Archive for August, 2011

h1

The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe – Fr. Aidan Nichols on Gerard Manley Hopkins II

August 31, 2011

 

The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe
                Gerard Manley Hopkins

                Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

                 I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name. 
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air. 

                If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

                  Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.

                So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

                Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Just the point at which to introduce the comparison with Mary: Hopkins characterizes this other mother by two features of her role as Catholic Christianity sees it. The first is her divine motherhood, by which she became the Theotokos or God-bearer, giving welcome in “womb and breast” to the “infinity” of the person of God the Word, now become what the medievals called Verbum abbreviatum, the “abbreviated Word”, inasmuch as his divine hypostasis, from the moment of the Annunciation onward, acts as the personalizing subject of an instance of human nature.

Thus is the Godhead of the Son “dwindled to infancy” in the Christ-child — without, for all that, suffering the loss of those divine attributes which make him the foundation of the universe and of the moral law. The role of our Lady at the Annunciation is so essential to Incarnation robustly conceived that it already justifies, in classical Christian vocabulary, the exalted language of channel of divine grace, which, in point of theological fact, Hopkins will use for her under a second distinct heading.

Drawing on a doctrinal tradition, which has never (yet) attained dogmatic status, he affirms that she “mothers each new grace / That now does reach our race”. The inclusion of the words “each new” here goes beyond what Mary’s divine motherhood by itself could lead us to say; it is a confession of Mary’s “sub-mediation” of the grace of Christ to individuals here and now. Were we in any doubt on the matter, Hopkins himself dispels it for us in a sermon:

Now holiness God promotes by giving grace; the grace he gives not direct but as if stooping and drawing it from her vessel, taking it down from her storehouse and cupboard. It is in some way laid up in her.
The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. Devlin, SJ (Oxford 1959)

So “Mary Immaculate” — a title which had surged in popularity through the ex cathedra definition of the all-holiness of the Mother of God in 1854, delighting those who followed the via Scoti, “Scotus’ way” — is “Merely a woman” and yet her “presence” and “power” is “great as no goddess’s / Was deemed, dreamed”.

This is a deliberately uncomfortable paradox, and Hopkins is positively willing us to ask whether he has not mired himself in contradiction. Can Mary of Nazareth, someone whose being is altogether finite (as the being of the Word incarnate is not), have so divine a role without calling into question her finitude or God’s infinitude or both? Hopkins resolves the issue by reimagining this role as that of a pane of glass which has no more — and no less — to do that letting the Light shine through it. She “This one work has to do —  / Let all God’s glory through”, and even this is feasible only by the divine antecedent will and covenant: “God’s glory which would go / Through her and from her flow / Off, and no way but so”. St Bernard, a major articulator of this tradition, remarks simply in his sermons: “It is God’s will that we should receive all graces through Mary”. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo VII de Aguaeductu.

The following lines (35 to 45) develop one of the loveliest titles for Mary in Latin devotion: Mater misericordiae, the “Mother of mercy”. Hopkins finds a functional identification between Mary and mercy: We are “wound / With mercy round and round” just as we are by air, and that is because we are also so wound by the “wild web, wondrous robe” of Mary as it “Mantles the guilty globe”.

There are two implications. First, the mercy which is first and foremost an attribute of God, both in Himself and in the saving economy whereby the Holy Trinity reaches out to us, is more palpably itself — that is, so far as human experience is concerned — when God wills that mercy to be mediated by Mary.

Human beings respond more fully to the mercy of God when they receive it from the hands of a mother. Hopkins as believer experiences the Mother of the Lord not merely as an occasional dispenser of divine mercy but as that very mercy: “more than almoner, / The sweet alms’ self is her”. (Of course that must be understood in terms of the interrelation of finite and infinite discussed above.) The second implication can be stated more shortly, as Hopkins himself states it: “men are meant to share / Her life”. It is an appeal to Christians who benefit from Mary’s attention to make some effort consciously to reciprocate.

In lines 46 to 72 Hopkins restates the problem of a confession of the Blessed Virgin’s universal mediation and develops, this time at more length, an explicitly Christological attempt to solve it. First, he reiterates the omnicompetence of Mary’s gracious sub-mediation: “She holds high motherhood / Towards all our ghostly good” (emphasis added). It is her “part” to “lay” — allay, or lay low — concupiscence, man’s potentially fatal trend, even after baptismal regeneration, toward evil, the “deathdance in his blood”. This is the heart of what the ascetic tradition calls holy warfare, and nothing could be more pertinent to our final salvation. So, once again, how can a mere creature receive this role? Hopkins proposes an answer in terms of the mystery of Jesus Christ, the one and only (non-subordinated) “Mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5).

Any “part” Mary has consists, in one or another way, in disposing us to be the “place” where Jesus Christ comes to be in us. She has no part that will not be “Christ our Savior still”. He continues to take on — mysterically — substantial life in the faithful, as once he did biologically in the womb of her who is, in the words of ancient litany, the “Faith of all the faithful”, the mother of all believers. Hopkins cries out with wonder — “O marvelous!” — at this truth of mystical theology, namely that Christ makes of his members “New Nazareths”, “New Bethlems”.

And he finds here the key to the puzzle of Mary’s universal task in our regard. Her role is precisely to “conceive / Him, morning, noon and eve” in us. And this explains how her mediation is both utterly comprehensive and yet altogether without derogation from the mediation of Christ. Hopkins emphasizes that this is no abstruse theory, since it concerns the ultimate issue in practical reason: my personal raising to nobility of stature. What is at stake is “New self and nobler me”. In his essay “On Personality, Grace and Freewill”, Hopkins called the divine action in sanctifying a person and bringing him to the condition of deification “a lifting him from one self to another self, which is a most marvelous display of divine power”.[The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. Devlin, SJ (Oxford 1959)] God appropriately does this through Christ by way of Mary, since the unique Mediator is “Both God’s and Mary’s Son”.

Hopkins would hardly be Hopkins if, thinking about air and its translucence, he did not look up at the sky. And so he bids the reader, “look overhead / How air is azured”. On a fine day, the air above us is shot through with blue, “sapphire-shot”, but that can hardly be said to “stain” light, to detract from its purity. Well, so it is with the grace of God when it comes to men through the hands of our blessed Lady. So far from distorting the real relations of God, man, and the redeemed creation, this Marian impregnation enables them to stand out with greater distinctness. “The glass-blue days are those / When every color glows”. And he adds that “this blue heaven / The seven or seven times seven / Hued sunbeam will transmit / Perfect, not alter it”. Hopkins had worked out this aspect of the controlling analogy of the poem in a sermon given at Leigh in 1879:

St Bernard’s saying, All grace given through Mary: this is a mystery. Like blue sky, which for all its richness of color does not stain the sunlight, though smoke and red clouds do, so God’s graces come to us unchanged but all through her. Moreover she gladdens the Catholic’s heaven and when she is brightest so is the sun her Son.
Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. Devlin, SJ (Oxford 1959)

As Hopkins declares in the poetic version of this claim, if some change in the light conditions on earth does have an effect in terms of “Bloom breathe” — encouraging the opening of buds into blossom, then that “one breath more / Earth is the fairer for”.

Without that translucent yet protecting atmosphere, by contrast, our earth would be unlivable, such as we can assume planets of thin atmosphere too close to their own suns to be. In an extraordinary disruption of tone, producing an infernal effect worthy of Milton (lines 94 to 102), Hopkins imagines how, if air did not “slake” the sun’s “fire”, the heavens would be transmogrified into a “grimy vasty vault”, the centre of the solar system a “blear and blinding ball / With blackness bound”.

And lest we miss the point he rubs it in. That is how men would look at deity were it not for the Incarnation: “So God was god of old”. The “limbs like ours”, which the humanized Word developed from the body of the Virgin, are what endear the dreadful God of the cosmic spaces to us. Were his glory — his majestic radiance — shown us “bare”, either it would “blind” our minds or at least “less would win” them. The interposing hand of Mary, through which the glory shown in Christ is showered down on us “leaves his light / Sifted to suit our sight”.

The poem ends with a personal appeal from the poet to the Mother of Christ to be with effect for him what he by his words has declared her to be in principle for everyone.

 

 

h1

The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe – Fr. Aidan Nichols on Gerard Manley Hopkins I

August 30, 2011

Gerard Manley Hopkins depicted by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillsepie

I had featured this poem under another post “Anthem Poems” before but I’ve been reading Fr. Aidan Nichols’ seminal work on Gerard Manley Hopkins  and he featured it in his collection of Hopkin’ poetry, so here it is again. A little longish so I chopped into two posts.

I confess that I have learned most of my theology through literature and writings like Fr. Nichols and Anthony Esolen. See if you don’t see what I mean:

 

The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe
                Gerard Manley Hopkins

                Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

                 I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name. 
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air. 

                If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

                 Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.

                So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

                Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Written in May 1883 at Stonyhurst, this is another example of the “May offerings” to the Mother of the Lord to set beside “The May Magnificat.” This poem was not a great favorite of Hopkins (Hopkins’ friend and future Poet Laureate to whom we owe the great debt of knowing anything about Hopkins at all), who probably considered its meter too unadventurous. It is written in trimeter couplets, which are quite common among the Latin hymns of the Roman Office. But Bridges, despite his Protestantism — or Protestant agnosticism — found it admirable, rather to Hopkins’s surprise. (Of course a more doctrinally committed Protestant might not have so well kept his literary cool.) In the third (1948) edition of the poems, W. H. Gardner summarized the theme. In this paean to the Blessed Virgin, Hopkins:

says that just as the atmosphere sustains the life of man and tempers the power of the sun’s radiation, so the immaculate nature of Mary is the softening, humanizing medium of God’s glory, justice and grace. Through her the ineffable Godhead becomes comprehensible — sweetly attuneable to the limited human heart.’
The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W. H. Gardner (London 1948).

Here Hopkins places himself square in the tradition of the seventeenth-century “Metaphysical” poets, who delighted to work out sustained analogies between utterly disparate aspects of experience: in this case, the air in which our biological life functions, on the one hand, and, on the other, the gracious intercession of the Virgin, crucial as that is — so Hopkins maintains — to our spiritual life. Gardner’s summary raises a major question of theological sensibility: in pursuing this analogy how well has Hopkins succeeded in avoiding the impression that the “softening, humanizing’ effect of the Mother of Jesus in her distinctive role in the economy of salvation might actually threaten to replace, in this regard, of the humanity of her Son?

The opening is very striking. The air to which Mary will be compared is no gentle breeze. Rather is it “Wild air”, and the adjective is repeated twice more, once in identical if inverted terms — “air wild”, and once when the Mother of Christ is described directly as a “wild web”. Norman MacKenzie points out how, in Hopkins’s distinctive language use, “wild” always has some reference to the way a being expresses its own nature in (more or less consummate) freedom [N. H. MacKenzie, A Reader's Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins].

This air — which so far is simply the physical atmosphere of planet Earth — is, Hopkins continues, “world-mothering air”. No life is possible without the atmosphere that surrounds the planet. Hence all the complexly interrelated organisms which compose our world may be said to have their nurture in this element. Hopkins draws our attention to the exquisite delicacy with which the air enters our physical environment, so gently and unremarkably that I am almost always unaware of the atmosphere around me: “Nestling me everywhere”, girdling each eyelash or hair”. In the outdoors cold (in the Pennines there could still be snow in early May) the air “goes home betwixt / The fleeciest, frailest-flixed [fluff-like] / Snowflake”, nor is this anything unusual for it “is rife / In every least thing’s life”.

Hopkins has now positioned himself so as to be able to explain the “world-mothering” accolade with which he began. Manifestly, the air is “This needful, never spent, / And nursing element”. One would look odd without it: “This air, which by life’s law / My lung must draw and draw”. And now, says the poet, he is drawing it so as to sing air’s praise.

h1

The King James Bible at 400

August 29, 2011

Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College, and author of “The Legacy of the King James Bible,” recently penned a tribute to the KJB in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. While referring to the King James in the past tense may suggest its demise, that is utterly untrue. It consistently ranks, year after year, either second or third on the list of Bible sales in the United States and the King James Version now has two modern translations that perpetuate its translation philosophy and style while updating its scholarship and language: the New King James Version and the English Standard Version.

It was never the Bible of the Catholic Church, although “an acceptable translation but not the preferred one.” The Catholic version of the Bible contains all of the books found in the KJV plus 14 books and some extra chapters of Ruth that Protestants had removed from the Canon. All of those books are in the Old Testament and, oddly enough, were originally included in the King James translation.The Roman Catholic Lectionary (the scripture that is read in all Catholic Churches is a book that has it organized in the proper reading order) uses the New American Bible translation in America. The actual official Bible of the Church is the Biblia Sacra Vulgata as translated into Latin (the Latin Vulgate) by St. Jerome about a thousand years ago. In America the second choice of most Catholics for the English translation is the New Jerusalem Bible.

In seminary we were told to use the New Revised Standard Version which has a Catholic Edition. In accordance with the Code of Canon Law Canon 825.1, the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, has the imprimatur of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (USA) and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops granted on 12 September 1991 and 15 October 1991 respectively. Hence, the NRSV(Catholic Edition) is officially approved by the Catholic Church and can be profitably used by Catholics in study and devotional reading of the Bible. Liturgical usage of the Bible demands conformance to Catholic doctrine and an adapted form of the NRSV has recently (2008) been approved by the Vatican for the Catholic Church in Canada. Although the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approves only the New American Bible for liturgical use, the NRSV is quoted in the English-language edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which also quotes from the RSV).

Mark Noll relates some of the political rationale that pushed for a new translation of the Bible in the sixteenth century:

James nonetheless took the initiative to commission the leading lights in England’s intellectual firmament to prepare a new translation. He did this for several reasons, but the primary one was to assert his own authority. James had been crowned King of Scotland in 1567 when he was only thirteen months old. Through a perilous youth and then with steely determination after he obtained his majority, James successfully stabilized the economic condition of his desperately poor land, held his own in tense theological debate with his Presbyterian tutors, and — most important — unified the intransigent factions that had made life impossible for his mother, Mary Queen of Scots.

As the newly crowned monarch of England, where the stakes were higher and the factions more powerful and almost as belligerent as in Scotland, James used all of his considerable wiles to secure his own rule and consolidate a realm in imminent danger of fracture. Commissioning the new translation was a stroke of genius. A respected Bible prepared for public reading could strengthen and unify the state church (thus demonstrating the king’s authority to his bishops). A translation undertaken at the request of Puritans showed that they too might find a place in the king’s church (even if James rejected all of their other proposals for reform). A learned translation would advertise his considerable expertise as scholar and lay theologian (in both Scotland and England, James made his own metrical translations of the Psalms direct from Hebrew). Not least, promoting a scriptural text that replaced the Geneva Bible would rid the realm of the Geneva notes that specified the circumstances in which subjects could disobey their monarchs.

As much as politics lay behind James’ decision for a new translation, it was not coincidental that the result was a literary masterpiece, for the king’s royal self-interest was matched by his acumen as a scholar-theologian. James, in other words, really did want a translation superior in scholarship and language to what had gone before. Yet this desire meshed perfectly with his need for a text that undergirded the king’s authority while unifying his people.
Mark Noll, Long Live the King, Books & Culture Nov/Dec 2011

However, more than sales numbers or approval by Church bodies, the true influence and power of the King James Bible is most profound in the realm of literature and cultural presence:

However imitated or parodied, the language is dignified, beautiful, sonorous and elegant. “Godliness with contentment is great gain” — six words and unforgettable. “Give us this day our daily bread.” “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” The King James style is a paradox: It is usually simple in vocabulary while majestic and elevating in effect.

Many of the formulations are impossible to forget, having passed into everyday English usage: “the land of the living,” “at their wit’s end,” “the salt of the earth,” “the root of the matter,” “labor of love,” “fell flat on his face.” When the famous sayings from the King James Version were extracted from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations into a freestanding book in 2005, the book ran to more than 200 pages!

For more than three centuries, the King James Bible provided the central frame of reference for the English-speaking world. Former Yale University Prof. George Lindbeck well claims that until recently “Christendom dwelt imaginatively in the biblical world.” During the years of its dominance, the King James Bible was the omnipresent force in any cultural sphere that we can name — education (especially childhood education), religion, family and home, the courtroom, political discourse, language and literacy, choral music and hymns, art and literature. For more than two centuries children in England and America learned to read by way of the Bible.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address contains so many biblical references that someone has written a whole book on the subject. When President Truman lit the White House Christmas tree on Dec. 24, 1945, his address to the war-weary nation included an exhortation “to make real the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’” (Isaiah 2:4).

The influence of the King James Bible is perhaps most profound in the realm of literature. From Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to Toni Morrison’s “Paradise,” it is a presence quite apart from the author’s religious stance. In his book “The Bible as Literature,” British literary scholar T. R. Henn said it best: “The Authorized Version of 1611 . . . achieves as we read a strange authority and power as a work of literature. It becomes one with the Western tradition, because it is its single greatest source.”
Leland Ryken, How We Got the Best-Selling Book of All Time, The Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2011

Perhaps the group of Puritans who conspired to meet the new ruling monarch of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I in March 1603 as his procession moved from Scotland to England would be the most surprised to learn that it was their list of grievances and requests presented to King James that had resulted some 400 + years later in the creation of the bestselling book of all time and the most quoted book in the English language.

They had asked not for a new Bible but an end to the obligatory wearing of vestments by ministers, or the end to the practice of ministers not living in the parishes to which they had been appointed and the like. In response, the Hampton Court Conference met in January 1604 to consider their requests:

It was a farce: Four hand-picked Puritan moderates were pitted against 18 Church of England heavyweights. King James rejected all Puritan requests and even threatened to “harry the Puritans out of the land or worse.” Then, at the last minute, the Puritans requested that the king commission a new English translation of the Bible.

This is somewhat surprising, inasmuch as the Puritans’ preferred English Bible, the Geneva Bible, was by far the most-used and best-selling translation of the time. It is not entirely clear why they made the request. More surprisingly, the king granted it.

One fourth of the translators were of Puritan convictions, and the selection of all 47 was based solely on scholarly expertise. They were the best that England possessed in terms of biblical knowledge and facility with the Hebrew and Greek of the original texts of the Bible. It took them six years to finish. Remarkably, everyone on the translation committee rose above sectarian spirit.

The King James Version was not an original translation. It was a revision — technically of the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, but actually of an entire century of English Bible translations starting with William Tyndale. This history lies behind a famous statement in the preface to the King James Version: “Truly (good Christian reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.”

The King James Bible is familiarly called the Authorized Version, but the king who lent his name to the translation never officially authorized it, even though he hoped that the new translation would help to unify a politically and religiously divided kingdom (a kingdom that would erupt into civil war not long after his death in 1625). Nor did church officials authorize the new translation. The King James Version in reality was authorized by the people, who chose it over others. For three and a half centuries, when English-speaking people spoke of “the Bible,” they meant the King James Version.
Leland Ryken, How We Got the Best-Selling Book of All Time, The Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2011

Happy 400 KJB!

h1

CREATION (part two) by R.R. Reno

August 26, 2011

The immediate reasons in support of a traditional interpretation and translation are strong, but we should broaden the argument, not only because further reasons are important in their own right, but also because we need to be clear-minded about the expansive scope of interpretation. A theological reading needs to approach scripture in such a way as to sustain a coherent, overall view of God’s plan and purpose. What is entailed in sustaining such a view is complex and opaque. No one can set criteria ahead of time, and there are no particular methods that will guarantee good results.

Sound interpretive arguments are always varied and cumulative. In this case, three broad considerations speak in favor of the traditional translation. A substantive interpretation of “beginning” will allow us to approach the larger question of creation in a way that

(1)  helps us avoid a false conflict between creation and science,
(2) 
facilitates a fruitful engagement of faith with reason, and
(3)  gives a proper spiritual focus to our interpretive concerns.

The first advantage of the traditional approach to Genesis 1:1 concerns the relation between Genesis and modern cosmology. Modern physics analyzes the movements of matter and energy, and it operates with the notion of “beginning” as temporal sequence. For this reason, an approach to Genesis 1:1 that emphasizes the temporal sense in which “God began” will run afoul of modern science and its account of the beginning of the cosmos. In contrast, a theological reading of “beginning” as source and basis need not directly and primarily concern itself with modern cosmology. We can interpret Genesis with reference to the beginning out of which and for which God creates, and we need not coordinate the seven-day sequence with the complex physical processes that modern scientists think best explain the evolution of the universe. In other words, to adopt the tradition translation, “in the beginning:’ helps us focus on the divine purpose for creation rather than on the physical processes that gave rise to the created world.

Of course, a modern scientist may assert, as does Richard Dawkins, that there is no intent or purpose undergirding the world. [Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Penguin, 1990)] But a metaphysical pronouncement of this sort reflects the judgment that what modern science can or cannot investigate is coextensive with what is or is not the case. This highly implausible view undergirds the materialist claim that physical processes cause and explain everything, a claim that is an important and influential tenet of modern metaphysical ideologies. But as a clear distinction between “beginning” as first instance in an unfolding process and “beginning” as ultimate source and purpose helps us to see, materialism is neither entailed by nor part of modern scientific cosmology.

Thus, a Christian faith that reads Genesis as outlining the substantive rather than temporal source of creation is well prepared to endorse modern science while rejecting the faux metaphysics of modern scientism. [For a clear explanation of the import of modern cosmology and its relationship to classical doctrines of creation, see Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003). A PayingAttentionToTheSky reading selection from that work here.]

The second broad issue at stake in our approach to the beginning concerns the proper focus of interpretive anxiety. If we adopt a reading of Genesis  1:1 that follows the direction of Rashi’s use of Exodus 12:2, as well as John 1:1, then our interpretive question is forthright, and it brings us directly to the spiritual centers of both Judaism and Christianity. What is the purpose or intention from which God, as it were, counts back as the beginning? The New Testament writers were well aware of the crucial importance of this question. The author of John’s Gospel was not the only one to frame creation in terms of the divine plan. St. Paul writes: “There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Paul’s formulation is a direct interpretation of Genesis 1:1. In (through) the beginning (Christ), God (the Father) created heaven and earth.

With this account of creation, St. Paul and the subsequent Christian tradition give priority to the specific revelation of the divine plan in Christ, but in a way that harmonizes faith with reason. Knowing the Lord Jesus is crucial to knowing the beginning in which and out of which all things come to be. As Augustine exhorts, “Mark this fabric of the world. View what was made by the Word, and then thou wilt understand what is the nature of the world” (Tractates on John 1.9 in NPNF’ 7.10). [The theological judgment is by no means merely antique. See Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2.27: "The story told in the Gospels states the meaning of creation."]

Christ is the master plan; he is the “beloved Son” who is “the first-born of all creation.” Christ is the beginning, “for in him all things were created” (Colossians 1:13-16). His saving death was planned “before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20). The Lord Jesus is the “bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16) by which the faithful take their bearings, and “in [him] are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). In sum: the world has a beginning by and in the divine Word, and we best orient ourselves to reality when we focus on Christ.

This affirmation of the priority of Christ would seem to set up a painful conflict between faith and reason, between knowledge of revealed truth and the sort of knowledge we acquire by scientific study of reality. But a substantive sense of beginning” prevents just such a conflict. Faith brings us to an ever more intimate union with the logos of creation, and as a result, theology is rightfully queen of the sciences. Theology orients our minds toward the truth of all things.

Yet, since Christ is the beginning or source of reality, theology does not take our minds to strange places and inculcate antiscientific attitudes. Rather, because Christ is the beginning from which and for which God creates, accurate knowledge of reality (what medieval scholars called philosophy and what we usually refer to as science) can help guide us toward the originating Word. Wisdom of Solomon 9:1 teaches that God has made all things by his word, and Psalms 104:24 proclaims: “O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all.” Endowed with intellectual powers that can see the outlines of wisdom in creation, our reason can prepare us for faith.

The third warrant for privileging a substantive sense of”beginning” bears directly on a central problem in Christian theology: the relation between nature and grace. A Christ-centered reading of God’s creation explains a perplexing, double affirmation that characterizes apostolic Christianity. On the one hand, everything is good — on the other hand, everything must change under the lordship of Christ. Not only are human creatures finite and natural aspects of the created order, they are also chosen and called. As the Genesis story moves forward, Abraham must leave home. He must transcend the natural bonds of filial love and the safety of his clan. This leave-taking is focused and intensified in Christian discipleship. Consider the demands of the Sermon on the Mount. The ordinary, worldly stuff of life — our bodies, our desires, our loyalties, our identities as social creatures — all this has a divinely ordained destiny that stretches well beyond what seems natural and normal.

There is a similar double affirmation in a Torah-centered reading. It leads to the classical rabbinic project of transforming everything into legal problems to be brought under the authority of divine law. In both the Christian and Jewish views, therefore, a problem emerges. There is an apparent contradiction between the goodness of creation and the drive toward sanctification. How can God call creation very good — and then turn around and continue to act upon it for the sake of pushing the human creature forward toward an even higher goal? How can the human body be good — but nonetheless require the commandment of circumcision for the sake of covenant? How can we harmonize the divine directive to “be fruitful and multiply” with the Pauline exhortation to prefer the celibate life?

These sorts of questions capture a deep worry that religious faith encourages in inhumane form of life, an aggressive attack on the natural limitations of our created condition. If God must act upon us by way of commandment rather than simply meet us in our desire for fellowship, then isn’t our hoped-for rest in God extrinsic and compelled? Isn’t the final end sought in faith an enslaving and alienating state of obedience?

The problem has perplexed Western Christianity ever since Augustine. How in the necessity of the outer pull of divine command be affirmed without supplanting the inner push of desire for God? How can we do justice to both the “attractive” and “imperative” dimensions of the Christian life, the sense in which faith is both exactly what the human creature needs and wants and, at the same time, something new, frightening, and unexpected? How can our free decision of faith be compatible with the sovereign grace of God that is necessary for any true and saving participation in Christ crucified and risen? [For a clearly developed account of this problem, keyed to the moral life, see Gilbert Meilaender, The Way Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, .2006), 71-76.]

These difficulties are resolved if we adopt a substantive sense of “beginning.” Christ is the master plan of all creation, and his call is necessarily toward a fulfillment rather than effacement or denial of creation. As Athanasius observes, “There is no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the one Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning” (On the Incarnation 1). In following Christ toward an end that is supernatural, we will not (to echo Nietzsche) vivisect our fragile, finite, natural lives. That which is created and mortal shall not be defeated or destroyed; it will “be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). In the words of T. S. Eliot:

“And the end of all our exploring /
Will be to arrive where we started /
And know the place for the first time.”

T. S. Eliot, “Little Giddings” lines 240-42, in Four Quartets
(New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1943), 59.

To put this truth in its popular Thomistic formula: grace perfects rather than destroys nature.

There is more. But we must stop here, because it should now be clear that the traditional translation is part of a fully developed and well-considered theological outlook. A decision in favor of a substantive beginning rather than a temporal sequence sets the interpretive agenda for the Bible as a whole. Creation is for the sake of something prior and more fundamental: the divine project or plan.

In the beginning, God subjected all things to his final purpose, just as an archer strings a bow in order to pull it back and load it with a force that strains forward toward its target (Romans 8:20-21). Thus, the very first verse of the Bible encourages us to read forward, plotting the trajectory of the text in all its extraordinarily rich diversity as it aims toward the fulfillment of the Word that is eternally spoken by the Father “in the beginning;’ out of which and for the sake of which all things were created.

Unlike the worldly archer, however, we do not possess the divine, consummating target of scripture as an item of knowledge that we can use in syllogisms, which is why wild apocalyptic discourse in the Bible can never be distilled into predictions. The plan and purpose of God is love, and it is revealed in its fullness in the person of Jesus Christ. As we are baptized into his body and follow his way, we participate in his truth rather than examine it as a fact or theory. We live amid the final realization of the divine plan, and we cannot stand still and coolly line up the endpoint of human history in our theological crosshairs. For this reason, our reading of Genesis (or any other book of the Bible) is not a simple retrospective calculation. One does not approach the days of creation with a slide rule, reasoning backward from a fixed point.

Instead, to begin Genesis “in the beginning” gives our interpretation a double quality. At every moment in the unfolding of the divine plan we rightly devote ourselves to the details. But the project of exegesis is not simply to settle purely local questions of meaning. Our goal should be to move forward ever more deeply into the beginning, into the mystery of Christ.

For this reason, theological interpretation necessarily combines a global framework with local color. Our overall take on the divine plan interacts with particular moments of scriptural evidence. The best possible reading of any verse of scripture will be one that allows us to both make sense of the words in front of us and see their role in guiding us toward fulfillment in Christ.

h1

CREATION (part one) by R.R. Reno

August 25, 2011

The Mountains Of Creation

Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

This time-honored translation follows the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation widely used in early Judaism and Christianity. The verbal formula plays an explicit role in John 1:1 (“in the beginning was the Word”), which itself provides an obvious interpretation of Genesis 1:1, emphasizing a beginning that is absolute and foundational. It is precisely this sense of “beginning;’ as well as its close association with John 1:1, that is muted by recent translations, which shift the word order: “in the beginning when God created” (NRSV) or “when God began to create” (New Jewish Publication Society Bible).

It is important to realize that we do not possess a quick way to settle the question of which translation is accurate. As Jews began to speak languages further and further removed from ancient Hebrew, a tradition evolved that provided vowel markings to guide pronunciation. This tradition culminated in the Masoretic Text, the oldest manuscript of which dates back to the ninth century after the time of Christ. By and large, modern scholars treat the Masoretic Text as definitive. But consulting the Masoretic Text is not always the obvious way to get to the original sense. The most influential Greek translation, the Septuagint, was made sometime in the third or second century before the time of Christ. In this version, the translators sometimes suggest readings of keywords that differ from those in the Masoretic Text. So, when it comes to the historical question of how to translate in such a way as to be faithful to the original text, the answers are not always easy.

When considering Genesis 1: 1, the problem becomes still more difficult, because the concept “beginning” has different shades of meaning. A point of departure can refer to a discrete moment in time. We might say, for example, “The train began its trip at 7:25 p.m.;’ and following this usage, the preference of contemporary translators for a more temporal and restricted sense of “beginning” is certainly plausible.

Yet a point of departure or beginning can also refer to a basis or a rationale, a purpose, or a reason. A scientist can say, “The second law of thermodynamics is the basis — the beginning — of cosmology.” Or, “Professor Smith’s class was the basis — the beginning — of my love of science.” This sense of “beginning” as source and origin is associated with the Greek term arche, the word used to translate Genesis 1:1 in the Septuagint and repeated in John 1:1. Of course, the sense of “beginning” as an origin or source rather than first instance in time is not simply a Greek idea. When scripture teaches that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 111:10), the claim is substantive, not temporal. Fear of the LORD is the origin of the wise life, not in the sense of the first step that is superseded by the second and third, but in the lasting sense of providing its basis or root. [For a full development of the possible senses of "beginning," see Origen's Commentary on John 1.16-22 (ANF 9.305-8). I follow Origen in also rejecting a temporal sense of "beginning" for interpreting Genesis 1:1: see his Homilies on Genesis 1.1 (FC 71.47-48).]

With these straightforward observations about the diversity of ancient traditions and the different senses of “beginning,” we face an interesting exegetical problem. The old translation brings to mind the traditional theological picture of God as the eternal, self-sufficient deity whose creative act “in the beginning” brings all time and reality into existence. The new translations that are supported by many biblical experts imply a different view. At a certain point in time and in a particular place in a preexisting cosmos, a deity set about to form this particular world. God is a power within the cosmos rather than the power that brings the cosmos into existence. Which, then, shall it be? Are we to cleave to the traditional translation and its implied theology of an absolute beginning, or should we follow contemporary scholarly judgments?

Rashi, the great eleventh-century rabbinic commentator, can help us move toward a satisfactory answer. At the outset of his commentary on Genesis, Rashi reiterates an earlier rabbinic opinion that the Pentateuch should have begun with Exodus 12:2 and not Genesis 1:1. The claim seems fanciful, but it is meant to interpret rather than correct the sacred text. The traditional rabbinic view holds that Exodus 12:2 expresses the first commandment that God gives to Israel. Thus, to say that the Bible should have begun with Exodus 12:2 is a way of dramatizing an important theological judgment: God creates for the sake of his commandments, for the sake of the Torah.

More is at work here than a general theological idea, however. It turns out that Exodus 12:2 is not just the first commandment to Israel. The verse also echoes the key, fraught word “beginning”: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” Furthermore, the commandment about the beginning of the months is odd, and it draws attention to a richer, more foundational sense of” beginning.” Exodus 12 as a whole is concerned with preparations for the Passover, and the implied meaning of 12:2 is that the Passover festival, in a certain sense, provides the beginning of the lunar calendar.

But, of course, the verse can’t mean that Passover is the temporal beginning of lunar cycles measured by months, since there were countless months before the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. ‘Thus, the passage must mean that the Passover provides an ultimate purpose or rationale for the lunar calendar. So our attention is redirected back to Genesis 1:1 and the origin of all things. In a substantive rather than temporal way the Passover serves as the beginning point, the arche of human history. The very cycles of the moon exist for the sake of marking the time of the Passover.

We can now see, therefore, that Rashi cites the ancient rabbinic opinion that the Bible should have begun with Exodus 12:2 because he wants to reinforce that larger theological judgment about Genesis 1 as a whole: God’s plan for the people of Israel is the most elementary, most fundamental aspect of creation. As another ancient interpretation glosses Genesis 1:1, “God looked into the Torah … and created the world” (Genesis Rabbah 1.1, quoted from Kugel 1998: 45).

The deliverance and sanctification of Israel, the Passover project so to speak, is that in which and for which God creates. Still another ancient interpretation puts the priority of God’s plan in paradoxical terms and gives a full-blown account of the divine plan: “Two thousand years before [God] created the world he created the Law; he had prepared the garden of Eden for the just and Gehenna for the wicked. He had prepared the garden of Eden for the just that they might eat and delight themselves from the fruits of the trees, because they had kept [the] precepts of the Law in this world and fulfilled the commandments. For the wicked he prepared Gehenna …. [and] within it darts of fire and burning coals for the wicked, to be avenged of them in the world to come because they did not observe the precepts of the Law in this world. “[Targum Neofiti 3.24 in Martin McNamara, trans., Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis, Aramaic Bible I A (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 63-64.] God first “creates” the future consummation of creation — “the world to come” in which Torah obedience and disobedience define existence — and then God creates for the sake of bringing this future to pass in the real time of creation.

This traditional rabbinic affirmation that the revelation of Sinai precedes reality — where “precedes” is given a substantive or foundational sense rather than in .a narrow, temporal sense — lines up fairly closely with the prologue to John’s Gospel. John 1:1, like Exodus 12:2, echoes the crucial word “beginning.” It affirms the truth that God creates out of his word or purpose. It is not that Rashi or any other Jewish commentator would agree that Christ, the incarnate Word, is the basis for creation. Rather, the rabbis and the author of John’s Gospel explicitly affirm a basic theological principle. The divine plan or project, however spelled out, is the beginning out of which and for which God creates.

At this point contemporary scholars are likely to raise objections. The current formulations such as “when God began” or “in the beginning when God created” stem, at least in part, from an anxiety that traditional theological loyalties have for too long over-determined our reading of scripture. This anxiety becomes particularly acute when modern biblical scholars see the New Testament (or ancient rabbinic interpretation) functioning as the lens through which we read the Old Testament. Historians worry that later doctrinal commitments exercise an extrinsic and anachronistic control over our interpretive imaginations. The danger is that we end up simply finding what we are looking for: confirmation of our dogmatic prejudices. In the meantime, the real meaning of the biblical text is lost. After all, as biblical scholars point out, the very next verse of Genesis evokes a standard ancient Near Eastern myth of primeval combat between the power for order and the power of chaos.

No doubt it is a good thing to want to recover the integrity of the distinctive voices and historical contexts for the diverse books of the Bible. The methods of historical-critical study allow us to see the biblical text as a multilayered, internally complex document, and this is a gain. There is no reason to think that the word of God should be one-dimensional and immediately accessible. [On the contrary, the church fathers consistently observe that it is fitting that the sacred scriptures should be difficult and confusing. For an account of the patristic theology of scriptural obscurity, see John J. O'Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation ofthe Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 128-39; and R. R. Reno, "Origen and Spiritual Interpretation," Pro ecclesia 15.1 (Winter 2006): 108-26.]

Nonetheless, the modern tradition of biblical interpretation tends to be blind to the wealth of reasons in favor of traditional readings. Exegetical judgments do not emerge out of nowhere, achieve communal authority, and then impose themselves on the interpretive imaginations of traditional readers and translators of the Bible. In the main, traditional readers formulated and gave credence to patterns of interpretation and translation because they discerned any number of intellectual and spiritual advantages that are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.

We need to turn, then, to a brief survey of some exegetical reasons in support of the substantive approach to “in the beginning;’ the approach that the rabbinic tradition cited by Rashi endorses. These reasons very likely guided those who produced the Septuagint and later translations, as well as the implied reading of Genesis 1:1 found in John 1:1. Needless to say, a comprehensive account is out of reach. How we treat the beginning is so fundamental to our overall interpretation of the Bible that reasons for any particular translation are almost coextensive with the articulation of a comprehensive, biblically sensitive theology. Nonetheless, it is possible to gain some insight into why the traditional translation (“in the beginning”) best conveys the meaning of Genesis 1:1.

The larger sweep of Genesis 1 provides the first indication. The days of creation certainly move forward in a temporal sequence. One day follows another, culminating in the seventh day, the Sabbath. But in spite of this apparent focus on when things happen, the dominant rhetorical theme of the first chapters of Genesis concerns how God creates. Each day is introduced with the refrain “and God said.” This forceful rhetorical pattern is echoed elsewhere. Recalling the angels and the heavens,  Psalms. 148:5 gives all praise to God, “for he commanded and they were created.” From this picture of God’s voice as the instrument of creation, it is a very short step to something like the interpretation of Genesis 1:1 found in John 1:1: “In the beginning” — that is, in his all-powerful word — “God created the heavens and the earth “

A substantive reading of” beginning” has another, more literal form of textual support. Many ancient commentators saw an obvious difficulty standing in the way of a straightforward, temporal interpretation of the sort found in translations such as “when God began.” In Genesis 1 the sun, moon, and stars are created on the fourth day. How, then, can there be a “first day” when the sun, whose movements mark day and night, does not exist?

Furthermore, at any moment half of the earth is in darkness, while the other half is illuminated by the sun. So, we never think of the earth as a whole (to say nothing of the larger universe) as existing in the temporally distinct states of day and night. In view of these difficulties, we should not be surprised that St. Augustine worried that a strictly temporal reading of Genesis I would entangle interpreters in countless difficulties. “I fear,” he wrote, “that I will be laughed at by those who have scientific knowledge of these matters and by those who recognize the facts of the case” (Literal Commentary on Genesis 1.10 in FC 41.30; see also City of ‘God 11.7 in Bettenson 1972: 436-37). To avoid this problem Augustine subordinated the temporal sense of the day-by-day account to what he took to be the more important, substantive sense of “beginning.”

There are still further textual reasons in support of the traditional interpretation and translation of the beginning, reasons that draw on the insights of modern biblical scholarship. In the terminology of modern biblical study, Genesis 1 reflects the interests and worldview of P, the Priestly writer or writers, while Genesis 2 stems from I, the Yahwist source. ["J" comes from the scholars who first developed this theory of the composition of Genesis transliterating their vocalization of the divine name in German as Jahweh.]

This is not the place to give an account of scholarly opinions about the historical contexts for P and J or their roles in the overall composition of the canonical form of Genesis. However, it is important to know that isolating distinct traditions and assigning different sections of Genesis to one source or the other has helped modern biblical readers. It allows us to step back from a merely local reading of Genesis in order to consider how the different sections and episodes within Genesis reflect and advance particular theological concerns. In this case, to know that Genesis 1 stems from the Priestly tradition encourages us to think about how the seven-day account of creation fits with the cultic theology of ritual and sacrifice in Leviticus, as well as the emphasis on the centralized, priest-governed worship in Jerusalem found in the historical books of the Old Testament.

As a modern historian, then, the first and most important thing to say about the opening account of creation in Genesis is that it stems from a Priestly tradition that wishes to place temple and sacrifice at the center of our perceptions of the deepest logic and purpose of reality. The Priestly theology of temple and sacrifice is the arche or beginning of the P account of creation. [One need not depend on the aid of modern biblical scholarship. Canonical writers also emphasized the temple-oriented structure of creation. Thus Jeremiah 17:12: "A glorious throne set on high from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary." See also Wisdom of Solomon 9:8: "Thou hast given command to build a temple on thy holy mountain, and an altar in the city of thy habitation, a copy of the holy tent which thou didst prepare from the beginning." The same vision of a temple "in the beginning" continues in the New Testament: "We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord" (Hebrews 8:1-2).]

Thus we are pretty much where Rashi and John’s Gospel left us. To be sure, there are important differences. The traditional rabbinic opinion that God creates for the sake of the Torah and the traditional Christian view that the eternal Word was with God in the beginning make distinct claims about God and reality. In contrast, modern scholars direct our attention toward sociological rather than theological truths: certain ideologies and political loyalties shape the final form of the biblical text. Nonetheless, the logic of “beginning” is the same in each case. Genesis presents the days of creation in terms of a substantive, underlying source: God’s plan for traditional readers, Priestly ideology for modern historical scholars.

Here we encounter a persistent paradox in modern biblical study. The actual implications of its methods and analysis are often at odds with its exegetical judgments (although not always; see von Rad 1972:46). Rashi, the authors of various New Testament texts and modern biblical scholars assume that the creation account has a beginning in which or for the sake of which the seven days unfold across Genesis 1. Again, it does not matter that Rashi will say that God creates for the sake of the Torah, over and against the author of John’s Gospel, who implies that God creates for the sake of the incarnation of his Word — both of whom are contradicted by the modern biblical scholar who says that the writer or writers of the creation account formulated the seven-day sequence for the sake of reinforcing a Jerusalem-oriented temple ideology. All agree that creation emerges out of a prior plan or purpose — traditional readers putting the plan in the mind of God, and modern readers putting it in the mind of the tradition that stands behind the P source. This striking consensus militates against the contemporary preference for a thin, temporally focused reading of Genesis 1:1 and strongly supports the substantive sense of the traditional translation: “In the beginning.”

 

h1

Examining The Decay of A London Undone – Derek Jeter

August 24, 2011

London Turns Orange

Lord Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, wrote a perspicuous essay published over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal. It concerned the events of the London Riots. It was almost impossible, wrote the Chief Rabbi, to regard those happenings in the same context as the recent royal wedding: “the eyes of the world were on London as a dashing prince and a radiant princess, William and Kate, rode in a horse-drawn carriage through streets lined with cheering crowds sharing a mood of joyous celebration.” “Same city, different planet,” he concludes after having lived through this:

It looked like a scene from Cairo, Tunis or Tripoli earlier in the year. But this was no political uprising. People were breaking into shops and making off with clothes, shoes, electronic gadgets and flat-screen televisions. It was, as someone later called it, shopping with violence, consumerism run rampage, an explosion of lawlessness made possible by mobile phones as gangs discovered that by text messaging they could bring crowds onto the streets where they became, for a while, impossible to control.

While it seemed to take everyone by surprise, The Chief Rabbi thought it shouldn’t have. These events have been preordained, in a sense, since the 1960’s when one of the most radical transformations in the history of the West occurred.

“In virtually every Western society in the 1960s there was a moral revolution, an abandonment of its entire traditional ethic of self-restraint. All you need, sang the Beatles, is love. The Judeo-Christian moral code was jettisoned. In its place came whatever works for you. The Ten Commandments were rewritten as the Ten Creative Suggestions. Or as Allan Bloom put it in “The Closing of the American Mind”: “I am the Lord Your God: Relax!”

He continues to paint a picture of what he sees:

You do not have to be a Victorian sentimentalist to realize that something has gone badly wrong since. In Britain today, more than 40% of children are born outside marriage. This has led to new forms of child poverty that serious government spending has failed to cure. In 2007, a UNICEF report found that Britain’s children are the unhappiest in the world. The 2011 riots are one result. But there are others.

Whole communities are growing up without fathers or male role models. Bringing up a family in the best of circumstances is not easy. To try to do it by placing the entire burden on women — 91% of single-parent families in Britain are headed by the mother, according to census data — is practically absurd and morally indefensible. By the time boys are in their early teens they are physically stronger than their mothers. Having no fathers, they are socialized in gangs. No one can control them: not parents, teachers or even the local police. There are areas in Britain’s major cities that have been no-go areas for years. Crime is rampant. So are drugs. It is a recipe for violence and despair.

That is the problem. At first it seemed as if the riots were almost random with no basis in class or race. As the perpetrators have come to court, a different picture has emerged. Of those charged, 60% had a previous criminal record, and 25% belonged to gangs.

The UK is a society in collapse and it has left in its wake an unsocialized group of young people, deprived of parental care who don’t do well in school are more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse, less likely to find stable employment and more often than not (as the figures show above) more likely to wind up in jail. Then comes a painful recognition, one you won’t find in the conservative press or the liberal policy blogs:

The truth is, it is not their fault. They are the victims of the tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement.

What has happened morally in the West is what has happened financially as well. Good and otherwise sensible people were persuaded that you could spend more than you earn, incur debt at unprecedented levels and consume the world’s resources without thinking about who will pay the bill and when. It has been the culture of the free lunch in a world where there are no free lunches.

We have been spending our moral capital with the same reckless abandon that we have been spending our financial capital. Freud was right. The precondition of civilization is the ability to defer the gratification of instinct. And even Freud, who disliked religion and called it the “obsessional neurosis” of humankind, realized that it was the Judeo-Christian ethic that trained people to control their appetites.

While the abandonment of the Church by the European cultural elites is clearly apparent, you can see the same phenomena in my neighborhood of the Archdiocese of Boston: masses held where the largest group of attendees is the elderly. This despite the presence next door of a parish school that seems reasonably well attended. It is a well-off parish that regularly contributes in the top five to its Archdiocese. Yet there is little in the way of fellowship. The bible study group closed down after enduring Jerome as its leader for six months.

In 1983 one of the great American men of political theory, and an unrelenting observer of his country’s social, moral and political life, Russell Kirk wrote the following:

And as literature sinks into the perverse, so modern civilization falls to its ruin

This “diabolic imagination” dominates most popular fiction today; and on television and in the theaters, too, the diabolic imagination struts and postures. The other night I lodged at a fashionable new hotel; my single room cost about eighty dollars. One could tune the room’s television set to certain movies, for an extra five dollars. After ten o’clock, all the films offered were nastily pornographic. But even the “early” films, before ten, without exception were products of the diabolic imagination, in that they pandered to the lust for violence, destruction, cruelty, and sensational disorder.

Apparently it never occurred to the managers of this fashionable hotel that any of their affluent patrons, of whatever age and whichever sex, might desire decent films. Since Eliot spoke at the University of Virginia in 1933, we have come a great way farther down the road to Avernus. [vocab: Avernus was believed to be the entrance to the underworld, and is portrayed as such in the Aeneid of Virgil. The name comes from the Greek word άορνος, meaning "without birds", because according to tradition, all birds flying over the lake were destined to fall dead] And as literature sinks into the perverse, so modern civilization falls to its ruin:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity….

If a public will not have the moral imagination, I have been saying, then it will fall first to the idyllic imagination; and presently into the diabolic imagination — this last becoming a state of narcosis, figuratively and literally. For we are created moral beings; and when we deny our nature, in letters as in action, the gods of the copybook headings with fire and slaughter return. I attest the moral vision of men like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; some have begun to make a stand, in the republic of letters, against the diabolic imagination and the diabolic regime. A human body that cannot react is a corpse; and a body of letters that cannot react against narcotic illusions might better be buried. The theological virtues may find hardy champions in these closing years of the twentieth century: men and women who remember that in the beginning was the Word.
From The Moral Imagination by Russell Kirk

 I’ve been reading this sort of commentary all my life. It took me way too long to choose sides but in 2006 I finally became a convert and believer of the Catholic faith.

h1

A World Split Apart Part II — Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

August 23, 2011

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Peter Kreeft called Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Commencement Address in 1978 “the greatest speech of the 20th century by the greatest realistic writer of the 20th century.”  Needless to say I went out and found it on the web. A continuation from yesterday’s post:

A Fashion in Thinking
Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.

There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development. I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.

I have mentioned a few trends of Western life which surprise and shock a new arrival to this world. The purpose and scope of this speech will not allow me to continue such a review, to look into the influence of these Western characteristics on important aspects on [the] nation’s life, such as elementary education, advanced education in [?...]

Socialism
It is almost universally recognized that the West shows all the world a way to successful economic development, even though in the past years it has been strongly disturbed by chaotic inflation. However, many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of not being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. A number of such critics turn to socialism, which is a false and dangerous current.

I hope that no one present will suspect me of offering my personal criticism of the Western system to present socialism as an alternative. Having experienced applied socialism in a country where the alternative has been realized, I certainly will not speak for it. The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death. Shafarevich’s book was published in France almost two years ago and so far no one has been found to refute it. It will shortly be published in English in the United States.

Not a Model
But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.

A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well-being. Therefore if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant scores. It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic smoothness as you have. After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.

All this is visible to observers from all the worlds of our planet. The Western way of life is less and less likely to become the leading model.

There are meaningful warnings that history gives a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, the decadence of art, or a lack of great statesmen. There are open and evident warnings, too. The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.

But the fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive, you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?

Shortsightedness
Very well known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: we cannot apply moral criteria to politics. Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world. On the contrary, only moral criteria can help the West against communism’s well planned world strategy. There are no other criteria. Practical or occasional considerations of any kind will inevitably be swept away by strategy. After a certain level of the problem has been reached, legalistic thinking induces paralysis; it prevents one from seeing the size and meaning of events.

In spite of the abundance of information, or maybe because of it, the West has difficulties in understanding reality such as it is. There have been naive predictions by some American experts who believed that Angola would become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam or that Cuban expeditions in Africa would best be stopped by special U.S. courtesy to Cuba. Kennan’s advice to his own country — to begin unilateral disarmament — belongs to the same category. If you only knew how the youngest of the Moscow Old Square [The Old Square in Moscow (Staraya Ploshchad') is the place where the [headquarters] of the Central Committee of the CPSU are located; it is the real name of what in the West is conventionally referred to as “the Kremlin.”] officials laugh at your political wizards! As to Fidel Castro, he frankly scorns the United States, sending his troops to distant adventures from his country right next to yours.

However, the most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that there should be room for national, or communist, self-determination in Vietnam, or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity. But members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear?

The American Intelligentsia lost its [nerve] and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your shortsighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing pause; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam had been a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?

I have had occasion already to say that in the 20th century democracy has not won any major war without help and protection from a powerful continental ally whose philosophy and ideology it did not question. In World War II against Hitler, instead of winning that war with its own forces, which would certainly have been sufficient, Western democracy grew and cultivated another enemy who would prove worse and more powerful yet, as Hitler never had so many resources and so many people, nor did he offer any attractive ideas, or have such a large number of supporters in the West — a potential fifth column — as the Soviet Union. At present, some Western voices already have spoken of obtaining protection from a third power against aggression in the next world conflict, if there is one; in this case the shield would be China. But I would not wish such an outcome to any country in the world. First of all, it is again a doomed alliance with Evil; also, it would grant the United States a respite, but when at a later date China with its billion people would turn around armed with American weapons, America itself would fall prey to a genocide similar to the one perpetrated in Cambodia in our days.

Loss of Willpower
And yet — no weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time and betrayal. Thus at the shameful Belgrade conference free Western diplomats in their weakness surrendered the line where enslaved members of Helsinki Watchgroups are sacrificing their lives.

Western thinking has become conservative: the world situation should stay as it is at any cost, there should be no changes. This debilitating dream of a status quo is the symptom of a society which has come to the end of its development. But one must be blind in order not to see that oceans no longer belong to the West, while land under its domination keeps shrinking. The two so-called world wars (they were by far not on a world scale, not yet) have meant internal self-destruction of the small, progressive West which has thus prepared its own end. The next war (which does not have to be an atomic one and I do not believe it will) may well bury Western civilization forever.

Facing such a danger, with such historical values in your past, at such a high level of realization of freedom and apparently of devotion to freedom, how is it possible to lose to such an extent the will to defend oneself?

Humanism and Its Consequences
How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.

The turn introduced by the Renaissance evidently was inevitable historically. The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, becoming an intolerable despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. Then, however, we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs.

Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense. That provided access for evil, of which in our days there is a free and constant flow. Merely freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones.

However, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.

In the past decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of Western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the Twentieth century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the Nineteenth Century.

An Unexpected Kinship
As humanism in its development became more and more materialistic, it made itself increasingly accessible to speculation and manipulation at first by socialism and then by communism. So that Karl Marx was able to say in 1844 that “communism is naturalized humanism.”

This statement turned out not to be entirely senseless. One does see the same stones in the foundations of a despiritualized humanism and of any type of socialism: endless materialism; freedom from religion and religious responsibility, which under communist regimes reach the stage of anti-religious dictatorship; concentration on social structures with a seemingly scientific approach. (This is typical of the Enlightenment in the Eighteenth Century and of Marxism). Not by coincidence all of communism’s meaningless pledges and oaths are about Man, with a capital M, and his earthly happiness. At first glance it seems an ugly parallel: common traits in the thinking and way of life of today’s West and today’s East? But such is the logic of materialistic development.

The interrelationship is such, too, that the current of materialism which is most to the left always ends up by being stronger, more attractive and victorious, because it is more consistent. Humanism without its Christian heritage cannot resist such competition. We watch this process in the past centuries and especially in the past decades, on a world scale as the situation becomes increasingly dramatic. Liberalism was inevitably displaced by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism and socialism could never resist communism. The communist regime in the East could stand and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who felt a kinship and refused to see communism’s crimes.

When they no longer could do so, they tried to justify them. In our Eastern countries, communism has suffered a complete ideological defeat; it is zero and less than zero. But Western intellectuals still look at it with interest and with empathy, and this is precisely what makes it so immensely difficult for the West to withstand the East.

Before the Turn
I am not examining here the case of a world war disaster and the changes which it would produce in society. As long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we have to lead an everyday life. There is a disaster, however, which has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.

To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth. Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.

It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.

It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism leaves us completely helpless in front of the trials of our times.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.

h1

A World Split Apart Part I — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

August 22, 2011

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Peter Kreeft called Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Commencement Address in 1978 “the greatest speech of the 20th century by the greatest realistic writer of the 20th century.”  Needless to say I immediately went out and found it on the web. Here it is:

The split in today’s world is perceptible even to a hasty glance. Any of our contemporaries readily identifies two world powers, each of them already capable of entirely destroying the other. However, understanding of the split often is limited to this political conception, to the illusion that danger may be abolished through successful diplomatic negotiations or by achieving a balance of armed forces. The truth is that the split is a much profounder and a more alienating one, that the rifts are more than one can see at first glance. This deep manifold split bears the danger of manifold disaster for all of us, in accordance with the ancient truth that a Kingdom — in this case, our Earth — divided against itself cannot stand.

Contemporary Worlds
There is the concept of the Third World: thus, we already have three worlds. Undoubtedly, however, the number is even greater; we are just too far away to see. Any ancient deeply rooted autonomous culture, especially if it is spread on a wide part of the earth’s surface, constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking. As a minimum, we must include in this category China, India, the Muslim world and Africa, if indeed we accept the approximation of viewing the latter two as compact units. For one thousand years Russia has belonged to such a category, although Western thinking systematically committed the mistake of denying its autonomous character and therefore never understood it, just as today the West does not understand Russia in communist captivity. It may be that in the past years Japan has increasingly become a distant part of the West, I am no judge here; but as to Israel, for instance, it seems to me that it stands apart from the Western world in that its state system is fundamentally linked to religion.

How short a time ago, relatively, the small new European world was easily seizing colonies everywhere, not only without anticipating any real resistance, but also usually despising any possible values in the conquered peoples’ approach to life. On the face of it, it was an overwhelming success, there were no geographic frontiers to it. Western society expanded in a triumph of human independence and power. And all of a sudden in the twentieth century came the discovery of its fragility and friability. We now see that the conquests proved to be short lived and precarious, and this in turn points to defects in the Western view of the world which led to these conquests. Relations with the former colonial world now have turned into their opposite and the Western world often goes to extremes of obsequiousness, but it is difficult yet to estimate the total size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West, and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns will be sufficient for the West to foot the bill.

Convergence
But the blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present day Western systems which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet’s development is quite different.

Anguish about our divided world gave birth to the theory of convergence between leading Western countries and the Soviet Union. It is a soothing theory which overlooks the fact that these worlds are not at all developing into similarity; neither one can be transformed into the other without the use of violence. Besides, convergence inevitably means acceptance of the other side’s defects, too, and this is hardly desirable.

If I were today addressing an audience in my country, examining the overall pattern of the world’s rifts I would have concentrated on the East’s calamities. But since my forced exile in the West has now lasted four years and since my audience is a Western one, I think it may be of greater interest to concentrate on certain aspects of the West in our days, such as I see them.

A Decline in Courage [. . .]
may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course there are many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?

Well-Being
When the modern Western States were created, the following principle was proclaimed: governments are meant to serve man, and man lives to be free to pursue happiness. (See, for example, the American Declaration). Now at last during past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state. Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the morally inferior sense which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition permeates all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development. The individual’s independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed; the majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leading them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment. So who should now renounce all this, why and for what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of common values, and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one’s nation must be defended in a distant country?

Even biology knows that habitual extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism. Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask.

Legalistic Life
Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.

I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.

The Direction of Freedom
In today’s Western society, the inequality has been revealed of freedom for good deeds and freedom for evil deeds. A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him, parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that every single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Actually an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set out for him. Thus mediocrity triumphs with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.

It is feasible and easy everywhere to undermine administrative power and, in fact, it has been drastically weakened in all Western countries. The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

And what shall we say about the dark realm of criminality as such? Legal frames (especially in the United States) are broad enough to encourage not only individual freedom but also certain individual crimes. The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency with the support of thousands of public defenders. When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists’ civil rights. There are many such cases.

Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected. Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society. (There is a huge number of prisoners in our camps which are termed criminals, but most of them never committed any crime; they merely tried to defend themselves against a lawless state resorting to means outside of a legal framework).

The Direction of the Press
The press too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word press to include all media). But what sort of use does it make of this freedom?

Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it does not happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.

Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus we may see terrorists heroized, or secret matters, pertaining to one’s nation’s defense, publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: “everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.

Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press. It stops at sensational formulas.

Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: by what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the communist East a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time and with what prerogatives?

There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East where the press is rigorously unified: one gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment and there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspapers mostly give enough stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.

h1

On Spiritual Intuition In Christian Philosophy — Christopher Dawson

August 19, 2011

Christopher Dawson

The following was first printed in the Winter 1994 issue of “The Dawson Newsletter,” which has unfortunately been discontinued.

The problem of spiritual intuition and its reconciliation with the natural conditions of human knowledge lies at the root of philosophic thought, and all the great metaphysical systems since the time of Plato have attempted to find a definitive solution. The subject is no less important for the theologian, since it enters so largely into the question of the nature of religious knowledge and the limits of religious experience. The Orthodox Christian is, however, debarred from the two extreme philosophic solutions of pure idealism and radical empiricism, since the one leaves no place for faith and supernatural revelations, and the other cuts off the human mind entirely from all relation to spiritual reality. Yet even so there remains a vast range of possible solutions which have been advocated by Catholic thinkers from the empiricism of the medieval nominalists to the ontologism of Malebranche and Rosmini.

Leaving aside the more eccentric and unrepresentative thinkers, we can distinguish two main currents in Catholic philosophy. On the one hand, there is the Platonic tradition that is represented by the Greek Fathers, and, above all, by St. Augustine and his medieval followers such as St. Bonaventure; on the other, the Aristotelian tradition which found classical expression on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

But it is important not to exaggerate the divergences between the two schools. Both of them seek to find a <via media> between the two extreme solutions. St. Bonaventure is not a pure Platonist, nor St. Thomas a pure Aristotelian. The former rejects the doctrine of innate ideas, while the latter finds the source of intelligibility in the divine ideas, and regards the human mind as receiving its light from the divine intelligence.[St. Thomas himself insists on the fundamental agreement of the two theories.] Hence although Thomism insists on the derivation of our ideas from sensible experience, it is far from denying the existence of spiritual intuition.

Human Intelligence Is Intuitive By Nature
On this point I will quote the words of a French Dominican, Pere Joret: “Let us not forget,” he writes, “that the human intelligence, also, is intuitive by nature and predisposition. No-doubt, as it is united substantially with matter, it cannot thenceforth know except by proceeding from sensible realities and by means of images. But, apart from this, our intelligence is intuitive. Its first act at the dawn of its life, at its awakening, is an intuition, the intuition of being, or, more concretely, of `a thing which is,’ and, at the same time, as though it already unconsciously carried them in itself, there suddenly appear with an ineluctable certainty the first principles” of identity, contradiction, causality, and the like. It is from our intuition of first principles that all our knowledge proceeds.

St. Thomas says: “As the enquiry of reason starts from a simple intuition of the intelligence, so also it ends in the certainty of intelligence, when the conclusions that have been discovered are brought back to the principles from which they derive their certitude.” Pere Joret insist on the importance of the intuitive faculty as the natural foundation of religious experience. It is not itself mystical, but it is the essential natural preparation and prerequisite for mysticism. The failure to recognize this, which has been so common among theologians during the last two centuries, has, he says, been deplorable not only in its effects on the study of mysticism, but in its practical consequences for the spiritual life.[ F. D. Joret, O.P., <La Contemplation Mystique d'apres St. Thomas d'Aquin.> Bruges, 1923, pp. 83-90]

It is easy to understand the reasons for this attitude of hesitation and distrust with regard to intuitive knowledge. If the intuition of pure being is interpreted in an excessively realist sense, we are led not merely to ontologism, but to pantheism — to the identification of that being which is common to everything which exists with the Transcendent and Absolute Being which is God. And the danger has led to the opposite error of minimizing the reality of the object of our intuition, and reducing it to a mere logical abstraction.

Here again it is necessary to follow the middle way. The being which is the object of our knowledge is neither wholly real nor purely logical and conceptual. The intuition of pure being is a very high and immaterialized form of knowledge, but it is not a direct intuition of spiritual reality. It stands midway between the world of sensible experience and the world of spiritual reality. On the one hand it is the culminating point of our ordinary intellectual activity, and on the other it leads directly to the affirmation of the Absolute and the Transcendent.

Hence it is always possible, as Pere Marechal shows, that the intuition of pure being may become the occasion or starting-point of an intuition of a higher order. But it is difficult to decide, in concrete cases, whether the supreme intuition of the Neo-Platonist or the Vedantist philosopher is simply the intuition of pure being interpreted in an ontologist sense, or whether it is a genuine intuition of spiritual reality. There is no <a priori> reason for excluding the latter alternative; indeed, in some cases it seems absolutely necessary to accept it. Nevertheless, this higher intuition is not necessarily always the same. It is possible to distinguish several different types of intuition, or to find several different explanations of it.

In the first place there is the possibility of a very high form of metaphysical intuition by which the mind sees clearly the absolute transcendence of spirit in relation to sensible things and the element of nothingness or not- being which is inherent in the world of sensible experience.[M. Maritain admits the possibility of this kind of intuition, but he regards it as an anomalous form of experience which is neither metaphysical nor mystical. Cf. "Experience Mystique et Philosophie," in <Revue de Philosophie,> November, 1926, p. 606.] This form of intuition seems adequate to explain the spiritual experience which is typical of the oriental religions, e.g., the intuition of advaita — non-duality, which is characteristic of the Vedanta.

But there are other cases which suggest a higher form of experience, and one which is more strictly comparable to the higher experiences of the Christian mystic. In such cases the obvious explanation is that such experience is mystical in the full sense of the word, since we need not deny the existence of supernatural grace wherever the human mind turns towards God and does what lies in its power — <facienti quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam.>

But while we must admit the essentially supernatural character of all true mystical experience it is still possible that this higher experience may have its psychological roots in a rudimentary natural capacity of the soul for the intuition of God. This is certainly not the common theological view, but there are, nevertheless, Catholic theologians such as St. Bonaventure and, above all, the great medieval mystics of Germany and the Low Countries, who teach that the human soul possesses by its very nature a real but obscure knowledge of God. St. Bonaventure argues that Aristotle’s theory of the sensible origin of all human knowledge only holds good of our knowledge of external reality, not of those realities which are essentially present to the soul itself; consequently, “the soul knows God and itself and the things that are in itself without the help of the exterior senses.”[ Bonaventure in II Sent., d. 39, q. 2.] <Deus praesentissimus est ipsi animae et eo ipso cognoscibilis.>

The Soul In Immediate Contact With God
The medieval mystics base their whole theory of mysticism on this doctrine of the knowledge of God essentially present in the human soul. Underneath the surface of our ordinary consciousness, the sphere of the discursive reason, there is a deeper psychological level, “the ground of the soul,” to which sensible images and the activity of the discursive reason cannot penetrate. This is the domain of the spiritual intuition, “the summit” of the mind and the spiritual will which is naturally directed towards God. Here the soul is in immediate contact with God, who is present to it as its cause and the principle of its activity.

It is, in fact, a mirror which has only to be cleansed and turned towards its object to reflect the image of God. In the words of Ruysbroeck: “In the most noble part of the soul, the domain of our spiritual powers, we are constituted in the form of a living and eternal mirror of God; we bear in it the imprint of His eternal image, and no other image can ever enter there.” Unceasingly this mirror remains under the eyes of God, “and participates thus with the image that is graven there from God’s eternity. It is in this image that God has known us in Himself before we were created, and that He knows us now in time, created as we are for Himself. This image is found essentially and personally in all men; each man possesses it whole and entire, and all men together possess no more of it than does each one.

In this way we are all one, intimately united in our eternal image, which is the image of God and the source in us all of our life and of our coming into existence. Our created essence and our life are joined to it immediately as to their eternal cause. Yet our created being does not become God, any more than the image of God becomes a creature.”[Ruysbroeck, <The Mirror of Eternal Salvation,> chap. VIII]

God As Its Eternal Origin
The soul “in its created being incessantly receives the impress of its Eternal Archetype, like a flawless mirror, in which the image remains steadfast and in which the reflection is renewed without interruption by its ever new reception in new light. This essential union of our spirit with God does not exist in itself, but it dwells in God and it flows forth from God and it depends upon God and it returns to God as to its Eternal Origin. And in this wise, it has never been, nor ever shall be, separated from God; for this union is within us by our naked nature, and, were this nature to be separated from God, it would fall into pure nothingness. And this union is above time and space and is always and incessantly active according to the way of God. But our nature, forasmuch as it is indeed like unto God but in itself is creature, receives the impress if its Eternal Image passively. This is that nobleness which we possess by nature in the essential unity of our spirit, where it is united to God according to nature. <This neither makes us holy, nor blessed, for all men, whether good or evil, possess it within themselves; but it is certainly the fist cause of all holiness and all blessedness.>[Ruysbroeck, <The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage,> Bk. II, chap. LVII (trans. C.A. Wynschenk Dom]

According to this view, every man naturally possesses an immediate contact with God in the deepest part of his soul; but he remains, as a rule, without the realization and the enjoyment of it.

His soul is turned outwards to the things of sense, and his will is directed to temporal goods. It is the work of grace to reconstitute this divine image, to bring a man back to his essential nature, to cleanse the mirror of his soul so that it once more receives the divine light. Nevertheless, even apart from grace, the divine image remains present in the depths of the soul, and whenever the mind withdraws itself from its surface activity and momentarily concentrates itself within itself, it is capable of an obscure consciousness of the presence of God and of its contact with divine reality.

This doctrine is undoubtedly orthodox, and involves neither illuminism nor ontologism, still less pantheism. Nevertheless, it runs counter to the tendency to asceticism which has been so powerful since the Reformation, and it is also difficult to reconcile with the strictly Aristotelian theory of knowledge and of the structure of the human mind as taught by St. Thomas. Recently, however, Pere Picard has made a fresh survey of the problem, and has endeavored to show that St. Thomas himself, in his commentary on the Sentences, admits the existence of this obscure intuition of God, and uses it as a proof of the soul’s resemblance to the Trinity which was so often insisted on by St. Augustine.[ Cf. "La Saisie immediate de Dieu dans les Etats Mystiques." by G. Picard, in <Revue d'Ascetique et de Mystique,> 1923, pp. 37-63 156-181. The subject is also discussed by Pere Hugueny. O.P., in his introduction to the new French translation of Tauler (Vol. I, 73-154). He concludes that Tauler's doctrine is based upon that of Albertus Magnus, and diverges on several points from that of St. Thomas.] He does not, however, base his view in the argument from authority so much as on general theological considerations, as the hypothesis which is most in harmony with the teaching and experience of Catholic mystics. Certainly, it seems, the existence of an obscure but profound and continuous intuition of God provides a far more satisfactory basis for an explanation of the facts of religious experience, as we see them in history, than a theory which leaves no place for any experience of spiritual reality, except a merely inferential rational knowledge on the one hand and on the other a revelation which is entirely derived from supernatural faith and has no natural psychological basis.

h1

Person and Being: A Walk with Fr. William Norris Clarke

August 18, 2011

Fr. Norris W. Clarke

On a summer day in 1933, William Norris Clarke, an 18-year-old from Manhattan, was hurrying along a pier in Cherbourg toward a trans-Atlantic liner about to leave for New York.

Norris, as he was known to his family and friends, had a few months earlier finished sophomore year at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and was planning to enter the novitiate of the Maryland-New York province of the Society of Jesus on Aug. 14.

In Paris, Norris had bought a dozen new books and stuffed them into a knapsack. As he ran, one of the satchel’s straps broke and the books skittered across the wharf. Years later Norris’s eyes twinkled with secret glee when he recalled the choice that had confronted him: abandon the books or miss the boat. While he was rounding up the books, the ship sailed without him.

That was the way he told the story, for he would never have blunted a good anecdote by adding anticlimactic details. But, of course, he did secure another passage, and he did enter the novitiate at St. Andrew-on-Hudson in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., as scheduled. When he died on June 10 of 2008, he was 93 years old and had been a Jesuit for nearly three-quarters of a century. He was ordained a priest on June 17, 1945, and joined Fordham University’s philosophy department 10 years later. After he was named professor emeritus in 1985, he continued to teach part-time at Fordham and as a visiting professor elsewhere.

Never in all that time did his mind idle in neutral. He wrote eight books, including, most recently, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (2000), and some 70 learned articles. He was also a founding editor of the International Philosophical Quarterly. As recently as the fall 2007 semester, he conducted a seminar on “Twentieth-Century Personalism” for some young Jesuits studying philosophy at Fordham.

That was an appropriate topic for a farewell tour, because Norris believed, as he once said, that Thomistic metaphysics needs to be enriched by the descriptions of the actual lives of real persons that phenomenologists provide.
John W. Donohue, S.J., A Fond Remembrance of Father Clarke

The following relies heavily on an article by Fr. Clarke on Person, Being and St. Thomas that was featured in Communio in 1992 :

The idea of person and being are deeply intermeshed: personal being is the highest mode of being, or as St. Thomas has put it, “Person is that which is most perfect in all of nature.” ['Summa Theologiae, I, q. 29, art. 3] The secular world (the point of view of psychology, ethics, legal philosophy, or the phenomenology of interpersonal relations) treats personhood as a special mode of being if it treats it at all. The word makes these professionals edgy, better to speak of the “individual” where you can sidle off into “rights” “fairness” and “equality” without missing a beat. Would it be fair to say that person is something that we all are but can fail to achieve in its more ennobling aspects, freed from its sub-intelligent constrictions:

Yet the person is not something added on to being as a special delimitation; it is simply what being is when allowed to be at its fullest, freed from the constrictions of sub-intelligent matter. So the notions of being and person can each throw much light on the other when brought together on the level of being itself.
Fr. W. Norris Clarke, Person, Being, and St. Thomas

While Thomas Aquinas provided much of what we know concerning the metaphysics of personhood, he never really got around to applying that metaphysics to his philosophical notion of personhood. It seems that medieval discussions of the metaphysics of personhood tended to get bogged down on the “technical problems of the ‘incommunicability’ of the person, i.e., what makes it unique, not a part of any other being, and distinct in some way from the rational nature which always accompanies it.” Aquinas’ “explicit; powerfully dynamic notion of being, of what it means to be, as intrinsically self-communicative and relational through action” never entered on a philosophical plane or, in any thematized fashion, into his ideas of personhood.

What he and other Christian theologians did in their time was to explicate two critical Christian doctrines:

  1. The Trinitarian God, one divine nature possessed equally by three distinct Persons, distinguished only by their relations of origin to each other) and
  2. Christ as Godman, one divine Person possessing two distinct natures, one divine, one human.

The challenge of working out these two revealed doctrines required a thorough explication of the distinction between person and nature. Perhaps as a result of this, the relational, self-communicative dimension of the person, flowing from its very status in being, was left in the shadow. In the case of Chinese and Japanese traditions before their encounter with Western thought, the notion of “person” as a distinct concept seems to have been lacking, so there is no guarantee that any of this would have developed on its own but certainly one can credit the early theologians for giving us the groundwork from which to develop these ideas.

The explicit philosophical thematizing of the relational, interpersonal dimension of the human person had to wait until the existentialist and personalist phenomenologies of the twentieth century for its full highlighting and systematic development. It is one of the paradoxes of intellectual history, however, that St. Thomas and the other medieval scholastics did indeed develop a relational notion of the person for use in the theological explanation of the Trinity. But for some reason they did not exploit this remarkable intellectual achievement for the philosophical explanation of the person.
Fr. W. Norris Clarke, Person, Being, and St. Thomas

Several years ago in his seminal Introduction to Christianity then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took St. Thomas and other scholastic thinkers rather sharply to task for not developing this relational notion of the person within Christian philosophy but instead slipping back into the traditional Boethian definition of person as “an individual substance of a rational nature.” For Ratzinger, St. Thomas failed to recognize that in the relational notion of person developed within the theology of the Trinity

. . . lies concealed a revolution in man’s view of the world: the undivided sway of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality . . . and it is made apparent how being that truly understands itself grasps at the same time that in its self-being it does not belong to itself; that it only comes to itself by moving away from itself and finding its way back as relatedness to its true primordial state.
Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity

Fr. Clarke then shows us that one of the central themes in the thought of Aquinas is his notion of real being, i.e., actually existing being, as intrinsically active and self-communicating.  This is the dynamic, relational notion of being that informs all of Aquinas writings on the topic. While Norris concedes that a “superficial” reading may not notice this because it is never formally asked in any question or article, he demonstrates through a selection of readings how the concept runs through all of Aquinas’ thought, both philosophical and theological. Here are the readings he musters for his case:

Active power follows upon being in act, for anything acts in consequences of being in act.
[Summa contra Gentiles, 11, chap. 7]

It is the nature of every actuality to communicate itself insofar as it is possible. Hence every agent acts according as it exists in actuality It follows upon the superabundance p roper to perfection as such that the perfection which something has it can communicate to another. Communication follows upon the very intelligibility (ratio) of actuality. Hence every form is of itself communicable.
[De Potentia, q. 2, art. 1.]

For natural things have a natural inclination not on1 toward their own proper good, to acquire it, if not possessed, and ‘ possessed, to rest therein; but also to diffuse their own goodness among others as far as is possible. Hence we see that every agent, insofar as it exists in act and possesses some perfection, produces something similar to itself. It pertains, therefore, to the nature of the will to communicate to others as far as possible the good possessed; and especially does this pertain to the divine will, from which all perfection is derived in some kind of likeness. Hence if natural things, insofar as they are perfect, communicate their goodness to others, much more does it pertain to the divine will to communicate by likeness its own goodness to others as far as possible.
[Summa Theologiae, I , q. 19, art. 2]

Not only is activity, active self-communication, the natural consequence of possessing an act of existence (esse); St. Thomas goes further to maintain that self-expression through action is actually the whole point, the natural perfection or flowering of being itself, the goal of its very presence in the universe:

Every substance exists for the sake of its operations.
[Summa Theologiae, I , q. 105, art.5]

Each and every thing shows forth that it exists for the sake of its operation; indeed, operation is the ultimate perfection of each thing.
[Summa. contra Gentiles, 111, ch. 113]

I am reminded in the last two by Matthew 7:16 when Jesus referred to judging the nature of character by this aphorism: “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” Granted it is one of the most used and abused verse of scripture among cults and pseudo-Christian groups, but Aquinas echoes it above when he ties operation to the perfection of being.

Fr. Norris interprets Aquinas for us:

Being is not just presence, but active presence, tending by nature to pour over into active self-manifestation and self-communication to others. And if personal being is really being itself only at its supra-material levels, then it follows that to be a person as such is to be a being that tends by nature to pour over into active, conscious self-manifestation and self-communication to others, through intellect and will working together. And if the person in question is a good person, i.e., rightly ordered in its conscious free action, then this active presence to others will take the form of willing what is truly good for them, which is itself a definition of love in its broadest meaning, defined by Thomas as “willing good to another for its own sake.” To be a person, then, is to be a bi-polar being that is at once present in itself, actively possessing itself by its self-consciousness (its substantial pole), and also actively oriented towards others, toward active loving self-communication to others (its relational pole). To be an authentic person, in a word, is to be a lover, to live a life of interpersonal self-giving and receiving. Person is essentially a “we” term. Person exists in its fullness only in the plural. As Jacques Maritain puts it felicitously:

Thus it is that when a man has been really awakened to the sense of being or existence, and grasps intuitively the obscure, living depth of the Self and subjectivity, he discovers by the same token the basic generosity of existence and realizes, by virtue of the inner dynamism of this intuition, that love is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of his being alive.
Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent

Thus subjectivity reveals itself as “self-mastery for self-giving .. . by spiritual existing in the manner of a gift.”
Jacques Maritain, Challenges and Renewals

Josef Pieper has also caught well the intrinsic bipolarity of personal being as spirit, when, commenting on a brief sentence of St. Thomas, he unfolds it thus:

The higher the form of intrinsic existence, the more developed becomes the relatedness with reality, also the more profound and comprehensive becomes the sphere of this relationship: namely, the world. And the deeper such relations penetrate the world of reality, the more intrinsic becomes the subject’s existence. . . These two aspects combined — dwelling most intensively within itself, and being capax universi, able to grasp the universe — together constitute the essence of the spirit. Any definition of “spirit” will have to contain these two aspects as its core.
Josef Pieper, Living the Truth

Transpose “spirit” into “person,” as being itself existing on the spiritual level, and Pieper and I are both expressing the same insight.
Fr. W. Norris Clarke, Person, Being, and St. Thomas

Viewed from the person’s relational perspective with reality and others, it becomes clear that the person cannot be looked on as primarily an isolated, self-sufficient individual, with freely chosen relations added on as a merely occasional, accidental complement [the error of secularism]. The person is intrinsically ordered toward togetherness with other human persons — and any other persons accessible to it — i.e., toward friendship, community, and society.” I refer you once again to Simone Weil’s very Catholic list of declarations of our obligation toward our fellow human beings to see how human relation and relatedness proceed from the notion of personhoold and serves her purposes in creating that list:

  1.  The human body is above all in need of food, warmth, sleep, hygiene, rest, exercise, clean air.
  2. The human soul needs equality and hierarchy.
  3. The human soul has a need for consented obedience and for freedom.
  4. The human soul is in need of truth and of freedom of expression.
  5. The human soul needs, on the one hand, isolation and intimacy, on the other, social life.
  6. The human soul needs personal and collective property.
  7. The human soul needs punishment and honor.
  8. The human soul needs disciplined participation in a common task of public interest, and personal initiative in that participation.
  9. The human soul needs security and risk.
  10. The human soul needs above all to feel rooted in various natural milieus and to communicate with the universe through them. The homeland, milieus defined by language, by culture, by a common historical past, by the profession, the locality, are examples of natural environments. Everything that results in the uprooting of a human being or which has the effect of preventing him from growing roots is criminal.

Call it human soul or person or spirit, this is who we are and how we need to treat each other. It is precisely what the atheist secular society rejects in its insistence on the “individual,” “rights,” and “fairness” code words for excusing the worst sort of morality and behavior.

As Aquinas himself puts it in a beautiful little aside: “It is natural for man to take delight in living together with other human beings.” [Summa Theologiae, II-I11, question 114, article 2 ad 1.] Thus precisely because to be a person is to be the highest mode of being, the fullest expression of what it means to be, person means at once that which stands in itself as a self-possessing, autonomous center and at the same time, by the very dynamism of its self-possession, that whose whole being is oriented toward others, especially other persons, in self-communicative expression and sharing of itself, as interpersonal.

Thus one of the small but growing number of contemporary Thomists who have caught on to the intrinsically relational aspect of both being and person, Norbert Hoffman, can speak of “this movement of the pro, this self-openness towards the other” (most luminously manifested in the revelation of divine being as self-communicative interpersonal love), as “the primal mystery and the first of all impulses in the heart of being. All of its own, and not because of subsequent determination, Being posits itself as communicatio; its essential form is called ‘love.”
Fr. W. Norris Clarke, Person, Being, and St. Thomas

There is much more to this lovely essay that I have been able to present here. Fr Norris takes upreceptivity as a perfection of being and person and completes his philosophically and theologically viable “creative completion” of St. Thomas’s metaphysics of being and the person. It’s heavy reading but well worth the effort. The link, again, is in the first paragraph of this post above.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 272 other followers