Archive for November, 2012


The Treatise Of St John Eudes On The Kingdom Of Jesus

November 30, 2012

St. John Eudes was born in France in the year 1601. After being ordained to the priesthood, he spent years preaching missions and in founding congregations to improve priestly formation and promote a life of Christian virtue. He was particularly dedicated to fostering devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary. St. John Eudes died in 1680.

The Mystery Of Christ In Us And In The Church
We must strive to follow and fulfill in ourselves the various stages of Christ’s plan as well as his mysteries, and frequently beg him to bring them to completion in us and in the whole Church. For the mysteries of Jesus are not yet completely perfected and fulfilled. They are complete, indeed, in the person of Jesus, but not in us, who are his members, nor in the Church, which is his mystical body. The Son of God wills to give us a share in his mysteries and somehow to extend them to us. He wills to continue them in us and in his universal Church. This is brought about first through the graces he has resolved to impart to us and then through the works he wishes to accomplish in us through these mysteries. This is his plan for fulfilling his mysteries in us.

For this reason Saint Paul says that Christ is being brought to fulfillment in his Church and that all of us contribute to this fulfillment, and thus he achieves the fullness of life, that is, the mystical stature that he has in his mystical body, which will reach completion only on judgment day. In another place Paul says: I complete in my own flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.

This is the plan by which the Son of God completes and fulfils in us all the various stages and mysteries. He desires us to perfect the mystery of his incarnation and birth by forming himself in us and being reborn in our souls through the blessed sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. He fulfils his hidden life in us, hidden with him in God.

He intends to perfect the mysteries of his passion, death and resurrection, by causing us to suffer, die and rise again with him and in him. Finally, he wishes to fulfill in us the state of his glorious and immortal life, when he will cause us to live a glorious, eternal life with him and in him in heaven.

In the same way he would complete and fulfill in us and in his Church his other stages and mysteries. He wants to give us a share in them and to accomplish and continue them in us. So it is that the mysteries of Christ will not be completed until the end of time, because he has arranged that the completion of his mysteries in us and in the Church will only be achieved at the end of time.


Reading Selections On Divine Hiddenness by Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser

November 29, 2012

Red Admiral Butterfly On Lilac Tree

A Source Of Existential Concern
Many people are perplexed, even troubled, by the fact that God (if such there be) has not made His existence sufficiently clear. This fact — the fact of divine hiddenness — is a source of existential concern for many people. That is, it raises problems about their very existence, particularly its value and purpose. The fact of divine hiddenness is also, according to some people, a source of good evidence against the existence of God. That is, it allegedly poses a cognitive problem for theism, in the form of evidence challenging the assumption that God exists. (Here and throughout we speak of “God” as broadly represented in the historic Jewish and Christian theistic traditions.)

Provoking A Crisis Of Faith
The existential problem often takes the form of a crisis of faith, sometimes leading to a collapse of trust in God. Jewish and Christian theists have committed themselves to the God who, they believe, loves them perfectly. They expect to find their greatest good, their ultimate fulfillment, in personal and social relationship with God.
In the Jewish tradition, this general idea finds elaboration in God’s entering into a covenant relationship with the people of Israel, who are to respond to God in faithful obedience. In the Christian tradition, the idea sometimes takes a more individualistic turn.

To be sure, God enters into covenant relationship with a “people” — namely, the Church inaugurated by Jesus Christ — but Christians often emphasize the importance of each person’s entering into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. There are, of course, differences in interpretation and emphasis between and within the distinctive traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Nonetheless, the general initial expectation remains the same: God’s reality, including His love for people, will be made sufficiently well known precisely because He loves them, and their flourishing as persons created in the image of God depends on their relationship with Him.

An Uncaring, Inhospitable Place With A God Who Doesn’t Care?
The potential for crisis arises here. Jewish and Christian theists believe that their flourishing as persons depends on their being in a personal/social relationship with God. For many such theists, however, there is no such discernible relationship. God is hidden, if not in fact at least in their experience. Perhaps their existence has no personal guidance from God after all. Perhaps their lives simply blow with the winds of an impersonal nature. If God exists, God seems not to care for them. God seems too hidden to care at all. So the world appears as an uncaring, inhospitable place. Despair over life itself is, then, a natural result of divine hiddenness.

The Psalms
The Hebrew psalmists lament as follows:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?….I cry by day, but you do not answer…. (Psalm 22:1-2, NRSV).

But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:13-14, NRSV).

Psalm 10 complains about God’s hiding, as follows: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1, NRSV; cf. Job 13:24). Psalm 30 laments God’s hiding after a time when the psalmist had confident security. “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ O Lord, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed” (Psalm 30:7, NIV; cf. Psalm 104:27-29). Psalm 44 expresses outright annoyance at God’s hiding, suggesting that God’s hiding is actually morally irresponsible. “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44:23-24, NRSV).

The subject of God’s hiding is no merely theoretical matter in the Hebrew Psalms. It cuts to the core of the psalmists’ understanding of God and of themselves. Thus at times it prompts sincere lament from God’s people. Isaiah 45:15 likewise sums up a central Jewish view of God: “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” God’s hiding is sometimes a response to human disobedience and moral indifference toward God (Deuteronomy 31:16-19, 32:19-20; Psalm 89:46; Isaiah 59:2; Micah 3:4), but this is not the full story behind divine hiding. The Jewish-Christian God hides at times for a range of reasons, not all of which seem clear to humans.

Saint Anselm’s Complaint
Saint Anselm, eleventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the famous ontological argument for God’s existence, complains to God as follows:

I have never seen thee, O Lord my God; I do not know thy form. What, O most high Lord, shall this man do, an exile far from thee? What shall thy servant do, anxious in his love of thee, and cast out afar from thy face? He pants to see thee, and thy face is too far from him. He longs to come to thee, and thy dwelling place is inaccessible. He is eager to find thee, and knows not thy place. He desires to seek thee, and does not know thy face. Lord, thou art my God, and thou art my Lord, yet never have I seen thee. It is thou that hast made me, and hast made me anew, and hast bestowed upon me all the blessings I enjoy; and not yet do I know thee. Finally, I was created to see thee and not yet have I done that for which I was made.

Anselm continues:

Why did he shut us away from the light, and cover us over with darkness?…. From a native country into exile, from the vision of God into our present blindness, from the joy of immortality into the bitterness and horror of death. Miserable exchange of how great a good, for how great an evil! Heavy loss, heavy grief, heavy all our fate!
(Proslogion, sect. 1).

Anselm believes he gets a divine answer to his prayer of complaint: the famous ontological argument. Even if it is a sound proof, however, it is a far cry from the explicit personal love from God for which he longs. It is as though panting for water he receives a stone.

Saint John of the Cross
For many theists, the sense of God’s hiding is no fleeting affair. Even devout mystics of Jewish and Christian persuasions languish in what Saint John of the Cross (d. 1591) called “the dark night” of the soul. In a similar vein, many post-Holocaust Jewish writers speak intensely of “the silence of God,” something their biblical ancestors experienced painfully. (See, for instance, the Hebrew prophetic literature, particularly Isaiah, on divine elusiveness.)

For many Christians, the difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that their Lord has promised, “Seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7). Having sought and knocked (and knocked again and again), they still fail to find, and no one answers the door for them. Resisting the natural slide into despair, priests and pastors counsel, “The Lord did indeed promise us, but we must….”

Well-intentioned counselors promptly fill in the blank with various provisos: for instance, we must wait patiently, or we must be more attentive in a certain manner, or we must change certain questionable conduct. Even so, attempts to fill in the blank often seem lame, if not contrived. Sometimes they lead to further frustration and, eventually, to bitterness and despair.

Trust in God then crumbles, along with any hope anchored in God’s providence. Giving up the struggle to trust the hidden God often seems the only reasonable option as well as the only avenue to psychological well-being. Hence, even devout theists can face an existential crisis from divine hiddenness.

Nietzsche and Evidence Against God’s Existence?
Many nontheists regard the hiddenness of God as salient evidence that the Jewish-Christian God does not actually exist. Friedrich Nietzsche considered the matter in the following light:

A god who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intentions  – could that be a god of goodness? Who allows countless doubts and dubieties to persist, for thousands of years, as though the salvation of mankind were unaffected by them, and who on the other hand holds out frightful consequences if any mistake is made as to the nature of truth? Would he not be a cruel god if he possessed the truth and could behold mankind miserably tormenting itself over the truth?… All religions exhibit traces of the fact that they owe their origin to an early, immature intellectuality in man  – they all take astonishingly lightly the duty to tell the truth: they as yet know nothing of a Duty of God to be truthful towards mankind and clear in the manner of his communications.
Nietzsche, Daybreak

Divine hiddenness, Nietzsche suggests, warrants the conclusion that theistic religion arises from an “immature intellectuality” in people. In addition, his opening rhetorical questions in the quotation suggest that, given the reality of divine hiddenness, God could not be good. So it follows from the reality of divine hiddenness, according to Nietzsche, that the perfectly good God of Jewish-Christian theism does not exist. We thus have an inference from divine hiddenness to atheism about the Jewish-Christian God.

Atheism On The Basis Of Divine Hiddenness
A recent, detailed defense of atheism on the basis of divine hiddenness is J.L. Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Cornell University Press, 1993). His core argument is straightforward. If there were a perfectly loving God, He would see to it that each person capable of a personal relationship with Him reasonably believes that He exists, unless a person culpably lacks such belief. But there are capable, inculpable nonbelievers. Therefore, there is no perfectly loving God.

Schellenberg does not demand an undeniable proof that God exists. His demand is more lenient :

…the reasons for Divine self-disclosure suggested by reflection on the nature of love are not reasons for God to provide us with some incontrovertible proof or overwhelm us with a display of Divine glory. Rather, what a loving God has reason to do is provide us with evidence sufficient for belief. One of the consequences of this is that moral freedom … need not be infringed in order for God to be disclosed in the relevant sense.
Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason

The demand, then, is that a perfectly loving God provide evidence that removes reasonable non-belief toward God’s reality. This is not a demand for either a compelling proof or a disarming sign of God’s existence. Assuming that reasonable non-belief persists, Schellenberg concludes that a perfectly loving God does not exist.

Allegedly, then, divine hiddenness underwrites atheism about the God of Jewish-Christian theism. Some non-theists would stop short of atheism and recommend agnosticism on the basis of divine hiddenness. This, of course, would be no real consolation for theists. On either option, atheism or agnosticism, their theism is under cognitive stress owing to divine hiddenness.

The constellation of attitudes, passions, and actions comprising the existential problem of hiddenness differs from the ingredients of the cognitive problem. The existential problem calls for the sort of expertise found in a skilled and experienced pastor, priest, or spiritual director, one well-acquainted with the turbulent ups and downs of the spiritual life. The cognitive problem calls for the sort of expertise one finds in a skilled and knowledgeable philosopher or theologian, one acquainted with the complex ins and outs of assessing evidence and implications.

While recognizing the difference between these two problems, we also acknowledge that they often come together in the life of a single individual. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like for one to feel frustrated in one’s attempt to find God unless one expected certain things of Him and reflected on the reasonableness and implications of those expectations. Those expectations are the main premises of arguments against theism from divine hiddenness, and those reflections are implicit assessments of those arguments. Hence, the existential problem seems naturally rooted in the cognitive problem. This book focuses largely on the cognitive problem.

The cognitive problem prompts examination of whether a certain sort of argument against theism succeeds. It is sometimes helpful to describe the allegedly problematic phenomenon  – divine hiddenness —  in terms that do not presuppose the existence of God. Talk of “inculpable nonbelief,” for instance, is useful at times. The idea is that there are people who lack belief that God exists and do so through no fault of their own.

It is perhaps noncontroversial that infants and certain mentally impaired adults, for example, fall into this category. Some philosophers contend that a large number of normal adults are included as well. The latter claim is, however, controversial among philosophers of religion. Our talk of “inculpable nonbelief” does not presume that this controversy has been settled.


The Tridentine Genius of Vatican II (Part II) — Thomas Joseph White O.P

November 28, 2012

The Nativity (also known as The Holy Night (or La Notte) or as Adoration of the Shepherds) is a painting finished around 1529-1530 by the Italian painter Antonio da Correggio. It is housed in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.
The work was commissioned from Correggio in October 1522 by Alberto Pratoneri for the family chapel in the church of San Prospero of Reggio Emilia: completed at the end of the decade, it was placed in the chapel in 1530. In a what was considered a minor sacrilege, the painting was absconded in 1640 by duke Francesco I d’Este and taken to his private gallery, it was moved to Dresden in 1746.
The artist, following the trail blazed by a number of celebrated works by Titian, interpreted a scene that is fully ‘à la chandell’ and produced an outstanding result in the treatment of light. The scene pivots around the Child, surrounded by Mary’s arms, with a group of shepherds on the left, of which the bearded figure is portrayed in the same position of Jerome in the Madonna with St. Jerome (c. 1523). On the right are the traditional presepe animals and St. Joseph. The upper left part features several angels reminiscent the ardite positions in Correggio’s dome of the Cathedral of Parma, executed in the same years.
From Wikipedia Article on Correggio.

Vatican I’s emphasis on the unifying role of the papacy is not lost at Vatican II but reasserted as the basis of a communion in the one Church. If each local Church is to be fully herself, she must be in communion with the larger principle of unity, the Church in Rome and her prelate. This does not mean that there are no other grounds for ecumenism, but rather that ecumenism is truly possible and necessary especially because the Roman primacy provides a way for Christians to be one in a visible way, holding to a common doctrine.

How would we find mutual doctrinal accord if there were no way to attain to a touchstone of unity and to know in what we must be unified? Thus some form of doctrinal infallibility is the necessary condition for doctrinal unity. We can say with certitude: No pope, no true and final ecumenism.

Analogously, if Vatican II states that the laity are to be consulted in their practices and beliefs because of the sensus fidei — the sense of the faith — they hold, it is not because this functions independently of the ecclesial hierarchy. Rather, they are to be consulted because the life of the laity in ordinary society can embody and express, with its own unique genius and sanctity, the concrete truth of the gospel proclaimed by the apostolic hierarchy. Because there is a hierarchy, the laity can have a distinct and complementary mission of witness and teaching.

On this reading, Newman is right. The Church is alive in myriad ways, both in profound unity and in genuine, diversified vitality: in the sacraments, in the grace of Christ working invisibly to lead persons outside the Church to encounter Christ fully in the sacraments, in the Church in Rome and in her sister Churches, in the bishops and in the laity. The Council’s insistence on the sacramental visibility of the Church becomes a point of continuity with the past, not a point of rupture.

Consider another modern Catholic touchstone: the relationship between authority and rationality. The standard secular narrative is that we have to choose between an appeal to a unified doctrinal authority and the openness of human rationality to the fullness of universal truth. From Trent to Vatican II we see a contrary teaching, that authentic apostolic authority and vital human rationality are not only complementary, but also deeply and mutually enriching.

Trent committed the Catholic Church to this stance through that most authoritative of pronouncements: the affirmation of the Greek-language books of the Old Testament as inspired. By accepting the complete Septuagint as the authoritative Scripture of the Church, the Roman Catholic Church knowingly committed herself to a very ambitious project of historical study. How should we understand the narrative of the development of the books of the Bible, from the Torah and prophets (in Hebrew) to the inter-testamental literature (Hellenized Judaism), to the New Testament? What are we to make of the interpretations of the patristic age and the formation of the biblical canon during the time of the early christological disputes?

The Council of Trent saw that historical rationality and the divine authority of Scripture are not in competition but in profound concord. After the Council, the Church sought to win over the academic culture of Europe by making historical arguments about the true genesis and development of early Christianity. As Newman said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” This strategy committed the institution, however, to an ambitious new program of seminary and university studies, one that was in turn propagated throughout Europe by the episcopacy and renewed the study of philosophy and sacred theology in the early modern period.

Vatican I carried this program forward in conversation with the secular Enlightenment. Dei Filius insisted, against secular reason, on the infallibility of divine revelation: Revelation is a gift that human rationality cannot procure for itself. Yet it also underscored the high natural capacities of human reason, our philosophical capacity to know of the existence of God and to cooperate with divine revelation.

Against the reductive tendency of modern thought that so quickly rejects appeal to divine authority, that council sought to underscore the existence of a fruitful, liberating interaction between sacred theology and human rationality. The two are not at war, but may mutually interact with one another in peace and liveliness. Revelation is a gift to human reason seeking perspective. Reason seeking meaning can arrive at the threshold of the question of God and can therefore admit the possibility of divine revelation.

The modern Church’s living confidence in both divine authority and human rationality flowers at Vatican II, bringing to greater fullness what is present in seed at Trent and in stem at Vatican I. For instance, Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, affirms that the Holy Spirit is the principal author of sacred Scripture but that it is also always to be understood as the simultaneous product of true human authors. There is no rivalry between divine causality and human creativity.

Rather, God the Holy Spirit works through the living instrument of human rationality. Consequently, there need be no opposition between the study of the cultural context of a particular author and pursuit of the inspired, deepest meaning of the text. Each should in principle facilitate a deeper appreciation of the other.

Analogously, Gaudium et Spes, the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, called for an integrated understanding of modern cosmology and human political and moral life in concord with divine revelation. Engagement with the sciences or modern constitutional law are profoundly compatible with a biblical understanding of reality.

More to the point, only the theological vision of the human person who is created in the image of God can give final explanation to the development of the physical cosmos and the world of living things. Only theological recognition of the dignity of the human being who is redeemed in Christ can give ultimate justification to the humanist aspirations of modern democratic government and the legal system of rights.

As a last example, Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, underscored the importance of a search for intelligent points of contact between divine revelation and the diverse religious traditions of humanity. One can seek to explain and promote Christianity while also seeking to understand and learn culturally from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim traditions.

Most especially, the Church’s engagement with the Jewish people stems first from her recognition of the authority of Christ. This engagement requires that the Church take account of the theological and moral implications of the grave mistreatment of Jews by baptized persons in both medieval and modern Europe.

The Church in modernity has understood that human reason is enriched by revelation, and in its teachings on this matter Vatican II is thoroughly and faithfully Tridentine. While the Church simultaneously embraces the exploration of divine revelation and the expansion of human reason, the mystery of the faith itself does not change, but the way that mystery is understood, articulated, and transmitted does develop. Through this development, doctrines are clarified and purifications occur. In and through the process, the Church is called to become more herself, more attentive to the truth that she bears within herself in order to proclaim it with integrity and vitality to the world.

Consider the third theme, that of holiness. The Reformation was most fundamentally about the doctrine of justification: What is it that makes us righteous before God? We know Luther’s bold answer: justification by faith alone, apart from works. The Church took issue with this definition, but not with the notion of justification as a gift of grace. All were agreed on that. Nor did the Church dispute the need for supernatural faith. Again, the Church insisted at Trent that faith is necessary for salvation.

Rather, the heart of the matter had to do with Luther’s formula simul justus et peccator: the claim that by faith one could be just while simultaneously alienated from God in the will by the interior wound of sin. Against such a notion, Trent taught that the infusion of supernatural charity is an essential dimension of justification. In the fallen human person, the disordered loves of sin turn the human will away from God. By the grace of justification, faith, hope, and love together turn the human person freely and voluntarily away from sin and back toward God, all through the power of Christ.

What is at stake in this technical theological argument? One answer is: the Church’s insistence on the essential character of holiness at the core of Christian life. For there is no Christian life without charity. The seed idea of Trent, then, is that charity is at the root of all authentic Christian life.

Charity, however, is not only interior but lived out in the street. At Vatican I, the Church militant insisted on the public and social character of religion, in the face of the militant secular state that wished to confine religion to a merely privatized “freedom of worship.” The inner core of this Catholic militancy is based on a deep understanding of the all-embracing character of religion. Since charity impels the human person toward the service of God in all things, it is not feasible to ask the religious person to quarantine his or her belief behind the walls of private life. Catholic charity bears fruit through public, Christian institutions.

This is not to say that Vatican I pushed for a state-imposed religiosity (it did not). It did hold for the principle of integrity. For the Catholic Christian is called to submit the whole of his life to the mystery of God, in all spheres of life. Holiness is the fruit of such integrity, and it tolerates no half measures of self-offering. It stems instead from the victory in the human person of radical, oblative love.

This, too, is a theme that flowers in Vatican II. The Council emphasized the “universal call to holiness” of all of Christ’s faithful, the people of God. Baptism brings with it intrinsically a vocation to holiness that is grounded in the life of charity. This pursuit of holiness should affect both family and social life at their root, and the effect can transform the world.

But the world also can and does resist the holiness of God. Gaudium et Spes enjoins Christians to public practices of Christian charity that can be performed through the instrumentality of the state: education of the poor, economic development in underprivileged countries, and the pursuit of international peace, for example. The Council also calls upon Christians to demarcate clearly those threats to sacramental married life that strike at the heart of the holiness of a civilization, referring particularly in this respect to adultery, abortion, and contraception.

This theme of the Council is deeply interconnected with the sacramental vision mentioned above. We are frail human beings, in need of spiritual healing and elevation, dependent upon nourishment and continual aid from God. The sacramental life is the visible sphere wherein the baptized Christian can be habitually rejuvenated, in order to bring the mystery of Christ visibly and invisibly into the heart of modernity. Vatican II’s emphasis on holiness is grounded in Tridentine presuppositions in the charity of the sacraments of reconciliation, and the Eucharist stands at the heart of the Christian calling to renew the world.

Some today, particularly among younger Catholics, wonder not if the Council’s teaching is true but whether it is of any great help to us in our contemporary setting. The council fathers did not really foresee the radical secularization of Europe and the Americas that was beginning (or beginning to be seen) just as the documents were being published.

In our new and very challenging context, in which the Church suffers internal dissent and external persecution, many look back to the liturgical spirituality and theology of Trent and Vatican I as expressions of vibrant Catholic identity, and this makes perfect sense in light of the life of the Church as Newman described it. A plant under attack from disease will protect the roots and the stem and let the flowers go. These earlier configurations of Catholicism are like the root and the stem of modern Catholicism, wherein the life of the modern Church is expressed in concentrated fashion.

But we cannot do without the Second Vatican Council. The stem and the root are meant to flower, and the flowering of the Church occurs through the Christian life of charity and the public, credible proclamation of the truth, the realities of her life developed and articulated at Vatican II. It is precisely because Catholic Christianity is not sectarian but cosmopolitan and culture-forming that it must remain ever engaged with the world around it.

The modern Church is indeed a sacramentally visible order. She recognizes simultaneously the absolute importance of divine authority and public rationality. She is committed at her heart to the life of holiness. Because all this is true, the confidence of the Second Vatican Council should continue to speak to us.

The faith of the Church truly can transform the world, even as leaven in the dough or as the lamp that illumines an entire room. Newman was acutely sensitive to the great difficulty and simultaneous grandeur of being a Christian in the contemporary age.

The Christian is always a stranger in the world, but the Christian is the soul of the world as well. The greatness and promise of this vocation can be underscored by a patient reading of the Second Vatican Council that understands its place in the living tradition of the Church, particularly its place as the third great council of modern Catholicism.

That Council teaches us confidence. For in modernity the Church surely does travel through a dark night of faith, but she also bears within herself the hidden and radiant presence of the inextinguishable light of Christ.


The Tridentine Genius of Vatican II (Part One) — Thomas Joseph White O.P

November 27, 2012

At the heart of the world is the mystery of Christ and the Church. And yet this provokes some very different responses…

Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. I came across his article in last month’s First Things and it explained a great deal to me the constant topic of Vatican II and how Catholics seem to stress one thing and yet another on the topic.


Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, two schools of thought dominate the interpretation of that event. One derives from the theology surrounding the post-conciliar journal Concilium, founded by theologians like Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx. It advances a progressivist reading of the Council: Vatican II stands for engagement with modernity, liberation of women, dialogue with world religions, liberalization of sexual mores, laicization of the mission of the Church, and liberal political advocacy.

The other school stems from the thinkers who founded the journal Communio: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger. It reads the Council as a bold new vision of a distinctively Catholic way of being in the midst of modernity. The agenda is inevitably countercultural: the Church as a sign and instrument of salvation in Christ, nuptial theology that stresses the importance of gender complementarity, Eucharistic communion and sacramental marriage as the core of a healthy society, teaching and evangelization as the heart of the Christian mission in the modern world.

It can be useful to frame the debate between these two schools as a way of thinking about the Council and its aftermath. Perhaps, however, there is another juxtaposition to propose, one that does not overlap exactly with the options mentioned above. On this reading, there are also only two ultimate ways of reading the Council’s message: one through the interpretive lens of Friedrich Nietzsche, the other through that of John Henry Newman.

Nietzsche is undoubtedly the hermeneutic master of our age. His influence, once confined primarily to the Parisian Left Bank and Ivy League English departments, is now the intellectual stimulant of the culture at large. Every interpretation of a text, no matter how supposedly authoritative, is always-already laced with the dominating will to power of the interpreter. We invoke authoritative texts (the Constitution, the Bible, the Magisterium) not to get at the truth, but to leverage influence over others and for one’s self or one’s ideological tribe.

Even more radically, texts are invoked not only to such political ends, but precisely to create theory itself. The interpreter is not a discoverer but a fabricator of truth. Prelates and professors spin narratives to believe in. In reality, then, truth claims have only the objectivity of works of art. This battle of the “will to power” Nietzsche also calls in his later notebooks a “will to art.” Every time we encounter the other’s opinion, a war of loves ensues. Whose art is better? Which should we love most? Of course, on this understanding of textual interpretation, there is no such thing as a solid truth claim. Everything falls into the realm of preferences and power. Everything is perspectival.

However unwillingly or not, the Catholic progressivist left has taken up in its own way the hermeneutical presuppositions of Nietzsche, in its implicit interpretation of Christian teaching as centering above all upon the power of authority. The presupposition of modern Catholic liberalism is that the Church’s teaching throughout history is inevitably composed of heterogeneous perspectives, both moral and doctrinal. On this reading, Vatican II is in some way a repudiation of the teachings of Trent or Vatican I. Doctrinal unity does not come about through an intellectual vision of the whole, of the organic continuity of perspective across the ages. Rather, the unity of Church teaching ultimately comes about by way of judicial fiat. It is the product of willful fabrication.

How, in this understanding, should we interpret the meaning of Vatican II and the essence of modern Catholicism? The Magisterium (Bl. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, the Catechism of the Catholic Church) asserts one reading of the Council, but that reading is the artificial imposition of an extrinsic, authoritarian will.

Against this, we should substitute the will and insights of the laity or the dissenting clergy, who, authorized by their human experience, authentically reconstrue the narrative of Catholic doctrine from their own heterogeneous perspective, usually with the idea of the Council as revolution. John XXIII’s “opening the windows” of the Church is something like breaking down the door of the Bastille.

This helps explain why the left is so obsessed with incessantly retelling the history of the Council. Recounting their own cathartic story of liberation again and again is not merely the collective means of safeguarding meaning against the bishop’s telling. It is the act of fabricating an alternative doctrinal truth.

Understanding the tradition this way, progressivist Catholics lack any way back to a fundamental doctrinal unity, because their hermeneutic of suspicion has blocked any possible appeal to final authority. Instead, construing divine revelation as artifice, they are left with mere human perspectives.

In saying all this I seem to be less polite to the Concilium people than I ought. After all, I am clearly suggesting that the essence of Catholic liberalism is nihilism, and that seems too extreme a claim. But it is in fact an accurate one. There is either meaning in the world or there is not. And Catholic liberalism, because of its hermeneutical stance toward the tradition of the Catholic Church, is simply unable in the end to sustain a coherent claim that there is meaning in the world.

Unlike liberal Catholicism, traditional forms of Protestantism have the advantage of being internally coherent and therefore more intrinsically credible. They are also deeply unstable as forms of belief and practice, but that is a different problem to have, and it is not something inherently incompatible with the affirmation of meaning. The choice between Catholicism and Protestantism is an intelligibly meaningful one. The choice between orthodox and heterodox Catholicism is not.

Newman offers us a different view. In the late nineteenth century, he stood for certain values that anticipated the developments of Vatican II, even things the theological left might consent to: a moderate interpretation of papal infallibility, an emphasis on the ecclesial significance of the laity, theological ecumenism, and the idea that the Church in the modern world should distinguish between her unchanging essence and a particular historical instantiation of Catholicism that predominated just prior to the French Revolution. Presumably for such reasons, Pope Paul VI went as far as to speak of Vatican II as “Newman’s Council.”

And yet, Newman’s interpretive principles of Church councils were not liberal. As he made very clear in his Biglietto speech of 1879, delivered when he was made a cardinal: “For fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. . . . [It] is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. . . . It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true.”

As it turns out, Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua offers the most rhetorically potent defense of Roman authority written in the nineteenth century. His hermeneutical principles function, however, not from the perspective of the primacy of the will to power but from the perspective of consent over time to a unified and perennial truth perceived across the ages.

Accordingly, he proposes the interpretation of ecclesial texts by something like what has come to be called a hermeneutic of continuity: Ideas expand and develop in harmonious ways down through time. The Apologia and the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine allow for a fair amount of human dialectic and political battle to be the occasion (but not the inner mechanic) of this development.

But on a deeper level, Newman sees something more mysterious and more real: the life of the Church as a life of “truth and grace.” Through time, the Church goes from being herself more intensively to being herself more fully, from stem to blossom. It is not merely that there are common ideas that persist, though this is true and especially important. It is also that there is a common dynamic development of the inner life of the Church in the world, a mysterious life spanning across ages, growing in a consistent fashion. Not human political art, but divine supernatural life, is the essence of Catholic Christianity.

How, then, can we identify the living expression of the Catholic Church in the modern age? Trent is the first of the great modern Catholic councils, and we might rightly see it as creating a kind of doctrinal embryo that grows and develops, in organic continuity, into the modern Catholicism of both Vatican I and Vatican II. Three traits of the Council of Trent reassert themselves in vital fashion across the ages: sacramentality, authority and rationality, and holiness. By these measures, Vatican II shows itself a council in Trent’s genetic legacy, and one of great organic vitality, as well as intellectual genius. We might speak then of the Tridentine genius, and the Tridentine vitality, of Vatican II.

In response to the Reformers, the Council of Trent underscored that the Church is a unified reality, both visible and invisible, composed of political society and the life of grace. As Robert Bellarmine provocatively put it: The Church is as visible as the kingdom of France.

The unity of the Christian religion is grounded in something very visible and particular: the seven sacraments. Water, oil, the Eucharist, spoken words of forgiveness, a society of ordained clerics, the grace of married love, these are the humble vehicles, encountered in concrete instances, that communicate to the world the grace of communion with God. In defining the seven sacraments as both signs and true causes of grace, the Council of Trent made everything very tangible: This sacramental economy is at the heart of the Christian life.

Vatican I added to this the emphasis on the particularity of communion with the Bishop of Rome. The Petrine office in the Church is meant to hold together in unity the plurality of a diversity of Churches in the midst of the tumults of the modern world. Here the key interlocutor was not Protestantism but modern secularism. Nineteenth-century Europe saw the rise of post-Napoleonic regimes that wished to purge public culture of all or most religious influences.

In this context, the Catholic Church insisted on the visible bond among all Christians, in visible communion with the pope, the center of all Christendom. His juridical authority to govern and unite the faithful is the living sign of a deeper vitality that transcends the secular state and the particularities of nationalist politics. The Church unites humanity over and above the totalizing ideologies of the modern nation-state and the intellectual velleities of the secular culture’s intellectuals and pundits.

Admittedly, there is a common account of Vatican II that claims that the Council sought to correct the heritage of Trent and Vatican I on both these points. The Council’s ecumenical aspiration is supposed to have led it to downplay the seven sacraments, because Protestantism typically affirms only two, and its openness to modernity led it to soften the stridency of Vatican I. Such an idea ignores a core truth. For Vatican II not only presupposes the Tridentine vision of the Church as a concrete, visible reality, but reclaims it as the key to understanding the mysterious working of grace in all of humanity.

This is the deeper significance of the famous statement at the beginning of the Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium: “The Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.” Turn that around: All human beings, to the extent that they cooperate with the grace of Christ, come under a kind of implicit relationship to the sacramental life of the Catholic Church. Vatican II universalizes or expands the comprehension of what is already present at Trent. The human person is called into a visible and invisible fellowship with God, within a unified ecclesial body.

One can fail culpably to recognize or embrace this mystery (with terrible consequences), but what is of core importance is that this is the deeper mystery of the human race: the visible, sacramental ecclesiality of life in Christ. It is because this is the case, and not in spite of it, that the Church can be open to the modern world without being threatened by it, as the key to unlocking the inner secret at work in that world. At the heart of the world is the mystery of Christ and the Church.


Eight Selections From Forty Texts on Watchfulness — St Philotheos of Sinai (9th-10th century)

November 26, 2012

Unknown Desert Hermit

The Philokalia is “a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by spiritual masters” of the Eastern Orthodox hesychast tradition. They were originally written for the guidance and instruction of monks in “the practice of the contemplative life”. The collection was compiled in the eighteenth-century by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth.

Philokalia is defined as the “love of the beautiful, the exalted, the excellent, understood as the transcendent source of life and the revelation of Truth.”In contemplative prayer the mind becomes absorbed in the awareness of God as a living presence as the source of being of all creatures and sensible forms. According to the authors of the English translation, Kallistos Ware, G. E. H. Palmer, and Philip Sherrard, the writings of The Philokalia have been chosen above others because they:

…show the way to awaken and develop attention and consciousness, to attain that state of watchfulness which is the hallmark of sanctity. They describe the conditions most effective for learning what their authors call the art of arts and the science of sciences, a learning which is not a matter of information or agility of mind but of a radical change of will and heart leading man towards the highest possibilities open to him, shaping and nourishing the unseen part of his being, and helping him to spiritual fulfillment and union with God.”

It makes a certain kind of sense that anyone who can produce over 800 posts on the notion of Paying Attention would be inevitably drawn to a ninth century monk who posted 40 times on the topic of Watchfulness.


Introductory Note
‘It is not clear’, states St Nikodimos, ‘at what date our holy father Philotheos flourished and died.’ He is known to us solely as the author of the present work Forty Texts on Watchfulness. From his name it is evident that he was a monk of Mount Sinai, while the content of his Forty Texts shows that he followed in the tradition of St John Klimakos, abbot of Sinai (sixth-seventh century), whom he quotes (§20; cf §34). His spiritual teaching is also close to that of another Sinaite author, St Hesychios the Priest (? eighth-ninth century); the three of them may be regarded as forming together a distinctively Sinaite ‘school’ of ascetic theology. Certainly later in date, then, than Klimakos, and probably likewise later than Hesychios, Philotheos may have lived in the ninth or tenth century.  Clear and concise, the Forty Texts are especially valuable for the simple definitions that they give of key  concepts.

As the title indicates, St Philotheos assigns central significance to the quality of watchfulness or spiritual sobriety (nipsis). In common with St Hesychios, he sees this as closely connected with inner attentiveness and the guarding of the intellect: the three notions are virtually synonymous. But he underlines, more explicitly than does Hesychios, the importance of bodily asceticism and the keeping of the commandments; the inner and the outer  warfare go together.

Like the other two members of the Sinaite ‘school’, he commends the invocation of the Holy  Name, ‘the unceasing prayer of Jesus Christ’ (§2), which has power to ‘concentrate the scattered intellect’ (§27),  thereby enabling it to maintain continual mindfulness of God. Particularly striking is Philotheos’ insistence upon the  remembrance of death, which is to be viewed not as something morbid and ‘world- denying’, but rather as  enhancing the unique value of each moment of time. 

Contents 1-8

1 . There is within us, on the noetic [vocab: no•et•ic: From the Greek noēsis / noētikos, meaning inner wisdom, direct knowing, or subjective understanding.] plane, a warfare tougher than that on the plane of the senses. The Spiritual worker has to press on with his intellect towards the goal (cf. Philemon 3:14), in order to enshrine perfectly the remembrance of God in his heart like some pearl or precious stone (cf. Matthew 13:44-46). He has to give up everything, including the body, and to disdain this present life, if he wishes to possess God alone in his heart. For the noetic vision of God, the divine Chrysostom has said, can by itself destroy the demonic spirits. 

2. When engaged in noetic warfare we should therefore do all we can to choose some spiritual practice from divine Scripture and apply it to our intellect like a healing ointment. From dawn we should stand bravely and  unflinchingly at the gate of the heart, with true remembrance of God and unceasing prayer of Jesus Christ in the  soul; and, keeping watch with the intellect, we should slaughter all the sinners of the land (Psalms 101:8 LXX).

Given over in the intensity of our ecstasy to the constant remembrance of God, we should for the Lord’s sake cut off  the heads of the tyrants (cf. Habakkuk. 3:14. LXX), that is to say, should destroy hostile thoughts at their first appearance. For in noetic warfare, too, there is a certain divine practice and order.

Thus we should force ourselves to act in this way until it is time for eating. After this, having thanked the Lord who solely by virtue of His compassion provides us with both spiritual and bodily food, we should devote ourselves to the remembrance of death and to meditation on it. The following morning we should courageously resume the same sequence of tasks. Even if we act daily in  this manner we will only just manage, with the Lord’s help, to escape from the meshes of the noetic enemy. When this pattern of spiritual practice is firmly established in us, it gives birth to the triad faith, hope and love.

Faith disposes us truly to fear God. Hope, transcending servile fear, binds us to the love of God, since ‘hope does not disappoint’ (Romans 5:5), containing as it does the seed of that twofold love on which hang ‘the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 22:40). And ‘love never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13:8), once it has become to him who shares in it the motive for fulfilling the divine law both in the present life and in the life to be. 

3. It is very rare to find people whose intelligence is in a state of stillness. Indeed, such a state is only to be found in those who through their whole manner of life strive to attract divine grace and blessing to themselves. If,  then, we seek – by guarding our intellect and by inner watchfulness – to engage in the noetic work that is the true  philosophy in Christ, we must begin by exercising self-control with regard to our food, eating and drinking as little  as possible. Watchfulness may fittingly be called a path leading both to the kingdom within us and to that which is  to be; while noetic work, which trains and purifies the intellect and changes it from an impassioned state to a state of  dispassion, is like a window full of light through which God looks, revealing Himself to the intellect. 

4. Where humility is combined with the remembrance of God that is established through watchfulness and attention, and also with recurrent prayer inflexible in its resistance to the enemy, there is the place of God, the heaven of the heart in which because of God’s presence no demonic army dares to make a stand. 

5. Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together. What is more disastrous than this ‘uncontrollable evil’ (James 3:8)? The tongue has to be restrained, checked by force and muzzled, so to speak, and made to serve only what is needful. Who can describe all the damage that the tongue does to the soul? 

6. The first gate of entry to the noetic Jerusalem – that is, to attentiveness of the intellect – is the deliberate  silencing of your tongue, even though the intellect itself may not yet be still. The second gate is balanced self-  control in food and drink. The third, is ceaseless mindfulness of death, for this purifies intellect and body.

Having  once experienced the beauty of this mindfulness of death, I was so wounded and delighted by it – in Spirit, not through the eye – that I wanted to make it my life’s companion,  for I was enraptured by its loveliness and majesty, its humility and contrite joy, by how full of reflection it is, how apprehensive of the judgment to come, and how aware of life’s anxieties. It makes life-giving, healing tears flow from our bodily eyes, while from our noetic eyes rises a fount of wisdom that delights the mind.

This daughter of Adam – this mindfulness of death – I always longed, as I said, to have as my, companion, to sleep with, to talk with, and to enquire from her what will happen after the body has been discarded. But unclean forgetfulness, the devil’s murky daughter, has frequently prevented this. 

7. It is by means of thoughts that the spirits of evil wage a secret war against the soul. For since the soul is invisible, these malicious powers naturally attack it invisibly. Both sides prepare their weapons, muster their forces, devise stratagems, clash in fearful battle, gain victories and suffer defeats. But this noetic warfare lacks one feature possessed by visible warfare: declaration of hostilities. Suddenly, with no warning, the enemy attacks the inmost heart, sets an ambush there, and kills the soul through sin.

And for what purpose is this battle waged against us? To prevent us from doing God’s will as we ask to do it when we pray ‘Thy will be done’. This will is the commandments of God. If with the Lord’s help through careful watchfulness you guard your intellect from error and observe the attacks of the demons and their snares woven of fantasy, you will see from experience that this is the case. For this reason the Lord, foreseeing the demons’ intentions by His divine power, set Himself to defeat their purpose by  laying down His commandments and by threatening those who break them. 

8. Once we have in some measure acquired the habit of self-control, and have learnt how to shun visible sins  brought about through ‘the five senses, we will then be able to guard the heart with Jesus, to receive His illumination  within it, and by means of the intellect to taste His goodness with a certain ardent longing. For we have been  commanded to purify the heart precisely so that, through dispelling the clouds of evil from it by continual attentiveness, we may perceive the sun of righteousness, Jesus, as though in clear sky; and so that the principles of His majesty may shine to some extent in the intellect. For these principles are revealed only to those who purify their minds.


Return To Thee – John Henry Cardinal Newman

November 23, 2012

Some of you will be interested in this recording, Heart Speaks to Heart, “a meditation in words and music based on a selection of the spiritual writings of Blessed John Henry Newman” narrated by Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, with music sung by the Schola Cantamus under the direction of Jeremy de Satgé.

Taken from Cor ad cor loquitur, Heart Speaks to Heart… the above CD can be purchased following these directions here.  Prayers are meant to be chanted or spoken aloud. Silent prayer always struck me as sort of a contradiction in terms. Prayer lives in the spoken voice.


THE SUN SINKS TO RISE AGAIN; the day is swallowed up in the gloom of night, to be born out of it, as fresh as if it had never been quenched. Spring passes into summer, and through summer and autumn into winter, only the more surely, by its own ultimate return, to triumph over that grave, towards which it resolutely hastened from its first hour.

We mourn over the blossoms of May, because they are to wither; but we know, withal, that May is one day to have its revenge upon November, by the revolution of that solemn circle which never stops — which teaches us in our height of hope, ever to be sober, and in our depth of desolation, never to despair…. O my God, shall I one day see Thee? What sight can compare to that great sight! Shall I see the source of that grace which enlightens me, strengthens me, and consoles me?

As I came from Thee, as I am made through Thee, as I live in Thee, so, O my God, may I at last return to Thee, and be with Thee forever and ever….

Eternal, Incomprehensible God, I believe, and confess, and adore Thee, as being infinitely more wonderful, resourceful, and immense, than this universe which I see. I look into the depths of space, in which the stars are scattered about, and I understand that I should be millions upon millions of years in creeping along from one end of it to the other, if a bridge were thrown across it.

I consider the overpowering variety, richness, intricacy of Thy work; the elements, principles, laws, results which go to make it up. I should be ages upon ages in learning everything that is to be learned about this world, supposing me to have the power of learning it at all. And new sciences would come to light, at present unsuspected, as fast as I had mastered the old, and the conclusions of today would be nothing more than starting points of tomorrow.

It is the occupation of eternity, ever new, inexhaustible, ineffably ecstatic, the stay and the blessedness of existence, thus to drink in and be dissolved in Thee…

Since Thou art from everlasting, and hast created all things from a certain beginning, Thou hast lived in an eternity before Thou began to create anything….

There was no earth, no sky, no sun, no space, no time, no beings of any kind; no men, no Angels, no Seraphim. Thy throne was without ministers; Thou were not waited on by any; all was silence, all was repose, there was nothing but God….

Through a whole eternity Thou were by Thyself, with no other being but Thyself; blessed in Thyself and by Thyself, and wanting nothing….

I cannot comprehend Thee more than I did, before I saw Thee on the Cross; but I have gained my lesson. I have before me the proof, that in spite of Thy awful nature, and the clouds and darkness that surround it, Thou canst think of me with a personal affection. Thou hast died that I might live. Amen.


The Parable Of The Grand Inquisitor – Ralph C. Wood

November 22, 2012

Do you know, Alyosha — don’t laugh I made a poem about a year ago. If you can waste another ten minutes on me, I’ll tell it to you.”
“You wrote a poem?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t write it,” laughed Ivan, and I’ve never written two lines of poetry in my life. But I made up this poem in prose and I remembered it. I was carried away when I made it up. You will be my first reader — that is listener. Why should an author forego even one listener?” smiled Ivan. “Shall I tell it to you?”
“I am all attention.” said Alyosha.
“My poem is called The Grand Inquisitor; it’s a ridiculous thing, but I want to tell it to you.

The plot of Ivan Karamazov’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor is familiar enough, even if its meaning remains quite unfamiliar. The risen Christ returns to earth in 15th century Seville, where he immediately begins to perform miracles. The people hail him as their liberator from the awful autos da fe which the Spanish Inquisition is carrying out. Jesus is quickly arrested by the church authorities and imprisoned in a dimly lit dungeon. There the ninety-year old Cardinal Grand Inquisitor relentlessly grills the silent Christ.

This ancient church-ogre accuses Jesus of having required men to live by the strength of their strong wills, cruelly ignoring the fact that they are impotent creatures who can live only for the sake of a swinish happiness. The Inquisitor thus upbraids Christ for having rejected the Tempter’s wilderness offerings of bread and power and fame. These, he says, are the satisfying substitutes which human beings crave. They do not want the awful autonomy that Christ commanded:

Instead of taking over men’s freedom, you increased it still more for them! Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either. And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men’s strength, and thereby acted as if you did not love them at all….

You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you. Instead of the firm and ancient law, man had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him as a guide…. (254-55)

It is astonishing that so many readers have taken the Grand Inquisitor’s conception of freedom as if it were Dostoevsky’s own — and also as if it were true. Camus regarded it as an unprecedented statement of the human cry of freedom against all religious restraints. Camus can make such a claim only because, together with Ivan, he embraces the thoroughly secular conception of freedom that has largely prevailed in the modern West, from Immanuel Kant to John Dewey.

Ivan’s Inquisitor voices this secular conception of freedom ever so clearly. Liberty, he says, entails a brave and lonely autonomy, as each individual determines for himself the difference between good and evil. Jesus serves not as savior who redeems corporate humanity from sin, therefore, but as moral example to guide solitary and heroic individuals. Hence the enormous irony that, while Ivan is deeply Russian in his religious concern for the problem of human suffering, he is a western liberal in his political answer to it.

Michael Sandel has shown that this liberal notion of selfhood understands freedom as consisting entirely of unfettered choices. They are prompted by nothing other than the individual subject and his private conscience acting either on persuasive evidence or the arbitrary assertion of will. Just as this liberal self is not determined by any larger aims or attachments that it has not chosen for itself, neither does it have obligations to any larger communities, except those it autonomously chooses to join. The one moral norm, it follows, is the injunction to respect the dignity of others by not denying them the freedom to exercise their own moral autonomy. Sandel sums up such procedural liberalism by noting that it opposes

… any view that regards us as obligated to fulfill ends that we have not chosen — ends given by nature or God, for example, or by our identities as members of families, peoples, cultures, or traditions. Encumbered identities such as these are at odds with the liberal conception of [persons] as free and independent selves, unbound by prior moral ties, capable of choosing our ends for ourselves. This is the conception that finds expression in the ideal of the state as a neutral framework…. a framework of rights that refuses to choose among competing values and ends. For the liberal self, what matters above all, what is most essential to our personhood, is not the ends we choose but or capacity to choose them.

Dostoevsky repeatedly attacked this modern liberal notion of freedom, dismissing it with the scornful name of “socialism.” It is no wonder, therefore, that Alyosha should be astounded by the Inquisitor’s idea of personal liberty as absolute autonomy: “And who will believe you about freedom?” Alyosha asks Ivan. “Is that the way to understand it? It’s a far cry from the Orthodox idea…” (260).

It should be added that it is also a far cry from the Jewish and Catholic and classical Protestant ideas of freedom. In all three traditions, as also in Eastern Orthodoxy, we are not made free by becoming autonomous selves who have been immunized from all obligations that we have not independently chosen, but rather by becoming communal selves who freely embrace our moral and religious obligations. These responsibilities come to us less by our own choosing than through a thickly webbed network of shared friendships and familial ties, through political practices and religious promises. In a very real sense, such “encumbrances” choose us before we choose them. There is no mythical free and autonomous self that exists apart from these ties, but only gladly or miserably bound persons — namely, persons who find their duties and encumbrances to be either gracious or onerous.

The Orthodox idea of freedom is communal because it is first of all religious. Athanasius of Alexandria articulated it most clearly in the 4th century: “God became man so that man may become God.” The central Orthodox doctrine is called theosis or theopoesis — the divinizing or deifying of humanity.

The Eastern Church does not call for believers to imitate Jesus through the exercise of moral choice, as in the familiar western pattern. It summons them rather to participate in the life of Christ through the transformative power of the liturgy and sacraments of the church. To become persons in the true sense is to become what the New Testament calls “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

The modern secular notion of freedom articulated by the Grand Inquisitor is, for the Orthodox, the very definition of slavery. As Vladimir Lossky observes, the Eastern Church regards choice as the mark not of freedom but of fallenness, as a debasement of true liberty, as a loss of the divine likeness: “Our nature being overclouded with sin no longer knows its true good…; and so the human person is always faced with the necessity of choice; it goes forward gropingly.” To deliberate autonomously in the face of alternatives, it follows, is not liberty but servitude. True freedom, says Lossky, is revealed in the Christ who freely renounces his own will in order to accomplish the will of his Father.

Alyosha is free in precisely this way. Jesus has not abandoned him to his lonely conscience in order to let him solitarily determine good and evil for himself. The self-emptying Christ has freed Alyosha to live and act in joyful obedience to God and thus in unbreakable solidarity with his father and brothers, with his friends and enemies, and (not least of all) with the miserable children of his neighborhood.

Given the Grand Inquisitor’s anti-Orthodox conception of freedom as unencumbered choice, it is not surprising that he should have contempt for the average run of men. He despises their dependence, their animal desire for security and comfort. The Inquisitor thus informs Jesus that the Catholic Church has been forced to correct his impossible summons to autonomy. Rome understands, says the Inquisitor, what Christ did not — that men must first be fed before they can be made virtuous. “Better that you enslave us,” the Inquisitor’s masses cry out, “but feed us” (253).

Thus has the cynical church of the Grand Inquisitor replaced Christ’s purported call for unfettered autonomy with its own sheepish substitutes: “miracle, mystery, and authority.” Yet even these pitiful placebos will not finally suffice, the Inquisitor insists, for the modern world will confront men with such scientific wonders and terrors that the hordes will not be content even with comfort and security. They will finally demand the antheap of personal oblivion, in order that they might be relieved of their freedom, preferring to live in childish self-indulgence:

Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such … insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; others, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our feet and cry out to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you — save us from ourselves”…. Yes, we will make them work, but in the hours free from labor we will arrange their lives like a children’s game, with children’s songs, choruses, and innocent dancing. (258-59)

The Grand Inquisitor’s final prophecy is perhaps the most frightening augury in the entirety of Dostoevsky’s work. With amazing prescience, he foresaw the rise of the totalitarian state that has dominated much of this century’s political life, killing more people by violent means than in all of the previous centuries combined. This is the century of blood and ours is the culture of death. That Dostoevsky mistakenly linked the late-modem calamity with the Catholic Church, and that he did not foresee its first triumph in his own beloved Russia, hardly invalidates his vision. On the contrary, Dostoevsky was right to prophesy that, if we begin (as Ivan does) with absolute anti-communal freedom, we will end (again as Ivan does) with absolutely anti-communal slavery, whether in its individualist or its totalitarian form.

Given Ivan’s horrifying vision of this grim and Christless future, it is not surprising that Alyosha regards Ivan’s “poem” as praising Jesus rather than reviling him. Indeed, he kisses Ivan in honor of his brother’s terrible truthfulness. Yet Alyosha also makes a clear and devastating judgment about the moral and religious consequence of Ivan’s atheism. If God is dead, Alyosha declares, “everything is permitted” (263).

We must not misread Alyosha here. He does not deny that men can be moral without believing in God. He insists, instead, that such morality has no ultimate basis, that unfettered freedom is self-destructive, that it hovers over an abyss, and thus that godless people and cultures await their inevitable plunge into the void. Unbelief and barbarism are indissolubly joined. 1 John 3:4 defines sin precisely as lawlessness: he hamartia estin he anomia. Ellis Sandoz observes that John of Damascus, the 8th century Greek theologian, linked this definition of sin to the larger claim that barbarism is the primal heresy: “every man as independent and a law unto himself after the dictates of his own will.”

Dostoevsky regards individualist autarky not only as barbaric but also as satanic. Perhaps the chief of Ivan’s demonic deceptions is that the Inquisitor is right to regard “miracle, mystery, and authority” as pathetic requirements for weak-willed men. Yet just as Ivan misreads freedom to mean unencumbered choice, so does the Inquisitor pervert the meaning of miracle. Nowhere in the novel does God jump in and out of his creation like a divine factotum who accedes to human petition if it is sufficiently pious.

It is exactly such a sentimental and superstitious understanding of miracles — namely, as God’s arbitrary violation of the natural order for the sake of clamant human need — which Alyosha is required to surrender. Hoping that Zosima’s corpse would be wondrously preserved, giving off the sweet odor of sanctity, Alyosha is horrified when it putrefies prematurely. The saint’s rapidly rotting body demonstrates to Alyosha that God is not a sacred Santa Claus who brings him whatever he wants.

In the “Cana in Galilee” chapter, Alyosha learns that miracles do not precede and thus produce faith; rather do they follow faith as the by-product of the transformed life. That Alyosha can kiss the earth and bless the creation despite its rampant suffering, that he can live as a monk in an sensual world, that he can increase men’s joy amidst suffering as Christ increased it by turning water into wedding wine — this, he learns, is the true miracle: the divine possibility that overcomes human impossibility.

Like a brittle Enlightenment philosophe, perhaps a Diderot or a Comte, the Inquisitor also slanders mystery. He reduces it to a cynical mystification, to a new secular priestcraft, a political anesthetizing of the masses with the morphine of entertainment. “For only we, we … keep the mystery,” he boasts. For him, mystery can be hoarded as a weapon in his arsenal of deceit, as a spiritual poison-gas meant to blind human vision and stifle true thought.

For Alyosha and all other Orthodox believers, by contrast, the mysterion enlivens such vision and thought. It is a word that can also be translated sacrament. The mystery of God not therefore a riddle or a conundrum, not a vague and gaseous something; it is the one reality which prompts an endless delectation of mind no less than heart and soul. “In the proper religious sense of the term,” writes the contemporary Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “mystery’ signifies not only hiddenness but disclosure…. A mystery is … something revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God.”

Perversely if also consistently, Ivan has the Inquisitor voice a skewed understanding of authority. He regards it as the tyrannical power of the state or the church to suppresses individual autonomy. For him, authority can have only the negative meaning of raw coercive force. For Alyosha, again in notable contrast to the Inquisitor, rightful authority (both human and divine) invites free submission of the will for the sake of the good — submission to his elder Zosima, to the incarnate Christ, to the merciful God.

Such free subjection of the will begins in penitence, as Zosima confesses that all men are sinners and that he is the worst. It ends in the acceptance, even the embrace, of suffering. Yet Dostoevsky does not sentimentalize suffering into pain that one masochistically seeks to embrace. He shows, on the contrary, that even this noblest of virtues — suffering love — can be put to demonic purposes. When Dmitri gives a long bow to Katerina Ivanovna after she had come to borrow 3000 rubles, his seeming gesture of humility is in fact a humiliating reminder that he could have demanded her sexual favors in return. She is appropriately crushed and envenomed by it.

Perhaps the novel’s chief irony is that Ivan himself has made a similar misuse of suffering. He turns a rightful religious concern with the injured innocent into a wrongful justification of his own hatred and scorn. Claiming to care about newspaper cases of suffering, Ivan cannot care for the creature who is his own closest kin, his father. In a nightmare interview with the Devil, Ivan is made to recognize his own moral culpability for his father’s death. He has poisoned Smerdyakov’s mind with the demonic gospel that God is dead and all things are lawful. Acting out what Ivan had philosophically advocated, Smerdyakov has killed old Fyodor in a dreadful demonstration that all things are indeed permitted.

Since Satan is the primal Deceiver, it is no wonder that Ivan becomes his earthly embodiment. Far from being harmless intellectual exercises, Dostoevsky maintains that demonic perversions of mind issue in demonic perversions of will. Deicide results in parricide. The mental killing of God breaks the deepest of human bonds. It is thus fitting that Ivan the perverted intellectual should end in madness.

Yet Ivan’s final insanity is not to be explained as psychosis alone. In the Orthodox tradition, to deny the presence and reality of God is a psychopathic condition. Not sharing the western doctrine of total depravity, the Orthodox hold that every person retains the knowledge of God, even after the Fall. “Just because it is light,” writes Vladimir Lossky, “grace, the source of revelation, cannot remain within us unperceived. We are incapable of not being aware of God, if our nature is in proper spiritual health.

Insensibility [to God] in the inner life is an abnormal condition.” Lossky adds, far more darkly, that total unawareness of God “would be nothing other than hell, the final destruction of the person.” It follows that Zosima is not a golden-hearted humanist when he defines Hell as “the suffering of being unable to love.” He is describing Ivan’s spiritual condition exactly. Ivan suffers the hellish laceration of the soul that occurs when freedom is exercised negatively — not to engender life but to bring death. “Death for a person,” declares the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, “means ceasing to love and to be loved, ceasing to be unique and unrepeatable, whereas life for the person means the survival of the uniqueness of its hypostasis [personification], which is affirmed and maintained by love.”

To love, in Dostoevsky’s view, is to suffer rightly. It is to accept responsibility, not only for one’s own sin, but also for the sins of others. All theodicies fail if they do not recognize that only suffering can answer suffering. One who is willing to suffer must be willing, moreover, to suffer fools.

Father Zosima exhibits such foolish suffering when, early in the novel, he makes a low bow before the cruel buffoon who is old Fyodor Karamazov. It is an act utterly unlike the abstentions practiced by Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The übermensch is akin to a lion that has claws but refrains from using them. He doesn’t show mercy, therefore, so much as he seeks to humiliate the weaklings of the world with his contemptuous self-restraint.

So does Father Zosima have the authority to condemn the despicable old lecher. Yet unlike Nietzsche’s übermensch, Zosima restrains his power for the sake of redemption rather than humiliation. He embraces the despicable Fyodor as one who also bears the divine image and likeness, and thus as one who remains worth redeeming. For Dostoevsky, such a gospel of suffering love is the only lasting answer to the perennial problem of evil. It is a gospel peculiar neither to east nor west because it centered in the common ground of the Incarnation and Cross and Resurrection.


No Straw Atheist, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov– Derek Jeter

November 21, 2012

Though Dostoyevsky was influenced by religion and philosophy in his life and the writing of The Brothers Karamazov, a personal tragedy altered the work. In May 1878, Dostoyevsky’s three-year-old son Alyosha died of epilepsy, a condition inherited from his father. The novelist’s grief is apparent throughout the book; Dostoyevsky named the hero Alyosha, as well as imbuing him with qualities which he sought and most admired. His loss is also reflected in the story of Captain Snegiryov and his young son Ilyusha.
The death of his son brought Dostoevsky to the Optina Monastery later that year. There, he found inspiration for several aspects of The Brothers Karamazov, though at the time he intended to write a novel about childhood instead. Parts of the biographical section of Zosima’s life are based on “The Life of the Elder Leonid”, a text he found at Optina and copied “almost word for word”.

A theme I often return to is human suffering, theodicy and salvation, marking it from one side and then another. The last time I took it up was to present the two current theodicies of Catholic thought. Theodicies are attempts by theologians to advocate that there are no pointless evils — that there are greater goods that justify the evil in the world. They are attempts, in a way, to vindicate God by providing an explanation for evil.

From Leibniz through Hume, from Alvin Plantinga to J. L. Mackie, the problem of evil has often been cast in bare intellectual terms not just by theologians but by philosophers and other intellectuals as well: how to think through the contradiction that stands between the goodness, omniscience and omnipotence of God, on the one hand, and the massive misery and undeserved suffering that characterize God’s world, on the other: Si Deus est unde malum? Si Deus non est unde bonum? [That is if God does exist where evil comes from? If God does not exist where good comes from?]

In J.B., his dramatic contemporizing of the Job story, Archibald MacLeish puts the intellectual problem of evil tersely but accurately: “If God is good He is not God. If God is God He is not good.” If, in other words, God is imbued with the charity which He himself enjoins his creatures to live by, then He must lack the divine power to create and sustain a world in which such charity obtains: He is not God. If, by contrast, God possesses the sovereignty and strength to perform what He wills, then this misery-riddled world must be proof that he is deficient in love itself. He is not good.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

Two of the best known theodicies are Augustine’s free will theodicy and John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. I presume there are many more but these are the two that I was familiar with:

One important theodicy was formulated by St. Augustine (354-430), and it has probably been the most prominent response to evil in the history of Christian thought. Fundamental to the position is Augustine’s view that the universe God created is good; everything in the universe is good and has a good purpose, some things to a greater extent, some to a lesser one. Evil, then, is not something God created. Evil is a privatio boni — a privation of the good. Augustine uses the example of being blind. Blindness is not a thing in itself, let alone a good thing. It is a privation of seeing. Evil, he argues, is like blindness; it is a privation of good.

Then, if God created a very good world, what brought about the privations? How did evil arise? It came about, he maintains, through free will. The story is familiar. Some of God’s good creation — namely persons, including angels and humans — were given the good gift of freedom of the will, a gift that reflected God’s image of being morally culpable and creative. However, some of God’s free creatures turned their will from God, the supreme Good, to lesser goods.

This act of turning from God was, in essence, the Fall. It happened first with the angels and then, after being tempted by Satan (one of the fallen angels), with humans. This is how moral evil entered the universe and this moral fall, or sin, also brought with it tragic cosmic consequences, for it ushered in natural evil as well. The Fall was no insignificant event; it was a disaster of cataclysmic proportions in the universe that accounts for all the moral and natural evils throughout history.

Augustine’s theodicy does not end without resolution, however, for in the eschaton God will rectify evil when he judges the world in righteousness, ushering into his eternal kingdom those persons who have been saved through Christ and sending to eternal perdition those persons who are wicked and disobedient and have rejected his good offer of salvation.
Chad Meister, Theodicy

The other theodicy Meister introduces is based on the work of Irenaeus (c230-c.202 CE) and developed by theologian John Hick. It is in stark contrast to the Augustinian approach. Hick maintains that his soul-making theodicy has the benefit of God’s having a close, developing relationship with his creation over time, whereas the Augustinian type presupposes an impersonal or sub-personal relationship between God and creation. Instead of God creating a paradise with perfect human beings who then freely fell into sin, on this account God created the world as a good place (but no paradise) for developing a race of beings from an early state of animal selfishness and self-centeredness to an advanced state of moral and spiritual maturity:

God’s purpose was not to construct a paradise whose inhabitants would experience a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. The world is seen, instead, as a place of “soul making” or person making in which free beings, grappling with the tasks and challenges of their existence in a common environment, may become “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life.” Our world, with all its rough edges, is the sphere in which this second and harder stage of the creative process is taking place.
John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Evil, then, is not the result of perfect persons choosing to sin but, rather, is an inevitable part of an environment necessary for developing mature character. Thus, by placing evolving beings in this challenging environment, through their free will to choose what is right and good, they can gradually grow into the mature persons that God desires them to be, exhibiting the virtues of patience, courage, and generosity, for example. Furthermore, as the theodicy goes, God will continue to work with human persons, even in the afterlife if necessary, by allowing them non-coercive opportunities to love and choose the good so that eventually everyone will be brought into a right and full relationship with God; everyone will finally experience redemption.

Makes sense I guess but I am left to wonder how Hick got the memo on all of that. Augustine gives us scriptural references. I’m not sure about Hick. I haven’t read Philosophy of Religion yet so I can only offer what his case is, not how he justifies it.


The real topic of this post is not so much theodicy per se but the character of Ivan Karamazov, a living theodicy of a sorts, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s creation that gives voice to the philosophical and theological problem of evil. Dostoevsky accomplished this better, more clearly and cogently, than any other actor in the whole world of literature.

Ivan does not make his case against God’s goodness in this intellectualized fashion. He is not a philosophical thinker who abstracts ideas from experience in order to test their logical clarity and coherence. As Albert Camus observed, “Ivan really lives his problems.” They are matters, quite literally, of life and death, of eternal life and eternal death, of ultimate bliss or final misery. Ivan is willing to face the anguish and terror inherent not only in thinking but also in living without God.

As one who knows the truths of the heart, Ivan also knows that reason alone cannot fathom the deepest things. On the contrary, reason can be put to nefarious purposes: “Reason is a scoundrel,” he confesses . Ivan is willing, therefore, to live “even … against logic.”

Yet he is unwilling to live as a mindless vitalist, embracing life without much regard for its meaning and, even less, with a blithe disregard for its injustice. So huge are the world’s moral horrors, Ivan argues, that they undermine any notion of divine order and purpose. Hence Ivan’s truly wrenching quandary: Can he love life without believing that it has ultimate meaning — believing, instead, that it is godless and absurd?

There is still an awful lot of centripetal force on our planet, Alyosha. I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic. Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

What Dostoevsky forces us to face about Ivan is his denial of the Christian life and his eerie prescient embrace of our modern secular condition:

Ivan deliberately denies Father Zosima’s teaching that love cannot be selective, that it must be at once universal and concrete, that we must not love those who are conveniently remote so much as those who are inconveniently near. Already, it is evident, the philosophical and the religious arguments are linked.

Ivan not only thinks but also lives in autonomous and anti-communal terms. It is precisely the neighbor whom we cannot love, he insists. The neighbor’s objective and objectionable otherness — his bad breath, his foolish face, his ill manners — threaten Ivan’s sovereign selfhood. “He is another and not me,” Ivan complains . Despite his eager embrace of the world, therefore, Ivan wants to remain the solitary and transcendent judge over it, a godlike withholder no less than a gracious giver of praise. Others must satisfy his own criteria before he will embrace them. And because God does not satisfy the requirements of Ivan’s logic, he will not believe in God.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

I must say, how many atheists have you met that bear this attitude toward their fellow man: He is another and not me. I have never met an atheist whom I have not sensed this fundamental haughtiness.

Wood makes the point that Ivan’s logic is not sophomoric. He attacks God’s goodness, largely ignoring the case concerning natural calamities — typhoons and tornadoes, floods and droughts, fires and earthquakes and disease – other atheists will tell us this proves the “creator of heaven and earth” is the origin of a natural order inimical to human happiness. No, what makes Ivan unique in many ways is the powerful and unrelenting case he makes against the moral evils, providing us a hellish list of the crimes that we human creatures commit:

Ivan offers searing examples of such wanton and motiveless malignity. Indeed, he creates a virtual phantasmagoria of suffering from actual instances of human barbarity that he has read about in Russian newspapers: Turkish soldiers cutting babies from their mother’s wombs and throwing them in the air in order to impale them on their bayonets; enlightened parents stuffing their five-year old daughter’s mouth with excrement and locking her in a freezing privy all night for having wet the bed, while they themselves sleep soundly; Genevan Christians teaching a naive peasant to bless the good God even as this poor dolt is beheaded for thefts and murders which his ostensibly Christian society caused him to commit; a Russian general, offended at an eight-year old boy for accidentally hurting the paw of the officer’s dog, inciting his wolfhounds to tear the child to pieces; a lady and gentleman flogging their eight-year old daughter with a birch-rod until she collapses while crying for mercy, “Papa, papa, dear papa.”

Such evils cannot be justified, Ivan argues, either by religious arguments based on history’s beginning or by secular arguments that look to its end. The Edenic exercise of free will is not worth the tears of even one little girl shivering all night in a privy and crying out from her excrement-filled mouth to “dear, kind God” for protection.

Yet neither will Ivan accept the Hegelian-Marxian thesis that the harmonious final outcome of history sublates its present evils. The notion that such savagery reveals the necessary consequences of human freedom or that it contributes to history’s ultimate result is, to Ivan, a moral and religious outrage.

Neither is he any more satisfied with the conventional doctrine of hell, which holds that the monsters of torment will themselves be eternally tormented. Hellish punishment for heinous malefactors would not restore their victims, Ivan reminds us. The impaled babies would not be brought back to life nor would their mothers be consoled, the dismembered boy would not live out his years, the weeping girls would not dry their tears. Ivan rejects all such theodicies because he believes that they commit unforgivable sacrilege against innocent sufferers. With a drastic metaphor drawn again from Schiller, he refuses to offer his hosanna for such a world: he returns his ticket to such a life.

Ivan’s brief against belief seems philosophically unanswerable. Dostoevsky concedes that there is no logical justification for the suffering of innocents. Yet this is hardly to say that there are no answers at all. It is rather to say that they will be found, if at all, elsewhere than in philosophical argument; they will be located in the realm of religion and politics and the requirements of daily life.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

As a 14 year old reading this for the first time I signed on immediately for Ivan’s atheism. I was not able to process Dostoevsky’s answers to Ivan, the figures of Fr. Zosima and Alyosha, Ivan’s gentle youngest brother, the “cherub” as he calls him.

The most notable fact about the monastic elder and his young disciple is that, unlike Ivan, they are not Euclidean men. They believe that, in the most important matters, parallel lines do indeed meet. Things counter can converge because the deepest truths are not univocal but analogical and paradoxical. Theirs is not a three-dimensional block universe but rather a layered cosmos containing multiple orders of being. For Zosima and Alyosha, the material and immaterial worlds are never distant and remote from each other, as in much of western thought. The created and uncreated realms are deeply intertwined, each participating in the life of the other.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

How strange it is that these many years later, I, too am a believer in “a layered cosmos containing multiple orders of being.” If you haven’t watched Brian Greene you can catch him here. Drag the timer at the bottom to 4:30 or so to skip all the annoying PBS opening commercials.

Such an interstitial cosmos Dostoevsky tells us calls for interstitial living:

It requires the enmeshment of one life with many other lives — not holding oneself aloof as Ivan does, but involving oneself in the suffering of others. Ivan the atheist clips news accounts of suffering children and offers anti-theological arguments about them. Alyosha the monk seeks out the insulted and injured, identifying himself with them. He addresses the philosophical problem of evil with deeds no less than reasons — with his whole life, not with his mind alone. Through his patient and long-suffering friendships, Alyosha helps redeem the pathetic Ilyusha Snegirov, even as he also helps to set the nihilistic Kolya Krassotkin on the path to new life.

Alyosha is able to pull these boys out of their misery only at great cost to himself. Dostoevsky makes clear in the novel’s final scene, when the boys gather to cheer Alyosha as if he were their savior, that he is a true icon of Christ, a man through whom the invisible light of eternity brightly shines. Yet Alyosha deflects all praise away from himself and toward Christ. As the only Man who has suffered absolutely everything, says Alyosha, Christ alone has the right to forgive absolutely everything — even the tormentors of children.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

Yet Alyosha’s mere mention of the “only sinless One” so enrages Ivan that he comes forth with his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” his final and perhaps most effective assault against Christ. You can follow René Girard’s take on all that here.


Henri de Lubac: In Appreciation — Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.

November 20, 2012

From September 28, 1991. Originally published in First Things, which everyone should read.


Together Rahner, Lonergan, Murray, von Balthasar, Chenu and Congar, Henri de Lubac stood among the giants of the great theological revival that culminated in Vatican II (1962-65). His death on Sept. 4, 1991, leaves Yves Congar, O.P., ill and hospitalized, as the only surviving member of this brilliant Pteiade. (Congar died in 1995)

Born in 1896, de Lubac entered the Society of Jesus in 1913. After serving in the army and being severely wounded in World War I, he studied for the Jesuit priesthood under excellent masters. During his studies he gained an enthusiasm for Thomas Aquinas, interpreted along the lines suggested by Blondel, Rousselot and Marechal. Without any specialized training or doctoral degree he was assigned to teach theology in the Catholic faculty at Lyons, where he taught, with some interruptions, from 1929 to 1961. There, and in his occasional courses at the neighboring Jesuit theologate at Fourviere (1935-40), de Lubac quickly began to forge new directions in fundamental theology and in comparative religion.

DeLubac’s first book, Catholicism (1938), was intended to bring out the singular unitive power of Catholic Christianity and its capacity to transcend all human divisions. Developing his interest in the fathers of the church, he founded in 1940, with his friend Jean Danielou, S. J., a remarkable collection of patristic texts and translations, Sources Chrétiennes (French “Christian sources”), which by now includes more than 300 volumes.

During the Nazi occupation of France, he became coeditor of a series of Cahiers du Témoignage Chrétien (Christian witness notebooks).. In these papers and in his lectures, de Lubac strove particularly to exhibit the incompatibility between Christianity and the anti-Semitism that the Nazis were seeking to disseminate among French Catholics. On several occasions his friends had to spirit him away into hiding to prevent him from being captured and executed by the Gestapo, as happened to his close friend and colleague, Yves de Montcheuil, S.J.

After the war, de Lubac developed his theology in several directions. In an important study of medieval ecclesiology, Corpus mysticum (completed in 1938 but not published until 1944), he demonstrated the inner bonds between the church and the Eucharist. To his mind, the individualism of modern Eucharistic piety was a step backward from the great tradition, which linked the Eucharist with the unity of the body of Christ. Seeking to stem the spread of Marxian atheism, he wrote on the intellectual roots of French and German atheistic socialism. He also composed several shorter works on the knowability of God and the problems of belief.

DeLubac’s most famous work, Surnallirel (1946), maintains that the debate between the Baianists and the scholastics in the 17th century rested on misinterpretations both of Augustine and of Thomas Aquinas. Both parties to the debate, it maintains, were operating with philosophical and juridical categories foreign to ancient theology. Contemporary neo-scholastics, especially in Southern France and Rome, taking offense at de Lubac’s attack on their methodology and their doctrine, interceded with the Holy See for a condemnation. When Pius XII published the encyclical Humani generis (1950), many believed that it contained a condemnation of de Lubac’s position, but de Lubac was relieved to find that the only sentence in the encyclical referring to the supernatural reproduced exactly what he himself had said in an article published two years before.

Seeking to deflect accusations against the Society of Jesus in France, which was being accused of promoting a supposedly modernistic “new theology,” the Jesuit General, John Baptist Janssens, removed de Lubac and several colleagues from their teaching positions and required them to submit their writings to a special process of censorship. These regulations did not affect de Lubac’s work on Origen’s interpretation of Scripture, Histoire et Esprit, which came off the press in 1950, just as the storm was breaking. Because of the restrictions placed on his theological research, de Lubac in this period turned toward the study of non-Christian religions. He published three books on Buddhism, which interested him as an example of religion without God.

In 1953, during his “exile” in Paris, de Lubac published a popular work on the church constructed out of talks given at days of recollection before the war. (He was embarrassed by the triumphal sound of the title given to the English translation, The Splendor of the Church, as well as by suspicions in some quarters that his expressions of love and fidelity toward the church in this book were intended to atone for the offense given by his previous works.) Pained though he was by the widespread doubts about his own orthodoxy, de Lubac was even more distressed that some disaffected Catholics used his troubles as an occasion for mounting bitter attacks on the magisterium and the papacy.

The clouds over de Lubac began to dissipate in the late 1950’s. In 1956 he was permitted to return to Lyons, where he began research for his major study of medieval exegesis, which was to appear in four large volumes between 1959 and 1964. In 1960 Jesuit superiors, fearing that the works of Teilhard de Chardin were about to be condemned by Roman authorities, asked de Lubac to write in defense of his old friend, who had died in 1955. Beginning in 1962, de Lubac published a series of theological works on Teilhard and edited several volumes of Teilhard’s correspondence. Probably more than any other individual, de Lubac was responsible for warding off the impending condemnation.

In 1960 Pope John XXIII, who, as papal nuncio in France, had gained an admiration for de Lubac, appointed him a consultant for the preparatory phase of Vatican II. As a consultant, he found much to criticize in the schemas prepared by the neoscholastic Roman theologians. These schemas, which contained statements intended to condemn both him and Teihard de Chardin, were rejected when the council fathers assembled. De Lubac continued to serve as an expert (peritus) at the council, making his influence felt on many documents such as the Constitution on Divine Revelation and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Some of his ideas are reflected also in the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity and in the Declaration on the Non-Christian Religions. ­

Greatly esteemed by Pope Paul VI, de Lubac was one of the 11 council theologians chosen to concelebrate with him at the Eucharist preceding the solemn promulgation of the Constitution on Revelation in November 1965. During the council de Lubac established a close working relationship with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who as John Paul II was to elevate him to the rank of cardinal in 1983.

For several years after 1965, de Lubac traveled widely to explain the achievements of the council. He visited the United States and Latin America, as well as many parts of Europe. He published an important commentary on the Constitution on Revelation, and in other writings sought to clarify the relationships between primacy and collegiality, and between the universal and the particular church. Perceiving the advent of a new crisis of faith, he wrote La foi chretienne and L’Eglise dans la crise actuelle (both 1969). His preoccupations with the present state of the church, however, did not prevent him from continuing his studies in the history of theology, such as his work on Pico dell a Mirandola (1974) and on the spiritual posterity of Joachim of Fiore (2 volumes, 1979, 1981).

By his own admission, de Lubac was not a systematic thinker. He never tried to articulate any set of first principles on which to base his philosophical or theological findings. Many of his books are composed of historical studies loosely linked together. Although he made forays into many areas, he never composed a treatise on any of the standard theological disciplines. In his last work, an autobiographical reflection published in 1989, he chided himself for having failed to undertake the major work on Christology that he had once projected.

For all that, de Lubac’s work possesses a remarkable inner coherence. As his friend and disciple Hans Urs von Balthasar pointed out, de Lubac’s first book, Catholicism, is programmatic for his entire career. The various chapters are like limbs that would later grow in different directions from the same trunk. The title of this youthful work expresses the overarching intuition. To be Catholic, for de Lubac, is to exclude nothing; it is to be complete and comprehensive. He sees God’s creative and redemptive plan as including all humanity and indeed the entire cosmos. For this reason the plan demands a unified center and a goal.

That center is the mystery of Christ, which will be complete and plainly visible at the end of time. The universal outreach of the church rests on its inner plenitude as the body of Christ. Catholicity is thus intensive as well as extensive. The church, even though small, was already Catholic at Pentecost. Its task is to achieve, in fact, the universality that it has always had in principle. Embodying unity in diversity, Catholicism seeks to purify and elevate all that is good and human.

In the patristic and early medieval writers de Lubac found an authentic sense of Catholicism. He labored to retrieve for our day the insights of Irenaeus and Origen, Augustine and Anselm, Bernard and Bonaventure. He remained a devoted disciple of Thomas Aquinas, whom he preferred to contemplate in continuity with his predecessors rather than as interpreted by his successors.

In de Lubac’s eyes, a serious failure occurred in early modern times, and indeed to some extent in the late middle ages. This was the breakdown of the Catholic whole into separate parts and supposedly autonomous disciplines. Exegesis became separated from dogmatic theology, dogmatic theology from moral, and moral from mystical. Worse yet, reason was separated from faith, with the disastrous result that faith came to be considered a matter of feeling rather than intelligence.

One step in this process of fragmentation, for de Lubac, was the erection of an order of “pure nature” in the scholasticism of the Counter Reformation. The most controversial act of de Lubac’s career may have been his attack on Cajetan and Suarez for their view that human nature could exist with a purely natural finality. For de Lubac, the paradox of a natural desire for the supernatural was built into the very concept of the human.

De Lubac was convinced that the newness of Christ was both a fulfillment and a gift. Somewhat as nature was a preparation for grace, while grace remained an unmerited gift, so the Old Testament foreshadowed the New, without however necessitating the Incarnation. In his exegesis, de Lubac sought to show how the New Testament gave the key to the right interpretation of the Old Testament, which it fulfilled in a surpassing manner.

De Lubac’s exegesis has often been depicted as anticritical or precritical, but it was neither. It might with greater justice be called, in Michael Polanyi’s terminology, postcritical. De Lubac practiced what Paul Ricoeur was to call a “second naivete.” After having studied the literal sense of Scripture with the tools of modern scholarship, he returned to the symbolic depths of meaning with full awareness that these depths go beyond the literal. The “spiritual” meaning transcends, but does not negate, the “historical.”

At the root of de Lubac’s theology stands an epistemology that accepts paradox and mystery. Influenced by Newman and Blondel, Rousselot and Marechal, he interpreted human knowing as an aspect of the dynamism of the human spirit in its limitless quest for being. Without this antecedent dynamism toward the transcendent, the mind could form no concepts and arguments. Concepts and arguments, however, arise at a second stage of human knowing and are never adequate to the understanding they attempt to articulate. In every affirmation we necessarily use concepts, but our meaning goes beyond them.

De Lubac was satisfied that Vatican II had overcome the narrowness of modern scholasticism, with its rationalistic tendencies. The council, he believed, had opened the way for a recovery of the true and ancient tradition in all its plenitude and variety. But Catholics in France, and indeed in many parts of the world, having imbibed too narrow a concept of tradition, took the demise of neo-scholasticism as the collapse of tradition itself. In postconciliar Catholicism de Lubac perceived a self-destructive tendency to separate the spirit of the council from its letter and to “go beyond” the council without having first assimilated its teaching. The turmoil of the postconciliar period seemed to de Lubac to emanate from a spirit of worldly contention quite opposed to the Gospel.

For his part, de Lubac had no desire to innovate. He considered that the fullness was already given in Christ and that the riches of Scripture and tradition had only to be actualized for our own day. In a reflection on his own achievement he wrote: “Without pretending to open up new avenues of thought, I have rather sought, without any archaism, to make known some of the great common sources of Catholic tradition. I wanted to make it loved and to show its ever-abiding fruitfulness. Any such task required a process of reading across the centuries rather than critical application at definite points. It excluded too privileged an attachment to any particular school, system or period” (Memoire sur l’occasion de mes ecrits).

Terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” are ill suited to describe theologians such as de Lubac. If such terminology must be used, one would have to say that he embraced both alternatives. He was liberal because he opposed any narrowing of the Catholic tradition, even at the hands of the disciples of St. Thomas. He sought to rehabilitate marginal thinkers, such as Origen, Pico delia Mirandola and Blondel, in whom he found kindred spirits animated by an adventurous Catholicity of the mind. He reached out to the atheist Proudhon and sought to build bridges to Amida Buddhism.

But in all of these ventures he remained staunchly committed to the Catholic tradition in its purity and plenitude. He humbly and gratefully accepted what the tradition had to offer and made it come alive through his eloquent prose and his keen sense of contemporary actualities. His eminent success in enkindling love for Christ and the church in the hearts of his readers stemmed, no doubt, from his own devotion, humility and selfless desire to serve. The suffering of his long years of adversity, including two world wars and decades of great tension in the church, are still bearing fruit. In the last few years, as his earthly life drew to a close, his disciples and admirers became more numerous and influential. De Lubac’s creative reappropriation of the ancient tradition has earned him a place of honor in a generation of theological giants.


A Testament Of Faith — By Mary Tompkins Lewis

November 19, 2012
The medieval Irish monks believed that one could discover in these intricate images not only the power of the book’s art but also the mystery and magnificence of the Divinity.

Ms. Lewis teaches art history at Trinity College, Hartford. This article appeared in the WSJ a few months ago.


Most scholars agree that the stunningly beautiful illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells originated in the waning years of the eighth century in a monastery founded by the Irish missionary Colum Cille (also known as St. Columbanus, c. 521-597) on Iona, a remote island just off the west coast of Scotland. But little else about it is certain.

It may have been conceived to celebrate the second centenary of the saint’s death on Iona, and left unfinished when the tranquil island suffered a series of attacks by Vikings. After a particularly brutal assault in 806 left 68 of their community dead, many monks took refuge in Ireland at Kells.

As recorded in the Annals of Ulster, the shrine of Columbanus and some of his relics, including, perhaps, the cherished codex, also found protection there, where work on it may have continued. It was probably the artifact described as “the most precious object in the Western world” that was “wickedly stolen” from the church sacristy in 1007 and retrieved soon after, stripped of its gold ornaments.

The manuscript was definitively at Kells in the late 11th century, when its blank leaves were used to record local property transactions. In the mid-17th century, when Oliver Cromwell’s invading troops threatened, the Book of Kells was sent to Dublin for safekeeping and soon after acquired by Trinity College, where it remains today. The celebrated status it enjoyed in an age and monastic culture renowned for artfully embellished books has never faded.

This large-format codex of the New Testament gospels, intended for display on an altar, was largely based on the Vulgate, the Latin Bible transcribed by St. Jerome in the late fourth century from older Latin translations. It includes sumptuous concordances, summaries of gospel narratives, etymologies of Hebrew names, and prefaces to the four evangelists.

Even more than the sacred text painstakingly copied in an insular, majuscule script, the manuscript’s exquisite decoration attests to the faith and visionary creative genius of the medieval Irish monks, who believed that one could discover in such endlessly imaginative amalgams of enigmatic earthly and heavenly images entwined with the written word not only the power of the art of the book but the mystery and magnificence of the Divinity.

Nowhere is the authority, eloquence and wonder of the written word more exuberantly proclaimed than in the Chi Rho, the monumental incipit taken from the first letters of Christ’s name in Greek (XPI) and enlarged to fill an entire page that introduces Matthew’s account of the Nativity. The lavish tapestry of letters is dominated by the Chi, in which the symbolic, cruciform character (X) is transformed into an elegant scrolling shape that stretches above the smaller Rho and Iota at lower right.

On closer inspection, the monogram’s spiraling, interlaced designs, akin to those found in pagan Pictish (ancient Scottish) carvings and medieval Irish high crosses, yield a maze of tiny figures and beasts. Curving filaments at the center of the upright Rho terminate in a beautifully-drawn, blond human head positioned sideways. Two men in the small Iota, visible when the page is inverted, pull each other’s beard (a favored Kells motif). A dense labyrinth of men and peacocks surround the Chi’s central lozenge, and three flaxen-haired angels grace its left-most vertical edge.

Beneath a yellow Greek cross a black otter clutches a fish in its mouth, whimsical mice tug on a host while cats look on, and above, butterflies and chrysalises flutter. Long thought to represent fanciful flights of the monks’ imagination, these animals from land, sea and sky, as witnessed by earthly and heavenly observers, are in fact, as Suzanne Lewis has conclusively argued, (the link will cost you) metaphors for the incarnate or resurrected Christ and underscore the special Eucharistic and liturgical significance of the manuscript by giving tangible form to the most intangible tenets of Christian faith.

Apart from its brilliantly allusive artistry, the Book of Kells offers a telling window into the context of the monastic scriptorium, and even the personae of the medieval monks.

Bernard Meehan, Trinity’s Keeper of Manuscripts, has aptly described how the community that produced the 340-page codex on costly vellum (prepared calfskin) in pigments applied with quill pens or the finest brushes fashioned from the prized fur of martens must have been wealthy, stable and in possession of an established library, a description that fits either late eighth-century Iona or Kells shortly afterward.

Although the famed Iona abbot Connachtach (d. 802) has been linked to its production, scholars have separated the hands of the manuscript’s nameless scribes and artists largely on the character of their contributions: the conservative Scribe A, whose sober script eschewed embellishments in the Book of John; the more “extroverted” Scribe B, who exhibited a penchant for color and distinctive flourishes; or the gifted “goldsmith,” one of a handful of decorative artists and so named because his intricate, luminous work, including the Chi Ro folio, is suggestive of decorated metalwork.

Yet centuries of scholarly research fail to explain the wide range of influences the Book of Kells seems to reflect despite its outlying, insular origins. The seventh-century pilgrim Arculf, whose storm-tossed ship landed him in Iona on his way home from the Holy Lands, has been credited with introducing animals from Egyptian Coptic art that could have shaped their fanciful counterparts here. Coptic models may have also inspired the full-page folio of the Madonna and Child folio that would count James Joyce among its many admirers. Arculf, or perhaps other travelers, may have even contributed a plan of the Holy Sepulchre’s rotunda in Jerusalem, which seems inscribed in the halo of the evangelist John’s portrait.

But how to account for the fineness of detail in the Chi Rho, for example, in an age predating sophisticated magnifying tools? Countless other leaves and images of extraordinary sophistication defy even the most capricious explications, and led the 13th-century historian Giraldus Cambrensis to famously pronounce the manuscript “the work, not of men, but of angels.” Such are the mysteries and the miracles the Book of Kells has kept intact.


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