Volume > Issue > Briefly: March 2000

March 2000

Out of a Kantian Chrysalis? A Maritainian Critique of Fr. Marechal

By Ronald McCamy

Publisher: Peter Lang

Pages: 180

Price: $24.95

Review Author: David Arias Jr.

“A scholastic butterfly cannot be made to emerge from a Kantian chrysalis.” So wrote the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain in 1924, as he debated with Joseph Marechal over the starting point of metaphysics in the pages of the Revue Thomiste. Marechal, the “father of transcendental Thomism” (i.e., Kantian Thomism), sought to bring together what he saw as the essential epistemological insights of both Immanuel Kant and St. Thomas Aquinas.

This modern-medieval amalgam was anathema to Maritain. He saw any concession to Kantianism as an abandonment (or proximate occasion thereof) of our objective and certain knowledge of extramental reality. Maritain was concerned with the far-reaching implications of such a hybrid epistemology. For if one denies that, by means of our concepts, we have sure knowledge of objective reality, then one must say that all our conceptual knowledge is mutable and contingent. However, such “knowledge” is not, properly speaking, knowledge at all. For we only “know” a matter, properly speaking, when we see that the matter known cannot be otherwise than it is. That is, “knowledge,” properly speaking, can only be had of that which is eternal and therefore of that which is immutable and necessary.

At this point the reader may be wondering whether Maritain has lost touch with reality. For while some of our knowledge clearly concerns the immutable and necessary (for instance, geometric and arithmetic theorems), it seems as though the rest of our knowledge is of things which are mutable and contingent (the weather, our thoughts and feelings, and other things, such as whether Socrates is sitting or standing at this moment). But, even though there is something contingent and undetermined as regards these things, when they are considered in their causes (e.g., it is possible for Socrates to sit or stand since he is not necessarily determined to one of these positions), nevertheless there is also something immutable and necessary about them. For once these things, which are contingent and undetermined in their causes, are considered in themselves, they are no longer contingent and undetermined, but rather, they are necessary and determined. An example might be helpful here. If we suppose that at the present moment Socrates is sitting, then upon this supposition it cannot not be the case that Socrates is sitting (i.e., given this supposition, it is necessary that Socrates is sitting since he cannot both be sitting and not sitting at the same time and in the same respect). Absolutely speaking, Socrates could either be sitting or standing at this moment. But, based on the supposition that he is now sitting, it is necessary that he be sitting for as long as he remains seated. The state of affairs of Socrates sitting, then, considered in itself, has a certain necessity and determinacy about it (a suppositional necessity, not an absolute necessity).

Thus, Maritain maintains that we can have genuine knowledge of contingent and mutable states of affairs. He says that when we know these things we know them not qua contingent and mutable, but rather, we know them in themselves, which is insofar as there is a certain necessity, determinacy, and immutability about them. Thus, Maritain maintains that all of our knowledge is of that which is necessary and immutable (at least in some respect).

With that in mind, we can see that Marechal’s epistemology, in holding that all of our conceptual knowledge is mutable and contingent, seems to destroy the possibility of genuine conceptual knowledge. But the implications don’t stop there. For if our conceptual knowledge is bunk, then what are we to say about statements of Church dogma which depend on concepts? If concepts are mutable and contingent, then so also are the statements of Church dogma. But mutable and contingent Church dogma is a contradictory notion which no Catholic can accept.

The debate between Marechal and Maritain was, then, no mere academic affair, a squabble in an ivory tower. It was a struggle between two theories of knowledge, one of which did and one of which did not comport with Catholic orthodoxy. And although McCamy presupposes a fair acquaintance with St. Thomas’s and Kant’s epistemologies, he does a good job of bringing the debate to life by delineating and explaining key issues and conflicts. McCamy also places this debate in its historical context, with a chapter that links this past controversy to current issues of pluralism and tolerance. As is clear to anyone acquainted with recent Catholic theology, there is much emphasis given to the need for a plurality of theological methods, perspectives, and even conclusions. Intolerance is reserved for those who have little tolerance for theological pluralism! Less obvious, however, is that this hyper-pluralistic trend is an outgrowth of the theory of knowledge set forth by Marechal and others.

McCamy’s book, then, will interest those who want to ask how there can rightly exist more than one philosophical or theological system within the Church. Regarding this problem McCamy says, “de facto, a plurality of systems has indeed existed in history both within and without Catholic orthodoxy. The rub, of course, has to do with the issue of the unity of truth. Can contradiction be avoided when, not only different historical periods, but perhaps the very same time and culture, produce different systematic frameworks of thought?” Marechal, of course, answers in the affirmative, Maritain answers in the negative. McCamy, in the end, sides with Maritain.

The Scandal of Gender: Early Christian Teaching on the Man and the Woman

By Patrick Mitchell

Publisher: Regina Orthodox Press (800-636-2470)

Pages: 173

Price: $22.95

Review Author: Dale Vree

Why can’t women be ordained? Because “women are subject to men and,” continues Mitchell, “their subjection enjoins them to silence in the assembly [church], which makes it impossible for them to preside.”

No, Mitchell isn’t a fundamentalist; he’s Eastern Orthodox, and he’s merely stating what he sees as the bottom-line argument of the early Church Fathers of both East and West against priestesses.

The Fathers inherited their position on gender from the Bible. According to Genesis, God created Adam first. Then God created the first woman from Adam’s side, to be Adam’s helper. As Adam names the animals, so he names man’s helper “woman,” and calls his wife Eve. It is Eve who succumbs to the serpent and first eats the forbidden fruit. In punishing Eve, God tells her that her husband will rule over her.

St. Paul reiterates this and elaborates: Man is the head of the woman. Man is the image and glory of God while woman is the glory of man. The woman was created for man’s sake, for woman was created from man. It was the woman who let herself be deceived by the serpent. Woman must not usurp authority over man; she must keep silent in church, where she must cover her head as a symbol of her subjection. Husbands are to love their wives while wives are to be submissive to their husbands.

And St. Peter, the first Pope, calls woman the “weaker vessel” (Mitchell’s treatment of this is especially interesting). There’s more, but you get the idea.

Mitchell’s book certainly lives up to its title, The Scandal of Gender, even if his account is not as stark as the summary above — he does note various nuances and qualifications.

Mitchell finds some fault with the position on gender issues called “complementarity.” This position holds that man and woman are complementary and different, and that there are different sex roles (so far Mitchell agrees). But the advocates of complementarity shy away from asserting the biblical and patristic (and, one could add, Thomistic) teaching that man is the head of the woman (here is where Mitchell takes strong exception to the complementarity view).

It would be most interesting to see a debate between Mitchell, representing the traditional position inside Eastern Orthodoxy, and a proponent of complementarity.

Enjoying God's Beauty

By John Navone

Publisher: The Liturgical Press

Pages: 134

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Caroline Mulrooney

Fr. Navone, arguing for a renewed appreciation of the role of beauty in living a Christian life, reminds us that human experience is both cognitive and affective, therefore we need not only to know the truth but also to love the beautiful. And it is beauty alone, he insists, that first draws us to the truth. Allured by beauty, we may embark on the inquiry that can lead us to the truth: “Beauty is the enabling power of the truly good.” He rues the modern misapprehension of beauty — that it is useless and merely ornamental — and the neglect of beauty by the academy: “One will never convince anyone of the truth of the gospel if one relies upon conceptual clarity alone.”

Navone argues convincingly that we need to revisit and revive our theology of beauty — to become more aware of the role it plays in Christian faith, vision, and action. Unfortunately, while he makes the case that we need this, he does not supply us with what he says we need. The disappointment is that the book loses its focus on beauty. Borrowing ideas from Aristotle and others, Navone defines beauty in terms of the good: “Beauty is goodness making a spectacle of itself.” But having invoked an intimate association between beauty and goodness, Navone gives himself permission to write on anything related to “beauty/goodness.”

This makes the book a pot-pourri of topics, with chapters on subjects as varied as leisure; the biblical image of Christ as the Good Shepherd; ways in which we are made aware of God’s presence; Christian liturgy; medieval Italian painting. The chapter on medieval Italian painting (closely following the first chapter on the importance of beauty in theology) exists in strange isolation, and exemplifies Navone’s failure to fuse theology with aesthetics. A note reports that the chapter is taken from a previously published essay: One could have guessed as much, from its style and tone (which are different from the other chapters) and its content (which is fairly technical and detailed, like an essay in an art history course). A better treatment might have been to describe these paintings within the chapter on the theology of beauty, to show the inescapable and incontrovertible connection between beauty and God.

In the third section of the book, “Beauty and the Church,” Navone considers two theologians who addressed the topic of beauty: Jonathan Edwards and St. Thomas Aquinas. When we read Navone’s explication of Edwards’s theology of beauty, we realize what Navone’s book should have been. Edwards discusses beauty as beauty rather than an ostensibly combined beauty/goodness. (Aquinas, Navone reports, teaches that although Beauty, Goodness, and Truth are one and the same reality, they are differentiated in the human mind.) Edwards compares our sense of beauty to our sense of taste, pointing out that both experiences are immediate: We do not have to reflect on whether we think something is beautiful or not; beauty strikes us. This is not the case with “the good,” as anyone who has taken a course in ethics knows. Thus, when Navone discusses Edwards we are given a pleasing insight into beauty as beauty; unfortunately, it arrives in the last section of the book.

A clear explanation of how beauty and God are related could shed light on many issues in our society. Many environmentalists, for instance, see the beauty of nature, but don’t believe in God. Or if they do, they may be pantheists, or may believe that the earth is God. At the other end of the spectrum, many Protestants have a weak sense of incarnational theology and of the value of the created order and beauty itself. Navone is right: The need for a theology of created, incarnate beauty is urgent. He sounds the call; perhaps another, better book will answer it.

Tolkien: Man and Myth

By Joseph Pearce

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 212

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Michelle Bobier

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the greatest book of the 20th century. At least it emerged as such in a poll, conducted by the chain bookstore Waterstone’s, of over 25,000 Britons. When Waterstone’s announced the results in January 1997, the response of the literati ranged from condescension to outrage. Some literary critics rose to Tolkien’s defense, but they were outnumbered.

The controversy has prompted Joseph Pearce (a biographer of Chesterton) to write Tolkien: Man and Myth, which is not so much a biography of Tolkien as it is a literary vindication of his work. Pearce’s literary criticism here is well done (he agrees with Tolkien that an artist’s work, not his life, should be a critic’s main concern). But in handling the biographical elements, Pearce is perhaps overly docile. He reports that Tolkien classified the facts of his life as “insignificant,” “more significant,” and “really significant.” Pearce accepts this and says, “Those facts which Tolkien considered most significant to his life and work have formed the basis of this book.”

The wisdom of allowing the subject of a study to decide what is significant to that study is questionable. It’s like allowing a chef to control a restaurant review by presenting the reviewer only with dishes of the chef’s own choosing rather than letting the reviewer range freely through the menu. The reader is surprised at times to see the gentleness with which Pearce handles Tolkien’s life. For instance, he mentions, but is seemingly neutral about, even so wrongheaded an incident as Tolkien’s forcing his wife-to-be to convert to Catholicism before she was ready, rather than allowing her to convert out of her own convictions.

In spite of his perhaps too-generous perspective, though, Pearce has crafted a fascinating, informative, and at times moving book. Happily, Pearce does not always observe Tolkien’s strictures about significance, and his book is the better for it. For example, some of the book’s longest sections concern Tolkien’s friendships, particularly his relationship with C.S. Lewis, which endured despite a cooling-off after Lewis’s marriage and despite the fact that, while Lewis was always Tolkien’s greatest literary fan, Tolkien detested Lewis’s Narnia books.

Pearce’s main purpose, however, is to take us on a lengthy and enlightening exploration of Tolkien’s philosophy of myth. Pearce paraphrases Tolkien’s belief about myth this way: “Myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. Myths…steer however shakily towards the true harbour, whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss….” Pearce quotes Lewis, who is clearly indebted to Tolkien when he writes: “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the other [kind of myth], but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened….”

Pearce explores insightfully the philosophical foundations of The Lord of the Rings. He tells us that “The ‘longing for a lost Eden,’ the sense of exile, at the core of Tolkien’s myth is a mystical expression of the desire for Heaven….” Critics desiring to categorize The Lord of the Rings have frequently, and pejoratively, labeled it escapist. But Tolkien himself regarded fantasy (or “fairy-stories”) as anything but trivially escapist, writing eloquently: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if…he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?… In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing…the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” Tolkien was guilty of no such confusion; thus, in the words of one commentator Pearce cites, “The unsuspecting reader who thinks he is only reading ‘fantasy’ in reading Tolkien will suddenly find himself pondering the state of his own soul….” Such a reaction would hardly surprise Tolkien, who described The Lord of the Rings as “fundamentally religious and Catholic.”

Tolkien was aware that some might confuse the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter, so he was not shocked by fatuous dismissals of his work, such as that of one critic who called Part One of The Lord of the Rings “a book for bright children.” Despite the continued and richly deserved popularity of The Lord of the Rings among the public, not much has changed on the literary-critical front, as the response to Waterstone’s poll demonstrates.

But Pearce succeeds in his self-appointed task of arguing persuasively that The Lord of the Rings is a major and profound work of literature. And he quotes the discriminating agreement of the writer Paul Goodman, who says that “the key” to the work is its “religious sensibility,” its “sense that there is a final bliss to be enjoyed, though neither in Middle Earth nor this earth. And though it has undoubted weaknesses, do they really outweigh its strengths — its scale of vision, its fecundity of invention, the rhythmic power of much of the writing? No: Tolkien’s epic is not the greatest book of the century: but be wary of the judgment of anyone who hates it.”

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