On Johann Adam Möhler's Symbolik:
The Authority of the Church and the Problematic Nature of Modern Subjectivity
Anton van Harskamp
Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam
Why should we read a theological work from the past, in particular Johann Adam Möhler's Symbolik?
One of the seemingly plausible answers can be extracted from the writings of Y. M.-J. Congar. He is one of the modern catholic theologians who kindled new interest for Möhler in the thirties and the fifties in Europe. According to him Möhler's work is of importance today for two reasons. In the first place because Möhler opened a perspective in which the Church was seen in a truly theo-logical way, viz. as an institution which ultimately derives from a divine source, being the incarnation. The formation of the Church is seen as the consequence of the mission of the Holy Spirit in which life is elevated to God and simultaneously humanized. In the second place Möhler is extremely significant because of his (supposed) ecumenical intentions. With respect to the last-mentioned judgment: Congar was convinced that the renewal of catholic theology he himself was aiming at - - in his attempts to overcome the neoscolastic straitjacket of theology - -, was anticipated by Möhler, also because Möhler was thought to demonstrate a real confrontation with protestantism. This conviction has become a ongoing theme in recent interpretations of Symbolik.
So the answer to the opening question, an answer which seems to be dominant in the community of catholic theologians, is: Möhler must be read because of the impulses he gave to the renewal of ecclesiology and ecumenical theology. Here I'll try to make plausible that, as far as the actual significance of Möhler's Symbolik is concerned, it is time to drop this dominant view. My thesis is, that the significance today of the book is not Möhler's majestic anticipation on the sacramental meaning of the Church; nor are significant today Möhler's views on protestantism and on the differences with catholicism. The significance of Symbolik for us, I will suggest, has to be located in Möhler's intuitive apprehensions of the aporias of modern subjectivity. These intuitive apprehensions are lying underneath Möhler's ecclesiology and his theological anthropology which is the basis of his rebuttal of protestantism.
This essay aims at a reconstruction of this intuitions. In order to make such a reconstruction possible, I need a rather lenghty introduction. For I'll first have to mention the central theological issues in Möhlers development. It can help us to gain a tentative feeling of the particular catholic nature of his interest in the exposition of the confessional differences (1). After that I need to point to the socio-political and church-political context in which Symbolik was published. It can help us to see that this book, although written by an intentionally irenic and a-political author, essentially was composed as a work which should produce effects on a (church)political and cultural level. It helps us to understand also that Möhler, as Walter Kasper rightly observes, has to be considered as "an a-political churchpolitician" (2). Then it will be time to elaborate the theological drift of the book in order to see which very demanding foundational function Möhler is ascribing to the Roman-Catholic Church (3). Only then we have the data to elaborate the thesis (4).
Let's first try to touch on the nerve of his first book, that masterpiece of catholic-romantic theological thinking: Die Einheit in der Kirche.
To get a proper idea of this book it is important to read the Preface carefully. Möhler explains that the treatise begins, not with the center of the christian faith, Jesus Christ, but with the Holy Spirit. The reason is that he wants to focus on the process of becoming a christian. Therefore he feels himself obliged to start with what comes first in time for the individual believer (cf. E., 3). So the point of issue for Möhler is the existential process of becoming a christian. But in elaborating this point of issue Möhler does not confine himself to the purely individual dimensions of this existential process. The overall structure of the book is determined by his view on the dynamism of the Holy Spirit. Using a range of thought of the "Patres", Möhler indicates in a romantic-organological way of thinking how the mystical and invisible life of the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit, is proceeding outward into the essential external formations of the Church. Captivated by this dynamism Möhler confesses and avows -- the book is, as F. Vigener once remarked, not only a learned book but above all a confession of faith -- that the existential process of becoming a christian first and foremost requires the identification of the individual consciousness with the consciousness of the whole Church, above all through partaking in the reciprocal love of the faithful by intuitive immediate vision ("unmittelbare Anschauung", cf. E., 12, 21). Which essentially means that the individual who considers himself as an enlightened person, as rationally striving for moral autonomy, discovers that true autonomy and real human development is only attainable by growing into the spiritual community of the Church. Knowing now of the dynamism of the Holy Spirit, we can understand that this growing into the spiritual community simultaneously implicates the subordination of the individual believer to the external and institutional formations of the factually existing Catholic Church (cf. E., 32, 98, 147).
All Möhler-interpretators however note the fact that Möhler himself indicated that, although Die Einheit had touched on some burning theological problems, it did not address them all in a satisfactory way. With respect to Symbolik I'll refer rather superficially to two of those problems.
The first problem concerns the more exact determination of the relation between the external and visible dimensions of the Church and her internal and invisible dimensions. For a long time the dominant view on Die Einheit was that the book stressed only the organological proceedings of the internal side of the Church into the external side. The book was supposed to offer a one-way orientation. But this view is not correct. Möhler's organological way of thinking actually shows up something like a dialectical feature: the external dimensions of the Church, as caused by the inner dimensions, which in their turn are guided by the Holy Spirit, are also working causes themselves. There is some kind of interaction between the internal and the external dimensions (cf. E., 101). Nevertheless, one may say not only that Möhler is not quite clear in eleborating the way in which romantic organological thinking is mediated with idealist dialectical thinking -- he actually only stipulates this mediation --, but also that his main interest in Die Einheit is the very way indeed in which the individual is above all guided by the mystical dimensions of the Church. Basically the urge of his theological thinking in this book was to search into, and to make the believer acquainted with the great all-pervading mystical unity of the Church. In Symbolik, one may say, Möhler is no longer aiming at the question how to become a christian; he is now aiming at the question on which theo-logical conditions one can be (and stay) a christian. Seen from that perspective, at first sight it seems as if he is arguing in a somewhat more superficial way. For now he is apparently not interested in the inner and mystical dimensions of the Church. But this impression of superficiallity is a false one. What's at issue is that Möhler simply presupposes that the Church, also in her visible dimensions, is constituting the necessary habitat in which the believer is living in accordance with the christian truth. The question then becomes in what way we have to understand the workings of the visible dimensions of the Church. In other words, we may say that Möhler is looking for the theological-transcendental status of the external dimensions. According to him we cannot look upon these dimensions as purely historical and contingent expressions of the mystical. If that really were the case, we would have to conclude that the content of our belief is contingent too; and that our faith only is a façade which never touches the inner dimensions of our spiritual life.
Every reader of Möhler's Symbolik knows what's at stake here: the meaning of incarnation. For Möhler the incarnation does not only comprise the articulation of the utmost divine christian mystery. No, above all it provides, not the everlasting stumbling block for theological thinking, but rather the theo-intellectual means by which he approaches the ways in which faith has to relate to the Church. In a peculiar sense of the word we may say that Möhler is a theological "materialist", for the incarnation tells him that the material "Gestalt" of Jesus Christ provides an analogy for the material "Gestalt" of the Church; which siumultaneously means that the visible dimensions of the Church not only have a human-institutional impact, but also in a deepgoing way a theo- and simultaneously anthropo-logical impact. Ultimately this leads him to the phrasing of the relation between the invisible and visible dimensions of the Church in terms of "Chalcedon" (cf. Sy I, 143, 152, 401).
This mystical and at the same time "materialist" solution brings us to the second problem the young theologian Möhler still has to deal with: the problem of different confessions. Already in Die Einheit this problem definitely plays some role on the background. That's not surprising, because this work is also written to understand faithfully the way the individual is related to the mystery of the unity of the Church. But the view on the relation between catholicism and other religious parties is not entirely clear in all aspects. When Möhler for instance discusses the question of the function of hereticism -- and there can be no doubt that protestantism for him is "the definite and complete heresy" (E., 461) -- he sometimes seems to suggest that heresy, although it has no positive being in itself, nevertheless has a necessary function; that is to say: along the way of "negative dialectics", analogous to the way along which the consciousness of "evil" is a necessary condition for the coming into existence of the consciousness of what is ultimately good (E., 104). Another time however, he seems to correct this view, stating that heresy does not fullfil a necessary function at all, but that all depends on the freedom of the Church to contrast true faith with the complete negativity of heresy (E., 157). This latter conviction will govern the central views in Symbolik. But apart from this evident necessity to clarify the own position over against protestantism (in its function for catholicism), it is obvious that if a theologian like Möhler is addressing intensely the mystery of the unity of the Catholic Church, precisely by penetrating into the deeper meanings of the external dimensions of the Church, it is quite clear that he has to take account of the existence and the meaning of protestantism; the latter being the group of the most significant religious parties existing outside the factually existing Catholic Church. The "logic" of his thinking pushes him to the confessional problematic. And it is important to realize that from the beginning, say from Die Einheit, the underlying, nevertheless decisive question is which meaning one should give to protestantism in its function for catholicism. So the question is in what way the existence of protestantism can be used to give catholics a more intensive view on the essence of the Catholic Church.
That's one indication concerning the actual intention of Symbolik: Möhler is as a matter of fact not interested in protestantism in itself, but in its function for catholicism.
Even a rather superficial knowledge about the social and (church)political context of the thirties of the nineteenth century in the southwestern part of the German "Länder" can make plausible why Möhlers views on the problem of the confessions evoked so much interest among the educated catholics of his time, and why Symbolik fitted so neatly into the religious climate of those days.
It is not unusual for theologians to look upon the nineteenth century as "the century of the Church". Indeed, never in the history of christianity did the church declare with greater emphasis that her essence, her assigment, her form, her discipline to be of utmost importance; one even thought to serve God and Christ in the best way, mainly by representing the greatness and the authority of the Church. These words are a free characterization of a well-known judgment of Emanuel Hirsch concerning protestant theology in the nineteenth century. But it fits also well the Catholic way of thinking, in particular Möhler's theology.
Now it is of utmost importance to realize, that this rather overstrained theological concentration on the Church has to be interpreted from a macro-sociological view as a reactive attempt to deal with the overall trend towards diminishing relevance of religion for social, cultural and moral life! According to many sociologists of religion, in particular to F.-X. Kaufmann, the self-generation of "christendom" as Church, which implicated the development of doctrinal ecclesiology and the institutional extension of the organization, is the distinctive answer of the main branches of the confessions to the differentiation of society. This insight calls for some clarification.
Already in the eighteenth century a societal differentiation was delineating itself, that is to say a trend to distinguish religion and church at one side, and state, public life, included public morality, at the other side. After the wars of religion the princely rulers and their civil bureaucracies were determined to curtail the secular power of the religions. Secular power wished to employ religion and churches only as far as they were subservient to the absolutist state. Parallel to this politically instigated move toward differentation was going on a form of moral secularization. The idea of tolerance of the Aufklärung for instance not only functioned as a public call for self-restriction of the formerly agressive claims of the main-line religions, as a matter of fact it also promoted the distancing from the claim that religious truth should determine life in all aspects. The temporary climax of this trend was the political and constitutional secularization in the first decade of the century, symbolically represented by the "Reichdeputationshauptschluß" of 1803. It placed a seal on the situation that the churches now definitely were a minor factor in the shaping of society, not only with respect to political society and to legal power, but also with respect to civil society. Particularly in the first three decades of the century the Church was almost completely deprived of institutional instruments for shaping political and public life.
Still more significant for our understanding of the context was that the churches were situated now on one socio-cultural field. Deprived of their political power, and as far as the Catholic Church concerned, seriously stripped of financial support and economic wealth, the churches no longer held a monopoly position on the public field; they simply became competitive institutions on the private field. Although each of the religious parties continued to claim that only by means of the very own church, religious truth was accessible -- also with regard to the life outside the immediate private sphere --, the christian churches found themselves confronted with a common assignment. For they all now had a common relationship with respect to state and to society and its individual members. This structural state of affairs potentially created a situation in which the churches felt themselves pushed to display and to expand their ideology (= theology) and their institutional apparatus, precisely over against each other. In other words: the confessions became "antagonistic partners" (P. Bourdieu). In this climate -- which, to repeat, is approached strictly from a macro-sociological macro-sociological point of view and as a structural effect -- Möhler's Symbolik fits very well.
As far as the specific situation of the Catholic Church concerns, another factor must be added. Although the churches were granted equal rights in the strictly legal sense of the word, the catholic part of the population did not feel equal and emancipated at all. Particularly in Württemberg there was the oft mentioned "Überfremdungsangst" of the catholic population, partly due to the actual social-economic and politic hegemony of the protestants. And of course, there was the "Staatskirchentum", the system of mechanisms by which the semi-absolutist bureaucracies were trying to mold the catholic population into a disciplined religion, loyal to the local state. And we have to consider here, that the state-apparatuses in almost all of the German "Länder" actually were controlled by protestants of a "früh-liberale" descent.
In this situation Symbolik could function not only as a theological work, but also as a churchpolitical work; even, in a indirect way, as a political work. It functioned as a churchpolitical work, because in the debate whether the Church should be free from the repression of the state or free from Rome (the position of the Catholic Aufklärung), it overtly took side in favor of the first position. It functioned as a political work, because the book answered to the need for public cultural self-confidence of the catholic population. The book reassures the readers in many ways that catholicism is the real basis for humanity and civilization, while protestantism, being basically subjectivistic, will inflate itself into the lust for human power, even into self-deification, or, more probably into self-destruction (cf. Sy I, 26f.). We may interpret these convictions as a (church)political message. And we are entitled to assume that although Möhler himself did not have explicit churchpolitical intentions, he nevertheless must have been aware of the latent political function of his work. If we read for instance one of his letters to I. Döllinger from April 1830, just before he started his lectures on Symbolik, we notice the sentence that "our episcopate is a crippled institution". He is pointing at bishop Von Keller, who, according to Möhler and many other austere ultramontanists of those days, did not resist sufficiently the pressure of the "Landesherrliche Verordnung" of the protestant bureaucracy. "We can do no more than to fit out our young theologians with a rightly ecclesiastical mind ...".
That's another indication that Möhler in his "symbolic" intellectual activities probably is not seeking a deeper understanding of protestantism; the book is aimed at the strengthening of catholicism.
Let's add a few comments regarding Möhlers Symbolik in her context.
Differentiation characterizes modernity. Already during Möhler's days however, it took shape in more radical forms than the one between state and church, and between political and clerical interests. There also were signs of differentiation between ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical forms of religiosity. Within the complex and divided world of the Catholic Aufklärung there was a trend toward a strong relativization of dogma, doctrine and ecclesiastical institution in favor of an assumed universal religiosity; often a whole of religious sentiments centered around the inner experience of Jesus Christ or around the moral following of Jesus' way of life. Closely connected with this kind of views often were interconfessional theory and praxis. Now it is quite sure that Möhler's really sharp-edged designation of the doctrinal differences does not allow either a dialectic mediation of the confessions into a higher unity or a reduction of the confessions to some kind of a universal or natural religion (R. Rieger has elaborated this view impressively; and we will notice some manifestations of it below). We may even take Symbolik as an austere rebuttal of both views.
More revealing for our understanding of the function of Symbolik in the context is already indicated: as a matter of fact the "Secularization" of 1803 also signalled the trend that religious truth will have less and less impact on moral life and ethical reflection within the national community. In other words: diffferentation also had consequences for the relation between religiosity and morality. In those days this form of differentiation was felt as a major problem; it was so to say always in the air. And if we read the book while thinking of those worries about the basis of individual and collective morality, we will be really surprised, just because of the fierceness with which Möhler combats this form of differentiation.
Let's try to illustrate his concern -- one may even say: anxiety -- by revealing the structure of the central theological argument which he develops versus protestantism. We'll try to reconstruct his argument on the level of substantial dogmatics.
Möhler is convinced that the all pervading difference ("Urdifferenz") between catholicism and protestantism is located on the level of theological anthropology. Although he is well aware of the fact that Lutheranism theologically focusses on the doctrine of justification, he argues that the false view of the Reformers is due to the false representation of the state of man before the fall. So Möhler himself founds his rebuttal of protestantism and his own representation of anthropology on what we may call his view on the primaeval situation of man.
Now we have to realize that if a theologian brings forward thoughts about a primaeval situation or occurrence -- also if he considers it as a real historical event, as Möhler explicitly does -- we may be pretty sure that these thoughts function as the underpinning and legitimizing of an actual requirement. What is Möhler requirement then?
The structure of Möhlers argument here is that in all three doctrines concerning the primeaval religious situation of man (original justice, fall and original sin, justification) protestantism does not grasp the right relationship between God and man. In particular with regard to original righteousness protestantism does not realize that Adam's complete pleasingness before God, is absolutely impossible for unaided human nature. This relationship must be based on a divine gift, while protestantism, according to Möhler, considers original righteousness to be an element of human nature (Sy I, 64f.). The protestant view brings forward consequences which are in the final analysis theologically impossible. For protestants either are presupposing the fully human pleasingness before God; that's impossible because this view actually denies real human freedom of choice, so it denies the possibility of the fall, and it ultimately even leads to the conviction that God Himself is the original creator of evil; or they are only aware of the complete sinfullness of mankind, reason why they are always on the edge to be precipitated into the abyss of all-pervading pessimism (cf. Sy I, 75, 107, 110, 113, 282f., 287, 292, 296ff.; Sy II, 461, 514f.). Another consequence is that justification -- which for Möhler means the restauration of original righteousness through Jesus Christ (Sy I, 57, 167) -- cannot ever really come into contact with the inner life of man. So justification will always be an external mechanism (Sy I, 175ff.) But man, according to Möhler in the protestant view a fully isolated creature, cannot endure this ultimate deficiency of inner connection with God's grace (and with his Church; cf. Sy I, 470; Sy II, 154f.); which can seduce him -- there's no "her" in this line of thinking -- either to usurp the place of Christ himself (Sy I, 26f.) or to indulge into a fully unwarranted glorification of man's own potentials (Sy I, 468f.). This danger is observed by Möhler in the modern, "früh-liberale" version of protestantism, represented by F. Schleiermacher, and above all by Möhler's harsh opponent F.C. Baur (cf. Sy I, 60f., 297ff., N.U. 121ff.).
The point at stake in this kind of argument comes up whenever we realize that Möhler heaps reproaches upon protestantism, because it is thought, although partly unintendedly, to promote moral antinomism and to undermine the sacred moral order (Sy I, 279-288; cf. 131f., 178ff, N.U. 218ff.); ultimately because protestants separate moral life from religion, and ethical thinking from God's actual grace. A closer analysis of Symbolik reveals that Möhler, in order to clarify his own position, uses two series of theological propositions (which by the way cannot be united according to human logical thinking). One series of propositions aims at the conviction that man is a deficient creature, a morally crippled being, from the beginning relying on structures which mediate God's supernatural grace (read: the Church). By means of the other series of propositions Möhler emphasizes that man nevertheless bears responsibility and culpability for his deeds; he basically is a creature who can be ascribed a verdict of guilty (cf. N.U. 68f., 131f., 175ff.).
It goes without saying that Möhler is addressing a classical theological problem. However, it is useful to realize that seen from the (church)political context, Möhler also serves the interests of the Catholic Church of those days. For as a matter of fact he is constantly suggesting that participation in this church is absolutely necessary for a genuine moral praxis and for ethical reflection. In this respect we may interpret Symbolik as some kind of preparation for the political catholicism which will come to the fore after "1848". The implicit message of the book is that human beings should feel themselves driven to the moral discipline of the Church; only by subordination to its guidance people can learn for instance real humility, the major christian virtue (Sy I, 226, 240).
More important now is that we are confronted with still another indication concerning the actual intention of Symbolik. The book is probably not to be read as an attempt to aim at protestantism in itself, but aims at a deeper understanding of catholicism, viz. as a major force in criticism of the moral situation of Möhler's time.
A short elaboration of the main features of the Symbolik will confirm this intention.
The subtitle of the book is: "Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants, as Evidenced by their Symbolic Writings". This exposition is not carried out from a position outside both confessions. No, according to Möhler it is essential for the Catholic "symbolist" that he is personally involved in catholicism, with all his intellectual, practical and religious potential. This living, personal outlook is precisely what enables him to unify the bare facts into a whole. We may even say that Möhler, as far as his view on religious truth is concerned, anticipates on the concept of "Leben". Which means in this respect that truth is only accessible for those who live in the circle created by the Church. The outline of this circle is measured and determined by the doctrinal authority of the Church. This authority functions as a literally positive, that is to say as an always given guidance for the way the individual believer tries to ascertain the doctrinal content of his faith. The consequence of this concept of religious truth for Möhler is that the individual believer cannot search for the truth. He is not allowed to assume that he is in the possession of the individual freedom of research, that is to say as far as this kind of freedom presupposes the normative idea of the autonomy and independent maturity of the single individual. The believer is already living out of God's grace mediated by the Church, which means that at best he only can penetrate deeper into the given truth. And -- very important -- he finds himself confronted with the ecclesiastical urge to purify the Church from the erring spirit, and to exclude false doctrine.
Now we understand why Möhler approaches protestantism from a heresiological perspective. Being more radical than in Die Einheit, he actually considers protestantism, not as an oppositional phenomenon, that is to say not as a "Gegensatz", an antithesis, but exclusively as a shrill dissonant, an reckless and chaotic contradiction directed at the denial of catholicism itself, a "Widerspruch" (although Möhler does not use the word "Widerspruch" in his Symbolik). With respect to "Gegensätze" we may say that there is some common ground between the opponents; but that's simply not the case whenever there is a "Widerspruch". There are no opponents then, only enemies.
The religious ground for the plain contradiction which, according to Möhler, protestantism apparently is, is the incapacity to acknowledge the principle of incarnation. If we look closely to Möhler's designations on this point, we will notice that he does not address in the first place the way in which protestantism supposedly misunderstands the theological content of this dogma. That is to say, he does not point explicitly at false protestant concepts in the field of substantial christology. No, Möhler is above all interested in the relevance of the incarnation for the way along which real faith can come into existence and endure. He is constantly urging the necessity of the ultimate condition for a faith in which man's inner life really is transformed: the subordination of the believer to the external authority of the Church. Faith can only be real when it is based on a authority which comes from outside and which itself is founded on the divine side (one can find the climax of this argument in sec. 37, viz. Sy I, 395-403).
If we consider that Möhler at one side acknowledges that protestantism arose in the struggle against undeniable wrongs and errors in the Church -- he also admits that individual protestants may be deeply devout, although ultimately theirs is a muddled devotion --, at the other side his objective is clear now: he would understand protestants as they do not understand themselves, that is, as ensnared in factual self-destruction. And this leads to the current interpretation to the effect that Möhler had little interest in confessions, as far as they understand themselves. As romantic-idealist thinker he was quite convinced of the impossibility of absolute, static countertheses. But a comparison with something that is basically nothing, mere negation, is impossible, for life cannot be compared with death. The conclusion, for us here and now can only be that Möhler did not really concern himself with protestantism, but with Catholic self-assertion. Even stronger: Möhler's Symbolik as Catholic self-assertion conducts an operation to shield against and exclude the negative principle.
Let's add some comments to this thesis.
The first relates to this negative principle. Readers of Symbolik will not fail to notice: at stake is the principle of the movement to isolation ("Vereinzelung"). According to Möhler this is the principle of modernity -- a judgment which was and still is not unusual. In his Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts Hegel characterized the modern period by saying that freedom, the property of the mind that it is in-itself-for-itself, is generally recognized. For this relation of the individual to himself, for this subjectivity, Hegel mentions some implications: individualism for instance, that is, the endlessly specific singularity which each must make his own; or the right to criticism, whereby that which is recognized by all should appear warranted to the individual as well; also: the autonomy of subjective moral behavior.
It seems safe to say that Möhler feared this modern configuration of subjectivity. He never tired of harping on the idea that freedom does not mean that the human, hence finite mind, is in-itself-for-itself. In his view, man in his isolated singularity is not in a position to discover his own normative base. When the subject, the isolated christian, would seek to determine this foundation he will lose himself, either in an increasingly alienating past or in the emptiness of a subjectivity ultimately oriented to itself (which, by the way, indicates the ultimate reason why protestantism simply is "an individuality exalted into generality" and why it basically does not know a real Church; cf. Sy I, 26f.). "Heathenish doubt", Möhler holds, and its consequences fill him with fear: uncertainty and "indefiniteness of the mind"/"Unbestimmtheit des Geistes" (Sy I, 397, cf. 399, 354, 487ff., 495). I will return to this briefly later.
The second comment: Möhler's continued orientation to the all pervading difference, together with his intention to understand protestants better than they do in their own self-understanding, leads him automatically to look upon actually existing protestants as no more than a contingently historical Gestalt of the heretical principle of isolation. He notes that protestantism moves toward either the medieval, dualist world view of the gnostics or the world view of pantheistic idealism (Sy I, 292ff.). As he sees it, the modern idealistic philosophical and theological systems, too, are but a consistent continuation of reformational principles. (Sy I, 302). Now, if we consider that Symbolik is a kind of Catholic self-assertion, a shield and fence against the negative principle, we may suspect that Catholicism itself is touched by the principle of isolation. After all, one shuts out just that which, unjustifiably, belongs to one's own existence! To be sure, the text of Symbolik does not directly address internal Catholic heretic phenomena, still, I think that we may suggest that its readers would naturally assume that Möhler also had in mind the Catholic Aufklärung, the opposition within Catholicism, next to other theological projects moving in the direction of modern philosophy. The context renders this expectation plausible, including Möhler's plea as active adversary of the Catholic Aufklärung. In 1828 he still published an extensive polemic, an Illumination of the memorandum regarding abolition of the celibacy as prescribed for the Catholic clergy, in which the rebuttal of subjectivist isolation is a cornerstone of his argument.
My third comment has to do with the theological significance of the Church in connection with Möhler's problem, the status of ecclesiology. Möhler himself, as many commentators note, was primarily concerned with the problem of modern subjectivity. This assertion is correct, but it seems to me not precise enough, since it does not take into account the church. A brief clarification.
Already the Pragmatische Blicke -- a text dating from 1824 printed by Rudolf Reinhardt and edited by Reinhold Rieger, not published by Möhler himself --, shows us that Möhler, in his actual polemic against protestants, primarily addresses themes such as: the status of the Bible, historical biblical research, the immediacy of the individual christian to God. In short, these are themes which touch the core of the access of the isolated believer to divine truth. When we recall that in Symbolik Möhler puts extraordinary emphasis on the requirement that the individual should first of all conform to the external authority of the Church, because this first step in the way of faith is indispensable to inner vital religiosity (Sy I, 482 ff.), then we can say, not only that essentially, in Symbolik, too, the question of the access of the single believer to christian truth is the hidden core, but also that ecclesiology provides the perspective for Möhler's christian anthropology; for an answer to the question as to whether the single individual tied to modernity, can approach Jesus Christ at all. Sad to say, this is not without complication, for it seems to me that we can say that in his Symbolik Möhler goes out of his way to look upon the visible and authoritative Gestalt of the Catholic Church as the theological-transcendental condition, the innerly human necessity for believing access to Christ. And that means that Möhler cuts off the problem of modern subjectivity, precisely because he keeps pointing to the church. This makes the church both presupposition and crown of Möhler's christian anthropology.
4. Aporias of modern subjectivity
With this we are arriving at the core of this considerations ... and near the end of this essay.
As an aside I want to note that when I talk and write about Möhler's criticism of modern subjectivism, most of my Catholic colleagues are likely to reply that they are aware of this. According to them the "old" Catholic theology has a tradition of massive rejection of modernity. They don't take this critique no longer of real interest! Against this I would suggest that this Catholic criticism harbors a sensitivity for the aporias of modernity, and it is this that I want to draw out.
The problem of modern subjectivity leads to aporias for the isolated individual. Above we noted that Möhler is particularly sensitive to this, as when he finds in protestants the propensity to lose themselves either in the historical past or in the inner self in their quest for ultimate certainty of faith. The state of affairs does remind me of Michael Foucault and Reinhart Koselleck. I'll give an sketchy impression of some of their insights.
One apparently widespread insight of Foucault is that modernity does not refer only to processes like rationalization, urbanization, industrialization etc., but must primarily be associated with the way in which we, on the preconscious and prelinguistic level, relate to reality and to that which is true, good, and reliable. The idea is -- I must simplify -- that prior to the so-called anthropological revolution the correlation between thought and language on the one hand, and the world on the other was theologically and metaphysically secured. The will of God was the divine guarantee that "representation" was at the same time the ontological center where thought and language and the world are in essential agreement.
But with the advent of transcendental thought, or better, with the prior differentiation between the experiencing, representing, thinking subject and objectivity, almost all thinking fixed its attention on the capacity and greatness of subjectivity, whereby to the degree that the subject came to be seen as a pure and self-related entity, the so-called objective world became more chaotic, the initially optimistically valued domain for human intervention.
According to Foucault -- and according to many modern philosophers -- something quite remarkable in fact occurred. On the one hand the human subject takes on divine traits because he is considered capable of determining, not only that which is good and true but also objectivity. The subject is the master of chaos especially in matters social, since according to many thinkers reality is socially construed. On the other hand, the word "chaos" hints at an indeterminate, but nonetheless real anxiety. For, Foucault says, the subject becomes caught in aporias because the individual is aware of the never-ending task to control chaos (to construe objectivity); he is also aware of his below-the-surface links with chaos. The subject is not only a transcendental master; the very moment he successfully imposes a satisfying order on reality, yes, as soon as a secret part of the subject reflects cognitively on another part and so attains self-knowledge, even then the experience of entrapment in the world remains. Our body, language and labor are intertwined with the world, which is not -- modern man would say: not yet -- the domain of consciously reflexive subjectivity. Thus, the modern individual is confronted with an unbearable aporia. The subject is sovereign lord, though enchained. Moreover, he is dangerous, inclined to exploit his sovereignty -- even if to no avail -- to the extreme, or else to submit to anything other and unknown, in resentment. With Foucault, we can distinguish three aspects to the aporias of modern subjectivity. I will mention them briefly and in each case indicate how Möhler confronts the aporias with an appeal to the authority of the Church.
a) The first aporetic aspect was mentioned earlier. According to Foucault this has to do with the aporia between the transcendental and the empirical or historical; the situation in which the subject constructs his environment according to human criteria and at the same time continues to depend on that in the empirical and historical field which somehow transcends the human. Many are therefore the attempts to invent a space where the subject is both transcendental and empirical-historical.
Well, as noted, Möhler is in Symbolik on the way to think of the empirical-visible church as a transcendental configuration for the individual believer. Möhler does not use the term "transcendental". But many statements point to it; at least to the closely connected notion that being part of the church, as he wrote in a letter to Otto von Lassaulx (May 1834), agrees with the true and profound human need. And in Symbolik he points out, for instance, that the idea of opposing the church evokes resistance deep within the believer, and also that the idea of a church community is identical to the innate religious-ethical task of every individual -- Möhler emphasizes the word "ethical" (Sy I, 392). Möhler is not precise here; for example, he refers to the relationship between the individual and the church with a remark about "a miraculous, mysterious, never completely unraveled interwovenness" of the singular person with humanity (Sy I, 403). Still, this suffices to assume that, according to Möhler, every individual already has, as it were ontologically founded, an essential relationship with the church, so that conversely the church community unlocks the true inner core of man. And precisely because the church as transcendental reality always already resides in the subject, joining the visible church and sharing the life of the church can only be an act of freedom, for the individual acts in harmony with his essence. In this way Möhler neutralizes the aporia via the church, because the subject can both legitimately freely desire a context made to human measure, and submit to the external authority of the church.
b) The second aporia concerns the contradiction between the mastery sought by objective thought and that which cannot be thought at all: the cogito and the unthought.
Psychologically speaking, the aporia comes out for instance in the virtually universally human experience that, when we go in search of the conditions and the sources of our own existence, we run into aspects and factors which, as it were, keep escaping our cognitive grasp. In other words: at issue is the aporia between that which can be experienced and the "other" on which we have no hold although we are aware that this "other" is uncommonly important for truth.
Once again, the authority of the Church offers the believer an opportunity to cope with this difficulty. It does this already in a general sense, since for Möhler the Church is a fully human, visible and hence knowable institution; it is completely open to research on the part of a form of modern empirical theology. On the other hand, the authority of the Church assures us that she, in this recognizable form, mediates "our other", the "other" which ultimately carries and envelops us.
More specifically, Möhler informs the readers of Symbolik that a merely worldly knowledge of man's self and his common world is impossible: "For it is part of the fate of the man estranged from God, that he becomes a stranger to himself, neither knowing what he was nor what he will be" (Sy I, 57; cf. Sy II, 364). In other words, only a vague, piecemeal awareness of "the other of us" is left. And it is precisely the message proclaimed via the authority of the Church which genuinely throws a person back upon himself; that is, in the Church the individual human being and "the other which is part of him" come together; and this is how modern aporetics finds an equilibrium.
Presumably this also indicates the basic reason why the Church appeases the modern restlessness which (according to many thinkers, including Hegel) arises from this aporetic aspect. This restlessness is usually traced back to the two-sided image of modern man: the image of the self-assured, who knows he is the center of all determination, which is the self-assurance of a ruler; and the image of doubt, often intensified to despair, when a person encounters that which is extremely important but beyond reach: the one in chains. The "normal" consequence of this two-sidedness would be a restless pursuit, an ongoing striving to overcome doubt. For Möhler the authority of the Church intervenes. For example, he demands that with respect to scientific exegesis the believer simply acknowledges that the essence of the Church's doctrine of faith and morality is authentically biblical. The reason is Möhler's worry that if this were not the case, the believer would stir himself up in a frenzied and endless search (cf. Sy I, 439 ff).
c) The third and last aspect of the aporetics of modern subjectivity concerns the experience of time, the relation of the isolated subject to the past and to the future.
The modern aporia in this context is, to use the words of Reinhart Koselleck, that on the one hand experience has become trivial that history is made and will be made by people; on the other hand history has its own power, so that we increasingly experience that history is beyond experience.
The idea is that in pre-modern times, the past constituted, as it were, a framework of potential experience, filled with exemplary models, transmitted through stories of marvellous achievements and great figures which, one might say, pre-structured all experience. The idea is, further, that pre-modern anxieties regarding the future were put to rest by the Church, since religion keeps alive the expectation of the coming end of the world, together with the experience of the present world as evidently a time of grace. But when experience became temporal -- i.e. with the rise of an awareness of the continuous dynamism of relationships, and most importantly, with the historical consciousness that every thing, every animal, every human being and every age has its own unique rhythm of rise and fall -- the premodern vision came to its end. In modern times two affective basic attitudes to time developed (or so the highly speculative idea goes): the one is full of hope because the modern, liberated history opens a perspective on the unknown and mankind receives, as it were, the task of planning the future. The other basic attitude is pessimistic because insight into the unique historicity of experience effects greater distance to the past and disruption of hopeful planning.
However that may be, I suggest that Möhler's Symbolik presents the Church as the encompassing space where this aporia, too, is neutralized. Let us take, for example, Möhler's view regarding the ecclesiastical tradition in the subjective sense of the word (Sy I, 415-418). Möhler develops his conception in the framework of his ecclesiology, where his intention is to show how the authority of Holy Writ as "mediation" of the authority of Jesus Christ can have validity for us in the ongoing dynamic of history. For Möhler this is a very important question because it is the incarnation of the Logos which confers meaning and order on history. At stake in Möhler's brief exposition of the tradition in the subjective sense of the word is the transmission of a christian consensus which does not only, so to speak, surround the individual but infiltrates him entirely. The point is that in submission to the authority of Christ, mediated through this ecclesiastical consensus, the historical past of Jesus never becomes foreign to the individual: the tradition of the Church turns the past into an eternal present ("eine ewig dauernde Gegenwart", cf. Sy I, 353ff.). In this way the Church copes with even this aporia.
Möhler's position is summarized by himself in this striking refutation of his opponent's reproaches: "I hear the words spoken with contempt: Nothing but Church, Church, Church; and I replied: it is like this and it can not be otherwise, because without Church there is no Christ for us, no Holy Writ."
If we consider the (church)politicial context in which Möhler was writing, I guess we can understand this statement, feel sympathy for it. If we however ask in what way this statement is significant for the actual situation, we have to realize that Möhler's majestic view on the Church can be seen as just one moment in a social process; a process which reaches from the thirties in the nineteenth century till the sixties of our century. It was a process in which the confessions were trying to cope with differentiation and secularization. The lesson theology can learn from the sociology of religion is that this social process showed up a form of "Verkirchlichung": the confinement of religion to the institutional church, which for many European catholics eventually leaded to the sacralisation of the institutional structures of the Catholic church. We can no longer live with this image of the Catholic church. Neither can we live today with the Symbolik as a general and total unmasking of protestant theology. The point of this essay is that Möhler's significance does not have to do with his answers regarding Church and confessions. His significance has to do with the underlying, mostly not clearly expressed questions he wished to answer (by means of clarifying catholicism and opposing protestantism). These questions point at the lacerating aporias of our modern and postmodern subjectivity. His significance concerns his intuitive apprehension of those ever actual aporias.
The English pages of the Bezinningscentrum (including other articles by Anton van Harskamp): English site
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