Sacramental Aesthetic: Part I

Below is the beginning to a 3-part-post of an article I intend to submit for publication. The title is, Sacramental Aesthetic: The Reality of Knowing in the Catholic Sacraments. I will be curious to hear what you all have to say on the matter...


For Catholics, the ultimate goal of all human life is knowledge and love of God. Man was created in God’s image and likeness so that he might come to see him as he is. Accordingly, all human effort tends toward this telos—the natural end of man, which finally capitulates unto his supernatural and heavenly end in the beatific vision. Realizing man’s need for aide in such a monumental task, however, the Father offers his children, as a window into that blissful vision, a chance to penetrate the supernal mystery of God via the person of Jesus Christ, and in particular through the sacraments he entrusted to his Church. These same sacraments have endured until today—fonts of grace and knowledge for the believer—and serve man in his earthly quest for Truth and Love.

A reflection that must be considered then, in light of this basic apprehension of the economy of salvation, is how exactly man comes to know God in the sacraments of the Church. Certainly, the sacraments cannot be wholly personal and subjectively valuable realities, since their essence consists in the transmission of divine reality into the world of human existence. The sacraments must necessarily provide an objective and incontestable knowledge of God whose image man, as a consequence of his created nature, is capable of understanding and recognizing to some notable degree. Their value cannot simply consist in assigned properties of significance, but must be clearly and fundamentally objective, even if there does remain a great element of subjective participation in that truth on the part of the faithful.

For such an investigation as this to occur—namely, one seeking to identify the essence and locus of sacramental truth and its transmission—one must ask preliminary questions of an eminently epistemological nature; particularly, the question of factual knowledge versus subjective and ‘meaningful’ knowledge must be raised. Having been discussed, this groundwork will provide a more precise basis for recognizing ‘value’ in the sacraments, and thereupon an entire philosophy of sacramental knowing might find its footing.

I. ‘Fact’ & ‘Meaning’ in Human Knowing

In human knowing, there seems to exist a reciprocal dependence between facts and meanings. By ‘fact’ here we mean those things, which express truth in an incontrovertible fashion; facts are concrete and thus possess a definite and realistic value, upon which judgment may rightly and rationally be based. In short our lives as human beings, always seeking to know, as Aristotle indicates, seem properly aimed at the acquisition and utilization of facts in making logical choices. However, if one takes daily life as an indication, it seems a matter of fact that the human person is not concerned with facts alone. What drives the human soul to know things if it is not solely the objective facts? How often do we make decisions informed not by an unquestionably impartial reality, but rather on a personally interpreted and more proximate version of truth? The human soul is impacted by nearly countless phenomena each minute, and it is probably true that most of these instances are of a non-objectively factual nature. In this way we find ourselves often concerned with ‘meanings’—those truths conveyed in our experience of reality, both in objectively factual and subjectively factual situations, and which find existential quarter only within the human person. In the end, although a fact-like knowledge of things alone seems suited for the task (from the rigidly Aristotelian perspective), meaning prevails as the object of man’s truest desire, and becomes what enables him to function properly and competently within society. To think of a world where humans do not endeavor to see facts as pregnant with meaning would be to imagine a world where the realistic human telos would seemingly be abandoned. On the other hand, the subjective facts we encounter—i.e. meaningful objects, with which we will primarily be concerned here—are ultimately grounded in the reality of an absolute and indispensable fact, which lies beyond them. What pragmatic significance can there be in the purely meaningful? Can it even exist? In a word, can the ‘meaningful’ itself provide the human soul with a basis for concrete understanding?

A preliminary consideration takes us back to the initial definition of “fact”: do meaningful objects possess a ‘realistic value,’ or is this character reserved to objective facts alone? At first glance, strictly meaningful experiences seem not to possess the same realism as that of the objective fact; they are, after all, only meaningful since they have been tempered and distilled by human understanding, leaving them in some manner devoid of the purity present in empirical, demonstrable facts. However, since the nature of man’s existence and capacity to reason is truly ‘realistic,’ we are bound to admit that meaning, as a sort of human by-product, is also full of this same realistic value. Such realism cannot be understood as being the same as that proper to objective facts, though, which may rightly be attributed a more a priori position. Rather, the meaningful object attains its meaning precisely as a result of man’s interaction with the world, and in light of his personal history and past experience. In other words, the meaningful object is not ontologically constituted as such, but instead acquires this sort of ‘substantial attribute’ only after human consideration.

Although succinct and hardly exhaustive of all tangential possibilities, this crucial exposition of meaningful experience as it relates to strictly and demonstrably factual experience gives rise to a final effect that seems not to be one of dichotomy, opposing one type of experience against the other, but rather of cohesion, wherein the two are intimately linked and by which ultimate and objective truth might eventually be understood. If this is indeed so—and chiefly, if this reasoning should later be applied in terms of the sacramental knowing—then we must ask a further question of meaningful experience that will enable us to see rightly where the sacraments truly fit into the complete epistemological schema. Namely, our question must consider two items: to what degree is the fundamental and objective truth knowable in the meaningful object, and in what worldly instances do we actually recognize these objects of meaning. While the second query will constitute an entire section in itself (one which includes a proper investigation of each subsequent, perceivable instance) and form the crux of this essay, the question concerning the degree of man’s knowledge as a result of meaningful objects can be suitably answered here.

Again, even if the scope of this matter far exceeds what is treatable at present, we might at least say enough to enable an authentic study of the reality of knowing in the sacraments. To be sure, we must begin by stating that objective and fundamental truth is positively present in the meaningful object insofar as the latter exists, and therefore exists in truth and objective reality. In other words, the mere existence of an object demands its sure participation in the fullness of truth and in the fullness of objectivity, ontologically speaking. Thus, there is inevitably an internal connection linking the deeper, more primary truth which man seeks and the proximate truth of the object of his understanding, i.e. the ‘meaningful object.’ At this point, there is a temptation to separate the two truths—one objective and the other subjective—as they are present in each object independently. It is important to note, however, that we cannot separate truth, even though we can separate the degree to which it appears as ‘fact’ (viz. objective fact and subjective fact); “fact” and “truth” are not equivalent terms. Therefore, while the factual nuance of a ‘meaningful experience’ may be less unequivocal than that of the objective experience, the truth encountered is one in the same. It should not go without saying, though, that the degree of truth apprehended by the human subject may be considerably less in this context than in a purely objective-factual situation; in the order of knowing, the prevalence of a more doctrinal assimilation of truth must be upheld.

To find the exact and numerical degree of truth present in the subjective and meaningful experience, then, appears not only impractical at this point, but also quite unnecessary; for our purpose, it suffices to say simply that there is a definitive participation in ultimate truth within the meaningful experience precisely because its object is true and real. Consequently, we are now able to permit ourselves a further investigation upon the second part of our above inquiry, namely as to what real-world experiences constitute ‘meaningful experiences.’

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    # by Anonymous - June 4, 2008 at 8:04 PM

    dang kid, how'd you get to be so smrt?