Christian TraditionsRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

In Principium

In principio, Primum principium invoco…” (In the beginning, I call upon the First beginning…)

These words are taken from the opening statement of St. Bonaventure’s Journey of the Soul Into God.1 The Seraphic Doctor, like all articulate and responsible philosophers and theologians, lays out his first principles before engaging readers in a formative intellectual project. Likewise, my aim in this essay is to elaborate some of the theological assumptions that guide my thoughts, submitting them before a larger community with both the confidence that comes from time and trials, and with the humility to state that these observations come from my individual perspective, a perspective I am willing to refine and revisit as a necessary part of Christian growth and maturity.

Again, I begin at the Beginning: God is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. All things proceed from God as their Origin, and all things return to God as the End in which they find fulfillment (perfection, completion). Human nature is one of those created “things.”

God is a plurality of persons and a unity of essence. The Father is the fontal (overflowing) Source of all things, by whose Power the world was created. The Son is eternally “begotten” of the Father. The Son is the Wisdom of God that exists before all things, and all things were made through him. These things have their most-true being in the Word as “divine ideas,” or perfect likenesses in an Eternal Art. The Holy Spirit is the Unity of Love between the Father and the Son, and the diffusive Goodness that is granted to us in Baptism.

At the center of the universe stands Jesus Christ: a complete human being who is also completely divine. God’s relationship to humanity is “summed up” or exemplified in him, through the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Pasch. He is the pioneer of faith, the Second Adam, and the Messiah spoken of in Hebrew Scripture. His role in the “economy” of salvation is to lead all things back to God.

Humanity is made in the image and likeness of God. This image cannot be erased, but the likeness has been defaced by the original sin of our first parents. Humans are rational creatures, endowed by God with intellect, memory and will. The fall into sin resulted from human choice—Adam and Eve turned away from the highest good (namely, obedience to God and a life lived in communion with God) to a lower good. Beguiled by the serpent, Eve paused and became enamored with a created thing (the fruit). Her decision to exercise her freedom incorrectly, and Adam’s ratification of that decision, were both sins of pride. Our first parents threw off the divine order by misusing the good gifts they had received. In a similar manner, people today make choices between good and evil.

Yet we cannot make a choice for good without divine assistance, because all good things come from God (James 1:17). Reality itself is good. All things that exist, insofar as they exist, are good. Evil is simply a lack or privation of the Good. Evil does not have reality in itself: it is not some “principle” opposed to the Good. If this were the case, then God, who is Goodness itself, would have a coequal in the devil. The devil, like humanity, is created. As such he is contingent upon God.

The order of things that God created can be divided into three: spiritual creatures (angels), temporal creatures (the universe itself) and a mixture of both (human beings). Human beings were created with both a spiritual part (the eternal soul) and a temporal part (the body). The human composite is ordered to God as its end. This means that we are meant to “rest” in God. Note that this “rest” is not a passive activity, but rather a passing from “glory to glory” in continually growing Love. While such rest can only happen purely in the beatific vision (heaven), humans can nonetheless experience mystical union with God on this earth through contemplation. Contemplation always begins with prayer, which is the mother and origin of all movement toward God.

The human soul ascends to God in a threefold way: through contemplation of the external world, contemplation of its own self, and contemplation that which transcends itself. The external world is made up of images, traces, or vestiges of the divine. I subscribe to a sacramental worldview in which every created thing, insofar as it exists, in some way points back to God. Likewise, the powers of the soul (memory, intellect, and will) point back to the Triune God both through their existence and in their operation. God’s eternal attributes transcend the human mind, and these are on the one hand attributes of Being (which show that God is First Principle and Cause) and attributes of Goodness (which show that God is Relational and Communal with God’s self and with humanity). Sin is what holds us back from union with God. The Catholic tradition divides sins into mortal and venial. Both sins deserve punishment. Mortal sins deserve eternal damnation. These sins are rational and free choices that concern “grave matter,” such as breaking the Ten Commandments.

Jesus Christ was free from all sin. As God he cannot sin, and as man he was so closely united to God (through the communication of idioms, a philosophical term for the way the uncreated Word communicates with the created human soul of Christ) that he lived a perfect human life. Christ lives in the heart of a Christian through the Holy Spirit. As Ephesians 3:14–19 states, he gives us “love that surpasses knowledge—that [we] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” This is what the Eastern Church calls divinization and the Western Church calls being conformed to Christ. This is the goal of the ascent of the soul into God. Along the way to God, I am guided by canonical Scripture, itself both divine and human in authorship, signifying the hypostatic union effected in Jesus Christ). I am also guided by Tradition, or what has been “handed down” to us from the times of the first believers, and by “Magisterium,” or the teaching authority of the Roman Church.

Thank you for listening, and I look forward to future conversations with all of you!

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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