Essay / Theology

Boersma Writes Back

On this Thanksgiving Day, we are grateful for a response from Hans Boersma to the three previous days’ blog posts (pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3).

Let me first express my deep appreciation to Matt and Greg for taking the initiative to engage with my books on sacramental ontology and on nouvelle théologie.  I am grateful for this, because it is my deep hope and desire that a sacramental approach to reality may yet again take hold of our churches as well as our culture more broadly.  I realize that in this “blog exchange” I am speaking to the converted—or, as Matt puts it, we’re playing inside baseball.  But it would be good to get more people watching the game, and it would be even better if more and more people would start to play baseball themselves.  So, again, thanks so much for the opportunity to interact with you both on these important topics.

Your blog posts have already done a great job articulating the concerns that inform my books.  I am most interested in recovering a sense of mystery—an appreciation for the Christ-shaped, mysterious, sacramental depth of created reality.  The way in which I articulate this is by speaking of a reintegration of nature and the supernatural, or of the sign (signum) and the reality (res).  On this score, I really don’t need to add anything to what you have already articulated so helpfully in your blog posts.

Perhaps most helpful for your readers, therefore, would be some reflection on the points that you have raised for further discussion.  Others have brought to the fore the same issues, as well as related ones, so perhaps we can take the opportunity to reflect together on some of them, in hopes that together we can move forward in understanding both how we articulate a sacramental ontology and what its ecclesial and cultural implications might be.

Let me first say a little more about my own “agenda” with these two books.  Greg rightly picks up on the one line in my more academic book (Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology), where I highlight the importance of three areas: spiritual interpretation, the relationship of Scripture and Tradition, and communion ecclesiology.  In this book I express as my conviction that if somehow together (as Catholics and evangelicals) we could arrive at a shared realignment on these three topics, we might get pretty close to a reunited church.  Now, in some sense, I have no greater ambition or agenda, really.  The unity of the church has always been a passion of mine, and one of the things I have deeply appreciated in Henri de Lubac is his recognition of the importance of the unity of the church as the ultimate aim (the sacramental res) of the liturgical celebration.

Still, I would be really interested in chatting more with you both about the kind of thing you have in mind in terms of an “agenda.”  After all, if the theological enterprise plays itself out in the hustle-and-bustle of daily life—which is an insight integral to a sacramental approach to reality—then we should think together about ways in which we might give cultural and ecclesial shape to such a sacramental ontology.  I very much appreciate the hints that your blog posts have already given: the way in which we deal with technological innovation, and our approach to worship and liturgy, are both areas into we ought to speak into, directly from the perspective of a sacramental ontology.

At the same time, I rather deliberately have avoided any sort of programmatic approach to what to do with the sacramental ontology that I am advocating.  I am deeply suspicious of “how to” approaches to Christianity.   We live in a pragmatic culture that is Pelagian at heart.  We value “self-made” entrepreneurs and the various “steps” they advocate as the foolproof “method” to success.  The Christian faith knows no such thing.  The reason is, as Andrew Louth points out in his must-read book, Discerning the Mystery, that mystery is less a puzzle to be solved than a mystery to be entered into and adored.  A pragmatic, method-focused approach works on the assumption that what we do in the natural realm is strictly autonomous, subject to empirical analysis and verification, and as such controllable and “manipulable.”  The point of my project is precisely to say that we should shun such a scientist approach to reality and let questions about the supernatural purpose of life determine the way we go about our day-to-day business.  So, putting forward a program that spells out in detail how we plan to go about advancing a sacramental ontology would doom the project at the outset.

But let me try to answer your question about my “agenda” a little more directly.  It’s twofold—though the two parts of the agenda are merely two sides of the same coin, and it’s ultimately only one thing.  The one concern is the secularist and materialist focus of our desires.  It’s something I myself struggle with, and I think it’s a problem in our society as a whole.  I have avoided talking a lot about this, even in the more popular book, Heavenly Participation, perhaps out of fear of being misheard and ignored.  But your question—and also other people’s questions about the importance of sacramental ontology—drives me to be a bit more explicit about this.

The separation of nature from the supernatural lies at the very heart of the modern project.  One of the best historical accounts of how this came about is Brad Gregory’s recent book, The Unintended Reformation.  From the beginning, this separation was accompanied by the intent to make the pursuit of this-worldly (natural) goods our main ambition in life.  After all, once we’ve put to one side otherworldly concerns as belonging to a separate, supernatural realm, we don’t need to concern ourselves with it when we think about buying and selling, sexual desire, the music we make, or the technology we employ in (or outside) the classroom.  We keep these concerns hermetically sealed and separate from questions of the supernatural telos of eternal life in fellowship with God.  In other words, by separating nature from the supernatural, we surreptitiously make two related moves: (1) we pretend that spirituality has nothing to do with what we do in our everyday lives; and (2) our attention moves toward purely natural realities (the odd invention of pura natura) in order to make ourselves at home in this world as we try to satisfy our wants or desires.

The second part that makes up my agenda is my desire to be with God, to be transformed by seeing God in Christ.  I have recently started a new research project, and it deals with the beatific vision.  When people ask me what I’m working on, and I respond that I am writing on the beatific vision, I usually get quizzical looks.  People don’t know what I’m talking about.  That is to say, they haven’t heard of the beatific vision, and so they just don’t know what it is.  So, I explain that it is the Christian belief that we will see God face-to-face in the hereafter.  This then—depending on my interlocutor—leads to an interesting discussion about what our heavenly future is going to be like.  Now, those of us with some familiarity with the history of Christian doctrine should be startled that many of us no longer know about the beatific vision and haven’t thought about it.  Throughout the Great Tradition, the beatific vision was the ultimate purpose of life.  So, when in your blog post you raise the question of whether people have a natural desire for God—a question the nouvelle theologians answer in the positive—the question assumes that this is a desire for the beatific vision.  The debate on natural desire is usually framed like this: “Do we or do we not have a natural desire for the beatific vision?”  If we no longer think deeply about the beatific vision, we may well wonder, too, whether it makes any sense to still talk about “natural desire” for that supernatural end of human beings.

As I mentioned, I think these concerns are two sides of the same coin.  You could say that in modernity we have exchanged the desire to see God with the desire for pleasure.  We’ve made this-worldly ends rather than otherworldly ends the focus of our longings.  To be sure, the danger of focusing on physical and material pleasure isn’t new to modernity.  What I think is new is our cultural insistence that this focus is just fine.  What is new is our unwillingness to fight against desires that lead us away from our ultimate end.  My most recent book was on Gregory of Nyssa (Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa), and what struck me the most in this fourth-century mystical theologian is his deep awareness of the temptation to abandon of the life of virtue as we let the sensible, material world take control of the direction and aim of our lives.  It’s that awareness of Gregory—the recognition that the physical world can tempt our souls away from its ultimate good—that I think we have largely lost.  Gregory’s homilies on Ecclesiastes are powerful reminders of the Christian call for renunciation of this-worldly desires; and his sermons on the Song of Songs offer a powerful antidote, kindling in his listeners a passionate desire for our heavenly Groom.  It’s those two opposite sides of the same coin of human desire—Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs—that motivate my work more than anything else.

That leads me to the questions you raise about the Platonist-Christian synthesis.  They’re questions people often ask me: doesn’t the Platonic side of this synthesis draw us away from a true appreciation of the goodness of matter?  I’m going to be direct and to-the-point on this.  For the most part, I think the opposite is the case.  It is not Christian Platonism but it’s the loss of Christian Platonism that leads us to devalue the material world.  The reason I say this has everything to do with the relationship between nature and the supernatural.  For the Platonic tradition, the two relate by way of participation.  That is to say, the natural world (as Christians we prefer to say “the created order”) has its being not in itself but by way participation in higher realities (and, again, as Christians we would want to speak of participation in the eternal Word of God).  Participation means that created realities derive their very being—and therefore also their significance!—from the God in whom we live and move and have our being.  The claim that created realities participate in God is really a claim of astonishing significance: there is something “divine” in everything that God has made: he leaves his trace or mark in everything created.  Participation is precisely what gives the material world its “value.”  Sacramental sharing of created reality in the eternal Word of God gives creation both its mysterious and its sacred character.

By contrast, if we lose this sacramental ontology—by separating heaven and earth—earthly realities no longer have any significance.  Put in sacramental terms, they then lose the reality (res) of their being, and all we are left with is the outer husk (what earlier generations would have called the sacramentum) of the material object.  For Christian Platonism, the mystery that lurks in the everyday is what gives it its splendour and renders it beautiful.  For modern (and especially post-modern) theories of perception and knowledge, there is no inherent beauty or goodness in the material world.  All we have left, after all, is the outer husk.  As a result, material reality has significance only inasmuch as we assign it or construct it.  In a non-sacramental approach to reality, beauty, truth, and goodness turn into human, linguistic constructs, determined by the manipulation of the human gaze.  So, just to go back to Hopkins for a moment, it seems to me that we can only say that “Christ plays in ten thousand places” if there is a real presence of Christ in created reality.  It is only by the presence of Christ that “the just man justices” and that the creature is lovely “in eyes not his.”

Still, the question might be: isn’t there a danger of imbalance?  Doesn’t a sacramental ontology encourage impatience as we turn from the signum to the res?  I cannot deny that this does happen. Gregory of Nyssa’s anagogical (or heaven-directed) mindset, from which I have learned so much, doesn’t always do sufficient justice to the goodness of the material, created order. The reason, however, is not his Platonist Christianity, but his insufficiently rigorous adherence to it.  Nyssen talks about participation all the time, and by and large he is a wonderful example of Christian Platonism.  But he doesn’t talk very often about participation of physical, created realities in the life of God.  As a result, he sometimes gives the impression of wanting to leave behind the sacramentum in favour of the res.  At the same time, however, the more I read from the Christian tradition, both east and west, the more I realize that the common trope of a world-denying, body-hating Christian past is not even a caricature—it’s mostly just nonsense.

I don’t mean to say that there isn’t any otherworldliness in the Christian tradition.  There is lots of that.  But again, in a truly sacramental universe otherworldliness is in no way contrary to a proper appreciation of the created order—instead, the more we see Christ playing in ten thousand places, the more grateful we are for seeing Christ playing in ten thousand places.  Discerning and adoring the res makes us all the more grateful also for the sacramentum.

To be sure, we need a holy impatience, as we aim for the res of created reality.  It is the beatific vision that constitutes the aim of human life.  Augustine’s distinction between the use (usus) of penultimate things and the enjoyment (fruitio) of ultimate reality is an important one.  It implies that there is, to my mind, an “escapism” that is as biblical as it is Platonic.  It is a kind of escapism that recognizes that the inward mystery is more important than the outward sacrament.  It is the kind of escapism that refuses to worship the stomach or to set one’s mind on earthly things, recognizing that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:19-20).  I’m typically more than a little wary when people voice the concern that the Christian Platonist past supposedly is imbalanced by not taking created matter seriously enough.  Seeing as our capitalist economy is almost entirely based on fanning our insatiable desires for artificial “needs,” complaints regarding the imbalance of Christian Platonism seem somehow off-target, themselves oblivious to the imbalance of our contemporary obsessions.

Finally, for those readers who worry that Christian Platonism isn’t sufficiently biblical, let me recommend two recent books: Paul Tyson’s Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times and Robin A. Parry’s The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible.  Both books make short shrift of the argument that the Bible is incompatible with the Platonism of the Christian tradition.  Tyson, speaking of the New Testament, comments: “[T]he idea in 1 Corinthians 13 that eternal and unseen realities are more real than our knowledge of tangible things is not firstly a Platonist stance, yet it is a stance that both Plato and the New Testament accept.”  And the Old Testament scholar, Robin Parry, makes clear that this approach characterizes no less the Hebrew world of the Old Testament: “Creation participates in this divine Life just as it participates in Being, Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. So in some analogical sense all things, even rocks, have some sharing in life, albeit it at a very far remove from the divine Source.”  I couldn’t agree more.  It is Christian Platonism that allows us both to have an eye for the presence of Christ in creation and therefore also to look up the God who graciously has cast his eye on us.


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