Archive for May, 2009

Understanding Sex

Alice von Hildebrand has recently taken issue with the way Christopher West explains John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Alice von Hildebrand is someone I greatly admire and respect, so when she speaks I listen. I know many others feel the same. Her main concern with West seems to be his lack of reverence when discussing something as “intimate” and “extremely serious” as sex. Von Hildebrand is also concerned that West does not respect the tremendous danger posed to us by concupiscence. Read the CNA article

Recently, West, in an interview with ABC, made remarks suggesting that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes what was good in the sexual revolution a step further. West sees an explicit and “profound” conncection between Hugh Hefner and Pope John Paul II. Both saw that sex was good and natural, but only one (JPII) saw how sex can be sanctified. There is a good point to be made here, but it does lack reverence. But I think this is exactly what West is trying to do. He is trying to use “the language of the world” in order to show the world a “better way”, like a Trojan horse of Holy Love Making in the temple of the Aphrodite. This is fine as far as it goes, but I do share von Hildebrand’s concerns. If sex is sacred, it should be talked about with reverence. If sex is beautiful then it should be talked about in the language of beauty. This was something her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, was very concerned with. He wrote that one of the greatest sins that go unnoticed in our world is irreverence. Giving a proper response to value is what makes us human and a proper mark of reverence. An improper response to value belies irreverence. It seems this understanding of irreverence in response to value is what underlies Alice von Hildebrand’s concerns with West’s approach to sex. I tend to agree with her. Let us not be prudish Puritans, but lets us not be Holy Playboys either.

Aristotelian Influences – Part 3

Or The Triumph of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

However, in 1231 Pope Gregory IX, while maintaing the prohibition, appointed a commission of theologians, William of Auxerre, Stephen of Provins and Simon of Authie, to correct the prohibited books of Aristotle, and as this measure obviously implied that the books were not fundamentally unsound, the prohibition tended to be neglected. It was extended to Toulouse in 1245 by Innocent IV, but by that date it was no longer possible to check the spread of Aristotelianism and from 1255 all the known works of Aristotle were officially lectured on in the University of Paris. The Holy See made no move against the university though in 1263 Pope Urban IV renewed the prohibition of 1210, probably out of fear of Averroism, the renewed prohibition remaining a dead letter. The Pope must have known perfectly well that William of Moerbeke was translating the prohibited works of Aristotle at his own court, and the prohibition of 1263 must have been a check to Averroism, not as a seriously meant attempt to put an end to all study of the Aristotelian philosophy. In any case the prohibition was of no effect, and finally in 1366 the Legates of Pope Urban V required from all candidates for the Licentiate of Arts at Paris a knowledge of all the known works of Aristotle. It had by then long been clear to the mediaevals that a work like the Liber de Causis was not Aristotelian and that the philosophy of Aristotle was not, except of course, in the eyes of the Latin Averroists, bound up with the interpretation given it by Averroes but could be harmonised with the Christian faith. Indeed the dogmas of faith themselves had by then been expressed by theologians in terms taken from the Aristotelian system.

This brief summary of the official attitude to Aristotle on the part of ecclesiastical and academic authority shows that Aristotelianism triumphed in the end. This does not mean, however, that all mediaeval philosophers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries extended an equal welcome to Aristotle or that they all understood him in the same way: the vigour and variety of mediaeval thought will be made clear in succeeding chapters. There is truth in the statement that that shadow of Aristotle hung over and dominated the philosophic thought of the Middle Ages, but it is not the whole truth, and we would have a very inadequate idea of mediaeval philosophy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries if we imagined that it was inspired and characterized by a slavish acceptance of every word of the great Greek philosopher.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

Aristotelian Influences – Part 2

Or The Prohibition of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

However, the system of Aristotle did not meet with universal welcome and approbation, though it could not be ignored. Largely because the Liber de Causis (until St. Thomas discovered the truth), the so-called Theologia Aristotelis (extracts from the Enneads of Plotinus) and the De secretis secretorum (composed by an Arab philosopher in the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century) were wrongly attributed to Aristotle, the latter’s philosophy tended to appear in a false light. Moreover, the attribution of these books to Aristotle naturally made it appear that the Arab comentators were justified in their neo-Platonic interpretation. Hence it came about that in 1210 the Provincial Council of Paris, meeting under the presidency of Peter of Corbeil, Archbishop of Sens, forbad the public or private teaching of Aristotle’s ‘natural philosophy’ or of the commentaries on them. This prohibition was imposed under pain of excommunication and applied to the University of Paris. In all probability ‘natural philosophy’ included the metaphysics of Aristotle, since when the statutes of the university were sanctioned by Robert de Courcon, Papal Legate, in 1215 Aristotle’s works on metaphysics and natural philosophy, as well as compendia of these works and the doctrines of David of Dinant, Amalric of Bene and Maurice of Spain (probably Averroes, the Moor or Maurus) were prohibited, though the study of Aristotle’s logic was ordered. The study of the Ethics was not forbidden.

The reason for the prohibition was, as already indicated, largely due to the ascription to Aristotle of works which were not by him. Amalric of Bene, whose writings were included in the prohibition of 1215, maintained doctrines which were at variance with Christian teaching and which would naturally appear to find some support in the philosophy of Aristotle, if the latter were interpreted in the light of all the books attributed to him, while David of Dinant, the other heretical philosopher whose writings were prohibited, had actually appealed to the Metaphysics, which had been translated into Latin from the Greek version brought from Byzantium before 1210. To these considerations must be added the undoubted fact that Aristotle maintained the eternity of the world. It was, therefore, not unnatural that the Aristotelian system, especially when coupled with the philosophies of Daivd of Dinant, Amalric of Bene and Averroes, should appear as a danger to orthodoxy in the eyes of the traditionalists. The logic of Aristotle had long been in use, even if the full Organon had come into circulation only comparatively recently, but the complete metaphysical and cosmological teaching of Aristotle was a novelty, a novelty rendered all the more dangerous through association with heretical philosophies.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

Aristotelian Influences – Part 1

Or The Rise of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

The translation of work of Aristotle and his commentators, as well as of the Arabian thinkers, provided the Latin Scholastics with a great wealth of intellectual material.  In particular they were provided with the knowledge of philosophical systems which were methodologically independent of theology and which were presented as the human mind’s reflection on the universe. The systems of Aristotle, of Avicenna, of Averroes, opened up a wide vista of the scope of human reason and it was clear to the mediaevals that the truth attained in them must have been independent of Christian revelation, since it had been attained by a Greek philosopher and his Greek and Islamic commentators… It is, of course, true that Aristotle’s system not unaturally took the limelight in preference to those of his commentators, and his philosophy tended to appear in the eyes of those Latins who were favourably impressed as the ne plus ultra of human intellectual endevour, since it constituted the most sustained and extensive effort of the human mind with which they were aquainted; but they were quite well aware that it was the work of reason, not a set of revealed dogmas. To us, looking back from a long way off, it may seem that some of the mediaevals exaggerated the genius of Aristotle (we also know that that they did not realise the existence of different strate or periods in Aristotle’s thought), but we should not put ourselves for a moment in their place and try to imagine the impression which would be made on a mediaeval philosopher by the sight of what in any case is one of the supreme achievements of the human mind, a system which, in regard to both completeness and close reasoning, was unparalleled in the thought of the early Middle Ages.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

Sexual Appetite

Oh, the images that C. S. Lewis can create! This intriguing comparison between the appetite for food and the appetite for sex creates one of the more memorable passages from Mere Christianity:

The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological pupose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true most of us will eat too much; but not terifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and perposterous excess of its function.

Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act – that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

The Centrality of Trinitarian Doctrine

The following may be of interest to some. It can be of little doubt that the language used in the Trinitarian formulas of the 4th century is foreign to that of the New Testament. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is the example par excellence of a development of doctrine. If the doctrine of the Trinity (as we know it) was not part of the explicit teaching of the early Church, why, then, is not this doctrine open for serious debate like many other developments of doctrine?

Emil Brunner, in Volume 1 of his Dogmatics (Westminster, 1950), addresses the question by making a distinction between the proclamation of the early Church (kerygma) and the subsequent theological reflection upon that proclamation. For Brunner, one of the roles of theology is to safeguard the revealed truths contained within the kerygma. Thus the principle of sola scriptura is maintained while allowing for a developement of doctrine, in that the doctrine is derived by reflection upon the earliest witness to the kerygma, the Scriptures.

Certainly, it cannot be denied that not only the word “Trinity”, but even the explicit idea of the Trinity is absent from the apostolic witness to the faith; it is equally certain and incontestable that the best theological tradition, with one accord, clearly points to the Trinity as its centre. However, there is a third point to be noted, namely, that the re-discovery of the New Testament message at the Reformation did not re-vitalize this particular theological doctrine; the fact is, the Reformers did not alter this fundamental dogma of the ancient Church, but rather, so to speak, “by-passed” it, than made it the subject of their own theological reflection. The statement of Melanchthon, “Mysteria divinitas rectius adoraverimus quam vestigaveriums“, is characteristic of this attitude. Calvin expressed himself in the same way; he regards the doctrine of the Trinity from the following point of view only; namely, that through its conceptions, which differ from those of the Bible, the opponent of the divinity of Christ – who is the enemy of Christian Faith – is forced to throw off his disguise, and to fight in the open, instead of concealing his hostility under a cloak of Christianity.

How are we to explain this strange situation? Here I anticipate the result of the following enquiry, and state it in the form of a thesis: The ecclesiastical doctrine of the Trinity, established by the dogma of the ancient Church, is not a Biblical kerygma, therefore it is not the kerygma of the Church, but it is a theological doctrine which defends the central faith of the Bible and of the Church. Hence it does not belong to the sphere of the Church’s message, but it belongs to the sphere of theology; in this sphere it is the work of the Church to test and examine its message, in the light of the Word of God given to the Church. Certainly in this process of theological reflection the doctrine of the Trinity is central.


There is love and then there is love. In Volume 1 of his Dogmatics (Westminster, 1950), Emil Brunner, helpfully illustrates the keen difference between the love of God for us (Agape) and the love of creatures for the beloved (Eros). This distinction of the different kinds of love is one that is lost in the English language since we have but one word for “love” and it is used in many contexts, both meaningful and shallow. However, understanding the difference between one love and the other can help us to comprehend the truly shocking nature of Biblical revelation as well as the meaning of what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls the “supernatural virtue of Christian love”.

Eros is the desire for that which we do not possess, but which we ought to have, or would like to have. Eros is therfore directed towards a particular value; we love something because it has value, because it is worthy to be loved. Thus Eros is that love which is derived from, and evoked by the beloved. It is the movement which aims at the fulfillment of value, the appropriation of value, the completion of value… In all cases, Eros is based upon, motivated by, the beloved, therefore it is perfectly intelligible and transparent.

This, however, is true of all the love with which we are familiar, whether it be the love of which the poets sing, the love which draws a man and woman together, the love which is kindled by the sight of beauty, the love of the fatherland, mother love, the love of friendship – all this is love, which is based upon something which has been “motivated”, which is kindled by its object, and which makes it desire and strive for, or to enjoy and maintain, union with that which it loves. Whether the object is material or non-material, vital or non-vital, concrete or abstract, neutral or personal – it is always something which is known to contain value, something “lovable” which is loved.

The love of God, the Agape of the New Testament, is quite different. It does not seek value, but it creates value or gives value; it does not desire to get but to give; it is not “attracted” by some lovable quality, but it is poured out on those who are worthless and degraded; in the strict sense of the word this Love is “unfathomable”, and “passeth all understanding”. This Divine Love turns to those for whom no one cares, because there is nothing “lovable” about them – people whom we would instinctively shun or even hate. The highest expression of this Agape, therefore, is loving fidelity to the unfaithful, the love of the Holy God for those who desecrate His sanctuary, the love of the Holy Lord for one who is rebellious and disobedient – the sinner. The contrast between Divine and human love also comes out very clearly in its aim. This love (Agape), does not seek to transfer a value from the beloved to the one who loves, it does not seek the fulfilment of value. Here the One who loves does not seek anything for Himself; all He desires is to benefit the one He loves. And the benefit He wants to impart is not “something”, but His very self, for this Love is self-surrender, self-giving to the other, to whom love is directed. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but should have eternal life.” And this indeed took place “while we were yet sinners”, for “while we were yet weak… Christ died for the ungodly… while we were enemies.” This Love is truly unfathomable, unmotivated, incomprehensible; it springs solely from the will of God Himself; that is, from His incomprehensible will to give His very self to us.

Incomprehensible. Think of it. God had no motivation, no compulsion, no reason whatsoever to love us, yet He does. He wills it. We set ourseles against God, yet He loves us. We have been unfaithful to Him since the Garden, yet He loves us. He forgives us our transgressions “seventy times seven”. His love and mercy are, quite literally, boundless. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Salvation history has taught us as much. If God does not hate us by now, He never will, in a manner of speaking. St. Paul tells us:

“For I am sure that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8.38-39, RSV CE).

It is this incomprehensible love that we are to have toward our neighbours and toward our enemies. It is a love without a cause. This is especially seen in the Divine command to love our enemies, love those who hate us, love those who persecute us (Matt 5.38-48). This is a superatural love in all its absurdity. There is no rational reason for this kind of love. We have no reason to love our enemies, yet we are commanded to. If our enemies hate us, we are to love them. If our enemies revile us and slander us and persecute us, we are to love them in return. Thus, Christians are commanded to mimic the Agape love of the Father. We mimic the merciful forgiveness and love that God has shown us by loving our enemies. We have made ourselves enemies of God, yet we are happy to know that God does not love us in the way that we love each other. We are to go and do likewise.

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