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Parallel columns, parallel Churches?

In the eighth and last paragraph of Lumen gentiums first chapter, "The Mystery of the Church," attention shifts to ask where the Church that was given its basic and central theological description in the first seven paragraph is to be found. Before providing the Catholic answer to that question, the Council made an important point, one which I think sets out the fundamental challenge of ecclesiology. It presents, as if in parallel columns, distinct dimensions of the Church, as here:community of faith, hope & love // visible structuremystical Body of Christ // hierarchical societyspiritual community // visible assemblyendowed with heavenly gifts // earthlyholy // always needing to be purifiedThe Council insisted that these sets of characteristics do not describe two realities, two Churches, but a single reality, a single Church, that is comprised of a divine and a human element. It then cautiously offered "a not middling analogy" with the mystery of the Incarnation. As in christology, however, there is a great temptation not only to distinguish but to separate these elements of an integral ecclesiology. One sees it when an opposition is stated or implied between conceiving or imagining the Church as mystery or communion and as People of God, or when Avery Dulles five ways of thinking about the Church are hardened into five ways of being the Church, or when people speak of "the institutional Church" as if it were something apart from them or apart from the spiritual communion.Five decades ago, James Gustafson published a little book Treasure in Earthen Vessels: The Church as a Human Community. He aimed it at what he thought was a common tendency in Protestant ecclesiology that he described as "theological reductionism," that is, "the exclusive use of Biblical and doctrinal language in the interpretation of the Church," this done, on "the explicit or tacit assumption that the Church is so absolutely unique in character that it can be understood only in its own private language." Gustafson offered an analysis of the Church as a human, natural, political community, a community of language, interpretation, memory and understanding, belief and action. Throughout he made use of a method that instead of beginning with what is unique and transcendent about the Church begins with what it has in common with other human communities in order to discover what is unique about it.Gustafson once told me that some Protestants reacted by wondering if he was about to become a Roman Catholic. Catholic ecclesiology at the time, after all, so concentrated on the human aspects of the Church, particularly its institutional character, that the theological aspects were largely neglected. I sometimes think that since Vatican II Catholics have so emphasized the theological elements as to be in danger of falling into the theological reductionism Gustafson was trying to counter. In any case, the danger of separating the unique and transcendent elements from the common and quite human elements continues to exist.


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Philosophers do not rule out questions a priori. But they often discredit questions on a posteriori grounds, or on the basis of dialectical argument. Kant did that a lot.Heidegger says that metaphysical questions are OK, but tend to fall short of the phenomena. Such questioning has inbuilt limits.I would say that Aquinas's way of thinking such matters as Eucharistic presence or Justification is limited by its reliance on Aristotle -- as when he discusses justification in terms of the categories of motion and change. (On his Eucharistic theology see the provocative discussion in Fitzpatrick, In Breaking of Bread.)Another factor to bear in mind is that metaphysical questions are not formulated in a timeless void. They have historical contexts, and we cannot take up the questions of the past as if nothing has changed. Hermeneutics and a critique of historical reason are required.I am happy that scholars are rediscovering Thomas as a theologian, perhaps restoring continuity with the Fathers. But does this translate into theologians using Thomas's categories directly as the philosophers of religion do? It seems to me that the theologians who attempt to do this -- the Revue Thomiste people for example -- don't cut much ice with the contemporary world.

Well, others would say that Wittgenstein was wrong on this. I'm afraid that I don't bow to his authority on the issue. In any case, what do you say to the person who asks the question you give at the end? That they shouldn't ask the question? That they're "misguided" in posing it? That their question is really not a valid question? That question has arisen, and many, many a philosopher and theologian have thought it legitimately posed and in need of being addressed. To take the same dismissive tone, one could ask whether your final question ought to be taken at face value? It''s an attractive ploy, of course, and excuses one from admitting the possibility that someone else might have a genuine interest in questions that don't happen to interest me. Why don't we let the proverbial thousand flowers bloom? Why rule whole sets of them out of court? Who's being intellectually open here?

Yes, there is extraordinarily little on Buonaiuti in English or in any other language than the one he mastered with such elegance. The Italian language preserves many other wondrous treasures of literature, thought and scholarship, as well as being itself inexhaustibly charming and subtle. Some works of Buonaiuti were translated, including a well-informed account of Ireland.

I am sorry you find my tone dismissive. I merely questioned the question, which is something that philosophers would do.I once asked Schillebeeckx if he thought Schoonenberg was a heretic, since the Church teaches that the Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Spirit is eternal, and Schoonenberg teaches that the Son come to be in time.Schillebeeck replied: "Time, eternity, these are categories that no one really understands".I did not find this a dismissive reply.Wittgenstein's remark is directed against George Moore, who said things like "I know there are physial objects, because this -- my hand -- is one". I do not think that Wittgenstein was dismissive. In fact, he was the only person who took Moore's argument seriously!The question about God's foreknowledge can be answered metaphysically as Boethius does: God knows all from out his eternity as it is happening. The future is Now to him.But modern theologians would not be quick to go down that path. They would first check the limits of our language and conceptuality in talking of such matters or imagining such conundrums.

I do not maintain that Aquinas is beyond criticism (nor Wittgenstein or Heidegger either), and God knows that I am not maintaining that he does not need to be read in historical context, something that has been a major part of Thiomistic scholarship for something going on to a century now. In fact, it is the idea that he did not legitimately ask and address his questions that suffers from a lack of historical perspective and contextualization. In fact, to repeat, the questions had arisen and needed to be addressed. And Aquinas didn't think he was abandoning the event of redemption and its appropriation in conversion in order to address them. As for "modern theologians" and what they would or would be quick to do, of course how the question is to be posed is a legitimate question, which includes in what language. As for "the limits of our language and conceptuality," I think we have to be cautious in setting them beforehand, that is, before serious inquiry into the question itself. It might be that we discover that the limit must be set much further along than we had thought in the beginning.

"Father OLeary Im trying to nudge you gently into the sphere of second-order discourse, but your kicking and screaming isnt helping!"I am trying to nudge you into the sphere of third-order discourse, where we take critical stock of two millennia of metaphysical theology -- the sphere explored with various successes and failures by such as Luther, Melanchthon, Pascal, Kant, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Ritschl, Harnack, Barth, Bultmann, Heidegger, Wittgenstein et al.I don't think it's good enough to dismiss all these questioners as obtuse or to put them in the column of adversarii.

I would not say that Aquinas did not legitimately address his questions. Within his historical metaphysical horizon he did an extraordinary job. But we need to trace the limits of that horizon and the limits of Aristotelian categories for the theological task.I don't think Wittgenstein or Heidegger set down the limits of language or conceptuality or metaphysics a priori. Wittgenstein altered his theory of the limits of language from the Tractatus to the Investigations, and the latter is quite open-ended.Heidegger spent most of his time studying classic metaphysical texts and writing illuminating commentaries on them, with a phenomenological slant (e.g. Plato's Sophist, Aristotle's Physics, Hegel's introduction to the Phenomenology, Schelling's work on Freedom). His judgment on the limits of metaphysics is a very informed one.Calling for a thousand blossoms to flourish is fine -- but some blossoms stifle the growth of others -- and other blossoms need much more critical vigilance than too tolerant theologians accord them (I think of the extravagances of postmodernism, right and left, and also the inane theorizings of Process Thought).Perhaps the "limits of language" topos is not the most helpful one. Or at least it needs to be cashed in clear demonstrations of the limits of a given language, and in respect of a particular concrete goal (such as the Gospel was for Luther or the phenomenality of being for Heidegger).In Madhyamika Buddhism, my favorite philosophy, all language is consigned to the realm of conventional or screening truth, and has validity only therein; the ultimate truth of emptiness is shown only through the dialectic that exposes the inner contradictions of the conventional -- the contradictions it falls into when it deludedly postulates self-existent realities. Only when the conventional realizes its utter flimsiness does it serve to convey insight into emptiness.Hegelian dialectic has a similar dissolutive force but it ends up serenely in the lap of the all-embracing Concept. Buddhist dialectic opens up to a nirvanic emptiness, and serenely lets things be in their dependently arising existence that is fundamentally empty.

As to weak Catholic axioms, they are as weak as ou understandings of them. Nowhere does Jesus promise that the Holy Spirit will answer all of our theological questions nor that our understandings of His answers will at every time be completely accurate.Ann, while Jesus did not guarantee the consistency of our understanding, He did promise its eventual completeness: "When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come." (John 16:13)

Wittgenstein's exact words are: "Is it as sufficient answer to the skepsis of the idealists or the assertions (Versicherungen) of the realists to say that the proposition 'There are physical objects' (Es gibt physikalische Gegenstaende) is nonsense (Unsinn)? For them it is not at all nonsense. It would be an answer, however, to say: this affirmation (Behauptung), or its opposite, is an attempt gone astray (ein fehlgegangener Versuch) to express what cannot be thus expressed. And that it goes astray can be shown; but therewith is its case not yet fully dealt with (damit ist aber ihre Sache noch nicht erledigt). For one must come to the insight that that which presents itself to us as first expression of a difficulty or its solution may still be a quite false expression. Just as one who rightly criticizes a picture will often at first apply the criticism to a place where it does not belong, and an *investigation* is needed to find the right point of application of the criticism." (On Certainty, 37) So it looks as if the first criticism of Moore's assertion leaves Wittgenstein dissatisfied and he seeks a deeper grasp of why and how the assertion is amiss.

Kathy --If Jesus is to "guide us into" the truth, that implies that He will not just *tell* us the truth and we will get it it immediately. It implies that our grasp of the truth will be an on-going process. And even if He has told us all that we are meant to know, this does not imply that we will immediately understood *His* meanings. A complete Revelation on His part is not a complete Revelation on ours.

Fr. O'Leary --Wittgenstein has been quoted as saying that he likes Aquinas' questions but not his answers. It has also been reported that he kept a copy of part of the first part of the Summa theologica on his bookshelves until the end of his life. (I don't recollect where I read that. It's not in Monk.)

Well, one great thinker recognizes another! (I also have virtually always had the Prima pars near at hand.) Reading more of Wittgenstein's notes on certainty, his last composition, I find them very resonant with the concerns of Newman in the Grammar of Assent -- indeed, essential reading for students of Newman's work. While the topic is the status of those tacit certitudes that accompany us through life -- e. g. the knowledge that I have two hands, that the earth existed long before I was born, etc., his effort to think clearly about them, forsaking the otiose theoretization that he fell for in the Tractatus, has much resonance for statements in theology as well, for instance this remark: "It is so hard to find the *beginning*. Or better: It is hard to begin at the beginning. And not to try to go back farther" (471). Aquinas, of course, is the full tide of Christian metaphysics, which means he goes back as far as possible, finding the ultimate grounds of all natureal and revealed phenomena. But for a later critical perspective the quest for grounds may overleap the texture of the phenomena, and it may be necessary to step back to them, overcoming the elaborate analyses of the theoretical superstructure, and exploring instead other paths of development.

From Fr. O Leary: "... the quest for grounds may overleap the texture of the phenomena..." Hmmm. When we try to figure out existence, I think we create higher levels of context and meaning. But where do we decide to stop? For example, do we stop at You and I exist here in this universe known as reality or do we go even further and imagine I am a brain in a jar imagining you and I in this universe known as reality or some other construction? But if we are brains in jars imagining it all, where do the jars come from? The creation of context, like all processes, either continues infinitely or it stops. (In computer science, we call this the stopping problem; a looping program is a program with a stopping problem.) So we either keep creating new (and sometimes more ridiculous) contexts, or we just pick a level of context and go with it. A popular one is You and I exist here in this universe known as reality. That's the one I'm good with. I think I exist. I think the universe exists. I think I exist in the universe. I don't think I'm a brain in a jar imagining it all. But this very choice signifies the possibility of a higher context, even if it's a choice we don't make; it's the inevitable pickle in which the choice places us. It's plausible that I am a brain in a jar imagining it all, I just don't happen to think that's the nature of reality (which is where the judgment comes in). But the process of creating context (and therefore meaning) is such that: 1. You could go on forever, merrily placing your existing context inside a higher one. 2. If you don't, you plant yourself somewhere. 3. The act of planting yourself has inherent in it a sense of incompleteness, which you could have defined by creating a higher level of context but chose not to. If we look at the way we make meaning, the creation of context carries with it an inherent sense of incompleteness, which I think is better solved by theology than by perpetually looping philosophy.

"Creating context" in the way you describe is the kind of think metaphysical reason is good at. But as the example of the brain in the vat shows, this easily overrides the authority and dignity of the phenomena -- in this case the phenomenality of the human mind as it shows itself in our experience. The protest, "I am NOT a brain in a vat!" is a naive resistance to metaphysics. Phenomenology offers a more sophisticated one -- not fighting metaphysics on its own ground with technical arguments but trying to show how and where the metaphysical line of thought blinds itself to significant dimensions of its phenomenal point of departure.Of course the great metaphysicians such as Aristotle and even Leibniz never stray as far from the phenomena as the brain-in-a-vat theorists. That is why Heidegger is able to read them as crypto-phenomenologists bearing what he calls "mittences of being" (Seinsgeschicke) that make up a "history of being" (Seinsgeschichte) despite the limiting effect of the onto-theo-logical structure of their thought. Incompleteness or finitude is of the essence of any phenomenological reality and of any well-grounded thinking. The tendency of metaphysics to treat this as a defect to be eliminated is resisted by people like Kierkegaard and Heidegger.

I hope there won't be a pop quiz when this discussion is over. I lost it a long time ago.

Jeanne:"It's turtles all the way down."Antonio

Antonio: Indeed. You either infinitely loop or at some point you stop. It's inherent in the nature of logic.

You stop, recognizing that your stopping point is provisional and "subject to change without written notice."

The Madhyamika Buddhists try to cut off prapanca (needless elaboration) by demonstrating its invalidity, that is, by showing the baselessness of all claims to substantive existence.Of course they in turn go on and on with their deconstructive arguments -- and the stopping point of these is probably provisional.Kant, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida are in a similar position. Their basic effort is to reorient thinking in a critical, counter-metaphysical mode.

Antonio: Indeed. You either infinitely loop or at some point you stop. Its inherent in the nature of logicI think of it as recursive descent.In that vein, continuing our detour from the sublime to the ridiculous, check out:

" some point you stop..." Is it reasonable to stop there? If it is, fine. If not, it's a cop-out. We're all responsible for our judgments.

Great book, Antonio. Thanks for the refresh.

Stopping has to be a recognition of limits, not an assumption of completeness. That is what this thread is all about, accepting that the church is both divine and human, infinite and finite. It is never sufficient to accept the stopping point, the humanity we see, as the fullness of the church. There is always more.This is expressed in many ways here. The phenomenal always grounds the search for grounds. Theology provides avenues for thinking when philosophy gets caught in circles. Our stopping point is always provisional. Finitude is of the essence of phenomenological reality. These all restate the thesis here, that the Church cannot be confined to the limitations we want to impose, but has to be open to God's mysterious activity.

Buddhism does recognize that beyond the limits of conceptuality and language lies another kind of thinking, prajna, which can attain the ultimate insight of a Buddha. Likewise, Christian negative theology recognizes that faith and mysticism can go where speculative reason cannot. But the Gospel never promised the sort of speculative satisfaction that philosophy offers us in the great systems of Leibniz or Hegel. Speculative bulimia has often been confused with "faith seeking understanding".

Jim McK -So far as I know, it is the philosophy of math that has provided the avenue to God specifically suggested in this thread. Infinity was of fundamental interest to the great19-20th century mathematicians. Perhaps the most interesting idea of all are the transfinite number, orders of infinities (plural) discovered by Cantor. The first of them (called aleph null) is the series of natural numbers -- 1,2,3, etc. But the series does have a limit (though we can't imagine it. It is a number to which any finite number can be added and you still have the very same number! It can be multiplied by itself, yielding aleph 1, and this can be wo multiplied, and so on, and so on and so on. A big question for them was: is a continuous line the sum of all the transfinite numberw of points in that line? I don't know if it has been answered yet. Antonio might tell us something about it. That question is analogous, it seems to me, to the philosophical question: are the infinite number of possible perfections present in God as a simple, absolutely transfinite unity? Cantor was a religious man and did a paper using these transfinite numbers to try to expand our concept of the immensity of God. Anyway, his ideas and the ideas of that crop of mathematicians and philosophers of math lead to consideration of the very topics in this thread: finitude, infinity, completeness. and unity.Actually, the medievals knew about the infinite number to which any finite number could be added and you'd stil have the same number. Infinity was of great interest to them. i might note that they had a positive view of infinity, unlike the Greeks, including Aristotle. For the Greeks an infinite number connoted disorder and they wanted nothing to do with it. So, yes, theology hopefully goes past philosophy, but philosophy can open doors that theology has not dreamed were there.

Some find the positive view of infinity in Plotinus. Others claim to find it first in Gregory of Nyssa (with some putting forward claims for Hilary of Poitiers). Gregory's divine infinity is a quite simple phenomenon, nothing to do with infinite numbers of possible perfections. Divine simplicity and infinity are a quite Greek kind of notion, with roots in Plato's dialogue, the Parmenides. Further elaboration of those notions in theology along quasi-mathematical lines seems to entail estrangement from the phenomenality of the biblical God.

While he doesn't use the words, I get a strong sense of the idea of space-time from Aquinas, with us being stuck in space-time and God, having created it, being outside and uncontained by it, and therefore essentially mysterious to those of us inside it. And then, whamo, the Incarnation, God inside space-time. Very interesting.

Jeanne, that is actually very Augustinian, the infinite God within us. "Late have I loved you! Beauty so ancient and so new...I sought you outside, and you were within." With that, Augustine goes off into a meditation on time and memory that consumes the last quarter of the Confessions.

Ann,Calculus, invented by Newman and Liebnitz, was a way to tame the infinite, appointing finite numbers that could express the infinite. It was part of, and a basis for, a Deist worldview where everything could be explained if we only understood the laws of nature and the initial conditions. Godel quashed any hope of ever reaching that exalted state of knowledge., so modern math has been more about other ways of dealing with infinities. Cantor paved the foundations for some of those ideas, but was mostly still rooted in the Newtonian mindset. With quantum physics, the turn has been toward holding the infinite and finite together, without replacing either by the other.Wait. Isn't that what I said this thread was about, but in terms of the Church?

I often wonder if space-time isn't a characteristic of how human self-awareness is constructed rather than of the external world, which is why it transfigures when we get our bliss on ... Yet it always ends, and we're back in the practical world, and have to go to the grocery store, vote, etc.The Church is like this too (getting back to the intent of this post). Mystery and practical issues of governance. The two are both legitimate parts of the Church. One is the point, the other the mechanism.

Newton, surely.Godel and quantum indeterminacy surely are relevant to sighting the limits of speculation -- favoring Kant over Hegel. The speculative itch of theologians is remarkably unaffected by this. We go on talking about the eternal Trinity and its relations as if we were still living in the 14th century.

Mysticism may dissolve the limits of space and time, but it cannot make a mathematician capable of doing what Godel showed to be impossible, and it cannot make a theologian capable of speculative breakthroughs that the entire geography of the mind, as mapped by Kant, Dilthey, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida etc. etc., shows to be lamed at their base.

Space-time is a very precisely defined concept in physics. It cannot be applied to a Kantian notion of space and time as a priori structures of perception having only subjective validity (though an ambitious philosopher might attempt to rewrite Kant in view of relativity and vice versa).Medieval ideas of space and time have nothing to do with Einstein. The Plotinian-Augustinian idea of time as distentio animi has only at most a very remote and vague affinity with Kant.

In short, historical differentiation of different styles of thought, all positioned in very different intellectual universes, has to be developed if we are to avoid illegitimate amalgamations. Heidegger was good on this, as when he discerned that a world divides the Logos of Heraclitus from the Johannine Logos.I am not sure if even professional theologians have fully realized the necessity of hermeneutics, despite the theological origins of that discipline.

A lot of Ratzinger's phobia of the tyranny of relativism is predicated on his failure to acquire hermeneutical sophistication.

I agree with the necessity of hermeneutics but think we should remember we're all looking at the same universe, just separated by space or time. I think the Pope is more afraid of recognizing the fact that creation is essentially good.

If you have an itch, you scratch it. Sometimes this is a bad idea, sometimes good, and usually just neutral. At least it is a response to external stimuli, even when it is almost reflex. Best is an attempt to understand how the response fits with the stimulus, which is what hermeneutics is about. No good to scratching poison ivy, it just aggravates and propagates the itch. Good to scratch the footfalls of a fly before it bites and creates a greater itch.I find it best to position scratching in its context. Medieval ideas may be farther out, but Einstein thought with Cartesian spaces, which do owe much to medieval concepts of space-time. I would be interested in how Kantian aprioris about space-time could adapt to relativity; what structure is left when space and time are relative? That seems to be the question of the day. Is it only unchaotic chaos, like infinities tamed through calculus? Or do we learn other ways to face the infinite, the chaotic chaos?

From Wikipedia:Christian theologians saw Cantor's work as a challenge to the uniqueness of the absolute infinity in the nature of God.[4] In particular, Neo-Thomist thinkers saw the existence of an actual infinity that consisted of something other than God as jeopardizing "God's exclusive claim to supreme infinity".[49] Cantor strongly believed that this view was a misinterpretation of infinity, and was convinced that set theory could help correct this mistake:[50] ... the transfinite species are just as much at the disposal of the intentions of the Creator and His absolute boundless will as are the finite numbers.[51] Note the conflation of thought-objects, at least as described here, with external reality. To me, this is like the ontological proof of God's existence, which tries to conjure the divine into existence through language In any event, the Wiki entry doesn't seem to make Ann's careful distinction between a concept as a 'tool' for thinking about God and the reality of the divine, which can't be snared in such nets.

Scratch an itch? Wise physicians counsel the application of an unguent.



About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.