Mind Aflame

Chapter 8: Christian Knowledge



Knowledge follows being. A superontology means supernatural knowledge. Everything that Mersch has been saying about the entity of union that the humanity of Jesus possesses points to a knowledge and consciousness of union that is first and foremost the knowledge that Jesus had in His human nature of being the Word of God, a knowledge we share in by our union with Him. In this chapter we continue in the direction of Chapter 5 on mystical theology, exploring the noetic dimension of Mersch's theology.

This is a radical and fundamental view of the new kind of knowledge that we possess in Christ. We are far removed from any view of revelation being primarily a matter of words, even words revealed by God. The revelation of the inner life of the Trinity takes place in the humanity of Jesus as an effect of the assumption of that humanity by the Word. The intensification that Jesus' humanity receives by that assumption is the foundation of the consciousness that Jesus has as a man of being the second person of the Trinity. This consciousness embraces all the mysteries of Christianity, and reveals them to us. The Trinity is now mirrored in a human nature, which is the human nature of the Word, and we participate in the consciousness of that nature, not just by receiving from without verbal formulas, but by being transformed into that consciousness.

Mersch is putting before us the theological foundations for a revolutionary understanding of what can be called Christian knowledge, or Christian ways of knowing. But the very idea of a specifically Christian kind of knowledge can seem surprising. Perhaps the historians of theology would find here a development that parallels that of the history of the idea of the supernatural. Once again, distinctions are made which become separations, and in this case, the whole idea of Christian knowing becomes separated from its roots and begins to wither. Whatever the details of this history of Christian knowing might be, its reality was implicitly but vividly present in the Scriptures and the Fathers and in St. Thomas. But this rich amalgam of Christian mysteries and insights about Christian knowing gradually gave way to an excessive preoccupation with knowledge as a conceptual expression. And clear and distinct formulations of doctrine gave way to a conceptualism in which Christian knowledge was patterned almost exclusively after logical discursive thought.

This, in turn, led to various theological countermovements which attempted to uncover some of the rich traditions of the past under the heading of knowledge by way of the heart, or connaturality. But sometimes these valuable attempts were too detached from a dogmatic theology which would have allowed them to fully fathom how distinctive the Christian ways of knowing are.

Eventually much of the conceptualism of the past that had been exemplified in the theological manuals fell away, but the whole idea of connaturality was still too undeveloped to take its place, and instead, we were left with an academicism which was understandably eager to replace the poor scholarship of the past with the best available, but in the process, without a genuine theology of Christian knowledge to draw on, patterned theology and the other ways of Christian knowing on the other disciplines to be found in the academic world, and inadvertently failed to respect its distinctive nature.

Mersch has given us the theological foundation upon which a genuine theology of Christian knowing can be erected. What is Christian knowledge? It embraces all the distinctive Christian ways of knowing: the inspiration of Scripture, the canonicity by which the Church decides what is inspired, and doctrinal development, all of which can be called the social ways of Christian knowing. And it embraces, as well, the more personal forms by which we know as Christians: the act of faith, theology, and mystical experience. None of these kinds of knowledge can be reduced solely to the transmission of concepts, even ones divinely revealed. If we try to understand them at this level of pure conceptual transmission, they will become incomprehensible. Let's take, for example, the communal forms of Christian knowing. Is God supposed to have whispered in the ear of the inspired writer the words that ought to be put down? Did the Church decide that a writing was inspired because she found a list with its name on it, or had a special revelation from God that enumerated all the sacred books? Or does the Church rummage through its records in order to decide whether some development is compatible with Christian revelation? No. We realize that in all these cases something more mysterious is going on, something less mechanical and more in harmony with our freedom, creativity and distinctive personalities.

But if we sweep away this old conceptualism and replace it with a more academically acceptable theology, we have to be careful not to destroy the distinctive nature of Christian knowledge. Theology was called a sacred science not only because of its subject matter, but because of its very way of knowing. The soul of theology, as it were, is the consciousness we share in Christ, which animates the body of verbal expression. Without this soul the body dies, and we are left with a collection of texts to be mechanically manipulated, and our understanding can only go astray, for we have lost our special Christian instinct for what they are trying to say.

This viewpoint, far from being any flight of fancy, flows inevitably from Mersch's basic principles. No created nature is proportionate to the inner nature of God. Therefore, no natural knowledge, no matter from what discipline, can give us genuine knowledge about the inner life of God. There is a natural knowledge of God which belongs to the science of metaphysics, but no creature, by pondering the universe and the depths of its own nature, can reach beyond this knowledge to one in which God is no longer the author of existence, but is manifest as a Trinity of persons. But knowledge of the Trinity is precisely what theology is all about. Theology is a reflection on the supernatural being we have in Christ, and by nature it transcends reason, just as the entity of union of the humanity of Jesus transcends human nature. In neither case is it a question of opposition. The assumption of the humanity of Jesus by the Word does not destroy its intrinsic nature, but rather, transforms it. The assumption of the human intelligence by knowledge by faith, or Christian knowing, does not destroy it, but again transforms it and elevates it so that it can have a genuine knowledge of a supernature. Every form of Christian knowing is a specifically supernatural kind of knowledge which is an expression of the consciousness that Christ has in His human nature of the mystery of the Trinity.

Understanding this is the first hurdle we face on the road to creating a genuine theology of Christian knowledge. The whole mystery of the Incarnation springs from God's desire to share the divine life with us. This takes place through the Word taking a human nature, and by that very fact, transforming it so that the mystery of the Trinity is now accessible to us by being expressed in a human nature. Certainly this event, to be truly a human event, will have a verbal expression so that we can grasp it. But this verbal expression is but a participation in what Mersch calls a verbal union, the specific knowledge and consciousness that the humanity of Jesus receives by being united with the Word. The whole conceptual expression of Christian doctrine is an attempt to express this consciousness. This is what Mersch has been saying in Chapter 4, Unity: The Human Consciousness of Christ and the Consciousness of Christians, and in Chapter 13, Revelation and the Trinity.

"The consciousness of Christ to be considered here is that belonging to Him as the first principle in the supernatural order, as the principle of unity in Christian teaching, as mediator; that is, the consciousness He has as man: His human consciousness." (1)

This consciousness expresses the entire doctrine of Christianity, in fact in a very real way, is that doctrine. Christ in His human consciousness is revelation. He is the way that the infinite mystery of the Trinity that completely transcends any created nature becomes accessible to us.

"Knowledge that would have as its object absolutely nothing else than the Trinity is strictly impossible for man, whether on earth or in heaven. Human knowledge has to be human knowledge even when it is evoked by God; and man can know absolutely nothing unless in the act of knowing something else he also knows himself. Such self-knowledge may be quite confused or even implicit, but it is strictly indispensable... neither man nor any other being can know anything unless he is aware, at least to some slight extent, that he knows, that is, unless he knows that he knows, that is, again, unless he knows himself." (2)

This holds, first of all, in regard to the humanity of Jesus. Jesus as a man must have a genuine knowledge that He is the Word of God. In Chapter 5 we began to explore what this knowledge meant in a concrete way for Him, and how it was compatible with His growth in age and wisdom and in grace. Mersch's theological formulations and Maritain's more psychological reflections on the consciousness of Jesus began to converge so that we could glimpse how Jesus could be the Word of God and still grow as a true man.

Now we come to the other great obstacle to understanding Christian knowledge. In some way the consciousness that was in Jesus' human nature must become our own, and that consciousness is nothing other than the distinctive knowledge by faith we have as Christians. But can something become our consciousness if we are not conscious of it? Can we lay claim to this transformation in Christ if it in no way enters into our consciousness and effects how we know and love? And how can it effect us if we have no way of perceiving its presence? In short, how can it be a real consciousness if it is not our consciousness? This is the critical problem we face, which lies at the heart of understanding each of the Christian ways of knowing.

The transformation that took place in the humanity of Jesus must take place in us. The consciousness of his humanity must become ours. Once Mersch described this consciousness, he was quite quick to show how this consciousness was in us as Christians. Knowledge and consciousness follow on being, and our new consciousness is a direct result of the new being we have received in and through Christ. Let us ask ourselves, for example, how we know whether the verbal formulas that are proposed to us about the Christian mysteries are true or not. Reason alone is insufficient to determine their truth or falsity. Reason, of course, can give us a sense of whether these statements contradict our natural knowledge, or are inconsistent with each other, but it cannot fathom the deepest level of these concepts, for as we have seen, they deal with the supernatural, which is beyond the grasp of reason.

When we say we must accept these expressions by faith, what exactly do we mean? Is faith some blind willing, or irrational leap in the dark? Such a conception goes against our natures as knowing and loving beings. But if the answer does not lie with either reason or irrationality, where can we look for it? These verbal propositions are expressions of the mystery of Christ. They are human words carrying a supernatural meaning, just as Christ's humanity has been intensified by its union with the Word. There is no way to recognize the supernatural without being supernatural, ourselves. The only way we can accept Christ in the Gospels and in the teachings of the Church is by our own human natures being transformed by Christ. Like is known by like. The traditional theological explanation of faith told us that we accept the formulas of Christian doctrine on the authority of God who has revealed them. But this does not go far enough. How do we know that God has revealed them? There can be no purely external answer to this question. There can be no verbal statement that will carry within itself the conviction that will compel us to believe it. Our assent must come freely from within, and be based on sufficient motives. We must somehow see in order to believe, and yet to believe is not to see.

There will be no solution to this dilemma as long as we cling to the idea that we only reach the truth through discursive reasoning. Mersch is laying the foundations for another possibility. We recognize Christ in the external formulas because in a very real way we are becoming Christ by an interior transformation, which raises us up to share in His supernatural being. The knowledge based on this transformation is not human understanding alone, but this understanding transformed by grace. To know Christ is only possible if we have become Christ. Mersch has been describing to us the foundations of this transformation. What remains is the need to complete this description, much as we suggested in Chapter 5 where Mersch's theological formulations needed to be supplemented by Maritain's views on the spiritual unconscious. We have to find ways to describe a consciousness we have in Christ which is not a natural object of our consciousness, for it is neither natural nor an object, but rather, supernatural and a subject, a subject which has become the very subjectivity of our subjectivity, and transforms us from within in a global and total way, rather than approaches us from without as an object to be acquired. But for all that, it must be a real consciousness.

"Christians are truly and intrinsically members of Christ, they are adopted sons in the true Son, they are internally divinized and united to one another in the Church, and through a sacramental economy they are in contact with eternal life. All these gifts are received in the substance of their supernaturalized souls. But this could hardly be so if their consciousness, the voice of the soul, were not influenced by these truths and if it were not able to express itself in expressing their true state. If we were to maintain that conscious beings are Christ's members but that they lack awareness of such membership, we should have to hold that they are not Christ's members to the extent that they are conscious, and that their ego, whereby they are most themselves, does not share in their membership." (3)

What Mersch is calling ego or consciousness here could be better expressed by using Maritain's more nuanced vocabulary centered around the spiritual unconscious. Reflexive ego consciousness with its predilection for logical thought is but one aspect of a much larger totality. We can be well on our way to being transformed in the depths of our spirits by this supernatural life that comes from Christ without this consciousness becoming a direct reflexive object to be grasped and isolated as such. The consciousness of Christ comes from the depths and mingles with the deep waters of our subjectivity, turning that water into wine, and we can begin to perceive that taste long before we can conceptualize it. And God has not left us without the means of conceptualization, for He has given us the privileged words of the Gospels.

But the organ of this perception is not the intellect working through the senses, but another kind of knowledge, a knowledge through love, or the will, or the heart, a knowledge that has been traditionally called knowledge through connaturality. It has many natural analogates, but in this case a natural knowledge by connaturality has been transformed by grace and becomes the supernatural knowledge of faith. This is the kind of knowledge that comes from our transformation in Christ and gives us the instinct to recognize Him. Often long before our intellects have ceased debating the pros and cons of the reasonableness of faith, our hearts are being mysteriously drawn to Christ who is transforming them into His likeness. Knowledge follows upon being. As this transformation proceeds, its radiation, reaching out from the depths of the spirit, will gradually make itself felt in the egoic intellect and lend to it something of the certitude it feels. This transformation comes through Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit, which acts upon our hearts, the very centers of our souls. Then as we grow in this new being we gain a new way of judging in concert with the Spirit that allows us to recognize Christ through the various modes of Christian knowing, and through the verbal formulations we find in the Gospels and the teachings of the Church.

"For Christ who teaches these formulas in the Church is identically He who is more interior to Christians than they are to themselves. He is the interior principle of the life they have as sons of God. His voice, which comes from outside, also comes from within, from those inner depths where He gives them to themselves... As the head is spirit and body and as the members are the spirit and body, so this knowledge that comes through the members from the head is spirit and body, inner light and material formulas. But the two make up one knowledge and one consciousness, just as body and spirit are one person." (4)

Certainly this is only a beginning in articulating the nature of Christian knowledge. In The Inner Nature of Faith I have pursued this question from the point of view of connaturality, showing how it plays a central role in the Scriptures, Fathers and St. Thomas, as well as in spontaneously occurring personal experiences, and how it has been rediscovered again and again in the course of the 20th century, and in an especially vigorous way by Jacques Maritain. This approach leads naturally enough to making use of Mersch's theology, as I did on that occasion.

What we have in Mersch, Maritain and the notion of connaturality are the vital ingredients from which to construct a much more developed and subtle understanding of the different Christian ways of knowing that would stand us in good stead in tackling many problems in the interior life ranging from the first act of faith to the nature of mystical experience and, in fact, shed light on all the Christian ways of knowing.




Mersch shows us how shortsighted are our prejudices about dogmatic or speculative theology. They had arisen from a past where doctrines were too often parroted and handed on like lifeless objects to be preserved but not understood. Dogmatic theology is nothing more than the attempt to understand the great mystery of Christ. It is meant to be born out of a living contact with Christ and lead us to a deeper union with Him.

The more we read and study and meditate on The Theology of the Mystical Body the more it fades away before our eyes. We are not meant to fix our attention on its genesis in Mersch's life, or its theological antecedents or even the originality of its metaphysical and theological insights. All these things are meant to disappear like the work of a guide who has brought us to the top of a mountain and then moves aside to let us see the tremendous vistas on every side. What remains is our gratitude to Mersch for bringing us to such a place.

It is as if he has been saying to each of us, "Look within. Don't be afraid to use your mind to the utmost and to seek your deepest center. Far from this attention to the deepest realm of the human spirit walling you up within yourself, it will open out on to the whole mystery of the universe and the human race. It will show You your union with the forests and birds and distant galaxies, and every other human being who ever was or ever will be. And this kind of metaphysical seeing will give you a tiny glimpse of the fiery mystery of existence from which all things have come and by which they are continually sustained and to which they strive to return.

"But as splendid as this mystery is, it is meant to draw you into the mystery of Christ. The Word of God has become flesh, and by taking a human nature in that very act has transformed it and transforms, as well, the universe and the human race. You have a new being in Christ in which you share through Him in the very life of the Trinity."



Chapter 1: Life and Writings

1. La théologie du corps mystique. Museum Lessianum, Brussels, 1944. "Le Père Emile Mersch" by J. Levie, S.J.

2. Catholic University of America, 1988. Available through U.M.I. Dissertation Services. See also Malanowski's, "Emile Mersch, S.J., Un Christocentrisme unifié in Nouvelle revue théologique, 112 (1990) pp. 44-66.

3. See Note 1, Levie, p. x.

4. Malanowski, "The Christocentrism of Emile Mersch" p. 77 and following for background information on Scheuer and Maréchal.

5. Malanowski in his dissertation (drawing on the thesis of G. Sales, "Le Père Emile Mersch: Sa methode theologique." Faculté de théologie de Louvain-La-Neuve, 1978) gives the edited report on these conferences.

6. For an account of this affair see Malanowski, "Emile Mersch" p. 45 and his "The Christocentrism of Emile Mersch" pp. 5-7 where he draws on a tape recorded interview with Victor Mersch by Sr. Mary Lavin, S.M.R.

7. Levie, p. xx. See note 1.

8. E. Mersch, The Whole Christ, Bruce, Milwaukee, 1938. p. 13.

9. Ibid., p. 580

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Levie, p. xxi.

13. 1 have supplemented the standard account by Levie with two documents from the Mersch papers in Brussels: a letter from Abbe G. Brissons (signature illegible) written to the Jesuits from Callenelle, Sept. 12, 1940, and the deposition of Victor Mersch who went to Saint-Pol, Sept. 1941 looking for his brother's manu scripts.

14. Avant-propos des éditeurs to the French edition of The Theology of the Mystical Body, p. xl.

15. Levie, p. xix.

16. Ibid. xxiii.


Chapter 2: The Theology of the Mystical Body

1. The Theology of the Mystical Body. Herder, St. Louis, 1951, P. V.

2. Ibid., p. 10.

3. Ibid., p. 5.

4. p. 3

5. p. 10.

6. p. 15.

7. p. 5 note 9.

8. p. 27.

9. p. 41.

10. p. 47.

11. p. 53.

12. p. 75.

13. p. 76.

14. p. 78.

15. p. 79.

16. p. 81.

17. p. 96.

18. p. 99.

19. p. 100.

20. p. 111.

21. p. 115.

22. p. 119.

23. p. 125.

24. p. 140.

25. p. 141.

26. p. 142.

27. p. 143.

28. p. 160.

29. p. 161.

30. p. 155.

31. p. 158.

32. p. 162.

33. p. 163.

34. p. 164.

35. p. 166.

36. Ibid.

37. p. 171.

38. p. 172.

39. p. 205.

40. p. 208.

41. p. 215.

42. p. 221.

43. p. 225.

44. p. 237.

45. p. 253.

46. p. 255.

47. Ibid.

48. p. 266.

49. p. 271.

50. p. 276.

51. p. 295.

52. p. 402.

53. p. 425.

54. p. 431.

55. p. 447.

56. p. 455.

57. p. 457.

58. p. 460.

59. p. 479.

60. p. 481.

61. p. 483.

62. p. 520.

63. Ibid.

64. p. 521.

65. p. 529.

66. p. 535.

67. p. 548.

68. p. 570.

69. p. 594.

70. p. 600.

71. p. 601.

72. p. 610.

73. p. 620.

74. p. 627.


Chapter 3: The Unity of the Human Race

1. The Theology of the Mystical Body, p. 96.

2. Ibid., p. 98.

3. Le Christ, L'homme et l'universe, p. 36.

4. Ibid.

5. William Carlo, The Ultimate Reducibility of Essence to Existence in Existential Metaphysics. The Hague: Nijhoff. 1966.

6. Malanowski, p. 69 note 140; Teilhard de Chardin: A Biographical Study. Claude Cuénot, Helicon, Baltimore, p. 6, 13, 118.

7. The Theology of the Mystical Body, p. 104.

8. Ibid

9. p. 115.

10. Ibid.

11. p. 116.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. p. 118.

16. p. 120.

17. p. 124.

18. p. 125.

19. p. 126, note 10.

20. p. 127.

21. See, for example, Anton C. Pegis, "The Separated Soul and Its Nature in St. Thomas" in St. Thomas Aquinas (1274-1974) Commemorative Studies. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, Canada. 1974.

22. Jacques Maritain. "L'expérience mystique naturelle et le vide" in Quatre essais sur l'esprit. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer. 1956; Louis Gardet and Olivier Lacombe. L’experience du soi. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer. 1981; James Arraj. God, Zen and the Intuition of Being. Chiloquin, OR: Inner Growth Books. 1988.


Chapter 4: The Human Consciousness of Jesus

1. The Theology of the Mystical Body, p. 76.

2. Ibid.

3. p. 78.

4. Ibid.

5. p. 79.

6. p. 80.

7. p. 81.

8. p. 84.

9. p. 205.

10. p. 206.

11. p. 207.

12. p. 209.

13. p. 216.

14. Ibid.

15. p. 218.

16. p. 221.

17. p. 225.

18. p. 327.

19. p. 357.

20. p. 362.

21. p. 364.

22. p. 370.

23. p. 393.

24. p. 396.

25. p. 399.

26. p. 412.

27. p. 409.


Chapter 5: Mersch, Maritain and Mystical Theology

1. Jacques Maritain. On the Grace and Humanity of Jesus. NY: Herder and Herder, 1969. p. 49.

2. p. 50.

3. p. 56.

4. p. 59.

5. Ibid.

6. The Theology of the Mystical Body, p. 382.

7. Ibid.

8. p. 383.

9. Ibid.

10. p. 244.

11. Ibid.

12. Jacques Maritain. The Degrees of Knowledge. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1959. p. 369.

13. p. 372.

14. p. 376.

15. p. 378.

16. Jacques Maritain. On The Grace and Humanity of Jesus. NY: Herder and Herder. 1969. p. 61.


Chapter 6: Creation and Original Sin

1. The Theology of the Mystical Body, p. 133.

2. p. 135.

3. p. 141.

4. p. 137.

5. p. 142.

6. p. 143

7. p. 157-8.

8. p. 161.

9. p. 162.

10. p. 163.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. p. 166


Chapter 7: The Supernatural

1. See Philip Donnelly, S.J. in Theological Studies, V. 8, No. 3, Sept. 1947, p. 490.

2. The Theology of the Mystical Body, p. 458.

3. Ibid.

4. p. 459.

5. p. 460.

6. p. 461.

7. p. 462.

8. p. 468.

9. p. 470.

10. p. 470-1.

11. p. 471.

12. Ibid.

13. p. 474.


Chapter 8: Christian Knowledge

1. The Theology of the Mystical Body, p. 78.

2. p. 3 77.

3. p. 401.

4. p. 409-10.



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