Anne Carpenter was kind enough to give NINS some insight into her new book Nothing Gained is Eternal (Fortress, 2022), where she provides a refreshing metaphysical perspective on the topic of Christian Tradition.
What was the inspiration for your book?
I think, at one angle, I have always been intrigued by Catholic history and how it funds tradition without being identical with tradition. The Catholic past is very interesting to me. And yet, for Catholics, tradition is not the past. That is a curious idea to insist upon, one that I wanted to understand. But I think, from another angle, I like getting into the undercurrents of Catholic theological disputes. I want to know about the things that we are not quite saying. And, at least in a Catholic context, tradition is always a problem, always the thing not-quite-said. I think this is true even when tradition is theology’s explicit concern, which it often is for Catholics. So, I wanted to organize those concerns, clarify them, give a point of view that synthesizes various Catholic achievements from the last couple of centuries. That was one reason why it felt important to begin my discussion of Catholic tradition without rehearsing Vatican II, John Henry Newman, the Tübingen Catholics, the Modernist controversy, and so on. The rehearsal would only conceal what the rehearsal had not noticed about itself. We had to begin again, as Charles Péguy might say, in order to be able to cohere our achievements and move them forward.
Was there anything that surprised you along the way as you were writing the book?
I think that I was constantly surprised at how Black thinkers could illuminate the Ressourcement-associated thinkers in the book. I rewrote those sections a great deal because I was trying to figure out how to discuss colonialism and racism intelligently without making them into ghostly agents that “do” things without human agents. It was my goal to bring together my Ressourcement background and Black thought. Even so, it was surprising to me, how well these two “sides” could speak to one another, the one side very new to me (Black criticism of Christian tradition) and the other more familiar. They turned out not to be two sides at all. That was my most fundamental misunderstanding, which I constantly had to get rid of. So, I worked hard to speak to them all together. At one point in the book, Maurice Blondel comments on Charles Péguy with M. Shawn Copeland’s and Willie Jennings’s help. They all come alive by working together to describe Christian tradition and the concrete universe that it occurs in, that it serves—and that, in an ambiguous sense, it creates. That coordination of difference was, for me, the most surprising experience. I had escaped the claws of pure dialectic to my own astonishment.
The nature of tradition is a big topic right now. How do you see your book fitting into the overall discussion?
I think that, on the one hand, I assemble all the major features of tradition that Catholics have managed to affirm over the past 250 years. The book gives a “picture” of something that Catholics will find familiar, and that will help the discussion by being a kind of status questionis (state of the question). I think that is a very useful feature of the book.
But, I also do some unusual things, like turn away from the specific historical contestations that shape how Catholics have affirmed what they affirm. My focus is on metaphysics and heuristic structures instead of doctrines, councils, liturgies, and other, more typical ways into the problem of tradition in a Catholic context. I spend a lot of time explaining why I am taking a step backward from practicality into theory and into the universe of abstraction. It is, I am convinced, helpful to take this step. But it instantly recalibrates the argument in the book and the discussions it has. Many familiar things receive only a reference because I am trying to get under the skin of reality in all its concrete urgency in order to say what holds it together.
I also speak-together my argument with the insights and works of Black thinkers: M. Shawn Copeland, Willie Jennings, and James Baldwin. That is the truly unusual thing, in the sense that it is unusual for people with my background and with my interests. I do this old-fashioned work with more or less familiar Catholic theologians, but I also work to do this work with attention to Black thought. I think about the impact of Christian sin, especially colonialism, on Christian tradition. I think about this impact from its “underside,” from a perspective on the modern world that is hidden, interior, and necessary. I chose these three Black writers to help me do that. I read much more than them, but if I was going to give Bernard Lonergan or Maurice Blondel my full attention as unique individuals, then I wanted to do that with Black thought too.
Each chapter begins with a poem. Can you tell us a little about these poems and how you use poetry in your theological writing in general?
Each “poem” at the beginning of each chapter is a stanza in a complete poem. That completed poem sits at the very end of the book. It is called “Notre-Dame on Fire.” I had written it as the completed version at the end originally a few months after the actual burning of Notre-Dame Cathedral, which had moved me profoundly—but in an odd way that reminded me about how one day I would die and face a trembling hour before the gaze of God. This knowledge, which is frightening or at least intimidating, also comforted me. The poem takes up that reaction and gives it a different, more apocalyptic life. The poem struck me as a description of a faith that trusts and believes, and that endures the perplexing losses and struggles of human history. That was what my book was “about” on an emotional or spiritual level, so, even though I wrote it before the book, it seemed to fit. I showed it to my editor once we had the cover figured out, and he came up with the idea of splitting it across the chapters. I liked that very much. It helped the book feel like a coherent argument not just from an intellectual perspective, but also as a kind of spiritual journey.
My first book was about metaphysics and language in theology according to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being, University of Notre Dame, 2015). I read a good deal of poetry for that book, and the book also functions as an argument for how theology can have metaphysical commitments and borrow from the style of the arts, including poetry. Much of my work is still in this vein, in a “theological aesthetics” pattern. So, I still read poets and try to borrow and adapt their insights and ways of speaking. I also do a lot of metaphysics, which is true in this book as well.
You mention that “theology has grasped that tradition is a verb” (xiii). How do you see the difference between thinking of tradition as a verb vs. viewing tradition as a noun?
Catholics debate about this difference quite often. Is tradition a kind of treasury whose wealth our task is to preserve, or is tradition an activity that “keeps” things by living according to them? There are elements of Catholic tradition that lean on the treasury analogy, but the majority thought about tradition views it as action or life. Vatican II’s Dei Verbum emphasizes life. What that means, of course, is “really” the debate.
The strength of a verbal understanding of tradition is obvious even in my contrast above: there is connective tissue linking present Christian life and its original reception of Jesus Christ in history, a “keeping” that is itself a kind of presence to, and with, Christ in one’s ordinary life. It is not that there is nothing to keep; it is that the keeping is only kept in its actual living out by living Christians. This present keeping also means other things—such as how Christian practice, especially in the sacraments, that is, a normative experience of the work of God in Christ—and this makes it possible for the Church to communally look backward at its own history and interpret it according to that experience. Maurice Blondel insists, therefore, that the Church has a certain mastery over both its own historical existence and its texts that is not summarized by either historical facts nor texts. He is saying, at least in part, that the life of tradition is intelligent, and not “intelligent” as a series of very-smart artifacts to keep (which we often mean when we use phrases like “Catholic intellectual tradition”), but “intelligent” as a present activity that actively works itself out. In Blondel’s way of speaking, dogma is literally practiced.
I think that tradition feels more real if we think it as a noun, as a “what” that is over there, a thing that we can measure up to by properly assenting to and imitating. Tradition has this reassuring otherness in this kind of schema, and it is not wholly in error for desiring that. But, it is based on an intellectual mistake that perplexes being and matter, or existence and concepts. The intellectual error readily becomes practical self-parody: Catholics and others compete over being the most medieval instead of being the most holy or Christ-like. But, if tradition is instead a body of intelligent action, then even the past comes alive when I imitate its reason for coming to be—and not otherwise. Nor is that past the central question for Christian tradition anymore. The central question has to do with a normative experience that is not far away in the past, but that is “here,” present in Christ’s presence to the Church in the Spirit. The otherness of Jesus Christ may well be hidden by present Christian obtuseness, but he is not far away, and the press of his grace into a world beyond our nescience is not far away, either.
Can you explain what you mean when you say that your theory of tradition is a “metaphysic” of tradition?
One of my major endeavors is to ask about the operations (this is a Scholastic term: activities with objects) of Christian tradition instead of asking about the content of Christian tradition. Historically speaking, Christians—or at least theologians—become aware of the risks of tradition when it has to do with content, especially doctrine. I wanted to step away from this custom so that we could struggle about it better. That “stepping away” is a shift toward the problem of the being (the existing) of tradition. What are the operations by which tradition exists?
My answer is fourfold: history, mediation, time, God. Each operation receives its own chapter so that I can organize and explain what I mean by each. They build on each other. History is human action, mediation is human intelligence acting (here is history again) according to divine truth, temporality involves the intelligent enactment (history and truth again) of renewal, and Christ is the divine Logos (truth) acting in the world (history) in order to renew it (time). With these larger operations in place, the stakes of problems like doctrine or ecclesial division can be clarified. That part is not work that I directly do. It is work that my book can help others do. My last chapter gestures in a few of these directions.
What are some of the challenges you see for today’s church in talking about the church’s lengthy, and sometimes convoluted, tradition?
I think that the Church’s history is quite convoluted, and that this history can make discerning and acting according to Christ (which tradition “is”) quite difficult, but I would not call Christian tradition—in this strict sense—convoluted or even lengthy. In a lot of ways, our challenge is to remember that Christian tradition is the cooperation between thought and grace in the life of the Christian, to again paraphrase Blondel. That is the action of tradition summarized in its entirety, and it is entirely and continually renewed in each of our lives. Knowing this both raises and lowers the stakes of wrestling with our convoluted and necessarily contingent history: the stakes are about the infusion of the grace of Christ in our lives, and in a secondary sense about our history. We can even judge the latter according to the former. That judgment is indeed necessary and renewing. Thank God, therefore, that Christian tradition is not a game of “telephone” across two-thousand years.
But, our history is two-thousand years old, and it is riddled with Christian sin. Our concrete situation is one that is perplexed in a quite technical and formal way by the irrationality of our sins, whether those sins are past or present. It makes our discernment of Christ incredibly challenging, and I would say superhuman: beyond our natural power to deal with. As Lonergan points out, more reason does not treat the irrationality of sin. Treating sin requires divine charity and supernatural grace. This makes our present experience of Christ not only normative, but also necessary, and necessarily redemptive. The renewal of tradition is also a redemption of its concrete, sinful situations.
You mention the beauty of a “living tradition.” What does it mean for a tradition to live, and how do you see its beauty?
I think that some of that beauty shows up in a few of my answers already. But let me take up the idea I left off with in my last answer as a sort of example of what it means to live tradition beautifully. In a practical way, we are often—and this is natural—divided into various camps that attack the various problems of tradition and its concrete historical situations in different ways. There are those who claim for themselves reform or perhaps renewal; there are those who claim for themselves preservation or perhaps seeking sources; there are those who seize on discontinuity; there are those who seize on continuity; and so on. Really, they are treating the same concrete situation, but the fragments of that situation, which has been fragmented by sin.
If beauty is a kind of wholeness, even a wholeness that must be somehow alive or illuminating, then a living tradition is that wholeness that can span the fragments of concrete situations by organizing them in a new way. That new organizing gesture is, I insist in my book, the divine “for us” (pro nobis) of Christ on the cross. This “for us” is that graced quality of the soul that gives to us the theological virtues: self-sacrificing charity, faith, and hope. The “for us” of the cross, given us in baptism, is new because it contains and even emerges in each of the fragments but is not reducible to any of them. It organizes these fragments with new meaning and therefore the possibility of new action. Tradition affirms the “for us” of Jesus Christ in an original gesture, made today, a gesture that bears in itself the past and the future, penance and hope, truth and faith. We enfold our present situation, the tragic and lovely present of Christian tradition, with what stands above both: the heart of Jesus Christ, poured out.
Thank you so much!
You are most welcome! Thanks for interviewing me!
Nothing Gained is Eternal is available for purchase through Fortress Press’s website. If you’re interested in purchasing the book, the following link will direct you to the purchasing portal:
Anne M. Carpenter holds the Danforth Chair in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. She is the author of Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being (2015). Her writings have appeared in numerous scholarly and popular publications, including Modern Theology, Nova et Vetera, and Church Life Journal.