Personality, Conversion, and Being: On John Paul II’s “Fides et Ratio”

by James Matthew Wilson on May 10, 2010 · 20 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Philosophers & Saints

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Devon, PA. I was pleasantly surprised by one response to my recent two-part essay on Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.  The commentator seemed disturbed by the priority of personality and grace that this new encyclical reminds us are the foundations of Christianity.  Of what, it is worth asking, does this priority consist?

Christians have faith in God not chiefly as a first cause or unmoved mover, nor primarily as the ground of being in whom we move and who “moves” in us; while it is valid to name God as Goodness Itself, Beauty Itself, Truth Itself, and Being Itself, the Christian above all knows Him as Personality or Personhood Itself.  He is a personal God not simply because he has a knowledge of individuals; that is, we call Him personal not merely as a means of contra-distinguishing Him from the mechanical Deist god of general rather than particular laws.  But rather, because what He reveals about himself above all is His reality as the archetype, as it were, of Personality; as Three Persons in One Nature, the Trinity speaks to us of the intimacy of love, the philia between persons, as the fundamental principle of things.  Love in this sense precedes being, and a person is one who loves another with a precision, complexity, and totality the full description of which it is beyond my ambitions here to provide.  Our self-knowledge as persons is preceded by and modeled on the Persons of the Trinity; it is in this participation in the Divine Persons that our human dignity resides.  While modern discourse often uses the terms “personal” and “subjective” to relegate something to the private sphere, to neutralize its authority or attenuate its reality, the Christian senses that it is precisely insofar as we are persons that we approximate to divinity.  What is most personal is not most “private” but most real and most important.  My “subjective” ideas possess a dignity, authority, and reality that makes the mere “objective” seem lifeless in comparison.

As such, God as the Person who gives of Himself without reducing Himself, and so makes things to be that had not been; Who loves what had not previously been there to be loved (and Who makes the “there” there–place–as itself lovable): He sets all things in being not of necessity but by grace, by the utter gratuity of caritas.  This mystery of grace and creation, which Benedict XVI has elsewhere and powerfully described in terms of freedom, love, and reason, precedes everything–everything, that is, save God as Trinity, as a Perfect Community of Persons in One Nature.  In the Trinity, grace and personality are perfectly one.  As St. Thomas Aquinas underscored, this entails that God, as Personality Itself, is outside any species or genus: He is not a person like us, though we are persons insofar as we bear a likeness to Him.  As such, there is no ground besides, outside of, or Before God on which to base our discussion of Him.  There is no secular terrain on which the Christian God features like a mountain and another god or gods like rivers and forests, all of whom can be summed up, compared and contrasted, as so many individuals in a ginned up science of divine geography called Theology.  Personhood and grace precede all things, because by grace things come to be, and by God as Person things are eternally known, loved, and given form.

But the commentator rightly objected that there must be some ground upon which we persons — Christians and non-Christians — can meet, upon which we can reason.  How else could one who does not believe in the Personal Loving God come to believe in Him?  And the most common — as in, oft repeated and experienced — story of the last two thousand years has been precisely this coming-to-believe in Christ.  Indeed, more broadly, the coming-to-possess-belief that we call conversion is one of the most common, mundane, universal events in human history, and yet the grounds of it are so shrouded in mystery that many persons (above all, in my experience, American college undergraduates) find it incredible and proceed to deny its existence.  “What one is raised with is what one believes,” they say.  “The ideas of your (oppressive, western, or patriarchal) culture are incommensurable with any other, and there is no means of bridging the chasm of un-intelligibility,” say those professionally trained perennial undergraduates called cultural anthropologists.  Again, conversion, the changing of mind and heart, is so mundane that we witness and experience it almost every day; but it is also so mysterious that it defies our attempts to assign criteria to it and entices many of us to explain it away as weak moral reasoning (as did David Hume) or as in fact impossible (as does the typical absolute historicist and relativist of our age’s intellectual culture).  So, on what terrain can we accept the invitation of the Prophet, when he says, “Come, let us reason together”?

The commentator (in a few brief sentences that I may have misconstrued) seemed to suggest that something must stand outside of and prior to God — even if that prior-to-God masquerades as God Himself.  Thus, modern comparative religions make so bold as to say, “We are all — Hindu, Christian, Musselman, and Wiccan (!) — praying to the same God,” or, “We all love one God, but he has many faces.”  While one occasionally finds this sentiment in other cultures, its usual formulation derives from Enlightenment Christianity, whose “project” was to retain the all-knowing, all-creating God of Christian Revelation but to reduce the essential terms of our knowledge of Him to those ostensibly more abstract, general, and necessary ones derivable from Aristotelian metaphysics.  Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man is a classic example of the confusion that results from this endeavor, outlining as it does a syncretist theology that is neither Christian nor Classical, though amenable to both as a hash of ingenious rhetoric.  Our history shows us that a century or more can go by in which a culture believes this before it awakens to realize — perhaps on a rainy Saturday on which one’s beloved has been buried — that it no longer believes in God.  When one splits God into principle and personality, allowing God as law to precede God as love for instance, one actually conceives a new relativist polytheism with a more rationalistic and well-oiled vocabulary but with an even more superstitious and dessicated founding principle than had ancient pagan polytheism.  “God” remains the term of the highest Being than which nothing greater can be conceived, but “God” becomes also a nice cultural flourish, like excellent local cuisine, to be left in the dining room when there are strange and uninvited guests at the door.  This sort of irenic spirit, well-wishing though it may be, achieves nothing and leads to that most typical of modern phenomena: the superfices of relativism that conceals a dishonest dogmatism; it substitutes good will for honest engagement, drops serious and meaningful terms for the ambiguous rhetoric of politesse.  Worst of all, it betrays the “subjectivity” of God, His highest reality as Personality, as He Who Loves us, who reveals Himself, and hides Himself, in favor of a creaky Victorian conception of “objectivity” that soothes our anxiety about disagreement but convinces our intellect only so long as we refuse to think very hard.

There is another and a truer way of acknowledging that which is held in common with other persons without foolishly desecrating those most peculiar and personal aspects of Christianity that are essential to its Creed.

If God as singular principle of Personality precedes all things, which are His creation, then that entails that God is also Reason Itself, and so there is no “secular” terrain left for reason that could precede Him as source of the very intelligibility of things.  We do not reason outside of God, because our logic is grounded on, participates in, His Logos. Such is the means or nature of our thinking.  But, what do we contingent intellectual animals actually think?  That is, what is the substance or unit of our thought?  The answer of St. Thomas Aquinas was “Being,” and so far as I can discern that is the only possible answer to give — if there is to be any answer at all.  And so, even as the Christian acknowledges fundamentally that Personhood is reality, and that God as Divine Persons precedes all things and, in His community of love, freedom, and reason, brings all things into being, the Christian also recognizes that beings are what God makes: Being is the coin of reality and the currency of our thought.  It is the ground on which we stand, mediating between my reason and yours, and between my natural reason and the participation in God’s Personality that fulfills itself in the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love.  As such, even if we did not accept St. Thomas’ conception of God as Being Itself, we would still require the metaphysics that the concepts of Being Itself and beings express.

In order to explore this question in more detail, I recently published a short essay, See, I Am Doing Something New”: John Paul II’s Summons to Secular Being in First Principles.  If John Paul II’s intellectual legacy lies chiefly in exploring, as a phenomenologist, the centrality of personhood, of personal encounter, of “being-in-relation,” to everything we are and everything we know; and if Benedict’s encyclicals have thus far sought to render more vivid the erotic nature of Christian life, born in desire for the Good, and satisfied only in the union-by-participation in the divine life of God, the encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) appears at once exceptional and essential to their shared legacy.  It reminds us that we need metaphysics, we need Being, as the analogous term in which we encounter reality, know it, and speak of it.  The phenomenology of the person, and the account of our life’s form and movement given in Christian Platonism, both require Being if they are to be heard.  This remains true even if — above all, if — the operations of human reason are not self-grounding but are, rather, ultimately dependent on receiving as gift what is not their own.  Grace precedes reason, and so there is no “secular reason.”  Thus, all the more do we require a terrain of “secular being” if we are not to continue our fundamental retreat into those private, incommensurable, and complacent cultures that modern relativism preaches as the “unit” of human “society.”  John Paul II calls for a restoration of philosophy as central to theology, and above all for a philosophy grounded in the idea of wisdom (philosophy as the search for answers to the fundamental questions all persons, as persons, ask about themselves and the meaning of their lives) and elaborated with truly metaphysical dimensions.  As was the practice in the great age of the neo-Thomists, philosophy and theology alike must speak in terms of “Being” once more.  The essay concludes with a brief elaboration on this point:

In the years since the encyclical’s [Fides et Ratio’s] publication, the rise of the Radical Orthodoxy theologians—some of whom are Roman Catholic, but most of whom are Anglo-Catholic—suggests that John Paul II’s commission did not fall on deaf ears. John Milbank, their best-known representative, has called into question what he calls “secular reason,” the consensus view of reason in a “scientistic” liberal society. By this term, he intends the notion of reason as self-grounded in its own powers—a conception we often express in terms of rational “disinterestedness” and “objectivity,” and which we implement by insisting that it is only rational to affirm as true that which is based in verifiable empirical observation and thorough quantitative analysis. Like John Paul II, Milbank argues that human reason is conditioned by a faith prior to it and finds its completion in truths that transcend it. We misrepresent our own everyday reasoning if we think it is grounded in the empirically self-evident. We foil the aspirations of our reason if we close it off to truths given from a source beyond its control.

Radical Orthodoxy also recovers for theology the metaphysical dimension John Paul II called on philosophy to provide. But its metaphysics is chiefly that of Christian Platonism. Does this fully answer the call? It is hard to say, but I would suggest that if the demolishing of secular reason was long overdue, it does not necessarily entail the loss of what we might call “secular being.” John Paul II clearly believed as much. While he affirmed that reason is preceded and completed by faith—or rather, while he affirmed that the journey of faith “uses” philosophical reasoning instrumentally—he did not suggest that faith closes off the truth of the Christian from speaking to and hearing the nonbeliever. It is in philosophy, above all in metaphysics, that we discover the “only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith” (§104). Being is in this sense “secular.” We encounter it, and think in its terms, regardless of whether we perceive that our reason is grounded beyond itself and beyond being. If the surpassing of “secular reason” is not to prove yet another postmodern withering of reason, then it shall probably have to acknowledge the secularity of being—that being is the term all human intellects drink and is the primary act of the real. Only a philosophy that can meet this metaphysical challenge will answer John Paul II’s summons and help us to overcome the centuries of destruction, doubt, and diminished horizons that many persons still have the naiveté to call “progress.”

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Alethea May 10, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Oh–thank you for writing this post! I must look up the Radical Orthodox thinkers.

avatar Wessexman May 11, 2010 at 7:04 pm

The problem with this formulation is you stretch the term personhood, yes God is personhood, he is intelligence and subjectivity itself but he is absolute and our intelligence and personality and what we grasp of these in general, and certainly in discursive thought, are but a glimpse of them. So to always bring him back to personality from our point of view is perhaps a little limiting on God and perhaps a little too much going down the road of moderniist concentration on the self, although of course love and passion mysticism have always been a strong part of Christianity.

God is love but he is also the supreme quality, love and personality are but part of him, separating in relative existence from all his other qualities — at least from the human perspective , being or beyond being or in the Buddhist terminology the void. The Sufis talk of three ways to approach God, the way of love, the way of fear and the way of knowledge. Fear of God is almost as much a part of true religion as his love.

I’d say this love and personality perspective is a very valid one, it is at the core of the Christian revelation, though so are others like the Buddhist void sometimes called atheistic though isn’t in the sense of modern Western atheism. It certainly would do for the average believer though perhaps the mystic would say its concentration on personality in human terms may tend to slowdown the ultimate shedding of human personality and individuality which is the final barrier to identity.

avatar Wessexman May 11, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Btw I used the term self a little indiscriminately. I mean not the mystical self which is the same as God or a spark of the divine or similar but the lesser “self” of human ego, personality and individuality. You go perhaps further than is usual in Christianity thought in celebration of this, which is perhaps unwise, the usual Christian love and personality perspective is fine though.

avatar Rory May 11, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Personhood, or personality, is not a quality. It is that which perceives all qualities and to which all qualities in the end accrue. It is meaningless to speak of a quality, or kind of experience, without a person there to be the witness to that quality. And (though this is harder to see), it is even meaningless to speak of a kind of experience as such, a pure kind, like the number 2, without someone to whom there are kinds of things.

We would have to imagine the 2 somewhere in deep space, and this strikes me as legitimate (in imagination, i.e. as a metaphor: the skies and the heavens) because the 2 is a universal. Yet were there not someone to whom 2 is different from 1, there would no longer be any 2-ness to our 2.

Personhood, as that which makes qualities possible, is thus no quality.

This must sound very modernist–and it is, but it is not thereby convicted of falsehood.

The important difference is that God is eternal and we are finite. And because of this huge difference, I think I am in agreement with you Wessexman, one can never speak of God as a person among others–there is an abyss, or an infinity, un-exaggeratably grand, between us human persons and God.

But all of this majestic superiority of God is well encompassed by who Catholicism takes God to be– a trinity, a three-in-one.

To put it in a stark and crude way, God is an/the individual to whom being more than one belongs to his being an/the individual at all. …This mind-boggling affirmation, which can only be proposed by faith, puts “personhood” in an entirely new light. It turns out that eventhough we are persons, and personhood essentially belongs to us (as well as animality, and other things), it quintessentially belongs to God. Thus we are not personhood ‘itself,’ nor will we ever be truly who we are on our own merits alone.

However this stretching of personality across time and space, “past” change to the eternal, does not weaken or vitiate the ‘concept’… it is our every day experience. Whenever we say anything, e.g. “I am tired,” it is as if we attempted an eternally binding testimony as to who we are and what life is all about. In the declaration “I am tired(!)” I sum up my own life, and the meaning of the universe by implication: to get some rest. Why else would we bother to say it. This is not some strange inauthenticity, but rather the ineluctable poetry of existence.

From this point of view, abysses and infinities have their place, but not equal to that of personhood. They are a most significant experience by which we understand the sheer, extreme depth of who the person really is… but they can never touch or even come near to personality. For what would an abyss be without someone to fear it (this power of fear is precisely the way Kant, and others I’m sure, used our very terror before the universe to take possession of the universe. The fact that I am afraid means I am what matters and thus I can say no to fear (the saying no to the sublime came later); I used the very same reasoning as a child, to dispell my fear of monsters). If an abyss is only something a human being faces, on the edge of a cliff lets say, than the danger of abysses leading to a falsely projected God are just as great as that of personality.

In fact the danger is far greater, for in the face of an abysmal experience we have to reduce everything to ourselves, we must become egocentric, if we wish to survive. And in the face of ecstacy we no longer know that which we are overcome by. Confusion runs rampant. We are at the limits of humanity and can no longer tall up from down.

However when we know God is a person we have a relationship with Him… and just like finite relationships this is no guarantee that my fantasizing will cease in the face of the real presence of the other… but it at least sets up a barrier…. Thus in many prayers of the Old Testament the humble servant has the lovely irony to insist (paraphrasing): I know you are a good and just God, but what are you doing to us!? The answer is worked out in the life of the person, the people and their relation to God. It is not an infinitely complex pattern of projections, mirror-images and smoke… but rather something greater than any mere cognitive process. It is something personal; and (to make a complete circle of this), the persons is something greater than the process by definition.

avatar Rory May 11, 2010 at 11:46 pm

additionally: to be clear and fair–I got carried away with that response.

I didn’t take you, Wessexman (if you don’t mind my calling you “you,” it feels bizarre on a post), to be suggesting that religion is projection, smoke and mirrors…. that snuck its way in from other concerns.

Also I should emphasize my agreement with part of your response: the god who is taken to be a father here on earth, by whom we swear, “my daddy is bigger than your daddy” is an incredibly evil…. it turns all pious love into mere impotent and absurd revenge. Christianity without transcendence (and equally without suffering) is a horror.

But even this leads me to marvel at the appropriateness of the Lord’s Prayer for leading the believer to authentic belief:

“Our Father
Who art in Heaven
Hallowed be thy name”

To recognize our father is in heaven and that his name itself is sacred (thus the very thought of Him) is to insulate ourselves of all our own feeble, pathetic ‘merely personal (i.e. subjective)’ desires.

avatar Wessexman May 12, 2010 at 6:38 pm

I agree with you if one calls personhood intelligence or subjectivity, however I’m a Perennialist and I feel the Buddhist idea of the void is just as valid however. God in this perspective is not personal in human terms(or that aspect on him is at least not concentrated on), to our senses he is pretty much beyond almost all but faint glimpses – he is that no-thing which is the ground of and which contains all things everything. I think the Christian perspective is valid though as I said, it is my own faith of course, because God is intelligence and personality, our true selves emanate from him, I just worry sometimes that some Christians take this too far to the celebration of human individuality and personality as something more than secondary and ultimately temporary aspects of our selves. Whether one agrees with St.John of the Cross and many Christian, Jewish and Islamic mystics that one must become Godlike and attached to God or one agrees with Meister Eckhart and the mystics of the east that ultimate identity with God is the true end of man, the Saint or mystic must ultimately go beyond human individuality and personality and I just worry sometimes modern Christian are so keen on praising human individuality and personality, like most of the rest of modern society, that they loose any place for this ideal.

avatar Wessexman May 12, 2010 at 6:43 pm

I should say I’m no mystic and certainly no Saint myself, I’m quite happy to aim for salvation, not sanctification, and to not efface my own human individuality, though I know I must reign in my ego. That last truth is perhaps the most dangerous part of overdoing personality, the average believer must still remember to reign in his pride and his ego, to know he is almost like nothing before God and that God’s bounty is beyond all one’s human personality and individuality can bestow. Basically I agree with you and James but simply make the above caveats.

avatar Rory May 12, 2010 at 7:26 pm

I think that our personality is not temporary in the sense that after I die and, hypothetically, arrive in heaven after so much purgation, fire etc. etc….. I would like to say, it will still be me, the same person I am now, for eternity. This is taking the anthropological point of view very far, but I do think it goes this far.

Because if it were not the individual I who gains salvation, than I don’t gain it at all. (But this is tricky, perhaps my true I would best be described as impersonal, or self-less…. I’m not sure)

I agree with you completely that we’ve (many of us) forgotten our own contingency, and this undermines genuine love of God.

So… I think it a hard question, and I don’t know what the Church says about it: what is our individuality in eternity?

My guess is that no one in heaven ever feels the need to say I, to assert themselves. But perhaps we say I in eternity as an expression of our own perfectly unique and valuable love of and obedience to God.
In this case the problem is not our temporal personality per se, but the fact that we are never entirely true to ourselves in time; and thus the abysses of the east find their western correlate in sin: which is an infinite abyss all the more terrible because we ourselves commit it.

From this ground: original sin, we can maintain the faith that God is fundamentally a/three Person(s) without subjecting Him to ourselves… because the truth about our own personality is unknown to us.
This focus on sin as formative even of our logic in some deep way, thrilled me in Augustine when I read him in school; Plato, Aristotle, virtue, etc….. this is all well and good, but if one slips on a staircase and dies from it—so much for human reason! Its a lovely argument.

Perhaps we agree almost entirely… and its a matter of emphasis.

Maybe the problem is not so much human finite persons… as it is the attempt to materialize or mechanize those persons into things: either blocks-of-matter, or weird hyper-sophisticated calculators?

avatar Wessexman May 13, 2010 at 7:04 am

I’m a Christian, I think God can be perfectly validly seen as a trinity but as a Perennialist I don’t think this is the only important perspective or emphasis on him. One can approach God, imho, by paying scant attention to his triune nature or even his personal(if we understand this in the correct way) aspect.

I don’t think it is correct to view the eastern, and particularly Buddhist, concept of the void as a nightmarish abyss. It is quite different and in fact a positive concept. The void is not negation, it is nothing but it is everything, it Nirvana and it is God.

Whether we ultimately find union with God or simply closeness and whether when we die we go to heaven or hell or are reborn somehow is open to speculation in my opinion, I feel only God could to hell eternally, if it were possible for him to sin, for man it would be perpetual or in other words indefinite only. I certainly fall on the Neoplatonic and Eastern side of the debate of union or closeness with God as our ultimate goal(this side was also championed by Meister Eckhart perhaps the greatest of Christian mystics), which is to say I feel our ultimate end is to find identity or union with God but I realise the exact outcome is uncertain and not too important.

In some ways this overdoing of personality is natural. Firstly it is a joining in with individualist and egoist tendencies in modern society but also a move away from mechanist, materalist and determinist tendences within society and popular philosophical-scientistic thought which tends to attack the foundations of individuality.

avatar Wessexman May 13, 2010 at 7:08 am

Btw when I talk as Perennialist I’m also talking as a traditionalist, I don’t believe in pick’n’mixing religious doctrines and passionately believe in following a particular orthodox revelation and tradition, particularly that of your own culture. I just think that all orthodox traditions have an esoteric, share core, are different paths to the same summit and we can learn something from study of other orthodox, genuine faiths as long as we don’t try and blur their boundaries and make sure we know our own well enough first.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 13, 2010 at 9:30 am

My understanding of theology has been almost entirely formed by the realism of Aquinas, and because I encountered that realism first in the context of the neo-Thomists, I encountered it also as a refutation of the positivism of theological liberalism and the immanentist subjectivism of theological modernism. For this reason, I sympathize with Wessexman’s inclination to read this essay as a product of modernity — with its Cartesian focus on the self. But that is an inaccurate reading. I’m trying to synthesize or, really, simply to report on the theology of the last two popes — a theology that finds one inspiration in Karl Barth’s theology but which is perfectly amenable to the Thomism I so admire, as I shall show by adverting to Aquinas and Maritain.

If Wessexman wishes to accuse such figures of theological modernism, he will not be alone. For my part, I see his syncretism to be riddled with error, probably heretical, certainty displaying the worst traits of what used to be called “Americanism” and “indifferentism.” I have no idea what a “perennielist” is outside of his own description, and so far as I can tell it amounts to the same theology we encounter among the European “Catholic” Right of the early twentieth century, e.g. Charles Maurras, Henri Massis, or, better, Ernest Psichari. An interesting position, and one quite understandable in terms of an attempt to shore of the Occident amid internal and external threats. But let’s not call it Christianity. The fundamental claim of Christianity is its exclusiveness, which radically relativizes what he calls “different paths” so that, while they clearly express the genius of the natural reason, they do not and cannot represent paths to God, since there is only one such path and it must be given to us by grace.

What is comforting about his comments is that I see I was not mistaken in my analysis. As a matter of intellectual debate, I am only concerned that two points be acknowledged: I) the position I outline is not modern or modernist, but rather more accurately represents the doctrine of God of the Tradition and of Scripture (see quotations below for a few references). II) on its criterion, simply following whatever “orthodox revelation” happens to belong to your own tradition is neither acceptable for the Christian nor an acceptably Christian claim. It may be a lot of things, many of them good, but it is not Christian.

Here are a few passages worth contemplating:

“God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby – defenceless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will – we learn to live with him and to practise with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him.”
–Benedict XVI, Midnight Mass Homily, 2007

“Now, for Barth . . . What interests the Bible, and therefore ourselves, in dealing with [anthropology] is the question concerning ‘the man who meets his God and stands before his God, the man who finds God and to whom God is present . . . In this ‘correspondence and similiarity’ between the creation and the Covenant only one thing can be meant: man’s situation of being-with-others, the ‘I and Thou’ which assumed a more specialised and corporeal form as ‘man and woman’, which in Gen 1.27 we see added immediately to the ‘image and likeness’ as an explication of it . . . With Barth, then, we must profoundly deplore the fact that the Patristic and scholastic anthropology strayed away from this first of all Biblical premises concerning human reality and let itself be inspired by an abstract Greek concept of essence. ‘The humanity of each and every man consists in the determination of man’s being as a being with others, or rather with the other man.’”
–Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Glory of the Lord” 1.381-382

This last passage is THE determinate passage of the new or communion theology that Benedict and Balthasar represent; it serves, I believe, as the consequent theological foundation for John Paul II’s theology of the body (as I argued here recently). Its references to Barth come from “Church Dogmatics” III/2, and so whether one accepts this claim in Barth will largely determine how one engages Benedict, John Paul II, Balthasar and the rest of their bunch. I approach it with fear and trembling, myself, but didn’t hesitate to present it as clearly as I could in the above essay.

We have also these points to deal with:

“Person signifies what is most perfect in all nature — that is, a subsistent individiaul of a rational nature.”
–St. Thomas Aquinas, ST 1, 29, 3

Since everything we say about God is analogical and only analogical, the above would suggest that Personality is particularly applicable as an analogous divine name. As with all analogies to the divine, we know that it does not mean regarding God what we normally mean by it; but this applies to Being Itself, too.

The “metaphysical tradition of the West defines the person in terms of independence, as a reality which, subsisting spiritually, constitutes a universe unto itself . . . this tradition finds in God the sovereign Personality whose existence itself consists in a pure and absolute super-existence by way of intellection and love . . . the concept of personality is related not to matter but to the deepest and highest dimension of being.”
–Jacques Maritain, “The Person and the Common Good” 40.

Elsewhere, Maritain speaks of God knowing man as subject rather than object — and the reader will recognize that I use similar language (drawn directly from John Paul II) in my essay. With John Paul II’s dissertation adviser, Garrigou-Lagrange, I think this accepts and responds to post-Cartesian ideas of subject and object, and not those of Aquinas. For Aquinas subject signifies simply the one who acts and object nothing other than the one acted toward. When we say, “Don’t treat that woman like an object,” Aquinas would tut-tut and say, “What you really mean is she should not be treated as if her substance were reducible to its existence as part of a species and genus.” And that is more accurate, for something can only be “objective” if it is moved-toward in some sense by a subject; to call something an object says nothing more about its being than that it is being moved-toward.

I have other passages, but these should do.

avatar Wessexman May 14, 2010 at 8:18 pm

“The fundamental claim of Christianity is its exclusiveness, which radically relativizes what he calls “different paths” so that, while they clearly express the genius of the natural reason, they do not and cannot represent paths to God, since there is only one such path and it must be given to us by grace.”

I’m unsure that is correct. In my readings on the subject I see a split with some important figures suggesting a religio perennis, perhaps not to the degree I subscribe to but to an important degree. Exclusivism is more the realm of the exoteric, for the average believer who would be confused by anything else. That is not to say there should be any mixing of faiths but that one can appreciate the wisdom, and indeed validity of the other orthodox traditions. Otherwise one is left unable to answer the modernist, skeptical canard about why Christianity rather than Islam or Judaism is Hinduism should be accepted, also, aside from the rich philosophical and spiritual offerings these orthodox traditions have contain(a boon in such a time of spiritual degeneration.), one is also able to find answers to question of how the formless could be expressed in one limited human form bound by place and culture and also why God would send his main revelation so late in human history to only one section of humanity. The answers are he or it did or are neither of these; there are many forms for different peoples and cultures and even these are not exhaustive even though they’re essential for almost all and that of course the Lord has offered revelation to all since the beginning of human history — revelation being the collective mirror and support of the individual, Platonic Intellect.

Grace is essential but in their way all the other orthodox traditions express this or could be said to. Of course someone who practices Taoism is no Christian, nor would they claim to be ,though they may find inspiration in Christian writings the orthodox will not incorporate Christian practices into their faith just as I draw inspiration from Sufism and Vedanta and Platonism(what the modernists refer to as “Neoplatonism”.) but would not incorporate Islamic, Hindu or Hellenistic practices into my Christian practice. But that doesn’t mean it is necessarily non-Christian to not except these as valid paths for those brought up in them(though of course it is not an important part of being a Christian.).

Otherwise not only are you robbed on their wisdom and support when we need it the most but your brought back face to face with that sneering image of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens asking you why we should accept Christianity and not Islam(not to mention your own knowledge that if you were born in Cairo or Damascus you’d probably be writing about the Koran right now when you talk of scriptures.). Otherwise you’re left without answers to Christianity’s lateness, its geographically restricted nature(particularly until very lately.) and it obvious residence within a Greco-Roman and Judaic framework rather than a perspective that is necessarily universally as understandable.

Also without such a perspective the Christian higher or more mystical thinker is left with basically being at spiritual war with all these other faiths and religio-philosophical traditions in world were all traditional spirituality is under increasing attack.

The Perennialist authors of most worth are Frithjof Schuon, Martin Lings and Titus Burckhardt(a descendant of Jacob Burckhardt.). James Cutsinger the eastern Orthodox theologian and Lord Northbourne the exponent of organic farming and a member of my own Church of England are notable Christian ones, as is Rama Coomaraswamy, the son of the noted Perennialist Ananda Coomaraswamy, and a convert to your own Roman Catholic Church. E.F Schumacher and Wendell Berry(who essays I have found in several Perennialist composition as well as the introduction to a collected works of Lord Northbourne.) also have been influenced by them. Schumacher’s A Guide to the Perplexed indeed has clear Perennialist overtones even if it is clearly aimed at the spiritual and theological novice.

Here’s an essay by Schuon on the Perennial Philosophy if you are interested.

avatar Wessexman May 14, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Sorry forgot the link.

Here’s an essay by Schuon on the Perennial Philosophy if you are interested.

http://worldwisdom.com/public/viewpdf/default.aspx?article-title=The_Perennial_Philosophy-by_Frithjof_Schuon.pdf

He expresses conceptions very close to your point in your article, imho:

“The decisive error of materialism and agnosticism is the failure to see that the daily experiences of our lives are immeasurably below the stature of our human intelligence. If the materialists were right, this intelligence would be an inexplicable luxury; without the Absolute, the capacity to conceive it would have no cause. The truth of the Absolute coincides with the very substance of our spirit; the various religions actualize objectively what is contained in our deepest subjectivity. Revelation is in the macrocosm what intellection is in the microcosm;”

avatar Jon May 17, 2010 at 8:41 am

To Wessexman:

Christianity is defined around the necessary crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, as an atonement for our sin and proof that death is conquered. If there are other valid paths to God/salvation, then Christ’s death was either a) unnecessary or b) universally applicable without requiring belief. Either choice destroys the fundamental basis for the existence of Christianity. None of the religions you name have any doctrine of atonement; they cannot be reconciled with Christianity.

As for Dawkins and Hitchens, they will scoff whether you embrace other religions or not, and indeed if you claim any religion will do then they will just scoff all the more because anyone who reads their scriptures will clearly see incompatible claims of truth.

What they can’t scoff at is a life lived well, based on faith and enabled by grace…

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 17, 2010 at 9:33 am

Well said, Jon.

Wessexman’s thoughts prompt a myriad possible discussions — for which I don’t have time, I’m afraid, though I’m grateful for his elaborating on his ideas and showing that they are what I thought they were.

My comments following the essay are directed primarily to addressing the Personality of God, or God as the fullness of Person. Wessexman’s comments respond only to a sidenote of that matter, to which I’ll offer just these brief observations:

The problem he’s concerned with is the relation of the knowledge of natural reason to that of faith. As a historical problem, he’s concerned with what Cardinal Newman called the “dispensation of the pagans,” that is, the clear fact that the rational systems and religious beliefs of the pagan world served as a leven for the revelation and acceptance of Christianity, and that, further, those systems clearly contained a lot of truth beyond that element which served as a leven or preparation for the acceptance of Christian revelation.

The easiest and most important way of understanding this is simply to note that natural reason teaches us a great deal that is distinct from and, in one respect, prior to what faith can teach us. And so this Thomist distinction is very adequate to explain why non-Christians can know so much without having accepted Revelation.

Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple was one of several non-Catholic theologians in the last century who sought to explain this in more Platonic terms (terms that themselves derive from the Catholic Traditionalist theologians of the Romantic period, e.g. Maistre). For Temple, man had received two types of revelation — general and special. “General” revelation indicates the self-revelation of God that gives to all men in all civilizations some intimation of his Truth, while “Special” revelation is that particular and consummate revelation that is Christ. Note, for Temple as for Barth, Christ Himself is Revelation — so even as this notion may seem to water down the singularity of Christianity, it actually preserves it.

The reason Temple introduced these terms of general and special revelation and preferable to the knowledges of natural reason and faith is because he, like so many (including some neo-Thomists), failed to appreciate that natural reason, the human person, and all things are put in motion, are brought into being, only as Creation. That is, in the free, loving, and reasonable (intelligible) act of God. As such, neither this world’s being nor the movements of human reason are self-grounding, but always stand upon the quaking abyss of God’s gift, into which we can only stare by means of the gift of faith. Nature is in this sense already graced, reason is preceded by faith just as it is also completed by it. As soon as one understands that everything that is Nature is also Creation (they are synonyms, insofar as to be created means to have received a nature and existence in contingent unity), one sees that it would be impossible for natural reason to be oriented in any direction other than to its final cause, which is also its first cause, which everyone calls God.

But the rich grace of creation does nothing to reduce the distinctive truth of Revelation in faith. Indeed, that Revelation shows us that, however adequate natural reason is as a preamble to faith, only the supernatural gifts of God — faith, hope, and love — can be taken as the true, narrow path to Him. As Jon observes, there is a fissure between the paths of natural reason and the straight road of the infused theological virtues, the crossing of which necessitates the atonement in and of Christ and the regeneration of the human person, who therefore lives in Christ as part of his Mystical Body.

avatar Wessexman May 17, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Well that isn’t exactly my point James but an interesting addition. I for instance do not consider the Islamic or Vedic revelation as natural reason per se but as revelations like Christ’s. Natural reason to me would mean the Platonic Intellect, it allows us to grab much but generally must be supported by its collective, external mirror in most people. We all are born with a God given Intellect(in the Platonic sense and not the same as mere ratio.) capable of perceiving the absolute but it requires its collective support in a given revelation and its tradition in time. You cannot separate these two, I’m simply suggesting that it is not just one revelation and perspective that is valid and also I’m stressing the role of revelation and their traditions in supporting in macrocosm what is in the human sole in the microcosm.

Jon actually it would not make Christ’s death unnecessary for a particular section of mankind, you leave why his death was so late and only for one section of mankind unanswered. The doctrine of atonement is a particular perspective, as Schuon et al are quick to point out. It is one way of considering the soul’s journey from God, via the fall, to reunite or come back to him. Christians, or Western Christians at least, focus on original sin and atonement but that is just one perspective and emphasis on the journey of the soul by another perspective it can be seen as the shedding of desires and earthly attachments or indeed submission to God.

I know Dawkins et al will stil scoff(though I skimmed Dawkins’ The God delusion recently and it was pathetic, the chapters on the proofs of God were terrible and the rest was appeals to Darwinism and the dubious, particularly from a conservative/traditionalist perspectives historical, and sociological attacks on religion.) but I’m saying they can particularly scoff at this because it makes no sense. It makes no sense that the formless can be captured within one limited, human form bound by a particular culture. It makes no sense why even when one accepts God that one should instantly accept Christianity and not Vedanta and it makes no sense why the Lord would send his revelation so late in human history to only one section of mankind.

They may scoff as amateurs at Perennialism but they would not be so quick if they read the work of Schuon or his colleagues. One must differentiate between the exoteric out shell of the different revelations and their inner, esoteric core. It is this inner core, this transcendent unity, where the most important similarities lie. As many before have commented the similarities between the various global schools of mysticism are obvious. That is not to say one can mix and match faiths. Perennialists, at least of the Traditionalist kind, are rigid upholders of Orthodoxy and do not think mixing and matching of practices of the distinct traditions.

Anyway however you want to criticise them I really suggest you familiarise yourself with their work first because common sense should tell you simple mention of an obvious fact like differing exoteric traditions is something they are likely to have dealt with.

avatar Wessexman May 17, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Here’s another essay by Schuon on the same subject where he deals with some of your objections. In particular the different perspective ie atonement, submission etc.

http://religioperennis.org/documents/Schuon/religioperennis.pdf

“To paraphrase the well-known saying of Saint Irenaeus, the religio perennis is fundamentally this: the Real entered into the illusory so that the illusory might be able to return into the Real. It is this mystery, together with the metaphysical discernment and contemplative concentration that are its complement, which alone is important in an absolute sense from the point of view of gnosis; for the gnostic—in the etymological and rightful sense of that word—there is in the last analysis no other “religion”. It is what Ibn Arabi called the “religion of Love”, placing the accent on the element “realization”.
The two-fold definition of the religio perennis—discernment between the Real and the illusory and a unifying and permanent concentration on the Real—implies in addition the criteria of intrinsic orthodoxy for every religion and all spirituality; in order to be orthodox a religion must possess a mythological or doctrinal symbolism establishing the essential distinction in question, and it must provide a path that guarantees both the perfection of concentration and its continuity; in other words a religion is orthodox if it provides a sufficient, if not always exhaustive, idea of the absolute and the relative, and thus of their reciprocal relationships, and a spiritual activity that is contemplative in its nature and effectual with regard to our ultimate destiny. For it is notorious that heterodoxies always tend to adulterate either the idea of the divine Principle or the manner of our attachment to it; they offer a worldly, profane, or—if one prefers—“humanist” counterfeit of religion or else a mysticism containing nothing but the ego and
its illusions.”

avatar Jon May 18, 2010 at 9:00 am

Wessexman,

I read both, and disliked much of what I read. As I suspected, in offering a way to harmonize world religions, he stripped Christianity of its essence: no mention of atonement, of Easter as the central purpose of Christ and defining theme of Christendom. It is appropriate he repeatedly uses the word gnosis, as Christianity has been dealing with such for millenia. It is probably not appropriate for this to continue on FPR; yet I don’t desire to post my contact information globally. I hereby give FPR permission to send my contact info to you if they so desire. If not, well I pray that someday you will return to true Christian faith. I appreciate your genial attitude here, demonstrating that religion CAN be discussed on a porch without it devolving into conflict. And I agree with you on Dawkins; he may have been a decent scientist but he is an atrocious philosopher, as anyone who skims his writings can immediately see. In any case, may you live long and prosper.

avatar Wessexman May 18, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Well he’s hardly dealing with Christianity in depth is he. That is a short essay and he devotes a paragraph or two to Christianity per se. He does though capture its essence ie that God became man that man may become God or that the real entered illusion that the illusionary may become real. This is the central message of Christianity, this is what atonement is about, it is what it leads to. But atonement is a perspective. Atonement is one way of looking at man’s relativity and his goal of going back to the absolute(whether in closeness or unity.), it is a way of thinking of his descent from God and what he must do, ie shed his sins and ask for forgiven and grace from God, to return. One should note that the complete focus on original sin is more a Western than an Eastern Christian thing. However I’m just saying that metaphysically atonement is not the only valid perspective. Non-attachment and unity and submission are two other perspectives that ultimately amount to different paths to the same object ie discernment of the real and movement towards it. Schuon is certainly not one to misunderstand Christianity but I wouldn’t look for too much depth in a small general essay on Perennialism like that.

Gnosis simply means knowledge, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Gnostic heresy which Schuon attacks as metaphysically unsound although he’s does point out some latent, though not yet necessarily unhealthy and unorthodox(ie they’re still within the remit and possibilities of orthodox Christianity.), leanings to Gnosticism in St.Paul himself.

avatar Wessexman May 18, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Note he is not trying to harmonise religions on any exoteric level. He is not trying to stop Christians being Christians or Muslims being Muslims. He is drawing attention to the ultimate, esoteric unity. This by definition is less concerned with the more exoteric areas of the faith and goes right to the core of it, though almost no true mystic does not also rely, at least on first, on the whole tradition of a particular revelation.

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