We can note from the outset that the purpose of the book is not to engage in a polemical account of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but to overcome an invitation to intellectual sloth that might result from the suspicion that clarity and distinctiveness of religious doctrine can be only the product of totalitarian impulses. The proper role of reason and philosophy would seem to be challenged by such a suspicion, and we could say that the suspicion is precisely that reason is nothing other than a disguised form of an attempt to assert mastery and power on behalf of whatever client reason offers to serve. I would suggest, then, that an important purpose of the book is to demonstrate the continuing fruitfulness of philosophical illumination through rational engagement with the understanding of God. This demonstration requires Brague not only to overcome in our contemporary culture a certain well- intentioned vagueness exercised in the effort to avoid uncomfortable disagreements but also to overcome the deformation of reason produced by the widespread tendency to reduce knowledge to the effort to exercise mastery and control. If philosophy is to participate meaningfully in contemporary discourse about God, it must do so by displaying modes of knowing that are appropriate to the effort to know God.
Brague's book, then, can be seen as a response to the call issued by Blsd. John Paul II in Fides et Ratio for philosophy to reactivate its engagement with the highest things and as a demonstration of the continuing vitality of philosophical clarity and illumination in the human quest to know God.
It is because the path of philosophical argumentation often begins through careful engagement with widely held opinions that the book begins by overcoming the propositions that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be understood together as monotheistic, Abrahamic, and based on founding texts. Careful scrutiny indicates that none of these propositions can be sustained as making an important claim, but the most significant progress in achieving a fuller understanding of the God of Christians emerges in the questions Brague raises about what it means to call a religion monotheistic. Among the three propositions about these three religions, the claim about the significance of monotheism as common ground is the most philosophically rich, because out of this proposition emerges a pair of key questions: "One still has to ask, what model of divine unity is at work, and what are the consequences of the application of this model?" (9).
The remaining chapters of the book take up these questions as they pertain to the images and concepts of God held by Christians. Brague devotes a chapter to restoring a conception of knowing that will enable us to grasp what it would mean to know God, and this requires restoring the role of will, freedom, and love to our conception of knowing in an account of knowing God. Once this work of epistemological restoration has been accomplished, the book proceeds down the path indicated by the questions that emerged through scrutiny applied to the concept of monotheism: the model of divine unity at work in Christianity is the Trinity, and the consequences of the application of this model are those that follow from knowing that God is love.
The Trinitarian nature of God therefore holds a key place in the Christian concept of God, and Brague helps us understand why this is so: "Vis-a-vis the unity of God, the Trinitarian nature of God invites us to adopt a distinctive attitude" (68). Once we grasp that in the Trinity God is one as love uniting the three persons of the Trinity--that "the Trinity is the manner in which God is one" (67)--then the only fitting way to know God is to respond by loving in return the love that is God and that is offered to us. "No one understands love except by loving. The unity of God is worthy of being loved because it is love. To confess this unity, therefore, is to love it" (68). Philosophy could not lead us to the love of God, but philosophy must be sufficiently capacious to enable us to give an account of how it is that we know God in the manner in which God offers to be known by us if it is to participate in the illumination of the human encounter with God. "To confess the unity of God is, as such, to be united to him" (68).
The philosophical illumination of the oneness of the God of Christians as Trinity leads to a set of attributes that would seem to correspond to key points of the Nicene Creed: the meaning of God as Father; the completeness of divine revelation in the Incarnation (that God has said everything); that God leaves us free by offering himself to be loved in return without placing demands upon us; and that God forgives sin to enable us to accept his love.
The image of God as father, in Brague's account, does not entail that we understand God as male. Brague proposes that in the image of God as father, "the idea of paternity is severed from the idea of virility" (74). The male as virile participates in creation but is in need of a female spouse to do so. But God as creator is self-sufficient and creates a world that is not consubstantial with him. We must consequently separate our understanding of God as father from the social domain and must cancel any false application of the image of God as father to the role of the human father: "the paternity of God cannot serve as a ground for any privilege for the masculine sex" (77).
Brague's philosophical account of the Christian understanding of God attends carefully at every turn to the ways in which human freedom is affirmed in the relationship between God and humanity. That God has said everything in divine revelation that proceeds through a liberating history and culminates in the Incarnation leaves human beings in a position in which they can then freely respond: "With the silence of God, one born from an entire Word already spoken, human agency finds itself liberated. It is no longer suspended in anticipation of what God could still have to say, or, what happens more often, what those who claim to speak in his name have to say" (112).
Similarly, Brague shows that the God of Christians is "a God who asks nothing of us," in the mildly provocative words of the title of the sixth chapter. This account is intended to demonstrate that the response God awaits from us is not submission but our free acceptance in love of the good that is God. While we may speak of obedience to God, "it is not a matter of submitting to an authority that seeks its own interest; it is a matter of adhering to the Good, to the one who wishes me good" (134). The freedom and rejection of violence that are inherent in love govern our relationship to God.
Finally, Brague presents an account of the remission of sin, because it is through the remission of sin that God makes it possible for us to choose the good. In Brague's account, sin is a deformation of the person, "a depersonalization that comes from the person ... one that touches the person in his very core" (149). The confession of sin is an act through which we appropriate sin and in so doing open ourselves to the remission of sins already granted by God. "This is why God does not discharge sin except by restoring the subject to himself and to his liberty. This is exactly what is to be understood by 'remission of sins'" (153). Through the recovery of our lost integrity made possible by the remission of sin, we are capable of freely accepting and responding to God's love. Here again Brague's philosophical illumination of the Christian understanding of God brings to the foreground the fundamental freedom of the human person that is itself a condition of a created order in which love is what restores us to communion with God.
It would be a mischaracterization of this book to call it a work of Christian apologetics. The focus and rigor of the arguments developed by Brague are devoted to a philosophical illumination of the great revealed truth of God as conveyed by Christian tradition. In the process of supplying this illumination, Brague makes it clear that Christian doctrine shows that God serves, protects, and enables human freedom, and philosophy can say how this is so. Reason at its best is therefore not in the service of power but in the service of love and freedom.
St. Thomas More exemplifies to a preeminent degree the freedom of the Christian who maintains integrity with the claims of conscience; in the denial of political freedom accorded to him in the exercise of conscience we find a paradigm for the importance of establishing political systems in which a religiously informed conscience can be freely followed. But in the first article in this issue of Logos, Travis Curtright directs our attention to another side of More's intellectual and personal qualities: his sense of humor, his participation in the comic mode of life. In "Thomas More on Humor," Curtright examines the aspects of wit, satire, and irony exhibited by More and locates these qualities within the rhetorical tradition in which More was well schooled. The article then turns to an account of how More's humor was well integrated with his Christian belief and with the character shaped in accord with that belief. Comedy in More can be understood as a form of spiritual combat through which sin and evil are resisted, and folly can be understood in light of the teaching of St. Paul that brings out the inadequacy of self-serving worldly wisdom that seeks in the Christian life only the folly of the one who turns instead to follow Christ.
Jacob D. Rhein in "How Dawson Read The City of God" brings together St. Augustine's great work with two essays by Christopher Dawson, "The Dying World" and "The City of God," and with two books by Dawson: Progress and Religion (1929), and Judgment of the Nations (1943). The ultimate basis for comparison is the way in which each thinker confronts an epochal civilizational crisis with a deep Christian understanding of human nature and therefore of human history, Augustine contending with the fall of Rome and Dawson with the upheaval of the First and Second World Wars in the twentieth century. Dawson, in his diagnosis of the crisis of Western civilization in the twentieth century, "saw that "in Augustinian terms, the only alternative to a civilization artificially held together by the libido dominandi [the desire to dominate] was a spiritual society united by the love of God." Such a transformation of civilization could be achieved only by the reintegration of Christian love into the heart of Western culture.
In "The Human Quest and Divine Disclosure according to Walker Percy: An Examination in Light of Lonergan," Randall S. Rosenberg points to the critical thrust of Percy's thought in his confrontation with the problems posed by modern scientism and the narrow horizon of life prevailing in the twentieth-century American culture in which his characters are set and finds the prospect for illumination of Percy's artistic project by drawing upon some of the work of Percy's contemporary, theologian Bernard Lonergan. Although there is no indication that either knew the writings of the other, that each sought to reopen the human quest for God in opposition to prevailing contemporary cultural forces provides a connection. In Rosenberg's account, "Lonergan's point is that a commitment to intellectual rigor and moral authenticity allow for the question of God to enter the horizon of human knowledge, that is, of course, if its dynamism is not mutilated or abolished by ideology or other constrictions that might thwart the human spirit." When we draw the works of the two thinkers into proximity, we see that Percy dramatizes the effort to overcome culturally imbibed restrictions in the effort to reopen the possibility of the human encounter with God, and the spiritual development illuminated theologically by Lonergan allows light to spill upon the situations and actions of Percy's characters.
Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) is a British novelist and Catholic whose work receives prominent mention in some circles but is not as widely known as it might merit. Her novel, Offshore, won the Booker Prize in 1979. Christopher J. Knight suggests that Fitzgerald should be considered to be "the preeminent English novelist of the late twentieth century," and he finds a theological richness in Offshore especially in its themes of "betwixtness" and "numinosity." Knight makes the case for the importance of the novel in his article, "'Between the Hither and the Farther Shore': Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshore." The article traces aspects of the relationship between Fitzgerald and critic Frank Kermode, but suggests that Fitzgerald's "religious faith imbues her fiction" to a degree that Kermode might not have been well prepared to acknowledge. Drawing upon a theological insight developed by Paul Moser, Knight points to a theologically significant accomplishment in Fitzgerald's work: "By participating in the good, in divinity, we are each--like so many characters in Offshore and Fitzgerald's fiction more generally--capable of helping bring others to the sense of God's presence."
C. Michael Shea in "Fallen Nature and Infinite Desire: A Study of Love, Artifice, and Transcendence in Joris-Karl Huysmans's A rebours and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray," provides an insightful account of the ways in which the role of beauty in Wilde's novel is derived by Wilde from Huysmans. "A rebours provided Wilde with a plot-driving model, an aesthetic, which was ethical and ultimately theological in character." As is frequently the case with any great writer, Wilde's development of the material he received from Huysmans brings a renewed significance. Wilde's novel shows the life-determining force of beauty, "one that draws individuals through their various choices, and toward the persons whom they ultimately become," according to Shea's article. Both Wilde and Huysmans present an artistic vision of beauty through which divine transcendence impinges upon human life in remarkable ways.
In our Reconsiderations feature, J. M. Hubbard draws our attention to the philosophical accomplishments of Catholic thinker Charles De Koninck (1906-1965) and introduces two essays by De Koninck: "The Unity and Diversity of Natural Science," and "The Universe: Desire for Thought."
(1.) Remi Brague, On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others), trans. Paul Seaton (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2013). Originally published as Du Dieu des chretiens.
Just before the printing of this issue of Logos we were informed of the death of Fr. Edward T. Oakes, SJ. Fr. Oakes, who taught at New York University, Regis University, and the University of St. Mary of the Lake, entered the Society of Jesus in 1966 and was ordained in 1979. An academic theologian who made his name primarily on the basis of his work on Hans Urs von Balthasar, Oakes was nevertheless interested in all areas of study. His articles in Logos reflected particularly his interests in literature, the last being an essay in our Fall 2013 issue on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the philosophical currents in which it was written.
While I cannot claim a friendship with Fr. Oakes, I met him at several conferences over the years and found him to be as lively and stimulating in person as he was in his writing on theological, literary, and cultural topics. I will miss his contributions not only to this journal but to the Catholic and ecumenical worlds in which he acted. It is no doubt providential that he died in the Advent season on the Feast of St. Nicholas, since his last book was a Christological study titled Infinity Dwindled to Infancy. May he rest in peace and know fully the Infinite One who became an infant.
Michael C. Jordan
David Paul Deavel
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|Author:||Jordan, Michael C.; Deavel, David Paul|
|Publication:||Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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