Eerdmans Publishing Company has been for the last 100 years a staple and leader in religious publishing. 2011 marks the company’s anniversary and here at Christianbook.com we not only want to congratulate Eerdmans on their outstanding record of publishing, but want to discuss some of their recent titles.
Beginning today and running through the 24th of October, Christianbook.com is celebrating Eerdmans’ anniversary by interviewing several recent authors. Our line up is a good one and includes both younger authors as well as seasoned scholars. Author Larry ten Harmsel will conclude our Eerdmans 100 celebration as we discuss his book The Eerdmans Century which documents the remarkable history of this invaluable and distinguished publisher.
Hans Boersma, J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, CA, leads off our interview celebration as we discuss Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. Boersma has distinguished himself for his work in recapturing the spirit and thought of the early church fathers and medieval theologians, as well as his work on the Atonement. I would like to extend a special thank you to Dr. Boersma for his thoughtful and provocative answers.
Matthew: There is no question that the Enlightenment, and its offspring Modernity, have exercised are-defining influence on human conceptuality. In your book you argue that this change has led to an abandonment of a sacramental understanding of reality. Yet, it seems that we often fail to grasp the degree of significance associated with this change. Will you describe just how drastically you understand the impact of the Enlightenment/Modernity to have been on our basic conceptual mindset?
Boersma: I think it’s hard to overestimate the impact that modernity has had, not just on our way of thinking, but also on the way the way we act. Our basic posture in life, in today’s Western culture, is inconceivable apart from modernity.
Before I say a bit more about that, though, I would like to make one clarification. While I do talk a great deal about modernity in my book, I say very little about the Enlightenment. The reason for that is not that I don’t think the two are closely linked—they obviously are—but that I think the problems of modernity should be traced back to a time period well before the Enlightenment of the 18th century. What I argue for is that the difficulties go back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when certain philosophical changes were introduced that we could capture under the heading of “nominalism.” While we could say that the seeds of modernity began to sprout, as it were, during the time of the Enlightenment, the seeds themselves were sown before the Enlightenment, and even before the time of the Reformation, in the late Middle Ages. If we want to understand modernity, we’ve got to grasp something of the philosophical changes that nominalism introduced in the centuries leading up to the Reformation.
How drastic are the changes that that modernity introduced? In my estimation, they are profound. Perhaps I can best explain by means of the title of my book, Heavenly Participation. Prior to modernity, there was no chasm, no huge gap, between heaven and earth in people’s basic mindset. Heavenly realities impinged on life here on earth, while things here below participated in the truth, goodness, and beauty of heaven itself. The gap between creator and creature, between heaven and earth, between nature and grace—or however we want to put this exactly—has made it easy for us to live as if God did not exist. It has become easy for us to deal with earthly realities as if they were self-contained, as if they were strictly autonomous, and as if we could fully grasp and know them by dissecting them.
This hubris, the notion that this-worldly realities are autonomous from God and fully at our disposal, is perhaps the most defining characteristic of modernity. By contrast, if you look at this-worldly realities as sacraments that participate in heavenly realities, then you’re going to approach everything around you with a great deal more reverence—because then you realize that behind the creaturely objects that you see, there’s something more, something deeper. In other words, you recognize a divine mystery that lies veiled behind creaturely appearances. The contrast, then, between the pre-modern and the modern mindset is a contrast between reverence and control, between mystery and explanation, between sacrament and idol. The modern rejection of creation’s sacramental participation in the eternal Word of God removes all sense of mystery from the created order. This utilitarian attitude has obvious consequences for the economy, for the environment, for human sexuality—indeed, for every area of human life.
Matthew: The Introduction of Heavenly Participation states that what we commonly understand as “postmodernity” is in fact nothing but modernity coming full circle. Will you explain what you mean by this and its relationship to your thesis, namely, the need to recover a sacramental worldview?
Boersma: Yes, I indeed think that what we call “postmodernity “ is simply a next stage of modernity itself. It is modernity come home to roost. In some way, we’re better off, therefore, to talk about “late modernity” than about “postmodernity.” At first, this may seem somewhat counter-intuitive. After all, isn’t postmodernity the result of a rejection of modernity? Doesn’t postmodernity reject the certainties that modernity tried to claim? Doesn’t postmodernity oppose the rationalism of modernity? Doesn’t postmodernity object to the totalizing grasp of the all-explaining, big stories (metanarratives) of modernity? All of that is true, and in that sense there is indeed a contrast between modernity and postmodernity.
But there’s a reason why, historically, postmodernity follows modernity. And if you look at that, you begin to realize that the continuity between the two is much greater than the discontinuity. The reason why postmodernity follows modernity is fairly straightforward. Modernity, as I said, stripped away the mystery behind created appearances. Naked human reason was able to fully grasp the meaning of natural objects without bothering with heavenly or supernatural realities—or at least, this is what modern philosophers such as Descartes thought. A purely rational foundation of life was enough to explain whatever we see around us.
Postmodern philosophers recognize that this rational foundationalism doesn’t hold. Reason, by itself, is not enough to explain reality. Postmodern philosophers recognize that once we cut the link between heaven and earth, earthly realities lose their solid anchor. Human reason isn’t a good enough replacement for heavenly realities. In other words, postmodern philosophers realize that a non-sacramental, non-participatory outlook on life leaves us stranded in a world of flux, of irony, and of skepticism. The postmodern mindset is resigned, you could say, to our inability to reason things out. Even though today we are aware that the rationalism and utilitarianism of modernity aren’t able to deliver, what we have not done is to go back to the more sacramental or participatory worldview that used to characterize Western society. Postmodernity is modernity throwing up its hands in despair in the recognition that reason cannot stand firm without a heavenly anchor.
Matthew: Your project advances the “new theology” movement that was popular among a number of remarkable Catholic theologians in the 20th Century. Their goal, as is yours, is to reengage the church fathers through a process known as ressourcement. Will you briefly summarize this movement, and explain “ressourcement”?
Boersma: Long before postmodern philosophers appeared on the scene, the French Catholic renewal movement known as nouvelle théologie (“new theology”) recognized that separating heaven and earth, faith and reason, nature and the supernatural was culturally disastrous. Moreover, they claimed, this modern separation between nature and the supernatural had received a major boost from the Catholic Church itself. After all, later interpreters of Thomas Aquinas had insisted on a great deal of independence and autonomy for the natural realm. This strict division between nature and the supernatural was commonly accepted in the Catholic Church, especially since the late nineteenth century. Theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, and others disagreed with this neo-Thomist approach.
In the mid-twentieth century they made the argument that such a separation between nature and the supernatural, between faith and reason, or between heaven and earth was non-sacramental and would inevitably lead to an irreligious kind of secularism. As you can imagine, the neo-Thomist scholastic theologians protested vehemently. I won’t get into the sharp debates of the time. Suffice it to say that I think the “new theologians” put their finger on just the right spot: the problem of modernity is its loss of a sacramental or participatory worldview.
So, these “new theologians” worked on a “retrieval” (ressourcement) of the church fathers and of medieval theologians. By translating them and by building on them, the “new theologians” drew attention to the possibility of a renewal not just of theology, but also of Western culture as a whole. Their entire project was an attempt—by retrieving the theologians of the “Great Tradition”—to recover a basic sacramental outlook on life.
Matthew: You address an increasing tendency among evangelicals to focus on concrete realities, a pattern you see exemplified in N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. You state, “To speak of creaturely participation in heavenly realities cannot but come across as outlandish to an age whose horizons have narrowed to such an extent that bodily goods, cultural endeavors, and political achievements have become matters of ultimate concern.” (p. 3) What critique if any does this statement say to the current but very strong emphasis (sacramentalization?) on the arts, creation care, and—so it seems—every evangelicals favorite topic, politics.
Boersma: It seems to me that here we get to the heart of the matter, or at least, this is where evangelicals are most obviously implicated. When I look at developments in evangelical theology over the past few decades, I think it’s undeniable that a shift is taking place. From what I can tell, it’s a worrying shift.
If you think for a moment about the modern separation between heaven and earth—about the non-sacramental mindset of modernity—it seems to me that as evangelicals we largely take this separation for granted. Our focus, increasingly, is not on the top half of that divide, but on the bottom half. Now I’m all in favour of celebrating the arts, and I think creation care is really important. But there’s at least two ways to justify our involvement in such things. The one approach says that this-worldly, earthly realities are ultimate. They are our focus, because we have no higher aim. That’s the approach of the modern mindset that deals with this-worldly realities as if they were autonomous, and as if they were ends in themselves. Sometimes we call this approach “sacramental” because it so strongly emphasizes the goodness of this material, created order. In reality, there’s nothing sacramental about it.
Once you celebrate this-worldly realities for their own sake, you no longer recognize that they participate in a greater, heavenly reality—a reality that is literally infinitely more important than the material and temporal objects of creation. The other way, therefore, to justify our involvement in the arts, in creation care, etc. is to say: precisely because earthly realities are sacraments of heavenly realities, we treat also the former with reverence and respect. This second approach recognizes that it is the mystery behind earthly truth, goodness, and beauty that really counts.
Since you asked, let me make a very brief comment about Wright’s book on the hereafter. There’s a lot in the book that has my warm endorsement, but what I think is problematic in Wright’s eschatology is that he looks at the hereafter in very “this-worldly” terms. I don’t think he does sufficient justice to the radical otherness of heavenly realities—and, in typically modern fashion, claims to know too much about what this new heaven and new earth will look like. In the process, Wright caricatures the way in which most of the Christian tradition has looked at the eschaton, without really engaging with this tradition in any serious way. I think Wright’s approach, and its warm reception among many evangelicals, is the result of a cultural shift that increasingly focuses on this-worldly realities while abandoning the sacramental mindset that allowed the Christian tradition to properly appreciate the goodness of the created order.
Matthew: How do you reconcile a reorientation of our vision towards heaven with the biblical notion that humanity was created for inhabiting the earth and that our final destination is a renewed earth?
Boersma: First, I’d like to recall that I’m not suggesting that we replace an earth-focused spirituality with a heaven-focused spirituality. To be sure, according to Saint Paul, heaven is our home. But it is that because that’s where our citizen-papers are housed, as it were. Heaven certainly ought to be our aim. But this is not a matter of replacing earth with heaven. If we did that, we’d still only have one side of the equation. What I am arguing for instead is a sacramental vision that genuinely values earthly, created realities, precisely by acknowledging that they are not ultimate. It is when we insist that earthly realities are ultimate that we lose their mysterious depth—precisely that which gives them their significance in the first place.
Second, the common insistence that our final destination is a renewed earth is a half-truth at best. Scripture itself makes clear that we can only speak of the new Jerusalem by using metaphorical language because the transformation of this earth is going to be so radical that the reality far outstrips anything we can capture by means of human language. What’s more according to Revelation 21 and 22, there’s not going to be a sun or a moon in this new city, because the Lamb—Jesus Christ himself—is going to be our lamp. Obviously, the created order isn’t just going to be a continuation of what we already have here today.
When you read the description of the “new Paradise” in Revelation 22, it’s clear that Saint John wants to outdo even the description of Paradise found in Genesis 2: the tree of life stands on both sides of the river of life, and yields fruit every month of the year, while the tree’s leaves heal the nations. The idea that in the hereafter we would be drinking beer or listening to Bach seems to me downright silly. Such literalist perspectives fail to recognize the infinite transposition or change that the hereafter implies. It is only a modern perspective that could give rise to such forgetfulness of the radical newness of the hereafter. We were made not for inhabiting the earth as we know that earth in our fallen state. We were made for eternal fellowship with God in Christ. Enjoyment of temporal goods is going to give way to enjoyment of the one, eternal good.
Finally, while today—from our fallen perspective—we can only talk about the relationship between earth and heaven as two distinct categories, perhaps linked in some sacramental fashion, the very distinction between heaven and earth will disappear in the Resurrection. The earth will one day reach its sacramental goal; it will become fully immersed in its heavenly reality, we could perhaps say. The problem with so much this-worldly talk about the hereafter is that it unwittingly drags the separation between heaven and earth into the hereafter, while still focusing on the latter, even when it comes to the eschaton itself. I would rather say: heaven and earth will be reunited, and we will see God face to face. That reality of the beatific vision is the completion or purpose, it seems to me, in which all earthly realities find their true identity.
Matthew: The Neo-platonic Christian synthesis is of critical importance to what you seek to accomplish. Why is this so? Is there any room for a contribution from the Aristotelian -Thomistic synthesis?
Boersma: It’s true that I draw a great deal on the neo-Platonic tradition—which is something that much of the Christian tradition has done. I would be hesitant to pitch the Platonist-Christian synthesis over against the Aristotelian-Thomist perspective as if they were radically incompatible. To be sure, in retrospect, I think we can say that the this-worldly focus of Aristotelianism has contributed to the problems we experience in modernity. But we should not forget that Thomas himself was also an heir to the Platonist tradition, and that a neo-Platonist theologian such as Pseudo-Dionysius has left his obvious marks on Thomas’s thought. I would be willing to go a step further and acknowledge that there is a relative autonomy of the natural world that a Thomist perspective enables us to see more clearly.
I do believe that there are distinct, natural ends—though they are never ultimate in character; they always point past themselves—and I do believe that all human beings have a common rationality that allows us to converse together and to try and convince each other. But my worry with strict neo-Thomism is that it tends to forget that our starting-point as Christians is always Jesus Christ and that our common rationality is itself the gift of Christ and also has its purpose in him. Again, a strict separation between faith and reason, or between heaven and earth, seems to me problematic.
Matthew: Many Christians today place a primary emphasis on ethics. How does your view challenge this emphasis, and how do ethics work into your paradigm?
Boersma: Theology and ethics go hand in hand, it seems to me. I don’t think our starting-point in our life together is some kind of absolute moral obligation that the ‘other’ person imposes on me, from which obligation would then flow not only my moral actions but also my intellectual commitments and everything else. The basic problem with this is that it prioritizes goodness (my moral obligation to the other) over truth (my intellectual commitments). The notion that goodness precedes truth is known as voluntarism; its most serious drawback is that it becomes impossible to say which human action is good and which one is evil. After all, if goodness is not guided by truth in some way, who is to decide what goodness looks like? Truth and goodness go together in God, and we should not attempt to prioritize the one over the other.
It also seems to me that by prioritizing ethics, we still hold on to the troubling separation between heaven and earth. What we’re really saying is that heaven lies in my neighbour. On that perspective, it would be my neighbour—rather than God—who makes an absolute demand on me. Ultimate transcendence, however, belongs only to God, not to my neighbour; my neighbor only points to God and participates sacramentally in the life of God. But we should never make the move of claiming that the “other” person is ultimate. It would be confusing human beings with God—basically a pantheist move.
None of this is to say that I don’t think moral theology or ethics is important. All I am saying is that our morality is one with our theology and that we worship only God—a God in whom truth and goodness co-inhere.
Matthew: What role did the small but significant epistemological shifts provided by the Reformation contribute to a turn away from the sacramental world view? Can protestant theology, as taught by the Reformers, be reconciled with a sacramental worldview?
Boersma: The Reformers, to their credit, recognized that in the late Middle Ages the relationship between heaven and earth had shifted in problematic ways. Luther and Calvin, each in their own way, tried to deal with the problem of an increasing rift between heaven and earth. Luther’s protest against Aristotelian philosophy was a reaction against the growing independence of this-worldly realities. And Calvin, too, would never look at earthly realities as if they were independent from the life of God.
In that sense, you could say, both theologians recognized that there was a problem that was in need of a solution. In retrospect, however, I suspect that the Reformers were too close to the nominalist changes to see its problems clearly. If we are to really return to a Platonist-Christian mindset—one that is genuinely sacramental in character—I think we must face the truth that not only much Catholic thought, but also the Reformation, stands in need of correction. It seems to me that as Catholics and Protestants we inherit a shared problem, that of a non-sacramental, modern mindset. Whether you have seven sacraments or two, the basic problem in both ecclesial communities is that the way we treat the world around us is as if it were a purely natural object rather than a sacrament of the truth of God in Christ.
Matthew: The trajectory of thinking revealed in Violence, Hospitality and the Cross (Baker Academic: 2006) comes through quite clearly also in this book. How, and to what degree, are these books interrelated?
Boersma: There are indeed some continuities. I deal with the second-century theologian Irenaeus in both books. I love his anti-Gnostic impulse. St. Irenaeus is a wonderful guide, it seems to me. Also, in both books, I intentionally build on the Great Tradition as a way to inform an ecumenically sensitive theology, one that tries to put Catholics and evangelicals in dialogue. Further, I advocate participation and deification in both books, so that already in VHC, I highlight the importance of the life of God as humanity’s ultimate goal.
Still, I have developed and changed. Most importantly, the sacramental mindset, dependent on the Platonic tradition, isn’t really there yet in VHC. It took my reading of de Lubac and Congar to make me sensitive to a sacramental perspective. Also, there are things in VHC that I would no longer put in quite the same way. I think, in retrospect, that my criticism of predestination in the Calvinist tradition was lacking in nuance. I was deeply influenced by N. T. Wright at the time, and my theological lens was very much a historical one. While I haven’t rejected the historical lens, I see its limitations much more clearly. To say, as I do in VHC, that Scripture speaks of election mostly as a historical category is asserting an obvious truth. But that merely begs the question of how, then, we ought to speak of this history in relationship to God’s eternal plan and foreknowledge. While I still think there’s much more mystery here than is commonly acknowledged in Reformed scholastic thought, we cannot simply brush aside the question and pretend that all we have is history.
Matthew: In your view, in what positive ways can the adoption of ressourcement by more Catholics and evangelicals help to build ecumenical ties? What place does Eastern Orthodoxy have in this discussion?
Boersma: As I already mentioned, I think that Catholics and evangelicals share a common problem, that of a desacramentalized universe. Today, therefore, we need each other more than ever before. In the second part of Heavenly Participation, I engage in some of this dialogue with the Catholic tradition, with the “new theologians” of the mid-twentieth century, in particular. I look at five theological areas where I believe a sacramental outlook can bring us closer together: the Eucharist, our understanding of time, the way we interpret Scripture, our approach to truth and knowledge, and the task of theology. In each of these areas, we suffer, on both sides of the fence, from a lack of sacramentality. And I try to sketch how we can at least partially find each other, in each of these areas.
Most important for such dialogue is, I think, renewed attention to the way we interpret Scripture. All theology is supposed to be interpretation of Scripture, which means that our disagreements on the way we do this lies at the basis of the differences between Catholics and evangelicals. One of the most important things here, it seems to me, is to return to the church fathers and to the Middle Ages, to see how people read Scripture back then. A ressourcement of patristic and medieval exegesis is essential for the recovery of a sacramental mindset. The reason for that is that interpretation of Scripture itself used to be sacramental in character. Behind the veil of the historical or literal meaning of the text lies a deeper mystery, the reality of the Christological truth of the gospel. For the pre-modern mindset, therefore, there was not just one meaning—the one intended by the human author—but there was a plethora of meanings, reflecting the infinite truth encountered in Christ.
The Eastern Orthodox, with their obvious focus on the church fathers, can help us a great deal here. Although my book doesn’t really deal with Orthodox perspectives, this is not because I don’t believe it to be important. In some ways, the Orthodox can remind Catholics and evangelicals alike of the broader view of sacramentality that we have jettisoned in modernity.