Saturday, 18 October 2014

The surprise of theological development

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

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

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

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

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

Balthasar would, I think, have smiled.

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 October 2014

Thomas and Hooker looking East on the Incarnation?

From Peter Leithart's First Things blog:

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

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

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

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

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

And this from Chapter 56:

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

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

Thursday, 16 October 2014

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

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

From Augustine's Exposition on Psalm 80 (11)

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

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

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

Article 28

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

Summ Theologica 3a.75.2

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

Summ Theologica 3a.76.5

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

Summ Theologica 3a.76.7

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

Tract XC

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

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

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

Footnote [2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

"Then were we like them that laughed"

From a sermon by Fr. Andrew Davison on the Gospel of Sunday past, Trinity XVII, at St Bene't's, Cambridge.  Davison began the sermon by taking issue with philosopher Alfred North Whitehead's statement "[T]he total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all of literature".  He continues by reflecting on the humour contained within the parable:

Accept God’s goodness toward us, and it’s like sharing a joke. The people who miss out are the ones who want it to be too serious. Here is Buechner again: people ‘are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives as much for an hour’s work as for a day’s… They are prepared for the potluck supper at First Presbyterian but not for the marriage supper of the lamb’.

This provides an angle on grace: grace is the Gospel message and we haven’t grasped it until we’ve grasped it with a smile. Grace is the twist in the tale, the unexpected turn. Grace has an excess beyond the bounds of good taste. ‘When the Lord turned again the captivity of Israel’, writes the Psalmist, ‘then were we like them that laughed.’ There is nothing so much like God’s grace as a good joke – which Jesus knew well, even if Alfred North Whitehead did not.

Which brings us back to the poor preacher and the man without a wedding garment at the wedding banquet, thrown into the outer darkness. Our theme of humour can help us here, in two ways. First, we might find this ending faintly ridiculous, deliberately excessive and slapstick. If that is deliberate then there is a certain, rather darker, humour here too: the humour of the children’s cautionary tale. I wish the evangelist had told us about Christ’s tone of voice here, the look on his face. The point is serious but the manner of delivery might not be. Our task may not be to theologise the weeping and gnashing of teeth but to see it as a deliberately ridiculous hyperbole.

All the same, while the delivery might be comic, the message of the end of this parable is tragic. The problem for this fellow at the end of the story is the same as the problem for the characters in the more obviously comic first half: it is failing to embrace the spirit of the offer; it is an easy contempt in the face of God’s goodness. Neither he, nor they, will embrace the generosity of the host.

I have no idea what happens to those who abuse the hospitality of God; in the end I suspect that his hospitality wins out. But all the same, Jesus urges us here to say yes, to step into the gratuity of God’s love for us. And for the contemporary, urbane, affluent soul, that can seem a little vulgar: especially for those of us who like nothing better than a foreign language film with an unhappy ending. God’s grace can offend against what John Milbank has called the ‘post 1960s British Middle Class Christian consensus against consolation’.

Buechner has it just right: people ‘are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives as much for an hour’s work as for a day’s… They are prepared for the potluck supper at First Presbyterian but not for the marriage supper of the lamb’.

Well, here and now, we can react otherwise, because here and now we are invited to the marriage supper, prefigured in this Eucharist. Here Christ is both the host and – as we approach his table – he is the feast itself. And if we fear to approach, wondering about our state of dress, we can remember Paul’s remarkable idea that Christ himself is our wedding dress: ‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ’ (Gal. 3.27).

Monday, 13 October 2014

From tourists to pilgrims: Westminster Abbey, Edwardtide and simple things

Today's feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor is an opportunity to pray to for the life, mission and witness of Westminster Abbey which, of course, houses the Confessor's Shrine.  This Edwardtide week concludes with the National Pilgrimage this coming Saturday, during which - as the Abbey's website states - "all our pilgrims will have the opportunity to pray at the Shrine of St Edward".

It is a potent reminder that the Abbey, while a historic site attracting massive numbers of tourists, is above all a place of prayer and pilgrimage.  In a recent sermon, Dean John Hall reflected on this:

Last year the Abbey received at the Great North Door, the entrance point for those visiting the Abbey as tourists, one million three hundred and fifty thousand people. In addition to that number many hundreds of thousands of people each year attend acts of worship in the Abbey, or simply come perhaps to light a candle or to pray quietly for a few minutes. In accordance with the Rule [of Benedict], we particularly want to encourage our visitors to pray, either in words of their own or in their hearts, as they respond to the experience of visiting the Abbey.

It is also important that we offer a warm welcome to those who wish just to come in to pray. The Abbey is first and foremost and above all a place of prayer and worship: first a House of God. Our priority is and must be prayer. So, when someone comes to the Great West Gate and asks to come in to pray, as people do, it is vital that they are welcomed and shown the way in. They must not then feel watched carefully as if their only motive might be in order to slip unobserved into the stream of tourist visitors. No. Let everyone come in to pray. If some then linger and look, let them; better for us to be deceived than for any child of God to be offended. So it is with those who enter to join the congregation for Evensong and then leave after a few minutes. Our confident hope is that God will have touched their hearts, however briefly.

All our visitors and worshippers are welcome. But the Abbey has to be organised to receive them in order that those who arrive as tourists will be welcomed as visitors and will become pilgrims. The duty chaplain each week on the floor of the Abbey offers a brief focusing prayer for the visitors every hour and on four of those occasions then invites anyone who will, to pray in the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor or to receive ministries of healing or reconciliation. Many take up the offer; others attend the lunch-time Eucharist in the nave or stay for Evensong.

This understanding that the Abbey seeks through its welcome and witness to lead those who arrive as tourists to "become pilgrims", is reflected in my own experience of the Abbey when visiting London.  Attending the lunchtime Mass at the nave altar, making the sign of the cross during the absolution, standing for the Gospel, responding to the intercessions, receiving the holy Sacrament - all this happens in the very midst of the stream of tourists.  They see, they witness, the mystery of Christian worship and sacrament.  After Mass, lighting a candle before the icon of Our Lady and silently praying - again, tourists all around, some lighting candles, some looking, wondering, inquiring.

The significance of prayer, sacrament and icon in the midst of that great flow of tourists in and around the Abbey came to mind when reading the most recent post from The Sub-dean's Stall - How an Atheist Became a Priest: the Persuasiveness of Simple Things.  Talking of his journey from atheism to catholic Christianity, he says, "simple things made me listen again ... Laughter and tears. Bread and Wine.  Hymn and Candlelight".

It may seem strange to use the phrase "simple things" when talking about the grandeur of Westminster Abbey.  And yet, it does seem that this is what Dean John Hall was describing in the sermon quoted above.  The simple things - welcome, prayer, sacrament, icon, space.  It is through these that tourists and onlookers can become pilgrims.  As The Sub-dean's Stall states:

If I were asked now for what might bring people back to Church, I would offer those two things – be patient with those you love – the whole community around you if you can. Do what you do with beauty, care, and reverence.  These two things – patient loving-kindness and attentive beauty are scarce in our society and their cultivation says something holy about us as believers and as a community of faith.

St Edward the Confessor, pray for us.

(The first photograph is of the Confessor's Shrine in the Abbey.  The second is of candles burning before the Abbey's icon of Our Lady.)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Traherne and a "deepened enchantment"

While characteristically dense, this exctract from John Milbank's Beyond Secular Order (2014), offers a very significant placing of Thomas Traherne (commemorated today in the CofE calendar) within a tradition of Christian reflection oriented towards a "deepened enchantment".  The importance of this tradition in a post-Christian cultural context is suggested both by the not inconsiderable discontent with a flattened, disenchanted cultural horizon (see Milbank's recent essay on the political manifestations of this), and by the 'liturgies' of desire which shape the contemporary 'secular' and capitalist order (on which see James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom):

It is notable that ... the modern restorers of the tradition (from the best of the Christian Renaissance - Cusanus, Mirandola - through the more poetic Christian Baroque - Thomas Browne, Thomas Traherne - to Christian Romanticism - Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel - and post-Romanticism - Feliz, Ravaisson, Charles Peguy) have tended to emphasise the priority of feeling over reason; a horizontal dilation towards the cosmos and the sexual other as not abandoned by a vertical dilation towards God; the continuity of humanity with a vitalised nature and the reworking of 'methexis' in terms of the participation of natural and human creative powers in the Trinitarian emanation of Word and Spirit.  It has become more acutely seen that thought and consciousness are lodged at once in our given embodiment and yet also in our 'invention' of language, while the mystery of the ability of imagination and symbol to conjure up truth in resonance with the real has gradually pointed towards a need to engage with the 'suppressed orthodoxies' of the Christian tradition - the more material and magical mysticisms of angel, daemon, star, element, tincture, flower, jewel, humour, letter and number, which echoes in the 'mainline' thinkers more than is often allowed.

All this amounts to a predilection not only for a 're-enchantment' of reality, but for a deepened enchantment, and a yet more generous consideration of pagan religion and other faiths than was entertained in the Patristic era (though in extension of its better impulses).  In many ways the crucial theological issue today is whether or not the historically attested Christian tendency to 'disenchant' cosmologies is entirely loyal to its own nature.  Might it not be, despite Christianity's indeed authentic and salutary breaking of fetishistic boundaries and questioning of pagan metonymic-synecdochic closure, that this religion does not rather, at its liturgical and sacramental heart, propose a heightened enchantment able to charm down even the absolute (though by and through his ordaining of such cultic means), and therefore be able also to include, resume and perfect all local enchantments which it must perforce respect out of its own very incarnating logic.  So whereas historical Christianity has excessively tended to wreck all local 'magic', in such a way as to give rise to an abstract formal secularity or 'enlightenment' as the only shared human discourse and practice, it might be argued that a genuine Christianity uniquely offers a shared theurgic carapace.

Beyond Secular Order, p.17.

(The picture is of one of the Traherne windows in Hereford Cathedral's Audley Chapel.)