“The Sweetness of Nothingness”. Poverty and the Theology of Creation in Bonaventure, Angela of Foligno, and Meister Eckhart


Mendicant poverty is doing rather poorly in scholarship of theology and religious studies over the last decade or so. Kenneth Baxter Wolf’s The Poverty of Riches (2003)questioned whether the voluntary poverty of St. Francis of Assisi had perhaps the counter-intuitive effect of distracting attention from the involuntarily poor. Francis, the icon of self-emptying humility, emerges in Wolf’s treatment as a particularly destructive instance of the privileged class’s well-meaning penchant for “slumming.” Around the same time, John Milbank began to critique the elements of the Franciscan movement that together gave birth intellectually, culturally, and politically to an unhappy “Franciscan modernity,” the legacy of which we still seek to escape. More recently, Milbank and French philosopher Olivier Boulnois have contributed articles to an issue of Communio dedicated to “Poverty and Kenosis” that lay much responsibility for our modern state of affairs – philosophical, theological, and political – at the feet of Francis and his followers. For Boulnois, the ‘absolute novelty of Franciscan poverty’ causes a ‘true fracture’ in intellectual history, and the aftershocks of this rupture are at the root of “the whole modern reflection on politics.” Francis could never have imagined that casting off his clothes in the public square could have such catastrophic effects.

The case against Franciscan poverty usually lands most squarely upon the friars’ focus upon freedom of the will as a central attribute of both divine and human action. By turn and by turn, the antinomianism of Francis’s intentional refusal of ownership of any property or money for his community seemed, on this account, to yield a nominalist vision of God as absolute freedom that tends to sever God’s rational relation to the created order and a parallel vision of the human as willing being that generates the modern discourse of rights and property. To develop this argument in greater depth and to respond to it directly is not my intent today. I can only say that I note that most of the critiques of Boulnois and Milbank are contingent upon arguments that develop in defense of the canonical status of poverty, and my instinct is to query whether the shift of the locus of reflection to the sphere of canonical, legal justifications of this or that practice had already changed the terms of argument in such a way that neither side can win. My intent in this essay, then, is not at all to answer or refute these charges, but instead to tell a complementary story that may bring some theological and spiritual ballast to the argument. If the cases made by Boulnois and others tend to rest upon the results of polemical exchanges over canon law and institutional status, I hope to shed light on a different and specifically theological legacy of mendicant poverty, one that stays more closely attuned to theological reflection on the practice of apostolic poverty in the mendicant life and less focused upon the canonical and juridical battles over the legitimacy of the mendicant orders. Apostolic poverty – as a spiritual practice engaged and experienced within the mendicant movement – provides rich soil for fundamental reflection on the paradox of fullness and emptiness in the doctrine of creation, wherein the metaphysical mendicancy of the creature itself becomes the opening up of its intimate union with the abyss of divine mystery. Only when we take account of this mystical theological legacy of apostolic poverty can we properly assess and balance the institutional squabbles that framed and followed its practice. Apostolic poverty should “be known by its fruits,” even as it is known by the “agricultural regulations” that spring up around it.

“The Sweetness of Nothingness”. Poverty and the Theology of Creation in Bonaventure, Angela of Foligno, and Meister Eckhart

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Numero 20 POVERTY dicembre, 2017 - Autore:  Condividi


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