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.
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?