The following is the first part of a gloss on an article I recently received from a friend. The second part will appear in a few days. I apologize for not having the full reference for it, but it appears to be an address by Francis Cardinal George given to the Library of Congress on June 16, 1999, titled “Catholic Christianity and the Millennium: Frontiers of the Mind in the 21st Century.” In light of the missing reference, the citations below are paragraph numbers rather than page numbers. I apologize ahead of time for those who have read or plan to read the article. While I have tried to give the Cardinal credit where due, a reading of his paper will reveal my blatant plagiarism.
The Thomistic scholar Etienne Gilson describes in The Unity of the Philosophical Experience the inevitable demise of a philosophy that ignores the highest question of being, i.e. metaphysics. In “Catholic Christianity and the Millennium: Frontiers of the Mind in the 21st Century,” Cardinal George argues for a specifically Christian metaphysics, or an “incarnation metaphysics.” This metaphysics begins with the “provocative claim” that is at the heart of Christianity. “In Jesus Christ, God has become a creature, without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature he becomes” (George, 3). The radicality of this Christian claim is evidenced by the history of heresies, most of which denied either the divinity or humanity of Christ, or in some cases, both, by arguing for a quasi-divine and quasi-human nature in the incarnated Lord. At least two Ecumenical Councils (Chalcedon in 451 and Nicea in 325) upheld the hypostatic union, the fact that, “in Jesus, the divine and the human unite without competition or compromise” (George, 3).
The hypostatic union is the beginning of the “incarnation metaphysics” that Cardinal George is promoting. However, understanding Jesus in this way also forces us to rethink the nature of humanity and its relationship to God. In the realm of finite realities, there is a competition for existence. Fire consumes and destroys wood to give rise to the ashes that result. The predator assimilates the prey in the act of devouring. (Both examples are the Cardinal’s.) Competition seems to be at the heart of finite reality. (Taken to its extreme, this maxim of competition leads to the very dangerous philosophy of Hegel. See Gilson’s text for a description of the dangers inherent to Hegelism.*) When the Church proclaims that the divine and the human exist in Christ without competition, this claim shines forth in all its uniqueness. God, does not belong to created nature, God is not a being alongside of other beings. Christian theologians have attempted to weave this distinctiveness into the very language they invoked in describing the reality of God. St Anselm, for example, said that, “God is not so much a supreme being as that which no greater can be thought, implying, paradoxically, that God plus the world is not greater than God” (quoted in George, 5). Similarly, when Aquinas spoke of God, he used the term ipsum esse subsistens (the subsistent act of to-be itself) rather than ens summum (highest being). Both of these saints thought of God as both completely transcendent to the created world (hence non-pantheistic) and yet completely immanent to all things (George, 5).
Finally, from this understanding of God comes the Christian conception of the cosmos and place of man within the cosmos. God is not in competition with nature, does not create though change or violence. Instead, he creates through a generous outpouring of love, or as Cardinal George states, “God’s is a non-possessive love” (6). Because all things exist in God’s creative act, because the cosmos emanates from the outpouring of God’s love, all of created reality “participates in the divine generosity” and are related to one another by “bonds of ontological intimacy” (George, 6). “All things in the cosmos exist in a communio with one another precisely because they are rooted in a more primordial communio with the Creator God” (George, 6). This metaphysics of communio caritatis (or communion of love) is one that proceeds from the Incarnation itself, hence George terms it “incarnation metaphysics.”
After laying the philosophical groundwork, the thesis of Cardinal George’s paper comes in paragraph 7. “Whatever Christians say about the social, political and metaphysical realm must flow from this grounding metaphysical vision. Or better put, there is an unavoidably social dimension to the Christian ontology of communio and participation.” He begins this discussion by references one of the most influential presentations of Christian politics ever scribed, St. Augustine’s Civitas Dei. The “hermeneutical key” of Augustine is familiar to many, as he contrasts the City of God, whose foundation is the communio formed in the shared love of God, with the City of Man, whose foundation is, what George calls “a collectivity based upon self-love.” What is striking to many modern readers of the great African Doctor is “Augustine’s refusal to place this analysis in anything even vaguely resembling a ‘Church/State’ context” (George, 11). The next several sentences of the Cardinal are worth quoting in full.
“It is not the case that the secular state ought to order public life while the Church cares for the spiritual good of the people. There is no such easy distinction in Augustine. There is, rather, the dramatic difference between the false worship (and hence flawed social arrangement) of the City of Man and the proper worship (and hence life-giving social arrangement) of the City of God. The problem is not how to reconcile the competing concerns of the spiritual and the secular; the problem is orthodoxy, that is to say, getting our metaphysics and our praise of God in order” (George, 11).
During the medieval period and into the Middle Ages, one can see the philosophy of Augustine beginning to take root in the organization of societies. Even the architecture spoke to the centrality of faith in the life of the city. At the center of the town was the Cathedral in all its glory. “This visual display of the Christian faith shaped the consciousness of the worshipers and in turn influenced the structure of economic, agricultural and political life….There was a keen sense that the heavenly liturgy (God’s ordo), iconically displayed in the earthly liturgy, worked its way into all of those social and political realities that we would mistakenly refer to as ‘secular.’ In the medieval consciousness, the sacred/secular split would have seemed anomalous, since politics, economics and social order existed as a sort of extension of the sacramental life of the Church” (George, 12).
* “The liberal-minded professors who teach Hegel’s relativism in universities seem to believe that it is a school of toleration, where students can learn that there is a place for everything because everything is right in its own way. That is not Hegelian relativism; it is philosophical indifferentism. The dogmatic relativism of Hegel teaches something very different, and it is that, taken by itself, no particular thing can rightly assert itself except by destroying another, until itself is destroyed. ‘War,’ says Hegel, ‘is not an accident,’ but an element ‘whereby the ideal character of the particular receives its right and reality’. These are really and truly murderous ideas, and all the blood for which they are responsible has not yet been shed. Yet they are the last word of Hegelianism and the necessary conclusion of a school which, confining reason to the sphere of pure science, enslaved philosophy to the blind tyranny of the will” (Gilson, page 198).