Christopher Smith honours the memory of Eric Lionel Mascall

Ash Wednesday this year brings an anniversary in which I have a particular interest and which I hope might interest you too, at least indirectly. It will be the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of a theologian whom I have often mentioned in these pages, Canon Eric Mascall, who died on 14 February 1993. That is also, as it happens, my first day back in the saddle after having had a period of study leave to do some research on his theology. He taught in Oxford after the war, then became a professor at King’s College London in 1962. He was much-published and much-read during the second half of the twentieth century, but I wonder whether the wide-ranging body of work he left behind is now in danger of being neglected.

Mascall’s work ranges across a wide field, and he is often described as a Thomist (which is to say a follower of St Thomas Aquinas) asking how we might demonstrate the existence of God through reason and experience. He was equally at home in the field of Christology, and he tackled other dogmatic subjects like the Church, the Eucharist, mariology, the language we use to talk about God, and the gifts given to mystics like St John of the Cross. He worked quite a lot of his theology by engaging with contemporaries and near-contemporaries. He did this both with those with whom he felt he had much in common, like Austin Farrer and Gregory Dix and continental Roman Catholic theologians (particularly in the French-speaking world less studied in this country than their German Protestant contemporaries), and with those with whom he profoundly disagreed, like Paul van Buren and John A.T. Robinson.

In fact, there was often a glint in his eye (or so I discern from reading his books) as he cheerfully demolished the theology of those cheesy old liberals: ‘There is, as we know, a vigorous and noisy group of writers who maintain that theology[’s]… primary duty is to modify itself in accordance with the assumptions and aims of secularism where such modification is possible, and to commit suicide where it is not.’ ‘This… group have [little] in common apart from a contempt for traditional Christianity and a fondness for startling and provocative slogans.’

By contrast, Mascall wants to help us immerse ourselves in the beauty of Catholic truth. The theologian, he says, should be grounded in the deposit of faith; he should do his theology from within the tradition. The task of the theologian, he said, is ‘to help the Church acquire a deeper understanding of the Christian faith and to mediate, interpret and commend that faith to the contemporary world.’ He set out his stall when he gave his inaugural lecture at King’s, and he quoted this particular passage in the final chapter of his memoir, Saraband, thirty years later: ‘As I see it, the task of the Christian theologian is that of theologizing within the great historical Christian tradition… Like the good householder he will bring out of his treasure things new and old. But he will have no other gospel than that which he has received.’ And, as he said elsewhere, ‘the first fact about the theologian is his baptism,’ and ‘only as he lives in union with Christ in the Mystical Body can the theologian without peril of presumption and damnation speak about God and the things of God.’

Refreshing, isn’t it? After all, no-one will ever apologize because some of those liberal theologians whom Mascall took on deliberately set out to make our Christian task harder; quite the opposite. Yet no-one came to church because they heard someone say that there was no truth in the story of the Virgin birth, or that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, or really rise from the dead. Those writers would have brought more people to church by keeping quiet. As I said in this column a long time ago, I can’t imagine one single non-churchgoer has ever said: ‘Thank heavens for Honest to God: now that I don’t have to believe in the objective reality of God, I must get to Mass. All that bodily resurrection stuff was really putting me off.’ Mascall, on the other hand, once said that ‘it is the knowledge of God which makes the theologian, not the knowledge of theology.’

I find Mascall particularly exciting on the theology of the Incarnation and its consequences. ‘What man could not do for himself, God has come to do for him.’ And he was especially fascinated by ‘the permanence of the manhood of the glorified and ascended Christ’: the consequences of the fact that, having taken human nature and blended it perfectly with the divine nature, Jesus ascends with that human nature into the Godhead, where it (which is also the very stuff of which you and I are made) remains for all eternity. To speak of ‘the Incarnation’ is not only to speak of what happened on the day of the Annunciation, but also of ‘the continuous act by which from that moment until the end of time, [Jesus’] human nature is bound to his divine Person, so that he is man for evermore.’ I have a feeling that it is from there that Fr Mascall’s theology unfolds.

  Perhaps some of my fellow priests reading this might be able, with me, to offer a mass for Eric Lionel Mascall on or around his anniversary. For in the Mass ‘Christ unites our human nature to his, so that we may be able to offer his offering or, rather, that he may be able to offer it through us and in us.’ And in the Church, ‘the Son of God patiently and tenderly draws men and women into his own perfect human nature and offers them to the Father as his members made one with him and clothed with his glory.’