Grammar Lesson

The essays in this book served as my daily readings as I inched across the Bronx on the Bx9 bus from Marble Hill to my office at Fordham and back—not as a pilgrim, but as a commuter. Each essay held my attention for the twenty-five-minute trip on the days I was lucky enough to get a seat. Great, thought-provoking reading—for a professional theologian.

Lash weaves wise reflections on important issues throughout the book. He begins with analyses of the grammar of “God” and the impossibility of atheism. But how can we contingent human beings speak of the Mystery that grounds contingency? To learn how to talk of the living and true God, Lash argues, we need a linguistic community—a church—that schools us in how to talk with God, to God, and of God.

“Atheism” is a nothing. It is not a coherent option (“secular humanism” may be). A-theism is a refusal to accept a god or gods or God—a refusal often responding to religious believers’ own bad grammar that treats God as a being among other beings whose way of being is no different from that of quarks, trees, humans, or societies. Here’s good grammar from Lash: As a “treasure is what you value; a god is what you worship.” Even atheists worship something, just not the living and true God. The first role of the critic is to figure out just what people do worship; the second is to show whether that worship is authentic or idolatrous. Lash’s essays do both quite well.

The reforms of Vatican II reshaped Catholic worship, the Catholic vision of the church, and the way Catholics regard the world—and thus the very grammar of the faith. Lash is an unabashed supporter of the “Bologna school” approach to understanding the significance of the council. Several of the essays strongly support the recognition—long associated with the Bologna School—that Vatican II was not just a reiteration of business as usual, but an event that truly re-formed Catholicism. The council prepared a way for the church to become an effective school for “weaning us from our idolatry” of both secular and ecclesial goods and for “purifying our desire” for God, Lash argues.

The church cannot return to the triumphalism, juridicism, and clericalism famously decried by Bruges Bishop Emil De Smedt at the council. (Were these particularly Catholic forms of idolatry?) Nor can we reverse the turns to humility in the face of Mystery, to consciousness of the historical developments in the church, and to the primacy of the vocation of the congregation of the baptized. Retreating to a past that cannot exist now, if it ever did, risks the grace given in the new Pentecost of the council.

Sprinkled among Lash’s essays are studies of particular sacred and literary texts, the south transept window of Chartres, the contributions and oversights of other theologians, and the relationship of philosophy and theology. The most fascinating piece is also the shortest: a meticulous analysis of how Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was “casually incompetent” when he offered a reading of a crucial section of the Vatican II text Dei verbum that was “flatly contradictory of the conciliar intention.” Lash shows that the council rejected the notion that there are two senses of Scripture—the literal and the spiritual, as Levada put it. Rather, the grammar of Dei verbum’s Latin, along with the history of the debates about the shape of the document, demonstrate that the council nearly unanimously took no position on the relationship of God’s intention to the words of the human authors of Scripture. Levada’s view unfortunately assumes we can separate God’s primary agency from the secondary agency of beings in the world—a dubious proposition, for Levada treats God’s “intention” and that of Scripture’s human authors as one and the same. That may seem like a small point, but such analysis is typical of the ideologically controlled “scholarship” marketed by revisionist “historians” who say that nothing really happened at Vatican II apart from a reinforcement of the theologies that followed Trent, Vatican I, and the modernist crisis.

Lash’s essays are not easy reading. Yet they offer vital lessons in understanding the contours of Catholic faith. Lash challenges readers to think again about how to live their faith, about how they learn to be faithful, and the theology that works to limn the grammar of faith. Influenced by Aquinas, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Yves Congar, Sebastian Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, in dialogue with cultured despisers like John Searle, faithful theologians like Fergus Kerr, and provocative critics like John Milbank, Lash’s voice remains distinctive and important.

When we believers would lust after strange gods, Lash recalls us to the Mystery that we affirm is our ultimate origin and final destiny of our journeys. When we speak of that Mystery as if it were comparable with other powers, beings, or authorities, we traffic in idolatry. In truth, Lash calls us to practice in worship and theology our faith in the triune God in whom we really do live and move.

As I endured the Bx9 bus over these past few weeks, Lash reminded me that we believers are not merely commuters traveling in an endless loop, but pilgrims learning how to live in, and seek out, Mystery. A good gift from a great theologian.

Published in the ??? 2010 issue: 

Terrence W. Tilley is the Avery Dulles, SJ, Professor of Catholic Theology at Fordham University.

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