Sunday, June 10, 2007

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Scotism, and Radical Orthodoxy

Months late, I have rediscovered my notes from a presentation at Regis University's Gerard Manley Hopkins Conference. Loren Wilkinson of Regent College discussed the poet's theological inspiration, John Duns Scotus, and the ignominy heaped upon him by the school of contemporary theology known as Radical Orthodoxy.

Believing themselves to be working for the restoration of neo-Platonism, Radical Orthodox theorists are committed to the metaphysics of participation in the divine. For them, the Great Chain of Being transcendently connects and binds every thing. This renders secularism metaphysically impossible. The school's anti-secular attacks often exploit secularism's ambiguous and often disingenuous disavowals of its substantive philosophical bases.

While some writers like Richard Weaver locate the original philosophical faults of secular modernity in the work of nominalists like William of Ockham, it seems the Radically Orthodox have chosen the thought of the Doctor Subtilis, Blessed John Duns Scotus, for their bĂȘte noir. Scotus held, among other things, that the Incarnation was necessary for all eternity, and that the human intellectual faculty is subject to the primacy of the will. He prized particularity, "this-ness" moreso than universals.

According to Wilkinson, it is this particularism which earns Scotus the ire of Radical Orthodoxy. His theology, they claim, collapses even God into particularity, God becomes just one more being among others, but a being still infinite in difference from other beings. This opens the secular gulf between creature and creator.

However, the key consideration is how God becomes "just one more being among others." What this can describe is nothing less than the scandalous particularity of the Incarnation. When Paul preached of Christ's death and resurrection on Mars Hill, the pagan neo-Platonists in the audience scoffed precisely because of their hostility to the fleshy incarnate. Scotus' belief in the inevitability of the Incarnation ties a knot in the Great Chain of Being. As Wilkinson comments:

Ward goes on to refer to Scotus' conviction "that God elected to create in order to be both a creature and God at once." Thus in all creation only "the incarnate one" "participates" in God. Through Christ humans are invited into that participation--and through humans, the rest of creation. But the "window on eternity" thus provided is not Platonic participation; it is the Incarnation.

It is the Incarnation that sparks Hopkins' poetic imagination and makes his poetry at once both Christocentric and radically humanistic:

...the incompleteness of the creature is completed by God in only one instance, "man", that is, individual human beings, and there full humanity is perceived not through some participation by which reality is suspended from "the transcendent". It is completed instead by Christ, presenting redeemed humanity "to the Father." It is only through Christ, and Christ "playing" in humanity that creation "participates" in the divine. [...] Creation becomes itself not when it participates in God, but when it participates in the human, through perception, appreciation, and thankfulness. That thankfulness, expressed to God through humans in Christ, is the perfection of creation.

Scotus thus makes a poet-friendly theologian. His exaltation of the senses, his emphasis on particularity, and his belief in the primacy of the will seem positions ready-made for a poet keen on close observation of and revelry in the commonplace. Scotism has Hopkins, and Thomism has Dante. Whether Radical Orthodoxy can produce a great poet remains to be seen.


Anonymous said...

I'm not too well read in this area, but I believe that a lot of the questions about Scotus, and more especially about the more modern school of Scotus have to to with roiginal sin.

A more neo-platonic view of participation would argue that the Incarnation enables us to have a restored communion with the trinity which was broken by original sin. Natural objects, like birds, were not affected in the same way by original sin and are not therefore dependent on the Incarnation in the same way as are men. They were not alienated from their own nature by the fall.

There seems to be support for this thesis in the Sermon on the mount. The lilies are dressed by the Father and the birds are fed by Him. We require the Son becuase of sin.

The great danger of Scotism (although he certainly never held a heretical doctrine) is pelagianism. I believe that this is what the radical orthodoxy adherents are objecting to.


zippy said...

Interesting criticism of the metaphysics of participation. I've been puzzled and intrigued by this since reading Pickstock's After Writing a number of years ago. I need to spend some more time on Scotus, apparently.

Lee Faber said...

Great post. This has certainly been my experience of RO. they're fond of constructing narratives and neglect the details, such things as actually reading scotus.

Freder1ck said...

I just put a post up on Scotus (and Hopkins):