Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Aidan Nichols on Benedict XVI, Impersonal vs. Personal Universe

Rev. Aidan Nichols, OP, of Christendom Awake, visited Denver back in March to speak on Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI's religious thought. The Denver Catholic Register reports on his lecture. As I recall, the lecture itself was generally a summary of Pope Benedict's book "Truth and Tolerance," which I had already read.

Some four months after his visit, I've finally transcribed my recording of the question and answer session. I have been greatly influenced by the work of religion scholar Yehezkhel Kaufmann, who in his work On the Character of Israelite Religion contrasts Israel's religious monotheism with religious polytheism--especially Hellenistic polytheism. For the latter, the foundation of being is ultimately impersonal. The gods are not the last word: though they are immortal, they are also born. The universe's existence preceded them. They did not create the world, nor are they all-powerful. They can be fooled, they can be wicked, and they can be counfounded, for their domain is limited. They themselves derive their power from the "metadivine." Magic makes sense in such a culture, as an end-run around the gods to channel some of these so-called "metadivine" powers for human ends.

(Atheism, agnosticism, and secularism, also presuppose an ultimately impersonal universe, but that's a matter for another post)

For monotheism, however, Kaufmann notes that God is the foundation of being, the creator and ruler of all. Reality is ultimately based on a person.

With this in mind I asked Father Nichols to explain how Pope Benedict approached the question of an impersonal or a personal universe. My question requested him to expand on the distinction between "mystic dissolution of self into an impersonal universe" and "Christian self-sacrifice for a Person, God." His reply, as best as I could transcribe:

"I don't think he[Pope Benedict XVI] particularly emphasized self-sacrifice, but a simple term, love, which of course sometimes has to be an oblation, with an element of renunciation and sacrifice. The fundamental contrast is between, as you rightly say, an understanding of mysticism in which the end of the mystical quest is the mystic discovery of his or her essential identity with the foundation of all reality, and because of that discovery then, the worship of the divine, the expression of praise, glorification, and love for it, ceases to be reality "related" because, clearly, you can't love what is essentially an expanded version of yourself. (At least not in any very obvious sense)

Then so that nobody can [inaudible verb?] you how to be a Christian doctrine for which, no matter how far the mystic progresses on the path towards union with God, the reality of the interpersonal relationship is always maintained. And so, for example, in the mystical tradition, one of the highest names for union is the spiritual marriage, which very clearly indicates the continuing, enduring, ever-enduring reality of the distinct, finite "I," which is dependent, created and raised up by grace and free to bind to "Thou."

The move to a Trinitarian account of God is necessary if one wants to defend the claim, as he does, that in any case, even prescinding from mystical experience, in any case the ultimate foundation of reality is Love. And he claims that that claim corresponds to in the human heart which leads us to say love is the most important thing in life. And I don't know how cross-culturally this is obvious from, say, the Western lyric, meaning the pop lyric, but it is a very highly confused sentiment. So if you want to grant to that in most literal terms and therefore to treat it with the seriousness it deserves, then you have to understand the divine "I" as not an undifferentiated "I," the "I" of Islamic and Jewish monotheism, but as a Trinitarian "I", because only so can the ground of all being be itself relationship and can therefore be described as "Love."

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