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.

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The Gospel of the Princess Kaguya

“The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” one of Japan’s oldest folk stories, has long been a favorite of mine. Last night, I watched an adaptation by Studio Ghibli, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), which I heartily recommend. The animation was hand-drawn over eight years, and it may be the last film ever directed by now-octogenarian and acclaimed Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. In addition to the quality of the animation and storytelling, the myth itself is full of the “glorious sadness” of paganism, the mixture of beauty and fatalism that flavors all the best stories of the pre-Christian world.

Here is the story, in brief summary. A poor bamboo cutter finds a tiny, luminous baby girl in a bamboo grove. He raises her, and she grows supernaturally quickly into a young woman. Meanwhile, the bamboo cutter receives gifts of gold in the bamboo he cuts and is soon very wealthy. He purchases a magnificent house, and his foster-daughter, Princess Kaguya, is renowned for her beauty and grace. She acquires many suitors, but sets them on impossible tasks. Even the Emperor takes an interest in her, and she rebuffs him. In time, she reveals that she comes from the moon, and she must return to her people imminently. Despite the efforts of her foster family and the Emperor himself, the semi-divine moon people come and carry her back off to heaven.

The original narrative has a further subplot involving the Emperor which does not make it into the movie (the reason for which will become clear later in this review). After Kaguya refuses to marry the Emperor, they become correspondents and friends. When the moon-people fetch her, they give her a drink from the Elixir of Life. She is not allowed to give this to her elderly father, but she can and does send a phial to the Emperor. The Emperor, in mourning at having lost her forever, burns the elixir on Mount Fuji.

As I have lately been studying principles of Christian response to nature-myth (e.g., here), I wish to discuss The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as a truth-telling story that points to fulfillment in Christ. By this I do not mean that there is a Christian message coded into the film, or that we can turn the story into a Christian morality tale; but I do mean that its truthfulness about reality necessarily results in a hidden meaning that may be illuminated by the work of Christ.

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Dominus Historiae: Part III

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

Daniélou has by this point given us a fairly extensive theology of history. What is left for him to discuss but the implications of this theology for ordinary life? What values are promoted by this theology? Daniélou’s exegetical focus is even more intense here than the last part. The apostle Paul serves throughout as an example of these virtues in action, and his epistles are heavily quoted.

After completing this summary here, in the next and final entry, I will conclude with some meditations on Daniélou’s theology of history as a whole, and compare his views with those of some other thinkers I’ve read recently. Continue reading

Dominus Historiae: Part II

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

In these eight chapters, Daniélou transitions to exegesis, building on the foundation laid especially by the last chapter. The examination of sacred and secular modes of history served to define the space proper to the former; now, Daniélou returns ad fontes to fill that space. What does sacred history actually look like, according to scriptural Christian theology?

Chapters 1-3 thus examine divine action, human action, and the synergism implied in the incarnation respectively. Chapters 4-6 involve typology and progress, or the relationships between historical stages, and chapters 7-8 address eschatology.

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Dominus Historiae: Part I

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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Dominus Historiae: Introduction

Jean Daniélou was one of Roman Catholicism’s key twentieth-century theologians. A French Jesuit and ressourcement thinker, Daniélou had a great love for the Church Fathers, notably Gregory of Nyssa, the subject of his earliest writings. But he was no antiquarian; he was a cultural critic, well-read in other religions as well as classical literature and the modern secular corpus. In 1969, he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, and he died in 1974, less than two years after his election to the prestigious Académie française.

His Essai sur le Mystère de l’Histoire (1953) or, as it is commonly titled in English, The Lord of History, was composed while Daniélou was a professor at the Catholic University of Paris. His writings at this time were pioneering the Covenantal theology movement in Catholicism, which emphasized interpreting the Bible through the sequence of covenants in salvation history. It was, moreover, a deliberate move away from historical-critical methods aimed at uncovering a literal meaning, and a return to Patristic methods, including the classical “fourfold sense.”

The Lord of History can thus be seen as a seminal work in this project, especially as regards a Christian theology of history. Daniélou’s work in this respect on the Greek Fathers was later complemented by Joseph Ratzinger’s exposition of the Latin Fathers on similar themes.

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The Silence of Animals: A Review

The Silence of Animals is a recent book by iconoclast writer John Gray. Gray gives the impression of an ancient pagan philosopher, at odds with his time. His influence as a popular thinker can be attributed not only to his literary style, but his willingness to attack cherished popular beliefs and espouse a radical rethinking of basic assumptions.

Gray is an atheist, but decidedly an outsider. Contemporary atheist culture tends toward secular humanism and rationalism, philosophies Gray despises as vacuous and challenges in this book. Not the stereotypical modern atheist, Gray is a genuine philosophical skeptic. His worldview is an eclectic composite of the archaic and the novel.

To his mind, the important question is not whether one believes in God, but whether one believes in humanity. An atheist who answers the latter question affirmatively is still a “believer.” Such an atheist is also, methinks, the principal target of his book. Gray tries to persuade his readers to give up the last vestiges of religious thought and embrace a more thoroughgoing, liberated godlessness.

Why, then, should I find this book worth reading? If I do not accept his premise that theism is an impossible intellectual position (and I don’t), the rest of his argument—the whole antihuman tirade—is not especially convincing or apposite. Nevertheless, Gray strikes me as a potentially important original voice. His is a well-read, blunt, oddly appealing nihilism. Though his attacks are not directed chiefly at religion in The Silence of Animals, the alternative to religious thought Gray espouses here may prove far more dangerous to Christianity than any of the popular rationalisms that currently afflict our culture.

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