Dominus Historiae: Conclusion

The younger Daniélou

Continuing my review of Jean Daniélou’s The Lord of History from here.

Before I get into the meat of this conclusion, comparing Daniélou’s views of history to those of other recent Christian thinkers, I would like to contrast him with someone whose views were opposite in just about every respect: his brother.

The spiritual trajectory of Jean Daniélou’s younger brother, Alain, was a great influence on Jean. The Daniélou family was, to put it mildly, religiously conflicted. Whereas Jean took the faith of his devout mother (while rejecting her harsh moral vision—she was considered a fanatic even among Catholics), Alain was closer to his radically anticlerical father, and in his teens repudiated Christianity altogether. Jean joined the Jesuit order at the age of twenty-four, with numerous academic honors behind and before him, but Alain was more interested in the arts, especially dance, photography, and music.

Alain was a homosexual, and identified as such from a young age. His first sexual experiences at university also marked a religious awakening; thereafter, he regarded his sexuality and spirituality as inextricable. Accompanied by a gay lover, Alain studied music and philosophy in India and eventually converted to Shaivite Hinduism. He believed that Shaivism represented a primitive, erotic, Dionysian spirituality that organized religions have by and large destroyed. He wrote prolifically, both as a polemical opponent of monotheism and a scholar of Indian history and religion.

Despite their deep differences, the famous brothers remained affectionate throughout their lives. They were, indeed, very different; Alain characterized Jean as “nervous, frail, and agitated,” whereas he regarded himself as “virile,” adventurous, and supremely confident. Alain further believed that the Catholic Church to which Jean was devoted had viciously suppressed the pure, original faith of Jesus; he seems to have regarded Catholicism as the most antihuman and masochistic institution on earth, despite his respect for certain Catholic mystics, not to mention his own brother, a cardinal.

When Jean died in a house of ill repute and the press was full of the scandal, Alain wrote a defense of his older brother, insisting that Jean’s character was saintly and humble and incapable of hypocrisy, and that Jean’s life was dedicated to the service of social outcasts (though Alain could not resist adding that he would have been very happy had his brother experienced the joys of sex before his death). Alain Daniélou continued to publish until his death in 1994 and remains esteemed in his field.

As fascinating as it would be to produce an extended comparison between the works of these brothers, I must restrict myself (partly through lack of adequate reading) to the themes raised by Jean in The Lord of History. First, however, it would be best to offer a more complete description of Alain’s position.

Alain’s religious awareness, according to himself, began when he was ten and began to sense the numinous in nature, and it blossomed in adult sexual ecstasy. Even as a devout Hindu he shunned temples, pilgrimages, and public rituals; his “religion” was a private dialogue between himself and the gods. He questioned reincarnation and any sort of soul-survival. For him, Shaivism meant tolerance and absence of dogma. Genuine polytheism he regarded as acknowledgment of the sanctity of all things. It was not “stupid” theological speculation or puritanic thou-shalt-nots, but a means of self-realization utterly surpassing the impoverished spiritual imagination of the west. Monotheism, by contrast, is a projection of the human ego onto Being, a selection of one manifestation of deity among many and turning it into a tyrant.

As much as Jean studied Hinduism and other religions, his spirituality remained rooted in traditional Catholicism and so, of course, was of a wholly different sort. And one cannot but wonder if the sort of theology Jean pursued in The Lord of History and elsewhere was in part a response to Alain’s bitterness toward the Church. For instance, Jean’s characterization of the difference between the saint and the hero (I.8) may be a reflection on himself and his brother and their contrasting ideals.

In any case, Jean Daniélou’s life outside academics was deeply affected by his concern for his brother. He is known to have conducted monthly masses and prayers devoted specifically to homosexuals, in cooperation with his friend, Louis Massignon, a Catholic convert and Islam scholar (and chaste homosexual). Jean desired for a time to be a missionary outside France and immerse himself more fully in good works, remarking in his spiritual diary (published twenty years after his death), “I know… that I will consider my life as not useless if because of it Alain’s soul is saved, and that I do not know the measure of immolation that God desires from me for this purpose.” In his diary, he also begged God to put on him Alain’s sins and those “of anyone else as it may please you.” Alain could claim to be the happier and healthier of the two with some justice. Alain’s ideal was heroic self-realization; Jean’s ideal was to suffer for his brother’s salvation.

In returning to the themes most centrally under discussion, it is necessary to briefly recapitulate Jean Daniélou’s primary teaching on sacred history. He sees history as possessing a dual aspect. Sacred history is the sequence that gives time meaning, using it as a medium by which to accomplish salvation, and secular history is simply the outward face of this hidden process of deification. Sacred history is comprised synergistically of the acts of God and the responses of humanity, represented in the successive covenants described in the scriptures; each defines a new level of relationship between God and man, taking up what came before and transfiguring it. The event at the center of history is the incarnation of Christ; this commenced the defining act of recreation whose effects now circle the globe, drawing all things toward their end.

Alain’s Shaivism-derived view of history, on the contrary, embodies the cyclical, pre-Christian notions that Jean would replace. Reality is singular and in essence immutable. History is meaningless, for there is no progression—except the process of discovery of what already exists, which revealed religions perniciously arrest. Age after age humanity is reborn and re-realizes its connection to the divine through a permanent, unchanging tradition which, though often forced underground, is kept alive by sages and occasionally rediscovered by mystics and even scientists. Alain described humans as highly evolved “witnesses” of suprasensory reality, not actors; they have no free will, but are determined by the mathematical order of nature. (Not accidentally, Alain was a defender of the Hindu caste system.)

The poles have now been described, and I think they provide a good backdrop for the relevance and even urgency of Jean Daniélou’s theologizing. The nature of history is not a mere side-issue, but one of pivotal importance. Within the younger Daniélou’s cosmology, what is now has always been and always will be; there is no place for either the magnalia Dei or meaningful human response. Christ as god or human sage can only embody univocal reality as one leaf on a big tree, rendering the incarnation nonsense. The problem with humanity is not evil and alienation from God, but ignorance and stifling legalism; thus the cross is the height of folly.

Keenly aware of the vast disparity behind these perspectives, Jean Daniélou labored to demonstrate that Christ accomplishes a fundamental shift in the way we view history, completing and transforming everything that came before. The logic of sacred history hinges on the work of Christ, and a false view of history warps our ability to discern the divine wonders that have broken upon us.

* * *

I intend here to compare and enrich this understanding with the views of other thinkers with whom I am more or less familiar, namely, Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Josef Pieper, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Georges Florovsky. Three of these are German or Swiss Catholics, and Florovsky is Orthodox. Some thoughts from G. K. Chesterton will conclude this series. Given available material and what I sense to be a kindred sensibility with Daniélou, I give exaggerated attention to Florovsky. The comparisons must be brief and in a certain sense facile, but hopefully they hint at the larger theological dialogue in which Daniélou’s work falls.

It should be unsurprising that Ratzinger’s work bears witness to manifold similarities of thought to Daniélou. The future pope read a 1955 publication in German of The Lord of History and regarded Daniélou with esteem. His second doctoral dissertation, completed in 1957, was a discussion of St. Bonaventure’s theology of history, especially his response to the millenarian teachings of a controversial teacher within his own order, Joachim of Fiore. As Ratzinger showed, Bonaventure tried to salvage the good parts of Joachim’s theology while repudiating those parts that led to heresy. This included a new emphasis on the historical character of Christianity, which had not been of much interest to theologians for centuries.

Ratzinger at this time was generally regarded as a liberal “reformist,” and his thesis (submitted for credentials to teach theology) was almost rejected. To traditionalists in the Church, an emphasis on Christianity as “in motion,” let alone apparent sympathy for the errors of the Joachimites, must have seemed suspect. Nevertheless, Ratzinger regarded a Bonaventurean theology of history as a corrective to the temptation to escape history, instead pointing us to the need to manifest charity in the present moment (for more, see this thesis). We see hints here of Daniélou’s insistence that the Church is in constant need of “re-incarnation” in the midst of time. Maintaining the fruitful tension between faithfulness to the deposit of faith and the duty to be present in history was precisely the balance that the Catholic Church attempted to achieve at Vatican II. For Ratzinger, St. Bonaventure’s evenhandedness in the 1260s serves as an ideal for the Church in and following the tumultuous events of the 1960s.

Ratzinger also embraced Daniélou’s initiated eschatology (described in II.8). In The Lord of History, Daniélou recognized that eschatology infuses meaning into the present experience of history. Josef Pieper, a significant Thomist philosopher and lay apologist of the 20th century, wrote a short book on the subject that I have just recently finished, called End of Time: A Meditation on the Philosophy of History (1980). It is more difficult and technical than the usual Pieper fare and does not so much concern itself with the Christological questions of eschatology. Pieper is determined above all to demonstrate the importance of cultivating a philosophy of history, and moreover, to show that such a thing is impossible absent religious truth.

Historians are interested in what happened, but the meaning sought by the philosopher transcends the factuality of discrete events. In short, philosophers want to know whether the history described by historians is going somewhere. But we are stuck in the now, and so cannot know where or whether that “somewhere” is. Our best guesses are disparate and equally conjectural. Nor can we simply drop the question, for in the age after Christ, the concepts of “beginning” and “end” are fixed parts of our understanding of time; the question will be asked, even if it is probably unanswerable in purely philosophical terms. So Pieper argues that this is a particularly strong example of the principle that genuine philosophy responds to religious pronouncements and can do nothing else. Only religion can claim to possess definite knowledge of the end of history, by revelation, and hence the totality. Pieper even asserts, “insofar as [a philosophy of history] declines to refer back to theology, it does not descry its subject matter at all.”

But this, admittedly, makes the philosopher of history’s work difficult. If only revelation can point us to the meaning of history, is not then whole subject solely one of credere, pure faith, one into which philosophy cannot enter? Pieper asserts simply that what begins with credere ends in intelligere. Having been given knowledge of the end of history by revelation, we are able to perceive it immanent in the disposition of all things. Religious belief “shines light” on what can then be grasped by the intellect. Pieper believes that this relationship between religion and philosophy is the essence of the classical western philosophical tradition back to the Greeks. If we cut off our source of illumination, will not our philosophies gradually plunge into darkness and be replaced by “pseudo-philosophy, to which the domain ‘roots of things’ is so completely closed that it will no longer even inquire about it?”

Pieper gives us many intriguing and relevant meditations on the false ideals of our age and the nature of Antichrist. He notes (in Germany at the height of the Cold War) that we waver between optimism and pessimism, ideals of progress and fear of self-destruction. The Christian view does not fit into either category, for it sees both a catastrophic “end-situation” of history, and an extra-temporal, glorious re-creation. Nor has the awareness that we are perpetually on the threshold of “the End” in any way hindered Christian activity in the world. Pieper, like Ratzinger, takes note of Joachim of Fiore and the apocalyptic mood of the thirteenth century. But he points out that in Aquinas, the greatest theologian of his time and perhaps of all times, this general fervor barely registers. The appropriate stance, Pieper argues, is not morbid fascination with the end, but a balance between awareness that humanity rushes toward destruction, and a commitment to God’s good creation as it exists now (perhaps analogous to Daniélou’s eschatology of “fulfillment and expectation”). Only revealed truth can offer us this poise, by teaching us of the inner nature and destiny of history.

Direct meditations on this truth can be found in Daniélou, Ratzinger, and finally Hans Urs von Balthasar. It would be foolish for me to attempt to address or reproduce the breadth of Balthasar’s reading of history. I have read neither his five-volume Theo-Drama nor his 1959 book A Theology of History. However, from the little I have read (and various critiques and summaries of Balthasar’s position), I can supplement my impressions of his general attitude toward history to what has been said above.

Balthasar, too, found a starting place in the doctrine that God is Lord of History. However, he wished to dispense with the popular dichotomy of pagan history = cycles and Christian history = progress. Instead, Balthasar argued that the Christian view is also basically cyclical (though nonrecursive), and a reductively linear understanding is a modern phenomenon. The cyclical pattern in Christian history is exemplified by the Platonic figure of exit and return. History flows out from God and comes around back to him; the world falls, and yet is redeemed in time. History then finds its place and meaning, not along a linear sequence of purposeful events, but based on its vertical relationship with eternity. This understanding survived until the Enlightenment, which reduced history to mere linear movement. By rejecting this view and its religious analogs, Balthasar’s arguments would totally refute the concept of progress.

The “theo-drama” of Balthasar is the struggle between divine and human wills, in which the human receives freedom and salvation through the self-limitations of God in creation, covenant, and incarnation. Nevertheless, Balthasar does not favor the covenantal image of a succession of stages moving toward eschatological culmination; rather, he simply centers history on the work of Christ, the in-breaking of eternity. Everything before was but a shadow and preparation, while everything after may be “synchronized” in the lives of individuals with the Christ event, which manifests the “time of eternity.” What has gone out from God is now returning to him.

To Daniélou, Balthasar’s Christocentrism must be commendable. Nevertheless, he would presumably agree with Balthasar’s critics that the functional constriction of divine action in history to the work of Christ imposes false limitations on God’s activity (see also my summary of Daniélou’s introduction above and a related critique of Barth). To Balthasar, the simple cyclical movement of history, to God and back again, is determined and dominated by the one epiphany. Moreover, this self-emptying love that God demonstrates toward humanity is simply an extension of the same drama of love within the eternal Trinity. Like eschatology, Balthasar downplays time understood as progression; history is merely the situation, the “stage,” of a dramatic, singular reversal.

Daniélou, on the other hand, sees all time as a medium through which God accomplishes the salvation of the cosmos. God does this through a sequence of covenants, each defining a new level of relationship between God and man, each taking up what came before and transfiguring it, preparing for the ultimate covenant: Christ, in whom God and man are perfectly united without confusion. Daniélou’s emphasis on covenant and ever-present eschaton sees a great deal more meaning in history, and in this respect seems, at least at first glance, more satisfying.

* * *

Orthodox theologians have generally denounced doctrinal development, and one could therefore suppose them to be less interested in history as such. However, this is not true for at least one theologian, Georges Florovsky, whom Daniélou cited admiringly in The Lord of History. They would have encountered one another at Oxford patristics conferences, and I came across one footnote recently, in a paper by the late Fr. Matthew Baker, suggesting that The Lord of History was inspired by Florovsky’s work (I could get no further, as the referenced text was in French).

I can at least attest to similarities of thought and even language in Florovsky’s 1951 article “Revelation and Interpretation,” found in the first volume of Florovsky’s collected works. Florovsky highlights the fact that sacred history is the history of the Church. Like Daniélou, he is emphatic that the Christian faith is founded on history. Scriptures and creeds, like the events they describe, have a definitely historical and narrative character. The events of sacred history additionally possess a spiritual dimension that does not diminish or obscure their historicity; this dimension, united without confusion to factual happening, is iconically represented in the gospels and perceptible through faith.

The Church has a definite place within this spiritual dimension of history. The Church first of all interprets revelation by the Spirit and attests to its truth. The Church continually “re-enacts” the gospel through sacrament, so perpetuating sacred history and the magnalia Dei. Finally, the Church is herself a part of revelation, for she is the body of Christ and salvation is alive within her. And this revelation occurs in time, whose end (telos) has not yet come. The story of the Church is sacred history.

Because history entails movement and change, Florovsky advocates something analogous to Daniélou’s “re-incarnation.” The human response to revelation, he explains, is never complete; theology developed around the inner meaning of faith is conditioned by its historical and cultural situation. This holds true in a sense for the scriptures as well. To read the Bible as a system of timeless allegorical symbols is to fail to do it justice, for the Bible is not a theological summary but a history of revelation. But if revelation is progressive, how are we to approach the Old Testament, which as been outmoded, as it were, by a better revelation? Like Daniélou, Florovsky points us to typology, which goes beneath the surface of the text and sees divine prefiguring in the recorded events.

Finally, Florovsky argues for an “inaugurated eschatology” which is identical in substance to Daniélou’s “initiated eschatology.” In Christ, the completion of history is come. But sacred history is not closed, because the kingdom whose victory was achieved by Christ has not yet been fulfilled, and its redemptive work is ongoing. Florovsky adds elsewhere that the Church is the living image of eternity in time, itself the “body of history,” a single organism of divine action into which individuals are inducted by the Eucharist. By emphasizing the progressive, continuing character of sacred history in the age of the Church, Florovsky takes a position opposite Balthasar.

Florovsky also explores avenues Daniélou does not, specifically in regard to the relationship between sacred and secular history. His article “The Predicament of the Christian Historian” (1959) is found in the second volume of his collected works, and it presents a mature vision of the Christian dialogue with history. He here repeats many of the points mentioned above, but he starts with an academic, methodological dilemma rather than a theological one. Christians, he insists, cannot afford to think of their faith in ahistorical terms; but where does that leave the Christian student of history, who must as it seems enter his studies biased toward a particular, sacred interpretation of events?

To answer this question, Florovsky begins by pointing out that historical texts are simply human testimonies, and to be understood must be approached as such; for true communication to occur, the historian and his or her source must achieve some “congeniality… a real meeting of minds.” To understand a text is to imaginatively reach out to its meaning, and so to interpret it. If history is about an encounter with living human beings, objective knowledge impossible. “This is not a loss, however, since historical knowledge is not a knowledge of objects, but precisely a knowledge of subjects—of ‘co-persons,’ of ‘co-partners’ in the quest of life.”

Further, historians are subject to the advantages and limitations that come with retrospection: they can reflect on something more like the whole, but they are bounded by the vantage point of their own time in history. We are constantly in danger of reifying the structures we impose for legibility, turning complexes into organisms whose evolution we feel we can trace. All this adds up to show that we must never feel we have reached a single definitive understanding of history.

From there, Florovsky slides into theology. Whether history as a whole has real meaning, he notes, is not an historical question but a theological one, for it implies directedness toward a state historians have not seen (a very similar thought to Josef Pieper’s above). Marxism and similar philosophies of history are crypto- or pseudo-theological, as is much of the scholarly field of sociology. But this leads us to a troubling realization:

No historian can, even in his limited and particular field, within his own competence, avoid raising ultimate problems of human nature and destiny, unless he reduces himself to the role of a registrar of empirical happenings and forfeits his proper task of “understanding.” In order to understand, just historically, for instance, “the Greek mind,” the historian must, of necessity, have his own vision, if not necessarily original, of the whole range of those problems with which the “noble spirits” of Antiquity were wrestling…. In brief, the problem of Man transpires in all problems of men, and accordingly cannot be skipped over in any historical interpretation.

…If history, as a process of human life through ages, has any meaning, any “sense,” then obviously the study of history, if it is more than a matter of curiosity, must also have a meaning, a certain “sense.” And if historical understanding is the historian’s “response” to the “challenge” of that human life which he is exploring, it is of utter importance that historians should be prepared, and inwardly equipped, to meet this challenge of human existence in its fullness and in its absolute depth.

Florovsky makes a startling observation here. The historian, to be a good interpreter of history, is not to be objectively detached from human feeling and experience but more in tune with it. The best historian of philosophy is not someone indifferent to the subject, but someone who is driven by the same concerns. A religious historian pre-inclined to think religion a fraud will very likely find confirmation of his own opinion while having very little to say about the genuine meaning of the religions he studies. A good historian, on the other hand, is committed to communicating with his subjects, and so must ask questions his field cannot answer. A historian must be willing to listen, and also to make judgments, because he has joined himself to a part of the human story in which good and evil cannot be ignored.

The question of Christ, “Who do you say I am?” cannot either be ignored. All interpretations of human existence are conditioned by the acceptance or rejection of Christ as lord of history. Christian eschatology, as other writers mentioned above have asserted, inspired an historiographical revolution by endowing history with meaning and direction. The Greek philosophers, seeking timeless truth, viewed history with pessimism. But early Christianity taught beginning and end and the center in which they met, in Christ. Time was filled with hope and a sense of progress, simply because Man’s history was now also God’s history, a meaningful story comprised of singular events.

Florovsky draws a series of theological and historiographical implications from this, often sounding much like Daniélou, but the only one I will mention here, which I believe to be most important, is this: a history of man is only partial and superficial when reduced to an account of the rise and fall of political entities. “The true history of man is… a history of the spirit, the story of man’s growth to the full stature of perfection, under the Lordship of the historical God-man, even of our Lord, Christ Jesus. It is a tragic story, indeed. And yet the seed matures, not only for judgment, but also for eternity.”

The Christian historian proceeds in light of the sacred history he possesses, aware of sin and redemption, yet also insisting on the dignity of fallen man. He will understand that the hand of Providence is active in history while refraining from absolute pronouncements about precisely where, how, and why it is operating; his job is not to figure out the actions of God but of man. “Above all, the Christian historian will regard history at once as a mystery and as a tragedy—a mystery of salvation and a tragedy of sin.” Florovsky does not pretend this is an easy target to aim for, but “it is surely a noble task.”

* * *

It may be difficult at first to imagine what G. K. Chesterton, a journalist and lay apologist, could add to this conversation. He was not a particularly good historian, or even autobiographer, in that his concern was never chiefly with the facts as such. He openly professed a dislike for academic historians, who seemed to him to possess no interest in the only really interesting and meaningful aspect of history, the human beings themselves (perhaps he would have relished Florovsky’s subversion of this principle). But it is not to the historian, rather to the mystic, that I appeal now.

Daniélou and others here have given us a theology of history that points to its sacramental character, the indwelling of the divine purpose. Though Chesterton’s treatments of history and the philosophy thereof lack the theoretical breadth and depth of Daniélou’s, Chesterton possessed a vision that implies some of his greatest insights into history as magnalia Dei.

Chesterton went through a period of deep pessimism and philosophical doubt in his twenties. Yet he escaped the abyss of nihilism with something new, an awareness that transformed the remainder of his life and soon led him to Christianity. Having come to the edge of nothingness, he was struck with the givenness of things. Everything, including himself, was inexplicably and gratuitously granted existence. Chesterton then began to intuit the giver. He saw creation incessantly pouring from from the fecundity of the divine darkness.

The mystic is one who has seen into that darkness and returned. A passage from his book on St. Francis presents us with an insight that cannot but be, to a certain extent, his own.

So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise…. The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made. In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy.

The reference to Job is not accidental. Chesterton was fascinated his whole life with this book. According to Chesterton, Job is permitted to ask for the reason behind everything, because he believes God is good and wants to be convinced. And God permits him to sink further and further into doubt, as all doubters must in order to be saved. God finally presents Job with a mystery deeper and darker than Job had yet conceived; to Job’s one riddle, God “flings back” a hundred. But Job is satisfied by the mystery. He has glimpsed a reality beyond his imagination or understanding, masked and yet revealed by the absurdity and senselessness of nature, and it is a joyful mystery. This mystery was finally revealed to the world in the person of Christ, in whom God endured Job’s own suffering.

Through Chesterton, we have glimpsed the mystic perception that ought to be the pinnacle of our experience of history. Chesterton noticed that everything had two sides of which we see only one, the back; what lies on the other side, as Christ showed us, is the beauty of holiness. So, too, the history of wars and elections and the changing relations of power conceal a design that draws the cosmos to salvation. Time, the medium of the forces of decay and death, has been inwardly converted into a means of grace; it has become the medium of our deification. So our existence in time is best understood as a gift, the unspeakable privilege of participating in the being of God. According to Chesterton, natural cycles are themselves not weary mechanical repetition, but an enthusiastic God crying “do it again!”

This is precisely the viewpoint from which to counter Alain Daniélou’s dichotomy between spirit-and-body-affirming polytheism and lifeless, idolatrous monotheism. Christianity does not sap beauty and wonder from things, but roots them in a mystery that is not merely transcendent but personal, a mystery that is love, a love from which all creation arises as a gift. The Christian revolution in history does not bind us to the whims of a cosmic tyrant, but liberates us and the whole world from the cycle of death and evil. While the heroic guru reaches up to join the gods in supersensory bliss, the Christian saint goes down into the darkness of history and human suffering and there retrieves a vision of eternal light.

As Jean Daniélou remarks in his last chapter, the fundamental quality belonging to the Christian in the midst of history is hope. God becomes man in the incarnation, and brings man through death into life, opening a way through the sea. To these wonders of God, man responds, locating himself within the divine plan. This is true history.

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