Wednesday, 22 October 2014

"A kind of speeches": Augustine and discerning "the real meaning"

A fascinating comment from Augustine in his discussion of Jesus' walking on the water in John 6:

For that ship prefigured the Church while He is on high. For if we do not, in the first place, understand this thing which that ship suffered respecting the Church, those incidents were not significant, but simply transient; but if we see the real meaning of those signs expressed in the Church, it is manifest that the actions of Christ are a kind of speeches (Tractate XXV, 5).


"The real meaning" is not that of a "simply transient" event, which would be "not significant", but rather as a "kind of speech" about the Church.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"On a walk to Chartres": pastoral practice and the recovery of natural theology

In a recent speech to Christian philantrophists in the States on the nature of Christian engagement with the world, commentator David Brooks did something utterly radical for a New York Times columnist - he quoted Augustine:


It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.

Brooks then uses Augustine's reflection as a basis to narrate the desires of the 'secular' culture:

... everyone is born with that moral imagination. The heart flies upward, even if you don’t know the categories, even if you’ve never been to church, you’ve never read the Bible, and you don’t exactly know the forms of it. You feel the hunger. And so to me, that is what is out there in the secular culture. An unformed, inarticulated hunger.

Everyone’s on a walk to Chartres. On a walk toward something transcendent, even if they don’t know what it is. Are you building ramps on the way to Chartres or are you building walls?

So is the Church building ramps or walls for that "walk to Chartres"?  Theologian David Cloutier sees this as the question that was wrestled with at the recent Extraordinary Synod:

... the goal is to facilitate the encounter with God, in the person of Jesus and the community of the church. The deliberations of the synod make clear that Francis and many other bishops worry intensely that a focus on certain moral ideals, especially when they sound like a simple “no” to many people, constitutes a barrier to that fundamental spiritual encounter. 

Thus, unlike secular advocacy of this or that stance on an issue, gradualism rests on the more important theological conviction that God is really at work in the world. 

In his The Heart of the Parish, Martin Thornton points to a recovery of a 'natural theology' to articulate this understanding "that God is really at work in the world" and the consequences for pastoral practice:

As soon as an embodied soul acquires self-consciousness a general sacramentalism presents itself to him.  Within or behind or below or beyond his body and the world of nature, a realm of spirit lies veiled.  Beneath sensible experiences lies something else - Plato's ideas, Kant's noumenal, Otto's numinous; the supernatural, the spirit of God.  In the 18th century the deists and rationalists divorced nature from God, and the pantheists equated nature with God.  Natural religion inherited a bad name from which it has never fully recovered.  But we are slowly returning to the position from which natural and revealed religion are to be seen as two parts of a continuous line rather than parallel and opposing lines.  Between natural and revealed religion there is indeed a gap; between faith in the God of nature and faith in his Incarnate Son is a gap which can only be bridged by conversion, which is an act of God himself.  But Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father-creator.  Similarly between the general sacramentalism of the world and the unique sacraments of the Church there is a gap, but there is still an organic relation between the order of nature and the order of grace.  So pastoral practice must seek a relation between all these things.

Now, yes, we might want to revise Thornton's terminology somewhat - the order of nature, after all, is grace, "more a part of creation" as John Milbank states. In the words of De Lubac, "how can a conscious spirit be anything other than an absolute desire for God?"

And here is the challenge of such a renewed 'natural theology' (not the best term) for the contemporary Church.  Whereas 'conservatives' confront the culture with propositional truth and culture wars, a renewed 'natural theology' discerns and rejoices in a created, material order oriented towards desire for the Triune God.  Pastoral practice thus, as Thornton puts it, "must seek a relation between" - rather than a wall separating - the "general sacramentalism" experienced by the culture and its fulfilment in the life of faith and the sacramental order.

For 'liberals', a renewed 'natural theology' poses a no less significant challenge.  Merely affirming the culture is not 'natural theology'.  It utterly fails to encourage, resource and enable the "walk to Chartres".  This walk is demanding, requiring the healing and cleansing of the heart and desires, the recognition of the need for this, the learning of new and strange practices, the disciplines that sustain us as we travel, that bring us closer to Chartres.

Perhaps nothing is so debilitating in contemporary pastoral reflection and theological discernment than the conformity to the culture wars - the assumption that conservative v. liberal defines how the Church can respond to the cultural context of the early 21st century.  Both these options profoundly reinforce the status quo.  'Conservatives' build the wall to keep the unclean away from Chartres.  'Liberals' cannot see the need to build ramps to bring the culture to Chartres.  Thus, in both approaches, life-giving encounter with the Crucified and Risen One in prayer, scripture, creed and sacrament does not occur.

For the Church to enable the citizens and consumers of postmodernity to discern and meaningfully participate in the walk to Chartres, something much more traditional than such 'conservatism' is required, something much more radical than such 'liberalism'. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

"The Church that has doors wide open"

From Pope Francis' closing speech to the Extraordinary Synod:

One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [It. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

... this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The surprise of theological development

Theological development is messy, surprising and inevitably produces a reaction.

This dynamic does not fit into easy (and lazy) categories of 'traditional' and 'progressive', 'conservative' and 'liberal'.

+Rowan's majestic Arius: Heresy and Tradition is perhaps the most convicing and dramatic demonstration of this - that theological innovation must be a characteristic of a living, faithful orthodoxy.

We can also, however, point to more recent examples. 

In a recent review of histories of Vatican II, Anglican theologian Paul Avis described Hans Urs von Balthasar as one of those "conservative" theologians who, Avis states, desired "business as usual" after Vatican II.

Balthasar would, I think, have smiled.

At the outset of his Dare We Hope?, Balthasar notes that his writings on the subject of hell have "aroused the ire of right-wing newspapers".  In a footnote, he quotes from the response of one such journal:

The eye of the Inquisition remain fixed upon me: "We will be giving further attention to the topic and the arguments of von Balthasar".  The surprise of both these journals shows that they have never given any attention to my lengthier publications, in which they surely could have long since found hundreds of pieces of firewood for my stake.

Despite the intense condemnations, the understanding of hell in contemporary catholic theology (Roman and Anglican) has been significantly shaped by Balthasar's innovative and profound re-reading of Scripture and Tradition.  His account of Christ's descent into hell in Mysterium Paschale has also provided the most gripping contemporary catholic meditation on cross and resurrection.

So, yes, theological development is messy and surprising, usually condemned and - most importantly of all - profoundly encriching of the Church's life and witness.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Thomas and Hooker looking East on the Incarnation?

From Peter Leithart's First Things blog:

Several times in his The Godly Image, Romanus Cessario observes how Greek patristic writers influence Thomas’s understanding of the satisfaction of Christ.

Cessario traces a shift from Thomas’s early Anselmian juridicism to a more personalist understanding of the atonement in his mature work. The difference, he suggests, had to do with the influence of Thomas’s reading of Eastern theology in his composition of Contra errores Graecorum: “Byzantine thought and its characteristic emphasis on divinization and spiritual theology more than compensate for the juridical attitude of satisfaction and morals bequeathed to Aquinas by the western tradition” (100).

In particular, the instrumental causality of the humanity of Christ was, he argues, “not the peripheral element in the Thomist system which is sometimes represented as being.” Through this concept, Thomas “introduced into western theology the richly suggestive intuition of the Greek Fathers that the very union of God with human nature brought redemption to all that is human. The sacred humanity of Christ, because it is united to the person of the divine Son, is the source from which salvation merited by Christ is physically communicated (that is, by efficient causality) to all who are united in the one mystical person of Christ” (160-1). 

What is particularly striking about this for the Anglican reader is that it surely brings to mind Hooker's account of the Incarnation in Book V of the Laws.  Consider Cessario's summary of Thomas in the extract quoted by Leithart alongside these words from Chapter 54 of Book V of the Laws:

The union therefore of the flesh with that deity is to that flesh a gift of principal grace and favour.  For by virtue of this grace man is really made God ... God has deified our nature, though not by turning it into himself, yet by making it his own inseparable habitation (V 54.3 & 54.5).

And this from Chapter 56:

Christ is therefore both as God and as man that true vine whereof we both spiritually and corporally are branches. The mixture of his bodily substance with ours is a thing which the ancient Fathers disclaim.  Yet the mixture of his flesh with ours they speak of, to signify what our very bodies through mystical conjunction receive from that vital efficacy which we know to be in his, and from bodily mixtures they borrow diverse similitudes rather to declare the truth then the manner of coherence between his sacred and the sanctified bodies of Saints.  Thus much no Christian man will deny, that when Christ sanctified his own flesh given as God and taken as man the holy Ghost, he did not this for himself only but for our sakes, that the grace of sanctification and life which was first received in him might pass from him to his whole race (V 56.9-10).

As with Thomas - we might even suggest, because of Thomas - Hooker has this characteristically Greek patristic account of the salvific import of the Incarnation, of the Eternal Word's saving assumption of our humanity.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

"Through those things which you admire, love Him": Augustine on the love of beauty

What do you love, so as not to love God? Tell me. Love, if you can, anything which He has not made. Look round upon the whole creation, see whether in any place you are held with the birdlime of desire, and hindered from loving the Creator, except it be by that very thing which He has Himself created, whom you despise. But why do you love those things, except because they are beautiful? Can they be as beautiful as He by whom they were made? You admire these things, because you see not Him: but through those things which you admire, love Him whom you see not. Examine the creation; if of itself it is, stay therein: but if it is of Him, for no other reason is it prejudicial to a lover, than because it is preferred to the Creator.

From Augustine's Exposition on Psalm 80 (11)

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

"In a way that is proper to the sacrament": on Thomas, Anglicans and the eucharistic gift

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

Article 28

The body of Christ is not in this sacrament in the way a body is in place. The dimensions of a body in place correspond with the dimensions of the place that contains it. Christ’s body is here in a special way that is proper to the sacrament. For this reason we say that the body of Christ is on different altars, not as in different places, but as in the sacrament. In saying this we do not mean that Christ is only symbolically there, although it is true that every sacrament is a sign, but we understand that Christ’s body is there, as we have said, in a way that is proper to the sacrament.

Summ Theologica 3a.75.2

Note also that the substance of Christ’s body is not the subject of the dimensions of the bread as the substance of the bread was. The bread by reason of the dimensions was localized in a place, because it was related to a place by dimensions that were its own. But the substance of Christ’s body is related to that place by dimensions that are not its own; and contrariwise, the dimensions of Christ’s own body are related to that place only in so far as the substance of his body is. But that is not the way in which a body is localized. Hence, Christ’s body in this sacrament is in no way localized.

Summ Theologica 3a.76.5

Now is is not the same thing for Christ to be, simply, and for him to be under the sacrament. Now, according to this mode of his being under the sacrament, Christ is not moved locally in any strict sense, but only after a fashion. Christ is not in this sacrament as if he were in a place, as we have already said; and what is not in a place is not moved locally, but is only said to be moved when that in which it is is moved. … Something after this fashion we say that Christ is moved indirectly, according to the mode of existence which is his in this sacrament, in which he does not exist as in a place.

Summ Theologica 3a.76.7

We see then, that, by transubstantiation, our Article does not confine itself to any abstract theory, nor aim at any definition of the word substance, nor in rejecting it, rejects a word, nor in denying a "mutatio panis et vini," is denying every kind of change, but opposes itself to a certain plain and unambiguous statement, not of this or that council, but one generally received or taught both in the schools and in the multitude, that the material elements are changed into an earthly, fleshly, and organized body, extended in size, distinct in its parts, which is there where the outward appearances of bread and wine are, and only does not meet the senses, nor even that always.

Tract XC

Communion with Christ in the eucharist presupposes his true presence, effectually signified by the bread and wine which, in this mystery, become his body and blood.

ARCIC I Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine, 1971 (6).  The accompanying footnote reads:

The word transubstantiation is commonly used in the Roman Catholic Church to indicate that God acting in the eucharist effects a change in the inner reality of the elements. The term should be seen as affirming the fact of Christ's presence and of the mysterious and radical change which takes place. In contemporary Roman Catholic theology it is not understood as explaining how the change takes place. 

Footnote [2]

We answer questions such as 'How?' and 'In what ways?' with a string of accidents.  We answer the question 'What?' with the name of the substance.  Transubstantiation makes a strong claim about what is going on in the Eucharist.  There is a transformation, such that after the consecration of the elements the best answer to the question 'What?' is 'the body of Christ' and 'the blood of Christ', rather than 'bread' and 'wine'.  This makes the Eucharist a particularly intense example of the dynamic we have already encountered: that God accommodates his communication to the means we can take in.  In the Eucharist, he communicates his body and blood to us, veiled, under the accidents of bread and wine ...

A benefit of a very robust account of Christ's eucharistic presence, such as transubstantiation, is that all the other, less substantial, accounts come with it.  If we can say that we receive Christ's body and blood substantially, then we can also say whatever else Calvin, Zwingli or the receptionist wants to say.

Andrew Davison Why Sacraments?, p.32-35.

This series of quotations came to mind when reading Fr Alvin Kimel's recent blog post, with the wonderfully provocative title Transubstantiation: Was St Thomas Aquinas a Semi-Calvinist?  The quotes from the Summa are taken from Fr Kimel's post - they are a profound demonstration of Thomas' careful and subtle account of the transformation that occurs in the Holy Eucharist.

I have prefaced these extracts with the relevant words from Article 28.  As Tract XC suggests, it is difficult to read Article 28's concerns as addressing Thomas' careful exposition, which repeatedly stresses the need to recognise Christ's presence "in a way that is proper to the sacrament" - that is, not as in a place, not localized.  "Christ is not in this sacrament as if he were in a place."

The ARCIC I agreement on the Eucharist famously placed transubstantiation in a footnote.  In so doing, however, it implied that the term, understood outside of the context of late medieval Latin piety, could be accepted by Anglicans as affirming what ARCIC I declared - "the bread and wine which, in this mystery, become his body and blood".

Which brings us to Andrew Davison's discussion of transubstantiation in his excellent Why Sacraments? Yes, a localised, 'corporal' account of transubstantiation does indeed 'overthrow the nature of a Sacrament' and has "given occasion to many superstitions", not the least of which is - in De Lubac's famous insight - to confuse the mystical body with the sacramental body.  But Thomas' account is much too careful and nuanced - much too Augustinian - to make such errors.  Which is why Davison leads us as Anglicans to discern the value of Thomas' account of transubstantiation, this "very robust account of Christ's eucharistic presence".