Category Archives: on Theology

Credo in unum Deum Patrem omnipotentem, factorem cœli et terra, visibilium omnium et invisibilium; et in unum Dominum Iesum Christum, Filium Dei….

God, Freedom, and what we moderns don’t know about Will

Pretty decent question from a student on Reddit:

I am doing an undergraduate exposition of the Free Will of God, as examined by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa, Question 19.3. I have been reading this over and over again, as well as looking into other questions of the Summa. Does anyone have a simple explanation, and/or some links to articles, books, or lectures written on this subjects?

God_the_Geometer

To which I reply as follows:

Make sure you carefully understand the response to I.19.1 before you try to deal with 19.3, among other things. It sounds like you’re wrestling with this the right way. The challenge is that almost every relevant term is defined differently in the “default” philosophy of our day than in St. Thomas’s work.

Look at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1019.htm#article1

Notice that will follows intellect, and is analogous to the “natural appetite,” that is, the tendency for everything to be what it is. Rocks are rock-like by “natural appetite,” that is, they tend to be rock-like as long as something else does not supervene on their nature and convert their rock-like-ness into something else.

Intellectual natures are more complicated; they have a “natural appetite” to consider their circumstances and habits and choose things that may alter them, so they may in many cases be capable of “converting” themselves, though not so as to cease to be that kind of intellectual being.

When an intellectual nature, with all this “natural appetite” for considering and choosing and potentially converting, acts according to that nature, it does so according to that nature; moral freedom is not a rupture of nature, but the act proper to an intellectual nature.

With God, the situation is even more interesting–at once more complicated and far, far more simple.

For God, the contemplation and the choosing are all perfect in their beginning, so that when God contemplates He is not really considering before acting, and only acting when the consequences are predictable; rather, God contemplates and actualizes all things (including all the contingencies and the natures according to which those contingencies are resolved, in almost endless complexity) in the same act as God exists. God, just in being God, also considers all possibilities and also actualizes all actualities, and is never in any of His considerations balked or given reason to convert any of His perfect habits in any way.

And therefore God is absolutely free, as He considers and actualizes all things according to His own act of being God, and in that same act of being a God who is good considers and actualizes what is best, including all the layers of possibility and contingency (and folded within those all the back-and-forth of Creation, Fall, Redemption, calling, conversion, Heaven, Hell) that resolve themselves according to the participation of some natures in that freedom of God.

Our own freedom is far less than God’s, because it is essentially the portion of God’s total freedom that He has, because it is perfectly in accord with His considering and actualizing all good things, allotted to us; He has decided that, whatever we make of it, our degree of participation in His freedom is an essential good of creating us. This does not constrain His freedom; it is His freedom, in making us, participated by us as our more limited and contingent freedom.

And we cannot have this freedom except as participation in His freedom, which means that when we choose to abuse His gift of opportunity to cooperate with Him, to enter freely into His friendship, we choose the loss of continued capacity to choose and a gradual descent into a more merely, almost subhumanly, appetitive and irascible state of being.

Hope that helps. Also, I’m going to blog this, so be honest with your prof when you work on your paper.

Plurivocity, not Equivocation

Just to help folks keep their bearings, here’s what Thomas has to say about the four senses of Scripture.  Note how they relate to “equivocation” and also to the “literal sense”:

On the contrary, Gregory says (Moral. xx, 1): “Holy Writ by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.”

I answer that, The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says (Hebrews 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Dionysius says (Coel. Hier. i) “the New Law itself is a figure of future glory.” Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense. Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses.

Reply to Objection 1. The multiplicity of these senses does not produce equivocation or any other kind of multiplicity, seeing that these senses are not multiplied because one word signifies several things, but because the things signified by the words can be themselves types of other things. Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one — the literal — from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense.

(source: Summa Theologica I.1.10)

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 4

So, we’ll need to review a bit, and then let’s talk about God.

Univocal predication is impossible between God and creatures….Thus also this term “wise” applied to man in some degree circumscribes and comprehends the thing signified; whereas this is not the case when it is applied to God; but it leaves the thing signified as incomprehended, and as exceeding the signification of the name. Hence it is evident that this term “wise” is not applied in the same way to God and to man. The same rule applies to other terms. Hence no name is predicated univocally of God and of creatures.

Neither, on the other hand, are names applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense, as some have said. Because if that were so, it follows that from creatures nothing could be known or demonstrated about God at all; for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation. Such a view is against the philosophers, who proved many things about God, and also against what the Apostle says: “The invisible things of God are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). Therefore it must be said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense, i.e. according to proportion.

(source: Summa Theologica I.13.5 respondeo)

Now, if this were a slightly different sort of philosophical journey, I might say, “And Zhaozhou achieved satori.”

But back in the real world….

Benozzo_Gozzoli_004a-1.jpg

This sounds difficult, I grant.  But remember what we’ve already seen:

  • When the child learns the word “Bug!” for a beetle, and applies it to insects, raisins, and the dog (but not the VW Beetle), the child is using language “analogously,” and will learn by specification which analogies are fit and which are not;
  • When the child learns to use “bug” for a range of insects, and to exclude butterflies and spiders, the child begins to use “bug” univocally;
  • When big sister teases the child by saying “Look out! there’s a bug in front of you!” when they stand in front of a VW Beetle, the child is confused because big sister has used “bug” equivocally.

In other words, we speak in analogies when we are learning; we discover the proper scope of terms, the fitness of certain common understandings across various applications in various contexts.  In the sense that our learning never ceases to be informed by how we learn it, that every body of knowledge (or clump of understanding, or field, or discipline, or science, or art) has its own coherence and purpose, its own “formal principle” derived from some more comprehensive and fundamental understanding, our learning and conversation are therefore always fundamentally analogous and only univocal or equivocal by specialization, derivation, or corruption (especially in the case of deluding equivocations).

We can speak univocally when and to the extent that we share a scope, context, and purpose with another, provided of course that the object of our discussion actually fits that scope, context, and purpose.  Any conversation about that fitness, however, would have to be conducted by analogy.

And here is the terribly important point:  disregarding the fundamental role of analogy and insisting on univocal discourse generally leads us to equivocate, and we either end up pushing opposing “not…but…” statements whose opposition is founded in an equivocation; or we end up agreeing on apparently univocal utterances that are founded on an invisible equivocation that we all assume without examination.  [Here read the brief excursus on modern and postmodern, if you like.]

So every understanding–every set of observations and claims, everything we are able to make some definite and univocal statements about–is bounded by certain judgments of fitness.  We can speak univocally about how one tree relates to another; we have learned what in each tree is analogous to every other tree, and are competent to make judgments of fitness about “how different is too different”–judgments we make by analogy, and which become definitions.  These definitions form the boundaries of sets of univocal claims, or particular “sciences.”  Because we are always, to some extent, learning, these judgments are always potentially reformable; yet each set of understandings contains some elements which must be true, or nothing else about them makes sense–and each contains some definite judgments without which that set of understandings fails to cohere.  The latter are called “formal principles,” and the former can have several names, depending on the kinds and sources of knowledge fitting to that science.  These include “intuitions,” “axioms,” “dogmas,” and the like.

Which brings us, at last, to the knowledge of God.

Like any other kind of learning, the learning that is involved in growing to understand God, getting to know Him well enough to become His friend, necessarily happens by analogy.  But with the knowledge of God, three related things happen to make it necessary to say that we can only speak of God by analogy.

First, and simplest, we are never going to have exhausted the knowledge of God.  True, if St. Thomas is right, there will come a time when we fully understand God’s relationships to all things–this is one way of describing the Beatific Vision, the ability to behold God as He really is, that is, to look upon God’s essence.  Yet St. Thomas also points out that even in this gazing upon God as He really is, we will not exhaustively comprehend God; there will always be more to His self-understanding than even our wholly perfected understanding can possibly keep in mind.  Therefore, even when we have the fullest possible capacity to make univocal statements about our knowledge of God, that knowledge itself will remain analogical in nature; those claims will be perfectly true claims about what can be known of God, but will always imply “and more” in a way that requires us to reason differently about those than we might about the cultivation of fruit trees.

Second, and only slightly more complex, the knowledge of God necessarily articulates with all our other understandings by analogy.  Remember that we discussed how each science, each set of understandings that we are able to state as univocal claims within a certain scope, context, and purpose, is necessarily bounded by judgments of the “fitness” that relate the scope, context, and purpose to the objects considered–that each body of knowledge is itself founded and bounded by analogy to other sciences, specifically to sciences that cover a broader scope at a higher level of explanation.

If there is any God, though, then God must be the Creator; the Creator’s intention and action must be the broadest scope, the inescapable context, the final purpose of every other object of our knowledge; and therefore the science of knowing God, that is, the set of univocal claims that we can make about what we can know of God’s intention, and action, must always stand in the relation of an analogy to every other kind of knowledge we have.

The only thing that could possibly found and bound such a set of claims would be knowledge of God; and having already used up all the other ways of knowing, we must acknowledge that here we enter upon a species of knowing which is both direct revelation and defined knowledge.  The sources of that definite knowledge, data of Creation and Redemption history, include the very words given to the prophets and apostles, the specific words of Christ, and what we have successfully learned from these in ways God has given humans the ability and authority to define.  The direct revelation stands behind these, and draws them forth, and also works in each of us who by God’s grace receive the infused theological virtue of faith, and continue in the obedience of faith, being drawn into friendship with God; this direct revelation is utterly inseparable from the definite knowledge, for only when they are conjoined do they provide us with a proper analogy–the analogy of Being upon which the analogy of Faith is built, and to which it refers.

Our claims about God can only be stated by analogy because it is knowledge of God that provides the analogies by which all learning, and therefore all systems of univocal claims, are possible.  Explicitly or tacitly, to understand God’s intentions and actions, to be drawn into friendship with Him, provides the scope, context, and purpose for all possible knowledge.  As the apex of all knowing, it is therefore pure analogy, insusceptible of reduction to univocal claims; all univocal claims about what we know of God cohere only under this analogy, as do all possible claims of any form about any other knowledge.

Jacob_The-Brain

Third, and most complex, though hinted by the other two, our very condition as creatures who think in created brains and whose understanding is ordered to friendship with God requires that analogy, not univocal speech, be the apex of our knowledge of God, hence of all things.  As creatures, our understanding is built up according to rules encoded in Creation (like physical laws, changeability over time), in our metaphysically human being (our ability to conceive what our body cannot directly perceive or do, our capacity to intentionally reform our habits based on intentions conceived in the mind), or in our physical human being (like the relationship between brain structure and the nature of imagination, the variability of human senses, the pleasure/pain principle in our appetites and arousals, or our capacity for learning and repeating vocables).

Whatever capacity to understand God’s intentions and actions we have must, therefore, be a feature of our existence as human creatures who are physically and metaphysically continuous with the whole of Creation; the capacity of the Creation to participate in the life of the Creator is itself a manifestation of those intentions and actions which we are made to understand.  We cannot repudiate our creaturely being, in order to choose another; we cannot have a way of knowing that is unrelated to our manner of learning.  It is therefore impossible to think that our knowledge could be greater than our kind of being is capable of, though it is indeed possible that our capability in a graciously improved and in a perfected state is much greater than we naturally seem capable of.

The kind of knowledge we can have of God is, necessarily, the kind possible within the mind–let us focus on the brain itself, when we say that, though the principle holds for whatever is metaphysically “beyond the brain” about our knowing, too.  But this kind of knowledge must, itself, be an unfolding of the Creator’s intention that we come to know Him in an act of creating us such that we can know Him and actually continuing our existence as creatures who come to know Him (and intervening, too, but that is a separate matter for us, at a different level of explanation).  In other words, my being a human creature knowing God’s intentions and actions is, itself, a manifestation of those intentions and actions; my knowledge of those intentions and actions must necessarily stand in a relation of analogy, rather than a relation of univocal reduction, if that knowledge is to be thought possible.

Indeed, my understanding God can never be only my successful reduction of divine revelation to definitions, nor can it be an attempt to experience divine revelation as undefined:  Scylla gains me a univocal system but steal from me the necessary warrants for my belief, without which it will harden into despair and provoke unbelief in others; Charybdis gains me a moment’s freedom from the reductive habit, but steals from me the capacity to believe what I have learned, without which it will harden into unbelief and provoke despair in others.

My understanding God is always a divine revelation that what knowledge of God I have definitely gained is, itself, a manifestation of God’s intention and action in creating me; that I may “love God with my mind” as indeed with every other part of my creaturely being.

Anything less, in the end, is one kind or another of dualism, some kind of despairing of or striving after gnosis.

I hope, in a future post, to discuss the application of analogy to specific kinds of understanding God, and to language theory and allegory and poesis, the topics which engage my attention most fully.  But for now, we’ll mark this one concluded, and I hope somebody will ask good questions and provide sound criticisms to help me improve my understanding.

Because that would be a work of mercy, and an act of friendship, and a sign of the love of God being poured out in your heart.  Many thanks.

Further Interlude, still on Analogy, from the Ox

Just in case you did not, in fact, read it all:

Univocal predication is impossible between God and creatures. The reason of this is that every effect which is not an adequate result of the power of the efficient cause, receives the similitude of the agent not in its full degree, but in a measure that falls short, so that what is divided and multiplied in the effects resides in the agent simply, and in the same manner; as for example the sun by exercise of its one power produces manifold and various forms in all inferior things. In the same way, as said in the preceding article, all perfections existing in creatures divided and multiplied, pre-exist in God unitedly. Thus when any term expressing perfection is applied to a creature, it signifies that perfection distinct in idea from other perfections; as, for instance, by the term “wise” applied to man, we signify some perfection distinct from a man’s essence, and distinct from his power and existence, and from all similar things; whereas when we apply to it God, we do not mean to signify anything distinct from His essence, or power, or existence. Thus also this term “wise” applied to man in some degree circumscribes and comprehends the thing signified; whereas this is not the case when it is applied to God; but it leaves the thing signified as incomprehended, and as exceeding the signification of the name. Hence it is evident that this term “wise” is not applied in the same way to God and to man. The same rule applies to other terms. Hence no name is predicated univocally of God and of creatures.

Neither, on the other hand, are names applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense, as some have said. Because if that were so, it follows that from creatures nothing could be known or demonstrated about God at all; for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation. Such a view is against the philosophers, who proved many things about God, and also against what the Apostle says: “The invisible things of God are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). Therefore it must be said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense, i.e. according to proportion.

Now names are thus used in two ways: either according as many things are proportionate to one, thus for example “healthy” predicated of medicine and urine in relation and in proportion to health of a body, of which the former is the sign and the latter the cause: or according as one thing is proportionate to another, thus “healthy” is said of medicine and animal, since medicine is the cause of health in the animal body. And in this way some things are said of God and creatures analogically, and not in a purely equivocal nor in a purely univocal sense. For we can name God only from creatures (Article 1). Thus whatever is said of God and creatures, is said according to the relation of a creature to God as its principle and cause, wherein all perfections of things pre-exist excellently. Now this mode of community of idea is a mean between pure equivocation and simple univocation. For in analogies the idea is not, as it is in univocals, one and the same, yet it is not totally diverse as in equivocals; but a term which is thus used in a multiple sense signifies various proportions to some one thing; thus “healthy” applied to urine signifies the sign of animal health, and applied to medicine signifies the cause of the same health.

(source: Summa Theologica I.13.5 respondeo)

Interlude, still on Analogy, from the Ox

Carefully read all of the Angelic Doctor’s words on the subject of the names of God before going on:

as regards absolute and affirmative names of God, as “good,” “wise,” and the like, various and many opinions have been given. For some have said that all such names, although they are applied to God affirmatively, nevertheless have been brought into use more to express some remotion from God, rather than to express anything that exists positively in Him. Hence they assert that when we say that God lives, we mean that God is not like an inanimate thing; and the same in like manner applies to other names; and this was taught by Rabbi Moses. Others say that these names applied to God signify His relationship towards creatures: thus in the words, “God is good,” we mean, God is the cause of goodness in things; and the same rule applies to other names.

Both of these opinions, however, seem to be untrue for three reasons.

First because in neither of them can a reason be assigned why some names more than others are applied to God. For He is assuredly the cause of bodies in the same way as He is the cause of good things; therefore if the words “God is good,” signified no more than, “God is the cause of good things,” it might in like manner be said that God is a body, inasmuch as He is the cause of bodies. So also to say that He is a body implies that He is not a mere potentiality, as is primary matter.

Secondly, because it would follow that all names applied to God would be said of Him by way of being taken in a secondary sense, as healthy is secondarily said of medicine, forasmuch as it signifies only the cause of the health in the animal which primarily is called healthy.

Thirdly, because this is against the intention of those who speak of God. For in saying that God lives, they assuredly mean more than to say the He is the cause of our life, or that He differs from inanimate bodies.

Therefore we must hold a different doctrine–viz. that these names signify the divine substance, and are predicated substantially of God, although they fall short of a full representation of Him. Which is proved thus. For these names express God, so far as our intellects know Him. Now since our intellect knows God from creatures, it knows Him as far as creatures represent Him. Now it is shown above (I:4:2) that God prepossesses in Himself all the perfections of creatures, being Himself simply and universally perfect. Hence every creature represents Him, and is like Him so far as it possesses some perfection; yet it represents Him not as something of the same species or genus, but as the excelling principle of whose form the effects fall short, although they derive some kind of likeness thereto, even as the forms of inferior bodies represent the power of the sun. This was explained above (I:4:3), in treating of the divine perfection. Therefore the aforesaid names signify the divine substance, but in an imperfect manner, even as creatures represent it imperfectly. So when we say, “God is good,” the meaning is not, “God is the cause of goodness,” or “God is not evil”; but the meaning is, “Whatever good we attribute to creatures, pre-exists in God,” and in a more excellent and higher way. Hence it does not follow that God is good, because He causes goodness; but rather, on the contrary, He causes goodness in things because He is good; according to what Augustine says (De Doctr. Christ. i, 32), “Because He is good, we are.”

(source: SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: The names of God (Prima Pars, Q. 13), emphasis added)

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 3

So all of our learning happens by analogy.  As we come to understand, we name things in two basic ways:  we give the same names to things which we see as “like,” though we know they are not necessarily “the same”; and we specify to find which ways an individual can vary and still be essentially “the same” (accidental differences, same genus, same species), which ways individuals can vary and still be “like” (same genus, different species), and which ways individuals cannot vary and be either “like” or “the same” except accidentally (different essences).  As our mental organization improves, we must frequently revise our understandings; the recognition of more and less “fit” analogies is a crucial skill for anyone who wants to reason skillfully.

And with many things–with almost all terrestrial things, things that we can observe with our senses, measure, manipulate, build, or participate in bodily in some way–we are able to specify our meaning so completely that there is no reason we cannot be confident that when we use the same name of two things, we mean they are “the same” (same genus, same species).

For example, when I say “those are both Shetland ponies” or “those are both triangles,” you would not think that one was a cute little baby quarter horse or that one was a parallelogram with a very short side.  You would understand that I am intend to use the name univocally.  “Univocal predication” happens when we use names in a way that assumes that whatever is so named is actually “the same” in essence as other things receiving that name.

In almost all things, then, we tend to place a very high value on univocal predication–on carefully stating our claims using only terms that the hearer can understand univocally, and arranging them so that the hearer can simply affirm or deny the entire claim.  Many philosophical conversations begin with a concern for whether and how it is possible to speak univocally about all things, but this is not only an abstract concern; every contract, and all laws, and almost every conversation between parents and six-year-olds, turns on the problem of avoiding equivocation, or the use of “equivocal predication.”

Let’s return to our example of the small child exclaiming “Bug!” at an insect, a raisin, and the dog (but not a VW Beetle).  The child is learning by analogy, and eventually learns to specify properly and to remove the raisin and the dog from the category; at this point the child seems prepared to use “bug” univocally, referring only to insects.  Whenever the child says “bug,” he now means a fly, a beetle, a mosquito, a roach, a cricket, a grasshopper, etc.  Of course, this takes a lot of learning, and continues to have gaps; the child will discover that a butterfly is usually not thought of as “a bug,” and neither is a spider; terms like “insect” and “beetle” will prove more useful for being more perfectly univocal.  He will learn, in short, that even the univocal sense of “bug” is a relatively fixed point in a larger field of learning and understanding; this univocal usage is built on analogies, and occupies a place in a larger web of more generic and more specific language.

When his big sister teases him by saying, “I see a bug!  It’s right in front of you!” so that the child searches the whole front of a VW Beetle for a cricket or moth or fly, though, the child will learn about equivocal predication properly so called.  We can simplify equivocation by talking about seemingly univocal claims that use terms that have one meaning for the speaker and another for the hearer, though that misses some of what’s happenning with regard to the analogies by which we learn and which also yield, in specific contexts, univocal or equivocal claims.

Big sister’s teasing turns on swapping analogies:  the VW Beetle is often called a “bug” because beetles (hard-carapaced insects) are among those we regularly refer to as “bugs”; the child who has just learned that “bug” does not mean raisin or dog, though, will look for anything except the car.

This teasing (like much teasing) turns on equivocation, and tends to help the child learn the limitations of his understanding.  Obviously, unintentional equivocation would be a failure; deliberate use of equivocation to deceive would be a lie, just like speaking a blatant falsehood.

So to speak analogously is to understand the name as having a general sense that must be specified before one can speak univocally; to speak equivocally is to use the name as though specified, but without specifying.  Because confusion and deception often enter our discourse through equivocation, we generally strive to speak univocally.  Because all the terms in univocal language are learned in analogy, and refined through analogous discourse, though, there can be no question of any particularly significant conversation proceeding solely in univocal terms.  As long as there is learning going on, or matters are being discussed in any terms beyond the most narrowly transactional and concrete, at least some terms in the discourse require interpretation based on the fitness of analogy after the univocality of all known terms is established.  

Nor is all equivocation bad:  all puns, and many other verbal effects, turn in part on equivocation, and draw our attention for humorous or significant effect to possibilities beyond those available in univocal discourse.  Such effects, however, depend on the univocal discourse for their truth, and refer through it to the analogical discourse that generates the univocal discourse.

Remember, then:

  • When the child learns the word “Bug!” for a beetle, and applies it to insects, raisins, and the dog (but not the VW Beetle), the child is using language “analogously,” and will learn by specification which analogies are fit and which are not;
  • When the child learns to use “bug” for a range of insects, and to exclude butterflies and spiders, the child begins to use “bug” univocally;
  • When big sister teases the child by saying “Look out!  there’s a bug in front of you!” when they stand in front of a VW Beetle, the child is confused because big sister has used “bug” equivocally.

Because this understanding is essential to your grasping why we say that we can only speak of God analogously.  [we’ll proceed there in Part 4]

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 2

It all begins with “that’s not true, it’s just metaphorical.”

And it ends badly, unless it gets converted into something like this:

Fortunately, the same Creator who authored Sacred Scripture and reveals Himself through Creation has also ordained sacraments by which a Church is constituted—most especially the Eucharist, by means of which the faithful are really made present at the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the Resurrected Christ really does make true the Words of Institution, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” The faithful who receive acclaim this reality, saying, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.” And it is to that reality that St. Thomas Aquinas adverts in his most compelling and definite language about the relationship between definite material substances and events, specific words, and the participation of humans in the creating and redeeming work that God does through them. These, then, are the realities par excellence: the Creation as considered through the unfolding of the New Creation into which we are incorporated already by Baptism; the Redemption as accomplished once for all in Christ and made present “visibly and unequivocally” in the Eucharist; the mutual consent of man and wife that makes each responsible for the whole life of the other, and the fidelity of Christ and His Church that makes her ministers His speech and act in the world; all this conditioned on a Christ who, St. Thomas says, is both Word and Image in an analogical sense, one that suggests the possibilities of words and images but escapes reduction to our later words and our remembered images.

What we need, then, is a proper term that expresses the basic movement of mind common to all learning, and especially important when learning about God:  “not only this, but definitely this.”

There are several ways to point out the necessity of this move–which is essential to what we mean by analogy–in all learning.  Consider a small child who is first learning to name things, who sees a small beetle and exclaims “bug!”  The child has heard his parents and others point to bugs, shoo bugs, stomp bugs, or pick up bugs and show them to curious eyes.  The child then, excited to have connected thing and name and flushed with praise, eager to dramatize the world and imitate and please the big people, exclaims “bug!” at the sight of a spider, a raisin, perhaps even the dog (but probably not a VW Beetle).  The child is not yet sufficiently familiar with bugs, spiders, raisins, or dogs to have a firm basis for distinguishing them (or for making the leap to an automobile), so siblings and parents and friends correct the names, “No, spider.”  “That’s a raisin.”  And so on.  Some of the candidates are easily distinguished; the dog was not very much like a bug, after all.

We can easily establish the basic movements, here, and they are the movements common to all thought, all education, all reasoning:  the recognition and assertion of similitude, and the recognition and assertion of difference.  Simplistic reductions of the arguments in language theory since Saussure often assign to language only the role of delimiting differences, but the existence of poetry and toddlers ought to be enough to suggest the poverty of such a reduction.  No, in both understanding and language, which are the interior and social manifestations of human rational soul, we proceed by discovering specifiable relationships of likeness-across-unlikeness and unlikeness-in-likeness that permit differentiation to occur within a unified field.

child-boy-face-close-up

This can be described several ways.  Downstream from the Modern Western Philosophy tradition, I have long been accustomed to using the language preferred by Kant et al, of “synthesis” and “analysis.”  Like Coleridge, and similar to Pierce (who spoke of “prehension”), I am inclined to disagree with the general notion after Kant, that the “sensuous manifold” is essentially an undefined “given,” so that analysis (differentiating, delimiting) is the basic movement of thought, after which synthesis can begin.  We all agree, however, that there is an expansive movement of understanding that strives to “take it all in,” a movement that reciprocates with an effort to “sort it all out”; and that these movements of understanding are intimately related to the use of language to “name the beasts” and to remark their differences.  These are not manifested as discrete processes, but as reciprocating movements within every act of understanding and language.

Of course, we can also use a different way of speaking about this, if we hark back to the Thomistic and even the ancient tradition and accept the need to speak of “genus” and “species” in order to discover the “essence” of each thing we perceive and name.  Roughly, we need to know “what kind of thing” we are discussing, and we need to know “in what ways individuals of that kind can vary” in order to correctly understand and properly name that thing.  If we locate the individual by partially species characteristics and partly accidental characteristics (variations that do not distinguish individuals of that kind), then I am likely to have a confused understanding.  The obvious parallel is in zoological taxonomy, where creatures have sometimes been classified by characteristics which, upon further examination, may not sufficiently describe them.  A humble example is our child, who exclaims “bug!” at the dog because it crawls on the ground, at the raisin for its shape and color, etc.  The entire effort of careful description rests on this idea that there is an “essence” by which every properly named thing takes place and is made manifest, and that this “essence” is the ground of our hope for the intelligibility of that thing–our ability to properly understand and discuss it.

One can also imagine the problems that would arise by disregarding splashes or orange paint when identifying blackbirds, or spilling white paint on a cartoon cat in the vicinity of Pepe le Pew.

But this means that all learning proceeds by analogy, that is, by recognizing the similarity in dissimilar things, first looking at them “generically” and then attempting to “specify” them, correcting ourselves when we realize that our specification leaves no generic similarity:  Both koala and Kodiak are mammals, and for a variety of reasons we often call both “bear,” but upon careful specification we realize that there is no generic similarity between “bear” as used of koala and “bear” as used of Kodiak, because the shared meaning between them is almost exhausted in the higher orders of classification (vertebrate, mammal, etc.)–the koala does not share with the Kodiak what the brown and the black do; the koala’s differences from the Kodiak are not differences of species (in the philosophical sense) but of kind (genus).

So that’s the common form of analogy–the movement between unlikeness and likeness necessary to discover the generic and specific descriptions of each thing.  This movement continues as long as we continue to learn, but also bears the fruit of increasingly definite knowledge of increasingly many things in increasingly fit relations–that is, understanding.

And we’ll turn to understanding God, and to the problem of equivocation, next.

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 1

I want to try to help folks escape some boxes of bad reasoning we keep getting locked into. The classic form of the trap I’m going to describe sounds much like a verbal typo I made when talking to the RCIA last Sunday: referring to the perfect charity in which all three Persons of the Trinity dwell, I said, “And that’s why we say God is three, not just one.”

Now, in my case, I specifically did not mean to deny God’s unity and simplicity, and I instantly mocked and corrected myself. Obviously what I meant was that “we say God is three and one; we do not merely say that He is one.”

But many, even some of the best and most important teachers I hear around me, seem prone to use this “not…but…” structure systematically and under the impression they are helping people to go “deeper” by wedging them from a lesser to a greater.

A typical version of this is an exhortation I grew up hearing often with regard to letting the love of Christ draw us into friendship with God: “It’s not enough to have a head knowledge, you have to have a heart knowledge.” Obviously it is possible to rescue the sense of this statement (“Comprehending language about God is not the same as being God’s friend”), but in practical terms its force is almost always turned in the wrong direction (“Reasoning about God is not as important as having strong feelings about Him”).

And a helpful indicator of the pernicious cultural force of such “not…but…” structures is their frequent coexistence with their exact negations in the same belief systems, or as the equal and opposite axioms of rival systems. When such tendentious structures dominate a dispute, both sides become impervious to reason (and often unable to notice that they may be united in their failure to accept the same truth). For example, it would be very easy to find revival preachers from my youth who would plead, “It’s not enough to have a head belief, you have to have a heart belief!” shortly after expressing contempt for “sentimental religion that has no truth” or sorrow for those who are “sincere, but sincerely wrong.” Such a preacher may well be right on the merits, when given the most charitable possible construal by a very careful reader (for example, when saying that one must believe with firm faith that Jesus Christ was the God-Man sent to save us all from sin, then criticizing those who want to believe Jesus and Mary were special but deny the Virgin Birth as history); but he cites as truisms an incoherent arrangement of sayings in which the privileged term can swap as needed.

This is a fairly trivial example, but the history of Christian doctrine is littered with the shipwrecks of those who started with someone’s “not…but…” and noticed only when grave harm had been done to lives and reputations and teachings and the unity of the Body of Christ that the “not…but…” was an imprudent rhetorical gesture, not a reliable saying.

We’ll talk eventually about illegitimately converting intensive & extensive claims (a helpful critique I encountered in Stephen Prickett’s Words and The Word and have not seen many others explain), but for now just take two examples of “not…but…” that have caused serious problems in the Body of Christ: “not works but faith” and “not a religion but a relationship” (I’m open to your thinking of more, but be sure you don’t just pick the negation of your preferred “not…but…” as an erroneous “not…but…”!)

But, for now, to get us heading in the right direction, here’s a paper I gave at the Southwest Conference on Christianity & Literature in 2014 that deals with several things–not least the concept we need to revive to cure quite a few of our discursive ills:

“Can Poetry Matter?”—Definitely, and With Many Voices
Peter G. Epps
Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature
November 14, 2014

“CAN POETRY MATTER?”—DEFINITELY, AND WITH MANY VOICES

Now in earnest he means to honour the gods who have blessed him,
Now in truth and in deed all must re-echo their praise.
Nothing must see the light but what to those high ones is pleasing,
Idle and bungled work never for Aether was fit.
So, to be worthy and stand unashamed in the heavenly presence,
Nations rise up and soon, gloriously ordered, compete
One with the other in building beautiful temples and cities,
Noble and firm they tower high above river and sea—
Only, where are they? Where thrive those famed ones, the festival’s garlands?
Athens is withered, and Thebes; now do no weapons ring out
In Olympia, nor now those chariots, all golden, in games there,
And no longer are wreaths hung on Corinthian ships?
Why are they silent too, the theatres, ancient and hallowed?
Why not now does the dance celebrate, consecrate joy?
Why no more does a god imprint on the brow of a mortal
Struck, as by lightning, the mark, brand him, as once he would do?
Else he would come himself, assuming a shape that was human,
And, consoling the guests, crowned and concluded the feast.
But, my friend, we have come too late. Though the gods are living,
Over our heads they live, up in a different world.
Endlessly there they act and, such is their kind wish to spare us,
Little they seem to care whether we life or do not.
For not always a frail, a delicate vessel can hold them,
Only at times can our kind bear the full impact of gods.
Ever after our life is dream about them. But frenzy,
Wandering, helps, like sleep; Night and distress make us strong
Till in that cradle of steel heroes enough have been fostered,
Hearts in strength can match heavenly strength as before.
Thundering then they come. But meanwhile too often I think it’s
Better to sleep than to be friendless as we are, alone,
Always waiting, and what to do or to say in the meantime
I don’t know, and who wants poets at all in lean years?
But they are, you say, like those holy ones, priests of the wine-god
Who in holy Night roamed from one place to the next.
Holderlin “Bread and Wine” 6-7

This conference poses the question “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” I suggest that this question is roughly the same as that asked in the title of Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” If literature and literary study make any substantive contribution to the common good, it must be because both poetry and criticism are bound up with the active life in much the way teaching is, as a traditionary and culture-making work. The cultural moment that leads us to ask such questions as “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” and “Can Poetry Matter?” is also the moment for which poems such as Holderlin’s “Bread and Wine” were written. As those who concern ourselves with poetry “in lean years”—also translated “the destitute time”—we will certainly want to take counsel in the matter. Beginning with the unlikely pairing of Martin Heidegger and Francis Schaeffer, and picking up some guidelines from St. Thomas Aquinas, I hope to identify some of the material conditions for a poetry that keeps faith and matters.

Heidegger famously wrestles with the nature of “the destitute time” in his essay “What Are Poets For?” and related works from late in his career. Heidegger expands on Holderlin’s image of the “lean years” during which the vatic stance of Romantic poets becomes anachronistic and poetry itself comes to be seen as a luxury product irrelevant to all but a narrow class of consumers. On Heidegger’s reading, “the destitute time” comes to characterize not just a seasonal dearth for poets, but an entire season of world history. Heidegger summarizes his view of the role art works play in the unfolding of history as follows in an earlier essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art”:

Art as poetry is founding, …instigation of the strife of truth: founding as beginning.…This foundation happened in the West for the first time in Greece….The realm of beings thus opened up was then transformed into a being in the sense of God’s creation. This happened in the Middle Ages. This kind of being was again transformed at the beginning and in the course of the modern age. Beings became objects that could be controlled and seen through by calculation. At each time a new and essential world arose. (74)

It would be easy to dispute Heidegger’s reading of the history of ideas, here, but his interpretation of the relation between the work of art and the world as a scene of human work is plain enough. When human working comes to be conspicuous enough to draw attention to itself as human working, it does so according to some available understanding of how the world comes to be as it is and of what materials and methods permit humans to work in a distinctively human manner. As a result, any work of art is most fully realized when it most wholly participates in the creation of the world in which humans can work creatively.

If Heidegger’s interpretation of the relationship between work and world is substantially accurate, then truly great art is most possible—and most recognizeable—when a great “beginning” is at hand. In “What Are Poets For?” Heidegger elaborates this understanding from Holderlin’s question about “the destitute time.” He begins by interpreting “Holderlin’s historical experience” in which “the appearance and sacrificial death of Christ mark the beginning of the end of the day of the gods” (89). If Christ’s Passion marks the demise of all other gods, then what Holderlin sees as Christ’s withdrawal from bodily presence within the world leaves humanity bereft of fresh material evidence of divine presence and action. Heidegger asserts that “the default of God which Holderlin experienced…means that no god any longer gathers men and things unto himself, visibly and unequivocally, and by such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it.” This time “becomes ever more destitute” until “it can no longer discern the default of God as a default” (89). “At this night’s midnight,” he says, “the destitute time is no longer able even to experience its own destitution” (90-91). It follows that to “be truly a poet in such an age,” one must first have survived experiences and thoughts that “have made the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question for him” (92). Such poets cannot readily rely on widely shared assumptions about the manner in which the world comes to be the scene of human work; rather, they “must especially gather in poetry the nature of poetry” in order to be “on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.” It is to precisely such poets, Heidegger suggests, that “we others must learn to listen.”

This frequently repeated observation is the occasion of Francis Schaeffer’s critique of Heidegger’s views on art. In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer argues that

When [Heidegger] says, “listen to the poet,” he does not mean that we are to listen to the content of what the poet says. Content is immaterial—one might have six poets all contradicting each other. It does not matter because the content is in the area of rationality, the lower story. What matters is that such a thing as poetry exists—and poetry is placed in the upper story. (Trilogy 246)

To clear away the brush, we must not fail to note that Schaeffer’s remark ignores exactly what we just heard from Heidegger—that “We others must learn to listen to what these poets say.” That is, particular poets who write in particular ways about particular things, and not anybody who happens to pen verse, can be judged to be “on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.” Heidegger does at least hint a framework for discrimination, so it is not in this sense accurate to say “Content is immaterial.”

More critically, Schaeffer depends on a reductive understanding of “rationality” (Trilogy 124). Like most of the modern thinkers he surveys, Schaeffer presupposes that only univocal true propositions are rational. Although the “whole personality is involved” in the intercourse of revelation, univocal speech is its sine qua non: Schaeffer’s “rational” Christian takes “A is A and A is not non-A” as “the basis” and subsequently engages all other elements of “personality” as a “response” to “what God has said.” If he does otherwise, the Christian “loses his way.” Schaeffer acknowledges that “to add things to rational verbalization” can “enrich it” in the sense that “poetry undoubtedly adds something to prose form.” In just the way some non-rational “personality” is part of a “response,” so some non-rational “something” can “enrich” the “prose form” of “what God has said.”

Schaeffer’s confrontation with Heidegger thus leaves the Christian seeking to make poetry matter with no very satisfying result. Schaeffer’s comment that “Content is immaterial” for Heidegger suggests that the content should be material, should make a concrete difference to the reader; and indeed Heidegger’s criteria for discrimination do not seem very concrete. Despite this, we have seen that Heidegger does not in fact commend “bare poetic form”; and Schaeffer’s reduction of “personality” and “poetry” to a non-rational “something” that can “enrich” univocal speech but also threatens it with irrationality seems to be an example of the thinking that marks “the destitute time.”

We turn, then, to Thomas Aquinas. Although after his time Scotus will persuade most metaphysicians that “being” is a univocal term, Thomas has a fully developed understanding of analogy. As the protégé of Albertus Magnus, Thomas seeks a unified field of knowledge; as a Dominican, Thomas is the paragon of that order’s effort to finally rid the Church of dualist heresy. When Heidegger asserts that the Middle Ages converted the world “into a being in the sense of God’s creation,” he is referring to the Aristotelian synthesis that completed Augustine’s Platonic hermeneutical efforts, a synthesis effected by Thomas. And when Schaeffer attempts to trace the bifurcation of modern thought into “upper” and “lower” registers back to its pre-modern roots, he starts from the basic nature/grace distinction found in Thomas.

Dana Gioia, whose 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” helped pose the question for this paper, suggests a key reason why we might listen to Thomas in his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today.” He points out that while “theology…is important” as expressed in “formal analytical thought,” such dialectical instruction does not address “the fullness of [people’s] humanity” (40). He continues by saying that

A great strength of Catholicism had been its glorious physicality, its ability to convey its truths as incarnate. The faith was not merely explained in its doctrine but reflected in sacred art, music, architecture, and the poetry of liturgy. Even St. Thomas Aquinas knew there were occasions to put theology aside and write poetry.

Gioia goes on to point out the problems that the Church has faced in calibrating its response to “the destitute time,” noting especially that it has sometimes succumbed to “the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies” that tend to exacerbate rather than heal the division between a secularizing culture and a world-changing Christianity (41). This division has been internalized when “eager, well-intentioned reformers” acted without “respectful understanding of art itself” because they “saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational.” As we have seen, this reduction of works of art to “functional entities” is what both Heidegger and Schaeffer object to—and what they both seem to do themselves.

Thomas Aquinas, then, points us toward a vision of poetry that matters in two ways: by his teaching about the intelligibility of creation, and by his own poetry. Aquinas asserts that “man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason,” and that therefore divine revelation must be given so that humans may “direct their thoughts and actions to the end” (ST I.1.1). Because the Creator must necessarily exceed what unaided human reason would devise, and what we could communicate widely and accurately by merely dialectical means, Thomas says that “in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely” there must be “a sacred science learned through revelation.” This “sacred science” is indeed intelligible and communicable, but its proper principles are spiritual and “obtained by revelation,” so that “we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation is made” (I.1.8). Nonetheless, “human reason” in the form of both dialectical procedure and appeals to secular wisdom are necessary to the “sacred science,” as Thomas says, “not, indeed, to prove faith…but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine.” Notice the relationship between the realities of creation and revelation, here, and the means of reasoning about them: the real is intelligible, and revelation is credible, but dialectical method serves in elaboration and definition, rather than as the foundation or sine qua non of faithful reason.

This, then, is the setting for the observation of Aquinas that “Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it” so that “natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: ‘Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ.’” In such a setting we can begin to see how poetry might have a serious cognitive role. I think of the ending George Herbert’s famous poem “The Collar”:

Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Childe:
And I reply’d, My Lord.

Like so many of Herbert’s works, the poem represents an adjustment of speculative thought to a reality in which willingness to accept the condition of a creature is generally a precondition to understanding as well as to happiness. Thomas is everywhere concerned with the necessity of adjusting our whole being to a reality we did not create and which we are alienated from by original sin as well as our own actual sins.

In such a world, the Platonic objection that “Holy Scripture should not use metaphors” because “similitudes and figures [are] proper to poetry, the least of all the sciences” is met with the solidly Thomistic assertion that “it is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things” (ST I.1.9). Thomas argues that “it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects,” and that it is especially important to do so when we consider those who do not have the time or aptitude for extended theological reflection: it is fitting “that spiritual truths be expounded by means of figures taken from corporeal things, in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it.” This use of concretely intelligible figural language does not threaten reasonable faith with irrationality because its sensuality is chaste; its end and scope are both more definite and more total than the poetry envisioned by the Platonic critic, as Thomas says: “Poetry makes use of metaphors to produce a representation, for it is natural to man to be pleased with representations. But sacred doctrine makes use of metaphors as both necessary and useful.” For poetry to matter, it must function within the horizon of intelligible reality; it must be more totally intelligible and responsive to the creaturely condition than dialectic, not less; and it may decorate, but must not distract from, the essentially human work of participating in creation.

In order to act in this way, a poetry that matters will require skillful use of plurivocal, rather than univocal, signification. Rather than oscillating between a flawed dialectic that insists that only univocal propositions are really intelligible and a self-defeating dalliance with unlimited equivocation, poets especially must re-learn the philosophical meaning of analogy and the proper sense of allegory. This follows from two basic insights specific to monotheistic revealed religions, and most fully developed in Catholic Christianity: first, that God is incomprehensible yet reveals Himself intelligibly; second, in the words of Thomas, that “The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves.” The first insight tells us that we must understand analogical terms as an alternative to univocal and equivocal terms. Univocal terms always take their meaning from a comprehended prior experience of an object; even discounting the residue that escapes comprehension in such terms, the very idea of divine revelation means that some terms must use comprehended prior experience of one object to make intelligible to us what we cannot comprehend and have not yet experienced. Properly speaking, such terms are analogical: they trade on what we do know to sketch what we cannot yet know. As surely as all teaching involves dialectic, all learning begins with analogy.

The second insight tells us that history itself will already be laden with multiple significations when we come to formulate it in words, so that adjusting the whole person to reality will require language and art that can re-enact in the reader the simultaneous unfolding of multiple truths in one event or process. Thomas provides us a key reference point for the developed understanding of allegory, beginning with his Augustinian observation about “words” and “things themselves.” We may say, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, that that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”; and in so doing, we recognize that the double sense of “charged” as both “vitally filled” and “formally accused” is not an ornament or distraction, but a more completely true statement about world history than could be achieved in univocal terms. When the speaker of “God’s Grandeur” asks “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” we see “then” taking on both the sense of historical reference (“then [and] now”) and the sense of implication (“if…then”). On the one hand, ignoring the Creator’s authority is a perennial act of human culture; on the other, after “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,” it seems especially contrary to reasonable expectation that people would not see the harm that follows from a refusal to adjust to their creaturely status. Far from involving a flight from the scandalously sensual into the safely abstract, then, proper allegorical reasoning develops the insight that the historical unfolding of creation is laden with significance even before human reason and divine revelation explicitly account for that significance. If dialectic serves to find the most definite and unmistakable expression currently available of certain truths about that unfolding, then poetry may well serve to protect dialectic from devolving into reductionism.

Poets armed with this understanding of human language’s role in an intelligible creation should find no lack of interesting and controversial subject matter, but should be able to set it in perspective. As Gioia says, “Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil…. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God” (35). Yet this pervasive “invisible presence” is by its very invisibility prone to become the “default of God” in the experience of a poet such as Holderlin or a philosopher such as Heidegger; we cannot finally distinguish on the basis of words between the verbal mysticism Schaeffer deplores and the complex participation in creation that poets seek. Reduction to univocal discourse only makes the problem worse, as dialectic replaces poetry. For poetry to matter in this way, then, divine revelation must occur “visibly and unequivocally” in the material world. Poets are powerless to conjure this, but they should attend to any proclamation of such an occurrence.

Fortunately, the same Creator who authored Sacred Scripture and reveals Himself through Creation has also ordained sacraments by which a Church is constituted—most especially the Eucharist, by means of which the faithful are really made present at the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the Resurrected Christ really does make true the Words of Institution, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” The faithful who receive acclaim this reality, saying, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.” And it is to that reality that St. Thomas Aquinas adverts in his most compelling and definite language about the relationship between definite material substances and events, specific words, and the participation of humans in the creating and redeeming work that God does through them. These, then, are the realities par excellence: the Creation as considered through the unfolding of the New Creation into which we are incorporated already by Baptism; the Redemption as accomplished once for all in Christ and made present “visibly and unequivocally” in the Eucharist; the mutual consent of man and wife that makes each responsible for the whole life of the other, and the fidelity of Christ and His Church that makes her ministers His speech and act in the world; all this conditioned on a Christ who, St. Thomas says, is both Word and Image in an analogical sense, one that suggests the possibilities of words and images but escapes reduction to our later words and our remembered images.

It is this reality which leads St. Thomas, as Gioia says, to put down the pen of scholarship and take up the pen of poetry, giving us the Corpus Christi liturgy which is still used for some of the most solemn celebrations in the Catholic faith: Pange Lingua; Adoro te Devote; Sacris Solemniis; Verbum Supernum; Lauda Sion. (sing a bit of Tantum Ergo if possible) In a culture experiencing “the destitute time,” poetry can matter when poets called into close contact with the definite and plurivocal nature of the sacraments wrestle with the implications of that understanding for every part of life. Our culture’s rapid political and epistemic pendulum swings merely perpetuate the “divided field” of human reason that Schaeffer correctly diagnoses, but cannot cure with univocal propositions. It ought to be possible, however, to engage in a poetics of adjustment to the status of creature that richly explores analogical language and the allegorical understanding of history and lived experience; this should be most possible for those richly engaged in the sacramental life of the Church. One model I might propose is Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, in which the dying man grapples with the existential sense of impending oblivion, aided by angels, ministers, and friends cooperating in prayer. For poets “in lean years,” and I suggest for poetry in general, the alternative to this obedient and unfolding vision is to live as Gerontius fears to die:

As though my very being had given way,
As though I was no more a substance now,
And could fall back on nought to be my stay,
………………………………………………..
And turn no whither, but must needs decay
And drop from out the universal frame
Into that shapeless, scopeless, blank abyss

Works Cited
[paper written for oral delivery. Resource links follow.]
http://books.google.com/books?id=nskr-wgx_1kC [Schaeffer]
http://web.duke.edu/secmod/primarytexts/Holderlin-Poems.pdf [Holderlin]
http://www.ccel.org/print/aquinas/summa/FP.i.FP_Q1.FP_Q1_A9 [Summa]
http://www.ccel.org/print/aquinas/summa/FP_Q1_A1
http://www.ccel.org/print/aquinas/summa/FP_Q1_A10
http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today [Gioia 2013]
http://www.newmanreader.org/works/verses/gerontius.html [Newman]
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173625 [Herbert]
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173660 [Hopkins]
http://www.theatlantic.com/past/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm [Gioia 1991]

Rhetorical Analysis of John 1

Here’s perhaps the most excessively detailed Sunday School lesson plan I’ve ever imagined—but the exegesis was absorbing, and let me work out some thoughts I was having at the time.  You’ll notice some infelicities:  I discuss Biblical, Pastoral, Systematic theology but have not, yet, in 2001, learned much at all about the fourfold sense; I am pretty fluid with my Greek-word and English-word exegetical conclusions all at once (though I can say I looked up information on the Greek for every word, here, and that at the time I was doing ancient language study, so I wasn’t completely incompetent at that).  And it’s clumsy to have regarded John’s Gospel as fundamentally written for first proclamation, rather than as a theological and liturgical filling out of the work the Synoptics had done.  In any case, the main analysis of John’s craftsmanship of the opening verses of his Gospel, especially his confounding of both Greek and Hebrew expectations, still seems to have merit, I’d say:

johnpg01.png johnpg02.png johnpg03.png johnpg04.png johnpg05.png

 

Getting it Wrong, but Still Learning

I already posted a brief excerpt from the huge undergraduate paper I did that turned out to be badly wrongheaded, but the simple truth is that without that work almost nothing I know or teach today would have been worked into me in the manner it now has.  I don’t want to sell short the real danger of exceeding all reasonable bounds in argumentative zeal and ending up in dangerous heresy; but I want to point out that riches to be gained by sustained engagement with the history of Christian teaching, and sustained effort to reason vigorously and rigorously about the faith, are hard to overstate.

And, really, when I read some of this today, I wish profoundly that there had been someone equipped with a solid understanding of patristic and medieval theology, and a Catholic approach to them, to sit down and talk with me about this work.  I am not sure I would have been responsive (though I would be strongly influenced by several explanations of Catholic understanding over the next few years).  At any rate, I would like to be that person for others on a similar path.

Here, then, some excerpts from near the end of “Original Sin:  Origin of a Doctrine,” that seem oddly similar to the decrees on Justification from the Council of Trent–an assertion both I and my interlocutors at the time would have regarded as an accusation!  We learn; we learn.

An excerpt on the role of Resurrection in Justification, as I speculated at the time:

If God were willing for the entire universe to simply annul itself by means of sin and death, then there would be no problem except the question of why God would create a universe, only to let it die. If any are to be saved, a just God must have some way to save them without simply commuting the sentence. This provision is in Christ, and in God’s infinite wisdom and eternal foreknowledge is made possible by the very curse which makes the universe just. It is just, and necessary to justice, that the natural consequences of universal sin be universal death; but the curse makes death a condition of human existence itself, hence itself contributing to sin. If no man lives in a cursed human body sinlessly and dies, then the curse is absolutely just and efficient, closely and directly relating the opportunity to sin, the sin and the result so as to provide minimal suffering and ambiguity. Death makes the universe as pleasant as it can be with sin in dominance. However, if one man in a cursed human body were to live sinlessly and still die, then justice would not only allow, but in fact require, that the curse be altered. The result is that, while death still results from sin in the world, there is now a new life as well, a resurrection from the dead. In that life, as in this, those who are obedient will be blessed with fellowship with God and their fellows; those who are disobedient will be cursed with that which they choose, separation from God and the natural consequences of continuing death in an immortal body.

It is finally the promise of the resurrection that is the distinctive hope of the Christian. This is the ultimate thing man is unable to do; no man can act when he is dead, much less create life in his death. God alone could provide the means by which men who in their sinfulness were already left for dead, who were naturally subject to the condemnation of death and who spent their lives earning that sentence, could be brought to life after their death. God alone could make it possible for sins to be expiated (by the justice of death for sin) and at the same time for salvation to be possible (by the justice of resurrection for Christ’s obedience, with eternal life for believers). God alone could at the same time punish and forgive, love and judge. God alone could exercise justice and mercy in such an absolute fashion that neither compromises the other in any detail. Man cannot solve this problem for himself; he cannot create new life; he is entirely dependent upon the grace of God, and must in faith submit to that which that grace demands of him in order to partake of that glory.

A footnote that shows that God was “breaking in” even where my arguments were colliding with each other in painful cacophony:

Of course, the actual course of action taken (resurrection of all men, with the promise of eternal life to those who believe and obey Christ) is only one of several possible courses that would still be just. Rather than resurrect all on account of the one unjust death, God could have a) caused the curse to be individual, rather than general or b) prevented Christ’s death. However, neither of these would have accomplished the assumed end, which is the salvation of sinners. Therefore, God’s plan of redemption, which includes the curse itself, is based in an economy of love, not natural necessity.

(Yes, I added that emphasis.)

And something still a little too close to semi-Pelagian, but on the way to agreement with the councils of Orange and Trent (a long road yet ahead):

Since justification means “to be made just,” and being just is a fundamental statement of man’s moral state, justification without moral change is a word without meaning. For God to act as if people were just without truly making them so is for God to be arbitrary, unjust and untruthful. There can be no movement toward a state of justification, or a state of always being just in one’s actions, made on paper. Justification must be a moral, rather than a forensic, change. Second, all of these notions are based upon and perpetuate the conception of moral qualities as substance, rather than volition. One cannot be given righteousness; one must be taught to live righteously, and must choose to do so. Nor is righteousness transferrable; it is irrevocably a quality of the man who acts righteously. Whatever can be understood of justification must be understood in these terms, or it is meaningless.

Justification, therefore, is a moral transformation identical with the act of faith in God’s promises. Abraham clearly exemplifies that, as do the “men of old” in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. To separate justification from faith is anti-biblical. Faith is made possible by God, Who perfectly performs His promises; the grounds, opportunity, understanding and even desire to act are provided by God. None of this is of man; nor is the substance of the Christian hope provided by man. Man cannot make himself alive after he is dead; man cannot reverse his own moral downfall; God must make this possible in Christ through His Spirit. Man, however, must exercise faith by ceasing to resist God’s Spirit, by ceasing to suppress the truth in his injustice and lawlessness. This is the great and eternal truth of the Gospel, one which must not be allowed to fade with time, regardless of the years of theories and traditions which have obscured it.

My Recent Article—another Christianity & Buddhism interaction

The journal of the MLA Conference on Christianity & Literature recently published my article “Before a Fall:  the role of the interpreter in Endo’s Silence”; one of the key moments in that work is an extended discussion of some differences between Christian understanding of God and certain ideas that have become common in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, as these are reflected in the words of a character called only “the interpreter,” who helps to lead Endo’s protagonist Rodrigues to his apostasy (whether temporary or permanent) at the climax of the novel.

This gets really rather technical, so do fasten your seatbelts.  Here’s the relevant section from that article:

Buddhist-Christian dialogue and the interpreter’s summation

The third point of interest in the interpreter’s summation is complex, but worthy of extended treatment.  In this summation, the interpreter’s effort to force Rodrigues to adopt a secular standard for evaluating religious beliefs and practices adopts the protective coloration of ambiguous religious language:  “the path of mercy means simply that you abandon self” (146).  Much that has made Silence both appealing and controversial among its twentieth century Japanese and American audience can be unpacked from this sentence.

The studied ambiguity of the religious language the interpreter uses can be glimpsed in the supplemental “simply” in this translation.  “Simply” here marks the suppression of a complex process of truncation and deflation which makes mercy “simply” (or “merely”) a negative quality of the individual’s subjectivity; to call on another to “abandon self” in this sense begs the fundamental religious question of to whom or for what the self should abdicate its apparent self-authority.  This call also tacitly denies that the self in question is already abandoned to or participating in some larger order, such as the priest’s religious vocation and his receipt of holy orders.  It is impossible to escape the signal irony of the gleefully cruel interpreter describing this enforced religious migration as “the path of mercy.”  The reference to “the old bonze” instructing “Chuan” (Ferreira), who now wears Japanese religious vestments, evokes the history of Christian-Buddhist dialogue in the twentieth century, which has often been carried on in terms of the relationship between Zen and Continental philosophy.  The language of the interpreter’s summation is at least as suitable in that conversation as in any conversation that might have been held in Tokugawa Japan, and probably much more suitable.

A key point in that dialogue is, as Steve Odin has pointed out, “the mutual encounter of two monumental ideas:  Christian kenosis (self-emptying) and Buddhist sunyata (emptiness)” (71).  John T. Netland thinks that Endo has arrived at an understanding of kenosis in terms of “radically self-denying and culture-transcending love” in the course of his career, culminating in the character of Otsu in Deep River.  Netland says that “In Silence this love is the self-negating invitation of the emaciated Jesus on the fumie who permits Father Rodrigues to apostatize and who reaffirms his presence to the disgraced apostate” (“From Resistance to Kenosis” 192).  According to Netland, “always this love finds its origins and supreme expression in the broken body of Jesus hanging limply from the cross of Calvary.”  Netland thus suggests that Endo’s “self-negating” model of “radically self-denying […] love” remains essentially Christian, though he admits that such “radical love […] is not easily accommodated within the theological boundaries of Christianity” to an extent that makes Endo’s work “disappointing to Christian readers who wonder if this singular devotion to divine love weakens the soteriology of the cross” (192).  Netland points out that Endo’s “reluctance to use the language of atonement and justification” and “selective emphasis on the self-emptying love of Jesus” have systematic consequences (193); this approach “renders traditional theological boundaries permeable” so that Endo’s work represents “ambiguous spaces where Christian theology diffuses into a more inclusive, if theologically imprecise, ethic of love.”  Netland maintains that even though Endo “creates a blurred soteriology” he nonetheless successfully “assumes a transcultural point of moral reference” in a way that “points us to the mystery of Christ’s kenotic entrance into human history” (194).  The interpreter’s specific arguments, though, challenge the notion that this putative “transcultural point of moral reference” is distinguishable from a wholly secular determination of moral value that treats religious truth claims as culturally contingent.

Netland’s account does not penetrate to the heart of the matter because he does not attend sufficiently to the blurring of the term kenosis in the interreligious discourse indicated by the interpreter’s reference to the “bonze” (Buddhist monk) who instructs the apostate Jesuit Ferreira that Buddhism and Christianity converge on the effort to “abandon self.”  Renée D. N. van Riessen helpfully clarifies the usage of kenosis:  “Traditionally kenosis expresses the descent or approach of the Transcendent to earth” (180).  Such a “descent or approach” modifies the transcendent being (“the Infinite, or God”) in relation to beings on “earth” so that transcendent being “is no longer a lofty and elevated idea that prefers to remain by itself and can only be understood by itself,” an entelechy like “the representation of God in the philosophy of Aristotle.”  Instead, “A kenotic representation of God’s relationship to reality” posits “a descent or humiliation that is not contrary to God’s transcendence, but rather an articulation of it.”  He suggests that Vattimo’s philosophical appropriation of kenosis goes too far in “trying to argue that being itself is subject to a process of weakening in its historical development” because “the time of the world view (as Heidegger called it) is over. Thinking has gradually become ‘secularised’” (202).  Thus Vattimo’s account boils down Christian kenoticism to say that, “influenced by the story of the emptying of God in Christ, a process is going on in our culture in which man is learning to conquer the violent nature of the sacred and of social life.”  Such a reduction of kenosis to secularization strongly resembles the interpreter’s call for the Jesuits to “leave us in peace” after forcing them onto a “path of mercy” that substitutes a range of secular efforts for the practice of the Christian faith.

Odin’s work on kenosis in Buddhist-Christian discourse clarifies this parallel between the interpreter’s summation, Vattimo’s metaphysical reduction of kenosis, and Netland’s quasi-kenotic “ethic of love” interpretation.  In his critique of “the mutual encounter” between “Christian kenosis (self-emptying) and Buddhist sunyata (emptiness),” Odin provides the key to understanding the instruction “the path of mercy means simply that you abandon self” that the interpreter relays from the “bonze.”  Odin acknowledges that “Christian kenosis and Buddhist sunyata traditions” strongly resemble each other in that “the process of self-emptying becomes the pattern for true discipleship” (72).  This resemblance consists in the similarity between kenosis and “the Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness) in its standard definition as anatman (no-self, selflessness, or non-ego)” (71).  The Buddha’s coming to conceive all things through the concept sunyata is “the model of enlightenment in Buddhism” insofar as the Buddha came to view the world as definitively and exclusively populated with objects of moribund desire, so that conceiving that which desires (the self) as itself an intrinsically ephemeral manifestation of that moribund desire becomes the central movement of Buddhist “enlightenment,” the realization of anatman.  Twentieth-century Buddhist-Christian dialogue presses the superficial similarity between kenosis and sunyata in much the manner suggested by the interpreter in Silence.

As Odin states, a perceived identity of kenosis and sunyata has become a cornerstone of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, especially in light of the work of thinkers in the Japanese Buddhist tradition of the Kyoto School, whose “project of relating kenosis to sunyata is a form of syncretism that is developed in the framework of a kenotic buddhology” (77).  Odin traces this juxtaposition throughout the work of the Kyoto School, from Nishida to Abe (73-75), but he proposes that the work of Nishitani Keiji offers the clearest examples of “identification of Christian kenosis with Buddhist sunyata or emptiness in its meaning as anatman or non-ego” (77).  Specifically, Odin cites Nishitani’s assertion that “What is ekkenosis for the Son is kenosis for the Father.  In the East, this would be called anatman, or non-ego.”  Odin’s summary suggests how much Nishitani’s approach modifies the understanding of kenosis found in van Riessen’s summary of the traditional teaching:

Nishitani calls for a shift from the Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal of divine perfection as “self-sufficiency” toward a completely nonsubstantialist ideal of divine perfection as “self-emptying,” or, as it were, “making oneself empty” (onore o munashikusurukoto) as espoused by both the Christian kenosis and Buddhist sunyata traditions.  However, of special importance here is Nishitani’s primary distinction between the original kenosis or self-emptying of God and the derivative ekkenosis or self-emptying of Christ. Kenosis is the original condition of “having made Himself empty,” which is essentially entailed from the beginning in the idea of the divine perfection of God, whereas ekkenosis or the activity of self-emptying love as typified by Christ and the command of man is the embodiment or practice of that perfection. Hence, the kenosis of God is the origin of the ekkenosis of Christ. (74)

Recalling that the fundamental meaning of kenosis, as seen in van Riessen, is “a descent or humiliation that is not contrary to God’s transcendence, but rather an articulation of it,” the shift in meaning proposed by the Kyoto School is evident.  Kenosis proper is now construed as a condition of divine being, a part of what is meant by naming “God,” while God’s self-disclosure through what Christians call kenosis—Christ’s descent to humanity in the Incarnation—is now seen as a “derivative” movement.

As Odin points out, “The Kyoto School project of relating kenosis to sunyata” represents a contribution to “a kenotic buddhology rather than a kenotic christology as such” (77).  Like Christian teaching about kenosis, Nishitani pushes off from the “the philosophy of Aristotle”; like Vattimo, however, Nishitani gives the term a radically different meaning.  By eliding the difference between Aristotelian and Christian conceptions of God, Nishitani pushes off against “the Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal of divine perfection as ‘self-sufficiency’” (Odin 74).  A properly Aristotelian view differs from a scholastic view precisely insofar as scholastic philosophy is Christian, that is, as the scholastics understood the kenosis of Incarnation to be the central fact of Christian revelation.  To conflate these views into an “Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal” masks the double movement from Aristotle to Aquinas and from Aquinas to the scholastics; it also masks the subsequent movements of thought that give Nishitani’s words, and the interpreter’s, a force today that they could not have had in the sixteenth century.

Despite the contextual differences, Nishitani and the interpreter employ the same rhetorical strategy.  The interpreter quotes the “bonze” as saying that “the path of mercy simply means to abandon self,” while interpreting “abandon self” under Japanese Buddhist assumptions.  When Nishitani prefers an understanding of kenosis which makes “‘making oneself empty’ (onore o munashikusurukoto)” the “ideal of divine perfection,” so that the Christian should imitate Christ (in his ekkenosis) as one who realizes the sunyata (emptiness) of a God whose divinity consists in perfectly manifesting anatman (no-self), he is making excellent Buddhist sense over against a misrepresentation of the Christian teaching of kenosis.   To use Christian vocabulary under such assumptions is to reduce the facts of God’s self-revelation that form the core of Christian faith to mere instruments for realizing sunyata; it shrinks hope until it can envision only the objects of moribund desire.  Especially under the conditions the Japanese authorities have created by persecution, the interpreter and the “bonze” seem eminently reasonable in suggesting that the only remaining senses in which Christian ethical teaching could be interpreted would demand apostasy.  They thus work a direct reversal of the sense in which a Christian is taught to “abandon self.”

Endo’s own Catholic baptism and the Catholicism of his Christian characters are chief contributors to the tension within his work, so it is hardly surprising that the interpreter’s words resonate far beyond their putative seventeenth-century context in this way.  As if to refute the interpreter’s misprisions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent declaration Dominus Iesus authoritatively restates key elements of Christian teaching about the Incarnation, especially in the context of interreligious discourse.  It points out that teachings which make “the revelation of Jesus Christ […] complementary to that found in other religions” are “in radical contradiction with the foregoing statements of Catholic faith according to which the full and complete revelation of the salvific mystery of God is given in Jesus Christ” (6), then summarizes that revelation as follows:

The truth about God … is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, faith requires us to profess that the Word made flesh, in his entire mystery, who moves from incarnation to glorification, is the source, participated but real, as well as the fulfilment of every salvific revelation of God to humanity.

Such teaching expands, rather than eliding, the gap between Christian faith in God and a narrowly Aristotelian conception of deity.  Likewise, the Christian response to the kenosis of Incarnation leads the Christian to “abandon self” in a manner quite different than the Buddhist realization of sunyata as anatman would suggest:

The proper response to God’s revelation is “the obedience of faith (Rom 16:26; cf. Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) by which man freely entrusts his entire self to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’ and freely assenting to the revelation given by him.”  (Dominus Iesus 7)

From the standpoint of Catholics like Endo and his protagonist Rodrigues, the choice which the interpreter offers should not be understood as between two interpretations of Christianity, or between two interchangeable religious interpretations of an essentially secular situation.  For Christians to “abandon self” means to yield “obedience of faith” to the singular revelation of God in Christ Jesus.

If, as Odin concludes, the fusion of Buddhism and Christianity apparently effected by the identification of kenosis with sunyata is an illusion, so must be the connection the interpreter suggests between “the path of mercy” as a religion-tinged secular effort to achieve social goods (“to help others”) and this syncretistic interpretation of the command to “abandon self.”  As Mark Williams has recently pointed out in a very important critique of interreligious themes in Endo’s work, in mid-career Endo already acknowledges that he is “indebted in equal measure to the Buddhist preoccupation with knowing the self and the Christian focus on redemption” (120).  In the character of the interpreter, Endo seems to dress twentieth-century interreligious discourse in seventeenth-century garb.

Developing the Dialogue–ETS Paper 2010

I’m continuing my little subtheme of papers addressing Buddhism in some way.  This piece is actually the most direct discussion, but unfortunately it was a fairly hastily written conference paper.  My second conference of the year, and my first time attending that conference, Evangelical Theological Society Conference 2010 was overshadowed for me by the trip I was taking to meet Sarah, my own rapidly growing conviction that the Catholic Church was where the Truth resided, and my almost desperate exhaustion–having transitioned jobs to my second evangelical faculty post, only to face moving on immediately.  A topic I had hoped to give slow, deep reflection to therefore became a quick summary, with no likelihood of an immediate resumption of the conversation.

Still, I think I was getting at something real, here, and I hope to have an opportunity to follow up on it.  Here, then, my rough-and-ready speaking text of my 2010 ETS submission:

The Time of God’s Long Suffering:
Reading the New Testament in Response to a Buddhist Problem

Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society
Atlanta, Georgia
November 17, 2010

Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation[.]
1 Peter 3:8-15

Most of you will, as I do, tend to immediately read this passage with attention to two key contexts: the context of individual reassurance or exhortation, and the context of discussions among various eschatological systems. Obviously, the passage should be read in these ways. Let me ask you, though, to set those aside for a moment, and look more directly at the language of time itself, here. The “thousand years” and “one day” paradox suggests that God’s interactions with time are subject to compression and dilation relative to His concerns. The time frame of calendars and clocks, though part of the order of Creation, is not absolute. Instead, the Epistle’s readers are oriented to a time frame in which “the Lord is not slow […] but patient”; in which God’s reluctance to end the age before “all should reach repentance” will give way very unexpectedly, “like a thief,” and violently, even to the point of a distillation of the material cosmos to its personal, spiritual quintessence.

Perhaps most strikingly, the reader so oriented becomes a participant in this timing, “waiting for and hastening” the end while simultaneously able to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation.” From this brief reading, permit me to extract a framework of four assertions for later use:

  • The time of Creation (world history, the history of the cosmos) is contingent, not ultimate or definitive even for the cosmos.
  • Events within Creation time are more significantly ordered by God’s concern than by clock-and-calendar chronology.
  • God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons.
  • Because of God’s concern, humans also participate in changing significance of Creation time.

I believe a framework like this should permit us to address Buddhist thought on its own terms, while still reasoning consistently from the language of Scripture.
Now, before I proceed, let me hasten to offer three disclaimers—yea, I will give four qualifications. First, I know that just “one small step for a man” from what I’ve just said lies a fruitful and ancient discussion of chronos and kairos in rhetoric and history. I would love to hear from some of you who are more deeply involved in that conversation than I am; I am sidestepping that discussion. Second, I am keenly aware that the readings from 1 Peter, Luke, Romans, and 1 Corinthians that I hope to offer, today, will hardly be groundbreaking—indeed, I hope that I will say nothing absolutely new. I hope only to emphasize certain elements of these texts that speak to a certain juncture in a certain discussion.

Third, when I turn to face Buddhism, I am aware of a double criticism that can be made against my main sources, which are Japanese Buddhists from the Kyoto School. Scholarly Buddhism is not folk Buddhism; and Japan’s uptake of Buddhism is idiosyncratic within East Asian context, even before we turn to Southeast Asia and the Subcontinent. I have done what I may within my background reading and selection of sources to deal with these known issues by using sources from both main traditions of Japanese Buddhism, privileging their direct interactions with Pali source texts, and staying as near as I may to “mainstream” collections of the teachings of the Buddha.

Beyond that, and fourth, I say to you that I very humbly offer these comments as an attempt to mark some clear connections within a Christian conversation that answers to a Buddhist conversation. When I say that these passages provide us with answers, I definitely have in mind neither the insistence of fact against the question, nor the reduction of the question to the scaffolding used to renovate it, but the apologia of a faithful response in another’s conversation, and a hope that can bear questioning.

While my personal hopes definitely have to do with the interaction of committed Christians with East Asian culture, I have also developed a keen interest in the convergence of Continental philosophy with Buddhism. There has been a steadily growing (though very uneven) interaction of Western philosophy with Buddhism throughout the past two centuries, correlating very precisely to the growth of a post-Christian consensus in the societies once comprised as Christendom. Nietzsche’s Antichrist at one point addresses the relationship of Buddhism to Christianity under the very late Nietzsche’s abrasive criticism of both religions. Significantly, Nietzsche compares the two in terms of the theology of sin: “Buddhism is the only really positive religion to be found in history, even in its epistemology (which is strict phenomenalism)—it no longer speaks of the ‘struggle with sin’ but fully recognising the true nature of reality it speaks of the ‘struggle with pain’” (17). Nietzsche does not have a particularly close understanding of Buddhism, but he does identify the difference in emphasis between Western philosophy and Buddhism reasonably well.

Equally imprecise, and apparently contradicting Nietzsche, J. Estlin Carpenter’s 1923 Buddhism and Christianity differentiates the Christian response to suffering from Buddhism as follows:

The revelation of the Rule of God instead of ending “the age that now is” has indefinitely prolonged it. And it has not altered its external conditions. The world is as full of the pains of sickness, the decrepitude of age and the sorrows of death, as it was when the son of Suddhodana first learned of them on his pleasure-drives. […] And we have not the insight claimed by the Buddha to relate each smart to some incident of wrong in a distant life. Christianity can never explain suffering. In the mingled web of pain and joy which is woven into every lot, it can lay no hand upon the ill and say “This is thy desert.” Under the Rule of God it has another word, “This is thy service.” (62)

Of course, from Carpenter’s later and fairly liberal standpoint, Nietzsche’s distinction between “struggle with sin” and “struggle with pain” has fallen into disuse; “sin” is simply one of the “external conditions” in the “mingled web.” What is interesting, however, is that Carpenter appears to believe that the Buddhist idea of karma definitely calls for one-to-one consequences for acts, while Christianity does not do so. Carpenter’s view seems to accord well with Christ’s rebukes concerning the man born blind or the sacrilegious murder of some Galileans, but also seems to ignore the principle of sowing and reaping, as well as the trial by works of Romans 2.

Both Nietzsche and Carpenter have tapped something, though, which is of crucial importance when trying to bring the Buddhist understanding of suffering into contact with the New Testament. As Carpenter’s assertion “Christianity can never explain suffering” suggests, Buddhism regards suffering as the trace, and also the essential determination, of being sentient. Suffering both marks and is the fact which consciousness explains. Christianity, however, has typically taken suffering as indicative, not of the nature of being, but of a defect within a goodness either remembered or anticipated. Christianity typically tries to account for the defect so as to distinguish the ill and its causes from the creature and its goodness (hence the perennial “problem of evil” is accompanied by the “problem of pain”). Buddhism, on the other hand, typically tries to account for sentient being’s apparently intrinsic capacity for suffering.

For Takeuchi Yoshinori, both religious and philosophical efforts have as their focus a “conversion,” the core of which is a shift from thinking of suffering as an individual experience to thinking of the individual consciousness a form of suffering. Takeuchi proposes in The Heart of Buddhism that “conversion is said to begin with self-purification, with a catharsis of soul” for “mystical traditions of all times and places.” He further differentiates “mere morality or ethics” from “purification that follows on conversion” in such traditions, for the latter “stands on a higher plane.” Takeuchi suggests that “such purification is permeated throughout by the problem of the impermanence of all things, by the problem of life and death,” but this problem is not merely a matter of finite lifespan. For this reason, Takeuchi criticizes “neo-Kantianism—along with the liberal theology based on it” for being “fettered to the immanentism of human reason and hence [. . .] only impeding our view of that abyss of death and sin and nihility that opens up under our very feet as the fate of being human” (72-3). Like the Curse of Genesis 3, the problem as Takeuchi takes it up is bound up with all of the joy and suffering of mortal life. For Takeuchi, this understanding of human moribundity tightly links traditions as varied as yogic Hinduism, various Buddhisms, medieval Christian mysticism, and post-Christian existentialisms. The crucial insight, he suggests, is a universalizing of the confrontation with suffering: “Without the memento mori, without an accompanying awareness and appropriation of death in the depths of one’s own being, those reflections become nothing more than pathological abnormalities.” Reflection on suffering which leads one to relate to such suffering as a defining feature of sentient being, rather than merely an unpleasant experience for such a being, is the essence of the “conversion” Takeuchi has in view.

In Takeuchi’s writing, the “turn” involved in this “conversion” hinges on the subject’s becoming conscious of what Buddhists term “dependent origination.” Takeuchi suggests that this conversion is often described in the “fundamental experience of artists and poets,” who in their self-conscious acts of representation may “experience an immediate embodiment of the dynamism of world and body, other, and life prior to the distinction of subject and object” (74). The writer whose characters “take over” the work, the carpenter who sees what the wood “wants to be,” the painter who realizes that he and his painting are illuminated by the sun no differently than the things he paints, are all having experiences that hint at the principle of “dependent origination.” Takeuchi describes “dependent origination” as follows:

the subject that, seen from the world, is part of the world, constructs its own being-in-the-world co-dependently and correlatively with the world, and yet does so as its own activity. [. . .] We may liken it to dreaming: when we dream, we live in correlatedness with the world of the dream and, through the phenomenal identity of dreamer and dream, keep the dream alive; but as soon as we become aware of this correlatedness, we have already awoken. (80-1)

Takeuchi extends this similitude of “dreaming” when discussing the consequences of a developed consciousness of “dependent origination”: “at the moment one awakens, the various sufferings that troubled the world of sleep are awakened to in the realization, ‘it was only a dream; I was sleeping’” (91). He proposes that the conditions for the construction of world and self “are only grasped in their primary sense when their essential determination is sought in terms of their extinction, when they are seen as past essences, as things that were.” The subject having awakened to the understanding that something which suffers—the subject, the self, personally and globally, as self or as deity—has originated through moribund desire, the practice of disassociation from such desire should cause, not a turn within that self, but a return to the world precisely as a universal suffering within which one need not be perturbed.

For Keiji Nishitani, this form of “conversion” is a key distinction between Buddhist and Christian responses to the nihility of secular life (its ultimate negation of its own ground for significance). Nishitani contrasts the Western responses of post-Christian figures such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, in which “nihilism is dealt with on the horizon of the so-called ‘history of being,’” with the Eastern response, in which a nihilistic crisis has not occurred (168). He argues that “the East has achieved a conversion from the standpoint of nihility to the standpoint of sunyata [or Emptiness, No-Thingness].” Rather than picture suffering as a disease or disorder within the individual, Nishitani’s Buddhism describes “the ‘sea of samsaric suffering,’ likening the world, with all its six ways and its unending turnover from one form of existence to another, to an unfathomable sea and identifying the essential Form of beings made to roll with its restless motion as suffering” (169). Thus, although “the nihilism of modern Europe […] could not help but awaken to itself as something pervaded by a Great Suffering,” Nishitani praises the Buddhist response which “goes a step beyond the existential self-awareness of suffering to speak of a ‘universal suffering’ where ‘All is suffering,’ and to recognize in suffering a basic principle.” In fact, Nishitani measures the post-Christian Western response to suffering in the person against Buddhist principles and suggests that “It might not be wide of the mark to suggest that Buddhism’s explanation of suffering as one of its Four Noble Truths—the ‘Truth about Suffering’—be regarded as an advance beyond the existential awareness of suffering to an existential interpretation […] of being-in-the-world.”

In other words, the Buddhism represented by Nishitani and Takeuchi affirms that suffering seen or experienced by the individual provides a hint toward a higher understanding, a re-interpretation of the cosmos from the standpoint of suffering. If suffering, whether by undesireable inflictions or unsatisfied desires, affects all things—and if death bounds every individual life within suffering—then suffering must be a more fundamental principle of sentient being than the pain and disease that bring it into consciousness. From this standpoint, the enlightenment for which the Buddha received that name is the belief, psychologically necessary and consistent with our humanity, that suffering is the reality of which particular individual thoughts, desires, concerns, lives, deaths, and discontents are the shadows. To perceive the world from the standpoint of all suffering would be, ironically, to cease to suffer any particular pains as any particular person. As a common Zen-inspired tea scroll says, “Nothing happens”; or rather, as the implied commentary says, “Things happen, but they happen to no one.”

One key problem for the Christian, of course, is that this brilliant psychological strategy seems to amount to an evacuation of Creation—if all sentient beings were to achieve this enlightenment, then the world as we know it would cease to be full of people. If we remember the four tentative principles we extracted from the language of time and suffering in 1 Peter 2, though, I believe we can speak to the necessity which inspires the Buddhist to seek the life of a Buddha precisely by affirming the nature of our suffering as such. Let me review those assertions, briefly:

  • The time of Creation (world history, the history of the cosmos) is contingent, not ultimate or definitive even for the cosmos.
  • Events within Creation time are more significantly ordered by God’s concern than by clock-and-calendar chronology.
  • God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons.
  • Because of God’s concern, humans also participate in changing significance of Creation time.

I believe these can be proposed to the Buddhist as an alternative response to the understanding of the universality of suffering. We may, for starters, accept the standpoint of all suffering as a profound expression of the reality of a fallen world, in which every sentient being suffers and is both actively (in actual sin) and complicitly (in original sin) a contributor to the suffering, even noting the very close correspondence of key Buddhist texts to the truth expressed in James 1:2-21. Verses 14-15 are especially on point: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (The language in James 4 about the origin of social conflict in spiritual conflict is also very helpful, here.)

We will not, however, propose a practice aimed at assuming the standpoint of all suffering, a “conversion” in which all things personal are taken to be shadows obliterated by one’s turning to see them. We know that, in the process of repentance and mortification by which we are conformed to Christ, we will come to exclaim with Paul that “I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ lives within me” (Gal 2:20). Yet we will find ourselves compelled to confess that God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons. Suffering, especially unjust suffering, not only stresses our sense of God’s justice and goodness; it also reinforces our understanding that, in giving good gifts, God is never concerned merely with our separate, inner, immanent happinesses. In Luke 18:1-8, in fact, Christ’s teaching that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart” deals not only with the participation of believers waiting for vindication in the divine economy of justice, but specifically affirms God’s own impatience on the subject: “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” This impatience to vindicate Himself and His people over against the violence of human sinfulness, and to bring an end to suffering, is also the proper theme of the language in Romans 9 concerning the “vessels of wrath, doomed to destruction,” which God “endured with much patience.” We are, as Peter says in his Epistle, to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation.” Vindication—itself the urgently personal defense of those who cry out for deliverance from suffering and injustice—waits because of the similarly urgent and personal desire of a God who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

Because God is concerned with relationships among divine and human persons, the “turn” for the Christian believer is not from a world of personal suffering to a world of suffering impersonally, but from a world of personal suffering to a world of suffering with Christ for others. This is the lesson of 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, especially “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. […] Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” The historic Christian affirmation of the communion of the saints reflects exactly this economy of suffering, proclamation, and intercession, which is also enacted in “the communion of the body of Christ.” As many other texts in Scripture teach, particularly those most concerned with communion (both as a sacrament and as koinonea in its manifold meanings in the Body Life), to become a believer in Christ and a follower of Christ is not to become merely a member of a voluntary organization for the promotion of common goals; it is to become part of a divinely managed historical order whose interrelations—like they myriad interrelations of your body and mine—are real in complex ways which defy our efforts to reduce them to manageable lists of principles, visions, or sociological constructs.
There is urgency to this understanding, however. For just as the Buddhist who realizes that laughter makes no sense when the whole world is burning must proceed to enlightenment or live in madness and misery, we must not leave our friend in possession of our understanding without awakening him to the whole timetable; the insistency of an divine and human interpersonal norm on an eventual righting and reckoning of things, and the choice that requires of those who realize it. In Romans 2:1-8, Paul reminds us of the right ordering of time once more, most pointedly when he asks, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

As I have said, these are not the final thoughts, nor the answers which make the questions stop, in this conversation. I do believe, though, that by focussing on the language concerning our participation with God in God’s long suffering as constitutive of the time during which we live, we will make ourselves available to Buddhist thinkers as interlocutors who—unlike the god-talking atheists who primarily represent Western and even “Christian” thought to East Asian intellectual historians—believe the language of the New Testament itself speaks directly to the concerns Buddhist teaching seeks to respond to. And that, at least, must be an enriching of our discourse with the very words of truth.

Timely Background Information

A lot of folks are not familiar with canon law, but knowing its background and grounding assumptions can really help you sift confusing matters:

THE OBLIGATIONS AND RIGHTS OF ALL THE CHRISTIAN FAITHFUL (Cann. 208 – 223)

Can. 208 From their rebirth in Christ, there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality regarding dignity and action by which they all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ according to each one’s own condition and function.

Can. 209 §1. The Christian faithful, even in their own manner of acting, are always obliged to maintain communion with the Church.
§2. With great diligence they are to fulfill the duties which they owe to the universal Church and the particular church to which they belong according to the prescripts of the law.

Can. 210 All the Christian faithful must direct their efforts to lead a holy life and to promote the growth of the Church and its continual sanctification, according to their own condition.

Can. 211 All the Christian faithful have the duty and right to work so that the divine message of salvation more and more reaches all people in every age and in every land.

Can. 212 §1. Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.
§2. The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.
§3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

Can. 213 The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments.

Can. 214 The Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescripts of their own rite approved by the legitimate pastors of the Church and to follow their own form of spiritual life so long as it is consonant with the doctrine of the Church.

Can. 215 The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes.

Can. 216 Since they participate in the mission of the Church, all the Christian faithful have the right to promote or sustain apostolic action even by their own undertakings, according to their own state and condition. Nevertheless, no undertaking is to claim the name Catholic without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority.

Can. 217 Since they are called by baptism to lead a life in keeping with the teaching of the gospel, the Christian faithful have the right to a Christian education by which they are to be instructed properly to strive for the maturity of the human person and at the same time to know and live the mystery of salvation.

Can. 218 Those engaged in the sacred disciplines have a just freedom of inquiry and of expressing their opinion prudently on those matters in which they possess expertise, while observing the submission due to the magisterium of the Church.

Can. 219 All the Christian faithful have the right to be free from any kind of coercion in choosing a state of life.

(source: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__PU.HTM)

Learning by Contraries

So let me dig back to 1999 for the first bit of Past Scholarship to post, here.

I will not be posting any links for this paper, and you won’t find it on any of my profiles or on my site (though if you search the Internet Archive you can find a *reference* to it).  I deliberately expurgated this document once I had matured enough to realize just how badly I had wandered into rank heresy in the middle of my explorations and controversies as I finished college.  This paper was originally titled “The Origin of Original Sin,” and was an attack on the Reformed understanding of Total Depravity that, in a terrible fit of overzealous argumentation, attempted to both attack that view as “too Catholic” and to demonstrate that there had been a swerve away from the true teaching that led to Augustine’s view of the subject.

As many of you will know was quite inevitable, I ended up having to start my criticism of what I mistakenly viewed as “corruption” in Church teaching with Justin Martyr, who was just barely too young to have known the last of Jesus’ own Apostles; and I more-or-less implicated almost all of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church that I knew of in the “corruption.”  Somewhere in that process, someone less steeped in an anti-Catholic tradition might have realized that an interpretation of the development of Christian doctrine that supposed the Church was almost wholly overtaken in serious error on chief points of faith well before the canon of Scripture was thoroughly stabilized–before the Trinity and the relationship of Christ’s human and divine natures could be clearly defined–proved far, far too much.

In fact, eventually I came to see that this was too audacious–and, finally, that it was self-refuting. My return to a concern for confessional orthodoxy from this brief but intense period of error and excess took only a couple of years; my ability to move away from the dilemma of choosing one error or another on these matters, however, took longer to develop. My doctoral dissertation, completed in 2009, contains in part an extended meditation on original sin that is the recantation of these errors and the completion of the process of understanding that began with this Spring 1999 Independent Study and the deep dive into the Fathers that it occasioned.

Concilio_Trento_Museo_Buonconsiglio.jpg

I’ve carefully chosen an excerpt that does show my interaction with Scripture and my discomfort with what I understood of Reformed theology (which at that point was mostly American conservative evangelicalism overtaken by Dordtian Calvinism, the “TULIP” variety). I have quite deliberately avoided passages which contain obvious heresies, because there is simply no point in letting those arguments surface.

Here, then, a brief selection from “The Origin of Original Sin,” a polemical historical theology work of 100+ pages completed for an Independent Study course with Dr. Brian Morley at The Master’s College:

Chapter six of Genesis records the corruption of the antediluvian civilization. As humanity multiplied and those who walked with God (“sons of God”) intermarried with others, “the LORD said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh'” (3). God here identifies the fact that sinful humanity is rapidly effacing the influence of His Spirit.[An alternate reading clarifies the action here: “the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not rule in man forever, in his going astray he is flesh” (NAS Gen 3:3 note) (emphasis added).] In keeping with His promise of an ultimate defeat for the serpent and a Redeemer for man, God averted the disaster of an total suppression of truth by destroying all humanity except righteous Noah, who “found favor in the eyes of the LORD” (8). By the time God spoke to Noah, He had allowed sin to run to its extremity: verse five records that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Had Noah not been “a righteous man, blameless in his time,” the entirety of creation would have been annihilated (6-9). This passage provides dramatic testimony to the universal sinfulness of mankind, and for the pervasive effects of Adam’s sin. Once again, however, it must be noted that nothing in the passage implies that the sins of the antediluvian world were an inevitable result of Adam’s sin. In fact, Enoch and Noah are identified, without prelude, as persons who “walked with God” (5:22, 6:9). Later Scripture testimony will clarify that even these men did sin, and that it was “by faith” that they were righteous (Heb 11:5-7). For now, it is sufficient to realize that their righteousness and daily walk with God are recorded about them as facts in their own right long before theories of imputation became popular.

In chapter fifteen of Genesis, the Lord (through Moses) records a simple statement which forms the cornerstone of Biblical soteriology. Paul and James center their demonstrations of man’s responsibility in salvation on the declaration that Abraham “believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (6). While Paul’s use of this verse in the Epistle to the Romans has made it a primary source of imputation theory, it should be noted that here, in its actual context, it is simply a statement of fact. God accounted Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Paul quotes this in the course of a proof that justification is by faith, apart from works of the Law. James quotes it in the course of a demonstration that faith is not passive but active in man—and that true faith produces a moral change which does eventuate in right action. In light of the teaching that the reckoning here is an artificial process, God recording Christ’s merit in the place of Abraham’s, it should be observed that there is no reason to believe that a just and truthful God keeps a double set of books. If God accounts faith in His promises as righteousness, that accounting must be intrinsically true; any difficulties in interpretation of later teaching must not be allowed to vitiate this premise.

One passage frequently used to bolster the Reformed view of original sin is a statement from the book of Job that “man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward” (5:7). Indeed, this passage does appear to bear on this view of man and God. Eliphaz claims to have heard in a vision, “Can mankind be just before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (4:17) The ensuing revelation portrays God as arbitrary and beyond all moral standards, and man as too lowly to understand God’s purposes. Eliphaz continues in this vein on his own, arguing that suffering is universal and that God reduces man to helplessness before He will help him. Job is given no solution except to hope that God will finish inflicting pain on him and begin to bless him again. That this is all in accord with the Reformed view of man’s total inability and God’s absolute and arbitrary sovereignty must be admitted; that it is truth must be denied, based on the context. This is a recording of a false teaching arrived at on the basis of a vision that is at best a delusion; quite probably, it is in fact a demonic deception. Eliphaz relates the source of his insight as follows:

Now a word was brought to me stealthily, And my ear received a whisper of it. Amid disquieting thoughts from the visions of the night, When deep sleep falls on men, Dread came upon me, and trembling, And made all my bones shake. Then a spirit passed by my face; The hair of my flesh bristled up. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance; A form was before my eyes; There was silence, then I heard a voice (4:12-16) (emphasis added).

Certainly, if one were to read this in a neutral context one would not class this as at all related to divine revelation; while God has used visions, there is no record of God revealing doctrine through nightmares! Some would appeal to the fact that Isaiah was troubled and trembled at the presence of God (Is 6:5). This can be readily dismissed, however; Eliphaz and his two friends are denounced as false teachers in the forty-second chapter of Job, where God says,

My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as my servant Job has . . . and My servant Job will pray for you . . . that I may not do with you [according to your] folly, because you have not spoken of Me what is right (7, 8).

Whatever the source of Eliphaz’s vision, it was not divine. The teaching he expounds so clearly, of the helplessness of man before the arbitrary sovereignty of God, is identified as falsehood by God Himself.

Not Hard to Refute the Canard

Would you believe it?  Earlier this year, I actually heard someone claim that “The Church never even had a position on abortion until the 1880s” while walking to sing in the choir at Mass!  This is just one of the mendacious arguments held by some who could know better, with just the tiniest amount of effort.

Here, let’s just put two simple and obvious texts–outside the Bible, in the Christian tradition, and before the Nicene Creed was formulated.  Just for starters.

Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not corrupt youth; thou shalt not commit fornication; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not use soothsaying; thou shalt not practise sorcery; thou shalt not kill a child by abortion, neither shalt thou slay it when born; thou shalt not covet the goods of thy neighbour;

(source: Didache)

People will frequently try to make something out of the difficulty faced by St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, in differentiating the crimes of contraception, abortion, and homicide clearly–given the lack of clear science on the early stages of human development.

But there is really no doubt that from the earliest days the Church not only condemned infanticide, but also the deliberately induced death of a child in the womb:

You shall not use magic. You shall not use witchcraft; for He says, You shall not suffer a witch to live. You shall not slay your child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten; for everything that is shaped, and has received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed. You shall not covet the things that belong to your neighbour, as his wife, or his servant, or his ox, or his field. You shall not forswear yourself; for it is said, You shall not swear at all. But if that cannot be avoided, you shall swear truly; for every one that swears by Him shall be commended. You shall not bear false witness; for he that falsely accuses the needy provokes to anger Him that made him.

(source: Apostolic Constitutions, Book VII)

So let’s just quit destroying justifying grace in our lives, and tempting others, on the verge of meeting Jesus, right?  And at any rate, let’s don’t use easily-refuted folly to do it.