Friday, April 16, 2010

Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology

By Martin C. Albl, 402 pages, Saint Mary's Press.

Albl shows how philosophy is critical to explaining Catholic theology. Bad philosophy can harm the Church's message just as much as bad theology can. Modern secular philosophy, he notes, starves itself intellectually by cutting itself off from the transcendent. It has rejected God and believes that the materialist universe is all there is – hence the term "materialism."

While Catholic thinkers believe that God gave humans freedom, materialists often believe in determinism, which claims that human actions and feelings are determined by brain biochemistry. They have no spiritual or ethical meaning.

This philosophy believes that "nothing is sacred," questioning all authority including the Church and scripture. Albl argues that this is faulty, and that such thinking damages the proclamation of the gospel. Only after this beginning does he get into Catholic theology proper.

Albl introduces Catholic theology with this philosophical landscape in mind. He addresses the many criticisms the Church often faces, such as the atheist criticism that theology relies too much on authority. He shows that scientists themselves depend on their own traditions and authorities, and that new theories must break through the old guard to gain acceptance. The Big Bang theory took a long time to get accepted because its opponents feared that it left room for a Creator.

Albl shows how Catholicism, through its belief in a rational universe with a rational Creator, opened the way to science and empirical study. Thus clerics opposed astrology and alchemy as superstitions because they were not rational enough.

Reason, Faith, and Tradition examines how reason is nourished by the transcendent through the Church's natural law tradition. The Church claims that the truth is written on every human heart. We all have a sense of right and wrong even without revelation. We can discover this though reasoned examination of the conscience:

"Natural ethical laws are simply guidelines that correspond with our human nature; our reason allows us to recognize these rules."

Albl demonstrates how the faith is reasonable, though we have to believe first. A miracle, then, is a break in the normal functioning of nature's laws. But many miracles, including Jesus' healing miracles, acted to restore the normal, natural functioning of something. Jesus making the blind see is a restoration of the natural functioning of the eyes. Miracles therefore restore nature to its rightful state. In this sense, a miracle can be accepted with the eyes of faith as reasonable, and not only as a superstitious or fideistic belief. Miracles reasonably fit into God's providential care of humans and of all creation.

Albl handles the challenging question of the trinity with precision, clearly explaining the relationship between the 3 persons of the trinity after first explaining what theologians mean by "person." He also distinguishes between the "economic trinity" and the "immanent trinity." The former regards the persons of the trinity as they relate to humans and creation, while the latter examines how the persons of the trinity relate to one another, with no reference to humans or creation.

While Reason, Faith, and Tradition may at first seem like an overly-challenging read, because of Albl's adherence to the clarity and simple explanations of good philosophy, it is good for people of many levels of theological understanding.

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