- Analogies of Transcendence: An Essay on Nature, Grace, and Modernity by Stephen M. Fields
While the ship of “pure nature” still floats in some theological tidewaters, Stephen Fields’s Analogies of Transcendence offers reason to hope that it will never sail again on the open seas. That, to put it bluntly, is the polemical point of this book: that there is no such thing as “pure nature” and that there never was (149). But Analogies of Transcendence is more than a polemic against a view that, in the judgment of this reviewer, is a theological fiction and a distortion of the teaching of the Angelic Doctor—among the deleterious consequences of which are that it effectively keeps transcendence from shining through nature, [End Page 656] eo ipso deprives the latter of its inherently symbolic character, and clears the way for ever more parking lots and flat-roofed strip malls. The world thus produced, according to the strict terms of this theory, would not even qualify as “profane”—as that domain whose existence is defined by its proximity and ordering to the “temple” (pro-fanum). All of that—in short, the modern secular world—is the dark, disenchanted background against which Fields proposes a richer, more Baroque, and more adequate theology of the interplay between nature and grace.
The book consists of three parts (divided into seven chapters), an afterword, and an appendix. The first part offers a historical overview of various models of nature and grace. Chapter 1 presents the problematic theory of “pure nature.” This theory, according to Fields, originated in a one-sided interprettation of the more aporetic and dynamic thought of the Angelic Doctor, became an explicit theory by the time of Cajetan and Sylvester of Ferrara in the sixteenth century, and thence came to dominate the interpretation of Thomas for centuries—precisely the time needed for the secular to be born—until it was called into question by, among others, Henri de Lubac (19). After problematizing the Neo-Scholastic ossification of the genuinely dynamic, even playful, relation between nature and grace, chapter 2 examines a number of “attempted reunions,” specifically, those of Johann Adam Möhler, Max Seckler, Maurice Blondel, Karl Rahner, and, somewhat surprisingly, even G. W. F. Hegel, who is appreciated for his philosophy of art, so much so that Fields finds in him, mutatis mutandis, an exponent of “an analogy of beauty” (52), though he is perhaps too readily identified here with Romanticism (49 and 186).
Fields begins with Möhler’s Symbolik, which he takes to provide a Romantic account of doctrines as “intrinsically symbolic,” that is to say, as representing “a divine surplus of meaning that transcends their finite symbolic form” (46–47). Fields’s reading of Möhler is initially somewhat jarring because Symbolik is a fairly straightforward exposition of various Christian confessions (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, etc.), and is therefore somewhat misleadingly translated into English as Symbolism. There is some justification for reading Symbolik this way, at least if one reads it in light of Möhler’s earlier and more obviously Romantic Unity in the Church. But it is nevertheless somewhat worrisome. For, granting that no human word or concept can fully signify divine realities, are doctrines not more than symbols? In response to such concerns, Fields assures us that “they import real knowledge,” because while “their form consists of historically conditioned concepts and images, the finitude of this form implicitly carries the immanence of the Spirit’s activity” (47–48). And so, by analogy, one might speak of the glory of doctrine in the way that Paul speaks of the glory [End Page 657] contained in earthen vessels (2 Cor 4:7), as a further specification of the way that nature “dynamically mediates the radiance of grace” (52).
The core of this substantial chapter, however, is Fields’s reception of the thought of Seckler (b. 1927), an emeritus Tübingen theologian, who undertakes...