God's Dealings with the Minds of Men: Essays in Biblical Inspiration, Mysticism, and the Imagination by Fr Vincent McNabb, available online here.
Vincent McNabb, O.P. (1868-1943), is perhaps best known today as one of the fathers of the Catholic Land and Distributist movements. Irish by birth, he would join the English Province Dominicans as a young man and spend much of the remainder of his life in England, where he became friends with another leader of the Distributist movement, G.K. Chesterton. He also spent periods living and teaching in the United States and through this, as much as through his writing and close association with Chesterton became known to American Catholics.
Less appreciated now is that McNabb, a well-rounded theologian steeped (as one might expect of a Dominican) in the works and method of St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote extensively not just on agrarianism and economics, but on a wide range of issues. In this collection of essays, first published in 1903 under the title Where Believers May Doubt, he addresses subjects with which his name is no longer usually associated: the distinction between divine revelation and inspiration, the nature of mysticism, the challenges that imagination can pose for belief, and the relationship between theology and natural science. Some of these topics have been, and continue to be, the objects of contentious debate. The insights that McNabb offers in regard to each of them remain relevant in the present day.
For example, the manner in and extent to which modern historical-critical methods of approaching the Bible can be harmonized with the traditional approach to Sacred Scripture taken by the Church Fathers continue to be a live issue for Catholics. (No less a thinker than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has seen fit to devote his attention to it in recent years.) McNabb ventures into these dangerous waters; the result is two thought-provoking essays on inspiration and revelation, in which he manages to avoid the excesses of an extreme literalism that would ignore the insights of modern scholarship and a critical approach that would compromise the Catholic Faith.
Another example: 20th-century Thomists Norris Clarke, S.J., and Cornelio Fabro, C.S.S., encouraged the creative retrieval of St. Thomas in light of the data of modern science. Decades before either of them had begun his scholarly career, McNabb was endeavoring carefully to show the significance of St. Thomas’s understanding of the Biblical account of creation to the possibility of a reconciliation of the discoveries of modern science with the truths of divine revelation.
In other interventions as well, McNabb offers general principles that are readily applicable to the modern-day problem of how to re-evangelize an increasingly post-Christian culture. His essays on the topics of mysticism and the imagination are particularly relevant here.
At the conclusion of his essay on mysticism, McNabb laments the “sad dearth” in the modern age “of that truly Christian luxury, the Mysticism of Christ’s saints.” The qualifier is important: one of the questions to which McNabb will turn his attention in the essay is that of how to distinguish between true and false mysticism.
In the first decades of the 21st century, mysticism of a sort is apparently not all that uncommon. According to a 2009 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 49% of Americans surveyed reported having had “a religious or mystical experience, defined as a ‘moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.’ ” Yet the title of the report, “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” should give Catholics pause. Distinguishing between true and false mysticism is no less imperative today than it was when McNabb’s essay was first published.
Imagination, too, is presently a topic of significance in the Catholic milieu. Many Catholics today regard beauty as a forgotten quality and insist that we must rediscover ways to harness its power so that Catholic creatives can once again become cultural leaders in a secular world. In this way, it is envisaged, the Church will be able to draw people to the Faith by manifesting the glory of God in all things, and especially in the everyday aspects of life. For those invested in the rediscovery of beauty, discussions regarding the place of the “Catholic imagination” in artistic creativity are commonplace. All too often, the investigation of these questions is distorted and misdirected by an adoption, usually unconscious, on the part of the investigator of aspects of the Romantic ethos that still dominates the secular worldview. The result is an approach that overplays the role of emotion in creativity. This is common, in my experience, even for Catholics who would consider themselves orthodox, even traditionalist, in their faith, and who might even argue their point of view with the aid of scholastic terminology.
The approach of Fr. McNabb is a refreshing antidote to this tendency. While he is interested in the positive role of the imagination in creativity, he is just as quick to warn against the possibility of its undermining right reason at the foundational level. This line of thinking leads him to some conclusions that may surprise the 21st-century reader—for instance, that “[o]ne of the most common triumphs of the imagination is the disdain felt for miracles.” This stands in stark contrast to the assertion that one frequently encounters today to the effect that such disdain comes about for the opposite reason, due not to the use of an overly wild imagination, but to its suppression.
Similarly, for McNabb, a poem is a work not purely of the imagination, but—fundamentally—of reason. The imagination has a role to play in setting the poet off in the right direction, but it is right reason that ensures that he expresses what is true and, hence, beautiful. Some creatives today, Catholic and otherwise, may regard this judgment as a dismissal of the art of writing from one who is himself unimaginative, but that is not so. McNabb was a lover of poetry and wrote regularly and insightfully on the subject. His desire was to understand deeply, perhaps more deeply than some would appreciate, how the poet can create under the guidance of inspiration and use both the imagination and reason in harmony.
These are lessons that contemporary artists in any creative discipline would do well to learn. .