Jean Daniélou and Humanity’s True Vocation

An interview with Marc C. Nicholas, author of Jean Danielou’s Doxological Humanism

Although not as well-known today as his fellow Jesuit Henri de Lubac and theological contemporary Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Daniélou holds an important place in twentieth-century Catholic theology, recognized for his dialogue with other world religions, his writings on the Church Fathers and Scripture, and his insights into the nature of divine revelation and Tradition. Trained in philology––the study of classical languages––and theology, Daniélou was a professor at the Institut Catholique in Paris and a vital member of the controversial “New Theology”, or ressourcement, movement. However, relatively little has been written about Daniélou’s theological project and vision. Now, in his book, Jean Daniélou’s Doxological Humanism : Trinitarian Contemplation and Humanity’s True Vocation (Wipf & Stock, 2012), Marc C. Nicholas has taken up the task of providing an overview of Daniélou’s theology, with “with extensive reference to his vast corpus of writings by highlighting what seems to be the key to his thought: that all human beings were made for contemplation and that one is only truly human when one exercises this innate calling in a Trinitarian fashion.”

CWR: For those who might not be very familiar with him, who was Jean Daniélou? What were some of his notable achievements as a writer, scholar and theologian?

Nicholas: Jean Daniélou (1905-1974) was a French Jesuit priest who was a prolific scholar and theologian who taught at the Institut Catholique in Paris from 1944-69, was a peritus (“expert”) at the Second Vatican Council and was named a cardinal in 1969.

When looking at Daniélou as a scholar-theologian and writer concerning Christian spirituality, it is important to remember that each of these disciplines flows from the other. It would be an error to trifurcate his thought into separate domains. He was always at pains to maintain the interrelatedness of theology, history and spirituality.

With that in mind, Daniélou made significant contributions in the areas of Church history, theology and spirituality. In the academic world, Daniélou is perhaps most well-known for his expertise in the history of the Church during the earliest centuries of Christianity. His writings on the development of doctrine, on the great events of early Christianity and on the great theologians of the patristic period enjoy considerable prestige because of their value for the historian of the Church.

Also, Daniélou is well known for his endorsement of the ressourcement adage, ad fonts, or “return to the sources” which sought to reconnect contemporary Catholicism with the great Christian sources of the past. To this point, Daniélou, along with Henri de Lubac, established the Sources Chretienne series in France which inspired other non-francophone attempts to make the Church Fathers accessible to the greater reading public.

Of lasting importance is Daniélou’s defense of the Church’s traditional teaching concerning the “spiritual interpretation” (Daniélou specifically argues for typological) of the Christian Scriptures. In his The Bible and the Liturgy and From Shadows to Reality, Daniélou maintains that the modern tendency to limit the interpretation of the biblical texts to the literal-historical meaning of the text—which modern historical-critical methodology does—is a serious breach of tradition and violates a holistic understanding of the text which was protected by the spiritual interpretation of texts.

Lastly, Daniélou is well-known as one of the catalysts to the Novelle Théologie (a label given to Daniélou and his confreres by his theological opponents) which emphasized a return to the earliest Christian sources as a way to renew theology, a revival of the historical nature of Catholicism and a rejection of the notion that the Neo-Thomism of the 19th and 20th centuries was the sole arbiter of Catholic doctrine.

CWR: Your book begins by outlining a significant “split between theology and spirituality.” What is that split, how did it come about, and how does Daniélou address it?

Nicholas: At the outset, it is important to note that the earliest theologians of the Church were pastors as well as theologians. Daniélou saw that these individuals were models of the unity of Christian living and the elucidation of theological truth. Following the oft-quoted phrase of Evagrius Ponticus that “the one who prays is a theologian and the one who is a theologian prays,” Daniélou argued that those who represented the totality of Christian life manifested this unity of spirituality and theology. This continued to be true for centuries. However, with the rise of Scholastic theology in the middle ages, a new theological methodology was forged which enabled a wedge to be driven between theology and spirituality. While such great thinkers such as Thomas, Bonaventure and Albert the Great were able to keep continuity between these aspects of Christianity, lesser theologians pried theological methodology apart from its concomitant spirituality. By the 13th century, the philosophical bases of theology had taken over the process of theological discourse and had taken over the entire work of theology. It is not surprising that in the modern period this division between theology and spirituality begun in medieval scholasticism is picked up by the Thomist revival of Neo-Scholasticism in the first half of the 20th century, a group of theologians to which Daniélou was radically opposed.

Daniélou responds to this phenomenon in his famous essay “Les orientations presents de la pensée religieuse.” In it, Daniélou maintains that a “spiritual theology” must be formed through a variety of ways. Of utmost importance, the essay develops the need for renewal in the arena of biblical, patristic and liturgical studies; an engagement of contemporary philosophy; and an insistence on the importance of contact with daily life. By emphasizing these aspects of Christianity, Daniélou saw the revival of a Christianity which was not a theology “fixed high upon a speculative and atemporal plane” nor a spirituality which consisted “solely of practical counsels divorced from the vision of man that justified such counsel.” Rather, he saw a Christianity which created “integrated personalities” who kept theology and spirituality in perpetual balance.

CWR: What is “doxological humanism,” and in what way does it express the theological project taken up by Daniélou?

Nicholas: For Daniélou, humanity’s spiritual aspect is a fundamental human characteristic. We are created as creatures of prayer and adoration. Therefore, Daniélou never tired of maintaining that “A city which does not possess churches as well as factories is not fit for [people]. It is inhuman.” A society which does not account for humanity’s spiritual reality is not a true humanism but a humanism which destroys humanity rather than making it what it was created to be. The human person qua human is only able to find true happiness when he realizes that he has a vocation which is realized in worship, adoration and contemplation. Since humanity’s true nature is found in adoration, Daniélou’s humanism is based in doxology, i.e. worship.

CWR: According to Daniélou, what is the relationship between sacred and profane history? How should Christians approach and understand history?

Nicholas: For Daniélou, there is a certain sense in which sacred history and profane history are independent of each other. Profane (pro fanum, “outside the sanctuary”) history carries the usual associations of history and constitutes “the whole period of this world’s existence.” Sacred history, for its part, entails not only this normal meaning of history, but also entails all of God’s activity before the creation of the world, his irruption into human history and his activity when all things have come to an end.

While maintaining the distinctness of each of these, he also argues that one must understand that the relationship between sacred and profane history is two-fold: 1) that sacred history falls within profane history, and 2) that secular history falls within sacred history. The interrelatedness of these two historical domains provides the historian with a “total history” which accounts for the contextual nature of Christian history and the pedagogical nature of sacred history.

CWR: What insights does Daniélou provide into the challenges posed by the contemporary, largely secular, and “technical” society? What does he think is necessary for the Church to pursue her mission in the world today?

Nicholas: Importantly, Daniélou notes that contemporary society does not provide sufficient conditions for contemplation. Indeed, not only are those conditions absent, but the frenetic pace of the modern world actively militates against the leisure required for the development of a robust Christian spirituality. For him, technical society brings about a change in the very rhythm of human existence necessary for a full humanity. One aspect of the wisdom of monastic regulae was being afforded the appropriate amount of time, solitude and silence that allowed for the apprehension of the presence of God.

Secular society sees the leisure of contemplation as inefficient, as a waste of “human resources” and therefore something to be eliminated. An aspect of Christianity’s mission within the political domain is to strive to create a society that makes contemplation possible, to create a society not only with places of work but also with places of praise and adoration.

CWR: One of Daniélou’s most important books is Prayer as a Political Problem, which you describe as a “provocative little work.” What is most provocative about it? How, exactly, is prayer a political problem?

Nicholas: In a society that often maintains that religious practice must remain a matter of private experience and be wholly absent from public discourse, it is easy to see that Daniélou’s small volume would provoke the ire of many in our contemporary setting. But, it is important to recognize two aspects of what Daniélou demands that we recognize. First, if part of the concern of politics is to safeguard the complete development of the human person including his spiritual life, then politics should provide the means by which to realize this development. Since Daniélou argues that prayer is a necessary dimension of the full development of the human person, it is in turn necessary that prayer be a “political problem.” If politics does not provide for this it will become inhuman by eviscerating the humanism it seeks to create.

CWR: Pope Francis made headlines and provoked some controversy when he spoke, shortly after his election, about his desire of a “poor Church for the poor.” Yet that particular image, or notion, is an ancient one and it is discussed at length by Daniélou, is it not? What does Daniélou say about “a Church for the poor”?

Nicholas: Daniélou has quite a particular idea in mind when he speaks of the “Church of the poor” which he speaks of in numerous places. He believes that we need to distinguish two notions in order to understand this idea. For him the first notion (which he contrasts to the “Church of the poor”), is the idea of a pure church of saints and martyrs that functions as a sign or a witness to the corrupt world. This notion is quite common in many Protestant denominations and has cropped up within the Catholic Church in different eras throughout church history. Daniélou contrasts this to the “mixed” notion of the Church espoused by Augustine of Hippo and others: the Church composed of both saints and sinners rather than only a spiritual elite. The patristic image of the Church as a net thrown out into the waters of the world which catches both good and bad fish is operative in Daniélou’s understanding of the church of the poor. For, the Church of the poor is not an institution characterized by its relative lack of wealth but a Church that is composed of all people to which the gospel is extended. This is the Church of the masses made open to all whatever the nature of their poverty whether it be material or spiritual.

CWR: You note that the 20th century witnessed a number of great Catholic thinkers who explored and expressed humanism at odds with modern, secular humanism. How did Daniélou contribute to that project and what has been his influence?

Nicholas: In recent history, humanism in general came to be associated with the particularly atheistic brand of humanism and unfortunately it was erroneously thought that Christianity and humanism were at odds with each other. The reality of the matter was that two kinds of humanism—the atheistic and the theistic—were seeking to raise humanity to its proper stature either through a rejection of God or through an emphasis on the divine origin of humanity respectively. Thus we have two humanisms vying to be the “true humanism.” Ultimately, as Benedict XVI consistently demonstrated, atheistic humanism in the end turns against humanity rather than elevating humanity leaving Christian humanism as the only humanism to rightly bear the name.

It is a boon to the Catholic Church that some of its theologians were responsible for the “return of Christian humanism” in the 20th century. Each of these Catholic humanists—Jacques Maritain, Henri de Lubac, John Paul II and Benedict XVI to name a few—brought their own thought to bear on Catholic humanism in general. Daniélou’s contribution to this humanist revival was to emphasize the idea that to deny the contemplative aspect of every human being is to deny a basic human trait and therefore to limit its ability to achieve its full stature.

CWR: For those who have not read much or any of Daniélou’s works, what do you recommend?

Nicholas: My first exposure to Daniélou came in the form of Eerdmans’ inclusion of Daniélou’s Prayer: The Mission of the Church in their Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought series. Though a slim volume, it touches upon many of the prevailing themes of Daniélou’s thought and provides a nice entrée into many of the themes that arise in other more substantial works.

Daniélou’s The Bible and the Liturgy provides his thoughts about “spiritual interpretation” of the Bible and the biblical roots of the liturgy. As an adult convert to Catholicism, this work was instrumental in my conversion so it holds a place of honor for me personally.

Perhaps my favorite is another small volume, God’s Life in Us. In it, Daniélou shows the reader how the Christian life is inherently Trinitarian and shows how God draws the Christian into the life of the trinity.

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.