Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Epilogue

Apotheosis of Thomas Aquinas by Francisco de Zurbaran 1631

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Pagan Infiltration of Christian Theology

In the future, the present writer might choose to trace the influences of Pagan theology more extensively, and in detail, down to the present day.  Additional avenues of pertinent study would be an examination of the psychology behind Mysticism (what inner needs and desires compel practitioners to crave and seek mystical experience, according to the testimony of expert sources, and why Mystics so intractably defend their practice in spite its contradictions of Scripture) as well as the politics behind the sacramental/sacerdotal system.

For now, it is appropriate to close the present study with a selection of examples of the later effects of the intrusion of Pagan philosophy into Christian theology.

John Scotus Eriugena (c. 810–c. 877)

As mentioned earlier, Eriugena (or Erigena) translated the works attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius, long popular in the East, into Latin, which made them available to the Western Church.  He likewise translated and propagated works by Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor (citation “John Scottus Eriugena” in SEP at  Eriugena “made it his aim to elucidate the vague theories of Dionysius, and to present them as a consistent philosophical system worked out by the help of Aristotle and perhaps Boethius.”  This fueled an exercise in speculation which Inge, himself a Neoplatonist, labels “audacious” (William Ralph Inge, Christian Mysticism [NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899], p. 133; see also Mosheim, vol. 2, p. 332).  Eriugena thereafter gives rein to the “most dangerous tendencies” of Dionysius as well as Origen and the Alexandrian Fathers (Inge, CM, p. 137).

In his time, Eriugena enjoyed the patronage and protection of Charles the Bald.  Over the ensuing centuries, many of his works were condemned by bishops’ councils, yet he maintained a strong following, including Hugh of St. Victor, Meister Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa; and in the 19th Century, Hegelians (“Eriugena” in SEP).

Bonaventure (1221-1274)

The Franciscans were founded by Francis of Assisi in 1209.  Their leader in the middle of the century was Bonaventure, a traditionalist who defended the theology of Augustine and the philosophy of Plato, incorporating only a little of Aristotle in with the more neoplatonist elements.  Following Anselm, Bonaventure supposed that reason can only discover truth when philosophy is illuminated by religious faith (citation “Scholasticism” at

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

The textbooks credit Aquinas with being an Aristotelian, rationalist scholastic, yet Inge calls him “nearer to Plotinus than to the real Aristotle” (Russell, p. 284).  John F. Wippel (Metaphysical Themes in Thomas Aquinas II, in Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, vol. 47 [The Catholic University of America Press, 2007]) catalogs a number of instances in which Aquinas’s theology follows Plato (pp. 287, 288), Dionysius (pp. 9, 144, 159, 164, 287, 288), or some other Neoplatonist (pp. 10, 281), as well as Augustine’s Book of Eighty-Three Questions (pp. 287 f.), rather than Aristotle.  Dionysius’ book on divine names was one of Aquinas’s favorites, though in some ways misapprehended (Louth, p. 155).

Aquinas outlines three ways in which God can be known:  reason, revelation, and intuition (Russell, p. 460), the nature of which he does not fully explain, but is comparable to the three “stages” of Gregory of Nyssa, and bears every appearance of a neat Neoplatonic triad.

Following the teaching of Dionysius, “names of pure perfections do signify the divine substance albeit in deficient and imperfect fashion.  Since every agent [cause, form] acts insofar as it is in act (sic.), and therefore produces something like itself [i.e., effect, shadow], the form of any effect must be present in its efficient cause in some way” (Wippel, p. 159), which goes right back to the Proclian/Dionysian concept of names as symbols having sympathy toward their originating forms, i.e., effects that appeal to their receptive causes.

A divine idea, according to Aquinas, “exists in God”; moreover, following Aristotle, “like produces like” (Ibid., p. 164).  “The sacramental event”—now following Neoplatonism—has a “single hidden origin in the ‘being, living and thinking’ of contingent beings”; therefore “sacraments function as events which bring believers into harmony with this origin” (Lieven Boeve, “Thinking Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context: A Playground for Theological Renewal,” in L. Boeve and L. Leijssen, eds., Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context [Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2001], p. 7).  In this “context, sacramental grace is defined according to a causality-scheme” in such a way that it “causes/realises what it signifies,” which is grace “produced” by God (Ibid.).  Since “grace is nothing else than a certain shared similitude to the divine nature” (Aquinas), following the circular reasoning that sacraments are the means of grace that God has provided, then it is the sacraments by which “God produces grace” (Ibid., pp. 7-8).

Today, this Dionysian subtext, bequeathed through Aquinas, is reflected with remarkable exactitude in modern expressions of Catholic doctrine:

According to Catholic theology, a dynamic link exists between these sacramental signs and the realities they signify.  The outward sign is not just a symbol of divine grace, rather sacraments are efficacious signs:  they do not merely represent a sacred reality but themselves cause the reality they represent. …. Accordingly, the outward signs of the sacraments are dynamic signs and instruments of grace, visible and tangible realities dignified through their involvement in the sanctification of humanity (Helena M. Tomko, “Introduction: Sacramental Realism,” Sacramental Realism: Gertrud von le Fort and German Catholic Literature in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich (1924-46), MHRA Texts and Dissertations, vol. 68, Bithell Series of Dissertations, vol. 31 [Leeds, UK: Maney Publishing, 2007], p. 2).

Besides sacramental grace, Aquinas presents a mode, if not a methodology, by which a soul may transcend, albeit temporarily, to Mystical Union with God.  The only means he admits is “by grace,” through having been granted the lumen gloriae, the “light of glory.”  This “vision of God by the blessed in Heaven is not mere vision, but union,” writes A. B. Sharpe.  It does not come by a Plotinian “discursive intellectual process”; rather, “they see God as He is in Himself, not from a distance … but from within” (Alfred Bowyer Sharpe, Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value, 2nd ed. (London: Sands & Company, 1910), pp. 93, 95).  This degree of personal revelation of God, one notes, is certainly a bold claim, if not to say a presumption, one hardly made by the Prophets.  The picture of transcendence which Aquinas presents perhaps describes ecstasy, of the Augustinian type, but goes beyond ecstasy.  It does not seem to go quite so far as “displacement” or “possession” as Philo ascribed to the Prophets, since “self-consciousness” remains; but seems definitely to describe a superimposition of God’s mind on one’s own (see Ibid., pp. 93 f.), which one presumes automatically produces spiritual formationapotheosis, if not theopoiesis.

The experience of the lumen gloriae may presumably be equated with the “changeless light” of Augustine, and the illuminations described in the experiences of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila (Ibid., pp. 99 f.). John’s concept of “the dark night of the soul” was strongly influenced by Dionysius, whom he often quotes, as well as by Gregory of Nyssa (Louth, p. 176).

The celestial hierarchy of Dionysius and the benign daemons of Proclus, the powers invoked by Pagan or by Christian theurgy, by Platonist, by Cabbalist, or by saint, alike reward the successful aspirant with supernatural endowments; and so far Apollonius of Tyana and Peter of Alcantara, Asclepigenia and St. Theresa, must occupy as religious magicians the same province.  The error is in either case the same—a divine efficacy is attributed to rites and formulas, sprinklings or fumigations, relics or incantations, of mortal manufacture (Vaughan, p. 46).

Interestingly, John himself warns at some length of the risk of mistaking natural phenomena and experiences of specious origin for the revelation of God (Sharpe, p. 102).  Neither John nor Teresa “address themselves to any consideration of the mode, whether partially natural or wholly supernatural, in which the supernatural effects are produced” (Ibid., pp. 108 f.).

Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321)

Dante writes in Paradiso 28:127-135:

Those orders upwards all intensely gaze,
And prevail below, that towards God
All are attracted, whilst they all attract.
And with such mighty longings Denys [Dionysius] sought
To contemplate those Orders, that he names,
And, like myself, described them in detail.
But Gregory thought not afterwards as he;
Whence and so soon as in this heaven his eyes
Were opened, he at his own error smiled.
~David Johnston, trans.,
A Translation of Dante’s Paradiso [Bath, UK: Printed at the Chronicle Office, 1868], p. 171, also quoted in part by Louth, p. 155.

Dante’s divine hierarchy, then, was based on that of Pseudo-Dionysius, whom he seems to regard as a prophet. Pope Gregory the Great, who disagreed somewhat with Dionysius, and with whom Dante had some differences, is seen acknowledging his errors with a smile.

E. R. Dodds points back even further to Plotinus as the theological source and watershed in Christian thinking:  “In [The Enneads] converge almost all the main currents of thought that come down from eight hundred years of Greek speculation; out of it there issues a new current, destined to fertilize minds as different as those of Augustine and Boethius, Dante and Meister Eckhart, Coleridge, Bergson and Mr. T. S. Eliot” (“Tradition and Personal Achievement in the Philosophy of Plotinus,” The Journal of Roman Studies vol. 50/1-2 [1960], p. 1; also quoted in part from another source by Louth, p. 35).

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Kant expressed Platonic ideas when he distinguished, in his Inaugural Dissertation, an intelligible, paradigmatic world from the sensible material world, a view he never relinquished in spite of later criticisms of Plato.  He also appeared to strike a Platonic note later when, inspired by the empirical scientific “revolution” of Copernicus, he suggested that one’s own metaphysical perception of reality might be judged as valid as that discovered by scientific observation (citation “Immanuel Kant” in SEP at

Karl Barth (1886–1968)

Early in his career, Barth was open in his admiration for certain historic figures, such as Mozart, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and in particular Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Kant.  Dostoevsky was steeped in the beliefs and superstitions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as widely read in philosophers such as Hegel and Kant.

Partly due to the influence of his philosopher brother, Heinrich, Barth placed Socrates and Plato on a level with Abraham and the Prophets in terms of inspired moral insight.  He featured them alongside Biblical figures in his “Lebensbilder aus der Geshichte der christlichen Religion” lessons to the young girls of the congregation.  Plato and Socrates, according to Barth, shared the ideals of the Prophets.  Since “Jesus is, for us, not lesser but greater when we recognize him everywhere,” these great pre-Christians act as “lights” and “mirrors” to reflect Christ to us.  Kant further represented to Barth a “unique resurrection” of Platonic thinking, and therefore shares the limelight.  Barth maintained these views at least through the authorship of his two Romans commentaries and his First Corinthians 15 commentary, The Resurrection of the Dead.  He wrote, “It does not matter whether what they have and guard is Moses or John the Baptist, Plato or Socialism, or even the simple, daily activity of an inherent moral reason:  it is calling, promise, the potential for a parable in this having and guarding, the offer and the open door of the deepest knowledge” (Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy [Oxford University Press, 2012], pp. 32 f., 45, 64 f., 76, 97, 106, 239, 247; Gregg Strawbridge, “Karl Barth’s Rejection of Natural Theology: Or an Exegesis of Romans 1:19-20,” A Paper Presented to the Evangelical Theological Society, San Francisco, 1997], posted at

In later years, Barth became more reticent about his enthusiasm for Socrates and Plato, admitting that his earlier works had a “remarkable crust of Kantian and Platonic ideas.”  “But look,” he excused, “at that time I was strongly influenced—always influenced—by platonic philosophy.  And like in the Römerbrief so also in this book on resurrection there are traces of Plato.  And I stopped being a Platonist later on.”  So “then I was under the influence, well, from Plato, from Kant, from Dostojewski, from Kierkegaard and so on” (Oakes, pp. 76 note, 239).

Barth did not seem to be of a mystic bent, did not like using philosophical terms, and was critical of the intrusion of Metaphysics into theology in his day, yet does appear to have picked up a measure of Platonic, even Neoplatonic thinking.  He echoed Plato’s yearning for the Good and the Beautiful, fundamental motivations in Plato’s search for transcendence.  As in Plotinus’ quest for the Fatherland, the Creation has forgotten God and longs to return to the source.  As Kenneth Oakes summarizes, “Jesus Christ is the turning point of time and history, the Tatsache, the actuality, not as a philosopher or as a moral teacher, but because he is that which both Plato and the Old Testament prophets posited as the ideal: a man living in time and yet also living in eternity” (Oakes, pp. 33, 45, 76).  Judging as well from the way his contemporary, Ludwig Wittgenstein, used the term Tatsache, “fact,” in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), it appears that Barth is thinking in terms of Christ as Logos, philosophically speaking, and ultimately as Platonic form; while Wittgenstein in parallel thinks in terms of a world created of “facts” made up of “objects,” which in turn build “pictures” of thought.  “The picture,” says his Tractatus 2.12, “is a model of reality”—or as one could well surmise, a form (Luigi Perissinotto, “‘The Socratic Method!'”: Wittgenstein and Plato,” Wittgenstein and Plato: Connections, Comparisons and Contrasts, eds. Luigi Perissinotto and Begoña Ramón Cámara, [Houndmills, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013], sec. 3; Robert B. Pippin, “Negation and Not-Being in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Plato’s Sophist,” Kant-Studien 70 [1-4] [1979], p. 180; citation “Ludwig Wittgenstein” in SEP at

Karl Rahner (1904–1984)

A Jesuit priest, Karl Rahner studied Kant and Joseph Maréchal, a transcendental Thomist, extensively, and during his doctoral studies became an especial devotee of existentialist Martin Heidegger, whose lectures he attended faithfully.  One of Heidegger’s peeves was Platonism in church tradition, in the sense of a transcedent spiritual world over the material.  Rahner adopted this bias, and included Heidegger’s as well as Maréchal’s views in his doctoral dissertation, which was subsequently rejected.  Nevertheless, he published the work in 1939 as Geist in Welt, a radical reinterpretation of Thomas Aquinas, which gained Rahner a popular following (Thomas Sheehan, “The Dream of Karl Rahner,” The New York Review of Books 29/1 [February 4, 1982] at; citation “Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia at

Rahner was labeled as heterodox, if not heretical, and was placed under publishing sanctions by Pope Pius XII; but was soon favored by “progressive” Pope John XXIII with an appointment as advisor to the pivotal Vatican II Councils, where he emerged as a popular “star.”  “Rahner’s influence was enormous,” writes a critic.  “He satisfied a modern world, and modern churchmen, whose ears were itching for doctrinal compromises under the pretext of ‘enlightenment.'”  During the Council, Rahner worked alongside another Progressive, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.  It was revealed in 1994 that during the several years of Vatican II, Rahner wrote 758 letters to his longtime, ostensibly “Platonic” love interest, writer Luise Rinser.  A double divorcee with two sons, Rinser professed Catholicism while delving into Buddhism, was a pro-abortion and anti-celibacy activist, ran for German president with the Green Party, and lended her support to dictator Kim Il Sung of North Korea (John Vennari, “Karl Rahner’s Girlfriend,” Catholic Family News [May 2004], now reposted at

Espousing views called the New Theology, Rahner and other advocates pressed to reform or redefine many Catholic dogmas.  Earlier, Father David Greenstock had warned, “The main contention of the partisans of this new movement is that theology, to remain alive, must move with the times.  At the same time, they are very careful to repeat all the fundamental propositions of traditional theology, almost as if there was no intention of any attack against it.  This is very true of such writers as Fathers [Henri] de Lubac, [Jean] Daniélou, Rahner …. All of whom are undoubtedly at the very center of this movement” (“Thomism and the New Theology,” The Thomist 13 (1950), quoted in Ibid.). Rahner’s proposed doctrine of Transfinalization, intended to replace Transubstantiation, was condemned by Pope Paul VI in 1965 (“Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia; citation “Transfinalization” at

While outspoken against Platonic Dualism (Soul/Body), Rahner’s theology includes many Platonic as well as Neoplatonic and other Pagan elements.  He believed in a unity of the soul with the body (Aristotle), and no “afterlife,” as described in Christian revelation, but a “self-realization which embodies the result of what a man has made of himself during life” (Rahner, quoted in Sheehan), and only comes at death.  So “if one maintains that man is immortal as a whole and not just as a spirit, then it follows for Rahner that in death one does not leave the material world but enters more deeply into it and becomes what he calls ‘all-cosmic,’ somehow present to and in communication with all material reality” (Sheehan), i.e., a form of Pantheism.  To Rahner, God’s grace is built into nature, as is the soul itself, “Thus all persons are ‘Christian’—that is, caught up in God’s universal saving grace—by the very fact that they exist, regardless of whether they are baptized” (Sheehan), which of course is Inclusivism or Universalism.  God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved, and can apply his Atonement as he wishes, apart from belief in Jesus (“Religious Pluralism” in SEP at

A concept of such “anonymous Christianity” (Rahner’s term) “obviously changes the idea of missionary evangelization from ‘telling the natives what they don’t yet know’ to ‘showing them what they already are'” (Sheehan).  One recalls that “self-realization” was a necessary step in metaphysical ascent, going back at least as far as Plotinus; as to Plato the doctrine of the fallen entity drawn back to its source.  Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez also speaks in terms of “anonymous” Christians, in essence calling the masses of poor the Church, and therefore the temple of God and a “sacrament of universal salvation” (see Part 2 of this series).  “We and the world are sacraments of God,” writes Mark F. Fischer, and we “make the divine reality actual in our words and deeds” (“Karl Rahner and the Immortality of the Soul,” The Saint Anselm Journal 6.1 [Fall 2008], p. 1).  To Fischer and other Rahnerians, the “sacramental principle” is that the material world is the spiritual world, such that human expression is an expression of God (Ibid.).  In essence, humans are thus the effects of God’s cause in Christ, the shadows of his form, working in theurgic, Proclian, Dionysian sympathy toward the source, God.

“God established a world, not in a one-time act of creation, but in a constant process of divine causality [Proclian terminology], that is, in a relationship that is being ‘continuously constituted’ by God” (Fischer, p. 8).  Christ came “in the flesh” as Logos only insofar as one is referring to “soul”; which Incarnation constitutes in itself “an act of creation” (Ibid., pp. 10 ff.).  Likewise, the Resurrection was not an “historical event” but a divine expression or concretization of God’s identification with humanity (Sheehan).  Thus God “creates the human reality by the very fact that he assumes it as his own” (Rahner, italics his, quoted in Fischer, p. 10).  Rahner’s redefinition of the Trinity, in Sheehan’s opinion, “rehabilitates” it “by relating it to man’s self-transcendence.”  As Sheehan summarizes, “Man knows the Father when he knows God as infinitely distant, he knows the Son when he knows God as absolutely close, and he knows the Holy Spirit when he knows God as penetrating existence and history,” which statement is, by the way, a more or less exact reflection of the Platonic Trinity of “the One” (who lives in thick darkness), the Spirit, and the Soul (in that order).

Rahner’s version of transcendence presumes the preexistence of souls (a Platonic concept) by presupposing that all humans have a “latent experience of God” (“Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia; see also Fischer, p. 11).  Integral with Rahner’s theory of transcendence is the concept of “affective connaturality,” a concept which Aquinas rationalized from Dionysius and Aristotle (see Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason, ch. 3, online at  The term describes “intellect” not based on reason, nor from feelings or emotion, but intuitive and affective, by volition.  Aquinas saw a “difference between the knowledge of divine reality acquired by theology and the knowledge of divine reality acquired by mystical experience” (Ibid.), the latter of which in fact implies the Plotinian model of acquisition of divine knowledge through contemplative prayer, as earlier discussed.

Andrew Tallon defines that alternate kind of knowledge, or one might rather say innate formative virtue, as “the normal … way the good person, the saint (… in the ‘state of grace’), exists and acts as an embodied spirit, more highly actualized by virtues (some of them gifts of the Spirit), affectable and affected by God and then responding” (“The Heart in Rahner’s Philosophy of Mysticism,” Theological Studies 53 [1992], p. 711), which one presumes refers to the phenomenon of “spiritual formation.”  Tallon further defines “affective connaturality” as “the essential ‘mechanism’ of … intersubjectivity,” the latter term having to do with the interrelating of two minds (Ibid., p. 709), apparently expressing the theoretial superimposition of God’s mind upon the human mind taught by Aquinas.  Elsewhere, Tallon posits the instrumentality of “the life of the [small-‘s’] spirit” through “prayer and action in reciprocal causation” (Ibid., p. 708), which is perhaps comparable to a cause-and-effect theurgy of sympathy and receptivity.

There are two kinds of prayer, that which is direct and vocative (presumably rational and cognitive), and that imaginatively called “discernment of spirits … consciously and responsibly bringing the rest of life into free relation to the God addressed by prayer.  Love of God and love of neighbor are traditional ways of saying the same thing….  The most perfect ethical action comes from discernment based on mystical attunement.  The continuum of the ethical and mystical is again confirmed when the mystical as prayer becomes practical by flowing ‘backward’ as discernment” (Ibid., p. 708).  Further, “The human soul, when more perfectly actualized by good habits (and, we hope, graced by the virtues that are gifts of the Spirit), approximates asymptotically the intuitive knowing and spontaneous love of the angels” (Ibid., p. 714).

The word asymptotic is a geometry term Tallon chooses, one gathers, to express approximation in the sense of replication that is nearly but not exactly perfect—suggesting “image” or “shadow” as compared to reality or form; and the realm of the angels is, of course, the higher realm of the Platonic forms.  Moreover, Rahner (following Pierre Rousselot) “interprets Aquinas’s hierarchy of spirit as meaning that the more perfectly actualized human soul (lowest in the hierarchy of spirits that includes angels and God) … performs” on the highest level (Ibid., p. 713), a concept lifted directly out of Pseudo-Dionysius, being that of the hierarch, who alone may “contemplate, directly, the intelligible realm … the realm visible and accessible to the angels,” as described earlier.

So being Christian is reduced to arranging one’s mental and behavioral patterns in a kind of semi-cognitive Feng Shui, in order to be attuned to more effectively channel the thinking and activities of the Spirit of God which one cohabits.  The accomplished soul is then the one most imprinted with God’s mind and conformed, through self-realization combined with a spiritual osmosis, in a process of theopoiesis, till achieving apotheosis or demigod status. This is a theology and methodology devoid of particular content and profoundly opposed to the New Testament revelation, wherein virtue is inculcated as it is instituted, through cognitive assent to the propositional truth of the Gospel, by receiving grace through obedience to the Gospel and Christ’s commands, and trust in his provision, and by accepting the promised gift of the Holy Spirit:  by whose continuing grace, in terms of enlightenment, empowerment, and encouragement, the believer can “perform” above mere human levels in order to overcome sin and “bear” righteous “fruit of the Spirit.”

Pope Benedict XVI (b. 1927)

As mentioned earlier, Joseph Ratzinger worked with Karl Rahner at Vatican II.  While conservatively Catholic in many ways, Ratzinger shares many theological perspectives with Rahner, has worked alongside Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx, as well, and follows Neoplatonists Jean Daniélou and Hans Urs von Balthazar, and Metaphysicist René Guénon.

“Ratzinger is convinced that the dialogue between Judeo-Christian biblical faith and Hellenistic (neo-Platonic) philosophy has been providential” (Boeve, p. 8).  The true God, as “the ground of all being,” is the same the philosophers sought (Nicholas J. Healy, “Natural Theology and the Christian Contibution to Metaphysics: On Thomas Joseph White’s Wisdom in the Face of Modernity,” Nova et Vetera 10, No. 2 [2012], p. 540).  Indeed, Ratzinger holds that the world emanates from a greater reality and seeks to return to the Source (Boeve, p. 8), a generally Platonic and specifically Proclian-Dionysian idea.  To him, being “called by and to God” culminates in incorporation into the “God-initiated” or “God-permeated” world continuum (“Einfügung in den durchgottete Kosmos“), a world that is “sacramentally structured” such that it directs the creature back to the Creator (Ibid.), again a Proclian/Dionysian concept.

In defending Sacramental Realism, Ratzinger deprecates the “idealist misjudgment of human nature” and the “naïve idea of man’s spiritual autonomy” for which Immanuel Fichte is known, and by which Rudolf Bultmann concluded “that spirit cannot be nourished by matter.”  This “Idealistic heresy,” according to Ratzinger, is relative to Marxist ideas and due to materialist thinking based on human effort―homo faber―”which thinks it knows again that man can only be spirit in the manner of bodilyness” and “want[s] to make man into a pure spirit before God.”  The sacraments, on the other hand, are vital as God’s way of meeting man on a human level, using material means which embody “incarnation,” “historicity,” and the presence of Christ (Joseph Ratzinger, Die sakramentale Begründung christlicher Existenz [Freiburg im Breisgau, DE: Herder Verlag Herder, 2008], translator unknown, excerpted at; see also Healy, pp. 559 f.).

Here Ratzinger falls back, unfortunately, upon a theurgic view of symbols and shadows which appeal to corresponding spiritual realities.  Moreover, Ratzinger’s dichotomy on human nature is a false one since, far from Ficte’s totally man-centered view, the Biblical view is that man is a rational being capable of making choices of what to believe, whether to obey, and whether to “walk in the Spirit” daily, as opposed to “by the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”  True, man is helpless to save himself, apart from grace; but the activation of grace is by rational choice in response to propositional truth, not dependence upon material sacraments or sacerdotal auspices.  To Ratzinger, in contrast, the soul of man is not autonomous but part of a world-spirit destined to be restored as a body to God.  His view relies more on “natural theology” (see Healey) and historical Church theology than Scripture, which leads him to a view of Inclusiveness that has spawned suspicions of Universalism, as did Rahner’s.

The sacramental view, contends Ratzinger, is proven typologically, not rationally or empirically; by looking forward, not backward.  He who clings to exegesis and the historical study of Scripture is “elitist,” an “analyzer” who is “unspiritual” because he “imagines himself to be the initiate,” presuming to “always know better” and “to be wholly spiritual” (Ratzinger, “On the Meaning of the Sacrament,” trans. Kenneth Baker, in FCS Quarterly [Spring 2011], p. 30).  “Historical reconstruction” fails to see “the unity of typological history” (Ibid., p. 33).  This “narrowly conceived, purely salvation-historical view” fails to apprehend the “mystery.”  Yet the hidden wisdom is “simple,” revealed to “fools,” and “promises … entry into the innermost thinking of God.”  Mystery is effectual for “The one who lives and stays in the simple unity of the universal Church” (Ibid., p. 30).  Meaning “is no longer the meaning of a biblical text” but of an “event, which reaches down to the center of creation and reaches up to the innermost and definitive will of God” (Ibid., p. 31).  One is reminded of the suggestions earlier by Fathers Keefe and Keleher to quit worrying and learn to trust the Church.

Ratzinger does not initially ground his claim of mystery relative to sacrament in the New Testament, in which the connection is conspicuously absent.  He first consults the Old Testament wisdom books and Apocrypha, then late rabbinical commentaries, then sacramental views expressed by the Church Fathers (see Part 7 of this series), which he afterward applies by virtue of the Catholic analogy of faith and with reference to typology to reinterpret New Testament content by what he deems a typological and sacramental “hermeneutic” (Ibid., pp. 29 ff.).  In Ratzinger’s hermeneutic, parabolic speech in Scripture which is literally unintelligible nevertheless represents reality.  Thus to “Rabbi Paul,” the mysteries of the Old Testament and the parables of the New “become visible” in Christ, and “a word of creation” (Ibid., p. 30).  More than that, “Jesus is the meaning of all the words in the Scripture.”  Therefore, “not only the words, but also the realities described by them are mysteries, emblematic references to Christ” (Ibid., p. 31); to the Sacramentalist, Christianity is a mystery expressed in “symbols” which “reveal reality” and by which one may “gain access to reality” (Ibid., p. 28)—all of which suggest theurgy.

All of Scripture, concludes Ratzinger, is a sacrament, both literal words and “events” (Ibid., p. 31).  His typological “understanding of the sacraments,” as a creative hermeneutical gnosis, “presupposes the historical continuity of God’s activity and, as its concrete locus, the living community of the Church, which is the sacrament of sacraments” (Ibid., p. 34), a view of the church entirely amenable to the concerns of John A. T. Robinson and Gustavo Gutiérrez.  Further, “The meaning of creation, which appears in Jesus as the unveiling of the Scriptures, is unity in which the fullness of God shines forth and illumines” (Ibid., p. 31). The sacramental understanding “purifies” and “refashions” creation continually (Ibid., p. 32) until “the Church, in which no longer Israel alone, but all mankind is drawn into the unity of love that leads to an indissoluble merger into one single existence” (Ibid., p. 31).

This “indissoluble merger” (unlöslicher Verschmelzung, “unfathomable fusion,” Séan Corkery, Christological Hermeneutic: Sacrament and Scripture in the Work of Joseph Ratzinger, a paper presented to the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, Maynooth, Ireland, June 6, 2012, p. 4), describes incorporation of souls not into an eschatological “kingdom-come,” nor an exodus from darkness to light, from hell to heaven, as in the New Testament, but a continuum (“unity”) of God’s work upon the world, in all peoples, at all times and in both Testaments, amounting to a Plotinian ascent in knowledge of God—not however as individuals, but corporately as the Church.  From the Old Testament to the New, one ascends from “the oppressive multiplicity of what is not yet transparent, to the liberating simplicity of what is Christian,” then to rites which Ratzinger reckons to be open, transparent, and rational (Rat. OTM, p. 33)—yet “mysterious” and symbolic?—until the day when God brings all things and all peoples, Catholics, Jews, and others, into him in unity and love, which echoes Robinson’s conception of the Parousia.

Thus one observes Neoplatonism and Theurgy, along with the method called “analogy of faith,”employed at will, eclectically, when convenient to theology and argumentation, and arguably so interwoven into the fabric of sacramental and mystical theology that its use, as well as its origins, may be utterly unconscious on the part of the practitioner.

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

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