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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Unpublished Correspondence with Stratford Caldecott - a Conversation on Jacob Boehme, Meister Eckhart, and Frithjof Schuon

A few days ago, the Catholic literary figure and theologian Stratford Caldecott passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  Mr. Caldecott was an acquaintance and friend over many years since my adolescence, and in sadness over his passing I would like to share some memories of the friendship he offered me, and print some of the email correspondence we exchanged a couple years ago as it is, like the correspondence of so many other great literary figures, a publishable art form in its own right.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Caldecott, he is known to me primarily as the G. K. Chesterton Research Fellow at Oxford, and curator of Chesterton's manuscripts (and inheritor of many of his personal belongings).  Mr. Caldecott, called "Strat" in the rest of the blogosphere although I will continue to call him by the name I knew him in life, bore the no less eminent positions on on the editorial board of the international theological journal Communio, co-editor of the Magnificat devotional journal in the UK, editor of the cultural magazine Second Spring, and author of many books, including his magnum opus and theological masterpiece, The Radiance of Being:  Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity, which was published last winter.  Byzantine Christians may know him as the editor of Beyond the Prosaic:  Renewing the Liturgical Movement, which included a famous essay by the saintly and widely-venerated Archimandrite Serge of recent memory, and he himself held dear his writings on education - Beauty for Truth's Sake:  On the Re-Enchantment of Education and Beauty in the Word:  Rethinking the Foundations of Education.  I have not yet read his last book, Not as the World Gives:  The Way of Creative Justice.

I met Mr. Caldecott at the 2005 annual conference of the American Chesterton Society, held at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota (minutes from my childhood home).  Dale Ahlquist, president of ACS and a longtime friend of my family's, introduced him to me the evening before his presentation "Reeling but Erect:  How Not to Be a Heretic", which bore with it several alternative subtitles, including "The Transcendent Disunity of Religions", an allusion to Frithjof Schuon's influential book "On the Transcendent Unity of Religions".  (Unfortunately, Mr. Caldecott had already used that title in a conference a few years earlier.)

In complete frankness, Mr. Caldecott was one of the most interesting people I have ever had the joy of dining with.  Serving on the editorial board of the premier theological journal coming from Vatican II, the successor of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, his own journey to the Catholic faith took a long route through an upbringing in the New Age movement, a dabbling in Sufi Islam, the practice of the Baha'i faith, and the study of meditation at the foot of a Tibetan master.

I met him at about the time I was beginning to become interested in the writings of the Swiss metaphysician Frithjof Schuon, leader of the "traditionalist" or "perennialist" interpretation of Sufism, and whose writings were introduced to me by the music of (also recently reposed) Orthodox composer Sir John Tavener.  Caldecott is, to my knowledge, the only published commentor on Schuon whose orthodoxy remains unimpugned and fidelity to the Catholic faith remains public and well-known, although there are other Catholic writers who have positioned themselves in some position vis-a-vis the traditionalist camp.  (Caldecott credits his own conversion to Catholicism to the influence of perennialist Robert Bolton, whose Catholic faith I only knew of through Caldecott's reference.  Kathleen Raine's interest in Jungian psychology has earned her the scorn of the purists.  Jean Hani has written a couple beautiful books published by Sophia Perennis et Universalis; Wolfgang Smith has become notorious for his preference for medieval cosmology; the late sedevacantist priest Rama Coomaraswamy [son of perennialism's godfather Ananda] was revered in Roman Catholic circles opposing Vatican II; Alphonse Levee OCSO was the author of "Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-Dualism", and more famously Jean Borella tried to systematically reconcile perennialism and Christianity, being criticized from the perennialist camp for turning farther towards orthodoxy late in life, and also damned as a heretic in a book written by an SSPX bishop.)

Caldecott was one of those rare souls who could take a figure like Schuon as his guide, be led to the fullness of truth with and through Schuon's influence, engage with Schuon on a deep, serious philosophical level from within the Thomist viewpoint, rise above the questionable academic problems with the perennialist viewpoint, and maintain an incredibly respected reputation within the Catholic theological world, rooting himself deep within Catholic culture with his strong ties to the Chestertonian community.

It was that ability to be truly perennialist and truly and fully Catholic at once, in one act, in the eyes of the whole world, that I admire and have looked up to in Mr. Caldecott, as it is that very synthesis I was seeking myself, being a faithful, orthodox Catholic (at the time, of the Roman rite), yet drawn to the wisdom and depth of Schuon's religious philosophy, seeking to grasp the truth of both.  I have always looked up to Mr. Caldecott as an intellectual role model, a pioneer in a path I sought to blaze and follow myself, in a small pantheon of personal heroes beside such other minds as Aidan Nichols OP, Francis X. Clooney SJ, John Chryssavgis, Catherine Pickstock, and a few other contemporary theologians whose thought and work have inspired and guided me.

At the time, I was a lad of 16 years of age - excited, enthusiastic, homeschooled, and not necessarily in possession of the best conference/classroom etiquette.  My participation in the ACS conference was enthusiastic and vocal, to phrase it mildly, asking multiple questions (not necessarily of a superficial nature, or easy to answer) after each lecture, and I'm afraid basking a little in the opportunity to show off my brains, having a precocious intellect and having been reminded of the fact frequently growing up.  After Mr. Caldecott's lecture the next day, my hand shot up first as soon as he had finished speaking, and Mr. Caldecott gave a nervous smile and said something to the effect of "Jimmy's asking a question; now I'm a bit nervous."

(My question to him was actually just following up on learning of his possession of Chesterton's manuscripts.  I asked if he had discovered any new books that were left unpublished.  A rather naive question, to be sure - Mr. Caldecott answered no, but he had discovered articles here and there that Chesterton had penned.)

In July 2012, seven years later at a more mature age, I realized that I had much to learn from a mind like Caldecott's, and little time to learn it, and that the only way to truly learn from him as I ought, I had to overcome my social shyness and write to him.  And so I did.  The letters that we exchanged involved my blog - I wrote to him asking for feedback and guidance - and they are certainly every bit as worth publishing as the letters of equally honorable literary figures of past times, including C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton.  I am confident that Caldecott will be remembered as a modern-day Inkling, with the same prestige as Lewis and Tolkien, and with that confidence, I am publishing our correspondence, just as Lewis and Tolkien's correspondence has been published.  The other authors on the receiving end of the letters (myself in this case) are always irrelevant, except in rare cases like letters from Lewis to Tolkien, or the letters from Lewis to St. Giovanni Calabria, but in order to maintain the flow of the conversation, I am printing both my own and Caldecott's.

When I introduced myself, I did not point out that I was the kid who had asked him a question after his talk.  I was embarrassed about my conduct at the conference.  So these letters, for all intensive purposes, represent the effort and care Caldecott took to talk to someone who was, for all he knew, a stranger, a story repeated over and over again in the memories shared by those who corresponded with him.  Caldecott always took the time to respond in depth to every letter he was sent, by email or handwritten, and his letters show a profound humility and deep reverence for truth.

My first email is dated July 17, 2012:
Dear Mr. Caldecott,

I have been following your blogs since you started them, and have wanted to correspond with you for some time, since I am interested in many of the same things you are and I could learn a lot from you.  (I am an orthodox Greek Catholic, I am finishing my masters in physics, and I have a strong preoccupation with the writings of G. K. Chesterton, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Frithjof Schuon among others.  Although I have no theological training [but following the advice of Chesterton, that won't stop me from thinking about theology!], I want to redeem or salvage the many beautiful insights Schuon has given us in a manner fully compatible with and implanted in the heart of the Orthodox/Catholic faith, but I am somewhat unsure where to start.)  Until now I have had nothing tangible to ask you.  Since you started this series of posts about Jacob Boehme (whom I have read and found completely incomprehensible), I want to ask you some pointed questions about him for further clarification and insight.

(1)  "According to Boehme, cosmogony recapitulates theogony.  That is, creation is preceded by, and echoes, the primordial "birth of God"...Through this third principle, which describes the operation of the Holy Spirit, the fulness or content of the divine nature streams out into the void and (having, one supposes, nowhere to go) is “reflected back” from it as though in a mirror. To this illuminated reflection Boehme gives the name Sophia, Wisdom. At first no more than a dream of the divine Imagination, when clothed by the desire of God in an eternal, imperishable body she becomes “Uncreated Heaven”, the Kingdom of Beauty or Body of God in which his Glory is forever manifested."  

Is Boehme talking only about what later theology will call the "immanent" Trinity, as this paragraph seesm to indicate, or also the "economic" Trinity?  In The Way of Christ, Boehme described Sophia as the bride of the soul engraced by Christ - the life of grace depicted as the wedding between the soul and Sophia.  "When Christ the cornerstone moves in the corrupted image of man in his deep conversion and repentance, the Virgin Sophia appears in the movement of Christ's spirit in the corrupted image in Her Virginal clothing before the soul."  (The Way to Christ, p. 60)

In Eastern theology the uncreated energies of God pertain both to the "immanent" and "economic" Trinities, since the Holy Spirit proceeds energetically from the Son (according to the definition of the "Palamite Councils", the 14th-century Council of Constantinople and Blachernae) and we are also divinized energetically by the Taboric Light of the Uncreated Energies.  Since I am only an amateur and you understand Boehme better than I do, (a) do you think it is correct to identify Boehme's Sophia with the Church's notion of the Energies?

I have a personal blog that nobody reads (not even my mother or my fiancee) in which I argued this at greater length in the following post: http://byzantinechesterton.blogspot.com/2012/05/sophia-in-russian-theology-as.html

I understand if you do not have the time to patronize me on this, but if you could please read it and give me your feedback as to whether I am thinking about Boehme correctly I would appreciate it.

(2)  Is Boehme's Sophia the same insight that Alfred North Whitehead had in Process in Realitywhere he talks about the "antecedent" and "consequent" natures of God, with the latter being related to the "created Sophia"?  (Unfortunately I had to return the copy of Whitehead's book to the library some time ago so I cannot quote exactly what the author said - but it seems that with Boehme's Sophia being related to the Divine Energies which created the world, this world explain in a better way than Whitehead did how God is reciprocally affected by the world.)

(3)  In the third paragraph of that same post ("Boehme and the Birth of God"), would it be correct to say that the "energies" that you speak of are understood in the same way that "energies" are in the Palamite tradition?

My apologies for the length of this post (I am long-winded), and thank you for your time and patience.  I would enjoy corresponding with you about this since I do not know anyone else who knows what they are talking about.

Sincerely in Christ and the Theotokos,

Jimmy Broberg


P.S.  You would probably not remember this, but I have actually met you before in person, at the annual conference of the American Chesterton Society back I think in 2002.  You gave a talk about Blake - I think you might have entitled it "The Transcendent Disunity of Religions" - and I made an embarrassment of myself by asking far too many questions.  I ate dinner at your table the night before you gave the talk.  I was homeschooled my entire childhood and was oblivious to the fact that I wasn't supposed to ask dozens of questions from every speaker (and having mild asperger's syndrome did not help me catch on).  [EDIT, 2014 - the talk was in 2005 and was entitled "Reeling but Erect:  How Not to Be a Heretic".  He gave a talk in 1999 by the title "The Transcendent Disunity of Religions" at a different conference, so on account of my mistake there, he would not have even remembered which conference I had met him at.]

Mr. Caldecott wrote me back the same day:

Thanks - good to meet you (again)!  Just to let you know I will reply. I am not feeling too well at present, but your letter is interesting, indeed fascinating. 

Just don't think of me as a Boehme expert by any means. I am struggling with him too. 

Later that day, he wrote a lengthy reply:



Dear Jimmy,

Your blog is great, and I will recommend it. Impressive piece on homosexuality. I will read more of your pieces when I have the time.  [EDIT, 2014:  Mr. Caldecott was referring to my essay, still in draft form as the core to a much longer and deeper essay I have been researching for several years now, here:  http://www.byzantinechesterton.blogspot.com/2012/05/mar-louis-massignon-and-redemption-of.html]

Re Boehme, I am no expert, and I would advise you look at Wolfgang Smith's "Christian Gnosis" book, since he is a (Catholic) perennialist and admirer of Boehme.

Off the top of my head, I don't think Boehme's description tallies too clearly with the dualism of  immanent/economic Trinity, or rather one could say this is too simple a duality for him, so that rather he could be said to describe a series of "stages" of the extroversion of the Trinity (in itself totally transcendent).

I am not much good on the Essence/Energies thing, because I am not Orthodox and am not convinced by the Palamite theology (I am more guided by Balthasar and Bouyer on that). But I know Schuon and co[mpany] endorsed it. To the extent I understand what I am talking about (which is hardly at all), I would think the Energies could be identified in some way with Sophia, although it is complicated, because he often talks of her in terms of the manifestation of the "essences" of God rather than the "energies". I will go on looking into this.

I don't really understand about the Unground. In one way it seems to be feminine, as if it were to be identified with Sophia. He sometimes speaks of God/Spirit and the Ungrund in terms of Will and Craving (which sounds rather brutish and puts many people off), or as Willing and Seeing (Mirror). It is as if he were peering into the Trinitarian relations and conceiving them afresh, rather than using conventional theological formulations. Thus (in Six Theosophic Points, First Point):

"15. And herein we understand the eternal Essence of the triad of the Deity, with the unfathomable wisdom. For the eternal will, which comprehends the eye or the mirror, wherein lies the eternal seeing as its wisdom, is Father. And that which is eternally grasped in wisdom, the grasp comprehending a basis or centre in itself, passing out of the ungroundedness into a ground, is Son or Heart; for it is the Word of life, or its essentiality, in which the will shines forth with lustre.
16. And the going within itself to the centre of the ground is Spirit; for it is the finder, who from eternity continually finds where there is nothing. It goes forth again from the centre of the ground, and seeks in the will. And thn the mirror of the eye, viz., the father's and Son's wisdom, becomes manifest; and wisdom stands accordingly before the Spirit of God, who in it manifests the unground. For its virtue, wherein the colours of the wonders shine forth, is revealed from the Father of the eternal will through the centre of his Heart or Ground by the forthgoing Spirit....
19. Thus the essence of the Deity is everywhere in the deep of the unground, like as a wheel or eye, where the beginning hath always the end; and there is no place found for it, for it is itself the place of all beings and the fulness of all things, and yet is apprehended and seen by nothing. For it is an eye in itself, as Ezekiel the prophet saw this in a figure at the introduction of the spirit of his will into God, when his spiritual figure was introduced into the wisdom of God by the Spirit of God; there he attained the vision, and in no other way can that be."
Does any of this help at all?

Maybe this will: http://www.berdyaev.com/berdiaev/berd_lib/1930_349.html

All for now.

Stratford Caldecott

On July 19, 2012, I replied:

Dear Mr. Caldecott, 

Yes, your response was quite helpful.  Thank you for writing me back.  I will check out Smith's book, although I've always been a bit suspicious of him because of his reputation for preferring traditional cosmology over real physics.  (I'm a bit biased due to having taken most of my college philosophy classes with Edward Macierowski, who studied with Henri Corbin at Seyyed Hossein Nasr's school in Tehran, and did not have a high opinion of Nasr's views on science which happen to be similar to Smith's - also, I grew up a seven-day creationist Protestant, and have a strong aversion to creationists now that I am a Catholic with a degree in physics.) 

Following up on your response on two points, (a) Do you think I would be correct in making a strict identification between Boehme's "Ungrund" and Eckhart's "Gottheit"?  If so, orthodox theology would require that both be identified (in traditional Trinitarian terms, which obviously Boehme is trying to avoid) with God the Father.  Eckhart's "Gottheit" would seem to me to be one valid application of Theodore de Regnon's oft-quoted over-simplification about Latin philosophy considering the nature in itself and proceeding to the person, viewing personality as a mode of nature, with Greek philosophy starting from the person and proceeding to the nature as its content.  An Orthodox such as myself would say that the Regnonian Latin way of thinking (in itself simply a different method) leads one to erroneous conclusions when exaggerated to claim that there is somehow some real separation between the primordial Unity and the Trinity, or a derivation of the latter from the former (an error Schuon certainly makes, and Eckhart arguably does, but which Boehme seems more careful about).  The Christian East is quite insistent on the primordiality of the Trinity, or I would say the co-primordiality of the Unity and the Trinity.  God the Father must be the Gottheit/Ungrund, not some manifestation of it or consequence of it.  The Essence of God (in Palamite terms) pertains to the Trinity; by placing the Trinity on the level of maya in divinis Schuon makes the Trinity purely energetic thereby falling into the heresy of modalism. 

(There is an illuminating exchange of letters between Robert Bolton and Charles Upton, printed in the journal Sacred Web here:  http://www.sacredweb.com/online_articles/sw17_bolton-upton.pdf in which Upton describes Ishvara or saguna Brahman as an emanation from nirguna Brahman.  It would certainly seem from a perennialist point of view that the Trinity must be identified with Ishvara for both its personal nature and its role as creator of the universe - but to say that the Trinity emanates from some "Gottheit" almost as if the Gottheit/Ungrund were a separate and higher (an)hypostasis would seem to be unavoidably heretical and modalist.  Gottheit/Ungrund/Nirguna Brahman/Nirvana/Nothingness-beyond-Being, whether as discussed by Paul Tillich or Frithjof Schuon or Eckhart or Boehme or T. J. J. Altizer, must from an orthodox Christian point of view be God the Father.  Christ has taught us to call Nothingness Abba, and I don't think the perennialist synthesis always fully grasps that paradox.) 

(b)  Further regarding the Essence/Energies distinction:  From Aurora, copying and pasting from part three of your blog:
"for the divine being consisteth in power, and not in body or flesh.The Father is the whole divine power, whence all creatures have proceeded, and hath been always, from eternity: He hath neither beginning nor end.The Son is in the Father, being the Father’s Heart or light, and the Father generateth the Son continually, from eternity to eternity; and the Son’s power and splendour shine back again in the whole Father, as the sun doth in the whole world.The Son is also another Person than the Father, but not externally, without or severed from the Father, nor is he any other God than the Father is; his power, splendour, and omnipotence, are no less than the whole Father.The Holy Ghost proceedeth from the Father and the Son, and is the third self-subsisting Person in the Deity.... he is nothing less or greater than the Father and the Son; his moving power is in the whole Father.”" 

Since Boehme claimed to have derived his teaching from the experience of God alone and not from the Schoolmen, it would seem incorrect to try to pin his use of the term "power" (energy) to either Aquinas or Palamas (and I would be highly surprised if he had access to Palamas), and he seems to be using the term in a little less technical way.  Saying that the whole divine being consists in power seems to be equivalent to Aquinas' "actus purus", but I still think that his "Sophia" is equivalent to Palamas' "energias".  Aquinas' actus and Palamas' energeias have different meanings, a fact which von Balthasar badly and horribly misunderstood.  (I do not pretend to be more intelligent than von Balthasar, but I was taught Palamas by an Athonite schemamonk - so I can feel confident in asserting that I understand it better than von Balthasar by virtue of learning it from a more direct authority.) 

In the East, "essence" refers to what-God-is-irrespective-of-what-God-does, God in Himself, found fully and completely in each person of the Trinity ("one in essence and undivided", as we sing during Liturgy in the hymn of Severus).  (Hence the East insists that God's essence is unknowable, for to know God's Essence would be to be God as a strict identity - but this is clearly not what the West means in speaking of the Beatific Vision, even in Angelus Silesius, and this was what von Balthasar got confused on.)  "Energy" means "the capacity of a nature or hypostasis to be known or participated in" (Christos Yannaras' words), or more generally "operations", and since we know God by participating in Him and by how He manifests Himself to us, we know Him "energetically".  The fact that we do know God energetically is precisely what makes real union with Him possible - and defending the possibility of real union with God is precisely the whole point of the entire hesychastic theology, as Hieromonk Stephen never stopped stressing.  (Von Balthasar's claim that it makes God unknowable is just wrong, plain and simple.)  The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son only because the Son participates in the working of the Father, therefore we insist that the Holy Spirit proceeds "energetically" and not "hypostatically" (this is why the filioque is so repugnant to us).   

In the West, God's "essentia" is the same as His "natura" which is manifest to us in his "operationes", so to say that God is "actus purus" as Aquinas and Boehme do does not mean that in Palamite terms God is pure Energy without Essence, and nor does imply the heresy of the Messalians who said that we could know God's essence perfectly and completely (treating "essence" simply as a statement of terms - one might "define" God by one or another attribute of His nature like Being Itself and then claim that they "know God's essence perfectly".  St. Clement of Alexandria had some pretty harsh words to say about one such early heretic, in the Stromateis Book 2ish.) 

In the immanent Trinity one cannot make a distinction between essence and energy, since the East holds to a triadology of communion (cf. Zizioulas etc.) and the West expresses the same theology by calling the Persons "subsistent relations".  Instead the distinction is between hypostasis and energy.  For example, following the defined teaching of the Council of Constantinople-Blachernae which is dogmatic for us (whether we are Eastern Catholic or Eastern Orthodox) we say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son "energetically" but not "hypostatically".  Boehme seems to be going beyond this by saying that the Son and Spirit are both energetically reflected in the Father, a very profound thought.  It is certainly true that in the economic Trinity the Son is begotten of the Spirit at the Annunciation, and if cosmogony recapitulates theogony - or if there is any partial truth in Rahner's dictum about the unity of the economic and immanent Trinities - then the reciprocal energetic manifestation of each Person in each other would be expected, as well as required by the full expression of perichoresis in the Trinity. 

I don't think Boehme would have had a clue as to what I'm talking about.  He was a cobbler who had never studied Byzantine theology.  But I do think that he did hit on an insight about perichoresis that naturally lends itself well to explanation in terms of essence/energies, and that, unless a disharmony arises somewhere else, that the synthesis between Boehme and Palamas I attempted in the article I sent you last time is illuminating.  You can judge for yourself and let me know.  But I would have to sell you on the essence/energies distinction. 

I should probably go to bed now.  I enjoy talking/writing too much, and could be up all night at it.  I will be busy the next week and may be slow in writing back again.  I have to defend my masters' thesis a week from Monday.  The paperwork submitted to the graduate school said that I have completed writing it.  I haven't started it yet - slight miscommunication between the secretary who handles the bureaucratic stuff and my advisor.  I'll start it when I get back in town on Sunday.  My best friend's getting married tomorrow, and since he's a physical chemist I imagine that the event will be a completely disorganized mess which I will probably be spending the weekend trying to put together or clean up the mess from. 

Yours in Christ, under the Pokrova, 

Jimmy 
XC NIKA 

Caldecott's reply came the same day:

Thanks, Jimmy. I believe you may have persuaded me that Balthasar misunderstood Palamas! In any case I will ponder the whole thing (to the extent my chemotherapy treatment allows). Most of it I find myself in agreement with. As to whether the Ungrund can be simply identified with the Father, yes and no. I see the problem, but I suspect there is a way of making a distinction that does not put the Essence "before" the Persons (or the Person of the Father as the Principle of the Trinity), and I feel it in Eckhart. I have tried to dance around this mystery a bit in my Communio piece on Eckhart, which I am incorporating into a forthcoming book (where the Boehme stuff will find a home also).
Get back to your duties, and I will to mine, but we will stay in touch as long as God permits.
Stratford  

On July 31, I replied,

Hi Mr. Caldecott, Your new series of posts about spiritual warfare is a good idea.  I would encourage you to actually publish it, in book form, not just on your blog.  Have you read Lorenzo Scupoli's Spiritual Combat ?  I haven't, regrettably, but despite being written by an Italian Roman Catholic it is a staple of Orthodox spiritual literature. Peter Kreeft has (rather boldly considering the attitude of most neo-conservatives in America towards Islam) adopted the term jihad as a virtue.  (He also spoke of the virtue of islam, which is bolder yet.)  Modern Islam may have emphasized the "lesser jihad" to the detriment of the "greater jihad".  But we as Christians should all be jihadis - we should all be Crusaders, both in the lesser and in the greater jihad.  For those of us (like me) inordinately interested in Islam, Kreeft's use of the terminology is a beautiful way to incorporate whatever is good and holy in Islam into its proper proportion within the greater context of Christianity. I hope you continue your series of posts on Boehme.  I was learning quite a bit from them. Yours truly, 
Jimmy 

He replied on August 24 by sending me a thesis he had found on Bulgakov, without any substantial commentary to share.

My last email was dated October 29, asking him to subscribe me to an online newsletter whose website simply directed subscribers to contact him, wishing him well as he had been feeling sick, and telling him that I had completed my masters and accepted a professorship.

I look forward to finishing the conversation in Heaven.  Stratford Caldecott, pray to God for us!  Eternal memory, and blessed repose!  Vecnaja pamjat, i blazhenny pokoj!

Forms and Energies in the Platonic Theology of Ficino

In his Platonic Theology, Book II chapter XVI, Marsilio Ficino says some interesting words about the forms of created things subsisting in God.

Every cause acts through some form and produces its effect which is in a way like its form; and therefore the form of the effect must be comprehended by the cause.  As God is the cause of all, necessarily the forms of all are in Him.  God is therefore in essence omniform.  Hence the Orphic saying:  "Jupiter, form of all."  In pure potency, which is matter, exist all the natural forms confusedly and potentially.  Similarly, in pure act, which is God, exist all the forms distinctly and actually.  But, really, are these forms differentiated in God as they would be in the way of nature, just as light, heat, dryness and lightness are in fire; and does He act through them prompted by some necessity of His nature?  Certainly not.

"Form" here does not imply a commonality of nature, since something is obviously capable of engendering or creating something else of unlike nature.  Rather it means the principle of something coming into being.  Perhaps this could be understood with less confusion if the Greek concept of "energy" were employed.  Every cause acts through its energy, an energy ordered to its effect.  God created the world with His infinite uncreated Energies, which exist in Him undifferentiated, distinctly, and actually.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Is Post-Conciliar Theology "Modernist"?

One of the most abused pieces of terminology in the internal Roman Catholic debates over Vatican II is the word "modernism".  Originally referring to the Modernist school of theology and exegesis led by Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell, it quickly became condemned by Rome as the "synthesis of all heresies", and as with so many other theological fads soon passed out of fashion in the wake of Vatican II, when it was supplanted by the turn back to the Fathers and the nouvelle theologie.  The terminological abuse lies in the denotation of this nouvelle theologie as "modernist" by those of a traditionalist persuasion, and by extension the application of the term "modernist" to all postconciliar, post-Tridentine, and post-scholastic Catholic theology and liturgics, and all the ecclesiastical condemnations pertaining thereto.

The extension of the term "Modernist" to the nouvelle theologie may seem obvious at first.  At Vatican II the Church reconciled itself with modernity, embraced modernity, and apparently embraced the anathematized proposition from the Syllabus of Errors that the Church can and must reconcile itself with modernity and progress.

The problem is that conciliar and postconciliar theology is not the successor of classical Modernism at all.  Arguably, only two true successors of classical Modernism persisted in influencing Catholic thought into the conciliar era, Teilhard de Chardin and Hans Kung, and both are, frankly, unique exceptions rather than leaders of their schools, and if we follow the line of argumentation proposed here, Kung would be only dubiously a Modernist at best.  Instead, the nouvelle theologie turned to a different inspiration - the theology of Protestant thinker Karl Barth.  Barth was a student of the leading figure of Protestant Liberalism, Adolf von Harnack, and he was a major influence on both Rahner and von Balthasar, whose students in turn became the "Concilium" and "Communio" movements in contemporary Catholic theology.

Liberalism and Modernism are often grouped together as simply the Protestant and Catholic equivalents of each other.  Such a categorization overlooks some radical differences in their philosophical underpinnings, however.  Modernism was essentially immanentistic in its philosophy, depending on the dynamic ontology of the likes of Maurice Blondel, Henri Bergson, with more remote affinities to Schopenhauer.  Protestant Liberalism bears direct descent from German Romanticism, with whom Friedrich Schleiermacher was affiliated.  Liberalism bears the inheritance of Schelling and Hegel; Modernism that of Schopenhauer.  Both owe their origin to Kant, but as any student of the history of philosophy knows, among Kant's heirs the division between the Hegelians and the partisans of Schopenhauer run deep.  To conflate the two schools is irresponsible and dishonest at best.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Prolegomena to Ecumenism

The recent and continuing expressions of outrage by the Moscow Patriarchate over "Uniatism", Catholic "proselytization" in Slavic countries, over the Catholic Church's recognition of St. Josaphat of Polotsk and a few other saints, and quite often simply the existence of Eastern Catholics call for the recognition of some much-needed prolegomena to ecumenical discussion.

Ecumenical discussion must be grounded in mutual respect for each other. It will accomplish nothing and go nowhere if we cannot come to grips with the fact that each other exists, that each other has saints who have suffered at our hands, that we have mistreated each other in the past, and that each communion takes its own ministry seriously and cannot reasonably be expected to shut itself down to avoid offending the other party.


There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort so long as one group complains about the existence of a minority rite in the other communion.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort so long as one group takes offense at the existence of another jurisdiction and insists that they not be mentioned.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort so long as one patriarch demands that another patriarch suppress an entire jurisdiction (to go where, exactly?), or that any jurisdiction within either the Orthodox or Catholic communion is a "stumbling block" to reunion.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort if one group takes offense at the self-designation used by faithful of the other group.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort if one group demands that the other cease ministering to its faithful or preaching the Gospel, whether universally or in any particular region.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort if one group takes offense at discussion of the other group's saints and martyrs.

These are a bare minimum needed to talk to each other. If you do not respect the person or church you are talking to, whether you are a layman, priest, or patriarch, you should not be talking at all.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Peter Waldo, Preaching, and Prophecy

In the December 1960 issue of the journal Theological Studies, Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote a paper entitled "The Protestant Preacher and the Prophetic Mission" in which he described the Protestant communion as self-identifying as a "Church of the Word".  It seems hardly necessary to argue that such an identity, so far from being alien to Protestantism's Catholic roots, remains an integral and necessary part of the identity of the Church, one which by necessity must be integrated with the ecclesial framework rather than placed in a dichotomy against the "church of the sacraments".

To preach is, as Dulles notes, essentially a prophetic mission:  "The Christian tradition has recognized that the office of preacher is essentially prophetic."  A prophet can only be sent by God; therefore a preacher, to be truly a preacher, must be sent by the Church, that is ordained.  "The prophet, however, is one who speaks in obedience to a call, or mission received from God," and therefore requires summoning from God's vicar on earth, the bishop.  Preaching is inherent to the sacramental character of Holy Orders, since the prophet's words "are not empty speech, but events of the supernatural order.  They are, according to many theologians, always efficacious - either unto justification or unto judgment, depending on the response of the hearer."

What then, do we make of the extra-sacramental "charismatic" function of preaching exemplified in the Protestant ministry, finding its prototype in the preaching of the Gospel by Pierre Valdez, also known as Peter Waldo and inspiration of the sect of Waldensians?

The Waldensian question, so far from an abstruse historical matter pertaining to 13th-century ecclesial politics, by contrast remains one of the most pressing matters facing the Church in Her mission today.  For it was the alienation of the Waldensians from the Catholic communion into the first proto-Protestant concordat that led to the rise of the Wyclifites and Moravian Brethren, culminating the Protestant Reformation and the most disastrous rend within Christendom.

To answer the Waldensian question, it may be useful to take a unique approach by turning to the ecclesial experience of the Christian East, and the witness of St. Symeon the New Theologian.  The same dialectic seen in the life of Peter Waldo emerged in the life of St. Symeon, champion of a charismatic spiritual authority which finds its justification not in ordination by a bishop or external apostolic succession, but in the reality of theosis.  Yet St. Symeon did not rebel against or deny the hierarchical order, even if he criticized its laxity and failure to live out the reality of the Gospel it preached.  Rather, he asserted - in a profound affirmation of the sacramental order of the Church - that the sacramental order given by the hierarchy of bishops and ordination to the priesthood is nothing other than the sanctifying reality of theosis, and that consequently the same graces attributed to the priesthood - the ability to engender grace as spiritual fathers, efficaciously praying for the forgiveness of a penitent's sins after confession - are also to be found in those laymen who have achieved the heights of theosis.  The graces imparted by ordination are also conferred by sanctification; St. Symeon braved the disapproval of bishops by taking a unordained monk as his spiritual father and confessing his sins to him rather than to a priest.

The Orthodox Church, and by extension the Catholic Church of both Byzantine and Roman rites, has perhaps surprisingly given its stamp of approval to the writings of St. Symeon and upheld him as a father of the utmost orthodoxy, even bestowing on him the title "New Theologian", thereby ranking him with only two other saints in the history of the Church to bear the title "theologian" - St. Gregory Nazianzus and St. John the Evangelist.  Perhaps St. Symeon's recognition of a charismatic grace to forgive sins should have been extended by the West to a recognition of a charismatic mission to preach the Gospel.  When the clergy, through laxity and worldliness, fail to preach the Gospel of Christ, then Christ calls up his little ones from the laity and enkindles the zeal of the Spirit in their hearts, sending them to preach the Gospel to the world.

These little ones were, of course, historically monks.  The monastic institution, dating from the Egyptian desert at Scetis, was originally thoroughly lay in institution, and spiritual fathers and staretz both before and after St. Symeon were quite often lay monks.  The Franciscans likewise began as a lay brotherhood, and it is to the Franciscans that the consciousness of a layman's duty to preach the Gospel was first recognized in all its clarity in the West.  "Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary" were the words dubiously attributed to St. Francis to his disciples.  At times words were indeed necessary, and it was in such times that a figure like Peter Waldo took up the holy book to preach.

One can only imagine the course of Western history had the bishops recognized Waldo's divine mission rather than suppressing it.  The Protestant Revolt could quite possibly have averted, and the estranged Eastern and Western Churches could have come closer together in a recognition of the common spiritual roots of the Waldensians, Franciscans, and Symeon.

Today as Protestant theology comes into a true dialogue with the Catholic tradition for the first time as the whole theological community writes in the shadow of Barth, it seems fitting to turn back to the Waldensian question and re-evaluate the prophetic mission of preaching within the Church.  St. Symeon's grounding of charism in theosis restores the unity of prophecy and sacrament within a common theophanic and iconographical catena of theosis.  Theosis is the true proclamation of the Kingdom, and it is from theosis that one receives one's interior direction to prophecy, to speak, to act, and to admonish.  This does not justify in any way the idea that laymen should be preaching during the Liturgy.  Liturgical preaching is a role of the special priesthood and as such can only be conferred by a bishop.  What it does mean is that our idea of preaching should not be restricted to liturgical preaching; rather, our life itself should be a sermon, just as the cosmos - divinized through man by grace - in which we live our lives is itself a type of the Mass.  Edification given by laypeople outside of the Mass also partake of the "gratia sermonis", according to St. Thomas, and the Protestant preacher would bear this grace in a special way, one strong enough that Dulles is willing to grant it a status of being "quasi-sacramental".  This is not to say that Protestants maintain valid Holy Orders, but "invalidity does not mean total inefficacy - and hence we believe that also regarding ecclesiastical office one must speak of a vestigium ecclesiae among Protestants."

To conclude, what must be done to restore the Protestant spiritual development back along orthodox lines?

We must recognize, with St. Symeon, that theosis is the source and summit of the sacraments, and that the prayers and preaching of one deified are just as efficacious as the administration of the sacraments.

We must recognize that the Liturgy and the cosmos are types of each other, and that the prophetic and preaching function in both are types of each other - one restricted to the ministry of one ordained, the other being the lives we live.

We must emphasize the theophanic and iconographic nature of both the sacraments and of prophecy, thereby recognizing their inner unity.

And both must be rooted in a deep monastic spirituality.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Abstract Thought, Islamophobia, and a Timely Essay by Hegel

A frequent topic of discussion arising in the Catholic internet sphere lately has been whether Muslims (and by extension Jews, Hindus, etc.) "worship the same God" as we do, a question exacerbated by the recent prayers for peace held at the Vatican by the Holy Father, his All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch, the president of Palestine and the president of Israel.  I have vehemently argued for a position in the affirmative, taking a handful of approaches to the topic, beginning with the patristic precedence (St. Gregory VII's letter to Al-Nasir, the writings of Blessed Ramon Llull and St. Gregory Palamas, the encounter of St. Francis of Assisi with Al-Kamel, etc.), continuing to theological considerations (God is sui generis and therefore we cannot meaningfully ask which member of the class of Gods the Muslims worship; God's transcendence and universal agency require that all creatures are in dialogical relation to God where the meaningful question is how they respond to His call, not whether that call exists; the position that Muslims "worship a different God" entails theistic personalism and by extension moral therapeutic deism involving a finite deity), and finishing with the authority of the Church which stated unambiguously that Muslims and Christians worship the same God in Nostra Aetate paragraph 3.

Ultimately those who hold the fundamentalist rejection of a common theism between Christianity and Islam are incapable of viewing Islam except through the lens of an epistemologically totalitarian Islamophobia, wrapped up in an overwhelming awareness of the hostility Islam has shown towards the Church, its rejection of the Christian revelation, and of the basic human evil it has brought to the world, precluding the consideration of any other facet of Islam.  This point should be completely unrelated to the question as to "which God" the Muslims worship - certainly plenty of vile, evil men have worshiped the one true God - but it is also disturbing in the way in which it polarizes approaches towards Islam into simple, monolithic black and white categories, categories which stand in the way of the complexity and diversity of the situation and serve as idols replacing reality rather than icons revealing it.  The historical reality of Islam seems much more diverse and mixed.  The demonic evil of radical Islam and the historical oppression of religious minorities is seen alongside great tolerance and scholarly cooperation between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  The barbaric savagery exhibited in legal judgments regarding rape and child abuse is seen alongside deep humanitarianism and the sublime spirituality of the Sufis.  Reactionary obscurantism towards modern science comes from the same religion that enabled the formation of modern mathematics and science to begin with.

Hegel has some words which are uncannily pertinent to the situation, a state I find occurring more often the more I read Hegel.  Hegel wrote an essay, possibly in 1807 or 1808, entitled "Who Thinks Abstractly?" in which he turned some common presuppositions about philosophy and his own philosophy in particular on their head.  Abstract thought, Hegel argued, is not a mark of sophistication.  It is rather a mark of sophomoric simplification.  "Who thinks abstractly?  The uneducated, not the educated.  Good society does not think abstractly because it is too easy, because it is too lowly (not referring to the external status) - not from an empty affectation of nobility that would place itself above that of which it is not capable, but on account of the inward inferiority of the matter."  (The essay is reproduced in Kaufmann, Hegel, on pp. 460-465)

Abstract thought, in Hegel's usage, is the process whereby we turn away from particulars and the real world and turn towards abstractions from them, simplifications of those particulars, narrow-minded ideas within those particulars.  The study of particulars, of real beings in their fullness and completeness, is in fact the purpose of real knowledge.  Hegel seems inconsistent on this; in the preface to the Phenomenology written at the same time, in 1807 (and reproduced in Kaufmann pp. 363-458, with the relevant discussion on p. 416) he denies that philosophy can predict historical events, which are purely contingent, "accidental, and arbitrary", and thus to be distinguished from philosophy, since "the nature of such so-called truths is different from the nature of philosophical truths".  Yet in the "Essay on Abstraction", Hegel says that his purpose is not at all to "reconcile society with these things [abstract questions], to expect it to deal with something difficult", but rather "to reconcile the beautiful world with itself", to expose reality in its particularity and uniqueness, to assist the self-disclosure of Being to itself, a theme Heidegger will later adopt more explicitly.

Hegel wishes to turn us away from the superficial process of abstracting individual traits in things and blinding ourselves to the thing in its totality.  This seems to be what happens when Islam is approached - it is viewed as evil, therefore one becomes incapable of viewing it as anything but evil, and any suggestion of any positive trait is dismissed as sympathy for terrorism.  Hegel himself uses the example of a murderer being executed.  "I have only to adduce examples for my proposition:  everybody will grant that they confirm it.  A murderer is led to the place of execution.  For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer.  Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man.  The populace finds this remark terrible:  What?  A murderer handsome?  How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better!

This is abstract thinking:  To see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality."

We would do well to heed Hegel's call to reconcile the beautiful world to itself, to see reality in its fullness and complexity, to reject the polarizing nullification of thought that comes with abstraction, and to see the whole picture of singular beings, not mental idols.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Sacrificial Body

As many who have been involved with ecumenical and theological discussions between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches know, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception presents an apparent divergence between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, where the sinlessness and utter purity of the Panagia is affirmed but such a dogma is absent.  Much work has been done to uncover the underlying terminological divergence concerning original sin that has led to an apparent contradiction over whether the death of the Theotokos (considered dogmatic in the East, and certainly at least a sententia commune in the West, one affirmed five times in the papal document defining the Assumption) entails a fallen state for the Theotokos to live in.  Much less has been said over the equally important criticism made by the East, that the Theotokos was not separated from the mass of humanity by this "singular grace", that in order for us to be redeemed she had to pass on the same human nature shared by the rest of us.  A remarkable conclusion of this argument is that the human nature Christ bore and redeemed was, in fact, fallen.  Christ adopted a *fallen* human nature.

Certainly this must not be taken in a blasphemous manner to imply that Christ was, as Martin Luther claimed, a sinner, or even the worst of sinners, one who must have experienced and committed murder, adultery, sacrilege, and all the depths of depravity that mankind has cast ourselves into.  There may be a certain psychological cogency to such an argument, but Christ nonetheless is not Baudelaire, and the spiritual illumination sought by Rimbaud on the left-hand path of the "systematic derangement of the senses" did not bear a redemptive nature, much less a nature that could redeem the sins of the world.  Christ was absolutely sinless, as was the All-Holy One, the Panagia, His mother.  In an effort to ground her (and Him) fully in the human experience, many Orthodox will turn to the homily of St. Gregory Palamas on the Forefathers, and see in that homily a witness to the "progressive gracing" of the ancestors of Our Lord, of the Incarnation as the pinnacle and culmination of human history.

Nonetheless, the question remains, "how could Our Lord have become incarnate in a fallen human nature?  What does this mean?"

It does not mean that Jesus Christ ever committed sin.

It does not mean that Jesus Christ was ever tempted by sin.  Certainly He was tempted by sin, not only in the prototypal Lenten fast in the desert but also in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Yet Adam and Eve were also tempted by sin, and they were not fallen.  Therefore, temptation is not what is entailed by fallenness, but rather something incidental to it.

It does not mean that the bodies of either Our Lord or the Panagia suffered corruption in the grave.  The Byzantine liturgical texts on both feasts witness abundantly that they did not.

It does not mean inordinate derangement of the spiritual faculties or subjection to the passions.  Both the Theotokos and her Son were tempted, and the Theotokos, as a creature not yet fully divinized in what the Latin West will call the "Beatific Vision", possessed gnomic will (the faculty of choosing among apparent goods with the concomitant ability to sin, discussed by St. Maximos the Confessor).  Yet both also possessed supreme tranquility of soul and the peace which surpasses all understanding.

It does mean death.  The death of the Theotokos was necessary, as was the death of Christ.  The necessity of their deaths in no way impinges upon their free choice to die (as argued from St. Dimitri of Rostov, here:  http://byzantinechesterton.blogspot.com/2011/08/necessity-of-dormition-of-theotokos.html).  The death of the all-holy Theotokos was peaceful, painless and sinless.  And yet, the death of Christ was not.

If death is what fundamentally the fallenness of their human natures entailed, then the fallenness of the human nature of Christ is something essentially marked by the Passion and Redemption.  The fallenness of the human nature of Christ, therefore, is something by nature sacrificial.

Blessed Columba Marmion says the following words in Christ the Ideal of the Priest, page 22 (Glasgow:  Sands & Co., 1952):

So, coming into the world, the Son of God assumed a "sacrificial body" suited for enduring suffering and death.  He was truly a member of the human race, like us, and it is in the name of His brethren that He is to offer Himself as victim to reconcile them with their Father in heaven.