Archive for July, 2012


Shameless and Loveless — Roger Scruton

July 31, 2012

The Venus of Urbino is a 1538 oil painting by the Italian master Titian. Titian returns us to the Garden of Eden, instructing us that we are not to see this body as naked, as though the woman were exposing herself to us in the manner of the girl above in the Venus of Urbino. The nude’s sexuality is not offered to us, but remains latent and expectant within her — awaiting the lover to whom it can be offered not shamelessly, but nevertheless without shame. Focus on the dog. The dog reminds us that she, unlike it, is capable of shame, while being neither ashamed nor shameless. This stupendous fact is presented to us not as a thought or a theory, but as a revelation — the kind of revelation that is contained in every human form, but which is of necessity hidden by our daily commerce and retrieved and clarified by art.


The condition in which we now find ourselves is novel in many ways. Perhaps the most interesting is the enormous effort that is now devoted to overcoming or abolishing shame.

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

 Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Philip Larkin, Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began, according to Philip Larkin’s famous poem, in 1963. Four decades have elapsed since then, and these decades have seen a growing recognition that sexual liberation is not the answer to the problems of sex but a new addition to them. Traditional sexual morality reinforced the society-wide commitment to marriage as the sole legitimate avenue to sexual release.

It is easy to understand such a morality. It has a clear social function — ensuring stable families and guaranteeing the transfer of social capital from one generation to the next. And it has an intrinsic rational appeal in making sense of love, commitment, jealousy, courtship and the drama of the sexes. The problem is that, by impeding our pleasures, it creates a strong motive to escape from it. And escape from it we did, with a great burst of jubilation that very quickly dwindled to an apprehensive gulp.

The condition in which we now find ourselves is novel in many ways. Perhaps the most interesting is the enormous effort that is now devoted to overcoming or abolishing shame. The Book of Genesis tells the story of man’s fall, caused by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Until eating the forbidden fruit, the Bible tells us, ‘they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed’. No sooner had they eaten, however, than ‘the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons’.

When you do something wrong and are discovered you feel ashamed of yourself. This kind of shame is a moral emotion, founded on the thought that someone else is judging you. But it is not what is referred to in the verses quoted, which are about sexual shame. Sexual shame differs from moral shame in two ways.

  1. First, it is not a confession of wrongdoing: on the contrary, it testifies to the reluctance to do or suffer wrong.
  2. Secondly, it is not troubled, as moral shame is troubled, by the thought that you are being judged as a self, a free being, a moral subject. On the contrary, it arises from the thought that you are being judged as a body, a mechanism, an object.

Hence the German philosopher Max Scheler described sexual shame as a Schutzgefühl — a shield-emotion that protects you from abuse, whether by another or yourself. If we lose the capacity for shame we do not regain the innocence of the animals; we become shameless, and that means that we are no longer protected from the sexual predator.

Shame still existed in 1963. Couples hid their desire from the world, and sometimes from each other — at least until the moment when it could be clearly expressed. Obscenity was frowned upon, and by nobody more than the prophets of liberation, such as Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown. Sex, for them, was something beautiful, sacred even, which must not be sullied by dirty language, lavatorial humour or exhibitionist displays.

Shame has since been banished from the culture. This we witness in Reality TV — which ought to be called Fantasy TV since that is its function. All fig leaves, whether of language, thought or behavior, have now been removed, and the feral children are right there before our eyes, playing their dirty games on the screen. It is not a pretty sight, but nor is it meant to be.

This shamelessness is encouraged by sex education in our schools, which tries both to discount the differences between us and the other animals, and to remove every hint of the forbidden, the dangerous or the sacred. Shame, according to the standard literature now endorsed by the DES, is a lingering disability. Sexual initiation means learning to overcome such ‘negative’ emotions, to put aside our hesitations, and to enjoy ‘good sex’. Questions as to ‘who’, ‘whom’ or ‘which gender’ are matters of personal choice — sex education is not there to make the choice, merely to facilitate it.

In this way we encourage children to a premature and depersonalized interest in their own sexuality, and at the same time we become hysterical at the thought of all those pedophiles out there, who are really the pedophiles in here. I see in this the clear proof that shame is not a luxury, still less an inhibition to be discarded, but an integral part of the human condition. It is the emotion without which true sexual desire cannot develop, and if there is such a thing as genuine sex education, it consists in teaching children not to discard shame but to acquire it.

Equally novel is the loss of the concept of normal sexual desire. In 1963 we still saw homosexuality as a perversion, even if an enviably glamorous one. We still believed that sexual desire had a normal course, in which man and woman come together by mutual consent and to their mutual pleasure. We regarded sex with children as abhorrent and sex with animals as unthinkable, except for literary purposes.

Thanks in part to massive propaganda from the gay lobby, in part to the mendacious pseudo-science put out by the Kinsey Institute (whose charlatan founder has now been admitted to the ranks of saints and heroes), we have abandoned the concept of perversion, and accepted the official view of ‘sexual orientation’ as a natural and inescapable fact.

Indeed, things have gone further. Around 1963 the philosopher Michael Polanyi presented his theory of ‘moral inversion’, according to which disapproval once directed at an activity may become directed instead at the people who still disapprove of it. By moral inversion we protect ourselves from our previous beliefs and from the guilt of discarding them.

Moral inversion has infected the debate about sexual inversion to the point of silencing it. To suggest that it would be better if children were not exposed to homosexuality or encouraged to think of it as normal, that the gay scene is not the innocent thing that it claims to be but a form of sexual predation — to make those suggestions now, however hesitantly, is to lay yourself open to the charge of ‘homophobia’. And this will spell the end of your career in any place, such as a university, which has freedom of opinion as its guiding purpose. In this area, as in so many others, the ruling principle of liberalism applies; namely, all opinions are permitted, so long as they are liberal.

Novel too is the way in which sex and the sexual act are now described. In 1963 it was possible — just — to believe that the language of Lady Chatterley’s Lover safeguarded the moral core of sexual emotion, and showed it to be the beautiful and personal thing that it is. Sex, for Lawrence and his liberated followers, was still something holy, which could therefore be defiled. Forty years on we have acquired a habit of describing sex in demeaning and depersonalized terms. Having lost all sense of the human being as ‘made in God’s image’, we take revenge on the body by describing it in what the Lawrentians would regard as sacrilegious language.

A significant contribution has been made, in this respect, by pornography. You can study a picture and see only lines, colors and shapes, while failing to notice the face that shines in and through them. So you can look at a person and see only the body, and not the self that lives in it. It is precisely our sexual interest that presents us with this choice: whether to see the other as subject or as object.

This explains both the charm and the danger of pornography, which represents people as objects, so that the body becomes peculiarly opaque, a prison door behind which the self shifts invisibly, inaudibly and inaccessibly. People are repelled by pornography and also fascinated by it, and now that it is available to everyone on the internet, it seems that just about everyone is logging on.

The growing toleration of pornography, which will soon be regarded as an industry like any other, protected against criticism by the same moral inversion that now protects homosexuality, is rapidly changing the way in which the human body is perceived.One way of understanding this change is by invoking Kenneth Clark’s distinction between the naked and the nude.

In Titian’s nudes you will often find a lapdog, whose eyes and posture express an eager interest in the woman who reclines on the couch. Dogs have no conception of what it is to be naked, and their calm unembarrassability before the sight of human flesh reminds us of how very different the human form is in their eyes and in ours. 

Venus with a Mirror Titian (c.1555)

In this way Titian returns us to the Garden of Eden, instructing us that we are not to see this body as naked, as though the woman were exposing herself to us in the manner of the girl above in the Venus of Urbino. The nude’s sexuality is not offered to us, but remains latent and expectant within her — awaiting the lover to whom it can be offered not shamelessly, but nevertheless without shame. The dog reminds us that she, unlike he, is capable of shame, while being neither ashamed nor shameless. This stupendous fact is presented to us not as a thought or a theory, but as a revelation — the kind of revelation that is contained in every human form, but which is of necessity hidden by our daily commerce and retrieved and clarified by art.

The people in the pornographic image are not nude like Titian’s Venus but naked — even if they are also partly clothed. The focus is on the sexual act and the sexual organs, which are exposed, framed by the camera and detached from any personal emotion. In this way pornography effects a shift in focus — a shift downwards from the human person, the object of love and desire, to the human animal, the object of transferable fantasies. This shift in focus is also a profanation. By focusing on the wrong things we pollute and diminish the right things. In pornography, desire is detached from love, and attached to the mute machinery of sex. This is damaging to adults in just the same way that modern sex education is damaging to children. For it undermines the possibility of real erotic love, which comes only when the sexual act is hedged round with prohibitions, and offered as a gift and an existential commitment.

The growth of internet porn is easily explained, however. Pornography has a function, which is precisely to relieve us of commitments. Life in the actual world is difficult and embarrassing. Most of all is it difficult and embarrassing in our confrontation with other people who, by their very existence, make demands that we may be unwilling to meet. It requires a great force, a desire that fixes upon an individual, and sees that individual as unique and irreplaceable, if people are to make the sacrifices upon which the community depends for its longevity. It is far easier to take refuge in surrogates, which neither embarrass us nor resist our cravings. The habit grows of creating a compliant world of desire, in which the erotic force is dissipated and the needs of love denied.

The effect of pornographic fantasy is therefore to ‘commodify’ the object of desire, and to replace love and its vestigial sacraments with the law of exchange. When sex becomes a commodity, the most important sanctuary of human ideals becomes a market, and value is reduced to price. That is what has happened in the last few decades, and it is the root fact of post-modern culture, the ultimate explanation of what is observed and commented upon on every side — namely, that our culture has become not just shameless, but loveless. For the human body has been downgraded in our perception from subject to object, from self to tool.

The distinction between body and self is not to be explained as a distinction between the physical body and the ethereal soul. It is a distinction between two ways of seeing our embodiment. Nor is it a distinction that we can really apply to the rest of creation. But it belongs to the truth of our condition. And it is only when we look on people as we should, so that their physical embodiment becomes transparent to the self-conscious viewpoint that is uniquely theirs, that we see the moral reality. That moral reality is what is meant when it is written that we are made in the image of God. Take that phrase as a metaphor if you like; but it still refers to something real, namely the embodiment in the human form of a free being, capable of desire, love and commitment and capable also, therefore, of shame. This reality was vivid to us four decades ago; today it is still perceived, but through a glass darkly.

These radical changes have consequences that nobody would have foreseen in 1963. It was still assumed in that year that men made advances, and that women gave in to them only when consent was complete. What happened thereafter was the responsibility of man and woman alike. This assumption can no longer be made. In the world of ‘safe sex’ those old habits of courtship seem tedious and redundant. If sex is simply the pleasurable transaction that is on sale over the internet and advertised in schools, then consent is easily obtained and easily signified.

But it seems as though consent, offered so freely and without regard for the preliminaries once assumed to be indispensable, is not really consent and can be withdrawn at any time, even retrospectively. The charges of harassment or even ‘date rape’ lie always in reserve. The slap in the face which used to curtail importunate advances is now offered after the event, and in a far more deadly form — a form which is no longer private, intimate and remediable, but public, militarised and, in America at least, possessing the absolute objectivity of law. ‘Date rape’ is now a serious and increasing crime on the American campus. It doesn’t matter that the girl said ‘yes’, since yes means no. In the absence of feminine modesty, ardent courtship and masculine address — behaviour still common in 1963 — you cannot assume that a woman knows what she is doing when she does it with you. You might take this as showing that ‘safe sex’ is really sex at its most dangerous. Maybe marriage is the only safe sex that we know.

With the crime of ‘date rape’ has come the lesser crime of sexual harassment, which means (to put it honestly) advances made by an unattractive man. The choreography of seduction was inherited in 1963 from the institution of marriage. But it has since decayed to the point where men are forced to be blunt about what they want, while being no longer trained to disguise their desires behind an offer of protection. In consequence unattractive men, reduced to blurting out their sexual need to its reluctant object, expose themselves to humiliation. And because women, however much they are schooled in feminist ideology, despise men who fail to be men and who appear to treat them as mere commodities, ‘sexual harassment’ has become a serious and wildly proliferating charge, a way in which women can release their generalized anger against men — an anger which is itself the long-term product of sexual liberation, and among the most distressing of the many legacies of 1963.

For four decades we have been defying human nature, making purely theoretical assumptions which fly in the face of customs and instincts that have existed, in one form or another, from the beginning of recorded history. Sexual liberation is here to stay; but we should try to temper it, to rescue the natural order that it threatens, and to safeguard the two great projects which, since 1963, have been in such serious decline: the project of love and the project of raising children.


The Sistine Madonna Turns 500 — By A.J. Goldmann

July 30, 2012

The Sistine Madonna by Raphael 1513-1514

A. J. Goldmann writes for the Wall Street Journal and  is based in Berlin.  He writes about European arts and culture.


Friedrich Nietzsche called her “the vision of the future wife.” Johann Wolfgang Goethe revered her as the “queen of all mankind.” Thomas Mann praised her as “my greatest experience in the art of painting.” Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, the last painting that the master completed by his own hand, turns 500 this year. A new exhibit in this city, where the painting has spent half of its life, shows that she wears her age well. As curated by Andreas Henning, “The Sistine Madonna: Raphael’s Iconic Painting Turns 500″ also sheds new light on the work’s fraught history and examines how it achieved the renown it enjoys today: a fame largely due to the pensive cherubs at the painting’s base.

The exhibit at the Old Master Picture Gallery in Dresden, Germany is an in-depth look at the painting’s composition, acquisition and reception—a story told through paintings, sketches, letters and objects.

“The main idea was not to make a Raphael exhibition, but to tell a story. Where does the painting come from? How did it get here? How was it received when it came to Dresden? How has the painting been celebrated in copies in the 19th century? How has it been celebrated in the gallery?” explained Bernhard Maaz, the museum’s director, in an interview.

The show starts with Pope Julius hiring Raphael to create an altarpiece for the monastery church of San Sisto in Piacenza, 40 miles from Milan. The commission celebrates Piacenza’s joining the Papal States after French troops were driven out of Northern Italy in 1512. There are no sketches or documents relating to the Sistine Madonna’s composition, but the museum fills this gap by exhibiting several other Raphaels, including the famous portrait (on loan from the Uffizi) of a melancholy Julius II slumped in his red throne and a portrait of the noblewomen Donna Velata, whose noble features may have inspired Raphael’s depiction of Mary in the Sistine Madonna.

The painting remained in relative obscurity until August III, the Elector of Saxony, mounted a campaign to buy the work and bring it to Dresden in 1754. “Make Room for the Great Raphael!” (1859), Adolph von Menzel’s painting of the arrival of the Sistine Madonna at the Dresden Palace, shows the Saxon monarch pushing his throne aside to welcome the painting, an apocryphal story that gained popularity in the Romantic Era. Throughout Europe in the 19th century, the Raphael painting’s reputation grew through written accounts, hand-drawn copies and, eventually, mass reproductions. The exhibit includes other canvases depicting the Madonna, as well as prints and photographs that attest to the role mechanical reproduction played in the popularization of the painting.

“Raphael’s Dream,” an 1821 canvas by Franz and Johannes Riepenhausen, shows Raphael receiving a divine vision to help him finish the painting. In Kurt Schwitters’s mischievous Dadaist collage of 1921, a wheel covers the cherubs and Mary becomes a Louise Brooks lookalike with short hair and modern hat.

During World War II, the Nazis moved the Sistine Madonna out of Dresden for safe-keeping. Discovered in a former railway tunnel by the Soviet “trophy brigades” in 1945, it was whisked away to the U.S.S.R., along with millions of cultural treasures taken as war reparations from German and Eastern European museums and castles. The Sistine Madonna remained in Moscow for a decade, along with thousands of other items from the Dresden collection. Mr. Maaz said looted art was a taboo subject, never discussed officially in Communist East Germany. But the exhibit displays a page from the gallery’s 1954 guestbook with irate entries by visitors demanding to see the Madonna again.

The Soviets returned the painting, along with hundreds of other artworks, to East Germany in 1956. There is a newspaper article from Pravda about the 1955 exhibit at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, the first and only time the painting was exhibited publicly in the Soviet Union. “When you come to Moscow, as I did two years ago, you can meet old people who still remember seeing the exhibit. It is very touching if you meet a very old lady who remembers what a miracle it was to see this painting in Moscow in 1955,” Mr. Maaz said.

To explain the painting’s long absence, the Soviets claimed the Madonna needed major restoration work before it could return to Dresden. This official explanation is illustrated by the 1985 painting “Madonna Rescued” by Mikhail Kornetsky. Done in Socialist-Realist style, it depicts Soviet soldiers and restorers scrutinizing the Madonna. “East Germans did not speak about this, but now we know that ‘conservation purposes’ was just a pretense,” Mr. Maaz said.

For the anniversary show, the Sistine Madonna has been outfitted with an impressive new frame. Hand-carved and gilded, it is modeled after similar Italian altarpiece frames of the early 16th century, since the original has been lost. It is set against a wall of gray, a color suggesting its intended setting within a church. It is, however, hung much lower than it would have been in Piacenza.

It is ironic that the Sistine Madonna’s most famous aspect is not its emotionally complex portrait of Mary and Jesus, but rather the cherubs propping themselves up on an altar at the base of the composition. The exhibit lingers on these winged messengers and traces their rise to art superstar status. For Mr. Maaz, their rise to fame is linked with the German Romantic era’s obsession with children: “Children were seen as the hope of mankind, they were considered to be very pure and clear and innocent in their souls. And these children were seen as something very special and something very rare in Raphael’s art.”

While one might think that taking the cherubs out of the painting’s context is a modern phenomenon, it has been going on since 1800. The exhibit’s most giddy and irreverent section deals with the solo adventures of the cherubs in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their images adorn embroidery, household tchotchkes of every stripe, holiday greeting cards, postcards for numerous Italian cities, toilet paper, an ad for lard, an emergency supply kit for hangovers, rolling tobacco, deodorant and even the box of a German baking mix called “Erotik Brot.”

Aside from the fun in displaying such paraphernalia, Mr. Maaz articulated a deeper hope for the exhibit. “We wanted to reintegrate these two children into the composition,” he said of the cherubs. “They look to the Christ Child and they ask about his future. They are asking, ‘What shall happen?’ And they are connecting Mary and the Child to us on earth.”


Imagination And Anticipation by Robert Sokolowski

July 27, 2012

Another set of phenomenological descriptions to develop an idea of what what phenomenological analysis is and why it is philosophical. There is, within human experience a role played by the structures of parts and wholes, identity in manifolds, and by presence and absence. We can amplify all these themes by examining perception, memory and imagination. These essays come from a precious little book titled Introduction to Phenomenology by the philosopher Robert Sokolowski. I featured four of them earlier in these posts that begin here.


Memory and imagination are structurally very similar, and one easily slips into the other. The same sort of displacement of the ego or the self that we find in memory also occurs in imagination. In both forms of intentionality, I here and now can mentally live in another place and time: in memory the there and then is specific and past, but in imagination it is in a kind of nowhere and “nowhen,” but even in imagination it is different from the here and now I actually inhabit. I am displaced into an imaginary world, even as I live in the real one. Furthermore, an object in imagination, an imaginary object, might well be taken from my real perceptions or from my memories, but it is now projected into situations and transactions that did not occur.

The major difference between memory and imagination lies in the doxic [vocab: of, relating to, or based on such intellectual processes as belief or opinion.]modality proper to each. Memory operates with belief. The memories I call up, or that intrude on me, are of what really happened and what I did experience and do. It is not the case that I first have the memories and then add belief to them; rather, they originally come with belief (of how it was), just as my perceptions come with belief (of how it is) . We have to make an effort to delete the belief in memory, or to change it into another modality, such as doubt or denial.

Imagination, on the other hand, is pervaded by a kind of suspension of belief, a turn into the mode of “as if.” This modal change is a kind of neutralizing, but one different from the kind that comes into play in the transcendental reduction. In imagination I displace myself into an imaginary world, but the real world around me remains as the believed-in, default context within which I imagine, from which I am displaced. All the things I imagine are pervaded with a sense of unreality; imagined events do not strap me with the true regret or terror that horrible events from my past can inflict on me. It may be the case that an overactive imagination can skew my memories and make me think that some things happened that did not, but such a breach of the boundary between memory and imagination is possible only if imagination and memory are indeed two different kinds of intentionalities.

However, even when I imagine, the identity synthesis that is proper to all intentionality remains in force. An imaginary object stays one and the same through many imaginings of it. There is a manifold with an identity at its core even in imagination. We can take things we have actually perceived and enroll them into imaginary scenarios, and the things remain the same; or we can fabricate purely imaginary things and put them into an imaginary routine, and they too remain the same throughout.

Obviously, imaginary objects do not have the thick solidity of perceived objects, since we can fantasize them into all sorts of improbable situations, but we are not totally free even in our imaginings; the things we imagine put some restrictions on what we can fantasize about them. If the thing is to remain itself, certain things cannot be imagined about it; if they were to be proposed, the thing would become something else. I can imagine a cat flying through the air (although I cannot remember a cat doing this), but I cannot truly imagine a cat being read as a poem, or a cat smiling and talking to me. A cat is not the kind of thing that can be read out loud, and a cat that smiled and spoke would not be just a cat any longer. It makes no sense to blend “ideas” or even the images in that way.

Imagination therefore works in a doxic modality different from that of perception and memory; it is unreal, only “as if.” However, there is a form of imagination that has to get realistic, that has to move back into the mode of belief. It is the kind of imagination we engage in when we are planning something, when we imagine ourselves in some future condition that we can bring about through the choices that we make. This is an anticipatory form of imagination, and it brings us back to earth, so to speak, from the flights of pure fantasy. Suppose that we wish to buy a house. We look at several homes, we narrow the possible options down to two or three, and then we deliberate about which to buy. Part of our deliberation involves imagining ourselves living in each of the houses, using the rooms, walking outside, and the like. Such projections come back to a doxic mode analogous to that of memory; we come back to a mode of belief, correlated with a sense of reality in what we imagine.

If we are serious about buying the house, we do not imagine ourselves floating over it like a balloon or crawling through the walls like a termite. That sort of imaginary projection is all right for dreams and fantasy, but it is not helpful in buying a house. (It is interesting to note how television advertising takes advantage of the difference between fantasy and serious projection. It displays all sorts of attractive but totally unreal situations — a car surrounded by beautiful people, a truck flying over the Grand Canyon, a romantic encounter facilitated by toothpaste — with the intention of getting the viewer to realistically imagine himself into a future in which he buys the product.)

The advance experience of ourselves in a new situation is a displacement of the self, but it is the reverse of memory. Instead of reviving an earlier experience, we anticipate a future one. Since the future has not yet been determined, we can realistically anticipate ourselves in several possible futures and not only one: we imagine how we will have been if the choice has been made, and we can at this point still imagine ourselves in several different circumstances. We project ourselves into the future perfect in different ways. In the enterprise of buying a house, we project ourselves as living in three or four different homes; we try them on for size. We might do so while actually visiting the houses or else afterward, when we daydream about what it would be like.

We may take such projections of the self for granted and assume that anyone can easily perform them, but in some situations it takes considerable ego strength to be able to carry them out effectively. For some people at some times the strain of realistically imagining themselves into new circumstances is too great; they collapse emotionally and get all confused, and their self does not have the flexibility plus the identity to project into circumstances they have not yet lived through. They may panic at the thought of moving to a new place or changing a job or leaving a certain person. Part of the terror of death lies in the fact that our imagination turns blank in the face of it.

One might object that deliberation about future action is more intellectual than this. When we deliberate, we set down our goals, we draw up lists of advantages and disadvantages, and we figure out the means by which we can attain what we want. We weigh the pros and cons and make our decision. Such rational calculation is indeed part of deliberation, but the whole sense of its being deliberation about the future is given to us first of all by our imaginative projection.

The list of pros and cons only applies if we realize that this information has to do with the way we will be in the future, and it is our imaginative projections that open that dimension to us. We sample in advance our future selves. We imagine certain wished-for satisfactions. We may in some cases find that our anticipations were quite wrong; things may not turn out as we imagined they would; but such errors are possible only because we are dealing with the future in the first place.

That new dimension, of a future that has a range of possibilities that can be determined into actuality by the choices we make, is opened up to us not by rational lists, but by imaginative projections. Only because we can imagine can we live in the future. And the imaginative projections also enter into the motivations that nudge us into this choice or that; we feel more “comfortable,” as the saying goes, with one particular future perfect than with others, and so we are inclined to make the choices that lead to that one. The intellectual lists are played off against the imaginative anticipation.


Remembering by Robert Sokolowski

July 26, 2012

Remembering the Twin Towers

I present here a set of phenomenological descriptions to develop an idea of what what phenomenological analysis is and why it is philosophical. There is, within human experience a role played by the structures of parts and wholes, identity in manifolds, and by presence and absence. We can amplify all these themes by examining perception, memory and imagination. These essays come from a precious little book titled Introduction to Phenomenology by the philosopher Robert Sokolowski. I featured four of them earlier in these posts that begin here.


Perception directly presents an object to us, and this object is always given in a mixture of presences and absences. When one side is given, others are absent. Some parts of the object conceal other parts: the front hides the back, the surface hides the inside. If the object is one that we hear, then hearing it at one place excludes the aspects of sound that would be available at another.

We can overcome such absences, but only at the cost of losing presences we have, which become absent. Throughout this dynamic blending of presence and absence, throughout this manifold of presentation, one and the same object continues to present itself to us. The identity is given in a dimension different from that of the sides, aspects, and profiles; the identity never shows up as one of the sides, aspects, or profiles.

But the identity can also be given when the object is remembered.  Remembering provides another set of appearances, another manifold through which one and the same object is given to us. Memory involves a much more radical kind of absence than does the coin-tending of absent sides during perception, but it still presents the same object. It presents the same object but with a new noematic layer: as remembered, as past. [Vocab: Husserl distinguishes between the noetic--that which experiences, the experiencing--and the noematic--that which is experienced, being experienced.]

We might be tempted to think of memory in the following way: when we remember something, we call up a mental image of the thing and recognize this picture as presenting the same thing we once saw. In this view, remembering would be not all that much different from looking at a photograph of someone and recognizing who the person is and the setting in which the photograph was taken. The only difference would be that the photograph is in the “extramental” world, while the memory image is in the “intramental” world.

This interpretation of remembering is very wrong. It confuses remembering with another kind of intentionality, picturing. It is not surprising that we tend to confuse these two types; it does seem that we have inner images in the mind’s eye, and once we learn about the brain it seems inevitable that we are going to postulate some sort of projection of some sort of image on some sort of screen in the brain. But the incoherence of this interpretation becomes obvious when we consider the type of identity that occurs in remembering.

In picturing, we look at one object that depicts another. We look at this piece of colored canvas or that piece of paper, and in it we see something else: a woman, a rustic scene. In remembering, we do not look at one object that depicts another. We simply “see” or visualize the object directly. Remembering is more like perceiving than like picturing something. In memory I do not see something that looks like what I remember; I remember that object itself, at another time. If we are pestered by a memory that will not leave us, we should, strictly speaking, not say, “I can’t get that image out of my mind!” Rather, we should exclaim, “I can’t stop visualizing that thing!”

Suppose we are willing to say that we do not look at internal pictures when we remember; what else are we supposed to say? How can we express, from the transcendental viewpoint, what happens in remembering? If we do not look at inner pictures, why does it seem that we do, and how can we account for what seems to show up in our mind’s eye or our mind’s ear?

Our reply to such questions can be put this way: what we store up as memories is not images of things we perceived at one time. Rather, we store up the earlier perceptions themselves. We store up the perceptions we once lived through. Then, when we actually remember, we do not call up images; rather, we call up those earlier perceptions. When these perceptions are called up and reenacted, they bring along their objects, their objective correlates.

What happens in remembering is that we relive earlier perceptions, and we remember the objects as they were given at that time. We capture that earlier part of our intentional life. We bring it to life again. That is why memories can be so nostalgic. They are not just reminders, they are the activity of reliving. The past comes to life again, along with the things in it, but it comes to life with a special kind of absence, one that we cannot bridge by going anywhere, as we can bridge the absences of the other side of the table by going over to another part of the room and looking at it from there.

A new blend of presences and absences arises through memory, a new manifold of appearance through which one and the same object can be given in its identity. In memory we reactivate not just an object but an object as presenting itself there and then, and yet presenting itself again here and now, but only as past. This is the noematic form that remembered objects take on, a form different from that of perceived objects, which are only here and now, not there and then.

We could put the difference between picturing and remembering in the following rather tricky way: when we see a picture, we see something that seems to be something else; but in remembering, we seem to be seeing something else. This cryptic formulation catches the difference between the two forms of intentionality.

Someone might object, “This sort of thing is nonsense. How could I relive a past perception? How could the very same thing, there and then, be given to me again here and now? This is impossible; there must be a picture of it that I look at.” But such reliving of an experience is just what remembering is. It is quite marvelous, but that is how we are wired. We can relive an earlier part of our conscious life, we can reactivate an intentionality. Clearly, there must be some sort of neurological basis for this.

The neural activity that is involved in perception is somehow reactivated, the conscious perception is reenacted, and it presents the very same object it had at its original venue. If we are to be faithful to the phenomenon, we have to describe it as it is and not project our wishes onto it. We do stretch into the past through memory; we bring back an elapsed world and a situation in it. We can live in the past as well as in the present. In fact, unless we had the general sense of the past that comes to us through memory, how could we interpret a “mental picture” as an image of something we saw in the past? How would the sense of pastness ever arise for us? The very dimension or horizon of the past is given to us through remembering, as we have described it phenomenologically.

In memory the object that was once perceived is given as past, as remembered. Moreover, it is given as it was then perceived; if I saw an automobile accident, I remember it from the same angle, with the same sides, aspects, and profiles, from which I saw it. One and the same accident is given to me again, and if I have to testify about the accident, I may have to rerun the event a few times to try to bring the details back to mind. (“Try to remember: Did the pedestrian step into the street before or after the traffic light changed?”) When I do rerun the event, I do not inspect an inner picture; I try to exercise again the perception I had then and bring back the thing I saw, and I do this the way it is done when we remember things.

Of course, errors do creep in; often I project things into the remembered event that I want to see or that I think I should be seeing. I oscillate between memory and imagination. Memories are notoriously elusive; they are not tamper proof, but such are the limitations of memory. Because memories are often wrong does not mean that they do not exist or that they are always wrong. Only because there are memories can they be sometimes deceptive.

Furthermore, their way of being right and their way of being wrong are different from the ways of being right and wrong in perception. A new manifold, a new possibility of identity, is introduced by memory, and new possibilities of error arise as well. It is the task of phenomenology to bring out the structures in question and to distinguish them from those at work in perception and in other kinds of intentionality.

So far in this treatment of remembering we have been focusing on the noematic side, on the object remembered. We have mentioned the noetic side when we said that remembering is not the perception of an image but a revival of a perception. But we must move a bit farther to the subjective and talk about the self who is the agent of remembering. New dimensions of the object arise through memory, but new dimensions of the self arise as well.

When remember something past, I also displace myself into the past. A distinction arises between me here and now, sitting in a chair in a room in a room and perceiving the walls, windows, and sounds around me, then watching an accident occur on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Macomb Street yesterday, or me involved in a painful farewell last week. The revival of my earlier perception involves a revival of myself as perceiving at that time. Just as the past past object is brought to light again, so my past self as an agent of that experience is brought to light again. Through memory a distinction is introduced between the remembering self and the remembered self.

We might be tempted to say that my “real self” is the one here and now, the one doing the remembering. The reactivated self is only an image of some sort. But this would be inaccurate. It would be more appropriate to say that my self is the identity constituted between myself now remembering and myself then remembered. My self, the self, is established precisely in the interplay that occurs between perception and memory. This displacement of myself into the past introduces a whole new dimension into my mental or inner life. I am not confined to the here and now; I can not only refer to the past (and to the future, as we shall see), but I can also live in it through memory.

Sometimes this living in the past can be troublesome. If we have done things we are deeply ashamed of, or if we were caught up in traumatic incidents, we may be unable to rid ourselves of the experiences in question. They help constitute my self, and I cannot cut loose from them; no matter how far away we travel, we take them with us. We are glued to them.

The mountaineer Peter Hillary, speaking of brushes with death he experienced in the Himalayas, says, “Surviving is sometimes the most painful role to play in this life. You … re-enact in your mind those closing scenes again and again and again” (“Everest is Mighty, We Are Fragile,” New York Times, Saturday, May 25, 1996, p. A19).

A man involved in the killing of prisoners says, “I have spent many nights sleeping in the plazas of Buenos Aires with a bottle of wine, trying to forget. I have ruined my life. I have to have the radio or television on at all times or something to distract me. Sometimes I am afraid to be alone with my thoughts” (“Argentine Tells of Dumping `Dirty War’ Captives,” New York Times, Monday, March 13, 1995, p. A1).

A man who had been in an automobile accident is quoted as saying, “For months, I relived the crash in slow motion.” We are something like spectators when we reenact things in memory, but we are not just spectators, and we are not like viewers of a separate scene. We are engaged in what happened then. We are the same ones who were involved in the action; the memory brings us back as acting and experiencing there and then. Without memory and the displacement it brings we would not be fully actualized as selves and as human beings, for good and for ill. Identity syntheses occur on both the noetic and the noematic side of memory.


Balthazar’s ‘Clerical Styles’: Irenaeus – Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P.

July 25, 2012

St. Irenaeus: Greek Father of the Church, and early ornament of the primatial see of the Gauls, at Lyons. Balthazar thought Irenaeus’ principal contribution to theological aesthetics was his ‘historical aesthetic’, his account of saving history as a wonderfully ordered whole.

Balthazar begins with ‘clerical styles’, and first of all with St. Irenaeus: Greek Father of the Church, and early ornament of the primatial see of the Gauls, at Lyons. As we shall see, Irenaeus’ principal contribution to theological aesthetics is, for Balthazar, his ‘historical aesthetic’, his account of saving history as a wonderfully ordered whole.

But there is more to say than this. While admitting that Irenaeus’ thinking may have been stimulated on various particular points by the challenge of gnosis, Balthazar considers that Maritain could well have taken him as his first ‘anti-modern’ — the first Christian thinker who consciously opted to present the faith not in terms of its congruence with contemporary religious and intellectual aspiration, or even with ‘perennial modernity’, but inasmuch as its ‘internal obviousness’ is irrefutable, irresistible. [J. Maritain, Anti-moderne (Paris 1922).] Irenaean thought circles freely in the space defined by the mysteries, exhibiting the beauty of their harmonious reciprocity as it does so.

Balthazar notes the predominance of visual metaphors in Irenaeus’ writings: revelation and its human appropriation is ostensio, manifestatio, visio. What Christ appeared to be, that he was [F. Sagnard, O.P. (ed.), Contre les heresies III (Paris 1952)]: the manifestation of the Father through the Word takes place in the self-showing of the incarnate One in his life, death and resurrection, as pointed to by the Scriptures. In seeing these saving mysteries we begin upon the eschatological vision of God. Here ‘seeing’ is nothing pejoratively theoretical, but is ‘identical with life-giving, nourishing, purifying and bliss-giving communication …’ in the Holy Spirit.[Glory of the Lord II, p. 47]

Moreover, such seeing is through our own eyes, though healed and transfigured: it is the ‘Father’s ancient creation’, as Irenaeus puts it, which through Son and Spirit gains access to the Father’s Glory. Here, in his affirmation of the fundamental goodness of the world, Irenaeus’ critique of the Gnostics agrees (though Balthazar does not say this) with that of such Neo-Platonists as Plotinus.

The beauty of Irenaean salvation lies in its wonderfully integrated quality. As the fulfiller — the ‘recapitulator’ — of what humanity was meant to be at its origin, and of all the chief determining aspects of its subsequent experience, the Word made flesh has the power to ‘give every emergent thing scope for perfection’;[Glory of the Lord II, p. 52] precisely by drawing it actively to himself, assimilating it to his own fullness.’

The ground of the advance of the inchoate is thus found in the fulfilling return of the definitive, by whose integrating power everything is decided.” .[Glory of the Lord II, p. 53]  And yet this is no mere miraculous incursion of divine power, essentially unconnected to the pre-existing pattern of the human creation. For the created pattern already knew in Adam an integrating focus — which is why the interrelation of the two heads of humanity, Adam and Christ, is so important to Irenaeus, and why he considers it a theological necessity that the first Adam should, thanks to the second, be redeemed.

But if the recapitulation concept lies at the heart of Irenaeus’ theological aesthetics, that heart itself possesses a center. The ‘still center‘ as Balthazar terms it, of all Irenaean thought is the notion of the humanity which, borne as it is by God, is capable of sustaining the weight of the divine — a concept, incidentally, which will be crucial to the second volume of his theological logic, his ‘Christo-logic’. Owing not only to the Creator’s gift to man of his image and likeness but also to the supernatural gift of the Spirit, it is possible to think of ‘man bearing and receiving and containing the Son of God’.”

From this midpoint of the incarnation — the God-enabled God-bearing which resumes and brings to perfection the origin, structure and history of humanity — Irenaeus’ camera-work pans out in three directions. On Balthazar’s analysis, three themes display the ‘organizing power and the blazing heat of the recapitulative movement [Glory of the Lord II, p. 58.]: the triune God, hidden and revealed; the Creator’s relation to the human creature; and the salvific; dispensation which binds together Israel, the gospel and the Church. Let us glance at each in turn.

Consider first the Holy Trinity. For Irenaeus, Father, Son and Spirit’ are joined in an eternal open trialogue: unlike the divine powers of Gnosticism, constantly seeking or finding, and hence enmeshed in ignorance, the Trinitarian persons conduct their exchange in the everlasting light and freedom. Without prejudice to his unknowability which is a function of his transcendence, the Father makes himself known — not in his greatness, which is immeasurable, but in his love — through the office of the Word by which we learn, if we are responsive, more and more how great God is and that it is he who through himself establishes and chooses everything and makes it beautiful and contains it’ [W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses (Cambridge 1857), II, pp. 212-213.] To be’ sure, the Word for Irenaeus does not exercise this office without the collaboration of the Father’s other ‘hand’, the Spirit.

Consider next the relation between Creator and creature. This same triune Lord is the creature’s absolute Source in whom inheres what Irenaeus terms: ‘the substance of creatures and the pattern of his artefacts and the beauty of the individual life-form’. [W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses (Cambridge 1857), II, p.213.] The humanity he has made to his and likeness he calls to communion with himself, as his perfect artwork, remade through the visible Image, Jesus Christ, in which the invisible Archetype is seen on earth. Since the ‘true man is soul in body and grace in both’, [Glory of the Lord, II, p.64] the eschatologically whole man is not the..!. disembodied post-mortem soul but the risen flesh, where the Holy Spirit` is victorious over man’s mortal wounds: sin and death.

The Creator’s work is only properly seen at its mid-point, the God-man, in his crucified and risen glory. That God can do all things is clear, writes Balthazar by way of interpretation of Irenaeus, but that ‘man together with God can also do all things had to be proved’ [Glory of the Lord, II, ibid] As, in Balthazar’s favorite metaphor, the ‘fruit’ both of the world and of the hither, Christ united the Spirit with man, in his affinity with both leading them back — and here the language is once more that of Irenaeus himself --in ‘mutual love and harmony’ [F. Sagnard, O.P. (ed.), Contre les heresies III] Anticipating his own theology of the atonement, both in Herrlichkeit, and in his extended meditation on the Easter triduum, Mysterium Paschale, Balthazar summarizes Irenaeus’ message of agony and glory:

The same person must be glorified and abased, must penetrate heights and depths, in order to make up by his humiliation for Adam’s arrogance, must live through all the ages of man in order to heal all. Salvation lies in the human life and fate of Jesus, and this includes his real death; really dying, however, means going down to the realm of the dead, to Hades, and not just leaving the cross to return to the Father. And if everything in the fate of Jesus is the revelation of his Father, so too is his Passion. It is the real suffering and dying man who, by what he completely and utterly is, glorifies the Father, and this man who suffers and is humiliated even to death is much more magnificant than all the bloodless patterns of the Gnostics…. Through the suffering flesh of Christ the Father’s light reaches us; that is the essence of the mysterion.
[Hans urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, pp. 68-69, 70]

And consider too the salvific dispensation that binds together Israel, the Gospel and the Church. In the first place, the order of salvation in the Old Testament is a praeadaptio, praeformatio, praemeditatio (in this context a preliminary training) for the coming of Christ. The child Adam is to learn wisdom through injury; his Fall, though not inevitable, had a kind of necessity about it. Had all goodness been man’s inalienable possession from the outset he would not have valued the society of God as a prize worth great effort: ‘Sight would not be so desirable to us if we had not learned how awful it is not to see.. .’.[W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses]

The mutual accustoming of God and man — an idea already important to Balthazar in the first volume of Herrlichkeit — explains to perfection why the Redeemer came so ‘late’, after multiple generations of Israel’s educative spiritual experience. And in any case, since for Irenaeus Son and Spirit are the manifestness of the Father, all the Old Testament theophanies (as Balthazar puts it) are the Son, just as all inspiration is the Spirit. Thus in the words of the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, the Son ‘was with our humanity from eternity, announcing beforehand the things that were to happen later and instructing men in the things of God’ [L. M. Froidevaux (ed.), Irenee de Lyons, Demonstration de la Predication apostolique]

Any attempt to prise apart the two covenants, especially, in the horrendous example offered by Marcion, to ascribe them to different deities, means to ‘undo all God’s art’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p82] Originating in Abraham’s free obedience, the ancient covenant helped men and women to find, through law, the way to love, and by the prophets, avoiding legalism, to seek the essence of the God-man relationship in the inwardness of hearts.

Irenaeus had to face, accordingly, the question of what, in such a context of ripe development, could constitute the ‘novelty value’ of the gospel. Though everything in the New Covenant might have been announced beforehand in the form of teaching, now, with the Gospel, it becomes a person – and therefore is fulfillment. Balthazar writes:

In addition to the correspondence and the intensification there is Christ’s divine quality and his efforts to transpose everything and symbolic into living existence and so to recapitulate it by it concrete form in such a way that its reality is enhanced.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p85-86]

The moment of the incarnation is the moment of unsurpassable:

With this creative event in view the Father gave this ‘hot character of the fullness of time. In this fullness not only the Old Covenant but also all human and physical nature is fulfilled, because now the Word is present within the flesh.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p86]

And so, lastly, the Church steps into view, with her ‘timeless newness’ which Balthazar connects with Irenaeus’ statement that, the incarnation is a ripening into fullness it is also a return to a now un-threatened childhood, since the Word became a child like us. Balthazar captures Irenaeus’ ecclesiology quite brilliantly in a few lines:

In Irenaeus the Church…stands historically at the end of the early Christian era, the splendor of which still surrounds it, and at the beginning of the Catholic form of the world, the features of which it has already assumed. It is the esoteric mystery of the world Christ and yet the most public and anti-sectarian body known to history. It is fully the pneumatic and charismatic Church as in Tertullian; but Irenaeus avoids the dangers and disasters which befell Tertullian, because at the same time in his view the Church remains resolutely in the spirit of the apostolic kerygma and paradosis. [vocab: paradosis: a handing down or over of a tradition or divine revelation]
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p86]

Nor could this be for Irenaeus a privileged originating moment whose plenary freshness may not always be with us. The Spirit perpetually rejuvenates the Church, giving her ‘eternally young beauty.’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p88] By the continual refreshment which comes from abiding in the person of the fulfiller the Church’s existence lies wide open to eternal life.

Balthazar emphasizes then the way in which the Christian aesthetic of Irenaeus excels its Gnostic rival by its capacity to display the ‘temporal art’ of God, his beautifully proportioned ordering of time. For Irenaeus, the beauty of the cosmos, of cosmic order, can never be sundered from the artistic intention of its Creator, which is disclosed only in the recapitulation in time, in the temporal order. God creates by his ‘artistic Logos’, for everything was created in accord with the divine Word who alone has the measure of the Father’s mind.

Creative power, wisdom and goodness were disclosed from the beginning, but it takes that expression of the ‘symphony of being and history’ which is Holy Scripture, interpreted by the rule of faith, for us to hear the chords and cadences aright [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p73] The supreme artwork of God is the human being – and here Balthazar locates the origin of that vital Irenaean concept, the mutual ‘glorification’ of God and man. ‘Man, who preserves God’s art in himself and obediently opens himself to its disposing, glorifies the artist and the artist glorifies himself in his work.’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p74] The natural world, as found in the first moment of Adam’s creation, is a promise of the supernatural order to come, yet each stage in the unfolding of God’s, plan must follow at its proper time, the aptum tempus – Irenaeus’ version of the New Testament’s kairos, or appointed hour.

The ‘times’ and their ‘fulfillment’ are ‘appointed’ according to the Father’s ‘pleasure’ so that ‘his art might not be in vain’, but this pleasure is always translated into the order of time by the Son and Spirit: ‘and so, through this disposition and by such rhythms and with such guides, man, who has been produced and shaped, is led towards the image and likeness of the ungenerate God. In all this the Father approves and prescribes, the Son executes and forms, the Spirit nourishes and increases, while man gently advances and moves towards perfection, in order, that is, to approach the Uncreated.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.77]

Although Balthazar criticizes Irenaeus for an excessively homogenizing view of the relation between the two Testaments (which in reality should be treated as highly dramatic, dialectical – Theodramatik will bring this out in full measure), he regards his weak sense of historical context, almost inevitable in his period, as a venial offence:

The elimination of this defect by modern historical exegesis is the removal of a defect which is accidental in Irenaeus; it is the true continuation and liberation of his basic purpose across the centuries
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.91]

Balthazar is also minded to look mercifully on Irenaeus’ millenarianism [vocab: millenarianism the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming major transformation of society, after which all things will be changed, based on a one-thousand-year cycle]. Though his insertion of a transfigured earth into an apocalyptic space between general resurrection and general judgment was unfortunate (and the result of too literal a tendency to see the Church as re-entry on the inheritance — the land — promised to Abraham, recapitulation with a vengeance!), much may be forgiven the ‘anti-spiritualizing tendency’ in his eschatology’. [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.93] Balthazar will return to the theme of the resurrection of the flesh, highly significant as this is for a theological aesthetics, in his account of Bonaventure, the last of his ‘clerical’ stylists in Herrlichkeit. It is, as he points out here, important for the dialogue with Judaism he attempted in his study of Buber — and for the debate with modern cosmology, as well as with the cosmic religiosity of a Teilhard de Chardin.

Irenaeus occurs first in the ‘symphony of sources’ of Herrlichkeit, not simply because of the accident that he is the first in historical time of Balthazar’s Christian witnesses. The appearance of the concept of salvation history, centered on Christ, as the ‘art of God’ in Irenaeus’ thought, and the general structure and temper of Irenaean theology Balthazar captures it in these pages brings these two ‘fathers of the Church’(Bonaventure and Irenaeus) together across the gap of centuries.


The Provident Creator – Fr. Robert Barron

July 24, 2012

One of the most basic of biblical ideas is that God is the maker of all things. The opening lines of the book of Genesis speak, not so much of God’s nature, but of God’s creative action: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth …” (Genesis 1:1). Now there is a puzzle in regard to this primordial action of God; namely, why did he do it? If God is God, which is to say, the perfect act of being itself, utterly happy in his own nature, why would he bother to make things at all?

To answer this question is to move very close, spiritually speaking, to the heart of the matter. Precisely because God doesn’t need the world, the very existence of the world is a sign that it has been loved into being. We recall that to love is to will the good of the other as other. Since he has no needs in himself, all of God’s intention and activity in regard to what is other is therefore utterly for the sake of the other. The perfect God cannot be self-interested, and hence in regard to the universe he has made he can only be loving.

Drawing on Plato, the ancient Christian theologian Dionysius the Areopagite said that since the good is diffusive of itself, the infinitely good God naturally and exuberantly expresses his goodness to the world. The fathers of the First Vatican Council echoed Dionysius in saying that God made the world not out of need but in order to “manifest his glory” and to share his life and perfection. What we see in the lives of the saints is an iconic representation of this completely generous divine manner of relating to the other.

If God is the sheer act of to be itself, then God’s creation must be ex nihilo, from nothing. To understand this idea, it might be helpful to propose a contrast. When an artist produces a sculpture, he begins with marble or clay and then shapes that substance into something aesthetically pleasing. When a chef makes a meal, she blends water, meats, vegetables, spices, and sauces into a palatable conglomeration. Both agents are making something from something; they are reordering in a creative manner a re-existing substrate. But God, the very fullness of being itself, does not operate this way; he doesn’t shape some alien substance or matter into arm; rather he brings whatever exists outside of himself into being in its entirety from nothing.

Several important insights cluster around this truth. First, creatures do not so much have a relationship to God; they are relationship to God. Nothing in a creature exists independently of, or prior to, God’s creative act, and hence no creature stands, as it were, over and against God, simply in a relationship to God. Instead every aspect of a creature’s being is already constituted by God’s creative will. This is why Meister Eckhart, the great medieval mystic, could say that the best metaphor for the spiritual life is not so much the climbing of a holy mountain in order to get to a distant God, but rather the “sinking into” God.

Second, all creatures are connected to one another by the deepest bonds precisely because every creature is coming forth, here and now, from God’s creative act. When I find my deepest center in God, I necessarily find your deepest center and that of every other creature, even of “brother sun and sister moon,” to use the language of Saint Francis.

Third, creation from nothing is a nonviolent act. In so much of the mythological tradition, the creation of the world takes place through a primal act of violence, one god defeating another, or a set of gods doing battle with their rivals. Often the physical universe is pictured as the remains of the conquered enemy. Even in the more refined philosophical accounts of Plato and Aristotle, the universe is formed through the imposition of form on recalcitrant matter.

But there is none of this in the Christian conception. God does not wrestle a rival into submission, for He has no rival; nor does he intervene to shape matter according to his aggressive will, for there is no matter that confronts him. Rather, through a sheerly nonviolent, nonintrusive, non-interruptive act of speech, God gives rise to the whole of finite reality: “Let there be light, and there was light … Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear … Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree … And so it happened” (Genesis 1:3, 9, 11). We can see now the deepest roots of Jesus’ ethic of nonviolent love articulated in the Sermon on the Mount. Though it seems ludicrous to our sinful minds, the recommendation to love one’s enemies and to resist evil through nonviolence is actually to dance in step with the most fundamental metaphysical rhythm of the world.

This God who continually creates the universe from nothing must also be described as provident. The Deist view — on display in both classical and modern times and especially prevalent today — is that God is the orderer of the universe, but only in a distant way, as the source of the laws and basic structures of the universe. But Christian theology has no truck with Deism. It stands, instead, with the book of Wisdom, which speaks of God’s power “stretching from end to end mightily and ordering all things sweetly” (Wisdom 8:1).

God is not a celestial CEO, managing earthly affairs from an antiseptic distance; he holds the world in the palm of his hand, involving himself in things both great and small. Thomas Aquinas summed up this biblical perspective when he said that God’s providence “extends to particulars.”

Now to give the Deists their due, all of this stress on the particularity of God’s providence does seem to pose a threat to the independence and integrity of the created order. If God is hovering fussily over the whole of reality in every detail, how could we speak, for instance, of freedom or chance? A full treatment of the thorniest of theological issues would require an entire book, but for our purposes I would draw the reader’s attention, once again, to the noncompetitive relationship that God has to the world. God’s creativity and providence are necessarily expressions of the divine love and hence of the “letting be” of the other.

The providential God is not one great cause among many, interfering with the nexus of conditioned causes. We recall the language of the book of Wisdom, how “sweetly” God exercises his power, operating precisely through the realm of secondary causes. Perhaps I could illustrate this with a simple example. If asked, “How do you make a cherry pie,” one would say, presumably, “You bring together cherries, sugar, flour, water, fat, and the skill of the baker, and the heat of the oven.” Even the religious believer would not say, “You bring together ferries, sugar, flour, God, water, fat, and the skill of the baker, and the heat of the oven.” God is not one cause among many, but rather the reason there are cherries, flour, water, fat, the baker, and so on, at all. Hence, it is precisely through those causes and not in competition with them that the providential God works out his purposes.


The Titles of Jesus: Jesus the Son of God and Jesus as God – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 23, 2012

Heinrich Hofmann’s Christ In The Temple

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom Oakes has drawn this list, has grouped the various titles into four rubrics: (1) the earthly work of Jesus, (2) the future work of Jesus, (3) His present work, and finally to (4) His pre-existence. In this sixth selection we will look at the title Jesus the Son of God and Jesus as God, the second and third of the titles dealing with the pre-existence of our Lord


Jesus the Son of God
“Son of God” is like “Son of Man” in this sense: it has both a generic meaning that could, at least theoretically, apply to any male human being (or by metonymy, to human beings of both sexes), especially if he is of a pious disposition; and it has a specific meaning with a specific theological connotation, especially when applied to Jesus. But in that regard, the role of these two terms is somewhat reversed. In patristic times, as we shall see, “Son of God” was the term that was taken to apply to Jesus’ divine status, while “Son of Man” was seen to refer to his humanity. However, as we saw in an earlier post, “Son of Man,” at least in some contexts, referred to a heavenly, eschatological figure who would come down on the clouds to inaugurate a new age.

Conversely, in Hebrew usage “Son of God,’ again in some contexts, could be an honorific title given to any pious Israelite, or even to the whole nation of Israel itself. “Son of God” is also unusual in contrast to “Son of Man” in that Jesus rarely uses the former term to describe himself, whereas the latter is constantly on his lips as self-description.

Similarly, in a pagan setting “son of (the) god” [Greek syntax requires the article "the" in front of the word "god" irrespective of whether the reference is to a pagan god or the God of monotheism. Also, small letters were not invented for Greek until about the eighth century of the Christian era, so no orthographic distinction could have been drawn in the ancient world between the monotheistic "God" and a polytheistic "god."] did not necessarily imply that a human being so called had some kind of Olympian genealogy: the usual term in Greek for such a person (like Achilles) would be theios aner (divine man) rather than uios tou theou (son of the god). In any case, such ambiguity would not obtain in Israel, where “son of God” would clearly be understood as an honorific title by virtue of the fact that God was confessed as Israel’s Father. Given the fact that the God of Israel is without pedigree, the sonship that binds Israel to God was clearly one not of biological lineage in the pagan manner but of obedience.

This linkage of the concepts of sonship and obedience explains why the Old Testament can apply the term “son of God” to the people of Israel as a whole, to Israel’s kings, and to persons specially commissioned by God, including angels. For example, Moses is commanded by God to say to Pharaoh, “Israel is my first-born son” (Exodus 4:22), and God speaks through Hosea saying “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea. 11:1); and even when Israel strays, the people are called “faithless sons” (Jeremiah 3:22), implying that even in disobedience God is still calling the people to repentance, lest the bond between God and Israel be irrevocably broken. Kings, too, are called “sons” by God: “I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14), says God of David; and in a royal coronation psalm much quoted by the early church we read: “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (Psalms 2:7). Angels too are called “sons of God” (Job 1:6; Psalms 29:1; Daniel 3:25, 28).

This wide range of usage in the Old Testament can create problems in the interpretation of Jesus as Son of God, because clearly the New Testament wants to link the idea of obedience and sonship in Jesus but also wants to insist that he is Son of God in a manner unique to him and unprecedented in Israel. A further complication comes from the fact that Jesus is called “Son of God” by both God (at Jesus’ baptism) and by Satan (during his temptations), making it apparently the appellation of choice for the “supernatural” actors in Jesus’ life.

When Jesus emerges from the River Jordan after being baptized by John, a voice resounds from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved” (Matthew 3:17) or “You are my Son, my Beloved” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). [FN: The voice from heaven repeats (more or less) these same words at the Transfiguration (including in Mark, who does not narrate in any detail the temptations): Matthew 17:5; Mark 97; Luke 9:35 (where the voice from heaven says "my Chosen One" instead of "my Beloved").]

Jesus is driven out by the Spirit into the desert to pray and fast for forty days and forty nights, at the end of which the devil comes to him with temptations that begin, “If you are the Son of God …” (Matthew 4:3, 6; Luke 4:3, 9). Both scenes stress the obedience of the Son, with the baptism suggesting a unique sonship and the temptations stressing Jesus’ refusal to see his sonship purely in terms of miraculous power but solely in terms of his mission.

FN: “The most important passages of the Synoptic Gospels in which Jesus appears as the Son of God show him precisely not as a miracle worker and savior like many others, but as one radically and uniquely distinguished from all other men. He knows that he is sent to all other men to fulfill his task in complete unity with the Father. This distinction, this isolation, means to Jesus not primarily miraculous power, but the absolute obedience of a son in the execution of a divine commission”
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament

Moreover, when Peter confesses at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus explicitly says to him that “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but only my Father in heaven” (16:17), once again showing how Jesus’ unique sonship is a reality accessible only from a supernatural, not natural, perspective, a point Jesus stresses even more forcefully when he says, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27; with slight variations in wording in Luke 10:22).

The linkage between sonship and mission is consistently held throughout the New Testament, but there are variations of emphasis. One point to note as we look at these variations: as we already saw, in the Synoptic Gospels “Son of Man” is the favored self-designation of Jesus whereas “Lord” and “Christ” are the favored titles for Jesus by the confessing, post-Easter church. “Son of God,” however, is both a term that Jesus uses to refer to himself and is a confessional term of the church.

In fact Mark defines the entire purpose of his Gospel as one that wants to bring his readers to a faith in Jesus as Son of God: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Mark in), and culminates his narration of the death of Jesus with the centurion’s confession at the cross: “Truly this was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39). The Johannine literature makes this confessional use of “Son of God” even more explicit: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).

Paul too sees the Son-title as explicitly confessional in a passage we have already seen: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God — the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and who through the Spirit of holiness was designated with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:1-4).

Another point to note: whereas Paul generally prefers “Lord” as his confessional term, John highlights “Son” above all other titles: for him it is the key to Jesus’ identity and mission. This term more than any other expresses Jesus’ unique relation to his Father and his unique mission, a mission to which he is totally obedient: “I do nothing on my own authority; … I seek not my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 5:30). Just like the Synoptic evangelists, John stresses that this unique relationship of Jesus to his Father cannot be perceived except by God’s revelation, as Cullmann deftly explains:

While witnesses can and must be produced to support other assertions, there can be no question of human witness for Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.God himself is the only possible competent witness. Only he can validate this claim of oneness with himself. The claim to be the Son of God so bursts all human bonds that only this circular explanation is possible: the Father himself must attest that Jesus is the Son; on the other hand, this divine testimony must be given precisely in the Son.
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament

Jesus as God
There can be no question that the New Testament is quite reticent about calling Jesus “God” outright, without further ado. Such reticence is understandable, for an explicit and unqualified designation of Jesus as God could sound polytheistic and mythological; or if “God” is meant monotheistically, to whom then is Jesus praying if he is already God simpliciter? On the other hand, a refusal to countenance calling Jesus “God” would lead to its own problems, underplaying and undercutting the unique bond that Jesus has with his Father, denigrating his divine status in favor of an excessive stress on his humanity.

We have already seen that the Fourth Evangelist has dealt with that theological dilemma in his prologue when he used Logos terminology: the Word was both with God and yet also was God (John 1:1). Furthermore, the obvious reticence of the New Testament in calling Jesus “God” can be exaggerated, for, as we have already seen, the title “Lord” was a specifically liturgical confession by which Christians addressed Jesus in worship. Still, passages that directly and without further ado designate Jesus as “God” are relatively rare, but no less significant for New Testament Christology on that account.

Outside of John 1:1 the most important passage would be the confession of doubting Thomas to Jesus on the Sunday after Easter, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), a passage that “frames” the Fourth Gospel in just the way the centurion’s confession “This was truly the Son of God” (Mark 15:39) framed Mark’s Gospel about the Son of God. [The fact that the centurion's confession hearkens back to the opening line of Mark's Gospel just as Thomas's confession hearkens back to the opening line of John's Gospel shows how desperate Arius was in the third century when he claimed that Thomas's confession "My Lord and my God" was really only an expostulation on his part, expressing a surprised prayer, rather in the manner of an American teenager crying out "Ohmigod!"Arius's exegesis is clearly a case of special pleading.]

Paul too speaks of Jesus as “God”: “Put on the mind of Christ Jesus, who, being the very form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Philemon 2:5-6); and he unambiguously asserts: “In him [Christ] the entire fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). In the Letter to Titus Paul speaks of waiting “for that blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).[ An almost identical phrase appears in the Petrine corpus too: "From Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours" (2 Peter 1:1).]

Finally we may mention these perhaps ambiguous lines: “Of their race [the Jews] come the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Romans 9:5). [The ambiguity arises from the possibility that the word translated as "who" (referring to Christ) could instead mean "he" (referring to God), which would result in this translation: "Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, who is over all. God be praised!"]

Another potentially ambiguous passage from Paul speaks of “the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2) [The grammar of the Greek allows for the word "Christ" to modify either "mystery" or "God."].

More ambiguous is the line from Revelation: “He [Jesus] has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself” (Revelation 19:12), which may or may not be the sacred name of God. [Finally, mention should be made of two papyrus manuscripts p66 (published in 1956) and p75 (published in 1961). Both manuscripts give a variant reading for John 1:18, which most manuscripts read this way: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known” (RSV). But these two papyri reproduce the verse to say: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (NIV), or “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (NRSV).

The very ambiguity of these latter passages, together with their relative sparseness, points to one of the central problems that will beset the church’s later Christological thought: a too-close identification of Jesus with God will render both his obedience to the Father and his outward mission to the world inexplicable; but an excessive reticence, not to say cowardice, about worshiping Jesus as God will undercut the efficacy of his work of redemption and undermine a belief in his uniqueness that it is the whole point of every book in the New Testament to convey.


Titles of Jesus: Jesus the Word – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 20, 2012

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom Oakes has drawn this list, has grouped the various titles into four rubrics: (1) the earthly work of Jesus, (2) the future work of Jesus, (3) His present work, and finally to (4) His pre-existence. In this fifth selection we will look at the title Jesus the Word, one of the titles dealing with the pre-existence of our Lord.


Jesus the Word
It would be very difficult indeed to overestimate the impact of the title “Word” (Greek, logos) to the Christology of the first six centuries of the church. For many church fathers the title was considered crucial, for it marked the great point of contact with the philosophical speculations of the educated pagan mind. That said, the use of this term to describe Jesus in the New Testament can be found only in the Johannine writings, and even there it occurs in just a few passages: the Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-4), in i. John la, and in Revelation 19:13.

What accounts for this discrepancy between New Testament paucity and patristic favoritism? First of all, as Cullmann points out, “the point at which the author of John makes use of the Logos concept shows that the title is indispensable for him when he wishes to speak of the relationship between the divine revelation in the life of Jesus and the preexistence of Jesus.” [Cullman, The Christology of the New Testament] No wonder, then, that the patristic writers themselves found the concept indispensable too, for questions of the preexistence of the divine Son dominated discussion at that time, for reasons to be explained in Chapter 4. (Plus, the Logos concept proved a godsend, so to speak, for Christian apologists trying to justify Christianity to educated Gentiles raised in Platonic and Stoic concepts of logos.)

But before touching on these essentially theological issues, we must first outline the (very large) semantic range of the term logos, which in Greek happens to have far more meanings attached to it than the English term “word” and includes, among others, these meanings: reason, account, narrative, essence, verbalization, and, of course, the spoken word as such. But because the noun logos is the nominative form of the verb lego, legomai (“to speak”), we must first concentrate on its primary meaning as spoken word.

As speech-acts, words communicate thoughts, which themselves are the products of minds. Furthermore, words are received by ears and then understood by other minds. This basically mental feature in all words surely accounts for the rich and powerful religious symbolism that surrounds the concept of word. For unlike the other senses, which perceive objects in their brute physicality, hearing picks up something much more “spiritual,” even evanescent. Tellingly, objects that are seen, touched, smelled, and tasted can be grasped; but words stay ever elusive and disappear as soon as they are heard. For that same reason, a hearer of a word has no control over what is being heard, and this too must surely be religiously significant, as the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar notes in this insightful passage:

Hearing is different [from the other senses], almost the opposite mode of the revelation of reality. It lacks the fundamental characteristic of material relevance. It is not objects we hear but their utterances and communications. Therefore it is not we ourselves who determine on our part what is heard and place it before us as an object in order to turn our attention to it when it pleases us. No, what is heard comes upon us without our being informed of its coming in advance. It lays hold of us without our being asked…. It is in the highest degree symbolic that only our eyes, and not our ears, have lids…. The basic relationship between the one who hears and that which is heard is thus one of defenselessness on the one side and of communication on the other…. Even in a dialogue between equals in rank, the one who is at the moment hearing is in the subordinate position of humble receiving. The hearer belongs to the other for as long as he is listening and to that extent is “obeying” him.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Seeing, Hearing, and Reading within the Church,” in Explorations in Theology Vol 2

The religious implications of this description are clear and hold true even for the nonreligious: listeners have no choice but to receive what is heard. Moreover, what they receive is not so much the object of the speaker but his thoughts, that is, his mental life. In that regard it is telling that Aristotle defines man as the zōon logikon, usually translated as “rational animal” but which could just as accurately be given as the “verbal” or “word-using” animal.

Both in pre-Christian Greek and Jewish thought the concept of logos became more and more “hypostasized,” meaning that Greek and Jewish thought moved more and more away from the concept of word as evanescent, disappearing as soon as it entered the ear, and toward a notion of word as somehow substantial (hypostasis being the Greek word for “substance”). For example, the Stoics identified the Logos with the cosmic law that governs the universe and is at the same time operative in the human intellect. But that notion of logos as law is still only an abstraction (roughly equivalent to Newton’s Law of Gravity).

The situation is different in Platonism, but crucially it is the Idea or Form (eidos) that is hypostasized, not the Word (logos); in other words it is the mental concept that takes on the contours of substance, not that which is communicated from one mind to the other.

“A major difficulty in the interpretation of logos is determining when this common and amorphous Greek word is being used in a technical, specialized sense. Thus Heraclitus, in whom it first plays a major role, frequently employs it in its common usage, but he also has a peculiar doctrine that centers around logos in a more technical sense: for him logos is an underlying organizational principle of the universe…. Plato also used the term logos in a variety of ways, including the opposition between mythos (tale) and logos, where the latter signifies a true, analytical account…. [He also] describes the dialectician as one who can give an account (logos) of the true being (or essence, ousia) of something…. The Stoic point of departure on logos is Heraclitus’ doctrine of an all-pervasive formula of organization, which the Stoics considered divine.”
F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms (New York: New York University Press, 1967)

But as Platonism developed, the Logos too became more and more “personal,” acting as an agent or go-between, an intermediary between the inaccessible One and the finite world. Nowhere is that personalization made more explicit than in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus whose thought was heavily influenced by what scholars now called Middle Platonism. In a remarkable passage, Philo describes the mediatorial role of the Logos in this way:

To his Logos, his chief messenger, highest in age and honor, the Father of all has given the special prerogative to stand on the border and separate the creature from the Creator. This same Logos both pleads with the Immortal as suppliant for afflicted mortality and acts as ambassador of the ruler to the subject. He glories in this prerogative and proudly describes it in these words: “I stood between the Lord and you “
[Philo, Quis rerum divinarum heres 42.205.]

This passage certainly marks a watershed in the development of the concept of the Logos (capitalized here to show its personal, substantial nature); but it would be an error to think that Philo is influenced here solely by Middle Platonism, for he is also building on developments in the Jewish Bible. [One might be tempted to follow contemporary fashion and say "Hebrew Bible" here; but Philo used the Greek translation (called Septuagint), which is significant, because that translation includes books not found in the Hebrew canon; and it is these books above all where certain aspects of God, such as his Wisdom and his Word, are hypostasized [vocab: To be treated or represented (something abstract) as a concrete reality]. But it is also crucial to note that some Hebrew books included in the Hebrew canon also hypostasize these divine qualities, especially the book of Proverbs]

In the earlier books of the Bible God speaks his word efficaciously. God says, “Let there be light,” and light comes to be. The word of God (Hebrew, debar YHWH) is thus creative of what it speaks. As Cullmann says, “every creative self-revelation of God to the world happens through his word. His word is the side of God turned toward the world. [Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament]

What then happened is that this efficacious word is made the object of independent consideration, precisely because it is so powerful. The Psalmist says, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Psalms 33:6); crucially, this powerful word continues its activities after creation: “He sent forth his word and healed them” (Psalms 107:20) and “He sends forth his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly” (Psalms 147:15). The phrase “his word runs swiftly” might be poetic license; but if so, that license in turn licensed further extensions of the image, and with Isaiah we get close to the word acting as an independent agent: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not but water the earth,.. . so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty but shall accomplish what I purpose” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Finally, all that is needed now is for this hypostasized Word or Wisdom to speak on its own as an independent agent: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginnings of the earth. Where there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water” (Proverbs 8:22-24).

[FN: Admittedly, Proverbs speaks of Wisdom (Sophia, a feminine word in Greek), not Word (logos, a masculine word), which raises a host of issues pertaining to the feminine in God. Cullmann rightly says that "Logos and Sophia are almost interchangeable" (p. 257) in the respective theologies of the Book of Wisdom and the Gospel of John. Certainly, both authors see their favored terms in equally hypostatic ways, which is the main point of this paragraph. Plus, it should be recalled that the terms "masculine," "feminine," and "neuter" for the gender of nouns are terms of convenience invented by the Greek grammarians in Alexandria because most males are described by nouns in the masculine gender and most females by the feminine gender (for example, hippos can mean either "stallion" or "mare," depending on the gender of the preceding article); but things, concepts, abstractions, and so forth, can be described by words in any gender.

At all events, either Cullmann is right and Wisdom and Word are interchangeable, which means that the question of gender is irrelevant; or the gender of the noun is theologically significant, which means that the Fourth Evangelist must have deliberately chosen Logos instead of Sophia for theological reasons. But semantically considered (which is the focus of this writing), I would say that Wisdom refers more to the internal mind of God prior to creating, whereas Word is an inherently expressive concept, which is why Cullmann can say, rightly again, that in the Old Testament the "word of God" always refers (no matter how early or late the text) to the side of God that is turned toward the world. What Wisdom stresses is that when God creates the world, or relates to it thereafter, he always does so in ways that manifest his providence, his governance, his beneficence. Creation, in other words, is not ill-considered but is aboriginally "well thought out." In other words, God's outward and expressive Word is always a Wise Word, expressive of God's internally well-ordered mind.]

How much the Fourth Evangelist was influenced by these various trends has become a matter of enormous controversy in biblical scholarship, especially as it pertains to the influence of Greek sources in general, and Philo specifically.

[FN:The influence of Gnosticism on the Fourth Gospel should be mentioned here as well, albeit briefly. Speaking very broadly, Gnosticism is a "moralization," so to speak, of Plato's theory of the Divided Line. Plato divided his world into two separate realms, Reality and Appearance, with Reality above the dividing line and Appearance below it. Above the line is static Being as such, the realm of the Ideal, of stasis, and finally of the One. Below the line were matter, division, change, copies of the Ideas, and so forth, in short the realm of Becoming. Because Plato also called the One the Good, Gnostics extended the contrast by calling the realm of matter evil. At a stroke this made evil an independent principle. (For Plato what appeared below the line had but a shadowy claim on being, in contrast to the "really real" realm of true Being; but that did not make Appearance "evil," only less "real.")

For the Gnostics, then, salvation had to be interpreted as a complete escape from the realm of matter. The anthropological correlate of this view meant that the soul of man inhabited the body like "gold in the mud” And salvation could only be effected by a divine hypostasized being coming down from heaven merely clothed in the flesh. It would seem rather obvious, judging by the surface of the text, that the Gospel of John polemicizes against this view and thus John must have known of this worldview beforehand. The only trouble is, our sources for Gnostic beliefs all come from documents written after the New Testament was in circulation. In any case, we are concentrating in this chapter on the concept of Logos for its semantic import solely and only later in the next chapters on its role in determining christological doctrine, so these points need not be stressed further.]

But if we concentrate not on the historical antecedents of the Fourth Gospel (already taking for granted the same trend of hypostatization in both Greek and Jewish sources) but on the meaning of Logos in the text itself, two points emerge immediately. First, Jesus was addressed as Kyrios (in the “high,” divine sense of that word) in Christian worship, whereas the Logos designation must have arisen as a result of theological reflection (even today, Christians do not address Jesus in their worship as “Word”).

Second, prior developments in the intellectual history of Jewish and Greek thought would later make the concept of Jesus as the divine Logos perfectly suited for Christianity’s apologetic purposes, as we shall see in later (and this will account for the greater stress in patristic times of the Logos-concept than is found in the New Testament itself).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). Leaving aside all questions of historical antecedents, these verses drive home one essential point that is the key to the whole of the Fourth Gospel: in Cullmann’s words, “Jesus not only brings revelation, but in his person is revelation. He brings light, and at the same time he is Light; he bestows life, and he is Life; he proclaims truth, and he is Truth. More properly expressed, he brings light, life and truth just because he himself is Light, Life, and Truth. So it is also with the Logos: he brings the word, because he is the Word “
[Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament]

Finally, we must note that John both distinguishes the Logos from God, yet also identifies that Logos with God. In other words, God and the Logos are not two beings, and yet they are also not simply identical. This blunt juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory statements brings us back once again to the inherently paradoxical character of Christian doctrine, a paradoxicality that will prove immensely provocative for later Christian thought (“The paradox gives rise to theology,” as we said earlier). Here again the key will be to let theology arise out of paradox without thereby resolving the paradox in a way that would make thought control the doctrine, or theology determine revelation. As Cullmann rightly says:

We must allow this paradox of all Christology to stand. The New Testament does not resolve it, but sets the two statements alongside each other: on the one hand, the Logos was God; on the other hand, he was with God. The same paradox occurs again in the Gospel of John with regard to the “Son of God” concept. We hear on the one hand, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30); and on the other hand, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament


The Titles of Jesus: Jesus the Lord and Jesus the Savior/Redeemer – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 19, 2012

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom Oakes has drawn this list shows in this fourth selection that Jesus the Lord and Jesus the Savior/ Redeemer refer to Jesus’ present work.


Jesus the Lord
Because Jesus was executed as “King of the Jews” and because the title “Messiah” carried inevitable royal connotations, it might seem that no more dangerous title could be given to Jesus than that of “Christ”; but in the Hellenistic setting of the Roman Empire, the truly dangerous title was that of Lord.One sign of that danger, a kind of “distant early warning” foreboding a future conflict between Christianity and the Roman Empire, can be seen in a telling decree issued by the Emperor Tiberius in the year A.D. 16 forbidding the prediction of the coming of a new king or a new kingdom within the confines of the Empire. [See Ben Witherington III, New Testament History: A Narrative Account] But this is precisely what a confession of Jesus as Lord entailed: by raising him from the dead, said Peter on Pentecost, “God has made this Jesus … both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

This title “Lord” was therefore no empty honorific. Rather it meant that a new king has ascended the throne, a new kingdom has been established in history, which means as well that the days of all earthly authority are numbered: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again…. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command; … Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming” (1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16; 2 Thessalonians 2:8).

These passages would seem to imply that the title “Lord” would be better placed in the section dealing with Christ’s future work; and the prayer often on the lips of the early Christians, “Marana-tha” (“Come, Lord”), also surely indicates that in confessing Jesus as Lord, the early Christians simultaneously looked forward to his imminent coming again.

All this is true, and surely one does not want to be too hard and fast in the use of the categories; but I think Cullmann is right in assigning the primary meaning of this term to Christ’s present work in the church now rather than just to his future in bringing about the end of the world. As he rightly says, “This designation expresses as does no other the thought that Christ is exalted to God’s right hand, glorified, and now intercedes for men before the Father.” [Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament]

Probably no title given to Jesus is more significant than Lord. Paul even says that no one can confess Jesus as Lord except in the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Furthermore, he makes the confession of Jesus as Lord the very hinge of the Christian’s salvation: “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and if you believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

But why does so much hinge on that title “Lord”? At first glance the title might not seem all that significant, for the title was (and to some extent still is) quite common. Its basic meaning denotes anyone who has a higher position in society over another. For that reason barons and the like are still officially addressed as “lord” in contemporary Britain. Even the almost empty honorific “sir” is etymologically rooted in the word for “lord” in the Romance languages. [For example the word for "mister" in French is monsieur, literally meaning "my lord," just as the Italian monsignore means the same thing; and the German for "mister" is Herr, the German word for "Lord." Note also that the English "mister" is related to "master," which means roughly the same thing as "lord," inasmuch as it refers to anyone whose social position makes him more powerful than the one addressing him with these terms of respect.]

The same holds true of the Greek kyrios: in some contexts it is best translated as “sir” (an honorific) but at other times as “lord” (or when referring to God, “Lord”). Because Greek, German, and most Romance languages use the same term, but English distinguishes “lord” from “sir,” English translations of the Bible can often obscure an important point in the Gospels when they depict someone approaching Jesus with the title kyrios. No doubt these curious onlookers might have meant the title merely as a polite way of showing respect for a noted teacher, but the evangelists also want to point out that, perhaps unbeknownst to the speakers, they are confessing Jesus as the true Lord.

But that still does not explain why such an ordinary term could come to be so significant to the Christians who made so much of their confession of Jesus as Lord. Part of the reason for that comes from a development in Jewish piety after the Babylonian exile. The Old Testament records that God had revealed to Moses his personal name, YHWH (perhaps pronounced “Yahweh;’ although that is disputed because ancient Hebrew did not indicate vowels). The name is drawn from the Hebrew word for “to be,” which is why God also reveals his name as “I AM WHO I AM.” But after the return of the Jews during the reign of king Cyrus, pious practice forbade the pronunciation of the divine name except by the High Priest on the feast of Yom Kippur, and then only in the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem.

For that reason, whenever the divine name appeared in the text, the Hebrew word for “Lord,” Adonai, was substituted when the text was being read aloud; so when the Jews living in Alexandria two to three centuries before Christ commissioned a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek (called the Septuagint), the word kyrios was always used whenever the Hebrew text read YHWH. In other words, for the Jews of Alexandria, the title “Lord” became the divine name par excellence, a connotation of the title that then started to hold true for all the Greek-speaking Jews of the Roman Empire, given the enormous prestige of the Septuagint for them. [This linguistic substitution also made sense against the background of the non-monotheistic religions of the Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire, where the gods and goddesses (Serapis, Osiris, Isis, and so forth) were addressed as kyrios or kyria. See Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, pp. 196-97 for details and bibliography.]

Little wonder, then, that the Christians were persecuted by the Romans specifically because they refused to address the Roman emperor by the title “lord” in the civic rites required of all “patriotic” members of the Empire. [The Roman emperors might well have maintained republican fictions in Rome and in those lands absorbed by Rome before the fall of the Republic; but in the East they became increasingly insistent that the populace honor the emperor by more religiously exalted titles that implied divinity in the pagan pantheon.]This the Christians could not do, because their confession of Jesus as Lord meant that he was the only one before whom “every knee should bend” (Philemon 2:10). Obeisance offered to any other reputed or putative “lord” would thereby represent a denial of the very faith that was their salvation.

Only one other point needs to be stressed about this title: the ambiguity in this word — that is, whether “Lord” (when applied to Jesus) means mere respect (“sir”) or is a confession of his divine status (“one Lord”) — only applies to his earthly life. After Easter, Jesus is confessed as Lord exclusively in its religious meaning. Indeed, it is because of Easter that he becomes Lord. Such is the testimony of the earliest strata of the New Testament. Peter, in his first sermon on Pentecost, says, “God raised this Jesus to life…. Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32, 36); and Paul says that Jesus was “established with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4).

The significance of the resurrection for Christology can only be discussed in the next chapter, but here we can at least note that it is because of the resurrection that the title of “Lord” refers primarily to Jesus’ present work in the church, as Cullmann explains so well:

We must above all ask why, after the death of Christ, a particular community was founded at all. If the very early Church really had only a future expectation, if only the coming Son of Man was Christologically significant for it, then it would be impossible to explain the impulse to form a Church in which enthusiasm ruled and the working of the Spirit determined the whole of life…. On the basis of the conviction that with Christ’s resurrection the end had already begun, the first Christians could no longer think of him only as the coming Son of Man. He must mean something also for the present, for time already fulfilled. The intense hope that the end is near is thus not the foundation but the consequence of the Easter faith…. He has died and is risen, and he will come again. But he must have a task to fulfill also between these two salvation-events. His work cannot simply cease in the meantime.
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament

The present activity of the Lord Jesus in these “between times” comes through most clearly in a passage from Paul dealing with the tricky issue of eating meat from animals that had first been sacrificed to idols, to which question Paul replies with this answer: since the “gods” the pagans worship do not in fact exist, no harm is done provided the Christian not get seduced by appearances. At this point, Paul adds this crucial justification:

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” [in pagan religions]), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
(1 Corinthians 8:4-6)

As the renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright points out, this passage could not possibly be more revolutionary for later doctrinal development for its rhetorical parallelism rests on an allusion to the most basic Jewish confession of faith, called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Paul uses the same structure but now incorporates Jesus himself into the confession:

The Lord our God = One God — the Father…

The Lord is One = One Lord — Jesus Christ .. .

The reason this parallelism is so revolutionary is that it shows that Paul was already establishing the basis for later doctrinal development, as Wright so lucidly sees:

Faced with that astonishing statement, one would have to say that if the early Fathers of the church hadn’t existed it would be necessary to invent them. Paul has redefined the very meaning of the words that Jews used, every day in their regular prayers, to denote the one true God. The whole argument of the chapter hinges precisely on his being a Jewish-style monotheist, over against pagan polytheism, and, as the lynchpin of the argument, he has quoted the most central and holy confession of that monotheism and has placed Jesus firmly in the middle of it. Lots of Pauline scholars have tried to edge their way round this one, but it can’t be done. The nettle must be grasped. Somehow, Paul believes, the one and only God is now known in terms, at least, of “father” and “lord.” All things are made by the one; all things are made through the other.
[N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?]

In other words, when Christians confessed Jesus as Lord, they confessed his divinity, yet without abandoning their monotheism.

Jesus the Savior/Redeemer
Billboards in the Bible Belt of the United States often proclaim “Jesus saves,” and some evangelicals and/or fundamentalists still approach the unchurched with the question, “Are you saved?” For that reason it might come as some surprise to learn that “Savior” does not figure prominently in the New Testament as a title for Jesus; and when it does occur, it comes from relatively late strata. But the term still functions as an important confession, for what the title points to is not only a present work of Jesus but a work of his that is correlative to a plight of ours. No one needs to be saved who is not already in some situation of desperation, who is in some sense “lost.” Only someone who is drowning needs a life-saver; and only those who feel lost on this earth, orphaned from their true home, will be on the lookout for a savior.

So the question becomes, what did Jesus save us from? In other words, in what does salvation consist? The answer is simple: Jesus is Savior because he saves people from their sins and from the death that has swept into the world as a consequence of sin (Romans 5:12). For that reason the title “Savior” accomplishes something that the title “Lord” on its own does not: it stresses Jesus’ role as the one who has atoned for our sins. “Lord” after all is applied not just to God, who, so to speak, “owns” the name most of all; but it can also be applied (legitimately and illegitimately) to any number of others who have assumed a social role of power and domination (“domination” comes from the Latin word  , for “lord”), and so in that sense can be ambiguous.

But “Savior” stresses something much more specific, a unique work of Jesus: his atoning death on the cross. [The New Testament does in fact once call God (rather than Jesus specifically) "Savior" but only in the rarely quoted Letter of Jude: "To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy -- to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore" (Jude 24-25). But even here God is "Savior" through Christ, that is, through his work of atonement.]

That said, “Savior” still shares an important feature with “Lord”: just as the Lordship of Jesus is universal, so too does the salvation effected by Jesus extend to the whole world, a point stressed most of all in the First Letter of John: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world…. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 2:2; 4:14).

The Greek word for “savior” (soter) is sometimes translated as “redeemer;’ but the two words in English bring out different features of the word not available in Greek (just as “sir” and “lord” bring out different meanings not available when .translating the single Greek term kyrios). Redemption is primarily an economic concept (as in redeeming coupons for the purchase of goods) and implies an exchange or purchase. The religious application of that word in the New Testament is due to the institution of slavery, where an owner could purchase a slave from the slave-market and then set him free if  he so chose.

For Paul the slavery from which we have been purchased was the slavery of sin (Romans 6:19-23), and the purchase price was the blood of Christ (Romans 3:25). But because the Greek soter does not make that distinction, [Except in the verb forms, where the distinction applies: sozo means "to save" (from a plight, like drowning) while hilaskomai means "to redeem" (in the Pauline sense of redeem from the slavery of sin by the atoning blood of Christ). But hilaskomai has no nominal form in the New Testament, so "Redeemer" as distinct from "Savior" could never become one of the titles of Jesus in New Testament Greek.]“redeemer” and “savior” cover the same semantic range for the most part, differing only slightly in their (English) connotations.

Finally, one must recall that the name “Jesus” itself in Hebrew means “the Lord saves,” which perhaps accounts for the late appearance of the title “Savior” in the New Testament and for its more prevalent usage in Christianity later on, when the name “Jesus” would sound purely as a proper noun (analogous to the way the name “Christ” became attached as a kind of last name). [One example of the favored use of the term “Savior” later on to describe Jesus can be seen in the image of a fish as a symbol for Christianity. The word for fish in Greek is ichthus, which can also form a Greek anagram, Iesous Christos Theou Dios Soter: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”


Titles of Jesus: Jesus the Son of Man – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 18, 2012

John 3:14-21, is an unusual passage in that John does not rely on either a parable or a story. In this passage, Jesus tells us, for the first of three times in John’s gospel, that the Son of Man must be lifted up.

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom Oakes has drawn this list, has grouped the various titles into four rubrics: (1) the earthly work of Jesus, (2) the future work of Jesus, (3) His present work, and finally to (4) His pre-existence. In this third selection we will look at the title Jesus the Son of Man which with the previous post, Jesus the Messiah, completes the rubric of Jesus’ future work.


Jesus the Son of Man
With two exceptions the title “Son of Man” is never used by others in the New Testament to designate Jesus, only by Jesus himself. Except for those two instances (Acts 7:56; Rev. 1:13), [The first occurs on the lips of Stephen just before his death by stoning, and the other is from John the Divine (the author of Revelation); both passages are actually but allusions to Daniel 7:13 and thus not confessions of faith by either Stephen or John the Divine but are silent quotations drawn from Daniel's vision, discussed below.] the term is exclusively Jesus’ own self-designation.

We are thus faced with a paradox that is almost the mirror-image of the paradox of the title Messiah: whereas Jesus acknowledged his identity as Messiah only in the most exceptional of circumstances and otherwise deflected its ready and too-easy use by his followers, even as the New Testament makes “Christ” (meaning “Messiah”) the most frequently cited title for him, so here, in contrast, Jesus regularly referred to himself as Son of Man, but the early Christians almost never so designated him by that title: Jesus largely deflects the title “Christ” while the church calls him that constantly; but the term he uses of himself most of all, “Son of Man,” almost never appears on the lips of Christians as a confessional term.

Complicating the issue even further, the term Son of Man encompasses a wide range of semantic implications. In some contexts the term could mean only a polite way for a male speaker of Aramaic to say “I” (the way some authors write their autobiographies in the third person, to avoid sounding egotistical by using the first person pronoun too often). Thus when Jesus says “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” this could be merely a periphrastic way of saying “I have nowhere to lay my head.”

Another common usage in Aramaic is the generic one, to refer to the human race at large, the way speakers of English will say “man must eat.” [This contemporary usage is less common now because of the critique of feminist grammarians; but the generic use of "man" to refer to all human beings is deeply embedded in the structure of English ("man" comes from the same Indo-European root as "mental" and functions in the way sapiens does in the description of our species as Homo sapiens) and is still common enough that the generic use highlights the same for the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek usage.]

Thus when Jesus says, “Man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was meant for man, for the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28), that could mean (although the verse is hotly disputed among exegetes) that Jesus is referring in the second half of the sentence not to himself but to man in general.

It is of course the third meaning that counts for Christology. Here “Son of Man” becomes a genuinely theological title, for when used in this sense it refers to that eschatological figure from heaven who will come as God’s celestial designate to inaugurate the end of the world and to bring about the final reign of God in a definitive kingdom, where evil will no longer hold sway and where God will reign utterly unopposed by either earthly powers or by evil supernal principalities. Now why did so generic a term as “Son of Man” (which in some contexts, as we have seen, can refer to humanity at large) come to be associated with so vivid a scenario as the end of the world? The answer simply is: because of an accident of apocalyptic literature.

Readers in our civilization who encounter apocalyptic literature for the first time enter upon a world filled with phantasmagoric imagery, lurid depictions of the end-times, bizarre vocabulary — in short, a world utterly removed from the quotidian display of journalism and the historical sobriety of the typical “just the facts” narrative of modernity. But everything about the apocalyptic genre makes sense when the reader sees the situation that gave birth to that literature: a fusion of extreme tribulation with irrepressible hope.

Consider the worldview of the Jews in the centuries after the Babylonian exile: at all times they knew that history was in God’s control and under the sway of his all-seeing providence, so much so that even the unsuspecting Persian king Cyrus was prompted to “let God’s people go” without even having a glimmer of a notion of that God’s existence. But then again, neither did Alexander the Great have any inkling that he was acting out in history according to God’s set purposes; he conquered the later Persian kings, the very heirs of the same king Cyrus whom Isaiah had called “Messiah” (Isaiah 45:1). Nor did Alexander’s Seleucid successors have any idea that they were operating out of the laws of providence set forth ahead of time by the God of the Jews; nor did the Roman conquerors, all of whom were oppressors of God’s chosen ones. But for the strictly monotheistic and prophecy-saturated Jews this oppression, too, had to have taken place under God’s suzerainty and by his direction. Why? What could be the answer to this reason-bewildering and soul-confusing cry? If God chose — anointed even! — Cyrus to liberate God’s chosen people, why did God allow the Romans to conquer the Promised Land?

Previously, the answer had been that God was punishing the people for their sins, and to some extent that answer still held sway; but the pattern of sin, repentance, restoration of land, sin again, loss of land, repentance, restoration of land, and so on, was starting to lose its prophetic force (not least because of the absence of further prophecy). Something about the current situation under the Romans was pushing the explanation of God’s purposes to new extremes.

For one thing, the lesson that the Jews had to be strictly faithful to the Mosaic Law, both written and oral, had sunk in with large tracts of the population (later called “Pharisees”), who took obedience to the Law with great seriousness and religious devotion. For another, oppression under the Romans assumed a harshness not previously known, especially because of its taxation system, which allowed licensed “tax farmers” (the hated “tax collectors” of the New Testament) to squeeze as much money out of the Jews as they could for their own use provided they turned in the required amount to the Roman treasury on time. So a new answer had to be given.

Clearly God was deliberately letting evil run its course. Like a latent cancer, evil would be allowed to gestate until it would burst forth in full bloom; and then God, like a wise surgeon, could intervene and cut out the canker and restore creation to its originally intended splendor, but only after evil had fully manifested itself. And for that task, as he had done with many of his other works, God would send one of his celestial delegates, that is, one of his angels. Such a scene we find depicted in the Book of Daniel, where we read how the outcome of the end of history will take place:

I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came out of the sea, different from one another… [These four beasts represent the empires of the Babylonians, Persians, Seleucids, and Romans, respectively] And as I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days [meaning God] took his seat…. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand [angels] stood before him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened…. I saw in the night a vision, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came before the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
(Daniel 7:2-14)

Notice that in this translation (RSV) the term “son of man” is not capitalized. Granted, the distinction between capital and small letters did not enter Western orthography until the eighth century A.D.; still the translators chose wisely, for here the term “son of man” is not yet a title, but merely the typical Aramaic indication for a human being, or rather in this passage, for someone like a son of man, meaning one who amidst the heavenly court has taken on human appearance. But this clearly is no angel chosen at random, but some more significant being; for his task will entail that, upon its completion, he will be given “everlasting dominion” so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”

For that reason, the expression that Daniel used to mean solely the human form or appearance of this divine agent came to take on the connotations of a specific title for that expected figure. It came to be, so to speak, “capitalized” (in the mind, if not in the manuscripts). “Son of Man,” in other words, came to designate a specific figure who would come from heaven to “set things right,’ to give God’s final verdict upon the course of world history, to put an end to this seemingly endless series of bestial empires, and to give final definition to God’s intentions when he created the world in the first place.

Jesus’ awareness of this connotation of the title “Son of Man” is made most evident when he speaks specifically of the Son of Man “coming on the clouds” (as in Mark 14:62, as we have already seen), a clear allusion to this passage in the book of Daniel. Many commentators, especially those of skeptical bent, hold that, insofar as these passages represent the authentic words of the historical Jesus, Jesus is referring to someone else whom he too is expecting. The trouble (apart from the plausibility or implausibility of the exegesis involved) is that when Jesus speaks of the Son of Man in contexts where he is clearly not using the term generically but is being specifically theological, for the most part he describes the Son of Man in terms that Isaiah uses to describe the Suffering Servant.

We see this most clearly in the very passage where Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ and where Jesus then admonishes him and the rest of the Twelve not to divulge such dangerous news: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly” (Mark 8:31-32a). No Messianic secret here at least: for here Jesus openly describes the Son of Man not in his exultant role but in his suffering on behalf of the people. [That Jesus' audience would have understood that eschatological connection is a point made by Craig Evans: "Interpreters of Daniel 7 in late antiquity almost always understood the `son of man' figure as referring to an individual, often to the Messiah (as in the Gospels, 1Enoch, and 4 Ezra)." [Craig A. Evans, "Jesus' Self-Designation `The Son of Man,"' in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity]

Again we are forced to ask why. Why did Jesus not use Isaiah’s language of the Suffering Servant when he spoke thus? Why use Son-of-Man language when he is intent on describing not his exaltation, the end of the world, or receiving dominion, but instead his humiliation and fated execution? Clearly, the association of suffering with the Son of Man meant that Jesus was linking his suffering with the definitive inauguration of God’s kingdom, something that not even the Suffering Servant Songs had done (that is, for Isaiah the Suffering Servant suffered on behalf of the people, but in an atoning way, and not necessarily to provoke the end of history). In other words, by speaking this way Jesus is signaling his acceptance of a divine vocation, one, moreover, that will transform God’s relationship to history in a definitive way: Jesus’ suffering and the end of the world are in some mysterious way linked.

Moreover, by using Son of Man as the title to express Jesus’ suffering, the stress is put on Jesus’ own control over his destiny, a feature of Christology that is strongly present in John but is also implied in the Synoptic use of Son of Man, as Heinz Todt rightly sees:

How is Jesus seen when in his suffering he is designated as Son of Man? He is not seen as the one who is utterly devoid of power; … instead he is always seen as the one who is marvelously aware of his course beforehand. … The one in whom the sovereignty is inherent accepts his rejection by and deliverance to men…. His authority on earth is confirmed by his resurrection power.
H. E. Todt, The Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition, trans. Dorothea M. Barton (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,1965), pp. 220-21.


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