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Reviewed by:
  • Faith, Order, Understanding: Natural Theology in the Augustinian Tradition
  • Mark D. Jordan
Louis Mackey . Faith, Order, Understanding: Natural Theology in the Augustinian Tradition. Foreword by Robert Sweetman. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2011. Pp. xxiii + 170. Cloth, $80.00.

I begin by declaring that Louis Mackey was my doctoral mentor a number of decades ago. The declaration is not meant to forestall charges of hidden bias (or deferred animus). I make the declaration because my memories of Mackey's teaching led me to place "this little book" somewhat outside the frame prepared for it by Robert Sweetman.

The book comprises four chapters, one each devoted to proofs for the existence of God in Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, and Scotus. Throughout, Mackey argues against settled conceptions of proof. He remarks at one point that "it is even somewhat misleading to think of Anselm's argument as a proof of God's existence" (61). The remark applies to all four authors. Mackey puns on the notion of proof, which means a testing or proving of the inquirer rather than a deduction. These proofs vary in their procedures and addressees, but they share in an "Augustinian" tradition of dialectical rhetoric that wants to motivate hierarchical ascent. The four proofs illustrate modes of a tradition, but also episodes in its development, with Scotus's formulation of order the "crowning achievement" (164).

Each of the chapters proceeds by commentary on carefully selected texts. Mackey fills out arguments or tabulates them for clarity; he raises and answers likely objections; he collates enigmatic passages with their parallels elsewhere in a corpus. Although he acknowledges some other exegeses (medieval, modern, contemporary), he is mainly concerned to make sense of the texts for himself and his intended reader. This is not a book anxiously engaged with current scholarly interpretations. Most of the scholarship mentioned in it would be considered dated. The book's theoretical interlocutors are also older figures with whom Mackey was engaged over decades. Readers who know his interest in "deconstruction" will be astonished to see how little of it appears here. Compare this reading of Anselm with that (re-)published in Peregrinations of the Word (1997). In Peregrinations, the understanding of language is developed in conversation with Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye, but it ends with Jacques Derrida. In the present book, reading Anselm does not bring Derrida to mind—or, at least, to the page.

This manner of commentary was characteristic of Mackey's classes when I attended them in the mid-1970s. He was then preoccupied with questions of hierarchy, and he had in hand at least one collection of Augustinian studies, to be called Lumen de lumine. This was before he had read much or any Derrida: I remember his excitement in 1976 when he finished Of Grammatology. So there is no need to speculate, as Sweetman does, about the sequence of Mackey's interests. The substance of these chapters had been worked out before Mackey encountered Derrida, who came as late, dialectical confirmation of rhetorical concerns that Mackey had earlier pursued through English-speaking literary critics—and, of course, his medieval exemplars (compare Peregrinations, vii).

I mention this not so much to clarify an intellectual biography as to conclude something about the purposes of "this little book." Its authorial voice is Mackey's lecturing voice, the one he used to enrapture large classes of Texan undergraduates. The book's simplicity and directness echo his classroom. They are not best explained either as sobriety in the [End Page 454] face of death or as frank piety for Augustine. Mackey held that language had to become most evasive precisely when it spoke about God. His "direct style" was not a concluding disclosure, but a teacher's lure. Mackey writes about the Augustinian tradition, but he also writes as an Augustinian—in dialectically stressed solicitations of a desire, at once affective and intellectual, that might scale hierarchies of order to glimpse God, though never (yet) to reach God.

Mackey speaks of his four medieval authors as instances of an "Augustinian tradition," which he sometimes contrasts with Aristotelian-Thomistic traditions as a more convincing claimant to the title "perennial philosophy." But his most urgent...


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