"Wherever men and women discover a call to the
absolute and transcendent, the metaphysical dimension of reality opens
up before them: in truth, in beauty, in moral values, in other persons,
in being itself, in God. We face a great challenge at the
end of this millennium to move from phenomenon
to foundation, a step as necessary as it is urgent.
We cannot stop short at experience alone; even if experience
does reveal the human being's interiority and spirituality, speculative
thinking must penetrate to the spiritual core and the gound from which
it rises. Therefore, a
philosophy which shuns metaphysics would be radically unsuited to the
task of mediation in the understanding of Revelation." [i]
In one sense the dialogue of which the Pope speaks
is already well underway, although it can hardly be said to have achieved
a very high profile. The
Islamic historian of science, Seyyed Hossein Nasr argued as long
ago as 1968 that the degradation brought about by the prostitution of
nature can only ultimately be reversed by a revitalization of theology
and philosophy through metaphysical knowledge.[ii] Decades earlier, Ananda Coomaraswamy had exerted a strong influence on, among other
Catholics, the craftsman and writer Eric Gill.
Coomaraswamy, a remarkable Hindu scholar who worked as Research
Fellow at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the 30s and 40s, was one
of three writers sometimes referred to as the founders of the "Traditionalist
school" (of which Nasr is a later and eminent representative),
the others being the Frenchman René
Guénon and the Swiss Frithjof Schuon. Traditionalism crosses religious
boundaries but (it claims) without eroding them.
It insists that truth can only be attained through the practice
and mediation of a religious tradition. Such forms can be transcended only
from within: each revealed religion remains unique and precious in all
its details, and must be accepted and practised as the condition for
The Thomist writer Bernard Kelly, a contemporary of
Gill's, wrote of one work by Schuon (Spiritual
Perspectives and Human Facts), "The book has a fullness of
light which we have no right to find in the twentieth century, or perhaps
any other century." To
Kelly and other Catholics (including the Catholic Anglican, T.S. Eliot),
Schuon's achievement seemed to hold out the hope of a genuine dialogue
with the Oriental cultures at their most profound level. As Kelly put it:
"Neither the nineteenth century nor our own possesses
a philosophical language able to render metaphysical truth with precision. The attempt to find words for exact
metaphysical terms has baffled the translators of St Thomas no less
than of the Upanishads. There
is however a difference, for while the translators of St Thomas may
be presumed to have one traditional intellectual discipline at their
fingertips, the translators of the Upanishads who needed to have two
generally had neither. It
has been said, with some justice, that they appear to have taken their
philosophical language from the newspapers.
The Hindu texts are not the cause of confusion, but the occasion
for its display."
But the fact that the call for a dialogue between
the religions on the basis of a renewed metaphysics has been taken up
again by a Pope of the "Vatican II Church" must be regarded
as a striking event by those who believe that the Council effectively
ended access to Tradition for those who remained faithful to Rome. It raises hopes once more of what
Guénon (himself a former Catholic) in the early years of the twentieth
century referred to as the redressement, or restoration of traditional
intellectuality within the Church.
In this article, I want to try to establish what might be meant
by the renewal of metaphysics in our present cultural situation within
the Catholic Church, and then to go on to raise certain questions about
the nature of the Christian tradition itself that will need to be answered
in the course of such a renewal.
The Degrees of Reality
In the modern world, it is in the field of popular
science rather than philosophy that many of our metaphysical concerns
and assumptions are played out.
As has frequently been noted, in the "new physics"
the cosmos is compared to an organism rather than a machine. It is described as a pattern of relationships, preserving
itself in a meaningful homeostasis or equilibrium in the midst of change
- even while the matter of which it is composed is in constant flux.
The development of the sciences of organization - cybernetics
and General Systems Theory - established a conceptual framework for
the study of systems as such: that is, of wholes whose properties depend
not just on the sum of their parts but on their interrelationships. Whatever the exaggerations to which
this view has led - examples of which abound in the popular science
section of every bookstore - it seems clear that a fundamental shift
in perception has occurred, or is occurring, in the consciousness of
a great many people, symbolized by the rise of the science of ecology:
a shift away from the mechanistic and reductionistic, towards the organicist
I have no intention of surveying the entire field
of such writings, but will simply dwell for a moment on one particularly
instructive example. Henri Bortoft was influenced both
by the writings of the anthroposophist Owen Barfield and by the experience
of working with the physicist David Bohm in the 1960s. He finds in the long-neglected scientific writings of the German
Romantic poet Johann von Goethe practical guidelines for a new "delicate"
or "participatory" empiricism.[iv] This requires the scientist to be
trained to perceive the whole in its parts; to attain through imagination
the Gestalt (form or figure) that unites
the phenomena in their multiplicity: in other words, to understand before explaining. On this basis one may conceive of
building up what Bortoft calls a "science of qualities" superior
to the purely quantitative physics of Isaac Newton. For according to Goethe, cognition
is not something imposed, but something received from nature, received
within the "sensory imagination, when this is developed as an organ
of perception" [ibid.]. A human consciousness trained
in this way participates in the very being of the plant or animal under
examination, so that the form perceived imaginatively, far from being
a mere mental (nominalistic) representation of the thing, becomes its
incarnation in consciousness.
As this briefest of sketches tries to suggest, there
is much that is appealing and important in Bortoft's writing. However, as in the case of most
of the metaphysics offered by modern scientific writers as the underpinning
or conclusion of their speculations, Bortoft's Goethean metaphysics
seems to be partly based on a false contrast with the ancient or Platonic
philosophy. For Bortoft, the enemy is a science
based on "metaphysical separation".
This is the view that behind this world we experience with the
senses "there is another, nonsensory world, which is the intelligible
origin of what appears," so that the "intelligibility of whatever
we encounter in the world of sense experience is in another world that
is separate from this sensory world" [ibid., 180, cf. 252].
This is seen by Bortoft as the "organizing idea" behind
modern science, with its attempt to penetrate into the pure mathematical
foundations of reality and reduce the cosmos to what is sometimes described
as a "formula you can wear on your T-shirt". That is why he is attracted to Goethe,
who (at least after the encounter with Schiller) rejected this fundamental
principle. For Goethe,
"There is no underlying reality behind the appearances, but only
the intensive depth of the phenomenon itself" [ibid., p. 233]. Bortoft
blames this metaphysical separation on Plato, thus locating the problem
at the very root of the intellectual and spiritual tradition of European
Precisely here, I believe, the Traditionalist authors
can offer a much-needed corrective not only to Bortoft but to much modern
thought - and the contrast will enable me to establish more clearly
what I mean by the sophia perennis. For these authors, who certainly
regard themselves as being of one mind with Plato, there can be no question
of a "separation" of the two worlds. If anything, the temptation lies
in the other direction; that is, in a monism that would reduce the world
of multiplicity to sheer illusion. According to Titus Burkhardt, who maintains a
careful balance in this matter, the eide or logoi which are
the archetypal forms of everything in the world have no reality apart
from God on the one hand and the world on the other. As mental forms they are indeed
mere abstractions. But as "possibilities"
inherent in the Intellect and (principially) in the divine nature, they
constitute the meaning and content of reality, which without them would
fall back into nothingness.[v]
Inseparable from the traditional ontology outlined
in Burkhardt's book is an epistemology and an anthropology. The doctrine of the degrees of reality,
in both macrocosm and microcosm, leads Traditionalists to reject any
dualistic anthropology that might deprive the human subject of access
to archetypal reality. The human subject is tripartite,
consisting of body, soul and spirit, corresponding to the three main
levels of reality. The faculty by which we know the
divine Ideas, variously called Nous, Intellectus or Buddhi, constitutes a ray of the divine Sun in the heart of man.
It knows the logoi by connaturality, by intuition. At the level of the soul, these intuitions are clothed in symbols
by the imagination, which mediates between
the intellect (supplier of the "form") and the bodily senses
(which provide the "matter") for human cognition. The Orientalist Henry Corbin has written a series of impressive studies on the Persian
tradition of Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra, bringing out the
role of the "creative imagination" as an organ of perception,
and the "theophanies" that these writers discovered in the
Though these ideas are today more closely associated
with writers on Islamic than on Christian philosophy, it would not be
hard to relate them (as Traditionalists often do) to Scholastic thought
in the West. The Christian Scholastics were well
aware of the Islamic philosophers, to whom in many cases they owed their
knowledge of the great texts of Classical philosophy, and they spent
a great deal of time refuting or transforming their ideas in the light
of the Christian revelation. Nevertheless,
though the Christian and Islamic thinkers of the Middle Ages were in
many respects opposed, they were much closer to each other than to the
Nominalists of the fourteenth or the Rationalists of the seventeenth
centuries. The Catholic
philosopher E.I. Watkin brings out many of these
commonalities in his neglected book
A Philosophy of Form, which could
stand as a model of the kind of retrieval of medieval thought that needs
to take place today if a serious metaphysical dialogue between the religions
is to be possible. There he points out, among other things, that the Christian
Scholastics (preeminently, of course, Aquinas and Bonaventure) were
first of all contemplatives, rather than philosophers
or theologians in the modern sense. Yet they stand at the very end of medieval thought, and the
method they adopted for disputation was exploited by the less contemplative
men that came after in the interests of Rationalism. Furthermore, the Thomistic principle nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu ("there is nothing
in the understanding which was not first in the senses"), which
was valid if understood as Aquinas intended it,
"may be understood, and unfortunately has been
understood, to mean that our perceptions of external objects are wholly
sensible and our senses alone produce such perception. On the contrary, so-called sense
perception is possible only because, in a confused medley of atomic
sense data, the mind directly intuits the forms which give these data
involves a factor of intellection. The denial of this truth has led
directly to the proton pseudos of modern philosophical
error - the positivist and sensationalist empiricism which admits only
evidence derived from sense perception wrongly taken to be such".[vii]
Another consequence of taking seriously the "degrees
of reality" is a healthy scepticism with regard to purely materialist
theories of evolution, which in fact make sense only to people who lack
the sense of spiritual forms or essences.
If that whole dimension is closed to our minds, if there is no
conception of what might be meant by "vertical causality",
then naturally there is nowhere else for species to come from than below, through a combination
of chance and necessity. The successive temporal unfolding
of species does not prove the truth of the theories that are adduced
to explain it. According to Titus Burckhardt: "All
'matter' is like a mirror that reflects the activity of the essences
by inverting it; that is why the seed comes before the tree and the
leaf bud before the flower, whereas in the principial order perfect
'forms' preexist".[viii] And Watkin agrees: "Since the
hierarchy of beings is, as we have seen, a scale of degrees between
nothingness and Absolute Being, we should expect a priori corresponding continuity
in their appearance" [ibid., 258-9]. And:
"Matter cannot give birth to form. The new form therefore must derive
from the Divine Mind where all forms are contained and all are perfect"
[ibid., 260]. The inner form that makes a species
what it is exists eternally, and
is simply imprinted upon the matter that is ready to receive it at the
right time. Here too we find ground for agreement
- or at the least dialogue - between Catholic and Traditionalist thought.
The Catholic Tradition
Cardinal Henri de Lubac has devoted a long essay to the development and subsequent
neglect of Pauline tripartite anthropology (see 1 Thess. 5:23) in the
Christian West.[ix] In the first part of this he establishes
that St Paul's references to this anthropology have deep roots in Scripture
as well as in human experience. They were not simply imported from
an alien Greek philosophy (de Lubac notes the existence of "Plato
phobia" among many Christian scholars, especially in the modern
period). But the term for
"spirit" (pneuma) remains deliberately ambiguous
in Paul. On the one hand it may refer to
the Holy Spirit or divine life implanted in man by baptism; on the other,
it may refer to a part of man, and specifically to that "breath
of life" which God breathed into his nostrils at the very beginning
(Gen. 2:7). It becomes clear as he proceeds
that we are talking of the "highest point of the soul", and
that the ambiguity in question is precisely due to the paradoxical relationship
of nature to grace in our human destiny.
We are created to share in the life of God, but we are not compelled
to do so: we can attain that life only through the exercise of freedom.
It is worth noting that Rudolf Steiner regarded the
Fourth Council of Constantinople (870) as having effectively demolished
this paradoxical, tripartite anthropology within orthodox Catholicism,
replacing it with a dualistic understanding of man.
However, that Council took the position it did in order to oppose
an incipient dualism. It
was concerned to ensure that the distinction of the spirit from the
soul of man would not introduce a "Gnostic" duality into the
human subject of salvation.[x] St Thomas, similarly, four centuries
later, was concerned to defend the immortality of the soul by resisting
the teaching of the Arabian Peripatetics who made a single angel the
common source of intellectual illumination for all men.
For Thomas, the light flows directly from God to the human spirit,
and belongs to the essence of the soul, though it may be "strengthened"
by an angel's light. St
John of the Cross (in his "Counsels of Light and Love") seems
to imply actual angelic transmission: "Consider that your guardian
angel does not always move the desire to act, though he ever illumines
De Lubac, at any rate, does not judge the decision
of 870 worthy of mention, but sees the tripartite tradition continuing
without interruption right through the early Scholastic period.
In St Thomas, the distinction takes a slightly different form:
that between action and contemplation, or the moral and the mystical
life, or ratio and intellectus. It re-emerges fully in the Renaissance with Nicholas of Cusa
and Ficino. Despite the triumph of the new Cartesian
dualism in the universities, the authentic Christian tradition shines
through in a continuous chain of authors up to and beyond Paul Claudel
(who speaks of "this sacred point in us that says Pater noster"). How could it not, when the experience
of every spiritual master confirms the existence in us of a place where
we encounter God - the spirit, or "soul of the soul"?
Another important reference-point for the contemporary
dialogue on metaphysics is the work of Jean Borella, a Catholic Traditionalist
who has in recent years distanced himself from Schuon, having concluded
that both Schuon and Guénon had failed to understand some crucal elements
of the Christian tradition (including the sacraments and the Trinity). His book The Sense of the Supernatural, building
on de Lubac, is an attempt to wrestle with the question of what went
wrong in the Church that led to the modern loss of the sense of the
sacred, and to formulate a valid ontology and epistemology that will
be acceptable within present-day Catholicism. He recognizes the "new evangelization"
of John Paul II as "a project of vast proportions", undermining
the recent tension with the Catholic Traditionalists. "By calling them to the task of recovery in which he has
been involved, he is showing that henceforth it is not absurd to carry
on this struggle from within
Borella is particularly concerned, in the last part
of his book, with the concept of "deification" and its implications.
He argues that the loss of the sense of the sacred and the supernatural
in the modern world (and among the Modernists in the Church) is linked,
as de Lubac showed in the 1940s, with the loss of a sense of human transcendence
- the possibility of "transformation into God"
as taught by Scripture, the Church Fathers and the great mystics.[xii] Once again, he insists on the tripartite
nature of the human being, with the spirit or "soul of the soul"
as the actual place of our
union with God. It is in
the heart and centre of the soul that "the divine Essence unites
with created being and becomes the very act of its intellect";
in other words, where the knowledge and will of the creature become
one, in perfect receptivity to the actus purus which is God.
"Does all this involve the literal identification
of the creature's substantial being with God?
Certainly not. The created being as such remains a created being, and never
'becomes' the Creator.... Far from effacing the creature, deification
alone makes it possible for it to exist in its integral truth. If deification were equivalent to
a negation of the creature, it would be a sheer contradiction, since
to negate the creature is to negate the creative Will of God and therefore
God himself. Deification
is, to the contrary, the only possible affirmation of the creature"
It is, in fact, the completion of that process which
the Christian tradition calls "creation".
The final paragraph of Jean Borella's book is full
of significance for us. "The grace of the active assumption
of finiteness is conferred on us by the Passion of Christ's dying on
the Cross. 'Abandoned' of God, he renounces the 'God' of his natural will
and goes, with a single loving rush, right to the end, right to the
exhaustion of created being. In
him the human will, espousing in a mortal and crucifying union the creative
Will of divine Love, accepts being only what it is; it wills its own
ontological fniteness, it accomplishes the infinite Will of the Father."
A Question Concerning "Transcendental Unity"
We have seen that there could well be considerable
scope for agreement between Catholic and Traditionalist - not just on
the need for metaphysics, but to some extent on metaphysical doctrine
itself, and even on its implications for cosmology and anthropology. But how far can this agreement extend
before it runs aground on the Christian claim that Christ alone saves, let alone the claim that outside the Church there is no salvation? For Schuon, each religious tradition
has a perfectly valid claim to be unique and central, superior to all
others. Indeed, for the collectivity to
which it is addressed, it is central and indispensable.
Just as each man in a crowd may legitimately call himself "I",
and cannot but view himself as situated at the centre of the world,
so in each religion the Absolute says "I" and demands unqualified
adherence.[xiii] One could perhaps demonstrate
that the methods and aims, the doctrines and ethics of each religion
are not directly in conflict with one another, but when correctly understood
are somehow complementary (so that the "salvation" offered
by Christianty is a different thing from the "Liberation"
offered by Buddhism, or the denial of the Trinity in Islam is directed
at an understanding of the Trinity different from that of Christians,
for example). For the sake of argument let us
assume that such has been shown. But the question remains, at least for Christians: is even
this sufficient to safeguard our sense that Christianity itself transcends
even such a "transcendental unity"? This forces us to look more closely
at the precise relationship of metaphysics to theology.
Traditionalist metaphysics rests on the self-evidence
of the One as its first principle. S.H. Nasr, for his part, is "aware of the necessity, on
its own level, of the theological formulations which insist on the hiatus
between God and man or the Creator and the world." However, he believes the metaphysical knowledge of Unity "comprehends
the theological one in both a figurative and literal sense, while the
reverse is not true".[xiv] For Schuon similarly, theology (based
on revelation) transcends philosophy, but equally metaphysics must transcend
theology. "The latter
is the Word of God spoken to his creatures, whereas intellectual intuition
is a direct and active participation in divine knowledge and not an
indirect and passive participation, as is faith. In other words, in the case of intellectual
intuition, knowledge is not possessed by the individual insofar as he
is an individual, but insofar as in his innermost essence he is not
distinct from his Divine Principle".[xv]
A corollary, therefore, of the transcendental unity
of religions is the transcendence of theology by metaphysics. For a
Christian, however, one of Schuon's least impressive books is Logic and Transcendence, where he
struggles to make out that the Christian Trinity is merely an upaya - a provisional or skillful
means, in the Buddhist sense, more or less effective as an aid to devotion
but not finally "true". He treats the Persons as "aspects"
of the divine Unity. "Whatever may be the necessity or the expediency of the
Trinitarian theology, from the standpoint of pure metaphysic it appears
to confer the quality of absoluteness on relativities." "Only Unity as such can be
a definition of the Absolute."
Of course, he points out, the Creator possesses a certain "relative
absoluteness" with regard to creatures in its various aspects or
modalities, "but to assert, as one has heard it done, that the
Trinitarian relationships belong, not to this relative absoluteness,
but to the pure and intrinsic Absolute, or to the absoluteness of the
Essence, amounts to asking us to accept that two and two make five or
that an effect has no cause, which no religious message can do and the
Christian message has certainly never done."[xvi] (Thus he dismisses the Councils
of the Church and many of the Church Fathers with a wave of the hand.) On the contrary, as a Christian
who is faithful to tradition may
wish to argue, this "absoluteness of relativity"
is precisely what we are asking you to accept.
Its other name is love.
If the Christian is right that the Absolute has revealed
to man a truth about its own inner life, and that this revelation of
the Trinity can only be received in faith, then it must be faith rather
than metaphysics that penetrates most deeply into the nature of reality. Theology (the science that reflects
on revelation) must be permitted to
transform metaphysics. Something
like this is argued by the Traditionalist author Philip Sherrard, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church,
in his final book, Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition.[xvii] Sherrard devotes a long chapter
to the "Logic of Metaphysics" in René Guénon - although the
points he makes are just as applicable to Schuon, as we shall see. Guénon did more than anyone else to reawaken metaphysical perception
in our century, he says. But
Guénon made two important assumptions that predisposed him against Christianity
and towards Vedanta (and which help to explain his own conversion from
Catholicism to Islam). The first of these assumptions was
that a strict correlation must be preserved between the metaphysical
and the logical order - thus ruling out in advance the more paradoxical
Christian relationship between Unity and Trinity in the Godhead.
The second assumption was that every "determination"
of the Absolute must be some form of limitation, and is therefore incompatible
with the divine nature. These
two assumptions led Guénon into an apophaticism so radical that he could
affirm nothing at all of the Absolute, except by way of negation - including,
obviously, a negation of the Christian Trinity.
Before his death, then, Sherrard had come to the conclusion
that a Christian thinker who accepts Revelation must start from an entirely
different point of view - must begin, in fact, from the knowledge that
the supreme Principle is the Trinity, and furthermore that "personality"
(indeed, triple Personality) in God is not necessarily a limitation.
Without it, in fact, the Absolute has no actual freedom to determine
itself or create a world: the freedom of God becomes merely the absence
of external contraint. Although Sherrard assumes Schuon's
"transcendental unity" approach throughout his book, it does
seem to me that this particular insight calls into question one of the
core teachings of the Traditionalists: that a personal (or Tri-Personal)
deity derives from an impersonal Godhead and will be "dissolved"
in the gnosis which transcends Being. (As Sherrard writes, "This
view thus involves a total denial of the ultimate value and reality
of the personal. It demands as a condition of metaphysical
knowledge a total impersonalism - the annulment and alienation of the
person.") Of course,
the insight leaves the other religions intact. It even leaves open the possibility
that the Traditionalists have correctly understood them. But it separates Christianity from
them, and perhaps even raises Christianity above them, in
a way that seems to me incompatible (more so than he himself realized)
with the theory of "transcendental unity".
Much more food for thought on this vexed question
of the "uniqueness" of Christianity is provided by the Catholic
theologian and cultural historian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Widely recognized as a major influence on the thought of Pope
John Paul II, Balthasar recognizes more than any other modern theologian
the need for theology to transform metaphysics.
In his own work he develops two themes that are of great relevance
to us here. In the series
called "The Glory of the Lord" (particularly the first volume)
he makes the distinction between authentic Christian gnosis and the varieties of heretical
Gnosticism, exploring the meaning of what it is to "see the form"
(the Gestalt) of Christ as
the revelation of the Father and the glory of God.
This involves him in a retrieval of theological aesthetics -
of theology under the aspect of "beauty". And in the subsequent series of
volumes entitled Theo-Drama he develops a new understanding
of what is meant by the relationship between the freedom of God and
the freedom of man.[xviii]
To take first the question of gnosis: Balthasar intends
to "secure for gnosis the place which belongs to it in virtue of
its outstanding importance and certainty" [GL, I, 136]. Biblical (and Alexandrian) gnosis is not merely a "preamble"
to faith, but "the interior understanding of faith, the insight
into the mystery of faith itself". In the interior appropriation of faith, its content unfolds
before the "spiritual senses".
"The gnostic Christian does not outgrow the proclamation
of the Church, but in the kerygma he finds, revealing himself, the Logos,
who, in the most comprehensive sense, 'enlightens' the believer ever
more clearly and, indeed, draws him, as John was drawn, to his breast
ever more intimately and unites him interiorly with himself" [GL, I, 137] - that is, on the Cross
and in the Resurrection. Balthasar continues:
"In his humanity
and its symbolic character, the Logos then lets the light of the divine
nature with its truth and beauty - the very glory of the Father - illumine
the gnostic ever more brightly. To say that for the gnostic the
earthly veil enveloping revelation has become transparent means equally
that in the letter he sees the Spirit, in the Old he sees the New Testament,
and in the latter the promised eternity; in Jesus' humanity he sees
his divinity, and in the Son, through the Spirit, he sees the Father. What is here involved is, therefore,
nothing other than the turning of faith to its own interior authenticity,
as faith in a proposition ('belief that Christ') becomes faith in a
person ('believing Christ')."
Ultimately it is love that enables the spiritual senses
to blossom in this way. "Love is the creative power
of God himself which has been infused into man by virtue of God's Incarnation. This is why, in the light of the
divine ideas, love can read the world of forms and, in particular, man
correctly" [GL, I, 424]. So Balthasar
can say (in the same passage) that it is in love
for his neighbour that the Christian "definitively receives
his Christian senses, which, of course, are none other than his bodily
senses, but these senses in so far as they have been formed according
to the form of Christ" - the form of love.
If I may now compare this with Schuon's perspective, it is noticeable
that while he writes a great deal on love, he generally refers only
to our love for God (or for each other), and rarely to God's love for
us. In fact he regards love as an "aspect" of God which
for Christians becomes primary only because they are considering the
Absolute at a relative level, having been forced by their interpretation
of the Incarnation to introduce the distinction of Persons (thus "relativity")
into the Absolute. As was
suggested in the previous section, Schuon assumes that Christians are
reading the Trinitarian relations into God "from below", as
it were. For Balthasar
and the Church Fathers, these are revealed "from above".
They cannot therefore be "understood" (in the literal
sense of that word), or rationalized (although this is a constant temptation
in Western theology), but can only be known by being lived. Schuon, we might say, writes at length about the Trinity and
often quite beautifully (for he is a poet as well as a metaphysician),
but he does not have the eyes of faith,
and so does not see as clearly as Philip Sherrard the lineaments of
the Christian tradition.
Christian gnosis, or Balthasar's "seeing the form"
(the title of the first volume of The Glory of the Lord), is the place
where we might integrate (with appropriate adjustments!) much of what
the Persian tradition tells us about the Interworld or mundus imaginalis. Despite
widespread suspicion of the imagination among the Desert Fathers and
other Christian authorities, Balthasar concentrates less on the imagination
as a capacity for deception and as a source of distraction and temptation
than on its role in prophecy and in the revelation of spiritual truths,
as the locus for visionary experience, and as the home of symbolism,
of poetry and of creativity. It is, Balthasar seems to suggest,
the world of the "heart" where the Virgin Mary ponders the
words and deeds of God, and where she first conceives the Word in humble
obedience to the great Angel. Thus from the gnosis of faith, hope
and love, infused into the human soul by the Holy Spirit, we have moved
easily to the "feminine": the Church or Bride of Christ, with
Mary his Mother as the unblemished, esoteric heart mediating all his
graces, radiating him into the world.
"The terrible havoc which the 'historical-critical
method' is today wreaking in the world of faith is possible only in
a spiritual sphere from which the Church's Marian dimension has been
banished and which has, therefore, forsaken all spiritual senses and
their ecclesial communication. This devastation is spreading not
only over the whole theological realm [he wrote this in 1961]; it is
penetrating even the area of philosophy. Here the world is becoming imageless
and valueless; it is a heap of 'facts' which no longer say anything
and in which an equally imageless and formless naked existence is freezing
and anguishing unto death. The philosophy and the theology
of the image satand and fall together, and when the image of woman has vanished from the theological realm, and exclusively
masculine, imageless conceptuality and thought-technique takes over,
and then faith finds itself baished from the world and confined to the
realm of the paradoxical and the absurd" [GL, I, 423].
A Theological Metaphysics
The passage I have just quoted prepares the way for
much in the later series, Theo-Drama, concerning the mediation of divine Glory by the feminine
- as does his section on Vladimir Solovyev, whom he praises for having
successfully synthesized and purified the whole history of Western Sophiology:
he "integrates gnosis into Christianity" [GL, III, 285]. But what
I want to concentrate upon here is the way in the second series Balthasar
develops the idea of (feminine) receptivity
as a function of personal relationship and communion at every level,
including the divine, and as an intrinsic part of his account of divine
and human freedom - especially the freedom of God to create, and the
freedom of man to choose eternal damnation (thus raising two of the
most fundamental questions for Christian esotericism).
God, the supreme Act of existing, is also the supreme act of
giving. Before giving existence
to creation, the Father eternally and completely gives himself to the
Son in the Spirit. This
giving is in fact what constitutes both the Son and the
Spirit (as being eternally "from" the Father, each in a different
way). But if there is giving in God, there
must equally be receiving - even on the part of the Father, who lovingly
receives back the Son's gift of himself in the Spirit. Therefore, instead of rejecting
the idea of receptivity in God as many Thomists have done because it
seems incompatible with divine perfection, Balthasar argues that any
imperfection in receiving applies only to a being who is receptive because
needy. (The finite,
of course, can add nothing to the Infinite; but not because it is strictly
"nothing", only because the Infinite has always-already received
it, always-already transcended it.) He builds upon the Aristotelian
distinction between Act and Potency, and the Thomistic distinction between
Existence and Essence, but within the Act which is God's nature he sees
a further distinction, between the kenosis (self-giving) and receptivity
that properly belong to love.[xix]
The distinction is a function of the "otherness" of
the divine Persons one from another, within the self-same nature and
unity of love. This intra-Trinitarian
"distance" (the Son is not the Father or the Spirit) provides
Balthasar with the key to overcoming the cosmological problem noted
by Philip Sherrard: the conventional interpretation of creatio ex nihilo, which sets up
the created world as an "other" - and virtually a rival -
to God.[xx] If there is this distance
within God, because God is a Trinity, then there is a "space"
within God for the act of creation, which takes place ab intra, not ad extra (to use Sherrard's terms). Balthasar's focus, however, is on the implications for divine
freedom. According to Frithjof Schuon, "Divine
freedom means that God is free not to create a particular world; it
cannot mean that He is free not to create at all".[xxi] For both St Thomas and for Balthasar,
on the other hand, the creation must be a free act on God's part, simply
because its Existence is distinct from its Essence. It cannot be "necessary being".[xxii] But the creation is also not required
even as an expression of God's goodness, because the need of goodness
to communicate itself (the old Platonic principle) is forever already
satisfied in the generation of the Son by the Father.
The fact of the Trinitarian processions thus seems to opens up
a new horizon of freedom within the Absolute.
It also implies a new dimension of glory for the creature, if
God's only motivation in creating is love.
For love has a quality of superabundant delight in doing the
unnecessary, in "surprising" the Beloved with an unlooked-for
gift. "It is one of the laws of love
that the lover cannot completely fathom the essence of the beloved....
He must always disclose and surrender himself afresh, continually surprising
and overwhelming the lover. If ever this movement were to stop,
to be replaced by a conclusive knowledge of each other, love would come
to an end. What seemed to be complete knowledge
would be the sign of a real finitude.
But in God nothing is finite."[xxiii]
In the very last pages of Theo-Drama, Balthasar confronts the
question, "What does God gain from the world?" This connects two of his major themes:
not only that of God's freedom in creating, but also the relationship
of God's freedom to that of man: in particular, the possibility that
some creatures may through the use of their freedom be damned forever
and therefore lost to God. The
question then becomes: what does God lose in losing man?
Balthasar had earlier written a controversial book entitled Dare We Hope (That All May be Saved)?
arguing that we may indeed so hope, both on the basis of Scripture
and on the basis of visions and insights granted to the mystics. (He draws the line, unlike Sergei
Bulgakov, at the salvation of demons.)[xxiv] Schuon, of course, regards
the doctrine of an eternal hell as pertaining to "exoteric"
truth, not to esotericism, because the eternity of such a state cannot
be located on the same level of reality as the eternity
of God.[xxv] While Balthasar does not propose
a simple rejection of the doctrine of hell, he stresses the defeat for God that the damnation of any person would in fact represent,
and sees the separation of the sinner from God as encompassed and contained
by the separation of Son from Father in the abandonment of the Cross.
The otherness of the divine Persons from each other within the
Trinitarian Act, which is the "result" of their unlimited
self-giving, is therefore the basis not only for the free act of creation,
but also for the redemption of that creation once it has fallen through
the use of its own freedom into the depths of sin.
Without going into detail, Balthasar has proposed the dogma of
the Trinity as the basis for authentic Christian esotericism. Balthasar is not afraid to refer
to it as such, though he stresses that the authentically Christian esotericist
is one who has recognized the beauty of Christ and been initiated into
into the mystery of his suffering: "For at this point one must
have seen the same thing as they if one is to understand them, and this,
therefore, is the point where a certain esotericism is unavoidable and
where the proofs for the truth contemplated necessarily bear the character
of a ritual initiation, as the Symposium showed long ago. Even so truly a Church of the People'
as the Catholic Church does not abolish genuine esotericism. The secret path of the saints is
never denied to one who is really willing to follow it. But who in the crowd troubles himself
over such a path?" [GL, I, 34.] As for the freedom of God, Balthasar
does not place it at the same level as that of man. In God, freedom and necessity coincide
perfectly, and this is true preeminently of the "must" of
love. As he says, "The whole thrust
of this book has been to show that the infinite possibilities of divine
freedom all lie within the
trinitarian distinctions and are thus free possibilities within the
eternal life of love in God that has
always been realized."[xxvi]
From Eckhart to Ruysbroeck
Among Christian writers, we find the closest approach
to Schuon's view of metaphysics in Meister Eckhart, whose Christian
orthodoxy has often been called into question (notably, of course, by
the Pope in his own lifetime). It is still not clear, however,
that this perspective is straightforwardly heretical, or even entirely
incompatible with the more mainstream Dominican tradition represented
by St Thomas. It has been argued, for example,
that Eckhart accepted and assumed everything the Church and St Thomas
had taught, but was trying to write and speak from the point of view
of divine knowledge - from God's point of view, rather than that of
the creature.[xxvii] This makes him appear to be elevating
a "Godhead" above the Trinity, when he might have been intending
to do nothing of the sort.
Balthasar - who is critical of this tendency in Eckhart, preferring
the more explicitly Christocentric and love-centred mysticism of Suso,
Tauler and John of the Cross - makes a useful distinction. He writes that "ideas have
their own historical dynamic; they are governed by and obey their own
laws, regardless of the meaning they had for their originator." (In fact, it is precisely the purpose
of Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord to explore
this historical dynamic and so to unravel the knot of modernity.) Consequently, he is able to view
Eckhart's as an "authentically Christian" experience of God,
"wholly limpid and shadowless", even though clothed in ill-fitting
garments which bequeathed innumerable problems to his successors. The future "will not think,
as he does, with a worshipping heart, and so will misuse his words and
insights for the purposes of its Titanic Idealism". It was in this way that Eckhart
unwittingly opened a way for Cusanus and Boehme, for Luther and Hegel,
and even for modern atheism.[xxviii]
Even if we assume there is more to Eckhart than simple heresy,
it remains true for those of us who lack his evident purity that to
neglect the perspective of the creature in a premature assumption of
divine knowledge would be to risk falling into Luciferian intellectual
pride. This is the spiritual danger that
lies in wait for Traditionalism when it separates metaphysics too self-confidently
from theology, in effect dispensing with the humble submission to revealed
truth which is proper to the creature as such.
(It should be remembered that Lucifer was an angel of light.) Humble faith, on the other hand, is a sure path that leads
through hope to love, and in love to the most complete and active participation
in divine knowledge, through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
In this way theology as the "esotericism of the saints"
will always overtake metaphysics.
Balthasar regards Eckhart's successor John Ruysbroeck as having
most successfully "purified" his thought of these tendencies,
and in particular the tendency to separate the Trinitarian process from
a dark primal Ground or Ungrund (his closest approach to
Vedantic and Islamic mysticism). For Ruysbroeck it is the Father,
not the "Godhead", who is the "unilluminable primal Ground" of the divine
Unity, "utterly light, manifest to itself, in the reciprocal love
that is effulgent in the Son". "The Son and the Spirit 'flow
back' into the Father: this both the self-transcendence of the Persons
into the simple identity of essence and the highest bliss of love of
the Persons, who are perfected as such in this very self-transcendence. Thus God remains eternal event, yet without temporal becoming"
[T-D, V, 459].
Thus in Ruysbroeck's understanding, as in Balthasar's,
Trinity and Incarnation are bound up together in a way that must - when
fully grasped - transform both the metaphysical conception of God and
our conception of Being.
"[What is] shown to us is that the limitless
and all-embracing breadth of the trinitarian Father has replaced and
far surpassed the compass of the philosophico-mystical Ungrounded Principle.
To be sure, many who have grasped this difficulty have too quickly
sought to clothe their answer in Neo-Platonist concepts.... But this
can in no way diminish the legitimate urgency of grasping truly and
immediately, within faith’s personal love-encounter, the ultimate transpersonal
and trinitarian reality. The pantheistic tat tvam asi, which identifies subject and object in their depths,
can be resolved only by virtue of the unity between God and man in the
Son, who is both the ars divina
mundi and the quintessence of actual creation (see Book III of Nicolas
of Cusa’s Doctor Ignorantia), and by virtue
of the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from this incarnate Son in his unity
with the Father"[GL, Vol. I, 195].
With this we can pick up the theme we have already
glimpsed in Jean Borella concerning that mysterious inner point of the
human spirit which is in contact with the infinity of the divine Spirit.
"Looking into his own ground," Balthasar writes, Ruysbroeck
"sees beyond it into the eternal I, which for man is both the source
of his own I as well as his eternal Thou, and in the final analysis
this is because the eternal I is already in itself I and Thou in the
unity of the Holy Spirit" [GL, V, p. 70]. The encounter
with God in this Place is a nuptial encounter, a spiritual marriage. Thus Ruysbroeck integrates the feminine
in a way that Eckhart fails to do.
In this essay, I have tried to suggest that Christians
should pay some attention to the Traditionalist writers, who speak in
the name of a metaphysics that they claim transcends religious divisions.
If they wish to revive authentic metaphysics in our time, as
the Pope has suggested, they cannot ignore the fact that in social and
cultural terms the different religious traditions of the world now effectively
interpenetrate. It is essential
to work out how far a Christian can go in acknowledging the "seeds
of truth" in other religions.
A dialogue with the Traditionalists would help to force this
question to the very deepest level. At the same time, I have argued
that Traditionalists should pay more attention to some at least of the
recent developments within Catholic theology.
According to Balthasar (who affirms this even more
strongly than Borella or Sherrard), what Christians have to say is not
something less than, say, Vedanta or Sufism: Christians must necessarily
take a step beyond the other earthly expressions of the "primordial
tradition"; a step prompted and justified by God’s freely-given
revelation. Balthasar believes that "the
Christians of today, living in a night which is deeper than that of
the later Middle Ages, are given the task of performing the act of affirming
Being, unperturbed by the darkness and the distortion, in a way that
is vicarious and representative for all humanity: an act which is at
first theological, but which contains within itself the whole dimension
of the metaphysical act of the affirmation of Being" [GL, V, 648]. This affirmation of being includes
the cosmic hierarchy of forms and meanings. He writes, for example:
"The gods cannot be interpreted as the personifications
of human and cosmic forces which could just as well be given abstract
names. As concrete forms,
they are radiant, unique images and unveilings of Being, of human existence
within experienced Being, of 'regions' of Being which cannot be divided
by arbitrary borderlines. Within finite contours, these images
validly encompass and embody the fulness of the universe. A Michelangelo, a Goethe, a Keats
must still have seen such gods with their inner eye; many of their figures
presuppose such encounters. And we must ask ourselves whether
the inability of the modern heart to encounter gods - with the resultant
withering up of human religions - is altogether to Christianity's advantage. The derision of the gods by Christian
apologists, even by the great Augustine, is not indeed in every respect
a glorious chapter of the Church's history" [GL, I, 500].
This passage, however, must be read in the context
of Balthasar's entire argument, where he shows that the realm of the
'gods', of mythology, of symbolism, of poetry, ultimately becomes the
receptacle of divine glory through the Incarnation. Christianity includes all that is true, and therefore of perennial
value, in the other traditions, but at the same time it is possible
to integrate this with what is uniquely shown in the Christian revelation.[xxix] The difference is irreducible.
"It is not that an eternally present cosmic law is now brought
to consciousness in a new way by Christ; rather, out of the freedom
of God's love a mode of salvation is created by
which all is safeguarded in God" [GL, I, 507, my emphasis].
Balthasar is surely a writer that the Traditionalists
should take extremely seriously. But they may find hard to accept his view of Christianity as
somehow "more" than all other religions, or his conclusion
that "the Christian is called to be the guardian of metaphysics
for our time" [GL, I, 656]. For on the face of it, what could
seem more absurd? In the last few centuries, and particularly
in the last fifty years, Christians have become the least metaphysical
people on earth. It was
Christianity that opened the door to modernity, which is virtually founded
on the destruction of metaphysics. On the other hand, does not this
very fact imply the role that Balthasar gives Christianity, for the worst is a corruption of the best? Only something quite unique among
world religions could possess such an unprecedentedly destructive power.
The reader will have to decide. One thing is clear.
If such a transformation of Christians into "guardians of
metaphysics" on a world scale is to take place - or even a much
less ambitious recovery of a sense
of the supernatural, and thus of the true meaning of their own sacraments
and liturgy - Christians must look to the deepest springs of their tradition. Like Borella, Sherrard and Balthasar,
they must become aware both of its distinctive character, as the revelation
of a mystery within God, a "mystery hidden from all ages"
(1 Cor. 2:7), the mystery of Christ - and also of all the elements of
universal truth which Christianity seeks to integrate around that unique
The above article appears in
the fourth issue of Sacred Web, which describes itself as “A
journal of tradition and modernity”(understanding “tradition” in the
sense given to this word by Frithjof Schuon), details of which may be
obtained from [email protected]
[i] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Vatican: 1998,
[ii]The Encounter of Man and Nature,
London: George Allen & Unwin, 1968.
[iii] These quotations are from B.
Kelly, "Notes on the Light of the Eastern Religions",
Vol. 7, 1954.
[iv] H. Bortoft, The
Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science, Edinburgh: Floris
Books, 1996. For more on this theme, see
my article "A Science of the Real", in Communio, XXV:3, Fall 1998.
[v] T. Burkhardt, Introduction
to Sufi Doctrine, Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1976, 62.
[vi] For example, H. Corbin,
Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, Princeton University
Press, 1969. See also William C. Chittick,
Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-Arabi and
the problem of Religious Diversity, State University of New
York Press, 1994. Unless
we take account of the nature of the imagination we cannot make
much sense of the way visions and apparitions convey truth in a
form that is nevertheless conditioned by culture and presupposition.
Corbin, unfortunately (originally a Christian), is so carried
away by the attractions of the Interworld that he can no longer
conceive of a material Incarnation.
[vii] E.I. Watkin, A
Philosophy of Form, London: Sheed & Ward, 1950, 110.
[viii] The Sword of Gnosis, Baltimore:
Penguin, 1974, 144.
[ix] H. de Lubac, S.J., in Theology in History, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996.
[x] See Catechism of the Catholic Church,
[xi] J. Borella, The
Sense of the Supernatural, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998, 43.
[xii] Like E.I. Watkin on pp.
389-90 of A Philosophy of Form, he strongly
objects to Jacques Maritain's denial of substantial or "entitative"
contact of the human soul with God, contrasting this with the plain
statement of St John of the Cross.
[xiii] See, for example, his
essay "Tradition and Modernity", reprinted in Vol. 1 of
Sacred Web, July 1998.
[xiv] S.H. Nasr, Knowledge
and the Sacred, Albany: State University of New York Press,
[xv] F. Schuon, The
Transcendent Unity of Religions, San Francisco: Harper &
Row, 1975, xviii.
[xvi] New York: Harper &
Row, 1975. Quotations are from the chapter
"Evidence and Mystery".
[xvii] The book was published
posthumously, by Holy Cross Press (Brookline) and T&T Clark
(Edinburgh), in 1998.
[xviii] The following abbreviations will be used for
texts by Hans Urs von Balthasar. GL = The Glory of the Lord: A Theological
Aesthetics, Edinburgh and San Francisco: T&T Clark and Ignatius
Press, 1982-91, seven volumes. T-D = Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic
Theory, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988-98, five volumes.
[xix] See G.F. O'Hanlon, The Immutability of God in the Theology
of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
[xx] P. Sherrard, Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred
Tradition, Brookline: Holy Cross, 1998, ch. 10. Sherrard sees this interpretation as lying at the root of secularization
and also of the present ecological crisis.
[xxi] Islam and the Perennial
Philosophy, London: World of Islam Publishing Co., 1976, 173.
[xxii] No Essence can exist unless "actualized":
that is, only the act of existing makes it something
rather than nothing. Here Balthasar sides in his
interpretation with the so-called "existential Thomists",
such as Etienne Gilson, for whom Existence reigns supreme, and God's
Essence is infinite precisely because it is identical with his Existence. It should be noted for the sake
of further dialogue between Catholic philosophers and the representatives
of "Tradition" that a more Platonic interpretation has
been developed by Josef Seifert and his colleagues at the International
Academy of Philosophy, which still accepts the "real distinction"
in St Thomas, but criticizes this view of the divine infinity and
the exclusive priority of Existence over Essence on the gounds that
not every essence is necessarily a limitation.
See J. Seifert, "Essence and Existence", Aletheia, I and I.2, University
of Dallas Press, 1977.
[xxiii] Adrienne von Speyr, The World of Prayer, San Francisco:
Ignatius Press, 1985, 42.
See also H.U.von Balthasar, T-D, II, 258-9.
[xxiv] But even here he makes an interesting qualification
in T-D, V, 508: "the question of the fate of demons is insoluble
in a theologia viatorum and must therefore
be excluded". Does he mean that it is only
necessarily to be excluded in a theologia viatorum?
[xxv] F. Schuon, Understanding Islam, London:
Allen & Unwin, 1963, 71-83.
[xxvi] T-D, V, 508. Here, then, Balthasar comes closest to something Schuon would
recognize as metaphysics, yet he comes to it by confronting more
deeply the dogmatic mystery of the Trinity that Schuon cannot perceive
except at the level of exotericism.
[xxvii] C.F. Kelley, Meister Eckhart on Divine Knowledge,
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977, 37; Cyprian Smith, O.S.B.,
The Way of Paradox, London:
Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987, 65; Joseph Milne, “Eckhart and
the Problem of Christian Non-Dualism”, Eckhart Review, March 1993.
[xxviii] The quotations from Balthasar in this paragraph come from GL, V, 16-47.]
[xxix] In this connection one can better understand Balthasar's interest in a remarkable but flawed work of Christian esotericism, Meditations on the Tarot (New York: Amity House, 1985), to which he contributed a Foreword in the German edition. One of the points he makes there is that the anonymous author, whom he calls "a thinking, praying Christian of unmistakable purity" (actually the former anthroposophist Valentin Tomberg) "is able to enter into all the varieties of occult science with such sovereignty, because for him they are secondary realities, which are only able to be truly known when they can be referred to the absolute mystery of divine love manifest in Christ. He does not in any way conceive of the Christian revelation as some kind of imprint - potential or real - of archetypes, be they subjective or objective. Rather, the latter merely form the cosmic material into which the unique Christian revelation finally incarnates; and since the incarnation of divine love, becoming human, is the ultimate aim of cosmic evolution, they comprise a round of allegories and schematic patterns announcing this event by way of 'mirrors and enigmas'." It is the Logos who is the Archetype of archetypes and revealer of the Father. By becoming man he gives to the fabric of existence a greater reality than it could otherwise have possessed.