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An Essay on Venard’s ‘Literary Thomism’

I

Reginald, I cannot, because all I have written seems like straw in comparison with what I have seen!

In these words, St Thomas Aquinas explained to his amanuensis why he could no longer continue to compose theology: in some way a new vision of Divine things had made theological writing impossible. We need not conclude that St Thomas was implying that his vision contradicted his writing; but it does seem reasonable, in interpreting him, to suppose a radical discontinuity between vision and words, a kind of rupture, even a violent and irreversible re-positioning of consciousness.

The French Dominican Fr Olivier-Thomas Venard, however, offers us a different understanding of St Thomas’ avowal. According to Venard, vision is the sequel and fruition which Aquinas’ writing foresees,  and indeed to the very threshold of which it approaches. Thomas, Venard suggests, wrote in order to see; and by this he means to claim that, for Aquinas, language itself can furnish what Venard calls a ‘literary experience of God’ which is already a kind of vision: or rather, although it ‘is not quite seeing…[it] points towards a real possibility of seeing.’ That possibility, according to Venard, is an intimation accorded to a graced language deployed, like Aquinas’, at full discursive stretch, in all its rigour of ‘argumentative inference…[and]…logico-linguistic distinctions’. So there is no rupture here, but rather a yielding of rational, linguistic exertion to the vision which it tends towards, and even in some way produces, as its own intimate but surpassing fulfilment.

Venard unfolds this interpretation of Aquinas’ writing in order to see in the course of developing what he describes as ‘literary Thomism’. At the heart of this project lie, on the one hand, Venard’s analysis of the ambitions, conflicts and frustrations of modernist poetics, and, on the other, his proposal of a Thomist resolution of the modernist impasse through a rediscovery of Thomas’ analogy between the fusion of sound and meaning in human words and the union of Divine and human in the Word made flesh. The defining human capacity to make sense of things, always in this life discursively and linguistically mediated, is founded and ultimately consummated in Christology. Human words, the height of our embodied rationality, realize their ecstatic capacity to surpass themselves when they are drawn into a philosophically and theologically stringent obedience to the visionary knowledge enjoyed by the humanity of Christ on account of its union with the Eternal Word. Only here, through a Christological poetics which in Thomas’ texts is both speculatively unfolded and practically enacted, can the vision sought by modernist poetics be actually accomplished: for the ‘deepest desire’, ‘the wildest dreams of some of the greatest of modern literature’, is to ‘speak of the absolute’ precisely by composing texts which ‘perform what [they] express’ and which thereby furnish a ‘knowledge simultaneous with the [text] itself’.

For Venard, this capacity he finds in Aquinas’ texts to enact a Christological completion of literature’s ‘deepest desires’ should be situated in two further dimensions, intimately connected to its Christological foundation. First, according to Venard, Aquinas’ writings draw their inspiration from Scriptural language and in particular from its performativity. In Scriptural texts, Venard claims, ‘pragmatics overcomes semantics’: in and through the significatory power of its ‘literary construction[s]’, Scripture succeeds in gesturing to a vision lying beyond all signification. Second, from this immersion in Scriptural poetics there arises in Aquinas’ texts ‘a poetic élan, which may be described as ‘proto-sacramental’’ and which aims at a liturgical, and ultimately Eucharistic, consummation. Here ‘the divine Word comes to visit the human voice’ and ‘celebration produces the substantial presence of God from the words of Christ.’

This Eucharistic apotheosis of language, in the mystery by which the materiality of sound, humanly united to sense and visited by the Word Incarnate, comes to bear the weight of summoning even Divine presence, is for Venard the full disclosure of what he means by ‘literary Thomism’: the exemplification in Aquinas’ writings of the ecstatic capacity of human language to complete itself in the Divine. Here at last, thanks to the Word made flesh, flesh can truly become Word.

II

That flesh should become Word is of course a Christian affirmation. But the more primary Christian affirmation is that the Word becomes flesh. Venard unfolds the former with great subtlety, opening out for us a highly original interpretation of Aquinas’ texts as embodying a Christological poetics performing all of creation, and in a special way human rationality, as analogous to sounds whose meaning is Christ. And so, in Venard’s Thomism, flesh magnificently becomes Word. But what of the beginning and end of this becoming, the Word made flesh?

A consequence of Venard’s interpretation of Thomas is that Christological meaning seems to be paradigmatically manifested in us when our sound is rigorous speech, exemplified in linguistic, discursive rationality. And this, of course, despite the originality of Venard’s perspective, reflects a characteristically Thomist, and Dominican, emphasis. Indeed Venard affirms that ‘literary Thomism’ achieves a recuperation of ‘Thomist intellectualism’. It is true that in Venard’s account this ‘intellectualism’ is reinvigorated by a new sensitivity: for all that Venard emphasizes how Thomas’ discourse is structured by ‘technical logical and grammatical considerations’, his aim is to disclose how such discourse inherently yields to an ecstatic experience beyond conceptual understanding. But in one way this deepens the commitment to intellectualism, precisely by undertaking to show that it does not suffer from an incapacity sometimes attributed to it: for here, in Venard’s Thomism, is an intellectualism reframed in a poetic register and attuned, from within, to what lies beyond it. ‘Thomist intellectualism’, as Venard characterizes it, offers the experience of overcoming, through speech, the limitations of speech: the most highly and finely wrought enunciations lead to undergoing a possibility beyond themselves, an intimation of vision that is given only at the limit of the pursuit of what Venard describes as Aquinas’ ‘referential obsession’. This ‘obsession’, it is true, is towards a reality which exceeds signification; nonetheless, because Thomist ‘reference’ is achieved only in and through the most rigorous commitment to signifying, a ‘referential obsession’ must also require a significatory obsession, an aspiration to the highest degree of conceptual enclosure. So despite the attention he pays to Thomas’ invocation of ‘ordinary speakers’, Venard’s ‘literary Thomism’ in fact privileges a certain class of extraordinary speakers and enunciations: Christological meaning, it turns out, is especially realized in and through the practitioners of Thomist intellectualism.

Now this certainly makes for a stimulating reading of Aquinas, whose texts are portrayed as a privileged site for linguistic self-transcendence towards the Divine singular. But remembering that flesh can become Word only because the Word first became flesh, it is important to insist that language is also transcended (though not self-transcending) in the direction of the mundane singular. This insistence brings before us human life in its spiritual/material totality. This totality is the flesh which the Word became, the medium in which He unfolded Himself – a reality which, in a kind of homage it pays to the Divine, also cannot be exhaustively subject to rational, discursive articulation.

It is here that we may feel that ‘literary Thomism’ begins to encounter a certain limitation. There is, perhaps, a tendency in Venard to equate theology with human speech about God, as if only in such speech can the vision of God be opened up. (Venard’s Aquinas, we remember, writes in order to see). But such human speech is possible only because God Himself speaks first, and He speaks in this originary way not only in language but in the human as such, including in those dimensions of the human which our language cannot encompass. Does this imply the need to complement ‘literary Thomism’ with an alternative emphasis? The vision of God is opened up, not just at the limits of human speech towards God, but also in God speaking Himself into human inarticulacy and silence: for the Word became flesh.

 

We can consider here an ecstasy of language not, as in Venard, by excess, at the limit of its discursive exertion, but rather by destitution, when from within human experience no linguistic elaboration can be commenced or retrieved. Venard rightly emphasizes that a life of ‘language and enunciation’ is not just theoretical but more fundamentally a kind of practice; and we can see how such a human life could be interpreted as a created participation in the uncreated Life of the Eternal Logos. But living the destitution of language can also be a kind of practice, and it too has a Christological meaning in which certain human lives may be interpreted as participating. In His own cross(ing) and descent into the destitution of death and the realm of the dead, the Incarnate Word unfolds a path, in which He invites us to follow Him, along which, even at the point of His greatest emptiness, He does not cease being the Divine Word. And this means that even here, in the utter poverty of the silence into which He enters pro nobis, God still speaks, coming into view and expressing Himself. But this vision of God must be approached otherwise than by ecstatic linguistic discursivity.

Such reflections as these can imply the need for a Christological anthropology expanded beyond the emphasis on linguistic rationality that inspires ‘literary Thomism’. Venard approvingly quotes Etienne Gilson’s remark concerning ‘the terrible words of St Thomas, that language is an analogue of the Incarnation of the Word.’ But in the Incarnation perhaps the deepest analogy of the human with the Divine is to be found, not solely – or even chiefly – in human language, even if it be human language about God. It is to be found in the human as such, which in Jesus bears the unfolding weight of Divine Self-expression and Self-disclosure. It is in dynamic union with this, a union which takes Him to the very limit of redemptive solidarity with those estranged from Him, that the Divine discursivity of the Word manifests and communicates itself.

And this, in turn, implies that the Divine discursivity of the Word – in the Trinity, first of all, and then in the manifestation of the Trinity to the world – is not solely, or even chiefly, a discursivity of understanding, but of Love. Again to sketch an expansion of the Christological anthropology at work in Venard’s interpretation of Aquinas, it is not perhaps so much in the noetic as in the erotic dimension of the human that a Trinitarian theology of the Word should most deeply imprint itself.

III

Quoting J M Schoot, Venard affirms that ‘the union of Christ’s created knowledge with the Word of God is primordial and exemplary to all naming of God’. Now in Thomas’ Christology the union with the Word is depicted as ensuring that Christ’s created knowledge exemplifies a plenitude of understanding: the man Jesus knows everything, an affirmation rooted in understanding the Word as the expression of absolute cognition, and therefore the union of human nature with the Word as entailing a corresponding (though created) plenitude in the mind of Christ.

There are, however, times in the New Testament when it seems Christ does not know, manifesting an economic ignorance which He does not seem to experience as a defect but instead as sharing in a dispossession constitutive of His mission and destiny.

Now a Christology that embraces this, rather than developing ways of explaining it which preserve the perfection of Christ’s understanding, need not depart from the very rich Thomist insight that Venard shares with Schoot. Even if Christ’s economic ignorance is embraced, it can still be affirmed that the condition of Christ’s created knowledge remains ‘primordial and exemplary’ for ‘our [own] naming of God’ – or, more broadly, for our seeing Who God shows Himself to be.

Of course, something changes. But the change is not in the decisive importance of the Christological ‘medium’: Christ in His humanity remains for theology the medium per quod scientia demonstrat and, as Venard puts it in a wonderful passage, it it is still the case that ‘the whole of theological science depends on the life of [the] man [Jesus]’. What changes, however, is how the medium should be interpreted. Either (with Venard) we contemplate a plenitude of created knowledge in Christ, which, shared in by us in faith, legitimates a discursive elaboration in which (in Schoot’s words) ‘[linguistic] signification…serves as…prime analogy for all that is important in theology’; or else we follow the lead of a dispossession, or kenosis, in the Incarnate Word which acknowledges that vision and understanding, approached through maximal theological signification, do not necessarily constitute the high-point (either in Jesus or in ourselves) of the ‘recognition’ of God or of our union with Him.

This second approach can be taken even if we continue to affirm, with Venard, that ‘the act of speaking correctly about God or Christ is not only a theoretical act, but also a religious one’. According to the second approach, however, speaking of God, while it may be (as Venard says) ‘a most excellent way of approaching him’, is not necessarily the most excellent.

If we are prepared to affirm this, then the already expanded horizons of ‘literary Thomism’ can be expanded still further. For then we will begin to see, theologically, how human states of dispossession (obscurity and un-seeing, suffering and purification) can be understood as participating in Christological states. ‘Literary Thomism’ tends to emphasize what might be called states of resplendence: resplendence both of logico-linguistic articulacy and of its sequel in liturgical ecstasy. But this runs the risk of limiting Christological participation (meaning the Incarnate Word’s entry into the human condition, and our entry into His), thereby secluding it from a great deal of human experience (and in fact from precisely those dimensions of experience that can most profoundly challenge the life of Faith, Hope and Charity). Venard powerfully conveys, through his Thomist poetics, how what he calls ‘the enigma of language’ can be ‘refounded in the mystery of Christ’. But in the end it is perhaps not just the enigma of language that calls for such refounding, but the enigma of man himself.

IV

As an evidently rich and brilliant iteration of Thomist intellectualism, ‘literary Thomism’ perhaps needs to be situated and contextualized by other ways of thinking. Venard’s ambition is to show how ‘the human spirit in the act of speaking’ can be seen as ‘in potential obedience to life in Christ’. But the human spirit is not only manifested in ‘the act of speaking’; and while Venard certainly argues absorbingly for the potential of Thomist speech to reach beyond itself, it remains true that this ‘beyond’ is itself attained through speech. ‘Literary Thomism’, then, greatly enriches the ways in which we can see Christological obedience figured in the practice of scientific theology; and it has found very fruitful ways of bringing such theology into more than reactionary relation to both what Venard calls the ‘nostalgia for prayer’ in literary modernity and, more broadly still, to the need in Western culture for a renewal of our ‘confidence in language’. But it remains that for the full exposition of a Christological hermeneutic of experience – on which, as Venard well understands, the very possibility of a living Christian theology depends – something more is required.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
[email protected]/map-year