Continuing my review of Jean Daniélou’s The Lord of History from here.
These first ten essays explore various issues relevant to the Christian theologian of history. His primary aim is to explore the relationship between religious concepts and historical concepts, between sacred history and secular history. Repeatedly, Daniélou offers us two contrasting Christian responses, only to reject them both in favor of a way that preserves the best in each. Throughout, he remains rooted in scripture and the Church Fathers, but contemporary issues are never far from his mind.
The first five essays focus on the Church as it is incarnate in the world, dealing in turn with the difficulties of manifesting in various times, cultures, and classes. The following five essays explore theoretical questions raised in the preceding, offering a theology of history that directly responds to Marxists, secular historians, syncretists, and in general those wary of the Catholic approach. It culminates in a definition and defense of the symbolic structure of sacred history and its methodological key: typology.
Perhaps the most helpful definitions to keep in mind are those of salvation/sacred history and profane/secular history. I will repeat them here. Sacred history encompasses the progressive work of God in time for the salvation of the cosmos. In Daniélou’s view, this is the inner reality of all history, what gives time shape and meaning. Secular history includes the “surface” of history, the great deeds of nations and people, the always-changing fortunes of civilization. As Daniélou explains in his first chapter, the Church is implicated in both modes of history.
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1. Sacred and Profane History
Christianity, as a social phenomenon, bears the undeniable marks and contours of history. Its theology and liturgy, for instance, are often patterned after cultural forms no longer in existence. This prompts the question: does Christianity itself tend toward obsolescence? There seems, on the surface, little of permanent value to the world in a religion so committed to archaic thought and practice; Christianity, whatever its contributions to an earlier age, appears to some a decadent antique.
Christianity belongs to history, it is true. Nevertheless, Daniélou asserts, the reverse statement is also accurate: “history falls within Christianity.” This paradox is the focus of Daniélou’s first chapter.
The Church is embedded in profane history. It is, as Daniélou remarked in the introduction, incarnate, just as the Son did not become an abstract everyman, but a Galilean craftsman of the first century. The Church in various times and places has been shaped by the culture in which it was placed. But these changes, if not quite superficial, are not essential either. The Church at its core is the end of all things, an era to itself, and relates to all times and places as such. Christendoms come and go, but the Church is eternity embodied.
In recent centuries, for example, a prominent and fruitful form of Christianity has been that of the bourgeois. But the world of the bourgeois is dying, and the form of Christianity developed therein must learn to die gracefully with it. We must let it go, for this is not Christianity itself but a form only valuable for the duration of the culture it corresponded to. There is for the Christian a perpetual tension between incarnation and detachment, which each reflect a duty to inhabit our present moment of history.
For good reason, the Church is slow to adjust itself. It must carefully distinguish between the accidents attached to a particular embodiment and the essence of the deposit of faith. Most of all, it must never lose sight of the fact that being “up to date” is not the Church’s most important priority. Benedictine monasticism, medieval cathedrals, and the Summa continue to feed the faithful despite their roots in vanished secular realities; we have room for the new without actively tearing the old down.
This is because the other side of the paradox must be maintained. The Church is not merely a part of history. In actual fact, the inside is bigger than the outside; secular history is a subdivision of sacred history. Salvation history includes not only mankind but the entire cosmos, from creation to re-creation. Christ the Word, who makes all things new, is he by whom all things were made in the first place. Therefore, we cannot let the Christian narrative of history be assimilated into some “broader” social or biological evolutionary narrative; on the contrary, any evolutionary narrative ought to be placed and evaluated within the overarching creative movement of the Word. Anything less is idolatry.
St. Augustine’s two cities doctrine has some applicability here. The city of saints and angels and the city of idolaters and demons stand opposed; any political organization that becomes an end in itself has made itself an idol and thus an adversary of the City of God. In the City of Man, human products (or humans themselves) are exalted to the status of absolute realities. Only when these idols are forsaken can the earthly city be harmonized with the works of salvation and war turn to peace. The earthly city, in making these decisions generation to generation, participates in sacred history and thus declares the verdicts of God. “History,” Daniélou concludes, “consists in a perpetual judgment of the world, whereof the Second Coming will be simply the final pronouncement.”
2. Christianity and Cultures
Daniélou observes that the twentieth century is marked by the political rise of nations and peoples once subject to the colonial yoke. The states of the Far and Middle East are emerging on the international stage from under the shadow of western powers, and not just on the political scene; many are experiencing native religious and cultural revivals as well. This reminds us of the peculiar association of Christianity with western civilization. In many places, Christianity is regarded as a “foreign import,” retreating as western imperialism does.
Daniélou calls for a “re-incarnation”; otherwise, he warns, Christianity will remain but superficially rooted in non-western cultures. This is a project of centuries, requiring careful refinement of the culture to remove any pagan dross. Idioms must be transformed, as when St. John boldly adopted the Greek term logos; orthodox theologians subsequently spent generations stripping the word of its pagan associations, even as the core idea behind its adoption shaped their thought. The original Semitic idiom was thus united with Greek culture.
If we have faith in the unity of the human spirit and the unity of truth, the intellectual achievements of western civilization belong to the world. Certainly, Christianity as a religion today cannot properly be understood without some awareness of western culture, but it need not always be so. Chinese theologians must today learn Latin in order to access core texts of the Christian tradition; but in the future, it may be that European theologians will need to learn Chinese.
Enrichment of the tradition inevitably follows such efforts. The study of non-western cultures may prove a powerful aid to truly catholicizing the Church. Though the Church has been (and remains forever) shaped by Semitic, Hellenic, and Latin cultures, it belongs essentially to none of them. The Church in history passes through all civilizations, adding each to her finery. Daniélou here has sharp words for Christians who wish to comb out all traces of Hellenism. Christianity, east and west, is unintelligible without Hellenism, which gave us a language for theology, liturgy, and mysticism. The future Chinese Church will be Chinese, but it must also be Hellenic (and Semitic, and Latin, etc.). To Chinese Christians, too, belongs the common inheritance of the catholic faith.
Something will always be wanting in the Church’s mission to bring the light of the Gospel to all peoples, so long as we have left their cultural treasures—language, art, philosophy, and so forth—in the dark. Catholicity means unity in diversity. Not imperiously regarding ourselves (westerners) as benefactors only, we must expect to learn from other Christendoms as we welcome them to equal fellowship at a single table.
3. Confusion of Tongues
The story of Babel establishes the significance of human linguistic divides for sacred history. This story was a favorite subject of early Christian commentary. Notably, it was used by Origen in a discussion of “national angels.” Origen asserted that the system of assigning peoples spiritual guardians first came into being at Babel, when God divided the peoples according to the level of their wickedness and assigned them corresponding angels. Oftentimes, the tutelary angels became worshiped as gods.
Origen was actually saying nothing original here; his interpretation reflected a major Jewish tradition. The Church Fathers additionally made clear that the whole angelic-national hierarchy was utterly subverted by Christ. Paul seems to indicate as much multiple times in his epistles (e.g., Col. 2:15; Gal. 4:3, 8-9; Eph. 1:21-22). Christ took all authority from the principalities and powers unto himself. Should these be regarded as good or evil? Theologians are not in agreement. Origen suggested that these verses apply to both; the uncorrupted angelic powers submitted to Christ in his ascent, whereas the fallen angelic powers rejected him. For Christ came to end their misrule.
If, however, the spiritual reality of angelic governance is bound up with earthly political and ethnic realities, what is the consequence of this dispossession by Christ? Do distinct languages and cultures disappear?
Christ inaugurates a new phase of existence, in which former lines of demarcation have vanished. Instead of the old order, based on the separation of races, languages and cultures, there is one new world in Christ. This unity was symbolized by the Pentecostal gift of tongues—the converse of the Tower of Babel—re-establishing the means of communication between the various families of mankind. The nations have re-discovered a common speech. At the same time they have come under the leadership of one Shepherd, the prince of Shepherds.
Eusebius believed that Christian unity is a political fact, visible in the sovereignty of the Roman empire. The Emperor, Christ’s regent, united the world under the divine monarch. But for Origen and other interpreters, eschatological unity can and should be found only in the Church. The Powers, though subjected, will retain some of their former influence on the natural order, until the Second Coming.
Daniélou concludes with the suggestion that it is proper to humanity’s current needs and limitations for linguistic and political divisions, originally instituted by God, to continue. Any “Paradise-nostalgic” or imperialistic attempt to eliminate these distinctions is more than a little arrogant and likely to end in disaster. The end of these things is already hidden in the work of Christ, in the Church; the worldly fragmentation caused by sin will be undone. Meanwhile, our response to the state of things is not to ignore or demolish differences between us, but to realize that we are pieces of a whole, and to enforce homogeneity is to impoverish ourselves.
Every race and every tongue gives expression to some irreplaceable aspect of humanity. Each language, in particular, has its own genius, its special capacity for handling certain ideas. For Christianity, this means that the one Gospel message, transmitted through the diversity of cultures as through a prism, reveals more adequately first one and then another of its perfections. The Church is that Bride, clothed in ‘her robe of golden cloth, a robe of rich embroidery;’ the Church takes up the best in every civilization, to consecrate them all to the Blessed Trinity.
4. Exile and Hospitality
Some of the most remarkable evils of the modern world involve the phenomena of population resettlement and ethnic cleansing (although Daniélou does not use this latter word). Although shocking, they are symptomatic of a deeper, often-forgotten truth: that peoples and civilizations are fundamentally unstable. Humanity is in a state of dispersal. Mass deportation violates the ordination of God that gives each people its own land as home, besides causing great suffering, but it is not out of step with a fallen world.
Nevertheless, Daniélou suggests that even deportees may find some redemptive meaning in their suffering. Wrenched from their land, they are reminded that allegiance to country is always secondary to allegiance to humanity. Exile shows the true fragility of our earthly settledness. For Christians, it also points us to the “heavenly fatherland” we possess whenever and wherever we are in communion with our brethren. The prophets reminded the Jews of similar truths during the Babylonian captivity. Dispersed from their beloved land, they will again be driven to God, who is with them in all places so long as they are faithful. Christian missionaries have often, historically, been displaced persons who find themselves in new lands; their exile became an opportunity for ministry.
The revival of the ancient evil of deportation may also lead to a revival of the ancient virtue of hospitality. This is indeed a virtue in which western Christendom is deficient; Daniélou recalls the story of a Chinese pilgrim who made his way on foot from Pekin to Rome, and found proportionately less hospitality the closer he got.
Yet hospitality… is a priceless human asset. The Greeks recognized it as one of the criteria of civilization… Some idea of the real value of the moral achievement represented by the very notion of hospitality may be gathered from the curious fact that many languages have only one root for the words ‘guest’ and ‘enemy’. The two categories have as their common basis the single undifferentiated notion of ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner’, the outsider, not belonging to the same tribe or race, not a member of the same social or biological group; such a one may either be enemy or guest. It is thus a triumph of civilization, or even the supreme triumph of civilization, to have made a foreigner a guest instead of an enemy; for this is essentially the brotherhood of man. Before this step was taken, packs of men were at war with one another, like the wild creatures in the primeval forests. From the moment when a stranger is taken in as a guest, no longer an object of execration but one of peculiar respect, a new thing has come into the world.
The Jews also valued hospitality, as can be seen in the contrasting stories in Genesis of the angels received by Abraham at Mamre and their subsequent reception in Sodom. Hospitality, despite its current neglect, has enormous religious significance in Christianity. As Abraham washed the mysterious strangers’ feet, Christ later washed his disciples’ feet. Ancient Christian baptism rites imitated traditional rites of hospitality as they welcomed converts into the Church. Bishops, as early as the epistle to Timothy, were expected to be hospitable, and in Late Antiquity this meant that bishops took charge of the welfare of the poor, outcasts, and strangers in their jurisdictions. The bishop was, moreover, to personally take in any Christian travelers who passed through and welcome them.
But hospitality means more than giving; it also means receiving. Hospitality in the Christian sense is intimately related to mission. Christ’s disciples were to not only accept hospitality where offered, but they were to respond by blessing the house and sharing the work of God. Jesus himself promises in the Gospels that the generosity of the host will incur great reward. Monks, most notably of the Benedictine tradition, still regard hospitality as one of their most important duties, as is written in their oldest Rules. The guest is received as if Christ himself; and in a real sense, it is Christ himself whom we welcome. In return, as Christ promised, we can hope for our Lord to welcome us into his home, as we pass beyond our borders into death.
5. Marxist and Sacramental History
Thesis: The incarnation of the Church in the modern working class requires, on the one hand, a positive identity with the working class and its struggle for liberation, and yet, on the other, a rejection of Marxist humanism for the faith of Christ.
Humanity is divided not merely by nation, but with a society by class, and today’s working class poses challenges for Christianity. The refusal of the working class to be assimilated to bourgeois Christianity is analogous to the refusal of the colonized to be drawn into the Christianity of the colonizers. The subsequent failure of the Christian movement within the working class to compete with secular organizations can be attributed to its inability to identify with the major ideals of worker solidary; so it remained marginal.
The only solution to this problem is “a recognition that we must ourselves belong to a society, whatever its faults and failings, before we can think of implanting the Gospel in it.” Christianity can only take root in the working class if working class Christians can hold together both identities in themselves. The Christian worker must be loyal to the ideals of his class and also to the ideals of Christianity, though the latter paradoxically requires shunning the idolatry of man latent in the former. He must be rejected by Christendom for his revolutionary commitments, and also rejected by Marxism for his ideological deviation. This impossible position is yet reminiscent of the position of every Christian in the world but not of it.
Daniélou suggests that working class values will be formative for the Christianity of the near future. The genuine poverty of the worker, his sense of brotherhood, and his desire for transformation may all be curative of the evils that cling to bourgeois Christianity: its self-satisfied security, its insistence on artificial divisions of humankind, and its maintenance of an unjust equilibrium.
Nevertheless, these working-class values are also tied, in the current discourse, with other evils. The Marxist narrative denies any transcendent authority, and so all religion is associated with exploitation. The Church’s failure to free the worker from capitalism has led to Communism’s promises to free the worker from both capitalism and the Church. Man himself is to be exalted as master of his own destiny.
The Christianity of the worker bears more similarity, then, to the Christianity of the early church than that of later ages. The contemplatives who fled into the deserts centuries ago to keep the faith of the martyrs alive must return, for the factories are the new deserts. The evangelist must share wholly in the economic and political struggle of the worker. Yet in the midst of materialists, he or she must cling to the eternal realities that manifest in the sacraments.
We must admit that Marxism is no mere materialism, but a cult of man; the whole structure of its ideology is aimed at the exaltation of humanity and the destruction or subjugation of any real or apparent rivals. Christian humanism as such cannot compete. Its only hope is a steady insistence that God, not man, is the true source of the process of history. Its response is to point to sacred history. The history picked out by man for himself is a long cycle of wars and enslavements. Only sacred history is capable of illuminating the interior of a person, and it is there that the Kingdom of God is first built. It is in the spirit, not in the economic conditions, that a human is truly enslaved, and it is there that liberation begins. The historical inability of man to escape his own inner devastation attests to this.
The eschatological orientation of the Christian means that the end of history is with us in Christ; there can be no superseding or hindering him in his purpose. The work of now is letting Christ take root in us and transform us, individually and collectively. This is history at its most real, and not the wars, revolutions, and scientific discoveries that occupy secular historians. Instead of these things, we recognize the sacraments, the means of God’s power to transform. Baptism, by which we participate in the victory of Christ, is our only key to liberation, and it is more than that: it is a new act of divine creation, requiring the death of the creature that Marxism seeks to divinize.
6. Temporal Works and the Marxist Myth
Thesis: Progress in sacred history occurs on a level distinct from social improvement and at odds with utopian idealism.
Daniélou picks up from where he left off in the previous chapter. He notes an attractive solution to the identity crisis of the Christian worker advocated by Maurice Montuclard, a Dominican involved in the communist wing of the Catholic Action movement. Montuclard argued that while Christianity’s eschatological orientation takes priority, it does allow us and even encourages us in hope of an earthly paradise through human progress. Christian salvationism and socialist utopianism can then coexist.
But Daniélou reminds us that though Christians have always participated in humanitarian projects over the last two thousands years, the social improvement they have brought is indisputably limited. Thus people today will argue that Christianity simply “doesn’t work,” because it has not brought about that radical change in human condition that we hope for the future. Christianity has not produced the earthly paradise promised by Marxism and other progressive movements. Montuclard suggested that human progress is a part of sacred history that, ultimately, the Church may or may not fail to participate in. But Daniélou argues that this strange optimism risks fueling modern man’s desperate, idolatrous, and self-destructive search for self-sufficiency.
Daniélou quotes Gabriel Marcel’s thesis that adoration of our own creative power leads to the exaltation of means as such; technology, essentially neutral, becomes a good in itself and thus an idol. Because Christianity does not effect technological revolution, but insists on proper orientation of technology to all Being, it is regarded as useless (if not a hoax) and discarded. Christianity obstinately refuses to flatter man that he is capable of truly transfiguring himself and his world. Christianity denies that the perfect world can come to be in time.
Humanist optimism that technology will prove a panacea for moral problems and progress will necessarily be benevolent is wholly unfounded, and must be rejected by the Christian who sees evil in the depths of every human heart. In fact, it is dangerous, because it risks throwing away all real gains in favor of an impossible ideal; it shows Marxism, not Christianity, to be the hoax.
Pain and sorrow can be alleviated in particular instances. Christianity denies that it is in the essence of man to suffer; it is merely inevitable at this time. Religion is not itself social ethics but it should inform them. “Christianity has not abolished the relationship between master and man, or put an end to wars—these matters lie outside its scope—but the incontestable fact remains, that wherever Christianity has been solidly established it has helped to make slavery impossible, to improve the worker’s lot, and to create a comity of nations.” Christianity embraces human values that are not unique to it, but require its presence to thrive. Christianity, Daniélou argues, is the best ally known to man for the great purpose of civilization, “the defence of mankind against necessity.”
Montuclard’s formula misleadingly implies that history belongs to human society, and to the Church only insofar as it participates in that society. But Christianity does more than give meaning to particular civilizations: it “is itself the archetype of the historical process, and imposes its own pattern on the development of civilization…. Thus secular history is taken up and assimilated into sacred history.” The Church’s embodiment in secular history, its participation in political and economic progress, is a secondary facet of its existence. “The real progress of the Church is the deliverance through baptism of souls in bondage, and the greater glory of God in the holy Eucharist: and the protagonists of this history are in truth the saints.”
7. A Biblical Interpretation of Modern History
Professional historians tend to be suspicious of the interpretive systems laid down by philosophers and theologians. The latter tend to oversimplify or ignore the hard facts after which the historian quests. So Daniélou looks to the prominent Cambridge historian Sir Herbert Butterfield, whose 1949 book Christianity and History attempts to reconcile the fact-finding and grand-interpretive approaches.
Butterfield notes what has, in 2015’s postmodern academia, become a commonplace: there are no uninterpreted facts. While academic history does strive for factual correctness, it inescapably does so within interpretive frameworks that logically do not consist of the facts themselves. And where do these interpretive frameworks come from? The way historians categorize historical time periods or isolate particular developments is far more artificial than anything arising directly from the natural sciences. Their interpretive prejudices tend to arise from commitments exterior to their field, as when certain historians conflate human history with biological evolution or Marxist dialectic.
The curative to such anthropocentric perspectives, Butterfield suggests, is to have no faith in human nature. It is evident to the objective historian that all the great evils of history can be traced to self-righteousness, a finding that harmonizes well with the scriptural doctrine of original sin. In the realization that none is righteous, the historian and the theologian may discover common ground. And this realization demolishes any purely human “meaning” to history, requiring us to look to the mystical or revealed spheres for purpose, or nowhere.
Butterfield is quick to assert that Christians possess no advantage over nonbelievers when it comes to historical speculation, and they tend to be just as much prey to undeserved satisfaction over their role in the historical process as communists. Nevertheless, the dogma of original sin turns us toward the moral structure of history beneath the apparent triumphs of realpolitik and ruthless power. In the Christian understanding, it is this structure, and not the temporal and transitory influence of nations, that comprises the meaning of history. Daniélou here makes some provocative claims that deserve full quotation.
If anything is certain about the Christian view of economic and political values, it is that these are entirely relative. To treat them as absolute is a form of idolatry. The fundamental mistake in communism is the belief that communism is good and capitalism is evil; and the capitalist’s mistake lies in holding the contrary belief. Collectivism and capitalism are both half-truths. If people understood this, they would not turn policies into ideologies; for there is no such thing as a mystique of politics: mysticism belongs to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is the intrusion of mystical attitudes into political questions that leads to fanaticism, and to ideological wars, which are conflicts between false gods. The Christian’s duty is to denounce these group idols. There is no possibility of peace in the world until everyone recognizes that his own way is only a half-truth, so that instead of trying to exterminate other people, he must love them for their share in the truth.
Our proper response to economic and political successes in the temporal realm is not self-congratulation, but extreme humility. The purpose of history is not the onward march of civilization but the production and refinement of human souls, and to this end catastrophes and victories alike may serve (as the Hebrew prophets bore witness). “Every generation is equidistant from eternity.”
This inward dimension to history, where its whole intrinsic value is located, is accessible in its simplicity to the common person, and it is ultimately worth more than the insights of academic historians. Butterfield speaks often of “judgement,” a polyvalent word signifying both the mature historian’s discernment of facts and the divine revelation of truth.
Judgement is the revelation of things as they are in God’s sight—that is, as they really are. In this light the pomps and vanities fade away, for all the brave show they make in human chronicles, and in their stead appear the things of real worth, the hidden glories of charity. This judgement is veiled from the eyes of the world, but it is discernible by faith…. This is the Judgement that really illuminates human history; and the great merit of Butterfield’s book is to have shown that history is meaningless without it.
The philosopher Karl Löwith came to similar conclusions from a different starting point. Löwith, asking whether sacred history can be regarded as a valid interpretation of empirical facts, saw (as many have since) that Christian belief in Providence shaping the fortunes of history eventually became the Enlightenment conception of indefinite progress. The optimists retained faith that history was rational and would have a fulfillment, and this presumption was turned into a science by Hegel and Marx. But like the providential view, it rests on a value-judgment and a faith intolerable to the true positivist, and worse still, a faith without object.
Löwith, like Butterfield, further argues the weakness of the providential understanding of Eusebius, Bossuet, and others. Sacred history and profane history seem to stand perfectly independent of one another, and they are known by opposite means: profane history through research, sacred history through faith. Ordinary faith is uninterested in mapping out an exact divine plan in history, even as ordinary skepticism spurns theories of historical dialectic; they rather, in their own ways, seek freedom from the very oppressiveness of history.
In rejecting facile optimism, perhaps, Daniélou says, Butterfield and Löwith go too far in the opposite direction. The hard dichotomy they create between sacred and profane modes of history can be somewhat ameliorated by considering the latter as contained within the former; all the fortunes of humanity participate in the judgments of God. Nevertheless, and for this reason, the exact relationship of sacred and profane will remain always for us an impenetrable mystery.
8. The History of Religions and the History of Salvation
Today, we who live in the heart of a culture long shaped by Christianity find ourselves in frequent contact with members of other religions. In consequence, we are constantly called to wonder at the relationship of their religious devotion—especially where it bears similarities to Christianity—to ours. We must, further, avoid the trap on one hand of denying other religions any spiritual value, and on the other of denying Christianity any transcendental significance. The latter is particularly dangerous, as it makes Christian dogmas part of a larger spiritual whole and perhaps even dispensable.
How do we address these challenges? First, by highlighting the true uniqueness at the heart of Christianity, the unique act of God in Christ within time. The explosion of the eternal into time, making “history” possible, is unknown in other religions. The revolt against time described by Mircea Eliade, in which meaning in time is realized only by the repetition of primordial archetypes, is totally at odds with the specially Christian concept of event. Even Islam embraces cycles of corruption and restoration aimed only at original purity.
Christianity does, in fact, allow for a measure of truth in these views, but it also insists that they are insufficient. The benevolent stability of natural cycles is a revelation of God, but Christianity is defined not by its interpretation of these cycles, but by the singular incarnation. It presents mankind with a sacred history, and its core sacred text is therefore not a concatenation of teachings, but a story.
Second, because Christianity teaches that salvation is alone through Christ, the divine act. This is what separates Christian mysticism from all other mysticisms; the techniques may be similar (and, indeed, it is possible that they are more refined elsewhere), but Christianity denies that man can of his own efforts move toward God. He is imprisoned by original sin, body and soul; moreover, God is “unattainable,” lying across the infinite creator-creature divine, and hence can only be found insofar as he draws man to himself.
Thus, whereas mystical syncretism places preeminent value on the interior progress of a person regardless of affiliation, Christianity gives this place to the act of humble submission to God, insisting that the baptized infant is further on the road to God than the most accomplished ascetic. Among men none is greater than John, “but he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” For the Christian, simple obedience is what matters, and salvation is dispensed by the free love of God. Technique is ultimately dispensable. Unlike heroes, saints are humanly weak (and often cowardly), depending on the grace of God to accomplish the superhuman. “Christianity does not consist in the strivings of man after God, but in the power of God, accomplishing in man that which is beyond the power of man; human efforts are merely the response called forth by the divine initiative.”
For the final section of this chapter, Daniélou deconstructs Simone Weil’s discussion of parallels between the Christian story and other religious narratives contemporary to its appearance. In Daniélou’s opinion, these parallels have been repeatedly shown by scholarship to be superficial. Christianity starts as “something new,” a dogma that then appropriates the words, symbols, and rites of its time. Authentic natural religion, on the other hand, possesses something of God’s truth, but stops short of the mysteries of the divine inner life, the love of the Holy Trinity. Natural religion attests to the desire of man for God; Christianity attests to the desire of God for man.
Should the continuation of what Daniélou calls “survivals of a former dispensation” concern us? Should we look forward to their fall into obscurity, or mourn the disappearance of primitive wisdom? Pope Pius XII may give us the best guidance in this matter: “The Church has never despised pagan teaching, but rather freed it from its errors, perfecting and crowning it in the light of Christian wisdom.” Non-Christian religious systems are intrinsically outmoded by the incarnation, but they often contain insights that may help rather than hinder the growth of the Church into all truth. The religious interests and literary forms of the Bible can be traced to Canaanite, Egyptian, Persian, and Greek precursors, but in scripture these are presented (“re-animated”) in light of another, divine wisdom.
Following this model, early Christianity purged and assumed Greek wisdom, and it may yet do the same to Indian and Chinese thought. “The mission of Christianity, rightly understood, involves no destruction of pagan religious values, but liberation and transfiguration. Christ came not to destroy, but to fulfill.”
9. Strength and Weakness of René Guénon
Thesis: René Guénon’s extraordinary defense of symbolic thinking, a premodern view of time, and the preeminence of philosophical knowledge is helpful to the Christian theologian of time but also highly problematic.
Influential philosopher René Guénon’s genius thrived completely apart from all modern prejudices, even as he confronted the most critical problems of our time. His originality and penetrating insight make him impossible to ignore, but his shortcomings also make it impossible for the Christian to embrace his work wholeheartedly.
Guénon’s emphasis on symbolic thinking was one area in which he was of great service. Though he had no desire to encourage astrological superstitions per se, he did believe that ancient astrology was superior to scientistic thinking in one important respect: the enlargement of the spirit. “Science enlarges the dimensions of the cage in which the mind of man is imprisoned, but all the science in the world will not get him out of it. But in the intuitive perception of symbolism, the mind reaches out from material reality to grasp another reality beyond.” When we appreciate stars or metals for something else than their immediate usefulness to us, we may begin to see them in a deeper way, as things with meaning in themselves, or, to put it more accurately, as embodiments or symbols of cosmic meaning.
The world of symbols is a transparent world, a revelation of hierophany. Daniélou steers away from suggesting that the universality of particular symbols derives from a shared human (hermetic) tradition, instead preferring Eliade’s thesis that the interaction between things and man’s intelligence naturally gives rise to certain symbolic associations. Guénon, however, places Christianity within a “universal tradition” that imparts to the religion its value. Here, the Christian must part company. For, Daniélou says, the natural symbolic significance of the cross, as representing the directions or dimensions of the cosmos and so forth, is secondary to the historical fact that on it (as a concrete wooden object) the God-man died. Christianity’s value is as a “new thing,” not as a manifestation of natural religion.
Another aspect of Guénon’s thought both admirable and problematic is his repudiation of history. Guénon insisted that “progress” is a false ideal, and we cannot expect scientific advancements to change human nature. He further argued that science as such has been complicit in four centuries of increasing spiritual and intellectual decadence. His position is extreme, but it reminds us that in looking to science as our savior we turn away from our only true salvation; spiritual values belong to a realm above science, nature, and time. Christianity, Daniélou adds, can alone provide innovation in the order of nature, because it originates from without. Of this, Guénon remained ignorant.
Finally, Guénon offers us helpful meditations on the relationship between science, wisdom, and faith. Guénon asserted a Platonic theory of contemplation, by which the highest function of the mind is to contemplate the highest reality. The knowledge so acquired, moreover, ought to be the basis of how we conduct human affairs; this implies hierarchical, traditional, even authoritarian social and spiritual values. However, Guénon also placed revelation lower than this philosophical knowledge; metaphysical principles are the essence of true religion, and rites and sacraments and mystical experiences merely concessions.
When Guénon discusses “esoterism,” he does not refer to special doctrines within a religious system that are deemed too high or difficult for ordinary participants. His view is more thoroughgoingly gnostic, pointing to a body of secret truth behind and common to all religious traditions. The implication is that common people, believers in the “exoteric” teachings of their religion, do not share the same faith as the initiates, who perceive the true, esoteric wisdom of salvation. This understanding contradicts the core and substance of Christianity.
So Guénon, despite seeing through the great mass of modern fallacies, posits a system fundamentally incompatible with Christianity, reducible to a single failing: “denying the privileged status, the absolute factual unicity of the event of Christ’s resurrection.”
10. Symbolism and History
The greater part of classical theology draws on symbols to express its meaning. But for the modern mind, this poses a problem. Symbolic thinking appears to many today, including some theologians, as lacking the precision required by, say, the sciences; can any intellectual system based on symbols give us certainty? To this, Daniélou posits, “symbolic theology is not to be regarded as a survival from a supposed ‘pre-logical’ phase of mental development, and thus as something of purely archaeological interest, but on the contrary as a permanently valid category of religious thought.”
We must first admit that symbols are common currency in the Bible, from the spirit of God hovering over the waters like a bird to the end of sea and sun in St. John’s Revelation. The Christian liturgy is likewise abounding in symbolic words and gestures centered on the sacraments. But many of these symbols derive from obsolete astronomy and physics; what great mystical meaning can water have for us, who no longer associate it seriously with death, as the ancient Near East did?
If symbols bear a wholly extrinsic relationship to their referents, they are not significant in themselves, and the water-death association can have no meaning for us. Symbols would then be merely picked to illustrate this or that out of a multiplicity of possibilities, and their usefulness comes and goes accordingly.
Symbols are, Daniélou agrees, open to multiple meanings, but their multivalence is constrained by the natural properties that lend themselves to signification. Hence, even across disparate cultures, the same symbols recur with the same referents, such as the sun for creative power, and water for destruction. If symbols are based on mental processes common to humanity, as we encounter the same objective realities, then we should expect such harmonious patterns as we actually do discern across the world. Symbols are flexible, but they are not purely subjective.
So symbolism is not projection but a receptive attitude, a way of accessing the content of reality. But what does symbolism reveal? Is it simply the world of archetypes in our own collective psyche? On the contrary, Daniélou asserts, symbols function to draw us out of ourselves. The nature-religions, oriented to symbols of the numinous, are not a product of sublimated biological awareness, but an authentic awareness of the hierophany of nature.
There is an objective validity in religious symbolism which is rooted in the real nature of things. The difficulty we find in accepting the fact comes from a mental distortion which we suffer through paying attention too exclusively to causal relations and too little to relationships of type, idea or exemplar. Symbolism is no survival from a past, pre-logical mentality of man, but depends on the functioning of laws which never cease to govern the realities of mind and of nature. It is directed towards the discovery of analogies between the visible and the invisible worlds, and towards the formulation of their meaning. It is a genuine mode of apprehension of the things of God.
Now Daniélou turns to the concrete use of symbols in Christianity. The truth of God acquired by nature-religions through symbolism involves his perpetual creative activity, but does not reach his interventions in history (first realized by Abraham). Hence the natural corruption of all nature-religion to worship of symbols for themselves, the myriad cults of sun, moon, animals, ancestors, and so forth. The “frustration” of the hierophany and the idealization of nature is the root of idolatry.
Hence the revolutionary significance of the Genesis cosmogony. Though full of Babylonian and Canaanite mythological symbolism, “the narrative in Genesis is written to controvert the mythical conception in the name of the theistic principle.” Nature-religion is put in its proper place. But Genesis goes further: it bears witness to the working of God in history, pointing us from Abraham toward all sacred history: the Exodus, David, and ultimately Christ. Hence, “God is revealed not only in the rhythm of cosmic cycles, but also in the contingent singularity of historical events.” These events then generate symbolism of their own, of a new and special significance, a vast network of references known as typology.
Typology, as described the New Testament (specifically as regards the Adam-Christ and Flood-Baptism identifications), unites the repeatable and the unrepeatable.
This figurative sense of Scripture is grounded in the structural unity of God’s design: the same divine characteristics are revealed in the successive strata of history. The typological interpretation of events does not in any way tend to ignore or mask their individual existence and value, but affords a frame of reference for intelligible co-ordination. It is also a groundwork of apologetics, being the very stuff of prophecy, wherein Christian thinkers, from the Fathers to Pascal, have seen the essential proof of the truth of our religion.
Daniélou adds, “Aquinas defined it accurately when he showed that it is not a meaning of words but a meaning of things.” The history of Israel is most truly an eschatological figure fulfilled in Christ; the unveiled eschatological realities subsequently live on in the sacraments of the Church, until the Second Coming.
Because typology necessarily depends on its historical aspect, it is something much more than nature-symbolism, and it was the key to all great Patristic exegesis. Typology integrates nature-symbolism into a larger framework of divine action. The supersession of nature-religions and their incorporation into the new reality is precisely what gives them meaning, as one covenant fulfills another. The coincidence of pagan solar festivals, Passover, and Pascha points to “the harmony and continuity of the three covenants. The vernal Pasch is both an anniversary celebration of the creation of the world, and a figure of the second spring, the new creation inaugurated by the risen Lord.”
Nevertheless, we must not lose the concrete historical structure in the depths of universal symbolism, the constant danger of allegorism. Typology is then turned upside-down, and the historical narrative becomes myth, nature-symbolism, as in Philo and not a few modern poets. Christ is absorbed into Orpheus, and becomes himself a mere symbol for some natural truth. Daniélou proposes, “Relations will always be strained between myth and revelation. The latter requires to make use of nature-symbolism, in order to incorporate the whole sum of creation within its comprehension; but must constantly take heed lest it fall.”
Because of the progressive revelation of God in the covenants, Christian symbolism has a “unique theological character. Being grounded in the hierophanies of the physical universe, it is natural, and thus accessible to all mankind; but throughout the ages of sacred history it has not ceased to grow, with successive accretions of historical significance.” The scriptures are a record of divine creative activity, with each revelation not destroying what came before, but continuing and transcending it. Here we also see the link between natural and supernatural modes of apprehending God, and further, in the symbolic world of the liturgy, the link between knowing and doing, “a figurative contemplation of the living God, manifest in all his mighty works, in nature and in history.”
To restate Daniélou’s conclusions:
- The Church both transcends and is incarnate in secular history. Though its essence is unchanging, the Church is a part of history and can and should adapt to its time and place. It possesses the bigger picture (sacred history) into which secular history fits.
- The Church must be prepared to incarnate in non-western cultures. Christianity will never really take root in other cultures until it has learned to adapt and adopt their treasures.
- Ethnolinguistic divisions are eschatologically overturned in the communion of the Church, but nevertheless constitute a redemptive aspect of the natural order. The order of division of Babel is passing away, but until it does, diversity is essential to our catholic oneness.
- The dispersed state of humanity is an opportunity for the Church to practice the virtue of hospitality. Though long-forgotten, hospitality is a central Christian teaching.
- The incarnation of the Church in the modern working class requires, on the one hand, a positive identity with the working class and its struggle for liberation, and yet, on the other, a rejection of Marxist humanism for the faith of Christ. Marxism’s anthropocentric narrative must be repudiated with the narrative of sacred history that centers on salvation through the sacraments.
- Progress in sacred history occurs on a level distinct from social improvement and at odds with utopian idealism. Christianity has a positive influence on the social ethic, but it does not exist to perfect civilization, but to participate in the salvation of souls.
- Secular history contains no meaning in itself, but requires us to look to the insights of religion. The self-defeating evil of humankind means that attempts to read profane history as progress in the ultimate sense are deluded; if we are to find sense or purpose in history, it can only be in the all-penetrating judgments of God revealed by faith.
- Christianity alone possesses the revealed truth of God’s movement toward man, even as this revealed truth accepts and fulfills the wisdom found in “natural” religions. Other religions may possess great spiritual accomplishments, but what truly matters is submission to the mercies of God.
- René Guénon’s extraordinary defense of symbolic thinking, a premodern view of time, and the preeminence of philosophical knowledge is helpful to the Christian theologian of time but also highly problematic. Christianity’s value is not derived from a universal spiritual tradition, but from its status as a singular divine event.
- Theology depends on symbolic thinking, which typology unites with history to reveal the progressive structure of sacred history. Symbols, produced by a universal human process encountering a shared world, are universally valid; the interaction of symbolism with sacred history produces the epistemological foundation of the Christian faith.