Thursday, April 3, 2008

A promise of God's Grace

I am currently at the Spring meeting of the English Speaking Conference of the Franciscan Order (I serve as Executive Secretary of this group) at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY. One component of our Spring meeting is always a study day where we invite in a Franciscan scholar to give the Conference a day of enrichment on a different topic. Given that we are currently celebrating the 700th anniversary of the death of the Franciscan philosopher and theologian Blessed John Duns Scotus, we asked Friar Dominic Monti, OFM, a medieval historian to give us a presentation on Scotus. His presentation was entitled "Scotus: Retrieving a Medieval Thinker for a Post-Modern World." It was an excellent presentation, and I thought I would share a few thoughts with you. Friar Dominic pointed out a few key themes from Scotus' thought. Below are just some of the notes that I jotted during his talk:
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1. Synchronic Contingency – Scotus, knowing clearly that God is not in time, and is distinctly outside of time, the act of creation is not a past event. It is not something that harkens back to a great distant moment when God decided to engage in creating. Instead, the concept of Synchronic Contingency reminds us that God is in the act of creating NOW. It isn’t an historical past event, it is a NOW event. Of all of the possible choices that are available to God, God chooses to create, and chooses to create THIS world, now. The synchronic part is that it is happening now.
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The contingent part is the reality that for God there is an infinity of choices before Him. He could have created something else, or nothing else, as easily as He created us and this world. But, as contingent as that is, the reality is that He did chose and chooses to create this world and each of us in it.
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Think of it this way: if the lottery is $180 million dollars, what do you think your chances are of being the single person to win it? Probably in the millions to one. Well, now on the level of creation, the odds are even higher. God has an infinite number of possibilities before Him to create or not create. And He chose to create this, us. That means, using our lottery analogy, never mind the chances - we've won! Of all the chances that God would create this reality – He did. We’ve won!
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2. Why did Jesus come to us? This is one of the most unique features of the thought of Scotus. Scotus believed that the order of covenant comes prior to the order of creation in the mind of God. To put it another way, in the mind of God, the end comes before the means. So, God's intention for creation (a creation that includes the Incarnation of His Son Jesus) the goal is in place, even before the act takes place.
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So, what was that end/goal? The end is God’s communication of Himself in love to creation and so other things have to be ordered toward that end, that goal. So the creation of the world has to be seen in the light of the fact that God has an end in mind for that world as He creates it.
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This is why Scotus rejects Anselm of Canterbury’s reason for the Incarnation. Anselm said that the purpose of the Incarnation is reconciliation, the purpose of the revelation that is Jesus Christ is to reconcile a sinful humanity back to God.
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Scotus says no. He builds on Saint Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (1.3-4): "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him." St. Paul states clearly each of us was chosen in Christ before creation, which also means before sin entered the world. Christ has a pre-sin purpose.
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Scotus asks, was Christ predestined to be the Son of God? What was the first intention? What is the order of God’s intention, what was the end He had in mind? The answer is that God predestined Christ to glory, and predestined each of us to share in that glory through Christ.
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This is a radically different perspective on sin and reconciliation. For Scotus, the person is not merely an imago Dei (image of God), but an imago Christi (image of Christ). We are to grow into the image of Christ. Christ is THE human being who grows fully and completely into God’s love which is the end for all humanity. That is the goal and so that is the reason that Jesus comes to us, as one of us.
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Additionally, Scotus is aware that nothing outside God can limit or necessitate God’s behavior. So, if you say God comes into humanity because we sinned, then you’re saying that an action of humanity is determining what God does. Scotus says God’s goal always comes first and God always acts freely. We cannot force God to act in a certain way. Think about that reality in terms of prayer as well.
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Also, if the Anselmian view were correct, we'd also have to be a people who are happy and rejoice over the fall of another human being and this can’t be right. We'd have to be thrilled that Adam sinned because it means that Jesus came to us. Can't be this way. Instead Jesus came to us because it was always, the pre-creation intention, goal and end in the mind of God that Jesus would come to express the fullness of that love and to lead us into glory.
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3. Scotus view of ethics. He critiques the Aristotelian view which says the most important thing is our intellect and understanding the world. So, as Aquinas says, sin is basically a faulty understanding. Scotus disagrees. He speaks about freedom and, again, contingency.
He recognizes that we share in Divine power in that we don’t have do to things. Our will is totally free. In face, it is so free, that it doesn't even have to follow what our intellect proposes as the right and the good. We can decide otherwise. I can choose, I can oppose, I can do nothing – all regardless of what the intellect decides.
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We have a natural affection for what is advantageous to ourselves. We are a nature seeking our own preservation, and fulfillment and happiness. But, we also have another tendency – a desire for what is right/just. It is a desire that goes beyond ourselves and to love each thing according to its worth. We have a notion of a “should” that is independent of self. And for Scotus this really proves free will. We can often chose against the advantageous and instead choose the right/just. An example would be to consider the person who jumps into the river to save a drowning person. Jumping into the river is a choice against what is good for me, in favor of a choice for the other.
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Also, for Scotus, there is no necessity for the natural law because it is all contingent. The only exception would be the first three commandments in regards to our love of God. Only one God, creating a space in our life to worship Him – these are the absolutes. The rest are not because even God dispenses from them in the Old Testament.
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A moral act is not only what is done, but also who is doing it and the circumstances that reflect upon it.
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4. Scotus on Sacraments. Here he follows St. Bonaventure in saying that Sacraments are occasions of Grace and not causes of Grace. What this means is that when a Sacrament happens it doesn't happen because we said special words in a special way (cause of Grace). To say that would make a sacrament the action of a person, the priest. Rather, Scotus is aware that the Sacraments are the action of God, not of man. It is God’s action (occassion of Grace). So, it is not the priest saying words that makes Christ present sacramentally, but rather, it is Christ’s decision to be present that makes Christ present. The externals are still important (the right minister, the right words, the right matter), but the power, the active force is God. God has promised us that when we do these things - when we say these words, with the right minister, in the right way, He promises to be present.
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[My thought then is that the Sacraments are perhaps the Promise of God's Grace.]

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