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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.


This book has been written in the conviction that the Catholic faith constitutes a unique source of illumination for the good, the true, and the beautiful - the three interconnected transcendentals of medieval Christian philosophy. That faith is destined to be, and humbly offered as, light for all peoples. The language of light is perhaps the most symbolically dense, the most metaphysically pregnant we possess for our account of reality. From the thirteenth-century bishop Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln with his ontology of light to the hero of Ruskin's Modern Painters, J. M. W Turner, with his evocations of light as the very expression of Being, no more persuasive symbol has come down to us. Fittingly, it was by this metaphor that Jesus Christ, the Origin of Catholic Christendom, was hailed by an elderly Jew when as a tiny babe his parents presented him in the Jerusalem Temple for Jews the center of the world. Suitably also the Church has applied this symbol of "epiphany"- shining forth to his first, pre-verbal contact with the Gentiles, as his mother held him out to the representatives of the non­Jewish nations.

I have subtitled this book "A Theological Introduction to Catholicism," for it would of course be unforgivable hubris to claim that one work could encapsulate all the illuminating richness Catholic Christianity can offer. I am, however, confident enough of its catholic quality in both senses of that word, since I have brought together here much that clearer thinkers, and better scholars, have thought and written.

This is a traditional theology, though not, I believe, an altogether unattractive one. It is also a consciously non-liberal theology, but not, I think, an illiberal one, for its subject is the generosity of God in his revealing Word and sanctifying Spirit. I offer it to my fellow clergy in the hope that they may find it of use in the enriching of their ecclesial culture, and to all interested readers, but most especially to the laity It is not a neutral work, since it aims to arouse a "Christian maximalism" and the boldness to seek in Catholicism's theological tradition inspiration for present and future. Si quid male dixi, totum relinquo correctioni Ecclesiae.

Easter 1996

Chapter 1: A Christian Philosophy

The Catholic Church understands her faith as the answer to all human aspiration (that is one fundamental meaning of the word catholic) and so as the true philosophy-echoing, and fulfilling, the philosophers' articulation of the true, the good, and the beautiful in all metaphysical generations. Catholicism's own use of philosophy has been marked by a recognition of its many abidingly valuable elements ever since antiquity. If the Presocratic philosophers sought to fathom the coming-to­be and fundamental order of the cosmos, then the Church's doctrine of divine creation, through the Word and by the Spirit of God, could help. While for Thales the world was "full of gods," the Church proclaimed the presence by causality of the one God throughout the material universe. The pre-existent divine Son, disclosed through Jesus Christ, was the true "beginning," sought by Anaximander of Miletus; the all­encompassing "world-air" of Anaximenes was God's Holy Spirit; the divine transcendence affirmed on the basis of the Jewish-Christian Scriptures was the truth glimpsed by Xenophanes whose god "without toil" shook all things. Heraclitus actually divined that the underlying coherence of things is to be found in the Logos, the Word or Reason which gives measure, proportion, and unity to things, and reveals itself in language, the embodiment of the common wisdom that is in all human beings, however much the false opinions of private individuals may obscure it. Pythagoras's rules of abstinence contemplation, orderedness, purification foreshadowed the Church's own ascetic teaching. Her theological masters agreed with Parmenides that the most important word in all discourse is being though being's fullness abides in the uncreated Source of everything that is, and so reality is not indivisible, as Parmenides had supposed. Melissus at least saw that reality was infinite. and the One incorporeal. Empedocles foreshadowed Catholicism's incarnational realism and confidence in the senses: "Think on each thing in the way by which it is manifest"; like Pindar in the Orphic odes, he was concerned with the Church's basic salvational problematic: the fall and restoration of humankind. Anaxagoras, by distinguishing mind so sharply from the rest of finite being it alone is self-ruled and mixed with nothing prepared the way for her doctrine of the soul and its immortality. Hesiod found eros, love, to be the first of gods, and friendship, philia, the efficient cause of every union of cosmic forces: looking ahead to the last line of the greatest Christian poem, Dante's Commedia, with its naming of God as "the Love, amor, that moves the sun and the other stars." For Homer, the proper excellence, of things (including human beings) uncovers a world where purposes are inbuilt and humans must develop the virtues necessary to realize them. Whereas the Sophists argued that moral standards, nomos, have no basis in nature, phusis, Plato, alerted by Socrates, contends that phusis is not over against nomos: all human laws are nourished by the one divine law.

The ethical, indeed sacred, character ascribed to the world-order in ancient Greek thought as it moved from religion to philosophy is paralleled in the ancient Confucian concept of tao and the Buddhist notion of dharma. Both are at once the moral order and the order of the world. Ancient thought was at one and the same time cosmological and mystical: understandably, for all human beings are concerned with the world they inhabit and with what their own destiny will be. Antiquity's cosmological speculations on the periodic growth, culmination, and destruction of the world find a healing resolution in Catholicism's doctrine of the "last things." Similarly, the Church's understanding of how fallen humanity appropriates salvation through the liturgy of the sacraments fulfills the dream of the ancient mystics of the Orpheus cult that our souls, fallen from the stars after a primal sin, are saved by sympathetic, ritual contemplation of a suffering god who dies and is reborn.

Historically, Plato duly corrected by Aristotle has been the philosopher who best supplied the Catholic faith with its rational pre­amble. Plato took from Socrates a concern with definitions not just to secure a preliminary agreement about the use of words, but to work out formulae that reveal by clarifying the essential natures of things. Plato grasped in advance the later theological idea of transcendentals (features of divine being mirrored in various ways in created being) by arguing that there are super-properties which never actually characterize physical things but bear some relation to properties that do. For Plato the very word being connotes not only existence but also genuineness, stability, ultimacy. The real, to on, is at once cognitively dependable and valuable, though it transcends our usual specifications of value as moral, aesthetic, and even religious. The drawback in Platonism, for the Church, is its downplaying of the sensuous world: Plato would surely have upgraded his estimate of its significance had he realized that, while it is unpromising material for logical analysis, it is the best possible material for empirical knowledge.

The great contribution of Aristotle to a preparatio evangelica in the ancient world lay in his much clearer awareness that, in the words of a Christian successor, the philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas, "Nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses." Awareness of the unity of matter and form, and thus of how the world of matter is a revelation of an intelligible world, was a precondition for any philosophical articulation of a religion of incarnation. All that remained was for the doctrine of creation to transform Aristotle's God from a mere contemplator into a true maker: One whose thoughts are not recognitions of intelligible necessities independent of itself but are truly creative of things, events, and even logic. Moreover, Aristotle's closeness to reality in its pith gave him profound insight into the structure not only of biological nature but also of the human city. His account of the virtues that belong to human coexistence would be not annulled but enhanced and completed by the gospel, on the principle that "grace builds on nature."

With the later Platonists ancient wisdom reached the notion that forms, eidoi, are ultimately thoughts in the divine Mind. Teetering on the brink of the idea of creation, the Neoplatonists in particular saw the One as a ceaseless fount of emanation of all reality lower than itself. God alone lacks the complexity which is the presupposition of disintegration; he possesses the perfection that renders change or development otiose, the unlimitedness that excludes lack and want. In Neoplatonism, such goodness, unity, truth, and beauty as we encounter in this world signify the presence in and beyond phenomena of the indescribable Origin of them all.

Into this Greco-Roman world, the world of late antiquity, a paradigm of created nature, its triumphs and its falls, Christ brought the light of the Wisdom of God. For this reason, the Catholic Church has taken it as a priority to strive with all her power to advance knowledge truly so called while at the same time taking great care that all human learning be imparted according to the rule of her faith. This is especially true of philosophy, on which, in great measure, the right treatment of the other arts and sciences depends. If the human mind is solidly grounded in true principles, it can be the source of great blessings, both for individuals and for the community. A right use of philosophy is regarded by the Church as among the greatest of those natural helps given humanity by God's kindness and wisdom as he sweetly orders all things. The light of faith does not quench, or lessen, the strength of the understanding, but perfects it, giving it new vigor and fitting it for greater works. The Church demands the formal study of philosophy from her future ordained ministers. She reveres the great pagan philosophers whom her own masters have used in articulating her vision. And she encourages the baptism of a "perennial" tradition: the making of a Christian philosophy where natural wisdom is fructified by those revealed truths which are capable of taking on philosophic form. "Absolute reason" refuses all revelation, as of set purpose; "pure reason," beloved of rationalism, belongs only with a state of pure nature which has never, in the concrete, existed; "natural reason," on the other hand, remains open and disponible where revelation is concerned: it is able to enter into a relation with some historically realized situation of humankind, whether fallen or renewed. Revelation completes philosophy, proposing to the philosophical search other truths deriving from faith that can coordinate with the truths of reason to form a unity in the mind of the believing person.

How to understand the nexus of complementarity (subordination?) involved, however, is a matter of dispute among Catholic scholars. Whereas the idea of a "Christian philosophy" usefully calls into question the supposed sufficiency of philosophic thought, showing up its intrinsic indigence and consequent need for an openness to revelation, going too far down this road would wholly destroy the autonomous content of philosophical tradition.

Scholastics with historical inclinations, like Etienne Gilson, stress the contribution that some of the central dogmas of Christian faith made to Greek thought in its centuries-long travail of giving birth to European philosophy, whereas those Thomists who above all stress the distinction between nature and grace are skeptical of the very idea of Christian philosophy, which they see as impugning both the autonomy of the natural order and the gratuity of its supernatural counterpart. For those closer to the Augustinian tradition, like Maurice Blondel, the solution lies in recognizing the vital compenetration of the supernatural with the natural, and so affirming the essential openness of philosophy which can invite faith to bring to it a fuller resolution of the human problem.

We shall look at how a Christian philosophy is structured under the principal headings of "God" and "humankind" admitting that reflecton on neither can profitably be advanced without due attention to that key term of all metaphysics, "being."


For Catholicism, certain salient features of the concept of God can be put in place already by rational reflection, especially on what is implied in the notion of a ground-for-the-world that is in itself infinitely distinct from anything within the world. For the philosophers, God is essentially the principle of all present being. For the Church's Scriptures, God's essence is far from exhausted by this function. He is, after all, essentially free with respect to the world, as is definitively revealed in Christ's resurrection. Yet the philosophers' exploration of divine causality lent itself in various ways to the proclamation of the Christian God notably in matters of God's unity and otherness, his spiritual nature and his incomprehensibility. Philosophy helped Augustine to write in his Confessions:

What is this God? I asked the earth and it answered: "I am not he"; and all the things that are in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they answered, "We are not your God: seek higher." I asked the winds that blow, and the whole air with all that is in it answered, "Anaximenes was wrong; I am not God." I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars, and they answered, "Neither are we God whom you seek." And I said to all the things that throng about the gateways of my flesh, "You have told me of my God, that you are not he; so tell me something of him." And they cried out in a great voice: "He made us.[1]

The very immanence of the divine ground within the world implied in the fact that Augustine could "interrogate" the creation about God, demands, in other words, its transcendence of the world. No part of the whole can be present to the whole as such. Only what transcends the whole can be present to it. Hence there is no true divine immanence in the universe unless God transcends the world.

The notion crucial as it is to the Church's doctrine of God that this ground is an uncreated ground, standing over against all that proceeds from it by way of creation, is open in principle to reason, though, de facto, it was only by means of the scriptural revelation that it entered the philosophical tradition. The doctrine of creation states that God is the ground of the existence of everything there is, the universal ground of all possibility and necessity, so that all being exists by virtue of the creativity of God.

To grasp the divine omnipresence it is vital to see that between God and the existents he causes there is no intermediary. There is no action or energy passing out of God. The divine causality is one with the divine being. Thus there are simply two realities: God himself, in himself and all other beings. The divine immanence (the "innerness" of God to the world) is the being of the creature as dependent on God's causality, which is God himself. Such an understanding is at once an affirmation of God's transcendence (nothing "goes out" of God to become mingled with the creature) and of his immanence (the being that is of and in all beings is the presence of God to them). Thus the medieval Italian mystic Angela of Foligno was able to write: "I saw that every creature was filled with him,"' for he is the being of all creatures. The sixteenth-century Spanish spiritual theologian John of the Cross echoes this vision when he calls God the "center of the soul," the center proper to each rational creature, while the twentieth-century French Jesuit poet-scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin went further in naming him the "Center of centers," Centrum super centra. God's immanence even the most insignificant movement in the evolutionary process of the world's becoming is impregnated with his presence derives from his transcendence. The Catholic doctrine of God is thus the exact contrary of immanentism, of pantheism.

God's creative action is not simply, however, the ground of all being. It is also the principle of the rational order of creation, and the bestower of its developing life. God is, therefore, not just the source of creation but the origin of creation's capacity to give a response to its Creator.

For Catholicism, the world contributes nothing to God, but God gives everything positive to the world. To be the creative and sustaining cause of all being including rational structure, evolutionary novelty, and responsive relationship to himself adds no new quality to God. God is not related to creatures by anything added when they come into being. It is in his own being and acting (which are one with himself) that he is freely yet totally related to his world. God's involvement is the very being and working out of creation. The existence and activity of creatures are real and actual divine effects; they are the realty of God's being immanent.

Yet the concept of God, however much it may delight natural reason, does not itself arise from reasoning. It is, merely, purified by reason, and then, in the (Old and) New Testament revelation, disclosed in its true and highest character. In the first place, the idea of God arises from the religious imagination of humankind. This is entirely predictable if in fact we were brought into existence by an almighty creativity who has left us a trace of himself in the power we call "imagination." It is imagination's peculiar property that it can range from fairly humdrum processes of ordinary perception to the highest activities of mind in knowing as well as in creating literary and artistic forms.

In the first place, we can think of imagination as the "odd-jobber" of our mental life. Just as we need an odd-jobber for prosaic bits and pieces of household management, so in intellectual management we find we need such functions as imagining-how, imagining-that, and imagining-as. The common factor here is interpretation: we are faced with something given in our ordinary situation which is for some reason problematic, and we need to interpret it, to see it anew. Thus for the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume imaginative interpretation enables us to live in the (as he would say) distinctively human world where persons remain identical over time, and events have causes. For his German contemporary Immanuel Kant, imagination enables the mind to order the perceptual field of sense experience into distinctive unities. For the early twentieth-century English thinker R. G. Collingwood, it makes possible the writing of history by allowing us to reenact the thoughts of people in the past. In such ways, the image-making faculty allows us to move more easily in the empirical realm, interpreting the problematic data of experience in more coherent and intelligible ways.

But Kant in particular drew attention to a kind of imaginative encounter which at once is rooted in the world of sense and opens a door to a religious or spiritual dimension. There are certain images heard or seen by us that we might agree to describe as beautiful: these are, for Kant, images that present us with some kind of satisfying form or inner order in which the mind takes pleasure. But there are also (again, following Kant) aspects of the world that trigger a sense of the sublime, a sense that the real transcends our capacity to image it. We express this in certain highly charged representations: in cult and drama, painting and sculpture, narrative, symbol, and metaphor­representations that strain after something beyond the confines of experience. After Kant, F. W. J. Schelling will take this one step further by saying that the artistic or religious innovator of genius brings forth symbols that are able to manifest the infinite in the finite, the universally significant in the particular. Here imagination takes on a religious inflection. Its images enable us to grasp nature and consciousness as pointing towards infinite being, infinite spirit. By attending to epiphanies in finite beings we come to apprehend the infinite: the God of imagination.

Not all such religious symbols operate, of course, in a theistic way. Buddhism, for instance, is fairly clearly not a religion of the one God, although the "plenary Void" of Nirvana might be compared with the preference of much Greek Christian theology for negative descriptions of God ("he is not this, not that"). Extreme respect for the mystery of the divine Being is not agnosticism. However, it seems altogether too easy to restate all talk of transcendence a depth to, source of, meaning beyond the empirical order as talk of the one God of the theistic tradition. There is a conflict between religions, and we must choose. It is the theist's conviction that the religious imagery of this tradition, where the divine is evoked on a personal model as Creator, Lord, Redeemer, commends itself better than all other imageries to the rational intelligence. It has the greatest power to make sense of finite experience, to connect the various epiphanies of religious experience, and to express in coherent fashion the relation between the world and that other world which is God.

The history of the sense of God, then, is a history of images images generated by the urge of mind and heart to uncover the infinite in the finite, whether in nature, history, or moral or mystical experience. The history of the concept of God, by contrast, is a history of the purification of all images of God by thought, by reason. Both moments are necessary, yet the God of imagination always retains a certain priority Without images of God there is nothing to criticize. No concept of God can emerge until these images have been provisionally accepted, and then tried and tested in the crucible of philosophy.

Catholic Christians believe that one particular succession of theistic images is uniquely important, because it prepared the sense of God entertained and communicated by Jesus Christ. This gallery of images is what we know as the Old Testament. Beginning from the pagan, or generally Semitic, image of a divine realm behind, yet involved in, all natural activity (fertility, sun, storm) the people of the Old Testament started off their collection of images, with a perception of Elohim, or El the primordial Hebrew words for God. In the patriarchal period they added the image of the divine as friend and protector, active in succoring the lives of the clans and their chiefs: the God of the Fathers, the shield of Abraham, bull of Isaac, rock or mighty One of Israel. Millennia later, Aquinas, as a "master of the sacred page" will say that in calling God "rock," "fire", "husband," and so forth, the ancient writers posited a likeness of relation, an analogy of metaphorical proportionality Two terms, differing completely with respect to their nature, may have between them a certain dynamic or functional equivalence. The mysterious reality at the root of divine action acts as if it were these things. At the Exodus, Moses received the divine name as YHWH notoriously hard to translate but conveying the idea of One who is supereminently real and who commits himself to moving forward in history with the people he has called to be his own. Prophets, wisdom writers, priests, lawyers, theologians of the Davidic city of Zion, apocalyptists, novelists like the author of the Book of Tobit: all of these made their own contributions to what we can think of as the picture gallery of the Old Testament. These pictures were not identical. But they were bound into a unitary complex by the common life and worship of a people. Through them, that people apprehended their God imaginatively, in liturgy, prayer, and story. Jesus will decisively transform these images when he reconstellates them around the image of the Abba, the "dear Father." To say that the God disclosed in this gallery is the true God is to say that the providence behind the world has in this specific tradition used in a unique way the image-making faculty of humankind, disclosing the Creator in a gradual way suited to human capacities, building up to the climax attained through the consciousness and work of Jesus Christ.

To pass from the God of imagination to the God of reason is simply to consider the reasons for thinking that this imaginative sense of God truly attaches us to reality. For the most part, such reasons are explications of the experiential epiphanies grasped by the imagination, though some derive from pondering the conditions of possibility for the existence of a world and thus such experiencing subjects as ourselves at all.

The First Vatican Council (1869-70), framed its declaration on this topic in these words: "The one and true God, our Creator and Lord, can be known through the creation by the natural light of human reason."[3] In other words, the images of God in the Judaeo-Christian tradition decant into a concept of the Creator Lord, the sovereign, transcendent source of nature and history. And this concept can be shown actually to be exemplified in reality "by the natural light of human reason." It has sometimes been supposed that the council committed Catholics to seek a proof of God's existence in strict logical form, a demonstration in a quasi-mathematical sense. Yet the key words of the text are ample, broad, capable of multiple interpretation: a knowledge "through the creation" (through some, or perhaps each and every, aspect of finite being), "by the natural light of human reason" (human reason tout court, with no attempt to lay down in advance what mode or style of human rationality that might be). This open invitation turns into more general form Paul's rebuke of unbelievers in the Letter to the Romans: "God's everlasting power and deity, however invisible, are there for the mind to see in the things he has made" (Rom 1:20), a rebuke which itself draws on the fuller remarks of the author of Wisdom (13:1, 3):

"What folly it argues in man's nature, this ignorance of God! So much good seen, and he, who is existent Good, not known! ... Such great beauty even creatures have, reason is well able to contemplate the Source from which these perfections came."

In the context of the astral and nature cults of Mediterranean religion, this is at once an attack on idolatry and a plea for the recognition of an underived Source disclosing itself in the world of finite forms. But we should not be too hasty in taking this affirmation of fontal being to mean that only some form of the cosmological argument or the argument from design will serve our turn. In Catholicism, many kinds of argument for the existence of God can find house and home.

An account of the God of reason involves, in fact, sifting numerous suggestive experiences to see whether, taken cumulatively, they do not make God's existence so overwhelmingly probable as to justify our giving it unconditional assent. John Henry Newman, in proposing this as the proper form for the rational justification of Christian theism, spoke of

"a cable, which is made up of a number of separate threads, each feeble, yet together as sufficient as an iron rod. An iron rod represents mathematical or strict demonstration; a cable represents moral demonstration, which is an assemblage of probabilities, separately insufficient for certainty, but when put together irrefragable."[4]

What kinds of experience may be regarded as raw materials in the argument for the existence of God? They would include (1) the "erotic" (desiring) nature of human existence, combined with the realization that nothing finite will ever satisfy the human animal; (2) the discovery that truth is an absolute standard for a conditioned mind; (3) awareness of the finitude of beings their transience and contingency bringing with it the insight that the entire universe of being exists by grace and favor; (4) the apparent authenticity of much mystical experience; (5) our sense of the irremediable ambiguity of humankind, "glory and refuse of the universe" as Pascal judged, a walking tragedy which only the healing goodness of an infinite God can resolve; (6) moral obligation as an implicit awareness of the presence of the all­holy foundation of morals; (7) the need of human society (and individuals) for a hope that refuses to be bound by the limits set by calculation, and so implies some transcendent ground of hoping; (8) in G. K. Chesterton's words, "joy without a cause," a reaction of joy to the fact that there should be such a thing as life at all, for "existence ... has the wild beauty of a woman, and those love her with most intensity who love her with least cause."[5] In this romantic epiphany, religion finds its justification by being the vindication of joy, play, thanksgiving, our sense of basic security in the world, and of all that embodies these things in human living.

If these areas of experience were to be assessed singly, we could not be sure that a reductionist account of them would not suffice to meet the demands of reason. For each of them a naturalistic explanation might serve, though some would mount a stronger resistance thereto than others. But the mind, engaging with the materials of life, does not assess areas of experience singly. It has a marked tendency to integrate them and let them fall, if they will, into a pattern. And the pattern formed by the kinds of materials considered here is manifestly theistic: their uncreated pole is a reality supremely desirable, all-knowing, the fount of existence, offering itself in communion to humankind, the resolution of our restlessness, ethically all-holy, provident in giving us grounds for hope, the secret joy at the heart of being. And this (to echo Aquinas) all human beings call God. The simplicity or elegance of the God of reason lies in the way this God is simultaneously the key to so many arresting features of self and world.[6]

Reason has less to say on the question, if God be the patterner of our existence, then what is the divine pattern like? It is harder to grasp the inner shape of the divine life. This is as it should be, for, on the analogy of the person, we should have to say that a reality of this kind must be supremely a subject: an initiator of relationships. And the whole point about subjects is that they cannot simultaneously be affirmed as both subject and object in the same way. I cannot enjoy a deeply personal relationship with someone and put the same quantity of mental energy into considering them as an interesting specimen of human zoology. It is because God is so totally a subject that the great Protestant opponent of Catholic natural theology, Karl Barth, was so unwilling to permit the obtrusive interference of rational theology in revelation. If the God of reason encroaches on the terrain of the God of love, he does indeed become an abstraction, a mental idol, just as the God of imagination uncriticized by the God of reason can be "away with the fairies." Nevertheless, just as the God of reason cannot be thought of without the help of the God of imagination for in the beginning was the image, the symbol, the story so the God of love cannot disclose himself as truly the God of love without the God of reason. We need to know that the Old Testament Lord of covenant love and faithfulness, the New Testament Father of Jesus, really is the God disclosed to all human beings in the structures of the cosmos and the human spirit.

In speaking of the infinite, we must be prepared for concepts made to measure for the finite to be a poor fit. Aquinas, building on both the Platonist tradition and its Christianization in the patristic age, speaks of language applying to God through a dialectic of affirmation and negation. We know that God exceeds all that we understand of him; and to this extent, we know him. There are, nonetheless, concepts available to us that are distinguished by their ability to capture aspects of the life of finite spirits knowledge, for instance, or love in a manner sufficiently supple for us to use them in speaking of infinite Spirit, so long as we do not claim to know their mode of application to the infinite. The same may be said of the "pure perfections," concepts drawn from our grasp of being as such unity, goodness, beauty which can be made to speak of eternal and self-existent Being. We see the direction in which these concepts can be true of God, though we cannot see its term. This is already a dark knowledge of God which allows us to speak of God as he is in himself, yet discipline such talk by a sense of his mystery. By denying (via negationis) the usual sense of language in our assertions about God (via affirmationis) we learn how the unlikeness between the Creator and the creature is always greater than the likeness (via eminentiae).

Such perfections of the maker are co-implicative. Here oneness, goodness, and beauty cannot be set over against each other. As the absolute plenitude of being, God is able to draw to himself all desires, to satisfy all needs, to resolve all thought; his pure being is necessarily transparent to itself, totally lucid in its self-possession.

By the very fact that they acquaint us with the divine essence, our concepts, while remaining themselves, are absorbed in its abyss. In God what they signify escapes without our being able to know how our mode of conceiving. The divine essence is thus really reached by our metaphysical knowledge but without handing itself over to us. It is known, but its mystery remains intact.... In the very fact of our knowing it, it escapes our grasp, and infinitely surpasses our knowledge.[7]

The First Vatican Council summed up the rational knowability and the simultaneous unfathomable mystery of God when it summarized the preceding tradition by confessing

One living and true God, Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, almighty, eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in intellect and will and every perfection: who, since he is one unique and altogether spiritual substance, must be proclaimed to be really and essentially distinct from the world, in and of himself most blessed and unspeakably exalted above all things which exist and can be conceived outside him.[8]

The same council also emphasized the freedom and graciousness of God in creation: he created, in his goodness and almighty power, "not to acquire but to manifest his perfection," through the good things he granted to creatures. "All things are from him, and through him, and to him" (Rom 11:35), wrote Paul. As powerful, God calls the world into being, sustains it, and moves it toward the fulfillment of his purpose.

As wise, he fully comprehends its reality, and the ways whereby it can reach the goal he sets for it. As loving, he intends the communication of his life and goodness to created things.

We have seen that, as the sole fount of being, God is the source of the most intimate reality of each thing. The divine activity undergirds the entire network of created causes, forming them into the unity of a single universe, and drawing them to the goal he proposes. God makes creatures not only to exist but also to act: they share with one another the goodness or reality they receive from him. Acting according to its own nature and capacities, the creature is already an instrument of the power of God. In the case of creatures endowed with freedom, however, all activity contains at least an implicit response to God. This is eminently true of the human being.


Human beings are for Catholicism proper objects of metaphysics. They are also metaphysical subjects: their bodily being is the expression of a spiritual being that can be exercised independently of the body (though more frequently is not). The giveaway sign of humankind's special status is its capacity for history. The human being does not only, like the other animals, inhabit nature. He or she can also advance creatively into the novelty of events. The human creature has a capacity for history not merely for reading and writing books about past events, but for enacting the events whose significance it is the historian's business to exhibit.

The fully human act is the emergence of radical novelty, distinct from the cyclic repetition of the organic world. Such an act can already be called, at the level of human affairs, a "revelation." This is not only because it is the conclusion of a deliberative process conducted in the mind and heart of free agents, illuminating their own being to themselves and showing up the requirements of some situation in a new light. Human action is also "revelation" because normally, though not necessarily, it finds translation into bodily visibility. Every person is an artist, revealingly translating interior novelty into manifest exteriority. The human gesture, made in the public world, is the medium in which our inner life is realized in the world around us. Human language makes explicit the content of such gestures, giving them intelligible sense. This is how mutual self­disclosure, and thus creative communion with others, is achieved.

God, the source and ground of the world, since he is the fount of all being, its order, development, and responsiveness, could make use of this crucial aspect of the human condition. He could insert into the historical process not only awareness of a plan for uniting human beings to each other in himself but also the actuality of that plan. A series of (divinely) efficacious gestures could furnish a share in the divine life in a new community for all peoples, the Church.

And this is the drawing-up of our faith, the foundation of the building, and the consolidation of a way of life. God the Father, uncreated, beyond grasp, invisible, one God the maker of all: this is the first and foremost article of our faith. But the second article is the Word of God, the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was shown forth by the prophets according to the design of their prophecy and according to the manner in which the Father disposed, and through him were made all things whatsoever. He also, at the end of times, for the recapitulation of all things, is become a man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and bring to light life, and bring about the communion of God and man. And the third article is the Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs were taught about God and the just were led in the path of justice, and who at the end of times has been poured forth in a new manner upon humanity over all the earth renewing man to God .[9]

A view of human nature as open to God will not simply, then, leave space for the operation of a general providence that takes foresight for human destiny as for the rest of created being. Rather will it concern the direct interaction of God with humankind, as the origin affects the process at certain definite points in time and space, centrally in the incarnation of the Word and the manifestation of the Spirit.

The incarnation of the Word'is not simply a theophany, a revelation of God to humankind. As the manifestation of the divine interiority the mystery of the divine essence in the gestures of the Word in public space, and the words of the Word in human discourse, it must also be a new creation, the introduction of a new spiritual principle that gradually leavens and transforms human nature.

Such supernatural gradualism is opposed to revolutionary utopianism in all its forms. Karl Marx and G. W. F. Hegel both played at being the Redeemer God, since neither of them was prepared to tolerate the imperfection of the world. Unaware that the best we can achieve in civil society is a fragile equilibrium of freedom and restraint, Hegel sought the perfect identity of reason, necessity, and freedom in the rational state, Marx in the communist society. For both, the world must be humanly transformed into a perfect condition. With Hegel, this takes place, after a certain point in historical evolution, through speculation; for Marx, via revolutionary praxis. Both exemplify the Promethean temptation of Western thought since the Renaissance. Neither can be fully refuted or replaced except by restoration of the concept of the human being as "pontifical": as a bridge (pons) between the divine and the world of matter, and thus at once a channel and a recipient of grace. For only God can so work on the disorder of things that without interference, much less conflict, with the created pattern he can by his creative and redeeming purpose restore the world to a goodness beyond its own devising. Our freedom is not independence from God, but his giving us a genuine role in what happens. By contrast, the self-divinization of the human being, which arose from certain currents in the thought of the Renaissance, led to a practical idolatry of the human: "man is God to man," homo homini Deus. With such presuppositions as these, the achievements of humankind in ethical heroism, artistic creativity, or scientific genius are no longer seen as touches of the Absolute, visitations of a a rumor of angels, but, rather, as just what one should expect of human powers. By the nineteenth century, the idea that what is given to God is ipso facto taken away from human beings had become imaginatively pervasive. It was taken for granted that the dignity of human beings lies in their autonomy, their being dependent on, responsive to, and indebted to none but themselves for good or ill. Such a Promethean picture of humankind is close to Lucifer's Non serviam, "I will not serve." It is at once a cause and a symptom of the collapse of any imagery of God as truly the Creator of the human race, the primal Freedom which grounds and sustains our derived freedom. There can be no move from the life of humanity to theistic images of the divine, seriously entertained, till this Promethean picture is replaced by a pontifical alternative. In this latter world-view, the human being would be the pontifex, the bridge-builder between the visible and invisible worlds, between created and uncreated, the goal knowledge and love, whose service is perfect freedom. Human persons are not absolutes. They are called beyond themselves, and their receptivity to this call constitutes their glory.

The final authority governing the human mind is thus not the flux of phenomena (as in positivism), nor the historical process (as in Marxism), nor the mind itself (as in existentialism), nor the principles of reason (as in idealism), but God. The predicate true finds its full meaning only in relation to the all-encompassing truth, which is equivalent to an absolute mind. The same goes for the final good that governs the human will.

When ethics and living are in question, I do not think it is necessary to look any further for what is the sovereign good of man to which everything must be related. For it has been shown by reason insofar as we are capable of it and by that divine authority which exceeds our reason, that it is nothing else than God himself. What indeed could be the highest good of man if not that whose possession makes him perfectly happy? This good is God himself, to whom it is certain that we can only be attached by direction, love, charity.[10]

The human being relates to this divine truth and divine goodness in a way that accords with human nature: that is, through history. The history concerned is of two kinds: the general history of human culture in which the person's relation with God is possible only in a diffuse and indirect way, and the special history of revelation, with its salvific goal sacred history, where this relation exists in a focused and direct form.

In the sacred history that Christianity at once assumes from Judaism and proclaims through its own gospel, the human person both passes through historical time so as to enter, at death, an eternity which already, in life, surrounds him or her, and also, qua individual member of the human race as a whole, waits for the future parousia of the Lord, when all God's ways with the world will reach their goal. "Time ends in eternity even before the end of time."[11] The principal events of this episodically unfolding sacred history are found in the divine economy which the Christian faith reflects and in the sacraments of that faith, which are the continuing extension of the special divine action in later time. By contrast, the religious significance of the history of human culture at large is not so unambiguous. That history does not follow a single thread of progress, as simple evolutionary theories suppose. Just as cultures, like individuals, may die and pass away for ever, or die and be reborn, so the civilizations through which the sacred history passes know what the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures call their "times," crises of internal disruption caused by hubris of one sort or another, to which they may react by either dissolution or purification. Such "times," or crucial moments, not only subsume and perpetuate that crisis par excellence which was the death and resurrection of the Word made flesh, but also anticipate the final verdict of God in history. For the individual person, immersed in history, judgment is an ever­present reality, while the world of creatures as a whole has still to learn that judgment hangs over it. In both senses, the history of the world is the story of a perpetual judgment, of which the parousia will form the consummation.

But what are the elements of human nature to be thus purified and transformed in what Dante calls la vita nuova, the "new life"? According to Catholic anthropology, the human being was created as a duality-in-unity: soul and body, at once animated body and embodied soul. While it is the essential task of soul, as the spiritual principle in humanity, to give life to the body which shares after its own fashion in our being "in God's image, to his likeness" (Gen 1:27), nonetheless it is the soul's special originating mark that, in its utter simplicity (so unlike the complexities of biochemistry) it is created immediately by God, and in that simplicity will escape the decay to which organisms are subject; it will not perish, then, at its separation from the body in death. This in turn, however, should not be taken to mean that the Creator ever envisaged the soul without reference to the body which it is to animate. Rather must we think of God as creating precisely that soul and no other which, in union with the body that human procreation and heredity have provided, can enter into the unique and unrepeatable unity of a particular human being.

We have not yet fathomed, however, the deepest basis of the unity of soul and body, in a principle which also serves as the highest index of their purposeful engagement. Human beings share the dignity of being persons: able to enter into communion with other persons and to be called by grace to covenant relations a union of knowledge and love with their Creator. The Church's anthropology is not exclusively or even primarily speculative, but has in view a practical aim, namely, the moral, ascetic, and mystical life whereby human persons are united with God and so with all their fellow creatures. To be a spiritual being even an embodied one is to be able to penetrate other beings to their ontological interior, to make them part of one's own life without violation of their integrity.

The twelfth-century monastic theologian William of St. Thierry, who explored, in the steps of Augustine and Bernard, the essential mystery of our nature, set forth in his On the Nature and Dignity of Love the two very different directions in which the human being can travel. The heart should "govern body and soul like a king in his realm," yet under the influence of distorted desire it can "flow down into the belly and even lower." Alternatively, the heart can take an upward direction, allowing love to be purified until it is fit to be united to God. Then "holiness of life and the transfiguration of the inner man become visible." The flesh can become, in the faces of the saints, transparent to the future glory.[12]

Through the five senses the soul feels, knows, and understands, coordinating their deliverances as a unity. The wonderful conjunction of body and soul has its closest bond in the imagination (the image­forming faculty, which is not more of soul than it is of body and vice versa). For William, five loves correspond to the five senses. First, diffused through humanity as is the sense of touch throughout the body, comes the love of our near relatives. Normal and unremarkable, it may be taken for granted, needing more curbing than development. Next, comparable to the sense of taste, comes social love, based on common interests, for taste, like the imagination, is bodily yet quasi-spiritual. The altruistic love of our fellows for their own sake, amor naturalis, William compares to smell, for this is more spiritual still: scent, though it enters the soul through the body, leaves soul not body affected. Spiritual love he likens to hearing, and defines by it the love of our enemies. Hearing signifies obedience, and the love of those we dislike is something we can only achieve by obeying the commands of the gospel. Needing constant practice, it brings about in us in time the likeness of the Son of God. The love of God, finally, resembles sight, the highest of the senses, a fitting analogue for the highest of loves, that of God for his own sake. On this scheme, no one is complete who has not developed the entire fivefold hierarchy of love, in which even the most elementary and self-interested love is drawn through an ascending scale to love what is Godlike in human beings, to love in a Godlike way, and eventually to love God himself as perfectly as he may be loved.[13]

As later Catholic anthropology will insist, all the functions that make up properly human behavior are unified by the person who thus appropriates soul and body with all their powers and commits them to action. By reflecting on consciousness, on what it is to be a subject in action, we are led to explore the experience of being an agent, what the philosopher-pope Karol Wojtyla has called the "experience of efficacy." To a degree the person transcends nature, for, as the image of God, humanity enjoys free determination, and the power to initiate action; as Aquinas pointed out, echoing the seventh-century Church Father John of Damascus, the human person is autoexousion, causa sui. At the same time, the free act must also have a cognitive dimension, for freedom does not dispense persons from maintaining their place within the order of truth. Indeed, moral agents cannot possess themselves via an act of really responsible self-determination unless that act respects the essential structure the ontological truth of their own personhood, including, via the soul, the natural finality of the human body and its characteristic rhythms. Moral action, when it is in correspondence with the true, serves to establish the unity of body and soul in the personhood of each human being.

This should not be understood, however, in some hermetically individualist sense. As etymology indicates, a person is a communicator, an individual subject in dialogue, and so from the start of existence a member of a community. A person is a respondent. Concern with communion (as distinct from mere social coexistence) distinguishes Catholic anthropology from its competitors, whether in European totalitarianism or in Anglo-Saxon individualism. The ultimate relationship and the reason why ecclesial society, the Church, is of greater moment, for human nature, than civil society in all its forms will be, then, with the Creator, who calls me into existence by name, and continues to call me into association with himself in his divine community.[14]

Yet in social communion too (namely, by reflecting on their experience of responsible action), human beings can become aware of that unique, inalienable dignity which is theirs as personal subjects, whose very self-fulfillment demands self-giving a self-giving through which they are able, wondrously, to share in the life of other centers of freedom. Such self-donation forms a bond of true communion between human beings. Here is the deepest ground of the "third way" in the social doctrine of the Church, which we shall consider later in this study. It was owing to a failure to recognize the dignity of human beings as personal agents that the materialisms of classical liberal capitalism and Marxian socialism dehumanized their objects, making people the servants or the products, respectively, of impersonal forces.

Such an account of human identity highlights what in the human sciences today goes for the most part by default the result, we may well think, of too exclusively empirical a view of definition and method. Yet such sciences can never prove the absence of Godward relationship, but only fail to demonstrate this relatedness, which is quite another matter. Since every material sign of the human being's Godly dimension is, for empiricism, equivocal, such empirical methods cannot constitute the final court of appeal in discussion of the human mystery.

A Catholic anthropology, furthermore, holds out hope for the practical, and not just theoretical, resolution of the human "affair." Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for instance, holds that while compulsions, at once geographical and psychological, oblige human beings to live and think in ever-closer proximity, they do not necessarily love each other the more on that account: far from it. In L'Avenir de 1'homme he insists that only the appearance, at the summit and heart of the world, of an "autonomous center of congregation" can inspire, release, and preserve, within a spiritually dispersed humanity, the power of true unity. Only a "veritable super-love" can, of psychological necessity, control and synthesize the host of other earthly loves. Without such a center of universal convergence, there can be no real coherence among humankind. A world that culminates in the impersonal can bring us neither the warmth of attraction nor the hope of "irreversibility" (immortality). And without these, individual egoism will always have the last word echoing Albert Camus's statement that if humans found that the universe could love they would be reconciled.[15] This is where the incarnation belongs. Here one can find God in humanity and humanity in God, as the Cistercian doctors pointed out long ago. For Bernard, the charity-love that flows from the incarnate Lord enables us to show effective compassion to fallen human nature, both in ourselves and in others. For his English contemporary Aelred, that same charity creates the concord of brethren living in unity, enjoying their collateralness and companionship. For William of St. Thierry, the love of Christ in other human beings verges on an act of adoration for him present there, since through the incarnation everything human has become a vehicle for the divine.

The catalyst in such transformation of human powers can only be the Holy Spirit joining human wills to himself he who is in his own substance the will of Father and Son. The Trinitarian understanding of God presents us with the Holy Spirit as both Giver and Gift, Giver in the changelessness of eternity, Gift in the changeableness of time. The presence of the Holy Spirit in God's own being flows over, through grace, as a presence in our souls where he causes in us that literally "ecstatic" (outgoing) co-presence of Father and Son which is the archetype of all relationship whatsoever. The centrality of the soul in its origin, between God and the body, gives way to a centrality in the Holy Spirit, between Father and Son, in the midst of the divine Trinity. This is the final transformation which, being eternal, has no end.

The anthropology of Scripture read in Tradition is therefore a theomorphic anthropology: the human person is called to bear the form, morphe, of God himself, to be a living image of the unseen Elohim, the God of Israel who is also the God of all the world. Though this carries the danger of encouraging idolatry of the human, the New Testament successfully scotches that threat. As the Letter to the Colossians says, Jesus Christ, the Word who, becoming flesh, became the self-emptying poor man of Nazareth, is the "image of the invisible God" (1:15). Christ is not only the definitive revelation of God in the finite, providing a key to God's purposes in his creation, he is also the perfect fulfillment of the humanity spoiled in Adam, and thus the measure and goal for human beings. And so the anthropology of the Church is necessarily a Christological anthropology.[16]

If reflection on the problem of humanity leads the Catholic mind to Christ, so also does thinking of the mystery of God. As we have seen already, rational reflection on the divine produces a docta ignorantia, an "enlightened ignorance" wherein we know principally of God what he is not. The modest understanding that the search for the God of reason achieves must give way to some other mode of knowledge if the promise of divine presence held out by the images of the God of imagination is not to be judged empty. In the history of revelation propitious conditions are created for the embodiment of the transcendent Creator within his own world. As the fifteenth-century metaphysical theologian Nicholas of Cusa has it, the maximum absolutum of God, the totality of underived being, becomes at a midpoint of history, in the incarnation, which is comparable only with the original creation of the world conjoined with the maximum contractum of the world, the totality of derived being: "The maximal and minimal coincide: maximal humiliation with exaltation."[17]

Christ is at once viator and comprehensor: himself a traveler, and yet the One who comes to meet all human beings at some point on life's way. He is "the man who loves and the God who is beloved."[18] The person who receives this as the truth, says Nicholas, is converted in spirit, and finds himself journeying towards the God who is not only lovable but love itself.[19] It is "the most sweet Jesus," he remarks in the epilogue addressed to his patron, Cardinal Cesarini, who opens to us "the goal of the mind's desire." In sympathetic identification with the human consciousness of Jesus Christ and in receipt of all that flowed from his mission, we come to share that inner exchange which is the life of God itself. We discover the commerce of Jesus and his Abba ("dear Father") in the Holy Spirit: an everlasting interpersonal communion of self-giving goodness, offered to us also, insofar as we can bear it, in grace and glory. Here the God of reason gives way at last to the God of love. But our exploration of that must await the chapter of this book on the revealed, Churchly doctrine of God the Holy Trinity.



1. Augustine, Confessions 10.6.

Il libro della beata Angela da Foligno (Rome, 1950) 36.

3. DH 3004. The letters stand for the most commonly used collection of doctrinal authorities, H. Denzinger, Kompendium der Glaubensbekenntnisse und kirchlichen Lehrentscheidungen, 37th ed., ed. P Hunermann (Freiburg, 1991). Cited below as "DH."

4. Cited in W. Ward, The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, Based on His Private Journals and Correspondence (London, 1912) 2.243.

5. G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens (London, 1966) 41-42.

6. For a fuller account, see A. Nichols, A Grammar of Consent. The Existence of God in Christian Tradition (Notre Dame, Ind., and Edinburgh, 1991).

7. J. Maritain, Distinguer pour unir, ou, Les degres du Savoir (Paris, 1932) 453.

8. DH 3001.

9. Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 6.

10. Augustine, On the Customs of the Catholic Church 14.24.

11. T. Dilworth, The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones (Toronto, Buffalo, London, 1988) 200.

12. William of St. Thierry, On the Nature and Dignity of Love 3-13.

13. Ibid., 19-24.

14. K. Wojtyla, The Acting Person (Boston, 1979); "The Person: Subject and Community," Review of Metaphysics 33 (1979) 273-308.

15. P. Teilhard de Chardin, L'Avenir de 1'homme (Paris, 1959).

16. For this theme, see A. Nichols, The Art of God Incarnate: Theology and Image in Christian Tradition (London, 1980).

17. Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance 1.4.

18. Ibid. 3.12.

19. Ibid. 3.9.

Copyright ©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 27th April 2010

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