Heavenly Participation: A Review

Hans Boersma splits Heavenly Participation into two sections: The first is an account of how the western world unravelled the sacramental tapestry, resulting in a flattened and secularised society, in the other half he outlines what he believes is the road back (ressourcement) to reweaving the sacramental tapestry in the church.

The book argues for a return to a specific Christian ontology (view of reality), one that embraces the platonic-christian synthesis of the Great Tradition, which takes mystery and sacrament seriously, which can reweave the sacramental tapestry that modernity destroyed.  Sacramental what?  Basically, the argument is that modernity shifted our understanding of the cosmos to such an extent that the tapestry which wove together heavenly and earthly realities has effectively been 'unravelled' and 'cut' .  Take Eucharist, for example: In the Sacramental view the eucharist mysteriously participates in the reality it points to, the Word/Christ (e.g. transubstantiation). But today many churches hold eucharist as a symbolic gesture where the symbol points to a greater reality but there is no real connection (e.g. memorialist view).   

He then introduces the group of French Catholic theologians that he relies on heavily throughout the book known as nouvelle theologie, comprised of men such as Henri de Lubac, Danielou, Chenu and others.  With their help Boersma sets out seven shifts which deeply affected the sacramental tapestry: Gregorian reform, Eucharist's change from physical to spiritual presence of Christ, discovery of Nature, division of Biblical and Ecclesial authority, Natural/Supernatural divide, Univocity of Being, and Voluntarism.  In the limited space he provides decent treatments of the categories (this is, after all, his popular treatment of the topic), and dispels some popular myths (Platonist corruption of the Church, Reformation responsibility for modernity ect...).

The second half of the book is his ressourcement, and completely relies on convincing Christians that the lost worldview presented in the first half is something that needs to be restored - and that is by no means a given.  In that half the author outlines the core areas where the tapestry can be reconnected through sacramental understandings of: Eucharist, Tradition, Biblical interpretation, Truth, and Theology.  Those who insist on sola scriptura over against tradition are likely find this section difficult to accept (especially if they disagree with the earlier section of biblical/church authority) since Boersma relies mostly on the Church fathers, Augustine and Aquinas (there is some Biblical support given).  Another stumbling block is the repeated reference to the Platonic-Christian synthesis (in both sections).  Anyone who feels Christianity's use of platonism was a corruption of the faith will not be convinced restoration is needed, or even good.  These are contentious issues, I have found that some positions (sola scriptura, memorialist views of the Eucharist) are so entrenched in evangelical thinking they will be very difficult to change.    

Boersma's goal with this book is ultimately ecumenical.  He feels that this is a way that Catholics and Evangelicals can resolve much of their differences (and Orthodox, too) and that the church can start healing it's divisive wounds.  Although Catholics have lost this outlook as well, it will be evangelicals who have the furthest to move, theologically.  And it won't help that many evangelicals will have serious problems with numerous sections of this book!

My 2 biggest critiques is that first, the argument is usually pragmatic rather than theological, per se.  It's the difference between whether something "works" (however one may define that) or if something is true.  It seems to me that the two (working/true) are not necessarily inclusive.  Second, the ressourcement section is basically a theological primer for the issues he discusses, it's not easy reading and is unlikely to be helpful to anyone but the individual.  In other words, the retrieval isn't something that can be spread, it's something that one has to do him or herself.

However, this is an important book that deserves careful consideration.  Much of the book may seem novel to those unfamiliar with the church fathers or the early traditions of the church, and therefore many may find it to be easily dismissible.  A word of warning: It's one thing to disregard the (truely) new and unusual theological ideas that pop up every once and a while, but it's another to disregard so easily the ideas that formed nearly 1400 years of church thinking and tradition.  Our ability to do so is actually a symptom of the underlying problem as we have no meaningful connections to those who have gone before us.  Boersma looks to reweave those connections, not only to our ancestors but to our peers and most importantly, to the Word, Jesus Christ himself.

For an easier to undedrstand treatment of a similar subject check out How (not) to be Secular by James K. A. Smith

For a more academic take on the same subject check out Passage to Modernity by Louis Dupre