Friday, November 24, 2006

The Incarnation and the Dignity of the Human Person

Pietà, by Giovanni Bellini, 1470s

On occasion I think that I’ve managed to offend both Protestants and some other Catholics with my distaste for Augustinian thought and theology. Granted, St Augustine was a towering intellect, and in his Confessions, recognized as the first autobiography, he writes powerfully and beautifully on grace and faith, but I find myself feeling a growing unease with the neo-platonist paradigm it is built upon. He wrote many beautiful things worth remembering, but in my opinion he also wrote certain things in the heat of battle that have caused theological problems and divisiveness in the long term. Luckily for me, there have been countervailing ways of thought in the Catholic Church, both among the Church Fathers, and in the popular sacramental Catholic sensibilities as they have been lived out by the Catholic laity over the centuries. The best of Catholicism sees grace and sacramentalism everywhere, including physical things. We see creation as essentially good.

In a terrific book written in 2000, The Catholic Imagination, Fr. Andrew Greeley writes in the end notes:

“In a certain sense, the most difficult conflict within Catholicism is between this instinct that nature is revelatory and the Platonism of St. Augustine, who distrusted and feared nature. The former appears to be winning at long last, but only an unwise gambler would bet on its final victory any time soon. Orthodoxy, which has never like Augustine all that much, has avoided this conflict.”

Five years later, a Thomist/Personalist Pope, an optimist with the motto “Be not afraid”, passed on and was replaced by a self-described Augustinian, so there you are… The tension between the traditions continues…

The other night I was watching a video produced by Fr. Michael Himes (a somewhat controversial figure in his own right, according to some circles) for The Mystery Of Faith series on the Incarnation. I thought it was rather interesting, and made for some really interesting points, although I think it danced somewhat close to making Man the center of faith rather than God. I’d be interested in hearing what other people think.

Some notes….

In Genesis 1, during the first five days of creation narrative, God says “let there be…”, and it comes to pass. On the sixth day, in the creation of human beings, there is a matter of deliberation.

Then God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground." God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them
--Genesis 1 :26-27

In the Adam and Eve Story, we are usually used to hearing that the first sin that came into the world through the temptation of the serpent was the sin of pride, or of disobedience.

“Eat this and be like God.” The temptation is to reject what we have heard in Genesis 1. “Don’t believe that you are like God. You, a messy human being? You are nothing like the majestic, glorious God.” The origin of sin, therefore, going all the way back to the Hebraic tradition is the rejection of the goodness and rightness of being a human being. It is one reason why they so rejected the idea of making an image of God, because the human being already was in the image of God, per Genesis 1. The origin of all evil in the world is the refusal to accept the goodness of creation.

God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.
--Genesis 1: 31

The serpent insists, however, that creation is not good, and that you, a human being, are trash. Acceptance of that temptation is what leads to the rest of all evil. The beginning of sin is the despair of the goodness of creation.

The immense dignity of the human person is right at the heart of the Christian tradition, because it flows directly from the Doctrine of the Incarnation itself. We have a tendency to make the Feast of the Ascension into a Divine Bon Voyage, but that is missing the point… The point is not just that Jesus goes back to where he was before, but that what ascends into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father is a human being like us in all things but sin. What unites us with the fullness and the glory of the Father is our shared humanity.

The Christian Tradition must emphasize the immense, dignity, value, and importance of full and authentic humanity.

Any form of spirituality which belittles humanity, which de-emphasizes the goodness and dignity of the human person, far from being a channel to God, is within the Christian tradition, an obstacle to genuine union with God, to truly being like God, to truly being holy.

If this is so, then any work which furthers the dignity of the human person is also a work of sanctification, a work of holiness.

The Church is a sign or sacrament of intimate union with God, and the unity of all humanity.

The Church is called to be a sacrament of two realities that are intimately linked.

One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, "Which is the first of all the commandments?"

Jesus replied, "The first is this: 'Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.'
The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, 'He is One and there is no other than he.' And 'to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself' is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

And when Jesus saw that (he) answered with understanding, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."
-- Mark 12: 28-34

One commandment stated in two ways, because they are one and the same thing. One cannot be intimately united with God, without simultaneously working for the good of all humanity.

What flows from the Incarnation as the center of our faith is the insistence on reverence for all humanity, including one’s own humanity.

“In reality, the name for that deep amazement at man's worth and dignity is the Gospel, that is to say: the Good News. It is also called Christianity.”
-- Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis

“The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.”
-- St. Irenaeus

Video and audio lectures by Fr. Himes:

Truly Divine and Truly Human: Believing in the Incarnation

Why the Church?


crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

As you know, I probably dislike Augusutine even more than you do :-) and gnostic dualism too.

I'm not completely sold, though, on the perfection of mankind ... we have the capacity for good but also bad, or soit seems to me (war, torture, murder, etc)

Charles of New Haven said...

Nice post, honestly. I happen to be a fan of good old St. Augustine. I think perhaps the hold he has on Benedict is a kind of zeitgeist thing; As Augustine lived and wrote out of the experience of the beginning of the end of the Roman empire, so we and Benedict live at the beginning of the end of the Enlightenment/American/late modern "democratic" empire...

It's a commonplace to say that the Franciscan theological tradition is an "augustinian" tradition; but how that goes together with Francis and the "Canticle of the Creatures" and Franciscan emphasis in the revelatory nature of nature, etc., I'm not sure. Perhaps there's a dissertation waiting to be written on how someone like St. Bonaventure manages to be both a Franciscan and an Augustinian. Ha!

Liam said...

Very good post, Jeff. I think sometimes that side of Augustine can be over-emphasized. He was pessimistic about sin, but not, I believe, about humankind. I think it goes back to the question Crystal raises about the evil people are capable of committing. As I have written elsewhere, I have no problem with an idea of the fall or original sin, as long as it is not understood too literally.

That makes the Incarnation so important, and why for some Franciscan thinkers, redemption comes more from the event of the Incarnation than from the sacrifice of the Cross. Jesus is the beginning of glorified humanity -- but, as you said, glorified body and soul.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal, Friar, Liam...,

I wouldn't go to the other extreme of saying that we can perfect ourselves either. In defending the doctrine of Original Sin, though, I do think that an older and tired Augustine, being hard pressed by Pelagius and a much younger and eloquent Julian of Eclanum wound up going a bit overboard and saying and writing some extreme things that came back to haunt the Catholic Church later on (but I think I've said all this before... forgive me for repeating myself).

I give St. Augustine his due respect for his part in defining the canon. I also appreciate him for his powerful stance against the Donatists, and for his writings on grace, faith, the sacraments, and God being the perfect and proper object of our desire.

I dislike, however, his writings on total depravity (or perversity of the will), predestination, women, sex between married people, the sexual transmission of original sin, concupiscence, religious compulsion, the negative attitude towards the body, and for borrowing the platonic notion that our soul is in a wretched state by being trapped in this material world.

In the post the reference to Mark has Jesus citing the the Shema, underscoring again his essential Jewishness, and for me, a fundamental touchpoint is not to stray too far from the original Jewish context. Greek philosophy came in very handy in spreading the faith through the Roman world and to describe points of doctrine that the scriptures and the Hebrew tradition had no words for, but I think we always need to be careful that the kernel is not obscured and overpowered by Greek thought.

In my opinion, a theology which preaches the total depravity of man at the same time that it is also preaches that every single human life is sacred is going to run the risk of running into credibility problems due to an inherent contradiction, at least to outside eyes.

I give St. Augustine his props for his massive influence, but I do think we pick and choose from him to a certain degree in our official doctrines. We condemned Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, but on the other hand the Jansenists took a 100% Augustinian line and were ultimately considered heretical.

Friar, interesting that you mention the confluence of Augustine and Francis in the theology of St. Bonaventure. In his book Catholic Thinkers in the Clear, William Herr writes:

"Think of Bonaventure as something of a cross between Augustine and Francis of Assisi. Like Augustine, he held that the quest for union with God should include the whole person, the emotional as well as the intellectual sides of our natures; like Francis, he insisted that physical objects and natural phenomena can help us to accomplish this by drawing our minds and hearts upward, toward their creator. Like Augustine, he adopted a modified form of Plato's philosophy; like Francis, he believed that direct experience of God, particularly through contemplation, is a soure of knowledge about God far superior to speculation."

I like what St Francis said specifically on point to the topic of this post:

"Try to realize the dignity God has conferred on you. He created and formed your body in the image of his beloved son, and your soul in his own likeness...

What wonderful majesty! What stupendous condescension! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble himself like this and hide under the form of a little bread, for our salvation."

Steve Bogner said...

Jeff, I share your concern / views on Augustine. Catholic tradition is made up of both the good and the bad of a whole range of theologians, Augustine being one of the most prominent, and theologies. None of them are 100% representative of what Catholicism is or should be. It all goes in the mix, and hopefully we as a church attain the discernment to reject what doesn't fit & what isn't right while maintaining the good.

cowboyangel said...

Jeff, thanks for the interesting post. It's generated some good discussion by everyone else. For lack of knowledge, I can't really talk about Augustine and his theology, but I would argue that the issue goes beyond that anyway. "The immense dignity of the human person is right at the heart of the Christian tradition." Isn't that really the heart of all spiritual traditions? And in each tradition there seems to be a battle between those who respect the dignity of the human person and those who fear humanity [and creation] and try to "cleanse" it. The more orthodox and law-bound a religion becomes at any given time, the less respect it has for the dignity of the human person. Look at the way very religious Americans de-humanized Native Americans or African slaves. The mystical tradition in each religion moves towards an all-encompassing theology of love, which accepts other people whatever their differences. [Read again the poem I posted by Ibn Arabi.] But ideology and dogma generally seem to fear creation and, so, strive to build walls around "us" and everything else. As Crystal and Liam have pointed out [and MLK], human beings have the capacity to do both good and evil, and we usually do both to some degree. But the law [ideology, dogma] tries to eradicate evil in a very rational, programatic way. This isn't just true of religion but of political ideology as well - thus, Stalinism and its relatives. Why did Hitler and Stalin try to eliminate art as well as people - out of fear. Just like conservative Christians or Muslims. They're afraid of sloppy humanity, afraid of the unknown and the different, of what they can't control, i.e. nature. And when we stop respecting the dignity of human beings, we begin to root out and destroy the Other. This seems to be a human tendency, rather than just an Augustinian one.

Unfortunately, I think we're in a time period when this fear of the Other is, once again, at a very high point. Truly spiritual Christians [and Muslims and Jews] are needed more than ever to combat FEAR and its consequences.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

Very true. Just as it is with the religious orders, there are different emphases, gifts and charisms to be found in the various fathers, doctors, thinkers, and theologians in the history of the Church. I suppose that has to be true in a Church of universal scope.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Another thorough, well thought-out reply. There is a lot of fear in the world right now, and it was one of the reasons why I loved JPII's "Be Not Afraid" exhortation.

I have some significant differences with the views of Karen Armstong, but I once read a remark of hers that resonated with me. It went something like "the one and only test of a valid religious idea was that it must lead directly to practical compassion." I suppose the same can be said of secular ideologies that can become forms of fundamentalism in their own rights as well.

Still, whether we look at thingks from a liberal, progressive viewpoint, or a conservative, traditionalist viewpoint, striving for personal holiness matters. We do have to take personal sin seriously. Before we can look at societal sin and the personal failures of others, we need to confront our own failings and look towards our own conversion first.

"I don't look at whether a congregation is liberal or conservative; I look at how devout they are."
- Sally Bingham

Anonymous said...