Against the “unhappy consciousness” in Christianity

Dominique Bertrand, SJ

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Originality of a Theological Tradition

All doctrines of the faith are the result of efforts made by Christians over the centuries to counter various and varied attacks, both internal and external. Doctrine has been defined this way since the beginning. Consider the Greek Fathers Athanasius (295373), Basil (330379), Gregory of Nazianzus (329390), and Gregory of Nyssa (d.394) who asserted against Arianism the Trinity of Persons and their eternal equality that is revealed through the Incarnation of the Son and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

While they were engaged in this controversy, the Latin fathers had to face directly the anthropological aspect of faith in the controversial issue of human grace and freedom, championed by the monk Pelagius (circa 354420), and resumed by Bishop Julian of Eclanum (c. 380455). In this controversy, the shining figure is Augustine (354430), who spent the last of his strength without completely defeating his opponents. In particular, against Julian’s stance, he emphasized the Scriptural themes of predestination, original sin, and concupiscence.

None of these controversies are ever completely resolved. In the East, after the Trinitarian controversy, we have the Christological controversy, first with the council of Ephesus (431) and then with that of Chalcedon (451). Painful consequences of this controversy included monophysitism and then monothelitism (Saint Maximus the Confessor, d.662). These were followed by the painful iconoclasm controversy, with the important contribution of John of Damascene (d.749). In the West, Augustine’s influence and the relative failure of his position, precisely in the field of divine grace and human freedom allowed the constant return of the question, century after century. It is therefore important to know of another tradition in the same Latin West. We will come back to this.

First, let us trace the development of the greatest controversy in the West. With his rigid positions on nature and grace, despite the positive aspects of Augustine’s teaching, his successors have reduced Augustinian thought in the West to a “bad conscience,” or, to use the expression that captures this whole history coined by philosopher F.W. Hegel (17701831), an “unhappy consciousness.

The interest in this strictly philosophical expression shows the definitive cultural strength of an originally theological notion. The first warnings appear in the Carolingians, through the predestinationist theses of Gottschalk of Orbais (circa 805870); these later exploded in Protestantism, culminating in Jansenism, particularly with the figure of the “sick believer,” the ingenious Blaise Pascal, the thorn in the side of Voltaire.

The “unhappy consciousness,” that is, the need to refuse happiness and what makes one happy, does not stop growing. In fact, it expands and enhances its influence. Has this influence perhaps disappeared in our time and from the postConciliar Church? It is rather the opposite that is happening as we are threatened by it and brought more and more to evoke as little as possible the reality of God, even in theology, for fear of facing it, thinking we can overcome it by ignoring it.

Here, then, we look to the doctrinal line mentioned above, which resists this latent pessimism. Less visible than the Eastern and Augustinian traditions, what we can call “GalloRoman Theology” cannot be examined today without considering its proponents. It first appears with Irenaeus of Lyons, passes through Hilary of Poitiers and Caesarius of Arles, and then spreads efficiently and quietly throughout theology.

The works of these authors, with the patient help of patristics scholars, have now reached the general public. For Irenaeus, we can cite “Against Heresies”; for Hilary, “The Trinity”; and for Caesarius, his “Sermons.” Without hesitation, we can now rely on these works as a foundation for a theology of “more than happiness.

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