The Catholicity of David Ford

C.C. Pecknold,
Loyola College, Maryland

On one level it is the world of Dante in which every sphere of history is traversed, and where every moment of time is penetrated and judged through an intense eschatological realism. Similarly it is the world of Karl Barth, a strange new world of the Bible in which we learn to see things as they are in Jesus Christ. David Ford?s vision is both catholic and evangelical, and we can see it in his passion for God’s story, which is matched by a serious attentiveness to the shape of reality as it is given (the ?shape of living? in his apt phrase). It is difficult not to get caught up in Ford?s passion, contagious as it is. Spend enough time with him, and you will sense that ?everything is happening? right here and now as part of the history of redemption. Along with Ford?s pentecostal passion?a genuinely Pauline shout of joy and rejoicing in the Spirit?there is also the comprehensive, catholic, contemplative Christian for whom the ?adoring act of listening to the Word of God? is also ?the primal cell of all fruitful action.? [i]

David Ford’s intellectual labors have been thoroughly systematic. Or perhaps it is better to simply say, as I will argue throughout this essay, that his labors are best seen in the light of a scripture-centered catholicity that seeks the Wisdom of God. Those who will attempt to fit him into a single category?narrative theologian, philosophical theologian, liturgical theologian, dogmatic theologian, conversational theologian?miss all the gathered-up coherence of the man, i.e. the particular-universal at which he is aiming. We can see it in the progression of his studies. In Barth and God’s Story we see the scriptural and dogmatic united in a single voice. In Jubilate we see dogmatics and liturgy in conversation. In Truth and Meaning in 2 nd Corinthians we see his interests in philosophical theology already insisting on a return to scripture. In Self and Salvation: Being Transformed , a pattern of thinking develops in which facing Jesus Christ transforms human beings. Here we can see him bringing each aspect together around the Trinitarian ( prosopon ) image of ?facing?: scripture, dogmatics, liturgy, and philosophy all in conversation at once concerning the central importance of facing Jesus. The whole trajectory could be imagined as a kind of lyrical rhyme scheme, a poiema moving from Scripture to dogmatics, from dogmatics to liturgy, and from liturgy back to Scripture, before recapitulating the whole into a fuller dynamic. Recapitulation, then, becomes key for an Irenean retrospective on his work, most recently seen in his Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love . Here we see the attempt to think the particular-universal of Christian Wisdom, to envision the whole corporate destiny of humanity by a perichoretic light of participation with the Triune God. I take such a cursory retrospective of his work to encourage this image of Ford as aiming at catholicity. This is to say nothing of the great ecumenical reach involved in his massively influential editorial endeavor, The Modern Theologians , or the attempts to cast a still wider net with A Very Short Introduction to Theology and The Shape of Living .

Perhaps not surprisingly, given my argument, two Greek words stand out in my memory of Ford?s intellectual habitus: pleroma and panta . The words have to do with a semantic field concerning the fullness of all things, everywhere for everyone. The words belong especially to the Johannine and Pauline tradition. In the Johannine tradition, we can see how this passes to the martyr St. Polycarp and then to his disciple St. Irenaeus who understands everything growing into the fullness of the Word. Jesus Christ is the Word of God who is also the new Adam, the One who is the fullness of humanity as it was divinely intended to be. Jesus is the restoration of original justice, and the lost unity of humanity is recovered in Christ?s Body. Jesus moves through all of human experience in order to fulfill it, to make it holy, free and obedient, gathering up ?all in all.? Where St. Irenaeus may single out the atoning significance of the Incarnation, Ford has especially taught us that ?facing Jesus? in every aspect of his experience of being human is central if we are to understand both the inter-personal, social, political and cosmic significance of the atonement. Rather than enter the pleroma of God through some esoteric knowledge (Ford is thoroughly anti-Gnostic) we enter through the public face of Jesus: a face that we know through the scriptural narrative, through icon, through sacrament, through authority, through nature, through praise in the Spirit, through superabundance ( pleroma ). We enter the pleroma of God by growing up before the Father, living into the superabundant life of the Son.

The so-called Christ hymn of Philippians is also a helpful introduction to what these terms connote (Phil. 2-5-11). The kenotic gift of the Son emptying himself in obedience to God on the Cross inverts the tragedy of the Adamic human fall that had grasped at equality with God through disobedience; Christ?s descent into hell means that even the darkest aspects of human experience are touched by Jesus so that all of humanity might be sanctified and fulfilled in Christ?s new humanity. The risen and glorified Christ, to whom every knee will bend , makes it possible for all humanity to grow to full maturity. And this ancient Pauline theme comes through clearly in Ford?s person and work. It is not easy to avoid the particular universalism of Ford?s Christology here. It is not only the theme of pleroma , which is dynamically conceived around the tri-unity of God?s life as Father, Son and Spirit, but also the panta, God?s superabundant life is offered to all, in every way and everywhere .

These two themes of pleroma and panta , which of course can be found in Karl Barth?s Christocentric universalism as well, aim at catholicity. Another Greek term, katholikos , ?according to the whole,? embraces our word ?universal,? though distinctions should be made between them. And I would not want to insist that Ford?s catholicity is identical with Roman Catholic comprehensions of the term that privilege the authority of the Petrine Office. But Ford similarly imagines a comprehensive catholicity in which all people, everywhere and in every way might converse with the superabundance of the Word of God. This is not to say that Ford?s catholicity resides only in the conversational event of the Word being revealed by the Holy Spirit, for to sum up Ford as a ?conversational? theologian, while accurate, would miss his traditionalism and his catholicity. These conversational moments are gathered up and carried by traditions, and especially institutional forms of gathering these fragments into a coherent whole. But the centrifugal force of his catholicity is precisely through the reach of God?s story as narrated in Scripture.

Before reflecting more in my conclusion on Ford?s theopolitical vision, I want to extend my appreciative comments on Ford?s catholicity by way of an admittedly incomplete comparison with the catholicity of Henri de Lubac (and a brief comment on the political theorist Sheldon Wolin). This comparison helps support my comments concerning Ford?s scripture-centered catholicity, but I also hope, in an age too often characterized by indifference to both real and imagined ecclesial divisions, that it will encourage theological reflection on the gifts and virtues needed for Christians who proclaim their faith in ?one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.?

Henri de Lubac?s Catholicism

Henri de Lubac wrote a great many books, shaped more by historical circumstance than systematic calculation. He wrote monographs on Teilhard de Chardin simply because the Society of Jesus ordered him to give an orthodox defense of the thought of a fellow Jesuit who was under suspicion of heresy for his evolutionary theology. His work on Buddhism is also hard to place except as part of a whole theology of mission, and a commitment to the dialogue of cultures. De Lubac?s retrieval of medieval exegesis, of the four-fold senses of scripture read in the Tradition, brings a massive dose of Augustinianism into the largely neo-Thomist bloodstream of the Catholic world, and his Surnaturel makes the whole ?supernaturalizing of the natural? the fundamental resource for the kind of catholicity that nouvelle theologie so vigorously presents to the world. De Lubac?s works must be seen as ways of imagining the whole ; his Catholic imagination is charged with a theological vision of the ?mystical body of Christ? comprehending the entire shape of living (to use a favored phrase of Ford).

De Lubac is now seen in some quarters as a theological conservative, but we should recall that he was not always seen this way. As with those thinkers identified with Nicene orthodoxy or Thomas Aquinas, de Lubac was a risk-taker, but in retrospect we can see him as a conserver of tradition. Neither conservative nor liberal, de Lubac certainly was a Christian humanist, and he found a way beyond the impasse between Modernists and Veterists through the very category of ?tradition.? He certainly was a ?radical? in the sense of going to the source, or rather to the sources. His humanism flowed, not unlike Ford?s, from the fount of Christological realism. We now know the cumulative effect, largely through his impact on Vatican II, and through the whole seismic force of his little book Catholicism . [ii]

In Catholicism , de Lubac examines the patristic notion of the Church as a universal social reality. ?Catholic,? here, always denotes the ?gathering up of the whole.? But for de Lubac, as for the Church Fathers and for Thomas Aquinas, it is the Eucharist as the visible sacrament of Christ?s mystical body that does the gathering. The Church certainly has a crucial, even necessary, co-operative agency in liturgical acts of consecration, but most truly, supernaturally, and mystically, ?the Eucharist constitutes the Church.? The Eucharist is the ?source and summit? of Catholic Christian life, it is what gathers up all the fragments of truth, hope, and life into the mystical unity of Christ?s Body, the Catholic One. In the words of the encyclical Veritatis Splendor , ?The presence of Christ to men of every time is actualized in his Body, which is the Church.? [iii] That is a highly particularized and concrete embodiment of Christ gathering up the whole human race in the Eucharist. No other gathering practice, no other ?religion,? whether it is liberal democracy, the global economy, or any other theopolitical vision of the whole?so the red-blooded claim goes?is as comprehensive as this Eucharistic gathering in the teaching of the Catholic Church. Against the backdrop of modern individualism, de Lubac stressed the social nature of Christ?s Body in the sacrament of Eucharist, and ?the corporate destiny of mankind.? The human race itself depends on the mystical body of Christ assembled in the Eucharist, extended through time so that the world might mature into redemption. The Eucharist that constitutes the Church enables fugitives from grace to become pilgrims of the promise in the fullness of time.

The classical view that time is cyclical, eternally recurrent, endless, is ruptured by the climactic view of time revealed in Christ. But the rupture is actually an opening for history to be charged with significance as the history of God?s redemption, pulling humanity towards it true end in Christ. Time is now a gift given to grow a pilgrim people. The Eucharist, and all the sacraments, likewise, cultivates our openness to the gifts of the Spirit needed for this growth in the Body of Christ. This can be seen especially in the Pauline theme of the Christian ?body politics? growing to maturity [e.g. Ephesians 4.15] and which I have said is a helpful theme for understanding Ford as well. This bodily growth in time is not the ?myth of progress,? for that is but a corruption of the good, plain to see in the American notion of itself as a ?redeemer nation.? No, Christian time suggests a particular kind of ecclesial growth. Perhaps not unlike Hubble?s theory of an ?expanding universe,? the Christian view of time also suggests ?the Church is a growing body, a building, in course of construction.? (123) But if we like the organic metaphors of growth, some may wrestle uncomfortably with an exclusive ecclesiocentric soteriology, as it immediately raises questions about ?unbelievers? at the very moment it claims comprehensiveness. Two lengthy quotations from Catholicism help to explicate and illumine a point that de Lubac often tries to make concerning the place of ?unbelievers? in the providential ordo saltutis .

As ?unbelievers? are, in the design of providence, indispensable for building the Body of Christ, they must in their own way profit from their vital connexion (sic) with this same Body. By an extension of the dogma of the communion of saints, it seems right to think that though they themselves are not in the normal way of salvation, they will be able nevertheless to obtain this salvation by virtue of those mysterious bonds which unite them to the faithful. In short, they can be saved because they are an integral part of that humanity which is to be saved. (125)

Far from using catholicity as a weapon against the unbeliever, de Lubac?s view suggests that ?vital connections? between the Body of Christ and ?unbelievers? must be beneficial to the building up of the Church. If this is going to be a truly historical claim, then certain institutions will be necessary for the connections to be sustainable, and for new imaginative possibilities to be envisioned.

One more lengthy passage from Catholicism suggests that it is not only beneficial but also the very grace and charism of Catholic Christians to co-operate in the history and politics of God?s redemption of the world, perhaps especially where we can make ?vital connections? with those who do not yet fully ?share in this Body.?

The grace of Catholicism was not given to us for ourselves alone, but for those who do not possess it?Fidelity to that grace by which we are members of the Church makes two demands upon us: we must co-operate in the collective salvation of the world by taking part, each in accordance with his own vocation, in the construction of that great building of which we must be at once the workmen and the stones; at the same time we must co-operate, by the impact of our whole Christian life, in the individual salvation of those who remain apparently ?unbelievers.?? (129)

It is not, in other words, by being ?fugitives from the world,? by withdrawing from ?unbelievers,? or ?escaping? in communal solitude from the world (although that may sometimes be needful), but through creative collaborations with ?those who do not possess? catholicity. The suggestion that de Lubac makes is that genuine catholicity requires that we fully co-operate in God?s work of ?bringing redemption to maturity,? by bringing all humanity into contact with the fullness of Christ who is all in all (cf. Ephesians 1:22-23).

Written at about the same time as Catholicism (1938), another early work stands out as central for understanding de Lubac?s theology: Corpus Mysticum, recently translated into English by Sr. Gemma Simmonds, a former student of Ford?s. [iv] We can expect to see a whole new generation of theologians working in English-language theology discover this work for the first time. This was a very influential study when it was first published in French in the years immediately preceding World War II. It was a work that secured de Lubac?s reputation as the premier Catholic historical theologian working in Europe. The book is an historical study of the medieval migrations of the term ?corpus mysticum,? and, more fully than in Catholicism , it is here that we can see a historiography for de Lubac?s catholic vision: the world comprehended as a whole, being gathered up (for judgment and salvation) in the mystical body of Christ. It is also, here, rather than in Catholicism , that we can begin to glimpse the significance of his work for understanding what has gone wrong with the political imagination in the West.

It is well known, of course, that this idea of the mystical body comes from St. Paul who is most fond of organic metaphors for the ekklesia [e.g. Romans 12; 1 Cor. 12; Ephesians 3-5]. The identity of Christ?s Body and the Church raises the whole question that occurs after the Ascension: if Christ has ascended, how is Christ?s Body present in the Church? Can Christ both be at the right hand of the Father and really present in the community of the faithful? The idea of the mystical or spiritual body of Christ is thus distinguished from his historical body that has risen and reigns in heaven. The mystical body of Christ is that assembly which Christ the Head gathers through history, through the scriptures that bear witness to the Word of God, but especially and actually through the Eucharist. The identity claim that is made in the institution of the Lord?s Supper, ?This is my body,? is an utterance that performs the gathering of all humanity into Christ?s Body. A whole sacramental theology ?grows up? to describe the real presence of Christ in the Church, indeed as the Church.

De Lubac notes that in early Christian thought, the presence of Christ?s Body was considered both in terms of Scripture and in terms of the community gathered around the Lord?s Supper, the Eucharist. It was not either/or. Without equating their catholic visions, here we can see something of the way in which David Ford belongs to this early Christian tendency to identify Scripture with Christ?s real presence in the world. The way that Ford performs this, both in his strong commitments to the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, in his founding the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, and in his other labors for a university that imagines a global constituency, we can see him participating in a fundamentally catholic vision of Christ?s body present in the world, here through Scripture, there through the Eucharist?his participation in one energizes his participation in the other.

De Lubac is able to trace the subtle shifts that enable the idea of the corpus mysticum to migrate from the complex ways in which the term refers to the nexus of ?Scripture, Eucharist and Church? in the 5th century AD to the way the term is carefully circumscribed to refer only to the Eucharist in the 9th century AD, to the way the term becomes co-terminus with the Church itself in the late medieval period. This last move was a logical extension of the earlier movements which held them altogether because, as noted earlier, ?the Eucharist makes the Church.? ( Corpus Mysticum , 88) Or, as he notes in Catholicism , ?The Church, without being exactly co-extensive with the mystical Body, is not adequately distinct from it.? (41) There is nothing problematic about these extensions, these theopolitical migrations, except perhaps in retrospect, wherever we can see the movements as transgressions , deteriorations of true catholicity. In this, de Lubac helps us to be vigilant about false expressions of catholicity.

Corpus Mysticum , as a term, moves from a highly-particularized Eucharistic realism to a naturalizing of the very notion of Society stripped of all its original history and theopolitical vision, yet maintaining its value for providing a mystical sense of unity. It is the ?condition for the possibility? of a de- theologized society that nevertheless retains its religious quality of mystical unity. It is no surprise then that it gives birth to Leviathan, an artificial body whose mystical unity can only be secured through a ?civil religion? that, as Rousseau recognized at the end of his Social Contract , requires devotion and sacrifice. The mystical unity that makes sense in the Eucharistic realism of the Catholic Church is never more perverted, nor clearly visible, than when nation-states go to war. The process of transferring the gathering power of the corpus mysticum from the Eucharist to the Church to Society to the Nation-State is a process aided as much or more by Machiavelli?s de-theologizing of politics as by Luther?s de-politicizing of theology. It is a process that makes it possible to have a universal vision of society without the particular-universal of Jesus Christ. Because Church can become distorted when seen as co-terminus with Society, what begins to emerge is a universal that is both less and more comprehensive that the Eucharist. The tragedy is that the migrations of the term to the society, and then the invention of centripetal politics in the modern nation-state, correspond to the practice of violence on an ever-increasing scale.

Liberalism, Anti-Liberalism, and Catholicity

Interestingly, the unity of Corpus Mysticum is maintained in the Romantic idea of the civil society only by breaking off from the Body of Christ, cutting itself off from not only the Eucharist but Scripture as well. It breaks from unity with God, but it retains all the social power carried in the idea of a mystical union. Stripped of all its ecclesial attributes, the social arrangements secured under liberal orders make ?society? into a secular Church, but one that cannot exist without its exclusionary and coercive instrument, the modern nation-state. John Milbank does indeed owe Henri de Lubac quite a lot on his allied point, and he is right to note de Lubac?s reticence to extend his argument to the political implications. Even if the procedural liberalism of the nation-state seems far from ?withering away,? it does seem that the power of the nation-state has been transferred or perhaps extended to other corporate agents in the global economy. And it is something to consider that at precisely the point at which nation-state power seems in decline (according to mainstream political scientists), or at least in transition, political liberalism seems to be likewise, deteriorating under critiques from left, right and center in ways that suggest that new political visions of the common good are sorely needed. Perhaps theopolitical vision is the most needful of all. It is telling, for example, that even defenses of political liberalism, for example in debates that have raged around the thought of Habermas and Rawls, always fall down badly on the question of theology and religion.

But it might give us pause that de Lubac never followed through on the political implications of his work. Was this because he believed that peculiar form of modernity called liberalism to be a good thing? De Lubac was highly critical of liberalism, though his was a critique of the Church before it was a critique of the ?world.? De Lubac was even concerned, years after the publication of Corpus Mysticum that people might draw the wrong conclusions from it; he worried that it encouraged some sort of fortress mentality, a ?Veterist? retreat into medieval life. Far from it! Like Maurice Blondel before him, he saw the political Catholicism of L?Action Fran├žais to be a failure of the integrative, catholic imagination. And yet, despite his vision for a way beyond the Modernist-Veterist controversies, he did not go very far to help us with the political implications we are to draw from his argument.

The political theorist Sheldon Wolin risked a political interpretation of de Lubac?s argument that has proved both influential and controversial. Wolin has made de Lubac?s narrative do important work in a massive, and persuasive critique of political liberalism. [v] In his eyes, we can see the mystical body idea very clearly shaping political liberalism from the sixteenth century onwards. Liberalism tries to speak to all, and attempts to embrace all. In this sense, liberalism aims at catholicity that is ostensibly centered in the individual, but a particular conception of the individual that, in the name of freedom, conforms to the economic interest of the community. In Wolin?s critique, liberalism aspires to provide a kind of mystical unity for society, whether through the instrument of the nation-state or through a certain way of imagining social and political attachments through the global economy. The myth of inclusiveness is strongest in liberalism here, and yet we know that the political and economic orders that liberalism has thus produced, namely ?democratic? nation-states and free markets, are actually terribly exclusionary and in Wolin?s terms, tending towards the centripetal pull of totalitarian forms of power. If we have our doubts, Wolin might point out the problem of ?stateless persons? as it highlights how central the nation-state is for narrating human identity, or point out the problem of ?border security? in the face of the free movement of people as a window into the inherently exclusionary, even violent, nature of liberalism. Likewise, there are barriers to participation in the global economic community that became apparent when one takes into account where the vast majority of wealth is concentrated and who controls its distribution. Or we may simply observe the fact that a nation calls on the unity of its people, and asks for ?faith in nation,? most emphatically when it needs to go to war. Unlike true catholicity, which embraces people of all races and nations, the catholicity of liberalism is concerned with conformity to the economic interests of those with the greatest concentrations of wealth, and defines political participation solely through market consumption and cyclical voting? all in the name of freedom and democracy.

Wolin provides a superb and provocative analysis that is devastatingly critical of liberalism, and concerned to free our idea of democracy from its false attachment to political liberalism. While his historical arguments are faultless, and his criticisms penetrating, the theoretical speculations may not offer us any way out. And this is a problem with almost all the anti-liberal ways that could be imagined to follow de Lubac. We could, of course, pursue other interpretive options. We could, for example, argue that this ?mystical unity? has been a gift that Christianity has given to the world. It has given the world a cosmic idea of social unity that enables us to aspire to a global community in the first place. That interpretive approach is very much alive in certain quarters, though I expect it will run its course and die. Another approach is to take a neutral position. Perhaps liberalism does inherit from Christianity an errant catholicity, but it can also strip itself of the idea of the corpus mysticum, it can self-correct, and we can continue forward with some chastened version of liberalism. This revisionism is more attractive, but it is filled with the very temptations to control that were so troublesome for Christendom. In my view, it is the anti-liberal interpretation that holds the most power. The power lies in that the anti-liberal critiques identify falsehood, and likewise identify the need for a true vision of the common good. But it is a critical power that may need to become part of a better dialectic if it is to participate more fully in God?s truth.

In medieval dialectical theology ( Sic et Non ), the theological method is to reconcile diversity through careful distinctions. The approach is to both purify thought through complex distinctions, and also integrate it into a more comprehensive vision. One can see a similar pattern in the Church Councils as well; to state anathemas in order to affirm belief worthy of the Gospel was the normative way that the Church dealt with falsehood and truth-telling. One of the risks of being dialectical is that the negations will be carried too far, and the affirmation (the truth-telling) will not be carried far enough. Theological critiques of political liberalism, for example those that might follow Wolin?s impressive arguments, or critiques of theological liberalism, for example those that might follow Karl Barth, may need to pay more attention to the way true catholicity handled anathemas in the past. That is, properly dialectical critiques of liberalism will make judgments that do not finally end in negation. However ruthless they may be in their denials, or how ?purifying? their distinctions may be, beyond liberalism and anti-liberalism (or in de Lubac?s context, between Modernists and Veterists), there is only Catholicism.

De Lubac actually helped the Church to find a way out of the fortress mentality that seemed overly determined by either a rejection or embrace of modernity. He did this by cultivating the ?virtues of openness? that he thought the Church needed and practiced at Vatican II. And he almost always practiced these virtues through a return to Scripture. De Lubac wrote on scriptural interpretation more than any other theological issue that he addressed. This was one of his great contributions to Vatican II, where he had a profound influence not only on Lumen Gentium but also on Dei Verbum . The increased use of scripture in the liturgy after Vatican II is a direct result of his influence. De Lubac asked us to pay attention to the Corpus Mysticum as that whole nexus of Scripture, Eucharist and Church that attaches us to God by inserting us into the Body of Christ. And thus his return to Scripture was at once a return to the Body of Christ, arms outstretched to the world.

The political implications of de Lubac?s work are already in the theology itself: it is only in this ecclesia romana , this particular-universal ?mystical body? politics of redemption, that we are able to see what liberal society is capable of doing, and what it is not capable of doing for humanity as a whole. By being inserted into Christ?s Body in the Eucharist, the Christian has an ecclesial vision of what counts as the common good, and thus can see what ?goes too far? and what does not go far enough. If liberalism seems for some to be an errant or transgressive catholicity, then anti-liberalism will be both too much and too little. It would lack participation in a larger dialectic of theological denial and affirmation; but that, of course, will require real theopolitical vision and cooperation with God?s work of redemption. De Luabc?s way is not to fall into the house of anti-liberalism, critical though he is of liberal individualism, but to draw our attention to the Eucharist as the primary way of seeing and becoming a Christian people.

Participation in the Eucharist is not a one-way trip, a procedure for attaching us to God by inserting us into Christ?s Body but detaching us from the world. What flows from this Eucharistic realism is real power and energy that is anything but quiet and detached. Indeed, Sheldon Wolin himself recognizes that the early Christians revivified Western political thought paradoxically, not by trying to influence the political order, but by attending to their own ecclesial order in which the Eucharist was ?meaningful participation in community.? (Wolin, 87) By attending to their own ecclesial growth as the Body of Christ, Christians unwittingly expanded the Western political imagination with theopolitical vision, seeing the world through Christ?s eyes. Thus theopolitical vision was formed in participating in the Eucharist, for this is the normative way in which Christians receive the gifts of the Spirit, and are shaped into virtuous people. As Thomas Aquinas teaches, the gifts of the Spirit are necessary for our training in the virtues. In the modern period, Christians have forgotten about the virtues and the gifts they receive in the Body. But early Christians were keenly aware that they were being given spiritual gifts that would cultivate the virtues most needful as they sojourned towards the beatific vision of God?s city.

The Gift of Wisdom and the Virtues of Openness

For the Church Fathers and Aquinas, the gift of Wisdom given by the Spirit in the Body of Christ was always paired with the virtue of prudence because, along with charity, prudence was required for the practice of all the virtues. Wisdom was the gift to seek above all others in the Body, because without it one could not discern, make decisions, or act as part of Christ?s Body. Far from modern political definitions of prudence as ?careful deliberation? or ?wise advice,? Christian prudence is both more practical, and more reasonable than liberal political visions have been. In David Ford?s terms, the gift of wisdom and the virtue of prudence are necessary for the whole ?shape of living.?

David Ford seeks God?s wisdom above all. It is a gift of the Spirit in 1 Cor. 12.8 ( logos sophia ) where it is seen to be necessary, according to St. Paul, ?for the common good.? Participating in Christ?s Body, then, is the key to receiving the gifts of the Spirit, including the gift of wisdom. Where the gift of wisdom perfects in us the virtue of prudence, a different politics than we have seen in the deteriorated forms of catholicity that belong to political liberalism becomes possible. Ford has never taken the anti-liberal position. In his gift of ?wise speech,? he has studiously avoided the fated negations of liberalism. Rather he has sought to cultivate the very virtues of openness that defined de Lubac?s approach.

When working most closely with Ford in Cambridge, I often found myself impressed with the man as a thoroughly theological politician. One of his favorite things to do, he often will say, is to gather people together, to connect his diverse friendships in ever-new combinations. This is part way to appreciating Ford?s catholicity as well as his charism of wisdom in the body of Christ. He gathers people, and almost inevitably, gathers them around the Word of God, wherever they are, whoever they are. In my memories of him, his postures are almost always open. Sometimes his hands are thrown up into the air, as with his exultant laughter, in a praise-like movement. Other times it is a vision of him with his arms stretched between people, introducing them to one another, always with some key word or reason (some logos sophia ) as to why they should form a relationship, or seek a common good. When the gathering gestures have had their affect, and people are drawn to his office or some seminar room to study Scripture, then we see a different kind of gesture that is, I think, more fundamental. The vision I have of him before Scripture is much more the contemplative man than the gregarious gatherer. Almost always with a pen in hand, his posture before the sacred text is relaxed but also highly disciplined, intent on knowing the truth and being receptive to the gift of wisdom. It is as if his participation in the Eucharist has trained him to read Scripture with exactly the same reverence. He feasts on the Word. Balthasar?s phrase, ?the adoring act of listening to the Word of God? sums it up nicely. His posture before the Bible is characterized by a serious listening that entails the freedom of obedience, and the expectation that God will reveal Himself. Ford?s open posture reflects that he has been trained in the virtues of openness, especially the virtue of prudence, which he performs with excellence, precisely because he seeks the gifts of the Spirit in the Body of Christ. His passion for the truth, his wise decision-making, and his discernments of good action all flow from the pairing of the gift of wisdom and the virtue of prudence that he has received in the Body of Christ and cultivates in his reading of Scripture.

What makes Ford?s practice so different from de Lubac, of course, is that his stress has not been on the Eucharist as much as it has been on Scripture. That certainly has to do with a Protestant catholicity that envisions opening the Scriptures to all people. But Ford never personally detaches the Scriptures from their rightful place in the nexus of Scripture-Eucharist-Church; he rather sees the Scriptures as an opening for both the performance of the love of God and the love of neighbor. The gift of wisdom and the virtue of prudence are so important for cultivating all the virtues of openness, and we can see that Ford has discerned the way in which people of all races and nations can gather around the Scriptures to envision the common good. As a consequence, Ford provides a different theopolitical vision of what is possible between Jews, Christians and Muslims. This vision might be seen, in de Lubac?s words, as co-operating in God?s work of ?bringing redemption to maturity.?

Finally, it would be unfortunate if Ford?s work were seen to culminate in matters of ?inter-faith.? Just as in the earlier description of de Lubac?s labor as part of theology of mission, we can see all of Ford?s labors as part of a whole theology of Wisdom. To put a finer point on it, it is a Spirit-Christology in which we learn to read the Word of God in a way that helps us hit the target: the Wisdom of God. The sapiential approach has as much to do with hermeneutical skills as it does with the Eucharistic imagination for the ?gathering up of the whole? in communion with God. It is the particular-universal of Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God that he is after. Ford?s activities are really incomprehensible unless one sees that ?the primal cell? of all his fruitful actions, the seed of his extraordinary endeavors in building up the Body of Christ, flow from a life of praise, from the ?adoring act of listening to the Word of God.? This makes Ford?s theopolitical imagination not only catholic, but also evangelical. And according to St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that is, please God, what we shall all be in the end.


[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar, My Work in Retrospect (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), p. 39.

[ii] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism (Sheed and Ward, 1964).

[iii] Veritatis Splendor , no. 25.

[iv] Henri de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum , trans. Gemma Simmonds (London: SCM, 2006).

[v] Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004)