Malnourished

Roger Haight’s aim in The Future of Christology is to restate and expand, in a somewhat more accessible way, arguments he first made in Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis, 1999). Haight believes that his approach to Christology is the best way to present Christ and the meaning of Christianity to an educated audience that is used to postmodern understanding and religious pluralism. “My attention,” he writes, “focuses upon development in the ideas and attitudes of educated middle-class Christians in the mainline churches who are being drawn along with the times and culture in which we live.” In our “new stage of the history of the human race...we cannot in principle provide a metaphysical grounding for competition and imperialism by defining Christianity as the only true religion, thereby relegating other religions as inferior to Christianity.”

Haight believes that the best way to understand Jesus and his place in our lives is through the historical Jesus, the one whose presence-in Haight’s way of understanding the question-lies behind the New Testament accounts; and the best way for us to regard other religious traditions is to see that while Jesus is the symbol of God for Christians, God may be incarnated in different ways in other religions.

Haight’s emphasis is on a Christology “from below”-that is, one that relies not on dogma but on an encounter with the Jesus who healed, preached the kingdom, and was killed by the authorities. The imagination is necessary here; by “imagination” Haight does not mean a fanciful approach, but rather the arrangement and construing of what we encounter in Jesus seen as a human being. It is dogma, not this historical imagining, that can be drawn into the realm of the fanciful, according to Haight. No immediate contact with God is possible; therefore imagination of the sort he describes (based on the historical Jesus) is central. He takes this questionable proposition as a given, and moves on. But there is a murky and anachronistic sense of “the historical” here. The Jesus offered in The Future of Christology would not scandalize a Unitarian. We are offered a rabbi with a passion for social justice who preaches the kingdom of God. The anachronism enters here: the preaching of the kingdom is much more a feature of the Gospels than it is of Paul’s letters, but the Gospels were written after the letters of Paul, whose proclamation of Christ is of someone crucified and risen. The Jesus of Philippians-“who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself....and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross”-is someone who takes a back seat to the Jesus Haight finds in his bleached version of the synoptic Gospels, all of which were composed later than Paul’s own writing. The competing theologies of the Synoptics allow a dismissal of anything more seriously urged than the idea that Jesus preached the kingdom, whatever that was. The theology of John’s Gospel, where Jesus Christ, the Word, is identified with God, is effectively dismissed.

The theology of the cross offered in one chapter here is not really a theology of the cross. Haight understandably wants to make the case that there is nothing good about human suffering, that the torture and murder Jesus endured cannot be said to be good things. His target seems to be the “offer it up” notion of countless Irish mothers and the bloodier Iberian crucifixes that really appear to make suffering into a perverse form of good; but these are caricatures of the orthodox ideas of what the cross meant. Haight resists (as I think he should) the idea of substitutionary atonement, but seems to go further and resist the idea that there is anything at all salvific about the cross, or that it is central to Christology. It is of more than passing interest that all four Gospels, the Synoptics and the discordant John, are constructed as movements toward the Passion narrative. Suffering (as the traditional orthodox Christian understanding of the cross knows, and as Buddhists know when they place the first noble truth, “existence is suffering,” as the beginning of an important understanding) is not a distraction from what really matters. It has to do with our life at its center. And if one who is fully human as well as fully divine has taken it on himself to share in that most terrible, and most human, of realities, bringing it forward into resurrected life, it changes everything.

The full divinity of Jesus is never really accepted here. Take Haight on the Council of Chalcedon: “In Christology, this dialectical structure is reproduced in the classical Christological doctrine finally forged at Chalcedon after years of debate: Jesus both is not and is divine; Jesus both is and is not merely (that is, restrictively) human.” This is not Chalcedon, which said that Jesus is in fact fully human and fully divine. The fullness of his humanity is easier for us to understand, and the reaction of orthodox Christianity to extreme monophysitism was that “what has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” But to be hesitant about the fullness of his divinity removes the possibility of theosis, or deification-the idea, best expressed by Athanasius, that “God became human so that humans might become God.” The fullness of humanity is a sharing in the fullness of divinity, ours as a gift, whereas it was Jesus’ by nature. Haight responds, at the end of his book, to a number of negative reviews of Jesus Symbol of God and says that some of his critics “are correct in saying that I am wary of saying ‘Jesus is God’ in a nondialectical way.” Haight would rather say that Jesus is a symbol of God, and mediates God to Christians (though not to all human beings). In his resistance to saying that Jesus is God he seems sometimes to mean that Jesus is not the Father, but this was never the teaching of orthodox Christianity. In Jesus Symbol of God and here Haight prefers a “spirit Christology,” which he defines as “open to other mediations of God. The Spirit is spread abroad, and it is not necessary to think that God as Spirit can be incarnated only once in history.”

One wonders for whom this claim is intended. No religion other than Christianity speaks of God incarnate, with the exception of Hinduism, and Krishna is in every way a kind of God dressed in flesh, not fully human in the way Christians assert that Jesus is. The Buddhists are not interested in God being incarnated in any way; many are not theists, and while Mahayana Buddhists may speak of a pervasive “Buddha nature” this is nothing like the creator God of the Abrahamic religions. Even in Christianity it is not God as Spirit who is incarnated.

What Haight seems to want to resist is hierarchy of any sort-the notion that one religion might really be superior to another. But isn’t ancient Mayan religion, with its human sacrifice, inferior to Buddhism? Is Scientology to be placed on an equal level with Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity? Haight obviously believes that a Christianity that understands the incarnation of Christ as unique is inferior to the sort of reduced Christianity he advocates.

I say that Haight seems to say this or that because The Future of Christology is full of academic boilerplate; reading it is like eating sand. “Educated people are getting a better picture all the time of the natural process through which the human race was created. These same people have a better understanding of the indeterminate character of human history and the arbitrary turns taken by corporate human freedom. Although human beings know more about their past, they know less about their future and have grounds for feeling insecure. The future of human history is open, and corporate human behavior is unpredictable.” Indeed.

I was reminded, reading this book, of a remark made by Lincoln during the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate. Douglas’s arguments for popular sovereignty, he said, were “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” So is the vision of Jesus presented here. I can’t see how anyone would be moved to cross the street for it, much less live or die for it.

Published in the 2006-04-07 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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