Properly this-worldly by being fundamentally other-worldly
by Ken Myers
On Volume 108 of the Journal, patristic scholar Hans Boersma discussed his book Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Eerdmans, 2011). The book’s title refers to the theological insight that seems to be acknowledged by St. Paul in his Mars Hill sermon, when he echoed the words of the pagan philosopher/poet who said that in God we live and move and have our being. Boersma’s book summarized the research he presented in his earlier, more academic volume, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (Oxford University Press, 2009) (read an excerpt from that work here).
As Boersma explains, “Heavenly participation does not mean that we should ignore earthly concerns. Far from it! As this book will make clear, it is only otherworldliness that guarantees an appropriate kind of this-worldliness. However, heavenly participation does mean that Christ, the eternal Word of God, provides the created order with stability and makes it trustworthy. As the psalmist puts it, in the words quotes in the epigraph, ‘Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures.’ Prior to the advent of modernity, few people would have been able to read these words of the psalm without thinking of Christ as the eternal Word, who himself was the faithfulness of God and who himself had established the earth. They were convinced that created objects found their reality and identity in the eternal Word of God. It is this link between heaven and earth that allowed premodern Christians to see God’s own truth, goodness, and beauty in the world around them.”
Boersma argues that Christian theology was strengthened in its ability to affirm the links between heaven and earth because of the appropriation — with care and criticism — of aspects of Platonic philosophy. “By insisting that the Platonic Forms or Ideas had real existence in the eternal Word of God, Christian theology was able to establish two foundational principles that otherwise would have been strikingly at odds with one an-other. First, for the sacramental ontology of the Great Tradition, the participatory anchoring of the created order in the eternal Logos immeasurably elevated the value of the terrestrial order. The acknowledgment that created objects themselves provided a glimpse into eternal mystery meant the recognition of a tremendous surplus value in created objects. If the cosmos was truly sacramental in character, it meant that matter was important: in mistreating it, one offended the mystery present within the sacramental, created order. This sacramentality of the material world was experienced most intensely in the Eucharist: the eating of bread and drinking of wine for the sake of their participation in Christ meant that the material world of the created order was infinitely precious.
“Second, this same sacramental ontology prevented the Great Tradition from valuing the created order for its own sake. Since its being — as well as its goodness, truth, and beauty — was simply derived existence, one could not legitimately assign ultimate value to it. To be sure, one might often be tempted to do so by treating penultimate, created realities as if they were ultimate ends in themselves; but such an approach would immediately be recognized as idolatrous — worshiping the creature rather than the Creator.”
Later in the book, Boersma summarizes the shifts in theological understanding that paved the way for the constricted immanentism of modernity’s assumptions. Though their initial motions are much earlier, those shifts reached a peak moment in the sixteenth century.
“[T]he sixteenth-century controversies concerning the nature-supernatural relationship came by no means like a thunderbolt from the blue sky. Furthermore, the nouvelle theologians argued, in these controversies Catholic theologians overreacted to their opponents and in so doing exacerbated the problems that I have already described in this chapter. Henri de Lubac’s Surnaturel (1946) presents a detailed historical analysis of the relationship between nature and the supernatural in which he sharply criticizes the ever-widening gap between the two. As a result of that book, this Jesuit theologian bore the brunt of the wrath of the Neo-Scholastic establishment. However, it should be clear by now that, not just de Lubac, but most of the other nouvelle theologians as well, were interested in reconfiguring the nature-supernatural relationship. The extrinsicism of the Neo-Thomists had to give way, they argued, to a more intrinsic approach in which nature participated in the supernatural.
“De Lubac was particularly dissatisfied with what he regarded as Catholic overreactions to the Protestant Reformation and to the theologies of Michael Baius (1513–1589) in the sixteenth century and Cornelius Jansenius (1585–1638) in the seventeenth century. Without going into detail, I will suggest that de Lubac was convinced that, in its reaction to these controversies, the Catholic Counter Reformation made two mistakes. First, its scholars introduced the notion of ‘pure nature’ (pura natura), by which they meant the state of human nature before the Fall, quite apart from any consideration of divine grace. The notion of ‘pure nature’ served to highlight the autonomous character of the natural realm, and thus further separated that realm from the supernatural. Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) had first introduced the notion in his battle against Baius. Bellarmine had spoken of ‘pure nature’ in order to argue that grace was exactly that: gratuitous. God did not have to give anyone justifying grace. The notion of ‘pure nature’ made clear that there was nothing in human beings that somehow merited the grace of God. In the light of aforementioned historical developments, it will be clear why de Lubac was rather concerned with the independence that this seemed to grant to the natural world. While he recognized the polemical value of ‘pure nature,’ he was concerned with the autonomy of the natural realm that resulted from it.
“Second, some Scholastic theologians, over time, began to deny that evervone had a ‘natural desire’ (desiderium naturale) for supernatural communion in the Trinitarian life. This denial took root especially with Thomas Cajetan (1469–1534) and Francisco Suárez (1548–1617). Since grace was supernatural, so they thought, the idea that people naturally desired the beatific vision placed too much trust in the human capacity to attain supernatural grace. In other words, natural desire seemed to them an assertion of the Pelagian error: However, de Lubac was not convinced of the charge of Pelagianism. The net effect of these two moves — the notion of ‘pure nature’ and the denial of ‘natural desire’ — was, according to de Lubac, a further desacramentalizing of the cosmos. Nature and the supernatural drifted further and further apart as the Platonist-Christian tapestry unraveled further.
“As a result of its revolt, the natural realm managed quite well by itself, and the gift of supernatural grace had precious little to do with the hopes and dreams of people’s everyday lives. As Tracey Rowland puts it, ‘The supernatural could subsequently be privatized and social life would then proceed on the basis of the common pursuit of goods associated solely with the “natural” order.’
“This meant, according to de Lubac, not only that he was falsely accused of Pelagianism for insisting on ‘natural desire,’ but that his accusers themselves were the ones who had actually fallen into that error. For them, autonomous nature was no longer in need of the supernatural and could manage its own affairs without supernatural aid.”