During 2018, New Directions published an essay, Theology & Disenchantment, in three parts. It began by remarking that although ‘…distance may not always lend enchantment, distance in time may sometimes lend perspective.’ And though the debates discussed there had indeed reached something of a climacteric in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, a residual turbulence still lingers, with lessons still to be learnt from it.

The essay sought therefore to explore the ‘narrative of disenchantment’ within the liberal Anglican/protestant tradition in late modernity, in its reaction against the patristic project and ‘classical’ Christian formularies. Thus: ‘…we must accept our lot, bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and make the most of it.’ (Leslie Houlden, ‘The Creed of Experience’, The Myth of God Incarnate, SCM 1977) 

It contemplated liberal theology’s misreading of the formularies of the early Œcumenical Councils, whose idiom and register are necessarily very different from those of the Christian scriptures, yet are complementary to them, setting out the ontology implicit in scripture’s language of ‘God in Christ’. In that context ‘substance’ is a metaphysical category, and the homoousion of Nicaea is an ontological proposition.

It explored, secondly,  the texture of liberal theology’s deferential apologetic-by-accommodation, leading in some quarters to a subjectivism tantamount to philosophical idealism, in others to a post-modern ‘Sea of Faith’ anti-theology, which shadows Christian narrative and is parasitic upon it. 

Finally, it noted a philosophical undertow to liberal theology’s disquiet, one which has distant pre-enlightenment origins. Its discomfort has a prehistory (so I argued) in St Anselm’s theology of divine causation. Maurice Wiles – also a contributor to The Myth – would publish his 1986 Bampton Lectures in God’s Action in the World (SCM 1986), proposing a theology of creation ‘consistent’ with the laws of nature: God creates the world in its entirety in a single divine act, but plays no kind of ‘active’ role within it.

It concluded with a reference to Augustine’s vision of a creation related to the Creator through participation, in contrast to Wiles’ ‘disjunctive’ ontology of divine action that positions the Creator over against creation. Through participation, the creation relates to God as to a ‘First Cause’ (in Aquinas’ terminology). It hinted at a need to articulate the ‘Augustinian vision’ anew for our own times. Hence this postscript to that original essay.

Aquinas’ First Cause is not (pace Richard Dawkins) the ‘first’ in a temporal series of causes; rather it is the prior condition of all possible created, ‘secondary’ causation – here he is adapting Aristotle: temporal causes are themselves timelessly conditioned. Basil of Caesarea (d.397) had already suggested that the ‘beginning’ mentioned in Genesis 1:1 is not to be understood as a moment in time; but rather the immediate bringing-into-being of creation throughout time – a timeless, tenseless ‘beginning’. For St Gregory of Nyssa (d.395) and Augustine, too, creation is timeless, nevertheless the world unfolds in time through its intrinsic, created powers (Aquinas’ secondary causes). 

Thomas accepted the Augustinian, Neo-Platonist architectonic of an ascending hierarchy of creation through participation, but his Neo-Platonism is refracted through an Aristotelean prism, which to a certain extent prises the pivotal concept of participation away from its earlier context within Neo-Platonist ontology. 

How best may we understand this crucial concept of ‘participation’ against this background? Perhaps we may best serve the ‘Augustinian vision’ by utilising (after the example of the Fathers and the Angelic Doctor in their time) the tools of modern analytical philosophy.

Imagery and ‘Focal Meaning’

In such a context, the language and imagery of St Paul and of the fourth evangelist can never be far away. Between them these writers have given us some key concepts of our relationship to the person and work of Christ in the language of ‘communion’, of ‘membership’ in Christ, of the mutual indwelling of Christ and the Father, of Christ and the believer, and lastly of ‘participation’ in his saving death and resurrection. Commensurate with the scriptural terminology – of communion, membership, indwelling, participation – there is also imagery: the Body, the first-fruits, the Shepherd, the Vine, the Bread, the Way, and much of it originating no doubt with Jesus himself, who in his turn drew upon resources of imagery from within Judaism. 

The concept of participation (metochê, metousia) provides a generic, ‘focal’ meaning in relation to all the others. It is a pivotal concept from Patristic thinking onwards concerning divine action in creation, and above all in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas, providing a systematic nexus between Christology, ecclesiology and sacramental theology, and the theology of divine action in general. In a contribution to Incarnation: Ecumenical Studies In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, ed. T F Torrance, Handsel Press 1981, J B Torrance argues that the concept is central to Christology, particularly in relation to the ‘vicarious humanity’ of Christ, and the possibility of our communion with him. It is, he argues, indispensable to understanding the work of Christ as High Priest. It seems even so that it has become in places problematic for modern theology. So we turn – again – to the turbulence in late 20th-century (mainly though not solely) Anglican theology.

A Problematic Concept?

Charles Moule, in The Origins Of Christology (Cambridge, 1977) discusses the ‘incorporative’ images and concepts to be found in New Testament Christology, and mentions the puzzlement of writers like Arthur Peacocke and Hubert Cunliffe-Jones – who claims (in a letter quoted in Origins) to find the ‘corporate inclusiveness’ (of Christ) ‘even more hard to understand’ than that of God, ‘though’, he says, ‘I don’t understand that either’ (op.cit. p.49). Apparently ‘on the basis of a Platonic or Neo-Platonic philosophy’, understanding might be possible. Peacocke has similar problems, for ‘…apart from the direct biological connection, it is hard to see what sort of solidarity we might have with Christ (and even more with the hypothetical Adam). Indeed the concept of solidarity seems too vacuous in any sense other than the biological, for it to be the foundation of a theory of the work of Christ…’ Such imagery of incorporation in a new human nature ‘fails to make clear how what he (Christ) did then is actually effective here and now to enable men to act in accord with the divine purposes’ (loc.cit.) (Lady Helen Oppenheimer expresses similar misgivings in Incarnation and Immanence (Hodder 1973.)

Peacocke opts for a Spirit-based divine immanence within the evolutionary process, culminating in Christ, and effecting solidarity through and with Christ in Christian people. A similar impulse underlies the argument in Geoffrey Lampe’s 1976 Bampton Lectures (in God As Spirit, Oxford 1977).

Two Kinds of Confusion

It seems that two assumptions are being made on the part of these critics, each leading to a philosophical aporia.

First: intelligibility. Critics sometimes claim that New Testament and patristic Christology is framed within the terms of contemporary thought, and most particularly Platonism, to a degree that Platonism’s demise evacuates the Christological language of much of its force. In such a case participation would be one of the casualties. 

Second: explanatory power. Peacocke seems to suppose that theological discourse – ‘incorporative’ language, for example – must be of a kind in which explanations can be given, perhaps by the kind of modelling process which – as a natural scientist first of all – he thinks unproblematic (and in the process begs another, rather different question!). On that basis he aims to model an immanent and inclusive Spirit, though not an immanent and inclusive Christ. 

Concerning the first, my original essay sounded a warning against too facile a dismissal of the categories of ancient philosophy, even if the answers which Plato and others after him offered to the questions which troubled them are not always answers with which we remain satisfied.

Concerning the second, Aquinas considered that any attempt to ‘model’ transcendence is fundamentally mistaken. We need not go all the way with A.N. Whitehead’s remark that all European philosophy ‘is a series of footnotes to Plato’ to recognise the lasting significance of the Platonist agenda. Aquinas’s writings provide an admirable illustration of the ways in which (Neo-) Platonist themes, concepts and preoccupations may be put to creative use, and the concept of participation is first among these. 

Aquinas & Analysis

Aristotle’s influence on Aquinas’s thinking is evidenced in his greater interest in analysis than in system-building; for him, the metaphysician differs from the logician only in the power of his vision – differs, that is, ‘precisely in his power to discriminate among contexts’ (David Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action, Routledge 1979 pp.10f and passim), and with tracing the contours of our discourse across them. With ‘metaphysical’, or systematic, theology this properly means our discourse about divine things, discourse in divinis – ‘divine speech’; Aquinas is particularly concerned to show us in what way such discourse fails us –yet nevertheless may somehow allow us to ‘speak truly’ of God.

Thus far, we’ve noted Aquinas’ intention to detach participation from its Platonist commitments. We’ve been alerted to the limitations of scientific explanation-by-modelling as a paradigm for theological reasoning. As a third aim, we might try to clarify how we can speak of the divine (‘divine speech’) in ways that preserve divine transcendence. 

Participation and Polymorphism

The Biblical theologian Cunliffe-Jones, and the biochemist-turned-theologian Peacocke, with their difficulties with ‘incorporative’ terminology, appear to lack an alertness – of a kind so exemplary in Aquinas – to language that behaves ‘analogically’ across differing linguistic contexts. 

Perhaps because of the complex range of meanings for ‘analogy’, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the term ‘polymorphous’ to describe this pervasive feature of ordinary language. At a Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association in 1951 on Thinking and Language, he offered the following account:

‘…If asked ‘What does working consist of?’ we should quickly object that there was no general answer. Some sorts of work are done with some sorts of tools, others with other sorts. But sometimes the same work might be done with alternative tools. Some work does not require tools at all. The dancer uses her limbs, but her limbs are not implements. …Work is a polymorphous concept. …Nothing answers to the general description ‘what work consists of’. None the less, each specific job is describable. The workman can be told what he is to do. The concepts of fighting, tradingplaying, housekeeping, and farming are also polymorphous concepts, where the concepts of boxing and apple-picking are nearly enough non-polymorphous.’  

Describing without ‘Explaining’

When St Paul, for example, tells the Colossians (Col.3:3), ‘…you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.’, he is describing a mystery beyond our understanding. The key terms here – ‘died’, ‘life’, ‘hidden’, and ‘in’ – are polymorphous, and therefore suited to the task of describing – without purporting to explain – our life in Christ. Since (as St Gregory of Nyssa in particular often insisted) the human self is a mystery because made in the image of God, the language of being ‘hid with Christ in God’, in describing this manifold mystery, is ‘serially’ polymorphous. It describes, without ‘explaining’, who we are, and to whom we belong. For this reason, ‘divine speech’ allows us to discern and describe divine mystery without trespassing upon it. 

Such an approach might well lead one on to ask, for example: What of our discourse about divine action in creation – of miracles, for example, and above all of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection? Such larger questions must be left for another occasion.

Fr Stephen Wilson is an Assistant Priest at St Stephen’s Lewisham