This is the moment: behold, the Master of all virtues, the Father’s Minister for the distribution of all good things, the divine and heavenly Word, has appeared to all men, to all the peoples of the earth prepared and ready to receive the knowledge of the Father, through a man who is in no way different from our own nature in the essence of his body, and who has done and suffered what they prophets foretold.
They had predicted that a God-Man, a worker of marvelous deeds, would come to the earth and become the Teacher of the Father’s religion for all peoples; they had preannounced the wonder of this birth, the novelty of his teachings, the marvelousness of his works, and then the Death he would undergo, his Resurrection, and his divine return to the heavens.
It is clear that all of this can be attributed to no one other than our Savior, the God-Word who was with God in the beginning and who, by his ultimate Incarnation, is also called the Son of Man.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) known as the “angelic doctor” is the unofficial, official philosopher/theologian of the Catholic Church. I say unofficial/official because the Catholic Church does not, and should not, have just one theologian that speaks for it, but Thomas does have a privileged place among Catholic teaching and doctrine.
From Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1870) which touted Thomas as the philosopher par excellence that could help restore the loss of depth among Catholic philosophy to St. Thomas Aquinas high schools littered throughout the country, Thomas is likely the most widely esteemed thinker in the Catholic tradition.
Paul J. Griffiths and Reinhard Hütter, editors of the fantastic volume Reason and the Reason’s of Faith (2005) say in their introduction that they were surprised at how universally and frequently Thomas was drawn on in the collection from writers of all different kinds of Christian traditions, far more than any other thinker. Thomas thought holds an embarrassment of riches for the Church that we must have at least a rudimentary grasp of of to be intellectually responsible leaders in the Church.
I have been diving back into Thomas’ world and his writings during some time off during this Thanksgiving season and want to highlight five themes that ground Thomas’ thought that seem to me absolutely crucial to guiding reflection on God and the world around us. Thomas’ metaphysical first principles provides the Christian thinker with a set of basic principles through which questions of reality can be filtered — a bastion of hope in a world looking for stability. In what follows I have borrowed heavily from the venerable Thomistic scholar, the late W. Norris Clarke, longtime professor at Fordham. Clarke leaned heavily on the “existential” interpretation of Thomas’ thought introduced to America through the writings of the French philosopher/theologian Etienne Gilson and furthered by Catholic thinkers like Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan. Before we dive in, three definitions are vital to understanding Thomas’ technical language.
A Thomistic Glossary to Get Going
esse– The best translation of this Latin term is probably existence. Esse is the act by which things exist. God is pure esse, pure existence, anything that exists participates in esse. All created things have a natural inclination to God because our existence is sustained only by a continual outflow of esse, God Himself. This word is the heart and soul of Thomistic metaphysics and fully explicated in the little volume De Ente et Essentia. Being with a capital B often stands in for this crucially important Latin term. Think Heidegger.
essence- The essence of a thing is that which makes a thing to be what it is. The essence of the human person is humanity, everything that makes a human a human, for instance. Any created being analyzed metaphysically is a composite of esse and essence. Analyzed in more natural scientific terms, all beings are composed of form (the essence of a thing) and matter.
being- being with a lower case b is all that exists that consists of a composite of essence and esse. A being is a human person, a rock, a puppy, an angel, an electron…
Three Themes of Thomastic Metaphysics that should Guide our Thinking Today
1.The connaturality of the human spirit and being. “By nature all people desire to know,” Aristotle says in the first line of the Metaphysics.The human mind is made to know being, being is intelligible, and the human spirit is made to seek being, being is good. That being is intelligible is the first principle of the intellectual life and that good is to be done an evil avoided is the first principle of the moral life. As Christians, this principle is grounded in the fact that creation was spoken into being by the Logos, the incarnate Word of God, the essence of intelligibility and goodness.
2. An understanding of the structure of being of composed of essence and the act of existence (esse). This existential structure of every created thing is what gives us community with every other being in the universe. The essence of a thing is what limits its receptivity of the act of existence, the greater the amount of participation in esse, the more perfect the being because existence is the perfection of God. “Existence itself is participation in God’s own essential perfection.” Human beings thus have an essence that allow for greater participation in esse than does, say, a fly, and thus the human being is closer to God’s perfection than a fly. It is only in the human person that Being is able to truly manifest itself as Being, because it is only the human person that is capable of being overawed by the sheer grace of existence. The human person is truly a Da-Sein, the only creature where Being is self-manifested.
3.being (lower-case) is by its very nature dynamic. (The same is true of upper case Being, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) Created things are self-revealing by nature because being overflows into action. What would a being be that didn’t have the capacity to act or be acted upon? It wouldn’t be an intelligible object, it would be literally nothing, no-thing. The rock has the potential to be picked up and thrown, the puppy’s being overflows into running and playing, the human person types metaphysical blog entries and drinks coffee in the cold. This principle grounds a realist epistemology. We can know things outside of our minds as they are in the world because they are by nature self-revealing by their actions. Creation, being, reveals its essence continually through action and thus throws itself into a web of relations creating a universum, a being-together. The modern notion of inert substance found in Descartes, Locke, and Hume, as static, simply an extended thing or an unknowable pincushion revealed only by its “accidents” should be rejected. Being is fundamentally self-revealing and relational.
These three themes are but a fly by of Aquinas but if you don’t grasp them, you won’t understand Thomas. He is a difficult thinker and getting into the language and the terminology is difficult. But he is worth spending a day, a month, a year, a lifetime to understand. He brings God and creation into a whole new level of understanding, wonder, and worship.
Our soul is the greatest possession we have, it is what makes us human. Often the soul is characterized as some ephemeral, formless, vapor-like substance that resides deep within us, separate from our mind and body. But I think the soul is considerably more substantial than this popular caricature betrays. The soul, I contend, is the essence of who we are as a person: it is the sum of our thoughts, words, actions, emotions, sensations, desires, and experiences past, present, and future. In a word, the soul is our being in the world.
Because this is so, one of our key purposes in life is to care for our soul, to tend to the soil of our personhood. Soul care, as it is often called, is not an end in itself but a means of preparation for the life to come, when God’s future is established in-full here on earth.
Contemplating life, however, is inextricable with contemplating death. While it is the sting of sin’s curse, death is not given the final word on our life. Rather, it may also be seen as one climactic act in God’s grand drama of redemption. The problem with death, though, as Chrysostom suggests below, is that it cannot be restrained or altogether predicted: all will eventually be met with its devastating power and most will be caught unawares.
Thus the import of cultivating our soul’s virtue while we still retain consciousness. It is the shape of our soul – all of who we are, remember, not just an amorphous spirit – who will survive the blow of death and enter the Age to Come. All of our possessions this side of death will be of no consequence in a new reality.
In sum, then, as we contemplate the shape of our soul this Advent, and as we solemnly celebrate the arrival of the One who conquered death, let us heed Chrysostom’s words and begin to trim the fat from our moral lives. Let’s train our souls in virtue so we may know how to navigate the streets of God’s coming kingdom.
John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, 77, 2ff.
‘Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come’ (Mt 24:43-44).
He does not reveal the day, so that they will remain vigilant and ever ready; and he declares that he will come at the hour they least expect, so that they will remain constantly prepared for battle and dedicated to virtue. This is what his words ultimately mean: if men knew the time of their death, they would prepare for that hour in every way and with the greatest effort. That their fervor might not be limited to that day, he reveals neither the day of universal judgment nor the day of particular judgment; they will thus be always fervent and in constant expectation.
This is the reason he leaves the end of every man’s life in a veil of uncertainty. It seems to me that he also intends to rouse and confound the lazy, whose souls do not manifest the same concern as those whose riches instead lead them to fear the raids of a thief.
Patience is a virtue not easily acquired in today’s culture. We are busy, restless people who get too easily distracted by entertainment and constant change. Restlessness inevitably leads to pettiness and boredom — and we seemingly begin to live for cheap, momentary pleasures more than the hope of sustainable, enduring goodness.
Patience is the handmaid of hope. It resigns and restricts human avarice with the knowledge that something greater, more assuring, lies on the horizon of our experience. That is why St. Hilary can write confidently that “Our fathers awaited you; all the righteous men from the beginning of the world have hoped in you and have not been confounded.”
Patience is not a vice to hamper desire or progress, as it is often thought to be. Rather, patience is a practice that gently shapes, forms, and orders our desires toward truth, beauty, and goodness. In solidarity with those before us, we sit patiently, though no less hopefully and expectantly, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Like them, we eschew petty dreams and cheap thrills so we may be ready to attend to our Lord on the day of his visitation.
May the peace of our Lord comfort you during this Advent season as you wait patiently for his return.
Hilary of Poitiers, Discourses, I, 1ff.
O awaited one of the peoples! Those who await you will not be disappointed. Our fathers awaited you; all the righteous men from the beginning of the world have hoped in you and have not been confounded. Indeed, when our mercy was received in the heart of your temple, the joyful choruses made heard their praises and sang, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ (Mk 11:9). I have tirelessly awaited the Lord, and he has turned his gaze toward me.
Then, recognizing divine majesty in the lowliness of flesh, they said, ‘Here is our God! We have awaited him; he will save us! He is the Lord; we have awaited him patiently, and we will exult and rejoice in his salvation!’ . . . While others trouble themselves seeking their happiness down here, rushing to hoard the spoils, the world offers them without waiting for the fulfillment of the Lord’s design.
The blessed man who has placed his hope in the Lord and has not set his sights on vanity and deceptive folly keeps far from their ways. . . . And in thinking to himself, he consoles himself with these words: ‘My inheritance is the Lord, says my soul; that is why I will wait. The Lord is good to those who hope in him. to the soul that seeks him. It is good to wait in silence for God’s salvation.’
For 2000 years the Church has waited expectantly for the coming of Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, the Prince of Peace. This singular hope has sustained the Church’s witness and nurtured its life since Jesus was first raised from the dead. Since that glorious event, Christians of every generation have sought to remind themselves, and the world, of the hope of his immanent return.
These reminders have often taken the form of sermons and hymns, written mostly by great men (and women!) of the Church, commonly and affectionately known as the Church Fathers. To thicken the texture of your Advent season, The Theologian’s Library would like to share brief excerpts of some of these marvelous sermons with you. We will post a new sermon excerpt daily through Advent so you may add it to your devotional reading. We hope your theological imagination will be quickened and your soul richly blessed by the timely, wise, and enduring words of these heroes of the faith.
Maximus of Turin, Homily 60, 3-4
Thus, dear brothers, may we who await the birth of the Lord cleanse ourselves of all the remnants of sin! Let us fill his treasuries with many gifts, so that upon the arrival of that holy day we may welcome the strangers, support the widows, and clothe the poor!
“Indeed, what would happen if, in the house of the servants under the same master, one were to proudly don silk garments while another was covered with rags; if one were stuffed with food while another suffered hunger and cold; if one were tormented by indigestion from yesterday’s gormandizing while another could hardly stave off yesterday’s hunger? Or what should the purpose of our prayers be?
May we who are not generous toward our brothers ask to be liberated from the enemy. Let us imitate our Lord! Indeed, if he desires that the poor partake of heavenly grace with us, why should they not partake of earthly goods with us? May those who are our brothers in the sacraments lack no earthly sustenance, even if only so they may give testimony before God on our behalf: may we sustain them and may they give thanks to him. The more a poor man blesses the Lord, the more it will help the one who gives him cause to bless the Lord.”
Blessings this Advent as we prepare for the birth of our Lord!
Note: This is the first part of a planned 15 part series on the power of fiction. We believe here at the Theologian’s Library that fiction should be read along with theology, philosophy, and all the rest. Fiction has the power to put oneself into the mind and shoes of other people which is a particularly valuable skill for the pastor and cultural interpreter. We hope to give you a solid recommended list of fiction that will improve your preaching and teaching, your understanding of the human condition, and deepen your love of Jesus.
Haunting, apocalyptic and desolate are the three obligatory superlatives that come to mind in thinking over Greene’s masterpiece in its 75th birthday and the mood that Greene creates in its 200-something pages. Time has the novel on its “Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century List” and for good reason. It contains a weight, a gravitas, that is hard to come by in fiction today. Greene’s Catholic faith is well-documented but it is worth reiterating that without it, there is no masterpiece, no Power and the Glory. Take that Christopher Hitches and your “religion poisons everything” the subtitle to his 2007 book, God is Not Great. (By the way, I do miss you Mr. Hitchens. In fact, I should see what you had to say about Greene, I always do value your input on literature, if not so much on questions of faith.) In his forward to the edition that I read, John Updike says that The Power and the Glory is the first novel in which Green’s Catholicism doesn’t feel “tacked on” and somewhat superfluous. Indeed, the specter of genuine faith in the midst of starvation, ruination and hopelessness is what makesGreene’s dodranscentennial novel (75th birthday) a masterpiece.
During the reading of The Power and the Glory, I googled (yes, it is in the OED, I have just learned) “Graham Greene / Cormac McCarthy” because, having come to McCarthy first, I was struck with the similar apocalyptic-like tones of both of these writers. Sure enough, Penguin publishing has written in the 75th anniversary edition that Graham’s novel traces its history “back to Dostoyevsky and forward to McCarthy.” The Dostoyevsky comparison is obvious because of the very real, yet grotesque, suffering of the “whiskey priest,” the nameless main character of the novel.
Just a quick side note, having just read Vanhoozer’s Pastor as Public Theologian and traveling to Chicago to hear him at the “Pastor as Public Theologian Conference”, I was surprised that he didn’t list Greene and his “whiskey priest” (the anonymous main character of the novel) as an example of men of the cloth in his survey of popular portrayals of pastors and the negative effect those usually have on religion. Regardless, I appreciated Vanhoozer’s section on the power of fiction and why ministers need to be reading fiction in order to preach more powerfully and to understand the human condition more deeply. If you are looking to be persuaded that fiction is indeed, important, I would recommend picking his book up.
A little autobiography before I get to the book itself: My only contact with Greene before reading this work was reading his Quiet American (1955) for senior honors English back in the day. I remember writing a paper contrasting the protagonist (Alden Pyle) with —with whom…— Hamlet perhaps? I would love to find that paper and read it. I’m sure it would make me cringe, but many of my writings do that, like I’m sure they do for you as well. It’s like hearing your voice played back to you, no one likes that!
I remember writing that paper in the late evening hours at Homer’s Coffeehouse on 91st and Metcalf in the Kansas City suburbs. It was one of the first times that I realized I thoroughly enjoyed literary criticism and the power of words to speak into the painful realities of everyday life. I remember feeling drawn out of myself —what a tremendous experience!— and catching a glimpse of the world around me, a glimpse that is so hard to grab in the teenage years (and many never grasp it). Renaissance humanists understood this power, the dunamis of literature to make the present make sense, the power of words written centuries ago to transform this very second. They called it bonae litterae. So Greene was powerful in my early formation and my senior English teacher was as well, giving me the space to discover what those Renaissance rascals meant by that beautiful Latin phrase. I have since reconnected with him in order to tell him so. (I am a bit ashamed to admit it now, maybe I shouldn’t be I don’t know, but it was reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg per his recommendation that sent me off on my love of the written word and my love of books in young adulthood. For that, I am eternally grateful.)
To the book itself.
A way in to this masterpiece for those unfamiliar comes from the pixels of a recent, but already of classic-status television show. Lovers of Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” will undoubtedly devour The Power and the Glory; there are so many parallels, so many similar scenes. Greene’s novel is set in the heat, desolation and atheism of a 20th century Mexico stripped of its faith by a quasi-communist government (the “red shirts”.) Walter White’s life is set in the emptiness, desolation and meaninglessness of 21st century New Mexico. From the beginning, though, the whiskey priest’s situation looks much more existentially dire than Walter’s. Walter, in the beginning, though confronted with a cancer diagnosis still has a loving family and seemingly stable emotional well to draw from, but his life quickly descends into chaos and both men are forced by circumstances outside of their control to confront their past, and ask how and why both have become who they are and if they care to stay that way. Walter’s search leads him to create an alter-ego complete with piles of cash, sunglasses and that ridiculous hat to his ignominious end (in the eyes of this writer to be sure). The whiskey priest is lead back into the clutches of the lieutenant who has been hunting him like an animal by the plea of a dying renegade for last rights, knowing that it will signal his martyrdom but unable to evade his “duty” as he refers to it.
One of the most powerful questions posed by Walter and the whiskey priest and why both works of art will be talked about for years to come is, who is a person, really? And what happens when the person that once was becomes so radically different from his past that he becomes unrecognizable? Was he ever that person, or were those years simply an apparition of extended fabrication? That’s the question that the whiskey priest is forced to ask himself over and over in the novel and the answer, he knows, means life or death. Christianity has been outlawed and so to admit that he, indeed, is a priest and to live that out will be at one and the same time, to find his life and lose it. Therein lies the pull of the novel. Is the whiskey priest more alive when he is living up to his vocation as a minister of God, even though it may end his life, or should he scrap all of that now in order to survive? The priest wrestles with whether his life is even worth preserving. Is he is doing greater harm to those he comes into contact with as an affront to the idea of God? If this is a man who has represents God, then what do we want with that God? the priest imagines people will say. Hiding out in one of the villages the priest asks himself,
If he left them, they would be safe, and they would be free from his example. He was the only priest the children could remember; it was from him they would take their ideas of faith. But it was from him too they took God – in their mouths. When he was gone it would be as if God in all this space between the sea and the mountains ceased to exist. Wasn’t it his duty to stay, even if they despised him, even if they were murdered for his sake? even if they were corrupted by his example? He was shaken with the enormity of the problem (65).
The authorities have taken to shooting a hostage in every village until the whiskey priest turns himself in. The constant tension between turning himself in as the last hold out priest to save the lives of innocents and continuing to run to preserve his own life and to do the work of God is what gives the novel its immediacy, it’s what turns it into bonae litterae. The whiskey priest knows that he is not a good priest, but he is all that’s left. The bursting of this almost unbearable weight comes, not when the priest has decided to give himself up in order to administer last rights to the dying fugitive, but in his conversation with the lieutenant after he has been arrested.
“You have such odd ideas, the lieutenant complained. He said, ‘Sometimes I feel you’re just trying to talk me round.’
‘Round to what?’
‘Oh, to letting you escape perhaps – or to believing in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints…how does that stuff go?’
The forgiveness of sins.’
‘You don’t believe much in that, do you?’
‘Oh yes, I believe,’ the little man said obstinately” (206).
And so there it is. The priest does truly have faith. He has not been running away simply to survive. He does believe that he is the hands and feet of Christ, that the host does turn in to the body and blood of Jesus and that confession will save people from eternal separation. And so we, the readers, also continue to believe. The little priest has given us his permission. And his life.
Earlier this year I got the idea to email the acclaimed theologian David Bentley Hart about books. Hart, as you may know, is arguably one of America’s greatest living theologians. While sitting firmly within the Orthodox tradition, Hart evinces thoughtful ecumenical sensibilities and has written powerfully and persuasively on an array of subjects as wide as the Trinity, consciousness and the philosophy of mind, metaphysics, church history, and travel literature. By all accounts Hart is a polymath whose mind is an irreducible gift to the Church catholic. This is my opinion, at least.
Anyway, due to my deep respect for Hart and his work, I desired to know what books he’d recommend to people like myself who are keen to learn more about philosophy and theology and their relationship to one another. So, on a whim, I found his email address and asked him what he’d recommend. He was kind enough to send me the following response which I’ve posted below for your enjoyment.
Dear Ben, I assume you want basic guides to metaphysics to begin with. Richard Taylor’s Metaphysics (4th edition) is a good introduction to certain classic questions. Two volumes by E. L. Mascall–He Who Is and Existence and Analogy–are excellent guides to Christian metaphysics in the West, as is W. Norris Clarke’s The One and the Many. Avoid Peter van Inwagen: he’s brilliant at confusing things. Perhaps William Hasker’s Metaphysics is good, but I haven’t read it.
As for theology, always start with the fathers: Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Making of Man and On the Soul and Resurrection, Ps-Dionysius Complete Works (a short volume), Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ, Athanasius On the Incarnation, St Isaac of Ninevah’s treatises (especially the “Second Volume”), Maximus the Confessor’s Chapters on Love and the SVS volume “The Cosmic Mystery of Christ.” Don’t bother with Augustine until later, because for all his genius he got so much wrong (because he couldn’t read Greek, in large part). For mediaeval and early modern theology, Symeon the New Theologian’s Mystical Discourses (or whatever it’s called in English), Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind into God, and the Paulist Press volume of Nicholas of Cusa. Thomas Traherne’s Centuries and all three volumes of George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons are indispensable masterpieces. As for modern theologians, Bulgakov’s Bride of the Lamb, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, part IV of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Henri de Lubac’s Supernatural (currently being translated I believe, but if you read French go ahead), Rowan Williams’ Resurrection (2nd edition).
I hope this helps, David
If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to read any of Hart’s books, allow me to suggest the following two: The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, and his little book of essays entitled, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments. I hope to review both books, as well as the others in Hart’s repertoire, in the near future.