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Von Hügel's Contribution to Religious Studies and to Religion

  • Leonard J. Biallas (a1)


Von Hügel performs an invaluable service for religion and deserves to be classified among the seminal thinkers in religious studies because of his holistic approach to the study and practice of religion. He insists on a healthy friction ortension between various elements of religion as a necessary component of a mature religious life. Such friction is found especially in the interplay of the mystical element of religion with the intellectual and institutional elements. This mystical element, which includes a person's volitional and intuitive side as well as effortful activity, is found to be a legitimate area of scientific investigation and a valid form of human knowledge. Von Hügel's contributions to the study and practice of religion are then situated and evaluated in terms of four areas of current interest. These areas are the journey toward wholeness, the possibility of self-transcendence, the spiritual importance of the body, and the eschatological anticipation of mankind's final end.



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1 Both Barmann, Lawrence, Baron Friedrich von Hügel and the Modernist Crisis in England (Cambridge, 1972), and Heaney, John J., The Modernist Crisis: von Hügel (Corpus, 1968), work under the assumption that it is von Hügel's involvement in the Modernist controversy that makes him so important today. Whelan, Joseph P., The Spirituality of Friedrich von Hügel, (Paulist, 1971), on von Hügel's influence as a spiritual counsellor, and Burke, Ronald, “An Orthodox Modernist with a Modern View of Truth,” The Journal of Religion 57 (April, 1977), pp. 124143, both assess von Hügel's role in Modernism while placing his thought in a broader context. For an overall philosophical assessment, the earlier analyses by Nédoncelle, Maurice, Baron Friedrich von Hügel: A Study of His Life and Thought (Longmans, 1937), and Webb, Clement C. J., “Baron Friedrich von Hügel and His Contribution to Religious Philosophy,” The Harvard Theological Review 42 (1949), pp. 118, are still valuable. de la Bedoyère, Michael, The Life of Baron von Hügel (Scribner's, 1951), and Chambers, P. Franklin, Baron von Hügel: Man of God (Geoffrey Blès, 1945), both provide useful biographical data. Furse, Margaret Lewis, Mysticism: Window on a World View (Abingdon, 1977), devotes a chapter to von Hügel's mysticism as a “recovery of immediacy” and evaluates it in the light of other twentieth-century writers, especially W. R. Inge, Evelyn Underhill, and Emil Brunner.

2 “Modernism” here refers to the movement which during the period of 1890 to 1910 aimed at a radical change in traditional Roman Catholicism by bringing it into touch with the contemporary cultural, political, and scientific spheres. For a discussion of various meanings of Modernism, cf. Ronald Burke, loc. cit., pp. 125–129. For an overall assessment of Modernism, seeHeaney, op. cit., and his articles in the New Catholic Encyclopedia and the 1974 Supplement to the Encyclopedia. Also, Reardon, Bernard, Roman Catholic Modernism (Stanford University Press, 1970), and Aubert, Roger, “Modernism,” in Rahner, Karl (ed.), Sacramentum Mundi (Herder & Herder, 1969). The value of Modernism, in asserting that faith is encounter rather than mere assent to propositions, in insisting on the sense of mystery in religion, in its respect for science and scientific methodology, and its thrust toward a religious anthropology which sees man as the glory of God is not to be underestimated.

3 Whelan, op. cit., p. 20, suggests that von Hügel's strong emphasis on two fundamental principles of spirituality, the denial of which was certainly heretical, kept him from official censure. These were (in matters of exegesis) the necessity of sheer historical “happenedness” as the basis of Catholic creed and dogma and (in matters of philosophy and theology) the grounding of all possibility of religion in the “fact” of God as ontologically absolute, distinct, prevenient Personal Spirit, independent of and prior to each person's experience of this fact. For a survey of reasons other commentators have offered, see Burke, loc. cit. One dissonant voice is that of Loome, Thomas M., “The Enigma of Baron Friedrich von Hügel—As Modernist,” The Downside Review 91 (1973), pp. 13–35, 123–140, 204230. In his discussion of the conflicting historiographical traditions concerning the import of von Hügel's involvement in the Modernist controversy, Loome insists on correcting the record and claims that the Baron was in no way a Modernist. von Hügel's enigmatic role comes rather from his encouragement, based on a false assessment, of Loisy and his persistent inability to grasp the ecclesiastical situation of the time. To the extent that Loome's article is convincing, there is just no basis for censure.

4 These biographical remarks are drawn mainly from the introduction of P. Franklin Chambers, op. cit., Michael De La Bedoyère, op. cit., and the Dictionary of National Biography: 1922-1930, pp. 874–876.

5 This first work in two volumes has remained the most influential of all of von Hügel's writings: The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in St. Catherine of Genoa and her Friends (1908) (hereafter, ME). His other works include Eternal Life: A Study of its Implications and Applications (1912) (hereafter, EL); The German Soul and its Attitudes Towards Theism and Christianity, the State and the War (1916); Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion (2 vols., 1921 and 1926) (hereafter EA); and The Reality of God and Religion and Agnosticism (intended to be the Gifford lectures of 1922 and published posthumously in 1931) (hereafter RG). Three volumes of his letters have also been published. Among his numerous articles, the most famous are those on “John” and “John's Gospel” in the original edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

6 ME I, p. xvi; ME 11, pp. 262, 270; RG, p. viii. For a direct statement of the givenness of God, see EA I, pp. 40–41: “Just as we simply admit the existence of countless realities, more or less different from, though only lower than or equal to ourselves; and as we frankly grant the real influence of these realities upon ourselves and our real knowledge of them, since such influence and knowledge are prior to, and are the material of our discursive reasoning about them: so also let us simply admit the existence of a perfect reality, sufficiently like us to be able to penetrate and to move us through and through, the which, by so doing, is the original and persistent cause of this our noblest dissatisfaction with anything and all things merely human. Certainly no other explanation has ever been given which does not sooner or later mis-state or explain away the very data, and the immense dynamic forces of the data, to be explained. But this, the only adequate, explanation moves us on at once, from the quicksands of religion as illusion, to the rock of religion as the witness and vehicle of reality.”

7 EA I, pp.43f; EL, pp. 187, 220f, 395; ME I. pp. 47, 59; ME II, pp. 112–120; RG, pp. 71, 89. On the most specific characteristic of all religion, see EA I, pp. 22–23: “Whereas Ethics and Politics proclaim oughlnesses, and seek to produce certain human acts and dispositions, and to organize human society in certain ways; whereas Science and Philosophy attempt respectively to discover the laws which govern natural phenomena and to lay bare or to divine the unity or harmony of life and the world as one whole; and whereas Art seeks to create for us beautiful forms, the incorporations of the ideals which it everywhere finds indicated, yet nowhere fully achieved, in the actual visible existence around us:—Religion, on the contrary, affirms a supreme Isness, a Reality or Realities other and greatest in man, as existent prior to, and independently of, the human subject's affirmation of It or of Them.”

8 EA I, pp. xiv, 89; EA II, pp. 38, 76, 249; ME I, pp. 60f; ME II, pp. 167, 340; RG, pp. 143, 215. That Christianity is the “highest” of religions is seen, for example, in EA I, p. 269 where von Hügel is discussing the elements of real truth and goodness more or less present and operative within all the forms and stages of religion: “These elements indeed all come from God and are all intended to lead to God, the One God of all truth and of all creation. Yet this recognition requires, as its constant companion, an equally definite conviction as to the unequal richness in such elements as they are furnished even by the greater religions or indeed the world-religions. Buddhism is poorer in such elements than is Hindooism; Hindooism is in general considerably less true than Mohammedanism; Judaism is much more tender, rich and spiritual than Mohammedanism; and finally Christianity markedly exceeds Judaism in its range, depth and elasticity of religious insight and life. And religion is so truly the deepest and the most delicate level of man's life that any and every, even seemingly slight, difference in such degrees and kinds of truth and goodness is of profound importance.”

9 EA I, pp. 11, 68–70, 100–105, 145; EL, pp. 134, 222; ME I, pp. 45, 65, 77–79, 368; ME II, pp. 134–139, 279, 379–384; RG, p. 33. On the interplay of Religion and Science for the development of the complete human personality, see ME II, pp. 383–384: “Level all down to Mathematico-Physical Science, and you deny the specific constituents of Spirituality, and you render impossible the growth of the Person out of, and at the expense of, the Individual. Proclaim the Person and its Religion, as though they were static substances adequately present from the first, and ignore, evade or thwart that Thing-level and method as far as ever you can, and you will, in so far, keep back the all but simply animal Individual from attaining to his full spiritual Personality. But let grace wake up, in such an Individual, the sense of the specific characteristics of Spirituality and the thirst to become a full and ever fuller Person, and this in contact and conflict with, as well as in recollective abstraction from, the apparently chance contingencies of History and Criticism, and the seemingly fatalistic mechanisms of Physics and Mathematics: and you will be able, by humility, generosity, and an ever-renewed alternation of such outgoing, dispersive efforts and of such incoming recollection and affective prayer, gradually to push out and to fill in the outlines of your better nature, and to reorganize it all according to the Spirit and to Grace, becoming thus a deep man, a true personality.”

10 EA I, pp. 60f, 238; ME I, p. 47; ME II, pp. 268f, 383–386; RG, 81.

11 EA I, pp. 39, 119; EA II, p. 14; EL, p. 200; ME II, p. 346; RG, p. 31. Just as friction or tension is necessary in the relation of science and religion, so it is necessary for wholeness: “Man's life is one long, variously deep and wide, rich and close, tissue of (evermore or less volitional) acts and habits—instinctive, rational, emotive; of strivings, shrinkings, friction, conflict, suffering, harmony, and joy; and of variously corresponding permanent effectuations in and by the spirit thus active. And hence man's life is full of cost, tension, and drama” (EL, p. 386).

12 The perilous crisis involved in clinging to one of the three elements to the exclusion of the others is shown in ME I, pp. 50–82 and ME II, pp. 387–396. A sampling of von Hügel's style may be found in ME I, p. 55 where he shows the struggle between the mystical on one side and the other two elements on the other: “But even if he passes through this first crisis, and has thus achieved the collaboration of these two religious forces, the external and the intellectual, his religion will still be incomplete and semi-operative, because still not reaching to what is deepest and nearest to his will. A final transition, the addition of the third force, that of the emotional-experimental life, must yet be safely achieved. And this again is perilous: for the two other forces will, even if single, still more if combined, tend to resist this third force's full share of influence to the uttermost. To the external force this emotional power will tend to appear as akin to revolution; to the intellectual side it will readily seem mere subjectivity and sentimentality ever verging on delusion. And the emotional-experimental force will, in its turn, be tempted to sweep aside both the external, as so much oppressive ballast; and the intellectual, as so much hair-splitting or rationalism. And if it succeeds, a shifting subjectivity, and all but incurable tyranny of mood and fancy, will result,—fanaticism is in full sight.” Both Whelan, op. cit., chap. 4, and Heaney, op. cit., pp. 145–157, have critical discussions of the interrelationship of these three elements.

13 ME I, pp. 86–87; ME II, pp. 284–287, 378, 387–396; RG, pp. 140f. Von Hügel can also be very polemical in his writings of mysticism. In ME II, pp. 263–269, he attacks Wilhelm Hermann for declaring that the mystical experience of God is a delusion. In his counter-argument von Hügel insists that all reality has both an inside and an outside, and that we can judge the actual occurrence and fruitfulness of many things only by their aftereffects. He concludes with two claims: God does not reveal himself to all men alike, and it is wrong to insist that Jesus is the exclusive center of all that is divine, for this would deprive other religions of the possibility of mystical apprehensions. In another discussion, EA I, pp. 181-190. von Hügel differs from Ernst Troeltsch, who claims that the mystical-type of Christianity overemphasized subjectivism, concentrated on the purely interior, and led to an excess of feeling. Von Hügel counters by suggesting that such a mysticism is indeed inferior. True mysticism, however, awakens man's senses, reason, and spirit, and this awakened cond ition calls forth within man's spirit a painful consciousness of his finitude and contingency with contrast with the infinite Otherness of God. For a recent assessment of the relationship and correspondence between Troeltsch and von Hügel, see Rollmann, Hans, “Troeltsch, von Hügel, and Modernism,” The Downside Review (1978), pp. 3560.

14 Among the more important physiological and psychological discussions of meditation are Tart, Charles (ed.), Altered States of Consciousness (John Wiley, 1972), and White, John (ed.), The Highest State of Consciousness (Doubleday, 1972). Among the best Christian authors reflecting on Eastern thought must be included Johnston, William, The Still Point: Reflections on Zen and Christian Mysticism (Harper & Row, 1970). More recently we have his book, Silent Music: The Science of Meditation (Harper & Row, 1974). A fine attempt at finding a unifying thrust in psychotherapy, mysticism, and experimental education is Naranjo, Claudio, The One Quest (The Viking Press, 1972). Also, Kelsey, Morton T., The Other Side of Silence (Paulist Press, 1976), presents a study of various meditation techniques from a Jungian viewpoint.

15 The organic and purposeful drive toward wholeness in the midst of a life that is necessarily full of tension and conflicts is the thrust of the process of individuation as developed throughout the writings of C. G. Jung. Of special interest from the Collected Works, published by the Bollingen Foundation are Vol. XI, Psychology and Religion: West and East, and Vol. XIV, Mysterium Conjunctionis. One of the most recent works based on Jungian themes is Sanford, John, Healing and Wholeness (Paulist, 1977).Watts, Alan, The Two Hands of God: The Myths of Polarity (Collier, 1969), details myths which reveal the mystical unity that binds opposite forces together, and Dunn, John S., A Search for God in Time and Memory (Doubleday, 1969), provides a new perspective orhorizon on wholeness in the process of “passing over” to the life stories of famous individuals.

16 EA I, p. 46; ME I, pp. 26f; ME II, p. 284.

17 ME I, pp. 69f, 106, 190; ME II, pp. 237-239, 249–252. Von Hügel speaks specifically of a purification and a death of the self: “The simply Individual is transformed into the truly Personal only by the successive sacrifice of the lower, of the merely animal and impoverishingly selfish self, with the help of God's constant prevenient, concomitant, and subsequent grace. And here this constantly renewed dropping and opposing of the various lower selves, in proportion as they appear and become lower, to the soul's deepest insight, in the growing light of its conscience and the increasing elevation of the moral personality, involves that constant death to self, that perpetual conversion, that unification and peace in and through a continuous inner self-estrangement and conflict, which is the very breath and joy of the religious life. Only if all this be so, to a quite unpicturable extent, can even the most elementary Christianity be more than an amiable intruder, or a morbid surplusage in the world. And at the same time, if all this be so, then all within us is in need of successive, never-ending purification and elaboration; and the God who has made man with a view to his gradually achieving, and conquering his real self, must have stored means and instruments, for the attainment of this man's true end, in constant readiness, within himself” (ME I, pp. 76f). See also Selected Letters (18961924). ed. Holland, Bernard (J. M. Dent, 1927), p. 72: “The primary function of religion is not the consoling of the natural man as it finds him, but the purification of this man, by effecting an ever-growing cleavage and contrast between his bad false self, and the false, blind self-love that clings to that self, and his good true self, and the true, enlightened self-love that clings to the true self.”

18 Karl Rahner sees man's transcendence in the openness of the soul to the infinite, in the ecstatic and immediate confrontation with the mystery of God. Indeed, man's transcendence through his orientation to God is constitutive of his very being, and this is most perfectly expressed in the incarnation. See. tor example. Theological Investigations IX (Herder & Herder, 1972), pp. 2845;Theological Invcsligutions XIII (Soabury, 1975), pp. 4547; and the articles in Sacrnmentum Mundi, VI (Herder & Herder, 1970). pp. 275285. Among the many nuanced meanings given to transcendence by Bernard Lonergan, it is a self-authenticating event of conversion, a process of the self which gradually appropriates the already existing truth from clues given in the world, namely that man's end or goal is union with God. See, for example, Method in Theology (Herder & Herder, 1972). For other recent writings on transcendence, see Salm, Luke (ed.). The Catholic Theological Society of America: Proceedings of the Thirty-First Annual Convention (Washington, DC, 1976); also Baum, Gregory, “Cultural Causes for the Change of the God Question,” in Concilium, Vol. 76, ed. Metz, Johannes B. (Herder & Herder, 1972); and Henri Bouillard, The Logic of Faith (Corpus Books, 1969).Dupré, Louis, Transcendent Selfhood: The Rediscovery of the Inner Life (Seabury Press, 1976), has a particularly enlightening discussion of self-transcendence in the light of the classic writings of mystics from both the Kastern and Western traditions.

19 For a recent discussion on the central importance of the body in developing religious maturity, see Davis, Charles, Body as Spirit: The Nature of Religious Feeling (Seabury Press, 1976), and O'Neill, Mary Aquin R.S.M., “Toward a Renewed Anthropology,” Theological Studies 36 (1975), esp. pp. 734736. A slightly different approach is found in Segundo, Jean Luis, The Liberation of Theology (Orbis, 1976) as also in the pastorally oriented articles of Durkin, Mary and Shea, John in Toward Vatican III: The Work That Needs to be Done, ed. Tracy, David (Seabury, 1978).

20 ME I, pp. 76, 367–370; ME II, pp. 359, 379. The title essay in Merton, Thomas, Contemplation in a World of Action (Doubleday, 1973), is also very informative. In the East, the balance between body and spirit is expressed in several different ways, such as the various methods of Yoga, the distinction between Advaita Vedantism and Bhakti, and the Zen adept's return to the marketplace after his inner journey.

21 The discussion on eschatology is perhaps the most dominant theme in Christian theology in this century. For a sampling of recent commentaries on the resurrection which presume an eschatological basis, see O'Collins, Gerald, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Judson Press, 1973);Kasper, Walter, Jesus the Christ (Paulist Press, 1976), pp. 144160; and Küng, Hans, On Being a Christian (Doubleday, 1976), pp. 343410.

22 EA 11, pp. 50–51; EL, pp. 32–42, 383–384, 396; ME I, pp. 32–39.

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