Part of the new line of college textbooks from St. Mary’s Press, Martin Albl’s Reason, Faith and Tradition does a great service both for teachers and students of introduction to theology courses. In a very readable and well-organized style, the book accomplishes two main tasks: a thoughtful examination of fundamental theology and an overview of systematic theology with the aim of highlighting the interplay of faith and reason in theology’s history, methods and conclusions.
Albl begins by distinguishing theology from religious studies, arguing that theology is better able to address the question of the transcendent by drawing upon both faith and reason. Of course, faith is always a particular faith in a particular tradition, and Albl works out of the Catholic tradition. However, good theological method is fundamentally open to development in dialogue with other faith and philosophical traditions. Throughout the book he is concerned to show forth and defend the unity of faith and reason and the importance of both for human flourishing.
Drawing heavily upon the epistemology of John Henry Newman, the apologetics of C.S. Lewis, and especially the fundamental theology of Avery Dulles, Albl develops a post-critical theology which takes seriously the claims of modernity and post-modernity but moves beyond their -isms in order to better integrate faith and reason. Dialogue is the heart of his post-critical proposal, in which seeming opposites (faith and reason, modernity and biblical narrative, science and theology) mutually draw from one another and return to themselves enriched. For example, following Ricoeur, Albl discusses the “hermeneutical circle” by which one’s first reading of a text is purified of misconceptions and pre-judgments through allowing the text to challenge one’s thought and then returning to it with new, critical questions which open up the text and allow it to speak more clearly, leading one to new questions and back to old ones in new ways, etc.
While dialogue is central to his method, Albl spends more time discussing the importance of such things as being immersed in a tradition as a way of life, practicing a hermeneutic of trust and developing a healthy epistemology. He demonstrates the inconsistencies of rationalism, fideism, relativism, materialism and determinism and argues that they are epistemologically closed to dialogue and therefore closed in on themselves.
In a chapter on theology and science Albl makes a convincing case that the two disciplines are both independent and related; in fact, they are allies, each contributing in its own way to the advancement of the other. Science not only arose historically out of the Western Christian faith in the rationality of the created order, but good science to an extent supports the claims of Christian theology and certainly shows forth the beauty and intelligibility of the world. Further, science helps theology read Scripture and Tradition correctly and can preserve theology from superstition. Theology in turn helps keep science humble, recognizing the limits of its claims and the ultimate purpose of all things created.
The second part of the book provides an overview of systematic theology with chapters on Trinity, anthropology/eschatology, Christology, and ecclesiology. Somewhat oddly, two chapters on the Bible are sandwiched between those on anthropology and Christology. The stated purpose of this second part of the book is to show the integration of faith and reason, but Albl does so less explicitly and thoroughly than he might have. As an overview of Catholic theology, however, the chapters function admirably. Though their brevity necessitates a lack of theological depth, they may have struck the right balance for an undergraduate text or even an introductory graduate text with supplementation.
A fair amount of apologetics is at work throughout the book, as issues of contemporary theology are taken up within Albl’s post-critical framework. While many critiques or reinterpretations of classical Catholic doctrine are themselves critiqued for having divorced faith and reason, Albl himself works hard to interpret the Catholic faith in a way that will find a modern audience sympathetic without sacrificing the tradition or losing the richness of the faith.
In general, Albl strikes a good balance as he navigates through the tangled world of faith and reason. A glossary, heavy use of subtitles, occasional sidebars, questions at the end of each chapter, a 20-page index and good notes (unfortunately, endnotes) greatly enhance the usability and teachability of the text. Though at times a little too focused on theological problem-solving, Reason, Faith and Tradition is a commendable work that should grace the classroom for years to come.