Monday, August 13, 2007

Fr. Donald Keefe's Covenantal Theology (reviewed)

[I posted this review at recently. Feedback very welcome.]

At the risk of exploding my carefully wrought veneer of sober scholarship and orphic wisdom, let me just say: this book is freakin' awesome. It takes some doing to get your hands on a copy, but allow me to undercut Amazon a little by saying you can get a nice hardcover one-volume edition of this book for $[...] (not incl. S&H) from a professor at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. I'd had Fr. Keefe's Covenantal Theology (CT) in my sights for several weeks when I finally found the seller, and then fit it into my reading budget a year later so that, at long last, I could enjoy this true masterpiece of theology. (I don't want to divulge the seller's details without permission, but you can email me at fidescogitactio AT gmail DOT com for the his contact info.)

Lest I sound too over the top in praise, CT's high quality rests on a number of grounds. First, it is a THEOLOGICAL masterpiece because Fr. Keefe rigorously, systematically takes theology serious on its own terms, with a solid grasp on its proper methodological consistency. As Fr. Keefe argues in numerous ways as CT progresses, too much theology is based not on theology's proper object -- the historical Event of the offered Covenant by and in the One Flesh (mia sarx) of Christ and Theotokos -- but instead on either Aristotelian logical consistency, or Platonic (tragic hylemorphic) dehistoricization of the concrete, or the later manifestations of these pessimistic cosmological worldviews. There is no inherent, antecedent, necessary reason for the fall, nor for the creation, nor for our redemption. Rather, the Event itself, in one integral and unbroken act of Gift, is its own self-authenticating, self-explaining, free and thus intrinsically intelligible foundation. Such is history: the realm of moral freedom and moral personhood.

Second, CT is highly commendable because it covers so much ground and connects so many theological dots. The 2nd edition is nearly 800 pages, 231 of which are endnotes, including a meaty bibliography and two indices. (I recommend you read the text through once before going through the notes, as I did, lest you get bogged down in minutiae.) While there are great depths in the body of CT, Fr. Keefe also saves a lot of goodies for these endnotes. I am always pleased when an author cites Stanley Jaki, and Fr. Keefe does so in crucial ways. Indeed, one of Fr. Keefe's more important methodological insights (or caveats) is the noetic parallelism between theology and physical science as objective rational inquiries. Just as science is not necessarily, intrinsically exhausted by formal coherence (cf. Gödel's incompleteness theorems) nor evacuated of progressive relevance by a Platonic flight from the phenomena, but rather tirelessly forges ahead into the depths of material reality, so theology is always on a quest -- a quaerens -- into the bottomless metaphysical riches of the concrete Event of the Covenant of the One Flesh as it is historically, freely manifested and appropriated in the Eucharist.

It helps to have a decent grasp of Platonic, Aristotelian, Augustinian and Thomistic philosophy before reading CT, as Fr. Keefe takes such knowledge for granted in his sweeping discussion of these systems. (It would also help not to cling too toghtly to any one of these theological schools, as Fr. Keefe gives them much due criticism, which might irritate die-hard fanboys of any pet system.) In order to get a taste of CT, as well as to keep a bead on its North Star as you trek through its many pages, I cannot recommend strongly enough reading

1) Fr. David Meconi's article "A Christian View of History"


2) John Kelleher's "Knucklehead's Guide" to CT

before reading the book itself. (Mr. Kelleher, on his website W W W DOT catholiclearning DOT com, has a fine essay on Darwinism and Eucharistic realism, titled "Divine Reason and the Skyhook", which could also enrich your reading of CT.)

Third, I can recommend CT because it's not fluff. Fr. Keefe is extremely lucid in his exposition and very explicit about his premises, so he's easy to follow (except for when he's dealing with things that don't lend themselves to snappy slogans, like, oh, say, the coterminously integral nature of the fall and creation, or the metaphysical as opposed to temporal priority of the first Adam in our solidarity with sin, which is itself predicated on and rooted in -- and redeemed in -- the second Adam.) This is a book for serious Catholics, and I don't mean that disparagingly. It is a book for Catholics serious about their faith because it is a book about the most serious thing in that Faith, and indeed in the cosmos which it illumines, namely, our appropriation of the divine life in the free historical offering of the Eucharist. This book is not simply a tour de force theology of history -- indeed, Fr. Keefe calls history itself a theological category -- but a tour de force of specifically Eucharistic history. His greatest influences, as indicated by CT's indices and Fr. Keefe's hat tips in the text, include Henri de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), John Paul II, Fr. Stanley Jaki and Sts. Irenaeus, Augustine and Bonaventure. Under such tutelage, and more, the cumulative vision which CT offers is simply stunning. The tripartite analogies between virtually every aspect of theology have done more to synthesize the Catholic vision than almost any other book I've read (save the latest Catechism, etc.). The senses of Scripture (literal, allegorical-tropological, anagogical), the structure of the Mass (Offertory, Canon, Communion), the ordo salutis (sarx, mia sarx, pneuma) and the historia salutis (Old Covenant, New Covenant, fulfilled Kingdom), Thomistic metaphysics (ousia prote, ousia deutera, sumbebekos; ens, Esse, essentia; etc.) -- when you see all these in concert, the Faith makes a tremendous amount of sense!

CT is a seriously Catholic, that is, Roman Catholic, book, so while it covers a lot of ground, do not expect to find much interaction with Eastern Catholicism and Orthodoxy. In many ways, Fr. Keefe is "cleaning house" for the history and future of Roman Catholic theology. As such, he does not feel inclined, nor perhaps permitted, as it were, to complicate matters with such very distinct theologies. I admit, however, I would have really liked to see at least some rigorous discussion of Palamism and St. Maximus' theology of logoi and the issue of God's "absolute divine simplicity." Fr. Keefe explicitly rejects the (pagan) Deus Unus (as did, for example, Cdl. Ratzinger in _Feast of Faith_), so it would be nice to see how he deals with increasingly shrill accusations that the Catholic dogma of divine simplicity, without the doctrine of a real essence-energies distinction, necessarily entails creation and redemption and thus compromises God's personal freedom. Fr. Keefe would deny this claim root and stock, of course, for in CT "freedom is the prime analogate" of redemption, but all the same, it would, as I say, be nice to see him do so explicitly and formally. (Then again, the objection may be so partial in his sight that it ipso facto merits no refutation. Likewise, he brushes aside the debates of mongenism-polygenism and de auxiliis in a few paragraphs here and there.)

CT is a great book to see in a coherent way the big picture of Catholic theology, and, what's more, to see it afresh. CT's arguments add a lot of weight to the all-too-easily forgotten goodness of the Church's Good News, which stands in perpetual contradistinction to the pessimistic, deterministic, cosmological imaginings of fallen man. Despite how slow-going it was at times, I could hardly put the book down once I got my hands on it. CT will make you think and, in the process, will help you believe. Get yerself a copy and treasure it. The Good News is still good and freedom is historically real, as real as man is historical, for the second Adam is immanent -- yet also transcendent -- at every point in space-time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Daniel O'Sullivan

Finally! Someone’s talking about Keefe’s C.T.

I learned about Fr. Keefe’s work while tracking down some writings of Joyce Little. She had written a review, years ago this is, about Roger Haight on Liberation Theology. In what I considered a blazing insight she maintained that Liberation Theology is a disguised Platonism. In reading her dissertation I discovered that Father Keefe was her academic mentor. I got the two volume C.T. back then. It doesn’t include the appended chapter that deals with its reception. So maybe the difficulties I mention below are dealt with there.

I’m not an academic. I’m a painter, realist oils, but I’ve always been interested in philosophy and theology. When I returned to the Church in the late ‘70’s I was shaken and confused by what was being promoted as Catholic teaching. Having absorbed a certain elitist attitude from a Jesuit education I was initially receptive to the notion of a “higher” as opposed to a “folk” Catholicism. But the more I read, whether in biblical studies or moral theology or general surveys like McBrien’s the more dismayed I became. There was almost a consensus of willfulness in the rejection of tradition. For example, on the synoptic question, Orchard, Farmer, et al. developed a brilliant revision of the Griesbach hypothesis that allowed for a sound, scholarly conclusion to Matthew as both first and early. The Catholic academy, for the most part stuck with Mark as first and late, with his supposedly low Christology and lack of a real resurrection or infancy narrative. And of course, with that German goblin, “Q” reconciling everything like Einstein’s cosmological constant.

The orthodox critics of these new approaches reinforced my suspicion that these theologies were not consonant with authentic Catholic teachings, But they did little to explain why such wholesale defection had occurred. They ascribed it usually to a trahison des clercs, or a failure of nerve or of morals. Father Keefe’s book, especially in its introductory chapter, and vividly in the notes, sets out to show not only how but why this collapse of the Catholic quaerens happened. For Keefe, I believe, the collapse was inevitable: the result of an insufficiently converted pagan metaphysics that underlay the whole enterprise.

I had some reservations about how adequately supported this conversion thesis was but I haven’t the scholarly competence to really specify them for myself. As I proceeded with further chapters I found it more and more difficult to follow the logic of his exposition.I couldn’t get my bearings in that I couldn’t identify the standpoint or even recognize the context within which he was speaking. Part of it was stylistic, I’m sure. Keefe conducts his argument on so remote a level and with such compression of levels of application that its hard to keep up, especially if you’re not sufficiently conversant with the scholarship he assumes you’ve digested. But it’s also deeper, I think. How does he manage to escape the metaphysical constraints---the cosmological consciousness and its fallen logic, as he calls it--- that bind our thinking? How does he arrive at the Archimedean point that allows him to talk about a free Eucharistic order, so encompassing that it can ground all reality. I’m not saying that he hasn’t succeeded in his endeavor. I’m only saying that I haven’t been able to follow his steps in way that allows me to see things from his position. As it is, his approach seems baffling if not inconsistent.

Take, for example, the fall of man. In C.T. he keeps insisting that the fall is an event simultaneous with the creation of man. But how can Adam be responsible for something that happened to him in the very act of being created and not after he was created? I was a guest for dinner with Fr. Keefe that a high school friend, Fr. Joseph Lienhart, S.J had arranged at Fordham. During dinner I asked Fr. Keefe about that simultaneity. His response was that an integral Adam couldn’t sin. Further questions revealed that he relies on a conceptual framework that was opaque to me. I remember, too, asking him if he really thought Mary was the bride of Christ. Again the answer was impenetrable.

I met Fr. Keefe a second time at a foundation’s conference where he was a speaker. Standing on line afterwards to thank him, I overheard him responding to some questions about his premises by a reasonable and intelligent inquirer. He answered in the same densely allusive language that he uses in C.T. I sympathized with the blank expression on the face of that earnest seeker. If Fr. Keefe were a gnostic there wouldn’t be a problem. He would simply be claiming to have a special insight that the rest of us, caught up in illusory ways of thinking, couldn’t share. If Fr. Keefe were a process thinker his emphasis on the historicity of the supernatural as the only valid way of conceiving that realm would make sense., as would his disdain for speculation on the Immanent Trinity and on The Word that preexists the Christ. But he’s neither of these. Is he?

I’ve read Keefe’s book on Tillich and most of his on line articles. I haven’t been able to find many reviews of the book. There was one in America that only superficially engaged his thinking: and a brief notice in First Things. I read Kelleher’s “Knuckleheads Guide”---great title and helpful too, if a bit breathless. The early part on Plato and Aristotle with the clever sidebars was brilliant. The later parts just raised more questions for me; e.g. what does he mean: “there was no ‘before’ before the fall.” The materialist approach of, say, a Pinker is hardly the only strong alternative to Keefe’s approach. The “Skyhook” piece he followed up with, where Dennett replaces Pinker, sets things up equally artificially, I think. Besides, what makes a term like radical historicity any less timeless an abstract analytical concept than hylemorphism?

Father Keefe, I realize, is profoundly orthodox and loyal to the magisterium. Many of the distinctions he makes could clear up some of the confusion in the Church today: for example, that doctrine is not theology. It is an extension of the liturgy and it has the same infallible actuality for the theologian as data has for scientific research.

For what it’s worth I think the reason Keefe is so difficult to follow goes back to the nature/grace controversies of the earlier 20th C. with people like Chenu and especially De Lubac trying to redefine or recontextualize the supernatural. But I’ll leave that for another post if you wish to respond.

You seem much more at home in Keefe’s approach. Was it already familiar to you from other theological reading? How does one catch on?

P.S. Are you any relation to the Confederate officer at First Bull Run?