Archive for December, 2010


Reading John Haldane on Theology

December 31, 2010

John Haldane and Friend

The last two posts have tracked the paradox of God’s existence from the pre-Socratics through the Modern. The pre-Socratics come from a collection of “broken texts and quoted passages “ by Hermann Diels who under the title Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker gathered together a large number of pieces attributed to thinkers prior to the period of Socrates, mostly from the sixth century BC.

John Haldane has written of them: “Looking at these passages it is clear that the authors were investigating fundamental questions about the nature of reality, and seeking for ultimate principles that would explain its existence and nature. So, for example, Thales of Miletus is reputed to have said that “it is necessary that there should be some nature, either one or more than one, out of which arise the features of things”; and several of the Pre-Socratics speak of principles that explain the order and patterns of movement in the universe.”

Oddly enough the Pre-Socratics achieved something that we moderns have long since trashed: they were the first philosophers who combined to act as the first scientists. They called themselves ‘physiologoi’ which can be translated as ‘natural scientists.’ As Haldane comments: “They were interested in the ultimate constituents of things and in the manner of their combination.”

He continues: “What is less often observed, however, is that these thinkers can equally well be represented as natural theologians. For while they were interested in nature they thought of it in the broadest possible terms, as encompassing all that there might be, invisible and invisible; and they wanted to know what sustained it and moved it towards certain intelligible ends. In speaking of the ultimate explanation they began to talk of ‘Logos’, an account or explanation.

Although Logos can be translated as ‘theory’ that is anachronistic if by theory we mean a set of ideas in the mind of enquirers, or a set of statements written down. The Logos for which they sought was something that explained the cosmos both in the way that an account might, but also in the way that a cause would do. Indeed, for these thinkers the Logos was something real, perhaps transcendent of the cosmos, but if so then also immanent within it, making it to be what it is and drawing reality to itself as an end or Telos.”

So there you have it: philosophers, scientists and theologians all under one roof. I live with two Siamese and have never even considered living with three – the pre-Socratics appear to be the realization of that possibility. For us moderns, metaphysics, science and theology seem to have long since drifted apart. I had never thought of them to function as any kind of unit until Haldane’s discussion of the three in a recent article, The Disuniting and Reuniting of Ultimate Questions, came as a somewhat of a revelation to me.

Haldane defines the three here: “The first, can appear the model of pure a priori thought, disengaged from the world of experience; the second, a massive collection of detailed descriptions and theories about the enormous variety of material phenomena, but with no intelligible unity; and the third an obscure and generally unrigorous rhapsody of affirmations and aspirations, at one end couched in the languages of politics and sentimentality, and at the other in the terms of a cosmic poetry unregulated by science or philosophy.”

The best theology appears to us as a kind of poetry, something that moves us deeply. Who can forget that marvelous prologue to John’s Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

And there you see it, really. John’s prologue provides us a most transcendent answer which also serves as a statement of purpose. The ultimate Logos that John spoke to the natural scientists and metaphysicians of the ancient world and of which his prologue continues to speak to us as sort of an echo today —  the Word of God — is that by which all things were made and in whom was life, the light of men. Yet where do we Moderns consider the word of God in our lives now?

John’s  author, Haldane tells us, “was intending to address Greek-speaking Jews and educated Gentiles who would recognize the term ‘Logos’ as belonging to metaphysics-cum-science-cum-natural theology. Instead of identifying the account either with a theory or even with a metaphysical or cosmological principle, however, he identified it with a deity, and not just a ‘god’ but with God, an ultimate, intrinsically personal creator, sustainer and provider of the universe.”

And where are those people today? Haldane’s definition of the three above displays a profound disassociation where  theology seems particularly exposed; for while the metaphysician may be criticized for paying insufficient attention to empirical enquiry, and the natural scientist too little to abstract argument about ultimate principles, at least both appear to be directed towards describing the structure of things: metaphysical and natural, respectively. This seems to exhaust the possible totality of reality, and so if there is anything for theology to do, it can only be to provide a poetic accompaniment comprised of pleasing imagery but not revealing any objective truth.

This is a now a fairly common view but it rests on a deep misunderstanding about the nature of enquiry and explanation. A clearer and better view shows the necessity but also the limits of each discipline, and an order of priority among them that elevates theology.

In the article, Haldane asserts a new (or perhaps older) definition that begins with three different answers to the question “Why?” He writes:

  1. First, ‘why?’ may be addressed to the occurrence of an event where the appropriate answer takes the form of an explanation citing observed or presumed prior events and patterns of occurrence. Pressed repeatedly this brings us to a description of the fundamental elements of the material universe and the laws governing their interactions.
  2. Second, ‘why?’ may be addressed to the ultimates of any theory and answered by showing that in some sense these things are necessary. For example, while it may not be necessary that objects have the character they do in this universe, it may be argued that it is necessary that in any universe that could exist there would have to be objects and events of some sort or another. This is a metaphysical explanation.
  3. Third, however, ‘why?’ may be addressed to whatever might occur or be the case and then be answered not in terms of events, or elements, or laws, or necessities, but in terms of ends or purposes. This is a personal explanation. This is precisely what Theology has abandoned the field to  a mishmash of evolutionary biologists and others to answer.

It is in the “ends or purposes” that theology begins to distinguish itself from its brothers in metaphysics and science. Rethinking the  reintegration of science, metaphysics and theology, as Haldane envisions, “lies in the direction of showing that observation gives rise to questions that science answers, but that these themselves raise questions that call for metaphysical responses, and that these in turn point to a different kind of explanation which, though ultimate, is also personal.” 

Haldane comes straight to the point: “Theology does not do the work of metaphysics let alone that of science, but it does provide the most transcendent answer which is also a statement of purpose. The ultimate Logos is that of which John spoke to the natural scientists and metaphysicians of the ancient world and of which his prologue continues to speak to us today: the Word of God by which all things were made and in whom was life, which was the light of men. “


The Paradox of God II by Augustine Holmes OSB

December 30, 2010

Pietro Perugino The ceiling medallion depicting God the Creator and angels.


Today’s post is the concluding selections from Fr. Holmes The Paradox of God and deals with a review of Thomism and the emergence of the modern attempt to find alternative ‘foundations’ instead of God. That attempt by the secularists, needless to say, has failed and they have been left with creation without a Creator. For them there is no guarantor of reality and all collapses into the void of nihilism. Fortunately the Christian view of creation both grounds reality and affirms the paradox in the Sustaining God.

Speaking of the Absolute: God the Unknown?
St Thomas famously said we can know that God is, not what he is. This needs qualification, but the way Christian thinkers speak about God, especially their use of affirmation and negation, shows that we must hold both his transcendence and his immanence; and, as we have seen in our discussion of the Old Testament, transcendence has a certain priority within this paradox.

The first Christian writer to use the Greek terms cataphatic and apophatic for the positive and negative ways of speaking about God was the Syrian who wrote c. 500AD under the pseudonym Denys the Areopagite (cf Acts 17:34). They had previously been used by the Neo-platonist Proclus (c.410-485AD), for whom the way of negation applied to the utterly transcendent ‘One’ we have already encountered, and the way of affirmation to the separate manifestations of the One described in Plato’s dialogue Parmenides[ Plato and Parmenides, tr. F.M. Cornford (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1979).]

Plato ends the Parmenides with a series of Hypotheses on the One and the Many. While earlier Platonists such as Albinus saw them as an exercise in logic, the Neo-Platonists interpreted them theologically. Proclus is so apophatic that he denies that one can even say of the One that it is the One!]. As a Christian, Denys transcended Neoplatonic dualism by uniting these terms so that they both referred to the same God, thus affirming our paradox: God reveals something of himself in creation and revelation, which we can affirm, but this is not “the hidden Being that transcends being” [Denys, The Divine Names 1.] Generally speaking Denys speaks of God cataphatically in his treatise The Divine Names and apophatically in the shorter Mystical Theology. A good translation of all his works is found in Dionysius: The Complete Works, tr. Colm Luibheid (London: SPCK, 1987)..

Denys has been unfairly suspected of being more Platonist than Christian, but he was in fact part of a long Christian tradition of affirming the incomprehensibility of God and developing Biblical themes of divine transcendence. Following Philo and the Christian Alexandrians Clement and Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers also stressed this divine incomprehensibility in their battle against the heretic Eunomius (died 394 AD). Denying the divinity of Christ, Eunomius taught that the divine essence was only held by the Father and could be exactly defined and known as ‘unbegotten’: an example of Greek philosophy corrupting the faith because if we could know exactly what God was we would then be God.

St Thomas is heavily indebted to Denys. He uses his positive and negative theology and also his ‘negation of negation’ by the Greek prefix huper, the ‘way of eminence’: God is not just not good, he is super-good. It is, however, in his doctrine of analogy that Thomas most classically allows us to speak of the unknown God. This is a way of using a term to describe two things which is neither univocal, the word means the same in both instances, nor equivocal, it means something different in each; nor is it even metaphorical, the word conveys truth but not literally.

The Limits Of Created Analogies
In analogy the meanings are related but different, and in speaking of God one must remember that “between Creator and creature no similarity can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilarity” [Fourth Ecumenical Council of the Lateran Against Abbot Joachim, DS 806. ] When Thomas says we cannot know what God is, “this does not mean that we may say nothing at all about him, but we must realise that he always transcends anything we can say about him”[ Thomas Aquinas In Boeth. De Trin. II 1 ad6]. For Thomas we know what something is when we can define it, but God is outside all classes and categories and thus we must use analogy. Again we return to creation: since God is not a material object and we can only know anything by abstraction from material things, he is unknowable in his essence; in their perfections, however, creatures resemble God their source and therefore on this basis we can speak of God by analogy.

The Depth Of Mystery
This mixture of knowledge and ignorance, with the latter predominating, is a constant of Judaeo-Christian thought about God and it allows one to realistically affirm divine transcendence. It enables one to speak of God while retaining the mystery; but to speak of God in any way is impossible for many who are influenced by certain trends in modern philosophy. Analogy is an answer to pure empiricism (all knowledge derives from experience- as in materialism), but when one denies any constant referents of meaning (denying what ‘post-modern’ theorists call ‘foundationalism’) there can not only be no valid God-talk but also no objectively valid discourse about anything: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalms 11:3).One could argue that only by grounding things in a transcendent God can one affirm anything at all and thus avoid nihilism; paradoxically only God can preserve modern secular society. Much post-Enlightenment philosophy must be rejected before one can speak of God today, but mere intellectual affirmation is not enough. An authentic doctrine must relate to the whole person and thus I would argue that it must have some contact with mysticism: the experience of the paradoxical God.

Mysticism: Vision of God or of Oneself?  
Religious experience is not a good rational proof of God as it is so personal and ambiguous, but it is very relevant to our subject as the Christian mystics usually describe their experience in terms where the two poles of our paradox are held in non-contradiction: “One can only approach God via the cloud of unknowing; yet the only place one can find him is in the apex of the soul. [Eric Mascall, He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism].

In holding together divine immanence and transcendence, however, one needs to ask whether, as many key modern thinkers affirm, mysticism is really only making statements about human subjectivity. Once this question is dealt with, two themes in Eastern Christian mystical theology may help our understanding of the paradox: natural contemplation and the distinction between divine essence and energies. These are often held to be in opposition to Western Catholic theology but there are actually remarkable points of contact.

Karl Rahner said that “dogmatic theology today must be theological anthropology” as “it deals with man’s salvation and really with nothing else”. His interpretation of man’s unsettled nature as a capacity for transcendence is traditional, being found for example at the start of Augustine’s Confessions, but it has more recent roots in nineteenth century German thought. FDE Schleiermacher emphasised ‘feeling’ as “an existential self-awareness which conveys an intuition of the human condition as a relation of total dependence on God”. (To which Hegel is said to have replied, “If the feeling of absolute dependence is the touchstone of religion, then a dog would be the most religious of beings”). Subjective feeling alone is not enough, and the problem for orthodox belief and mystical experience is whether one can really say that this ‘supernatural existential’ is an immanent experience of (desire for) the transcendent God or just a projection of the riches of the self to which the divine name is attached.

The modern critique of religion has moved “from fraud to Freud”. While the Enlightenment attack of such as HG Reimarus attempted to disprove the Gospel evidence, more recently any appeal to ‘God within’ or to a sense of his transcendence can be dismissed as “nothing but a projection of banished desires or repressed fears”. Freud’s God is a Father substitute and for him religion results from ‘desire for incest’.

For Alfred Adler it springs from the ‘will to power’, but Jung, who noted that patients’ dreams were full of God-imagery, was not satisfied and took religion seriously, interpreting it using archetypes in the unconscious. The problem here is whether these inherited images from the collective unconscious have any referent outside the unconscious mind. The English Dominican Victor White argued that they represent “an innate aspiration for God”, but Jung himself remained agnostic. [Michael Novak seemed to reach a different conclusion from this quote from Jung during a BBC interview: “Waiting in silence, in abandonment, even in the dry sands of the desert, one comes to know His presence. Not believe in it. Know it. In a 1959 interview with the BBC, C. G. Jung once made the same point. Asked whether he believed in God, Jung replied, “I don’t believe — I know.”]

Jung deliberately argued from an empiricist point of view while allowing the possibility that “God himself created the soul and its archetypes”. In his autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung notes that his break with Freud was over the latter’s dogmatic opposition to religion, but he also reveals his own agnosticism and his ambivalent interest in alchemy and the occult. While depth-psychology can be given a Christian interpretation, it may be just a foundationless game with words. Similarly ‘atheist-theologians’ such as Don Cupitt who hold an anti-realist ‘coherence’ view of truth can use God-language: “‘God exists’ is true, not because the word God refers to an everlasting Being or a timeless substance but because the phrase has a use and a purpose within the… believing community”.

The Mind’s Ascent To God By Contemplating His Creation
Thus one must beware of presuppositions that neutralize seemingly orthodox discourse about God. Talk of God’s presence in creation can be just as subjectivist as that concerning his presence in us, but the patristic doctrine of natural contemplation (in Greek theôria physik) is a convincing way of affirming divine immanence while preserving transcendence. This is the contemplation of the logoi within things as taught by Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Denys and Maximus the Confessor. The Fathers held that at the heart of each created thing is its interior principle or logos, implanted in it by God the Word (in Greek Logos) through whom the Father creates (John 1:3). By contemplation of the material world and the events of history we enter via their logoi into communion with God, who is above and beyond all things yet as Creator within all things. The advantage of this seemingly esoteric theory is that it inserts a cosmic dimension into mysticism which is generally lacking in the West, at least in theory. It is thus a useful antidote to New Age pantheism.

Attaining to the Divine Essence?
Natural contemplation leads to theologia: an imageless contemplation of God in himself to which one is raised by grace and which results in deification: “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). In affirming this many Eastern Fathers posit a distinction between the essence and energies of God which safeguards the paradox of divine immanence and transcendence; a distinction elaborated by St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). The essence is absolutely inaccessible but we can have union with the uncreated energies which are God himself in his self-manifestation. St Thomas, however, follows the Western tradition in teaching that man can be raised by the grace of the light of glory to the vision of the divine essence itself, although there are degrees of glory and we will even then not know him fully.

For many Thomists the essence/energies distinction introduces an unwarranted division into God, but Palamas emphasizes that each energy is truly the one indivisible God, and that the distinction is only to be maintained from our point of view to preserve the paradox. The controversy reflects two interpretations of Dionysian apophaticism: 1) Aquinas: the unknowability of God is caused by the limitations of the created mind, which must be raised beyond itself to see God; 2) Palamas: unknowability is a property of the divine nature, although God can reveal himself. Thomist and Palamite both reject Eunomian comprehension of God, however, and the contradiction is largely at the level of language, as they both aim to hold the same mystery of our participation in the transcendent God: the same God reveals himself and remains transcendent in his own revelation.

The Problem of Evil - Does God Suffer?
Christian tradition has rich resources for understanding and presenting our relationship to the transcendent God, but in some quarters today the Christian view of God has radically changed. Rather than unchanging and impassible, the God who is love is now called “sensitive, emotional and passionate.” Like the ‘historical Jesus’ of liberal exegetes, this new God looks rather like an ideal projection of its academic creators; but, although it resolves the paradox away from transcendence, there are genuine modern concerns which have caused this change.

A Return To The God Of The Scriptures
The historical-critical method of exegesis separated Biblical studies from systematic theology and encouraged an examination of the thought-forms of the Bible itself. The Biblical God, especially that of the Old Testament, is often presented in an anthropomorphic manner and is even said to change his mind (e.g. Exodus 32:14; Psalms 77:10; Jeremiah 18:8). This fits well with a key trend in modern thought identified thus by Vatican II: “A dynamic and evolutionary concept of nature is being substituted for a more static one” (Gaudium et Spes 5).

This is true in all areas: social theory, philosophy, theology (e.g. the idea of development of doctrine), psychology, as well as biology and physics. It is thus not surprising that ‘becoming’ has invaded the sphere of perfect Being, and in process theology we have a limited God who grows and develops as he interacts with the world. [The movement started in 1920s America and its exponents include AN Whitehead, C Hartshorne and WN Pittinger. They reject 'static metaphysics' and 'classical theism' and instead of transcendent/immanent speak of divine 'bi-polarity' as primordial/consequent. In Process and Reality (1929) Whitehead called God "the fellow-sufferer who understands". A Thomist would say that the process 'god' points beyond himself to a First Cause i.e. God.]

The more immediate roots of a suffering changing God, however, are in the horrors of the twentieth century, Auschwitz etc.: the problem of evil. So compelling are these arguments, taken seriously by important Catholic theologians such as Jean Galot and Hans Urs von Balthasar, that the Protestant Jurgen Moltmann could write in 1991, “The doctrine of the essential impassibility of the divine nature now seems finally to be disappearing from the Christian doctrine of God”. [J Moltmann, History and the Triune God (London: SCM, 1991), p.xvi. His The Crucified God (London: SCM, 1974), played an important role in this change. Jean Galot, Dieu souffre-t-il? (Paris: Lethielleux, 1976); Balthasar, Theo-drama 5: The Last Act (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 212-246. Balthasar identifies the centrality of Hegel to this modern project, 224-6, and identifies Moltmann's ideas as 'Lutheran Hegelianism', p229.]Thomas Weinandy rightly argues in his recent important work Does God Suffer? that this view results from a misunderstanding of divine impassibility; it not only resolves the paradox but destroys the Christian and Biblical understanding of God.

We have seen that the God of the Bible is both wholly transcendent and fully involved. As well as the texts cited by the passibilists, those who reject divine impassibility, Scripture also explicitly teaches that God does not change: “I, the Lord, do not change” (Malachi 3:6); The Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of change” (James 1:17). The argument that this is an ethical not an ontological changelessness fails for the same reasons which reject an absolute division between Biblical revelation and philosophy.

Passibilists all agree, however, in believing that classical theism, the traditional Christian view of God, is a replacement of the Biblical view by Greek philosophy. From within authentic Christian tradition, however, the standard ‘patristic’ response to the problem is to affirm both divine apatheia (vocab: God does not suffer change) and a strong understanding of the communicatio idiomatum: the doctrine, associated with St Cyril of Alexandria, that, with the divine and human natures of Christ, the attributes of one may be predicated of the other because they are perfectly united in the one person of the Word. This enables one to say of Christ, “God suffers”. The Incarnation is thus the key, but why can one not say that it reveals the essentially passible nature of the Godhead?.

God’s Passionate Care Is Not Disordered Passion   
The answer is in this patristic notion of divine apatheia. Like the philosophers, Christians opposed the passionate and emotional gods of pagan mythology. While doing so, however, they understood the ‘passion’ (in Greek patheia) lacking in apatheia as an imposed external misfortune or an internal movement contrary to reason. Both of these are connected to sin and thus have no place in the revealed God, whereas pity, love and concern are shown by Scripture to be his essential properties.

Jerome famously said that a human claiming apatheia is “either God or a stone”. The passibilists consistently interpret patristic doctrine as saying God is like a stone: static, lifeless, inert; but it is clear from patristic texts that God’s immutability is not opposed to his vitality. Thomas Weinandy notes: “What God and rocks have in common is that they do not change… they are thus for polar-opposite reasons.. God is unchangeable because he is so dynamic that no change can make him more active”.

While not always avoiding mistakes, the Fathers generally transformed philosophical language such as apatheia when they used it to describe revealed truth. St Thomas Aquinas builds on their work to provide a deeper understanding of divine immutability. It is not primarily an indication of self-identity but rather shows the dynamic and boundless perfection of God as ‘pure act’: he is so fully realized that there is no room for any potential. It is because God is both wholly other and ‘Pure Act’ that he can be present to and active in creation.

The Suffering Christ Is Truly God
The Incarnation is the supreme presence of God in creation, one part of tradition actually says it is the goal of creation, and, as man, God suffers and dies. Passibilists invariably have a crypto-Nestorian Christology: by this I mean they follow the fifth century heresiarch Nestorius in being reluctant to identify the one Person of Jesus Christ with the second Person of the Holy Trinity. [Weinandy, 124. Balthasar, 221, notes how Origen and other Fathers both speak of divine apatheia and attribute passions such as pity to the eternal God in analogical ways which go beyond allegory and mere anthropomorphism.]

In criticizing Karl Rahner’s opposition to the ‘theopaschite’ formula “one of the Trinity has suffered”, Balthasar detects a similar error. He says that if this formula is not true and one cannot affirm that God suffers in Christ, one could rightly say: “Jesus may be having a hard time, but so what? That does not help me when I’m having a hard time”. [Balthasar, Theo-drama 5]

In rejecting a realist communicatio idiomatum, passibilists underestimate the Incarnation and tend to take Christ’s passion as a symbolic expression of what is happening in God as God. In orthodox Catholic thought, however, only the God who suffers in the flesh can both redeem us and give meaning to our suffering: otherwise he is merely an understanding friend and fellow sufferer. Thus again it is only his transcendence that gives meaning to God’s immanent activity.

Balthasar and Galot take the traditional doctrine one stage further and suggest that God’s ability to suffer in Christ is grounded in the mutual self-giving and love of the intra-Trinitarian relationships. Galot speaks of two levels in God, in a way reminiscent of Palamas, but Balthasar aims to preserve the paradox in the immanent Trinity itself. [Balthasar, Theo-drama 239-46, where he gives his source as an article by Jacques Maritain.]

We cannot discuss this here, but it does mean that a full presentation of our paradox demands reference to the mysteries of Trinity and Incarnation. That would take another article, but another key theological theme has recurred throughout this discussion: Creation. We shall therefore finally investigate how divine immanence and transcendence can only be properly understood and proclaimed by holding the orthodox distinction between the uncreated Creator and his creation.

A View From Creation: Can Modern Man Accept God?
We have noted that the paradox of God’s transcendence and immanence is relative to our position in the created order. Some theologians even see John Duns Scotus’ teaching that it is possible to consider Being in abstraction from the question of whether one is considering created or creating Being (i.e. creation or God) as at the root of modernity: the declaration of secular independence from God [A central thesis of the important modern Anglican theologian John Milbank, see his, "The Theological Critique of Philosophy in Hamann and Jacobi", in Radical Orthodoxy. ed Milbank, Pickstock, Ward (London: Routledge, 1999), 21-37.]. Certainly as ‘post-modern’ theorists have pointed out, the modern attempt to find alternative ‘foundations’ instead of God has failed and secularists have been left with creation without a Creator. For them there is no guarantor of reality and all collapses into the void of nihilism. Fortunately the Christian view of creation both grounds reality and affirms the paradox.

In his famous five ways of proving the existence of God Aquinas moves from the world of change and degree to the First Cause and Unmoved Mover: thus God is both Creator and Sustainer. Eric Mascall relates Aquinas’ project here to our paradox: “God is transcendent because a First Cause involved in the contingent cosmos would not provide a foundation for himself or anything else; God is immanent because unless every finite being was sustained at its ontological root by his incessant creative action (present by essence, presence and power), it would collapse into non-existence” [Eric Mascall, He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism (London: Longmans, 1943), Chapter 10 "Transcendence and Immanence". 126].

This seemingly complex philosophical presentation confirms the insights of the Bible: God is the Creator of all and sustains all in being. Aquinas’ vision of the presence of God sustaining everything at its core is also similar to the Greek Fathers’ doctrine of the logoi outlined above, and could form the basis of a Western theory of ‘natural contemplation’.

In addition, this vision fits well with the science which informs modern culture. The sustaining God can be seen as active in the evolutionary process which follows laws present in the first moments of the ‘big bang’: he is not a ‘God of the gaps’. Stephen Hawking’s finite four dimensional universe of space and time without boundaries causes him to ask: “What place, then, for a Creator?”[ Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (London: Guild Publishing, 1988), 141]; but it only rules out the Deist God who starts it all and then walks away. Time is a property of creation and so the act of creation was not in time; but even with an eternal universe one still needs a simultaneous First Cause as sustainer as St Thomas allowed in his ‘five ways’.

Christ the key to ultimate Mystery
An authentic doctrine of God thus makes sense of modern science, especially as most scientists hold that the universe began in a singularity: the Big Bang. Science only describes, however, and, despite aiming at a ‘theory of everything’, it does not give ultimate explanations. The mystery remains and, while affirming the compatibility of Christianity and modern science, one must emphasize the otherness of the transcendent God if one wants to proclaim God to the modern world.

A final thought is that such a proclamation must be Christian from the start. As has been suggested above, it is only through the Incarnation and Trinity that one can begin to give a convincing response to the problem of evil, although a definitive answer must obviously wait until the beatific vision. It is also only in Christ the Logos that one can begin to form a valid picture of the paradox of our question. Our proclamation should therefore be of a mystery expressed in paradox, not of the solution to a problem; and, as proclamation is an act of language, it is itself a paradox as it proclaims him who cannot be expressed: as Augustine said: ‘If you comprehend it, it is not God’.


The Paradox of God Part I by Augustine Holmes OSB

December 29, 2010

The famous illustration above is M.C. Escher’s “Relativity,” which nicely captures the “what is” / “what is not” capability of the human imagination where even an “absence” is still a “presence” because it can be expressed. The concept of “relativity” is as distinct from “relativism” as the “imaginative” is from the “imaginary.” “Relativism” seems to dominate current literary criticism which somehow finds its criteria (in ideological constructions such as gender, class, race, and so on) outside of literature as though literature were primarily centrifugal in reference. ”Relativity,” on the other hand, requires a constant: in Einstein’s case, that constant accounts for bodies in motion relative to one another. And, it seems, the same is true for Frye as well; the constant in this case being those primary human concerns which are everywhere evident in literature and provide the impetus for us to communicate at all. Concern is the gestalt of verbal expression; and literature — in its simultaneous acknowledgement of what is and is not as an integral part of its saying — confronts the inadequacies of the world we inhabit with a world we are trying to create through the imaginative expression of our universally shared but individually possessed concerns.


In Part One Fr. Holmes explores the relationship between Christian Theology and Greek Philosophy and the importance of not resolving “Paradox.”

Thinking About The Unfathomable God
Where is God?, a priest in South India once asked a group of children. The young Catholics pointed to the sky, but the Hindus pointed to their breast. Both responses are in fact valid for Christians, as tradition teaches us that God is ‘closer to us than we are to ourselves’ but also ‘hid in unapproachable light’. If we examine the way we speak about God, we constantly find ourselves coming up against paradox: he is both immanent in creation and utterly transcends it; he is loving and concerned but also ‘thou that changest not’.

It is clear that God is too big for our language; but many modern theologians also hold that our doctrine is wrong. They believe that the pure teaching of the Gospel has been corrupted by Greek philosophy. In thinking about God we cannot avoid the question of the relationship between theology and philosophy, recently highlighted by the Holy Father in his Encyclical Fides et Ratio, though we also need to listen to the Christian Mystics who actually experienced the paradox of God within themselves. In all these areas a determining factor is that we relate to God from within his creation, which alone supplies the language by which we speak of him.

Our attitude to the divine paradox will thus influence our presentation of God to our contemporaries in the context of a world shaped by modern science.

Should We Resolve The Paradox?
If paradox is taken as a holding together of two truths that seem contradictory, then it is clearly an essential part of Christian doctrine: God is three and one; Jesus is true God and true man; Mary is virgin and mother, etc.. One could say that it is part of the ‘deep grammar’ of Christianity and expresses its eschatological orientation, as Henri de Lubac notes: “Paradox is the search or wait for synthesis; it is the provisional expression of a view which remains incomplete, but whose orientation is towards fullness”. As such, to resolve a theological paradox is to make absolute the provisional, it is a denial of Christian hope. An insight of the philosopher Gabriel Marcel can help us see the implications of de Lubac’s definition.

He notes that a field of enquiry can be approached either as a problem or as a mystery, and that many of the post-Enlightenment difficulties in philosophy are a result of an illicit extension of the former attitude. As the new post-mediaeval science gradually solved problems and unlocked the secrets of nature, so the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century applied the problem-solving methods of science to society, philosophy and religion. While the French Revolution illustrates the evil this could unleash in society, it had particularly disastrous results in theology where rather than resolving paradoxes one should affirm them, aiming to discern and elucidate the mystery they proclaim. This will be made particularly clear when we examine the difficulties involved in using language of God.

The Anglican Thomist Eric Mascall gives a number of examples of other unfortunate resolutions of the paradox of God. An overstress on transcendence produces the detached God of the Deists and the harsh God of militant Islam. He also mentions the twentieth century Protestant theology of Karl Barth, where divine transcendence is preserved at the cost of intelligibility: God is so ‘other’ that we can have no common language with him.

On the other side one finds pantheism, the nothingness and impersonal absolute of the East, and the totally involved God of the process theologians, who is part of the evolutionary process and so implicated in our predicament he can be neither Judge nor Saviour[Eric Mascall, He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism (London: Longmans, 1943), Chapter 10 "Transcendence and Immanence"]. Christian orthodoxy avoids these errors, but is it guilty of an aboriginal fault of mixing God’s word with profane speculation?

Reason and Revelation: Athens or Jerusalem?
Christian hostility to Greek philosophy has a long history, for example in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 and Tertullian’s “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In modern times the idea that most Christian dogma is a “work of the Greek spirit” and therefore alien to the Gospel is particularly associated with the liberal Protestant historian of dogma, Adolf Harnack (1851-1930). This ‘Hellenistic corruption’ is thought by those who follow him to be most evident in the doctrine of God.

A process of ‘de-Hellenisation’ is thus usually advocated by those who propose an immanent suffering God as more true to the Biblical witness. Does the Old Testament support this view? The concept of God develops throughout the period of the Old Covenant. Israel first encounters a God who acts in history and chooses them as a people; only through reflection on this revelation, especially in the context of the Exile, do they develop the mature understanding of Yahweh presented in Deutero-Isaiah and the Deuteronomic writers.

The development of the strict monotheism of Deutero-Isaiah, “there is no other God besides me” (Isaiah 45:5), goes with a strong sense of God’s transcendence, which builds on earlier texts. This is the God of the theophanies: of the burning bush, of Sinai and the Temple cult. Such an impression of transcendence was reinforced by the idea of God as the ruler of all the nations and Creator of all, prominent in the priestly writer and Deutero-Isaiah. In the priestly account of Genesis 1 God is presented as the sole operative cause, creating by his word alone, in contrast to other ancient Middle-Eastern creation stories where the world is produced by a conflict between the gods.

The Poles Of Transcendence And Immanence
The Old Testament thus presents God as both immanent in history and creation and transcendent of them. The two poles of this divine antinomy are held together by the use of ‘verbal insulators’. These are terms such as God’s Angel (in the early angelophanies), Name, Word, Glory, Wisdom or Spirit, which express God’s action in a particular area but emphasize that his power exceeds his action. These ‘personifications’ are God and not separate ‘persons’, but they have a developmental dynamic: the divine angel in Judges 6 & 13 has become one of a distinct set of heavenly beings in Daniel and Tobit.

They also provide some of the raw material later used in understanding the Holy Trinity. Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple well illustrates their function: God’s name dwells there, symbolized by the glory and the cloud, but: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven, the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:10-13 & 8:27). The many anthropomorphisms, God described as being and acting like a man, show his presence in history as the Israelites first encountered him, but they should be interpreted in the context of the holy God known as ‘wholly other’ as this was the God Israel knew it had met.

Greek Thought In The Hebrew Scriptures
In the Deuterocanonical books we begin to see, under Hellenistic influence, a more philosophical understanding of God, who, for example, creates out of nothing in 2 Maccabees 7:28, or “out of formless matter” in Wisdom 11:17. It is wrong to posit an impassable chasm between the God of Israel and the language of the philosophers; Greek and Hebrew concepts are different but authentic religion demands a realist view of truth which allows dialogue between different conceptual worlds.

Thomas Weinandy expresses this well: “Inherent within the Bible’s Hebraic, more functional and relational thought forms lie principles and notions – ontological in nature – which pertain to a philosophical understanding of who God is and how he relates to what is other than himself”[Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer?, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000), 41]. The Jews and the Greeks do not have two different Truths, they both speak of the same Truth but in different ways. Given this, it is clearly possible to express a Biblical truth in the language of Greek philosophy. Harnack is thus wrong, but the question remains: is philosophical language used to express the Biblical God or is he inevitably changed to fit the preconceptions of philosophy?

For the ancient Stoic philosophers, God was purely immanent as the energy sustaining the cosmos and the reason (logos) within it. In the Platonic tradition the absolute form or principle is utterly transcendent and is only in contact with lower realities via emanations or a hierarchy of beings; which system was taken to its extreme in the super-transcendent ‘One’ of Neoplatonism. Aristotle’s God is creator and conserver, but apart from his attractiveness to beings he has no real interest in the world. The God of the New Testament is that of the Old Testament explained by the revelation of Jesus.

Christianity Corrects And Adapts Greek Philosophy
Following the lead of St Paul and the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Fathers attempted to present the God of revelation in contemporary terms. It is significant that they totally rejected pagan polytheistic religion but critically used pagan philosophy. Whereas the Greeks tended to believe that God or the Demiurge (a ‘mediating god’ to preserve the transcendence of the ‘One’) created out of pre-existent matter, the Fathers interpreted Genesis to say that God created everything ex nihilo[ Some such as Justin Martyr, Apology 1:59, and Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 5:14, followed Wisdom 11:17 in accepting the Greek view, but this was decisively rejected by Theophilus of Antioch, Apologia ad Autolycum 2:4, and the other Fathers who fought Gnosticism.]. They affirmed the paradox of a transcendent and immanent God by rejecting both the Stoic pantheism and the Platonic cosmic dualism mentioned above.

This process was not without conflict and some writers compromised Biblical teaching; Justin tended to use the Word (Logos) of St John’s Gospel as a sort of Christian Demiurge in order to isolate the Father from creation. In general, though, one can agree with the great patristic scholar G.L. Prestige that the Fathers’ eclectic use of philosophy was controlled by Scriptural teaching and precedent. There was thus no major corruption of the Christian doctrine of God caused by alien philosophy; rather the philosophy was transformed to fit the revealed God. Language is therefore important in dealing with our question, but it is not the sole determinant. In creatio ex nihilo we already have a hint of ‘negative theology’. In speaking of God to our contemporaries we must have a strong sense of the limitations of language lest we resolve the paradox and present a God who is less that God.


Dorothy Day: The Journalist Within II

December 28, 2010

See the previous post for the first part of this topic.   


"Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord...


As the years went on, Day increasingly devoted herself to her column, originally called “Day by Day,” shortly changed to “All in a Day,” then to “On Pilgrimage” in 1946. Even today her column is often reprinted, and then it forms the heart of the paper. Dwight Macdonald once aptly described it as a combination of Pascal’s Pensees and Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day.” In her column Day ruminated in a conversationally warm, appealing manner. She touched on subjects as diverse as children, visitors to St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, animals, the saints, the weather, the soup line, prayer, pacifism, putting out the paper — sometimes mentioning them all in the same piece.

All of Day’s writing tended to be personal, discursive, and a bit repetitive, but On Pilgrimage, whose column format afforded a great degree of creative freedom, was especially so. Day often added to this personal ambiance by conversing about her role as mother and grandmother. “I may repeat myself,” she acknowledged in the foreword to her book On Pilgrimage, “but mothers always do that to be heard.” Readers of Day’s columns were treated to poignant tales about Tamar Teresa’s growing up; for instance, how at eight the little girl “was filled with the small chatter so dear to a mother’s ears.”

Day sometimes reported some of Tamar’s childish chatter in order to make more lasting points. Her December 1934 editorial is a moving example. “Christmas is coming,” Day began, telling how Tamar and her playmate Freddy were drawing pictures of the Nativity. Hearing the children “tell the story to each other,” she wrote, “each filling in the gaps,” brought it “fresh and clear” to her mind. “‘And the cow breathed on the little baby Jesus and kept it warm,’ Teresa says delightedly. `Cows are very warm animals, I know…. I’m sure the baby Jesus didn’t mind being in a stable at all.. Probably there were chickens, too. And maybe the shepherds brought their littlest lambs to show them to him.”‘

Then Day reported her response. She told the children that “Christ came to live with the poor and the homeless and the dispossessed of this world,… and he loved them so much that he showed himself to the workers — the poor shepherds — first of all. It wasn’t until afterward that he received the Kings of this earth. So let us keep poor — as poor as possible

“‘In a stable with cows and chickens,’ [Tamar] finished joyfully. And then it will be easier for me to have God in my heart.’ ‘

After Tamar grew up and married, readers savored the many homey details Day offered of her country visits to her daughter and nine grandchildren, from baking bread and spinning wool to “feeding and consoling babies.” In one column based on such a visit, Day told her Catholic Worker audience that she did not know of a happier way to spend an afternoon than sitting in a shallow brook with babies paddling happily around. Her use of the first-person voice gave the column a personal immediacy, as did the many sensory details, and liberal use of dialogue and quotation. Day wrote “most personally,” she said, “because I am a woman who can write no other way.” Like Day’s autobiography, her columns clearly show that she had the sensibilities of the successful novelist — the sensory sensitivity, the scene-setting and storytelling skills, the ear for authentic speech, and a well-developed sense of the comic, which permeated much of her writing.

Even in the most depressing and difficult situations, Day’s sense of humor was acute. Her description of the last days of one of the Catholic Worker’s most irascible visitors is a fine piece of comic irony. In the Thirties, an eccentric racist named Edward J. Breen, “sputtering with rage,” “his dirty white hair tossing, his eyes bulging out of his apoplectic face,” had long tried the patience of those at St. Joseph’s, where he remained until he died. “As the end drew near,” Day recounted, “we all sat around his bedside, taking turns saying the rosary.” With comic restraint, she recorded Mr. Breen’s final words to her: “‘I have only one possession left in the world — my cane. I want you to have it. Take it — take it and wrap it around the necks of these bastards around here.’ Then,” Day went on, “he turned on us a beatific smile. In his weak voice he whispered, `God has been good to me.’ And smiling, he died.”


In some ways. Day’s approach to writing resembled that of engraver and Catholic Worker illustrator Fritz Eichenberg. Like Eichenberg’s art, Day’s communicated a deep concern for peace and social justice, often with a satirical leavening that served to intensify the message. Like Eichenberg and like artist Kathe Kollwitz, whose work she greatly admired, Day perpetually sought to arouse consciences by detailing the lives of the poor. No doubt Dorothy Day could have been a successful writer of fiction, but her conversion to Catholicism deepened her commitment to harness her literary gifts, not to serve her own imaginative vision, but rather to portray and celebrate that artistry already present in God’s creation Day was not an intellectual theorist; she did not try to set forth her ideas abstractly or systematically.

In her column, she directed her appeal more to the ordinary “workers,” and let other Catholic Worker writers appeal to the scholars. With rich spiritual insights, she described people she had known, pressing problems, and concrete situations. In this, as her friend Father Hugo has observed, she resembled the writers of the great literary masterpieces she admired and reread: those who mirror life as they see it. But while Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and their like saw it imaginatively, she saw life in the raw, and in the profound problems of our age 61

In her personal example and in her journalism, Dorothy Day communicated the essence of personalism. It was never theory of which she wrote, but deeply felt convictions arrived at from firsthand experience. “You can’t write about things without doing them,” she remarked in an interview in 1971. “You just have to live that same way.” Her early, pre-conversion reporting had certainly taught her the value of participant journalism, starting with her “diet squad” articles about the problems of destitution and hunger for the New York Call, 1916-1917. Then, she had actually tried to live on five dollars a week and in 1924 for the New Orleans Item, she had taken a job as a taxi dancer in order to write exposes of dance hall venalities.

The integrity of Day’s life was extraordinary. As Robert Ellsberg recently observed, “there was absolutely no distinction between what she believed, what she wrote, and the manner in which she lived.”s’ Constantly in the midst of the poor, she understood their daily struggles as few others could. Day knew exactly what it meant to scrounge in the clothing bin, hoping for a not-too-threadbare pair of fitting socks; she knew what it meant to subsist on borrowed, utilitarian food; she knew what it meant to beg for extended credit on overdue rent, heat, and light bills — and sometimes not to be able to afford heat in the cruelest winter. In her January 1963 journal, Day described her room at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality:

And then the place where I am, cold, unheatable because the gas flow is meager, cluttered and dusty, Marie’s newspapers and magazines piled high — what compulsion is there for her to collect, collect, collect…. Now she brings in two shopping bags for a night, God knows what all besides…. and the room gets fuller and fuller so there is scarcely a passageway through. And there is always an odor in the rooms. My room is both dirty and cold and I have not the energy or strength to clean. My bones are still with cold and I am tired with the weight of clothes I put on to keep warm

Because Day lived like those she served, she could describe poverty and sorrow — and joy — in the most personal, vivid, and moving terms.

She was at her best when characterizing some of the everyday people who came by St. Joseph’s. “It is people who incarnate ideas, who make ideas come alive,” Day often said. Deftly as a novelist she brushed in the destitute as distinct characters, using the details of their lives to communicate her concerns. Her rhetorical strategy was to introduce them by their first names — Bill, Ann Millie — as if to say, “They are one of us.” With skillful portraiture, sympathetic yet unsentimental, she characterized ordinary men and women, revealing their spiritual qualities and recognizing their dignity — a dignity she knew they had and deserved. Again and again she wrote memorable obituaries for those “least among us”:

All of you who ride the Pennsylvania or the Lehigh pass by those pig farms set in the swamps, ugly as sin, evil-smelling holes, where thousands of pigs are raised and fattened on garbage from New York hotels…. John Ryder worked in this setting, cleaning out pig sties, caring for the hogs…. On pay days he would come over to New York and too often spend his holidays on the Bowery. He told us the pay was good and the meals too, but it was another case of needing heroic virtue to live under such surroundings. Too often the men sought surcease and rest and dreams in drink…. But it is difficult to clamber out of the trough of the destitute…

John, like the prodigal son, came home to us after feeding off the husks of the swine. And he could not be feasted because he was dying. Instead, he had that real feast, the bread of the strong [the Eucharist], and he died and was laid out in the chapel at Maryfarm, and each night before his burial we said the office of the dead as though he were one of the mightiest of the sons of God..

Especially in such remembrances, Day wrote with impressive (and effective) restraint about her sordid surroundings. She did this, first, because she truly recognized God even in the person of the most pitiful; her view of life on earth was not hopeless. Also, she perceived the psychology of her audience. Together too many shocking details from the Lower East Side would lose their impact, besides inordinately depressing readers. So Day sought not to sacrifice editorial appeal by brooding at length over the daily tribulations at St. Joseph’s. This entry from her diary shows how closely in touch with her audience Day was:

The other day when writing my article and appeal I threw away my article, telling all of our troubles and thought This is not what readers want — to be tortured with tales of broken families, men beating their wives and children, etc.’ I will write happily of June and its beauties.

“Of course if you do this you get a double share of complaints from all around you who try to make you see how bad everything is,” she added ruefully. And this excerpt from one of her columns shows how she maintained the fragile balance between honest reporting and a sanguinity devoid of self-pity, even in the grim days on the eve of World War II:

When the burdens pile high and the weight of all tire responsibilities we have undertaken bows us down, when there are never enough beds to go around and never enough food on the table, then it is good to sit out in the cool of the evening with all our neighbors and exchange talk about babies and watch the adventurous life of the street.

The world is bowed down with grief, and in many ways God tries to bring us joy, and peace. They may seem at first to be little ways but if our hearts are right they color all our days and dispel the gray of the sadness of the times

Yes, Dorothy Day believed one could always find solace in the presence of babies. She had a special love for the very young. “Babies and small children,” she wrote, “are pure beauty, love, joy — the truest in this world.” Once, not long before World War II, she wrote that she was cutting her column short in order to take the children at Maryfarm in Easton, Pennsylvania “up the hill to hunt for salamanders in the spring. In spite of strikes and brutality, controversy and war,” she went on, “this world is filled with joy and beauty and the children bring it to us anew and help us to enjoy it through their eyes.” In their lives she always recognized a means to dramatize great spiritual themes.

This mode can be glimpsed even in her pre-Catholic Worker writing. An outstanding example is “Having a Baby,” her delightful and moving account of giving birth to her only child. First published in New Masses, it was later reprinted in leftist papers throughout the world. Written just before her conversion, “Having a Baby” does not allude directly to religion, but it captures the mother-to-be’s sense of anticipation. In “A Baby Is Born,” printed in the January 1941 Catholic Worker, Day juxtaposed the birthing experience of a destitute, young unmarried mother with the plight of the wretched poor lining up outside St. Joseph’s for morning coffee, and with despairing wounded soldiers. Her masterpiece of nonfiction technique thus became much more than the usual tale of the unwed mother’s woe:

Every night before we went to bed we asked the young mother, `How do you feel?’ and asked each other… `Is there taxi money” in case it would be too late to call an ambulance.

And then, one morning at five I heard rapid footsteps in the room above, the voice of the ambulance interne in the hall, `I’ll be waiting downstairs,’ and I realized that the great moment had arrived. It was still dark out, but it was indubitably morning. Lights were on in the kitchens of surrounding tenements. Fish-peddlers, taxi drivers, truckmen, longshoremen, were up and on their way to work. The business of life was beginning. And I thought, `How cheerful to begin to have a baby at this time of the morning!’ Not at 2 A.M., for instance, a dreary time, of low vitality, when people sink beneath their woes and courage flags. Five o’clock is a cheerful hour. Down in our little back yard … down in that cavernous pit with tenements looming five and seven stories up around, we could hear them dragging out the ash cans, bringing in the coffee cans for the line… .

Out in front the line was forming already and two or three fires in the gutters brought out in sharp relief the haggard faces of the men, the tragedy of their rags. The bright flames, the blue-black sky, the grey buildings all about, everything sharp and clear, and this morning a white ambulance drawn up in front of the door.

This is not the story of the tragedy of the mother. We are not going into detail about that. But I could not help thinking that while I was glad the morning was beginning, it was a miserable shame that the departure of the young woman for her ordeal should be witnessed by a long, silent waiting line of men. They surveyed her, a slight figure, bundled on that cruelly cold morning (and pain and fear make the blood run cold), come running down from the dark, silent house to get into the ambulance.

Not one man, not.a dear husband, not a protector on whom she could lean for comfort and strength. There was no Joseph on this winter morning. But there were hundreds of men, silent, waiting, and wondering perhaps as they watched the ambulance, whether it was life or death that had called it out.

Intensifying this powerful juxtaposition, Day moved to deeper themes. She compared the sadness of a woman giving birth alone to the suffering of the soldier, “with his guts spilled out on the battlefield, lying for hours impaled upon barbed wire.” By the end of the piece, she had noted that despite the painful process of labor, the mother could be cheered by the new small life; all war issued for the soldier, though, were agony and death.

Whatever the circumstances of a child’s birth, she observed, joy reigned: “And this tiny creature who little realizes his dignity as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ, lies upstairs from me now as I write, swaddled in a blanket and reposing in a laundry basket.” As Christ came to her in the persons of the hungry men in the morning coffee line — “for inasmuch as ye have done it unto these the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me” — so too was Christ present in this newborn child, just as Christ himself was once present as a baby boy. But Day was not tritely cheerful as she gazed at the “rosy and calm and satisfied” infant, with his “look of infinite peace and complacency.” Without descending into hopelessness, she reflected upon how little the child knows of what is in the world, of “what horrors beset us on every side.”

In her March 1951 column, Day wrote of another baby whose presence inspired her to reflect on deeper spiritual mysteries. In her typically homey, personal style she observed: “Downstairs the baby is crying while Rita gets her breakfast ready, mashed prunes, baby cereal and milk, all mixed together deliciously. Little Rachel is three months old now and eats with avidity.” But by the column’s end, Day had moved adroitly from the child’s feeding to a perceptive portrayal of common human ill-will and pettiness. She explained her purpose in doing so:

It may seem that I am speaking lightly of these things, but these are sorrowful mysteries indeed, the mystery of sin and suffering and how we are all members one of another, and drag each other down, or pull each other up.”

Day’s aim in such juxtapositions as these of the “baby pieces” — and her consummate gift as a writer — was to unite the everyday and the ultimate. “I think of death every day of my life,” she once confided to her friend Eileen Egan.  And so, in the most universal, commonplace events such as birth, she recognized profound import. She could make matters of faith seem so relevant to everyday life, for instance linking “nibbling in the kitchen” to the seven deadly sins.

She had that rare ability to cut directly to the heart of the matter. In this regard her writing resembles that of E.B. White, who also delved beyond the surface of the apparently mundane to deep truths, often with a comic stroke. Among writers of fiction, one might compare Dorothy Day to Flannery O’Connor, who also recognized God’s presence in the lives of an array of grotesque misfits. Like O’Connor (and Fritz Eichenberg), Day successfully used comic irony, no doubt to lighten the despair that could easily be awakened by accounts of such tragic characters and situations. By so doing, Day intensified the impact of her message.

And using common events and people as a springboard, she could communicate a moving message to a much wider audience, than if she had simply written theory or bald propaganda — that is, concentrated solely on content. Unlike the advocacy journalists surveyed in The News People, Day’s ideological commitments did not overshadow her dedication to quality journalism. Instead, they worked fruitfully together. As an advocate, she realized the importance of crafting a lattice of substance and style suitable to achieve the greatest appeal. To this task she applied her considerable talents. Modern advocacy journalists have rarely produced writing of such caliber.


Dorothy Day: The Journalist Within

December 27, 2010

A reading selection from Nancy Roberts’ Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker that traces her career as journalist.

Dorothy Day was only twenty-two when she made a final commitment to journalism. She had been at it a long time. Before she was eleven, she and her siblings were typing out the little family newspaper. At seventeen at the University of Illinois she joined a campus writers’ club and wrote for the town newspaper. Before she was twenty she had overcome her father’s disapproval to become a reporter in New York, for the Socialist Call and later the Masses. Then her vigorous social conscience led her off in another direction for a while. She did enter nurse’s training. But her “longing to write” prevailed.” At the end of World War I she left nursing, firmly committed to effecting social change through her journalism.

Throughout the rest of her life, Day thought of herself primarily as a journalist, although she also enjoyed producing more lengthy work. In fact, she usually had a book in the back of her mind. When she was nearly eighty, she remarked, “I don’t remember the time when I was not writing a book.” But she was most devoted to journalism. Above all, she felt, writing was to report. Advocacy journalism suited her goals far better than the careful crafting of a few novels would have. At a penny a copy, Catholic Worker journalism could reach a large audience, especially the poor. And it could be written on the run, without stealing too many hours from Day’s other demanding activity, caring for the Catholic Worker family. So successful was her journalism, though, that it found its way into several book-length collections. It also created a readership for her several nonfiction books on her Catholic Worker life.

Day shared the genuine journalist’s urge to be read; she always wrote with an audience in mind. She was so committed to getting the Catholic Worker viewpoint in print that if the regular channels of publication were closed to her, she once remarked, she would not hesitate to mimeograph her articles and hand them out on street corners. “Writing was her craft,” observed Thomas Cornell, an editor of the Catholic Worker in the early Sixties, and she took it very seriously.

Father John J. Hugo, Day’s friend and confessor for the last forty years of her life, concurred: “She considered herself a writer; she always mentioned that. She considered writing not an avocation, but a vocation.” Day herself explained this in a letter she wrote to a benefactor in 1967. She had always viewed writing, she said, “as a way `to earning a living’ which each of us is bound to do as far as he is able before depending on others” (even though we may get “entirely too much credit for a work for which we have a vocation”). She added that she was now writing a pamphlet on the works of mercy to earn funds for the Catholic Worker movement

Similarly, she had contributed her free-lance writing income to help pay for the very first issue of the Catholic Worker. However, Day noted how shamefully “underpaid” writers were. She had earned more, she said, working her way through a year of college at “twenty cents an hour for housework, plus four hours work a day for room and board.” In a letter to her biographer, she commented: “My long experience with publishing houses showed me money is not to be made by writing. You just have to do it for the love of it.” For Day, the value of writing lay far beyond the income it could provide to aid the poor, or the creative gratifications it offered. Journalism, she believed, was the social activist’s prime tool. One could use it “to move the heart, stir the will to action; to arouse pity, compassion, to awaken the conscience.” Bemoaning the author’s continual low pay, she summarized the real rewards and true value of writing:

But oh, the joy of seeing one’s books (however unworthy of the honor of acceptance by the public) on newsstands, in chain drugstores, supermarkets, bus stations, even airports, handled by media who little know that many books of protest contain dynamite to blow our current unjust, war-ridden, profit-hungry civilization to smithereens.’

“I have no faith in our kind of books selling,” she wrote to William D. Miller in 1970. “If they get on library shelves and influence people — that is enough.”

For Dorothy Day, then, writing was a serious vocation, a most worthwhile and significant calling. Naturally shy, she never really enjoyed public speaking, although she made countless speeches on behalf of the Catholic Worker movement. Her talents and interests led her to communicate her ideas primarily through the medium of print journalism. Like many writers who came into their prime during the decade of the Depression, she wanted her work to be socially significant and to inspire social change.

Like her friends Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Mary Heaton Vorse, she started out in Socialist journalism. But after her conversion to Catholicism, Dorothy Day sought to awaken people not only to the plight of the world, but also to their own spiritual condition. Hers became an advocacy journalism informed by a distinctive and profound religious faith. She came to this in part through such youthful experiences as a stint writing Hollywood scripts, which she found frustrating and meaningless; and through the process of writing her pre-conversion novel, The Eleventh Virgin, which sold to Hollywood.

Thereafter, Day disdained such comparatively mundane, superficial literary endeavors. Resist the temptation of writing trash just to make money, she advised aspiring writers. She sometimes lamented the sad career of a friend in the labor movement, who had gone to Hollywood and made a fortune while “prostituting his great talents as a writer.” Rather, Day admired writers such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who dealt with monumental themes of human life and spirituality, and Dickens, Sinclair, and London, who through their books made greater strides in social reform, she felt, than did many politicians and economists.

Yet at least another, personal reason spurred Day to write. She once explained privately that she wrote House of Hospitality, On Pilgrimage, The Long Loneliness, and Loaves and Fishes — journalistic accounts of the Catholic Worker movement and her life within it — “to ease an aching heart and a discouraged mind.” Such writing, she said, was “a most effective way of working things out for oneself as well as trying to make others understand.”‘ If her book-length collection of 1945 columns entitled On Pilgrimage was “preaching and didactic in parts,” she suggested at its end, “it is because I am preaching and teaching and encouraging myself on this narrow road we are treading.”

Deft characterization, bright description, and authentic-sounding dialogue enriched her muckraking series on dance halls, which she wrote for the New Orleans Item in 1924. Presented in the first person, the articles piled up details to reveal such sordidness as easy-flowing “whisky and dope smokes.” The series was given page-one prominence, and it led New Orleans organizations such as the Business and Professional Women’s Club and the Federation of Clubs to press successfully for some reforms. Day also wrote for the Item a series on women at the races and gaming tables, entitled The Thrills of 1924. She studded the articles with colorful personality sketches. Day was equally adept at interviewing boxers and capturing the excitement of a close match.

Later on, of course, a deep religious dimension would inform her writing. From her early, pre-conversion apprenticeship, Day brought to the Catholic Worker firsthand knowledge of the synergistic effect of literary technique on one’s message. She indicated her awareness of technique’s importance when she wrote in 1948: “An ordinary journalistic device is to paint a picture with contrasts. It is an emotional way of making a point.” How well this characterized much of her writing. Doubtless too, Day’s appreciation of style for its own sake also helped keep her ever conscious of its meshing with substance. And so she crafted columns and articles for the Catholic Worker that used a wide array of the fiction writer’s techniques, laced with her pungent comic irony.
Articles for the Catholic Worker, letter-answering, diary-keeping: Day considered all to be important aspects of a writing vocation and devoted herself to them. She constantly urged others to do likewise: “We all should (keep a diary),” Day exhorted, “no matter how brief and factual — and be careful, in letter and diary, not to err in charity and write things that may hurt others.” Joseph Zarrella, a Catholic Worker veteran, recalled how Day was “always after me to write for the paper.” Although he did not consider himself a journalist, he finally obliged with an article entitled “Joe Zarrella Writes.” Similarly, Stanley Vishnewski, a lifelong Catholic Worker, recalled Day’s continual encouragement of his writing attempts, as well as others.

In the Catholic Worker’s early years, Day contributed investigative, muckraking reports on such topics as tenant evictions, the seamen’s strikes of the Thirties, the 1936 Vermont marble workers’ strike, and the 1937 Republic Steel massacre. As a young radical reporter she had honed her descriptive skills, and they sparkled in her 1936 series of articles on Arkansas sharecroppers, which appeared both in the Catholic Worker and in America:

It was seventeen above zero when we started out this morning with a carload of flour, meal, lard, sugar, coffee, and soup…
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that we reached the worst place of all, just outside Parkin, Arkansas. There drawn up along the road was a tent colony, which housed 108 people, four infants among them, and God knows how many children.
The little girls giggled and laughed with their arms around each other while we talked to this evicted crowd of sharecroppers. Only one of them had on a sweater, and the heels and toes of all of them were coming out of their shoes. Their giggles started them coughing and woke up one of the babies who cried fretfully, weakly….
The little tent where we stood on the frozen earth was filled with fourteen children and there were thirteen more in the camp. Here too were four infants, wrapped in scanty cotton blankets….
While surveys are being made and written the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union carries on.. . organizing the sharecroppers…. They have had a hard struggle in the past and the future looks dark. But combined with faith and charity they have hope, and the terror that walks by day and by night in Arkansas does not daunt them.

In articles like this, the discerning reader could see she was as concerned with technique as with substance. This strategy only intensified the impact of her message, as Day surely knew. She had learned her lessons well at the Masses. And people in high places felt her impact. In the White House, Day’s reports came to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, herself a socially concerned author of a nationally syndicated, daily newspaper column. The First Lady informed the Governor of Arkansas. (He made a personal investigation, but the report sent to the press concluded that nothing was amiss, that the unfortunate publicity was probably concocted by a “Catholic woman” who made “fat salaries off the misery of the people.”

Dorothy Day also wrote some outstanding pieces for the Catholic Worker on the labor movement of the Thirties. Pro-worker, the paper quickly developed inside sources for the coverage of unions, strikes, and other labor issues. Day herself knew many national labor figures, and interviewed union heads such as Philip Murray, John L. Lewis, John Brophy, Joseph Curran, and Harry Bridges In 1936 Day covered a speech by the Rev. Stephen Kazincy, the “labor priest,” in Braddock, Pennsylvania. She captured the essence of the event with evocative sensory details, and sparse but sonorous quotation. Her matter-of-fact, unsentimental tone underscored the gravity of the steel workers’ plight:

The steel workers’ spoke first and the sun broiled down and the men and their wives stood there motionless, grave, unsmiling, used to hardship, and thinking of the hardships to come if the steel roasters locked them out.
And then Father Kazincy was announced. He got up before the microphone, a broad, straight man of about sixty. His hair was snow white, his head held high … his words came abrupt, forceful, and unhesitating…
‘Remember that you have an immortal soul,’ he told them. ‘Remember your dignity as men.
`Do not let the Carnegie Steel Company crush you.’”‘

One of Dorothy Day’s most passionate pieces in the Thirties, which combined muckraking with advocacy, described the Republic Steel massacre. Usually the Catholic Worker aimed to “announce,” not to “denounce.” But when police opened fire on striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company in South Chicago on Memorial Day. May 30, 1937, Day could not be silent. She spoke out in hope that “the only way to stop such brutality is to arouse a storm of protest against it.” In concrete but unsensationalized detail, she gave her readers a vivid picture of the violence that took ten lives and injured more than a hundred others:

Have you ever heard a man scream as he was beaten over the head by two or three policemen with clubs and cudgels? Have you ever heard the sickening sound of blows and seen people with their arms upraised. trying to protect their faces, stumbling blindly to get away, falling and rising again to be beaten down? Did you ever see a man, shot in the back, being dragged to his feet by policemen who tried to force him to stand, while his poor body crumpled, paralyzed by a bullet in the spine’

Day went on to compare the Chicago violence to contemporary brutality in Italy, Russia, and Nazi Germany. Instead of piously assigning blame for the Republic Steel tragedy to the police, or to company personnel, she acknowledged a more universal guilt. “Have pity on us all, Our Lord of Gethsemane,” she wrote, ” — on Tom Girdler [of Republic Steel], those police, the souls of the strikers, as well as on all of us who have not worked enough for `a new heaven and a new earth wherein justice dwelleth.”

Once Day established the Catholic Worker’s tradition of muckraking she began to leave such writing more to others. But she kept the journalist’s sense for telling quote and graphic detail that she developed so early in her career. Throughout her life she retained her ability to write solid, informative, compelling muckraking and advocacy journalism, whether describing Cesar Chavez’s struggles in the California vineyards, her 1962 travels to Castro’s Cuba, or the problems of racial integration in the South. These skills also enriched the analytical background pieces which she occasionally wrote.


God of Love, Father of All…

December 25, 2010

God of Love, Father of All,

the darkness that covered the earth

has given way to the bright dawn of your Word made flesh.

Make us a people of this light.

Make us faithful to your Word,

that we may bring your life to the waiting world.

Grant this through Christ our Lord.

Merry Christmas.


In The Gay Marriage Debate, Stop Playing The Hate Card By Matthew J. Franck

December 22, 2010

I find a lot of my favorite articles disappear and return as subscription only status, so I thought I would snatch this and keep it alive as it has some very important things to say. Heard the fellow on NPR yesterday. As I am ALWAYS debating with those who view the gay marriage issue as one of “civil rights” or “fairness,” I will copy and paste from this for quite some time.

Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J. He can be reached at Tell him Thank You.

Friday, December 17, 2010 in the Washington Post

In the debates over gay marriage, “hate” is the ultimate conversation-stopper.

Some stories from recent months: A religion instructor at a midwestern state university explains in an e-mail to students the rational basis for Catholic teaching on homosexuality. He is denounced by a student for “hate speech” and is dismissed from his position. (He is later reinstated – for now.)

At another midwestern state university, a department chairman demurs from a student organizer’s request that his department promote an upcoming “LGBTQ” film festival on campus; he is denounced to his university’s chancellor, who indicates that his e-mail to the student warrants inquiry by a “Hate and Bias Incident Response Team.”

On the west coast, a state law school moves to marginalize a Christian student group that requires its members to pledge they will conform to orthodox Christian doctrines on sexual morality. In the history of the school, no student group has ever been denied campus recognition. But this one is, and the U.S. Supreme Court lets the school get away with it.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a once-respected civil rights organization, publishes a “report” identifying a dozen or so “anti-gay hate groups,” some for no apparent reason other than their vocal opposition to same-sex marriage. Other marriage advocacy groups are put on a watch list.

On a left-wing Web site, a petition drive succeeds in pressuring Apple to drop an “app” from its iTunes store for the Manhattan Declaration, an ecumenical Christian statement whose nearly half-million signers are united in defense of the right to life, the tradition of conjugal marriage between man and woman, and the principles of religious liberty. The offense? The app is a “hate fest.” Fewer than 8,000 people petition for the app to go; more than five times as many petition Apple for its reinstatement, so far to no avail.

Finally, on “$#*! My Dad Says,” a CBS sitcom watched by more than 10 million weekly viewers, an entire half-hour episode is devoted to a depiction of the disapproval of homosexuality as bigotry, a form of unreasoning intolerance that clings to the past with a coarse and mean-spirited judgmentalism. And this on a show whose title character is famously irascible and politically incorrect, but who in this instance turns out to be fashionably cuddly and up-to-date.

What’s going on here? Clearly a determined effort is afoot, in cultural bastions controlled by the left, to anathematize traditional views of sexual morality, particularly opposition to same-sex marriage, as the expression of “hate” that cannot be tolerated in a decent civil society. The argument over same-sex marriage must be brought to an end, and the debate considered settled. Defenders of traditional marriage must be likened to racists, as purveyors of irrational fear and loathing. Opposition to same-sex marriage must be treated just like support for now long-gone anti-miscegenation laws.

This strategy is the counsel of desperation. In 30 states, the people have protected traditional marriage by constitutional amendment: In no state where the question has been put directly to voters has same-sex marriage been adopted by democratic majorities. But the advocates of a revolution in the law of marriage see an opportunity in Perry v. Schwarzenegger , currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. In his district court ruling in the case in August, Judge Vaughn Walker held that California’s Proposition 8 enacted, “without reason, a private moral view” about the nature of marriage that cannot properly be embodied in public policy. Prop 8′s opponents are hoping for similar reasoning from the appeals court and, ultimately, from the Supreme Court.

The SPLC’s report on “hate groups” gives the game away. It notes that no group is listed merely for “viewing homosexuality as unbiblical.” But when describing standard expressions of Christian teaching, that we must love the sinner while hating the sin, the SPLC treats them as “kinder, gentler language” that only covers up unreasoning hatred for gay people. Christians are free to hold their “biblical” views, you see, but we know that opposition to gay marriage cannot have any basis in reason. Although protected by the Constitution, these religious views must be sequestered from the public square, where reason, as distinguished from faith, must prevail.

Marginalize, privatize, anathematize: These are the successive goals of gay-marriage advocates when it comes to their opponents.

First, ignore the arguments of traditional marriage’s defenders, that marriage has always existed in order to bring men and women together so that children will have mothers and fathers, and that same-sex marriage is not an expansion but a dismantling of the institution. Instead, assert that no rational arguments along these lines even exist and so no refutation is necessary, and insinuate that those who merely want to defend marriage are “anti-gay thugs” or “theocrats” or “Taliban,” as some critics have said.

Second, drive the wedge between faith and reason, chasing traditional religious arguments on marriage and morality underground, as private forms of irrationality.

Finally, decree the victory of the new public morality – here the judges have their role in the liberal strategy – and read the opponents of the new dispensation out of polite society, as the crazed bigots of our day.

American democracy doesn’t need civility enforcers, nor must it become a public square with signs reading “no labels allowed.” Robust debate is necessarily passionate debate, especially on a question like marriage. But the charge of “hate” is not a contribution to argument; it’s the recourse of people who would rather not have an argument at all.

That is no way to conduct public business on momentous questions in a free democracy. “Hate” cannot be permitted to be the conversation stopper in the same-sex marriage debate. The American people, a tolerant bunch who have acted to protect marriage in three-fifths of the states, just aren’t buying it. And they still won’t buy it even if the judges do.


The Positions of St. Thomas on the Ordination of the Person to Its Ultimate End by Jacques Maritain

December 21, 2010

Maritain and Friends: From the left, Ade Bethune, Dorothy Day, Dorothy Weston, Jacques and Peter Maurin at the Catholic Worker house in New York, 1934

There are two great things that have buoyed my spirits recently. One has been the writings of Edward Feser that I have been featuring. For the longest time I have conceded the field of God’s existence to the atheists who say that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. Edward Feser has been a breath of fresh air who simply says, “Well, you’re not looking at science in the right way. Modern science is based as much on the metaphysical as our Theology is. It is an atheist conceit that science is somehow above all the fray and is able to judge. To say that it is[above the fray] is to rely upon a subset of modern science, called Scientism, a strict construct that attempts to ban the metaphysical or the “supernatural” as my atheist friends are wont to say.

The problem is that modern science is shot through with the metaphysical and attempts beginning with Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume that don’t hold up to such propositions least of all our examinations. Yet despite Feser’s yeoman work to demonstrate this, the fact is God’s existence has never been much of an issue for me. And I have discovered that the only proof of His existence that matters is the one that proves Him to whomever you are. Feser’s stuff is nice to know in that it takes the ground out from underneath my atheist friends who claim that God doesn’t exist and argue magisterially from their thin Scientism that it is so.

The second spirit-buoying event for me this year has been my discovery of Personalism. This is less about God (that’s not true either) as it is about who we are. For we are Persons, insofar as we know God. Writers like Benedict XVI, Jacques Maritain, Nikolai Berdyaev, Robert Spaemann and John Paul II have shown to me this year that Person’ is indeed a fundamental notion which cannot be abolished without implying major shifts in our understanding of reality. It is a non-reductive and truly empirical position that rehabilitates our everyday experience of life, time, space, freedom, motion, possibility, and contingency. God shows us who we truly are and it is uplifting to say the least. It strikes me that if you believe in personhood, you believe in God.

More of that here by Jacques Maritain from a small book (The Person and the Common Good)that came heartily recommended to me by a reader of these posts. Merry Christmas.

THE human person is ordained directly to God as to its absolute ultimate end. Its direct ordination to God transcends every created common good — both the common good of the political society and the intrinsic common good of the universe. Here is the fundamental truth governing the entire discussion — the truth in which nothing less than the very message of Christian wisdom in its triumph over Hellenic thought and every other pagan wisdom, henceforth toppled from their dominion, is involved. Here, too, St. Thomas Aquinas, following the precedent set by Albert the Great, did not take over the doctrine of Aristotle without correcting and transfiguring it.

The most essential and the dearest aim of Thomism is to make sure that the personal contact of all intellectual creatures with God, as well as their personal subordination to God, be in no way interrupted. Everything else — the whole universe and every social institution — must ultimately minister to this purpose; everything must foster and strengthen and protect the conversation of the soul, every soul, with God. It is characteristically Greek and pagan to interpose the universe between God and intellectual creatures.” It is to this essential concern for asserting and safeguarding the ordination, direct and personal, of each human soul to God that the principal points of doctrine, lying at the very heart of Thomism, are attached.

In the first place, there can be no question about the importance which St. Thomas unceasingly attributes to the consideration of the intrinsic order and “common good” of the cosmos principally to establish the existence of Divine Providence against Greco-Arabian necessitarianism. Nonetheless, in comparing the intellectual substance and the universe, he emphasizes that intellectual creatures, though they, like all creatures, are ordained to the perfection of the created whole, are willed and governed for their own sakes. Divine Providence takes care of each one of them for its own sake and not at all as a mere cog in the machinery of the world. Obviously, this does not prevent them from being related first to God and then to the order and perfection of the created universe, of which they are the most noble constitutive parts.

Each intellectual substance is made, first, for God, the separated common good of the universe, second, for the perfection of the order of the universe (not only as the universe of bodies but also as the universe of spirits), and third, for itself, that is, for the action (immanent and spiritual) by which it perfects itself and accomplishes its destiny. (Cf. Summa Theologica, I, 65, 2, and Cajetan’s commentary.) Using a distinction established further on, we may say that as individual or part, the intellectual substance is first willed and loved for the order of the universe and the perfection of the created whole; as person, it is first willed and loved for itself. Yet, like every creature, it differs from God, or Personality in pure act, more than it resembles Him. Hence, absolutely speaking, it is part or “individual” more than “person’ and before it is a “person.” (It is this that Kant failed to see.) It follows there from that, absolutely speaking, the intellectual sub stance is loved and willed for the order of the universe of creation before being loved and willed for itself. This in no wise hinders it, in contrast to irrational beings, from being really for itself and referred directly to God.

Let us add that if we pass to the supernatural order, the order of formal participation in the deity, this priority of the universe of created nature over the person is reversed. Each person is here willed and loved for its own sake, that is, to find bliss in God (He truly died for each of them), before being willed and loved for the order and perfection of this world or of the universe of nature and creation. “As He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.” Ephesians. 1: 4. (Whereas, “there. is no election, nor a book of life as regards the life of nature.” Summa Theologica I, 24, 2 ad 2.) In the words of St.. Augustine, the justification of the ungodly is a greater work than the creation of heaven and earth. In his teaching that “the justification of the of the ungodly is the greatest work of God,” St. Thomas: proposes the following objection: “The justification of the ungodly is ordained to the particular good of one man. But the good of the universe is greater than the good of one man, as is plain from Ethics I. Hence the creation of heaven and earth is a greater work than the justification of the ungodly.” To it, he answers, “The good of the universe is greater than the particular good of one, if we consider both in the same genus. But the good of grace in one is greater than the good of nature in the whole universe,” including the angelic natures. Summa Theologica I-II, 113, 9, ad 2.]

“They alone in the universe are willed for their own sake.” Cf. Sam. Contra Gentiles, III, 112; “Intellectual creatures are ruled by God as though He cared for ‘them for their own sake, while other creatures are ruled as being directed to rational creatures….The rational soul is capable of perpetuity, not only in respect of the species, like other creatures, but also in respect of the individual … Rational creatures alone are directed by God to their actions for the sake, not only of the species, but also of the individual. . Rational creatures alone are directed by God providence as being for its own sake governed and eaten for, and not, as other corruptible creatures, for the sake of the species only. For the individual that is governed only for .the-: sake of the’ species is not governed for its own sake, whereas the rational creature is governed for its own sake … Accordingly, rational creatures alone are directed by God to their actions for the “sake, not only of the species, but also of the individual.”

In other words, before they are related to the immanent common good of the universe, they are related to an infinitely greater good-the separated common Good, the divine transcendent Whole. That the extrinsic or separated common good of a multitude to which it is ordained, is greater than the immanent common good of the multitude is a universal principle: . . “Just as the good of a multitude is greater than the good of a unit in that multitude, so it is less than the extrinsic good to which that multitude is directed, as the good order of an army is less than the (objective)’ good (the defeat of the’ enemy) of its commander-in-chief. In like manner the good of ecclesiastical unity, to which schism is opposed, is less than the good of ‘Divine truth, to which unbelief is opposed.” Summa Theologica 1I-1I, 39, 2, ad 2.1.

In intellectual creatures alone, Aquinas teaches further, is found the image of God. In no other creature, not even in the universe as a whole, is this found. To be sure with regard to the extension and variety according to which the divine attributes are manifested, there is more participated similitude of the divine perfections in the whole totality of creatures. But considering the degree of perfection with. which, each one approaches God according to its capacity, the intellectual creature, which is capable of the supreme good, is more like unto the divine perfection than the whole universe in its entirety. For it alone is properly the image of God. (Summa Theologica I, 93, 2.)

Elsewhere, the Angelic Doctor writes that the good of grace of one person is worth more than the good of the whole universe of nature. For, precisely because it alone is capable of the supreme good, because it alone is the image of God, the intellectual creature alone is capable of grace. He also teaches that the natural knowledge of the angels does not extend to the secrets of the heart, even though it encompasses de jure all the things of this world. The reason is, as John of St. Thomas explained, because the free act of the human person, considered in its pure and secret intimacy as a free act, is not of this world. By its liberty, the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature.

In the .second place concerning the, possession itself of the ultimate end, St. Thomas teaches that in the beatific vision each blessed soul, knowing God as He is and as it itself is known by Him (Saint Paul, I Corinthians 13:12: “Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.”) grasps the Divine Essence and becomes God intentionally in the most immediate act conceivable. In this act, the Divine Essence itself assumes the role of “impressed species” in the human intellect. The “light of glory” enables the intellect to know in a direct intuition, without any created intermediary, without even the mediation of an idea, the very Being whose intelligibility in pure act is  per se proportionate only to the Intellect in pure act. The divine beatitude enjoys eternally the exhaustive knowledge of those uncreated depths. The beatific vision is therefore the supremely personal act by which the soul, transcending absolutely every sort of created common good, enters into the very bliss of God and draws its life from the uncreated Good, the divine essence itself, the uncreated common Good of the three Divine Persons.

Were there but a single soul to enjoy God thus it would still be blessed, even though it would not have to share this beatitude with any other creature.” (Summa Theologica I-II, 4, 8, ad 3.) Ordained to Him who is the Good by His essence and the Good by essence, it has, as the object of its vision and the substance of its beatitude, God as He is in Himself. Together, God and the soul are two in one; two natures in a single vision and a single love. The soul is filled with God. It is in society with God. With Him, it possesses a common good, the divine Good Itself. And thus the adage “Goods are common among friends” holds for it. “Absolutely speaking that love, since it is like friendship, is perfect love by which God loves His creatures not only as the artisan loves his work but also with a certain friendly association; as friend loves friend, in as much as He draws them into the community of His own enjoyment in order that their glory and beatitude may reside in that very thing by which He Himself is blessed.” The beatific vision, good so personal, knowledge so incommunicable that the soul of the blessed cannot even• express it to itself in an interior word, is the most perfect, the most secret and the most divine solitude with God.

Yet, it is the most open, most generous and most inhabited solitude. Because of it, another society is formed — the society of the multitude of blessed souls, each of which on its own account beholds the divine essence and enjoys the same untreated Good. They love mutually in God. The untreated common Good, in which they all participate, constitutes the common good of the celestial city in which they are congregated. It is this society of which St. Augustine writes: “The peace of the celestial city is the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God” (De civitate dei, XIX, 13) According to St. Thomas, it is neither essential to nor necessarily required by perfect beatitude; this society accompanies it: “Friendship stands a concomitant, as it were, of perfect beatitude.”(Summa Theologica I-II, 4, 8 ad 3) 

Let us note further that, though God is the “separated common good” of the universe, the intellectual creature is related, primarily as to the object of its beatitude, not to God as the common good of the universe of nature and creation, but to God in the transcendence of his own mystery; to God as Deity, conceptually ineffable, expressible only in the Untreated Word, to God as common good of the divine Persons and of the souls which have entered by participation into the universe of the Deity.

It is only consequentially, because God is the common good of the multitude of beatified creatures which all communicate with Him, that they communicate in His love with one another, outside of the vision, by all the created communications of mutual knowledge and mutual charity and common adoration, which flow from the vision; by those exchanges and that celestial conversation, those illuminations and that common praise of God, which render back unto each of them the goods which they have in common. The eminently personal act in which each beholds the divine essence at once transcends their blessed community and provides it with a foundation.

A third point of doctrine, concerning the superiority of the speculative over the practical intellect (speculative intellect = the faculty of knowing for the sake of knowing), likewise constitutes an essential thesis of Thomism and confirms what we have just observed. For St. Thomas, beatitude, which consists formally in the vision, pertains to the speculative and not to the practical. Intellect (practical intellect = the rational faculty that governs desire; roughly the will, rational desire (or rational appetite). The object of the practical intellect is a practical good, a good to be done, a good which, however lofty it may be, remains inferior to the truth to be known and the subsistent Good itself. In consequence, the resemblance to God is less in the practical than in the speculative intellect. “The asserted likeness of the practical intellect to God is one of proportion; that is to say, by reason of its standing in relation to what it knows (and brings into existence) as God does to what He knows (creatively). But the likeness of the speculative to God is one of union and information; which is a much greater likeness.” (Summa Theologica I-II, 3,5, ad1.)Now this much more perfect similitude with God, characteristic of the speculative intellect, is accomplished by a personal and solitary act of each one’s intellect.

The good and the end of the speculative intellect are of themselves superior to the good and the end of the practical intellect. Hence, they are superior to every created common good, however eminent it may be. For the highest object of the practical intellect is a common good to be realized. (Summa Theologica II-II, 47, 2 ad 11.)By the practical intellect,” writes St. Thomas, “one directs oneself and others towards the end as it is exemplified in him who directs the multitude. But by the fact that a man contemplates he directs himself alone towards the end of contemplation. The end itself of the speculative intellect (3 Sent., 35, I, 4 sol. Ic et ad 2; also 4 Sent., 49, I, 1, sol. 3 ad 1) surpasses as much the good of the practical intellect as the personal attainment of this speculative end, transcends the common accomplishment of the good of the practical intellect. For this reason, the most perfect beatitude resides in the speculative intellect.”  These two texts, which we have just quoted and which yield, as has been noted, one of the keys to the “personalism” of a doctrine that also asserts, at each degree of the analogy of being, the primacy of the common good, introduce us to the second great Thomistic theme which we wish to recall in the first part of this study, namely, the preeminence of the contemplative over the political life.

This doctrine is so well known that a brief recollection will suffice here. Because of its perfect immanence and its high degree of immateriality, contemplative activity is the highest of human activities. It binds man to things divine. It is better than life on the human scale. In supernatural contemplation it takes place according to a mode which is itself superhuman, through the connaturality of love with God and the action of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It makes of the transfigured soul one spirit with God. It is supreme and active repose, activity theological — received in its entirety from God, an imperfect and crucified beginning of beatitude.

To it are ordained the moral virtues, which are at the service of wisdom as the valet is at the service of the king. It is from it, when the soul is perfect, that the works of the active life must overflow, at least as to the mode of their accomplishment. And if a man be called to abandon his contemplation to come to the aid of his brothers or to serve the good of the community, the reason for this call is not at all because the good of, the practical order is of itself superior to his solitary contemplation. He must accept it only because the order of charity can require that an urgent necessity of a less elevated good, in the circumstances, be given priority. In truth, such a man if he has entered upon the pathways of the perfect. life, would be abandoning rather the conditions and leisure of contemplation than contemplation itself, which would remain, in the recesses of the soul, the source from which his practical activity would descend into human affairs.

Such is St. Thomas’ doctrine on this crucial problem of action and contemplation — a problem at the very heart of social philosophy, a problem the solution of which is of prime importance to every civilization worthy of the name. With an incomparable incisiveness, it affirms the human person’s vocation to contemplation. It is a doctrine of the primacy of the act, of the act par excellence, the act of the spirit; it is, for that very reason, a doctrine of the primacy of that which is spiritual and most eminently personal: “Just as that which is already perfect is superior to that which is practiced for perfection, so the life of the solitaries,” of those who, in the words of Aristotle, are not as beasts but as gods, “is superior to life in society.” (Summa Theologica I-II, 113, 9, ad 2) The contemplative life is better than the political life.

This doctrine is at the same time’ a doctrine of the primacy of the common good. No one more than St. Thomas has emphasized the primacy of the common good in the practical or political order of the life of the city, as in every order, where, in relation to a same category of good, (Summa Theologica II-II, 188, 8. 20:”The good of the universe is greater than the particular good of one, if we consider both in the same genus.”) the distinction between the private and common good is found. At every opportunity, he repeats the maxim of Aristotle that the good of the whole is “more divine” than the good of the parts. Unceasingly he strives to preserve this dictum authenticum, applied according to the most diverse degrees of analogy. A fortiori, then, does he give it its full value in strictly social matters. Because the common good is the human common good, (“The end of politics is the human good; it is the highest end in human things.” St. Thomas, in Ethics. I, 2) it includes within its essence, as we shall see later, the service of the human person. [As expressed by Pope Pius XII in His Christmas Message of 1942, "The origin and the primary scope of social life is the conservation, development and perfection of the human person, helping him to realize accurately the demands and values of religion and culture set by the creator for every man and for all mankind, both as a whole and in its natural ramifications." (Translation published by The Catholic Mind, Jan. 1943.)

From the Encyclical Mystici Corporis: "In a natural body the principle of unity so unites the parts that each lacks its own individual subsistence; on the contrary in the Mystical Body that mutual union, though intrinsic, links the members by a bond which leaves to each intact his own personality. Besides, if we examine the relation existing between the several members and the head, in every physical, living body, all the different members are ultimately destined to the good of the whole alone; while every moral association of men, if we look to its ultimate usefulness, is in the end directed to the advancement of all and of every single member. For they are persons, utpote personae sunt." (Prepared by Joseph J. Bluett, S.J., The America Press, New York.) This passage is truly the charter of the Christian doctrine on the person.]  

The adage of the superiority of the common good is understood in its true sense only in the measure that the common good itself implies a reference to the human person. As Giorgio La Pira rightly observed, the worst errors concerning society are born of the confusion between the substantial whole of the biological organism and the collective whole, itself composed of persons, of society.


Early Bonhoeffer

December 15, 2010

These are reading selections from Bonhoeffer’s youth and years at Berlin University where he studied theology with some of the leading lights in that field at the time. He shows a remarkable precociousness, if not early genius. All reading selections from Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. If you wish to read more about him online, here is another resource:

”In Hitler’s Germany, a Lutheran pastor chooses resistance and pays with his life. . . Eric Metaxas tells Bonhoeffer’s story with passion and theological sophistication, often challenging revisionist accounts that make Bonhoeffer out to be a ‘humanist’ or ethicist for whom religious doctrine was easily disposable. . . Metaxas reminds us that there are forms of religion — respectable, domesticated, timid — that may end up doing the devil’s work for him. — a review from the Wall Street Journal

Berlin University
Bonhoeffer’s principal reason for choosing Berlin University was its theological faculty, which was world-renowned and had included the famous Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose presence still hovered palpably.

In 1924 the theological faculty was headed by Adolf von Harnack, then seventy-three and a living legend. He was a disciple of Schleiermacher, which is to say staunchly theologically liberal, and one of the leaders of the historical-critical method of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His approach to the Bible was limited to textual and historical-critical analysis, and had led him to conclude that the miracles it described never happened, and that the gospel of John was not canonical.

Harnack lived in the Grunewald neighborhood, as did most distinguished academics then, and the young Bonhoeffer would often walk with him to the Halensee train station and ride with him into Berlin. He attended Harnack’s prestigious seminar for three semesters and esteemed the venerable scholar greatly, though he rarely agreed with his theological conclusions. A fellow student in Harnack’s seminar, Helmuth Goes, recalled feeling a “secret enthusiasm” for Bonhoeffer’s “free, critical and independent” theological thinking:

What really impressed me was not just the fact that he surpassed almost all of us in theological knowledge and capacity; but what passionately attracted me to Bonhoeffer was the perception that here was a man who did not only learn and gather in the verba and scripta of some master, but one who thought independently and already knew what he wanted and wanted what he knew. I had the experience (for me it was something alarming and magnificently new!) of hearing a young fair-haired student contradict the revered historian, his Excellency von Harnack, contradict him politely but clearly on positive theological grounds. Harnack answered, but the student contradicted again and again.

Bonhoeffer was a remarkably independent thinker, especially for one so young. Some professors regarded him as arrogant, especially because he refused to come too directly under the influence of any one of them, always preferring to maintain some distance. But someone who grew up dining with Karl Bonhoeffer, and who was allowed to speak only when he could justify every syllable, had probably developed a certain intellectual confidence and may be somewhat excused if he was not intimidated by other great minds.

Besides Harnack, three other Berlin professors had a decided influence on Bonhoeffer. They were Karl Holl, who was perhaps the greatest Luther scholar of that generation; Reinhold Seeberg, who specialized in systematic theology, and under whom Bonhoeffer wrote his doctoral thesis; and Adolf Deissman, who was Bonhoeffer’s introduction to the ecumenical movement, which would play such an important role in his life and provide the means by which he became involved in the conspiracy against Hitler. But there was another theologian who had a greater influence on Bonhoeffer than any of these, and whom he would revere and respect as much as anyone in his lifetime, who would even become a mentor and a friend. This was Karl Barth of Gottingen.

Barth was Swiss by birth and was almost certainly the most important theologian of the century; many would say of the last five centuries. Bonhoeffer’s cousin Hans-Christoph was studying physics at Gottingen in 1924, but after hearing Barth, he promptly switched to theology and stayed there. Like most theological students in the late nineteenth century, Barth absorbed the regnant liberal theology of his time, but he grew to reject it, quickly becoming its most formidable opponent. His groundbreaking 1922 commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, fell like a smart bomb into the ivory tower of scholars like Adolf von Harnack, who could hardly believe their historical-critical fortress pregnable, and who were scandalized by Barth’s approach to the Bible, which came to be called neo-orthodoxy, and which asserted the idea, particularly controversial in German theological circles,that God actually exists, and that all theology and biblical scholarship must be undergirded by this basic assumption, and that’s that.

Barth was the principal figure in challenging and overturning the influence of the German historical-critical approach pioneered at Berlin University by Schleiermacher — and furthered there by the current eminence grise Harnack. Barth stressed the transcendence of God, describing him as “wholly other,” and therefore completely unknowable by man, except via revelation. Fortunately he believed in revelation which was further scandalous to theological liberals like Harnack. For refusing to swear his allegiance to Hitler, Barth would be kicked out of Germany in 1934, and he would become the principal author of the Barmen Declaration, in which the Confessing Church trumpeted its rejection of the Nazis’ attempts to bring their philosophy into the German church.

Harnack’s theology was something like Archilochus’s proverbial fox, knowing many little things, while Barth’s theology was like a hedgehog, knowing one big thing. Bonhoeffer would side with the hedgehog, but he was in the fox’s seminar and through his family and the Grunewald community, he had many ties with the fox. As a result of his intellectual openness, Bonhoeffer learned how to think like a fox and respect the way foxes thought, even though he was in the camp of the hedgehogs. He could appreciate the value in something, even if he ultimately rejected that something — and could see the errors and flaws in something, even if he ultimately Accepted that something. This attitude figured into his creation of the illegal seminaries of Zingst and Finkenwalde, which incorporated the best of both Protestant and Catholic traditions. Because of this self-critical intellectual Integrity, Bonhoeffer sometimes had such confidence in his conclusions that he could seem arrogant.

The debate during Bonhoeffer’s time between the neo-orthodox Barthians And the historical-critical liberals was similar to the contemporary one between strict Darwinian evolutionists and advocates of so-called Intelligent Design. The latter allow the possible involvement of something “outside the system” — some Intelligent Creator, whether divine or other — while the former reject this by definition. Theological liberals like Harnack felt it was ‘unscientific” to speculate on who God was; the theologian must simply study what is here, which is to say the texts and the history of those texts. But the Barthians said no: the God on the other side of the fence had revealed himself through these texts, and the only reason for these texts was to know him.

Bonhoeffer agreed with Barth, seeing the texts as “not just historical sources, but [as] agents of revelation,” not merely “specimens of writing, but sacred canon.” Bonhoeffer was not against doing historical and critical work on biblical texts, indeed he had learned from Harnack how to do it and could do it brilliantly. Harnack powerfully flattered the eighteen-year-old when, after reading the fifty-seven –page essay Bonhoeffer wrote for his seminar, he suggested Bonhoeffer might someday do his dissertation in the field. Harnack obviously hoped to convince him to follow in his footsteps by choosing the field of church history.

As ever, Bonhoeffer cagily maintained a certain distance. He wished to learn from the old master, but would preserve his intellectual independence. In the end he would not choose church history. He respected that field, as he demonstrated by mastering it, to Harnack’s delight, but he disagreed with Harnack that one must stop there. He believed that picking over the texts as they did, and going no further, left behind “rubble and fragments.” It was the God beyond the texts, the God who was their author and who spoke to mankind through them, that fired his interest.

For his doctoral dissertation Bonhoeffer was drawn to dogmatics, the study of the beliefs of the church. Dogmatics was closer to philosophy, and Bonhoeffer was at heart more philosopher than textual critic. He didn’t want to disappoint his friendly old neighbor, Harnack, who continued to woo him, but now Bonhoeffer had another eminent professor to deal with. Reinhold Seeberg’s field was dogmatics, so it seemed Bonhoeffer might write his dissertation under him. This presented not one, but two difficulties. First, Seeberg was a bitter rival of Harnack, and the two of them were competing for the theological affections of the same young theological genius. And second, Seeberg was deeply opposed to Barthian theology.

In his essay for Seeberg’s seminar, Bonhoeffer expressed the Barthian idea that in order to know anything at all about God, one had to rely on revelation from God. In other words, God could speak into this world, but man could not reach out of this world to examine God. It was a one-way street, and of course this was directly related to the especially Lutheran doctrine of grace. Man could not earn his way up to heaven, but God could reach down and graciously lift man toward him.

Seeberg disagreed, and after reading Bonhoeffer’s essay, he became agitated: it was as though a cocky Barthian rooster had sneaked into his chicken coop. He thought he might talk sense into the brash young genius’s head by appealing to a higher authority, and that summer, at a meeting of distinguished Berlin academics, he had a conversation with Karl Bonhoeffer. Perhaps this eminent scientist could reach his son. Karl Bonhoeffer was intellectually closer to Seeberg’s views than to his son’s, but his respect for Dietrich’s mind and intellectual integrity was such that he did not try to influence him.

That August, Dietrich was hiking along the Baltic coast. From the house of an [gel brother near Bremen he wrote his father, asking what Seeberg had said and how to proceed. The answer was inconclusive. Then his mother weighed in, suggesting that perhaps he should study under Holl, the Luther expert, and write his dissertation on dogmatics after Seeberg was out of the picture. As the daughter of a respected theologian and the granddaughter of a world-famous one, she likely had more to say on this subject than any mother in Germany. The intellect of both Bonhoeffer parents and their interest in their son's academic progress are remarkable, and we can hardly wonder at his closeness to them. They were an unwavering and unflagging resource of wisdom and love for him to the very end.

By September he made his decision: he would write his doctoral dissertation under Seeberg after all, but it would he on a subject dogmatic and historical. He would write about the subject he had begun puzzling over in Rome, namely, What is the Church? It was eventually titled Sanctorum Communio. A Dogmatic Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church. Bonhocffcr would identify the church as neither a historical entity nor an institution, but as "Christ existing as church-community." It was a stunning debut.

During these three years in Berlin, Bonhoeffer had a staggering workload, yet he completed his doctoral dissertation in eighteen months. But somehow he had a very full life beyond the world of academics too. He was endlessly attending operas, concerts, art exhibitions, and plays; he maintained a copious correspondence with friends, colleagues, and family; and he was perpetually traveling, whether on shorter trips to Friedrichsbrunn or on longer trips to the Baltic seashore.

Making Up His Mind
In his diary in early 1928, Bonhoeffer wrote but how he decided to go to Barcelona. It provides an early window into his decision-making process and into the self-consciousness he brought to it:

“I myself find the way such a decision comes about to be problematic. One thing is clear to me, however, that one personally -- that is, consciously -- has very little control over the ultimate yes or no, but rather that time decides everything. Maybe not with everybody, but in any event with me. Recently I have noticed again and again that all the decisions I had to make were not really my own decisions. Whenever there was a dilemma, I just left it in abeyance and -- without really consciously dealing with it intensively -- let it grow toward the clarity of a decision. But this clarity is not so much intellectual as it is instinctive. The decision is made; whether one can adequately justify it retrospectively is another question. "Thus" it happened that I went.”

Bonhoeffer was always thinking about thinking. He meant to see things through to the bottom, to bring as much clarity as possible. The influence of his father, the scientist, is unmistakable. But the difference between his thinking now and in the future was that now, despite his being a theologian and pastor, he didn't mention God's role in the process or God's will. Still, what he said here in his diary curiously and clearly presaged the famously difficult decision he would make in 1939, trying to determine whether he should remain safely in America or sail back to the terrible Terra Incognita of his homeland. In both cases, he sensed that there was a right decision, but that ultimately it wasn't his. Later on he would say it explicitly: that he had been "grasped" by God; that God was leading him, and sometimes where he preferred not to go.

Meeting People
“Every day I am getting to know people, at any rate their circumstances, and sometimes one is able to see through their stories into themselves -- and at the same time one thing continues to impress me: here I meet people as they are, far from the masquerade of "the Christian world"; people with passions, criminal types, small people with small aims, small wages and small sins -- all in all they are people who feel homeless in both senses, and who begin to thaw when one speaks to them with kindness -- real people; I can only say that I have gained the impression that it is just these people who are much more under grace than under wrath, and that it is the Christian world which is more under wrath than grace.”
Letter to Helmut Rössler

From Three Early Lectures


One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn't do: one doesn't take him seriously. That is, one doesn't bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman -- just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant.... Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God himself speaks and if the word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me.... Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment.”


“With that we have articulated a basic criticism of the most grandiose of all human attempts to advance toward the divine -- by way of the church. Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church. It is far too easy for us to base our claims to God on our own Christian religiosity and our church commitment, and in so doing utterly to misunderstand and distort the Christian idea.


“Humanism and mysticism, the seemingly most beautiful blossoms put forth by the Christian religion, extolled today as the highest ideals of the human spirit, indeed often as the crown itself of the Christian idea -- [but] it is precisely the Christian idea itself that must reject them as an apotheosis of the creature and as such as a challenge to the honor belonging to God alone. The deity of humanism, of the idea of God presented by Christianity orients those human wishes to itself rather than the reverse.”

His Graduate Thesis, Act and Being
Bonhoeffer finished. Act and Being that year, submitting it in February 1930. Eberhard Bethge reckoned the following its “classic passage”:

“In revelation it is not so much a question of the freedom of God — eternally remaining with the divine self, aseity (vocab: in metaphysics, the property by which a being exists of and from itself) — on the other side of revelation, as it is of God’s coming out of God’s own self in revelation. It is a matter of God’s given Word, the covenant in which God is bound by God’s own action. It is a question of the freedom of God, which finds its strongest evidence precisely in that God freely chose to be bound to historical human beings and to be placed at the disposal of human beings. God is free not from human beings but for them. Christ is the word of God’s freedom. God is present, that is, not in eternal non-objectivity but – to put it quite provisionally for now – “haveable,” graspable in the Word within the church. Here the formal understanding of God’s freedom is countered by a substantial one.”


No One Really Knew What Christianity Was Anymore

December 14, 2010

Martin Luther, 1532

More than anything else, Eric Metaxas in Bonhoeffer Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy relates the decline of Lutherism and the danger of state Churches that merge a cultural or national identity with a Christian faith. I also couldn’t help but read the story in terms with our American century, the decline in my own lifetime of the Church in the Public Square here in the States with the rise of fascism in Germany in between the wars. I kept replaying the questions of “How could this happen?” with “How does this compare with now?” the smothering of the Church and Christian morality by the American secular state.

Catholic orphanages have been closed because they fail to arrange adoptions for gay couples; when will the state step in to close a Catholic parish when it refuses to perform a gay marriage? While those who do not share our faith may firmly believe their unions as truly marital, they fail to understand, that marriage is made possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman, and that the comprehensive, multi-level sharing of life that marriage is includes bodily unity of the sort that unites husband and wife biologically as a reproductive unit.

This is because the body is no mere extrinsic instrument of the human person as the secular state advocates, but truly part of the personal reality of the human being, what the Church refers to as the Human Person. Human beings are not merely centers of consciousness or emotion, or minds, or spirits, inhabiting non-personal bodies: The human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (Matthew 22:21) but (asks The Manhattan Declaration) will we render to Caesar what is God’s? That’s the question by the way; it has nothing to do with being “fair” or not recognizing the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

The global baby,  an international network of surrogate mothers and egg and sperm donors that produce children on the cheap and operates beyond the pale of laws and morality, is now a reality. We have our own holocausts but when you use that word the secularists accuse you of being an over reactive ninny.

Just as serious as the Human Child issues, end of life issues also confuse and befuddle believers. The Manhattan Declaration put it this way: “Eugenic notions such as the doctrine of lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”) were first advanced in the 1920s by intellectuals in the elite salons of America and Europe. Long buried in ignominy after the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, they have returned from the grave. The only difference is that now the doctrines of the eugenicists are dressed up in the language of “liberty,” “autonomy,” and “choice.”

Is it any wonder when Eric Metaxas writes this lyrical memory of Sabine Bonhoeffer’s that we can close our eyes perhaps and return to a world of faith in the 1950’s when all these problems seemed not to exist or at least were whisked away (“Debby’s having a baby!”) to Puerto Rico by teachers and parents?

“Sometimes in the evenings the Bonhoeffer children played ball games with the village children in the meadow. Inside they played guessing games and sang folk songs. They “watched the mists from the meadows waft and rise along the fir trees,” Sabine, Dietrich’s little sister, noted and they watched dusk fall. When the moon appeared, they sang “Der Mond ist Aufgegangen”:

Der Mond ist aufgegangen,
die goldnen Sternlein prangen
am Himmel hell and klar!
Der Wald steht schwarz and schweigt and aus den Wiesen steiget
der weiBe Nebel wunderbar.

The moon has climbed into the sky,
where golden stars shine bright and clear.
The woods are dark and silent;
and from the meadows like a dream,
the white fog rises in the air.

The worlds of folklore and religion were so mingled in early twentieth century German culture that even families who didn’t go to church were often deeply Christian. This folk song is typical, beginning as a paean to the beauty of the natural world, but soon turning into a meditation on mankind’s need for God and finally into a prayer, asking God to help us “poor and prideful sinners” to see his salvation when we die — and in the meantime here on earth to help us to be “like little children, cheerful and faithful.”

German culture was inescapably Christian. This was a result of the legacy of Martin Luther, the Catholic monk who invented Protestantism. Looming over the German culture and nation like both a father and a mother, Luther was to Germany something like what Moses was to Israel; in his lusty, cranky person were the German nation and the Lutheran faith wonderfully and terribly combined. Luther’s influence cannot be overestimated. His translation of the Bible into German was cataclysmic. Like a medieval Paul Bunyan, Luther in a single blow shattered the edifice of European Catholicism and in the bargain created the modern German language, which in turn effectively created the German people. Christendom was cleft in twain, and out of the earth beside it sprang the Deutsche Volk.

The Luther Bible was to the modern German language what the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible were to the modern English Language. Before Luther’s Bible, there was no unified German language. It existed only in a hodgepodge of dialects. And Germany as a nation was an idea far in the future, a gleam in Luther’s eye.

But when Luther translated the Bible into German, he created a single language in a single book that everyone could read and did read. Indeed, there was nothing else to read. Soon everyone spoke German the way Luther’s translation did. As television has had a homogenizing effect on the accents and dialects of Americans, watering down accents and sanding down sharp twangs, Luther’s Bible created a single German tongue. Suddenly millers from Munchen could communicate with bakers from Bremen. Out of this grew a sense of a common heritage and culture.

But Luther brought Germans to a fuller engagement with their faith through singing too. He wrote many hymns — the most well-known being “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” — and introduced the idea of congregational singing. Before Luther, no one outside the choir sang in church.”

And it is to Luther that Metaxas returns to again and again. And we see how the leader of the great schism of the sixteenth century had really ended (Badly. I never knew any of this.):

Luther and the Jews
“Many Jews in Germany, like Sabine’s husband, Gerhard, and like Franz Hildebrandt, were not merely culturally assimilated Germans, but were baptized Christians too. And many of them, like Franz Hildebrandt, were devout Christians who chose to enter the Christian ministry as their life’s work. But in a few years, as part of their effort to push Jews out of German public’ life, the Nazis would attempt to push them out of the German church too. That these “non-Aryans” had publicly converted to the Christian faith meant nothing, since the lens through which the Nazis saw the world was purely racial. One’s genetic makeup and ancestral bloodline were all that mattered; one’s most deeply held beliefs counted for nothing.

To understand the relationship between Germans, Jews, and Christians, one has to go back again to Martin Luther, the man in whom Germanness and Christianity were effectively united. His authority as the man who defined what it was to be a German Christian was unquestioned and it would be used by the Nazis to deceive many. But when it came to the Jews, Luther’s legacy is confusing, not to say deeply disturbing.

At the very end of his life, after becoming a parody of his former cranky self, Luther said and wrote some things about the Jews that, taken on their own, make him out to be a vicious anti-Semite. The Nazis exploited these last writings to the utmost, as though they represented Luther’s definitive take on the matter, which is impossible, given what he’d said earlier,in life.

In the beginning of his career, Luther’s attitude toward the Jews was exemplary, especially for his day. He was sickened at how Christians had treated Jews. In 1519 he asked why Jews would ever want to become converted to Christianity given the “cruelty and enmity we wreak on them — that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?”

Four years later in the essay “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” he wrote, “If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian. They have dealt the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property.”

There is no question that Luther believed Jews could convert to the Christian faith and wished they would so — and therefore never thought being a Jew and being a Christian mutually exclusive, as the Nazis did. On the contrary, like the apostle Paul, Luther hoped to give them the inheritance meant for them in the first place, before it meant for Gentiles. Paul declared that Jesus came “for the Jews first.”

But this initial cheeriness and optimism would not last long. For most of his adult life Luther suffered from constipation, hemorrhoids, a cataract in one eye, and a condition of the inner ear called Meniere’s disease, with results in dizziness, fainting spells, and tinnitus. He also suffered mood swings and depression. As his health declined, everything seemed to set him off. When a congregation sang anemically, he called them “tone-deaf sluggards” and stormed out. He attacked King Henry VIII as “effeminate” and blasted his theological opponents as “agents of the devil’ and “whore-mongers.”

His language waxed fouler and fouler. He called the pope “the Anti-Christ” “a brothel-keeper above all brothel-keepers and all lewdness, including which is not to be named.” He blasted the Catholic Church’s regulation marriage and accused the church of being “a merchant selling vulvas, genitals and pudenda.” Expressing his contempt for the devil, he said that he would give him “a fart for a staff.”

He viciously mocked Pope Clement II’s writings: “Such a great horrid flatus did the papal arse let go here! He certainly pressed with great might to let out such a thunderous flatus – it is a wonder that it did not tear his hole and belly apart!” Luther seemed to have had an absolutely torrid love affair with all things scatological. Not only were his linguistic flourishes styled along such lines, but his doctors seem to have followed suit: for one of his ailments, they persuaded him to take a draught of “garlic and horse manure,” and he infamously received an enema — in vain — moments after he had departed this world. So it is in this larger context that one has to take his attitude toward the Jews, which, like everything else in his life, unraveled along with his health.

The troubles started in 1528 when, after a large meal of kosher food, he suffered a shattering attack of diarrhea. He concluded that the Jews had tried to poison him. By that time he was making enemies everywhere. In his last decade, his list of ailments ballooned to include gallstones, kidney stones, arthritis, abscesses on his legs, and uremic poisoning. Now his nastiness would hit its stride. He wrote the vile treatise “Von den Juden und Iren Lügen” (“On the Jews and Their Lies”), and the man who once described the Jews as “God’s chosen people” now called them “a base and whoring people.”

What he wrote during this time would rightly haunt his legacy for centuries and would in four centuries become the justification for such evils as Luther in even his most constipated mood could not have dreamed. To be fair, he was an equal opportunity insulter, the Don Rickles of Wittenberg, attacking everyone with equal fury, including Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and fellow Protestants. As the lights began to dim, he became convinced that the Apocalypse was imminent, and his thoughts toward everyone took on darker and darker tones. The thought of reasoned persuasion went out the window; at one point he called reason “the devil’s whore.”

But the tragicomedy became purest tragedy when, three years before his death, Luther advocated actions against the Jews that included, among other things, setting fire to their synagogues and schools, destroying their houses, confiscating their prayer books, taking their money, and putting them into forced labor. One may only imagine what Luther’s younger self would have thought of such statements. But Goebbels and the other Nazis rejoiced that Luther’s ugliest ravings existed in writing, and they published them and used them with glee, and to great success, giving the imprimatur of this great German Christian to the most un-Christian and – one can only assume – demented ravings. The hundreds of thousands of sane words he had written were of little interest to the men in brown.

It’s noteworthy that Luther’s foulest condemnations of the Jews were never racial, but were stirred because of the Jews’ indifference to his earlier offers to convert them. The Nazis, on the other hand, wished adamantly to prevent Jews from converting. But when one considers how large the figure of Luther loomed over Germany, one can imagine how confusing it all was. The constant repetition of Luther’s ugliest statements served the Nazis’ purposes and convinced most Germans that being a German and being a Christian were a racial inheritance, and that neither was compatible with being Jewish. The Nazis were anti-Christian, but they would pretend to be Christians as long as it served their purposes of getting theologically ignorant Germans on their side against the Jews.

Years later, Eberhard Bethge said that most people, including him and Bonhoeffer, were unaware of the anti-Semitic ravings of Luther. It was only when the arch-anti-Semite propagandist Julius Streicher began to publish and publicize them that they became generally known. It must have been shocking and confusing for devout Lutherans like Bonhoeffer to learn of these writings. But because he was so intimately familiar with all else Luther had written, he most likely dismissed the anti-Semitic writings as the ravings of a madman, unmoored from his own past beliefs.”

The German Christians began to change:

“Christianity had no place in the positive Christianity of the German Christians. Another German Christian declared that the teaching of “sin and grace … was a Jewish attitude inserted into the New Testament” and was simply too negative for Germans at that time:

A people, who, like our own, has a war behind them that they did not want, that they lost, and for which they were declared guilty, cannot bear it, when their sinfulness is constantly pointed out to them in an exaggerated way…. Our people has suffered so much under the lie of war guilt that it is the task and duty of the church and of theology to use Christianity to give courage to our people, and not to pull them down into political humiliation.

How the German Christians justified twisting and bending the traditionally accepted meaning of the Scriptures and the doctrines of the church is complicated. One German Christian leader, Reinhold Krause, said that Martin Luther had left Germans with “a priceless legacy: the completion of the German Reformation in the Third Reich!” If Luther could break away from the Catholic church, it followed that nothing was written in stone. That was the weed in the garden of Protestantism. Even Luther had questioned the canonicity of some books of the Bible, especially the book of James, for what he took as its preaching of “salvation by works.”

And Bonhoeffer’s professor, the liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack, had questioned the canonicity of much of the Old Testament. There’s little question that the liberal theological school of Schleiermacher and Harnack helped push things along in this direction. But the other piece of this puzzle has to do with the confusion that inevitably arises when the Christian faith becomes too closely related to a cultural or national identity.

For many Germans, their national identity had become so melted together with whatever Lutheran Christian faith they had that it was impossible to see either clearly. After four hundred years of taking for granted that all Germans were Lutheran Christians, no one really knew what Christianity was anymore.”

The question in our age is more the relevancy of Christianity to the American Experiment as it disappears from the Public Square.


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