Recovering the Cosmos: The theological and spiritual vision of Fr. Louis Bouyer

A conversation with Dr. Keith Lemna, the author of The Apocalypse of Wisdom: Louis Bouyer’s Theological Recovery of the Cosmos, about “one of the most comprehensive theologians of the twentieth century.”

Dr. Keith Lemna is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Benedictine-run Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Southern Indiana, where he has taught for nearly a decade, having previously taught at The Catholic University of America, Belmont Abbey College, and Saint Joseph College in Indiana. He has published scholarly articles in several journals, including Nova et VeteraCommunioInternational Catholic ReviewInternational Philosophical Quarterly, and Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, and has contributed to The New Catholic Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy, and the collection Jesus Christ: The New Face of Social Progress (Eerdmans, 2014).

Angelico Press recently published The Apocalypse of Wisdom: Louis Bouyer’s Theological Recovery of the Cosmos, Dr. Lemna’s detailed study of the prolific and influential French theologian, focusing especially on the book Cosmos.

Dr. Lemna recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about the book.

CWR: For those who might not know much about the French Catholic Oratorian priest and theologian Louis Bouyer, what are some key facts about his life, thought, and theological work? And where does he stand—in terms of importance and influence—among theologians of the past century?

Dr. Keith Lemna: Louis Bouyer was one of the most comprehensive theologians of the twentieth century. He wrote seminal works on Scripture, liturgy, spirituality, ecumenism, and dogmatic/systematic theology. He was also an important scholar of Newman and wrote a spiritual biography of the great English Oratorian cardinal and theologian that helped encourage a shift in perception of Newman in European ecclesial circles that eventually played a role in enabling the saint’s canonization.

It is difficult to gauge Bouyer’s influence precisely, because it may be exercised largely in an indirect manner. His work at the very least anticipated some of the important reforms of the Second Vatican Council in regard to liturgy, scriptural interpretation, ecclesiology, and even anthropology.

Hans Urs von Balthasar promoted his books and translated some of them into German. Pope Benedict XVI was influenced by some of his writings on liturgy and once referred to Bouyer as “a mind of a very special character.” Pope Paul VI read several of his books and once recommended him to the Roman clergy, along with Henri de Lubac and Charles Journet, as a contemporary theologian whose theology can be of great help for priests in understanding dogma and nourishing their preaching and contemplation. Interestingly, Flannery O’Connor greatly admired his books and even reviewed some of them. I think that Bouyer’s liturgical, monastic, and Eucharistic theology exercised a real influence on some eminent contemporary French philosophers/theologians, such as Jean-Luc Marion and Jean-Yves Lacoste. Certainly, Bouyer was a great influence on Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, who was a spiritual mentor for these latter figures and a person of historical importance.

Bouyer was, along with Fr. Bernard Botte, O.S.B., one of the redactors of the second Eucharistic Prayer of the Catholic liturgy—as readers of his Memoirs know all too well! His 1945 book The Paschal Mystery brought the language of “paschal mystery” into the common parlance of the Church, a fact about which he was more than a little ambivalent, to say the least.

My view as an unrepentant systematic theologian is that Bouyer’s most important work is a nine-volume overview of dogmatic theology, in three trilogies, that covers the classic themes of theology from the perspective of a theology of wisdom influenced by the Russians Vladimir Soloviev, Pavel Florensky, and Sergei Bulgakov.

CWR: Your book focuses on Bouyer’s book Cosmos: The World and the Glory of God, published in 1982 in French and published in English in 1988. Why that book? What is unique or significant about it—both on its own and in the rather large scope of Bouyer’s work?

Dr. Lemna: I did not first read Louis Bouyer and then try to figure out what I wanted to write about him. As a doctoral candidate, I wanted to address the topic of theological cosmology in my dissertation, and it was in this context that I discovered Bouyer. Cosmos was the first book of his that I read. It is the sixth volume in his aforementioned dogmatic trilogies. As the final volume of his first two trilogies, it possesses a summative character.

Jean-Luc Marion has said that it is in this book especially that we see that Bouyer’s thought has “a breadth, a space, and a breath” that few theologians have had since the Patristic Age. I was deeply intrigued by it almost from the beginning and could find nothing else like it.

The book is relatively small and appeared to me at first glance to be purely historical and encyclopedic. However, a closer reading soon revealed levels of depth and theological insight that I thought were unique and significant to the needs of theological development in our era. Still, I eventually recognized, it has to be seen in light of his larger body of writings, especially his volumes on dogmatic theology, and my own book provides a kind of broad synthesis of his dogmatic trilogies as a whole in the form of a commentary on this one volume.

Cosmos is deeply informed by Scripture and patristic thought, but it is also deeply conversant with the challenges to the Christian faith opened up by modern scientific cosmology, a topic for which Bouyer, uniquely among so-called “ressourcement theologians,” had a lifelong interest and even, in his prodigious youth, considered making his vocation.

In the full scope of his writings, which began at least by the age twelve with a Christian Platonist philosophical synthesis of modern cosmology based on modern atomic theory, it is the text that obviously most explicates Bouyer’s enduring interest in cosmology, which is a central concern in my own research.

CWR: We are introduced quite quickly to some rather heady language, including references to “theoanthropocosmic synthesis” and “theandric humanism.” What do those terms refer to, and how do they fit into Bouyer’s presentation of a biblical vision of creation and the cosmos?

Dr. Lemna: It is with this “heady” language that we get to what I take to be a point of major importance in Bouyer’s Cosmos. I take the expression “theoanthropocosmic synthesis” from the Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and poet Philip Sherrard, whose book Human Image, World Image I read with great interest when I was an undergraduate student. The expression points to an integrated vision of reality that unites, without confusion, theology, cosmology, and anthropology. These are areas of study that modern Western scholarship has tended to divide and separate until we no longer see their interrelation or the possibility for their reintegration. Bouyer poetically reunites these themes with his vast “theoanthropocosmic” portrait of the vision of the world that the light of faith should instill in us.

In his 1962 book Rite and Man, described by the conciliar peritus Yves Congar, O.P., as “brilliant” and read by other conciliar periti at the time of the Second Vatican Council, Bouyer said: “It is only in the mystery of God that light is thrown upon the mystery of man.” This statement directly anticipates Gaudium et spes 22, which John Paul II took as the interpretive key of the whole council. Divine revelation, according to this understanding, not only reveals to us who God is but sheds conclusive light on the meaning of humanity. I would add that Bouyer shows in Cosmos that it also illuminates the reality of the whole creation, because humanity, individual and social, is inextricably linked to the cosmos and is, even more, the center of meaning in the cosmos.

The “mystery of God” to which Bouyer refers in this just-mentioned text is the incarnation of Christ centered on the redeeming cross and resurrection. It is with reference to the union of the divine and human in Christ that our own humanity is perfected and elevated: this is what is meant by the expression “theandric humanism.” Bouyer gives this expression a distinctly eschatological edge.

CWR: You note the centrality of liturgy and worship for Bouyer. What are some distinctive aspects of his liturgical theology? Did this play a role in his frustrations with the post-conciliar reforms of the Roman rite liturgy?

Dr. Lemna: In The Apocalypse of Wisdom I focus on the theology of “cosmic liturgy” in Bouyer’s work. This is certainly a distinctive aspect of his liturgical theology. He inserts the liturgy of the Church into the larger cosmic liturgy of the angels, and he unites theology, cosmology, and anthropology around a vision of the unified meaning of creation as gift meant to reflect the life of the triune God of creation in loving praise.

This vision of the world brings with it a strong sense of the need to pay attention to the sacred as a real—indeed the most real—dimension of cosmic reality and to recognize the inescapable importance of religion for the development and flourishing of human culture. Bouyer’s frustration with post-conciliar liturgical reform had to do precisely with what he perceived to be a diminished status for the sacred and religion. He thought that the reformers were too beholden to secular “death of God” types of visions of the world that were popular in the 1960s. Liturgical reform tended to be de-sacralizing, turning liturgy into a story from which one draws a moral teaching, or a course for religious instruction—but no longer the celebration of the action of divine mystery.

Bouyer did not think that you can collapse the sacred and the profane onto a single level in a fallen world. This fits with the “verticality” of his vision of cosmic liturgy. He also did not think that Christ came to do away with the “natural sacred.” Rather, he “transfigured” the sacred. Christ does not bring de-sacralization but Christian sacrality or holiness. The natural sacred and religion are irreducible to other natural factors, such as society or economics. And the Christian sacred is irreducible to the natural sacred.

I touch on the theme of the transfiguration of the sacred in the present book, but I am currently in the process of exploring it much more deeply in a manuscript that unites fundamental theology and liturgy. This is all obviously of great significance to the themes being discussed in the current Amazonian Synod, and it’s a pity that Bouyer’s Rite and Man (very Newmanian at heart) is not taken as a reference now as it was at the time of Vatican II.

CWR: What are some ways in which Bouyer’s deeply Trinitarian and Christological understanding of reality and cosmos is evident? What role does Sophia/Wisdom play in his Christology?

Dr. Lemna: This gets at the main speculative issue that I address in my book. I think that Bouyer’s work in Cosmos and in his trilogies taken as a whole really gets the reader to see all of human and cosmic life as centered on the incarnation and redemptive mission of Christ. He sought to show that all creation is included in an exemplary way in the eternal, inner life of the Trinity but is “predestined” in its living actuality to be reunited in nuptial communion with the Trinity, in and through Christ’s death and resurrection and our joining to his body as bride, at the end of history.

His cosmology is Trinitarian and Christological throughout. He shows that Christian faith should issue in a vision of the unity of the end of human and cosmic life through God’s saving, Trinitarian self-revelation in the world. He takes up the theme of Sophia/Wisdom to draw out, on a biblical basis, a sense of the unity of the world ordered to a common personalization in the gift of the Holy Spirit at the climax of time. This enables him to unite Christology, ecclesiology, and the theology of grace throughout the whole of his trilogies.

The theme of Wisdom goes back in the theological tradition to Saint Athanasius and Saint Augustine after the Arian crisis and the Council of Nicaea. These two towering Church Fathers distinguished an uncreated Wisdom that refers to the eternal, divine vision for creation centered on the cross and resurrection of Christ from a created Wisdom that refers to the entire cosmos “humanized” by the divinization of humanity in the Word and Spirit leading creation to the Father’s throne. Bouyer develops this theme with reference to nineteenth and twentieth century Catholic and Russian Orthodox “sophiologists,” especially Bulgakov. Sophiology is a form of theology that is fundamentally integrative of theology, cosmos, and anthropos. It unites anthropology with cosmology around the mystery of the cross seen in light of the transfiguration and resurrection of Christ.

I point out in the book some ways in which sophiology might encourage developments with regard to the theology of grace and the theology of creation. However, for all that I’ve written, I realize that much more needs to be done in this regard.

CWR: You note, throughout the book, how Bouyer responded to various secular and materialist philosophies. Can you give some examples of this and why it remains helpful today?

Dr. Lemna: I’ll mention and describe three examples pertinent to this question. First of all, Bouyer shows that secular and materialist philosophies do not ultimately stem from bad reasoning but from the triumph of a materialist culture that is prone to encourage comfort and wealth-seeking as the highest “values.” This way of life gives rise to philosophical justifications of materialism or of the view that the material world is all there is, and Christians are hardly blameless in this regard. Bouyer is especially critical in Cosmos of the early modern religious orders. The vow of poverty has to be taken much more seriously, even more literally, then has been done by many in the modern age, and Christians in the West need to recognize that their own materialistic way of life serves as a screen between themselves and the world that obscures the glory of God radiating from the heart of creation.

Second, Bouyer carries out a very interesting philosophical analysis of the reasoning inherent to modern systems of philosophical materialism that draws on sources that are rather unusual for a Catholic theologian. He looks at new developments in physics, biology, and psychology that seem to undermine the materialistic pre-commitments of scientific naturalists. Quantum physics and the discovery of the unconscious in psychology are examples of this.

Developments in physics may support the “realist idealism” of Christian thinkers in the line of the Cappadocians and Berkeley. The entire world, in this view, is a thought of God, and material realities are fundamentally qualitative. Creation is a language. I was delighted to find that some more recent theologians (for instance, John Milbank) have connected the Cappadocians and Berkeley similar to the way Bouyer did and that others have connected the Cappadocians, Berkeley, and the insights of physicists such as David Bohm.

Third, Bouyer helps Christians to see the spiritual and material dimensions of creation as a single tapestry. He shows the intelligibility of a sacramental vision of creation. He develops Newman’s sacramental system in important ways, particularly with respect to the aforementioned theology of Sophia/Wisdom. Few twentieth century giants in theology stressed the reality and fundamental importance of the spiritual world in the way that Bouyer does in Cosmos and elsewhere. He shows through his unique historical erudition the silliness of accusers who would label such an emphasis as Gnostic or Manichaean.

CWR: You emphasize that Bouyer (much like other ressourcement theologians) had a deep respect for the work of St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas, but was very critical of various neo-Thomists. What was the reason for that? What role did he think nominalism played in later problems?

Dr. Lemna: Jean-Luc Marion says that Bouyer became increasingly critical of the neo-Scholastics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and their neo-Thomist heirs. Explicitly, he thought that the neo-Scholastics sundered the philosophy of Saint Thomas from its proper theological context and did not provide an ultimately coherent way of reintegrating theology with philosophy.

Implicitly, Bouyer is critical of a lot of things that present-day international scholarship in a number of languages has shown to be intrinsic to neo-Scholasticism and Suarezianism in particular: nature/grace extrinsicism, a failure to present an adequately Trinitarian account of creation and deification, theories of divine causality that view God and the free creature as competitive causal agents, theories of authority that view law as the production of authority, which gives the latter unlimited power, a Molinist view of predestination (in the case of Suarez), etc.

Of course, the critics who point out these flaws in the neo-Scholastic view realize that they stem from nominalism. Bouyer targets nominalism as a particularly pernicious influence in modern theology as early as his book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, where he argues that the worst elements of Protestantism stem from an embrace of nominalist metaphysics. He is particularly cutting in his criticism of neo-Scholasticism in books such as Cosmos and The Invisible Father. His theological positions are opposite to the ones I just described and are thus more authentically aligned than these with the mind of the Angelic Doctor.

CWR: Bouyer wrote books on Eastern spirituality and ecumenism, and was well-versed in Eastern Christian thought. Who were some of the Eastern thinkers he draws upon or dialogues with the most? How might you summarize his understanding of the relationship between Western and Eastern theology and spirituality?

Dr. Lemna: The first master of Eastern spirituality and theology that entered into Bouyer’s orbit was the brilliant but perhaps questionable “monk of the East,” Lev Gillet. Bouyer was a young Protestant ministry student when he met Gillet, and the latter’s influence on him is inestimable. In fact, before his conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism, he had what Fr. Bertrand Lesoing has described as an “incomplete conversion” to Eastern Orthodoxy, even being “confirmed” at an Orthodox chapel in which Gillet “had his lair.”

Likewise, one cannot overestimate the importance for him of Newman. The English Oratorian instilled in him a deep appreciation for the Eastern Church Fathers, particularly in their monastic roots. He wrote a thesis on Saint Athanasius and a doctoral thesis on Saint Antony based, of course, on Saint Athanasius’ Life of Antony.

Two of the biggest intellectual influences on him in his life were Bulgakov, the sophiologist I mentioned, and Vladimir Lossky, Bulgakov’s arch-rival and repudiator of sophiology. He knew both of these men. The influence of Lossky on him doubtlessly led him to read Bulgakov with a critical eye, and his adoption of the sophiological theme is not without certain cautions, particularly regarding whether creation is a fulfillment of the divine life.

With these Eastern theologians, Bouyer understood the monk to be the symbolic figure of Christian perfection. I try to keep this view of things present in my text, as it helps to understand Bouyer’s theological cosmology. He does not separate theology and spirituality. With Eastern Church Fathers such as Saint Gregory of Nyssa, he sees the monk as the “true philosopher.”

With respect to the relation between East and West, I would say that Bouyer thought that Western theologians need to learn from the East to be more mystical or more explicitly rooted in spiritual contemplation. Nevertheless, his fundamental ontological positions are often (if not always) “Augustinian-Thomist.”

CWR: How do you envision your book and Bouyer’s Cosmos helping theologians and others in the present-day situation?

Dr. Lemna: Cosmology is a very important topic in theology nowadays. This is in no small part because of the environmental movement. At the same time, an increasing number of theologians recognize the need to recapture a Christian cosmic vision in the light of modern scientific cosmology. However, few have aspired to do so in the fully dramatic, eschatological, and spiritual mode that we find in Bouyer.

Moreover, the theme of Sophia/Wisdom is increasingly recognized as important, for instance in the later work of the English writer Stratford Caldecott. Among the Catholic theological greats in the twentieth century, Bouyer was the one who most fully explored the sophiological theme. Caldecott saw this and drew from Bouyer’s work.

I think Bouyer’s theology is of general interest because he recaptures the Christian story in the context of its widest possible horizon centered not only on the incarnation of Christ but the mystery of the cross. He shows that the wisdom of the cross is, in a way, present in creation from the beginning as God’s ordering principle for the whole. I am not really good at discussing the significance of my own work. I can say that I think I have given a comprehensive overview that gets under the surface of Bouyer’s sometimes cryptic texts. Balthasar once described Bouyer’s style as “dense.” This is especially so of the trilogogies in dogmatics. I have tried to write in a clear manner and in a way that evokes Bouyer’s spiritual depth. I hope that others will be inspired by my book to explore Bouyer’s overall theological and spiritual vision.


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About Carl E. Olson 1120 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. 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.

5 Comments

  1. As for the second Eucharistic Prayer, which seems to be universally used these days due to its brevity, the word “sacrifice” does not appear in it at all. Besides, it is considered to come from the Apostolic Tradition, considered to come from ST. Hypolitus of Rome around the year 2015. Recent studies seem to indicate that it is not clear who this Hypolitus was, whether he was the anti-Pope who viciously attacked Pope Calixtus for supposed laxity in reconciling, or someone else. It seems more likely that the Apostolic Tradition originate not in Rome but in the East.
    These days, the Roman Canon, the only truly Roman one of the four, is practically unknown to most priests and considered too long. En eventual “reform of the reform”, it ever happens, ought to retain only the Roman Canon. The third one seems to me to be the best of the three new ones.

    • Some of Latin theology of the Eucharist as sacrifice may be rooted in Augustine but the development into its current form took place during the medieval period and after.

      • The dogma that the Mass is truly the unbloody sacrifice of Christ has been explained in greater detail over the ages, but it has existed since the beginning of the Church.
        Not saying you’re questioning that. I just want to highlight that while the sacrificial language of the Roman Canon may have taken some centuries to develop, since it expresses an immutable truth rather than a mere theory, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to toss it aside.

        • Ecumenical councils? Unanimous consensus of the Fathers on the definition of sacrifice?

          The Eucharist is a sacrifice but that doesn’t necessarily doesn’t tell us what sacrifice means, and even Trent left it undefined. See Michael McGuCkian, Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Also, the Latin theological opinion on sacrifice as applied to the Eucharist may not be universally shared among all Apostolic Churches. (I am fairly certain it is not.)

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