Unconditional Love and Ecclesiology

In my jaundiced way, I often suspect the coiners of fashionable phrases of having taken perfectly unexceptional ideas and given them a twist that empties them of all real meaning. Many are plundered from religion, and when they find their way back into the Church they act as a substitute for genuine thought. Take, for example, that wonderful phrase ‘unconditional love’. It sounds splendid, and the idea behind it is splendid, but the more I think about the actual phrase, the less sure I am what it means. God loves us infinitely, tenderly, forgivingly, but unconditionally? Isn’t part of his love for us to want us to respond, to want us to behave in ways that reflect his goodness? We may not think of these as conditions, because clearly we are loved by him no matter how badly we behave, but spreading the notion of God’s unconditional love can come close to implying that we can do what we like. I am loved unconditionally by God, so how can the Church or anyone else demand that I conform to their ideas of right and wrong? I am an autonomous being, and my own ideas are what count if I am to be authentic (another buzz word).

One of the troubling aspects of our online engagement is that we are frequently confronted with the problem of what to say to those who have constructed their own version of Christianity. I’m tempted to call it Christianity Lite, a Christianity with all the difficult and painful bits taken out. Words like ‘sacrifice’ and ‘suffering’ seem to have no place, and the notion of authority and obedience is very circumscribed. It is love without asceticism, and regular readers will know what I think about that.

I believe I can truthfully claim that the community to which I belong is a compassionate and generous one, so I don’t think it’s simply a case of my being an old curmudgeon or religious martinet, with a sour outlook on life and immune to every new idea. It goes deeper than that. A wise friend once remarked that many of the difficulties Christians experience boil down to conflicting understandings of the Church. I think there is a lot of truth in that. People routinely talk about ‘the Church’ as something other, something vaguely opposed  to everything good and beautiful in their lives. Very few seem to have grasped that she is a mother. Maybe what we all need is a better understanding of ecclesiology. Now there’s a thought to conjure with!

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Angels and Pins or The Day After Synod

One needs to know quite a lot of philosophy to understand St Bonaventure, yet I wouldn’t myself quote him in support of any philosophical argument. In fact, I would go further and say he is among the least ‘accessible’ of the philosopher-theologians who have graced the Catholic Church. He was, first and foremost, a theologian — something he saw as eminently practical — one who believed that faith and reason are reconcilable and that many routes lead to God:

A master of the memorable phrase, Bonaventure held that philosophy opens the mind to at least three different routes humans can take on their journey to God. Non-intellectual material creatures he conceived as shadows and vestiges (literally, footprints) of God, understood as the ultimate cause of a world philosophical reason can prove was created at a first moment in time. Intellectual creatures he conceived of as images and likenesses of God, the workings of the human mind and will leading us to God understood as illuminator of knowledge and donor of grace and virtue. The final route to God is the route of being, in which Bonaventure brought Anselm’s argument together with Aristotelian and Neoplatonic metaphysics to view God as the absolutely perfect being whose essence entails its existence, an absolutely simple being that causes all other, composite beings to exist.

So, why am I thinking about St Bonaventure on the day after the Church of England Synod voted in favour of women becoming bishops? Quite apart from the fact that today happens to be his feast day, I think it is an encouragement to those of us who see in the official response of the Catholic Church in England and Wales a certain sadness, a realisation that we are further apart on the road to visible ecclesial unity than we had hoped. We must continue to work and pray together, to build on the deeper understanding, friendship and mutual love we already have, yet at the same time not shy away from our theological differences. In the joy and delight felt by many of our Church of England friends, those theological differences may seem less substantial than they do to those of us who are Catholic or Orthodox.

People sometimes dismiss the old question, ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ as an absurdity, not seeing that, although we wouldn’t express it in quite the same way, it is, in fact, a perfectly legitimate question about the nature of corporeal and incorporeal existence. Theology and questions of ecclesiology are fundamental to the search for visible unity. Agreement on the nature of the episcopate is, from the Catholic (and I would think, Orthodox) perspective, essential. Yesterday presented us with another very great theological challenge.

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