had written and refine it, over and over again. Whilst this means that what he did publish has a clarity and edge that some contemporary authors could learn from, it also meant that quite a few works never reached the point where he felt happy giving them to a publisher.
Yet this is not the only reason why he was sometimes slow to publish. I remember a conversation with Herbert a few years before his death where he was comparing and contrasting the Dominican ideal of scholarship, to modern attitudes and practices. In his view the approaches were diverging and at risk of tending to opposite poles of a spectrum. As a Dominican he saw his scholarship as a service to the community, a service the value and effectiveness of which was partially defined by the needs of his readers. When he looked around him at modern academia he felt that he sometimes saw a very different purpose and intention behind publications. Sometimes publications seemed to be more about justifying the existence of a scholar, and the rush to publish could have less to do with the needs of readers rather than the needs of the author. This was a thoroughly mistaken view of scholarship in Herbert's opinion and in a telling remark he once noted that publication can be as much a temptation as an achievement.
The existence of this fourth volume of posthumous papers is again due to Brian Davies hard work identifying, collecting and bringing to publication a significant number of essays, sermons and papers. It has certainly not been the most simple and straight forward of tasks, as Herbert's humility meant that he did not always value his work and keep it carefully. A crucial page for one of the earlier volumes of posthumous writings had to be extracted from a shoe, where it had been plugging a hole.
It might seem tempting to assume that with three volumes of papers published already, there cannot have been much left to make this volume noteworthy. But nothing could be further from the truth. Here we have 13 pieces of Herbert McCabe's characteristically witty and thoughtful writing including substantial pieces on the divine nature (God, causation, evil, omnipotence, divine goodness, the nature of souls) as well as more general pieces on the nature of belief, the credibility of creeds and forgiveness.
Apart from the biblical texts the overriding influence on Herbert throughout his life was the writings and thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. During the 1/2 century that he was a member of the order he read and re-read Aquinas constantly, so that his reflection and deep appreciation of Aquinas seeped into almost everything that he wrote and produced. It is only natural, then, that when he put pen to paper he would almost invariably start with Aquinas' position.
Herbert's use of Aquinas was focused very strongly on returning to the authentic Aquinas. This often meant removing the interpretations and glosses which learned Dominicans and Jesuits had read into Aquinas over the previous centuries. Writing in an era of conflict and controversy commentators had continually diluted and distorted Aquinas in order to ensure that he remained relevant to the issues facing each succeeding generation of readers. These misunderstandings of Aquinas were important to Herbert and to some extent they illustrate one of the academic preoccupations of his formative era. In the fifties and sixties scholarship of Aquinas was still very much a ‘scholastic’ enterprise. It was often carried out in Latin using Latin text books full of the kinds of glosses which Herbert correctly identified as mistaken versions of Aquinas' thought. In this context Herbert felt that it was important to constantly point out the deficiencies of the manuals and redirect readers back to the actual texts of what Aquinas had said.
Modern readers who have not had the experience of reading Aquinas through the prism of the scholastic manuals, are often not aware of the scholastic misinterpretations which Herbert took the trouble to challenge and correct in his writings. Contemporary readers of Aquinas take the peeling away of the distorted interpretations of Aquinas largely for granted and ironically probably wouldn't even be aware of the past scale of the problem if it hadn't been for authors such as Herbert continuing to plug away at the issue. This was particularly clear in his essay on Aquinas' proof for God's existence, where he contrasted Aquinas' view on what it means for things to be contingent (they rot and pass away) with what Aquinas' commentators read into him (contingent things have a possibility of not existing at all). Having gently peeled away misinterpretations like this, he was then able to move on to the other key theme which runs through his writings: the role of theology as clarifying our language about God (rather than necessarily answering questions about God). This comes to the fore particularly well in his essay on Aquinas' language about the divine nature where he gives a detailed and thoughtful account of Aquinas' ‘agnosticism’ about God's nature.
Aquinas' views are not always conducive to the philosophers and theologians today and this is no where more clearly visible than in his treatment of the problem of evil. Aquinas believed in an immutable God who, in virtue of the immutability, cannot depend on creation for anything, especially knowledge of what happens in the world. This means that for Aquinas God knows what happens in the world by causing it to happen. This position brings him immediately into conflict with one of the most popular contemporary defences for the problem of evil: the free will defence. According to the free will defence, God gives people the freedom to choose what they are going to will, and so what they are going to do. On this view there is no way for God to know what choices people will make until they actually make their choices and so God can be exonerated from moral evils in the world. According to advocates of the Free Will Defence, God gives people free will to enable them to achieve goods such as ‘love’. As ‘love’ is clearly a powerful good in the world and cannot be exercised without free will, God's gift of free will is justified, even though it can, and does, lead to the evils which we see around us.
This is a powerful argument and it is probably one of the single most popular contemporary theist responses to the problem of evil. Herbert McCabe has absolutely no time for it at all. Basing himself firmly upon Aquinas he rejects it as being inconsistent with God's immutability, as the Free Will Defence assumes that God learns what humans do with their free will by watching what they do. Instead, he proposes a classically Thomist response to the problem of evil by arguing that the very attempt to defend God from the problem of evil is based upon a misunderstanding of what it means for God to be good. There is only a problem of evil if people assume that God's goodness is similar to our human idea of goodness, but why, asks McCabe, should anyone make that assumption? This is not necessarily the simplest approach to the problem of evil and introducing an agnosticism into the heart of what it means to talk of God as good is not necessarily going to resonate with contemporary theists. But for those who are interested in Aquinas' views on the matter Herbert's clarity of thought and expression offers an excellent way in.
Ultimately this is a volume of vintage McCabe which deserves to be as well received and widely read as his previous three volumes of posthumous writings.