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Culture and Theology: The Ressourcement Movement (Part 1)

March 30, 2008

The Historical Context

If one were pressed to isolate a single trend within the contemporary Catholic theological milieu whose powerful impact and enduring presence has most affected Catholicism from the top of the episcopal hierarchy down to the anonymous layperson in the pew, one would most certainly conclude that the ressourcement movement of twentieth century Catholic theology would be the only viable and worthy candidate for isolation. What began as a loose trend among a few Catholic scholars in the early twentieth century to rediscover the authentic thought of Thomas Aquinas burgeoned into a sweeping ecclesial tour de force emanating renewal and reform throughout academia and the Catholic Church itself. Indeed, the current shape of Catholic theology, spirituality and ecclesial perspective is by and large a direct product of the ressourcement movement.

Ressourcement’ is a difficult word to define. There is no adequate English equivalent to this French neologism. The spirit of the movement, coupled with the etymology of the French, has led most Anglophone scholars to simply transliterate the term as ‘return to the sources’ or, more awkwardly, ‘renewal through return to sources’. True, it’s always nice to return to our roots, but to which roots shall we return? Which sources shall be privileged? In short, the loosely-connected thinkers whose work ushered in the ressourcement movement sought to return to the writings of the early church, that is, to the works and ideas of the early Fathers of Christianity—everyone from Clement of Alexandria to Bede in the West, and everyone from Ignatius to John Damascene in the East. The progenitors of ressourcement believed that a return to the writings of these Christians would not only reestablish in the Catholic consciousness a sense of continuity and development of the treasury of faith across two millennia, but also renew the very face of Catholic theology, which had virtually ossified due to the Scholastic manual tradition that had been entrenched in Catholic universities and seminaries since the eighteenth century. Thus, their theology was not merely an exercise in Patristic study, but a reading of the Fathers as both historical figures (contextualized study) and as contemporaries (constructive implication).

It would be helpful to sketch the historical context in which the ressourcement originated before moving to a discussion of some of its specific emissaries. Catholic theology in the early twentieth century was indelibly marked, or so it seemed, by a fierce allegiance to the commentary tradition on the theology and philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. This tradition, dubbed Neo-Scholasticism, sprouted by means of the concerted studies and commentaries on Aquinas by Thomas Cajetan in the sixteenth century. It took definitive shape through the writings of Francisco Suarez, Domingo Bañez and John of St. Thomas, and was all but ubiquitous in Catholic thought by the start of the twentieth century. The preceding nineteenth century saw a few anomalies amidst the dominant neo-Scholastic party, in particular the historically and quasi-ecumenically conscious Tübingen school (especially Johann Sebastian Drey and Johann Adam Möhler), John Henry Newman and Matthias Scheeben, a Thomist who exhibited little allergy to the writings of the early Church, especially those of the Eastern Fathers. But exceptions, of course, did not alter the rule. This is not to say that neo-Scholasticism was a great monolith in terms of every theological opinion, but in terms of method, scope and form the tradition was rather uniform.

What most characterized neo-Scholasticism was the assumption that theology proceeds in deductive fashion, beginning with absolute first principles followed by theological conclusions of varying degrees of certainty therein deduced. Aristotelian logic, especially as outlined in the Prior and Posterior Analytics and the ‘timeless’ quality of Aristotelian science were paradigmatic to the neo-Scholastic method. Thus, when practitioners of neo-Scholasticism were not producing dogmatic handbooks chock full of theological deductions arranged by topic (e.g. De Deo Uno, De Deo Trino, De natura humana), they were penning commentaries on either Aquinas’ works or other commentaries on Aquinas’ works. Questions of historicity and hermeneutics were not important to the neo-Scholastic methodology which, by assuming it was simply perpetuating the spirit of Aquinas, placed its confidence in what it ultimately believed to be a watertight scientific system. Hence, the stamina of such a uniform theological method across a number of centuries.

This is not to suggest that the neo-Scholastics were collectively incognizant of the challenge of modern philosophy, which all but exiled Aristotle’s epistemological starting point with the knowledge of being. Indeed, the neo-Scholastics were quite aware of post-Cartesian trends in philosophy, as well as their Protestant theological interlocutors. However, the neo-Scholastics took for granted a spontaneous certainty of sense experience while trusting in the accuracy of cognitive appropriation of sense data. Add to this the self-evident presumption that the first thing known through cognition is being, the result is a philosophical system that does not take the cogito seriously, let alone as a valid departure point in philosophy. All this despite Descartes’ rather liberal partaking of Scholastic vocabulary and concepts. Neo-Scholasticism conceived of post-Cartesian philosophy as inherently incapable of handling the theological problems it inherited and bequeathed. Without establishing the distinct ordo naturae, it was thought that modern philosophy could not handle the important question of grace and nature. Without a proper metaphysics, it was thought that post-Cartesian philosophy was doomed to nihilism or immanentism due to its distrust of sense experience and rejection of a mediate grasp of being through cognition and judgment.

Up until the late nineteenth century, the regal presence of Neo-Scholasticism was relatively circumstantial. However, with Pope Leo XIII’s promulgation of Aeterni Patris in 1879, the philosophy of Aquinas—as interpreted solely by neo-Scholasticism—became the standard philosophy and theology of Catholic seminarian formation. Theological works that took a historical, developmental or ‘Cartesian’ approach to reason and faith were gradually removed and replaced by the dogmatic manuals of the neo-Scholastics. Solidifying the papal decree within the greater breadth of academia were Matteo Liberatore and Joseph Kleutgen, whose theological and philosophical manuals embodied the desire of Leo XIII for Catholic theology.

Despite the papal prerogative, the shortsightedness of Aeterni Patris became evident to the Catholic realm of theology less than two decades after its promulgation. In a theological climate virtually dominated neo-Scholasticism, Catholic thinkers such as Maurice Blondel (1861-1949), Pierre Rousselot (1878-1915) and Joseph Maréchal (1878-1944) began to question the philosophical aptitude of their manualist counterparts.Blondel, trained in philosophy in the secular French university system, did not find neo-Scholasticism amenable to Catholicism’s engagement with the modern world. He detected in the manual tradition a more Aristotelian than Augustinian spirit that resulted in a radical dichotomy between the world and God—between the natural and the supernatural—which actually aided the efforts of European secularists and their quest to banish religion from the public sphere. In his monumental L’Action (1893), Blondel attempted to illumine the philosophical and anthropological foundations of the volitional desire in humanity for the potential, but not necessary, action of the supernatural, that is, beyond the natural.

Rousselot and Maréchal were both priests, academically trained in the neo-Scholastic way. However, breaking with their predecessors, Rousselot and Maréchal took modern philosophy seriously. Rousselot, influenced by the anti-‘intellectualism’ of Blondel and Henri Bergson, bypassed the neo-Scholastic commentaries on Aquinas and turned to the actual writings of Aquinas himself. In his short career, Rousselot produced two treatises that would change the entire course of Thomistic studies in the 20th century: L’Intellectualism de Saint Thomas (1924) and Pour L’Histoire du probléme de l’amour au moyen-âge (1908). Rousselot sought to recover the historical Aquinas’ epistemology, situating his ideas within their historical context and medieval debate, rather than portraying Aquinas’ ideas through the medium of the 700 year commentary tradition of neo-Scholasticism.

Maréchal, though desirous of recovering the Aquinas of history, also took the trajectories of modern philosophy seriously. In particular, he perceived Kant’s critique of pure reason as a formidable and unassailable challenge to theology. In light of the Kantian problematic, Maréchal detected a fundamental need to map out the necessary conditions for the human knowledge of divine revelation in Thomistic terms. His voluminous notes, collated as Le Point de départ de la métaphysique (1944-1949) paved the way for a careful consideration of Aquinas in historical context while adapting Thomistic epistemology to meet the demands of modern philosophical projects. Maréchal’s work became the basis for the later movement known as ‘transcendental Thomism’ whose main proponents were Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan.

Despite the efforts of Blondel, Rousselot and Maréchal on the academic and public levels, the magisterial rule as laid out in Aeterni Patris still held sway in Catholic theology and philosophy. Neo-Scholasticism remained strong in the early 20th century, due largely to the political and polemical moves of prominent theologians such as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange and M.-Michael Labourdette, both of whom had the constant ear of the pope and Roman Curia. However, a young Jesuit theologian in France was slyly slipping into his otherwise neo-Scholastic curriculum the writings of Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Blondel, Rousselot and Maréchal. What began as tangential, idiosyncratic leisure reading soon became the defining quality of Henri de Lubac’s theological formation and shortly thereafter, by extension, the pivotal impulse for reform—ressourcement — from within the very heart of the Catholic Church.

SUGGESTED READING

Gerald A. McCool, The Search for a Unitary Method: Nineteenth-Century Scholasticism (New York: Fordham University Press, 1989).

idem, From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992).

Stephen J. Duffy, The Graced Horizon: Nature and Grace in Modern Catholic Thought (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 50-65.

Pierre Rousselot, The Intellectualism of Saint Thomas, trans. James E. O’Mahony (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935).

Maurice Blondel, Action (1893): Essay on a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice, trans. Oliva Blanchette (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

Joseph Maréchal, A Maréchal Reader, trans. and ed. Joseph Donceel (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970).

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47 Comments
  1. March 30, 2008 12:38 pm

    While generally aligning myself with the Ressourcement school, I find that — like many others who so define themselves — I differ from the fathers of the movement in (at least) one unfortunate manner: while they returned to the great sources of our tradition, I tend to return to, well, them. RR Reno made this point in FT recently: while de Lubac et al. where exceedingly familiar with not only the sources they sought to return to the center of theological work but the antecedent theological tradition which they were in part rejecting as well, most of their contemporary disciples lack their familiarity with either, and to their detriment.

    So much to read, so little time.

  2. SMB permalink
    March 30, 2008 12:58 pm

    Thanks for a nice overview. Chris Burgwald’s point is well taken; the same could be said of disciples of Balthasar. Moreover, it seems that the upshot of revisionist studies of Thomas (Marechal, Gilson, etc.) has been the eclipse of Thomism as a living philosophical option. Perhaps the neo-scholastics, despite the limitations of their commentary discourse, knew better than we how to keep a tradition alive.

  3. Policraticus permalink*
    March 30, 2008 1:21 pm

    Moreover, it seems that the upshot of revisionist studies of Thomas (Marechal, Gilson, etc.) has been the eclipse of Thomism as a living philosophical option. Perhaps the neo-scholastics, despite the limitations of their commentary discourse, knew better than we how to keep a tradition alive.

    Actually, I would argue just the very opposite. With the advent of neo-Scholasticism in the 15th and 16th centuries and the arrival of modern philosophy via Descartes, Malebranche and Hobbes, Thomism retreated into the seminaries and had a diminishing presence in the universities. What Gilson was able to do was make Thomistic studies credible again as a philosophical/theological option, and we are witnessing a re-engagement with Thomas in our times. I see this well in my graduate philosophy program at Texas A&M. Also, many thinkers within the analytic tradition (e.g., Stump, Davies, Kenny) are engaging Thomas. If anything, the neo-Scholastic tradition almost caused the death of Thomistic studies in modern and contemporary philosophy.

  4. March 30, 2008 1:34 pm

    “Perhaps the neo-scholastics, despite the limitations of their commentary discourse, knew better than we how to keep a tradition alive.”

    The neo-scholastics were establishing a foundation — Gilson, Maritain, Eschmann, Chenu, Klubertanz, Maritain, etc.. The problem today is that that foundation is no longer taught. Thus few are equipped to build upon it. Nominalism and Chaos rule.

    This is not merely true in theology and philosophy. Ethics and politics suffer as well. For instance, ethical and political issues are approached as though the main challenge was to make the “Is” (behavior, for the most part) conform to the “Ought.” Yet this is a distortion of Thomastic ethics. At its best, it is a kind of “essentialist” ethics. In no way is it existential and concrete.

  5. March 30, 2008 1:44 pm

    The neo-Scholasticism that developed after Aquinas up until the Reformation was an essentialism. It was against this essentialism that Luther revolted. Good reason to revolt!

    I’d be interested to know the depth of Thomistic studies at Texas A&M. My experience is that today such studies lack the “rigor and vigor” that existed four decades ago. This is particularly true at the undergraduate level.

  6. SMB permalink
    March 30, 2008 2:25 pm

    Poli, my experience is more akin to Gerald’s. Thomism in the Aeterni Patris mould may have been limited, but it did provide Catholic intellectuals of the 19th/20th centuries with a common set of concepts and a general frame of reference. Every Catholic undergraduate knew something about the key problems of metaphysics, natural philosophy, and ethics, and how they were related to each other. No more, alas. I’m glad Aquinas is making a comeback at Texas A&M, but I doubt that Analytical Thomism will achieve the integration of knowledge that the old schools attempted.

  7. Policraticus permalink*
    March 30, 2008 3:05 pm

    Thomism in the Aeterni Patris mould may have been limited, but it did provide Catholic intellectuals of the 19th/20th centuries with a common set of concepts and a general frame of reference. Every Catholic undergraduate knew something about the key problems of metaphysics, natural philosophy, and ethics, and how they were related to each other.

    As I mention in my post, the programmatic of Aeterni Patris lasted only a few decades. By the 1950’s, even Catholic seminaries and scholastic houses begin a shift away from the ossified Thomism of neo-Scholasticism. The problem with Aeterni Patris is that it has in mind not Thomas himself, but the neo-Scholastic commentary tradition that originated with Cajetan and Suarez. What we witness beginning in the 1930’s and coming to the fore in the 1960’s is a return to the texts of Thomas himself prompted by the divergent thought of figures such as Gilson, de Lubac, Danielou, Rahner, and Wojtyla (John Paul II).

    So it is not a matter of whether Thomism is taught (it still is in some universities and most seminaries), but what sort of Thomism. The ethics, metaphysics and natural sciences you mention are not the same in the neo-Scholastic tradition as in the historical/existential Thomism. The latter prompted a renaissance in Thomistic studies, returning to the texts of Thomas himself rather than relying on the commentary tradition. The neo-Scholasticism of Aeterni Patris, which carried with it an overtly Aristotelian reading that distorted Thomas, is all but dead today, thankfully.

    Fordham University and St. Louis University, for example, were bastions of historical Thomism studies in the 1970’s and 1980’s, owing to the Gilsonian-inspired Thomism of Toronto. This, I believe, is the Thomism Gerald was schooled in (am I right, Gerald?), and it is the Thomism that I was taught at Franciscan University and St. Louis University only a few years ago.

    As for analytical Thomism, I agree that it has not been able to grapple with the full scope of Thomas’ thought.

  8. Policraticus permalink*
    March 30, 2008 3:07 pm

    The neo-scholastics were establishing a foundation — Gilson, Maritain, Eschmann, Chenu, Klubertanz, Maritain, etc..

    Gilson and Chenu (along with Joseph Owens and Vernon Bourke) belong to what I calling the historical/existential school of Thomism that achieved its fullest influence in Catholic universities in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Maritain is sort of in between the neo-Scholastics (e.g. John of St. Thomas, Garrigou-Lagrange) and the historical/existential Thomists.

  9. SMB permalink
    March 30, 2008 3:58 pm

    As it happens, Poli, my favorite Thomist is Norris Clarke, SJ, who is definitely in the ‘existentialist’ Thomist vein. But wouldn’t you agree that he is pretty much a voice crying in the wildnerness these days? Like Maritain and the rest, he built his career on the Thomist platform that Aeterni Patris had erected, and which ‘reactionaries’ like Garrigou were trying to maintain. I am suggesting that by encouraging a historicizing, rather than synthetic, approach to philosophy, the revisionists may inadvertently have sawed off the branch on which they were sitting.

  10. Br. Matthew Augustine, OP permalink
    March 30, 2008 4:31 pm

    Great comments here. I would say that while the theological developments of the ressourcement and the rise of historical and existential Thomism have enriched Catholic theology, we need not affirm this to the detriment of the commentarial tradition, which constitutes the lion’s share of several centuries of Catholic thought. Still less should we welcome its death, though I suspect that an entire school of theology will not go gently into that dark night, despite the theological prognosticators. ;) This tradition resists being adequately explained in such a brief narration of the recent history of Catholic theology (though it is, otherwise, a terrific summary). This resistance can be accounted for in the sheer breadth of the commentarial tradition, a breadth that would require a lifetime of study to master. As it stands, in a typical survey of Catholic theology, centuries of work and development are now squeezed into a ten-minute prelude to De Lubac, Rahner, and Balthasar. Fortunately, study of the commentators is not dead, as can be witnessed in recent work by Profs. Steven Long, Reinhard Hutter, Lawrence Feingold, and Ralph McInerny.

  11. March 30, 2008 4:47 pm

    “historical/existential school of Thomism”

    Now that you mention “historical/existential” should include James Collins in the mix, also at St. Louis University with Bourke. W. Norris Clark, S.J., of Fordham is also a great thinker.

    I agree with SMB that there is a real need to have a “core” approach to systematic thought. It gives a logic that is essential, and that logic is expressed in the Aristotelian tradition — most perfectly developed in St. Thomas.

    I agree with Br. Matthew that the Platonic tradition that dominates Christian thought for over a thousand years needs to be developed as well.

    The Aristotelian and Platonic traditions constitute the two main ways in which the human mind thinks: the Aristotelian tradition employs a logic of division (definitional language) whereas the Platonic tradition employs a logic of unity (metaphor). Both are essential.

  12. Mark DeFrancisis permalink*
    March 30, 2008 4:59 pm

    On a personal note, I completed an undergraduate specialist (major X 2) at U of Toronto, St. Michael’s College, in 1990.

    We used Joseph Owens Elementary Christian Metaphysics in the 200 level metaphysics requirement and had a 400 level seminar entirely on Thomas’ de Esse et Essentia.

    Otherwise, there were many 300 level courses available on Aristotle and Plato, along with other major figures in the history of philosophy. In fact, I did 4 three hundred level courses on Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics; Metaphysics; De Anima and on the Motion of Animals; and the Posterior (and some Prior) Analytics.

  13. March 30, 2008 5:11 pm

    Mark,

    Your comments are very interesting. I wonder if Toronto’s curriculum is similar now.

    I’m surprised there is any of the traditional curriculum still intact. History has taken over.

    Ironically, I’ve never had a historian who could respond adequately to the question “What Is History?” It’s as though history is what you make of it. Philosophy, too. Just loose and “unconnected perceptions.” Philosophy and history equals art without truth.

  14. Mark DeFrancisis permalink*
    March 30, 2008 5:19 pm

    Gerald,

    “Ironically, I’ve never had a historian who could respond adequately to the question “What Is History?””

    Have you read any of the work of Hayden White, Paul Riceour (Time and Narritive vol.1-3) or others philosophers/literary critics who have struggled with the question?

  15. March 30, 2008 5:36 pm

    No, I have not really looked at Paul Ricoeur that carefully. I was interested in things he had to say about perception a long time ago. Nothing recent. But what you say has sparked my interest. As for Hayden White, I’m familiar with him at all. I’ll check him out too.

    This question of history has been in the back of my mind for a long time. Just haven’t done much with my interest.

  16. Policraticus permalink*
    March 30, 2008 5:55 pm

    One of our former contributors, Anxietas (to whom I owe most of my knowledge of the Thomist trajectories), is a professor of medieval philosophy and specializes in Thomas. I wish he were here to add to this excellent discussion.

  17. March 30, 2008 7:05 pm

    One thing that has not been noted–that I myself have been increasingly shocked by–is the growing resurgence of a 1940s/50s style of neo-Scholasticism. The Dominicans have always held a kind of nostalgia for this era and school of Thomism; many have never really been that comfortable with Ressourcement theology.

    At Ave Maria in Florida, there is a renaissance going on for this kind of “Thomism”; it’s not just the Thomas Aquinas College kids. Nova et Vetera, their journal, has quietly reopened a number of debates that were at a time considered closed. Stephen A. Long is the doyen of this group, but there are many others; I’ve studied with more than a few of them. And furthermore, they’re growing and attracting more and more orthodox students–perhaps even more than the inheritors of the Ressourcement traditions.

    It’s not just Rahner that is frowned upon; de Lubac, Danielou, Balthasar–they’re all considered suspect. It’s Garrigou-Lagrange, and before him John of St. Thomas, Cajetan, and above all a very Aristoteleanized Thomas Aquinas that they’re returning to.

    N.B.

  18. Policraticus permalink*
    March 30, 2008 7:09 pm

    It’s not just Rahner that is frowned upon; de Lubac, Danielou, Balthasar–they’re all considered suspect. It’s Garrigou-Lagrange, and before him John of St. Thomas, Cajetan, and above all a very Aristoteleanized Thomas Aquinas that they’re returning to.

    The second eclipse of St. Thomas.

  19. March 30, 2008 7:12 pm

    “It’s Garrigou-Lagrange, and before him John of St. Thomas, Cajetan, and above all a very Aristoteleanized Thomas Aquinas that they’re returning to.”

    If I understand correctly, it sounds like essentialism.

  20. March 30, 2008 7:28 pm

    Yes, I think that the people at Ave Maria are doing great work. Steve Long is quite good. I would also recommend Lawrence Dewan’s work on Aquinas.

    Michael,

    I am excited to see how this series go and I am particularly interested in how you will treat Guardini.

  21. March 30, 2008 7:33 pm

    Gerald,

    You might be interested in this article if you have not read it yet:

    http://www2.nd.edu/Departments//Maritain/ti00/dewan.htm

  22. Br. Matthew Augustine, OP permalink
    March 30, 2008 7:45 pm

    “The Dominicans have always held a kind of nostalgia for this era and school of Thomism”

    No offense Matthew, but this is just plain wrong. There are very few Dominican Provinces (like two or three) that still teach from the commentators and manuals. All of these strongly emphasize other schools of Thomism and theology as well. For instance, the Toulouse Province, while having good teachers in the commentarial tradition, is also one of the great centers of historical Thomism. I would say that, as things now stand, most Dominican theologians would probably identify more strongly with the ressourcement theologians than with the Thomists of the Strict Observance (Garrigou-Lagrange, Labourdette). Many Dominicans are probably much more alarmed about whats going on at Ave Maria than even yourself (though I must say I’m not one of them). I say bring on the diversity. A little criticism shouldn’t hurt Rahner, De Lubac, and Balthasar. Though, I must say that the critical research that has been done (by Long and Feingold, among others) with regard to De Lubac’s retrieval of the “historical Thomas” has already done much to question whether De Lubac accurately represents Thomas’ view on nature and grace.

  23. March 30, 2008 7:45 pm

    Matthew, I’m not sure the brand of Thomism found at AMU is merely a resurgence of neo-Scholasticism; Matthew Levering certainly wouldn’t fit into such a category, nor would Matthew Lamb, and I think it’s a stretch to include Long, although I can see why you might be so inclined.

    Tracey Rowland’s new intro to the theology of Ratzinger begins with a brief survey of twentieth century Catholic theology, and while she counts herself as a member of the Communio school (i.e. Ressourcement), she sees a great deal of affinity on some central issues between that school, Radical Orthodoxy, and what she calls “biblical Thomism,” with Levering in the lead, so to speak, in that school. While the latter certainly is distinct from Ressourcement, neo-Scholasticism it isn’t.

  24. March 30, 2008 7:52 pm

    br. matthew,

    my experience in d.c. is that they have not incorporated or interacted with any of the ressourcement theologians such as de lubac, balthasar, et al. i may be wrong but that was what i got when i was there. fr. paul keller told me that nichols is the most radical one can get.

  25. March 30, 2008 7:54 pm

    I also second Br. Matthew’s comments re: Dominicans… the Frieburg OPs are another community that is doing excellent work.

    The other aspect of Long’s work which I find interesting is that he seems to have understood the point of de Lubac’s work on nature-grace, and while ultimately disagreeing with it, he attempts to offer an alternative response to the “two-tier” issue, rather than just refuting de Lubac’s reading of Thomas. Personally, it was de Lubac’s critique of the two-tier nature-grace structure which I ultimately found compelling, so if a better solution should be found, so much the better.

  26. Br. Matthew Augustine, OP permalink
    March 30, 2008 8:22 pm

    Apolonio,

    Yes, but the Eastern Province is not representative of the entire Order in this regard, though they are doing wonderful academic work.

    CB,

    Frieburg has a terrific faculty, among them is one of our own from the Western Province, Fr. Michael Sherwin.

  27. March 31, 2008 12:13 am

    Wow, I must say this is thus far a most impressive overview of the ressourcement school of theological methodology!!!

  28. March 31, 2008 4:48 am

    I have to say, being a doctoral candidate in systematic theology, and one who has done coursework in patristic studies, there are many problems in the theological discipline which needs to be addressed and fixed. Some are easier to deal with, some are much more complicated. But here are a few which easily come to mind:

    First, there is a considerable lack of faith within the academic discipline of theology. Of course there is considerable faith there, too. But the problem seems to be that those who lose their faith and have studied theology for a profession find no other outlet than theology, and teach it to the next generation, without the proper vision of faith needed to unify and appreciate theological discussion.

    Second, there is indeed a considerable lack of understanding of theological subjects beyond the modern age. Now, I am not saying everyone is like this, but to get such an appreciation requires considerable effort on one’s own time — time many people do not have. The few people who have a comprehensive view of theology really have that much more ability to engage the discipline, but they might not appear as “relevant” or “interesting” to the academics so they are often margenalized unless they can find a way to overcome this problem.

    Third, when one does engage historical theology, it is usually not looked for the sake of truth or meaning, but just facts. “See how bad they were back then” approaches is most common in current patristic studies. The previous generation of patristic scholars are quite disgusted with this approach, but they also cannot find many theologians whose patristic studies are used for theological ends; they only find descontructionists. I wonder if in such times, they should really hire anyone until they find someone appropriate, instead of chosing the lesser of the evils they find applying?

    Fourth, there really is a huge history of theology, and what is being done now is somewhat like how neo-Scholastics treated Thomism; it’s just a shift in interest. What do I mean by this? It was often the case patristics were just a “10 min intro” to the schoolmen, and they were a 20 min intro to modern neo-Scholastic interpretations of Thomas. Anyone to the side (such as Nicholas of Cusa) got no recognition. In other words, some of the problems were there, and while de Lubac, Balthasar, Danielou, et. al. wanted to move outside of it, realistically most people want one ‘simple view’ to use and so they have become it.

    Fifth, many people only see Aristotle as outdated because of his scientific observations are outdated. Certainly this explains why there is the need to develop theological discipline, but of course, the problem is people throw too much out and are left without any kind of base by which to reason. Now, I think there are ways one can deal with this — and I am looking into my own, but it will be years before I am prepared to see if my own personal search/experiment will work, so I cannot say much on it now.

    Sixth, and last for now, theology is becoming more and more a lay enterprise; this is changing the whole framework and context, and the field has yet to adjust to this big change. Lay theologians have to focus on more worldly issues (like making money) than religious theologians, and so I think it allows for more “sensationalistic” and “simplistic” forms of theology being produced because that is what sells.

  29. March 31, 2008 7:47 am

    I do want to add a seventh.

    There is a debate going on now as to how one can do a systematic theology which will at once provide for a foundation to unite Christendom under while at the other hand not becoming closed in on itself, and becoming a reified thing which makes a caricature of truth. St Thomas Aquinas clearly was able to provide for such an open system, and this is one of the reasons why we can recognize his genius; many of his neo-scholastic followers, however, slowly closed off the avenues for development, and have, in this light, hindered an appreciation of what he offers, and indeed, what systematic theology can offer. So there is, to some degree not as great as a few decades ago, a rejection of the idea that theology can be put into systems, and this of course makes one wonder, what then is theology? And no wonder, once systematic theology has been rejected as a practice, what you get is relativistic, situational theology that can’t provide universal meaning in a world which needs it.

  30. Policraticus permalink*
    March 31, 2008 9:05 am

    my experience in d.c. is that they have not incorporated or interacted with any of the ressourcement theologians such as de lubac, balthasar, et al

    I know that one of the Scripture professors at the Dominican House of Studies, Fr, Stephen Ryan, uses de Lubac’s Scripture in the Tradition in his classes. But I am not sure Ressourcement has much of presence anywhere else at DHS.

  31. March 31, 2008 9:14 am

    Br. Matthew, Chris, et al:

    I will admit that the Eastern Province may not be the mainstream. But I do see similar sympathies in Europe (at least Austria, Britain, France–I would say Fr. Nichols is an exception, as are O’Meara and others). I’ll admit I don’t really know THAT many Dominicans, maybe a dozen or so. But I think the Thomist, for instance, is moving in that direction. But if shown enough evidence to the contrary, I’ll retract my position. (Fr. Blankenhorn is another example, from your Province I believe, who leans on this side).

    I too am all for diversity. The last thing I want is the theological straitjacketing of the 50s. But I repeat, I am amazed by the number of students I’ve met, who don’t seem to have a grasp of the tensions, the reality of the disputed questions, even the problems, that led to the ressourcement revival, and ultimately, Vatican II.

    Of course there are those, like Fergus Kerr, McInerny, others, who seem to allude that all this (that is, ressourcement) might of been much ado about nothing. For my part, I don’t think the issue was so much “essentialism” as mistakes in theology (and I would argue, furthermore, that the defects of modern PHILOSOPHY have their roots, ultimately, not in philosophical mistakes, but theological ones), or rather, a theology that did not want to address the fundamental questions that the Middle Ages did not resolve, to which modernity is a failed but nonetheless real attempt at answering. My sympathies lie between Balthasar and Lonergan, two theologians who highly valued St. Thomas, yet nonetheless felt that they had to correct and even advance beyond his thinking (however foundational he remains).

  32. Greg permalink
    March 31, 2008 10:03 am

    Policratus,

    Is there anything in the corpus of De Lubac or Balthasar that is comparable to Lagrange’s Three Ages or Fr Juan Arintero’s Mystical Evolution?

  33. Policraticus permalink
    March 31, 2008 10:08 am

    Is there anything in the corpus of De Lubac or Balthasar that is comparable to Lagrange’s Three Ages or Fr Juan Arintero’s Mystical Evolution?

    From Balthasar, yes. I have found his The Christian State of Life, Prayer and Christian Meditation to be as spiritual insightfully and theologically sound as the Three Ages. One of Balthasar’s distinguishing marks is his insistance that theology, no matter how academic, must be a “praying” or “kneeling” theology, that is, a theology that draws from the mystical and meditative life.

  34. Br. Matthew Augustine, OP permalink
    March 31, 2008 10:47 am

    Matthew,

    I actually live with Fr. Bernhard (Blankenhorn), and while he has some criticisms for Balthasar (in Nova et Vetera), he is not militantly devoted to any one theological system, much less the commentarial or manualist tradition. His interests are wide ranging. He has a healthy regard for the achievment of the ressourcement theologians, but also approaches them with a critical eye.

  35. March 31, 2008 11:04 am

    Br. Matthew:

    good to hear. I did not mean to imply he was militantly devoted. I rather meant to offer an example of a theological trend–but I think you’re right, he probably is less like R. Cessario and more like A. Nichols. I met him while I was a student at the ITI, and had breakfast with him. He probably doesn’t remember me, but give him my best. And enjoy a hamburger, fries, and a shake at Dicks for me–boy I miss that.

  36. Br. Matthew Augustine, OP permalink
    March 31, 2008 11:45 am

    Ah, your a Seattleite? I’m more of a Red Mill guy myself, but I do enjoy the occasional trip to Dicks (and I think a trip is due, now that Lent is over). I’ll give Fr. Bernhard your regards.

  37. Greg permalink
    March 31, 2008 12:29 pm

    Policratus,

    Just out of curiosity…what are your career plans? What does one do once he or she has a PhD in philosophy or theology? Is it difficult to become a theology professor?

  38. March 31, 2008 2:34 pm

    [T]here is a considerable lack of faith within the academic discipline of theology. Of course there is considerable faith there, too.

    In other words, “the best of times and worst of times” essentially…

    But the problem seems to be that those who lose their faith and have studied theology for a profession find no other outlet than theology, and teach it to the next generation, without the proper vision of faith needed to unify and appreciate theological discussion.

    There is also the problem today of those who do not understand the difference between the application of principles and principles themselves and now the latter admit of a variety of possibilities. Like the neo-scholastics who viewed only one understanding of Thomas as constituting Thomism (referring to the commentary tradition) many today act no differently when it comes to matters of the prudential order and applying Catholic principles.

    Second, there is indeed a considerable lack of understanding of theological subjects beyond the modern age.

    True. There are those who try to make every jot and tittle of post 1960’s views as “developments” of previous theological outlooks and also those who do try to familiarize themselves with theological subjects prior to the modern age often misrepresenting them as a way of setting them against previous theological approaches.

    Now, I am not saying everyone is like this, but to get such an appreciation requires considerable effort on one’s own time — time many people do not have.

    Appreciation requires time this is true but it also requires a disposition that no amount of time can bestow on those who lack it; namely, the humility to not presume that any one slice of the pie constitutes THE pie and furthermore that they may well in treating their views (whatever they are) as THE Catholic view could be walking down the same sort of blind alley that the neo-scholastics did. And this is particularly applicable to those who treat their chosen teachers with the same sort of defacto infallibility that the neo-scholastics treated the commentators on Aquinas.

    The few people who have a comprehensive view of theology really have that much more ability to engage the discipline, but they might not appear as “relevant” or “interesting” to the academics so they are often margenalized unless they can find a way to overcome this problem.

    The problem with ivory tower sorts is that they can get caught up in abstraction a lot which creates if not in actuality than at least the appearance of aloofness when it comes to what is happening in the here and now. Ultimately, theology and philosophy have to be viewed as relevant or else people will tune them out -particularly in an age where more people have secondary education and there is not the same propensity to uncritically accept opinions of a given authority as was common in eras past.

    Third, when one does engage historical theology, it is usually not looked for the sake of truth or meaning, but just facts. “See how bad they were back then” approaches is most common in current patristic studies.

    Yes there are those who attempt to use the past as a tool in pointing out some error (or perceived error) in earlier eras as the springboard to justifying what they want to do now.

    The previous generation of patristic scholars are quite disgusted with this approach, but they also cannot find many theologians whose patristic studies are used for theological ends; they only find descontructionists. I wonder if in such times, they should really hire anyone until they find someone appropriate, instead of chosing the lesser of the evils they find applying?

    Good question.

    Fourth, there really is a huge history of theology, and what is being done now is somewhat like how neo-Scholastics treated Thomism; it’s just a shift in interest. What do I mean by this? It was often the case patristics were just a “10 min intro” to the schoolmen, and they were a 20 min intro to modern neo-Scholastic interpretations of Thomas. Anyone to the side (such as Nicholas of Cusa) got no recognition. In other words, some of the problems were there, and while de Lubac, Balthasar, Danielou, et. al. wanted to move outside of it, realistically most people want one ’simple view’ to use and so they have become it.

    People in general want some sort of guidance partly because most people are intellectually dependent by nature (however much they try to deny it) and partly because it is natural to gravitate towards a semblance of order over disorder.

    The problem that the neo-scholastics had is hardly something that was overcome when their monopoly was broken: indeed anyone who accepts an authority in philosophy or theology uncritically is making the same mistake. Today with ressourcement methodology, the same sort of enthroning of de Lubac, von Bhalthazar, Chenu, Danielou, Congar, and the like happens that happened with commentators of the past.

    Some of this is due to lack of time this is true -we all have time limits for these matters- but some of it also is simply human inclination towards order and when a system is perceived to provide it that happens to cohere to the predispositions of a given individual, they latch onto it and it becomes a part of their presuppositional foundation. And once this happens, there can be a serious problem with giving the accepted system the same sort of critical discernment that the individual would of other outlooks which they in part or wholly do not accept.

    Fifth, many people only see Aristotle as outdated because of his scientific observations are outdated. Certainly this explains why there is the need to develop theological discipline, but of course, the problem is people throw too much out and are left without any kind of base by which to reason.

    Well said. Aristotle is required for even the rudimentary tools of logic and reason so when they throw him out completely, it creates chaos.

    Now, I think there are ways one can deal with this — and I am looking into my own, but it will be years before I am prepared to see if my own personal search/experiment will work, so I cannot say much on it now.

    Make sure whatever you synthesize into your outlook that the laws of identity and non-contradiction remain. (I would say excluded middle too.)

    Sixth, and last for now, theology is becoming more and more a lay enterprise; this is changing the whole framework and context, and the field has yet to adjust to this big change. Lay theologians have to focus on more worldly issues (like making money) than religious theologians, and so I think it allows for more “sensationalistic” and “simplistic” forms of theology being produced because that is what sells.

    It does get back ultimately to having relevance for the audience in question. The greatest principles if they cannot be applied to actual situations can either accidentally or intentionally be ignored. It is all well and good to debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin but that does not for most people constitute a good usage of whatever limited time they may have for these kinds of endeavours.

    There is a debate going on now as to how one can do a systematic theology which will at once provide for a foundation to unite Christendom under while at the other hand not becoming closed in on itself, and becoming a reified thing which makes a caricature of truth.

    One could argue that this debate started really heating up in the nineteenth century. Even the neo-scholastics for all the criticism we could make of what they ultimately did intended to find a way (in their understanding) of applying the principles of Thomism to the real world in a more direct manner than had been the case in centuries previously. (When Thomism fell out of vogue for a variety of reasons too numerous to go into here.) This explains in part the advent of pastoral theology in the centuries prior to Vatican II -particularly since the so-called “reformation.” This problem has certainly existed for a long time and various attempts to provide a “one size fits all” approach have failed.

    St Thomas Aquinas clearly was able to provide for such an open system, and this is one of the reasons why we can recognize his genius;

    Aquinas provided a framework which allowed for a degree of variation within it: something that a lot of people do not seem to appreciate. Even the treating of Aquinas as if he is somehow THE master would have found disapproval in Aquinas’ eyes as he certainly did not do this with anyone. That is why he was able to with both profound respect as well as a degree of critical discernment interrogate Augustine and help move beyond the blind acceptance of things on Augustine’s authority which was a common refrain in the west prior to Aquinas’ time.

    many of his neo-scholastic followers, however, slowly closed off the avenues for development, and have, in this light, hindered an appreciation of what he offers, and indeed, what systematic theology can offer.

    As much as I do not like terms such as “living magisterium” which imply notions as subjectivist as those in the socio-political arena who argue for a “living constitution”, at the same time, theology does have to have an element of life to it. To the degree that it does, one can more easily make the argument that theology along with philosophy can help with the problems of our time through enunciating general principles which admit of a variety of applications.

    So there is, to some degree not as great as a few decades ago, a rejection of the idea that theology can be put into systems, and this of course makes one wonder, what then is theology?

    Theology is the science of faith whereas philosophy is the science of reason. Yes I know that explanation obscures about as much as it clarifies but maybe that is the point: neither one can be put into the nice neat box we all wish they could be.

    And no wonder, once systematic theology has been rejected as a practice, what you get is relativistic, situational theology that can’t provide universal meaning in a world which needs it.

    There has to be a recognition of certain truths which have a universality to them. Without this realization, it is impossible to utilize reason and logic, it is impossible to set forth any meaningful synthesis at all. For that reason, no matter what form it takes, there has to be some sort of systematic theology and systematic philosophy. Otherwise, logic and reason are impossible and we are no different functionally speaking than the animals who know nothing about logic and cannot reason.

  39. Policraticus permalink*
    March 31, 2008 2:58 pm

    Just out of curiosity…what are your career plans? What does one do once he or she has a PhD in philosophy or theology? Is it difficult to become a theology professor?

    I’d like to complete a doctorate in philosophy and/or law and teach political philosophy and ethics in a university. The job market in these fields is competitive, and the politics of the process are predictable: where did you go for your degree? who are your references? how much have you published? what is your specialty?

  40. Greg permalink
    March 31, 2008 3:26 pm

    Policratus,

    When you are done with your education…please apply here:

    http://www.virginia.edu/religiousstudies/admin/faculty.html

  41. Policraticus permalink
    March 31, 2008 3:29 pm

    When you are done with your education…please apply here:

    http://www.virginia.edu/religiousstudies/admin/faculty.html

    I’d love to work at Virginia, but I doubt I’ll be so lucky. Do you study/teach at Virginia?

  42. Greg permalink
    March 31, 2008 3:54 pm

    No, I graduated in ’97. I just wanted to point you in the direction of a group of faculty that desperately needs greater Catholic representation. Maybe you can teach the development of Thomism throught the centuries with special emphasis on “Ressourcement Theology”.

  43. April 5, 2008 1:32 pm

    I’d like to point out that the historical picture is a bit more complicated than Thomists usually present it; in the middle ages, it wasn’t just Aquinas and a series of commentators. There were the Thomistic, Albertist, Scotistic (and probably “old franciscan” school following Alexander of Hales and Bonavneture), and Nominalist shools, all of which were tolerated by the Church (the nominalists had a few condemnations levelled at a few theses). Indeed, in the 16th and 17th centuries the scotistic school outnumbered all others in sheer number of adherents. Our views today are conditioned by the fact that the 19th century revival was conducted by thomists, who naturally revived their own school and ignored the others. Even in documents like Aeterni patris one finds references to the “other scholastics” and even to Bonaventure as being, like thomas, a light illuminating the Church

  44. April 5, 2008 2:11 pm

    Lee

    True enough — and then there were people who sort of were influeneced by the scholastics in one way or another, some more than others, who nonetheless went off on their own, such as: Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, and Marsilio Ficino. Indeed, the influence of Ficino was great in its day (I still want to read Steucho).

Trackbacks

  1. Culture and Theology: The Ressourcement Movement (Part 2) « Vox Nova
  2. Culture and Theology: The Ressourcement Movement (Part 3) « Vox Nova
  3. Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future « Theology Forum

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