Sunday, February 22, 2004

Guest Post: More on Romantic Theology (Keith Rickert, Jr.)

Just some further thoughts and comments on Romantic, Imaginative Theology...

Re: lightning, forest fires, earthquakes, cancer, AIDS, famine, drought, F5 tornadoes:

Romantic Theology does not blithely rule out the reality of natural evil. Charles Williams (I’m thinking specifically of Descent Into Hell) talks about a “terrible good”. One who experience it experiences terror, dread, as well as goodness in full potency. And I’ve noticed, when reading Narnia to my children, C.S. Lewis visit this idea, specifically in Aslan. Aslan is at once both good as well as terrifying. When Peter, Susan, Lucy, Edmund, etc. approach him, they are always filled with a strange admixture of joy and dread—both emotions at full strength, in a manner they’ve never experienced before. There are other instances; this is a recurring theme in Lewis.

I sense this in nature. Being out on the sea, one experiences a lot of beauty, but there is a terror that lurks deep down. An eruption of a volcano is, at once, beautiful as well as terrifying. And while death may not be beautiful, why does it haunt us so to see it, to meditate on it? All these things seemed to me to speak of the transcendental—something beyond the material world.

Now, as a Christian, I explicitly meditate on God’s power when I come into contact with it in nature. The terror that lurks in my heart while out on the sea, or watching a volcano erupt, or seeing an F5 volcano blow houses around like paper bags—is an itsy bitsy teeny weenie hint of the terror I will feel when I come before my Lord and my God. This is a part of Romantic Theology, too.

But, usually, as I understand it, the object of Romantic Theology is the religious impulse man finds arising within himself as he comes into contact with beauty and goodness in the created order, in myths, and in the arts. Stated less succinctly, Romantic (or Imaginative) Theology is the rational exploration of the phenomenon in which, through contact with goodness and beauty encountered in creation (including, of course, man himself) the arts, and stories (more properly, myths), a person experiences moments of joy and inexplicable bittersweet longing for some indescribable, elusive, transcendental “other-ness”, which, in turn will (if he so chooses) lead him onto a path by which he will (if, again, he so chooses) come to truth, that is, to God.

This is eminently Catholic. From the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:

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33 With his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence.

35 Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God.

41 The manifold perfections of creatures—their truth, their goodness, their beauty—all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfections as our starting point, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.” (Wis 13:5).

46 When he listens to the message of creation and to the voice of conscience, man can arrive at certainty about the existence of God, the cause and the end of everything.

288 Thus the revelation of creation is inseparable from the revelation and forging of the covenant of the one God with his People. Creation is revealed as the first step toward this covenant, the first and universal witness to God’s all-powerful love.

299 The universe, created in and by the eternal Word, the “image of the invisible God,” is destined for and addressed to man, himself created in the “image of God” and called to a personal relationship with God. Our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of his creation, though not without great effort and only in a spirit of humility and respect before the Creator and his work.

315 In the creation of the world and of man, God gave the first and universal witness to his almighty love and his wisdom, the first proclamation of the “plan of his loving goodness,” which finds its goal in the new creation in Christ.
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Vatican Council I, reiterating explicit biblical teaching, declared dogmatically and infallibly that “God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason: ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” As I see it, Romantic Theology is merely about the influence of non-rational experiences of goodness and beauty upon this process.

Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M, a foremost Catholic spiritual director, retreat master, and teacher of philosophy and theology asserts in Faith and Certitude, “Those who love goodness and beauty will find God.”

I find that the Catholic Church recognizes this reality more so than any other religion or theological system. Romantic Theology is exceedingly at home in the Catholic Church. The path my romantic experiences set me upon led me not only to God and Christianity, but, ultimately, to the Catholic Church, where I found everywhere in her worship, teaching, and saints not only eminently biblical truth but unrivalled romanticism.

So, I don’t see Romantic Theology as some alternative, esoteric theology. It is a philosophy of “Being”, just as is the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, who is venerated by the Church as not only a profoundly mystical and holy saint, but her primary theologian, philosopher and doctor. I find Romantic Theology all over the Summa Theologica:

-God, alone, is His very being; God, alone, is without contingency; God, alone, is. [1; q. 2-26] -Everything that is, that has being, gets its “is-ness”, its being, from God. [1; q. 2-26] -Therefore, when we, through contact with the created order, experience goodness and beauty and seek the essence thereof, we put ourselves on a path leading directly to God, who, alone, is good essentially—the source of all goodness. [I; q. 6, a. 1-4]

The late great Thomist, Walter Farrell, O.P., S.T.M., in his A Companion to the Summa, puts it succinctly in his description of the fourth of St. Thomas’ five ways to demonstrate the existence of God:

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In the world about us we see these perfections existing in things in greater and lesser degrees: that is, we see things that are more good and less good, more and less true, and so on; we see life within human limits, animal limits, plant limits. Now these limited degrees of limit-less perfections can be explained only by the existence of something to which these perfections pertain in their fullness, something which does not possess this or that degree of goodness, truth, life, but which is, by its very nature, limitless goodness, limitless truth, limitless life. . . . we cannot contact anything of reality without confronting divinity...
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Later, Farrell, expounding on the philosophy of the primary doctor of the Catholic Church hits dead center upon the very heart of Romantic Theology (Sorry for the length, but this is too good to edit down any further):

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That there is an all perfect being means that all the beauty, the love, the goodness that lift the heart of a man out of himself are but the shadows of the infinite on the pool of life, vague hints of the ineffable that lies at the beginning and end of life. . . . The conclusion that all reality is godlike is quite true. What we see in the world of existence, of beauty, of goodness, of grace and all the rest is had from God Who is overflowing with perfection. These creatures share, participate in the perfection of God. This was a truth close to the heart of Francis of Assisi and Martin de Porres, a truth that made all irrational creation and the whole world of men a lover's note to be read slowly, tenderly, repeatedly, to be treasured caressingly until the writer in person made plain all the beauties that could not be squeezed between the lines. It is right that the strength of a storm at sea, the innocence of a child, the calm of a country twilight should stir us to the depths of our being for these are shadows of divinity passing by... The notion of goodness adds nothing to being but the smack of desirability, that is, a thing can be good, desirable, only insofar as it is possible or thought to be possible; it can be pursued and enjoyed only insofar as it has being.... Bluff, defect, incapacity have nothing desirable about them because there is nothing real about them. But He Who is, the cause of all reality, the perfect Being, is the highest goodness for He is the most real Being. Not that He has goodness; rather He is goodness, as He is reality. On His goodness all other goodness is modeled, from His goodness all other goodness proceeds; all other goodness is a similitude, a participation, a limited miniature of the limitless goodness of God. Because of the smack of desirability which goodness adds to being, God is most desirable, most lovable. So true is this that everything in the universe hustles eagerly to this goal of goodness, each in its own way: man with alert steps along the dangerous road of knowledge and love, brutes with the unerring aim of instinct, the inanimate world with the blind, plodding step of physical necessity devoid of all knowledge. For each creature in the universe is spurred on to action by the goal of its own perfection, a goal which is nothing but a similitude, an image, a mirroring of the goodness of God... In a very real sense, this utterly limitless God overflows the limits of the universe. He is everywhere within it, yet not contained by it. Everything in the universe comes from God; existence is His proper effect. Where anything exists, there is God. Understand, now, this is not merely a matter of God first giving existence and then abandoning the universe to its fate; He does not give us a pat on the back as we leave the corner of nothingness to jump into the ring of life, leaving us to take the blows while He shouts advice that takes none of the sting out of the blows. Existence belongs to God; as long as existence endures, there is the hand of God sustaining it as a mother supports her infant or the throat of a singer sustains his song. God is everywhere, and only God; for only God is the infinite, the first cause explaining every existent thing. The ubiquity of God, in common with all the divine perfections, is not a cold, abstract thing meaningless to men. Its significance for human living is inexhaustible. In the concrete, it means, for instance, that God is in the surge of the sea, the quiet peace of hills and valleys, the cool refreshment of rain, the hard drive of wind-driven snow. In the cities He is in the bustling of crowds, the roar of traffic, the struggle for pleasure, for life, for happiness, in the majesty of towering buildings. In homes He is not to be excluded from the tired, drowsy hours of night, the hurried activity of morning, from the love and quarrels, the secret worries and unquestioning devotion, the sacrifice and peace that saturate a home. In every individual one of us God is more intimately present than we are to ourselves. Every existing thing within us demands not only the existence of God but also His constant presence, from every rush of blood from our hearts to every wish, every thought, every act. In other words, everything that is real must have God there as the explanation, the foundation, the cause of every moment of its reality.
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This is pure, undiluted Romantic Theology. It is fully biblical, fully Thomistic, fully Catholic. Again, from the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:

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213 The revelation of the ineffable name "I AM WHO AM" contains then the truth that God alone IS. The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and following it the Church's Tradition, understood the divine name in this sense: God is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end. All creatures receive all that they are and have from him; but he alone is his very being, and he is of himself everything that he is.

290 "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth":[Gen 1:1] three things are affirmed in these first words of Scripture: the eternal God gave a beginning to all that exists outside of himself; he alone is Creator (the verb "create" - Hebrew bara - always has God for its subject). The totality of what exists (expressed by the formula "the heavens and the earth") depends on the One who gives it being.

291 "In the beginning was the Word. . . and the Word was God. . . all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made." [Jn 1:1-3] The New Testament reveals that God created everything by the eternal Word, his beloved Son. In him "all things were created, in heaven and on earth.. . all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together."[ Col 1:16-17] The Church's faith likewise confesses the creative action of the Holy Spirit, the "giver of life", "the Creator Spirit" (Veni, Creator Spiritus), the "source of every good".

292 The Old Testament suggests and the New Covenant reveals the creative action of the Son and the Spirit,[ Ps 33:6; 104:30; Gen 1:2-3.] inseparably one with that of the Father. This creative co-operation is clearly affirmed in the Church's rule of faith: "There exists but one God. . . he is the Father, God, the Creator, the author, the giver of order. He made all things by himself, that is, by his Word and by his Wisdom", "by the Son and the Spirit" who, so to speak, are "his hands".[St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres] Creation is the common work of the Holy Trinity.

293 Scripture and Tradition never cease to teach and celebrate this fundamental truth: "The world was made for the glory of God." St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things "not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it", for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: "Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand." The First Vatican Council explains:

This one, true God, of his own goodness and "almighty power", not for increasing his own beatitude, nor for attaining his perfection, but in order to manifest this perfection through the benefits which he bestows on creatures, with absolute freedom of counsel "and from the beginning of time, made out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and the corporeal. . .

294 The glory of God consists in the realization of this manifestation and communication of his goodness, for which the world was created. God made us "to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace",[Eph 1:5-6.] for "the glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man's life is the vision of God: if God's revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word's manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God." [St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres] The ultimate purpose of creation is that God "who is the creator of all things may at last become "all in all", thus simultaneously assuring his own glory and our beatitude." [1 Cor. 15:28].

299 Because creation comes forth from God's goodness, it shares in that goodness - "And God saw that it was good. . . very good" [Gen 1:4,10,12,18,21,31] - for God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him. On many occasions the Church has had to defend the goodness of creation, including that of the physical world.
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