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The Unchanging Truth of God?
Crucial Philosophical Issues for Theology
by thomas g. guarino
cua, 264 pages, $34.95

Monsignor Thomas Guarino, emeritus professor of theology at Seton Hall University, is well-known to First Things readers. A regular contributor to the magazine, he has also long been active in the ecumenical initiative “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” as co-chairman. In his books and articles, Guarino has plowed the borderlands between philosophy and theology and reaped a rich harvest. His Foundations of Systematic Theology argued the Catholic case for the indispensable, if ancillary role, of philosophy in the theological enterprise. And The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II is a sophisticated exploration of the Council’s achievement in joining both fidelity and development in its major documents. 

In The Unchanging Truth of God?, Guarino brings together seven essays published over the past twenty years, along with a helpful introduction and a new preface to each essay. Far from having aged, the essays take on new import in light of our present parlous situation in theology and the Church.

The essays are a pleasure to read: substantive in content, crystalline in argument, incisive in expression. They offer rich variations on certain core themes. Among those themes are the Catholic commitment to the both/and of fides et ratio; the legitimacy of the tradition of the Spolia Aegyptorum—the appropriation of the riches of Athens for the service of Jerusalem; and the need for a foundational ontology that warrants and supports claims to objective truth.

Such themes are staples of the great tradition from Origen and Augustine, through Aquinas and Bonaventure, to Newman and Ratzinger. But they take on a particular urgency today, in an intellectual and cultural climate in which “postmodernism” is pervasive.

It is this postmodern context that is behind the question mark in the book’s title. Are we still able to speak of and argue for “unchanging truth” or “objective reality”? And in a post-Nietzschean and post-Heideggerian philosophical world, is talk of “God” consigned to the status of a tribal dialect that the flux of history has rendered barely intelligible?

Guarino is informed, generous, and critical in his exploration of an array of postmodern thinkers. He is not dismissive of their insights and concerns, but neither does he neglect or condone their shortcomings. Rather, he seeks to employ postmodern thinkers’ genuine gains, redeploying them for theology’s benefit. What can we appropriate from a postmodern sensibility? Primarily, an acute sense of the cultural and linguistic embeddedness of all views and perspectives. This can accompany both a critique of the narrow rationalism of the Enlightenment and the rehabilitation of other modes of knowing, including the aesthetic and religious.

Taking their bearings from Nietzsche, thinkers from Heidegger through Gadamer and Gianni Vattimo insist that it’s “interpretation all the way down.” Pressing these insights to an extreme, a number of these thinkers reject God as the “ultimate totalizing Agent” who eviscerates human freedom and thwarts the Promethean desire to shape one’s own identity and destiny.

In the wake of postmodernity’s challenge and allure, Guarino finds that theologians often opt for one of two approaches. Either they pursue a “postliberal” strategy, prominently associated with George Lindbeck and the “Yale School,” or they adopt a “mutually critical correlation” method as put forward by David Tracy and the “Chicago School.” With his typically ecumenical spirit, Guarino appreciates the contributions of both. Yet he also identifies distinctive weaknesses. The former tends toward a fideism that depreciates the value of reason and philosophy. The latter, in its eagerness to engage the culture, risks devaluing Christian distinctiveness. 

True to the tradition’s commitment to “both/and,” Guarino strives to sustain a delicate balance. On the one hand theology needs philosophy to defend “the very possibility of transcultural truth and universal validity.” On the other hand, arguing for “the relative autonomy” of the natural order, including philosophy, should not compromise “the preeminence of the Christian narrative” nor “the absolute novum that revelation assuredly introduces.”

The issues come into particularly sharp focus in Guarino’s consideration of the Italian philosopher and religious thinker Gianni Vattimo. The title of the essay devoted to Vattimo is instructive: “The Return of Religion in Europe? The Postmodern Christianity of Gianni Vattimo.”

Vattimo is influenced by the biblical tradition and wants the voice of religion to be allowed in the secular public square. But for all his alleged openness to Christianity, Vattimo in effect neutralizes religion by reducing the virtue of “caritas” to “tolerance”: a secular openness that makes room for all voices that espouse and foster nonviolence. Vattimo polemicizes against traditional Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, because of its dogmatic and absolutist claims that purportedly breed intolerance. Christianity’s mission, for Vattimo, is to spread the gospel of tolerance and to forgo absolutist claims. Hence he would affirm “caritas,” but eschew “caritas in veritate.” As Guarino puts it, he “wants to defang religion by dissolving it into an inoffensive charity-as-tolerance without any truth-claims.”

For postmodernists like Heidegger and Vattimo, just as with modernist philosophers like Kant and Hegel, Christianity’s scandal of particularity proves an insurmountable stumbling block. The eternal God’s unique incarnation in Jesus Christ and the universal salvation effected on a hill and a garden near Jerusalem in the first century is absorbed and neutered either in the name of the System or of the Non-System—both equally totalitarian. 

As I noted earlier, Guarino’s essays are even more pertinent today than when they first appeared. For even if Vattimo’s name is not actually known outside certain rarefied circles, Vattimo acolytes have multiplied both within and without the Church. Witness, for example, the widespread calls for a “pastoral paradigm” to replace a “dogmatic paradigm”—as if Vatican II, for all its pastoral concern and sensibility, did not found its pastoral initiatives upon the dogmatic constitutions on revelation (Verbum Dei) and the Church (Lumen gentium).

Guarino, in these essays as in his other writings, shows himself a sure interpreter of the Council’s letter and spirit when he writes: “As Vatican II taught, any good that exists in the minds and hearts of men needs to be healed and perfected by Christ unto the glory of God...The natural order in all its various dimensions—philosophy, the civil state, anthropology, the natural virtues—must ultimately come face-to-face with Jesus Christ.” It is this Christo-logic that is ultimately the foundation of Catholic theology, as it is of both nature and grace.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization.

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