Thursday, 10 November 2011

Trinitarian Man

What is man? For Descartes, and for most of us unconsciously, man is a compound of body and soul; that is, a body and various mental states and faculties uneasily stitched together. But the traditional conception of man is rather more sophisticated, and needs to be recovered. We see a reference to it in St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (5:23): “spirit and soul and body”.

Cardinal Henri de Lubac devoted a long essay to the development and subsequent neglect of Pauline tripartite anthropology in the Christian West (it can be found in the volume Theology in History, published by Ignatius Press in 1996).
In the first part of this he establishes that St Paul’s references to this anthropology have deep roots in Scripture as well as in human experience. They were not simply imported from an alien Greek philosophy, as some have alleged (de Lubac notes the existence of “Plato phobia” among many Christian scholars, especially in the modern period). But the term for “spirit” (pneuma) remains deliberately ambiguous in Paul. On the one hand it may refer to the Holy Spirit or divine life implanted in man by baptism; on the other, it may refer to a part of man, and specifically to that “breath of life” which God breathed into his nostrils at the very beginning (Gen. 2:7). It becomes clear as he proceeds that we are talking of the “highest point of the soul”, and that the ambiguity in question is precisely due to the paradoxical relationship of nature to grace in our human destiny. We are created to share in the life of God, but we are not compelled to do so: we can attain that life only through the exercise of freedom.

The Fourth Council of Constantinople (870) is sometimes thought to have replaced this paradoxical, tripartite anthropology within orthodox Catholicism by a more a dualistic understanding of man. However, that Council took the position it did in order to oppose an incipient dualism. It was concerned to ensure that the distinction of the spirit from the soul of man would not introduce a “Gnostic” duality into the human subject of salvation (see Catechism, para 367). St Thomas, similarly, four centuries later, was concerned to defend the immortality of the soul by resisting the teaching of the Arabian Peripatetics who made a single angel the common source of intellectual illumination for all men. For Thomas, the light flows directly from God to the human spirit, and belongs to the essence of the soul, though it may be “strengthened” by an angel’s light. St John of the Cross (in his “Counsels of Light and Love”) seems to imply actual angelic transmission to the individual soul: “Consider that your guardian angel does not always move the desire to act, though he ever illumines the reason”.

De Lubac, at any rate, does not judge the decision of 870 worthy of mention, but sees the tripartite tradition continuing without interruption right through the early Scholastic period. In St Thomas, the distinction takes a slightly different form: that between action and contemplation, or the moral and the mystical life, or ratio and intellectus. It re-emerges fully in the Renaissance with Nicholas of Cusa and Ficino. Despite the triumph of the new Cartesian dualism in the universities, the authentic Christian tradition shines through in a continuous chain of authors up to and beyond Paul Claudel (who speaks of “this sacred point in us that says Pater noster”). How could it not, when the experience of every spiritual master confirms the existence in us of a place where we encounter God - the spirit, or “soul of the soul”?

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