Redeemer of Man, Tapping the creative restlessness


As reported in Zenit, Pope Benedict spoke today about Thomas Aquinas and his great achievement in the harmonizing of faith and reason. The Holy Father spoke of Aristotle as follows: “They were writings on the nature of knowledge, on the natural sciences, on metaphysics, on the soul and on ethics, rich in information and intuition that seemed valid and convincing.” He continued: “It was a whole complete vision of the world developed without and before Christ, with pure reason, and it seemed to impose itself on reason as ‘the’ vision itself.” It was in this context that “two cultures met,” the Holy Father noted, “the pre-Christian culture of Aristotle, with his radical rationality, and the classic Christian culture.” The radical rationality of Aristotle becomes enfolded into the radicality of the gospel, and the Augustinian restlessness of the heart.

If Thomas rarely uses the phrase, nor write about his own longing, as did Augustine, his account of the human person sets out an inevitable longing, because human beings are structured to seek God as the absolute.

There is no better succinct description of the philosophy of man derived from the great synthesis of faith and reason than that offered by Jacques Maritain in his Education at the Crossroads.

“In answer to our question then, ‘What is man?’ we may give the Greek, Jewish, and Christian idea of man: man as an animal endowed with reason, whose supreme dignity is in the intellect; and man as a free individual in personal relation with God, whose supreme righteousness consists in voluntarily obeying the law of God; and man as a sinful and wounded creature called to divine life and to the freedom of grace, whose supreme perfection consists of love. . . . A person possesses absolute dignity because he is in direct relationship with the realm of being, truth, goodness, and beauty, and with God, and it is only with these that he can arrive at his complete fulfillment. His spiritual fatherland consists of the entire order of things which have absolute value, and which reflect, in some manner, a divine Absolute superior to the world and which have a power of attraction toward this Absolute.”

Aquinas’ account of human intellect and will contains an internal dynamism that impels us outward and upward towards the true and the good. The Thomist philosopher is trained to provide a systematic approach to the human person in terms of the body and soul, powers of the soul, culminating in spiritual powers of intellect and will, and then trace the various habits or virtues of each power. Pope John Paul II does not do this in his encyclical; it is assumed as his background; it is a necessary part of Catholic education and formation to know such things. But for the purpose of stepping onto the world stage and announcing his project Pope John Paul II uses a more Augustinian rhetoric.

For in the modern world, the person is denied any such fulfillment according to its ideologies and its dominant practices. Ironically, the very denials can have the opposite effect — that of stirring up the hunger and longing. Pope John Paul II says in Redeemer of Man, the spirit is the answer to the “materialisms” of our age. (§18) For it is these “materialisms that give birth to so many forms of insatiability in the human heart.” We belong to a “spiritual fatherland” and we are thrown down among the mud and weeds. The “Spirit is the answer to the materialisms of our age.” John Paul finds the Augustinian core of his message here, and he cites him in this section 18: “Our heart is restless until its rests in you.”

And thus John Paul II can turn to the human person and see a “creative restlessness” that “beats and pulsates” with what is most deeply human: “the search for truth, the insatiable need for the good, hunger for freedom, nostalgia for the beautiful, and the voice of conscience.”

Scientisim, technology, and tyranny may all strip dignity from the human person and shatter the coherence of the world, but the restlessness of the heart surges against these strictures. Many may exhaust themselves in futile pursuits, and others may despair of ever finding, still Pope John Paul II holds out the promise of redemption through drawing close to Christ.

In the mystery of redemption, the nature and destiny of man will get its full treatment, using faith and reason. But the first step is all important. What do we find when draw close to Christ and marvel at the human so redeemed?
(Fr Schall’s first article on Pope John Paul II is on “Redemptor Hominis: The amazement of God,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, October 1979. Find it here)

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