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‘Si Finisti, Deus Non Est’

Austin Detwiler

In a moment of particularly creative philosophy, Martin Heidegger suggested a new etymology of alētheia.[1] Truth, he argued, is not to be sought in some correspondence between propositions and the ‘objective’ world, but in the process of ‘dis-covering,’ pulling back the shroud that hides Being, and revealing that which was previously in the dark. Heidegger’s creativity here is profound, and, whether or not this etymology is altogether accurate, it is instructive—especially for theologians.

Shortly after the publication of Being and Time, Henri de Lubac had a similar insight, suggesting that the ‘ready-made religion’[2] that he saw being handed on for generations was, at best, insufficient. Such a stagnant, ‘completed’ religion was precisely a corruption of religion. To try to hold religion in one’s hands—to com-prehend, to grasp, it—is to have ‘lost the substance of faith,’[3] for this grasping is possible only after a gross ‘minimization of dogma,’[4] confusing the incomprehensible mystery of God for a set of propositions. Now these ‘propositions’ may indeed ‘correspond’ to the data presented (in Scripture, tradition, experience, and so on), but they ought not to arrest the process of dis-covering that must continue. Heidegger’s etymology is handy, for it reminds us that our job as knowers—in the present case, as theologians—is never complete, for the cover can always be pulled back a bit more. God, in the depths of his infinity, is always still shrouded in darkness. If you think you have discovered entirely—Si quasi comprehendere potuisti—then you have precisely misunderstood the goal and ‘content’ of theology: cognitione tua te decepisti.[5]

After noting the problem of ‘ready-made religion’ de Lubac labors implicitly (performatively doing better theology) and explicitly (explaining how to do theology better with reference to the tradition’s wealth of examples) in order to turn the tides and reintroduce that openness to mystery which enables Augustine to say si autem hoc [Deus] est, non comprehendisti.[6] This paper will draw on two of de Lubac’s texts, to see how he hopes we can renew theology by resurrecting that spirit of prayer and inquiry which was open to mystery in its fullest and most disconcerting aspect. First, in Corpus Mysticum he details the change which occurred in the tradition’s understanding of ‘reasoning.’ Second, in Scripture in the Tradition, he points backward to a robust theology which did not cage mystery into deadened propositions.

I. The Reduction

In the beginning pages of Scripture in the Tradition, de Lubac counsels his readers to a ‘regular recourse to our ancient authors.’ By thus ‘recoursing’—or he might elsewhere say re-sourcing—to the ancient texts, theologians are able to free themselves from a ‘pernicious literalism’ in Scriptural studies which has reigned, de Lubac says, for ‘the last few centuries.’[7] This pernicious literalism was an error not limited to Biblical Studies departments. It was the result of a radical shift in the theologian’s self-understanding and in the time’s understanding of ‘reasoning.’ So de Lubac’s point about returning to the ancient sources would be misunderstood if his reader were to think that he meant reiterating the old answers because they are older.[8] Reiteration would be succumbing to the ‘ready-made’ approach to theology that already plagued the discipline. Rather, the return to the ancients is a return to their creative spirit of ‘openness to further and unforeseeable developments.’[9] It is, he warns us, ‘much easier . . . to side with the ancient than to recapture his spirit’—but recapture we must.[10]

The change which occurred from the ancient ‘openness’ to the modern ‘ready-made’ was certainly complex and slow, but in Corpus Mysticum de Lubac tracks a certain change which occurs around the Church’s understanding of the body of Christ that exemplifies the broader intellectual change that took place. In the first part of the book he shows that before the rise of Scholasticism, when ‘we encounter the unqualified phrase “the body of Christ”, it is often not the Eucharist but the Church which was meant by the term.’[11] That is, the verum corpus was taken to be the Church,[12] whereas the Eucharist was referred to as the corpus mysticum.[13]

These two ‘bodies’ were never opposed,[14] and the ‘mysticum’ did not imply ‘spiritual’ as opposed to ‘bodily’—until, that is, the Berengarian controversy drove the terms in a new direction.[15] Whether or not Berengar himself was a ‘pure symbolist’[16] in regards to the Eucharist, the problem was that the convolution of language demanded a clarification and a nailing down of terms. Thus the Lateran Council of 1079 required Berengar to affirm—and thus declared orthodoxy as—the ‘substantial’ presence of Christ’s body in the Eucharist.[17] The council of course did not end the controversy instantaneously, but the authoritative introduction of ‘substantive’ gave direction to the debate: namely, defending the real, substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist against the spiritual, mystical, ghostly ‘non’-presence (or ‘figurative’ presence).[18] Suddenly, then, the true body was the Eucharist and the Church as body had lost significance.[19] But, more importantly, in order to suppress Berengar’s negative influence, the rigor of Eucharistic apologetics replaced the mystical ‘understanding of faith.’[20] As de Lubac says, ‘the invasion of’—or he may as well say ‘the reduction to’—‘true caused mystical to give way.’[21] He goes on to explain: ‘Perhaps orthodoxy was safeguarded’ by excluding the symbolic presence of Christ for the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but ‘doctrine was certainly impoverished.’[22]

The error to which de Lubac is drawing our attention is performative, not doctrinal. That is, he does not see any false doctrine or any false beliefs springing up out of the Berengarian controversy: ‘orthodoxy was saved.’ The error was a capitulation to rationalism. True belief won out, but it was arrived at, and defended by, reducing reason from understanding[23] to demonstration.[24] As he quotes John of Paris, Mystica Theologia non est argumentiva[25]—but argumentiva is needed to suppress nascent heresy. And in the face of heresy, nascent or thriving, this reduction is needful; the problem begins when rationalism replaces mystical theology.[26] When this substitution occurs, we forget ‘the obscurity essential to faith,’[27] and the fact that our true doctrine—even if it may be described in rationalistic terms—is arrived at only by patiently dis-covering the God who may never be entirely dis-covered, who remains ‘obscure, hidden, and “mystical”, even once [he] has been described, signified, “revealed”.’[28]

This text is thus insisting that we not follow the trajectory of rationalism, which, de Lubac suggests, began after Anselm and progressed over the centuries into a ‘ready-made religion.’[29] He is commending us, not to a ‘renunciation of the exercise of intelligence,’ but to a ‘humble wisdom’ which has the patience to journey slowly into the mind of God.[30] If we forsake this patience and humility in order to suppose that truth is something which we ‘have’ or ‘possess,’ as opposed to the gentle process of dis-covering which presupposes mystery and uncertainty, then we will indeed forsake truth; we will find ourselves living ‘off the benefits . . . bequeathed to us,’ while the faith which procured these benefits ‘has long since died.’[31] And without this faith, though the inheritance may protect us for some time, we cannot avoid ‘veer[ing] off course, shrivel[ing] up, and becom[ing] lost.’[32] We must, then, ‘return to the mystical sources of the Church.’[33]

II. The Rebirth

De Lubac uses the pregnant term ‘conversion’ to describe this ‘return’ that must take place.[34] He has no delusions about this return, for, as quoted above, he knows the goal is not to reiterate the ancients, but to resurrect and assume their spirit, their way of thinking. To effect such an enormous growth of a crippled reason is no small task.[35] If what happened in the ‘Age of Proof’ was an awakening of reason,[36] then what must happen now is a re-birth of symbolic knowing, mystical theology, and humility—and how much more difficult is birthing than waking![37]

But de Lubac is nevertheless hopeful that this re-birth is possible: that ‘by acquiring as lively an awareness as possible of the diversity which has built up over time’[38] we can have our imaginations[39] expanded and thereby approach, slowly, the pre-rationalist openness of the Fathers which was aware of the development necessary to faith, dogma, and doctrine.[40] Returning to these sources and developing an awareness of ancient diversity, de Lubac thinks, will not help us to imitate their methods or procedures, but ‘their habitual modesty.’[41] So his goal is not some nostalgic running backwards, nor an anti-progressive privileging of the old, nor a rejection of new and modern methods of thought.[42] He is not rejecting the nova to assert the vetera. Indeed he is insisting precisely that to take either one without the other, vetera or nova, distorts both. Hence his worry about disallowing traditional language after the Berengarian controversy: the precision of the new terminology may be helpful, but it is a vicious contraction if it excludes the terminology used prior to Berengar.

The hope, then, is that a re-discovery of the spiritual understanding of Scripture can yield endless fruit in opening up the rationalistic minds of modern theologians.[43] As above, this is not a ‘renunciation of intelligence,’ for the spiritual understanding is not ‘an invention, the fruit of whim or reverie [but] has a structure of its own, which we must conform to.’[44] Spiritual meanings in Scripture are abundant, but not infinite. To read Scripture with the eyes of the spirit, as the Fathers did, is to privilege the eschatological implications in the text which are therefore (by virtue of their being eschatological) necessarily ‘open.’[45] Indeed, if we can successfully recover spiritual meanings, we can recover this openness: for spiritual understanding ‘maintains the notion of development’ and thereby ‘insures an eschatological mysticism.’[46] In other words, we will be forced, by reading spiritually, not to minimize dogma or to collapse our knowing into demonstrations or to presume to have ‘finished’: Si finisti, Deus non est.[47]

III. Conclusion: Non Finisti

One of the great goals of ressourcement, then, is returning for the sake of opening. When dogma suffers a minimization, it soon suffers a distortion. When intelligence ceases to be open, when ‘it closes on itself,’ it ‘dries up, evaporates, or goes rotten.’[48] The believer ‘who claims to abide once for all by such and such a stage in the expression of faith . . . not only forgoes new gradations or new degrees of precision, he loses reality, the very substance of faith.’[49]

To abide in any century, to rest with achievements of any era, is certainly comfortable. But it is also a rejection of Dogma, for it rejects the discovery necessary to truth for the possession of statements. To rest is to presume to have removed the cover that enshrouds Being; it is to claim to have known (novisti) Him to whom we can only be united as to one unknown. And so returning to the radical diversity of the Fathers must be a training in unknowing, a training in uncertainty, by being a training in difference. We must learn to be comfortable with vertigo.



[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, H33. This is also discussed at length in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art.’

[2] Henri de Lubac, S.J., Scripture in the Tradition, trans. Luke O’Neill (New York: Herder and Herder Publishing Co., 2014), 5. Hereafter cited as ST.

[3] Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 100.

[4] Ibid., 227.

[5] ST, 23, n. 39. ‘If, so to speak, you have been able to understand, your investigation has deceived you.’

   [6] ‘If, however, this is God, you have not understood.’

[7] ST, 3.

[8] Ibid., 2: ‘We would be mistaken . . . if we admired the ancient constructs so much that . . . we believed that fidelity to an author meant that we had to copy him or imitate him slavishly.’ Cf. Paradoxes, 99.

[9] ST, 2.

[10] Ibid., 61.

[11] Henri de Lubac, S.J., Corpus Mysticum, trans. Gemma Simmonds, CJ (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 13. Hereafter cited as CM.

[12] Ibid., 29: quoting Paschasius: ‘the universal Church of Christ is his body’, ‘…eat the mystical body of Christ.’; 88: ‘the ecclesial body has to become in all reality the body of Christ… the Eucharist is the mystical principle…’

[13] Ibid., 31: ‘using corpus mysticum as a term for the Eucharist’; quoting Rabanus Maurus: ‘his mystical body…is administered in sacred vessels’.

[14] Ibid., 13: ‘In the thinking of the whole of Christian antiquity, the Eucharist and the Church are linked.’

[15] Ibid, 143: ‘In the opposition that he [Berengar] placed between bodily reception and spiritual reception…’

[16] Ibid., 144.

[17] Ibid., 151-2. And this was the first step in collapsing ‘any gap between the historical body and the Eucharistic body…to the point of the words Christ is in substance always the same’ (164).

[18] Ibid., 158; 161: ‘ ‘To understand spiritually’ had for a long time described a condition of rectitude, but now, on the contrary, had come to describe a form of deviance.’ 162: ‘Once ‘corporeal’ had been banned as being a synonym of ‘corruptible’: now ‘incorporeal’ was being banned as the equivalent of ‘ghostly’.’

[19] Ibid., 222: ‘…making people forget the ecclesial symbolism altogether.’

[20] Ibid., 220.

[21] Ibid., 221.

[22] Ibid., 223.

[23] Ibid., 220: ‘Apology for dogma succeeded the understanding of faith’ (emphasis mine).

[24] Ibid., 237: ‘for Anselm understanding takes the form of a demonstration.’

   [25] ‘Mystical theology is not argument.’

   [26] Cf. Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, trans. A.N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), pp. 65: ‘The extreme course of “defining”, which the Fathers unanimously consider as a hazardous undertaking, an ultima ratio, which it is hoped may be avoided…’

[27] CM, 230.

[28] Ibid., 251.

[29] See ibid., 236-7.

[30] Ibid., 231.

[31] Ibid., 236.

[32] Ibid., note 71, quoting Charles Journet, Introduction to Theology.

[33] Ibid., 260.

[34] See ST, 22.

[35] See ibid., 66: ‘the Fathers had a kind of connaturality with Scripture which today’s faith cannot duplicate without much difficulty.’

[36] Ibid., 57.

[37] As Lonergan would say, ‘It takes centuries to change mentalities, centuries.’

[38] CM, 236, note 71.

[39] Ibid., 234.

   [40] Cf. Bernard Lonergan, ‘Openness and Religious Experience,’ in Collection (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967).

[41] ST, 66, 68.

   [42] Cf. Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. L.C. Sheppard and E. Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 322: ‘We should gain nothing [if] … we dreamed of an impossible return to the past.’

   [43] Ibid.: ‘We must recognize, in the first place, the great diversity of the theories which have been professed in the course of Christian history. . . . Then a return to the sources of antiquity will be the very opposite of an escape into a dead past.’

[44] Ibid., 87.

[45] See: Henri de Lubac, ‘On an Old Distich,’ 115.

[46] ST, 82-3. There is this emphasis on ‘eschatological’ because such an outlook presumes openness and development.

[47] Of course the problem lingering behind this is that we must re-learn how to read spiritually: reading spiritually may ‘solve’ the problem, but the issue at hand is that we have forgotten, for centuries, how to do so. We cannot just begin suddenly to read spiritually again. On the one hand, then, there is the problem of the ‘deep dark basements’ of our human subjectivity which is corrupted and confused, and the correction will not be an argument. He appears, then, to have a radically pragmatic approach: read the Fathers, see the diversity, and train yourselves in recognizing the wideness essential to Dogma. This is perhaps a sort of ‘participation’ in the openness of past ages which will (slowly) form us to be able to read with the same openness.

[48] Paradoxes, 99.

[49] Ibid., 100 (emphasis mine).