Not So Heterodox

In Defense of Roger Haight

The work of Jesuit theologian Roger Haight seems to arouse the strongest reactions. From the Vatican to reviewers in the pages of Commonweal, Haight has been taken to task for various failures in theological method, even orthodoxy. He is accused of eviscerating the teachings of Christianity and reducing Christian faith to merely one life-affirming option among others.

As is widely known, the Vatican considered Haight’s writings questionable enough to remove him in 2005 from his position on the faculty of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, where he taught both lay and seminary students training for ministry. In response, the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) vigorously defended Haight’s right to speak and teach as a Catholic theologian, making clear that the Vatican’s action foreclosed theological debate and blurred the distinction between speculative theology and catechetics. Even critics who find Haight’s theological writing seriously deficient defend his right to teach in a Catholic school. At this time, though, he is not likely to be restored to his position.

What explains the wild discrepancies in the evaluation of Haight’s contributions to contemporary Christology and ecclesiology? Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson (author of She Who Is) has praised Haight for setting up “a dialogue between the mind of this age and the riches of Christian Scripture and tradition,” one that “allows for [a] genuinely new expression of Jesus intelligible in today’s world.” On the other hand, John Cavadini, writing in Commonweal (October 8, 1999), noted that “there is a difference between rendering Christian faith intelligible to a culture and reducing its central theological claim to a statement that even an atheist can affirm.”

Haight’s notoriety is best understood as the result of the Christological views put forth in Jesus Symbol of God. The issues raised in that book were also addressed in a different context in Haight’s more recent two-volume ecclesiology, Christian Community in History (2004, 2005), and in The Future of Christology (2005), a collection of essays that reprises many of the themes of Jesus Symbol of God. Haight even concludes The Future of Christology with a review of his reviewers.

Debate over Haight’s work focuses on three questions. First, and perhaps most arcane, is the meaning of the word “symbol” in the phrase, “Jesus symbol of God.” Haight says that his refusal to accept “undialectically” the statement “Jesus is God” is in fact based on his reading of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and not just on his “postmodern” understanding of the linguistic and epistemological nature of symbolism. His critics maintain, however, that Haight’s understanding of “symbol,” which is rooted in his appropriation and development of Edward Schillebeeckx’s neo-Thomist classic, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (1963), is fatally reductionistic, resulting in an understanding of Jesus as a figure who merely points beyond himself to God rather than being God.

The second major concern deals with Haight’s work in ecclesiology (see Luke Timothy Johnson, Commonweal, January 28, 2005). Haight is accused of allowing the idea of historical change and contingency to trump the idea of revelation and doctrinal authority.

The third objection raised by Haight’s critics has to do with his embrace of religious pluralism and how he presents the truth claims of Christianity vis-à-vis the truth claims of other religions. It is Haight’s conviction that it is simply no longer possible to assert the superiority of Christianity in any objective, metaphysical way. Moreover, he does not think that it is necessary for Christians to persuade the adherents of other world religions to accept the truth of Christ. Naturally, Haight’s positive regard for religious pluralism presents a fundamental challenge to traditional notions of Christian identity. It also raises for some the specter of relativism, as it appears to make Christianity no more than one option-albeit “the best for me”-among many.

It is important to remember that Haight quite self-consciously understands himself to be doing “speculative” theology, mostly in dialogue with other academic theologians. At the same time, though, he thinks one of the principal tasks of modern theology is to “address the world beyond Christianity”-namely, the increasingly secular and pluralistic world of modernity. In that light, perhaps one way to understand how Haight arrived at these controversial views is to begin with some questions about the task of modern apologetics.

When I was growing up in England in the years before Vatican II, though Chesterton and Belloc had gone to their reward, men (and a few women) of fearless and unquestioning conviction climbed on soapboxes in parks and on street corners and volubly “defended” the faith. Apologetics in those days was fired by the old adage that attack is the best form of defense. In fact, the fundamental purpose of Catholic apologetics is to present the most persuasive intellectual defense of the faith, a kind of propaedeutic to the reasonableness of Catholic belief. Before Vatican II, however, and especially among the less-celebrated street apologists, the sting in the tail of the apologia was the demonstration of the evident superiority of a Catholic view of things over the views held by anyone else, from Anglicans to atheists. It was not about what united Christian believers, but about what divided us. “Not Catholic? Hell looms!” was the cry. The doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation) was widely taught and believed. You can get some idea of what that meant from Mel Gibson’s notorious remarks about whether his wife, an Anglican, will be saved. A “traditionalist” Catholic who rejects Vatican II, Gibson affirmed, “There is no salvation for those outside the church; I believe it.” He added, “My wife is a saint. She’s a much better person than I am. Honestly.... She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it’s just not fair if she doesn’t make it; she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.”

As Gibson’s remarks show us, apologists before Vatican II often acted like the child in the schoolyard who is not content to praise his or her own parents but insists on picking a fight about whose father is strongest or tallest. Yet if attack is the best form of defense, it can also be a symptom of mere defensiveness.

Haight’s postmodern apologetics addresses a different age and reflects the changed assumptions of Catholics regarding their own faith and the beliefs of others outside the church. Haight’s work is a serious theological response to the dramatic change in the ecumenical and interreligious landscape after Vatican II and the disappearance of the “Catholic ghetto.” As the bishops so memorably, and surprisingly, wrote in Nostra aetate: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in [other] religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” Now that the church has moved away from the notion that all those who are not Catholic are damned, one of the most pressing theological questions is how to understand the way in which truth is present in other religions and other Christian communities.

At the same time, Catholic self-understanding has also undergone dramatic change. Like Protestanism, for many generations now in Europe and North America, Catholicism has become increasingly voluntarist. In other words, being a Catholic means choosing to be a Catholic. Remaining Catholic because you were raised that way, or because of some combination of faith, fear, loyalty, and cultural identity is no longer possible for most people. Roger Haight’s Christology and ecclesiology, I would argue, is a sophisticated theological version of what many, if not most, American Catholics already believe. Most Catholics believe that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” the way, the truth, and the life, yet they no longer feel compelled to insist that the faith convictions of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists are in some profound way deficient. Indeed, most Catholics simply do not believe that conversion to Catholicism is required for the salvation or worldly happiness of people of other faiths.

Haight’s apologetic posture starts from this understanding of both the universality and the plurality of God’s presence and revelation. This understanding really is something new for Catholic theology, and some think it cannot be assimilated. Admittedly, Haight’s affirmation of religious pluralism is not easy to reconcile with traditional Catholic notions about salvation, or with recent magisterial teaching on the “gravely deficient situation” of other faiths. Rather, the strength of Haight’s position lies in its realism-and in its confidence in God’s generosity and mystery. The greatest failing of Haight’s critics, it seems to me, is that they never come to grips in an intellectually coherent way with the fact that our world is filled with people for whom other forms of Christianity and other ancient religions are obvious ways to holiness. Increasingly, Christian believers, while secure in their profession of faith in Jesus Christ and their attachment to Catholicism, are reluctant to suggest that Anglicanism or Lutheranism is “gravely deficient,” or that Buddhism does not in some profound way reflect the truth.

In short, we live in a tolerant and ecumenical age, and that fact is something to be celebrated rather than condemned or dismissed as “relativism” or “indifferentism.” When we engage other Christians and especially non-Christian believers, we do not abandon our faith claims, but neither do we insist on privileging the hermeneutical position of Catholicism. Some think this attitude is the result of a creeping relativism. Others, like Haight, think the wisdom of other religious traditions may include insights about the nature of God that can enrich the Catholic vision of things, and vice versa. More fundamental still, how are we to make sense-make religious sense-of the undeniable fact of religious pluralism? Do you, with Haight, celebrate it as a reflection of divine creativity and mystery? Or are you attached to the notion that the gates of heaven will look remarkably like the doors of St. Peter’s in Rome? Haight thinks the Lord works in mysterious and paradoxical ways. He argues that the institutional structure of the church today reflects the work of the Spirit operating in varied historical circumstances; that structure was not foreordained from the beginning of time.

Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, addresses many of these questions in his wonderful book, The Dignity of Difference (2000). Sacks makes the bold and controversial claim (predictably some of his coreligionists have charged him with heresy) that “Judaism was, as it were, born in medias res. It was able to conceive of a universal God, but not yet of a universal faith.” Sacks understands the story of the tower of Babel to be a rejection by God of any “attempt to impose an artificial unity on divinely created diversity.” Against the universalizing instincts of Christianity, Islam, and Greek philosophy, “the Bible argues that universalism is the first, not the last, phase in the growth of the moral imagination.” Judaism is a particularist monotheism: “it believes in one God but not in one exclusive path to salvation.... God may at times be found in the human other, the one not like us. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one gateway to His presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation.”

This, it seems to me, is very close to Haight’s view of biblical monotheism. As a Catholic theologian, Haight does not want to claim more for Christian belief than is necessary. Isn’t it enough for Christians, he seems to be saying, that they affirm Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Is the gospel’s “great commission” to go and make believers of people in every land, a call to, as Sacks would put it, “impose an artificial unity on divinely created diversity”? Or is it something else, something that can embrace pluralism without forfeiting its own integrity? Haight is not saying that Christians should abandon the claim that Jesus Christ is Lord or refrain from explaining to non-Christians who they understand Jesus to be. Rather, he argues that in affirming the divinity of Jesus, Christians should not insist that other religions are false or devoid of truth. For Haight, it is through Jesus’ humanity, not his kingship, that we come to see his divinity. It is Jesus’ humility, not the church’s authority, that should guide us in our encounters with those of other faiths. It seems to me that although not identical, Haight’s approach to religious pluralism follows the pathbreaking work of his fellow Jesuit Frans Jozef van Beeck’s Christ Proclaimed: Christology as Rhetoric (1979). There van Beeck rejects the resort to the traditional exclusivist Catholic apologetics.

Such aggressive defenses of Christ’s uniqueness are little more than expression of the type of Christianity that has forsaken the imitatio Christi in order to set itself up as a power, a cause at odds with other causes. Most declarations of the “Jesus-and-not-the-Buddha” type are neither about Jesus nor about the Buddha, but are feeble-faithed Christians’ attempts at defending themselves. The same applies to much intrachurch discussion of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ: many strong affirmations of Christ’s divinity are feeble believers’ attempts at safeguarding not doctrine, but themselves, against understandable doubts and legitimate questions. Such defensive affirmations lack the sympathy and compassion of Christ.

Certainly, Haight’s critics are right in saying there could be more clarity in his discussion of what a symbol is and does. Still, I am confident that Haight’s idea of symbol is consonant with Karl Rahner’s “real symbol.” Haight’s Jesus does not merely point to something beyond himself; rather, “Jesus symbol of God” makes present what he signifies. Haight does not want to relativize Christ’s divinity. Rather, he thinks that any “undialectical” assertion that Jesus is God runs the risk of obliterating Jesus’ humanity and thus his uniqueness. Jesus is God, Haight wants to say, in the way that a particular historical individual can be God’s presence in history. In other words, he is God in the way in which God can be present in history, constrained by the human condition. Christian history provides plenty of evidence of how easy it is for undialectically “high” Christologies to distort our understanding of the true meaning of Jesus. Yes, the Father, Son, and Spirit are fully and equally divine, but that is not to say that the three persons of the Trinity are identical. Haight’s critics tend to slight the significance of those differences, while he wants to make better sense of them. In a similar way, Haight is often accused of denying the authoritativeness of traditional ecclesiological norms such as the institutional understanding of the priesthood or the church’s hierarchical structure. Haight’s point, though, is to remind us that such norms emerged inductively from the actual practice of the first Christians. If the history of early Christianity teaches us anything, it is surely that they were making this thing up as they went along. Thanks to the guidance of the Spirit, not some body of pre-existent norms, they stumbled into success. In a different but still authoritative way, that same Spirit guides the church, both laity and clergy, today.

Whether he is right or wrong about any particular theological question, Roger Haight has a legitimate role in the church’s ongoing self-reflection. There are those like Haight (and I am proud to be in this company) whose faith is quite comfortable with the conviction that ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in our pluralistic, postmodern world requires that our particular faith commitments sometimes be temporarily bracketed rather than presented to our interlocutors as a blueprint for history or a program for religious unification. Others disagree, and some argue strenuously that the time for dialogue is over and that we Catholics must now cultivate our own theological and ecclesial garden. In this light, Haight’s postmodern apologetics can appear to be vulnerable to charges of lack of conviction or the adulteration of Christian truth. But it is just possible that in taking the sensus fidelium very seriously-and even practicing a subtle form of Christian humility by recognizing that the Spirit moves where it will-Haight has taken the imitatio Christi more seriously than his critics give him credit for. He just may be right in embracing the modern moral intuition that tells us that we are out of our depth and beyond our rights when we try to confine the Spirit to the Christian story.

Topics: 

Share

About the Author

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.