[Cross-posted from Henri De Lubac, Thomas Aquinas and the debate over “Pure Nature”, a blog specifically devoted to logging reading notes and chronicling my explorations into this particular Thomistic debate].
Writing in Nova et Vetera (“Desiderium Naturale Visionis Dei — Est autem duplex hominis beatitudo sive felicitas: Some Observations about Lawrence Feingold’s and John Milbank’s Recent Interventions in the Debate over the Natural Desire to See God”, pp. 81-131) Reinhard Hütter bristles at Milbank’s sharply polemical criticism of Feingold:
In his recent opuscule, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate concerning the Supernatural, John Milbank characterizes Feingold’s work as “arch-reactionary,”“written to reinstate a Garrigou-Lagrange type position,” and his exegetical method as “much like that of the proof-texting of a Protestant fundamentalist,” hence representing the “die-hard,” “palaeolithic” neo-Thomism. Moreover, in a less than subtle form of invective, Milbank denies his interlocutor the honor of being named correctly by consistently misnaming him throughout as “Feinberg.” The readers of Milbank’s treatise — most of whom in all likelihood are neither experts in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, Henri de Lubac, or Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange in particular nor of Catholic theology in general — are thus invited to entertain the suspicion of some sinister right-wing ecclesiastical conspiracy. And since Feingold’s tome is, quite unfortunately, virtually impossible to lay hands on [not anymore? — Christopher] as well as (should one succeed in getting hold of it) a much more demanding read than Milbank’s opuscule, very few of Milbank’s readers will be able to double-check the all too quick dismissal of a serious piece of theological scholarship the implications of which are, however, unsurprisingly, less than supportive of Milbank’s own project. But why should anyone care about the truth of the charge if one of the presently leading opinion formers of contemporary Anglo-American Protestant theology has sent out such weighty signals as “arch-reactionary, die-hard, palaeolithic neo-Thomism”?
On Milbank’s embarassing mispelling of Feingold as “Feinberg”, Hütter further adds: “The possibility, however, that the consistent use of the misnomer “Feinberg” simply reflects a neglect of contingent details, cannot be definitively excluded, since, after all, the reader has to recognize behind “Jacques Maintain” the Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain (25, note 9).” If John Milbank were to ever release a new edition of The Suspended Middle, it would undoubtedly benefit from a proofreader.
* * *
Hütter’s lengthy review of Feingold and Milbank is well recommended. Like Hütter, I cannot say the same for The Suspended Middle, although with the caveat that I have personally only made my way through the first several chapters before deciding — at least for the time being — that it would be preferable to postpone Milbank and complete my objective of finishing Feingold’s immensely more satisfying (and immensely more lucid) opus by the close of this year. Indeed, I found my subjective experience of reading Feingold contra Milbank to be in part aesthetically-motivated: the pleasure of reading the former as contrasted with the painful drudgery of the latter.
Feingold surveys the entire history of Catholic theology and the Thomist commentorial tradition on this particular subject, with the position of each author clearly formulated, substantially documented and laid out in detail such that one can grasp with relative ease where each stands on any given question: Scotus, Cajetan, Suarez, De Lubac, and a host of other Thomists, not to mention Aquinas himself. Feingold’s text contains copious quotations from his source materials, and is exhaustively referenced and footnoted. Nothing is left to question. One cannot but be awed by the herculean effort it must have taken to read through, understand, meticulously assemble and publish this body of work. To call it a “magisterial” treatment in scope and substance is not an understatement.
Unfortunately, my experience of navigating Milbank’s Suspended Middle is much akin to groping my way through a London fog after a night of pub-hopping. His work is as sparse on direct quotations as Feingold is indulgent, leaving the reader thirsty for validation beyond purported claims and wishing Milbank would deign to engage in what he denigrates as “Protestant proof-texting”. For example, consider Milbank’s blithe assertion that:
“Cajetan and neo-scholasticism, by contrast [to De Lubac’s ontological revisionism], leave philosophical ontology alone in its immanence: the being of human nature, as of everything else, can be specified without reference to God, or only God as ultimate efficient cause. On the other hand, cosmic and human beings in no way (as it does for De Lubac) anticipates grace. The structures of grace are without precedent: yet in practice scholasticism will have to speak of them in terms of analogues taken from an immanent univocal ontology. Since nothing in ‘purely natural’ being of itself participates in divine esse or by analogical ascent negates its own non-self-sufficiency, these analogues will be purely in terms of the quantitative extension of the range of an adequately “given” meaning. And what natural analogues to grace will be available in these terms save those of an anonymous and overwhelming force? or a nominal and invisible raising of status which yet commands visible jurisdiction? [p. 30]
How’s that for a single paragraph? — and I assure you it’s characteristic of the whole lot. I’m embarrassed to say that, having read several hundred pages of Feingold (and in this year alone, reams of academic articles and book reviews on Aquinas) I’ve never experienced the cognitive difficulty I’ve encountered with Milbank. Does anybody else find him as impenetrable as I do? (Rhetorical question — googling “John Milbank” and “dense” turns up 10,600 results with such descriptions of his works as “a dense read”; “Impressively dense”; “dense but quite profound”; “dense and exquisite”; “splendidly dense”; “characteristically dense”; “poetically dense”; “painfully dense”; “dense and difficult”; “dense, heady and bewildering”; “impossibly dense”; “dense, challenging and elusive”; “dense, frequently heady and inclined toward ornately convoluted prose”; “a dark, pith pit of dense propositions” — and possessing a “dense, intellectual style that has prompted charges of elitism.” I may not be traveling alone.
Moving on … Hütter also offers the following intuition of why Milbank finds
“Feinberg” — sorry, Feingold — so exasperating:
While Milbank’s project is neither guided nor framed by the norms and criteria of Catholic theology, his reaction is nevertheless indicative of how not a few contemporary Catholic theologians might react to Feingold’s book as well. For Feingold indeed challenges numerous assumptions received and settled in the first three decades after Vatican II. The first is methodological: In the wake of neo-Marxist sociology, the linguistic turn in Anglo-Saxon philosophy, and the hermeneutical and poststructuralist developments in continental philosophy, theology for many a contemporary Catholic theologian can only be conceived as defensible and intelligible in a thoroughly historical-contextualist and constructivist mode. Every theological claim must needs be advanced, read, and assessed in light of the historical, communal, and political context in which it is produced and to which it is addressed. The only way to forward arguments is by situating and out-narrating opponents as well as offering rhetorical and aesthetic appeals leading to the volitional as well as conceptual conversion of the interlocutor. Propositional discourse as informed by metaphysical realism and discursive, conceptual argumentation is therefore at present widely dismissed as a suspiciously disembodied and philosophically outdated mode of speculative theology, oblivious to the historical, pragmatic, and practice oriented nature of theology itself and thus vulnerable to being constantly co-opted by deeply entrenched as well as concealed discourses of power and interest. This wholesale rejection of what was seen as the ossified discourse of textbook neo-scholasticism was accompanied — in the wake of Heidegger as well as Wittgenstein — by hailing the “end of metaphysics” in general and the Aristotelian Thomist metaphysics in particular. And since — on the basis of Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris — Thomas Aquinas had again been instantiated as the loadstar of a renewed Catholic philosophy, according to an understanding that interpreted Vatican II as the license to break with that very tradition, he had to be put aside as outmoded too.
According to Hütter, Feingold distinguishes himself in that his mode of writing circumvents the “historical-contexualist and constructivist” expectations of postmodern scholarship by “entering into” the scholastic commentorial tradition, focusing exclusively on Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus (as well as some Scotists), the Thomist commentators (including Suárez) up to Garrigou-Lagrange and Henri de Lubac.
Feingold provokes by operating in a mode of discourse very unfamiliar to theological readers by now largely unaccustomed to the conceptual precision and rigor once cultivated by the “schoolmen.” Differently put, Feingold’s mode of discourse is highly mimetic of the virtually forgotten tradition of Thomist commentators. …
What makes Feingold so provocative is that the form of his discourse — in stark contrast to de Lubac’s way of reading the commentators — is shaped not by a historical hermeneutic but by reconstructing and thus entering their own way of conducting a speculative theological enquiry, a mimetic exercise reconstructing and thus continuing the commentators’ discursive mimesis of Aquinas.
As Hütter points out, this distinction also applies to Feingold’s critical engagement with De Lubac himself — whereas De Lubac’s writing “transposes the speculative theological discourse of the commentators into a historical-hermeneutical frame of inquiry”, Feingold “[enters into] the commentatorial tradition with its propositional-discursive mode of operation” which is distinguished by its metaphysical realism (dismissed by Milbank as a “Garrigou-Langrange type position” p. 24 Suspended Middle). Thus:
Feingold provokes by returning to and, by implication, rehabilitating an older discursive tradition and submitting de Lubac’s theology to the conceptual rigor of this tradition. Feingold is so irritating because he picks up the ball where it was dropped — with the broad acceptance of the theological approach advanced by Henri de Lubac and other representatives of the nouvelle théologie — without signaling awareness of what has happened in Catholic theology since. [Hütter, pp. 93-94]