Essay / Theology

Weaving a Platonic Tapestry (Boersma pt. 3)

Part 3 of Greg Peters and Matt Jenson’s discussion of Hans Boersma’s recent project on the Nouvelle Théologie

Peters:  As a sacramentalist in the Anglican tradition who finds more affinity with the (Neo-)Platonic heritage than the Aristotelian heritage, there is much in Boersma (and the NT) that excites me. Throughout much of the text I found myself nodding in agreement, waiting for Boersma to make the hard turn to his own call for a “return to mystery.” It happened but it was muted, something that I had not expected. Boersma is sensitive to the ecumenical implications of a sacramental ontology and sees it as offering a correction to certain areas of Protestant thought, which would then bring greater unity to the Christian church. In his words, “In short, spiritual interpretation, reintegration of Scripture and Tradition, and communion ecclesiology are among the most urgently required means to advance the unity of the Church. The re-appropriation of a sacramental ontology may provide a mindset that will open up avenues for a common return to mystery.” But he stops short from offering his own “agenda” as a result of his deep reading of the nouvelle theologians.

He says a bit more, however, in his Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011—thanks to Eerdmans for a copy!), which is a more “popular,” condensed version of A Return to Mystery. He writes, “I have become convinced that the only faithful way forward—not only theologically but also ecumenically—is by way of a sacramental ontology… [Roman] Catholics will turn evangelical and evangelicals will become Catholic if we deepen our common sacramental participation in the eternal Word of God.” At heart, Boersma’s vision includes a reunion of the Roman Catholic and evangelical church traditions. He does not want to necessarily make evangelicals Roman Catholic or Roman Catholics evangelical (in the institutional sense), but he wants to make them into one tradition that is more like the patristic and medieval Christian church than that found post-Reformation.

For Boersma this is possible with a recovery of a sacramental ontology, though I am left wondering if that’s an accurate assessment. For example, will the recovery of a sacramental ontology lessen the vaunted arguments surrounding the Bishop of Rome (such as papal infallibility)? That is, will a sacramental ontology prove effective to modify institutional practices that continue to be sticky wickets? Perhaps this is not Boersma’s concern, but it would seem logical to think that a true ecumenism not only affects the way we think but the way we practice church too. Boersma has made a first step in the right direction, but others will need to follow and further this return to mystery.

Jenson:  I think that’s right, Greg. I feel a bit of a need to defend Boersma here, though, on historical grounds. It certainly is the case that the emphases of the nouvelle théologie led to a Roman Catholic Church that is much more hospitable and even amenable to Protestants. The proof here really is in the pudding, and this pudding tastes ecumenical. Still, your point is rather that such theological dovetailing hardly solves the problems of ecclesial division by itself. Your term, “institutional practices,” aptly names the congeries of habits, prejudices, convictions, and sins blocking the road to reunion.

Let me add a second concern to our discussion. In Heavenly Participation, it becomes clear how much of Boersma’s proposal requires the continuing validity and explanatory power of the Platonist-Christian synthesis. Insofar as it undergirds a project of reintegration, in which the natural and supernatural are re-connected without collapsing into one another, and one in which we are exhorted to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1)—well, insofar as it does that, three cheers for the Platonist-Christian synthesis!

Still, it’s hard within a Platonist-Christian synthesis to shake the sense that matter doesn’t really, well, matter all that much. Boersma knows this: “Christians had a much higher regard for matter than did the Platonists.” But I suspect he’s overly sanguine: “Christians generally knew when to say no to the Platonic worldview.” Sure, Christians know that the world is God’s “very good” creation, even in its current state subject to futility. I would guess few Christians disdain matter. A subtler form of denigration can be seen in the escapism that occupies many Christians. A litany of escapist impulses can be discerned in various forms of perfectionism, apocalypticism, and sectarianism. I wonder whether a sacramental ontology can’t underwrite escapism, too—though in this case through moving too quickly away from matter to its sacramental meaning.

Gerard Manley Hopkins beautifully captures something of my concern in a wonderful poem:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Note what “each mortal thing” does: It manifests outwardly what it is inwardly, with the cry, “What I do is me: for that I came.” That is as true of the kingfisher as it is of the just man, who “justices.” “[M]yself” each one “speaks and spells.” Their creaturely glory is to be fully themselves, and it is just so that “Christ plays in ten thousand places.”

While this can be avoided, and despite Boersma’s awareness of the perils of Platonist sprawl, I suspect that a sacramental ontology will encourage an impatient movement beyond the signum to the res, requiring both kingfisher and just man to speak of Christ without ever speaking of themselves. It is a strange critique that worries about the prevalence of Christ; still, I don’t think it is Christ’s prevalence but the manner in which creation speaks of him that is at issue. On Hopkins’ view, creation magnifies Christ by speaking itself; Christ plays among people as women and men act as they are. Any sacramental account of creation, then, must linger over the mystery intrinsic to God’s creation as well as the mystery to which that creation points.

Peters:  Matt, what you point out (i.e., that the Christian-Platonist tradition has a tendency to devalue the signum in favor of the res), I think, is not an inherent weakness or flaw in the Christian-Platonist position itself but an imbalance in those who embrace the Christian-Platonist perspective. That is, the Christian-Platonist tradition, as a theological foundation, must be held in proper balance. Over-emphasizing the “Christian” aspect can lead to a fundamentalist bibliolatry (definitely a form of escapism); whereas an over-emphasis on the “Platonist” aspect can lead to anti-materialistic spiritualism. It is the balance that is so important and something that overall seems to have been well mediated by the nouvelle theologians.

The Christian tradition is replete with examples of folks who got the balance right. For example, Augustine of Hippo’s conversion, at least in his iteration of it in the Confessions, is accomplished through a resolution of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural. Whereas he previously could not intellectually move beyond imagining that God must be embodied in some way, the disembodied voices speaking “Tolle lege, tolle lege” finally penetrate the flesh of Augustine’s ears and reach his intellect (i.e., the immaterial) in such a way as to effect his conversion. Augustine’s conversion is a Christian-Platonist synthesis! It is this properly balanced synthesis that was re-discovered so well and espoused so eloquently by the nouvelle theologians. This synthesis is a venerable tradition that holds great promise, not only for ecumenicity but also for the sake of a robust theological interpretation of the Bible and constructive theological responses to technological innovation, for example.

Boersma’s robust reading and analysis of the nouvelle theologians has immediate application. For example, in the area of worship and liturgy there must be emphasis on both the natural and the supernatural, two aspects that must always remain wedded together (as the nouvelle theologians knew so well). The way in which this seems to have historically (and biblically) worked itself out is by way of the sacraments, by which natural things (e.g., water, bread and wine) actually became the means through which God imparts his supernatural grace. We must not be tempted to use natural things as a means to conjure he who is the Supernatural One, an aspect of much contemporary Christian worship that seeks an emotional response to one’s perceived experience of God (music and aesthetics [i.e., natural things] get us ready for God [i.e., the Supernatural]). The nouvelle theologians knew that precisely because of the incarnation of the Son of God (God [supernatural] in flesh [natural]) there could never be a dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, yet this is always a temptation in our worship. At every turn we seem tempted to domesticate God. The natural and the supernatural are both good (even “very good” according to Genesis 1:31), thus one must not be denigrated in favor of the other nor must one be used to get to the other. They walk together, hand in hand.

Further, in pastoral ministry, there is the expectation today that pastors and priests will be CEOs and CFOs of ecclesial corporations rather than “stewards of the mysteries” (1 Cor. 4:1) in God’s Church. Whereas budgets, buildings and bodies are real pastoral concerns they must never displace the biblical notion that pastors are the shepherds of God’s flock who are responsible for being in communion with the Supernatural One and for directing others (through Word and Sacrament) to him as well. The daily tasks of pastoral ministry are not ends in themselves but means to the End – God. That which is natural is not supplanted by the supernatural but joined to it so that all of a pastor’s work, from the mundane to the transcendent, is a divine work, an opus Dei to God’s glory.

Personally, Boersma’s text speaks volumes to the Evangelical tradition. Lord willing, all Christians desire the unity of the church along the lines prayed by Jesus Christ in John 17. Realistically, however, many of us are involved in issues related closer to our own ecclesial homes. What excites me about Boersma’s project in particular is not its pan-Christian ecumenical implications (though I am excited about that too) but for the influence that it can have in my own Anglican, evangelical house. How does evangelicalism not devolve again and again into a kind of unhealthy Biblicism and moralism that insistently denigrates the matter of the sacraments (if not both the form and matter of the sacraments)? It is not enough that evangelicals should be able to say that bread and wine (signa) are good but rather they should be able to confess that the spiritual food of the precious body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (res) is very good. That is, I believe, what nouvelle théologie can do for “my” church and inasmuch as it does that, it will further the greater cause of ecclesial re-union among all the Christian churches. Boersma has pointed us in the right direction and shown us a rich path to follow. Will we have the courage to walk down that path?


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