Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
Since joining the Secular Franciscan Order, I have often been subjected to annoying comments about our spirituality’s supposed lack of intellectual sophistication. Remnants of religious rivalries, comments such as these are also borne in ignorance.
While it is true that the intellect is not the sole way of understanding God’s self-revelation, nor is it even the most efficient one, Franciscan schoolmen have over the centuries made major contributions to Christian theology. One such luminary is the great Franciscan scholastic, Blessed John Duns Scotus, who died in Cologne, Germany in the month of November, 1308. He was only 42, which is young for a person who left such a significant mark on the Church’s history. Had he lived longer, he would most surely have left us a body of work similar to that for which Saint Thomas Aquinas is remembered. Even so, the corpus that he managed to produce is insightful and inspiring.
Aside from the fact that he came from a wealthy farming family, we know very little about his early life. Evidently, he was attracted to the charism and order of Saint Francis of Assisi. In choosing John as his religious name, he was paying homage to the Evangelist and Apostle of Love. But he was also making a prophetic statement about his future role as a theologian, for the fourth Gospel is the most theologically sophisticated one, and about his epic proclamation of love as the ultimate path to truth.
Blessed John was one of the most important and influential philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages. His brilliantly complex and nuanced speculative thought earned him the nickname “the Subtle Doctor.” As the Middles Ages came to an end, Scotus studies flourished.
Blessed John’s work encompasses a wide range of topics, from natural theology to metaphysics to the theory of knowledge to ethics and moral psychology; from the divine essence as Trinity to creation and the person as imago Dei to the divine action in the Incarnation.
Blessed John continues to hold a central position among Franciscan thinkers chiefly for two reasons: First, he articulated philosophically the insight of Saint Francis on the beauty of creation as a gift from God. Second, he developed and enhanced the traditional Franciscan preference for love over knowledge as key to the human journey toward union with God.
Blessed John had a great deal to say about the importance of love in the understanding and exercise of faith. If we do nothing else to honor him, we do well to reflect on the place accorded in Scripture to this most important of all virtues, without which our evangelization is no more than the disturbance caused by a noisy gong or a clanging bell, and our actions do us no good.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” John 13: 34
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All this reflecting about love as a way of knowing, about personhood and communion, leads me to add a few words about a more contemporary yet—I believe—richly Scotian view, namely the opinion expressed in Jean Vanier’s 1998 Massey Lecture, published under the title, Becoming Human.
Vanier reminds us that love has many uses that are vital to human and social existence. Indeed, it could be said that Vanier is reminding us that love is the foundation for everything that is inspired by God.
For instance, Vanier stresses that love leads to revelation, such as in the self-awareness in a child; identity and giftedness; understanding, both of self and of others; communication, in that we are invited to articulate values; celebration, through the connection of heart to heart; empowerment, as meaning is made of life authentically in a safe environment; communion, because love is the only true bond; and forgiveness, of others but also our self, for healing of woundedness.
In May, I had occasion to spend some time in Oxford, UK. I had been to London in connection with my work at Health Partners International of Canada when the Iceland volcano spewed a large ash cloud that grounded airplanes for more than a week. The result for me was that a two-day visit to Oxford was transformed into a 10-day pilgrimage to the city where the Franciscan intellectual tradition came into being.
Along with virtually concurrent origins at the University of Paris, Oxford University was the home to Robert Grosseteste who became regent master at the Franciscan house of studies in Oxford in 1229, only three years after the death of Saint Francis. To his are added such names as Richard Rufus of Cornwall, John Pecham, Roger Bacon, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham.
As I stood in the official university chapel, St. Mary the Virgin, I gazed for a long time at the pulpit from which had preached John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and Blessed John Henry Newman, co-founder of the Oxford Movement, which eventually led to his adoption of Roman Catholicism. Then, to my left, I noticed a large bronze plaque that commemorates the teaching of Duns Scotus.
I have thought often since then about his insights, particularly on the place of Jesus in creation. As Kenan Osborne puts it (The Franciscan Intellectual Tradition, 2003), “The incarnation is not a divine after-thought, occasioned by human sin, Rather, the incarnation has a firstness that coincides with the firstness of creation…the fecundity of Jesus.” To my mind, this places the Gospels at the heart of human understanding because the life of Jesus is a pivotal event in the evolution of humanity, a call to holiness through wholeness, the plenitude of creation. Jesus is not so much a saviour by his death as by his life, his witness to the truth of Love, which exacts a heavy price—costing nothing less than everything.
Jesus is not some superhero to be worshiped because of his superhuman abilities but as the examplar of who we were created to be, the new Adam. This does not diminish the divinity of Jesus but glories his humanity: “Though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…being born in human likeness. (Phil. 2: 6-7)
It is his willingness to undertake the enormous effort to harmonize the best of human philosophical reflection with the insights of revelation which qualifies him to be a significant partner in the theological dialogue of the 21st century.
Mary Elizabeth Ingham, “John Duns Scotus: An Integrated Vision”, in The History of Franciscan Theology, Ed. Kenan Osborne
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The declaration of love over knowledge is not anti-intellectual, as some have suggested, but it is an objective statement about the limits of the intellect and the penetrating capacity of love as a means of knowing.
As well, Blessed John achieved three important things: He defended human freedom against those who would compromise with determinism. He promoted the Kingship of Christ. And he argued the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The seal of the Church’s approval was placed on Blessed John’s teaching on the universal primacy of Christ when the feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925, and on the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary when the doctrine was solemnly proclaimed by the Church in 1854.
For me, Blessed John’s reflections on the purpose of the incarnation may be the most compelling, including the freedom in which the Father acted in creation, of which the incarnation was an intended climax; in which Jesus acted in his final act on earth; and in which we are consequentially born and necessarily journey in faith.
While it is important for us to acknowledge Blessed John’s intellectual brilliance, which was placed at the service of the human family and the Church, we do well to note that he was also humble and prayerful—the combination that Saint Francis wanted in any friar who studied.
The theology of Blessed John Duns Scotus was, as the spirituality of Saint Francis had been, dominated by love. That is our legacy as Franciscans: authentic love that is born of absolute freedom (the true meaning of evangelical poverty), and is expressed prayerfully and fraternally. It is the path by which we chose to know God, and to love and serve him.
May the teaching and example of Blessed John Duns Scotus help us to understand that we attain happiness, freedom and perfection by opening ourselves to God’s gracious self-revelation in Christ Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI
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