This reflection is now available in Daniel P. Horan, OFM’s book Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century: Selected Reflections from the Dating God Blog and Other Essays, Volume One (Koinonia Press, 2013).
Archive for john duns scotus
The following reflection was first published on my birthday a year ago. As I was thinking about what to say today, I thought I might look back to see what I said last year on DatingGod.org and realized that I’d like to share these reflections again.
The thing about birthdays is that they always seemed a bit weird to me. Not that I don’t enjoy receiving presents and cake, but in a culture like ours that is so obsessed about the myth of meritocracy, it seems odd that we would collectively make such a big deal about something for which one had absolutely no control. On some level, shouldn’t it be the parents who get the presents on a child’s birthday? They’re the ones who do all the work, right?
That said, it occurred to me while walking to my office this morning that the event that we actually celebrate is not some sort of undeserved accomplishment, but precisely the ordinariness of life. What we celebrate, ultimately, is the fact that this or that person was born, entered our world and therefore became connected to everything else in this cosmic creation.
Birthdays, it really seems to me, are an opportunity to be grateful for the gift of life that is exemplified by this or that particular person, but they are also a chance to remember what a very precious reality life is in itself. This birthday has me thinking about one of my favorite philosopher-theologians, John Duns Scotus. According to his outlook, all of creation bears the mark of a delicate, incommunicable and unique contingency. I did not have to exist, neither did you. In fact, none of creation is, ultimately, necessary. Why creation then? Scotus’s answer is fundamentally simple: God’s love.
In celebrating a birthday of a family member, friend, loved one, co-worker, or even a complete stranger what we celebrate is both an affirmation of that particular person’s existence (the cake does need someone’s name on it, right?), but it is also a celebration of the gift of all life and God’s love.
On this [twenty-eighth] anniversary of my own contingent entrance into this world, I am particularly grateful for both my own life as well as the lives of all of those celebrated on all days. So thanks for the birthday wishes, thanks for the love, and thanks for celebrating the gift of life and God’s love that brings all life into being each and every day.
Today is November 8th and that means it’s the feast day of Blessed John Duns Scotus, OFM!!!
For those who aren’t aware, I am a big fan of the Subtle Doctor, having studied his work and been significantly influenced by Scotus’s thought over the years. I’m not the only one whose thought has been noticeably shaped by Scotus. There are particular figures of much greater significance who look up to John Duns Scotus and whose work reflects the (not so) subtle influence of this magnificent Franciscan thinker of the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
Here are just a few names of people who are in debt to the Subtle Doctor for influencing their work:
- Gerard Manley Hopkins — the Jesuit poet, author of the poems “God’s Grandeur” among others.
- George Lindbeck — the American theologian, wrote a dissertation on Scotus.
- Martin Heiddeger — the philosopher, author of Being and Time, wrote a dissertation on Scotus.
- Wolfhart Pannenberg — the Lutheran systematic theologian, wrote a dissertation on Scotus.
- Thomas Merton — the Twentieth-Century Trappist Monk and spiritual writer.
- Charles Sanders Peirce — the American philosopher, logician, wrote very highly about Scotus.
Often remembered for his dense and penetrating philosophical work, John Duns Scotus has generally been neglected as a spiritual guide. It has been relatively few scholars that have sought to focus attention to Scotus’s religious life as something worth considering, especially in a Franciscan perspective.
Mary Beth Ingham, a well-known scholar of Scotus, wrote an article titled, “Fides Quarens Intellectum: John Duns Scotus, Philosophy and Prayer.” About a year later I wrote an article titled, “Praying With the Subtle Doctor: Toward a Contemporary Scotistic Spirituality.” At least in the English language, these are the most recent and explicit efforts to call attention to the insight of John Duns Scotus as a resource for contemporary Franciscan spirituality. My forthcoming book also features some of Scotus’s own contributions to Franciscan spirituality, an overlooked area of the tradition.
One thing that both Ingham and I reference in our respective articles is Scotus’s prayer at the beginning of his most famous work, De Primo Principio (On God as First Principle). Surprising to many, Scotus opens his philosophical explication of God as First Principle with a prayer for wisdom and illumination. Today is a good day to return to that prayer for reflection — especially if you are a student or teacher.
Happy John Duns Scotus Day!!
From the opening of De Primo Principio (1.1-2)
May the First Principle of things grant me to believe, to understand and to reveal what may please his majesty and may raise our minds to contemplate him.
O Lord our God, true teacher that you are, when Moses your servant asked you for your name that he might proclaim it to the children of Israel, you, knowing what the mind of mortals could grasp of you, replied: “I am who am,” thus disclosing your blessed name. You are truly what it means to be, you are the whole of what it means to exist. This, if it be possible for me, I should like to know by way of demonstration. Help me then, O Lord, as I investigate how much our natural reason can learn about that true being which you are if we begin with the being which you have predicated of yourself.
Yep, this is not a joke. I had mentioned last year that an Italian film company was making a movie about John Duns Scotus and I has come to my attention that the film is now available on DVD. Yes, I plan to order a copy. This is exciting in that the movie is out in plenty of time for the Feast of Bl. John Duns Scotus — November 8. The movie won awards for Best Movie and Best Actor at the 2011 International Catholic Film Festival. It is available via Ignatius Press ($17.99) on October 1st. Enjoy this film trailer below.
Next Friday evening, 27 May 2011, I will be giving a talk at Maryhouse the Catholic Worker in New York City. The title of the lecture is, “Who Do You Say That I am? Human Dignity and the True Self According to John Duns Scotus.” I’m really looking forward to spending some time with the NYC Catholic Worker community and hope that anyone who is able might come. While I was invited back in January to speak on this subject, I have since thought that it might be a fruitful experience for all gathered to open up the conversion at some point to talk about some of the recent global events and their relationship to human dignity in light of Scotus’s contribution in that area. My hope is that we might be able to find in the subtle doctor insight for our contemporary world.
Here is the street and contact information for Maryhouse. The Friday talk begins at 8:00pm and all are welcome. Hope to see you there!
55 E Third St
New York NY 10003
It is a beautiful Central-New-York morning here at Syracuse University. I’m in town for the regional American Academy of Religion conference. As many of you know, now that the academic year has begun to officially wind-down around the country, the academic conference season has kicked off with force. May and June tend to be the busiest time of year for conferences, a time between the end of the school year when space frees up on campuses to host such events and before Summer vacation season really kicks off in July.
This is the first of three academic papers that I will be delivering in the next month and a half, the remaining two during the first and second weeks of June (College Theology Society and the International Thomas Merton Society, respectively). I will be sure to keep everyone updated about those papers and conferences here at DatingGod.org. For those who are interested, here is the abstract for today’s paper.
Cambridge Thomism and Postmodern Scotism: Critiquing Radical Orthodoxy’s Scotus Narrative Beyond Cross and Williams
Since the publication of John Milbank’s magisterial tome Theology and Social Theory in 1992, the landscape of contemporary theology has been irrevocably impacted by the movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, prompting engagement, analysis and response from thinkers representing a variety of disciplines and theological subfields. The last decade witnessed the critical assessment of the Radical Orthodoxy movement by several philosophers specializing in the medieval era (particular the work of John Duns Scotus). Such scholars include Richard Cross and Thomas Williams. Their contention was that one of the theological narratives upon which the agenda of the Radical Orthodoxy movement relied – namely, that John Duns Scotus’s thought is largely responsible for the emergence of modernity and its ill effects – was errant. Their respective analyses provide substantive and compelling arguments for where the Scotus sub-narrative of the Radical Orthodoxy movement (exemplified in the work of John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock) goes wrong. The work of Cross and Williams, focusing on such scholarly flaws as the problem of methodological presuppositions and an inadequate understanding of Scotus’s Formal Distinction, offers a preliminary examination of the problematic qualities of this Radical Orthodoxy cornerstone.
This paper offers yet further analysis that develops and moves beyond the foundational analyses offered by Cross and Williams during the last decade. Looking to Milbank and Pickstock’s construction of a new form of Thomism – borrowing the term “Cambridge Thomism” from John D. Caputo to describe it – the first aim of this paper is to identify yet another concerning feature of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, while also contributing to the critical analysis of its use of Scotus. Furthermore, this paper seeks to exonerate, at least in part, Scotus from Radical Orthodoxy’s condemnation, thereby providing another resource for contemporary theology in contrast to the conviction of many Radical Orthodoxy scholars.
Photo: Syracuse University
This book was recently recommended to me and I have had a chance to read through most of it. My brother in Franciscan life, Murray Bodo, OFM, is one of the best-known contemporary writers from the Franciscan tradition. Known especially for his collections of poetry and his best-selling Francis: The Journey and the Dream (which is soon to come out in a 40th Anniversary edition!), Murray recently published Mystics: Ten Who Show Us the Ways of God (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007). It is a collection of essays about ten different Mystics, selected from across the Christian Tradition from Mary of Nazareth through Robert Lax, the contemporary poet.
Naturally, there are several poets, both of ages past and more recently, that Murray highlights as Mystics for our consideration. These include Jacopone Da Todi, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Lax (although one might argue Francis of Assisi, whose “Canticle of the Creatures” was the first literary piece written in colloquial Italian, might be counted among the more established poets and writers).
I particularly like Murray’s essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins, a personal favorite of mine. While I now realize how much of a mystic Hopkins was, I don’t think I had ever considered him in such terms until reading through this book. Murray reflects on how Hopkins captured the young Franciscan poet’s imagination from his earliest days as a Franciscan novice in the 1950s. Hopkins, the renown Jesuit author, influenced Murray for much of his life.
Here is an excerpt from Murray’s chapter on Hopkins that I think summarizes well the way in which Hopkins really deserves to bear the title “mystic.”
Here was a sacramental poet. For him everything seemed to be a sacrament of the presence of God; his words grasped the individuality of the thing that in turn revealed the Word that inhabited it. I knew even then, as a young man, that Hopkins was a mystical poet, an intimate of God whom he experienced through words that grasped God’s unique incarnation in everything that is.
Each thing in its very uniqueness, which Hopkins calls inscape, reveals the unique word of God that it is. This inscape is elicited or revealed through an intuitive knowing that Hopkins calls instress. For him, as a poet, it is language itself that instresses an inscape. Language itself becomes the inscape of God, reveals God as the Word inside the word
This of course, as Murray goes on to remind us, is a reflection of Hopkins’s admitted Scotist influence. This is, I believe, a large part of why I like Hopkins so much. The 19th-Century Jesuit was deeply infatuated with the thought of the medieval Franciscan John Duns Scotus, from whom he gleaned the notion of inscape articulated by Scotus as haecceitas or “thisness.”
Murray Bodo’s book does a good job highlighting ways in which certain figures in Christian history, some well-known others not-as-well-known, provide us with models of prayer and mysticism. Check it out.
Photo: St. Anthony Messenger Press
The more I think about it, the more I feel convinced that what is at the core of the recent USCCB report on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, is yet another example of the recent politicalization of theology. What I mean by this is that beneath what appears to be particular characteristics the bishop’s conference finds problematic in Johnson’s book is really a latent, but deeply rooted, fear of change. Not just any change, but change that comes with the development of theological language in light of contemporary correlative study. What might have sufficed for a reasonable theological expression of a Christian faith claim eight-hundred years ago, might not make sense today.
Take, for example, many of the explanations offered by Thomas Aquinas (or Bonaventure, or any other 13th Century theologian for that matter). Much of what is expressed in texts such as the Summa Theologica makes sense only within a hylomorphic worldview. With developments in philosophy and the natural sciences over the centuries, we cannot simply cut-and-paste medieval articulations into contemporary settings. There may be some exceptions to the rule, but each instance of blind reiteration usually requires heavy contextualization and explanation for the statement to make sense today (in order to explain what the theory of ‘transubstantiation’ means to modern person, you have to give a primer on Aristotle’s metaphysics).
Nevertheless, the faith claims or doctrine remains True today as it always has. Using the example of hylomorphism and the Eucharist again, the True Sacramental Presence of Christ in the Eucharist remains True today as it did in 1274 when Thomas died. Yet, how we articulate that doctrine in terms understandable today is another story.
I will say at this point that I see a great value in authoritative bodies like the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Their purpose is to maintain and safeguard the faith of the ecclesia kyrios. The faith claims, doctrines and dogmatic beliefs should be protected by such people who act in service of the entire Body of Christ. However, does one of these servants-of-the-Church overstep its boundaries when it claims that new attempts to articulate a Christian faith claim are untenable according to the Catholic theological tradition because of its novelty or contemporary relevance?
Sure, I don’t think the CDF or the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine would ever readily admit such a reasoning, but is this not what happens on occasion? I have this sense that something along these lines is what is happening with regard to Johnson’s book.
Since the early 1990s, coinciding as it were with John Milbank’s publication of Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, there has been a theological movement in the UK and North America that is strongly reactionary. This movement sees contemporary theological engagement with the social and natural sciences as suspect, distrusts modern (and postmodern) philosophical resourcing and seeks to re-appropriate medieval articulations and formulae for today’s usage. The central figure in this movement is Thomas Aquinas, whose fame has not received such ubiquitous attention since the late 19th Century when Pope Leo XIII got this Thomistic monopoly rolling with his encyclical letter Aeterni Patris (1879).
One can see the influence of this movement increasing in the United States in recent decades. One of the clearest signs of this attitudinal appropriation comes in the form of Cardinal Francis George’s recent book The Difference God Makes (2009). In the first chapter, George sets the stage for what follows by simply repeating what Milbank and others in the Radical Orthodoxy movement have already said about the origins of modernity and the culpability of John Duns Scotus (d. 1308).
The loss of the communio ontology in Western thought begins, perhaps surprisingly, just after Aquinas, in the writings of Duns Scotus. Scotus consciously repudiates the Thomistic analogy of being — predicated upon participation — and adopts a univocal concept of being. (10)
He goes on, citing no primary sources but only the work of Milbank and Catherine Pickstock of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. I wrote my master’s thesis on the errancy of this particular movement’s reading of Scotus’s work, following the seminal analyses of top Scotist scholars Richard Cross (of Notre Dame) and Thomas Williams (of University of South Florida). I will not rehearse here all the problems with Radical Orthodoxy’s reading of Scotus that George blindly adopts for his own use. Instead, I want to highlight that the USCCB, like Cardinal George some years earlier, is yet again proffering a theological hegemony that is not as concerned with doctrine as it is with expression.
I cannot understand why the Scotus doctrine of the possibility of a univocal concept of being is so threatening to these people. Perhaps it stems from the fact that nearly none of those who launch attacks against univocity have demonstrated that they actually understand Scotus’s original thought. At the same time, I think that there is something much more primal operating here. It’s not that Thomist analogia entis is more correct than Scotus’s assertion that in order to even have an analogical concept of being it must first be grounded in a univocal concept, but that there is fear that there may in fact be a multitude of ways to authentically express a Christian faith claim.
(By the way, to Cardinal George and others: Scotus does not “consciously repudiate the Thomistic analogy of being,” he is first and foremost concerned with the development of analogia entis in the generation after Thomas, most notably in the work of Henry of Ghent — not Thomas — to which Scotus directs his univocal critique).
It’s an issue of simplicity, which, in its forceful assertion, results in a type of theological fideism. “Believe this as it is said in this way and don’t ask questions!” There is, at some level, a fear of change that comes from, dare I say, a lack of faith. Faith in the continued working of the Holy Spirit to inspire theologians and philosophers today as the Spirit inspired those medievals centuries ago. George, Wuerl and others give the impression by their ostensibly myopic outlook that they do not believe the Spirit continues to illuminate the minds of faithful theologians engaged in contemporary correlative theology.
Don’t forget, Thomas got in trouble in his own life and was condemned by his own community shortly after his death (only to later be restored) because his theology drew heavily on the “new sciences” of the day, originating from Islamic commentaries of a “pagan philosopher” = Aristotle.
When will we learn?
As I said above, one way to read the report on Johnson’s book is to see another iteration of the Radical Orthodoxy movement’s concerns articulated as: contemporary theological engagement with the social and natural sciences as suspect, distrusts modern (and postmodern) philosophical resourcing and seeks to re-appropriate medieval articulations and formulae for today’s usage.
The committee doesn’t like the place of evolution and science in Johnson’s theology, finds the Kantian qualities of Johnson’s modern theological project problematic and seeks to reiterate Thomas (notice the report’s only footnotes are from the Summa). This is not about the problems with Elizabeth Johnson’s theology, this is about problems with the entire purpose of theology and what a certain group of people in the last twenty or so years thinks theology should look like.
Photos: University of Dayton; CNS; Stock
There is a very interesting (and somewhat humorous) line in the original manuscript of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain that was edited out because it was one of many seeming tangential soliloquies the young Merton included in his book about John Duns Scotus. While generally overlooked until recently (a scholarly effort that I have been engaged in for some years now), Merton was fascinated with the Medieval Franciscan philosopher-theologian and highly influenced by Scotus.
Merton’s comment has to do with the fact he believed Scotus to be essentially communist in that the Subtle Doctor asserted that it was God’s original intention for no one to own private property, but share all in common. Merton was likely referring to a passage in Scotus’s Oxford commentary (Ordinatio IV, dist. 15, q. 2) where the Subtle Doctor writes: “In the state of innocence neither divine nor natural law provided for distinct ownership of property; on the contrary everything was common.”
It should be stated outright that the negative connotations the term ‘communism’ has today (and really since the McCarthy era of U.S. politics and Cold War rhetoric) was not necessarily present in Merton’s use of the term. Nevertheless, the notion of a classless society and shared resources in a spirit of equity does align itself very clearly with the Christian Gospel and Religious life — something that was not lost on the young Merton, and something that remained with even the more mature Merton decades later.
The reason I thought of this nearly unknown passage from Merton and the subsequent Scotus source is because of today’s New York Times editorial titled, “Poverty and Recovery.” The statistics about poverty in the United States over the last 2+ years is staggering.
In an age when so many of the fiscal and social conservatives, those intent on “eliminating Government spending,” identify their political efforts and agenda with their personal ‘Christian’ faith, a news flash is needed to speak some truth to these politicos: Such action is contrary to the faith, not in the least compatible with their purported Christianity.
Merton and Scotus are correct (insofar as one takes Merton’s youthful and anachronistic comment about Scotus being ‘communist’ in stride) when they assert that it is neither Divine nor so-called Natural law that permits private ownership. Ownership, as Merton writes elsewhere in lecture notes from the early 1960s, is only legitimate when someone has a right to private property. According to both Scripture and the Franciscan theological-philosophical tradition, no one has a right to private property.
Such a reality is simply the product of human convention. It is fallible and it has not always been the case.
Rhetoric oriented to garner support for the elimination of public governmental assistance to the least among us is sinful at best and more accurately described as abhorrent. No one should dare invoke the name of Christ for such clearly anti-Christian movements.
The Times reports: “With 14.5 million people still out of work, and more than 6 million of them jobless for more than six months, reducing federal help now will almost ensure more poverty later. That would impose an even higher cost on the economy and budget because ever poorer households cannot spend and consume.”
Without regard for the moral imperatives explicitly contained within the Christian tradition, it makes little long-term fiscal and societal sense to reduce federal assistance for the poor in our country. It will only allow for more to hit the poverty level and increase the already shameful disparity between the haves and have-nots of this nation.
The gap is set to only grow wider if such behavior persists and the saddest irony is that those who have the most to lose in the process are, it seems, the first in line to be the pawns of the wealthy and powerful, advocating as it were the acceleration of their own abjection.
Tax cuts for the wealthy only makes the rich richer and leaves the poor carrying the heavy crosses imposed on them by the political pharisees who do not condescend to help with burden. The Franciscan perspective on this matter is simple: there is no Divine or Natural right to private property, so no one should complain that those who have more are conscripted to assist those with less. Because, if God did not give some more than others, those with more simply appropriated that wealth on their own accord.
There is only one Gospel and it is the Good News of Jesus Christ, not a self-justifying pseudo-gospel of prosperity.