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Chapter Nine | The Openness of Being

Nothing is given to one unless one has the capacity to find it as given.

—Pratima Bowles, Is Metaphysics Possible?, p. 71.

The argument of the seventh lecture had as its datum our perception of extramental material beings as both real and contingent, and it was asserted that their existence with this character demands for its explanation the existence of a transcendent self-existent ground, in which are united knowledge, will and power and which is therefore rightly to be described as personal and given the traditional name ‘God’. It was also asserted that it is misleading to conceive this passage from the perception of contingent being to the affirmation of transcendent being as consisting simply of discursive argumentation and that such argumentation is indeed nothing more than the explicitation of a primary awareness of the creature as dependent upon its creator or, in Austin Farrer's words, of the ‘cosmological idea’, ‘the scheme of God and the creature in relation’.1 This awareness, it was admitted, is less common and is more difficult to achieve today than it was in the past, and it is closely linked with the capacity for contemplative wondering. Nevertheless, without it argumentation for theism almost inevitably has that character of circularity of which its critics accuse it, and—what is more serious from the religious point of view—it all too easily leaves us with the concept of a remote and glacial deity. In the very act of affirming God's existence it tends to lose that hold upon the intuition of God and finite being together without which the argument could never begin.

I also argued that it is possible, and is indeed likely, that a personal God will not merely restrict himself to the status of a passive and unresponsive object for our consideration and investigation, like the inanimate members of the physical world,2 but will communicate himself to us in deliberate revelationary activity, whether that activity is subsequent to our rational recognition of him or whether it is an occasional, frequent or possibly even an invariable accompaniment of it. I intend therefore in the present lecture to consider the question of man as a possible recipient of divine revelation, while recognising that it would be improper in the context of Gifford Lectures to appeal to the content of any particular alleged revelation as providing authority for the view to which we may come.

It has, of course, been held by an impressive body of theologians, of whom Karl Barth was, at any rate for most his life, the most distinguished member, that man has, so far as the exercise of his natural faculties is concerned, no power whatever of attaining to any genuine knowledge of God, and that any alleged knowledge of God so attained will be so debased and distorted as to be worse than useless. Thus Gustav Aulén has written:

If the cosmological argument concludes on the basis of cause and effect that there must be a first cause, and then calls this cause God, Christian faith must answer, from its point of view, that this pseudonymous ‘first cause’ has nothing in common with the God of faith. Nor can the teleological argument which attempts to find a wise providence on the basis of a purposeful adaptiveness of the world prepare a way to the God of faith. The ‘God’ who is demonstrated in this way has only the name in common with the God of faith.3

‘Nothing in common’, ‘only the name in common’—these are fairly downright expressions, and go far beyond asserting that man's rationally based knowledge of God is limited or obscure; they imply that, in so far as the word ‘God’ means the object of devotion of Christians, rational theology does not speak about God at all but about an entirely different being. Austin Farrer in a well-known passage has commented tellingly on this position:

There is a superstition among revelationists, that by declaring themselves independent of any proof of God by analogy from the finite world, they have escaped the necessity of considering the analogy or relation of the finite to the infinite altogether. They are completely mistaken; for all their statements about God must be expressed and plainly are expressed in language drawn from the finite world. No revelationist supposes these statements to be perfectly literal; God is not a man and human language requires to be read with some tacit qualification before it applies to him.… This problem of analogy is in principle prior to every particular revelation. For the revelation has to be thought about to be received, and can be thought about only by the aid of words or finite images; and these cannot signify of God unless the appropriate ‘mode of signification’ functions in our minds.4

Farrer's remarks are explicitly concerned with the capacity of human language to describe God, but they are equally relevant to the capacity of the human mind to apprehend God, for we can only speak of that which, to some degree at least, we apprehend. Even if we conceded to the revelationists that we can know nothing whatever about God except what he deliberately and explicitly reveals to us, we should still have to maintain that we are able to recognise and understand the revelation when it is given. And if the revelationists replied, as I think many of them would, that we have no such natural ability but that when God reveals himself he gives, simultaneously with the revelation, the power to recognise and understand it, we should again have to assert that, even if that be the case, the human mind must have a natural capacity to receive this power. At some stage or other the finite must be capax infiniti. Unless there is some Anknüpfungspunkt, however small, between God and man in human nature, unless man has, by nature, some potentia oboedientialis, some receptive capacity, however minimal, for the supernatural, God will be unable to communicate with man because, even if God speaks, man will be unable to hear him. I would agree that in the Catholic textbooks the relation between the natural and the supernatural, between nature and grace, between reason and revelation, has often been conceived in far too rigid and impersonal a manner. We may perhaps prefer to say, with Karl Rahner, that man, in his concrete existence, has been endowed by God with a ‘supernatural existential’.5 But, unless we admit that at some level of his being man has a point of contact with God, not only will natural theology be impossible but so will theology of revelation as well. We cannot become ‘hearers of the word’ unless we have ears to hear the word when it is spoken. (Hearers of the Word is, we may recall, the title of Rahner's work on what he describes as ‘the ontology of the potentia oboedientialis for Revelation’.6) I shall therefore, in the present lecture, argue three points: first, that finite being as such has a capacity, which it cannot actualise by its own powers, to be elevated above its natural level by God; secondly, that this capacity has a special and highly important character in the case of a rational being such as man; thirdly, that in the case of man it includes, though it is not exhausted by, an ability to recognise and apprehend God's word if and when God speaks to him. I must, however, at this stage, make two remarks in clarification of my position. First, while I disagree with those I have described as ‘the revelationists’ when they deny that we can have any knowledge of God by our natural powers, I agree with them that God can make himself known by revelation. Secondly, I hold that our capacity to apprehend divine revelation is only one aspect of a capacity to be elevated into the life of God. And, while it will be impossible to conduct this argument without some mention of revealed religion and while it may well be true that the general line of argument would not suggest itself to someone who was ignorant that there are religions which claim to be revealed, the argument will make no appeal to the authority of any alleged revelation.

First, then, as to the capacity of finite being to be elevated by God above its natural level. Finite being is, as we have seen, characterised by the mysterious—it might indeed seem paradoxical—combination of reality and contingency. Philosophers and theologians have never found it easy to hold these two factors in true balance and proportion. Some have tended to minimise the factor of reality—this is exemplified by those forms of Hinduism which look upon the world as illusion and by the Platonic tradition in Europe. Others have tended to minimise the factor of contingency—this is characteristic of the prevalent scientific humanism, which takes the existence of the world as an ultimate and irreducible fact, and of the linguistic empiricism which still dominates Anglo-Saxon philosophy. Against both these tendencies I have argued that a full recognition of both factors, based upon a contemplation of the world in an attitude of wonder, can lead us to grasp the beings in which they are combined as totally and radically dependent upon the creative activity of a transcendent, self-existent and personal God. While exerting concrete existence and manifesting the special characteristics of the particular beings and kinds of being that each of them is, they are metaphysically incomplete and exist at all only because they are the objects of incessant creative activity on the part of God. They are centres of real existential energy, but this energy is finite and received; they have real determinate natures, but their natures are inherently limited and restricted in their sphere. And just because their being is both received and limited, it is inherently open to fresh influxes of creative activity from God. The view of the world that derives from these considerations is radically and uncompromisingly dynamic, and it stands in sharp contrast with the view that was typical of the ancient world. Greek philosophy, when it did not dissolve the world into a featureless Heraclitean mush in which ‘all things flow’, thought of every being as a limited incapsulated entity, all of whose potentialities were included in it at the start, even if their development took time and was conditioned by their environment; the kitten might become a cat, but in doing this it was only becoming more perfectly what it had really been all the time. It made little difference whether the forms of the various species of being were conceived as laid up in an ideal realm and as imitated with varying degrees of success by the individuals on earth, or whether they were conceived as existing only in the individuals. In any case, if you only knew enough about their nature you would know all they could possibly become; it was all really there from the start. Over against this ultimately cramped and static view Christian philosophers developed the doctrine that finite beings are maintained and energised by the incessant creative activity of a personal God, who is himself infinite plenitude of activity (actus purus) and who is continually pouring being into his creatures, semper infundens bonitatem in rebus. We need not enquire here how far this view was a direct derivative from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, though we may note in passing that, while one school of Christian thinkers, such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, find its origin in the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush, others, such as Karl Barth and Gustav Aulén (to say nothing of such out-and-out anti-hellenists as Leslie Dewart) see it as the radical contamination of Christianity by Greek metaphysics. In any case I would maintain that it is capable of rational justification and is therefore the proper subject of rational theology. We may note that, while the various systems of pagan philosophy gave various answers, more or less convincing as the case might be, to the question why the world is the sort of thing it is, they never made a serious attempt to answer the much more important and fundamental question why there is a world at all.

To return to our present concern, the view that all finite beings depend for their very existence as well as for their particular natures on the incessant creative activity of God implies that, while they are relatively autonomous, in that God conserves in each its own particular pattern of finite activity, they are, by the very fact that they are dependent and not self-existent realities, open to fresh influxes of creative activity from God, which will not destroy their spontaneity but will elevate and enhance it. Nor is there any antecedently specifiable limit to such influxes; anything that a finite being receives will be finite, but there is no greatest finite quantity. As the scholastics say, grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. By their very dependence upon God, finite beings are inherently open to him; an absolutely autonomous and incapsulated finite entity would be a contradiction in terms. A created universe—and there can be no other—is necessarily not only a finite but also an open one. Nature has, simply as nature, a potentia oboedientialis for the supernatural, whether or no (and this is not the business of natural theology) God has in fact equipped it with a ‘supernatural existential’ in the Rahnerian sense.

Once it has been recognised that God's relation to creatures as their creator consists not in projecting them into a condition of isolated and unrelated self-sufficiency but in incessantly energising them as the real and at the same time open entities that they are, it will be seen how delicately poised their existence is. I have, in an earlier work entitled Via Media, attempted to expound the paradoxical notion of ‘dependent reality’ and to contrast it with other views of finite being that philosophical and religious systems have held. Here I will merely stress that it is only too easy to lose the balance in either direction, falling either into an over-emphasis on the element of dependence, thus depriving creatures of any real substantiality and spontaneity, or into an over-emphasis on their reality, forgetting that this reality is itself a gift from creator and making the creatures virtually into finite gods. It is indeed not easy to see all the implications of the openness of creatures to God, as long as we remain on the level of subhuman and subrational existence; the matter will become clearer when we go on to consider those implications in the case of man. We may, however, observe that, while it is difficult to see how subrational creatures can, without losing their particular individualities, be elevated into the life of their creator (and this is what, where rational creatures are concerned, the word ‘supernatural’, in the strict sense, has come to mean in Catholic theology), they conspicuously manifest on the natural level a character of incompleteness, of reaching beyond themselves for their fulfilment, which is in line with their dual aspect as genuine and at the same time open realities. One need not agree in every detail with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in order to see significance in the way in which, throughout the ladder of nature at every level, entities do not just go on their way as isolated individuals but find their fulfilment, and are taken into progressively higher orders of activity, by entering into organic association with others to which they are inherently open and in union with which their own activity is enhanced and elevated. Fundamental particles grouped into atoms, atoms into molecules, molecules into cells, cells into multicellular organisms, these again grouped into social complexes, until we come at last to man and the noosphere. This openness of creatures to one another and their openness, in association with others, to higher levels of existence and activity is, of course, not the same thing as their openness to their creator, but it is an analogue of it and a tendency towards its realisation. At any stage in the process the balance between individuality and openness can be lost, and the process can come to a halt with either, on the one hand, a collapse and deliquescence of the individual into non-existence or, on the other, a loss of openness and a retreat into a static and incapsulated condition in which the possibility of further development and advance has vanished. Many examples of both these types of dead end can, of course, be found in the course of biological evolution. The most terrible example of the incapsulated condition occurs on the human level, if a man loses his openness not only to his fellow men but also to God.

Here we have moved on to our second point, which is concerned not with finite beings in general but with man. The special feature is that man, as a rational and personal being, is capable of actualising his openness to a rational and personal God in a way that is impossible to beings devoid of rational personality. I have said that man is capable of actualising his openness to God, but it would be more accurate to say that he is capable of having it actualised for him. By the nature of the case the initiative must come from God, by whose will and power man's very openness to him is conferred and maintained. However, I would not denote man's part in this simply by the adjective ‘passive’, for this has much too static and negative a suggestion to be an adequate term for the relation of a conscious and rational person to the personal being by whom his very existence is continually bestowed; I would prefer the adjective ‘receptive’. But however we designate it, its distinctive feature is its personal character. Man, unlike (as far as we know) any other inhabitant of the material world, is made in the image of God. The personal creature is open to the personal Creator; cor ad cor loquitur.

Now the intercourse of personal beings, even on the finite and created level, is characteristically one of conversation, of the mutual communication of thought and knowledge; this is why language plays such an important part in human society. And even when two human beings achieve such a degree of union that at the points of its highest realisation, language gives way to silence, the element of communication, indeed of self-communication, so far from vanishing remains and is enhanced. Indeed, if I have been right in asserting that the essence of knowledge is that the knower in a mysterious way, ‘intentionally’ as the Thomists say, becomes the object known, it is impossible to conceive even the lowest and most uncommitted modes of human communication as leaving the knower and the known entirely external to each other. All the more then, when we consider the possibility of God revealing himself to man, is it impossible to think of God as making a purely external impact upon man or as simply offering him items of information.

Many theologians in recent years have indeed asserted that divine revelation is given in acts rather than in words, but this assertion has, I think, often been unhelpful, since they frequently seem to have conceived of God's acts as having an even more external character than words could have. They have sometimes suggested that God's revelatory acts are such sheer bolts from the blue, such explosions of divine invasion totally unrelated to anything in the situation to which they are addressed, that they are not only unaccompanied by any intelligible utterance but are also insusceptible of intelligible description or interpretation. Oddly enough, this view has tended to appear in just those theological circles in which, as regards theology in general, the notion of the Word of God holds a very central position. This radical opposition between revelation conceived in terms of acts and revelation conceived in terms of words is, I believe, in any case perverse, since it mistakenly thinks of both the acts and the words of God as having a primarily external relation to the creature, as consisting in an impact rather than in an intimate transformation and vivification. Behind all this there lies a fear, laudable enough if one were to grant its presuppositions, that to admit that there could be any real self-communication of God to man, any real elevation of man into the life of God, any ‘deification’ of man (to use the term that has become classical in Catholic theology7) would be to blur the distinction between the Creator and the creature and to slip into a position virtually indistinguishable from pantheism. It is, however, the presuppositions that need questioning, for they consist, I believe, in a false, or at any rate a very inadequate, understanding of the relation between the Creator and the creature. This relation has only too often been thought of solely in terms of a comparison of the respective natures or essences of God and man, to the neglect of the concrete existential activity uniting them. It makes little difference whether the comparison is made in quantitative or in qualitative terms. Sometimes we are told that God is infinite and man is finite, sometimes that God is das ganz Anderes, the ‘wholly other’, and both these assertions are true. They neglect, however, the basic fact in which the mutual otherness of God and man consists, namely that man is totally dependent for his existence on the incessant creative activity of the self-existent God. And the importance of this, as I have previously emphasised, is that, while it involves the greatest conceivable contrast between God and man, it simultaneously places them in the most intimate connection. Extrinsecism as regards grace does not logically necessitate extrinsecism as regards nature, though I think the converse is true. It is logically possible to hold that man as a creature is interiorly energised by God but that God never augments the bare minimum without which man could not exist as man at all; but it is not, as I see it, logically possible to hold that man is raised by God to a supernatural union with him and to hold at the same time that on the natural level man is entirely isolated from God, for grace must have some foothold in nature in order to act at all. It is, however, fairly clear that in practice the two extrinsecisms are likely to go together. One of the most striking examples known to me of extrinsecism on the level of nature is to be found in Dr Harvey Cox's book The Secular City, in which, after quite correctly pointing out that the monotheism of the Bible rejects any suggestion that the world is itself divine and thus repudiates all forms of pantheism and nature-worship, he interprets this as meaning that the world has no connection with God whatever and that therefore no traces of God's activity are to be validly discerned in the world. Apparently Cox conceives creation as the projection of the world by God into a condition of total isolation from him. I cannot think that this position is rationally coherent, as Cox appears to hold that God has at least managed to communicate to this isolated world the information that it is isolated from him.8

In much recent theological writing the concept of the supernatural has been either disowned or else pushed right into the background. In Dr J. A. T. Robinson's famous book Honest to God it is disowned in scornful tones, usually under the still more contemptible form of ‘supra-natural’. Dr George A. Lindbeck, writing about the Second Vatican Council, refers to ‘the negative fact that only rarely in the hundred thousand words which the council produced is the classical distinction between the natural and the supernatural introduced. The pattern of thought’, he adds, ‘is sometimes present, particularly in the Declaration on Religious Freedom, but not once are the terms themselves used in the major documents.’9 I do not think, however, that we can afford to do without the distinction, though I think that Catholic theology has tended in the past to formulate it in a very rigid and unsatisfactory manner, especially in the textbooks, and that it needs a good deal of reformulation and development.

The textbook doctrine has tended to see man's natural constitution as rounded off and complete in itself, and as concerned entirely with his life in this world and sustained by the forces of nature. On top of this there has been superposed a supernatural constitution, in virtue of which man is orientated to the supernatural end of the vision of God and is sustained by divine grace and the sacramental paraphernalia of the Christian Church. Although nature is held to possess apotentia oboedientialis for grace and the supernatural, this consists of little more than a lack of antagonism towards it, and the two orders are thought of rather as if they were two apartments on adjacent floors, with a layer of soundproof packing between the natural ceiling below and the supernatural floor above. The Thomist maxim ‘Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it’10 has been interpreted as if it means simply that it is better for man to enjoy grace in addition to nature, although nature would be perfectly complete without it. Now it must be recognised that the purpose, or one of the purposes, of this rigidly separatist view has been to preserve the sheer gratuitousness of the grace of God; it is a free gift from God, and man can have no right, either physical or moral, to demand it. Protestant theology, no less than Catholic, and for much the same reason, has frequently made the same hard-and-fast barrier between nature and grace, though, having made it, it has tended then to discard or ignore nature altogether, while Catholic theology has tried to hold on to both of them in spite of their virtual isolation from each other. Such a statement as this is inevitably over-simplified and cannot do justice to the best thought in either Catholicism or Protestantism, but it is, I think, substantially accurate and it pinpoints the problem. The nature of the problem is impressively shown by the difficulty, which has exercised generations of Thomist scholars, of reconciling St Thomas's repeated assertions that the end of man—the purpose for which he is made—is the supernatural vision of God with his no less emphatic insistence that man has neither the right to grace and the supernatural nor any powers of his own to attain them.11 This is not the place to discuss the fine work which has been done by Fr Henri de Lubac, in his attempt to get behind the late medieval and post-medieval scholastics in order to disentangle the theological issues at stake,12 or to expound the way in which Fr Karl Rahner, writing in the idiom of German existentialism, has made use of the notion of man's endowment with a ‘supernatural existential’.13 To follow up this question and to see the way in which it involves not only the post-Reformation confrontations between Catholics and Protestants in the West but also the much earlier confrontation between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism—confrontations which have taken on a new significance in the more inclusive setting of the modern Ecumenical Movement—would lead us beyond the limits that are proper to Gifford Lectures; I have, however, discussed the matter at some length in an appendix to my printed text.14 Here I will simply point out that if the relation between God and man is of the kind that I have defended in these lectures, we can at least see the main contours of a solution to the problem. For my two chief contentions have been, first, that man, as a creature, is fundamentally open to God and capable of receiving fresh and unpredictable influxes of God's creative activity; secondly, that God and man are personal beings and therefore can enter into that intimacy of self-communication and mutual possession that is proper to persons. That God is not only personal but transcendent and self-existent adds indeed to the wonder of this mutual intercourse of God and man, but does nothing to contradict or impede it. And here the scholastic tags, which can seem so dry and dull as mere formulas, take on an unexampled lucidity and warmth. ‘Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it’,15 because nature always lies open to God. ‘Grace presupposes nature’,16 not in the sense that grace is a mere superstructure erected on top of nature and needing nature only to prevent it from falling through the floor, but that nature is the very material in which grace works and for whose ultimate perfection grace itself exists. As I have written elsewhere:

It is quite wrong to suppose that grace is a kind of supernatural substance and that nature exists for the sake of it. On the contrary, grace apart from nature is a pure abstraction; and it is for the sake of nature that grace exists. Supernature simply means nature supernaturalised by grace, and the possibility of this supernaturalisation lies in the openness of nature to God. For a nature which was closed in the Greek sense, supernaturalisation would be identical with destruction, for it could only mean the replacement of one nature by another. For a nature which is open in the Christian sense, supernaturalisation means expansion, development, perfection, a realisation of hitherto unsuspected potentialities, a new infusion of the creative activity of God; and when this supernaturalisation has taken place unlimited possibilities of further supernaturalisation lie ahead. In each stage of the process God takes the initiative; the creature can neither envisage what the next stage will be, nor demand its fulfilment as a right, nor initiate its achievement. Nevertheless, as the process goes on the creature finds its own activity not by-passed or suppressed, but on the contrary liberated and enhanced. The more it is supernaturalised, the more truly natural it becomes. And all this because openness to God is of its very essence; dependence upon him is part of its definition.17

The third point which I said that I intended to argue in this lecture is that man's capacity to be elevated above the purely natural level includes an ability to recognise and apprehend God's word if and when God speaks to him. If I have carried my hearers with me until now, I do not think there will be any special difficulty here. It must however be said that more is involved than the mere reception of information about God; if God is able to give himself to man by fresh influxes of creative power, man will know God and not merely have knowledge about him. And knowing God is sharing God's life. This is the truth that was concealed, however imperfectly it was expressed, in the saying that revelation is given in acts and not in words. That God can reveal himself in words if he so wishes should be obvious; whether he has done so and what means, human or other, he has used to do it is the business of the positive religions and not of natural theology, though natural theology might have something to say about the ways by which revelation could be recognised. We may recall that the second volume of A. E. Taylor's Gifford Lectures, The Faith of a Moralist, bore the subtitle ‘Natural Theology and the Positive Religions’. I shall not myself embark upon that enterprise, but I would underline the contention of all the great theoreticians and practicians of the spiritual life that God's revelation of himself to human beings, whether it comes in sacred scriptures, ecclesiastical pronouncements, theological formulas or in personal experience, is of necessity baffling and obscure. I have in an earlier lecture said something about the inevitable limitations of human language, limitations which are at the maximum when the object of the language is not the finite world but its transcendent ground. As regards personal experience, it is perhaps sufficient to remind ourselves of the phenomenon of the dark night of the soul, a phenomenon which has recently come to be recognised as a common feature not only of advanced states of mystical union but of any attempt to know God and to live in accordance with his will. It is not surprising that our knowledge of God should be limited and obscure; what is surprising is that it is as extensive as it is, when we remember the disparity between its human subject and its divine object. But, whether we are considering the heights of mysticism, man's knowledge of God by revelation and grace, or the simple recognition of God as the transcendent ground of natural objects, in every case what makes this possible is the fact that God incessantly energises every finite being and in so doing gives it an openness for further influxes of his creative activity.

But this is not the end of the story, at least as far as one of the great world-religions is concerned. It is the central affirmation of Christianity that the Creator has entered into an even more intimate union with his creation than any we have as yet considered, that, as the Christian formularies put it, ‘for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven’ and that this took place ‘not by the conversion of godhead into flesh but by the assumption of manhood into God’. This is not the place for an exposition of Christological doctrine or for a discussion of the various views that have been held in Christendom about the Incarnation and its implications. It is, however, relevant to observe that if we enquire about the possibility of an incarnation we are raising issues that fall within the scope of natural theology. Few indeed, if any, Christian thinkers have tried to prove on purely rational grounds that God was bound to become incarnate, though St Anselm, in his treatise Cur Deus Homo?, perhaps came closest to doing this. Christians have in fact always seen the Incarnation as an entirely unexpected and unforeseeable act of divine grace and goodness. Even the great Old Testament prophecies of a future redemptive act on the part of God were obscure and mysterious, and it was only after the coming of Christ that their true content was identified. The revelation in Jesus Christ was, in the words of the Apostle Paul, ‘the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations’.18 Nevertheless, if God became man, man must be the kind of being it was possible for God to become.19 Ab esse ad posse valet consecutio. It may therefore be proper for us briefly to consider what the possibility of an incarnation of God in manhood would imply about human nature itself.

It is, I think, only on the hypothesis of a strictly orthodox view of the Incarnation that there is really anything special to discuss. If we held, for example, some form of adoptionist view, such as is quite common today, that is to say, if we held that the union of God with man in Christ differed only in degree from his union with any other good man, there would be nothing to say that we have not said already. When, for example, Dr John Knox writes: ‘We can have the humanity without the pre-existence and we can have the pre-existence without the humanity. There is absolutely no way of having both’,20 he is in fact begging the question of the possibility of an incarnation at the start, and begging it in a negative sense. I find it more interesting and less dogmatic to ask the question: If we can have the humanity and the pre-existence together, what does this imply about humanity and its relation to God?21 Now the Incarnation means that in the case of one particular individual human nature—that of Jesus—God is not only the creator who incessantly preserves it in existence but is also the subject of all its activities and experiences, physical and mental alike. If we think of God and man in purely static and spatial terms this will indeed be incredible; how can you cram the quart—and much more than a quart—of divinity into the pint-pot of humanity? But thinking in static and spatial terms is one of the things that we are always told we must not do, and all through this discussion I have tried to avoid doing it. God, let us again remind ourselves, is rational, willing and personal, eminentissime; man, of all the beings on this earth, is rational, willing and personal too. Is it perhaps possible for the rational, willing and personal Creator, who sustains all rational, willing and personal creatures as objects of his love and pours into them grace upon grace, so to embrace rational, willing and personal finitude as to become not only its sustainer but its subject, and in doing this to meet them on their own level, share their own life and raise them to even greater heights of union with him? No, says Dr Knox, ‘we can have the humanity, etc.… There is absolutely no way of having both.’ I am not so sure; perhaps it is in his ability to assume a created nature that the Creator's omnipotence is most fully shown. It is not the business of natural theology to enquire how many Persons there are in the Godhead, whether God might have assumed some other created nature than that of man, and whether some other person than that of the Son might have become incarnate. Nevertheless———

‘Of all the works of God’, wrote St Thomas Aquinas, ‘the mystery of the Incarnation most greatly surpasses our reason; for nothing more wonderful could be thought of that God could do than that very God, the Son of God, should become very man.’22

‘Most greatly surpasses our reason’, indeed, but does it therefore contradict it?

  • 1.

    Finite and Infinite, p. 16 et al.

  • 2.

    I am in fact doubtful whether we ought to describe even inanimate objects as in all respects passive in our perception of them. There is, however, an immense difference between any contribution that they can make and that made by animate, and still more by rational, personal beings. Cf. my Existence and Analogy, pp. 182ff.

  • 3.

    The Faith of the Christian Church, p. 27.

  • 4.

    Finite and Infinite, pp. 2f.

  • 5.

    Cf. K. Rahner, ‘Concerning the Relation between Nature and Grace’, in Theological Investigations, I, pp. 297ff et al. Cf. also pp. 233 infra.

  • 6.

    op cit., p. 3. The original German title is Hörer des Wortes.

  • 7.

    It is, of course, maintained that this ‘deification’ involves no loss of creaturely status. Cf. my Via Media, ch. iv, ‘Deified Greaturehood: the doctrine of Grace’.

  • 8.

    Cf. my Theology and the Future, pp. 162ff, for a fuller discussion of Dr Cox's position.

  • 9.

    The Future of Roman Catholic Theology, p. 22.

  • 10.

    S.Th. I, i, 8 ad 2; De Ver. xxvii, 6 ad 1; et al.

  • 11.

    Cf., e.g., James E. O'Mahoney, The Desire of God in the Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas (1929); Patrick K. Bastable, Desire for God (1947).

  • 12.

    Surnaturel: Etudes historiques (1946); The Mystery of the Supernatural (1967, French original 1965); Augustinianism and Modern Theology (1969, French original 1965).

  • 13.

    Theological Investigations, I, pp. 297ff; II, pp. 235ff; IV, pp. 165ff.

  • 14.

    Appendix III, infra.

  • 15.

    S.Th., I, i. 8 ad 2.

  • 16.

    S.Th., I, ii, 2 ad 1.

  • 17.

    The Importance of Being Human, pp. 61f.

  • 18.

    Rom. xvi. 26.

  • 19.

    Cf. J. A. Baker: ‘When God enters our space and time, a man is what he becomes. There must therefore be something appropriate about manhood which makes it a possible way of life for God’ (The Foolishness of God, p. 408).

  • 20.

    The Humanity and Divinity of Christ, p. 106.

  • 21.

    Cf. K. Rahner: ‘Only someone who forgets that the essence of man… is to be unbounded… can suppose that it is impossible for there to be a man, who, precisely by being man in the fullest sense (which we never attain), is God's Existence into the world’ (Theological Investigations, I, p. 184).

  • 22.

    S.c.G., IV, xxvii.