Benedict in Paris: "Logos is among us." | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 15, 2008 | Ignatius Insight
"The novelty of Christian proclamation consists in one fact: He has revealed Himself. Yet this is no blind fact, but one that is itself Logos—the presence in our flesh of eternal reason. Verbum caro factum est (Jn. 1:14): Just so, amid what is made (factum) there is now Logos, Logos is among us. Creation (factum) is rational." — Benedict XVI, "On the Roots of European Culture," Address to the World of Culture, Collège des Bernardins, Paris; September 12, 2008.
"The monastery serves erudition, the formation and education of man—a formation whose ultimate aim is that man should learn how to serve God. But it also includes the formation of reason—education—through which man learns to perceive, in the midst of words, the Word itself." — Benedict XVI, Paris.
Modern popes lose no occasion in which it is appropriate to instruct Europe on what it is. The main reason for this effort is that few Europeans any longer know what they are because they do not know what they have been. Europe is a continent that has largely not "lost" the faith, but freely given it up. In many ways, it is a continent taking steps so that this Christian heritage cannot be legally heard. The hearing of it is itself to be rejected. Europeans are left trying to explain themselves with what is left. Meanwhile, they watch a shrewd Islam, which also rejects the two basic principles of Christianity—the Trinity and the Incarnation—take over its inner cities without a battle.
The pope himself, on the recognized basis of his own intellectual stature, is a member of one of the French learned Academies. Benedict cites great French theologians all the time. A good part of this lecture—On the Roots of European Culture"—relied on the famous scholar, Canon Jean Leclercq, and his book about the love le letters and the love of God. When he was in Paris, on his way to Lourdes, Benedict XVI was invited to address leaders of French culture on the very origins of the West itself. Present were the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, along with Giscard d'Estaing, Jacques Chirac, the Mayor of Paris, UNESCO representatives, Prince de Broglie, and other dignitaries. The lecture was presented in a very symbolic place, a revamped College that owes its origin to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, himself one of the great figures of western monasticism.
Popes have been carted off to or escaped to France several times in history. France used to be called the Elder Daughter of the Church. No doubt some of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world are in France, in Paris itself. One almost has to laugh, however, that Benedict, in Paris, chose as his primary topic of discourse "the culture of monasticism." Monastic life is no doubt the last thing that the modern mind thinks about. It is not even thought of very much by the Catholic mind, though I am fond of Christopher Derrick's little book on St. Benedict, The Rule of Peace.
But as Benedict will suggest, this same monastic mind was largely where Europe learned to think in the first place, with a little help from the Greeks. In these modern days, however, monasticism could hardly be more irrelevant to modern culture. Indeed, what is worse, the subtitle of pope's discourse in Paris is "Christian Worship Is and Invitation to Sing with the Angels." Of course, the pope's sub-title is right out of the Preface to the Mass: "Et ideo cum Angelis et Archangelis, cum Thronis et Dominationibus, cumque omni militia caelestis exerrcitus, hymnum gloriae tuae canimus, sine fine...." Then there follows the great "Holy, Holy, Holy" from Isaiah. The Preface is no doubt sung, probably in Latin, every Sunday in Notre-Dame in Paris. Even the most secular Frenchman has heard it and is probably somewhat haunted by it.
Yet, the pope chose this approach precisely because it reminds us of what Europe most needs to know about itself. Benedict begins with the "origins of western theology and the roots of European culture." Since monasticism was at this origin, this place of the ancient school of St. Bernard was the right place. Even the stones reminded the listeners of what the pope had to say.
The first point the pope makes is that, even though Europe early on had to deal with the migrant invasions (not unknown today), the monks' primary concern was not "to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past." We hear this often enough that scholasticism was good because it preserved Aristotle, or the faith that produced them is nonsense but the cathedrals are lovely. No, the monks primary purpose was "quaerere Deum"—to seek God. These monks did not "look ahead to the end of the world or to their own death," though they thought of both of these. What they were about was something else. These monks were Christians, not philosophers who had no idea of what they were looking for.
Their longing for God, however, "included ... love of the word. The search for God takes us to the Biblical word (in which) God comes towards us and we turn toward him." To "seek" God meant to spell out what could be known of Him, taking into consideration all available sources, including revelation. "The monastery serves eruditio, the formation and education of man—a formation whose ultimate aim is that man should learn how to serve God. But it also includes the formation of reason—education—through which man learns to perceive, in the midst of words, the Word itself." This pope never lets those who hear him forget that Christian revelation is also a work addressed to reason, to Logos.
Each of us is in fact made by God to return to God. This sense of "return" is included in our ontological being. It manifests itself in a search, a longing that "awakens us, makes us attentive to God." Christian mysticism, of which St. Bernard is an outstanding example, is not an individualist thing, even though is proper to a real person. Rather it is both individual and corporate. "The God who speaks in the Bible teaches us how to speak with him ourselves." Reading, reading out loud, and singing focus our whole being on that which we attend to in the reading and the singing. We do not applaud the singers in Church. They too are worshippers.
The pope turns to a favorite theme, already touched on, namely, music. "For prayer that issues from the word of God, speech is not enough: music is required." The monastic tradition taught us how to sing as we pray and praise God. So the cynic might wonder why on earth a savvy and learned pope bothers to talk to French politicians and intellectuals of "singing with the Angels." It is because nothing is more important than that Europeans be reminded that the worship of God is the first duty of man and stands at the origin of their heritage. "One is praying and singing in such a ways as to harmonize with the music of the noble spirits who were considered the originators of the harmony of the cosmos, the music of the spheres. The monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty." The pope has said elsewhere that the proof of Christianity is that it has produced beautiful things—cathedrals, Masses, paintings—in this world.
The pope next speaks of the Bible since the monks encountered the Word in the Book, about whose words they studied and sang. The pope here renews his concern with the exegetes. The Bible first appears as many books, not one book. The New Testament itself usually calls them "the Scriptures." "The unity of the biblical books and the divine character of their words cannot be grasped by purely historical methods." Its unity also takes "Christological and pneumatological exegesis," which the pope has explained more in detail in his Jesus of Nazareth. Scientific method, however useful, can only reveal what its method reveals. The important element of Scripture is true but not the product of the method. The method, at best, will show the incoherence of what does not support the truth that is contained in Scripture.
The pope also has a word about fundamentalism. "The Bible issues a constantly new challenge to every generation. It excludes by its nature everything that today is known as fundamentalism. In effect, the word of God can never simply be equated with the letter of the text." One suspects that this discussion of the Scripture's multiple authorship in the one Spirit is directed as much to Islam and the Koran as to Christian fundamentalism.
Appropriately, Benedict draws out St. Paul's relation to the Spirit and the Word of God.
The pope uses this "seeing" the spirit in the letter to show that freedom from the law is not an excuse for our not observing any law. "It would be a disaster if today's European culture could only conceive freedom as absence of obligation, which would inevitably play into the hands of fanaticism and arbitrariness. Absence of obligation and arbitrariness do not signify freedom, but its destruction." This latter, no doubt, is a remarkable sentence since almost all western courts have come to the view that freedom does not mean anything but civil law. This law is changeable at the will of whomever, the people, the government, the culture, and the courts. It is the truth that makes us free, not its absence or impossibility.
The monastic tradition of St. Benedict not only spoke of praying and singing and preserving the Word, but of working. "Manual work is a constitutive element of Christian monasticism." The Hebrew tradition already included the value of work as we learn from the fact that Jesus Himself was the son of a carpenter, the Apostles fished or collected taxes, and Paul made tents. This sanctification of work meant the transformation of the idea of slavery as it existed in the ancient world, as the pope remarked in Spe Salvi when referring to the Epistle to Philemon.
This approach to monastic work involved the understanding of God as a creator. "The Christian God is different: he, the one, real and only God, is also the Creator. God is working; he continues working in and on human history. In Christ, he enters personally into the laborious work of history." What happens is that human work is not simply a necessary drudgery to be done by those who are least capable. It is "a special form of human resemblance of God, as a way in which man can and may share in God's activity as creator of the world." The pope reminds his listeners in Paris that this "culture of work" is related to the very "emergence of Europe." Without its "ethos and its influence, Europe's influence on the world would be "unthinkable." Work is a sharing of the divine work, but it is not independent of it. God works and we work, as the ancient phrase went.
"In this word (found in things), God himself has set out towards men, and hence men can come to God through it." European culture is filled with a "word-ness," itself rooted in the Logos. Benedict points out that Christians see it necessary and important to explain to others just what they are about in intelligible and non-polemical terms. "The classic formulation of the Christian faith's intrinsic need to make itself communicable to others is a phrase from the First Letter of Peter, which in medieval theology was regarded as the biblical basis for the work of theologians: 'Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason (the logos) for the hope that you have' (Logos, the reason for hope, must become Apo-logia, word must become answer' (3:15)."
The early Christians did not think that their "missionary proclamation" was an effort to enlarge the community numbers. Rather it came from faith itself. This lead to the "who" had revealed Himself in the history of Israel and finally in the Son. This account was the real "answer" that all men were implicitly seeking. "The universality of God, and of reason open toward him, is what gave them the motivation—indeed, the obligation—to proclaim the message. They saw their faith as belonging, not to cultural custom that differs from one people to another, but to the domain of truth, which concerns all people equally." This is a remarkable statement and neatly stated. The modern tendency is to identify religion and culture so that the religion is bound to culture. Thereby it cannot be considered universal. This is why Christianity from the beginning addressed itself not to "religion" or the "myths" but to philosophy. It intended to stand on the ground of knowable truth.
Thus, the Christian faith presupposes the fact that men, wherever they are, seek the truth, however they call it. This "seeking" wants clarity; it wants to know. This means that the Christian explanation of itself is not "alien" but intrinsic to something already found within the restless hearts of all men who wonder why they are unsettled. "Paul is not proclaiming unknown gods. He is proclaiming him whom men do not know and yet do know—the unknown-known; the one they are seeking, whom ultimately they know already, and who yet remains the unknown and the unrecognizable." Men suspect that, at the beginning of all things, we find "creative reason," We find "not blind chance, but freedom." The point the pope makes is that the very being of every person experiences this unsettlement. This is why revelation is never completely alien as it does address something that we all know in ourselves.
God is not imaginary or invented. This is why, at bottom, God must reveal Himself if we are to know Him. The answer to our unsettlement does not lie on our side. We cannot "force" God's hand, as it were. This capacity would make us already gods. "A God who is merely imagined and invented is not God at all. If he does not reveal himself, we cannot gain access to him. The novelty of Christian proclamation consists in one fact: he has revealed himself. Yet this is no blind fact, but one that is itself Logos—the presence in our flesh of eternal reason." The burden of the pope's Jesus of Nazareth was precisely that in the documents and reflection on them no other explanation is possible but that Jesus did claim to be both man and God. "Amid what is made (factum) there is now Logos, Logos is among us. Creation (factum) is rational." These are very precise, startling words.
The pope concludes his discourse to cultural leaders by reminding them that in some ways our time is like that of Paul's time in Athens. "But our cities no longer are filled with altars and with images of multiple deities." God is unknown to us. Yet, men seek, and they seek an explanation like the great monks. "Quaerere Deum—to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times." These latter words are, to the pope's listeners, the crucial ones, the "letting ourselves be found." If anything, this "letting" or "not letting" is what characterizes modernity, not the fact that we seek, nor the fact that God, on His part, seeks us.
Positivist reason wants to make the search for God purely subjective and therefore unscientific. This sort of science, the pope remarks, is in fact "the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity." The foundation of European culture was based on two principles or openings: "The search for God and the readiness to listen to him." These two, the searching and the listening, better than anything else, describe our souls.
Benedict's two principles are the "basis of any culture" not just western culture or medieval culture. In other words, the foundations of the cultures of the world remains to be established. This is Benedict's real vision of world history in his time. This basis is why what is revealed needs to be understood as logos. This is why, too, it is often greeted, as in the case of Paul at the stoning of Stephen, with closed ears. The political and cultural frontiers of our nations, including our western ones, are now, in many ways, deliberately designed so that this hearing could not take place. Benedict's address to the French intellectual and political elite, recalling the monastic tradition, had two sides. We searched for the reason of things and God sent the Logos to dwell amongst us. The spiritual drama of modernity is that it is afraid to listen to the inner coherence of the two reasons.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his website.
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