Bonaventure and the centrality of Christ

In Bonaventure's Itinerarium Mentis in Deum5 we find a complex interweaving of at least three strands of theological tradition. First, there is his own Franciscan piety and devotion, which place at the centre of Christian thought and practice the human nature of Christ, but very particularly the passion of Christ. Secondly, there is a rampantly affirmative theology of 'exemplarism', in which, in classically medieval style, he constructs a hierarchy of 'contemplations' of God, beginning from the lowest vestigia in material objects, upwards and inwards to our perception of them, through the imagines of God in the human soul, especially in its highest powers, further 'upwards' and beyond them to 'contemplations' through the highest concepts of God, 'existence' and 'goodness'. In just such an ascending hierarchy, constructed in the first six chapters of the Itinerarium, does Bonaventure construe the whole universe as the 'Book of Creation' in which its author is spoken and revealed; all of which theological affirmativeness is resumed in the human nature of Christ, only there no longer is it merely the passive 'book of creation' in which the Godhead can be read, but now the 'Book of Life', who actively works our redemption and salvation.

But in the transition from the first six chapters of the Itinerarium to the seventh, Bonaventure effects, thirdly, a powerfully subversive theological transitus, from all the affirmativeness with which creation in its own terms, and with which Christ as the resume of all creation, speak God, to a thoroughgoing negative theology. For beyond the knowing of God is the unknowing of God; nor is this 'unknowing' merely 'beyond': through the

5 In Philotheus Boehner OFM and Sr M. Frances Loughlin SMIC (eds.), The Works of St Bonaventure II, New York: The Franciscan Institute, 1956. See my fuller discussion of Bonaventure's Christocentric apophaticism in Darkness of God, pp. 102-34.

increasing intensity and complexity of its internal contradictoriness this knowing leads to the unknowing. As one might say, the very superfluity of the affirmativeness sustained by the Books of Creation and of Life collapses into the silence of the apophatic: and chapter seven consists in little but a string of quotations from the more apophatic sayings of the Mystical Theology of the pseudo-Denys. But the organising symbolism of that theological transitus from the visibility of the Godhead in Christ to the unknowability of the Godhead brings Bonaventure back to his Franciscan starting point; for that transitus is also effected through Christ -more to the point, through the passion and death of Christ. For in that catastrophe of destruction, in which the humanity of Christ is brought low, is all the affirmative capacity of speech subverted. Thus it is that, through the drama of Christ's life on the one hand and death on the other, through the recapitulation of the symbolic weight and density of creation in his human nature on the one hand and its destruction on the cross on the other, the complex interplay of affirmative and negative is fused and concretely realised. In Christ, therefore, is there not only the visibility of the Godhead, but also the invisibility: if Christ is the Way, Christ is, in short, our way into the unknowability of God, not so as ultimately to comprehend it, but so as to be brought into participation with the Deus absconditus precisely as unknown.

The structure of Bonaventure's Itinerarium is, however, in one respect misleading if not properly understood, and can seem to work an effect opposed to his manifest intentions. It is perhaps a consequence of the medieval passion for hierarchical structures of thought - the obsession with theological construction modelled on the metaphor of ladders of ascent - that, as Bonaventure sets out his argument in the Itinerarium, you would have the impression that affirmation and negation are successive theological moments, that, as it were, you have first to climb the ladder of affirmation only to throw it away into the gulf of unknowing after you have reached the top. First, we unproblematically affirm; then, as if in a distinct theological act, differently and separately motivated, we deny. The consequence is not as such to suggest - though one has the impression that many a modern takes this view anyway - that affirmative and negative theologies are distinct theological strategies, even optional strategies, but that at the very least they are successive strategies. In any case, Bonaventure's metaphorically generated scalar structure of exposition would certainly appear to imply that affirmation and negation are theologically linked, not so as to interpenetrate at every level of theological discourse, but as hierarchically ranked. It is as if there were an ascending scale of affirmativeness which is rounded off with a top doh of negativity - even, one fears to be told, of 'mysticism'.

But then, there is an equally marked tendency in late medieval thought to construe the hierarchy to the opposite effect as far as ranking order goes, even if with the same outcome of successiveness. In the fifteenth century, an enthusiastic follower of the pseudo-Denys, Denys the Carthusian, is as 'apophatic' a theologian as might be wished, but he is quite sure that you could not let the silence of negation have the last word. For, when all our denials of God are said and done, he comments, 'there is still a remainder of affirmation and positive meaning which is implied by and presupposed to [those denials]'.6 There is, of course, a real problem which leads Denys to say such a thing. How, if there is no theological discourse at least ultimately untroubled by the destabilisations of the negative, will it be possible to distinguish the negative theologian from the atheist? For sure, there must be some way, he seems to think, of distinguishing between the atheist, who will not climb the ladder at all because he says no such ladder exists, and the theist, who insists that it must be climbed if only to throw it away. Both will conclude with Denys that 'it is better to say that God does not exist',7 but they will mean the opposite; and for Denys, the only ground on which his conviction of this negativity will be distinguishable from the atheist's is if, in the end, the ladder props up on a stable residue of affirmation, standing clear and invulnerable to any negative qualification.

But whichever you think this ascending scale ends in, affirmation or negation, the common mistake - as Bonaventure is more properly understood to say - is in the shared misconstrual of the relationship between the moments of affirmation and the moments of negation; for that relationship structures theological utterance at every stage. Indeed, it is this interplay of negativity and affirmation which structures all theological discourse precisely as theological. In more general terms, this point can be made in all sorts of ways, of which this is just one: many students of the medieval 'mysticisms' broadly categorise them into 'apophatic' and 'cataphatic' forms. Eschewing altogether the question of how they come to be called 'mysticisms' in the first place, Bernard of Clairvaux more obviously than most will fall into the class of 'cataphatic' mystics on the strength of the floridly erotic affirmativeness of his Sermons on the Song of Songs; so too will Julian of Norwich, whose exuberance of affirmative metaphor is unrivalled in the medieval period even by Bernard. But

6 Denys the Carthusian, Difficultatum Praecipuarum Absolutiones a2 (Appendix attached to his Commentary on the Mystical Theology of the pseudo-Dionysius), in Doctoris Ecstatici D. Dionysii Cartusiani Opera Omnia XVI, Tournai: Typis Cartusiae S.M. de Pratis, 1902, p. 484C.

7 Denys the Carthusian, De contemplatione, 3.5, Opera Omnia XVI, p. 259A-B.

then by contrast, the Cloud of Unknowing will have to be deemed typically 'apophatic', characterised as that text is by 'unknowings' and 'nothings', 'nowheres' and 'darknesses'; so too Meister Eckhart, on account of his 'deserts, abysses and no why's, no whatnesses and no things'. This may be well and good as serving as a preliminary distinction of metaphorical habits, but it hardly gets to the core of the matter. For of course a negative metaphor is still a metaphor. The preference for negative metaphors as 'more true' of God than affirmative8 is thus far no less or more a vote of confidence in speech than is the preference for affirmative. The fact is that Julian's riotous prolixity of affirmative metaphor is no less apophatic than the Cloud's astringency; nor is the language of the Cloud any the less dense of metaphor than is Julian's. Though the metaphors differ and the apophatic strategies approach from different directions, they converge in a common perception that all language of God fails all the way along the line (or up the ladder); and in fact, this sense of the simultaneous necessity and deficiency of language is in some ways exhibited more sharply in Julian's habit of constructing metaphors which subvert themselves in the act of their very utterance; as when she shatters the imageries of gender precisely in the exploitation of their full potential: 'In our Mother Christ', she says, 'we grow and develop; in his mercy he reforms and restores us.'9

The theologically non-technical Julian of Norwich may seem an unlikely source for the exploration of formal theological epistemologies. Yet her whole text, and nearly every part of it, is governed by that principle explicitly formulated in Bonaventure and Thomas, that theological language as theological is caught within the tensions between saying and unsaying, between the necessity and equal deficiency of all speech, and so reveals the symptoms of the pressures those tensions exert upon it. In fact, to return to Bonaventure, the impression which could be gained from his Itinerarium, that he conceives of these affirmative and negative moments of theological utterance as successive phases, first, of pure unproblem-atical affirmation followed by a second phase of unqualified negation, is

8 The pseudo-Denys does indeed say that 'negations' are more appropriately said of God than are affirmations (Mystical Theology 1, 1000B; Complete Works, p. 136), but this statement needs to be understood in relation to what he describes as the 'true' apophatic negations, which consist in the negation of the negation between both affirmations and their corresponding negations: the 'Cause of all', he says, is 'considerably prior' to the 'negations . . . beyond every denial, beyond every assertion'; ibid.

9 Revelations of Divine Love, c.58. Though, as Christopher Hilton has pointed out to me, Julian's apophaticism is more formally and systematically expressed in her trinitarian eschatology, in her resolute refusals to 'solve' the problem of sin, and so in her insistence that we cannot know how it is that 'all manner of thing shall be well'.

a disastrous misimpression, visiting catastrophe upon a carefully articulated theological structure.

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