Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Sacramental Ontology and the Nouvelle Theologie

I recently finished Hans Boersma's brilliant, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry.

In Heaven Participation, Boersma urges evangelicals and Catholics to return to the Great Tradition of the Church Fathers and medieval theologians, who incorporated Neo-Platonism as a way of understanding Christianity. Boersma is concerned about the reign of propositional truth that has dominated Christian thinking in years past, and is equally troubled by the incoming tide of postmodern skepticism. His solution is to promote the theology of Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Henri Bouillard, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, and others associated with the nouvelle theologie, the French Catholic renewal movement of the mid-twentieth century. In the nouvelle theologie, he finds inspiration for a return to the mysterious qualities that have apparently been forgotten by Christians in the modern age.

Throughout the book, Boersma uses the metaphor of a "sacramental tapestry," calling today's Christians to appreciate the "carefully woven unity of nature and the supernatural, according to which created objects are sacraments that participate in the mystery of the heavenly reality of Jesus Christ" (8). He suggests that both evangelicals and Catholics are guilty of failing to recognize the sacramental relationship that exists between God and the created order. Boersma writes that we need to treat the world "as a eucharistic offering in Christ, received from God and offered to him," which will draw us into God's presence (8). According to Boersma, if all matter as intimately connected with God, then holding such a view will lead us towards participating in the divine life.

The "sacrament" of the created order is presented as a sign and mystery that leads us to the truth of who God is while still retaining a mysterious quality that cannot be fully comprehended by our finite intellect. This is a key point for Boersma, for he posits that as a sacramental linked to God, we also participate in the mystery to which the symbols of the created order point (22-23; later described in chapter 4 using the philosophical notion of "analogy of being"). The author pushes us towards a sacramental participation in the reality of God through Christ (the opposing view values nature independent of its creator, an ontology that Boersma describes as idolatrous). Boersma puts it this way, "The temporal, created order has its ultimate end not in itself but in the mysterious reality that transcends it. The end of created being lies beyond itself... while we may use this good created order, only the triune God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--is to be enjoyed. Only he can be loved strictly for his own sake" (30). Boersma claims that when humans have failed to see the connection between the natural and spiritual realm this has led to the tearing apart of the woven cosmic tapestry.

Key to understanding this sacramental ontology for Boersma is the influence of Platonism and Neo-Platonism on early Christian thought (while upholding divine freedom in creation and the Incarnation, the goodness of the material world, the Trinitarian nature of God, and pointing to an eschatological new heaven and earth). In Boersma'a sacramental ontology, he points to Christ as "the central thread of the cosmic tapestry" (40). Referring to the Church Fathers Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nyssa, Boersma finds a Christology that is necessarily participatory and leads to the salvation of humanity. Furthermore, Christ's participation as a human leads to humanity's deification. Through Christ, the image of God is restored in us, and we become knowledgeable of divine things. Boermsa writes, "When the eternal Word took on human flesh, he took on our common humanity and by doing so redeemed it. Salvation in his person, because humanity really does find its common identity in the one person of Jesus Christ... The hinge of our salvation, in this scheme, was the Incarnation itself. The Incarnation is the restoration of our incorruptibility and immorality, and it allows us to become like God--that is, deification" (46-47). Our participation in the divinity of Christ, however, differs from the inter-Trinitarian relationship that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Boersma says that the persons within the Trinity share one common will and are united in their activity. The same cannot be said about humans.

Following the nouvelle theologie, Boersma identifies the breakdown in sacramental ontology as occurring during the High and late Middle Ages. Yves Congar pointed to the late eleventh century with Pope Gregory and the Investiture Controversy with Emperor Henry IV as the beginning of the end of the sacramental relationship between nature and the supernatural. Congar argued that the conflict between Gregory and Henry led to the institutionalizing of power in the human institution of the church. Boersma writes, "In the High and late Middle Ages, people became less inclined to view authority as something that God worked directly in and through the life of the church; instead, power now seemed to come from above, from the outside, by means of the carefully defined structures of the hierarchy. Whereas the earlier, sacramental ontology had regarded authority as intrinsically connected to the church's life, the new emphasis on secondary, human causality tempted people to regard authority as an external power, imposed from the outside" (55).

A second tear in the sacramental tapestry took place in the eleventh century with debates surrounding the nature of Christ's presence in the Eucharist. Boersma cites Henry de Lubac who blames Berengar of Tours, as the main person who denied the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, allowing only a spiritual interpretation of the partaking of communion. Third, the prominence of Aristotle in the High Middle Ages, cited by Marie-Dominique Chenu, led to subsequent generations praising nature independently of its creator. Fourth, using Congar's research, Boersma looks at the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a time when the authority of scripture was separated from the church. Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, John Wycliffe, John Hus, and the later Reformers are the leaders of this movement who drove a wedge between the scriptures and the church. The final blow came in the sixteenth century when the Catholic Counter Reformation and Protestant Reformation developed an ontology that separated nature from the supernatural. At the heart of all these problems, according to Boersma and the nouvelle theologie, was the rejection of the Platonist-Christian synthesis that permeated the Great Tradition.

There is much to like in Heavenly Participation. Boersma's rejection of Christian theology as dependent on propositional truth reminds us that we are naive if we think we can categorize the divine into simplistic theological assertions. The overall framework of the book, pointing us to the intimate connection between nature and the supernatural, offers a fresh ontology of Christianity that is both illuminating and freeing. The sacramental ontology of Boersma as a dynamic system leaves much room for further insight into theology and seems capable of flexing to meet the challenges of postmodern thinking. While I am not ready to embrace wholeheartedly the Neo-Platonism of Boersma's thought, I can say that I am much more sympathetic to the benefits of this philosophical system in understanding Christianity after reading Heavenly Participation.

Still, the arguments that Boersma proposes leads to many additional questions that I didn't see him answering. Following the lead of the nouvelle theologie, Boersma seems to agree with the thinkers of this Catholic movement that the theological divisions within the church occurred in the late Middle Ages. But can this be true if we take into consideration the Great Schism that reached its boiling point in 1054? I also wonder what we should make of the divisions between the Alexandrian and Antiochene "schools" of thought regarding the nature of Christ? Would Boersma say that despite the sometimes violent disagreements between the Alexandrians and Antiochenes, and the eastern and westerners, that the whole of the church was united in adhering to a Platonic-Christian synthesis of sacramental ontology prior to the eleventh century?

Boersma's veneration of the early Church Fathers leads me to ponder how he would respond to questions regarding some of the aspects of early Christian thought that would not be deemed "orthodox" in the sense of being consistent with the theology expressed in the creeds and councils of the church. Would Boersma, for instance, argue that one of his heroes, Athanasius, was entirely orthodox in his Christology? What about the ecclesiology of Cyprian of Carthage? And, how should we view Tertullian's hostility towards philosophy?  For Boersma, there doesn't seem to be any differentiation between the Church Fathers and their sometimes innovative theology. Rather, all the Church Fathers come across as equally authoritative, orthodox, and adhering to his notion of sacramental ontology.

This issue leads me to another question that I have after reading his book: where should Christians derive their authority? I suppose Boersma would answer ambiguously that "Christ" should be the final authority for Christians. But the reality of multiple views of authority within the Christian tradition begs a more definitive answer. To my knowledge, Boersma never refers to the ecumenical councils, the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury, or other forms as the source of authority on doctrinal matters. So, how should one determine which tradition within Christianity to follow? Even if the division between Protestantism and Catholicism was somehow miraculously mended, there would no doubt be a locus of power associated with one or more individuals. Boersma is insistent that Christians need to be more unified, whether evangelical Protestants or Catholics, but he offers no guidance on who should lead the church.

All this to say, I found Boersma's Heavenly Participation to be an outstanding intellectual work that offers a fresh perspective for Christians who are tired of reading books that promote propositional theology. Even though I came away with as many questions as answers on the notion of sacramental ontology, I commend the author for challenging the church to think outside the theological box.

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