The hollow victory over Jansenism – part II

6 08 2009


Some notes on historical theology

Realized Eschatology

In Monday’s post, we spoke of the ways in which the rise of Jansenism represented the signs of the times in which we now live. In its approach to metaphysics and liturgy, Jansenism was ahead of its time, and triumphed in the sense that the same principals of a dead cosmos and unenchanted praxis are dominant in contemporary Catholic thought and culture. But Jansenism did lose, and lose badly. What the rest of the Catholic world saw as beneficial in Jansenist thought was plundered and usurped into the Catholic mainstream, while that which was inimical to the ethos of emergent politicized Catholicism was chucked by the wayside like so much dross. No two ideas were considered more dangerous for the emergent Catholic authorities than Jansenist eschatology and belief in the significance of the miraculous. While these two tendencies continue to exist in pockets at the periphery of the Catholic world, they are deemed to be ideas that most “thinking Catholics” would find either “Protestant” or “superstitious”.

The scholar Ephraim Radner has written a dense and complex tome on the relationship between pneumatology and the miraculous in the late Jansenist movement called Spirit and Nature: The Saint-Medard Miracles in 18th-Century Jansenism. In this book, Radner makes it clear the the Jansenists presented the last stand in the West against what I have labeled in my essays as “realized eschatology”. In this very modern idea, the skepticism of modern scholarship dictates that the past must be read through the prism of the present, and that within the Church, “things are getting better all the time”. Unlike the attitudes of Bossuet and the Jansenists, the modern view asserts that the understanding and discipline of the Church are not diminishing since Apostolic times, but are rather increasing. The Kingdom of God is in the here and now, the Church, while weakened in the political realm, replaces le royaume sacré of Christendom’s yesteryear. It is no surprise that it was in this context that Papal ultramontanism could emerge, and the results of this ideology could range from the Pope defining his own infallibility (in certain, limited circumstances; God protected the Church in that sense) to the Vatican changing Catholic ritual whole cloth to fit the prejudices of 1960’s scholarship (God had left us to our own devices by that point). “Realized eschatology” is thus no eschatology at all; there is no future to look forward to; the future is now, in the People of God, with their long queues for Communion, “white funerals”, and the rest of the contemporary Catholic ethos that fits modern liberalism like a glove.

What did the Jansenists have to say about all of this? According to Radner, they were the last party in the Church who believed the complete opposite, citing the Biblical and Patristic ideas for their views. In discussing Antoine Arnauld’s De la fréquente communion, Radner succinctly summarizes the Jansenist view in this paragraph:

The authority of the past for the present was based in this way, not on an ahistorical vision of the Church’s immutable character, but on a relentlessly temporalized evaluation of the Church’s practice of faith. Arnauld attacks those who defend a more lenient penitential discipline on the basis of the Church “of the present”, which they claim is distinct from the past’s rigorism. But he can reject this kind of appeal to substantive mutability only because he can insist on the historical continuity of the body of Christ that takes seriously the temporal reality of “decline”. The Church is a single river, he asserts, following Augustine, flowing from heaven over the centuries and returning to its celestial origins. But the course of this current is decidedly downhill, until the final gathering up of its waters. More accurately, the Church follows a “revolution of times” more in step with the movement of the sun: a rising that leads to a twilight and a disappearance. Applying Augustine’s image of the mundus senescens (aging world) to the Church itself, and citing Gregory VII and Bonaventure as his authorities for doing so, he demonstrates how only the discipline of the past could be authoritative for a Church “in the time of her change and her old age,” “of her faltering and her twilight,” wherein a rotted present is intrinsically delegitimized. Such decline is itself contained in the authoritative predicitions offered by the Apostolic Church: a time of anti-Christ, of contemporary delusion and deception, when our sole recourse is to Scripture handed down from the first witnesses of Christ’s life.

Of course, when many read this, they found it no different from the Protestant view, and thought it contradicted the idea of a visible Church that Christ promised would be present until the end of the world. Radner cites the ideas of another Jansenist writer who had a fairly common sense reply to such an objection:

The eschatological infallibility of the Church must necessarily involve her historical fallibilities, the temporal, material, and even moral constrictions imposed upon an as yet unfinished vocation toward righteousness and perfect love: “We cannot pretend that all the promises made to the Church are always fulfilled in such a way that the promised goods are all found, in every epoch, among the majority or even among the ‘moral totality’ of the Church’s members, without mistaking the magnificence and extent of the promises themselves”.

In the Jansenists, then, we see the modern prejudice against the past inverted. The paradigm that governs the being of the Church through the centuries is not one of development and progress, but of decadence and decline. Nor is the state of the Church static; in certain periods, the truths of the Gospel shine better than in others. Overall, the Church is not seen as a sacramentum (in the Patristic sense) that operates ex opere operato; the Church does not succeed in its mission solely out of the fact that it is the Church. It succeeds rather because of fervor and ascetical struggle. Such success, for the Jansenists, had become increasingly difficult in the Church’s “old age”. The Lord’s promises to the Church in every epoch are not unconditional; at some points they can even be eclipsed by the iniquity of the members of the Church themselves.

The outright rejection of this idea could only result in the philosophical “dictatorship of the present” that is the norm of modern relgiosity. The contemporary sensibility does not consider what “has been” to be a determining factor of what “could be”. Thus, if the average Catholic in the pew today is less orthodox or morally scrupulous than the average Catholic of yesteryear, God must somehow want it that way, or rather, the “goal posts” of what it means to be a “good Catholic” can be strategically moved to correspond to contemporary attitudes and prejudices. “God” (i.e. His representatives on earth) can change the religion to fit in with the way people now think, since the current way that people think is better anyway. This is the attitude of people who would ordain women or change the Church’s position on artificial contraception, on the one hand, but it is also the attitude of more “conservative” elements of the Church who would defend the doctrinal about-face on religious liberty and the canonical kangaroo courts that would declare the invalidity of a marriage because the bride was under the influence of aspirin on her wedding day. In both cases, we have the manipulation of doctrine and sacrament by political fiat; no longer are we beholden to tradition, but tradition is beholden to us. Such are the fruits of the negative “realized eschatology”.

Such prejudices turn Catholicism into a fundamentally irrational religion, since there is nothing to grab onto save the opinions of those in power. But more on this in our next post in this series.

[to be continued]



14 responses

14 08 2009
Death Bredon


What you call the “intuitive,” Orthos call the noetic capacity. And we take it very seriously — always have.

I suppose you and I are like Palamas, as we fail to see how Baarlam’s theology (Sholasticism) leaves room for mysticism — or, at least, we fail to see any actual living tradition of mysticism in overly rationalized, hyper-intellectualized, First-World, Christianity ‘theology,’ whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Protestant.

14 08 2009
Jonathan Prejean

I don’t think I’ve conveyed my point, so I’ll try to get to it more plainly. I doubt that very much that either the Fathers of the Church or the Scholastics in any way disrespected this sort of thinking. Augustine has sacred numerology all over the place, for example. The fears of Aristotle in both East and West notwithstanding, it just wasn’t true that Aristotle was necessarily opposed to the mystical or mysterious. He just didn’t write about metaphysics in those terms, so the truth is that we don’t really know what he would have thought, and there have been several different ways of reacting to him (Death Bredon’s description was one, treating him as being opposed to Plato and therefore opposed to mystery). But on the flip side, there was the hyper-rationalized version of Platonism that Calvin endorsed, so there’s nothing particular advantageous to Platonism in preserving a mystical understanding of the universe, nor does endorsing his critics mean you’re throwing it over the side.

The problem isn’t East or West, Plato or Aristotle; it’s the one you identified in trying to reduce everything and everyone to “information,” the communication of little concepts that are useful to the rational mind. That’s a temptation not just for the hobbyist but the scholar as well. It’s not that the Fathers or the Scholastics didn’t acknowledge the mystical in their writings, but the modern methodology of looking at them just can’t see or understand it. Put it this way: the people who are reading St. John of the Cross in the way you describe would probably be the same people who would view Origen’s reading of the Song of Songs as “weird” or wildly allegorical. But Origen and the medieval mystics would have said that if you didn’t get that, you probably don’t understand the rest of Scripture either.

The East’s hostility to Aristotle and (somewhat inordinate) cultural respect for Plato led it to cut of its nose to spite its face. Look at how Photius evaluated Clement of Alexandria, for example, and how he led the West like a Pied Piper into disregarding a wonderful spiritual example for the West. That’s the same reason Gregory Palamas couldn’t really “get” how Barlaam’s view could leave any room for authentic mysticism. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to get back to the mystical understanding, don’t limit yourself to Neoplatonism, because that basically cuts off the cultural foundations within the West for a mystical understanding of the cosmos. Neoplatonism was always a minor cultural phenomenon in the West. It would be a grave mistake to ignore the rest of the cultural resources that were acting in its place.

14 08 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I can agree that I engaged in some philosophical sloganeering that is almost inevitable in discussing such topics. And if I gave the impression that I thought that the Fathers of the Church or St. Thomas were Platonists, I can agree, they were not. Indeed, when I referred to the “Renaissance divines”, I was mainly thinking of Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, and not Nicholas of Cusa or Meister Eckhart or anyone of that sort. For I know that the former are decidedly Platonists, while the latter are not.

You are right about the whole “gratuity of grace” aspect of the orthodox Christian approach to the universe. The main difference between Christian liturgy and pagan theurgy is that while the latter celebrates the Platonic ideas hidden in things and tries to extract them from their fallen state of matter, the former celebrates what the transcendent God has done in history; how He has intervened and interrupted the “normal” flow of things. Indeed, that was a major issue that I discussed recently in the post, On Religion and Power. There has always been in Christianity a tension between the cosmic and the historical, the dignity of man made in the image and likeness of God and his falleness, and this served, as you imply, to marginalize any thinking that could overcome the divide between rational and intuitive knowledge.

So what am I speaking of, then? I am speaking of “Platonism” less as a system and more as a series of themes and paradigms that emerge over and over again in the human consciousness. These are often the symbols and phenomena that seem to emerge in liturgy, art, folk healing, and other spontaneous means of human creating. (Not that they are entirely spontaneous, nothing is.) That is where the number symbolism, the rituals, and the forms of otherworldliness often come into play. That is what I am speaking of when I say, “intuitive sense”, not the spiritual exercises of religious who read too much St. John of the Cross or the urban yuppie who reads Ken Wilbur between her yoga classes. Ficino and Co. were more concerned with philosophy on that level, and not the level of theoretical constructs that seem to pass as philosophy today. True, the Fathers of the Church and the Scholastics probably had little respect or knowledge for such things, at least openly. It was at their periphery, and not at their center. But maybe they are objects of studies whose time has finally come, or rather, returned.

14 08 2009
Death Bredon


What you describe as the very genius of Aristotle is what the Christian East, Islam, and Judaism all saw as pure poison. So they all insightfully, not shortsightedly, suppressed it.

But here we stand on opposite sides of a great divide — the triumph of arid, dead rationalism or mysterious eternal Life with the Father in Christ by the power of the Holy Ghost.

— Death Bredon
Order of the Varangian Guard, Micklegarth

13 08 2009
Jonathan Prejean

Been thinking about this some more, and I think that part of the problem is the erroneous belief of baroque Thomism that St. Thomas essentially overcame the pagan remnants of Christian philosophy with his view of being. That strikes me as the creation of this false dichotomy between St. Augustine, who was allegedly in the Platonist camp, and St. Thomas and those afterward. But in terms of the actual history, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Simplicianus, Marius Victorinus, Augustine, and people like them were far more Scriptural exegetes than Platonists. They did not take “enchanted realism” as a given but as a gift, which was hardly a Platonic view of the cosmos. Instead, the Song of Songs was the anchor of all Christian theology and the map of the spiritual path, divinely revealed and not evident from the nature of the human soul.

To the extent there was any real influence of Platonic philosophy, Origen was the most vulnerable, because he was closest to the later Neoplatonists in his view of knowledge. But even he didn’t make his metaphysical assumptions the real core of his beliefs. Apart from inheriting some goofy views about creation and thus salvation from Platonism (which Augustine and Jerome consciously rejected), even Origen was relatively solid.

By contrast, the people who *really* held the highly intellectualized version of Platonism that eradicated mystical theurgy were Calvinists and Jansenists. To some extent, the baroque Thomist error regarding Augustine was a reaction to Calvin’s own attempt to rope Augustine into his own Platonist camp, with a hyper-intellectualized view of revelation and “innate ideas.” Look at how Calvin reads Bernard in terms of an intellectual faith, where Bernard himself emphasized supernatural love, just as his precedessors and followers in the West also did. Calvin’s brand of hyper-rationalism comes straight out of Plato as well; it just doesn’t temper the pagan hubris with any of the grace of a Plotinus.

Blaming that error on the lack of theurgy (or on Augustine) doesn’t strike me as accurate. You don’t need theurgy to avoid that error; you just need a view that places revelation firmly outside the grasp of natural reason and that affirms God’s gift of a path to it. Certainly, there is a way to Christianize Platonism so that it does that, and this was the path in the East. But the West didn’t follow that path. Rather than immediately concluding that this was the death of Western philosophy, it seems a great deal more profitable to examine what they put in its place, which was a humble reverence for what they recognized was beyond all understanding.

13 08 2009
Jonathan Prejean

I should also say that, to the extent there was any weakness in “baroque Thomism,” it was this tendency to cast St. Thomas as some kind of victor of residual Platonism. When Neoplatonism came out, the scholarly fad was to find Neoplatonism in every early author, so that St. Augustine’s statements in Confessions were taken as admissions of virtual disciplehood to the Plotinian system. Likewise with practically everybody else: Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Simplicianus, Marius Victorinus … all were supposedly amalgams of a system of which Plotinus was the exemplar.

Fortunately, people are starting to pick up on the fact that all of these guys were primarily Biblical exegetes. They took the Song of Songs, not Plato, as the model of mystical, supernatural revelation. In that respect, I believe they actually rejected Plato’s notion that the mystical cosmos was sort of “out there” for intellectual discovery. Rather, they took it as a gift, and to think that Scholasticism was different in kind (or that it minimized the importance of this mystical gift of God) strikes me as seriously mistaken.

Ironically, the people who were most Platonic in terms of intellectualizing the cosmos were the ones who *truly* assaulted the theurgic aspects of Platonism. John Calvin, for example, believed in innate ideas in a very Platonic sense of the term, and this led to an intellectualized (and inaccurate) reading of Augustine, in complete disregard of his mysticism, that contaminated the Western understanding for years afterward. You can see it in how he inaccurately reads Bernard in terms of (intellectual) faith rather than supernatural charity. Coincidence that Calvinism and Jansenism look so much alike? No way.

Anyway, the point is that the Scholastics, in defining the parameters of reason so rigorously, were equally careful in defining the boundaries of what they did not now. This was not out of disrespect for those things; on the contrary, it was out of reverence for their mystery. The ultimate failure of Platonism is that it devolves mysticism into just another aspect of experience, beyond reason perhaps, but taken as a granted assumption. The Western mystics took “given” in an entirely different sense, as in being something that could NOT be taken for granted, in harmony with Aristotle’s own view that we couldn’t take what Plato said for granted. The East had a different take, not a worse one but a different one, that interpreted this Platonic sense of “granted” in the sense of divine love, which is not an unfair way to view it. But the basic impetus behind Platonic thought strikes me as entirely inadequate to the purpose.

13 08 2009
Jonathan Prejean

I’ve never thought of the question as one of being “Plato vs. Aristotle”, but of having them play their appropriate roles. Many Neoplatonists, Porphyry among them, did commentaries on Aristotle’s works. The Summa Theologiae is written along Neoplatonic lines, and Pseudo-Dionysius is the most cited Father after Augustine in that work, and so forth.

I think this is misleading. The Neoplatonists read Aristotle so as to protect Plato, and the real genius of Aristotle’s critique of the doctrines of forms and participation was that things didn’t *need* to be that way, that the “enchanted realism” need not go beyond what actually exists. The Neoplatonists never internalized that critique; indeed, the Christian East never really did. Hence, you have the short-sighted Justinian basically making speculative theology illegal, and you have people even today interpreting “anathema to the philosophers” to mean that speculative, Scholastic theology is heretical.

The West was never caught up in that. It was always more eclectic in the appropriation of Plato, something shared with the less formal approach of the Cappadocians, and it never felt the need to explain Christianity in Platonic terms, although it occasionally did so. The end result is that even people who were supposedly “Neoplatonists,” like Augustine and Marius Victorinus, weren’t really. They used the same words, but not in the same conceptual framework at all; Boethius is a paradigm of how Western philosophy internalized the Aristotelian critical mindset to a far greater degree than the East.

Consequently, if you read the literature on St. Thomas’s use of Pseudo-Dionysius, it’s pretty much conceded what St. Thomas was saying was not what the “Areopagite” was saying. On account of the perceived authority of St. Dionysius, he was obliged to credit what he said, but he did so by reinterpreting him entirely according to his own philosophical views. And that was a characteristic held in common with his predecessors in the West. Even the Western mystics like St. Bernard, Richard of St. Victor, and William of St. Thierry took an essentially Augustinian view of spiritual knowledge, and Augustine’s view of illumination had almost nothing in common with Platonism.

I similarly think the following analysis is just plain wrong:
The real problem is the hegemony of Aristotelian hylomorphism led to the West losing any sense of intuitive knowledge, or rather conceiving it more as an epistemological fluke. Once Pseudo-Dionysius fell out of favor, and the ideas of the Renaissance divines were silenced, it was all downhill from there, at least philosophically.

The West never looked at intuitive knowledge in the same way as the Neoplatonists, but that doesn’t mean that they denied its importance. The Neoplatonists, as you said, thought that the mystical was basically built into reality, while true Aristotelians simply noted that, while such things could certainly be real, they were beyond the scope of being rationally knowable. The idea of a science of mysticism, so essential to the Platonic cosmos, is anathema to the Aristotelian, an overreaching hubris. We can accept the possibility of such things, of course, but it is completely outside our rational power to grasp them.

Consequently, even the Neoplatonism of the Renaissance divines (at least if you have Nicholas of Cusa and Blessed John Ruysbroeck in mind) was no Pseudo-Dionysian. Nicholas’s concept of the cosmos was a revolutionary shift from the Platonic cosmos, mathematically, physically, and morally. Ostensibly, they were Platonists, but the Plato they were following was an understanding that had been constructed for years outside of the Neoplatonists. While Nicholas does come up with a remarkable account of mystical knowledge that answers many of the concerns you have (and Nicholas shared) that Scholasticism encouraged a disregard for awareness of the transcendent, thus arriving in some ways at the same place that Plato does (i.e., that reason demands awareness of the transcendental), his method is nothing like Plato’s, and he has dismissed the metaphysical assumptions that Plato used to construct his basic account. In that respect, Nicholas is very much Aristotelian in his method, although he is entirely unwitting about it.

11 08 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I’ve never thought of the question as one of being “Plato vs. Aristotle”, but of having them play their appropriate roles. Many Neoplatonists, Porphyry among them, did commentaries on Aristotle’s works. The Summa Theologiae is written along Neoplatonic lines, and Pseudo-Dionysius is the most cited Father after Augustine in that work, and so forth. The real problem is the hegemony of Aristotelian hylomorphism led to the West losing any sense of intuitive knowledge, or rather conceiving it more as an epistemological fluke. Once Pseudo-Dionysius fell out of favor, and the ideas of the Renaissance divines were silenced, it was all downhill from there, at least philosophically.

11 08 2009

Death Bredon,

Although I don’t agree with him on everything, there is a traditional Catholic author, Charles Coulombe, who believes that the Church erred in adopting Aristotelianism over Neoplatonism.

10 08 2009
Death Bredon


You have perfectly captured the (non-bigoted) Orthodox critique of Catholicism — the sidelining, or even outright rejection of, man’s noetic capacity due to an undue love affair with Aristotelian thinking.

But, ironically, we disagree with you, in that we find that Baltimore Catechism to represent the pinnacle of Aristotelian Catholicism [and some of us view the JPII/B16 Catechism as somewhat more open to Platonic Christianity, even that of the East — but perhaps we few are just confusing our personal fantasy with authentic, enchanted realism.]

10 08 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think to say that we are well passed the point of agreeing to disagree, but the only thing I would be even remotely interested in addressing in this comment is the idea of “pessimistic Augustinianism”. Though I am by no means an “Augustinian” (I have only read some Augustine, and have little inclination to read more), many would associate these views to the general crusade of some modern Catholic scholars against Plato. A good example is a quote from Knox’s “Enthusiasm” itself:

“Basically it is the revolt of Platonism against the Aristotelian mise en scene of traditional Christianity. The issue hangs on the question whether the Divine Fact is something given, or something to be inferred. Your Platonist, satisfied that he has formed his notion of God without the aid of syllogisms or analogies, will divorce reason from religion…”

The recovery of Aristotelian philosophy was good for the West in that it laid the foundation for the scientific revolution that created things like modern medicine and the Internet. The downside, as we see in this fairly ignorant and arrogant quote from Knox, is that it destroyed or at best diminished any sense in the West of intuitive knowing. What the Platonic school was proposing was not a diminishing of reason, but rather a contextualizing of reason within the order of knowing, or immateriality, in the cosmos. To say that there is another form of knowing accessible to man besides (or rather transcending) the knowledge obtained from the senses is far from resigning the universe to an illusion equivalent to the Hindu maya. It is merely to assert that the universe contains more that we can know by our “ordinary” means, and that to access this realm, it is necessary to be initiated into the knowing of a higher realm.

It is not “pessimism” per se, but an “enchanted realism”. To think that ordinary human knowing has complete dominance over all that there is to know is myopic. The body, then, is good in that it conforms to its own form of knowing, but to know in a higher realm, one must separate from it. True, only glimpses of this can be obtained on this side of death, but even here, a few are privileged to know of cases where such intuitive knowledge also existed in human beings. He who has ears to hear…

8 08 2009
Michael Liccione

It’s pretty obvious, at least to me, that the Jansenists and the contemporary progressives have erred in opposite ways. Motivated by their hyper-Augustinianism, which they shared with the Calvinists, the Jansenists were wrong to think that “decadence and decline” is the dominant motif of Church history. But the progressives are wrong to think that the Church would be getting “better and better every day in every way” were it not for the reactionary fuddie-duddies in the Vatican—whom, of course, trads consider too liberal. The true Church’s articulation and appreciation of the deposit of faith do progress over time, but not without many cul-de-sacs, shadows of ignorance, heresies, schisms, and apostasies of whole regions; and of course people are neither more nor less “holy” in general than they ever were.

The difference between you and me is that you consider the contemporary “conservatives” (whose ür-hero is not Pio “I-AM-tradition” Nono but Pius XII) just as much “realized eschatologists” in spirit as the heretical progressives, whereas I see most contemporary “traditionalists” as just as much pessimistic Augustinians in spirit as the heretical Jansenists. I know a number of trads who privately complain about what sourpusses their ecclesial confrères are. But leaving temperament aside, those of my stripe who support what you call “the doctrinal about-face” on religious liberty—which contradicted no teaching that pertains to the deposit of faith—are not of one mind about the liturgical reform as implemented after Vatican II. Thanks partly to experience and partly to the present pope—who, unlike the previous one, really cares about liturgy—most of us have come to agree that Bugnini and Montini screwed up pretty badly. We just don’t think the solution is to carry on as though Sacrosanctum Concilium had never been promulgated. Treating Vatican II as a dead letter would get us a “church of the pure” even smaller, as well as even purer, than the Church that B16 envisions for the future. The Jansenists, who at the Synod of Pistoia called for a liturgy not unlike the Novus Ordo, would like that.

8 08 2009

very strange

6 08 2009
Death Bredon

Are you certain you are not Orthodox?

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