A Book Review on Faith, Long Deferred

Well nigh 20 years ago I, a hapless college student, bought a dusty old book at the Sacred Heart Used Book Store in Pittsburgh: The Theological Virtues I: On Faith, by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP.  The day has come to write a review!

To appreciate the irony of this purchase, you must understand that I was at that very moment being trained in the Nouvelle Theologie both in my classes and in my various hobby-discussions with classmates.  I loved De Lubac and Company, and Lagrange was the probably-villainous Grand Inquisitor who had waged war against these holy theologians who were clearly doing no more than enlivening a dusty theological tradition with rich, ancient sources of reasoning.

Even more amusing, I was in the company of a friend (now with the CFRs in New York) who had guided me into the world of Nouvelle Theologie and knew far more about the history of the controversy than I did at the time.  He commented, if I recall, that Lagrange’s book on charity was supposed to be very good, so perhaps (begrudgingly) this book on faith would be as well.  To perfect the irony, I’m pretty sure I bought Further Paradoxes by De Lubac at the same time and dropped them in the same bag.

I bought the book more out of a sense of the transgressive than anything else I think, and a derring-do willingness to understand this blackguard.  But after skimming the book I found all that I had feared—dense neo-Scholastic columns of dry distinctions.  It was all so much more complicated than it needed to be!  I didn’t read much of it then and it sat on my shelf, occasionally noticed with amusement, until this year.

Twenty years is a long time to change and grow, and along the way I’ve come to rely quite a bit on neo-Scholastic manuals as a valuable source for my teaching and hobbies alike.  Thank Ed Feser, and my own growing sense, largely inspired by the challenges and objections of my students, that most of my N-T training was heavy on neat ideas but not always so impressive on actual argument.  Part by inspiration and part by desire to improve one of my lessons at school, I decided to turn to the old Lagrange book and see what it could give me.

This is a great book.  A truly excellent book.  Never could I have read, much less appreciated, such a book in my college years.  But I’m not a dumb undergrad or a super-sophisticated grad student (Deo gratias).  I’m a teacher, and this neo-Scholastic manual is an absolute gold mine of every distinction, worry, challenge, and objection that either I or my students ask each year that I teach the topic of faith.

I worked my way through the book a few pages each night before bed and found, not perfection, not a masterpiece, but something useful.  You have no idea how rare that is in the world of theology textbooks.  Useful might as well be one of the seals of the Apocalypse.

Yes, Lagrange is sometimes insufferable.  His repeated, pointless dismissal of Scotists when we are nowhere near an actual dispute between the two schools is sometimes amusing, sometimes aggravating.  Yes, the book is primarily “just” a summary of the thought of Aquinas.  Quelle horreur.

But he’s not a rigid triumphalist or a dour dismalist by any means.  He’s sober, and confident, and direct.  Sometimes he picks a path I don’t agree with, but most of the time his moves are logical and the expansions on Aquinas are helpful.  Even the Angelic doctor can use someone to ask some more questions and provide some more examples.  Lagrange’s reputation as a bully is somewhat understandable but I think mostly exaggerated.  Maybe that means I’m a rigid old bully as well.  Who knows.

If you can ignore the backhanded comments and the uber-Thomist cheerleading, and sift through the solid but often unremarkable commentary, you will find some really rocking ideas.  For years I have taught a little sloppily on the difference between what I call supernatural faith and merely natural faith, usually overemphasizing the similarities and worrying about the inaccuracies.  Lagrange sliced through that muddle extremely well and then rocked me on my heels with a connection I had never (and perhaps never would have) made: that acquired faith (merely natural or human faith in God) is properly considered the province of the moral virtue of religio, a part of justice.  About ten terrific ideas popped into my head when I read this simple claim, and quite a few disorganized items of my teaching clicked into place.

How about a simpler language for talking about the necessity of explicit faith in Christ for salvation?  I’ve threaded my own needle on this one and it’s not extremely elegant.  Since I’m teaching younger kids for whom elegant is not really noticeable, that’s ok.  But Lagrange solves it with a pretty simple per se/per accidens distinction that he borrows from the school of Salamanca, reinforced with the idea that per accidens does not necessarily mean “uncommon.”  And with this solution we can still be very direct about the need for faith without being vague or risking compromising the integrity of the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Sacraments, etc.

How about merging the stages of practical reasoning given in the Summa—something I teach every year to my juniors in Ethics—with the act of faith?  For some reason that connection only occurred to me recently (and is in fact the express reason I started reading this book).  If faith is an act of the intellect at the command of the will, then it should be trivial to give an account of the means-end reasoning involved.  But where does grace come in?  At what point or points is it necessary?  I was delighted to find in Lagrange a detailed solution that more or less tracked with my own—better, probably, but then again maybe he’s made things a bit more complicated than necessary.

Through all of these arguments and distinctions in Lagrange (and other manualists, and especially just by teaching St. Thomas for ten years) I’ve come verrry full circle on my old training.  I will always have a soft spot for De Lubac and the Great Von B, but reading Lagrange it is quite a bit more apparent to me that they made some sketchy decisions in their respective theological accounts.  I’m not sure Lagrange was wrong to argue with them or even to throw his weight around with them, and while he may have missed some of the strength of their position, I’m now pretty confident that they missed some of the strength of his.  And so I find myself exiled from any and all camps, which is just how it should be.

Finally, and somewhat surprisingly for me, this book challenged my faith a little.  I’m pretty cerebral and I’ve been teaching the faith for a pretty long time now.  Lagrange made me realize that I take the act of faith for granted, and put me on my guard against making the faith an object of merely human knowledge.  The fact that it all makes sense to me can never be the formal motive for my belief, and I think it’s extremely easy for someone in my position to fall into that mistake.  The formal motive for saving faith can only ever—ever!—be the authority of God who reveals.

So now I am much more careful about making an explicit act of faith each morning and evening, not just as a technical exercise but as a true act of trust in God who can neither deceive nor be deceived.  And since charity must be the form of living faith, and I can easily forget that too for all the same reasons, I make one of those as well.  When I hear myself abandoning myself to the very much invisible divine benevolence, I realize how fideist and irrational it must sound to an outsider.  Triumphalist even.  But it is human reason itself that shows us the necessity of this trustful surrender to divine providence, and that sometimes “use your best judgment” means “hope in God, I will praise him still, my savior and my God.”

As it turns out, this spiritual turn at the end is really not so surprising after all.  Because in spite of his reputation, Lagrange is actually at heart an expert on the spirituality of St. John of the Cross and the topic closest to his heart is charity and the Dark Night of the Soul.  His professional work is motivated by a desire to connect and harmonize that mystical experience with the Angelic Doctor.  And so I thank him, wherever he may be now, for not only writing a pretty useful book but also for assisting in the saving my soul.

Favorite Quotation, Noble Edition: p. 249 “Since God made all things for himself, then our blood is more than our own, and nobody can love his own blood better when an occasion arises, than by pouring it out for the glory of God, as a witness to the truth of the Gospel.”

Favorite Quotation, Cheeky Edition: p. 227-228 “It is perilous to make sport of the principle of non-contradiction, just as it is perilous to play carelessly with fire or with a tiger.  Whoever denies this principle is devoured by it.  That is what happened to Hegel.” (The Latin on DVT p. 151 is cleaner and terser, as may be expected, but perhaps even more biting).


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