In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the late and celebrated Harvard scholar of comparative religion, entitled his immensely erudite study of the role of canonical religious texts and their interpretation in the major world religions What Is Scripture ?
His rather abstract and detached (by virtue of being non-specific to any particular religion) conclusion was that canonical texts in any believing community are
- a privileged medium for engaging,
- from within a shared tradition with its accepted categories, symbol system, language, and practice,
- questions of ultimate concern.
A key feature here is that in such a perspective Scripture is not reducible to a thing – such as, the biblical text – but is actually to be understood as a process (that he called “scripturing”).
Thus, through its sacred texts, a believing community engages both the corpus or deposit of faith revealed in and conveyed from the past and yet does so in the present, in its own current experience in the quest to find both the fulness of life and to live it aright. This, for Christians, means to live by the Spirit as the body of Christ, as in and for the salvation of the world.
Stated thus, this approach may seem overly phenomenological and detached, but it does point rather firmly to a challenge central to our approach to the Gospel of St John (Upon which we have now lavished several Sundays and yet only reached the 6th Chapter!) where these two dimensons of what it is to be a Christian are clearly central. A circumstance that fits the sheer theological density of this text but also its deep roots in Greek philosophy — beginning with the extraordinary prologue whose words are so striking and so memorable:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
While today, we are confronted with words utterly central to our understanding of the ultimate Christian mystery that is the Eucharist, where Christ and logos come together in the what we may attempt all too inadequately to capture in the phrase “the real presence”.
And logos is the key word here.
In the preface to his Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope (Emeritus) Benedict, wrote that “logos” spans two areas of theology as a term and as a concept:
“the term logos—the Word in the beginning, creative reason and love—is decisive for the Christian image of God,” While, “the concept of logos simultaneously forms the core of Christology, of faith in Christ.”
The Christian image of God and faith in Christ intersect in the Prologue of the fourth Gospel in which the Evangelist declares that the same God who is logos became incarnate.
This means that understanding God as logos is necessary for understanding God as Trinity, which, in turn, is the foundation for understanding the Incarnation of the Son of God.
It is because of this Ratzinger states that “the same Logos, the creative rationality from which the world has sprung, is personally present in this man Jesus. “The same power that made the world is itself entering into the world and talking with us.”
While John’s Prologue places the concept of logos “at the very center of our Christian faith”, prior to its adoption by John, “logos signifies reason, meaning, or even ‘word’—a meaning, therefore, that is Word, that is relationship, that is creative .” But before God as logos can be understood in terms of relationship and the creative, “the concept of logos” as it pertains to God must begin with rationality:
The God who is logos guarantees the intelligibility of the world, the intelligibility of our existence, the aptitude of reason to know God and even the reasonableness of God The world comes from reason, and this reason is a Person, is Love—this is what our biblical faith tells us about God. (5)
This brings together the nub of the challenge
Which is then to explain how God can be logos, and how this logos—this reason—is yet also truly conceived in terms of being a Person who is also Love, a Love that creates and wills a relationship with another, including with humanity through the incarnation of the Son.
One avenue is to begin (as Ratzinger does) by grounding examination of logos in the Old Testament’s concept of God –as conveyed in Exodus 3:14. Here Ratzinger argues that the scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek under the influence of Hellenistic philosophy “built the bridge, so to speak, from the biblical concept for God over to Greek thought ” as when they translated the ‘I AM WHO I AM’ of verse14 by “I am he that is.”
In this philosophical interpretation of the Hebrew text “belief is wedded to ontology” since “the biblical concept for God is here identified with the philosophical concept of God.” ‘But “he that is”—he who exists eternally—also tells Moses that he is the “God of your fathers,” meaning that, unlike the pagan deities who exercised their dominion over a particular locale, “He is not the god of a place but the god of men…
He is therefore not bound to one spot but is present and powerful wherever man is.” God’s transcendence prompted the Israelites to conceive their relationship with him in a manner very different from that of their contemporaries: they met God personally, “on the plane of I and you, not on the plane of the spatial” (because he, not being subject to limits of time and space, has initiated a personal relationship with them.)
In addition to coming to see their God as eternal and personal, the Israelites also came to understand his other dimensions:
- first, he is the most powerful God and force in the world;
- second, he is the God of the Promise, of the future, rather than a force of nature; and
- third, he transcends the bonds of singular and plural, thus preparing the way for the New Testament experience of God as Trinity.
Combining these early images with the words of the prophets, (particularly Deutero-Isaiah) Ratzinger asks:
What is the relationship between the God of biblical faith and the Platonic idea of God? Is the God who names himself and has a name, the God who helps and is always there, radically different from the esse subsistens, the absolute Being, that is discovered in the lonely silence of philosophical speculation, or what?
He goes on to argue that the God who names himself as being itself is one and the same, for in calling himself “I am” in Exodus,
the God of Israel confronts the gods and identifies himself as the one who is…The brief, enigmatic phrase “I am” thus becomes the axis of the prophet’s proclamation, expressing his struggle against the gods, his struggle against Israel’s despair, and his message of hope and certainty.
Thus two “components” of the Old Testament’s image of God are revealed:
- he is personal and proximate, and at the same time
- he is transcendent, absolute being, with power over space and time. As a result “Israel insisted that it had no god of its own but only the God of all people and of the whole universe; it was convinced that precisely for this reason it alone worshipped the real God.”
Centuries later, the early Christians, surrounded by challenges from assorted pagan cults that were not unlike those faced by exilic and postexilic Israel, they also had to make the conscious choice for the biblical image of God as expressed in both the Old and New Testaments. In doing so, they decided “for the God of the philosophers and against the gods of the various religions and this meant opting for the logos as against any kind of myth; it meant the definitive demythologization of the world and of religion. They rejected the underlying pagan theologies and instead interpreted the biblical God of absolute being as the logos of the philosophers. Therefore, when they spoke of God they “mean only Being itself, what the philosophers have expounded as the ground of all being, as the God above all powers.”
Moreover, by seeing God as Being itself, they chose a metaphysically grounded truth as the foundation of their faith rather than the mere customs and religious practices of pagan communities – a point upon which it is relevant to dwell, at a time when we are now constantly invited to embrace alleged new moral insights upon a basis that is in fact no stronger than current community consensus.
But the God of the philosophers, if he is also the biblical God, must also appear “to the eye of faith as the God of men, who is not only thought of all thoughts, the eternal mathematics of the universe, but also agape, the power of creative love.”
This is where we encounter Christianity’s radical transformation of the philosophers’ God (in the light of revelation) from pure being to a deity that can appropriately be spoken of in anthropomorphic terms and as an emotionally concerned God such as is found in “any passage in the Bible that speaks of God.”
Yet for this transformation to be made plausible, two “prejudices” of “purely philosophical thinking” had to be transcended:
First that the philosophical God is essentially remote and self-centered (as thought simply contemplating the best thing namely itself. Whereas the God of faith is basically defined by the category of relationship. He is creative fullness encompassing the whole. Thereby a completely new picture of the world, a completely new world order is established. One where the highest possibility of Being no longer seems to be the detachment of him-who-exists-in-himself needing only himself. Instead in this picture, the highest mode of Being includes the element of relationship… The supreme Being no longer appears as absolute, enclosed autarchy but turns out to be [such that we can predicate] involvement, creative power, which creates and bears and loves other things.
The absolute and aloof God of the philosophers can thus be recast as truly described as relational and creative. In other words this sees absolute Being reaching ever outward, such that nothing, not even the life of a human being, is too small or too insignificant to it. Therefore, the supreme Being is a creative power insofar as it extends beyond itself to create relationships outside of it.
The second prejudice to be transcended is the exclusion of love from being.
“The philosophical God is pure thought: he is based on the notion that thought and thought alone is divine, whereas the God of faith, as thought is also love. His image is based on the conviction that to love is divine” To elevate pure thought over love is merely an assumption of philosophers, Ratzinger argues.
In contrast, “the Gospel, and the Christian picture of God contained in it, corrects philosophy and lets us know that love is higher than mere thought. Absolute thought is a kind of love; it is not unfeeling idea, but creative, because it is love.”
Approached in this way Ratzinger has arguably articulated an understanding of how Christianity merged the God of the philosophers with the God of faith through the concept of a creative and loving logos:
The logos of the whole world, the creative original thought, is at the same time love; in fact this thought is creative because, as thought, it is love, and as love, it is thought. It becomes apparent that truth and love are originally identical; that where they are completely realized they are not two parallel or even opposing realities but one, the one and only absolute…
This loving and creative logos is also the starting point for understanding the Trinity, as well as the incarnation, as indeed also, the language of the today’s Gospel, which brings us in present form and reality to a parallel coming together of the transcendent and the immanent, of past event and present salvation in ways that cut across time and space as we are presented in the Eucharist with a physical instance – appropriate to our embodied life as incarnate creatures– of participation in the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice for us in his ultimate work of redemption
Yet here too there is something important to be said about Christianity and its relation together with that of God himself to time
Most of us understand ourselves in relation to who we have been:
our identity is like a record in which every action, every deed and thought is written down indelibly. Think here of every kind of record from police, to credit to academic and medical and indeed our ramblings in social media. In so many situations–we simply are our past.
Thus the past is a bit like a shadow that follows us and which we are unable to avoid.
A large part of our obsession with the past derives from the fact that our epistemology is so much based on experience (as the opening of Kant’s introduction to the critique of pure reason, makes clear) and experience is of that which has been
Things that which have already come to pass, and can be measured, written down and recorded.
Yet surely that perspective is very much NOT that of Christianity where we are instead defined ultimately by the world as redeemed by Christ and thus what we will be rather than what we are or were.
While it is our general presupposition in regard to the world of our experience that it is the beginning that determines the end and not the other way about. After all does not a cause always precede its effects? Well yes in general, but perhaps NOT in the Christian theology.
Here surely we have a domain in which the chronological and ontological primacy of the cause is actually challenged by the greatest events of which it speaks.
Consider the creation, the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection.
These extraordinary events transcend what has sometimes been called proto-logical epistemology (which is to say one that presupposes the ontological priority of that which comes first).
Take the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, how does a typical causal analysis work?
What is the cause of the crucifixion? Is it merely the consequence of the prior life of Jesus? Surely not, for its meaning can only begin to emerge or make sense in the light of the Resurrection that follows it, inviting us to ask if then, the Resurrection is the final cause of the crucifixion, for example?
Then again, we have to recall Saint Paul who states flatly in (1 Cor. 15,13) “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ was risen”.
Even for an Hegelian, understanding history as progress and progression towards the future, “could only be right, finally, if the Resurrection of the Crucified did not have to be interpreted as a promise, and was nothing but the meaning of the last fact –of the reconciling Cross”  Which means that here there is an instance where the beginning of things lies in their ending, in short, to put this theologically, these great events come ultimately from the Kingdom of God.
It is not at the beginning (in the morning of consciousness and at the dawn of history) that man is truly himself”, rather, as Heidegger would say, the beginning determines humanity and history only in so far as it remains an advent” for the Christian in the light of eschatology.
Sub specie aeternitatis one is not who one is and still less who one was and has been, rather one is ultimately who one will be at the end of time, in the Kingdom of God.
The each one of is that one who really matters is the person we are for eternity.
All of which brings us back to the Eucharist and the language of today’s Gospel, for the fulness of its meaning is a meaning that transcends our customary chronological framework for the simple but massive reason that the fulness of its meaning is rooted in the eschaton something of which it is both the result and a cause.
It is in this time-transcendent sense that we can perhaps see some hint of what it means when the Gospel cites the Dominical words that he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.
 Jean-Yves Lacoste, Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man, trans. Mark Raftery-Skehan; New York, 2004, p. 138.