What Does Authority Have to Do with Religion?

The Creation of the Animals, by Raphael (1518-19).

“Authority” is generally used as a derogatory term in our world. Nazism gave the word a bad name as German officials, one after another, at the Nuremburg war trials sought to excuse themselves by claiming that they were just obeying a higher authority. All totalitarian systems, fascist or communist, were derided as authoritarian. Actually the attack on authority has deeper roots. Before time began, Satan revolted against God’s authority and fell into misery. In more proximate history, the Enlightenment saw itself as a revolt against tradition, in favor of reason. All affirmations of truth were to be judged before the bar of reason. Kant summarized the Enlightenment position by dismissing authority as a condition of earlier, benighted humanity not yet come of age.1 Modern man intends to think for himself. Before Kant, the battle of the books between ancients and moderns had been fought with the moderns and Newtonian science carrying the day. Before that contest, authority suffered a debilitating defeat when Luther and his cohorts rejected ecclesial authority. But at least they respected the Bible as God’s authoritative word. Post-Enlightenment Scriptural exegesis, however, invented the historical-critical method, by which experts sought to go behind the Bible to tell modern readers how it was composed in answer to the needs of various first-century audiences, opening the way for an aggiornamento, whereby they would adapt God’s word to whatever audiences they thought needed the intellectual upgrade. God’s word was reduced to kerygma, the event of proclamation, which became quite protean since an event, as Plato (Timaeus 28a) and Aristotle (De interpretatione 9, 19a 35-b 3) noted long ago, is not subject to the law of contradiction. Needless to say, in the process of modern exegesis, God’s eternal word has suffered a loss of authenticity, and, it scarcely needs mentioning, authority. No wonder that Karl Barth excoriated it: in seeking to go behind God’s word, modern exegesis undermines it.2

An unprejudiced reading of the Bible reveals that it rests upon authority. Moses spoke with God, and then on his behalf, when he received and delivered the Ten Commandments from Sinai. The prophets constantly reiterated the phrases, “Thus says the Lord” and “Oracle of the Lord.” Serious repercussions were threatened if God’s word, articulated through their minds and mouths, was not obeyed. The New Testament is likewise replete with appeals to authority. From his mission’s initiation, Jesus spoke with authority, not like the scribes, and cast out demons (Mk 1:22-27). His Father thundered from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him” (Mk 9:76). In fact, when the high priests confronted Jesus after his purification of the temple, they sought his authority. In Jewish religion, nothing higher counts in the final analysis: is your authority from heaven or from men (Mk 11:27-30). In the final analysis, authority counts over all else. Nothing higher than God’s word can be imagined by Jews. As God’s only Son (Mk 12:6), indeed his Word (Jn 1:1-14), Jesus communicated authority to the Twelve, sending them out to “preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mk 3:14-15; 6:7.12). This continuation of his mission Jesus confirmed after his resurrection: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you. And, behold, I am with you all days until the consummation of the age” (Mt 28:18-20). St. Paul insisted that, though he was least of the Apostles, he enjoyed apostolic authority and should be heeded and obeyed when communicating the Lord’s words (1 Cor. 9:1-2, 15-19; 15:9; Gal. 1:1-9). Moreover, he presupposed that his successors would also act and teach with authority (1 Tm 4:11-16; 5:7; 2 Tm 4:1-5; Ti 1:9-11; 2:1, 15; 3:1). Authority is so well attested in the New Testament that only spiritual blindness can overlook it.

Authority belongs inherently to historical religions, even if other religions have authority figures. Classical (Theravada) Buddhism urges its adherents to destroy cravings, attain equanimous indifference to worldly affairs, and seek truth within themselves beyond the distractions of discursive thinking; by such concentration they are to save themselves, even if the self has no existence. The Buddha, supreme teacher, is fittingly portrayed with his eyes closed since the phenomenal world consists of a transient chain of suffering and karma which enlightened bodhisattva escape.3 Liberal theologians use man as the measure of God insofar as God can reveal himself only to a human subject capable of receiving the revelation; therefore, study man in order to know what God is. Schleiermacher encourages his readers to “worship the God that is in you.”4 In less radical form, Karl Rahner writes, “Theology is anthropology.”5 Other religions rely upon human insight to read properly the signs of God in nature and the world as a whole. So Isaac Newton, an Arian Christian, believes in a God who caused motion in the universe, served as its absolute point of reference, adjusted the universal machine’s deteriorations, preserved its order against collapse under gravity, and was responsible for inexplicable mutual attraction of inert bodies and the body-soul unity.6 Immanuel Kant upholds belief in God as the requiter of morality in the next life: happiness and morality should be reconciled, then, since they are not in this life.7 The more speculative Hindu theologies read the divine mystery of the universe and identify the universe and the soul with the eternal Atman.8 In such religions, authority is based on insight and must be conditional and transitory, since each adept may, in time, surpass his master or guru. Because the insight is into a reality surpassing the human mind, each pupil can surpass his teacher. In contrast with them, historical religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam rely on a particular revelation made to a particular person at a particular time in a particular place. The message demands obedience before insight. The messenger bearing the message must possess credentials certifying that he is the divinely appointed medium of God’s revelation. While Moses spoke with Yahweh, Sinai quaked, thundered, and smoked (Ex 19:16-20). Thereafter, Moses delivered on God’s promises as he led Israel to the Holy Land. Mohammed claimed that the Koran needed no miraculous attestation; the force of Allah’s word should persuade truth seekers,9 and success in holy wars against infidels supported belief in its message. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus taught words of uncommon wisdom, worked miracles, and exorcized demons. He too claimed unique authority. Historical religions are essentially different from other religions insofar as the latter conceive theology as man’s word about God, while historical religions proclaim that theology is primarily God’s word to man, which cannot be relativized by human theology. Consequently historical religions insist that God is preeminently personal, not a mere metaphysical principle or a distant upholder of universal order. He cares for man’s good and makes demands.

Authority is not a popular word in current society. Ever since the Enlightenment claimed that man had reached his maturity and no longer needed to stand under alien tutelage, external authorities have been under attack. Authority’s decline was hastened by two massive world wars, into which, first, traditional leaders, and then, authoritarian regimes, led Europe. At the Nuremberg war trials, one war criminal after another excused himself by appealing to the need to obey a higher authority. So, despite the French Revolution’s excesses, democratic ideology has triumphed, at least until the present. From the second half of the 20th century, the secular belief is that everyone should be capable of discovering for himself the basic truths about God and morality, form his conscience, and follow it. There is no need for tradition or authority. Reason and good will suffice to govern society to ever higher evolutionary levels. People can, and should, be entrusted with molding their own destiny. Participatory democracy has become the watchword. Since each is responsible for himself, each soon became responsible to no one else: “Who are you to tell me what I should or should not do?” When authority loses its raison d’etre, innovations are preferred over traditions, rebels are praised, and revolutions are sure to follow. The liberal establishment at leading American universities, having no principles beyond toleration and freedom of expression, soon collapsed before the student revolt of ’68, and instead of expelling the leaders, invited them into their own ranks.

But authority was not always considered a naughty boogeyman to be exorcised and crushed. Once authority was seen as a blessing. Indeed, the word “authority” derives from the Latin auctoritas. An auctor is an author, an originator, and, principally, a parent. The verb stem underlying auctor is augeo, augere, auxi, auctum, which means “to grow or make to grow.” Parents literally make their children grow in the womb, and, thereafter, by feeding, protecting, and educating them. So the basic notion behind authority is a very good thing, since growth profits all. Parents are said to possess authority by nature; laws enjoy authority insofar as they guide society to its legitimate ends; God has authority since no growth can occur without him, and he wishes men well. Consequently, Scripture enjoys authority as his word nourishing men in the quest for truth and morality, and his Church, likewise, exercises authority in interpreting his word. Much as authority promotes and enhances authentic growth, it can sometimes seem an obtrusive imposition. People readily accept that, because they recognize that all human desires are not necessarily advantageous to themselves or others. Little Johnny must be subjected to toilet training, if he is not to be perpetually pooping in his pants. Lack of discipline would be baneful for him, and everyone whom he encounters.

Why is authority required in religion? Doesn’t it lead to so many conflicts as authorities multiply with opposite claims for obedience? Is it not misused, as in the case of ISIS? Of course, the old Latin proverb, abusus non tollit usus (abuses do not annul proper uses), contains much truth; otherwise the French and Russian Revolutions would have eternally doomed democracy. More to the point, God is an infinite mystery, whom no human mind can encompass. Thus people look for a revelation to guide their thinking about God. After all, there are many mysteries which reason cannot unravel. Few committees are as unruly as academic departments at universities. Anyone tracing the history of modern philosophy from Descartes on, must either laugh or cry over the absurdities which philosophers have spewed forth in the name of reason. Who can live sanely in Descartes’s universe, or Kant’s, or Hegel’s? Admittedly some strove valiantly to actualize Marx’s universe, but such were the human disasters under Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, that no one wants to return to pure reason over them. Philosophers are doomed to confuse abstractions with reality and ignore the unbridgeable gap between thought and reality.10 Admittedly postmodern philosophers have abandoned the quest for truth but insist upon being paid to indoctrinate their audiences in meaninglessness of meaning. But beyond other conundrums of abstract thought, a fundamental dilemma derives from the irresolvable problem of evil. Philosophers try to advance rational explanations to the question, “why?” By profession, they seek the cause of things: as every child knows, “because” answers the question, “why?” Effects follow causes; otherwise the cause would not be a cause. Between an effect and its cause, there must be a necessary connection; otherwise the alleged “cause” would be, at most, a conditio sine qua non, a necessary condition of possibility for an event, but not a real explanation. Thinkers must find the “must” linking effect to cause. Hence, if anyone claims to explain evil, he must show why evil must be. But evil, whether physical or moral, is what should not be. Therefore, if we explain evil, we show why, what should not be, must be. That would mean that we necessarily live in an immoral universe, yet it would be an immoral universe without freedom, insofar as the “should,” which appeals to freedom, has been obliterated by the “must” of rational explanation.

How is it possible to eliminate or overcome evil if we cannot explain it? We do not know what we are dealing with. It seems that all our modern plans cannot banish evil despite the high hopes with which they are promulgated. We tend to identify evil with suffering, and do our best to eliminate it by universal education, universal health care, universal job security (unemployment insurance), and universal retirement support. Government desires to fulfill all our desires in order that evil be overcome and pain be repressed. How appealing that vision is!! Who would not wish to inhabit a world without suffering and pain? Is not heaven supposed to alleviate all our woes? But earth is not heaven. Consider, in a second moment, if you would really like to live in a world without the possibility of pain and suffering, where no one can be hurt. That means a world without challenge or adventure, a world where no one is hurt, no one loses, but everyone wins and takes home the first-place trophy. Doing a pirouette on top of the Empire State Building would be as dangerous as scratching one’s nose. We would be bored to death. Moreover, it would be a world in which we cannot help each other since each has no unfulfilled needs. Since we are impeded from sacrificing for each other, it would be a world without love, a world without commitment and sacrifice. This is what the postmodern world seeks. If you have pain, take Aleve or some other drug; if you are frustrated, light up some weed and go on a trip; if you have an unwanted pregnancy—children are such a drag on sleep, careers, travels, etc.—have an abortion; if life seems too much of a bother, claim the right and power to end it.

Such reflections bring reality home to us. Living as finite creatures in a world of finite beings, we cannot attain all that we desire. No one can be everybody’s friend. All cannot be married to the same spouse. Nobody can have everything desired, if everyone else wants the same things. Moreover, there is no limit to finite desires; once one desire is fulfilled, another arises to takes its place. Only death stills all desires, yet only those utterly frustrated willingly seek death. “But in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause. … Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” The postmodern world is trapped between fear of pain and fear of death, pain’s surcease. The more we flee pain, the more its fear permeates our lives.

We live in a messy world, don’t we? We cannot explain it, we cannot fulfill all our desires, we cannot rid the world of frustration and banish evil. Who, then, can make sense of it? No man, for sure. Only God. But in our times, in the face of so much evil, which becomes ever more unbearable the more we strive to escape it, people have dared to place God’s existence in question. Does God really care for us if he permits so many evils? Of course, banishing God does not solve the problem of pain and evil.11 It only makes our predicament worse, leaving us with inevitable pain, denying all meaning to it, and abolishing all hope of overcoming it. How, then, do we know that God loves us? Who can speak a word assuring us of God’s love? Since our fractured experience of ourselves and the world prevents any human from guaranteeing the conquest of evil, hope must come from beyond humanity. Only God can utter a definitive word in our darkness. Of course, love is more than a matter of words. Love must be expressed in deeds. Thus, condescending to our weakness, God’s Word became man to conquer sin and death by his own death and resurrection. On Good Friday, he showed us what love entails, not self-fulfillment, but self-emptying. On Easter morning, he revealed that Love is really stronger than death and sin. By his death and resurrection, Jesus teaches us how evil is to be overcome, not by imposing any finite system of justice or world government—the tension between commutative and distributive justice can never be rationally dissolved—but by willingly suffering loss for the sake of others. We are called to love our enemies. We have to die to ourselves, to our desires for self-fulfillment, if we wish to be fulfilled. We have to empty ourselves in order to receive love as a gift. Anyone who seeks a friend just for self-fulfillment will never know friendship. For friendship is always a free gift which the beloved cannot control, but must accept by responding in love. Through Jesus, we know that God wishes to give himself to us, to share his infinite life of love with us. We need only open our hearts to him and let ourselves be vulnerable. For there is no love without vulnerability, without self-sacrifice, and God is Trinitarian Love.

Since God is Love, he possesses the ultimate authority to make us grow. God’s Son became man to conquer evil, Satan himself, exorcise all those possessed by demons, and liberate all who live under the threat of death (Heb 2:14-15). Certainly his message involves a paradoxical and hard word: one has to lose oneself in order to be found, to let oneself go in order to attain security (Mk 8:34-35; Jn 12:24-25; Gal 2:19-20). The Sermon on the Mount flies in the face of all worldly wisdom and prudence, yet it provides the truth for which the human heart yearns. That truth, however, cannot be produced from the human heart. No amount of self-reflection, no mirror gazing, can assure individuals that they are loved, and that their sins are forgiven. A word of love must be spoken from without, to break the hardness of our hearts. Augustine wrote of divine wisdom: “it descends from above, it does not leap forth from the human heart” (De natura et gratia §16,17; cf. Jas 3:7). Since Christ is “the Wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24), who became flesh, his message reaches us from without, calling to a conversion of heart. So Christ established a visible Church to communicate his message with authority, but it is not just as an external institution. For God’s revelation is not contained in a book. Jesus is himself God’s definitive revelation: “Who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). He is the plentitude of grace and truth (Jn 1:16-17; Col 1:19). Since God is love and the Son shares the Father’s nature, the Bible only points to him, the Old Testament as its fulfillment, the New as its fullness of meaning.

The books of the New Testament are like love letters that seem incredible, unless they are referred to the living reality of the Beloved Son. That is why a living tradition is necessary to understand divine revelation. Only in the Spirit of Love can the words of love be understood properly. Since love demands deeds beyond words, Jesus remains himself sacrificed and risen as the Eucharistic center of his Church. His deed rendered present on the Church’s altars summons forth the concrete commitment of responding love. He shares his divine life of love with all who come to him and wish to be conformed to him and grow to his measure (Phil 3:10; Gal 2:19-20; Col 2:19; Eph 3:19; 4:15-16). For his love engenders love in our hearts. He loved us first, when we were yet sinners (1 Jn 4:9-10; Rom 5:6-8). Who can look on our crucified Savior and not be moved to a response of love? In such a way, his grace and favor penetrate and renew our hearts, making believers the new creation, joined to the new Adam in the free response to Love freely bestowed (1 Cor 15:20-22, 45-49; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Rom 5:14). Thus, where each of us is most intimately himself or herself, in personal freedom, each is most intimately joined to the Lord. Accepting his authority, we all grow into his full stature in the Body of Christ, putting aside all rivalries and forgetting all wounds. It is only in forgetfulness of self that we love and discover who we are called to be. That is why the Eucharist, representing Calvary’s sacrifice, anticipates the joys of heaven. That is why Catholic Christians can celebrate a sacrifice and rejoice in God’s authority manifest in his Church.

  1. I. Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?” in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, tr. L. Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 85-90; on the background cf. P. Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (New York: Knopf, 1966-69), 1:322-57; 2:127-207, 398-401, 501-52.
  2. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. Bromiley and T. Torrance, Tr., G. Bromiley et alii (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956-77), 1/2:727-40; 4/1:287-94; —-, Rudolf Bultmann: Ein Versuch, ihn zu verstehen (Zurich: Zolikon), 1953, 30-38, 44-45, 48-52.
  3. K. Ch’en, Buddhism: The Light of Asia (New York: Barron, 1968), 33, 35-38, 41-52, 54-56.
  4. F. Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, tr. J. Oman (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 253.
  5. K. Rahner, SJ, “Theologie und Anthropologie,” Schriften zur Theologie, 8 (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1967), 43. Rahner is not a liberal theologian since he provides for a conceptual content in man’s basic transcendental experience which allows for an historical verbal revelation proclaimed from without: cf. Grundkurs des Glaubens (Freiburg: Herder, 1977), 25-27, 35-36. Yet there is an ambiguity in his thought since he can also hold that man has an original, grace-filled experience of the saving-revealing God which is not “indoctrinated from without” (37, 62). Unfortunately, many of his epigones ignore the historical, verbal aspects of revelation and reduce revelation to a transcendental experience of God beyond words. For the complexities and ambiguities of Rahner’s thought cf. our “Karl Rahner in Tradition: the One and the Many,” Fides Quaerens Intellectum 3/2 (2007), 1-60, and P. Burke, Reinterpreting Rahner (New York: Fordham, 2002).
  6. E.A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Garden City: Doubleday, 1954), 258-64, 287-97.
  7. I. Kant, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, ed. K. Vorländer (Hamburg: Meiner, 1929), 142-53, 159-61; —–, Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft, ed. R. Malter (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1974), 4-5, 9, n. 6, 132-35, 189-90, 225-26, 251,
  8. Cf. R. C. Zaehner, Hinduism (Oxford: Oxford U., 1962), 36-56, 80-101.
  9. The Koran, Sura 7:188; 10:37-41; 13:27-30; 17:94-99; 25:6-8; 29:47-51.
  10. Despite the insufficiency of concepts, knowledge of God, apart from revelation, is possible: cf. J. McDermott, SJ, “Faith, Reason, and Freedom,” Irish Theological Quarterly 67 (2002), 307-32.
  11. Cf. J. McDermott, SJ, “Suffering,” in Dictionary of Fundamental Theology, ed. L. Latourelle and R. Fisichella (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 1013-16, on the possibility of suffering as endemic to a finite world and the ultimate Christian sense of suffering.
Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ About Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ

Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ, currently teaches theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He previously taught at Fordham University, the Gregorian University (Rome), and the Pontifical College Josephinum. He was also invited professor at St. Joseph's Seminary (Yonkers) and Seton Hall University. He served on the International Theological Commission, various Roman commissions, and as consultor to the USCCB Doctrine Committee. He has published two books, edited two others, and produced more than 150 articles on philosophy, dogmatic theology, Scripture, history, and spirituality.


  1. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    By whose authority do you ordain and assign priests and bishops ? IN the beginning, Jesus was present when Abraham received the revelation of God whom all catholics proclaim in the Nicene creed at mass, God from God, True God from true God Light from Light This is authority for us to believe this authority which does not deceive nor can be deceived. I prefer Father Lonergan SJ and his book on “Method” for an authentic manner of Moral decisions . It looks at particular situations yet transcendentals are always there obviously. Thank you Father McDermott

    • John M. McDermott, S.J. John M. McDermott, S.J. says:

      Actually I don’t ordain or assign anyone. As a simple priest I have been ordained and assigned. I presuppose that since Jesus assigned authority to Peter and the Twelve, pope and bishops have the authority to continue His work by word and sacrament, which involves ordaining and sending priests to preach and consecrate the Eucharist. Certainly the tri-personal God was present to Abraham (cf. Gen. 18, whose visit the pre-Augustinian Fathers assigned to the three divine persons). Yet even revelation to Abraham was mediated by words. Abraham is only a man who cannot grasp the totality of divine revelation. Indeed OT revelation is only on the way to Christ, the definitive, perfect revelation. It is the “pedagogue to Christ” (Gal. 3:24-25). So it is still imperfect, for Christ changed it (Mat. 5:21-48; Mk. 10), and Paul fought rightly for the abolition of the Law. No human, finite concepts or words can encompass God’s revelation. That is why the second person of the Trinity revealed Himself to us definitively – love demands definitive commitment since it is definitively grounded. He is normative, yet He is present to and known through His Body, the Church, which celebrates the Eucharist and is hierarchically structured (1 Cor. 12, etc.). He is truly “true God from true God,” a truth communicated to us from the hierarchical Church, interpreting Jn. 17:3 against Arian erroneous exegesis. Much as I learned from and appreciate Fr. Lonergan’s writings, I think that Method in Theology declines somewhat from the high level of his great works. Admittedly it is dealing with the difficulty problem of dogmatic development. But a danger arises once doctrines are made derivative from “foundations,” i.e., the culmination of intellectual, moral, and religious conversion, when God’s grace, i.e., the uncreated grace of the Holy Spirit, is poured into our hearts. Everything else, every conceptual statement, is dependent upon that experience which is athematic, i.e., non-conceptual. So dogmas can constantly be revised to fit the needs of the age and soon no one knows what the Church believes – and this undercuts Lonergan’s devastating earlier critique of Dewart in A Second Collection, 11-32. While primarily concerned with dogma, Method certainly has implications for moral theology – there too universally formulated prescriptions of morality can too easily be reformulated to fit my particular desires: e.g., “I’m generally not in favor of adultery but in this case poor Mrs. Smith needs consolation…” Where is the cross crucifying my flesh? All this is theological liberalism worse than Schleiermacher. But there are more basic problems with Lonergan’s theological project. How can any Thomist experience the Holy Spirit, or God, non-conceptually? Knowledge is attained intuitively through sensation, through abstraction (conceptualization), and existential judgment. God is not perceived directly through the senses nor grasped in a concept, which is the presupposition for judgment. A non-conceptual knowledge of God would have to be intuitive, but such an intuition would be the beatific vision. Aside from the intellectual problem of explaining how a passive intellect which receives finite abstracted forms can immediately grasp an infinite Esse (cf. Suarez for a wider critique), I do not know anyone who feels himself or herself beatified when responding early to an alarm clock. – One final warning before accepting transcendental theology: even the best admit that their theology is built upon the paradox of the natural desire for the beatific vision. A paradox is an apparent contradiction, but none of them ever explain why the contradiction is only a apparently. A natural desire which cannot attain by its own forces its natural end is a desire inherently frustrated. No system of thought can be build upon a frustration. If supernatural grace is needed to fulfill nature, then nature is insufficient and we are all atheists, agnostics, or Protestants. Rahner, Lonergan, de Lubac, Marechal, Rousselot and the best of the transcendental theologians knew the limits of their system and remained within the bounds of Catholic dogma, which preserved their mental sanity. Unfortunately many self-proclaimed “disciples” are epigones who do not recognize what these greater thinkers were attempting to do. Of course the appeal to St. Thomas’s authority for the natural desire of the beatific vision is only an appeal to authority, which in any debate is the weakest of arguments unless God or one appointed by Him is the authority. That is another good reason for having a divinely instituted Church as the norm of my subjectivity. If you desire more on Lonergan’s Method I refer you to my article, “Tensions in Lonergan’s Theory of Conversion,” Gregorianum 74 (1933), 101-140.

  2. Avatar Paul Rodden says:

    This is a really useful bonus, thanks Fr McDermott.
    I’m no theologian, but when you talk about, ‘many self-proclaimed “disciples” are epigones who do not recognize what these greater thinkers were attempting to do’, do you mean these ‘disciples’ think that the ‘transcendental theologians’ you mention were promoting a kind of fideism which can pull itself up by its own bootstraps, rather than revelation (dogma) and that grace builds upon nature?

    • John M. McDermott, S.J. John M. McDermott, S.J. says:

      Not quite. The simplistic epigones identify revelation with the their unthematic experience of God. Since knowledge allegedly occurs in judgment, which is a reflexive act (referring predicate back to subject), the human being is immediately self-conscious. If God, as uncreated grace, comes into man’s spirit, man should be conscious of His arrival. Hence He directly experiences or intuits God in a manner surpassing conceptual knowledge of God (by abstraction). He is as close to God as any man, the pope included, and his experience transcends all conceptual dogmatic and moral formulae. Why does he need the Church’s or Jesus’ mediation if he has direct contact with God? Of course when transcendental thinkers appeal to the natural desire for the beatific vision, nature is dissolved into grace or, inverse, grace rescues finite nature from its incapacity to attain the infinite God. The distinction between nature and grace is easily dissolved, even though the best transcendental thinkers like Lonergan and Rahner strive to maintain the balance between nature and grace. In short, as the older conceptualist theology is inclined to draw too sharp a division between nature and grace, reason and faith, so the transcendental theology is inclined to fudge or erase the distinction. The best Thomists of both schools maintain the balance, distinguishing nature from grace without entirely separating them. Such is my reading.

      • Avatar Paul Rodden says:

        Thank you so much taking the time to explain. Your article and also your comments here have been a very helpful education. It is really appreciated, Father.