Ferdinand Ulrich and Christian Philosophy: An Interview with D.C. Schindler

Robert Mixa (RM): Please help us understand the work of Ferdinand Ulrich and his philosophical importance.

DC Schindler (DC): He was a twentieth-century German Catholic philosopher born in 1931 and died in February 2020. Even though we associate him with Hans Urs von Balthasar who died in 1988, Ulrich was much younger than him. In his later years, Ulrich was living, more or less, in a life of seclusion, a life of prayer. He gave retreats but was not active as a philosopher since the 1980s. He was a precocious philosophical genius, and he took to philosophy from a young age. He was interested mainly in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. It is right to think of him as a Thomist but a Thomist of a particular sort – I use the phrase “Speculative Thomist”. Many Thomists tend to be very historically-minded. They approach Aquinas mainly by mining texts and showing development, and that sort of thing. Ulrich reads Aquinas in a very different sort of way. He draws philosophical, metaphysical inspiration from the texts but engages with them in a very creative spirit, putting him into conversation with many other philosophers from the modern era. Heidegger and Hegel are important there, but this speculation, to my mind, is faithful to Aquinas. It is not twisting and bending Aquinas, as some think. But it’s faithful, bound to the spirit and letter of Aquinas.

RM: So he’s not cherry-picking aspects of Aquinas’ thought but holistically engaging it?

DC: That’s well put. He doesn’t proof texts. He’s attempting to see what Aquinas sees and see it with him. THere’s kind of a looking through the words to... ultimately, to Being. Another way of thinking of Ulrich’s thought: he’s very much in that mid to late twentieth-century movement in Thomistic thought that was very metaphysical. Etienne Gilson is one, particularly Cornelio Fabro is one close to Ulrich. One can name others within this.

There were two philosophers in particular. There’s a French philosopher name L.B. Geiger and then Fabro. They both, in different ways, discovered this theme of participation in Aquinas. Typically, before that Aquinas was read as one who chose Aristotle over Plato. But these philosophers discovered the Neo-Platonic backbone to a lot of Aquinas’ thought. And Ulrich is very much riding that same crest.

RM: That’s interesting to note about Aquinas’ influences. He often cites Pseudo-Dionysius, right?

DC: Dionysius is apparently the second most cited after Augustine, and Augustine too is kind of in this tradition. So even when Aquinas criticizes Platonic thought it tends to be the Platonists in a certain Islamic interpretation of Plato in his criticisms. But they all draw from this tradition that is Neo-Platonic in its core, a kind of a synthesis of Plato and Aristotle. Ulrich is in this with the question of being in the foreground.

RM: What did Hans Urs von Balthasar so appreciate in Ulirch?

DC: The friendship between them was very important for them. When Ulrich wrote his habilitation thesis in 1959 one of his professors said he should look into publishing it, and that he should send it to Hans Urs von Balthasar. Ulrich duly sent it along, and that started a correspondence between the two of them. They were in correspondence by mail a good bit of time before they met in person. I heard the story from Ulrich himself about their meeting. They had grown in their great estimation of each other, exchanging manuscripts. They were apparently in awe of each other, and they sat in silence for 20 minutes unable to say a word before the conversation began.

I think you asked specifically what Balthasar saw in Ulrich. Ulrich has one of the most thoroughly Christian interpretations of being. It is one of the more the most thoroughly Christian philosophies, and it is a philosophy. It’s very much a philosophy but it’s Christian in its ethos from the very beginning. Being as love. Being as gift. If you look at Balthasar’s philosophical development, his first serious philosophical mentor was Erich Przywara who was a genius in his own right and an amazingly prolific writer. But Przywara was not – even though Aquinas was important for Przywara – in the first place a Thomistic metaphysician. He was really his own inspiration. There was a good bit of phenomenology in his thought, and one can see that in Balthasar’s earlier writings, a more phenomenological inspiration. Balthasar met Gustav Siewerth, another speculative Thomist who was important for Ulrich. And then he encountered Ulrich in that constellation. That had a profound effect on on Balthasar’s own thinking. There was kind of an evolution in his appreciation of the importance of the question of being that is crucial to understand his Trilogy properly, and Ulrich was really important for that development.

RM: Most of these mid-century German Thomists were engaging with and responding to Heidegger, I believe. And Heidegger was responding to Hegel who he saw as the completion of the trajectory of Western metaphysis, promoting Heidegger to think outside its paradigm. Why are Hegel and Heidegger worth engaging as we see Ulrich setting out to do?

DC: That is really an important question that needs to be reflected on and engaged further. Hegel and Heidegger should be compared to the tradition of modern philosophy that preceded them. One feature of modern philosophy was that the question of being dropped out, more or less, and the focus was on epistemology or a very humano-centric themes. Ethics, politics, and politics especially had an importance at this point. The modern philosophers saw themselves as starting anew and cutting themselves off from the Western tradition.

RM: Even though they [the moderns] took so many of their concepts from their scholastic forebearers…

DC: That’s exactly right. Taking so much from the tradition and from Revelation, and we’ll come back to that point. So, there’s something inauthentic about starting anew.

What you get in both Hegel and Heidegger is that they both want to recover the whole tradition in a way that is similar to Aquinas in that he was the flourishing and the flowering of this classical tradition. Hegel and Heidegger were trying to do that in their time period: a gathering of the whole and bringing it to a flowering in their own thought. Both of them, in their own time, recovered this great question of being, so you see there’s a depth that each of those figures had that is hard to find in thinkers such as a Kant, Descartes, or Locke.

What’s fascinating about both of these philosophers (Hegel and Heidegger) is that in their gathering up of the whole tradition you cannot do that, at least in the West, without facing the great question of Christian Revelation, the Christian tradition. What is really fascinating about Hegel and Heidegger is that you see two different responses to the challenge that that presents. Hegel saw Christianity as having profound philosophical implications. His philosophy is extraordinary in this way. He sees the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the question of the Church, and religious practice. All these aspects of Christianity he saw as having profound philosophical importance in a way that very few people did before him, at least in the modern period. What is significant for Hegel is that he saw Christianity as only having philosophical importance. So, in a certain sense, it [faith] provides something to philosophy and then philosophy then appropriates it for its own. So philosophy becomes a sucking dry of the Christain mystery, a reinterpretation then of all the contribution of the Christian mystery in purely philosophical terms. So, you can say, he absorbs Christianity into philosophy. Then Heidegger, in reaction to Hegel, does exactly the opposite: he wants to purify philosophy of this “theological infection” (infiltration, maybe) which he called “onto-theology” this absorption of God into philosophy. Heidegger went to the other extreme. He thought it necessary to entirely bracket out God from philosophical reflection. That sets up Ulrich’s project nicely. He sees with Hegel that Christianity has profound philosophical implications but against Hegel he doesn’t compromise the transcendence of God and the gratuity of Christian Revelation, the supernatural quality of faith, hope, and love. He preserves the gratuity of Revelation and still recognizes the philosophical implications., and so in that sense, he’s different. He agrees with Heidegger that God cannot be absorbed into philosophy but he disagrees with him that Christian revelation has nothing to say to philosophy. So he stands, in a way, beautifully between the two that is fruitful and profoundly interesting.

RM: Is there such a strict divide between theology and philosophy as some philosophers and theologians insist? Etienne Gilson is famous for proposing “Christian Philosophy” as with Jacques Maritain (distinguish to unite), but Henri de Lubac was critical of both approaches. Where does Ulrich fit into that debate on Christian philosophy and why did you publish this now in the midst of that debate about Christian philosophy still going on?

DC: That was a huge debate in France, first of all, and then in the Church simply. And there is a perennial quality to this debate. I have constantly, as I think about this, come back to thinking that once you have the definitive solution to the problem, you discover that you have taken a wrong turn. So this is a question that constantly proposes itself, and I don’t think that is accidental. Now, Ulrich takes a position on the question that is a genuine novelty. When you read him you think it’s so novel it can’t be true but in fact what seems to be a novelty when you go back and read Fides et Ratio you see Ulrich’s project laid out there. You think of the philosophical dimension of Aquinas, not to say of Augustine, and the whole classical tradition, you see that Ulrich’s way of approaching the question is very much in that same spirit.

What is unique about Ulrich’s position is that you flip through the book and you see him talking about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and Mary’s fiat, the Incarnation, so you think this is about theology and not philosophy, but he insists himself constantly that he is doing philosophy and metaphysics instead of theology, so many people think that he is confused and not sufficiently distinguishing. His distinctions are actually very precise. The charge that he is blurring the distinction between philosophy and theology is not right. It’s a very precise distinction but an uncommon one. He picks up this line from Aquinas that “Being is the likeness of the divine goodness.” So esse – being, created being, being of the world that we see and experience and participate in – that being is the likeness of the divine goodness. Notice that he says “likeness”, “image”, “simulitudo”. On that ground, Ulrich raises this question that if being is the likeness of the divine goodness, isn’t it the case that the more insight we have to the meaning of divine goodness the more insight we will have into being. If the crowning, the culmination, of the divine goodness is given in Revelation, isn’t Revelation going to inform our interpretation of being in a profound way? Why is that not theology? Theology is thinking that is done taking theological mysteries of the faith as premises for an argument. That’s the precise place where Ulrich draws a distinction. The references to the mysteries of the faith are for Ulrich not premises from which he deduces theological insights. If you were to deduce them you are making the theological insight something that is essential to and a necessary function of philosophy in the way that Hegel does. For him, it’s always a gratuitous revelation, but in the light of this gratuitous revelation we discover things that then are apparent to natural reason and we do not have to pretend that they are not coming from faith in order to recognize that they are apparent to our reason.

RM: In your book on Ulrich’s Homo Abyssus, you mention bonicity, ideality, and reality as ways of seeing all things, ultimately, as gift.

DC: Yes, ultimately everything as gift. And I want to go back to a point you alluded to earlier because it’s an important point in relation to this: Ulrich goes a step further in this claim about Christian philosophy, and he says if it is the case that Revelation has in fact entered into the way we see the world in the Western tradition then if we pretend to remove and bracket out faith, we will end up, in all sorts of ways, surreptitiously bringing data of the faith into our philosophical thinking in a way that is, in the end, a betrayal of philosophy. So the irony for Ulrich is that the more conscious we are of the gratuitous element of faith – the more that is foregrounded – the freer we are to see the natural quality, the more capable we become of absorbing that into our philosophy.

RM: Without constructing a pseudo-theology?

DC: Precisely. Hegel does this explicitly. But many philosophers do it in a much more surreptitious way, and, therefore, in a way that corrupts the natural quality of reason.

RM: What can Christians in the English-speaking world learn from Ulrich? You find many Christians in the West constructing what Ulrich calls a “hypostasis of being”...

DC: There are two dimensions to that. On the one hand, you think about Christian philosophers. I think Ulrich can be an enormous provocation in what he shows. Ulrich himself would have never said this is the only way to philosophize in the faith. There are other sorts of paths to do this. For example, Maurice Blondel: he wants to remove anticipations of the faith as much as possible and see the natural world open up. That’s one option. There are ways of distinguishing philosophy and theology; standard Thomism, for example. Each one of these are important and brings out something that the other would be missing if it were left out. But I think Ulrich’s approach has this full-blooded reflection in the faith that shows a genuine option for philosophy in the modern world that has not been entertained yet. It shows a great fruitfulness. But I think the other dimension of your question is Catholic apologetics in general.

There are some really interesting things to say on that score. And we could open up a whole conversation. It seems to me in the contemporary world the philosophical importance of the faith is especially important in a way in the beginning of Christianity was in a world filled with philosophy in a strong sense of the intrinsic meaning of nature. The challenge was for Christians to show the plausibility of the great mysteries of the Theotokos or the Trinity. These days those mysteries are not the challenge. In a way, people are more open to mysteries today than they were in the ancient world. The special challenge these days is the integrity of nature. Chesterton at one point says he sees a day coming when people will have to defend with their lives that 2+2=4 or that leaves are green in summer. Today we might add that there is such a thing as a man and such a thing as a woman. These evident truths of nature are the things that we see...We actually see them but we deny them. We actually learn to deny the things that we see. The kind of robust metaphysics of creation, a rediscovery of the intrinsic goodness, truth, and beauty of the natural world of creation is crucial today. In that respect, I think that Ulrich’s philosophy, of leading with Love and this renewed metaphysics of creation, promises to be a real great contribution.

RM: In his Homo Abyssus, Ulrich relates metaphysics and anthropology, saying that “man co-decides the meaning of being”. What does he mean by this?

DC: That’s a huge question. But to try to put it succinctly. In the classical Christian tradition, there’s a sense of man as a microcosm, summing up in his own existence the meaning of things generally. And one of the ways that were understood in the classical period is that man is the one creature in which you have the coincidence of spirit and matter. Unlike the angels who are pure spirits or the physical world, the material world, either inanimate things or animate things with a soul. In the classical tradition, all living things have a soul (that is what it means to be alive). Nevertheless, they do not have a spiritual soul that radically transcends matter but here you have in the human being a coincidence of pure spirit, in one respect, and embodiment in the other, and in that sense, to understand what it means to be human sheds light on the meaning of the world as a whole. So, there’s this notion in the classical tradition that’s really important of analogy that if we understand the human being it gives us insight all the way down into the natural world that there’s a kind of an analogy, you might say, a lessening of degrees of something that we understand at the human level, and the reason that’s important (and this connects with the Robert Spaemann quote that you mentioned - that anthropomorphism is that we understand the human being as shedding light on the meaning of being, generally, if that’s true we understand that the human being has a certain dignity, a certain interiority, we belong to ourselves in a special way). If that’s what sheds light on the world, then we’ll understand nature as having a certain integrity as being worthy of respect in a kind of analogous way, and we can’t help but think in relation to ourselves. And if we get rid of the special dignity of man, we flatten everything out, it seems like we will be open to the integrity of nature in a special way but we actually undermined the very principle of dignity. Losing the special dignity of man, we’re going to the project that now onto the natural world, and that means we’re going to eliminate any significance the world is going to have over and against us, and that then empties out the world as pure stuff at our disposal. Historically, we see that that happens. The removal of man at the center in early modern philosophy coincided with opening of the flood gates for the exploitation of the natural world. Those things really go hand-in-hand (a strong sense of human dignity and the sense of the beauty and integrity of nature).

RM: What an amazing connection! And, hence, the cover of Ulrich’s book?

DC: Yeah, that’s exactly why we chose the cover of that book.

This thing about “co-deciding of being.” What does that mean? The “co-” is really crucial there. That might seem like it’s giving the human being too much power to dictate what things mean but the insight is something like this: if we think of being as gift (of creation as an act of generosity) from a personal God, an act of generosity wants to be received gratefully, so Ulrich talks about the destination (the endpoint) of the act of creation is man saying “yes” and receiving being thankfully. If we think in those terms, think about a gift. A proper giving of a gift is a reciprocal act. I cannot give something well to you if you refuse to receive it. Your act, in response, affects my capacity to give.

RM: That doesn’t make God dependent upon us for that giving?

DC: Right, and that’s an important question because God does not first ask us when God creates the world, for obvious reasons, but what Ulrich wants to highlight is in the way we live our existence, in the way we receive our own being, we’re actually implicating the meaning of being as a whole. It’s not that God is dependent on us in that it would be a reduction of his power but God is omnipotent and his gift of the world is unconditional and absolute but within that it's still an act of generosity and within that his independence is a willingness, in a way, to invite man’s participation. We see this, for instance, in Genesis when God brings the animals to man and asks man to give names to the animals. Man is actually giving names to the animals, and presumably, those are the names that God will use. He’s not dictating them. He’s allowing man to name them. That’s an act of generosity on God’s part. It’s not that God is dependent on man there but he’s allowing man a kind of active participation in some dimension of creation. And that’s how Ulrich thinks through metaphysics from that perspective.

RM: Can you tell us more about the trilogy that you’re working on?

DC: Yes, my trilogy on freedom is coming out. It has seemed to me that one of the biggest questions is the meaning of freedom. Our interpretation of freedom affects the way we think about so many things. I realized that if I wanted to be seriously engaged with the culture from a serious Catholic perspective, I needed to take this question seriously. I thought one book isn’t enough. The first book Freedom from Reality isn’t enough. The attempt to think through the problems through the conventional modern conceptions of freedom, to try to get to the metaphysical roots of that, and then I am currently working on volume two and it’s about ninety percent finished. It’s a bit longer than I had hoped. It’s going to be a bit of a tome. But that’s looking at the Christian reception of the classical tradition. So, the first volume ended with Plato and Aristotle on freedom and the second volume is looking at the successes and failures of the Christian appropriation of the classical tradition on the meaning of freedom as a way of both setting up where the modern conception came from but also opening up a way forward through it and beyond it, and eventually, if I live that long, to write the third volume. The third volume is meant to be a constructive metaphysics of freedom, not only a metaphysics but I also want to get a political, anthropological, and theological dimension but a construction theory of freedom in the light of the first two volumes. I have side projects going on now, but those are the main things now.

RM: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today to discuss Ferdinand Ulrich and his contribution to philosophy.