Monday, October 20, 2008

On Aquinas - Fr Andrew Davison

This book review by the Fr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Christian Doctrine, appeared in the Church Times :

On Aquinas
Herbert McCabe

Few recent English-speaking theologians have had anything like Herbert McCabe’s influence. He left his mark on a generation of Catholic-minded theologians (not only Roman Catholics, by any means), primarily in the lecture hall (and the pub) rather than in the written word, although assorted papers in New Blackfriars contain plenty of his best ideas.

Since his death in 2001, his brothers in the Order of Preachers have been publishing what in previous centuries would have been called his “remains”. Here we have his notes for a lecture course on Aquinas at Blackfriars, Oxford, which he wrote out in full.

McCabe’s genius was for explaining. For the reader new to Aquinas, this makes for an accessible introduction. He does not shy away from technical vocabulary, but explains it clearly, translating the key Latin terms with imagination and insight.

He had a gift for the perfectly chosen concrete example. They are often quite provocative: Bob Geldof rubs shoulders with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Alexander the Great with the protagonists of Sense and Sensibility. For those who know Aquinas already, there is considerable joy in noticing the examples he chose, and seeing why.

All McCabe’s characteristic enthusiasms are present. There is politics everywhere, and a disdain for capitalism which he does nothing to disguise. There is Jane Austen, a concern for animals, and an amateur interest in science.

Occasionally he advocates an aspect of Aquinas’s thought which most people will now find outdated (for instance, that there can be no material organ of thought). On other occasions he sits lightly even to contemporary Roman Catholic teaching (for instance on contraception). There are frequent, dazzling, page-long thumbnail sketches — of Catholicism and Protestantism on grace, for instance, or the relationship between reason, imagination, and Romanticism.

There are two weaknesses. The first is imbalance: this is not the survey of Aquinas which the book’s title (or the original lecture list) might suggest. McCabe concentrates on the areas that interest him most, chiefly the theory of human action and ethics. There is very little red-blooded metaphysics, and hardly any discussion of the nature of God, creation, Christ, the Church, or the sacraments. In other words, we get the middle part of the Summa Theologiae — a reminder of just how recently the rest was largely ignored.

McCabe is also interested in how language works. This is useful, since we are not as familiar with Aquinas’s semantics as we were. McCabe’s enthusiasm for Wittgenstein comes through strongly: we grow accustomed to phrases such as “for Aquinas and Wittgenstein . . .”

This brings us to the other (potential) weakness. Not only does McCabe fail to give us the whole Aquinas: quite often he is not really expounding Aquinas at all. Some-times he is simply giving us a synthesis rather than paying detailed attention to any particular passage. Elsewhere we have wholesale excursions, interpretations, and embellishments — but since these are unfailingly perceptive, and often really quite important as statements of theology, this can hardly be said to be a problem. Only, perhaps, the newcomer might do well to remember that he or she is not being introduced to Aquinas pure and simple.

For anyone interested in Thomas Aquinas, this is the book of the year.