November 2008 – Special Edition – Recalling John Dunn Scotus

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

November 2008 – Special Edition

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Seven hundred years ago this month, the great Franciscan scholastic thinker, John Duns Scotus, died in Cologne, Germany. He was only 42, which is young for a person who left such a significant mark on the Franciscan intellectual tradition.

Scotus came from a wealthy farming family. At the age of 15, he entered the novitiate of the Order of Friars Minor at Dumfries in Scotland and went on to study at a variety of leading institutions.

In choosing John as his religious name, Scotus was paying homage to the Evangelist and Apostle of Love. But he was also making a prophetic statement about his future role as a leading theologian, for John’s is the most theologically sophisticated of the four Gospels, and about his epic proclamation of love as the ultimate Gospel truth.

Scotus was one of the most important and influential philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages. His brilliantly complex and nuanced speculative thought, which earned him the nickname “the Subtle Doctor,” influenced discussions of such disparate topics as the semantics of religious language, divine illumination, and the nature of human freedom.

Building upon the intellectual heritage of his predecessors in Paris, Scotus extended this peculiarly Franciscan approach to the philosophical and theological traditions of western Christianity in new and bold directions with unique emphases and implications.

These ramifications became the foundation for an important alternate current of philosophical thought known through history as Scotism.

Scotism is the name given to the system or school that had at first but few peculiarities; it followed Augustinism or neo-Platonism, which then ruled theology, and which was adopted not only by the Parisian professors belonging to the secular clergy but also by prominent teachers of the Dominican Order.

He made very free use of Aristoteleanism, much freer than his predecessors. But Thomas Aquinas introduced Aristoteleanism even more widely into Scholasticism. His approach was regarded as an innovation, and called forth criticism, not only from the Franciscans, but also from the secular doctors and even many Dominicans.

Though current understanding of the contributions of such monumental figures as Bonaventure, Aquinas and Scotus is more nuanced, we have to appreciate that without them—without the Holy Spirit’s work through them—the Church would not have the theology that we have today.

As the Middles Ages came to an end, Scotus studies flourished, as did the study of Thomas Aquinas. Had he had a few more years, Scotus might have developed a synthesis of theological thought similar to that of Thomas Aquinas whose body of work is the foundation for so much of the Church’s teaching.

Still, the body of Scotus’ 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.

Scotus 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.

Scotus had a great deal to say about the importance of love in the understanding and exercise of faith. If we do nothing else to honour him today, 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.

While it is true that Scotus was a learned man who moved freely within the categories of speculative theology, he was above all else a theologian focused on praxis. His goal was not only a way of doing, but also a way of being human in the image of the divine Trinitarian mystery of personhood and communion—the model community of love.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

– John 13: 34-35

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All this talk about love as a way of knowing, about personhood and communion, leads me to add a few words about a more contemporary yet richly complementary view, namely that expressed in Jean Vanier’s 1998 Massey Lecture, published under the title, Becoming Human.

In reading the first section in particular, we are reminded 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.

· Forgiveness, of others but also our self, for healing of woundedness.

Love does not diminish knowledge but enhances it. Knowledge is power; it can serve the good of persons and of communities. But knowledge without love is not very constructive. In fact, it is potentially destructive. This year’s Canadian and U.S. election campaigns serve as examples. I think Scotus understood the positive and negative power of knowledge.

Loving someone does not simply mean doing things for them; it is much more profound… it is to understand them.

– Jean Vanier

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At first, highly regarded, Scotus eventually became for some an object of derision, even having his name maliciously warped from Duns to “dunce.” While this is a most undeserved treatment, we’d be naïve to imagine that he did not invite some of the disfavour that he occasionally suffered. But his sincerity and coherence cannot be disputed, nor can his genuine insights in speculative theology.

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.

Scotus defended human freedom against those who would compromise it by determinism, promoted the Kingship of Christ and defended the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which the University of Paris officially adopted as doctrine, and which was solemnly proclaimed by the Church in 1854.

While it is important for us to acknowledge his 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 Duns Scotus was, as the spirituality of Saint Francis had been, dominated by love. That is the legacy of Franciscans: authentic love that is born out of absolute freedom (the true meaning of evangelical poverty), and that is expressed prayerfully and fraternally. It is the path by which we chose to know God, and to love and serve him.

The whole of Scotus’ theology is dominated by the notion of love. The characteristic note of this love is its absolute freedom. As love becomes more perfect and intense, freedom becomes more noble and integral both in God and in man.

– New Catholic Encyclopaedia

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May the Holy Spirit of Love fill your heart with perfect joy.

Fraternally in joy and hope


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