Clare Carlisle, All Things in Relation to God (Recensione)

Clare Carlisle, All Things in Relation to God (Recensione)

Recensione di Clare Carlisle a All Things in Relation to God. Pursuing a post-Enlightenment Christian Philosophy, “TLS”, June 5, 2020

Most of us who are interested in the history of philosophy and theology like to dwell among big ideas, so we can be grateful for researchers like Edward Baring who are willing to delve into the nitty-gritty for us. Baring believes that “to understand scholarly texts we need to examine the institutions in which their authors worked and the communities for which those texts were written”. His first book was a highly contextual study, The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945-1968. In Converts to the Real (Catholicism and the making of Continental philosophy, Harvard U.P, pp. 504) he takes a larger canvas, exploring the “outsized” influence of Catholicism on Continental philosophy through the first half of the twentieth century. To this end Baring visited more than twenty archives – in France, Germany, Belgium, Italy and the USA – and consulted about sixty scholarly journals from these countries and others.

The result is an impressive work that combines a broad scope and fluent, accessible style with the kind of deep detail usually confined to specialist studies of individual thinkers. Most persuasive are Baring’s early chapters on the relationship between German phenomenology and neo-scholasticism, the “transnational intellectual movement” begun in the late nineteenth century by Pope Leo XIII, nostalgic for the high medieval era when Aquinas’s theological authority had united “Paris, Salamanca, Alcalá … Douay, Toulouse, and Louvain … Padua and Bologna … Naples and Coimbra”. Leo thought Aquinas’s system well placed to offer a robust response to the increasingly secular modern world, not least because Aquinas himself had successfully integrated the non-Christian philosophies of Plato and, more controversially, Aristotle, into his theological vision. Many neo-scholastic journals and textbooks were published in Latin, believed still to be the suitably cosmopolitan language which it undoubtedly was throughout medieval and early modern Europe. Désiré Mercier, president of the Thomistic Institute at Louvain at the turn of the century, insisted that “if St. Thomas were alive today, he would use the test tube and the microscope”. Baring shows how “progressive” scholastics like Mercier turned to Husserl’s phenomenology to help them develop an epistemology that could secure the objectivity of human reason, and thereby counter the “subjectivist” challenge to modern theology posed by Kantians and positivists.

Moving on to Germany, and into the early decades of the twentieth century, Baring traces Heidegger’s formation through and beyond his native Catholicism. After Being and Time was published in 1927, Thomists such as Erich Przywara, Alfred Delp and Hans Urs von Balthasar debated whether Heidegger’s philosophy, despite its professed atheism, represented a “hopeful” turn away from subjectivism, and towards the question of being as such. Baring’s later chapters chart Catholic receptions of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche during the 1930s, and uncover “enduring traces” of Thomism and Christian philosophies of existence in postwar French thought – despite Sartre’s influential critique of religious existentialism in his 1945 manifesto Existentialism Is a Humanism.

Few readers will fail to learn a lot from this book, not least because of its sheer breadth of detail. Heidegger specialists who know that the controversial ontologist chose to write his doctoral dissertation on the Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus while angling for the chair in Catholic Theology at the University of Freiburg are probably not aware, for example, of the circumstances of Giuseppe Zamboni’s dismissal from the University of the Sacred Heart in Milan in 1932. And who knew that a 1925 Spanish encyclopedia describes Heidegger’s work as “conceived according to the ideas of eclectic neo-scholasticism”? As these examples suggest, Baring offers not just obscure information about important thinkers, but also plenty of obscure information about obscure thinkers. For this reason Converts to the Real is not for the faint-hearted, but the book’s helpful chapter summaries make it a valuable reference work. More than this, though, it is an ambitious book about the possibility of a post-Enlightenment Christian philosophy on the one hand, and about the intellectual and social conditions for modern thought, on the other. It is difficult to disagree with its conclusion that “continental philosophy today is haunted by religion”; this sort of claim is not unfamiliar, but by reviving myriad ghosts of academia past Baring does an excellent job of explaining precisely what it means.

Andrew Davison’s Participation in God (A study in Christian doctrine and methaphysics, Cambridge UP, pp. 434) is a very different kind of book about Thomism. It is a systematic theology which, like many works in the genre, largely eschews contextual and methodological questions. No doubt Baring would trace Davison’s approach back to the shift, within mid-twentieth-century neo-scholasticism, from “progressive” to “strict” Thomism. Against the progressives who embraced phenomenology, more conservative Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson argued that, as Baring puts it, “there was no possible reconciliation between modern critical philosophy and medieval metaphysics”, and that “to adapt to modern philosophy is to capitulate to it”. (The institutional success of this view was the reason – in case you’re still wondering – why the progressive Zamboni was sacked from his chair at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.) Conservative scholastics simply rejected the Copernican reframings of philosophy proposed first by Descartes, and then by Kant, and over the longue durée their institutional influence has weathered the storms of phenomenology, deconstruction and postmodernism.

We can discern the legacy of this shift from one style of Thomism to another in the contemporary revival of metaphysics, and in the persisting influence of “radical orthodox” (and largely Anglican) theologians who unashamedly champion medieval thinkers – above all Aquinas – and draw liberally on Continental philosophy while denouncing the intellectual foundations of modernity. From its inception in the 1980s, the Radical Orthodoxy movement has proved surprisingly resilient, and it continues to generate some of the most interesting theological work in the academy. Thomist concepts of participation and analogy are central to much of this work, and they are the focus of Davison’s book.

Participation in God opens with a beautifully clear summary of a “Christian understanding of reality” that approaches the world “in terms of sharing and receiving” – in other words, a theology of participation and gift. Such a perspective, writes Davison, perceives “all things in relation to God, not only as their source but also as their goal”; it recognizes “a depth to things, grounded in their origin in God”. This compelling participatory vision combines affirmation of this world as sharing in divine being with an insistence on the irreducible difference between God and God’s creation. Though our lives offer a real encounter with goodness and truth, “our apprehension of what is good and true will also be mediated and incomplete”.

This metaphysical view can lend itself to an open-minded approach to theological questions. Davison makes this point, but in a decidedly back-handed way: if the whole world participates in God, he argues, then Christians’ “celebration of the light of scripture does not imply unremitting darkness elsewhere. All reality, in some way, bears witness to the one who made it, and what other people have noticed about it – people such as Plato and Aristotle – is worth attention”. Non-Christian readers may not be entirely consoled by this concession to their dim grasp of reality, and it turns out that Davison is willing to attend to Plato and Aristotle only insofar as their concepts were taken up by Aquinas to forge a Trinitarian metaphysics.

Davison considers deep questions, not only about the nature of God and creation, but also about the human good and the spiritual life, and he is committed to elucidating the coherence of his Christian vision. His book is especially admirable as a lucid, generous, thorough synthesis of recent and contemporary scholarly discussions of Thomist thought. Indeed, Participation in God succeeds most as an exposition of Christian doctrine; its historical account of the development of the theme of participation is sound, but rather desultory, and Davison can be a little wobbly on philosophical analysis. He suggests, for example, that the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation makes God “too transcendent” and has “pantheist implications,” without pausing to note the tension between these claims.

While Davison’s exposition is solid and illuminating on the doctrines of participation and of God, it is less satisfactory on the meaning of “in”, which links these two concepts in the book’s title. This seemingly innocuous little word turns out to bear considerable theological weight. Davison clearly regards it as inconvenient, and tends to evade it; when he does linger over it, he argues that “in God” does not actually mean in God, but rather “by” or “from” God. He rightly points out that when Aquinas writes about participation, he does so without using the preposition “in”, which is introduced to render the Latin text grammatically sound in English translation.

Yet many texts in the mainstream theological tradition which espouse a broadly participatory view – including biblical texts attributed to Paul and John – use “in”, in their original languages, to describe the relation of creatures to God and to God’s qualities. St Augustine taught that “all things are in God”, though in a special sense, since God is “not a place”, and Aquinas cautiously accepted this claim. John of Damascus, acknowledged by Davison to be “a supremely participatory thinker”, wrote that “towards [God] all things tend, and in him they have their existence”. According to St Anselm, God “contains all things”. It is certainly difficult to rationalize such claims. So intent is Davison on avoiding this language of being in God that he suggests interpreting the Greek word “en” in Acts 17:28 – “in [God] we live and move and have our being” – in “a more metaphysical sense, where en would mean ‘by’ or ‘through’”.

As Augustine made clear, claiming that creation is “in” God does not suggest any spatial relationship. Aquinas’s subtle theory of religious language can guide us here: his argument that our language applies to God only by analogy encompasses not just nouns (like “father”) and adjectives (like “good”), but all language, including its prepositions and its grammar. The theological “in” of Christian writers from the New Testament onwards must, of course, be understood in a metaphysical sense, and perhaps also as pointing to a deep mystery. Replacing it with a different preposition, as if this somehow brings us closer to understanding what it means to share God’s being and goodness, refuses this mystery, and closes down the questions it contains.

We get a sense of what difference Davison’s substitution makes by taking, as a metaphor for being in God, a fish swimming in the ocean. If we say that the fish is not in but from the ocean, then we imagine it leaping out of the water or, less happily, glistening on ice in the fishmonger’s. When the fish is in the sea, we picture it at home in its native element, which sustains it and is – significantly – omnipresent to it. Either way, of course, we are using figurative language to describe a very different mode of reality, beyond space and time. But theologians who suggest that we are in God surely chose this preposition, and not another, in order to gesture to a truth.

Davison’s resistance to the idea of being in God may be partly due to his emphasis on Aristotle’s analysis of causation, and its appropriation by Aquinas. He uses this fourfold analysis to structure the first part of his book, examining God’s activity as the efficient, formal and final cause of creation, and explaining why God is not a material cause – not, in other words, the matter from which the universe is made, but the creator of matter. Aristotle distinguished these four causes in order to understand intraworldly processes of natural and artificial becoming; transferring this conceptual framework to God, it is plainly difficult to make sense of a productive process that does not cast effects outside their cause, but allows them to rest within it. Perhaps Aquinas’s more conservative contemporaries were right, after all, to be suspicious of this new-fangled naturalistic philosophy.

More conducive to this Aristotelian account, though, is the use of the concept of gift to interpret God’s continuing creative activity. For Davison, this biblically grounded view (“every good and perfect gift is from above”) ticks the orthodox boxes, and keeps the theologically unpalatable extremes of deism and pantheism at bay. But without a robust sense of participation in God’s gift-giving being, as the native element of all things, God’s omnipresence and sustaining intimacy seem to fade a little from view.

My question for Andrew Davison, then, is whether being in God is a fundamental insight articulated in the Bible and developed through the Christian tradition (and also, incidentally, in other theistic traditions), which was elucidated in a particular way by Aquinas through the concept of participation. Or is this concept of participation itself the more fundamental insight, which should prompt us to let go of the challenging notion of  [off?] being in God? Participation in God seems to incline towards the latter view, which is, I think, the narrower way.

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