Letter #72, 2023 Wednesday, March 15: The Withdrawal of the Logos
This letter is the first of several “repeats” which I plan to send out from time to time.
I wrote and sent this letter out on October 27, 2015 (just at the end of the Bishops’ Synod on “the role and mission of the family;” here is a link to the final document, link).
I send it out again because recent trends in our society and world suggest to me that it is as relevant today as it was in 2015, and perhaps more so.
So here is “Repeat #1.”—RM
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Letter #51, 2015: The Withdrawal of the Logos (link)
October 27, 2015, Tuesday — The Withdrawal of the Logos
“In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum…” (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” or “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God…”) —The Gospel of John, Chapter 1, Verse 1. In the old liturgy, these words were the beginning of what was called “The Last Gospel,” so named because it is part of the concluding rite of the traditional Latin Mass of the Roman Rite. The beginning of the Gospel of John up to verse 14 would be read at the end of every Mass. The “Last Gospel” began as a private devotional practice on the priest’s part, but was gradually absorbed into the rubrics of the Mass, and was then recited at the end of each Mass for some 800 years, until recent times. Immediately after the final blessing, the priest would go to the Gospel side of the altar. He would begin with the “Dominus vobiscum” (the Latin for “The Lord be with you”) as at the proclamation of the Gospel of the Mass, then begin to read the words above. At the words “Et Verbum caro factum est” (“And the Word became flesh”), the priest would genuflect…
“Christianity must always remember that it is the religion of the ‘Logos.’ It is faith in the ‘Creator Spiritus,’ (Creator Spirit), from which proceeds everything that exists. Today, this should be precisely its philosophical strength, in so far as the problem is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is not, therefore, other than a ‘sub-product,’ on occasion even harmful of its development, or whether the world comes from reason, and is, as a consequence, its criterion and goal. The Christian faith inclines toward this second thesis, thus having, from the purely philosophical point of view, really good cards to play, despite the fact that many today consider only the first thesis as the only modern and rational one par excellence. However, a reason that springs from the irrational, and that is, in the final analysis, itself irrational, does not constitute a solution for our problems. Only creative reason, which in the crucified God is manifested as love, can really show us the way. In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the ‘Logos,’ from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.” —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (who would become Pope Benedict XVI just over two weeks later), on April 1, 2005, referring to the Christian religion as the religion of the Logos
“I will write my law on their hearts.” —Jeremiah 31:33. Catholics believe this is Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant, and Catholics often use the word logos to refer to the moral law written in human hearts. St. Justin wrote that those who have not accepted Christ but follow the moral law of their hearts (logos) follow God, because it is God who has written the moral law in each person’s heart. Though man may not explicitly recognize God, he has the spirit of Christ if he follows Jesus’ moral laws, written in his heart…
“That Christ is the logos implies that God’s immanence in the world is his rationality.” —Michael Heller, Creative Tension: Essays on Religion and Science, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2003
Logos and Dia-logos
My thought in recent days, during this somewhat peculiar bishops’ synod in Rome, has turned repeatedly to the Logos.
That is, to the question of the nature and being of Christ, the Logos of God.
The recent synod has deepened my conviction that this reflection is urgently necessary once again in our time, as in every time.
In other words, we need to reflect again, and more deeply, on what it means to be a man, on what freedoms and duties the possession of this “human nature” implies, and on what the true gift of the faith is to the men and women of our time.
And the answer is near at hand: the true gift of the faith in our time, as in all times, is Christ himself.
The Logos of God.
But what does this mean really? Does it have any meaning at all?
I think it does, of course, and in fact, it is “self-evident” to me that the “meaning” it has is the “meaning” of human life.
In other words, once there are beings who are capable of conceiving of meaning at all, who have risen, perhaps even in a Chardinian sense, “above the horizon of consciousness,” we have beings who experience reality either as meaningful or meaningless, either as having some sense, or as nonsense, either as part of a fabric of reality which ultimately has, at its end, as in its beginning, a face, a person, or as part of a chaos in which these faces which we have are epiphenomena with no significance at all, a kind of “cosmic joke,” in that we long for meaning (for Logos, that is, for Christ), but find… nothing but the empty intergalactic spaces, expanding and contracting in endless explosive “Big Bangs” and gravitational apocalypses in which all matter and all life is extinguished, re-fashioned, and re-ejected into a meaningless carnival show of blazing supernovas and darting asteroids, all of it “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying… nothing.” (Shakespeare, Macbeth)
So we begin with an anthropological question: does the longing in the human heart for meaning correspond to anything real in our actual encompassing reality?
Is there a “telos,” a goal or end, toward which we are moving?
Or is it all without meaning, without… Logos? All senseless?
Once this question is asked — and it seems legitimate to me to ask this question, it seems to me to be the very first and fundamental question that mind asks, it seems to me to be woven into the very fabric of every conscious mind to ask this question — then we are embarked on a search.
A search, as Viktor Frankl put it, for meaning.
A search, as a Platonic philosopher might put it, for the Logos.
A search, as a Christian philosopher might, after long reflection, come to put it, for Christ.
The Encounter with the Logos
Each Christian, by definition, is in some way “incorporated” into the Logos, who is Christ.
This happens in baptism.
The other sacraments of the Church continue this “incorporation” — this “putting on” of Christ.
This “being conformed” to Christ — to meaning in its absolute sense.
To “the Word.”
In baptism, the Logos “clothes” or, perhaps better, “interpenetrates” into the very being, the inmost soul, of the person baptized; symbolically, the infant, born into mortal flesh, and subject to the consequences of sin (which are death), dies with regard to this world, and is resurrected with the Logos, no longer subject to death. This is the reason Christians wish all of their children to be baptized — even those children who are still-born, or who die in the first days of life.
This “Logos,” we are taught, became “incarnate” in Palestine at the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus, and he was crucified under the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, about 40 years before the destruction of the Second Temple.
We believe this because we believe something that seems fantastic, but which was attested to by many credible witnesses: because death did not hold him, because he rose from death, leaving his tomb empty, in a mysterious way we do not understand, to new, and eternal, life.
This “Logos” whom we call the “Word” of God might equally be called the “Meaning” of God or even the “Reason” of God.
And, this meaning, this reason, is actually, we believe, God Himself.
In other words, the essential “fact” of Christianity, from which all else unfolds — as a plant unfolds from its original seed — is that there is a personal, ontological reality, the Logos, who is the Word of God, the Meaning of God, the Reason of God, the Son of God, and (in fact, and shockingly to many) the very God Himself, the true God, who, in a mysterious way — that is, through mysteries (the word “mystery” in Greek is the same as the word “sacrament” in Latin) — communicates his life, his being, and his holiness in an effective way into all human beings who, forsaking all other idolatrous divinities, after coming to “believe in Him,” begin to follow Him, and in so doing, become His disciples.
And so there are personal and corporate, individual and societal, consequences to this “faith,” which is actually a living and organic process of life.
The entire history of the Church — and, indeed, the entire history of humanity, if rightly understood — reveals this to us.
What is the point of this argument?
The point is, as Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI would again and again reiterate throughout his decades of “doing theology” and preaching to the Church and to the world, that Christianity is not a set of ideas to believe or even less, moral principles or laws to follow.
Rather, Christianity is about a person and specifically, the question of our own encounter with that person.
Benedict stresses repeatedly that God has spoken to humanity, ultimately and most perfectly, in the person of Jesus Christ.
And this is the theological insight, the truth, that Pope Francis as well has also taught on many different occasions, especially, during the past two years, during his daily morning homilies at Mass in the Domus Santa Marta.
This truth explains why, for Pope Francis, the adherence to a certain set of moral principles is always a secondary consequence of something prior. That “something prior” is… the encounter with Christ.
Pope Francis is not interested in the first place in maintaining an institution, no matter how ancient or impressive in its rituals and pieties.
He is interested in arousing in souls the hunger for the Logos and in directing those souls, often wounded to the point of profound misery, toward that Christ who is the ultimate “reason” for all that has been, and all that is, and all that ever will be…
Truth and Mercy
In this context, we arrive at the false distinction between “truth” and “mercy” as polar opposites.
They are not.
Truth and mercy come together, and are reconciled, in the holiness of Christ.
How can this be?
To the human mind, clearly, it is a paradox.
But a paradox does not necessarily contradict reason.
Rather, it transcends reason.
Mercy presupposes a fault, a lack, toward which mercy must be shown.
And that is “the truth.”
For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God, who alone is holy.
But the truth is also that God’s mercy, we believe, may “transfigure” all faults, all lacks, and even all sins.
Mercy, in some way, annihilates sins, that is, turns sins into nothing, as if they had never been.
That is what forgiveness means.
When we pray “forgive us our sins,” this is what we mean: annihilate our sins, which we have committed, which we wish we had not committed, but which we did, in fact, commit.
And the point is this: this is possible with God, though it is not possible with men.
In this way, the apparent contradiction between “truth” and “mercy” is overcome by the movement of reality — all of reality, the internal reality of the person (the “internal forum”) and the external one of the universe (where all the consequences of sin have worked out their tragic effects) — to another, deeper dimension, a dimension which is constituted by — and this, again, is a mystery — holiness.
The defeat of sin and death, swallowed up in holiness — the holiness of Christ, the incarnate Logos.
The category of holiness enfolds, illuminates, and transcends the categories of “truth” and “mercy” because holiness is the very nature of God.
And this is why the Church deals with things on a different level than the world deals with things.
Because it truly is on a different level.
It is on the level of the divine, of the Logos, of ultimate meaning, of holiness, and of the forgiveness and annihilation of sins — all things which transcend worldly life and worldly concerns, all things which are the ultimate hope of all worldly activity, if we would but understand the Logos of our universe.
The Withdrawal of the Logos
From time to time in scripture, there are very odd passages which speak of God’s “abandonment” of his people, times when God’s mercy no longer flows out.
These are times when the people are enslaved, taken into captivity, imprisoned, made subject to “other gods,” to idols of various types.
These are the times I refer to as “the withdrawal of the Logos.”
The enslavement in Egypt was a period like this; so too was the captivity in Babylon.
And, in the 2,000 years since the time of Christ, the Logos seems to have been “withdrawn” from human history on many occasions. This happens whenever ideologies triumph, whenever that “reason” that makes us brothers, which makes us fathers and mothers, which makes us fellow citizens seeking the common good, is overturned by madness and folly and selfishness and pride — by sin — and cruelty and injustice flow over the world like an evil river.
But the worst has never occurred.
That worst would be the complete withdrawal of the Logos.
And that would be an apocalyptic withdrawal, a withdrawal of reason and meaning.
The consequence would be to dissolve all bonds of faith and fellowship, and to turn humanity into a race of “zombies,” lacking that spark of the Logos which was given to us in the beginning, enabling us to claim, to announce, rightly, that we were made “in the image and likeness of God.”
If God were to withdraw his spirit entirely from man, it would be like the crash of a computer, or the loss of consciousness induced by the withdrawal of oxygen and blood supply to the brain.
The ability to reason, to analyze, to calculate, even the ability to speak would be withdrawn.
There would be only grunts and groans — or, to cite Jesus, only “wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
The withdrawal of the Logos would be the withdrawal of reason, of language, and, therefore, the withdrawal of all true communication.
There would only be barked orders, and unthinking obedience in response.
The Logos can be withdrawn if other gods appear, that is, false gods (because there is no true God other than the Logos) and if demons or devils, who can possess souls, are given total freedom on this earth, and fostered, and praised, as St. Peter warned: “the devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”
The withdrawal of the Logos would be a type of spiritual death.
It would be the loss of identity, and the loss of humanity, a return to the animal.
Sadly, it is the fate of prophets to attract the hatred of men because they proclaim that the passageway toward this miserable fate is the passageway of selfishness, injustice, sensuality, narcissism, and carnal passion of all types.
This is the perennial teaching of the Church.
Selfishness is setting oneself ahead of others, and of God. Injustice is cruelty toward the weak. Sensuality is the setting of one’s pleasure ahead of all else. Narcissism is gazing at one’s own face, and not looking out toward the face of the Logos. The desire for carnal passion is a form of sensuality.
The Church teaches that “eros” is a passionate love which needs to be controlled and channeled.
“Agape,” or fraternal love, never needs to controlled or channeled in the same way — though it, too, requires the exercise of wisdom and prudence.
For Protestant theologian Anders Nygran, who has written thoughtfully on these issues, eros is a needs-based and desire-based, egocentric and acquisitive love. In other words, we can love other humans and God with a love of eros in which we love them out of self-interest in order to acquire and possess them. Agape, by contrast, is spontaneous, unconditional, theocentric, self-giving, self-sacrificial. In other words, we can love others and God with a love of agape in which we reject all self-gain and interest and surrender ourselves to others and love them purely for themselves.
There are limits to the expression and exercise of sexual love. All societies mark certain boundaries. These are especially within families, hence the taboos on sexual relations between parents and children, siblings and friends.
Century upon century, human beings struggle with their passions. Century upon century, the taboos are broken. There is incest, there is pedophilia, there is infidelity, there is divorce and the breakdown of human love into distrust and hatred.
But throughout all time, there is always the Logos, and there are always the disciples of the Logos, who seek to turn the hearts of the people toward their true good, toward their true meaning, which is to become like the incarnate Logos, Christ.
When the Church reaches out to people who have committed sins — and all have committed sins — the Church is following her founder. He went about in the Palestine of his time, doing good, denouncing hypocrisy, and preaching the coming of the Kingdom of the Logos — that reasonable, rational kingdom, the laws of which are written on the hearts of men and women, that kingdom where truth and mercy are reconciled on a higher plane, and where justice rolls down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream (see Amos, 5:24).
What is the glory of God?
“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.