Symposium Introduction


Opening Anne Carpenter’s Nothing Gained is Eternal is the straightforward yet multivalent sentence “Christian tradition is a problem” (xi). It is a problem of truth. How does the theologian discern the boundary between true and false in theological traditions that form and inform their horizon? It is a moral problem. How does the theologian account for the moral failures historically justified under a theological guise, especially racism and colonialism? Finally, it is a problem metaphysically. How can a theologian, especially a Roman Catholic one like Carpenter, account for these previous questions while also maintaining that tradition is “a mediator of divine truth?” (xv). 

Carpenter takes up these difficult questions by developing a “metaphysics of tradition” that, in the words of Kevin Hughes, will “seem to some to be ‘too conservative’ and to others to be ‘too liberal.’” She develops her position by dialectically moving between the “traditional” thinkers Bernard Lonergan, Maurice Blondel, Charles Péguy, and Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Black theological and political thought of M. Shawn Copeland, Willie Jennings, and James Baldwin, each of whom critically expands the tradition into new horizons of concern. 

The monograph proceeds through four chapters building a “metaphysics of tradition,” with a fifth chapter synthetically presenting that prior work. The first four chapters incrementally expand into more comprehensive categories: there is a movement from action to mediation to revolution and finally to drama. Each of these themes is anchored by a “traditional” thinker whose limitations are confronted in an encounter with Black theological and political thought. 

In the first two chapters, Carpenter works out her philosophical account of tradition. The first chapter, “Actions,” is a development of Lonergan’s thesis “history is ‘the making and unmaking of man by man’” (10). After developing his position, Carpenter draws upon Copeland, a renowned Lonergan scholar, to fill Lonergan’s heuristic metaphysics with insights into the divisive, constructed social surd that is race. In the following chapter, “Mediations,” Carpenter expands action into mediation through Blondel and Jennings’s guidance. Blondel assists Carpenter in framing the disproportionate orders of the natural and supernatural as an integral reality operative in history. This integral reality is then presented with the “face” of Jennings who complicates that reality by bringing the reader’s gaze to the Christian actions constituting supersessionism and colonialism. 

In the third chapter “Revolutions,” Carpenter uses Péguy to initiate the book’s explicitly theological turn. This turn is the turn of conversion and transformation inaugurated in the memorial act inherent to prayer. “Prayer,” Carpenter states, “operates to signal–by way of its dramatic interruption–the permeability of today to yesterday and also the loss of yesterday” (84). These graced memorial acts of prayer remember the “victims of history,” as Copeland would say, and, by way of divine assistance, “move towards justice where there has been injustice” (110). The following chapter, “Dramas,” completes the theological turn by utilizing Balthasar’s theodramatics to present a theocentric account of history. “God is ‘now’ … the primary actor” (133). Jesus’s obedience is central in this account. Through it he reveals the Trinitarian life expressed as kenosis and the identity between his role, i.e., mission, and person. Carpenter juxtaposes this identity to Baldwin’s insight that, “In America the color of my skin had stood between myself and me” (155). The social surd, race, disrupts the union between role and person–a disruption that can only be healed by participating in the economic act of Jesus’s obedience. Finally, in the last chapter, “Ends,” Carpenter fully presents her vision by drawing upon the entirety of the previous chapters and calling for an expanded understanding of Christian tradition that encounters and authentically responds to the challenges of our times.   

Cathal Doherty, S.J. kicks off the symposium with a critical response focused on tradition as a source of revelation. Doherty is concerned that Carpenter does not adequately maintain the mystery of supernatural grace which is necessary for the precise doctrinal account of tradition Carpenter seeks to preserve. Rather, her account completely succumbs to secular categories, collapsing Christian tradition into Christian action. According to Doherty, by succumbing to secular categories, Carpenter’s position leads to an extrinsicist account of grace that is historically and logically connected to an authoritarian political orientation. This critical reading led Doherty to probe Carpenter in two ways: (1) Can Carpenter further distinguish between tradition as revelation from a more secular sense of tradition, and (2) how does Carpenter avoid reducing supernatural religion to purely political categories?    

Our next responder, Joe Drexler-Dreis, provides a response diametrically opposed to that of Doherty, stating, “Carpenter’s most fundamental contribution is her analysis of Christian tradition as a problem. … [She] avoids the simplistic position … that sin and infidelity to the ‘real’ Christian tradition is the problem.” After this complementary introduction, Drexler-Dreis engages Carpenter through Jon Sobrino’s Christology, which understands Jesus’ kenotic consciousness to be structured by and towards the kingdom of God’s realization. From this stance, Drexler-Dreis raises three questions. First, how does Carpenter understand violence’s role, or lack thereof, in the historical struggle to realize the kingdom of God? Relatedly, “how [does] the central position of the kingdom of God for Jesus shape the problem of Christian tradition?” And finally, “using Carpenter’s metaphysic of tradition, how do we best historicize a response to racism?”  

In the symposium’s third essay, Mara Brecht picks up where Drexler-Dreis left off by engaging the problem of historicizing a response to racism. Brecht engages this historicization by narrowing in on the problem, difficulty, and historical reality of whiteness. Drawing on the philosopher Shannon Sullivan, Brecht articulates how being white means being caught up in a reciprocal relationship between an environment that responds to the person as “white” and subtly affirming this identity through action. After unpacking some of the implications of this position, Brecht leaves us with the following questions: “Is whiteness too historical, historically produced, and also theologically dense? What is the white “I” a theological sign of? If reality is both natural and supernatural and if we are instruments of more or less sin, then is it also the case that bodies constrain human receptivity and responsiveness to grace?”    

The theme of the body facilitating or constraining human receptivity and responsiveness to grace is picked up by our next responder, Charlie Gillespie, who focuses our attention on gesticulation. Gillespie highlights that Carpenter places us in the middle of the drama that is the Christian tradition, and when we gesture and perform from that tradition, we “participate in human action that carries glory and devastation in its wake.” After a substantial reflection on this theme of gesturing and how Carpenter’s metaphysic of tradition sheds new light on Christian action, Gillespie poses two methodological questions to Carpenter: (1) “Could a metaphysic of tradition provide any clues about when and how to transform resourcing beyond that it must be done? … [(2)] Could theatrical heuristics apply to sacramental gestures, the kind that enact the Eucharist as the ‘exemplary original gesture of both church and God’ (101)? How does a metaphysic theorize something like elevation, a gesture so intimately present around the Eucharist?”

Our final responder, Kevin Hughes, picks up the methodological questions begun by Gillespie while simultaneously engaging similar themes to Doherty, thereby bringing the conversation full circle. Endorsing Carpenter’s work, he asks, “How do historical theologians like me, who look to the ressourcement theologians for inspiration, go about our work differently in the wake of Carpenter’s book?” The question’s force is founded upon the heuristic implications inherent in providing room for failure and sin within the Christian tradition. No longer may the ressourcement theologian naïvely search for a “pure memory” as if patristic and medieval theologians did not lack shortcomings morally and intellectually. Moreover, carrying this insight into the political realm, no longer may a theologian unproblematically refer back to an untarnished political form such as the “sacramental kingship of Louis IX.” Instead, they are called into the hard work of unearthing forgotten insights, holding before their eye the epoch’s deficiencies, and seeing the connections between the two.     


Cathal Doherty, SJ


The Living Tradition and the Dead Actions of Christians

I am very grateful to the author and to Syndicate for the opportunity to enjoy this enjoyable and creative work, which though innovative, remains nonetheless thoroughly “traditional,” in the sense of the word “tradition” that the author shares with Maurice Blondel, her textual interlocuter with whom I am most familiar. Tradition, in this view, is not simply a retrograde force, a “ball and chain” that puts the brakes on progress, but a living reality, as much concerned with the future as the past. In looking backward to our theological inheritance from Catholic thinkers on Tradition, and in confronting them with questions of race and colonialism that they did not, for the most part, envisage in their lifetimes, this book is, therefore, authentically “traditional,” in taking direction from the past while straining forwards towards a not yet realized future.

Since this is not a book review, but a chance to delve more deeply into the theological framework promoted in this work, I would like to identify two quite specific areas for clarification and further elaboration. These are: (a) how the proposed approach ensures the necessary heterogeneity of Christian “Tradition” as Revelation and so under supernatural guidance, from the broader and more secular sense of “tradition,” which includes the “dead actions” of Christians as sinners embroiled in a fallen world; (b) while the book appropriates Blondel’s critique of those who would reduce supernatural religion to purely political realities (his adversaries that he termed “monophorists”), ending up in political religion rather than in a politics informed by supernatural religion, I would invite further precision as to how the author’s own methodology escapes Blondel’s prescient critique.

“Tradition” in Blondel

The authentically Catholic understanding of sacred “Tradition” is clear from dogmatic texts, e.g. Dei Verbum § 9-10: “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church.” Tradition, in this precise sense, therefore, is a source of divine Revelation, and one of the ways in which the supernatural gift descends into the concrete particularities of the human condition. Crucially, it manifests a divine intention like the other signs of Revelation, including Scripture. It is, therefore, necessarily heterogeneous from the understanding of “tradition” as giving rise to social cohesion, or to political and national cultures, even if in concrete actuality both “Tradition” and “tradition” are manifest through the medium of historical human action.

The author, of course, affirms the doctrine of (sacred) Tradition.1 Yet, the discursive methodology pursued in this book often seems at odds with it. Quite a few statements in the text present themselves as performative contradictions since they appear to sideline the notion of sacred Tradition as irrelevant, or even declare it to be non-existent. 

The reason is partly the author’s wholesale appropriation of Jennings’ critique of Christian tradition, which, unchecked, ends up in the theological “surd” of imputing the sins of historical Christians to Christian Revelation in itself:

Jennings implicates Christianity and Christian theology in the actions of race and racism. For him, Christian theology and its educational institutions emphasize white, male possession of knowledge as its central arc. This is a reiteration of a familiar theme, one where Christianity and whiteness are rendered identical to each other. Herein is Christianity’s sin and responsibility for Jennings, a situation that is not only ideological but also practical.2

This conflation of sacred and sinful realities, divinely guaranteed Tradition with historical human action, comes to the fore in the following passage:

It is possible, for example, (like Jennings) to speak of a deformation of Christian action as non-Christic while nevertheless calling that action, concretely, Christian, since it is the action of Christians. Catholics might want to supply here a distinction between “Tradition” and “traditions,” or between “sacred tradition” and “tradition,” but the point is that both would persist together because both are Christian action, and so there is no getting around having to discern that action’s reason. At the level of facts, all we will “see” is Christians acting (whether unto grandeur or misère).3

At times, the author appears to reject out of hand the very possibility of a sacred and supernaturally revealing Tradition:

One temptation, when trying to wrest tradition from the perspicacity of Jennings’ concerns, is to imagine a pure silver vein hidden in stone: a pure set of ideas, or actions, or writings, that escape accusation (in their meaning, or intention, or status). But this is to imagine a soul without a body. It is to say, if I recall Blondel, that the truth is not related to the facts (of history) (112).

This reference points to Blondel’s rejection of “historicism,” the equation of history with mere facts. It is not obvious to me, however, that the author’s own methodology escapes the same error, by equating Christian tradition with the acts of Christians: “I want to emphasize that tradition, in a Blondelian mode, is what Christians do.”4 

But no, this is not what tradition is, in Blondel’s view. It is not what we “see” already-out-there in the ambiguous historical acts of Christians, as latter-day spectators viewing from some imagined vantage point. That would be a form of what Blondel terms the “historicist” error, equating historical truth with facts, but what is worse, mingling sin with Revelation. Tradition, rather, is more akin to the living, synthesizing, subjectivity of the Church as mystical Body of Christ, as both revealed and revealing:

Something in the Church escapes scientific examination and it is the Church which, without rejecting or neglecting the contributions of exegesis and of history, nevertheless controls them, because in the very tradition which constitutes her, she possesses another means of knowing her author, of participating in his life, of linking facts to dogma, and of justifying both the capital and the interest of her teaching.5

Blondel maintains that two corollaries follow from his analysis of Tradition. Neither, however, seem reconcilable with the methodology adopted in this book.

First, the Church is her own proof, index sui est: “for it supplies the verification of what it believes and teaches in its age-old experience and its continuous practice … it has within it a power of self-justification which is independent of historical proofs or moral probabilities.”6 While Christians commit sin, their concupiscence and actual sins do not in any way eliminate the possibility of a sacred Tradition operating in the Church under divine guaranty.

Second, dogma is the fruit of Tradition, not the other way round. There is no path from positive historical facts to dogma without passing through Tradition, in direct contradiction to “historicism”. Not even the most exact analysis of texts or historical facts can lead through intellectual effort alone directly to dogma. Rather, “… the active principle of the synthesis lies neither in the facts alone, nor in the ideas alone, but in the Tradition which embraces within it the facts of history, the effort of reason and the accumulated experiences of the faithful.”7  

The sacred Tradition which gave birth to the Chalcedonian dogmatic definitions, to take one example, operated in a complex of historical human action, the acts of sinners, let us be clear about it, but that Tradition simply cannot be “equated” with historical human acts without: (i) falling into the historicist error and (ii) mixing sin with the supernatural gift of Revelation, the principle of which is Tradition rooted in Christian praxis. 

While the author contends that “ … a Blondelian frame stresses tradition as ‘consciousness of Jesus’s consciousness,’” (75) an insufficiently critical adoption of Jennings leads to an understanding of tradition which is foreign to Blondel, and which either sidelines or repudiates the very idea of a sacred Tradition.

Blondel’s Critique of Intégrisme

One of the most remarkable observations that Blondel himself made about the French intégristes, or “monophorists,” is that they end up acting as if all questions must be resolved through external and purely political power struggles, without reference to the supernatural order at all as it affects the human person in her intimacy: “Whatever they propose to do externally is totally divorced from anything internal or spiritual, indifferent or hostile to everything that is subjective interiority and personal spontaneity.”8

Blanchette, following Blondel, outlines the origins of this in the extrinsicist view of the relation between nature and grace in the human person. Grace is not seen as perfecting nature, as Aquinas would have it, but as imperiously imposing itself from outside for acceptance, unidirectionally, as it were. The natural then has nothing to do with grace as super-natural. Rather the supernatural order is nothing more than accidental and imposed on human knowledge for acceptance. 

When it comes to the question how the supernatural acts on the lower, natural order, the monophorist can only say “by command.” This utter lack of appreciation for the active nature of the “obediential potency” of the human person (Blondel’s “double afference”) is the root cause why monophorists were willing to back authoritarian movements such as Action Française despite its anti-Christian ideology, ending up in the unhappy state of reducing religion to merely political realities:

Such over-simplification, or all-too-human simplification of the relation between supernatural and the natural, or between the divine and the human, has always led to disasters in the history of the Church the confiscation of civil liberties or the mobilization of all forces in a society for purely “religious” motives, the organization, not only of a politics that is exclusively “religious,” but also of a “religion” that is purely political …9

A believer then becomes nothing but a citizen making common cause with dubious political allies, who share some brutal conception of authority, and “under the pretext of thinking about religion, is involved only in doing politics, under the august mantle of Christ.”10 One can easily transpose Blondel’s far-seeing critique into our own times—to the rise in populist regimes backed by religiously concerned constituencies.

The conceit of the present work, however, is to confront theologians from the tradition with the histories of race and colonialism. My reserve is that this critique makes appeal almost exclusively to political and secular categories, to merely human action and striving without giving attention to the supernatural gift as real. That is, Jennings (à la Carpenter) seems to keep political, human action strictly separate from grace, in an implicit and pernicious extrinsicism.

Now extrinsicism and authoritarianism go hand in hand, as we saw. Is it any surprise, then, that just as the French intégriste monophorists appeal to crushing authority and obedience in the reception of the supernatural gift, the critique of Christian tradition represented here smacks of a comparable authoritarianism, peppered with dogmatic assertions that the reader is simply asked to swallow? Are we given permission to question unnuanced theological declarations such as the following, or are they imposed imperiously with an authority that cannot be queried? 

Theology constricts Christianity to the European body, which by identifying the gospel and Europe (European culture and bodies), succeeds in supplanting the gospel with European “civilization.” For Jennings, such deformation occurs according to the energies of a much older problem, that of supercessionism: the replacement of Israel with the church (theologically, but also concretely in anti-Semitism) (108).

It seems that an authoritarianism prevails from which the reader dare not subtract herself. 

Consequently, this methodology risks replicating the “monophorist” errors of the French intégristes, despite the author’s best intentions: (i) reducing supernatural religion to political categories that ignore grace as real; (ii) adopting an implicit extrinsicism of nature and grace, accompanied by (iii) an authoritarianism that brooks no dissent.

Finally, intégrisme is associated with an implicit nationalism, as if the role of France were solely to teach and not learn from the rest of the world. Notably, while the methodology of this work deals in universals, the critical voices it amplifies are American, a shortening of horizons that is perhaps hard to avoid in a globally dominant nation, such as nineteenth-century France, or the contemporary United States, even more so when religion is reduced to political categories.

  1. “As Blondel says of human action, so we must say of our Christian tradition … By this, I do not mean that Christian tradition fails in its essential surety as a mediation, together with Scripture, of the “wellspring” of Jesus Christ” (171).

  2. Carpenter, 108; See also: “Race is a historical fiction. It is not true … And race is supported fundamentally by Christian tradition and its theology. Modern race is a Christian invention, and Christians are, if they are to be historical and to have a tradition, responsible for their history and their tradition” (xvii); “Here is a profound collision between human thought and action such that Christian doctrine, which for Blondel has its heart in Christian practice, funds a new Christian ‘doctrine’ and ‘practice,’ a colonial, racial doctrine and practice. Both are entwined so intimately that it is difficult, historically speaking, to surface which emerged first: the Christian practice of racialization or its rationalization” (107-8); “Christian tradition is a body of action. Like all bodies, the ‘action’ of tradition is really many operations operating simultaneously in a system of transcending movement. Like all bodies, its ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are self-evident only for realisms and idealisms. Something like this insight, where clean lines vanish, sustains the despair that despairs whether Christian tradition can be reformed at all, or ever. For Christian tradition is traditioned ironically, by its own sin” (175); “It is a theory about ‘what’ Christian tradition is that answers the question by asking, not so much about that tradition’s content as its operation … and not so much about which operative ‘actions’ count as ‘traditional’ … but about those heuristic activities by which tradition is — at all or in the first place, in its development, in its sinful self-contradiction, in God’s supernatural action in it” (194).

  3. Carpenter, 74. This is the continuation of a longer paragraph: “Blondel calls Christian tradition consciousness of Jesus’s consciousness, which bridges the distinction between truth and action … For now, on the one hand, it allows for an evaluative discernment, a judgment, of whether a Christian action is an expression of Christic consciousness or not, and on the other hand, it exposes Christian action to its own ambiguity in its concreteness and in its freedom. Christian tradition, therefore, acquires two faces simultaneously: it is what all Christians have done and do; it is also in particular a Christic doing” (73-4).

  4. “ … Christian tradition is that which Christians have done and do. At the pure level of facts and action, the “exterior” of tradition, it is impossible to parse out a Christian tradition somehow free of its ambiguous involvement in justice and injustice. Such a crisis brings about a second insight, which is that it is possible to evaluate the meaning or truth of Christian practice. Here a Blondelian frame stresses tradition as “consciousness of Jesus’s consciousness,” which is not only the manner of tradition’s meaningfulness but also a way to evaluate Christian practice” (72–75).

  5. Blondel, Letter on Apologetics and History & Dogma, 268.

  6. Ibid, 269.

  7. Ibid, 269.

  8. Oliva Blanchette, Maurice Blondel: A Philosophical Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 247 (citing Maurice Blondel, Catholicisme social et Monophorisme [Paris: Bloud, 1910], 92).

  9. Blanchette, 248.

  10. Blanchette, 249.

  • Anne Michelle Carpenter

    Anne Michelle Carpenter


    Carpenter Reply to Doherty

    I appreciate, in a way I cannot fully name, how little Father Doherty likes my book. This appreciation comes from how much I love the things he loves—the things he defends from me, who would ruin them. I am being absolutely sincere. It frustrates me, too, of course. I think that Father Doherty so fears what I might be saying that he fails to understand what I am saying. But I would defend these things that he cares about, too. That is why I wrote my book. With that in mind, I would like to offer a few clarifications. 

    The heart of the disagreement between Father Doherty and myself is dogmatic. It has to do with whether, for Catholics, tradition is a source of revelation, or revelation is the source of tradition. Father Doherty claims that the first is Dei Verbum’s understanding. My book relies on the second as Dei Verbum’s understanding. The source and summit of revelation is the divine Word made flesh, and the depositum that Scripture and tradition together are flows from this single source in the life of the Church. Lexically speaking, I am reading chapters I and II of Dei Verbum together, so that §4, for example, governs §7 and then of course §9-10. In my mind, the Council’s relativization of Scripture and tradition, that is, its claim that they are together about (relative to) Jesus, elevates them. For by this they together become the sure means of the truth and the life of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised, while Jesus Christ himself, crucified and raised, remains at the center as both revealer and savior. “Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself. […] In His gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on [transmitterentur] to all generations” (§4, 7). 

    Let me be a little more formal because we are two Catholics and our disagreement is dogmatic. To be clear, I mean that tradition and Scripture are, together, the word of God in a secondary sense, a derived sense, an instrumental sense, for they are instruments of the Word, much as the sacraments are instruments of the Word, and much as Christ’s own human nature is in a special way an instrument of the Word (Summa Theologiae III.64). My position on Dei Verbum affirms the one normatively expressed after the Second Vatican Council (see esp. §13-14) and the position in use before it: in the Council of Trent (Fourth Session), in the First Vatican Council with Dei Filius (chs. 2-3), and even in Pascendi Dominici Gregis (for ex., §27). It makes sense of the Second Council of Nicaea and the manner it links itself to the past in faith. But it still bears reflecting on what exactly I mean and affirm.

    Whether tradition is a source of revelation or a living instrument of revelation’s transmission matters in every way in which Father Doherty implicates me, most all in the question of whether I impute to revelation “itself” the sins of Christians in Christian history. If tradition is not revelation itself, then I do not. But if tradition is revelation itself, then I do not wonder whether tradition is true and trustworthy, which is something like Father Doherty’s worry, but whether tradition is historical. The problem is this: If tradition is revelation itself, then every time that I say that Christians in their historical being in the world have sinned, I put the truth of revelation under threat. I put it under threat because a Christian’s historical being in the world is in some way also the being of tradition. I put it under threat because tradition is a source of revelation. The anxiety here has to do with whether Christian tradition is true if it participates in Christian history. If Christians sin in their history, then tradition’s sureness as truth seems lost forever. Or else Christians do not sin. But clearly we do. So how is Christian tradition historical and true?

    My answer is complex. I do argue that Christian tradition is Christian action. I also point out that Christian action is ambiguous, since Christians act for good and for ill. It does not follow from this that Christian tradition is ambiguous. What follows only is that a clarification is required, since Christians acting (Christians doing things) in itself cannot clarify it for us.  In fact, the act of clarification is an act of judgment that Christian tradition is and that makes Christian tradition clear. This act is subjective, but also objective; it is intelligence in action (for judgment is intelligence in act). This action is not out-there but is real and true; it is action that Christian tradition is, thus mediating to us, in history, divine truth in its truth. In this way, I have described the Blondelian control over texts and history that the Church exerts according to her own corporate infallibility, guided by the Holy Spirit. Christian tradition, I argue, following Blondel, is in fact a body of action; it is a body of many kinds of actions, including, crucially, the act of judgment. The Church is indeed her own proof, and she is so exactly in her control over meaning, which is manifested in her practice, which includes her acts of intelligence. In this (severally-sensed) sense, tradition is indeed what we “do.” 

    As Blondel argues, intelligence and acts of intelligence are stranger than physical actions. They neither reside as a secret inside the body like a Gnostic spark, nor exist apart from the body like a soul loosed its cage. If intelligence itself is an action, indeed an action of a desire and an élan that are self-transcending, and if tradition is what we intelligently and severally do, then we have a body of action much more complicated on our hands, for human beings can tell the truth even if they are liars, and they can testify to the truth if they are saints. The truth suits us better when we are saints. Alas, we are instead the baptized on our way to sainthood. But this fact about the people of God is a divine decision. It must in some way work. My “picture” gives us all kinds of immanent, concrete actions by which tradition really is historical and specific, which it needs in order to be what it is, and therefore to be sure, but—and this is important—tradition’s surety is in its intelligence. This intelligence requires God for its intelligibility in a double way: immanently, in the implicit affirmation of God that is all human intelligence; supernaturally, in the explicit affirmation of God’s work that is the Church’s dogma, proclaimed in the Spirit.

    Attributing surd, which is non-intelligibility, to Christian tradition as a concrete situation is by no means the same as conflating sacred and sinful realities, since only one is real in any strict sense beyond the facts at all. In fact I am only calling one thing a surd: the facts of a situation, brought about by the non-action of sin, resulting in a situation that tradition is in. Still less do I surrender God supernaturally acting in the facts of Christian history, including the history of colonialism, when I say that the concrete facts of Christian history (which contain in them surd and intelligibility) require the application of human intelligence for their clarification. Quite the opposite, as far as God’s action is concerned. As I say in my book: in the concrete, all these things are found together. But intelligence can and must judge their difference. Judgment will ask freedom to be responsible in new ways for what we do and what we have done. Grace must help us understand; grace must make us willing to act. Father Doherty would like for me to be subtler; he seems sometimes to miss the meaning of my technical language, my heuristic frame, what I mean by concreteness, my defense of the need for intelligence. I am sympathetic to misunderstanding me here, but it is not obscurantist of me to use the Scholastic meaning of Scholastic words, or to use the insights of my previous chapter.

    I do not accept Jennings’s work wholesale. I modify Jennings with other writers and their claims, such as Lonergan, Copeland, and Péguy (Chs. 1, 3) and Balthasar and Baldwin (Ch. 4). I briefly reference my criticism of Jennings in an explicit way (70–72). I am thus by no means dogmatic. But my goals were constructive, not critical. It remains the case that discussing race, colonialism, and so on, is considered a discussion outside of “real” theology, and colonialism’s racialized representatives considered less than “real” Christians. This is the heart of the Christian racial “imagination” that Jennings reveals in his writing. It remains a severe problem. Father Doherty, by way of his critique, threatens to recapitulate it.

    Far from betraying Blondel with a secular and mechanized political tour of means, I entrust to Blondel and to his wisdom the problems of our age. I trust, rather radically, that Blondel has something wise to say “even” alongside the wisdom of African-Americans. I trust that they have wisdom for myself and for him. Typical rules of engagement would have had me silence Blondel. This I did not do. Indeed, they all (Blondel, the Black authors in my book) share with one another a Christian—and in Copeland’s case a Catholic—tradition. Father Doherty’s critique seems to imply that such a collaborative argument is impossible, or anyway, that I did it all wrong, starting with Maurice Blondel. But the stakes here are higher than a disagreement about Blondel himself. We risk damning Blondel’s prescience to the last century and to across the Atlantic, and we risk damning the prescience of Black writers to America. We risk making the truth of Christian tradition only be true if we keep in its place, if we make it behave with a new Vincentian canon: quod aliquo, quod interdum, quod ab paucis creditum est. 

    At the close of my reply, I am left with a lingering question: is Christian tradition, which is historical and which is true, which is the mediation of Christian truth in human history—is it intelligent? If it is intelligent, then it must ask questions, and in faith ply those questions with answers. If it is intelligent, then its borders are not to be found in concepts and cultures but in dogmas, which are literally practiced. If it is intelligent, then its literal practice will be found in the freshness of its correct affirmations, made anew every hour, making every hour new. But if Christian tradition is not intelligent, then it has to be identical with divine revelation, or else it becomes merely the useless weight of history. If it is not intelligent, then we must cover our eyes in fear, lest the least sin ruin our history forever. Lastly, if Christian tradition is not intelligent, then we must rescue Christian tradition from Christian sin by dividing it from the Christian. Doing so would bring about our, and its, end.

Joe Drexler-Dreis


Tradition and the Kingdom of God

Anne Carpenter’s most fundamental contribution in Nothing Gained is Eternal is her analysis of Christian tradition as a problem. She treats Christian tradition with the care that a real problem demands, articulating how to live with the problem rather than solving it. Carpenter describes the problem’s conditions, lets go of ways the problem has been represented, and in this letting-go connects to what is fundamental in Christian tradition.

Carpenter avoids the simplistic position, found in so many treatments of the relationship between Christianity and colonialism, that sin and infidelity to the “real” Christian tradition is the problem. In other words, she doesn’t reduce the problem only to one of pseudo-theology or infidelity to a tradition. Rather, she sees Christian tradition as mediating “action and the history it effectuates” (37). That is, tradition bridges “the ‘gap’ between the truths of belief and the facts of history” (58). Tradition is thus a life (60). It is a creative act of “beginning-again” that reaches “more deeply into the resources of … the humanity that acts” (91). 

This reaching “more deeply” into our shared humanity is the ressourcement tradition that Carpenter brings forward in the book. She contributes to a less triumphal (and more interesting!) notion of ressourcement by emphasizing, via Balthasar, Jesus’ obedience that takes the form of kenosis. Christian tradition “repeats,” in ever new ways, the Christic act. That is, Christian action is “patterned after the creative, kenotic attitude of Christ” (149). 

Understanding tradition as a “beginning-again” rather than a form of representation persuades me on the most fundamental level. I want to use the perspective Carpenter offers to constructively think about tradition, with a different emphasis than Carpenter uses in the book–namely, the Kingdom of God. Making the Kingdom of God central poses the problem differently. One way into this concern is to ask what Jesus empties himself for. To what is Jesus obedient? And relatedly, what is the heuristic for beginning-again? That is, how do we repeat the Christic act? 

Liberation theologians like Jon Sobrino argue that Jesus’ creative and kenotic attitude is relative to the Kingdom of God. Powerlessness exists in relation to something—namely, a political or historical project—not as such. 

Sobrino sees the historical Jesus as a “safeguard” for Christ, returning to the early Christian problem of affirming Jesus’ humanity (39). Because of this commitment, Sobrino argues for the central position of the Kingdom of God in Christology. As a “final,” or “ultimate and eschatological,” reality for Jesus, the Kingdom of God structures the particular way divine love is incarnate. Sobrino sees this particularity to operate in opposition to modern European Christologies, which have tended to neglect both the historical Jesus and (therefore) the Kingdom of God (115). When accounting for this particularity of Jesus’ commitment to the Kingdom, Sobrino emphasizes the at-times violent nature of the Kingdom: 

[END]The Kingdom stands in combative relation to the anti-Kingdom. They are not merely mutually exclusive, but fight against one another, and this is massively evidenced in Latin America: the Kingdom is not being built from a tabula rasa, but in opposition to the anti-Kingdom, and the present persecution of those who are mediating the coming of the Kingdom is effective proof of this.1[/END] 


While this violence isn’t necessary on a metaphysical level, it is on a historical level. M. Shawn Copeland gestures at this combative relation, though in a far less direct way than Sobrino, by describing Jesus as preaching the reign of God as an alternative to the Roman empire: “he contrasted the future of bodies in God with the future of bodies in empire.”2 

This raises a question I had while reading regarding the problem of violence. Carpenter poses the problem as follows, with particular attention to the notion of race in the modern/colonial world: “This love [founded on the triune God and God’s love for the world] would be a struggle against the powers of iniquity and a struggle … for justice …. This love would suffer from dramatic heightening, as its increasing revelation provoked further resistance. Exposing race for its lie and struggling against it bears the marks of cruciformity, because it will be resisted” (161–62). The “because” here indicates the historical necessity of struggle in the particular context of colonial modernity when love is concretized—and here Sobrino might add, in a way that repeats Jesus’ commitment to the Kingdom of love of the God of the Kingdom. Carpenter recognizes this insight in Baldwin’s work moves, perhaps, toward something we might call violence, but also notes a difference from Baldwin. Siding with Balthasar, she writes, “though theo-dramatic reversal has something of Baldwin’s loving stripping away of masks, it is also differently ordered around love as ‘violence’” (162). 

If tradition mediates action and the history it effectuates, Carpenter is right not to avoid the historical sort of violence that Baldwin recognizes—as tragic as such violence is. Baldwin holds the problem of violence open, yet also—I think—takes a similar approach as Sobrino. For Baldwin, the present world-system structured by racism, various hierarchies, and a capitalist mode of production is profoundly opposed to love. If one has faith in love, as Baldwin invariably does, this love cannot but be enacted historically in opposition to—and with violence toward—the present world-system. Baldwin discusses, mourns, and accepts the inevitability of a violent quality of love in the present world violence without advocating it. He perhaps sums up his relation to the difficulty of this problem by admitting, “I do not carry a gun and do not consider myself to be a violent man: but my life has more than once depended on the gun in a brother’s holster” (472). 

I don’t know how to respond to this problem, beyond the sense that Baldwin is right that we can’t pass over the problem too easily. If we take love—or, for that matter, the Kingdom of God—seriously, there is a creeping sense that we might also be committed to what Fanon described as “the end of the world.” This is a historical struggle that, at least it seems to me, is violent. 

A second and related question concerns how the central position of the Kingdom of God for Jesus shapes the problem of Christian tradition. Orlando Espín offers a theology of tradition that is similar to Carpenter’s. He sees tradition to be in, in the first place, action and living rather than an articulation of that action and living. This leads Espín, like Carpenter, to prioritize faithfulness to history. But Espín ultimately moves in a different direction because of his emphasis on Jesus’ emphasis on the Kingdom. Espín’s faithfulness to history and tradition is “faithfulness to the meanings and hope constructed by their victims.”3 He thus focuses more on Jesus’ claim of the Kingdom within the anti-kingdom than, at least in the first place, his cruciformity: 

[END]Revelation’s contents…are not doctrines but the extraordinarily scandalous and dangerous (yet somehow reasonable) subversive hope that a Galilean peasant was right when he announced that God had begun to transform this world of asymmetric power and inhuman dominance into a radically new world (a “new creation”) where justice, equality, inclusion, and especially compassion would reign.4[/END]


Tradition includes the clarification and expression of this revelation. But this clarification—and here is again a crucial insight from Baldwin—takes the form of contesting the modern world-system in the form of a political and historical project. The Christian hope is that the transformation of the world Jesus announced, which includes a material transformation that is political and economic, is true. This hope leads to a praxis, a historical project, which is a “traditioning of Jesus’ subversive hope.”5 Tradition and the Kingdom of God must always go together: “Traditioning is about the hope and the faith and, consequently, about the Reign of God and the God of the Reign. It is also, inescapably, about that Galilean Jewish peasant who announced the dawn of the Reign.”6

Carpenter’s heuristic is crucial to living with the problem of tradition vis-à-vis the central position of the Kingdom of God. She also offers a direct way of posing the problem with her understanding of the option for the poor: “a turn to the oppressed not only mimics the gospel but also is a corrective to concrete historical circumstances, where the oppressed are precisely those who receive no attention in their fully human action and meaning in history” (33). But I also think we need the historical specificity, which includes a political-economic specificity, of the Kingdom of God as a central component of the problem of tradition. The focus in Nothing Gained is Eternal is on love as kenotic, vulnerable, and cruciform. I would slightly shift the emphasis: love is kenotic, vulnerable, and cruciform only as a result of being oriented toward the Kingdom while in the historical situation of the anti-kingdom. If tradition is “consciousness of Jesus’ consciousness,” as Carpenter puts it following Blondel (59), then the Kingdom cannot but be the final and eschatological reality that orients tradition. 

A final question has to do with what I take to be a possibility within the way that Carpenter poses the problem of tradition. Carpenter uses the specific problem of racism, and the notion of “race” it produces, to frame her entry into the problem of Christian tradition. Using Carpenter’s metaphysic of tradition, how do we best historicize a response to racism? I understand Carpenter’s theology of tradition to be materialist in the sense that Denys Turner describes Thomas to be a materialist. From Thomas’s perspective, today’s materialists and his Augustinian contemporaries both perceive matter as lacking meaning. The former sees meaning to exist in discourse about matter or life in relation to matter, while the latter sees something else (i.e., the “soul”) to exist, beyond matter, as meaningful. Thomas, by contrast, sees matter to bear meaning or form—that is, meaning comes from matter. Consistent with Thomas’s materialism, Carpenter sees Christian tradition as “a body of action” in the material world (175). She understands human beings in their material situation, as perpetually becoming (see 179–80). To return to my fundamental agreement with Carpenter’s posing of the problem of tradition, this way of understanding Christian tradition opens up a way of responding to racism. Through a creative resourcing, Carpenter offers a way to reject meanings imposed from beyond matter and rather restore the solidarity of human nature (see 33). In other words, I think Carpenter’s metaphysic of tradition successfully offers a possibility to respond to the specific problem that frames her presentation of the problem of Christian tradition. It is, I think, up to use to use this metaphysic in creative and historically particular ways. 

  1. Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator (Ossining, NY: Orbis, 1994) 126.

  2. Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2009) 57.

  3. Espín, Idol and Grace (Ossining, NY: Orbis, 2014) 43.

  4. Espín, Idol and Grace, 89.

  5. Espín, Idol and Grace, xv.

  6. Espín, Idol and Grace, 113–14.

  • Anne Michelle Carpenter

    Anne Michelle Carpenter


    Carpenter Reply to Drexler-Dreis

    We can only be where we are. We can only begin as we are. Or, to quote a lyric from Tegan and Sara: “All I have to give the world is me.”1 My friend Jonathan Heaps and I repeat sentences like these to one another habitually. They are not counsel to never change. They are counsel about the nature of change. Me as I presently am: I am not necessarily sufficient for a situation. But rising to the situation that I find myself in will require me, for I am in it and it is in me. 

    Alas, I cannot turn the page on myself, wait for another one. What so easily slides from Catholic tongues eager to deny the existence of transgender persons: I am all I have, whatever that is. And then we smile with white teeth, forgetting how what I do with the inescapable fact of my existence will be unto my glory or my condemnation. The evidence in my trial before God will be me. “In the evening of this life,” says Thérèse of Lisieux, “I shall appear before you with empty hands.”2 

    The above is the essential character of my material realism. It prevents me from various fantasies of “wishing otherwise,” whether that means the dream that Christians have somehow escaped our own evils unscathed, or the dream that I can disentangle myself from the present situation, with its mix of intelligibility and surd. Much as scholars dream the book the author did not write, so also we dream solutions to problems that do not begin with ourselves as a fundament part of our own facts. 

    I like very much that Joseph Drexler-Dreis thinks through my book using Jon Sobrino. I know very little about Sobrino. It delights me, though, to see Sobrino, because I am aware of how little I know, and of how little Hans Urs von Balthasar ever read of liberation theology (none at all). It is more than amusing to see, though. Drexler-Dreis contributes to my reflections and also challenges me with what I could not contribute. And that is very important, because I do not know how we can rise to old situations with new answers except through collaboration. I am also reminded of how Shawn Copeland’s gestures toward the Mystical Body of Christ, which is something like a motive force and also something like a transcendent principle, felt by the heart and standing above it. This Body is alive now and yet also yearned for.

    Drexler-Dreis’s compelling reading of James Baldwin’s complex, mournful (or lamenting) stance toward violence made me think again. It occurred to me, on reading it, that my search for how to relate interiorly to Baldwin through a reading of Balthasar had been incomplete. Further, I had been looking at the wrong “place” in Balthasar to help me do it. Or at least, I had been looking in a partial place. I think because my understanding of Baldwin himself was also partial. So, I would like to reflect on violence a little more.

    My point in my reflection will be this: that I did not consider the concrete situations of violence subtly enough, and so misunderstood what exactly I was asking myself about. Last year, I got to teach an experimental course on theological aesthetics and monster theory (a subfield in literary studies). In that course, “form” (Gestalt) confronts the misshapen. I was trying to think about some of the mysterious things Victor Anderson says about the grotesque, albeit in a Balthasarian-literary mode. My book was by then on its way to printing, but the course helped me to realize how misshapen human situations are, and therefore how misshapen our struggles in them can be. I better understood how that makes doing the right thing in the right way a struggle with the ways that the world around us does not fit together easily. And so one’s own self does not “fit together” easily. What we must do about this is not merely a moral question. It is not merely a practical question. It is also a theological question.

    Balthasar is very concerned that the Christian never wield power in violation of another human being. Balthasar’s model is always, always the vulnerability of Christ. Violence is therefore at its core an invasion and a manipulation of this Christic vulnerability, which is a human vulnerability even as it reveals the vulnerability of God. Who, after all, can be human without taking the risk that is being in the hands of another? We need one another. Vitiating our need for vulnerability is so wrong because our vulnerability is so necessary, and needfulness is its very character. Of course, there is physical violence, but there is also this: using someone’s yearning to hurt them.

    Balthasar often worries about what exactly happens to creatures whose raison d’être is needfulness, and what exactly happens to the Christian who is supernaturally tasked with a charity that is, for Balthasar at least, even more radically exposed than this original human raison. His word for this exposure, to the dismay of some, is “suffering.” But because this suffering also involves sin, he also calls it “contradiction.” Violence shows up here—and it shows up ambiguously. I mean this not as a moral claim about his work, but as a claim about situations where human yearning confronts human situations that do not “fit.” I keep thinking of various lines from Balthasar’s Tragedy Under Grace: “the contradiction [of Christianity] grows in proportion to the growth of power in the name of the Cross” (81); “power and grace stand eye to eye; the history of the world holds its breath” (194); “[Thomas] Becket stands as conscience before his king, and his brains are spattered over the tiles on the cathedral floor” (195); “it is not proper to cast doubt on the permissibility of personal or collective defense by means of force of weapons against an unjust attacker […]. Nevertheless, the idea of a weapon in the hands of Jesus Christ is absurd” (213).3 

    I am inspired in many respects by Peter Joseph Fritz’s work with Balthasar. He has tried to ask, in Balthasarian terms, what Ungestalt might mean or come to mean for a “theological aesthetics.” Here I am asking what that means “dramatically,” in terms of situations of human action and human meaning and human sin. I think that James Baldwin understands something that I am trying to find new ways to understand with him. I think “contradiction” might be close, though it lacks yet its felt Balthasarian meaning and certainly lacks its felt sense for Baldwin. 

    I would like to defer to Baldwin’s authority. I would like to give him epistemic privilege. But I wonder if this is enough. I wonder if it can come to mean a lack of curiosity, a failure to feel this knowledge as a question put to one’s own self. Instead, one throws up one’s hands: “whatever you want me to do, I shall do.” But Toni Morrison, echoing a sentiment that her friend James Baldwin expresses a few times, says this: “[It took me some time] to understand that I was longing for and missing some aspect of myself, and that there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from.”4 Here is Baldwin’s version: “No one is, or can be, the other: there is nothing in the other, from the depths to the heights, which is not to be found in me.”5 

    I think Morrison and Baldwin are asking for something very hard. Balthasar might say: there is no kenotic “letting-be” that is not also an affirmation of what it wills, and in this sense also an affirmation of the will itself. That is very abstract, so let me put it this way: in human terms, we must risk ourselves. Put skin in the game. Knowledge, Lonergan insists, leads to responsibility. And that is very hard.

    More than once, Morrison rejects terms like “magical realism.” She sees nothing magical in the fantastic events of her stories. They are serious confrontations with the rocky ground of our reality, with our character as seeds cast upon the ground, with our character as creatures tasked with rising upward from this ground and no other, giving to the present a new future. But rocky ground does not yield easily, or evenly, to new understandings and new actions.

    There are tactics that I would call “magical” in contrast with Morrison. Some of us seek the safety of sincerity, of meaning well, and we avoid perceiving how meaning well is radically insufficient to our situation. Some of us retreat to authority, but authority (as Lonergan points out) is also historical. And history is our problem. Some of us retreat to paradox or to extreme apophaticism, affirming merely that God is somehow in charge. But that has the same problems as other types of human deference; it’s just that its object is God. Still others of us retreat to imagination and its capacity for the future, but we have to understand how imagination got us here. If the history of the arts is any testimony, it testifies to who made it. Imagination is not the future; it is a mirror. So: will we perish, like Dorian Gray, when we see the figure of our real self before us?

    I do not think so. We are, or can be, resilient enough for the revelation of reality. I give reasons for this in my book. But I would like to close by saying that Drexler-Dreis’s reflection has helped me better understand how useful it might be to consider more deeply what Balthasar means by the divine dramatic “struggle” with evil, and what Baldwin means with his grief over and pragmatism about violence. If we must struggle in our concrete situations that do not yield to self-evident action, if we struggle with evil in imitation of God, then we are tasked with something like an imitation of God’s absolute bracketing of the world: nothing can be left out. And if we must struggle, the recalibration to one’s own situation cannot cease, cannot rest on any laurels, must always be running headlong into a thoughtful kind of trouble. Christians affirm our divine hope by being willing to struggle at all. But we would have to actually struggle. We would have to actually be willing. We would require the grace of being willing. And God’s providence does not release us from our own decisions. We must always be deciding. And we must always be beginning only where we are.

    1. Tegan and Sara, “All I Have to Give the World Is Me,” Hey, I’m Just Like You (Sire Records, 2019).

    2. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux (Gastonia, NC: TAN Books, 2010), 277.

    3. All citations from Hans Urs von Balthasar: Tragedy Under Grace: Reinhold Schneider on the Experience of the West (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997).

    4. Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 38.

    5. James Baldwin, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, ed. Randall Kenan (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2011), 146.

Mara Brecht


The Theological Density of Whiteness—An Open Question

A response to Anne Carpenter

I share with Anne Carpenter an appreciation for Willie James Jennings’ excellent work illuminating Christianity’s contribution to colonialism and of the racialized scale by which we see and measure people. For me, reading Jennings’ The Christian Imagination was a turning point in my way of seeing. Jennings allows me to account for the theological production of race and racism. The book goes beyond talking about the way Christians supported and enacted colonial expansion, and shows the way that Christian patterns of thought gave rise to and infused meaning into “races” which, in turn, are constitutive of colonialism. Most significantly, Jennings helps me apprehend race as an ongoing theological problem. But the place where I find myself stuck, and what I’ve been turning over and around for many years now, is my own whiteness as itself a theological problem. The problem is a problem because it’s something all white people live and so it’s—regrettably—inescapable. Here I find a generative point of contact with Anne’s book.

Anne writes that she wants to develop a metaphysics of tradition, meaning that she wants to explore the “being of tradition” (xv). As easy as it might be to dismiss metaphysics as abstract, irrelevant, and hubristic—for who can capture or account for all that is?—Anne deftly appeals to a way of approaching being that is concrete and grounded, and not intended to be comprehensive of being (9). Late nineteenth- and mid-twentieth-century Thomists are her guides. With Bernard Lonergan and Maurice Blondel, Anne affirms that humans are only historical. The phrase “only historical” should be qualified and clarified. We’re only historical in the sense that we find ourselves fully enmeshed in time and place. At the same time, we’re not only historical in a materialistic or reductionistic sense. To the contrary! She appeals on this point to her Thomist guides to theorize the “supernatural density” of reality and history.

  In a sense, Lonergan and Blondel take a basic (Thomist) conviction that nature and grace operate together and add to it theoretical depth and complexity. Reality, for Blondel, is two realities, natural and supernatural. The horizons are “disproportionate” to each other and cannot be confused, and yet there is a kind of union between them. The supernatural realm always operates on the natural realm, even while remaining at the same time beyond it (53). Lonergan considers the same dynamic at the level of human action. Human actions occur in time and place—and so are natural. They are also enabled by a realm beyond the natural order. Additionally, our actions have a greater set of effects than what is immediately or readily apparent. “Premotion” is Lonergan’s term for capturing the idea that human action is situated between both past and future, and involves forces beyond ourselves. As Anne explains of Lonergan, premotion describes how we both respond to the circumstances given to us, and effect—indeed create—the future out of those conditions. We are “instruments” for Lonergan, capable of producing either more or less sin (12).

Anne thus uses Lonergan and Blondel to make the case that we never belong entirely to ourselves. This is a theological claim—a theological interpretation of the universe, reality, and human action, and gets to a basic tension that Anne works out in her project, that of freedom and constraint. To my mind, it forms a nice parallel with another discourse that I’ve found helpful—and provocative—for thinking about reality and being human, developed by philosophers who adopt and adapt John Dewey’s theory of habit to explain race. Feminist philosopher Shannon Sullivan uses Dewey’s biologically-inflected category habit to explain the relationship among morphological features of human body, social interaction, and “race” as a functioning and enduring feature of our world. 

To be white, in Sullivan’s framework, is to “body as white.” I’ll use myself as an example here. As a white person, I have a habit of bodying as white. This habit of bodying comes about through my transactions with the world. The world (more specifically, my social environment) responds to me as though I am white (this is one component of the transaction) and I respond back to the world by subtly communicating and conveying “I am white” (this is the other component of the transaction). I generate a feedback loop with my surrounding environment, and “deepen the grooves” of my habits of whiteness.1 

Because I’ve been talking in theoretical terms, it’ll probably be helpful to pivot to an actual example of what Sullivan has in mind. I recently listened to a roundtable discussion on a local radio show about black women in higher education. Higher education is my primary professional environment. I know these places well, and so the conversation stood out as especially relevant. The black women on the show reported a different set of feelings from my own. They described a lurking sense of not belonging, an intuition of being in the “wrong” place. I don’t share these feelings (or at least not due to my habit of bodying as white). In my experience, my white skin is “normal” and expected. I don’t tense up when I walk into a classroom at my university, for example. I feel relaxed at academic conferences, where the majority of folk share my habit of bodying. Listening to the women on the show—and thinking about my own experience—I was reminded of Sullivan’s argument that core to whiteness is the freedom to transact, to move throughout places and spaces, to expand and extend into them uninhibited. She refers to this uninhibited, free movement—acted out by white people like myself—as the ontological expansiveness of whiteness.2  

I, as an individual subject in history, am situated at the meeting point of or between two horizons. I am not entirely up to myself. There is meaning to me—a meaning, a density—that is more than the collection of my body parts, and what I think that I am. I am between what is “behind” me (for Lonergan, the past; for Sullivan, the morphological features of my body that are perceived and interpreted by figures in my environment) and what is “ahead” of me (for Lonergan, the future, which may be either more or less sinful; for Sullivan, the grooves of the habits of whiteness, which I either deepen or try to retread in another direction). My freedom is already significantly constrained. 

Anne appreciates the complexity of the position, though the exigence with which she’s concerned is the colonial sins of the Christianity traditions: “There is a real helplessness here, both in its concreteness (with no other situation to be in but the one we are in) and in its freedom (since to be different will require more than knowing, it requires doing). The situation is compounded when we realize how history and freedom condition one another, constraining possibility according to the reality of what has to be done” (74). What I think Anne means by “what has to be done” is the work of decolonializing a colonial world, which drives to the heart of her project. If there is one theme that Anne strikes forcefully and repeatedly in this book, its Péguy’s admonition that remaining as we are is condemnation, while changing offers redemption (76, 88, 103). 

But let me return to Sullivan and the habits of whiteness. “Social construction” is another, more familiar angle to go at the matter of whiteness: I am socially constructed as white. What Sullivan’s framework offers, in my view, is a finer-grained explanation of the mechanics of “social construction” (i.e., habit and the feedback loop between habits and environment) as well as a real appreciation for how deeply involved physical reality is in a racial category like “white.” Whiteness persists not just because white people (or others) have nascently agreed on its particular construction, but because it is entangled in materiality and embedded in environment. (To be clear, I’m not defending the objective aspects of whiteness, but pointing out that whiteness—like all racialized identities—have features that have become objective via these entanglements.) 

In Sullivan’s frame, we can think of European colonialism as a macro-scale, global-level exemplification of the “free license” that is core to whiteness. Feedback loops operate here in a couple ways. There’s the feedback loop between person and environment (i.e., I am received as white, I am given license to move freely about; I move freely about, I convey back to my environment that I am white), and another feedback loop between people who body as white and whiteness wholesale (habits of free movement across generations and through time solidify whiteness as ontologically expansive). Thus, when I body as white I also solidify—set, fix, deepen, shore up—whiteness itself.3

With Sullivan’s analysis in view, I think, the stakes of decolonializing a colonial world—of not remaining as we are—are raised (as if they weren’t already high enough!). Bodies matter for the continuation or disruption of colonialism. Bodies can’t—in a sense—just be socially constructed out of, or in any straightforward way over which one might have agency. This is not to say that bodies do not and have not taken on different and new meanings, and found their way into new feedback loops. They have and they do. The “value-added” of Sullivan’s Dewey-inspired framework is that freedom and constraint are corporeally-situated. 

A further difficulty comes, for me, when I follow Anne and give attention to my body, and also make space to explore its theological meaning. It’s not just past and present that I stand between, it’s also the supernatural that I receive, encounter, and take in in history, in, on, and through my body. There is a theological density not just to history but also to being human itself, which includes, I think, the habits of bodying as raced. I like Anne’s word choice for thinking about our place in history: helplessness. There is a kind of “helplessness” with respect to the bodies we arrive in. (Please let me acknowledge straightforwardly that I am sensitive to the many problems of associating whiteness and vulnerability. Helplessness in this context means only that we are, like any embodied being, bound by certain objective aspects, everyone.)

Yes, whiteness has been produced and maintained by colonialism, greed, conquest, exclusion, and any number of sinful human, historical acts. Just as “blackness” has been produced and maintained by the same set of forces working in the opposite direction. But we also find a long and rich history of black thinkers and theologians, and Anne joining with them, who affirm blackness’ theological density—as well they should! As Anne writes, “Every black ‘I,’ expressive of its own mysterious existence as personality, is an efficacious sign of God’s work in history” (179). But opening up consideration of blackness’s theological density—as both historical, historically produced, and also theologically dense—raises the corollate question: Is whiteness too historical, historically produced, and also theologically dense? What is the white “I” a theological sign of? If reality is natural and supernatural both and if we are instruments of more or less sin, then is it also the case that bodies constrain human receptivity and responsiveness to grace? This is a difficult and complicated question, and one I’m working out a response to, but which also goes beyond the scope of this reflection on the productive relationship with Anne’s work and my question as still only question.

Anne writes that our primary dilemma is “how to extricate ourselves from ‘living-out’ of colonial existence and its primary actions, most of all in race” (166). She is speaking here especially, I think, to white Christians, who have yet “so very much” to do, she writes, “in order to be freed of our whiteness” (182). I am left wondering about the viability of being freed from one’s own whiteness, particularly if the exigence of constrained freedom is further enriched by Sullivan’s theoretical framework and if we hold onto its theological density. And so I find myself below even Anne’s dilemma, at a prior one: We cannot extricate ourselves from the bodies we’re in—even while we can adjust the habits of bodying—and yet, they have theological significance. 

  1. Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006) 36–37.

  2. Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness, 183.

  3. As an aside for readers with continental philosophical interests, I see a meaningful stream of connection with Bernard Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1991) on the practices of purification and hybridization. Practices of purification, like separating oneself off from other human groups, from other cultures, and from the natural world (“purifying” actions characteristic of white, European colonialists) rely on and engender hybridization—while at the same time denying its existence. For example, theological and economic interests amalgamated (hybridization) to allow for colonialism (purification). Or, putting this in Jennings’ terms, through acts of displacement, white colonialists embedded themselves in new lands and among new people. White people made themselves separate and apart (purification) by moving into and living among Indigenous peoples in a new “boundary-less” world (hybridization).

  • Anne Michelle Carpenter

    Anne Michelle Carpenter


    Reply to Brecht

    My book meditates a great deal on what it means to be responsible for the history one did not choose. On what it means to be responsible and yet not infinitely free, not omnipotent. But still one is responsible, indeed at the risk of one’s very life and very soul. “The being we receive is not just a game, a make-believe, a pure mimicry,” says Blondel in Philosophical Exigencies of Christian Religion, “it has an indestructible consistency, and the moment we have, through reason, entered into the order of transcendent and imperishable realities, we participate in eternity; whence comes what Bossuet called the incomprehensible seriousness of this life that is forever, of our acts that remain indestructibly.”1 Whatever I have done, I cannot undo it. I am responsible for this doing. I am even responsible to keep on living, somehow, in this life where I have committed myself inexorably by acting. I think sometimes of family members who do not speak to one another. What will the eschaton be for those such as us? If it be mere erasure, then God is cruel to have made us live and die, and most of all to have made us live with ourselves in the meantime. If it is something more—what will that be, and how strange will it be to see, to experience? No wonder biblical imagery centers so fundamentally on weddings and feasts with their tangle of tears and laughter. 

    In her response, Brecht surfaces a difficult, complicated problem: what is the theological significance of whiteness? I have been delaying my own instincts about this question. My desire is to lock in place certain heuristics that I use in my book, which would then limit the problem according to certain possibilities (as is the purpose of heuristics). I delayed this moment in order to first existentialize the problem. But now I will let the heuristic fall into place: the lever of action in the world, including divine action in the world, is intelligible action. This intelligible action is contingent, meaning that it has conditions that must be fulfilled in order to occur. In the case of intelligent actors, this action is also free. Sin in this way of thinking is a kind of non-acting in that clever sense that Catherine of Siena often deploys: “every sin is done by means of your neighbors, because it deprives them of your loving charity.”2 Action happens, but deprivation happens, too. The will has willed something, but also not willed something. And in that sense, what is lacking is a lever for action, indeed for further action. My first instinct therefore is to say that, inasmuch as whiteness is sinful, it cannot be theologically significant in any direct way, since it is not itself intelligible. 

    James Baldwin removes the politeness of what I mean in the above. “I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it,” he says. “And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. […] But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”3 Baldwin renders the bereavement of non-action, the “deprivation” that so suits my Thomist sensibilities, into the dagger that it in fact is. Not-acting is at its minimum an affirmation of the present order of things, and at its maximum it is a decisive presence that does do many things indeed, even though none of them are good, intelligent, or what God intends.

    I am aware that Blackness also bears an ambiguity. It has a difficult relationship to intelligibility “as such.” Inasmuch as Blackness is a kind of racial paradigm, and what is more, inasmuch as it is a negation of persons, which is wrong, which is sin, and which is therefore not itself intelligible: it also is not theologically significant in a direct way. “Black reason,” says Achille Mbembe, “is in truth a complicated network of doubling, uncertainty, and equivocation, built with race as its chassis. […] We can speak of race (or racism) only in a fatally imperfect language, gray and inadequate. Let it suffice to say, for now, that race is a form of primal representation. Unable to distinguish between the outside and the inside, between envelopes and their contents, it sends us, above all, back to surface simulacra.”4 Black reason, Mbembe argues, represents both the original idea of “Blackness” in its colonial figuration (a kind of negation), and the press against this figuration by those figured by it (a kind of affirmation). We enter murky waters now. The undertow is sharp and deep.

    I, with my Scholastic instruments, have a way of noticing that it is something like reason that arrives to critique the racial play of surfaces. By “reason,” I do not mean proof that Black persons have reason and are reasonable. I mean the intelligence of intelligence in its execution; I mean the act of intelligence itself on the part of these persons; I mean an affirmation coming into being, which makes subsequent action real or intelligible. As real, it is an action that God acts in. As real, it is a lever for renewal. As real (or rational), it is also, necessarily, free. Its indirectness is in how it is not Blackness as such that acts, since it has no “as such,” but intelligence that acts. This action gives the lie to what “Black” originally means, but it also freely speaks truth; therefore, it can not only reveal an “underside” and the world that created it, but it can also speak into existence a reality (an actual) that is the ground for the possible.

    I dare something that could easily become terrible in my use of these instruments of mine to articulate what I just have. There is the ever-present temptation to insist that, because I can shape a co-incidence of meaning with these old tools of mine, I need no other ones. But this position is obtuse to the concrete situation itself, which is historical. I arrive here quite belatedly, holding my medical bag (labeled, maybe, “A Swiss Guy and Scholasticism”) in my hands, and my arrival was not prompted by me or by my instruments. It was prompted by the free speaking of truth in history, a truth whose existence depends on its actually having been spoken. It was James Baldwin who spoke. My being-prompted depends, in the strictest sense, on his prior free action. At best I can cooperate with the moment in its arrival, using what I have on hand. My cooperation is in a certain sense determined by what I “have,” which is me and what I know; it is in another and more fundamental sense determined by what I am asked to affirm. This “what,” this freely spoken word, is a formal cause. I mean that it is the primary determination of what happens and its meaning. My cooperation is derivative in a technical sense. This also means that my cooperation transfigures the instruments in my hands; it transfigures them according to a new meaning; it is a transfiguration formally caused not by me but by what I affirm and the one who spoke it.

    In an indirect way that could at any moment shatter into the pieces of a disaster, I have struggled into existence some kind of meaningfulness about the world as I confront it. It puts the lie to my being-white in the sense that this world I knew was supposed to be whole, competent, complete. This lie required a Black presence at best only to reassure the “reality” of its own wholeness. But that wholeness has vanished. The world I know, I now know differently. I know it as if I had not really known it before now. Certainly, I do not feel whole to depend so radically on the prior free action of someone who told the truth, and who in telling the truth exposed my lying to myself. 


    I do not know that whiteness gains a theological meaning, here; still less that it is redeemed. But something new occurs. That newness does not make colonialism fine now. But it does something to and with what I am. I might not have wished to be what I turn out to be, and I might not have wished to be disillusioned of who I thought I was, but that is not all that comes to be in this moment. A door opens. Where it leads I cannot know, for I am not on the other side of it. Something happens to me that is a kind of redemption, or the foretaste of one. Am I grateful to have sinned? That would be a hard thing to say, but Saint Paul’s sayings echo in my head: “grace all the more,” “by no means!”

    Are these instruments sitting in my hands still “white”? In some fashion, probably. I have not escaped history or become someone else. What is the meaning of their transfigurement, my using of them in ways neither they nor I anticipated? And what is the grace that made it possible? I do not know. But I do find it surprising, a feature that Charles Péguy was so keen to associate with God. 

    Can God be here? I think sometimes that we wish God’s glory were more than this fragile bloom in what is actual. We want the fragility of this moment be made secure. To my mind, at least, all this makes James Baldwin’s prior free action into an unaccountable grace. It is important, very important, to confront it in its concreteness. This act of speaking into such fragility, of entrusting a word even in the bitterness of the present, of speaking while witnessing the unrelenting exposure and impotence of words: what an unaccountable grace. Its enactment at all. The bare facticity of it: the word freely spoken. This act. In which God acts.

    1. Maurice Blondel, Philosophical Exigencies of Christian Religion, trans. Oliva Blanchette (Notre Dame, IN: 2022), 205.

    2. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue (Paulist Press, 1980), 35.

    3. James Baldwin, “Down at the Cross,” Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York, NY: Library of America, 1998), 292.

    4. Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, trans. Laurent Dubois (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 10.

Charles Gillespie


Dramatic Gestures

I was immediately taken with near unspeakable drama that adorns the cover to Nothing Gained is Eternal.1 Does a spectacle of billowing smoke and Notre-Dame ablaze gesture toward anything—lost, gained, otherwise? To quote Carpenter: “She’s the end of the world.” She welcomes drama to circulate as a keyword and image for theorizing tradition and its movement in free human action across history on the world-stage. Theatre presents action that realizes and augments the meaning of a dramatic script; drama denotes freedom. In any given production, the addition or subtraction of a gesture might make all the difference in how the play is received this time for this audience. Following Balthasar, Carpenter writes that “every ‘drama’ is simply an attempt, a gesture, even if that attempt unveils merely the ambiguity of being. Theater is, whatever its gesture, a confrontation with human action, transforming ‘even the event into a picture that can be seen’…” (127).2 I have, of course, taken this particular quotation far afield of its context to think about the picture on the cover of the book: both Anne and Hans Urs mean, here, to consider human gestures of intentional theatricality tuned for the sake of theology. Yet gestures—in theatre or in liturgy or in theological argument—point outward toward unforeseen directions with a productive ambiguity. Gestures invite thought and provoke feeling. Gestures refuse the pretense of a last word; meaning tumbles upward, outward, forward like the ashes of a burning cathedral.

I wonder, then, if there’s an application of Carpenter’s metaphysic that might shed light on the theological meanings of gesticulation as human meaning-making incorporated into the action of God. To recognize movement as gesture also notices interpretive choices. “Human beings ‘gesticulate.’ We create meaning. We at the same time wonder about ourselves and our meaning, representing both to ourselves” (141). My own wonders betray my haste to fill heuristics with content, to bind gesture to fixed choreography. Sitting with this book forced me to confront my own (mis)understandings of metaphysics. I do not know if I overcame them. Embodied experience helps me be at home in making those sorts of gestures physically, but, at first, I tripped a bit over how to generalize from the concrete without beginning from particular phenomenological experiences. But the book keeps gesturing, and I learned the great benefit in making room for abstraction that refuses disintegration, a theoretical turn to understand being that anticipates a filling (7). 

In order to understand the ressourcement-revolution that is performing the tradition always moving, there needs to be a way to think about what tradition is and does in addition to what it communicates, preserves, develops, and displays. Carpenter shows that in order to study the concreteness of tradition, one requires a theory that anticipates the whole of tradition without, in itself, representing or being that whole (8). Otherwise the tradition would be determined by its human content rather than free to be what it is and what it is for: human action that, articulated in the Balthasarian mode that excites me most, begets Christ (149). Engaging tradition—responding to its resources and playing along with an improviser’s “yes and”—makes its reality anew in the present. As Carpenter teaches, ressourcement-revolution is not retrieval of the same, but an original gesture. 

The stakes are high for a metaphysic of tradition. Carpenter intervenes in a debate already characterized by dramatic struggles between what or who harbors “real” tradition; it’s a debate I rehash on a regular basis with students, colleagues, and friends. Carpenter’s argument liberates tradition from imprisonment to previous human actions and decisions as if the legacy of some powerful acts in history provide the horizon of ultimate determination for actions in the future. For Carpenter (and Lonergan), the real is that which is truly affirmed—“the real is that which is judged to be the case” (111)—so the realest horizon for human action, the tradition alive, can only be God and the affirmation of really human being that is the Christ (cf. 75, 158). 

I learned a lot about how to do metaphysics by reading this book because of the way Carpenter fuses technical and poetic registers for her theological gesticulation. Tradition names the situation for Christian activity in freedom: life. “Tradition is alive; it is a life; it is a mediation that binds together thought and act” (194). Tradition’s scripts and sets and costumes and ideas are thus resources, freely given gifts able to be made original again (however deadly, marvelous, sinful, or ambiguous those gifts may be). The book begins in medias res—“The problem of Christian tradition is a stage play in the middle of its execution” (xi)—and so performs its argument from within that tradition’s temporality rather than speculate some ethereally neutral zone for metaphysics and theology. Carpenter’s metaphysic lights tradition to reveal “the shadow of sin and failure” (xii), primarily the interweaving of Christian tradition with colonialism and race. “Christian tradition is a body of action […] traditioned ironically, by its own sin. There is no escaping to somewhere other than where it presently is” (175). Answers to the problem of tradition fail when they retreat into a pure theory immune from a history of its abuses. Carpenter’s book proves, magisterially even without an imprimatur, the failure of “pure tradition” speak amongst Catholic thought to be not only a moral and pastoral failure but also a theological one. A triumphalist theory of tradition, especially one that sanctions the sorting of humanity into the colonial fictions of race because it has already happened, begets God incorrectly. 

But tradition still matters. And all the theatrical language helps recognize that the tradition as ongoing play need not be cancelled because it previously failed. The play of history is currently happening, so decisions about how to play the tradition sincerely matter now and in the future. “A body in action” is also good shorthand for explaining how theatre interprets. Actors lend their life to the making present of an encounter with human existence mirrored and re-presented through performance. Even the play they act (whether scripted or improvised) is an interpretation of what human living might mean. “A body in action” calls theatre to render life into art ready for reflection, and, in Balthasar’s case, a set of dramatic resources ready for theology. 

But theatre, too, has tradition. Carpenter adeptly anticipates a strong, but by no means damning, critique of Balthasar’s dramatic theory: his story of the Greeks to the present risks a theory “overdetermined by the drama of the West” (127).3 Balthasar is self-aware that “the choice of a particular play depends on its theological fruitfulness—an admittedly one-sided approach.”4 As such, so-called Western theatre remains an incomplete but nonetheless useful heuristic for understanding human action in time and space. Theatricality relies on a play of signs and surfaces, the availability of any body or object to be—that is, to perform as—something other than its usual role. Theatre changes meanings through action. So it becomes possible to talk about “theatre” as a phenomenon apart from the particularities of each play, the nuances of each gesture, even if the set of sources is limited. Before turning to theology, Carpenter’s heuristic unveils why we spend so much time debating performances and performativity. “I” perform who “I” am. 

And, like the Christian one that Carpenter investigates, theatre’s tradition remains inextricably bound up with colonialism and race. In the United States, professional, academic, and amateur theatres continually re-adjudicate showbusiness origins in the primordial soup of minstrelsy and blackface.5 That history reverberates, echoed every time a beloved play with racist tropes gets unreflectively restaged or its harm too hastily excused. Because theatre’s being is as event, theatre-making hands on its performance history intentionally or not. Perhaps Carpenter’s metaphysic of tradition might look back from theology to make a comment on theatrical praxis: to do theatre—as art or playing my “I” for and with others—means to participate in human action that carries glory and devastation in its wake. All the more so for doing theatre in the context of Christian action—whether this means a Christian who makes theatre or adopts church roles, performing or interpreting a play with theological themes, a Christian institution teaching drama as part of its mission.

 But if theatre might be heuristic for spectacles of human action, could theatre also offer heuristics for the meaning made by confronting dramatic events? While Notre-Dame burns, so does the presence of complicity in colonialism and the fashioning of racial ideology. So, too, the tradition’s justifications for misogyny, clericalism, sexual abuse, and warmongering nationalism. How could a firey gesture reveal anything about tradition other than a longing to protect its inheritance? Luckily, poetry interprets the image and historical referent. The whole of the book is, in some ways, “mothered urgently by the spectacle / of her, of our, of loss.” A metaphysic of tradition with attention to the surd of colonialism and race ransacks the sanctuary offered to whiteness by equating it with meaningfulness. Perhaps that is why drama displays something about tradition: “drama is not mere struggle but a struggle around meaningfulness, and a struggle around human being as situation” (130). After such loss, how could “I” still desire to play the tradition only in the comfortable ways, only by repeating familiar gestures? 

Roles become missions, and the role of the theologian becomes resourcing and playing and “representing” Christ (cf. 149). Rote repetition—going through the motions—is not, in truth, traditional. As Carpenter writes, “The question (of intelligence) opens the way, heuristically wedges into being, the being of an action that no longer merely repeats the past. The question allows the problem of colonialism and tradition to become the problem of an original gesture made today” (173). And so the drama and gesticulation of Notre-Dame on fire inspires me with two of my own concluding gestures in reply.

The first gestures toward cruciformity and kenotically making room under the conditions of finitude. Could a metaphysic of tradition provide any clues about when and how to transform resourcing beyond that it must be done? One clear benefit is how Carpenter’s account of human action (and its expansive canon of saints) teaches my own sense of tradition how to be “renewed by the present” (170) even though I, too, am “not an ‘I’ of the undersides” (163). I am increasingly noticing ressourcement-revolutions in my collaborations in theatre, like the Untitled Othello Project.6 New processes and practices might influence how we gesticulate theology via our questions, genre, performances, venues. 

The second gesture is physical and perhaps a bit dangerous. Could theatrical heuristics apply to sacramental gestures, the kind that enact the Eucharist as the “exemplary original gesture of both church and God” (101)? How does a metaphysic theorize something like elevation, a gesture so intimately present around the Eucharist? There need to be safeguards lest a generalized theory of elevation replicate the colonial gaze, implying that God hovers aloof above it all like a plantation master.7 Such a gesture awakens—theatrically, ritually, sacramentally—the impossibility for the singular agent to know the sum total of the human experience. Yet the direction of God’s willing from “within the human situation” seems, at least to me, to gesture towards a theology that needs to view the Eucharist from the literal underside in order to affirm its reality. Anyone can walk into a church and witness the gestures of tradition on the move, in action. Could that underside vantage be lay or excommunicated or unbaptized? Can metaphysics even be contoured by the ambiguous meanings of physical gestures and their drama? Even after and during the fire, the show goes on.

  1. Per the copywrite page, credit for the cover image is iStock/DeepGreen and the design belongs to Lindsey Owens.

  2. The internal reference is to TD 1:17.

  3. Balthasar notes that the “world-stage” theme emerges from a dramatic tradition that develops in Europe but “countless other people have been acquainted with cultic and mythic drama: Egypt, Babylon, China, Indonesia and Japan with its Noh plays which survive to this day” (TD 1.135).

  4. TD 1.9.

  5. For a concise summary, see Ayannah Thompson, Blackface (Bloomsbury, 2020).


  7. See Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness.

  • Anne Michelle Carpenter

    Anne Michelle Carpenter


    Carpenter Reply to Gillespie

    I have a hilarious, uncomfortable relationship with art and performance. I have never in my life experienced the guileless, defenseless surrender that seems to so characterize the aesthete. I am much more deliberate, much more suspicious, and horrendously serious. I laugh to conceal myself: an unsmiling, terrified gymnast keeping pace with people actually having fun. But the arts are my first language anyway. God’s mysterious jest.

    This is my indirect way of admitting how grateful I am that Charles Gillespie has treated me not only as a metaphysician but also as an artist. One who has performed something. The performance is a book, and the book is a performance of its own possibility. Its possibility is anchored by intelligence, but it is actually credible to the degree that it also embodies what it hopes for in its argument. 

    I am approaching Gillespe’s questions at an angle. He has asked, first of all, if a metaphysic of tradition—which is heuristic—can say anything specific about how and when to re-source things. He has also asked about liturgy. I will not much deal with this second question, but I will treat the first. I will treat it as a concrete question asked by human beings who live and who die, together, in concrete historical situations. For now, I am taking a step to the side and thinking about Guillespie’s reflections on gesture and performance.

    It would be too easy to say that the book hopes for “tradition,” though that is true, even the foundation. But it would be too easy to say anyway, because readers seem to have been intrigued and unsettled by the title and cover alone. Someone I know has asked me several times, regarding this whole “nothing gained is eternal” business, “What about God? Heaven? Grace?” I have not answered him. I want the book to answer that question. But still, while I say nothing and refuse to be helpful, I think of that line echoed in the Synoptics: “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34). What a strange way to gain anything.

    The poem of mine that appears in the book is an apocalypse, which means it is a gesture of hope and a gesture of heavenly struggle. That is part of what the apocalyptic genre invokes. I am sort of the “I” in the poem, but that “I” is also a role I’m playing. If my poems confess something, it is not quite me who is confessed. That is one of the great privileges of art. So the poem’s speaker is an observer and also a pray-er, with an ambiguous temporal relationship to the poem’s central event: Notre-Dame burning. This event itself is temporally ambiguous, fusing past, present, and future at various points in the poetry. Metaphors of “Mother Church,” “people of God,” the Blessed Virgin, and the woman in Revelation 12 layer one another. Other scriptural and liturgical references appear in allusions. The total effect threatens disorientation. Against this disorientation, the poem relies on its description of a literal burning church to run the flow of the stanzas. The cohering sense or meaning of the poem, ultimately, is in the praying of the speaker.

    It would be an interesting mistake to take the poem to be an expression of despair—for us, for our tradition, for our Church. The Church burns down, or appears to be in the midst of doing so. Is this despair? Maybe. But Christian apocalypse––the poems métier––is not despairing. The interpretive mistake might occur in a failure to grasp the poetry’s apocalyptic references, but in a more fundamental way I think it would be something like ignorance of, or an inability to supply, apocalyptic hope. (I am not there, you see. But you, the reader, are. Who will be supplying what the poem needs? Well. Not quite me.) One has to know the prayer that prays in the midst of apocalypse. Or at least one has to know that Christians have such a prayer. The mistake might then grow, erasing the final notion of the final line, which is that this “loss” in the fire mothers something into being. Something breaks out and open from the apparent non-being of death.

    I am too Catholic or too Thomist (at least in this regard) to understand the crucifixion as the expression of a divinity sub contrario. We seem to forget how, even for Balthasar, something positive, a prior willing, carries Christ through the silence and death of Holy Saturday. Even there, everything that presently exists in a positive sense is an immanent instrument for everything that will be. So, God reverses our fortunes through a certain kind of “addition,” which is the incarnation. Additions rely on a prior order. As one of my favorite lines from Bernard Lonergan says, “the solution [to the problem of evil] will be a harmonious continuation of the actual order of this universe. For there are no divine afterthoughts.”1

    Let me lay out some decisions I made that contain in them some sense of what I understood myself to be doing, in what I also understood to be an affirmation of how there are no divine afterthoughts. These are not the only things one can do to responsibly resource the tradition. They are what I did, and again, what I did has its credibility in the intelligence of its performance. In no particular order:

    • Prioritize speculative problems
    • Turn to persons
    • Constellate persons around the speculative problem
    • Understand the persons I constellate
    • Understand insights and persons non-competitively
    • Let the speculative problem govern my placing-together of insights and persons
    • Ask a new question “with” the dead
    • Get beyond constraining oppositions by getting behind them
    • Maintain a moving viewpoint
    • Vindicate a broadly Thomist understanding of being

    I am not about to explain all of this, although that might be enjoyable for those of us who are very worried about theological method. But I think a key decision during my writing was to let go of the question of how evil and wrong a thinker is or is not. I mostly—not entirely—left my criticism implicit in the work of a purified iteration of, say, Balthasar. Criticism is very important, I admit. But it is not the only operation of theology. And I am much too governed by the passions of loyalty to sit calmly in the midst of accusations. In other words, I am no good at that type of criticism. I want always to defend, say, Balthasar. I learned this about myself before I wrote my book. So my focus was, instead, entirely positive: what can this person contribute to the question of the book and the problems it tries to resolve? This focus leaned into a strength of mine and helped me be less defended against asking questions honestly. Again, it is not the only decision a theologian can make. But it is a decision a theologian can responsibly make.

    I worry that we are all too primed by our own thinking of an either-or between white authors and Black ones (even though they all are Christian!) that any engagement of them together that yields any ground to either group automatically rejects the other one. We are such purists. But we are not pure, are we? We are the matter being redeemed, the earthly Church. We are sinners. And sinners, Charles Péguy insists, are native to Christianity, are its very language and its very concern. At least with respect to my book, Péguy frees us from the illusion that we have to already to be innocent to strive for a second innocence. That is Péguy’s own great trust: that God can use our incomplete gestures, our less than perfect motivations, our half-hearted squanderings of talent. This tradition, this history, and no other—this very one where colonialism occurred, and it should not have occurred—it is God’s. It is God’s sure instrument. My hope for Christian tradition, in a very technical sense, is not irrational, but is absolute. My hope is in God.

    Gillespie has asked me for wisdom, wisdom about what to do. I have explained elements of what I did, which I do not consider normative for all of theology or for every theologian, but which have helped me be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and loving. I hope that my example is helpful. But if there is something important to remember about the theo-drama, it is this: there is no audience anymore. We have, all of us, been grabbed by the arm and pulled onto the Christic world-stage. I cannot tell anyone what they must do; I cannot know every concrete situation; I can only set conditions by which persons might ask themselves about their own situations. What must you do? It is up to you to know. God has placed us in our own hands. I will not and cannot release us.

    Even though we each must ask ourselves where we are and what we are to do, we also must collaborate with one another. There must be what Lonergan calls a “conspiracy of intelligences.” Our answers will be imperfect. New situations will arise with new problems. We will be constantly withdrawing from unauthenticity more than actually achieving authenticity. Self-sacrificing love can properly respond to sinful situations, and that love requires grace to make it possible. But in all things, we must be sure not to stop asking questions, asking where we come from and where we are. We must not cease seeking friendship with our fellow scholars. Questions, Lonergan reminds us, are an expression of our desire for God. The God who calls us forth as actors in history. The God who breathes upon us his luminous dark. 

    1. Bernard Lonergan, The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 3: Insight (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 718.

Kevin Hughes


‘Christianity is Never Triumphant’

On Historical Theology after Nothing Gained is Eternal

I find myself in the happy position of finding little in this book even to quibble with. While certainly there are things that I might have emphasized or others I may have said differently, I am convinced both by the argument itself and by its timeliness. I have known for some time that Anne Carpenter and I are fellow travelers on some particular theological road, seeking to walk through the wilds of our field of study with a deep love for Catholic theological traditions, a love deep enough to see those traditions as imperfect and yet still loveable, as limited but yet still wise, and a love deep enough to be willing to name the places where these traditions may still fall short. In trying to walk this road, we seem to some to be “too conservative” and to others to be “too liberal,” but these terms seem to have less and less purchase with each step we take. Anne and I have batted back and forth the question of what “ressourcement” is, so I am so delighted to see this book come forth so that many can learn, as I already have, from Anne’s considered argument. So my response to the book will more take the shape of an “ok, what now?” How do historical theologians like me, who look to the ressourcement theologians for inspiration, go about our work differently in the wake of Carpenter’s book?

Nothing Gained is Eternal offers a bracing new vision for ressourcement, not through a new retrieval of yet another hidden treasure from the early church, but through a new and renewed vision of tradition itself, a “metaphysic of tradition,” as Carpenter gently but firmly nudges us toward the deeper theoretical underpinnings of the very idea of ressourcement, “into the being of tradition.” (xv) Through the careful articulation of a metaphysic of tradition, Carpenter avers, we can begin to come to terms with the reality of Christian sin in history, with the fact that “the cracked vein of self-contradiction and irony runs its way through Christianity’s whole structure” (194). Some readers may be puzzled by this move, but I think it is essential: To articulate a “metaphysic of tradition,” which may seem to some too abstract or intangible, is to give us a framework within which we can face the hard truths of our failure and sin—here most particularly the deformities of colonialism and racism, in a way that is fully honest and yet still hopeful for God’s redemptive work. This is why the metaphysic of tradition she develops is tested and reshaped through the critical encounter with authors such as Willie James Jennings, M. Shawn Copeland, and James Baldwin. If ressourcement has a future in theology, it must be a way that our tradition can face its own failure to carry forward the truth of the gospel without despairing that such failure makes the past useless, the present rootless, and the future hopeless. 

This is a central Christian problem, since all Christian churches find their root and heart in the Word made flesh, in God’s decisive action in history, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and in the (usually imperfect and sometimes warped) acts of discipleship that follow from it. But it is acutely and specifically a Catholic problem, since the Catholic understanding of the apostolicity and indefectibility of the church has led to efforts to separate out the purity of “the Church, holy and without spot or blemish” (Eph 5:27) from the individual actions of sinful Christians. This allows a too-easy (that is to say, an imaginary) “boundary between when Christianity was whole or pure and when it was corrupted.” (194). Indeed, this kind of gerrymandering of the past is a temptation that some find in ressourcement theologie as it has been practiced. A common received narrative about the movement that Carpenter annotates as the “capital-R” Ressourcement theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou goes something like this: faced with a rigid, procrustean neo-scholasticism, de Lubac and Daniélou sought to go back behind these calcifying accretions to a purer, more authentic patristic theology. This received narrative is not exactly wrong, but if the implication is that the Christian faith (or perhaps just the theology) of the Fathers was without some particular corruption, prior to some modern collapse, then the narrative may fall prey to just the sort of “nostalgic” vision of the past, the “pure memory” that haunted Péguy, the nostalgic dream of a prior moment of past purity. A ressourcement theology taken up in this mode would be a mere pointing-back to that moment, that never quite manages to think-again the moment, in the present, toward the future, a ressourcement that refuses to be révolution. (91). It would be an historical theology that is merely (even if rigorously) historical, hoping that good description of the past has as such a kind of power upon the present. And, in fact, this is a place, I think, that scholarship inspired by ressourcement can and does often run aground. We are fittingly overwhelmed by the sanctity and the capacious theological vision of the fathers or some other theological writers “before the fall”(wherever we might locate it), and we hope that rendering that sanctity and vision visible with our best historiographical and philological skills is itself a kind of renewal. But the results are often thin. 

I have noticed this tendency—and the thinness of the result—in my own work and in those in my “guild” (we who might describe ourselves as “historical theologians”). My counsel thus far (to myself and to others) has been simply to be more intentional about the constructive implications what we have unearthed or described. But Carpenter’s account of tradition urges a more radical revision of the work: Our very model of the past upon which we cast our historical gaze needs to change, and so the very act of “remembering” that comes from our historical study must change as well. If there is indeed a “cracked vein of self-contradiction and irony” that runs throughout Christian history, we must continually winnow any vestiges of nostalgic retrieval. We must be quite intentional about the fraught ambiguity of the whole of the Christian past, both faithfulness and failure, and so our “remembering” of that past must be more than description or retrieval. It has to have more of the shape of prayer, a “prayer against pure memory” as Carpenter finds it in Péguy (81ff). Carpenter quotes the conclusion of Péguy’s Mystery of the Charity of Jeanne d’Arc, where Jeanne reflects on her own actions on the stage of history in her last prayer to God: “I beg you to accept this prayer as my true prayer for myself, because just now I am not quite sure what I will do when I am in the street… and in the square, and what I will say. Forgive me, forgive us all the harm that I have done, serving you. But I know I did well to serve you. We did well to serve you well” (84, emphasis mine). Jeanne’s prayer is both her own and the prayer of the church, that acknowledges both failure and faithfulness, without dissolving one into the other, but also without parsing one from the other. Our action in history is both faithful and failing, and so it bears a fundamentally tragic character. Only in prayer can that tragic simultaneity, paradox, and contradiction be transfigured and bear fruit. As Carpenter distills in Péguy, “prayer lets go of, surrenders, yesterday and today (and tomorrow) into the hands of God. Péguy makes of prayer a recollection that also relinquishes…. [Jeanne’s] last utterance is itself an act of hope that no one be left without redemption” (85). An historical theology that is undertaken under these lights will be a remembering that is an act of hope. It will be a kind of prayer, historical theology as “confession” in the Augustinian sense—a rendering into speech exactly that which is unresolved, mixed, and ambivalent, or, more pointedly, that which is at once an act of discipleship and a failure of discipleship. But not simply as speech, but as offering, praying “let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy.”

In my work as an historical theologian specializing in the medieval period, I have seen many theologians turning to the Middle Ages to find “the moment,” the key time or figure or event that turned Western culture decisively toward “the modern.” The hope seems to be that we might get back behind that “moment,” whether we find it in Ockham or in Scotus or in Francis of Assisi, and then re-think our thoughts from this prior, untainted place. Carpenter’s metaphysic of tradition gives reason to doubt this strategy’s long-term efficacy. We may discern particular turns within the history of thought, and we may in fact learn from them, but we should be wary of any claim to have discerned the decisive defect. Our actions in history are always multiple and always complex, often with texture we cannot feel or implications we cannot see. Our attempts to speak the truth about the past, in both its glory and its failure, must culminate in the end in commending the whole to God, not in resignation, but in the effort to open our work up to “a memory which is renewal, and, in a breath of meaning, returns to the past, increased, the force which it received from it.” (90, quoting Jean-Louis Chrétien on Péguy). Recent works that are associated with the “new integralism” of the Catholic right have looked back to the sacramental kingship of Louis IX, prior to the modern separations between “church” and “state” in the liberal order. These works paint a compelling and beautiful picture of the political theological imagination and the social order of the thirteenth century. But they also neglect to discuss, e.g., the infamous “trial of the Talmud,” culminating in the public burning of as many as ten thousand  volumes of Talmud manuscripts at the Place de Grève in 1242. Nor do they discuss the several attempts Louis’s court made to expel Jews from the realm or Louis’s decision to enforce the Fourth Lateran Council’s 1215 decree that Jews wear a distinctive badge on their clothes, front and back, to distinguish them from Christians. Such partial retrievals of the political theology of the past represent the kind of nostalgic memory that Péguy worried about and that Carpenter’s book argues against.


Nothing Gained is Eternal is not a work of historical theology, and, in fact, it makes a strong case that ressourcement theology needs to be much more than a particular style or school of historical theology. Ressourcement and revolution are intimately connected; “…Péguy’s ressourcement is always accompanied by a revolution, achieved in the newness of today” (118). In her return to Péguy and Blondel behind the “capital-R” Ressourcement theologians, Carpenter is forcing open the door to ressourcement to broaden its reception beyond the patristic revival of Sources chretiennes and Histoire et Esprit. What Carpenter offers is more fundamentally a “metaphysic of tradition” that should be ingredient to all theological endeavor. With that in mind, but as someone so profoundly shaped and influenced by de Lubac and Daniélou, I still find myself continually asking what the proper form of historical theology should be, in this light? I can see, as I note above, plenty of examples of what it ought not or cannot be. But what positive form should it take? What does it look like to bring the considerable tools of good historical theology—philological, paleographical, cultural-historical, hermeneutical, etc.—in a way that does not simply “rescue” past moments from the oblivion of forgetting but remains open to the revolutionary possibilities within the living memory that we aim to uncover? I am not sure I have an answer to that question yet, and Nothing Gained is Eternal has given me more work to do in answering it. 

I suspect that, for someone like me, it may look something like this: A fair portion of my work, indeed, since my first book published in 2005, has explored the richness of patristic and medieval spiritual exegesis of scripture, in the interest of renewing the relationship between theology and biblical studies in our own age. Recent years have seen quite a lot of books that explore this relationship between scripture and theology with a kind of reparative intent. But there is also a sizeable and growing body of literature on anti-Judaism in Christian scriptural exegesis. Following Carpenter’s lead, we would benefit from a reading-together of these classic and critical voices with Carpenter’s metaphysic of tradition in mind. We will hope to find that, just as the encounter between Péguy and Jennings and Copeland orchestrated by Carpenter allows Péguy’s own insights into the tragic-and-redemptive character of Christian memory to be extended beyond the (rather narrowly European French) horizons of Péguy himself, we might allow de Lubac’s own resistance to anti-semitism to transfigure his own scriptural hermeneutic to lead theological exegesis beyond supersessionism.

Or so we might hope. After reading Nothing Gained is Eternal, I returned to Henri de Lubac’s Paradoxes of Faith, which I consider to be a hidden key to his own theological method. In light of Carpenter’s work, I could see that de Lubac was reading and pondering Péguy and Blondel as he wrote. The book contains one aphorism, set off to itself, without explanation or commentary. “Christianity is never triumphant.” In the weeks since I finished the book, these two phrases have haunted my imagination almost as a kind of koan: “Christianity is never triumphant. Nothing gained is eternal. Christianity is never triumphant. Nothing gained is eternal.” With profound gratitude to Anne Carpenter for this splendid book, I hope that this semi-koan may continue to yield some insight. The book has already given me much to ponder.

  • Anne Michelle Carpenter

    Anne Michelle Carpenter


    Carpenter reply to Hughes

    I have a vivid memory of a friend sending me a tweet from a French person who proclaimed confidently (in French) something like, “The Latin Mass is the true liturgy of the French, the truly French liturgy!” What I most remember is seeing this and making a dismayed noise at my phone. In my heart, I grieved for the old Gallican rites (which were not constrained to Gaul alone), and I grieved over the historical ignorance that leads to theological stupidity. 

    I think that understanding the past gives theology a chance to free itself from the tyranny of the present. Things were not always as they now are. And things do not have to be as they now are: we got here because people and institutions made decisions. We, too, have decisions to make in the present, in this present that the past has, for good and for ill, given us. But for someone like Charles Péguy, the past is also a tyrant, always threatening to force our eyes away from the urgency of the present moment, which is all we really have at all. The present, he says, is a chance to break open time to the breath of prayer. “A birth of hope. / A nascent word. / A branch and a germ and a bud and a leaf and a flower and a fruit of speech.”1 In the context of this forum, I would add: understanding the past is not yet theology (nor historical theology). We ourselves have decisions to make, and right now. Which is really too bad. “There is far too much to be learnt before [a man] could begin to judge,” says Bernard Lonergan. “Yet judge he must and decide he must if he is to exist, if he is to be a man.”2 For Péguy, this very plight, the plight of human freedom facing the present, is worsened by our emphasis on the future, which he insists we turn into the past by saving up for it (see his Notes Conjointes). Theology also has ways that it “saves up,” and thereby annihilates the dilemma of the present in its presence and our chance to speak the prayer of hope in it.

    It is not easy. Theology. And it is all too easy to do the one thing a theologian must never do: defend oneself from relevant questions. I think of the theologian as a person of a faith tradition who is thoughtfully exposed. Exposed to whatever faith asks about. But we have tactics of reassurance that are not in themselves bad but that do become trouble, and in that sense become counterfeit. It is not difficult to mock certain Thomists—as one should—for judging all of modern theology inadequate for its not being Thomas Aquinas. But it is important not to miss my point, which is that Thomas Aquinas feels safe. And no one is immune to feeling the need for assurance; no one is immune to wanting safety; no one is immune to manufacturing safety through counterfeit reasons—which always seem so reasonable. 

    I like the idea of a Catholic theology struggling to know itself in a way that breaks loose of temporal hallucinations. Of a theology that places under Christ’s feet those principalities and powers that rule over the walled cities of our very minds: present, past, future. And such recapitulation is not an escape from temporality, but is its redemption. By the cross we are or might be (if we allow it) released from presence without memory, from memory with no availability to the future, and from a future orphaned from the present. “There are indeed theologians,” says Hans Urs von Balthasar, “who appear to think that theology … has progressed so far that it stands virtually before its conclusion.” But he argues that divine revelation is such that “as yet almost nothing has been done.3 This sentiment and its hope help me to “tolerate” the cognitive dissonance that is studying Catholic history in its glory and its sin, and how violent the perplexing commingling of these is and has been. It helps me to endure the dissonance of a new relationship to my own power. It is not enough, after all, to expose sin and critique it. We can only break loose from our hallucinations with the careful attention that gives rise to available questions, with the gift of a willingness to ask those questions: questions whose asking will expose the theologian to time itself, to Lonergan’s “tension” of the “pure question.”


    As Kevin Hughes reviews in his reply above, Jean-Louis Chrétien points out that in ressourcement Péguy is talking about giving something to the past that it cannot give itself: an original gesture, a beginning-again, which would also be the past’s renewal. It is an act of exposure. One steps forward and has to decide, not what was done, but what one must do. So it cannot be any old doing. It has something of Lonerganian judgment in it, but this judgment also stands before the God who will judge us for what we in fact do. In Maurice Blondel’s parlance: one has to do the right thing in the right way. Ressourcement has to be a révolution. The one does not survive without the other. And God will judge us for our struggling confrontation with the peculiar shape of this survival. This is a judgment we must actually hope for.

    Balthasar often experiments with what exactly Péguy’s ressourcement means for Christian tradition. There, he insists that no divine calling in history can be said to end with that individual’s death, and that no one can anticipate where or when their mission in Christ and for the world will be measured and renewed. But Christ is not constrained to Christians. “And so,” Balthasar says, “from the point of view of the theology of history, at least, one cannot say that every life, every age, has its own self-contained meaning. The significance of past ages and individual destinies is not irrevocably fixed, and they remain accessible to us; their meaning can always be newly defined and transformed.”4 

    Cooperation with divine providence in history requires an original gesture that is a reception of the past and a finite furtherance of it; the original gesture, in its cooperation with God and in its originality, is capable of giving to the past a “breath of meaning” (cf. Chrétien) that renews it. This renewal is personal: its hinge is the human person acting, and its renewal is a renewal of human persons who have acted. It is theologically dramatic: the “I” is called by divine grace into history. In the playing-out of this freedom before God, the “I” of the past is renewed in the “I” of the present.

    Balthasar renders ressourcement theologically, and he basically understands theological vocations (Christic “mission”) interstitially. They permeate one another in patterns ultimately only knowable by the mind of God. Or, to put it another way, if human beings are metaphysics-in-act (Blondel), then human fulfillment—even in terms of nature—is not simply chronological. Practically speaking, the constraint on the human being will constrain them primarily to the present and its unwieldy responsibilities. But theologically speaking, divine missions are interstitially furthered by the creative fund of human intelligence and human responsibility, and in the creative daring of Christian poverty and Christian love.

    However, Balthasazar is also clear: renewal includes critique, penance, and pruning with sheers. One must measure one’s gestures with the measure that Christ is in historical life, and such a measure for Balthasar is a taste of Christ’s ultimate judgment of us (Theology of History, 51-60). Christ himself is our measure, and so we will discover him in our truth and our failure. We most hope for this.

    These finite acts of furtherance in ressourcement are more than developmental or progressive. They are eschatological and they are apocalyptic (that is, revelatory of the eschaton and its measure of the world). At one angle, the act of ressourcement is an expression of the Christ-form in a free human action. Inasmuch as the human person acts like Christ in their discernment of their vocation throughout their life, they affirm him in human history; and he, the risen Lord, is the end of history. So, in every act of charity performed in the Spirit, however imperfect the act: a miniature apocalypse. But this action is also the deed of a life before and in God, which means that its meaning is not self-contained. It stands open to renewing and open to being renewed, and to measuring and being measured. This peculiar temporality bears features of anticipation and fulfillment and judgment. So ressourcement is in that sense, too, apocalyptic. Ressourcement is an apocalypse, however small, of temporality’s openness to its measure.

    In faith, we know that providence leads us to the eschaton. Theology can reasonably grasp certain features of this historical, supernatural process. I have focused on the renewal of the past in the free seeing-out of present responsibility. “Responsibility” means many things and not one thing. Responsibility does not oppose the action of history and tradition with the action of the eschaton. Indeed, ressourcement unites them with one another. It is a kind of “suspension” of sheer chronological temporality, of sheer “memory,” of sheer “tradition.” “The history of Revelation,” Balthasar says, “shows the repeated suspension of tradition as being of the essence of tradition itself.”5

    The act of ressourcement is a révolution. In this and in this only, the seal of pure history is broken, and eternity is exposed to history as history’s interior meaning. This meaning is the divine judgment that presently we hope for. For a moment in time, eternity is exposed to time—in the finite act of an original gesture. This is the very heart of Christian tradition, suspended on a temporal cross, pierced by history and by divine love.


    I have only this hour (eternally)

    and only this gesture (truthfully),

    which can only leave my hands

    to be redeemed only in yours.


    With delicate intelligence,

    I press the waning minute

    the fateful shape of a word 

    carried away on the wind.


    Hold your hands to your ear

    and measure carefully the sound

    that finds you in a shining dark,

    warmed by the heat of your heart.


    Christ on his cross gives a perfect Word,

    naked and in tears on the third hour,

    which we warm on our tongues

    when we offer another one.


    Here the cup of the past

    pours the sieve of our fingers

    in a figure of blood and water,

    for nothing gained is eternal.

    1. Charles Péguy, “Le Mystère des saints innocents,” Oeuvres complètes de Charles Péguy, Oeuvres des poésie tome VI (Paris: Éditions de la nouvelle revue française, 1919). Available via Project Gutenberg:

    2. Bernard Lonergan, “Dimensions of Meaning,” Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. I: Collection (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 244.

    3. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Razing the Bastions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 27-28. Emphasis original.

    4. Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 78.

    5. Theology of History, 60.

Verified by ExactMetrics