Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Thoughts from a pew in Maiden Lane

My visit to the Corpus Christi church in Maiden Lane, London really got me thinking...Slowly, very slowly, the icon seems to have drawn me into reflecting on St. Thomas Acquinas.  This began as I started to think about the line in the Litany of the Sacred Heart which refers to the Heart of Jesus as the ‘abyss of all virtues’. And, of course, the moment you stop to think about the virtues you have necessarily to go to Acquinas.  The greatest of all the virtues is love, as St. Paul reminds us.  So there, in the centre of the icon is that heart the endless source of love, burning at the heart of all things and which desires to burn within us and shine out of us.   It is this great virtue – together with faith and hope which  informs all other moral virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. So when the Church, in the Litany of the Sacred Heart, describes the heart of Jesus as the ‘abyss of all virtue’, it is inviting us to reflect on the great virtue of love (Caritas)  - the love of God and our neighbour as ourselves – and its relationship to all other virtues. Benedict XVI reminds us that although the virtues provide a significant way of achieving a dialogue with other religions, for us as Christians, the true source of the virtues  is the person of Jesus who’ fully discloses the human potential for virtue and goodness’ ( The Virtues, Our Sunday Visitor, Indiana, 2010: 21) So, with all the talk in recent years of the importance of virtue ethics, and the philosophy of Aristotle and Acquinas, we should as Catholics keep the image  of the Sacred Heart ever before us as a symbol of  Jesus as showing us the source of all virtue and the potential that we have as human beings to become virtuous and good.  The more I entered into such thoughts, the more did I  realize that the presence of angels in this icon is also immensely significant.  Think of angels, you just have to think about Acquinas – known as the ‘Angelic doctor’ because of his writings on angels!  One authority notes that:

Angelic power is truly cosmic in its range according to the Thomistic account. On every level in the hierarchy of created being, angelic agency has a proper function to fulfill in accordance with the designs of divine wisdom. Although creativity cannot belong to them [since only God can create from nothing] angels are nevertheless the chief ministers employed by God in the governance of the universe, in securing His own glory and in distributing His goodness to all creation.    Read here

Thus the angels in the icon give a cosmic or universal feel to the Sacred Heart which is very much in keeping with a Thomist perspective on the ‘abyss of virtues’. Good...

However, it was then that it struck me that,   despite the medieval feel of the icon it is very definitely not a representation of a medieval world view.  What Ian had captured here, using a very ancient language was in fact a very modern world view: it has a sense of a dynamic, changing and evolving cosmos.
Acquinas accepted a static geo-centric Aristotelian view of the world and its place in the universe.  It is  precisely this medieval view of creation which Aquinas advances which Teilhard is seeking to move us  beyond.  A new cosmology requires a new Christology in which the universe itself is understood as centred on Christ as the Alpha and Omega.

In many ways Teilhard is seeking to do in the twentieth century what Acquinas had done in the thirteenth.  Acquinas brilliantly demonstrated how the Christian religion could integrate into its teachings  the knowledge of the ancients, especially Aristotle (‘the philosopher’) as well as the new sources of knowledge.  He showed how faith and reason, science and Christianity could be reconciled.  The genius of Acquinas was that he gave the Church a way of thinking and talking about the gospel which was relevant to the medieval world.    However, as the static  - Aristotelian - view of creation was challenged, so the position of the Church in relation to faith and reason, science and Christianity  was eroded and became less and less relevant.   Wildiers put it nicely in his book on Teilhard when he draws attention to the Teilhard’s belief that :

Theology remain true to a centuries-old tradition by expressing Christian doctrine in a language likely to be understood by men and women of today.  St Augustine proclaimed  the Christian  revelation in the language of his century, against a background of  the Platonism prevailing at that time.  St Thomas Acquinas formulated the dogmas of Christianity within the framework  of the resurgent Aristotlean  science and philosophy.  In each century  theology has known how to talk the language required to enable her message to be understood… in earlier centuries the only way  in which theologians could think of  and represent God’s becoming man was within the framework  of a static view of the world. Now that it is evident to every thinking person that we live in an organically  evolving world, the  believer can only  conceive of the Incarnation in the setting of this new world view..(N.M. Wildiers, An Introduction to Teilhard de Chardin, Fontana,1968:122) 

Teilhard was no theologian.  But, of course, he had been well-schooled in Acquinas, and the world view that he was seeking to bring about was, without doubt, a direct challenge to the static Thomist  view of creation which Acquinas had borrowed from Aristotle.  (In his day, the last word on cosmology.)  BUT,   Teilhard’s aim, was  as Wildiers  argues,  not to construct an original ‘theology’, but merely to provide some bricks  which in his view could be of use for  constructing a theology for the future and without which  no adequate theology was in future going to be possible’.

I think this is the point.  Teilhard is not asking us to adopt a new theology.  On the contrary: he wants us to think about  theology in a way which takes account of what we know now about the universe.  Like Acquinas, Teilhard believed that because the universe is God’s creation nothing – absolutely nothing – that we discover about God’s creation can serve to subvert our belief in God.  Indeed, science reveals the wonder of creation in a way which goes far beyond Aristotle and Acquinas.  At the time he was writing many were concerned that evolution was wholly incompatible with scripture.  Of course, some like Blessed John Newman were not the least bit troubled by what evolution implied: but many were  and still are ( for some strange reason).

As a scientist he believed that faith and reason had to march on hand in hand with one another.  Science should serve to enlarge our idea of Christ: if Christ is the ‘way the truth and the light’, then  he must be so on a cosmic scale.   Christ is either cosmic or he his nothing.  Science can enable us to see Jesus not in a Mediterranean  context, but in a cosmic context.  Our God is a God of evolution: that is what the Sacred Heart was for Teilhard, and it is what the icon is helping us explore.  The body of Christ – Corpus Christi – is truly a  dynamic cosmic process: hence like Acquinas, Teilhard had an intense devotion to and belief in the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.  And that reality has to be seen in the context of what we know about the universe – just as Acquinas believed that the Eucharist had to be seen in the context of what was known about the universe in his time.  And this is why Teilhard took the most important of all Catholic devotions which is deeply Eucharistic – the Sacred Heart - and says: look at it in the context of a world view which takes account of what we know about the cosmos and of evolution now, rather than what we knew about it in the middle ages or in the 17th century.   He wants to see the Sacred Heart as a centre-piece of a Christianity which expresses itself in the language of its time – as Acquinas did in his of age.

F.C. Copleston S.J.
Just as in St. Juliana’s vision of the position of  Corpus Christi in the church as a missing piece in the moon (above) , so Teilhard saw the Eucharist   and the Sacred Heart as a missing piece in our understanding of the entire cosmos.  The Sacred Heart had to be placed in an absolutely central place in the Church of the future.   That was Teilhard’s vision: not of the moon, but of a Cosmic Christ at the heart of the Church: that was the hole that had to be filled in our age.  With such thoughts turning over in my head I picked up a copy of an old book I had first  read as an undergraduate by F.C. Copleston (right)  when I was  studying medieval political thought.  I am pleased to see that it is in print today and is still acknowledged as an important contribution to the study of Acquinas.  Copleston notes that Acquinas’s argument is that:

… coperation on the part of heterogeneous  material things clearly points to the existence of an extrinsic author of this cooperation, who operates with and end in view. If Acquinas had lived in the days of the evolutionary hypothesis, he would doubtless have argued that this hypothesis  supports rather than invalidates the conclusion of [his] argument. F.C. Copleston, Acquinas, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1961 (122) 

Teilhard does not in any way abandon the view that creation has a direction –he is, like Acquinas, wholly teleological.  The universe has a point, a direction, and a purpose. Hence, Copleston argues that Acquinas would have been quite at home adopting an evolutionary position.  In this sense, I think it is correct and entirely plausible to argue that Teilhard although abandoning the literal reading of Genesis ( and that has theological implications) and the Aristolean view of the universe, he is actually showing us that we do not need to abandon Acquinas, so much as up-date his cosmology.  We need to fill in the missing piece of that moon. The Body and Heart of Christ have to be understood in a new and far less static / earth-bound way.

The more I thought of it, the more remarkable is the statement by Prof. F. C. Copleston S.J.  The author was himself a Jesuit  priest and one of the best known philosophers / theologians of his day – famed for his debate with Bertrand Russell on the existence of God on the BBC in 1948.  Indeed, for many years he was Professor of Philosophy at Heythrop College.  His book on Acquinas came out in 1955 – just a few years after the encyclical Humani Generis (1950) which had criticized those in the church who were talking about evolution and were seen (as Teilhard) anti-Thomist.   This statement by one of the leading Catholic scholars  on Acquinas makes it very clear that he did not see a problem with evolution and Acquinas. This was, of course, contrary to the position of one of Teilhard’s great critics and opponents,  the formidable Dominican  theologian Garrigou-Lagrange who was the Vatican’s favoured authority on Acquinas!  Garrigou-Lagrange was Teilhard’s great tormentor: he once remarked that the Dominican wanted to ‘burn’ him!  And there can be little doubt that the Vatican read Teilhard as wholly incompatible with Acquinas. It is a while since I read Copleston's  multi-volumed history of philosophy, but I seem to recall it gives a substantial and sympathetic (although critical)  reading of Teilhard's attempt to advance a new world view for Christianity which is enthusiastic about evolution and what it means for the future of Christianity.  Must see if I can re-read the sections on Teilhard.

Teilhard may well be read as being anti-Thomist in terms of what he has to say about original sin and evolution, and in his own time that was how many - like Garrigou-Lagrange - did read him, but one thing is not in doubt: Teilhard shared with St. Thomas and St Bonaventure and Saint Clare of Assisi and St Juliana of Liege who all feature in the window to be found  in Corpus Christi a deep love and devotion to the Eucharist and to the Body of Christ as manifested in the Blessed Sacrament.   With them he shared a belief in the true and real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Of that there can be no doubt. Indeed, such was his belief in real presence of Christ in the bread and wine which are transformed in the mass that he realised that it must be understood  and could only be  understood, as a profoundly cosmic event. If it is not, then the Blessed Sacrament is nothing.  But for Teilhard the Body of Christ was everything.

'At every moment the Eucharistic Christ controls, from the point of view of the organization of the Pleroma..the whole movement of the universe..' The Divine Milieu. 

'Across the enormity of time and  the disconcerting multiplicity of individuals, one operation is going on - the incorporation of the elect in Christ; one thing is being made - the Mystical Body of Christ -from all the spiritual powers scattered around the world.' The Divine Milieu. 

'Christ has a cosmic body that extends throughout the whole universe'. Cosmic life.

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