Archive for October, 2011


Aquinas on God’s Relation to the World And Evil – Fr. Robin Ryan CP

October 31, 2011

"The Temptation in the Wilderness" by John St John Long (1824)

In a famous and much-discussed article of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas argues that when we speak of God as related to the world (as the Bible often does) we do so only within our limited understanding. Such a relation is not real in God. Aquinas says, “Now since God is altogether outside the order of creatures, since they are ordered to him but not he to them, it is clear that being related to God is a reality in creatures, but being related to creatures is not a reality in God, we say it about him because of the real relations in creatures” (Summa Theologiae 1, 13, 7). To illustrate this point Aquinas uses the example of the person standing on the right side of a pillar and then moving to the left of the pillar. The change in relation is not because of any alteration in the pillar but simply because the person has changed places. The relation is real in the person but not in the pillar. Just so, Aquinas concludes, “God’s temporal relations to creatures are in him only because of our way of thinking about him, but the opposite relations of creatures to him are realities in creatures” (Summa Theologiae 1, 13, 7, ad 4). This teaching, which was not unique to Aquinas in the thirteenth century, has evoked a reaction of puzzlement from many readers. Among other things, it seems to be foreign to the covenantal language of the scriptures. What does Aquinas mean when he argues that a relation to creatures is not real in God?

First of all, since relation is one of Aristotle’s nine accidents, Aquinas cannot attribute it to God, since there are no accidents in God. An accident is a way of being that is not attributed to a subject necessarily but contingently or incidentally.” Divine simplicity excludes the attribution of anything contingent or incidental to God. More important, Aquinas thinks that if you posited a real relation to creatures in God it would mean that you had made God dependent upon creatures and had reduced God to the ontological order of creatures. This principle should not be understood in a psychological sense, but in its metaphysical meaning. It simply means that God is outside of the whole order of created things. “He [God] gives creation its constancy, but the opposite is not true. The relation is necessarily asymmetrical.” Fergus Kerr connects this teaching on real relation with a concern that he thinks is central to the thinking of Aquinas, that is, his determination not to depict God as ontologically dependent on creatures for God’s fulfillment and happiness. Aquinas was passionately concerned “to stop Christians from thinking of God as being under some compulsion or obligation to create the world in order to complete his life.”’

Despite this teaching about God having no real relation to creatures, Aquinas insists that God knows and loves the world. We have already seen that in his teaching about divine immanence Aquinas asserts that God is intimately present to every creature. “At the heart of every creature is the source of esse, making it to be and to act.” He also maintains that God has complete knowledge of the world in that God knows other things through knowing Godself (Summa Theologiae 1, 14, 5). And God knows creatures not just in a general manner but in all of their particularity. “We must therefore say that he knows things other than himself in what is proper to each; not only in what they have in common as beings, but in the ways in which they are different from one another” (Summa Theologiae I, 14, 6).

God’s love for creatures, according to Aquinas, is also complete. Because God has will, and will for Aquinas means being drawn to the good that is perceived, God loves the creatures God has made. Aquinas calls love a “binding force” and attributes this even to God. Love joins the lover to the beloved (Summa Theologiae 1, 20, 2, ad 3). Aquinas distinguishes between love of desire and love of friendship. In love of desire one is drawn to the other for the fulfillment of one’s own needs. Love of friendship, however, is a benevolent love in which the lover is focused on the good of the beloved (Summa Theologiae I, 20, 2). It is this second kind of love that is superior and that is characteristic of God’s love for creatures. “To act from need is the mark only of an agent which is unfulfilled and made to be both acting on and acted upon. But this is not the case with God. He alone is supremely generous, because he does not act for his own benefit but simply to give of his goodness” (Summa Theologiae 1, 44, 4, ad 1).

Aquinas emphasizes that God loves all existing things, each of which, insofar as it is real, is good. “God therefore wills some good to each existing thing, and since loving is no other than willing good to someone, it is clear that God loves everything” (Summa Theologiae I, 20, 2). It is not just that God loves creatures because they are good. For Aquinas, God’s love creates the goodness in things. Torrell observes, “Like a sun that could make a flower bloom even without seed or water, so God’s love makes being arise from nothingness—at every instant.” Herbert McCabe draws the connection between Aquinas’ account of God’s love for creation and his teaching that God does not have a real relation to creatures:

The point about the lack of real relation on God’s part is simply that being creator adds nothing to God, all the difference it makes is all the difference to the creature…. But it makes no difference to God. ..because he gains nothing by creating. We could call it sheerly altruistic, except that the goodness God wills for his creatures is not a separate and distinct goodness from his own goodness. The essential point that Aquinas, surely rightly, wants to make is that creation fulfills no need of God’s. God has no needs.

This view of God and God’s relation to creatures influences Aquinas’ discussion of divine compassion. He maintains that mercy (misericordia) belongs properly to God and is the source of all God’s works.” For Aquinas God does not have “compassion” in the literal sense of “suffering with” another because God cannot suffer in Godself. In his discussion of divine mercy he writes, “Above all mercy is to be attributed to God, nevertheless in its effect, not in the affect of feeling” (Summa Theologiae 1, 21, 4). Convinced of divine immutability and impassibility, Aquinas does not want to attribute passion to God.

Thus God’s mercy does not entail a feeling of sadness about the misery of another because sadness, as a form of passion, does not befit God. God is merciful in that God acts out of love to dispel the misery that afflicts creatures. Aquinas argues that mercy “involves giving from one’s abundance to others, and, what is more, relieving their needs” (Summa Theologiae II-II, 30, 4). This is exactly what God does in being merciful toward us — giving from the fullness of God’s being in order to relieve the misery of beloved creatures, not out of any need of God’s own, but purely for our benefit.

Some thinkers argue that this view of divine mercy is deficient. They wish to ascribe compassion, in the sense of suffering with another, to God. They view this attribute as a perfection, not a deficiency, in God. Several modern scholars of Aquinas have defended his treatment of divine compassion and mercy. They argue that to speak of God as suffering with us would be to detract from the divine transcendence and to introduce need into God. This would make God’s love less than purely benevolent and, thus, less than perfect. They maintain that compassion is a form of finite love on the part of human beings who are limited in their efforts to dispel the affliction of others.

Michael Dodds asserts that a suffering God “will inevitably seek his own perfection and try to overcome his own deficiency. Only an entirely perfect being, subject to no defect and lacking in nothing, is able to love with a fully gratuitous love.”‘ William Hill, summarizing this topic, points out that “genuine compassion… characterizes love as finite, not love as such. The core reality of love as such is the affective union with another or others, [shown as] a willing of good to that person for the other’s own sake.” God in his omnipotent divine love ranges himself against all forms of evil and suffering on behalf of humanity. Because “God does not and cannot suffer in himself,” God can love unfathomably and altruistically — love that the New Testament calls agape.”

Evil in the Universe
Aquinas addresses the topic of evil in the First Part of the Summa Theologiae, immediately after treating the doctrine of creation. Here Aquinas gives only “a preliminary assessment of the problem as it stands for a Christian view of the universe” or “a grammar of thought to aid an approach to the mystery of sin and its resolution in the Passion of Christ, to be meditated on later at length.”” The fuller extent of Aquinas’ view of evil and the divine remedy for evil is found in his treatment of sin and grace.

Aquinas rejects the notion of an absolute principle of evil in the universe. He insists that “the sovereign good is the cause of the whole of being.” Being as such is the good gift of the Creator. There is no contrasting principle that is the source of evil (Summa Theologiae I, 49, 3). He adopts the Neoplatonic and Augustinian view that evil has no nature or essence. It is, rather, the privation of being; it is the absence of something that ought to be present for the integrity of a thing. “Like night from day you learn one opposite from the other. So you take good in order to grasp what evil means…. Consequently we are left to infer that it signifies a certain absence of a good” (Summa Theologiae 1, 48, 1).

The first and last word about the universe is goodness, since everything that exists has its source in the Creator who is supreme goodness. He asserts that “evil belongs neither to the integrity of the universe nor serves its development, except incidentally because of an accompanying good” (ST I, 48, 1, ad 5).

In this general discussion, Aquinas distinguishes between two kinds of evil: malum poenae and malurn culpae. These terms can be translated as “pain” and “fault” or as “evil suffered” and “evil done.” Each of these kinds of evil is the result of a privation of the good. Malum poenae is evil consisting of the loss of a form or part required for a thing’s integrity. It is what is sometimes called “natural evil” or “physical evil,” such as illness or the death of a creature. Aquinas views this loss of form in a creature as the result of something else achieving its good. One can say that God wills this kind of evil indirectly for the sake of the overall good of the universe:

God’s principal purpose in created things is clearly that form of good which consists in the order of the universe. This requires, as we have noticed, that there should be some things that can, and sometimes do fall away. So then, in causing the common good of the ordered universe, he causes loss in particular things as a consequence and, as it were, indirectly, according to the words, “The Lord kills and brings to life.” But we read also, “God has not made death,” and the meaning is that he does not will death for its own sake. (Summa Theologiae 1, 49, 2)

Aquinas assigns God an indirect role in the origin of natural evil. In creating a dynamic universe in which things flourish and then decay, God is willing the good of the universe as a whole. This is a universe that includes a rich diversity in grades of being. God creates “a world in which natural evil is always a matter of there being nothing but good derived from God.”  Aquinas speaks of God causing evil suffered in the lives of human beings for the sake either of correction or of justice. Thus, he likens God to a surgeon who amputates a limb in order to save a person’s body. Just so, “divine wisdom inflicts pain to prevent fault” (Summa Theologiae I, 48, 6). And he argues that God’s punishment of sinners contributes to the justice that characterizes the order of creation: The course of justice, which belongs to the universal order, requires that punishment be visited on sinners. On this count God is the author of the evil which is called penalty, but not of that which is fault” (Summa Theologiae I, 49, 2).

Evil done is equivalent to what is usually called “moral evil” or “fault.” It refers to people acting in a way that is wrong or failing to do what is right. Aquinas describes it as “the evil of withdrawal in activity that is due, either by its omission or by its malfunctioning according to manner and measure” (Summa Theologiae 1, 48, 5). Moral evil results from a person not acting in accord with right reason. “With voluntary causes, the deficient action proceeds from an actually deficient will, that is a will not submitted to its rule or measure” (Summa Theologiae I, 49, 1, ad 3). In distinction from evil suffered, with evil done there is no concomitant good.’° It is nothing but a case of privation or defect. Davies explains, “For him, moral evil is even more a privation than ‘evil suffered,’ for unlike ‘evil suffered’ it is not the obverse of some good.”

In committing moral evil, it is not only that I inflict harm on others; for Aquinas, I also harm myself. He argues that the quality of evil is stronger in evil done than in evil suffered since “a person becomes bad because of fault” (Summa Theologiae 1, 48, 6). When I act in a way that is morally wrong, I become diminished as a human being. I become less human.

Aquinas stresses that evil done arises completely from the human side. Its origin is not to be traced to God in any sense. “Hence the evil which lies in defective activity or which is caused by a defective agent does not flow from God as its cause” (Summa Theologiae 1, 49, 2). God can be termed the cause of moral evil only to the extent that God creates people, preserves them in being, and empowers them to act. But the failure in such action — the defect — derives solely from the creature, not the Creator. God permits such evil but does not directly cause it. O’Meara observes,

“Nothing is clearer than that before the principles of Aquinas’ theology God could not be directly involved in evil, for whatever is bad is the opposite of the supreme Good, the wisest Plan, the most loving Source.” Sin, an evil act that flows from a free, intelligent creature, is a deliberate bad action. Having bestowed individual freedom, “God permits men and women to commit their own personal sins.” Grace may try to dissuade from evil, but human will prevails. God has chosen not to interfere with this freedom: “Human responsibility perdures.”

While recognizing the presence and power of evil, Aquinas argues that evil can never destroy the good entirely. Likening goodness to the light from the sun, he compares evil to a series of screens set up between the sun and the atmosphere. Though the light would be indefinitely diminished, it would never be completely lost. He proceeds to state that, even if sin were piled on sin, weakening the soul’s capacity to receive grace, the readiness (habilitas) for grace would still be present because it follows from the very nature of the soul (Summa Theologiae 1, 48, 5).

Once again, for Aquinas the foundation of reality is goodness since existence is the good gift of a good Creator. He is convinced that “the first source of good things is the supreme and perfect good anticipating all goodness within itself” (Summa Theologiae 1, 49, 3). Therefore, “even though evil may indefinitely diminish good it can never entirely consume it, and so, while good remains, there cannot be anything wholly and completely evil” (Summa Theologiae I, 49, 3).


Why Thomas Aquinas Tells Us God Must Be Completely Actualized – Fr. Robin Ryan CP

October 28, 2011


The Incomprehensibility of Human Suffering

Fr. Ryan’s writings on Aquinas here come with a particular point of view in mind. His book, God and the Mystery of Human Suffering, is a theological meditation across history on the topic of human suffering. As such, he distills the writings of Aquinas from his topic, giving them a renewed focus in the process. I found myself understanding some things about Aquinas that I hadn’t realized before.

The sentence in this essay, He makes this same point in another way when he argues that God’s essence is God’s existence, was sort of a mind-opener for me. And when you see these arguments impacting the conversation on suffering, it makes a greater sense. How many “Suffering Father in Heaven” asides have I read concerning Christ’s passion? It is, quite simply, bad theology. Read on to find out why…


IN THE THIRD OF HIS “FIVE WAYS” OF REASONING TO THE AFFIRMATION OF GOD’S EXISTENCE, Aquinas adduces the experience of contingency (Summa Theologiae 1, 2 ,3). As he puts it, “Some of the things we come across can be but need not be, for we find them springing up and dying away, thus sometimes in being and sometimes not.” Aquinas is drawing on our experience of the fragility of creatures — indeed, the fragility of our own lives. If everything need not be, there was a time when there was nothing. But, Aquinas insists, if that were true there would be nothing now, because what does exist can only be brought into existence by something that already exists. He concludes that there has to be something that must be — a necessary being. Otherwise, there would be nothing in existence:

 “One is forced therefore to suppose something which Must be, and owes this to no other thing than itself; indeed it itself is the cause that other things must be.” This necessary being, this first cause, is the reality to which we give the name “God.”

Employing the Aristotelian categories of potency and act, Aquinas teaches that God, as necessary being and first cause, must be completely actualized. There can be no unrealized potentialities in God. In his treatment of the simplicity of God, he writes, “For what is able to exist is brought into existence only by what already exists. Now we have seen that the first existent is God. In God then there can be no potentiality” (Summa Theologiae I, 3, 1). He speaks of God as “Pure Activity” (Actus Purus). He makes this same point in another way when he argues that God’s essence is God’s existence (Summa Theologiae 1, 3, 4; Summa Contra Gentiles, 1, 22).

The essence of something is that which it is — the “whatness” of something. The existence of something is that by which a thing is — that which makes the essence real and actual.” Every creature is a composite of essence and existence. No creature has to be. Existence (esse) is something that creatures have as gift. But the Creator — the first cause and the giver of all existence — is the One whose essence is his existence.

For Aquinas, “God is not something with the potentiality of not being.”” God is God’s own existence and is the reason why other beings have existence. Creatures have existence through participation in the fullness of God’s existence. As fully actualized, as the One whose essence is to be, God is perfect:

“Thus the first origin of all activity will be the most actual, and therefore the most perfect, of all things. For things are called perfect when they have achieved actuality, the perfect thing being that in which nothing required by the thing’s particular mode of perfection fails to exist” (Summa Theologiae I, 4, 1). Pure activity means that God is not subject to another being but is fully in act all of the time.

Aquinas wants us to think of God as dynamic, as full of life. When he speaks of “existence” he does not use the noun form of the word, (existentia); instead, he employs the infinitive form of the verb “to be” (esse). William Hill observes that “existence or actuality for Aquinas is not mere facticity nor givenness but the exercise of existential act.” For Aquinas the essence of God is simply to-be. O’Meara remarks, “Thus God’s reality is not an activity but activity, and God is not just living but is life (I-II, 55, 2, 3; I, 18, 3).” The way in which Aquinas speaks about God is exactly the opposite of a static deity. This leads Elizabeth Johnson to translate Aquinas’ understanding of God as “sheer liveliness.”

Aquinas argues that the transcendent perfection of God is the ground of God’s immanence. As the giver of all existence, God exists in everything, not just at the beginning of something’s coming to be but as long as it exists. Thomas employs the images of fire and the sun in speaking of God as the perduring cause of existence:

Now since it is God’s nature to exist, he it must be who prop­erly causes existence in creatures, just as it is fire itself sets other things on fire. And God is causing this effect in things not just when they begin to exist, but all the time they are maintained in existence, just as the sun is lighting up the atmosphere all the time the atmosphere remains lit. During the whole period of a thing’s existence, therefore, God must be present to it, and present in a way in keeping with the way in which the thing possesses its existence.
(Summa Theologiae 1, 8, 1)

McCabe comments on Aquinas’ teaching about the immanence of God: “If the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator at its centre and holding it in being.” The God about whom Aquinas writes is indescribably close to creation and to each creature. “Aquinas insisted that God be sovereignly free from creation, infinitely different, and yet also be intimately directive of and present to each being.”

Divine Immutability and Impassibility
Aquinas maintains that if God is pure activity then God must be unchangeable. If God changed it would mean that there were unrealized potentialities in God. This would make God less than pure activity. He asserts that God “is sheerly actual and unalloyed with potentiality” while “any changing thing is somehow potential” (Summa Theologiae I, 9, 1).

Moreover, if we were to say that God changes it would mean that God acquired something. Aquinas argues, “God, being limitless and embracing within himself the whole fullness of perfection of all existence, cannot acquire anything, nor can he move out towards something previously not attained” (Summa Theologiae 1, 9, 1). In his reflections on the incarnation, Aquinas insists that the incarnation did not involve any sort of change in God’s eternal existence. It entailed something created (the human nature of Jesus) becoming united to God. The change (the becoming) took place on the side of the created reality (Summa Theologiae III, 1, 1, ad 1).

For Aquinas, affirming the immutability of God entails denying to God the change we experience as creatures: “Immutability remains a negative concept, denying to God all forms of creaturely alteration; though it does intend to designate a positive divine attribute, this is something we can neither know nor represent in itself.

For Aquinas, divine immutability implies divine impassibility. Because to suffer means to be acted upon and changed, suffering cannot touch the divine nature. To suggest that God suffers would mean that one had detracted from the transcendent perfection of God. It would entail reducing God to the level of the creaturely.

Contemporary Thomistic scholars argue that by denying suffering to God, Aquinas was convinced that he was affirming divine transcendence. Torrell asserts, “And if we really wish to implicate God in his creation (to make him share our sufferings, for example, as many theologians try to do today), we would only be making an unnecessary idol, nothing more. That god would not be God.” O’Meara takes note of Aquinas’ analogical thinking in the latter’s attempts to depict the transcendence of God:

Indecision and illness do not best characterize human beings, and so too God is not passive or searching for an identity, not paralyzed by sorrow over the casualties of history deformed by human coldness, nor a heavenly watcher or repair-person, always judging and always disappointed. A purely becoming god is a freak in a world out of control, a suffering god is a momentarily consoling myth for the sick but not a credible cause of the universe. God is not to be limited by human psychology and earthly history.

Thus, for Aquinas, the transcendence of God entails that the suffering of the world does not impinge upon the divine nature.



Thomas Aquinas’ Respect For The Mystery Of God — Fr. Robin Ryan CP

October 27, 2011

St. Thomas Aquinas, by Fra Angelico, O.P.

Aquinas wrote primarily about God’s relationship to creation. He was aware that we cannot know much about the God who is so different from us. He had a profound and enduring appreciation for the mysteriousness of God, whose nature and ways can never be comprehended by the human mind.

This conviction is expressed in the prologue to the third question of the Summa Theologiae, which immediately follows the live arguments adduced by Aquinas through which a person might be led to affirm an Uncaused Cause. Aquinas writes, “Having recognized that a certain thing exists, we have still to investigate the way in which It exists, that we may come to understand what it is that exists. Now we cannot know what God is, but only what he is not; we must therefore consider the ways in which God does not exist, rather than the ways in which he does.”

He argues in similar fashion in the Summa Contra Gentiles, where he writes:

For, by its immensity, the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches. Thus we are unable to apprehend it by knowing what it is. Yet we are able to have some knowledge of it by knowing what it is not. Furthermore, we approach nearer to a knowledge of God according as through our intellect we are able to remove more and more things from Him.
(Summa Contra Gentiles 1, 14, 2)

Scholars underline the significance of Aquinas’ respect for the mystery of God. In his study of the spirituality of Aquinas, Jean-Pierre Torrell observes, “Far from thinking it possible to appropriate the mystery of God by way of mastery through his concepts and reasonings, Thomas never ceases to be aware that the mystery escapes our every grasp and he invites his disciple to prostrate himself alongside him in adoration of the Ineffable.” Aquinas’ language is strong when he says that we do not know much about God. Herbert McCabe comments, “Readers of Aquinas, however, including some of those who see themselves as his disciples, have the utmost difficulty in taking him seriously when he says that we simply know nothing of the nature of God.”

In arguing that we cannot know the nature of God, Aquinas is saying that we cannot define God. We can know about God by projecting what we know about creation and saying that it has a high intensity when it is applied to God. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Aquinas concludes that not even the human soul of Christ had comprehensive knowledge of the divine. He writes, “No one comprehends the divine essence except God alone, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Aquinas suggests that we should begin by denying to God characteristics that apply to creatures. This method of negation can lead, ultimately, to meaningful affirmations about God. For Aquinas, “negative theology is by no means a theology of negation.” Through our experience of the world, which always begins in the senses, we can be led to make statements about God that are true, even though they air always inadequate to the transcendent mystery of God. Even the knowledge given by God’s self-revelation does not remove the mystery of God.

Aquinas acknowledges that revelation offers us a more perfect knowledge of God than that attained by natural reason. Still, God’s self-revelation “joins us to him as to an unknown” (Summa Theologiae Ia., 12, 13, ad I), Aquinas asserts that our speech about God arises from our experience of the perfections we discover in creatures. Such speech is not univocal — having the same meaning when applied to creatures as when ,attributed to God — because the Creator is utterly transcendent to creation. Neither is this talk equivocal — having an entirely different meaning when applied to creatures as when attributed to God — because creatures are related to their Creator as effects to their cause. In our talk about God, words are used analogically, since “whatever is said both of God and creatures is said in virtue of the order that creatures have to God as to their source and cause in which all the perfections of things pre-exist transcendentally” (Summa Theologiae Ia. 13, 5).

Because Aquinas is convinced that effects resemble their causes, he can argue that our experience of the created can lead us to some insight into the Creator. “Analogy is a juxtaposition of linguistic terms and mental ideas with the claim that the divine and human realms have a slight similarly: in the way the artist is in the art work, the creator is present in creation.” For example, our experience of the love of a fellow human wing leads us to affirm that God is loving. We make the judgment that the reality of love must exist in God; we affirm that it is indeed true that God is loving. Not to make this affirmation would be to miss out on something of utmost importance about the divine. But our experience of love and our way of understanding and speaking about love are limited; they are marked by all of the limits and imperfections of finite, fallible human beings. Thus, while we affirm the reality of love in God, we also must negate the creaturely limitations that are intrinsic to our understanding of and speaking about love.

When we say that God is loving, we affirm a love in God setting forth a world of beauty and light, but we do not have much information about what God’s love is like. Ultimately we must find human ideas, images and languages for the divine. Aquinas’ theory of speaking about God permits and encourages discussing God while at the same time affirming mystery and transcendence.

For Aquinas, this dynamic of analogical predication applies not only to the work of theology but also to the ways we speak about God in preaching, prayer, and everyday parlance.


A Reading Selection from “Living with the Triune God” by Eugene Peterson

October 26, 2011

The Foot of the Cross

A few paragraphs from a book review I read recently. I think it has less to do with “spiritual theology” as much as Theologia prima or the liturgy of the Church (the Catholic Church anyways) and Theologia vivendi (Theology of Catholic Life). See if you don’t like it.


So — spiritual theology, lived theology — not just studied, or discussed, or written about; not “God” as an abstraction but God in a participating relationship; not God as a truth to be argued; not God as a weapon to be wielded in the culture wars. Rather, the conviction that everything of God that is revealed to us is to be lived relationally in the dailiness of our human lives on this local ground on which we have been placed. Nothing disembodied, nothing impersonal, nothing in general.

And spiritual theology. God (theos) is the subject — not primarily me, not my potential, not how I can leverage some supernatural assistance into getting ahead, not using God as ticket to heaven, or to a better job, or to a compliant spouse, or to peace of mind. Rather, God in whose love I practice love, God in whose holiness I become more human, God by whose forgiveness and grace I become the person I am created and saved to be. Julie Canlis writes, “The purpose of this book [Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension] is to consider what koinonia (participation, communion with the triune God) might mean for us in a century fractured by individualism, reductionism, and fundamentalism, and to consider what it might signify for a comprehensive, embodied, re-personalizing Christian spirituality.”

What follows is a theologically astute, exegetically brilliant, and pastorally sensitive recovery of Calvin’s metaphor of the ladder: Jesus’ descent in the incarnation so that we can grasp and participate in his work of creation and redemption, followed by Jesus’ ascent to the Father, bringing us with him in all our humanity, living the life of Jesus completely and robustly.

The metaphor of the ladder has a long pedigree, beginning with Plato but then picked up by Greek philosophers and Christian theologians to describe the ascent of the soul to God. The metaphor continues in many contemporary secular forms: “fulfilling my potential,” “staying true to myself,” various and assorted three-step/seven-step/twelve-step programs. But Calvin’s Ladder demonstrates how Calvin radically re-imagines the metaphor. It is not about our ascent to God but our participation in Christ’s ascent. As Canlis puts it, “In one deft move Calvin has relocated ‘participation’ from between the impersonal (the soul in the divine nature) to personals (the human being in Christ, by the Spirit.”

The narrative of Jesus now becomes our narrative, or, to put it differently, our narrative gets continued in the Jesus narrative. We become more human as we live the Christian life, not less. Just as the very humanity of Jesus is the means by which he reveals his salvation to us, our humanity is the means by which we enter into communion with the persons of the Trinity.

We don’t fit Christ into our lives by fashioning programs of ascent, schemes sometimes designated “spiritual formation,” getting closer to God, making our way to heaven. Rather, we are fitted into Christ’s ascent. In him and by his Spirit we ascend to the Father. Apart from Christ we do not have an “in” with God. Calvin has only disdain for non-christological schemes of ascent: “All who, leaving Christ, attempt to rise to heaven after the manner of the giants are destitute.”

The ladder now becomes a metaphor that controls the entire Christian life. The programs and structures that we try to fashion in order to make something of ourselves turn out to look something like “playing house” compared to living in the large household of God, in which the Spirit provides the means through our presence and obedience to ascend to the Father. The Christian life in its entirety is marked by a return to God in the company of Jesus as we find ourselves included in the triune God of love.

Two features are critical in the ladder metaphor. The first is that the Christian life is relentlessly and persistently personal: words such as relational, mutual indwelling, sharing-in-being, participation, and communion collect around what George Hunsinger names koinonia-relations: “Kononia means that we are not related to God or to one another like ball bearings in a bucket, through a system of external relations.

We are, rather, something like relational fields that interpenetrate, form, and participate in each other in countless real though often elusive ways.” Nothing impersonal, nothing abstract, nothing in general; no role-playing, no posturing, no pretense, no condescension.

The second is that the Christian life is fundamentally a human life. God revealed in the flesh, Jesus, was very man, not disguised as human, not temporarily human. We do not live the Jesus life by minimizing humanity, either his or ours. We are not angels. Everything in Jesus’ life, his human life, is livable by us. In the ascent and ascension, the Spirit takes us into the humanity of Jesus, bringing us with him in all his humanity, in all our humanity, to the Father.

For all who give direction or leadership in the Christian community, Calvin’s Ladder is a superb rehearsal of what is involved in spiritual theology. In this culture, impoverished as it is in both spiritual and theological imagination, we need all the help we can get..


Simone Weil by Susan Sontag

October 25, 2011

Susan Sontag

The great Liberal icon of the 60’s reviews Simone Weil’s Selected Essays from 1963. Some cheap shots (“Simone Weil, who displays an unpleasant silence on the Nazi persecution of the Jews”) but a realization of Weil’s greatness. See my little collection of Simone Weil writings and reflections here.

The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force — not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self — these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live.

It is mostly a matter of tone: it is hardly possible to give credence to ideas uttered in the impersonal tones of sanity. There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering — rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.

What revolted the mature Goethe in the young Kleist, who submitted his work to the elder statesman of German letters “on the knees of his heart” — the morbid, the hysterical, the sense of the unhealthy, the enormous indulgence in suffering out of which Kliest’s plays and tales were mined — is just what we value today. Today Kleist gives pleasure, Goethe is to some a duty. In the same way, such writers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet — and Simone Weil — have their authority with us because of their air of unhealthiness. Their unhealthiness is their soundness, and is what carries conviction.

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

Thus I do not mean to decry a fashion, but to underscore the motive behind the contemporary taste for the extreme in art and thought. All that is necessary is that we not be hypocritical, that we recognize why we read and admire writers like Simone Weil. I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas.

Nor is it necessary — necessary to share Simone Weil’s anguished and unconsummated love affair with the Catholic Church, or accept her gnostic theology of divine absence, or espouse her ideals of body denial, or concur in her violently unfair hatred of Roman civilization and the Jews. Similarly, with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; most of their modern admirers could not, and do not embrace their ideas. We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and — only piecemeal — for their “views.” As the corrupt Alcibiades followed Socrates, unable and unwilling to change his own life, but moved, enriched, and full of love; so the sensitive modern reader pays his respect to a level of spiritual reality which is not, could not, be his own.

Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence. It is, roughly, the difference between the hero and the saint (if one may use the latter term in an aesthetic, rather than a religious sense). Such a life, absurd in its exaggerations and degree of self-mutilation — like Kleist’s, like Kierkegaard’s — was Simone Weil’s.

I am thinking of the fanatical asceticism of Simone Weil’s life, her contempt for pleasure and for happiness, her noble and ridiculous political gestures, her elaborate self-denials, her tireless courting of affliction; and I do not exclude her homeliness, her physical clumsiness, her migraines, her tuberculosis. No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves. Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it.

In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world — and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

This new volume of translations from Simone Weil’s work, Selected Essays 1934-43, displays her somewhat marginally. It contains one great essay, the opening essay here titled “Human Personality” which was written in 1943, the year of her death in England at the age of thirty-four. (This essay, by the way, was first published in two parts under the title “The Fallacy of Human Rights” in the British magazine The Twentieth Century in May and June 1959. There it suffered the curious and instructive fate of requiring a defensive editorial in June, when the second part of the essay appeared, replying to criticism of the magazine’s decision to publish the essay “on the grounds that it involves heavy going for some readers.”

It certainly speaks volumes about the philistine level of English intellectual life, if even as good a magazine as The Twentieth Century cannot muster an enthusiastic, grateful audience for such a piece.) Another essay, placed last in the book, called “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations,” also written the year of her death, contains matter central to Simone Weil’s ideas. The remaining essays are on specific historical and political subjects — two on the civilization of Languedoc, one on a proletarian uprising in Renaissance Florence, several long essays on the Roman Empire which draw an extensive parallel between imperial Rome and Hitler’s Germany, and various reflections on the Second World War, the colonial problem, and the post-war future. There is also an interesting and sensitive letter to George Bernanos.

The longest argument of the book, spanning several essays, develops the parallel between Rome (and the ancient Hebrew theocracy!) and Nazi Germany. According to Simone Weil, who displays an unpleasant silence on the Nazi persecution of the Jews, Hitler is no worse than Napoleon, than Richelieu, than Caesar. Hitler’s racialism, she says, is nothing more than “a rather more romantic name for nationalism.” Her fascination with the psychological effects of wielding power and submitting to coercion, combined with her strict denial of any idea of historical progress, led her to equate all forms of state authority as manifestations of what she calls “the great beast.”

Readers of Simone Weil’s Notebooks (two volumes, published in 1959) and her Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks (1958) will be familiar with her attempt to derive everything distinctively Christian from Greek spirituality as well as to deny entirely Chrisianity’s Hebraic origins. This fundamental argument — along with her admiration for Provençal civilization, for the Manichean and Catharist heresies — colors all her historical essays. I cannot accept Simone Weil’s gnostic reading of Christianity as historically sound (its religious truth is another matter); nor can I fail to be offended by the vindictive parallels she draws between Nazism, Rome, and Israel.

Impartiality, no more than a sense of humor, is not the virtue of a writer like Simone Weil. Like Gibbon (whose view of the Roman Empire she absolutely contradicts), Simone Weil as a historical writer is tendentious, exhaustive, and infuriatingly certain. As a historian she is simply not at her best; no one who disbelieves so fundamentally in the phenomena of historical change and innovation can be wholly satisfying as a historian. This is not to deny that there are subtle historical insights in these essays: as for example, when she points out that Hitlerism consists in the application by Germany to the European continent, and the white race generally, of colonial methods of conquest and domination. (Immediately after, of course, she says that these — both Hitler’s methods and the “normal colonial ones” — are derived from the Roman model.)

The principal value of the collection is simply that anything from Simone Weil’s pen is worth reading. It is perhaps not the book to start one’s acquaintance with this writer — Waiting for God, I think, is the best for that. The originality of her psychological insight, the passion and subtlety of her theological imagination , the fecundity of her exegetical talents are unevenly displayed here.

Yet the person of Simone Weil is here as surely as in any of her other books — the person who is excruciatingly identical with her ideas, the person who is rightly regarded as one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit.


Faith and Theology by Pope Benedict XVI

October 24, 2011


An address on the occasioni of his receiving an honorary doctorate in Theology by the Theological Faculty of Wroclaw/Breslau.

The word Glaube [faith, belief] has in German, and no doubt in other languages, two quite different meanings. There is the everyday meaning that people usually associate with the word. Someone says, for instance: I believe the weather will be fine tomorrow. Or, I believe that this or that piece of news is not true.

Here the word “believe” is the equivalent of think; it expresses an imperfect form of perception. People talk of believing when the status of knowing has not been reached. Many people probably think that this meaning of “believing” is also applicable in the realm of religion, so that the contents of the Christian faith are an imperfect, preliminary stage of knowledge.

When we say, “I believe in God”, this, they think, is just an expression of our not knowing anything definite about the matter. If this were so, then theology would be a rather strange discipline — indeed, the concept of an academic discipline dealing with faith would actually be a contradiction in itself. For how could one construct a real academic discipline upon suppositions? In reality, for the believing Christian the words “I believe” articulate a particular kind of certainty — one that is in many respects a higher degree of certainty than that of science yet one that does indeed carry within it the dynamic of “shadow and image”, the dynamic of the “not yet”.

As I was preparing for this lecture and reflecting on the problems of the quite odd relationship of certainty and risk that is inherent in the Christian act of faith, a little incident, which happened quite a few years ago, came to mind.

I had been invited to speak at the Waldensian faculty in Rome. A discussion followed my lecture, which had concerned this very problem of the darkness and light of faith. A student raised the question of whether doubt was not the absolute condition for faith and was therefore always present within faith. It was not in fact completely clear to me exactly what the student meant, but he was probably trying to express the idea that faith never reaches complete certainty, just as a renunciation of faith cannot be sure of itself.

All faith would in the end be a “perhaps”; I recalled Martin Buber’s well-known story about Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditschev and the way he countered the learned advocate of enlightenment with the words: “Yet perhaps it is true.” [Martin Buber, Werke, vol. 3: Schriftten zum Chassidismmu [Writings on Hasidism] (Munich and Heidelberg, 1963), p. 348.] This “perhaps” broke down the other man’s opposition; it appears to be faith’s strength, but it would of course also be its weakness.

Is it really only perhaps? If the forms of verification of modern natural science were the only way in which man could arrive at any certainty, then faith would indeed have to be classified in the realm of mere “perhaps” and to be constantly fused with doubt, to be virtually identical with it. But just as a person becomes certain of another’s love without being able to subject it to the methods of scientific experiment, so in the contact between God and man there is a certainty of a quite different kind from the certainty of objectivizing thought. We live faith, not as a hypothesis, but as the certainty on which our life is based.

If two people regard their love merely as a hypothesis that is constantly in need of new verification, they destroy love in that way. It is contradicted in its essence if one tries to make it something one can grasp in one’s hand. By then it has already been destroyed. Perhaps so many relationships break down today because we are aware of the certainty only of the verified hypothesis and do not admit the ultimate validity of anything not scientifically proved. Thus, the essential phenomena of human life escape us, with their quite different kind of certainty, which is in truth far higher. God, most of all, cannot be objectified as if he were a thing on a lower level than we are, which we could squeeze into our hand or into our apparatus.

Yet his light is able, as Bonaventure says, “to stabilize our emotions and to enlighten our intellect.” [2 Sentences 1. 3, d. 23, a. i, q. 5, conclusion: "Nam ipsa fides secundum essentiam suam aliquid respicit ex parte intellectus et aliquid ex parte afectus. Habet enim affection stabilire et intellection illwninare" (St. Bonaventure, Opera omnia, vol. 3 [Quarrachi, 1871, p. 484).]

Belief is not at all mere opinion, as we express it in the sentence, “I believe the weather will be fine tomorrow.” It is not doubt; rather, it is certainty that God has shown himself and has opened up for us the view of truth itself. Yet here arises the contrary objection, which Heidegger and Jaspers have insistently formulated. They say: Faith excludes philosophy, real research into and seeking for ultimate realities. For faith supposes it knows all that already. Its certainty leaves no place for questions.

Anyone who believes has already failed as a philosopher, says Jaspers, for all the questioning is merely apparent; it has to come up in the end with the answer that has already been given. A theology that was based upon mere opinion could not be scholarly or scientific, as we have already said. Jaspers’ argument takes the opposite approach. Theology, he says, cannot be a genuine scholarly discipline since it argues only in appearance, having its results already given in advance. Many objections against theology doubtless do arise from this notion, and many rebellions against the teaching office, within theology, presuppose a similar kind of argument, in more moderate form.

Thus, a twofold problem seems to loom before theology: if faith basically never gets beyond doubt, then it offers no foothold for serious scholarly thought. If it is offering only ready-made certainties, then it seems equally to exclude the movement of thought. At this point it becomes clear that the two opposing positions ultimately originate in the same model of thinking, because both are obviously aware of only a single form of certainty and never have the quite specific anthropological structure of faith in their view.

When you begin to understand that structure, it also becomes clear why the Christian faith produced theology and did so necessarily. The nature of theology can be understood only on the basis of the nature of faith. If we analyze these interconnections, then it becomes clear what is really at the heart of the two positions we have mentioned.

I do not know whether, in the short time I am allowing myself, I shall be able to some extent to make clear at least the direction in which the answers become accessible. I should like to try to do so by starting from a very dense passage of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which illuminates with great precision the nature of the Christian act of faith and thereby demonstrates its inner openness toward theology: that is, De veritate, q. 14, a. i corp.

First of all, following Augustine, Thomas defines believing as “thinking with assent”. This coexistence of thinking and assent is something faith has in common with science. It is characteristic of science for thinking to result in assent.

Anyone following its progression ends by saying: Yes, that is right. Assent is also a part of believing. This is not an act of abstention, but a decision, a certainty. Being eternally open, and keeping oneself open in all directions, is exactly what faith is not. It is “hypostasis”, the Letter to the Hebrews says (11:1): taking one’s stand, and standing firm, on what is hoped for; being convinced.

Yet the relationship between assent and thought is different in faith from what it is in science, in knowledge in general. In the case of a scientific demonstration, the obviousness of the business forces us, by inner necessity, into assent. [See Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles 111, 40, no. 3: In cognitione autem fidei principalitatem habet voluntas: intellectus enim assentit per fidem his quae sibi proponuntur, quia volt, non autem ex ipsa veritatis evidentia necessario tractus. (Thomas Aquinas, Opera onmia, vol. 2 [Stuttgart, 1980], p. 71).]

The act of perception itself brings about the “Yes, that is right.” Thomas says that the certainty attained “determines” our thinking. Thus, in the insight obtained, the movement of thought comes to rest; it finds its conclusion. The structure of the act of faith is quite different. Thomas says about this that here the thought process and the assent balance each other, they are “ex aequo.” [Thomas Aquinas, De veritate, q. 14, art. r, contra: In scientia enim motus rationis incipit ab intellectu principiorum, et ad eumdem terminatur per viam resolutionis; et sic non habet assensum et cogitationem quasi ex aequo: sed cogitatio inducit ad assensum, et assensus cogitationem quietat. Sed in fide est assensus et cogitatio quasi ex aequo (ibid., 3:91).]

What does that mean? First, it means that in the act of believing the assent comes about in a different way from the way it does in the act of knowing: not through the degree of evidence bringing the process of thought to its conclusion, but by an act of will, in connection with which the thought process remains open and still under way. Here, the degree of evidence does not turn the thought into assent; rather, the will commands assent, even though the thought process is still under way. How can it do that without doing violence to the thinking? To answer this question, we must first be aware that in Thomas Aquinas’ terminology the concept of will is more far-reaching than we understand it to be today. What Thomas calls the will corresponds roughly to what in biblical language is called “the heart”. Thus, Pascal’s well-known saying comes to mind: “Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point.” [Pensees sur la religion (1669), no. *277, as edited by C.-M. des Granges (Paris: Gamier, 1964), p. 146.]

The heart has its reasons; it has its own rationality, which reaches beyond “mere” reason. On the basis of the logic of this sentence we can get to the meaning: Any perception presupposes a certain sympathy with what is perceived. Without a certain inner closeness, a kind of love, we cannot perceive the other thing or person. In this sense the “will” always somehow precedes the perception and is its precondition; and the more so, the greater and more inclusive is the reality to be perceived. We are able to give the assent of faith because the will — the heart — has been touched by God, “affected” by him. Through being touched in this way, the will knows that even what is still not “clear” to the reason is true.

Assent is produced by the will, not by the understanding’s own direct insight: the particular kind of freedom of choice involved in the decision of faith rests upon this. Cetera potest homo nolens, credere non nisi volens, says Thomas on this point, quoting Saint Augustine: Man can do everything else against his will, but he can believe only of his free will. [Thomas Aquinas, De veritate, q. 14, art. i, contra: "Et ideo dicit Augustinus, quod cetera potest konio nolens, credere nisi volens" (Opera omnia, 3:91); Peter Lombard, Sententiae 1. 2, dirt. 26, C. 4, p. 2: Non est tamen ignorandum quod alibi augustinus significare uidetur quod ex uoluntate sit fides, de illo uerbo apostoli scilicet, corde creditur ad iustitiam, ita super ioannem tractans: ideo non simpliciter apostolus ait creditur, sed corde creditur, quia cetera potest homo nolens, credere non nisi uolens; intrare ecclesiam et accedere ad altare potest nolens, sed non credere; Augustine, In Iohannis euangelium tractatus 26, 2: Intrare quisquam ecclesiam potest nolens, accedere ad altare potest nolens, accipere sacramentum potest nolens; credere non potest nisi uolens. si corpore crederetur, fieret in nolentibus; sed non corpore creditur. apostolum audi: corde creditur ad iustitiam (Romans 10:5)" (PL 35, 1607; CChr. Ser. Lat. 36, 260).]

When we realize this, the peculiar spiritual structure of believing becomes clear. Believing is not an act of the understanding alone, not simply an act of the will, not just an act of feeling, but an act in which all the spiritual powers of man are at work together. Still more: man in his own self, and of himself, cannot bring about this believing at all; it has of its nature the character of a dialogue. It is only because the depth of the soul — the heart — has been touched by God’s Word that the whole structure of spiritual powers is set in motion and unites in the Yes of believing. It is through all this that we also begin to see the particular kind of truth with which believing is concerned; theology talks about “saving truth”.

For how is it that God actually touches our heart? What gives the “will” the illumination and the confidence that can then also be shared with the understanding? Augustine says, reflecting on his own experience of life: The inmost heart of the human will is the will for happiness. Everything a man does or allows to happen to him can, ultimately, be derived from his will to be happy. When the heart comes into contact with God’s Logos, with the Word who became man, this inmost point of his existence is being touched.

Then, he does not merely feel, he knows from within himself: That is it; that is HE, that is what I was waiting for. It is a kind of recognition. For we have been created in relation to God, in relation to the Logos, and our heart remains restless until it has found what the songwriter Paul Gerhardt (d. 1676) was talking about in the marvelous Christmas carol Ich steh an definer Krippen hier [Here I stand beside your crib]: “Before your hand had made me, you had already thought of how you wanted to be mine.”

The “will” (the heart), therefore, lights the way for the understanding and draws it with it into assent. That is indeed how thought begins to see, yet believing does not come from seeing, from perceiving, but from hearing. The process of thought is not completed; it has not yet come to rest. Here it becomes particularly clear that believing is a pilgrimage, and also a pilgrimage of thought, which is still following the way. Thomas described this continuing restlessness of thought in the midst of the established certainty of faith in quite drastic fashion on the basis of 2 Corinthians 10:5, where the Apostle says: “We … take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

The Doctor Communis comments: Because the process of thought has not attained to assent in its own way, but on the basis of the will, it has not yet found its rest; it is still reflecting and is still in a state of seeking (inquisitio). It has not yet reached satisfaction. It has been brought to an end only “from outside”. That is why the Apostle says that it has been taken captive. That is also why it is, says Thomas, that within faith, however firm the assent, a contrary motion (motus de contrario) can arise: Struggling and questioning thought remains present, which ever and again has to seek its light from that essential light which shines into the heart from the Word of God.

Assent and the process of thought “in some sense” (quasi) balance each other — they are “ex aequo”. In this little sentence, which looks at first just like a textbook formula from the past, is contained the whole drama of faith in history; and in it the nature of theology, with its greatness and its limitations, also becomes apparent. It demonstrates the connection between faith and theology. Thinking the whole thing over again, we could say: Faith is an anticipation that is made possible by the will through the heart being touched by God. It grasps in advance what we cannot yet see and cannot yet have. This anticipation sets us in motion. We have to follow that motion. Because assent has been anticipated, thought has to try to catch up with that and is also constantly having to overcome the contrary movement, the motus de contrario. This is the situation of believing so long as man stands within this history. That is why there must always be theology, right throughout history; that is why the task of theology within history remains unfinished. Thought is still on its pilgrim’s journey, as we ourselves are. And we are not making our pilgrimage aright unless our thought is on pilgrimage, too.

Anyone who immerses himself, even for a little while, in the history of theology can see the drama of this tension, this never-finished pilgrimage of thought toward Christ, in the attempts it makes again and again; thus he can come to know the beauty and the fascination of the adventure we call theology. Above all, he will see how the Word of God is always in advance of us and of our thinking. Not only is it never out of date; everything that claims to be making it outdated quickly becomes dated itself and becomes part of the past, if not altogether forgotten. We can never overtake it; we do not even catch up with it. The motus de contrario, which often seems all but invincible, turns out when viewed from a distance to be always motion in reverse after all.

Thus history, with its ups and downs, has an encouraging side: it lets us have confidence that anyone who is following the Word of God, anyone who follows the heart’s command to assent, and takes this a signpost for the onward journey of thinking and living, is on the right track. History shows us that thinking along with the Word of God has always something new in store and never becomes boring, never pointless. Anyone who looks into history is not just looking backward. He is also getting a better idea of which way to go forward. Without the anticipation of faith, thought would be groping around in emptiness; it would be able to say nothing further about the things that are really essential to man. It would have to conclude, with Wittgenstein, that we must be silent about what is ineffable. It is not doubt but affirmation that opens up the wide horizons to thought. Anyone who encounters the history of theology sees that the suspicions of Heidegger and Jaspers are unfounded. The pre-knowledge of believing does not oppress thought; it remains ex aequo — that is, it is that which really challenges thought and sets it in a restless motion that produces results.

What I am expounding here is not just a theory, even if I did first learn all this from the great masters like Augustine, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas; and even though, first of all, I was guided to these masters by my teacher, Gottlieb Sohngen. I have now been traveling with theology for more than half a century. And so the way that God’s Word goes before us, which we follow in our thinking, has increasingly become a quite personal experience. When I was a student, the historico-critical method of exegesis seemed to have said the last word on many subjects. One of my friends, who at that time — in the late forties — was studying in Tubingen, was told by the very learned professor for New Testament exegesis there, Stephan Losch, that he could no longer offer dissertation subjects on the New Testament, since everything in the New Testament had already been researched.

Bernhard Barttnann, the important teacher of dogmatics at Paderborn, who was deservedly revered, said at that time that in dogmatics as such there were no longer any open questions and that one could only further develop knowledge of the history of theology and dogmatics. Theology was then in the process of withdrawing into the past. But how far the Word of God, and the faith of the Church that is based upon it, has left us behind meanwhile! All at once we can see once more what a long journey through a landscape of mysteries and promises is opening up before us, how immeasurably great the country of faith is, which no human travels can ever quite cross.

It is becoming apparent that that very motus de contrario which we feel so strongly today can be the challenge summoning forth a deeper knowledge. Certainly, that restlessness of thought which can never quite catch up with what is already given by God’s Word can lead us away from faith — we can see that. Yet it can, above all, be productive, guiding us into walking on the way of thought toward God. That is the fine task of a theological faculty.

My thanks for the honorary doctorate are thus at the same time heartfelt wishes for blessings upon the future work of this venerable theological faculty.


Philosophy And Theology by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.

October 21, 2011

St. Stephen by Carlo Crivelli (1476)

Before he passed away in 2008, Avery Cardinal Dulles was asked to write an essay for a series of seminars sponsored by the Center for Catholic Studies and the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the Unversity of St. Thomas in Saint Paul MI. The following extended meditation on the nature of philosophy and theology was the fruit of that effort.

Among academic disciplines, philosophy and theology have a particular affinity with each other because both are concerned with ultimate meaning and transcendent truth. Both deal with the nature and order of reality as a whole and with the final purpose of human existence. They grapple with similar, even identical, questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the place of human beings in God’s plan? Whence do we come, why do we exist, what must we do, and what may we hope for?

Intimately related though they are, the two disciplines differ in their method and to some extent in their object. Philosophy ponders naturally knowable truth by the natural light of reason. It makes inferences from things known by common human experience, which is available to believers and nonbelievers a Theology, by contrast, uses human reason assisted by the added light of faith understand the truth that God has revealed. But since truth is always compatible with truth, the findings of philosophy and theology must, in the end, agree.

The question often arises: how is philosophy related to faith? I am sure that is a very actual question for all of you who teach philosophy in Catholic institutions or to Catholic students. It would be a mistake, I believe, to insist on any one answer to that question. Philosophy can be cultivated in a variety of relationships with faith and theology. I find convenient to distinguish four situations, giving rise to four states of philosophy.

The first state is one of philosophy untouched by Christian faith. All the philosophy produced before the time of Christ would fit into this category. Greeks, in particular, rose to great heights in the time of Plato and Aristotle, to mention but two pre-Christian philosophers. Many Christians have sought to write philosophical works that in no way depend upon the truth of Christian Revelation. Such reasoning at its best can establish many truths that are important for Christian faith; for example, the capacity of the human mind to attain abiding truth and to transcend shifting phenomena; and the possibility of demonstrating the existence and attributes of God, the spirituality and immortality of the human soul, and the obligation to do good and avoid evil.

The Catholic Church teaches that truths such as these can be proved by natural reason, without dependence on Christian faith. (The Church does not teach that these proofs have been constructed by nonbelievers, but only that it is possible for them to be so constructed.)

Philosophy of this type does not deliver a complete and self-contained system. It ends up with some pressing questions that, according to its champions, cannot be solved without revelation. Maurice Blondel, for example, ended his philosophical dissertation on Action with the open question as to whether or not there is a supernatural. Others would say (in the spirit of the early Karl Rahner, S.J.) that philosophy can raise the question of a possible revelation, but that it cannot say whether God will freely disclose himself, still less what that revelation will contain. Will God’s final word be one of condemnation or of pardon and absolution?


In a second state, philosophy is in dialogue with Christian faith. In a Christian civilization such as that of the West since the fourth century, it is almost impossible for philosophy not to be influenced by faith. It is forced to grapple with questions on which believers have taken a definite position, but it does not allow religious faith to dictate the answers to philosophical questions.

This second category is a very broad one because it makes room for philosophers who are variously disposed toward the Christian religion. Three subcategories may be distinguished.

  1. Some are relatively orthodox; they are convinced that philosophy delivers results fully compatible with Christian faith. This would be the case with Malebranche, Leibniz, Kierkegaard, and Marcel.
  2. A second subcategory contains those who remain Christian but who bend the doctrines of faith to some degree to bring them into conformity with their philosophy. Examples might be furnished by Locke, Kant, and Hegel, who were believers but not by most standards orthodox.
  3. The third subcategory would be those who were in dialogue with Christianity but who came to oppose it on philosophical grounds. As examples, one might think of Feuerbach and Marx, Comte and Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. Even though they were atheists, their views about God, the world, and human destiny were profoundly influenced by their exposure to Christianity, the religion they had deserted.

Philosophers never begin their work in a cultural vacuum. Judeo-Christian ideas and values have so permeated the culture of the West that no philosopher can ignore them. They establish the framework in which philosophers think about the dignity and rights of the human person, freedom and responsibility, the human nostalgia for the transcendent and the divine, and many such themes. Even philosophers who do not want to be Christian deal with themes like these in ways closer to Christianity than any pre-Christian thinkers.

It can, of course, be debated whether the influence of Christian culture on philosophy is favorable or detrimental. A nonbeliever might try to escape any such influence as far as possible. But it has to be admitted that philosophy has developed to greater heights in the West than elsewhere in the world. The stimulus of Christianity has contributed significantly to that development.


In its third state, philosophy operates under the aegis of faith. The philosopher is confessedly a believer, who will not admit any contradiction between philosophy and what God has revealed through the Church. But at the same time, he or she recognizes a difference of method between the disciplines and does not wish to behave as a theologian. Writing strictly as a philosopher, he affirms only what can be established by philosophical methods. This is what John Paul II in his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, describes as Christian philosophy. As an example, one might also think of Jacques Maritain.

Minimally, faith operates as a negative norm. The philosopher knows that his discipline cannot prove anything contrary to the word of God. If philosophy seems to be inclined to assert this, it must have gotten off the track. Revelation therefore prevents philosophers from making mistakes they might otherwise make. It alerts them to errors such as atheism, pantheism, polytheism, materialism, determinism, etc.

As John Paul II remarks, the contribution of faith is not merely negative. It makes a twofold positive contribution, subjective and objective. Subjectively, faith purifies the heart of the philosopher, rendering him more perceptive. It overcomes the pride and presumptuousness that so often blind philosophers, and at the same time gives them the courage to tackle problems that might seem too daunting. Objectively, it gives a view of the universe that commends itself to human reason.

It suggests answers to properly philosophical problems that are in principle accessible to reason, but which philosophers might not be able to find without the hints given by revelation. I like to compare this situation to a textbook in mathematics that has the answers to the problems in the back of the book. Knowing the answers helps is no substitute for solving the problem; however it can help the student find the right solution. So, too, revelation suggests answers to philosophical problems that philosophers might not be able to find on their own.

Examples from the field of natural theology come readily to mind. Assisted by biblical revelation, philosophy is able to establish that there is only one God; that God is wise, loving, and personal; that he is eternal, infinite, immutable, etc. The arguments that philosophers make from the nature of God as ipsum esse subsistens do not depend intrinsically on any premises from revelation. They are philosophically valid but would not have occurred to philosophers without the extrinsic help of revelation.

So likewise in the field of anthropology, philosophy is able to show that the human being has a spiritual soul that is naturally immortal. In a Christian civilization, philosophers can find a solid philosophical basis for asserting the dignity and rights of the individual person, the freedom of the will, the capacity to commit sin and to merit rewards, etc. The contemporary debate about abortion too often overlooks the foundation for the rights of the unborn in reason. The problem is treated almost exclusively as a religious issue, indeed as a sectarian one.

The field of cosmology offers many instances of philosophy operating under the aegis of faith. As Christians, we believe that the world was freely created by God and this belief has suggested to philosophers arguments that the world does not exist by necessity, as the ancient Greeks supposed, but only because of a free decision of God’s will. The universe, therefore, is radically contingent. It lacks any reason for existence in itself.

The question of evolution has been a focus of heated debate. Here, again, Christian philosophers are called to make a contribution. Does intelligent design on the part of a Creator mean that God has to intervene at particular points in the process, or can a process that looks like sheer chance from below be identical with the execution of a divine plan? Scientists, philosophers, and theologians all have something to say in this area, but they can do better in collaboration than if they revive the wars of the past.


The fourth situation of philosophy is within theology. John Paul II, turning to this situation in Fides et Ratio reflects on the term ancilla theologiae. At this point philosophers put their skills at the service of theology for the purpose of better understanding the data of revelation. The Greek Fathers and the early councils, as we know, made extensive use of philosophical terms and categories in order to ponder mysteries such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and predestination. While contributing their skills to theology, Christian philosophers enriched their own discipline.

The idea of subsistent relations, important for the doctrine of the Trinity, could not have arisen apart from theology. The same may be said for the concept of transubstantiation, much used in Eucharistic theology. Although these concepts first arise within philosophical theology, they have implications outside of theology. The theory of causality was perfected, for example, by the Christian doctrine of creation — a causal operation that presupposes nothing on the part of the recipient. Modern personalist philosophy has derived great benefit from theology. Personalist philosophy, for example, builds on the distinction between person and nature that was developed in theology.

At this fourth level, the distinction between philosophy and theology is more difficult to maintain. The philosophical theologian must be adept in both fields but still keep them apart. The same individual can speak now as a philosopher and now as a theologian. St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P., for example, wrote a number of purely philosophical works, such as his commentaries on Aristotle and his De ente et essentia. Francisco Suarez, S.J., produced the first Christian textbook on metaphysics, a purely philosophical work. Karl Rahner, S.J., composed some purely philosophical works, such as his Spirit in the World, and Karol Wojtyla did likewise in his The Acting Person.


The question may now be raised — and I put it only as a question — whether there is a level of discourse that transcends the distinction between philosophy and theology, blending them into one. As usually understood, theology deals with the contents of Christian revelation rather than with reality as a whole; philosophy deals with reality as a whole, but only without the light of faith. Believers have a hard time putting their faith into brackets and saying only what they could say if they lacked the help of revelation. For this reason I would like to think that there could be such a thing as integral wisdom, which studies the whole of reality with the tools of philosophy and theology together.

This kind of overarching worldview with the combined resources of reason and revelation does not lack a certain foundation in the Bible. In the very first paragraph of Fides et Ratio, John Paul II points out that similar questions are asked in the sacred literature of Israel and in that of India, China, and Greece.

In chapter 2, he notes that the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament picks up themes from that of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The first stage of divine revelation occurs in the book of nature, which, when read with the proper tools of human reason, can lead to knowledge of the Creator. But at a certain point human reason runs up against its limits and needs the added light of the gospel in order to transcend them. If it refuses this further revelation, reason becomes proud and turns into foolishness, as Paul points out in the opening chapter of Romans.

John Paul II seems to be pressing for a recovery of the broad concept of theology espoused by some of the early Christian thinkers. Clement of Alexandria, for example, declared that he had found in the gospel “the true philosophy,” and that “we call philosophers those who love the wisdom that is creator and mistress of all things, that is, knowledge of the Son of God.” Their philosophy, while it no longer restricts itself to the unaided light of reason, still seeks the wisdom that is the goal of philosophy itself.

Vatican II hints at this broader vision of wisdom. In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Council declares that faith does not simply disclose a number of revealed truths; it “casts a new light on everything, manifests God’s design for man’s total vocation, and thus directs the mind toward solutions that are fully human.”

In its closing message “To Men of Thought and Science,” Vatican II exhorted intellectuals to see real science and real faith as friends of one another. “Have confidence in faith,” it declared, “this great friend of intelligence. Enlighten yourselves with its light in order to take hold of truth, the whole truth.”

‘Throughout Fides et Ratio John Paul II urges philosophers not to take refuge in merely linguistic or historical studies but to grapple with the great metaphysical questions that have always been the concern of the wise. As philosophy comes to deal with the true, the beautiful, and the good in their full range, it enters into closer relations with revealed religion.


Before closing, I would like to say a few words about philosophy and the new evangelization. Paul VI, in launching the program, spoke of the need for an evangelization of cultures, because cultural situations can dispose people to be unreceptive to the gospel. The prevalent culture in the West, and increasingly throughout the world, is consumerist. Consumerism, though hardly a philosophical system, has philosophical roots that go back several centuries.

Influenced by the agnosticism of the Kantian school, people have lost confidence in the possibility of gaining real knowledge about anything that transcends what the senses can perceive. They consequently write off religious convictions as arbitrary decisions of the will, rooted perhaps in the unconscious or in ideology, but in any case unsupported by rational grounds. Religion is regarded as something like music — a hobby for those who are inclined to it. In this context people look for satisfactions here and now. The majority seek to pile up wealth and material goods that will secure such satisfactions.

Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio calls attention to a variety of contemporary philosophical deviations, such as subjectivism, relativism, historicism, scientism, and pragmatism. Because people doubt that it is possible to get to any solid truth in matters of religion, their religion is permeated with these errors. Subjectivism means an acceptance of the idea that there is no objectively binding truth, but that people may content themselves with finding what is true for them, as though each of us had a different truth. Historical or cultural relativism means that ideas are always culture-bound.

The wisdom of the past is no longer valid for today because it was conditioned by a cultural framework that no longer exists. The teaching of Scripture and tradition, therefore, can no longer be treated as having more than historical interest. Scientism means the presumption that true knowledge and progress are achievable only by exact measurement and rigorous calculation, which are thought to be the methods of science. Pragmatism means that truth is not to be found in abstract theory but in applicability, what actually pays off, what William James called “cash value.” Religion can be useful if it makes people happy and induces them to become better citizens, but it can also lead to hatred and violence, as is obvious in our day. Religion is therefore judged by purely secular criteria.

These errors, rather than others that are strictly theological, are the principal obstacles to religious faith and to the new evangelization. For this reason I would plead with you who are philosophers to take on these tendencies and expose their superficiality. I hope that as Christian and Catholic philosophers you will feel a sense of responsibility to secure the foundations of faith.

The new evangelization, to be successful, must be accompanied by a new apologetics. To clear the way for an effective proclamation of the gospel, philosophers must help to dispel the climate of opinion that makes people antecedently dismiss any such proclamation as incredible. Philosophers might also help to work out a theory of testimony. Paul VI and John Paul II agreed that the modern world is more influenced by witness than by argument. Most people, however, lack an adequate epistemology of testimony. What are the qualities that make a witness credible? The old textbooks spoke of competence and truthfulness, but further work is needed to show what witnesses are competent to be bearers of divine revelation, and what kind of truth is to be sought in the gospel. Some good work has been done in this field, but I doubt that it is known to most teachers and to their students.

While philosophy can make an essential contribution to the new evangelization, I would like to add a word of caution. Philosophy by itself cannot account for the whole process of coming to the faith. The key element in any conversion is the grace of God which enlightens the mind and attracts the will. To sort out the respective contributions of nature and grace requires a cooperative effort on the part of philosophers and theologians together. We must not be content to perpetuate a kind of departmental isolation that makes adherents of the two disciplines strangers to each other. This conference should help in a modest way to overcome the estrangement.


The “Mystery of Faith” The Anamnesis, Offering, Intercessions, and the Final Doxology – Edward Sri

October 20, 2011

We have arrived at the supreme moment of the Mass. The priest as spoken the words of consecration over the bread and wine, and they have now become the body and blood of Christ. In reverence, the priest genuflects in silent adoration before Christ’s Blood in the chalice and then rises and solemnly says, “The mystery of faith.”

These words are not so much a ceremonial instruction for the people to say their part next. Rather, they express the priest’s profound wonder and awe over the mystery that is taking place. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose body and blood were offered for our sins on Calvary, is now really present on the altar under the appearances of bread and wine. Using an expression of St. Paul (1 Timothy 3:9), the priest exclaims that this truly is “the mystery of faith”!

Joining the priest’s wonder over this mystery, the people proclaim the story of salvation summed up in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Two of the acclamations options draw from St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26):

“We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection
Until you come again.”


“When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup,
We proclaim your Death, O Lord,
Until you come again.”

A third option proclaims the saving power of Christ’s death and resurrection while drawing on the words of the Samaritans who, after encountering Jesus, came to believe in him, saying, “We know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).

“Save us, Savior of the world,
For by your Cross and Resurrection
You have set us free.”

The Anamnesis, Offering, Intercessions, and the Final Doxology
The ineffable mysteries unfolding before us cannot be taken in all at once.
It is as if we need to pause and lengthen the moment in order to grasp their meaning and enter into them. The next two prayers following the words of institution do just that; they make explicit various aspects of what is happening in the liturgy and allow us to ponder them in our hearts.

The first prayer is called the anamnesis. We have seen how the whole Eucharistic prayer is a “memorial” (or anamnesis in Greek), making present Christ’s saving action on the cross so that we might participate in its power more fully. In a stricter, more technical sense, however, the anamnesis refers to a prayer which identifies what is happening in the Mass. Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me.” Now, the priest tells the Father in heaven that the Church has been faithful in fulfilling this command:

“Therefore, as we celebrate the memorial of his Death and Resurrection…”
(Eucharistic Prayer II)

God, of course, does not need to be informed of our liturgical actions; He knows of them already and understands their meaning perfectly. We, however, have a need to tell him. Like small children who eagerly tell their parents their accomplishments (“Dad, did you see me hit the ball into the outfield? I made it all the way to second base!”), we have a need to tell our heavenly Father of our joyous participation in these sacred mysteries.

The anamnesis serves as the basis for a second prayer known as the offering,” which expresses how in the Mass we have the awesome privilege of offering what Jesus offered on Good Friday. On the cross, Jesus offered up his sacrifice alone. In the Mass, he offers it with his Church as he associates us with this sacrifice.

We offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.
(Eucharistic Prayer III)

As we saw above, we are invited to unite ourselves with this sacrifice of Christ, which is why the Eucharistic Prayer calls this not only Christ’s sacrifice, but also

the oblation of your Church
(Eucharistic Prayer III).

And the two are really one, since the Church at every Mass participates in the one self-giving act of Christ’s offering on the cross.

The symbolism of the gifts also points to how the Church offers itself to God not on its own, but in union with Christ’s sacrifice. Recall how the material gifts of bread and wine symbolized a total gift of one’s very self. Now after the consecration, those human gifts to God have become the Eucharistic body and blood of Christ — the body and blood which is offered to the Father. Thus, in Christ, the Church participates in the perfect self-giving love of the Son on the cross. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains:

In this very memorial, the Church — and in particular the Church here and now gathered — offers in the Holy Spirit the spotless Victim to the Father. The Church’s intention, however, is that the faithful not only offer this spotless Victim but also learn to offer themselves, and so day by day to be consummated, through Christ the Mediator, into unity with God and with each other so that at last God maybe all in all.
[General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Third Typical Edition, no. 79.]

Three Model Sacrifices
Eucharistic Prayer I goes on to cite three models of sacrifice from the Bible
, asking the Father to accept the Church’s offering as he was pleased to accept the sacrifices of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek: “…accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.”

Each of these Old Testament patriarchs made sacrifices that prefigure Christ’s and point to the kind of self-giving we should offer God as we unite ourselves to his oblation.

God looked with favor on the sacrifice of the mysterious priest-king, Melchizedek, who offered bread and wine to God and blessed Abraham. From the earliest period of Christianity, his sacrifice has been seen as prefiguring Christ’s offering of bread and wine at the Last Supper. The sacrifice of Abel reminds us to give our best to God. In contrast to his brother Cain, who only gave the fruit from the ground, Abel was willing to give the Lord his best, sacrificing “the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 4:4). God had regard for Abel’s generous sacrifice, but not for Cain’s.

Finally, Abraham gave something more than bread, wine, or animals. He was willing to offer God that which was most precious to him: his own son, Isaac. And the events surrounding Abraham’s sacrifice prefigure Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary perhaps more than any other sacrifice in the Old Testament. Genesis 22 tells how Abraham took his only beloved son Isaac to Mount Moriah on a donkey. Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain and was bound on the wood to be offered as a sacrifice for sin. In response to this heroic act of total surrender, God swore that he would bless the whole human family through Abraham’s descendants. Many centuries later, God the Father offers up his only beloved son, Jesus, in Jerusalem — a city associated with Moriah, the very place where Abraham offered up Isaac (see 2 Chr 3:1; Ps 76:2). Like Isaac, Jesus travels to this place on a donkey, and like Isaac, he carries the wood of the cross to Calvary.

There, like Isaac again, Jesus is bound to the wood and offered as a sacrifice for sin — a sacrifice that brings about the worldwide blessing that God swore to Abraham in Genesis 22. On Good Friday, God the Father and God the Son, therefore, bring to fulfillment what was prefigured by Abraham and Isaac long ago, and God’s oath to Abraham that he would bless the human family is realized.

As the Eucharistic Prayers near their conclusion, the priest makes various intercessions. First, he prays for all who will soon be nourished by the body and blood of Christ. He prays that “they may become one body, one spirit in Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer III) — an echo of St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The priest also prays that our participation in Christ’s sacrifice might make us “an eternal offering to you”(Eucharistic Prayer III) or “a living sacrifice” (Eucharistic Prayer IV) echoing St. Paul’s exhortation to the Romans: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

Second, the priest prays for the Church universal, naming the pope and the local bishop and then interceding for all bishops, clergy, and the entire people of God, both the living and the dead. Some intercessions include a universal scope, interceding for “all who seek you with a sincere heart” (Eucharistic Prayer IV) and praying that the sacrifice of the Mass “advance the peace and salvation of all the world” (Eucharistic Prayer III).

The Doxology and the “Great Amen”
The Eucharistic Prayer culminates with an expression of praise that was used in the Mass as early as the second century. And the people respond with what is commonly known as “the great Amen” — and rightly so.

“Amen” transliterates a Hebrew word that affirms the validity of what has been said and was often used in liturgical settings. For example, when the Levites sang, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting,” the people joined in this blessing of God by exclaiming, `Amen!” (1 Chronicles 16:36).

When Ezra read the book of the law in a solemn ceremony, he concluded by blessing the Lord, and the people answered, `Amen, Amen” (Nehemiah 8:6). St. Paul used this word in similar ways (Romans 1:25; Galatians 1:5; Ephesians 3:21) and even concluded some of his letters with an `Amen” (1 Corinthians 16:24; also, in some manuscripts, 1 Thessalonians 5:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:18).

Most notable is how the angels and saints in heaven cry out “Amen” as they sing their part in the chorus praising God in the heavenly liturgy. In the book of Revelation, every living creature in heaven and earth and under the earth says, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

And in response, the angelic creatures say “Amen!” as if to shout out, “Yes! May the Lord be blessed and honored forever!” In another scene, the angels fall down in worship before God’s throne, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen” (Revelations 7:12; see also Revelations 5:14; 19:4).

This praise of the angels and saints in heaven is echoed on earth by the priest at every Mass when he says,

Through him, and with him, and in him,
O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
All glory and honor is yours, forever and ever.

These words themselves have roots in Scripture. They come in part from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

St. Paul also refers to “the unity of the Spirit” in Ephesians 4:3. Here, the liturgy expresses the Trinitarian nature of our worship in the Mass. We praise the almighty Father best by offering our lives through, with, and in the Son who surrendered Himself completely on Calvary and in the unity of his Spirit who abides in us.

After hearing the priest acclaim that all honor and glory is God’s forever and ever, we respond like the angels, eager to join in this praise of God. We cry out `Amen!” And this is no ordinary “Amen.” In it, we join all the great heroes in salvation history — the Levites, Ezra, St. Paul, and all the angels and saints in heaven — in this chorus of unending praise. No wonder St. Jerome said that this Amen in the Mass of the early Christians in Rome “resounded in heaven, as a celestial thunderclap,” as cited in Charles Belmonte’s Understanding the Mass. In addition to affirming that all honor and glory is God’s, the people’s “Amen” is an affirmation of the entire Eucharistic prayer. The priest has been representing the Church throughout this prayer. Now the people give their “yes!” to all that the priest has been praying. Accordingly, St. Augustine described this great “Amen” as the people’s signature under the prayer of the priest.


The Eucharist: The Sanctus, The Epiclesis and The Words of Institution and Consecration – Edward Sri

October 19, 2011

The Sanctus: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord”

“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

This prayer helps us to see with the eyes of the angels what is really happening in the Eucharistic liturgy. Right away, the opening words “Holy, holy, holy Lord…” take us spiritually up to heaven. They come from Isaiah 6:3, a passage in which the prophet receives a vision of the heavenly King in the divine throne room with his majesty magnificently displayed and his angelic court adoring him.

Isaiah reports that he saw “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple” (Is 6:1). Above the Lord, Isaiah saw the six-winged angelic seraphim, a word which means “burning ones.” This unique title suggests that these angels are so close to God that they reflect his radiance. Yet even these angelic beings stand in utter awe before the divine presence. They covered their faces, daring not to behold the full glory of God (Isaiah 6:2), and called to one another in an ecstatic hymn of praise:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of his glory.”
(Isaiah 6:3)

The three-fold repetition of the word “holy” here is the strongest form of the superlative in Hebrew. The seraphim, therefore, acclaim the Lord as the all-holy One, the one God above all other gods. And by singing “the whole earth is full of his glory,” they praise God for his splendor, which is displayed throughout creation (see Psalms 8:1; 19:1-6; 24:1-3).

This angelic hymn of praise has dramatic effects. When they sing, the foundations of the Temple shake and the room is filled with smoke. Isaiah understandably feels afraid. Recognizing his unworthiness to stand in the holy presence of God, he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips… for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).

Singing with the Angels
In the New Testament, St. John had a similar experience. He was caught up in the Spirit on the Lord’s day (Revelations 1:10) and had an ecstatic vision of the heavenly liturgy. John sees Jesus, the Son of Man, in radiant glory, and like Isaiah he responds in fear: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelations 1:17). Again, like Isaiah, John sees the six-winged angelic creatures before the throne of God who sing a similar hymn of praise: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelations 4:8). Reminiscent of Isaiah’s account of the seraphim praising God for his glory revealed in the cosmos, John reports how “the twenty-four elders” fall down before God’s throne praising him for his creation as they sing:

“Worthy art though, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for thou didst create all things,
and by thy will they existed and were created.” (Revelations 4:11)

With this background in mind, we can understand more clearly what it means for us to say at Mass: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of hosts…” We are joining our voices with the angels and saints in heaven in their jubilant hymn of praise. And how fitting it is to do so at this very moment in the Mass! In the Eucharistic liturgy, we become like Isaiah and St. John, caught up to the heavenly liturgy. [See CCC 1139]

We are mystically entering the heavenly throne room — the same one that Isaiah saw in his earth-shaking vision that filled the Temple with smoke as the angels sang. Both the prophet and the apostle felt unworthy to behold this awesome sign, and even the seraphim felt the need to cover their faces as they flew before the glory of God. Like them, we are preparing to encounter the King of Kings, the all-holy divine Lord, who will become present on the altar. No wonder we fall to our knees in reverence after singing this hymn.

In the second half of this prayer known as the Sanctus (Latin for “holy”), we repeat words which the crowds used to greet Jesus as He processed into Jerusalem: “Hosanna” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Both expressions were originally in Psalm 118, a pilgrimage hymn recited on the way to the Temple for major feasts. Hosanna is a transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning “Save us,” which became an expression of praise in liturgical worship. The blessing upon “he who comes in the name of the Lord” was normally invoked on the pilgrims coming to the Temple. On the day we know as Palm Sunday, the crowds used these words to welcome Jesus as the one coming in the Lord’s name — in other words, the one representing God and acting on his behalf.

It is fitting that we repeat these words at this moment in the Liturgy. Just as the crowds in Jerusalem welcomed Jesus into the holy city with these words from Psalm 118, so do we welcome Jesus into our churches, for he is about to become present in the Eucharist on our altars.

The Epiclesis
We saw earlier that in the ancient Jewish table prayers, the blessing over the cup included a supplication that God send the Messiah to Israel and restore the Davidic Kingdom. Quite naturally, the early Christians included in the Eucharistic prayer a similar supplication. In a prayer known as the epiclesis (meaning “invocation upon”), the priest prays that the Father send the Holy Spirit so that the gifts of bread and wine be changed into the body and blood of Our Lord.

Like the ancient Jews who pleaded with God to send the Messiah, the priest at Mass petitions that the Messiah-King be made present once again, this time under the appearances of bread and wine: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer II); or “Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you: by the same Spirit graciously make holy these gifts we have brought to you for consecration, that they may become the body and blood of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer III).

There is a second epiclesis after the words of institution that relates to the other petition made in the ancient Jewish prayers, that of the House of David being restored. Just as many Jews expected the Messiah to unite God’s people in a restored Davidic kingdom, so we confidently hope that the Messiah who comes to us in the Eucharist will unite us more deeply together in his Church. Hence, the priest calls on the Holy Spirit, praying that the Eucharist may draw all those who receive into a greater communion: “Grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer III; emphasis added). Similarly, in other Eucharistic Prayers, the priest petitions that after receiving the one Body of Christ in the Eucharist, “we may be gathered into one” (Eucharistic Prayer III) or “gathered into one body” (Eucharistic Prayer IV).

The Words of Institution and Consecration

“Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body,
Which will be given up for you…
Take this, all of you, and drink from it,
For this is the chalice of my blood,
The blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many
For the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”

For some Catholics, these words might be too familiar. Some of us have heard these words hundreds of times since our childhood repeated at every Mass. We might be tempted to take them for granted or consider them routine.

But what if we had never heard these words before? What if we were Peter, James, or one of the other apostles present at the Last Supper? What would these words have meant to us?

In order to understand the full meaning of these sacred words, it is important to hear them against the background of the Passover. The gospels that recount the institution narrative tell us that the Last Supper took place in the context of the Passover meal — the annual feast that celebrated the foundational night in Israel’s history when God liberated them from Egypt (Matthew 26:19; Mark 14:16; Luke 22:13). On that first Passover, God instructed the people to sacrifice an unblemished lamb, eat of the lamb, and mark their doorposts with the blood of the lamb. The families who participated in this ritual were spared when the firstborn sons in Egypt were struck down in the tenth plague. Year after year, subsequent Israelites re-told the story of that first Passover and re-enacted it, eating a sacrificial lamb once again.

Most significantly, the Israelites celebrated the annual Passover (see Ex 12:14) as a liturgical “memorial” (anamnesis in Greek). For the ancient Jews, this involved much more than remembering a past event. A memorial such as Passover was very different from modern holidays such as the Fourth of July, on which Americans simply call to mind the founding of their country. In a biblical “memorial,” the past was not merely recalled; it was re-lived. The past event was mystically made present to those celebrating the feast. This is why Jews in Jesus’ day believed that when they celebrated this feast, the first Passover was made present to them as a “memorial.” In fact, when later Jewish rabbis wrote about the Passover, they said that when a Jew celebrates the feast, it was as if he himself were walking out of Egypt with his great ancestors from the Exodus generation. [Pesahim, 10.5] The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes a similar point:

In the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them.
[CCC 1363]

In this way, the first Passover event was extended in time so that each new generation could participate spiritually in this foundational event of their liberation from servitude. The annual Passover feast thus forged solidarity throughout the generations. All Israelites participated in the Passover. All were saved from slavery in Egypt. All were united in the one covenant family of God.



The Eucharist: The Preface Prayer — Edward Sri

October 18, 2011

Scholars have noted that the Eucharistic prayer has roots in Jewish table prayers recited at every meal. Near the start of the meal, the father of the family or the one presiding over the community would take bread and speak a blessing (barakah) which praised God, saying: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe, who has brought forth bread from heaven.” The bread was then broken and given to the participants, and the people began eating the various courses of the meal. In the Passover meal, there also would be a reading of the haggadah, which re-told the story of the first Passover in Egypt and interpreted that foundational event in Israel’s history for the current generation. This made God’s saving deeds of the past present and applied the story to their lives.

When the meal neared its conclusion, the presider prayed a second and longer barakah over a cup of wine. This blessing had three parts:

1)       Praise of God for his creation;
2)       Thanksgiving for his redemptive work in the past (for example, the giving of the covenant, the land, the law); and
3)       Supplication for the future, that God’s saving works would continue in their lives and be brought to their climax in the sending of the Messiah who would restore the Davidic kingdom.

The early Eucharistic prayers seem to have followed this general pattern. They included reciting a blessing over bread and wine, re-telling the foundational saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the three-fold structure of offering praise to God for creation, thanksgiving for his saving deeds and supplication. And as we will soon see, these ancient Jewish elements are also found in the Eucharistic prayers of the Mass today.

The Eucharistic prayer consists of:

  1. the Preface;
  2. the Sanctus;
  3. the Epiclesis;
  4. the Words of Institution/Consecration;
  5. the “Mystery of Faith” and
  6. the Anamanesis, Offering, Intercessions, and Doxology.

We’ll look at the Preface in today’s post.

The Preface
The Eucharistic Prayer opens with a three-part dialogue that has been recited in the Church since at least the third century:

Priest: The Lord be with you. People: And with your spirit.
Priest: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right and just.

This dialogue is first reported in the Eucharistic prayer of St. Hippolytus (c. A.D. 215). Now, eighteen centuries later, we continue to say the same words, uniting us with the Christians of the early Church.

The Lord Be With You
The opening exchange (“The Lord be with you… And with your spirit”) we have heard before. It was used in the Introductory Rites at the start of Mass and just before the reading of the Gospel. W have seen that, in the Bible, greetings like this were used to address those whom God called to an important but daunting mission. They needed the Lord to be with them as they set out on their charge. Here, the greeting is fittingly repeated as we embark upon the most sacred part of the Mass: the Eucharistic prayer. Both the priest and the people need the Lord to be with them as they prepare to enter into the mystery of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

Lifting Our Hearts
Next, the priest says, “Lift up your hearts” (Sursum corda in Latin). This prayer brings to mind the similar exhortation in the book of Lamentations: “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (Lamentations 3:41).

What Does It Mean To “Lift Up” Our Hearts?
In the Bible, the heart is the hidden center of the person from which one’s thoughts, emotions and actions originate. All intentions and commitments flow from the human heart. Therefore, when the priest at Mass says “Lift up your hearts,” he is summoning us to give our fullest attention to what is about to unfold. This is a “wake-up call” to set aside all other concerns and focus our minds, wills and emotions — our hearts — on the sublimity of what is happening in the Eucharistic prayer.

This summons is reminiscent of St. Paul’s words to the Colossians: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). Just as Paul called the Colossians to seek the “things that are above, where Christ is,” so are we bidden to direct our entire being toward the things of heaven, for that is where Christ is. And that is where we are going in the Eucharistic prayer.

Our Fullest Attention
St. Cyprian (d. A.D. 258), a North African Church Father, explained how this prayer draws our attention away from worldly distractions and is meant to lead us to ponder the awe-inspiring action taking place in the Eucharistic prayer:

When we stand praying, beloved brethren, we ought to be watchful and earnest with our whole heart, intent on our prayers. Let all carnal and worldly thoughts pass away, nor let the soul at that time think on anything but the object only of its prayer. For this reason also the priest by way of preface before his prayer, prepares the minds of the brethren by saying, Lift up your hearts, that so upon the people’s response, We have them before our Lord, he may be reminded that he himself ought to think of nothing but our Lord.
[St. Cyprian, De dominica oratione, c. 31. As translated in Thomas Crean, The Mass and the Saints, pp. 93-4.]

Another Church Father, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, made a similar point and warned believers of the seriousness of this moment.

Lift up your hearts: For in this sublime moment the heart should be lifted up to God, and not be allowed to descend to the earth and to earthly concerns. With all possible emphasis the sacrificing priest exhorts us in this hour to lay aside all the cares of this life, all domestic worries, and direct our hearts to God in heaven who bath so loved men…. Let there be none among you, who shall confess with his lips: We have lifted up our hearts, and allow his thoughts to remain with the cares of this life.
[St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catholic Mysteries, 5, 4-5. As translated in Pius Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass, p. 216.]

Cyril goes on to acknowledge that being attentive to the Lord is something we should do always, but is difficult because we are fallen and weak. Yet, if there ever is a moment to concentrate most intently and give God our fullest attention, it is now at the Eucharistic prayer: “We should, indeed think of God at all times, but this is impossible because of our human frailty; but in this holy time especially our hearts should be with God.”
[St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catholic Mysteries, 5, 4-5. As translated in Pius Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass, p. 216]

The Great Thanksgiving
In the last liturgical exchange, the priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God….” As we already have seen in the Gloria (“We give you thanks…”) and in the response to the Scripture readings (“Thanks be to God”), thanksgiving is a common biblical response to God’s goodness and to his saving works in our lives. The priest directing us to give thanks to the Lord echoes the similar exhortation found in the Psalms: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good…” (Psalms 136:1-3; see also Psalms 107:8, 15, 21, 31). In the Jewish tradition, thanksgiving is one thing we can actually offer the Creator that he does not possess already. The first century Jewish commentator Philo expressed this point:

We affirm that the activity most characteristic of God is to give His blessings. But that most fitting to creation is to give thanks, because that is the best it can offer him in return.

For when creation tries to make any other return to God it finds that its gift already belongs to the Creator of the universe, not to the creature offering it. Since we now realize that to give due worship to God only one duty is incumbent upon us, that of giving thanks, we must carry it out in all times and in all places. [Philo, De Plantatione, 130-31, as translated in A.G. Martimort, The Sign.the New Covenant (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1963), p. 169.]

St. Paul similarly teaches that the Christian life should be marked by prayers of thanksgiving. We should be “abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:7), giving thanks to God in all we do (Colossians 3:17) and “in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18; cf. Philemon 4:6), especially in worship (see 1 Corinthians 14:16-19; Ephesisans 5:19-20; Colossians 3:16).

Following this biblical tradition of offering prayers of thanksgiving, the priest invites us to “give thanks to the Lord our God.” And there is a lot to be thankful for at this point in the Mass. Like the ancient Israelites who thanked the Lord for delivering them from their enemies, so we now should thank God for sending his Son to save us from sin and the Evil One. That redemptive act of Christ’s death and resurrection is about to be made present to us in the liturgy, and we humbly express our gratitude.

We also should be thankful for the miracle about to take place in our midst, as the bread and wine on the altar will be changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Our Lord and King will soon be with us in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Our hearts should be filled with gratitude as our church becomes like a new holy of holies, housing the divine presence. What an awesome privilege it is for us to draw near!

We are like the ancient Israelites who approached the temple of God’s dwelling with joyous psalms of praise and thanksgiving. In fact, we should hear in the priest’s instruction, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” an echo of the Psalmist’s words to those pilgrims as they drew near to Jerusalem: “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving” (Psalms 95:2) or “Enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Psalms 100:4).

There is so much to be thankful for at this moment in the Liturgy! We therefore acknowledge that gratitude is the only fitting response to the mysteries about to unfold before us. In answer to the priest’s invitation to thank the Lord, we say, “It is right and just.”

Preface Prayer
After inviting us to give thanks to the Lord, the priest now talks to God in a prayer of thanksgiving. The opening line is addressed to the Father and expresses what we have seen throughout Scripture: the duty of God’s people to thank the Lord. One option for the Preface prayer, for example, begins, “It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Father most holy….” But the priest does not say this prayer for himself. He offers it on behalf of the people who just expressed their desire to join the priest in thanking God when they said that “It is right and just” to give God thanks and praise.

St. John Chrysostom made this point, noting how the priest (envisioned by Chrysostom as the bishop) represents the people in this prayer: “The prayer of thanksgiving is made in common. The bishop does not give thanks alone, but the whole assembly joins him. For, though the bishop speaks for the people, he does so only after they have said that it is fitting and right that he should begin the Eucharist.”[ St. John Chrysostom, Homily on 2 Corinthians 18:3, as translated in A.G. Martimort, The Signs of the New Covenant, p. 170.]

This Preface prayer follows the pattern of thanksgiving in the psalms in the Old Testament. Thanksgiving in general was offered for the gift of God’s creation (Psalms 136:4-9), for his provision in their lives (Psalms 67:6-7), for his wondrous deeds (Psalms 75:1) and for his saving acts (Psalms 35:18). In these kinds of psalms, God’s people responded with gratitude for the Lord rescuing a person in a particular way, whether it be healing (Psalms 30, 116), saving someone from their enemies (Psalms 18, 92, 118, 138) or delivering them from some trouble (Psalms 66:14). The psalmist gives an account of his trials and how God rescued him, which serves as the basis for the praise and thanksgiving.

This pattern can be seen in Psalm 136, which starts with the Psalmist thanking God for his marvelous works of creation: for making the earth, the waters, the stars, the sun, and the moon (Psalm 136:4-9). The Psalm then moves to recount God’s saving deeds in Israel’s history: bringing them out of Egypt, parting the Red Sea, overthrowing Pharaoh in the waters, leading them through t the wilderness and defeating Israel’s enemies. Next, the Psalmist proclaims how this same God, who rescued their ancestors long ago, has also performed an act of deliverance for God’s people in the present.

This same God who delivered their ancestors from Egypt has also “remembered us in our low estate” and “rescued us from our foes” (Psalms 136:23-24). Therefore, the community gathered with the Psalmist has great cause for thanksgiving. God’s love for his people has been steadfast throughout history. He has been faithful to his people from the time of the Exodus to the present. The Psalmist thus concludes, “O give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalms 136:26).

The Eucharistic prayers follow this biblical pattern. For we, like the psalmists of old, have much to be thankful for. Like Psalm 136, the Eucharistic prayer recounts God’s marvelous deeds in salvation history. This recounting may take on various forms, as there are several options for the preface. Some forms of this prayer thank God for his work of creation. Others highlight specific aspects of Christ’s saving work, depending on the feast or season. For example, in the Christmas season, the priest thanks God for becoming man. In Holy Week, the priest refers to how the hour is approaching when Jesus triumphed over Satan. In the Easter Season, the priest thanks God for the eternal life Christ has won for us. But all these prayers focus on thanking God for the very heart of his saving plan: Christ’s life-giving death and resurrection.


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