Sunday, August 3, 2008

Abelard and Heloise enacted

Calm before the storm: Abelard and Heloise share a tender moment in Howard Brenton's In Extremis. Photograph: Stephen Vaughan

Sex, death, religious fundamentalism and castration ... not obvious ingredients for a medieval love tale, perhaps, but with playwright Howard Brenton that's exactly what you get. His new play, In Extremis, opens this week at London's Globe and promises to be one of the summer's last big theatrical events.

Based on the true story of Abelard and Heloise, it's a love affair between one of the most radical thinkers of the 12th century and his talented female pupil, an affair that goes gruesomely wrong when Abelard's enlightened teaching falls foul of church orthodoxy.

Brenton has never fought shy of controversy: previous plays have lampooned Churchill, satirised Thatcher, and even suggested that St Paul may simply have been suffering from epilepsy on the path to Damascus. That's not even to mention the scandal ignited by Brenton's The Romans in Britain (1980), which criticised the British presence in Northern Ireland and ended up in court when Mary Whitehouse took exception to it.

Even so, the 63-year-old Brenton still has plenty of fire - and he's never been busier, he told me when we met a few days ago in the middle of final rehearsals. As well as talking about the impetus behind the new play, he describes why some of the greatest works are near-failures, reveals his artistic heroes (it's the only time I've heard Oscar Wilde and Michel Houellebecq mentioned in the same breath) and explains why it's such a thrill writing about people dangerously ahead of their time.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008


Monday, June 30, 2008

Methodological questions in Christology

Methodological questions in Christology
WHO DO YOU SAY I AM? Christology: What it is & why it matters - studying Jesus Christ and his teachings
Commonweal, March 22, 2002 by Robert A. Krieg

The biblical scene is well known. Jesus turns to his disciples and asks, "Who do people say that I am?" Various people reply, "John the Baptist" or "Elijah" or "one of the prophets." Then Jesus asks, "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter answers, "You are the Christ" (Mark 8:29).

Although this startling encounter first occurred two thousand years ago, the question remains with us. To every Christian of every era, the Lord Jesus asks: "But who do you say that I am?" And like Peter, we respond. Terminally ill, someone considers anew what she really believes about the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Or preparing to marry, a couple discuss how they see their marital lives in relation to the risen Lord. Or helping in a homeless shelter, someone senses that he is meeting Christ among the women, children, and men in the dining room. Jesus' question, "Who do you say I am?" has many correct answers, including: You are the crucified Messiah, the Christ of Cana, and the Son of Man among the poor.

Whenever we try to say who Jesus is for us, we engage in Christology. Christology is the attempt to understand the identity of Jesus as the Christ, as God's anointed one, as God's Son and the Second Person of the Trinity. We do not take up this question as spectators. Like Saint Peter or Martha (John 11:27), we are already deeply involved with the Lord Jesus. For us to reflect on Jesus' identity is simultaneously to describe Christ's relationship with us, with his disciples, and even with those who have never heard of him. What composes our belief in Jesus Christ is crucial to our individual lives and to the church's life. Therefore, the fuller our answers to the question of Jesus' identity, the fuller our lives as we face each day, care for one another, and participate in the Mass.

Christology is, of course, a technical term. It denotes an area of scholarly expertise that often seems hopelessly abstruse, even superfluous, to many believing Christians. Still, it is also a topic of current creativity and conflict in the church. As many Commonweal readers know, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has inquired into the orthodoxy of some Catholic theologians, most prominently the Jesuits Roger Haight and Jacques Dupuis. The specific works in question are Haight's Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis, 1999) and Dupuis's Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Orbis, 1997). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the CDF have expressed skepticism about the efforts of Haight and Dupuis to reconcile traditional Christological doctrine with pressing issues related to contemporary culture and non-Christian religions. I shall return to Haight and Dupuis, but first I want to sketch out the broader theological context of the discussion.

Christology from above and from below Recent decades have seen the emergence of two distinct ways of reflecting on the mystery of Jesus Christ. What is known as "Christology from above" begins with the Second Person of the Trinity, with the preexisting divine Word in relation to the Father and the Holy Spirit. This methodology then proceeds "downward" to the Incarnation, to the event in which the Word or Logos became man in Jesus Christ. Finally, this approach to Christology draws our attention to how the Word made flesh suffered and died for our sins, and then rose from the dead and returned to God's "right hand." This more traditional way of thinking about Jesus Christ is often called "high" Christology because of its emphasis on the divinity of Jesus Christ. Prominent examples of this approach can be found in Joseph Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity (1968), The Person of Christ (1981) by Jean Galot, S.J., the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), and in the CDF's declaration, Dominus Iesus (September 5, 2000). A high Christology also pervades the writings of Romano Guardini and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The other way of reflecting on the mystery of Jesus Christ is called "Christology from below." Theologians who espouse this approach start with the human figure of Jesus. Often the analysis begins either by considering in general what it means to be human, or by reconstructing the historical figure of Jesus as a Jew in Galilee during the reigns of Herod the Great (d. 4 b.c.) and his son Herod Antipas (d. a.d. 39). This kind of theological thinking then proceeds "upward" by reflecting on Jesus' singular union with God during his earthly life, as evident in his prayer to God as Abba, in his teachings, in his extraordinary personal authority, and in his compassion for others, including his miracles. Finally, Christology from below inquires into the mystery of Jesus' suffering, death, and Resurrection, asking why Christ is more than one martyr among others and also about the character of his Resurrection appearances. Christology from below is also known as "low" Christology, and is characterized by the emphasis it places on the humanity of Jesus Christ. It usually relies to some extent on the results of historical-critical studies of the Bible. Monika Hellwig's Jesus: The Compassion of God (1983), Gerard Sloyan's Jesus in Focus (1983), as well as Jesus: A Gospel Portrait (1992) by Donald Senior, C.P., and Christology (1995) by Gerald O'Collins, S.J., are widely respected examples of this approach. Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutierrez, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, S.J., Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and Jon Sobrino, S.J., are all identified with Christology from below.

Both ways of thinking about Jesus Christ are based in Scripture and doctrine. Christology from above is inspired by the prologue to John's Gospel: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (1:14). By contrast, Christology from below takes seriously the testimony that "Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard in his godly fear" (Hebrews 5:7). Further, both methods are anchored in the doctrine, promulgated by the Council of Chalcedon (a.d. 451), that Jesus Christ is "truly God" and "truly man" in "one person." In other words, Christology teaches that Jesus Christ unites all of the qualities belonging to God (such as omniscience) and all of the traits of a human being (such as a finite, explicit self-consciousness). Surely, the Chalcedonian doctrine formulates the paradox at the heart of Christian belief in Jesus Christ--the presence of two natures in one person--that gives rise to both Christology from above and Christology from below.

There are strengths and weaknesses in each approach. A merit of Christology from above is that it perceives Jesus Christ within the mystery of the triune God, thereby highlighting his divinity and the uniqueness of the Incarnation--that the divine Logos has become a full human being in only one individual, Jesus Christ. However, because of its top-down perspective and categories, Christology from above risks not saying enough about Christ's full humanity. A high Christology can implicitly convey a Docetism, the view that the Son of God only appeared to be human during his earthly life. Further, it tends to read the New Testament exclusively through the lens of John's prologue or the captivity epistles like Colossians, thereby overlooking the diversity--some would argue the contradictions--of the early church's testimony concerning Christ, and hence to some extent the complexity of Christ's identity.

One merit of Christology from below is that it illumines Jesus Christ's solidarity with us. "He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved" (Gaudium et spes, 22). Christology from below shows that Jesus is "one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). Another merit of this approach is that it appeals to many people today. Since we tend to think in historical terms, we want to know when Jesus lived, how he fit into the Jewish world of his day, and why he was such a threat to the Romans. If done properly, Christology from below keeps in focus the human figure of Jesus of Nazareth while not neglecting Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God. Saying too little about the divinity of Christ and his unique singularity within history is the risk involved. In other words, Christology from below can move toward Ebionitism, the heresy that views Jesus as merely a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism.

The Vatican's recent inquiries

It is the danger of losing sight of the divinity of Jesus Christ that Cardinal Ratzinger was anxious to combat by issuing Dominus Iesus on September 5, 2000. Jesus Christ "is endangered today by relativistic theories," the CDF statement asserted. Hence, "it is necessary above all to reassert the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ." Six months later (February 26, 2001), as a seeming sequel to Dominus Iesus, Ratzinger announced that the CDF had concluded its two-year investigation of Jacques Dupuis's book. Henceforth, all printings of Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism must include a "notification" from the CDF that gives eight pertinent theological principles, of which the following four specifically concern Jesus Christ:

1. "It must be firmly believed that Jesus Christ, the son of God made man, crucified and risen, is the sole and universal mediator of salvation for all humanity."

2. "It is therefore contrary to the Catholic faith to not only posit a separation between the Word and Jesus, or between the Word's salvific activity and that of Jesus, but also to maintain that there is a salvific activity of the Word as such in his divinity, independent of the humanity of the Incarnate Word."

3. "It is therefore contrary to the Catholic faith to maintain that revelation in Jesus Christ (or the revelation of Jesus Christ) is limited, incomplete, or imperfect."

4. "It is consistent with Catholic doctrine to hold that the seeds of truth and goodness that exist in other religions are a certain participation in truths contained in the revelation of or in Jesus Christ. However, it is erroneous to hold that such elements of truth and goodness, or some of them, do not derive ultimately from the source-mediation of Jesus Christ."

According to the CDF, this notification is necessary in order to prevent readers from experiencing "serious confusion and misunderstanding, which could result from this book." Dupuis has replied that he upheld the CDF's eight theological principles in his book, and commentators on the book agree. Yet, the CDF wanted to leave no doubt about these teachings. It seems clear that Ratzinger and the CDF were concerned about the clarity of Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism because of their general uneasiness with Christology from below.

Dupuis upholds Chalcedon's doctrine about Jesus Christ as truly God and truly a human being by presenting him as the "concrete universal." By this Dupuis means that Jesus Christ is at once the Logos and an utterly unique historical figure. While discussing Jesus Christ as God's eternal, universal Word who became man in Jesus Christ, Dupuis has also presented Jesus Christ as the historical individual who expressed his teachings and himself in ways determined by his Galilean culture and Jewish beliefs. Given the historical particularity of Jesus Christ, Dupuis has proposed that the Logos, while completely revealed in Jesus Christ, is simultaneously free to act in other, less complete manifestations throughout history. Because of the universality of the Logos, non-Christian religious traditions may in fact participate in the mediation of Jesus Christ. This seemingly controversial claim was promoted in Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter, Redemptoris missio (December 7, 1990). In sum, by combining Christology from above with Christology from below, Dupuis has affirmed the divinity of Jesus Christ and at the same time affirmed the humanity of Jesus Christ.

The CDF's concerns about Christology from below are not new. They began twenty years ago with inquiries into Hans Kung's On Being a Christian (1974) and Edward Schillebeeckx's Jesus (1974). In this regard, the CDF also issued statements about the dangers of the liberation theologies of Latin America in 1984 and 1986. More recently, Ratzinger voiced similar concerns about the writings of Anthony De Mello, S.J., and Tissa Balasuriya, O.M.I.

The CDF has not yet concluded its inquiry into Roger Haight's Jesus Symbol of God. However, it has suspended his right to teach at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In an effort to make belief in Jesus Christ more intelligible in today's postmodern culture, Haight relies solely on Christology from below. Inspired by Schillebeeckx's Christ: The Sacrament of Encounter with God (1960) and Jesus (1974), Haight speaks of God being "present and active for human salvation" in Jesus. Jesus is "God's authentic revelation and salvation of human existence," "a historical symbol of God's salvation of humankind." In other words, Jesus is God's sacrament. "Jesus is salvation by being a revealer of God, a symbol for an encounter with God, and an exemplar of human existence."

With his attentiveness to the differences among people because of history, culture, gender, race, or economic class, Haight's perspective makes the mystery of Christ more accessible to readers with a "pluralistic consciousness." Reviewers have acknowledged the value of this approach, some regarding Jesus Symbol of God as a benchmark in contemporary Christology. More controversially, though, Haight does not explicitly state that Jesus Christ is God's only begotten Son and the one savior of creation. It seems that such traditional affirmations would be inconsistent with Haight's thorough Christology from below. For this reason, John Cavadini has pointed out that "when it comes to calling Jesus a 'symbol' of God, many Christians will worry: Is that all? Merely a symbol?" (Commonweal, October 8, 1999). Similarly, Dermot Lane has noted: "Some will be concerned that the salvation of God mediated by Jesus appears to be on a par with the offer of God's salvation found in other religions" (Theological Studies 50; 1999).

These are reasonable concerns. Still, it is worth noting that the CDF has never undertaken a formal inquiry into a book that relies solely on Christology from above. No inquiries have ever been initiated into theologians who make too little of the humanity of Jesus Christ. Karl Rahner (d. 1984) noted as much in 1951 on the fifteen hundredth anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon. According to Rahner, Catholicism is always flirting with a "latent monophysitism," a one-sided emphasis upon the divinity of Christ. In Rahner's judgment, the church has difficulty accepting that Jesus was a full human being. If Rahner is correct, then Rome is more likely to inquire into the orthodoxy of theologians who work with a Christology from below than into the possible Docetism of theologians who follow a Christology from above.

Is some middle ground possible in this often neuralgic dispute? Some theologians hold that neither Christology from below nor Christology from above is adequate in itself. Each must be complemented by the other so that there emerges a fuller glimpse of the mystery of Jesus Christ. Rahner himself combined both approaches in his Foundations of Christian Faith (1974). Brian McDermott, S.J., has done the same in Word Become Flesh (1993). As already noted, Dupuis has used both approaches in Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. Moreover, Walter Kasper, who was made a cardinal in February 2001 and soon afterward the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, also combined the two methods in his Jesus the Christ (1974).

Theology's two foci: retrieval and dialogue

Whether or not theologians approach the mystery of Jesus Christ from above or from below, they work in relation to two distinct, though inseparable, foci. On the one hand, they rely on Scripture and tradition, and, on the other, they attend to the issues and ideas in today's church and society. In other words, theologians engage to some extent in both retrieval and dialogue, in a critical correlation of the church's past testimony and its present reality. For example, both Dupuis and Haight have declared that they are intent upon bringing God's revelation as attested to in Scripture and tradition into conversation with today's church and contemporary life. In this regard, Walter Kasper acknowledged the importance of theology's two foci at the outset of his Jesus the Christ. Citing Jurgen Moltmann's The Crucified God (1972), Kasper observed that Christology must unfold in continuity or "identity" with the Bible and tradition, and simultaneously it must remain "relevant" to contemporary life and thought.

Still, theologians differ among themselves as to how they in fact engage in retrieval and dialogue. Some place more weight on mining Scripture and tradition than on explicitly taking up contemporary ideas, while others stress dialogue without letting go of retrieval. Here is a significant difference between Ratzinger's way of doing theology and Kasper's. This difference shapes their respective views about Christology.

In Dominus Iesus, Ratzinger emphasizes the retrieval of Scripture and tradition and all but ignores dialogue. Biblical verses and phrases are cited in a synthetic manner, presenting the New Testament as a harmonious chorus of voices singing in praise of God's singular work in Jesus Christ but never attending to possible theological differences, or even contradictions, among the texts. Ratzinger also draws heavily on patristic texts, the documents of Vatican II, and the encyclical letters of Pope John Paul II. Here, the declaration smoothes over the diversity of Christian teachings. Further, although the declaration recognizes the issues facing the church today, its presentation of contemporary ideas is broad-brush, summarizing them in propositional statements and writing them off as "relativistic theories."

In response to Dominus Iesus, Kasper published an essay that conveys a more positive regard for interreligious dialogue. In "Jesus Christ: God's Final Word" (Communio 28; Spring 2001), Kasper upholds belief in Jesus Christ as the one redeemer of all people and simultaneously acknowledges that theological conversations among Catholics and representatives of other religions can "open certain aspects of the mystery of Christ more deeply to us." Although Kasper makes many references to Scripture and church teachings concerning Jesus Christ as the one mediator between God and man, he also undertakes an empathetic, yet critical account of postmodern thought. In this, he demonstrates that he has taken seriously the concerns and ideas of contemporary philosophers and theologians while also anchoring his thought in church teachings. For this reason, his words ring true when he states that "interreligious dialogue is no one-way street; it is a genuine encounter, which can be an enrichment for us as Christians." He insists that Catholic theology must be marked by "dialogue and diakonia [service]."

How much weight should be given to mining the riches of the Bible and Christian tradition, and how much to listening to the testimony of the living church? At what point does retrieval become mere repetition of biblical verses and doctrinal formulations at the expense of meaning? And, at what point does dialogue collapse into a monologue that unthinkingly privileges the fashionable ideas of the day? Obviously, these are crucial questions.

The Third Vatican Council

Cardinal Ratzinger gave an address to the synod of bishops in Rome on October 6, 2001, in which he sharply criticized Christology from below. He stated: "The central problem of our time is the emptying out of the historical figure of Jesus. It begins with denying the virgin birth, then the Resurrection becomes a spiritual event, then Christ's awareness of being the Son of God is denied, leaving him only the words of a rabbi. Then the Eucharist falls, and becomes just a farewell dinner."

These are strong words. They indicate that Ratzinger is troubled not only by specific Christological texts but also by Christology from below in general, especially when it relies heavily on the historical-critical method. Unfortunately, his description bears only a faint resemblance to the sophisticated work of reputable Catholic scholars. In any case, Ratzinger surely sees this approach to Jesus Christ as a threat to Christian faith.

A full and vital understanding of Jesus Christ is essential for the Christian faith and the church's life. In response to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" Catholics must honor the mystery of the Lord Jesus by identifying him in different ways, for example, as the crucified Messiah, the Christ of Cana, and the Son of Man among the poor. Just as Catholicism accepts various models of the church because the church itself is a complex, indeed mysterious, reality, so too Catholicism embraces a range of images and views of Jesus Christ who is an absolute mystery. Catholics are increasingly interested in reflecting on Jesus Christ in relation to such religious figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Krishna, Muhammad, and Moses. This is especially the case for Catholics outside of North America and Europe. For this reason, Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., has observed that "the next wave [of Christology] to rise and roll into the church's consciousness will be that of non-Western Christologies, as the young and growing churches of Africa, Asia, and India formulate their own answer to the Christological question in words and concepts taken from their own cultures" (Consider Jesus, Crossroad, 1990). But what are the limits of this spectrum of Christologies?

In his address to the synod of bishops, Ratzinger said that the issues currently facing the church would resolve themselves if the church would come to a greater awareness of the living Christ. Whether or not one agrees with Ratzinger's evaluation of Christology, one can see that he has identified a central issue: the unity and diversity of the church's views of Jesus Christ. This issue is so vital to the church and so global that it cannot be adequately addressed only by local churches and their theologians. The time may be approaching when the church must convene its Third Vatican Council. Whereas the First Vatican Council (1869-70) clarified the character of papal authority and the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) illuminated the church's nature and mission, the Third Vatican Council may choose to shed fresh light on the very center of the church's faith. That is, Vatican III may respond anew to the question that Jesus posed to Peter, "But who do you say that I am?"

Robert A. Krieg is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is Romano Guardini: A Precursor of Vatican II (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).

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