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Aidan Nichols: Chalice of God

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 19, 2012

Fr. Aidan Nichols is a Dominican theologian who resides at the Dominican house in Cambridge, England. With roots in the Russian theological tradition and a special expertise in the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Fr. Nichols combines shining orthodoxy with an appreciation of the traditions of both East and West. He also has an amazing breadth of interests, including a deep understanding of the via pulchritudinis, or the way of beauty, in drawing us closer to God.

A listing of the half-dozen books he has published over the past three years, drawn from some forty works in the course of his career to date, shows the richness of his theological and pastoral interests:

  • The Latin Clerk. The Life, Work, and Travels of Adrian Fortescue (2011)
  • Lost in Wonder. Essays on Liturgy and the Arts (2011)
  • The Poet as Believer. A Theological Study of Paul Claudel (2011)
  • A Key to Balthasar. Hans Urs von Balthasar on Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (2011)
  • Criticising the Critics. Catholic Apologias for Today (2010)
  • Romance and System. The Theological Synthesis of Matthias Joseph Scheeben (2010)

In 2009, he did a study of G. K. Chesterton, Theologian; in 2007, he wrote The Thought of Benedict XVI: An Introduction to the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger, which in turn drew on a book he had written on Ratzinger as early as 1988; in 2003, A Spirituality for the Twenty First Century; in 2000, Christendom Awake: On Re-Energizing the Church in Culture (which occasioned the launch of the website Christendom Awake by our good friend across the pond, Mark Alder); in 1995, The Splendour of Doctrine: The Catechism of the Catholic Church on Christian Believing. And yet we are just scratching the service. Fr. Nichols is not only a deep but an energetic son of the Church.

Today, however, I wish to discuss only his latest book, Chalice of God: A Systematic Theology in Outline, which was published earlier this year by Liturgical Press. This work is a deliberate exposition of the comprehensive set of principles which govern Fr. Nichols’ complete system of theology.

Fr. Nichols himself calls the book a “manifesto”, for he means the book to do three things: Explain the principles of his own theology; cover the fundamental points of reference indispensable to any attempt at a coherent and complete systematic theology; and suggest a “fresh approach to the Catholic understanding of the world and human existence in Revelation’s light” (ix). What is indeed fresh (and very welcome) in this work is Fr. Nichols’ image of the world, and of man in particular, as “the chalice of God”, filling and running over constantly with God’s gifts. This provides an interpretive framework—a particular hermeneutic, but surely one with universal significance—which enables Fr. Nichols to structure his theology and draw out its key lessons in a particular way.

It is not, of course, that there is no other organizing insight that one could use. But there is a particular excellence to Fr. Nichols’ central point that a definitive characteristic of being is its own self-diffusiveness. As pure being, God necessarily gives Himself, not only within the Trinity, but in Creation. Anything less is a restriction of being, whether we are considering finitude, or selfishness, or sin. Moreover, this diffusiveness of being is why it is perfectly true to say that God is Love. Hence Fr. Nichols’ image of the universe, and again of man in particular, as the chalice of God; man is the recipient of a constant flow of blessings or graces, of a continual sharing in the Divine life, of Being itself.

The book is small, just over 100 pages, and it is organized as an outline with sections and sub-sections. Each chapter is introduced by an icon intended to provide an occasion for meditation on the connections between the human and the Divine. The chapter titles are perhaps sufficiently indicative of the overall breadth and depth of the work:

  1. Prolegomena
  2. A Congruent Ontology
  3. A Christological Determination of Biblical History
  4. Tradition as the Transmission of Revelation
  5. The Mysteric Pattern of Christian Existence
  6. The Holy Trinity as Matrix and Goal of Persons and the World

Now any ordinary person reading these titles may well be put off, and this would, in fact, be salutary. As an outline in which each point is only briefly explained, the text is extraordinarily dense. It is a work intended mainly for other theologians, or at least those passionately interested in how theology works. This is not to say that readers with an extensive academic background and a good Catholic formation will not find here points of intense interest. Gold will be struck in the mines of both orthodoxy and mysticism, with particular nuggets drawn from a wide variety of wonderful Christian writers. But overall, this is hard going. It is work. It is, in fact, professional work. And so its primary value will be for other theologians who wish to glimpse the principles animating a fine and systematic theological mind, and who thereby wish to sharpen their own grasp of what it means to do theology.

If you are not in that category but rather wish you were (in other words, if you are anything like me), I advise slowly reading a short section of the outline each evening, perhaps as a daunting prelude or conclusion to more accessible spiritual reading. But if you are a theologian, I strongly suggest that you add this book to your library, read through it to grasp its superb organization and key points, and then return to it as may be helpful in both rounding out and deepening your own approach to the mysteries of God.

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  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jul. 19, 2012 4:13 PM ET USA

    I'll have to check this out, as I'm a big fan of Father Nichols. He's one of the best modern theologians the Church has to offer today. I especially enjoy his love for Eastern theology since I too am more "Eastern" then Western in my own spiritual life and understanding of theology.

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