Beyond the Blue Glass: Catholic Essays on Faith and Culture, Aidan Nichols OP

Beyond the Blue Glass: Catholic Essays on Faith and Culture, Aidan Nichols OP

Tracey Rowland

BEYOND THE BLUE GLASS: Catholic Essays on Faith and Culture, Volume 1
by Aidan Nichols OP

(St Austin Press, London, 2002. Inquiries St Austin Press, PO Box 180, Sumner Park Qld 4074, (07) 3376-0105)

Fr Aidan Nichols is prior of Blackfriars Cambridge. In addition to running a priory and publishing several books a year, he also lectures in Oxford and Cambridge and in 2004 will be a Visiting Professor at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne.

In this collection his essays examine "crisis" points in the theological and liturgical traditions of the 20th century to the present. In particular they focus on the points at issue between the neo-Thomists and the Nouvelle Thèologie scholars, between von Balthasar and Rahner, between different liturgical schools, between Cardinal Ratzinger and his critics, and conversely, the points of convergence between Newman and von Balthasar.

Perhaps because of the centrality of the Thomist tradition to all of these themes he begins the collection with an essay on the life of St Thomas. It is written with an historian's attention to period detail and includes a defence of the dignity of the Dominican Order against the notion that St Dominic's preachers were the clerical riff-raff of the Middle Ages.

While conceding that the decision of Aquinas to join the Dominicans was not warmly received by his family, Nichols nonetheless observes that it was not as if a son of a Duke had absconded from Eton to smoke dope in Islington. The fact that Aquinas received the habit of his Order from Thomas de Lentini who shortly after became Bishop of Bethlehem, Papal Legate and Patriarch of Jerusalem, gives some indication of the standing of the Order at the time of the entry of St Thomas.

The second essay on Thomism and the Nouvelle Thèologie is perhaps the most significant in the collection. It is commonly observed that within contemporary orthodox Catholic circles the most important division is between Thomists and Balthasarians, that is between those who work within a framework derived either solely from St Thomas, or from a combination of St Thomas with a modern author, and those who take their language and theological style from such authors as von Balthasar, de Lubac, or other scholars associated with the so-called Nouvelle Thèologie.

This division is not as simple as it is often presented and nor is it true that the Balthasarians all live in Europe and the Thomists in the United States, England, Scotland and Australia. Nichols, for example, is an Englishman and David Schindler is an American, and yet they are two of the leading proponents of the Balthasarian project internationally. Nonetheless, it is generally the case that scholars tend to fit into one or other camp and that Balthasarians are more commonly found on the Continent than in Anglophone territories.

The Balthasarians typically regard the Thomists' attempts to deal with modernity and post-modernity within the framework of classical Thomism as about as useful as the decision of Polish leaders in 1939 to thwart the advance of Panzer tanks with the Polish cavalry.

Meanwhile, the Thomists tend to regard the Balthasarians as unsystematic and therefore unstable, incomprehensibly obsessed with beauty in circumstances where the fight for truth and goodness would appear to be more urgent, and above all, people who share the Modern and Post-Modern interest in culture, history and subjectivity - themes which were not part of the repertoire of classical Thomism, and have a decidedly relativist smell about them!

Plurality of theologies

Nichols gives each side a sympathetic hearing. He upholds the argument of the Balthasarians that anyone who thinks he can meet the theological challenges of modernity and post-modernity with the tools of classical Thomism alone has a poor grasp of the enemy's artillery. On the other hand, he acknowledges the indispensable value of what he calls the "classical ontological theology of Aquinas". He supports the notion of a plurality of theologies and explicitly rejects the idea of a synthesis taking the form of Thomism absorbing the better insights of the Balthasarians, after which the Balthasarian project might "wither away".

Rather, Nichols suggests that "their differing theological functions should be honoured so long as these other theologies define their functions in a way that leaves the irreplaceable rule of the classical ontological theology intact". Implicit within this suggestion is the idea that the approaches of both schools are sufficiently different for one not to be reducible to the other.

The Balthasarian tendency to resist systematisation is one of the characteristics Nichols observes is shared with John Henry Newman. Others include an interest in the role of personal experience in faith formation, a vision of faith that is both aesthetic and rational, and a notion of certainty as evidence illuminated by the illative sense. In the essay "Littlemore from Lucerne: Cardinal Newman seen by Cardinal Balthasar", Nichols presents themes in Newman's Grammar of Assent as proto-Balthasarian.

The next essay in the collection - "Balthasar's Aims in His Theological Aesthetics" - is an excellent introduction to von Balthasar's project and something to give those whom Nichols calls "serious-minded Protestants suspicious of all this beauty stuff". The Ratzinger essay and the Rahner essay also provide excellent introductions to the scholarly projects of these authors, including a comprehensible presentation of Rahner's notion of the "anonymous Christian".

The first of the three essays on liturgical themes is devoted to a positive appraisal of the work of Dom Odo Casel and a negative appraisal of what Nichols calls the "flight from sacramental ontology". The latter he defines as "the mentality which views a sacrament as a festive action in which Christians assemble to celebrate their lived experience and to call to heart their common story". Cardinal Ratzinger is critical of the same tendency and calls it a form of idolatry whereby the community worships itself.

Liturgical theory

In his treatment of Casel's intellectual formation, Nichols summarises the philosophical forces which played themselves out in 20th century liturgical theory as: "Romanticism" giving rise to a view of liturgy as the release of feeling and sentimentalised celebration; "Nationalism" giving rise to a view of liturgy as the embodiment of ethnic and cultural community; "Neo-Classicism" giving rise to a view of worship as primarily didactic and ethical; and "Expressivism" giving rise to a view of liturgy as the manifestation of gifts already bestowed, along with wounds needing healing in the individual self. All of these theories are described by Nichols as "sub-theological ideologies".

The second essay is a reflection on two of the most significant liturgical documents of the 20th century - Mediator Dei and Sacrosanctum Concilium. Nichols concludes that both documents are worlds away from any sub-theological ideology for which the purpose of the liturgy might be, for instance, to affirm the group identity of the assembly, to express gender, class or ethic belonging, or to recognise in symbolic play the presence or action of the divine in secular life and reality.

The final essay in the collection is the author's review of Catherine Pickstock's After Writing. This essay will be valuable for people who recognise the importance of Pickstock's work but who lack the kind of knowledge of post-modern theory and language required to understand it. Plenty of people know that Pickstock has written a devastating critique of the movement to accommodate the liturgy to the norms of the culture of Modernity, but find they need a couple of degrees in theology and linguistics to follow it. This essay which was first published in the international Catholic journal Communio is a more accessible summary of her argument.

Overall the collection is a "must have" for students of contemporary theology, and is highly recommended for all who care about the state of Catholic liturgy and culture and especially for those who believe that liturgy is something greater than religious instruction, psycho-therapy and community bonding.

Dr Tracey Rowland is Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne Australia. Her book 'Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II' will be available in March 2003 from Routledge.

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