In the spirit of gratitude for the good and admiration for the admirable, praise to James Matthew Wilson for his recent column in this space on Hans Urs von Balthasar and “form.” The subject merits constant revisiting, as its importance is often lost today.
Form might be thought of (strict Thomists and professional philosophers, forgive me) as what we are supposed to be. The philosophers of Athens thought profoundly about this notion, apparently without the aid of revelation.
A carpenter shapes matter – wood – into the form of a table, a thing whose form permits it to hold dishes or books for us. The table has the form that it is supposed to have, as the carpenter planned.
As we go through life, we humans develop ever more fully as the form of the human person, or we fail to do so. That “or” is the difference between a good life and a failed one.
The Church tells us what we have been created for, ultimately to be happy with God in the next life. That’s the “what we’re for the sake of,” as the table is for the sake of holding dishes or books.
But while we can look at a table and know it’s a table – one way of translating the Greek word eidos, or form, is “look” – that’s much harder to discern with a person. The form of a person is hard for us to know. Monsignor Robert Sokolowski has written that we “must maintain a certain modesty as we discuss the human person. We will always remain mysterious to ourselves.”
Yet as Dr. David Walsh has observed, “To be a person is to know what it means to be a person.” We have some sense of what we are to be. But both Sokolowski and Walsh might agree that while much can be said about the person, trying to talk about the form of what we are, what we are supposed to be, reaches the limits of our understanding and language. It’s not like describing a table.
St. Paul struggles with how to convey to his readers the Christian understanding of the person and what we are supposed to be. “Put on the new man.” “Put on our Lord Jesus Christ.” We will have imperishable, spiritual bodies. We are to die to ourselves and live in Christ, to live – not we but Christ in us. What do these points of guidance mean? What does a spiritual body look like? What will our form be when we are happy with God?
Perhaps the most helpful, if still mysterious, image that St. Paul gives is the Body of Christ. We are to be members of that body. We should now, metaphorically, have the form of the feet and hands of the Body of Christ. This begins in this life and is perfected in the next.
St. Paul’s image provides something else. It tells us what we are supposed to be, as individuals and as a community. And neither of those can exist without the other.
Aristotle, who had a lot to say about form, offered the axiom that man is the political or social animal. We have, uniquely among animals, rational speech, or logos. We use that speech to communicate with others about reality, about “what is,” and to cooperate in achieving good.
That relational nature means that we can only be what we are supposed to be, can only realize the form God created for us, in community with others. We must give ourselves to others to be what we are supposed to be.
Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book Dependent Rational Animals, describes the virtue of “just generosity,” repaying the broad debt we owe because others have cared for us, or will do so, when we are helpless at some times in our lives. We cannot be fully human, cannot realize our form, without displaying this virtue in relation to others.
And we cannot be what we are supposed to be without suffering.
What is often forgotten today, as von Balthasar saw, is that our form is not something we choose. God created that form, and He gave it to us in our nature. We do not get to choose another, and when we try, we lose the beauty of the form we were given.
Recognizing this gift from God, that we are not formless protoplasm left to cast about for our own form, also requires another kind of self-giving, or self-abandonment. It demands that we give up the selfish insistence on a futile autonomy to create our own reality and form, and embrace the freedom to be what we are created to be.
When wood is made into the form of a table, nothing else comes into its form simultaneously with the table. In the case of people, this is different, in at least two ways.
First, in giving ourselves to others and receiving from others, we help others realize their form.
Beyond that, the Church as a whole is brought to its form. As we are turned into members of the Body of Christ, the Church becomes the final whole that it is supposed to be.
We all want to be saved, and that is necessary for us. But being saved from damnation is not sufficient to complete our form. We must be joined to that Body of Christ to have our form.
Which takes us back to the mystery of the human form. The best that we can do in describing it, as St. Paul pushed logos so hard to do, is to accept that the form of the human is Christ Himself. Only He can combine our individual forms with our collective form, both of which we need to be, as the Church says, finally happy with God.
I wonder what the original masters of the philosophy of form, Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, could have done with that revelation.
*Image: Saint Joseph the Carpenter by Georges de la Tour, c. 1624 [Louvre, Paris]