Friday, November 18, 2005

Zoobie Review: The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure by Joseph Ratzinger

The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure by Joseph Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI], [Franciscan Press, 1971, ISBN 0819904155, paperback]

There are moments watching someone exercise his God-given gifts in which you have to simply sit back and be awed. Michael Jordan's fadeaway jumper. Mariano Rivera's cut fastball. Something inside you instinctively says that you have seen a little piece of the divine (apart from the obligatory "Man, that was sick..."). That's what I feel like when I read the works of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. This is a man who was born to theology; I've never encountered anything like his breadth or depth of knowledge, and his insight in being able to synthesize it all naturally, without artifice, is a wonder to behold. So it was a delight to have encountered this little book from back when he was Dr. Ratzinger, one that fit so well into my current area of interest.

The basic picture is as follows. The eschatological picture of the early Church calls for seven ages, with Christ's death and resurrection marking the sixth age and the end-times marking the seventh age (the eternal Sabbath). This fits in with the strongly eschatological character of early Christianity, the sense of Christ's impending arrival, and the sense of urgency in a time of persecution with its innate need to look for a balancing divine justice in the time to come. And as I have mentioned before, there was also an eschatological cast in the fourth-century Western response to the Homoians, a sense of what is now opaque becoming clear, which engendered a greater emphasis on matters eschatological in the Occident. This sensitivity in turn tended toward making history intelligible in terms of eschatology, and the most prominent entry into this area was found in the vision of the medieval mystic and Cistercian abbot Joachim de Fiore. Abbot Joachim recast the picture into three ages: the first of the Father, the second of Christ, and the third of the Holy Spirit, each age divided sevenfold. The Order of St. Francis recognized in the miraculous experiences of their founder (a contemporary of Abbot Joachim) the inauguration of this new spiritual age, which was to be ushered in by a new Holy Order of spiritual men, standing against the carnality of the age (primarily seen in the extravagant wealth of the medieval popes) by spurning material possessions in favor of a higher spiritual calling. At the same time, there were other Franciscans who complained that the rigid Rule of St. Francis was impractical and that it should not continue to be observed. The thirty-six-year-old Bonaventure, whose name was attributed to the good fortune of having been saved from illness as a child by St. Francis's intercession, enters the picture as the new general of the Order, commissioned to save the Franciscans from both the optimistic, eschatological zeal of the Spirituales and the laxity of the Relaxati.

Bonaventure is quite sympathetic to the eschatological significance ascribed to St. Francis, and he himself models his Itinerarium on the vision of the seraphim in which St. Francis received the gift of the stigmata. At the same time, he believes that the poverty urged by the Spirituals, while commendable, must be relegated to those with a special gift for it (as St. Francis was), not imposed as a requirement. He sees the difficulty in Joachim's conception of the Third Age as a worldly age, so while he is sympathetic to Joachim's ascription of eschatological significance to the present, he thinks Joachim has gone too far.

Bonaventure's response is, by Ratzinger's lights, a true Bonaventurian original, even though the view he espouses is entirely taken for granted now. Instead of maintaining three ages, Bonaventure argues that Joachim is right to say that there is a double sevenfold order of history, but that is not because there are three ages corresponding to the Three Persons of the Trinity. Rather, it is because the historical Christ is at the center of history; Christ is the axis around which all of history turns. The intuition is clearly Pseudo-Dionysian, following the Neoplatonic concept of egress and return, but the application in the context of salvation history appears to be entirely novel. Ratzinger also notes Bonaventure's use of the Neoplatonic image of the circle with radii extending from the center (God) to creation, along with Bonaventure's observation that the center is identified by intersecting diameters, which Bonaventure sees as a figure of the Cross.

In countering Abbot Joachim's argument, Bonaventure argues that there is no need for an age of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit Himself is already manifested in the sevenfold division of the ages corresponding to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, Christ is present in the theophanies of the Old Testament, while the Father is made manifest in Christ in the second age, so that the entire Trinity is represented is both ages.

If Ratzinger is correct, and I see no reason to think that he is not, then it is incredible that the origin of this critical concept in the Christian theology of history has gone unacknowledged for so long. It would make many of the later concepts of Heilsgeschicte more or less stolen intellectual capital from Bonaventure, stolen in such a way that fails to acknowledge the underlying logic and premises that led Bonaventure to the conclusion. In particular, there is no acknowledgment of the role of St. Francis in history, no cognizance of the Neoplatonic concepts making this understanding intelligible, no recognition of the importance of monastic orders (and particularly, the Franciscans and Dominicans) in ushering in the end of the second age, and no understanding of the account of individual salvation (the six-fold ascent) on which the idea is built. The latter point is particularly significant, because the six-fold ascent comes straight down the Western Tradition from Augustine through William of St.-Thierry and Richard of St. Victor. Also, the conflict between Bonaventure and Joachim frames the battles between the Spiritual Franciscans and the Avignon papacy in a far broader theological context, and the connections may reach even farther than that, possibly to fundamental instabilities in Western civilization itself. I think this provides a clue to what Pope Benedict, with his effortless command of Western history, has in mind with his program for the Church, although it really only leaves me all the more amazed at how much higher an intellectual plane the Holy Father inhabits.

One more thing of interest related to the six-fold ascent. Ratzinger also credits the primacy of love reaching back to God in ecstasy as a Bonaventurian original. He notes that Augustine clearly does not teach this in his doctrine of illumination, nor does Ps.-Dionysius put primacy on the ecstatic response of the person to God's own ecstasis in creation. By bridging between the experience of reaching out ecstatically with participation in God, St. Bonaventure has usefully contributed toward linking the Western beatific vision of the ad intra Trinitarian love to the Eastern ideas of Ps.-Dionysius, at least IMHO.

No surprise here that I'm giving this one 5 Zoobs. I have rarely seen a theologian give such delicate care to handling his sources' ideas, nor to pay such careful attention to the process involved in transmission of ideas.

Final Score: +5 Zub