April 14, 2017
A couple days ago, I awoke from my blogging slumber and gave an update. In this post, I want to discuss some of what I’ve been doing in my studies.
Je suis maintenant français. That’s what it feels like. I have been deeply immersed in modern French Catholic theology for the past several months. The immediate reason is when I discovered Henri Bouillard, as I wrote about last year. The extended reason goes back to my undergraduate thesis on Simone Weil and master’s thesis on John Henry Newman. There is a line of continuity in my intellectual and spiritual development, but that would take us too far afield for the purposes of this post. If you are familiar with Weil and Newman, namely their integration of knowledge and piety/discipline, then the continuity will be clear.
Bouillard expressed a mode of criticism toward Barth that I had been developing for quite some time in an ad hoc and unstructured way. Now I am attempting to make it more structured, more thematized and explicit. I am not there yet, so you should not expect too much now. This criticism is subjective in method and freely uses Kant to illumine our subjectivity as knowing agents and those who contribute, a priori, to the object that is known. This does not mean that Bouillard accepts everything of what Kant means when he writes, in the preface to the second edition of his first Critique, “we can cognize of things a priori only what we ourselves have put into them” (B xviii, trans. Guyer and Wood). Yet, this is a good statement of what Bouillard is doing in his criticism of Barth. How do we know that it is God who has revealed himself? It is we who know, which requires a method of criticism, whether Kant’s “transcendental apperception” or something else, and this cannot be elided or obfuscated underneath a rhetorical strategy of dogmatic origin.
For Bouillard, there are categories of understanding, to borrow again from Kant, that are pre-reflective and enable us to know God’s revelation. This is a true knowledge of the supernatural by reason proper, so it runs afoul of Kant eventually, and importantly. And the supernatural knowledge itself is not anything to which the subject is entitled by virtue of this capacity. Yet, it is a capacity nonetheless, and it is “natural” as far that goes. By the way, this is how Bouillard reconciles himself with the First Vatican Council’s Dei Filius, namely, “The same holy mother church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason: ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” The latter half is just quoting from the first chapter of Romans.
I am perhaps saying a bit more than Bouillard says, not least because my French is still a work in progress. As of late, I have been exploring the intellectual terrain in which Bouillard worked as a Jesuit from the Fourvière community in Lyon that included Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou. These were central figures in theological ressourcement in France and beyond, also dubbed pejoratively as “the new theology,” la nouvelle théologie, by old school Thomist detractors.
There are three names in particular that paved the way for the Fourvière Jesuits. They are Maurice Blondel, Pierre Rousselot, and Joseph Maréchal. The latter two were Jesuits from France and (French-speaking) Belgium respectively, whereas Blondel was a lay Catholic philosopher. In the most general of terms, we can describe them as interested in rethinking Christian belief in modernity, where modernity does not provide the “conditions” strictly speaking but, rather, opportunities. And this includes reappropriating the past, as in Rousselot’s groundbreaking study of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1908 and Bouillard’s Conversion et grâce chez saint Thomas d’Aquin in 1944. The opportunity at hand was to unearth the location of the will and the heart within reason, in both patristic and medieval theology. Thus, anthropology and theology proper must be integrated in some way. Nature is not entirely alien to grace. When we later come to Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, it is easy to discern their intellectual progenitors in Blondel, Rousselot, and Maréchal. This is true even when we distinguish their differences with someone like Karl Rahner, also influenced by all of the above, especially the fifth volume of Maréchal’s great work, Le point de départ de la métaphysique.
Blondel in particular has drawn my attention. Unfortunately, he is the most difficult of them all. If you think Barth is difficult, then you have no idea. In fact, this whole intellectual mileau is far more difficult, in my opinion, than that of Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, etc. The philosophical sophistication is surely a roadblock for many who come from an evangelical or other Protestant background that deals with “the Word” and “kerygma” more than the metaphysical distinctions of the whole shebang and at their most rigorous. I can sense that Blondel was doing, a hundred years ago, much of what I have been trying to do with my far more limited capacity. In the image above, you will notice that Bouillard wrote a book on Blondel.
I could continue talking about a dozen or more trajectories. There is scarcely anything in theology or philosophy of religion that is not impacted by these French debates in the first half of the 20th century and into the Second Vatican Council. I have not even mentioned Gilson and Maritain, both of whom add significantly to this whole discussion.
Bénédictions de Pâques!
April 12, 2017
It is long overdue for an update. For those who have followed the blog and interacted, I am sorry for the delay. There are personal reasons, not least of which is the death of my grandmother. She is pictured above, in a photograph which I scanned from an inherited box of photographs. This picture is from high school, but I am not sure which year.
My grandmother had a large role in my upbringing. She struggled in her final years in a way that was devastating to me. Her suffering for the past several years would have been unimaginable to most people. I could not possibly communicate her affliction, involving a series of debilitating strokes. In these final years, she was immobile for the most part and could not speak. She was ready to go. She was ready to die. There was solace in knowing that.
She was a skeptic of sorts. She questioned religious beliefs for nearly all of her adult life. All the while, she held a strong belief in the supernatural. It is hard to describe: she was on odd mixture of rationalism and spiritualism. Perhaps she embodied the philosophic spirituality of Spinoza plus folk religiosity. Or something of the sort.
She was not a normal grandmother, especially from the low country of South Carolina. She went to college and graduate school in the 70’s, acquiring a degree in clinical psychology. My childhood involved frequent trips from Charlotte to Columbia. She worked for the state in the rehabilitation of maladjusted folks, those in and out of the system. She was never a typical academic or feminist, even while she was both in her own way.
I hope that I inherited her best qualities: kindness, sympathy, curiosity, and a love for learning. I owe her more than I will ever know.
In a follow-up post, I will provide an update on my current status, intellectual and spiritual, as far as I am able!
September 4, 2016
“We do not enter into a different domain when we move from the glorious unicity and uniqueness of God to His life as Trinity. We remain within the supercelestial and majestic reality of the true and living God.”
— Katherine Sonderegger
I am finally reading Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology. It has taken long enough, I know, especially considering all the buzz surrounding this volume and the fact that this website is dedicated to promoting dogmatics. In my defense, I have been studying Henri Bouillard and doing quite a bit of research on the analogia entis in Catholic-Protestant dialog. This includes reading Erich Przywara’s massive and dense Analogia Entis, which is not for the faint of heart.
Professor Sonderegger’s projected three-volume systematic theology is poised to be one of the most significant dogmatic projects in this century. The significance may be found, in part, in how it signals a new shift in contemporary dogmatics. She is fully aware of this.
In the course of presenting her doctrine of God, Sonderegger is frequently engaged with modern theology by way of distinguishing her own commitments. Modern theology — namely, 19th and 20th century theology — is characterized by a turn toward the human, which is to say, toward epistemology and history. Herein, we are familiar with categories such as “act,” “event,” “encounter,” “narrative,” “story,” and other dynamic terms that focus on the economic side of God’s life, i.e., his life with man. This is in contrast to the premodern categories derived from an eternal and perfect order of being — the metaphysical and speculative.
She is not satisfied with modern theology. For whatever gains, there were tremendous losses. For this first volume in her systematics, she is focused on recovering the oneness of God, indeed as a starting point. But she grounds and articulates this “unicity” of God by way of exegesis, especially Old Testament exegesis. Thus, even divine revelation is the provenance of the metaphysical and speculative, not just act and narrative. Also, she is not interested, as far as I can see, in apologetics, which has been so often associated with classical metaphysics. For these reasons, it is not easy to categorize Sonderegger vis-à-vis “modern” theology. She is a mixture of the classical and the modern.
I highly recommend that you watch her lecture on the Trinity at Biola University, delivered earlier this year:
For those of us who have studied John Webster, you will be immediately struck at how Sonderegger’s and Webster’s projects aligned. Webster had long been moving in the exact same direction as Sonderegger, namely the recovery of God’s perfection — a perfection understood in metaphysical terms (with “aseity” first and foremost). Even her exalted prose is very close to that of Webster. So, it is surprising that she does not utilize Webster’s work in her Systematic Theology, at least not in this first volume. Nonetheless, I assume that Webster was extremely heartened by this work and satisfied with its contribution to theology.
Here are some excerpts that I have transcribed from the above lecture. The minute marks are in parenthesis:
We do not enter into a different domain when we move from the glorious unicity and uniqueness of God to His life as Trinity. We remain within the supercelestial and majestic reality of the true and living God. Every element that we bring to the knowledge of the one God — our seeking Him because He first sought us, our turning to Him in penury and need, our beseeching His presence in our intellect and on our tongues, His utter humility and goodness, His unbroken serenity and freedom, His glorious riding on the wings of the wind — all of this we bring into our investigation of the Triune mystery. (11′-12′)
She uses Moltmann as her sparing partner.
Moltmann holds not only the Trinity is the proper and Christian doctrine of God but also that such a doctrine cannot in our era be speculative — that shame word of Protestant dogmatics. We might associate this move with the great name of Karl Barth, but I must say that I read the Swiss master otherwise. But in Moltmann, perhaps in a radical reading of Barth or the Reformed tradition, this anti-speculative move breaks out as a fever. He insists that we are to focus on the economy…. Moltmann makes a strong moral claim: a theology after Aushwitz cannot afford to speculate on a God remote from the tormented world of victim and persecutor. (16′-17′)
If you want a good example of how she reads Karl Barth, I recommend her essay, “Barth and the Divine Perfections” (SJT, Nov 2014).
This modern preoccupation with the doctrine of revelation, a legacy I fear more of the early modern turn to epistemology and humanistic fields than to unstinting devotion to the biblical witness — this has led us, I say, into a comfortable confusion about just what biblical revelation entails. …The [modern] doctrine of revelation temps us to imagine, that is, that the God of the economy is known and the God of the immanent Trinity is hidden, unknown, utterly transcendent. (20′-21′)
We cannot hope to obey the most ancient of injunctions about proper knowledge of God should our quest begin in violation of the divine unicity — even conceptually. That is why a starting point in the economic Trinity can only be a dead end. (33′)
That should give you an adequate taste of the lecture. The next day, she delivered another lecture at Biola: “The Theological Task and Human Well-Being.” This is more personal and autobiographical, with lots of wisdom.
August 23, 2016
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, France
(Photograph: June 2016, Kevin Davis)
In seventeenth century France, the future of the Catholic Church in the modern world was being decided. It was decided in a decades-long debate about grace — a highly technical debate. On one side were the Jansenists, the passionate disciples of St. Augustine. On the other side were the Jesuits, the “modernizers” who were moving away from the strict, dualist, ascetic theology of Augustine and, therefore, of much of the Western Church until their own day.
According to Leszek Kolakowski, this debate on grace, which is to say how Creator and creature relate, was decisive for how the Catholic Church could exist in modernity. The Jesuits won, and therefore Augustine lost. Is not Augustine a saint and a doctor of the Church? Yes. Nonetheless, in the Jansenist controversy the Church condemned Augustine’s teaching on grace: grace as effectual and sufficient, electing and without cooperation. For Augustine and the Jansenists, unbaptized infants go to hell. Most people go to hell, for the way is narrow and only a few are chosen to receive salvation — as the Jansenists soberly taught.
For Kolakowski, the Church condemned Augustine’s teaching on grace and became modern. This is a provocative thesis, and you can find it in Kolakowski’s God Owes Us Nothing. It is the sort of book that will elicit a strong reaction, from both historian and theologian alike. I could hardly put it down. I will try to explain his analysis further, but first a bit about the author.
Kolakowski (1927-2009) was a Polish philosopher who is best known for Main Currents of Marxism (three volumes), Modernity on Endless Trial, Metaphysical Horror, and The Presence of Myth. Additionally he produced a wide range of essays, many of which are gathered in the posthumous collection, Is God Happy?
The gist of his biography is that he was an ardent Marxist early in his career but gradually became one of its most capable critics. As a result, he lost his job at Warsaw University in the late 60’s. Most of his academic life was spent at Oxford University and the University of Chicago. His interest as a philosopher was in the history of ideas, which surely owes much to his early training in Hegel and Marx. His mature work was heavily dominated by an interest in religious matters, as he became a sympathetic interpreter of Christianity — with an openness to metaphysical questions. He became friends with John Paul II, as they were both important figures in the Polish Solidarity movement. But Kolakowski never became a Christian believer, except perhaps in his own idiosyncratic way.
The Jansenist Controversy
God Owes Us Nothing is divided into two parts. The first part, which is slightly longer than half the book, is “Why Did the Catholic Church Condemn the Teaching of Saint Augustine?” This is what we will be looking at. The second part is a study of Pascal, the most famous of Jansenists, and his religious beliefs.
Kolakowski spends several pages discussing the doctrinal details in the dispute, looking closely at the source material especially on the Jansenist side. The Jansenists believed that they were faithfully upholding the Church’s ancient teaching, which they identified with St. Augustine, while also trying to distance themselves from the Calvinists. They believed that the Jesuits were bringing Pelagian heresy into the Church.
Kolakowski agrees that the Jansenists were upholding the teaching of Augustine on grace, but:
The Jesuits were no less right in demonstrating the fundamental conformity of Jansenist tenets with Calvin’s theory of predestination. This amounts to saying that Calvin was, on this point, a good Augustinian and that, by condemning Jansenius, the Church was in effect condemning — without, of course, stating it explicitly — Augustine himself, its own greatest theological authority. (5)
Therefore, the Jansenists were also correct to say that the Jesuits were semi-Pelagian. Unfortunately for the Jansenists, Rome sided with the Jesuits. Kolakowski looks closely at each of the five condemned propositions in Pope Innocent X’s bull, Cum occasione, promulgated in 1653 and directed at Jansenius’ Augustinus. If I may attempt to summarize Kolakowski’s analysis, it all comes down to whether grace is sufficient and not merely necessary. All sides agreed that grace is necessary, but Jansenius argued that grace after the Fall must be sufficient and efficacious. “Both Augustine and Jansenius seem unambiguous on this point; once God wishes that a man do good, his will cannot be frustrated, his grace cannot be resisted” (15). By the way, Kolakowski interprets Aquinas as being ambiguous on this, though leaning toward Augustine (see 39-42).
If you are familiar with Calvinist discussions on these matters, then much of this will be familiar to you. So, for example, Augustine argued (and the Jansenists followed suit) that efficient grace is not incompatible with free will, so long as the will is understood as not coerced but freely desirous. We are empowered by efficacious grace to do that which we are otherwise unable to do, i.e, the good. Even though by grace you choose necessarily to will the good, you do it freely because God has liberated you to do so. Kolakowski explains Augustine thus: “Indeed, whatever it is in our power to do, is done freely; therefore free will is perfectly compatible with the action of efficient grace: it is grace which allows our will freely to will that and not this” (19). Apart from grace, we necessarily sin, and any good can only be attributed to grace.
In this Augustinian-Jansenist understanding, there can be no thought of cooperation between God and his creature. Otherwise, the merit for any good in a person would have to be partly attributed to the person. If the person can thwart grace, then the overcoming of sin must be partly God’s will and partly the person’s will. God no longer receives all the praise and glory. Kolakowski frequently highlights the all-or-nothing attitude of the Jansenists. The Jesuits elevate man in an intolerable way for the Jansenist. For their part, the Jesuits were appalled at the Jansenist understanding of a God who condemns on the basis alone of justice without regard to mercy or love. Grace is universal and given to all, which the Jansenists believed undermined the particularity of the Christian faith, which is to say Christianity itself.
Kolakowski also deals with the other related matters of double predestination and “for whom did Christ die?” But we need not spend time detailing all of that. The social-ecclesial consequence for the Jansenist is that the Christian life is one of rigor. While the logic may lead to indifference, the opposite is the case (as with the Calvinists). “Far from justifying passivity, indifference, or moral sloppiness, double predestination is well designed to encourage militancy. It is the ideology of a sect of warriors” (35). If you are chosen, then you are confident. And much of this rigor has to do with the signs of election expected in the believer, namely charity and humility. Unlike the more lenient Jesuit attitude toward penitents and their reception of the Eucharist, the Jansenists were far more rigorous.
The Modern World
Thanks to Pascal’s best-selling Provincial Letters, the Jesuit image of being morally lax was cemented in the popular consciousness. Casuistry would be associated with the Jesuits for a long time. While Pascal’s work was obviously biased and probably dubious in many of its more comical accounts of Jesuit casuistry, it was not entirely baseless. Indeed, the Vatican even stepped-in to denounce the methods found among certain Jesuits.
Kolakowski sees something important here. The Jesuits were striving to accommodate to the weakness of their penitents, who included much of the educated and ruling classes. “The Jesuits operated in the upper layers of society, infected by a spirit of modernity of which some aspects could appear irreversible” (46). You could say that the Jesuits were sensitive to their limitations. Their pastoral approach was founded upon a belief that “impulses and desires could, if properly guided, conduce to good…a spiritual adviser or confessor, in order to mend a sinner’s ways, should accompany him as far as feasible, show understanding for, and even solidarity with, his weaknesses and thereby direct him step by step towards virtue” (46). That is the Jesuit way, and (by the way) it is the Pope Francis way, the first Jesuit pope and “the pope of mercy.”
The Jesuits thereby represented an adaptation toward the peculiar features of modern life. Their capacity to do so is rooted in the Jesuit’s more modern understanding of human nature, moral value, and freedom of the will. Thereby, the Jesuits were fit to take the Catholic Church into this new era of the modern world. “What was at stake was the adaptation of Christianity to a new civilization that had been developing and maturing, surreptitiously, for several centuries. The Liberum arbitrium was one of its important instruments of self-expression, starting with Abelard” (47).
The Augustinian understanding of grace was no longer feasible, not only because it is difficult to believe in the Augustinian doctrine of double predestination and infants going to hell (with pagans), though that is certainly difficult! Kolakowski highlights the practical difference between the Jansenists and the Jesuits. The Jansenists reserved grace for the elect few and for reasons that are wholly unintelligible, theological or otherwise. The Jesuits instead sought to lead all people to God “who is really merciful — that is to say lenient — and understands human weakness. …God is so lavish in distributing his gifts, and nobody is left helpless by him…” (58-59).
Speaking broadly, the difference between the Jansenists and the Jesuits is about how they perceive the gulf, or lack thereof, between God and the world or the supernatural and the natural. For the Jesuit, there is harmony; for the Jansenist, there is crisis! That’s too simplistic, of course, but it helps to understand their basic orientation. Kolakowski puts it this way:
To the Molinists [i.e., Jesuits], unilateral successors of Renaissance humanism, the divine is a familiar environment, almost an extension of the cosy world of experience; grace is just there, omnipresent, and our natural skills are there to manipulate it properly to our benefit and God’s satisfaction. In the world thus arranged life is basically pleasant. For the Jansenists (and the Calvinists, for that matter) there is a terrifying abyss between nature and the divine, and there is no way we could breach the gap by relying on the resources of our incurably corrupt and rebellious nature. The abyss is ontological, moral, and cognitive. (66)
Kolakowski frequently describes the Jansenists as “reactionaries,” in the sense that the modern set of assumptions propagated by the Jesuits was anathema to their basic way of thinking about God and the Christian faith. To their mind, if the Jesuits win, then Christianity is lost. And that is what the Catholic Church chose, because the Jesuits won. To the Jesuit, if the Jansenists won, then the Church would have lost.
Like I said, this is a provocative thesis. It is surely prone to be attacked. Even if you agree with some parts of his analysis, you may disagree with other parts. I think Kolakowski is strongest when he is doing analysis of the texts, and I agree with his interpretation of Augustine and Jansenism on grace. There is indeed a sense in which the Catholic Church rejected Augustine when it rejected Jansenism. Whether this is a good or bad thing, vis-à-vis modernity, is another question. And whether modernity (never clearly defined) is the driving cause or impetus for the Church’s rejection of Jansenism is another question.
Kolakowski actually tries to avoid making value judgments about who was right. He writes at the end of the preface, “The present author’s sympathies and antipathies are divided when he reflects on the conflict between Jesuit modernizers and Jansenist reactionaries. ‘So miserable is human destiny that the lights which deliver man from one evil throw him into another’ (Pierre Bayle).”
July 16, 2016
Greetings, y’all. This blog has been on a hiatus for the past three months. I hope to resume regular blogging at some point. In the meantime, I want to continue with one of this site’s features: “Recent books of interest.” Herein, we take a look at recently released and soon-to-be released books in theology. Click here for the previous installment.
The titles are organized according to church affiliation and theological tradition, which is an imperfect means of identification for many. Please notify me of any errors, as well as any recommendations.
It is safe to say that the new edition of Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith will be the most anticipated release of the year. According to the publisher, “Employing shorter sentences and more careful tracking of vocabulary, the editors have crafted a translation that is significantly easier to read and follow.”
Riches, Aaron, Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ (Eerdmans)
Rausch, Thomas, S.J., Systematic Theology: A Roman Catholic Approach (Michael Glazier)
Bauerschmidt, Frederick Christian, Catholic Theology: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell)
Furnal, Joshua, Catholic Theology after Kierkegaard (Oxford University Press)
Porro, Pasquale, Thomas Aquinas: A Historical and Philosophical Profile (Catholic University of America Press)
Davies, Brian, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles: A Guide and Commentary (Oxford University Press)
Slattery, William J., Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Built Western Civilization (Ignatius Press)
Foster, Reginaldus Thomas , Ossa Latinitatis Sola (Catholic University of America Press)
McCosker, Philip and Denys Turner, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Summa Theologiae (Cambridge University Press)
Lamb, Matthew L., ed., Theology Needs Philosophy: Acting Against Reason is Contrary to the Nature of God (Catholic University Press of America)
Pinckaers, Servais, O.P., The Spirituality of Martyrdom: to the Limits of Love (Catholic University of America Press)
Reno, R. R., Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society (Regnery) – editor of First Things
Lehner, Ulrich L., On the Road to Vatican II: German Catholic Enlightenment and Reform of the Church (Fortress Press)
Williams, Rowan, On Augustine (Bloomsbury Continuum)
Radner, Ephraim, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans)
Radner, Ephraim, A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life (Baylor University Press)
Scruton, Roger and Mark Dooley, Conversations with Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury Continuum)
Scruton, Roger, The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (Allen Lane)
Schleiermacher, Friedrich, Christian Faith (Terrence N. Tice and Catherine L. Kelsey, eds., WJK Press)
Long, D. Stephen, The Perfectly Simple Triune God: Aquinas and His Legacy (Fortress Press)
Hinlicky, Paul R., Divine Simplicity: Christ the Crisis of Metaphysics (Baker Academic)
Insole, Christopher J., The Intolerable God: Kant’s Theological Journey (Eerdmans)
Dillard, Peter S., Non-Metaphysical Theology After Heidegger (Palgrave Macmillan)
Kreglinger, Gisela H., The Spirituality of Wine (Eerdmans)
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom (IVP Academic)
Noll, Mark and Thomas Albert Howard, Protestantism after 500 Years (Oxford University Press)
Moyse, Ashley John, ed., et al., Correlating Sobornost: Conversations between Karl Barth and the Russian Orthodox Tradition (Fortress Press)
Vance, J. D., Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper)
Kienzle, Rich, The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones (Dey Street Books)
May 26, 2016
As most of my readers are aware, John Webster passed away yesterday. He was 60 years old. There are already some very fine pieces written in remembrance of this extraordinary theologian. Steve Holmes, Fred Sanders, Travis McMaken, Mark Thomson, and many others have offered their reflections, which also serve as nice little introductions to Webster’s theology.
Webster held the Chair of Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen (pictured above) when I was there in the M.Th. program. For the past few years, he has been at St. Andrews. I do not have much to add to what has already been written, but I am fortunate to have sat under the teaching of Professor Webster. His course on “Principles of Systematic Theology” was inspiring and overwhelming, especially for someone still wet behind the ears in academic theology as I was. Webster was always incredibly kind and gracious. I wrote a paper for him on P. T. Forsyth, and he had some encouraging things to say.
Just as Barth did for his generation, Webster reminded us of theology’s peculiar joy and beauty. The expression that will be forever associated with Webster is “theological theology,” as Mark Thomson has written about in his remembrance. Theology as a rigorous discipline has an integrity of its own, so far as it is faithful to its object: God. As I have often recommended to others, there are two books from Webster which should be required reading for all students of theology: Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. The former is the single best introduction to Webster’s whole approach to theology, and the latter is probably his most influential book, at least among his many students.
Back in December of 2008, I wrote a post called, “The Ontology of Grace.” Therein, I offer some brief reflections in comparing Webster and Balthasar. It is remarkable how much my interests and questions have remained. I also recommend watching his 2009 Hayward Lectures, which are still available!
We can thank the Lord for giving the Church the gift of John Webster, a faithful servant in his kingdom. May God bless his soul.
May 14, 2016
“In an astonishing way he too is very much d’accord with me. He is another one who wants to introduce me into Roman Catholic theology rather like a Trojan horse, but he also has his own critical little coda.”
— Karl Barth
Henri Bouillard (1908-1981) was a French Catholic theologian and professor of theology at l’Institut Catholique de Paris. Alongside his fellow Jesuits, Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, and his colleague in Paris, Louis Bouyer, Henri Bouillard was a leading figure within the movement known as la nouvelle théologie or ressourcement. During the early years of suspicion surrounding this movement, Bouillard was dismissed from la Faculté de Théologie de Lyon – Fourvière in 1950. The fruit of his first doctoral dissertation, Conversion et grace chez S. Thomas D’Aquin, was published in 1944 and roused controversy from the then dominant neoscholastic theologians and influential prelates.
He moved to Paris, where he began work on a second doctorate, awarded by the Sorbonne. The result was the three volume Karl Barth, published in 1957 by Éditions Aubier-Montaigne in Paris. According to Grover Foley, this dissertation was “the first at the Sorbonne ever allowed to be written about a living author.” The oral defense was “the cultural and religious event of the year” according to the theology journal, Bijdragen, in a 1958 issue (see Foley, “The Catholic Critics of Karl Barth,” SJT, June 1961, 145).
Karl Barth was in attendance, having traveled with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr from Basel. Eberhard Busch recounts the event in his biography of Barth. The endnotes are in brackets:
In the middle of June 1956 Barth went with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Frau Adrienne Kaegi-von Speyr to Paris. There they were to take part in ‘the doctoral examination of a Jesuit’, Père Henri Bouillard, ‘who had written 1200 pages about me. He was cross-examined about me for five hours (at the Sorbonne), and then we celebrated in a Chinese restaurant’ [letter to Heinrich Vogel, 5 September 1956]. This viva-voce examination ‘was an extraordinary event, in that the “subject” of such a thesis should not really be still alive. That I was in fact very much alive and even there in person made the whole proceedings very tense, but also added a great deal of merriment’ [Charlotte von Kirschbaum to Karl Gerhard Steck, 5 July 1956]. Bouillard was another of those Catholics in whom Barth discovered a surprising affinity to his own thought…’In an astonishing way he too is very much d’accord with me. He is another one who wants to introduce me into Roman Catholic theology rather like a Trojan horse, but he also has his own critical little coda. Unlike Hans Urs von Balthasar, however, in this case it is not some holy little Thérèse or Elizabeth, but a transcendental ontologie de la foi, agreed criteria of a Kantian character. Still…there is much to suggest that I have another chance of becoming a kind of Catholic church father in partibus infidelium‘ [letter to his sons, 14 September 1953].
(Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 421)
I cannot imagine having Barth sitting in the audience while defending your thesis on Barth! Oscar Cullmann was one of the examiners.
Bouillard’s three volumes were never translated into English. However, you can find some translations of important sections. Parts from volume two and volume three were translated and published as an article for the spring issue of Cross Currents in 1968. The title of the article is “A Dialogue with Barth: The Problem of Natural Theology” by Henri Bouillard. This article combines the introduction for volume two and “Le problème de la théologie naturelle,” a section in chapter two of the third volume. Also, in 1967 Bouillard published portions of his Karl Barth in a single volume of less than 200 pages, Connaissance de Dieu, which was translated the following year and with the same title, The Knowledge of God. So, these are the two places where you can find some of Bouillard’s work on Barth in English.
Bouillard’s Critique of Barth
Barth refers to Bouillard’s transcendental “ontology of faith” and its “Kantian character.” Bouillard believes that the possibility of natural theology is necessary. As a possibility, this refers not to actual knowledge but, rather, to the “transcendental condition” necessary for any knowledge of God to happen at all. Without this transcendental condition, which corresponds to our being made in the image of God, our faith in God would be arbitrary. “It is not enough to appeal to a miracle of revelation or grace, which takes hold of our intellect and subdues it. Immediately the question rebounds: how can we know that our faith is the result of a miracle, that is to say of God’s action, and that it is not simply an arbitrary human act?” (“A Dialogue with Barth,” 218). Here is the final paragraph in the article:
As we have seen, if Vatican I judges it necessary to define the possibility of a natural knowledge of God, it is because this possibility constitutes the foundation of Christian faith. To be sure, the objective basis for the possibility of faith resides in divine revelation. But the subjective basis of this possibility resides necessarily in us; otherwise it would not be our certitude. The possibility of natural knowledge of God is the transcendental condition for the knowledge of faith. But, in strict terms, to identify a transcendental state is not to practice abstraction; rather it is to make a reflection. When Catholic teaching affirms the possibility of a natural knowledge of God as the beginning and end of all things, it does not really make an abstraction of God’s action, at the expense of His being in general and in abstracto. It separates, by an act of reflection, the radical condition that certain knowledge of this God is possible to us. It does not claim, as Barth seems to believe, that natural knowledge must necessarily temporally precede knowledge of faith; rather it maintains that natural knowledge of God is necessarily implied by virtue of man’s status as a rational being. By identifying this state and drawing our attention to it, Catholic doctrine is not creating an idol which it then identifies with the God of the Church; on the contrary, it makes explicit the internal condition by means of which one can find this “God” of the idols and acknowledge Him without lowering Him to the level of an idol.
(Henri Bouillard, “A Dialogue with Barth: The Problem of Natural Theology,” trans. Gerard Farley, Cross Currents, Spring 1968, 226)
That is where the article ends, unfortunately, just when you are excited to read more! If you look at volume three, from which this excerpt is taken, Bouillard continues for several more pages.
Based on these translated portions alone, it is not clear exactly what Bouillard considers to be, as he writes earlier in the article, “the judicatory principle which would permit us to establish in truth the recognition of divine revelation in history” (218). Grover Foley likens it to Bultmann and Schleiermacher (Foley, ibid., 146-147). Bouillard is striving to articulate the way in which we know it is indeed God who we know in faith. This means that there must be some correspondence between God and ourselves, in our capacity to know that this is God who is being known. Any precondition of this sort is rejected by Barth.
That should spark your interest in Henri Bouillard.
Hans Küng in Paris
On a final note, it is worth mentioning that Hans Küng was also in attendance at Bouillard’s defense. Küng recounts it in his memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom. Küng feels that he was slighted by Bouillard when they were both in Paris working on Barth’s theology and even claims that Bouillard was “jealous” of the younger student (p. 129). Henri de Lubac defended Bouillard against Küng’s criticisms (Dokumente 14 , 448-454). Rudolf Voderholzer writes:
[Küng] had first accepted help from Bouillard while writing his 1957 doctoral thesis on Karl Barth, but one year later he severely and a bit condescendingly criticized his mentor’s interpretation of Barth. In his study of Barth, which took a very favorable view of the Protestant theologian, Küng had tried to prove, from just a few passages, that Barth was advocating a position, in regard to the doctrine of justification, that is acceptable to Catholics. Bouillard’s perspective was more differentiated and skeptical, and of course Küng accused it of hampering the ecumenical movement.
(Rudolf Voderholzer, Meet Henri de Lubac: His Life and Work, 81)
For what it’s worth, First Things had a scathing review of Küng’s memoirs: “At age seventy-five, Catholicism’s best-known theological dissenter has published a memoir that is an unmitigated embarrassment. The vulgarity of the author’s self-aggrandizement is breathtaking, the viciousness toward those who disagree with him deeply saddening.” I have no idea if Küng’s grievances toward Bouillard are legitimate, but he is not successful at hiding his self-regard in recounting the events.
Here are a couple more images (click to enlarge):
On the left is the nihil obstat and imprimatur. On the right is the dedication to Fr. Henri de Lubac “in gratitude and affection.”
April 26, 2016
This has been a good year so far.
There is a lot of junk on country radio, but there are significant bright spots as well. Chris Stapleton continues his unprecedented dominance — routinely topping the country album charts and receiving almost every award in which he is qualified to receive, whether from the Country Music Association (CMA) or the Academy of Country Music (ACM). He is sweeping them all! Thank you, Jesus!
In the list below, you will hear some of my favorite songs right now. We have two representatives of the great state of California: Jon Pardi and Sam Outlaw. I love both, but I am especially fond of Sam Outlaw. Texas native, Maren Morris, is a strong female vocalist with a fine sense of what’s good and how to make it even more good. Tim McGraw reminds us how to mature as an artist, with incredible dignity and grace. I love the guy. Chris Stapleton releases his first music video, “Fire Away,” about bipolar disorder and suicide. Craig Campbell has released his new single, “Outskirts of Heaven,” which is remarkably similar to Kip Moore’s “Dirt Road.” Both songs are about how heaven is not clouds and white walls. Instead, heaven is a lot like Dixie (with an implicit shout-out to Hank Jr.).
Granger Smith has released his first #1 single, “Backroad Song,” which somehow manages to elevate itself above the bro-country landscape. On a more serious side, Dan + Shay’s “From the Ground Up” is a heartwarming look at life-long fidelity between a husband and wife. This is a surprisingly mature theme from the young duo, even if the song is perhaps overly sentimental. Finally, Frankie Ballard has released his best single to country radio: “It All Started with a Beer.”
I hope you enjoy. With each video, I have provided some of the lyrics.
“Head Over Boots,” Jon Pardi
The way you sparkle like a diamond ring
Maybe one day we can make it a thing
Test time and grow old together
Rock in our chairs and talk about the weather, yeah
“My Church,” Maren Morris
When Hank brings the sermon / And Cash leads the choir
It gets my cold, cold heart burnin’ / Hotter than a ring of fire
When this wonderful world gets heavy / And I need to find my escape
I just keep the wheels rollin’, radio scrollin’ / ‘Til my sins wash away
“Angeleno,” Sam Outlaw
She didn’t marry for money / A cowboy’s always broke
She didn’t marry for comfort / A cowboy’s never home
But when she looked in his eyes / She saw his soul
Stretchin’ out like a desert / Angeleno
“Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw
Let yourself feel the pride but / Always stay humble and kind
Don’t expect a free ride from no one
Don’t hold a grudge or a chip and here’s why
Bitterness keeps you from flyin’ / Always stay humble and kind
“Fire Away,” Chris Stapleton
Honey, load up your questions
And pick up your sticks and your stones
And pretend I’m a shelter for heartaches that don’t have a home
Choose the words that cut like a razor
“Outskirts of Heaven,” Craig Campbell
Lord when I die / I wanna live on the outskirts of Heaven
Where there’s dirt roads for miles / Hay in the fields and fish in the river
Where there’s dogwood trees and honey bees / And blue skies and green grass forever
Lord when I die / I wanna live on the outskirts of Heaven
“Backroad Song,” Granger Smith
Barbed wire fence carving out a hillside
Cutting holes in the midday sun
Like a postcard framed in a windshield
Covered in dust
“From the Ground Up,” Dan + Shay
Grandma and grandpa painted a picture
Of 65 years and one little house
More than a memory, more than saying I do
Kiss you goodnight’s and I love you’s
Me and you baby, walk in the footsteps
Build our own family, one day at a time
Ten little toes, a painted pink room
Our beautiful baby looks just like you
“It All Started with a Beer,” Frankie Ballard
Cursed the devil and prayed to heaven
Lost it all and we rolled some sevens
Been more smiles than there’s been tears
Been more good than bad years
Ain’t it crazy baby how we got here
Oh, it all started with a beer
April 18, 2016
“Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality.”
— Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism
Kuyper’s defense of Calvinism in relation to art is rather bold. I strongly disagree with him. Nonetheless, it is stimulating.
Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism is something of a classic in Reformed literature. Delivered as the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in October of 1898, they were published the following year jointly by Höveker & Wormser in Amsterdam, T&T Clark in Edinburgh, and Fleming H. Revell in New York. I will be following the pagination of that edition, freely available.
The fifth lecture is dedicated to art. As with each lecture, Kuyper is committed to showing how Calvinism is superior to all other belief systems, whether that of Rome on the one hand or Liberalism, both Protestant and secular, on the other hand. As Kuyper sees it, Rome’s sacerdotalism replaces God with the Church, and Liberalism’s pantheism replaces God with nature and man’s spirit. Calvinism is, you guessed it, the only consistent system that allows God to be God. The lectures are highly rhetorical.
Calvinism did not develop an art style of its own, and that is a good thing according to Kuyper. Instead, Calvinism liberated art to follow its own principles. That is the gist of Kuyper’s argument. I am not convinced that he succeeds, but it is a fairly sophisticated argument. I will do my best to present it, along with a generous amount of quotations.
His argument follows a historical analysis of civilization’s progress. In the lower stage of man’s development, art and religion were inextricably woven together. “Scarcely a single art-style can be mentioned which did not arise from the center of divine worship and which did not seek the realization of its ideals in the sumptuous structure for that worship” (195). This a noble thing, according to Kuyper. Nonetheless, “If, however, it can be shown that this alliance of religion and art represents a lower stage of religious, and in general of human development, then it is plain, that in this very want of a special architectural style, Calvinism finds an even higher recommendation” (195). That is what Kuyper aims to prove for the rest of the lecture.
What is most remarkable is that Kuyper locates the greatest artistic achievements, specifically architectural, in this “lower stage.” This includes the Pantheon in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St. Peter’s Basilica, Cologne Cathedral, et al. I have to admit that it takes some guts to relegate these to a “lower stage”! All of these edifices represent a time when art was beholden to religion. For Kuyper, that is the primitive alliance from which Calvinism set us free. He weaves his discussion of artistic liberation with political liberation:
First then the aesthetic development of divine worship carried to those ideal heights of which the Parthenon and the Pantheon, the Saint Sophia and Saint Peter are the stone-embroidered witnesses, is only possible at that lower stage, in which the same form of religion is imposed upon a whole nation, both by prince and priest. In that case every difference of spiritual expression fuses into one mode of symbolical worship, and this union of the masses, under the leadership of the magistrate and the clergy, furnishes the possibility of defraying the immense expense of such colossal structures, and of ornamenting and decorating them. In the case, however, of a progressive development of the nations, when individual character-traits split the unity of the masses, Religion also rises to that higher plain where it graduates from the symbolical into the clearly-conscious life, and thereby necessitates both the division of worship into many forms, and the emancipation of matured religion from all sacerdotal and political guardianship. (196)
More than Lutheranism, as Kuyper continues, it is Calvinism that fully freed us from this “sacerdotal and political guardianship.” It is striking to me how much weight Kuyper places upon this matter of “guardianship,” whether civil or ecclesiastic. It is integral to his conception of Calvinism’s greatest value — freedom — including in the realm of art. Perhaps Kuyper’s disciples will disagree with me that “freedom” is Calvinism’s greatest value, but it is on nearly every page of this volume! It is at the heart of his rhetorical strategy.
For Kuyper, we have moved from a primitive to a mature stage in human development. It is in the primitive stage that symbolic forms are necessary, not at the mature stage. As he summarizes his account of our emancipation:
As a result of this, [Calvinism] abandoned the symbolical form of worship, and refused, at the demand of art, to embody its religious spirit in monuments of splendor. (196-197)
The symbolic is superfluous for the mature believer. It is not necessary. This is even demonstrated in the Bible, where the symbolic worship in Israel is but “the ministry of shadows,” and, moreover, part of a “state-religion, which is one and the same for the entire people.” It is a religion “under sacerdotal leadership” (197). So, Israel represents a lower stage, as with the Church of Rome, insofar as both maintain a certain symbolic primitiveness and guardianship. Christ does away with all of this, bringing forth a free and mature people. His priesthood is spiritual and eternal. “The purely spiritual breaks through the nebula of the symbolical” (197).
Enter Hegel (Not Surprisingly)
Kuyper then appeals to Hegel and Von Hartmann. As non-Calvinists and philosophers, they are not partisans. Kuyper writes:
Hegel says that art, which, at a lower stage of development, imparts to a still sensual religion its highest expression, finally helps it by these very means to cast off the fetters of sensuality; for though it must be granted that at a lower level it is only the aesthetical worship that liberates the spirit, nevertheless, he concludes, “beautiful art is not its highest emancipation”, for that is only found in the realm of the invisible and spiritual. And Von Hartmann even more emphatically declares that: Originally Divine worship appeared inseparably united to art, because, at the lower stage, Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form. At that period, all the arts, he says, engage in the service of the cult, not merely music, painting, sculpture and architecture, but also the dance, mimicry and the drama. The more, on the other hand, Religion develops into spiritual maturity, the more it will extricate itself from art’s bandages, because art always remains incapable of expressing the very essence of Religion. (198)
So you can see how Hegel and Von Hartmann are representing Kuyper’s perspective, assuming that Kuyper is presenting them accurately. Beautiful art is “not the highest emancipation.” This union of art and religion represents a lower stage where “Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form.” Kuyper quotes Von Hartmann as saying, “Religion, when fully matured, will rather entirely abstain from the stimulant by which aesthetic pseudo-emotion intoxicated it, in order to concentrate itself wholly and exclusively upon the quickening of these emotions which are purely religious” (198). Wow! We have the opposition of “aesthetic pseudo-emotion” and the “purely religious.” The frozen chosen must not get too excited and emotional!
Kuyper continues with his theme that our maturity requires a separation of religion and art. He is always clear: “And so, arrived at their highest development, both Religion and Art demand an independent existence, and the two stems which at first were intertwined and seemed to belong to the same plant, now appear to spring from a root of their own” (199). Once again, Kuyper reiterates that this is a more advanced stage, akin to Aaron versus Christ and “Romanism” versus Calvinism. Once again, Kuyper must be quoted in full:
Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality. (199)
Kuyper is very fond of describing Calvinism as “vigorous” and other manly attributes. Therefore, he laments that “the pulse-beat of the religious life in our times is so much fainter than it was in the days of our martyrs,” by which he means the Calvinist martyrs and the liberation of Holland from Spain. That was the golden age for which Kuyper longs. It was a time when Calvinism made men to be men! “The man who fears God, and whose faculties remain clear and unimpaired, does not on the brink of age return to the playthings of his infancy” (200). Thus, it is not surprising that he would appeal to Hegel. They have far more in common than Kuyper would probably like to admit. Both occupied similar terrain in defending a progressivist and emancipation-oriented history of man, conveniently locating their own ideas at the pinnacle of this progress.
Kuyper sees Calvinism as a supremely sober and manly religion. By contrast, Roman Catholics are weak-minded and their spirituality is effeminate, as evidenced by their dependence upon aesthetic symbols.
You can read the rest of the lecture on your own time. Kuyper further explains what he means by the liberation of art, which does not mean that he is advocating for a purely secular art. Rather, his understanding of “common grace” means that even non-religious or non-cultic art is still properly understood in its orientation toward God.
I am not convinced that Kuyper’s “common grace” is helpful, at least not in this lecture. The damage is already done. It is hard for me to imagine anyone, other than the most ardent Neo-Calvinist, who finds Kuyper’s presentation to be compelling. This is probably the most ingenious way to defend Calvinism vis-à-vis art, but it is almost comical. If Chartres and Hagia Sophia are examples of a primitive and lower stage in man’s development, then I will take the “lower stage.” Of course, Kuyper mentions Dutch painters of the 17th century (see p. 223). Rembrandt is great, but if that is the “liberation” that Calvinism offers and little else — forgive my incredulity. This is a stimulating lecture, but I am far from convinced.
Image: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk
April 14, 2016
The Cathedral of Barcelona, known in Catalan as Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia. Photograph is mine.
What made the Church’s art distinctive in the West during the Middle Ages?
Joseph Ratzinger gives an answer in his The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press). It is not a long answer, covering only a few pages, but I think it is worth sharing. The following quotes and excerpts can be found on pp. 126-128.
The Narrative of the Cross
According to Ratzinger, the West distinguishes itself from the Eastern Church, and its shared patrimony with the East, in the art that we know as the Gothic. It is in the Gothic that “the central image becomes different.” How? The risen and victorious Lord, who brings harmony and rest, is “superseded by the image of the crucified Lord in the agony of his passion and death.” This is the distinctive narrative that dominates the Gothic, and moreover the focus on narrative and history is what is most distinctive. As Ratzinger continues:
The story is told of the historical events of the Passion, but the Resurrection is not made visible. The historical and narrative aspect of art comes to the fore. It has been said that the mysterial image has been replaced by the devotional image.
We will soon see what this means, namely the contrast between “mysterial” and “devotional.”
From Plato to Aristotle
With the help of Paul Evdokimov, Ratzinger explains one important factor that contributes to this change in the West. Evdokimov was a Russian-French Orthodox theologian and professor in Paris. According to Evdokimov, we must look at the shift from Platonism to Aristotelianism. Here is how Ratzinger summarizes it:
Platonism sees sensible things as shadows of the eternal archetypes. In the sensible we can and should know the archetypes and rise up through the former to the latter. Aristotelianism rejects the doctrine of Ideas. The thing, composed of matter and form, exists in its own right. Through abstraction I discern the species to which it belongs. …The relationship of the spiritual and the material has changed and with it man’s attitude to reality as it appears to him. For Plato, the category of the beautiful had been definitive. The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide. Through the appearance of the beautiful we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us toward the truly Beautiful, to the Good in itself.
This Platonist understanding is seen in the iconography of the East and the theology that supports it, though Ratzinger highlights the Church’s transformation of Platonism “by the light of Tabor” and ultimately by the Incarnate God — whereby “the material order as such has been given a new dignity and a new value.” But in the medieval West, this Christian Platonism “largely disappears,” according to Evdokimov by way of Ratzinger. That is probably putting it too strongly, but here is how Ratzinger explains it:
…now the art of painting strives first and foremost to depict events that have taken place. Salvation history is seen less as a sacrament than as a narrative unfolded in time. Thus the relationship to the liturgy also changes. It is seen as a kind of symbolic reproduction of the event of the Cross. Piety responds by turning chiefly to meditation on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. Art finds its inspiration less in the liturgy than in popular piety, and popular piety is in turn nourished by the historical images in which it can contemplate the way to Christ, the way of Jesus himself and its continuation in the saints. …A devotion to the Cross of a more historicizing kind replaces orientation to the Oriens, to the risen Lord who has gone ahead of us.
Ratzinger then cautions us not to “exaggerate the differences” that have developed in the West. “True, the depiction of Christ dying in pain on the Cross is something new, but it still depicts him who bore our pains, by whose stripes we are healed.” There is still a mystery into which we must enter.
The Consolation of the Cross
The example of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, which Ratzinger uses to illustrate, is familiar to every student of Karl Barth. Ratzinger uses it to illustrate his point that the Gothic allowed for a deeper sense of our sharing in the mystery of Christ’s redemption:
Though Grünewald’s altarpiece takes the realism of the Passion to a radical extreme, the fact remains that it was an image of consolation. It enabled the plague victims cared for by the Antonians to recognize that God identified with them in their fate, to see that he had descended into their suffering and that their suffering lay hidden in his. There is a decisive turn to what is human, historical, in Christ, but it is animated by a sense that these human afflictions of his belong to the mystery. The images are consoling, because they make visible the overcoming of our anguish in the incarnate God’s sharing of our suffering, and so they bear within them the message of the Resurrection.
You can see how Ratzinger is bringing together the realism characteristic of the West and the mystery characteristic of the East. As he puts it, “The mystery is unfolded in an extremity of concreteness, and popular piety is enabled thereby to reach the heart of the liturgy in a new way” (emphasis mine). These images “come from prayer, from interior meditation on the way of Christ.” Indeed, the point of Western realism in its Gothic form is not to draw attention to the phenomenal reality alone, in a sort of reductive or positivist way. As Ratzinger explains, the images “do not show just the ‘surface of the skin’, the external sensible world; they, too, are intended to lead us through mere outward appearance and open our eyes to the heart of God.” He continues:
What we are suggesting here about the images of the Cross applies also to all the rest of the “narrative” art of the Gothic style. What power of inward devotion lies in the images of the Mother of God! They manifest the new humanity of the faith. Such images are an invitation to prayer, because they are permeated with prayer from within. They show us the true image of man as planned by the Creator and renewed by Christ.
There is a lot to ponder.
In this brief account of Gothic art, Ratzinger emphasizes the Cross, which was made an emphasis in the West by the Aristotelian turn toward history and narrative. I am sure that specialists can quibble with this account, but that’s why people don’t like specialists.
The striking thing for me is this emphasis on the Cross. If Ratzinger is correct, Gothic art is not “triumphalist” or expressing “a theology of glory” (vs. “a theology of the cross”) as some Protestant polemics would have it. There is grandeur to be sure, and vanity was probably of greater weight than humility for most of the bishops who were patrons of the artists and artisans. But the narrative and devotional aspect of a cruciform piety is striking indeed, and that is evident for anyone who has toured the great medieval works of France, Spain, England, etc., whether the stained glass or the paintings or the architecture.