Monday, April 4, 2022

Down a Rabbit Hole, in a good way, I hope

There has been quite a bit, lately, of going down rabbit holes, and not in a good way, perhaps most noticeable when some folk start alerting us to conspiracy theories filled with misinformation (some of it quite dangerous, Ivermectin anyone?) and before you know it, leaders and media in our country are "Wanted" for a Nuremburg style trial, all because malevolent folk interviewing their laptops have started digging rabbit holes for the gullible to descend into.

But there are other rabbit holes, of arguably a warmer, and healthier nature, in which one thing leads to another, and eventually one might find something rather good. Obviously, here on ADU I am speaking about theological quests (such as each week, me seeking an idea for a post!). Here goes for this week.

"Salvation is Unity with Humanity in Christ."  

I love that phrase, which Bowman put as an opening statement at the head of a comment to last week's post. It captures pretty much the whole thesis of Anglican Down Under.

Now, naturally, that leads me to the Anglican Primates' Meeting held last week which, I suggest, represented a modest triumph for the ABC. As reported here, most of the Communion's Primates showed up, in fact only three Primates (Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda) did not show up to the meeting (in person or on Zoom). While those three provinces represent a significant numerical proportion of global Anglicans, and if their bishops (and others, e.g. from Australia, Kenya) do not attend Lambeth (for reasons other than Covid-related), there will be a significant number of bishops missing due to disagreement about That Topic, it looks like some 39 of 42 Anglican provinces will be represented at the forthcoming Lambeth Conference. That is, I suggest, a sign of some hope for "salvation is unity with humanity in Christ."

So far so good, but what is "unity with humanity in Christ"?

Well, it (at the least) has something to do with some rather large (or far reaching) but somewhat arcane debates in global theology.

So, on Saturday, looking at the sidebar of this blog, where Edward Fese resides, I noticed that he had posted with an intriguing title, On Hart's Post-Christian Pantheism, and that led me to a book review by Feser (on another site) of a recent book (previously unknown to me) by well known Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, titled You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (University of Notre Dame Press, 2022). 

Fortunately, or unfortunately, that took me further down an intriguing rabbit hole, because Feser's review leads the reader into a significant debate (some say the most significant debate of the 20th century) between the nouvelle theologians (think, especially, de Lubac) and the Thomists (think, especially Garrigou-Lagrange) over (in my words) the role of God in our salvation, that is, whether God reaches from the supernatural into our natural mode of life to save us, or whether God has so created nature (including ourselves) that (if we could remove all distractions) our pure natures - our pure souls - by design are intent on union with the divine. Thomists (including Feser today) argue the former, and when holding sway in the inner counsels of the papacy in the 1950s led to de Lubac etc receiving a fierce theological rap over the knuckles, i.e. inhibition as teachers of the faith. The nouvelle theologians argue the latter and eventually come to new prominence in the Roman church as the Vatican 2 conference unfolded. Much later, de Lubac would receive a cardinal's hat.

This intra-Roman debate has immense implications for all the rest of Christianity because on the matters Thomists are keen on herein, Protestantism more or less falls in line; and the theology of de Lubac and co has some significant alignments with Eastern Orthodoxy's interest in theosis (or, our becoming participants in the divine nature as God transforms our lives, 2 Peter 1:4), to say nothing with interests of (e.g.) Ramon Pannikar who has sensitively explored the interface between Hinduism and Christianity.

The latter name came up in correspondence as I shared the review of Feser with a colleague who has had a strong interest in "Vedantic Christianity" (to pick up a phrase in the review).

Another colleague over the weekend pointed out that John Milbank sorted everything out (or did he? I've seen an interesting review, or two!) when he wrote The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural and argued therein for a way forward beyond the kind of Feser/Thomist, goodies and baddies of theology approach.  (Incidentally, I have purchased the book on Kindle for $21, but that link advertises the paperback version at US$296!!!!!!!). I have started reading the book - it is very complicated.

Our unity as humanity in Christ is illuminated by the kind of work Aquinas, de Lubac, Feser, Pannikar and Milbank engage in because they explore who we are as creatures in relation to the purpose of the Creator in making us and the role of Christ in redeeming or, we could say, re-making us.

So, there is at least another post for this blog coming, via Milbank on de Lubac, but in the meantime, we can perhaps ponder that behind, beyond and within the wonderful statement, "Salvation is Unity with Humanity in Christ." there lies a lot to think about, informed by some sharp, if complicated theologians who make my brain hurt. In the deepest part of a rabbit hole there is not always as much oxygen as we would like.


Unknown said...

Honestly, Peter, this post seems more like emerging from a rather deep rabbit hole into shade if not sunlight.

The challenge is to explain to distracted churchgoers that "sin management" is a rabbit hole and that worshipful service of the Creator is the actual faith in and of Jesus.

NTW is well wright to argue that this challenge is only difficult when we abstract Jesus and the gospel so far from the story of Israel that we do not see in them a remedy for humanity's world-warping weakness for idolatry.

So I don't see why oh Garrigou-Lagrange et al cannot be seen as an episode in the larger story always told in the East and lately retold in the West.


Unknown said...

Sin Management?

Dallas Willard's phrase has a meaning close to that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "cheap grace." Both refer to a pattern of believing in Christ but not aspiring to leave sin behind. "I sin; God forgives; both of us are happy." Both Willard and Bonhoeffer prefer habitual obedience to God.

Few of us are so merry about sin, but standard Western teaching can put a confused penitent in a box.

Having exchanged idols for YHWH and his Christ, believers are freed from bondage to the power of sin. But post-Fall humans are liable to a hardening of natural impulses into the destructive excesses (aka passions, Eight Evil Thoughts, Seven Deadly Sins). Against that hardening, early Christians developed disciplines toward the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Peter Carrell said...

Indeed, Bowman.
And reading a little further on in The Suspended Middle, my brain hurts even more, trying to keep up with the complicated turns and twists in the logic of de Lubac and his friends and opponents.
The Gospels-in-Israel's-larger-story are much more graspable by comparison!

Father Ron said...

Why do theological academics insist on resisting a clear understanding of the power of redemption available in the sacramental life of the Church? A simple person like myself is enabled to at least guess at the 'theosis' made available in the offering of bread and wine at the altar in the eucharistic prayer of the Catholic Church, that; in the co-mixture of water and wine: "by the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity" - Not a bad way if indicating the distinct possibility of 'theosis', as we share with Christ in the Sacrament of His provision.

Mark Murphy said...

I have not read the book or book review. I am not a theologian or a philosopher - nor, I hope, a masochist (probably not true)....I still don't know who Bowman W is...

But I can't understand how the nature/supernature binary makes sense of the Jewish and early Christian experience of God (much less the sacraments).

I am a psychotherapist, and in this follow the writings of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, who posited that *In the Beginning is the Relation*...(sounding trinitarian to us, perhaps, though sounding these words in the context of YHWH and Israel, I and You)....

We are made for relational encounter - all our senses, longings, needs, pleasures; our incredibly long childhoods (compared with other mammals) in which we are attuning to various other bodies and brains, learning how to receive and give, serving a very long apprenticeship in 'interbeing' (Thich Nhat Hanh).

Through You I become an I - including 'the Eternal You' (Buber), who acts and meets us in time, space, and embodiment. We are made for this but can't make it happen.

Father Ron, I like where your torchlight is pointed.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Peter, for fording this stream to the far mill bank where the stones grind the grist so exceedingly fine. Your negative review has forced Amazon to slash their price. Brain pain is now an irresistable US$9.99. I'll open my copy tomorrow.


I first encountered the debate on the supernatural between Henri de Lubac SJ and Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP in 1970s Washington.

In Le Mystère du Surnaturel itself, de Lubac's critique is that Cajetan and the manualists after him propagated a misinterpretation of St Thomas in which human nature is normally closed to the supernatural. This notion of life as *purely natural* was necessarily so indifferent to the beatific vision as to be a force for the secularization of daily life within the RCC itself. Riding on St Thomas's broad influence, greater after Leo XIII, this low expectation had inevitably diminished Catholic spirituality, leaving that church hollow and defensive in the modern world.

Take, for famous example, Thomas Merton. As everyone knows, literary studies at Columbia University led him to study St Thomas Aquinas's teachings on the good life, so that a vocation to contemplation swiftly carried him into Roman Catholicism, the Trappists (OCSO), and the priesthood. His books about these experiences were international bestsellers, so that paradoxically he became both a solitary hermit and a worldly celebrity.

But his OCSO superiors and centuries of their predecessors after Trent had regarded monastic life as penance. That is, one became a monk, not because one needed the ascetic discipline proper to a life of contemplating God, but because one needed to make satisfaction to God for grave sin. Thus, to explain his desire to be a hermit, poor Merton had to explain to his abbot and even to Rome what a hermit is. For years they put him off because they, unlike their enthusiastic convert, had a deep Tridentine suspicion of anything mystical.

Taking a long historical view, that was bizarre: (a) they too could read Part Two of the Summa, (b) the fathers invented monasteries to train hermits, and (c) St Bernard of Clairvaux's vision for the order had been the revival of contemplation (cf Sermones Super Cantica Canticorum). If a Trappist priest-monk whose spiritual life was in paperback in bookstores around the world had to spend years arguing with Rome before being understood as a contemplative, then how was oh a married Catholic woman in Christchurch to get decent spiritual direction?

As one would expect, Jesuits in bistros around Georgetown University took de Lubac's critique of modern Catholicism for granted as the reason for the necessity of the Second Vatican Council. And in personal devotion and liturgics, the story he told was their reason to be less precisionist (centimeters between hands in the orans gesture) and more experimental (letting an Episcopalian serve the altar).

Anonymous said...

Across town around the Catholic University of America, there was decidedly more dialogue around and between the Franciscan Monastery and the Dominican House of Studies. The Franciscans, after all, had a magnificent wine cellar and very generous hearts. And the nearby Dominicans-- the world's experts on St Thomas's handwriting-- scoffed at de Lubac's claim to have uncovered the Common Doctor's lost teaching but allowed, just for the sake of argument, that a Jesuit might possibly have identified a worthwhile question.

In any Dominican house, an answer from the Angelicum is presumptively worthwhile. So when I, looking for a commentary on St John of the Cross, stumbled into two ponderous French tomes, Les Trois Ages de la Vie Interieure by Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP, the local Order of Preachers were encouraged and encouraging.

Now Garrigou-Lagrange was then notorious in Washington, not only for the famous attack that labeled the *nouvelle theologie*, but also for having drafted Paul VI's deeply unpopular Humanae Vitae. Fairly or not, he was a sort of poster boy then, both for what the Council had needed to fix, and for the rearguard resistance that threatened its reforms.

But his Les Trois Ages attempts the sort of bridge between reason (St Thomas Aquinas) and experience (eg St John of the Cross) that we read the *nouvelle theologie* to discover. I still use some of his distinctions (eg illumination/revelation) in the way that he draws them there.

As I started to say at 4:52, the hollowness to which de Lubac objected could have resulted, not only from mistaken teaching of St Thomas, but also from satisfactionism and suspicion of mysticism. The sharp Epicurean split between nature and supernature was a feature of modernity itself, not just Catholic handbook theology. The rival tendencies within Thomism may have had different effects. De Lubac's rather Origenistic reading of St Thomas may make his point without being one that the Common Doctor would recognize as his own. Etc.

In the most worthwhile arguments, both sides are right about something weighty but need heavy qualification. I strongly suspect, although I cannot quite tack in the qualifications where they belong, that this is the case here.


Anonymous said...

"by the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity" - Not a bad way of indicating the distinct possibility of 'theosis', as we share with Christ in the Sacrament of His provision.

-- Father Ron

"Again and again, let us complete our prayers to the Lord."

-- Post-Communion Litany, Liturgy of St John Chrysostom

We hereabouts may well be understanding the text as Father Ron does.

But where religion is just getting sins cancelled-- the West in much of the second millennium-- the same words can sound like a prayer that merits will be transferred, that the glorious exchange will occur, that souls will be cleansed, etc. Is it heard praying that the magic will work, or only as pretending to pray to sneak in an explanation of it?

It's good for a person to be somehow sinless. But if that is all that happens, it is just *sin management* or *cheap grace*, far from being *discipleship*, let alone *theosis*.

And, speaking of Salvation being Unity with Humanity in Christ, what about being a royal priesthood and a holy nation, possibly even being sons and daughters who prophesy?

Here up yonder, the BCP tries to encourage an up to date participation with a prayer--

"Deliver us, O Lord, from the presumption of coming to your table for solace only and not for strength, for pardon only and not for renewal."

But it seems harsh to call self-absorbed communion "presumptuous" when five centuries of preaching and teaching have stressed that the use of the ordinance is to strengthen the solitary soul's justifying faith.

I sometimes think that to make everything clearer, the present Prayers of the People should follow the Peace and the Cup. That way, the communication of individuals would be, not the climax of the rite, but a further step up into being the people of God before heaven. There is almost a precedent.

After its communion, the Byzantine Rite has organically grown onion-layers of prayer. Each layer was once the end of the rite, but was followed by a popular prayer that then became the new ending. Accretions continued to be added until the C17, and even now things can happen informally around the kissing of the cross and the distribution of antodoron.

This spontaneous growth gives more space and time for post-communion selves to be a body of the Body. We need that.

Thought experiment #1: does it make more sense to pray for Ukraine, good harvest, and victims of a local fire before communion or after communion?

Thought experiment #2: if you experienced the Prayers of the People as the telos of the eucharist, would that change your mind about anything?


Unknown said...

Historian Timothy Snyder has made a sobering observation about Russian aggression in Ukraine: it will only end if the Ukrainians and their allies actually win the war. "They must defeat the Russians on the battlefield in the classic von Clausewitzian sense that the victor determines the politics of the loser."

From another perspective, a free and whole Ukraine with an effective military deterrent is an insurmountable obstacle to the Eurasian ideology that motivates Putin and legitimates his regime. There may be no daylight between Ukrainian survival and Russian regime change.

Western Christians are eager to stop Ukrainian suffering. What about winning?


Unknown said...

Snyder explains why Putin described the invasion as "de-Nazification." After the Second World War, Stalin's propaganda blamed all wartime collaboration with Germany on Ukrainian nationalists. (In fact, only Polish territory had Ukrainian nationalists, and all factions on the ground in the region collaborated, more or less transactionally.) To one who believes this propaganda-- Putin may-- a surge in Ukrainian nationalism is tautologically a surge in Nazism. So then, an invasion of Ukraine can appear to be a coda to the "Great Patriotic War." This plausibly explains why older, rural Russians tend to support the invasion.