The theological notion of the communion of saints and the personalist notions of community in E. Levinas

William Thomas Donovan, Fordham University


This study correlates the traditional Christian notion of communion of saints, found in the Apostles' Creed, to the notions of community developed in the twentieth century by the personalist philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Through this correlation the study is able to re-examine the notion communion of saints and its theological and anthropological foundations. The sources and antecedents of communion of saints are examined from scripture and early church history, the first uses of the phrase, its subsequent development as a notion, and its relationship to the eucharist. Next there is a presentation and examination of contemporary theological understandings which use this notion. Emmanuel Levinas's notions of community are presented and discussed, leading up to a correlation with communion of saints on the issues of grace, reciprocity, reward, fusion and the divine. The study shows that Levinas's thought, especially his notion of the primacy of responsibility, has been shaped by his religious convictions. He is essentially doing a phenomenology of the individual touched by grace, who is called to a community of agape through sharing in the divine life. Using Levinas as a dialogue partner in the discussion advances the theological understanding of communion of saints from a "common sense" notion to a theological concept. We can say that the Other (person) becomes a presence of God for the self, and the communion of Others who surround the individual with love and support is the manifestation of the outpouring of God's grace. Communion of saints is then a doctrine concerned with our living, graced and sanctified interrelationship with other believers and all others, a spiritual communion based in the life of God and expressed in community, participation and mutuality. It becomes an active spiritual union for those who recognize their dependence upon God for their entire existence and humanity, and who see each other as sisters and brothers by virtue of their common filiation. This notion, now enhanced by our discussion, has implications for church practices, structures, ecumenism and relationship to the world at large.

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Recommended Citation

Donovan, William Thomas, "The theological notion of the communion of saints and the personalist notions of community in E. Levinas" (1998). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9825847.