THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY
Christian identity has been metaphysical for two millennia. It has been founded on a comprehensive dogmatic vision in which all reality was ordered in function of its first origin and final goal. Within a metaphysical culture the essence of Christianity could be satisfactorily expressed in dogmatic formulations, of which the Nicene Creed was the most central. The emergence in recent centuries of an explicit quest for the essence of Christianity stemmed from a sense that this credal definition of Christian identity was no longer sufficient and that it was necessary to step back behind it to some more fundamental and immediate apprehension of Christian truth. But this quest for the essence of Christianity was itself governed by metaphysics, first of all in its point of departure – it tended to envisage “Christianity” as a united whole, a system whose principles might be laid bare like any other “-ism,” and thus stepped away from the vantage point of faith itself, supplementing the quest intrinsic to faith with a detached philosophical consideration of its essence; second, in its effort to reduce the Christian message to a single explanatory principle – even such a fine phrase as Harnack’s “eternal life in the midst of time” might suggest that Christianity can be explained as the interplay of two abstract principles, the eternal and the temporal, the absolute and the relative; third, in the very ambition to secure an “essence” of Christianity – this implied the desire to step above the stream of the historical manifestations of Christian faith in order to grasp it sub specie aeternitatis; the essence once grasped, all the rest could be mastered as inessential manifestation; fourth, in the realm in which the essence was located, the realm of modern metaphysical ideals of subjectivity and immediate experience. These metaphysical emphases were corrected in dialectical theology which showed that one cannot speak adequately of faith from outside the situation of being addressed by the Word of God; that this Word is “living and active” and refuses to be summarized as a principle or set of principles; that the Word cannot be detached from its historical manifestations – including Scripture, church teaching, and preaching – though it may effect an immanent critique of them, to which theological reflection must be attuned; that the sphere of subjectivity does not ground or regulate the hearing of faith but is rather called in question by it, so that it loses its self-evidence.
However, the quest for the essence of Christianity now survives in a different form, as a concrete question of identity. This question is conditioned by consciousness of several aspects of the historical situation of Christianity which dialectical theology did not sufficiently acknowledge. When the closure of metaphysics and the consequent loss of the traditional Christian metaphysical self-understanding are fully registered; when one is aware of the radical historicity of every aspect of the life of faith, a historicity which can no longer be camouflaged by metaphysical presuppositions; when one traces the reference to a given cultural milieu and to a given praxis or “form of life” inscribed in every discourse of faith; when one realizes that the context-dependent representations of faith are never simply translatable from one historical horizon to another; when one sounds the contingency of the historical forms faith has taken and of the language we have inherited, which is seen to be intrinsically inconclusive, open-ended and infinitely revisable – then the question of the essence of Christianity takes the following shape: “How can Christian identity be expressed realistically and convincingly today, in the clarity of a conscious assumption of its own historicity, and without any uncritical dependence on inherited representations?” The answer cannot take the form of an unending scholarly self-critique, for it must be a declaration of faith, albeit a modest, sober, and questioning one. What are the conditions of a valid contemporary articulation of Christian faith?
THE IMPERATIVE OF SIMPLICITY
Although the quest for essential Christianity has often succumbed to the nostalgia for the primordial simplicity of some immediate experience, and thus fallen under the sway of a metaphysics erecting this primordial ground into a supreme principle of explanation, nevertheless any radical questioning after religious identity is bound to obey an imperative of simplicity, a thirst for firsthand contact with the heart of the matter, such as has been manifest in all the major turning points of the history of religion. On the other hand, a consciousness of historicity indicates the limits by which the realization of this imperative is bound. It is no longer possible, for example, to project the historical myths of recovered origins on which most religious reforms of the past have been based. We see too clearly that in all these efforts the founding figure, Abraham, Jesus, the Buddha, Mahomet, is made the subject of a series of fictions, each intended to free the pure firsthand experience of the faith from secondary accretions of later tradition, but each in fact representing a new creative initiative in the tradition. Nor are these prophetic initiatives ever able to cut through the knots of history as cleanly as they aim to do. The path to the simple is never a simple one. The radical prophetic gesture of a Jeremiah or a Stephen against the temple, of Paul in regard to the law, of Luther in regard to religious externality, is quickly subsumed in a tradition of correction and commentary; it may serve to inspire and guide a complex process of theological and historical unraveling, as theologians “tidy up” after the prophet’s passage, but in this subsequent stocktaking the inspiring gesture itself is relativized in an unending critical reassessment. History thus teaches that definitive access to the simple core of faith is a largely illusory goal. Indeed every attempt to define such a simple core becomes the foundation of a complex tradition against which another prophet must in turn raise the cry for simplification. It is true that any articulation of essential Christianity today must depend either on some practical living out of Christian love in relation to the demands of the times or on some great contemplative enlightenment like that of Augustine, and that such prophetic or contemplative happenings in the Christian community provide the supreme locus theologicus in which theology must dwell in order to trace the emergent shape of Christian identity. It is here that theology encounters the imperative of simplicity in concrete form. But even charity and contemplation are historically embedded; they are not a recovery of the original, or the perennial, offering an escape from history, but represent the work of the Spirit in this particular moment, a work which will be unrepeatable tomorrow. Critical historical awareness can keep the space clear for this work, preventing it from being haunted by those memories of past forms of Christian experience which every Christian has inherited and which can tempt both individual and community to a somnambulistic repetition of the past, either unconsciously or in some proud movement of restoration. Furthermore, historically conscious theology can draw out the full implications of these realizations of Christianity in praxis and contemplation, interpreting them in function of the historical situation in which Christianity, having lost its metaphysical identity, is forced to question back to its origins in a more radical way.
This questioning back is not an escape from history, but rather the full assumption of historicity. It spells, for instance, not an idealization of the New Testament, but a critical sifting of its discourse in view of the subsequent course of the history it founded. In action, contemplation, and theological reflection Christianity today is defining its identity anew, in a creative reprise of the first self-definition of the Christian community in the New Testament. But why is it necessary to redefine Christian identity? Why not be content, as a Wittgensteinian linguistic therapist would be, to let language take care of itself, that is, having overcome its metaphysical elements, to let the great flood of Christian discourse flow on unimpeded in all its richness? The reason is that even in its biblical dimensions this discourse has become involved in a dangerous inflationary career, using too freely words which have been detached from their historical context, or else invoking these words and their context in forgetfulness of the fact that this context is no longer accessible. Such words as “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit” and such contexts as those in the New Testament are subject to this inflationary exploitation in any Sunday homily. The inflation can be corrected only by providing a contemporary objective correlate for every word used and by re-evaluating every word in function of its historical significance and its pertinence to the contemporary situation addressed. Such a critique extended to the entire range of Christian discourse amounts to a review of the historical shape of Christian tradition from the New Testament on. The Christian faith must no longer be seen in mystifying terms as something which dropped from heaven, but as historical through and through. If the great intellectual adventure of Christianity in this century has been its exposure to the critical currents of Western thinking (including Marxism), it is probable that the next adventure, which has scarcely begun, will be that of a full-scale confrontation with the traditions and mentalities of the East. The Christian tradition will not be ready for that adventure unless it enjoys a concrete, demystified historical self-understanding. This demands not only the overcoming of metaphysics, but also a reinterpretation of the New Testament witness in a renewed dialogue with Judaism. Christianity carries its “other”‘in its bosom, for Judaism is the rock from which it was hewn. In the metaphysical period the encounter with Judaism was ruled unnecessary; the “Old Testament” was subordinated to the new through the logic of Platonism building on the Messianic typology of the infant Church, which is one of the features of the New Testament that surely demand to be reviewed; the historicity of Israel and of Christianity as deriving from Israel was erased in metaphysical schemata and the way in which Christianity and Judaism are thrown together in an unresolved historical problematic was ignored. Unless this concrete history is now fully accepted Christians will go to meet other faiths carrying a burden of abstractions which have lost both their historical and their contemporary context and which can only generate confusion in dialogue. No doubt the other faiths will have to face their historicity in a similar way.
A concrete historical self-understanding frees Christians for dialogue with other faiths; it also makes possible the focusing and application of Christian energies, for it allows one to experience faith as a specific historical project rather than a set of timeless velleities. The healing effect of this historical reduction may be compared to that of psychoanalysis; and just as one embarking on psychoanalysis expects not total self-knowledge, but a provisional self-understanding adequate for the business of living here and now, so a contemporary grasp of Christian identity is sufficient if it gives the community a critical insight into its tradition and a lucid perspective on the present historical engagements of faith. Insight in both cases is provisional, sufficient for the day. At each turning of the path of faith through history past perspectives are shut off and the stretch of road to be traveled in the present is lit up; this too disappears at the next turning, while the forest itself remains fairly impenetrable. But just as the provisionality of the attainments of psychoanalysis does not lessen the force of the command “Know thyself,” neither does the complexity of history dissolve the imperative of simplicity which urged us towards that provisional breakthrough which makes it possible to live by faith here and now. As theology is conscious both of this imperative and of its provisionality it becomes a functional theology, a therapy of contemporary faith. It relinquishes the aspiration to add speculative gains to faith’s small degree of knowledge of its objects; indeed it may even whittle away this knowledge, hastening the process of its attrition insofar as it is illusory or anachronistic. Instead it aims at precise discernment of the present historical context of faith and of the possibilities granted by that context, fully accepting the limitations of what Ricoeur calls le croyable disponible, but also ready to welcome the scandalous breakthrough of essential Christianity wherever the Spirit produces it, fully accepting the death of the old, so as to be free to welcome the new. This discernment must also overcome those counter-essences which always spring up alongside prophetic recoveries of the essence (as Gnosticism almost strangled Christianity in the cradle, or as the false prophets simulated the true).
For metaphysical Christianity encounter with other traditions is always a secondary affair, classed under the rubric of mission or ecumenism. But today it is the presence of those other traditions which presses Christianity into shape, revealing to it its precise historical identity. “They know naught of Christianity who only Christianity know” (Ninian Smart). For a questioning faith mission is less the promulgation of dogma than a sharing of traditions in the context of a larger questioning after truth; as dialogue becomes increasingly inescapable the texture of Christianity becomes dialogal through and through, and its creeds appear as starting points in a quest which cannot be continued without the assistance of the other. The positivity of the biblical revelation is reinterpreted as that of an incomplete and culturally limited project of faith which depends for its continued realization on the corrections and supplements coming from the religious insight of other cultures (as well as from the secular, “religionless” culture of the West). The scriptural affirmations continue to be fertile and to open the human mind to God only when understood in this open-ended way. The dewesternization of Christianity which the present decentering of the traditional historical role of the West makes necessary goes further than most projects of inculturation (such as those of Joseph Spae), and involves not only the overcoming of metaphysics, but also the relativization of the Semitic and Hellenic cultural forms of Scripture. Thus, the aim of certain Indian theologians to build a bridge directly from the language of Scripture to that of Hinduism, bypassing the metaphysical categories of the West – as well as similar tendencies in Latin American liberation theology – can involve a mystifying, ahistorical appeal to the world of the Bible which also contradicts authentic inculturation.
Viewed in this larger perspective (which in today’s world is the only realistic one) the differences between the Christian churches lose much of their importance, and can be seen as serving chiefly for mutual correction. The dialogue with Judaism already unites Protestants and Catholics, focusing their attention on the basic Christian themes, and the dialogue with Eastern religions, in which the very premises of both Judaism and Christianity become problematic, further radicalizes that task of “discerning the way” which both Judaism and Christianity share. In practice the overcoming of metaphysics is closely associated with this new exposure of Christianity to its Jewish matrix (and of both Judaism and Christianity to a wider field of questions) and it cannot be carried out seriously without this breadth of exposure; a narrowly intra-Christian or intra-denominational tinkering with the language of faith cannot achieve the step back from the sphere of metaphysical Christianity to the “original Christianity” it occludes; this step back can be nothing less than a remembrance of the Jewish matrix of Christian faith and of the historical decisions which founded a separate Christian identity. To focus Christian identity it is not enough to think back from the horizons of the contemporary Christian denominations, all of them shaped by Western metaphysics and culture; one must also think forward from Judaism, re-evaluating the necessity and legitimacy of the Christian innovations and querying their cultural provenance. This dialogue with Judaism can be fruitfully pursued only in the context of a search for a truth which transcends both Judaism and Christianity as historically constituted and in partnership with other participants in that search. This spells a relativization of secondary identities and a transgression of denominational taboos which may indeed bring with it the risk of “religious indifferentism,” but that risk is surely preferable to the misunderstandings and violence generated by the co-existence of mutually contradictory religions which refuse to be questioned and challenged by one another. If Christianity is made conscious in dialogue of its historical and cultural limits its affirmation of God is tempered by a greater sense of mystery, a sense that the identity of God is primarily a theme for questioning, and this empirically induced nescience is perhaps the characteristic contemporary mark of the authentic simplicity of faith.
The contemporary quest for essential Christianity also involves the effort to trace the language and the claims of faith back to a fundamental validating experience. The truth of any religion, it is assumed, is primarily lodged in such a founding experience, and all religions are in more intimate dialogue at this level, if only we can gain access to it, than in their secondary reflexive formulations. Though the goals which such a quest for firsthand experience projects are often illusory, and though there is perhaps no pure religious experience not dependent on the mediation of a tradition of reflection, still the search for the underlying phenomenality of revelation is a legitimate direction of enquiry, even if it is a direction that can never be followed through to its ideal destination. To check and control Christian language it is necessary to attempt to trace it back to the experience from which it is born, or rather to forcibly convert that language back to its equivalents at the level of phenomenality. How this might be done in regard to the christological claims which are the chief distinguishing marks of Christianity I shall attempt to show in the following examination of the Nicene Creed and the Fourth Gospel. Guided by the imperative of recovering the dimension of phenomenality, we may discover that the textuality of tradition opens up approaches to religious truth larger and subtler than the dogmatic, and that through it sounds the question “Who do you say that I am?” in a way that subverts the unity and authority of its explicit doctrinal statements, revealing them as mere pointers to a still outstanding answer. This subversion of the dogmatic letter by the questioning Spirit reveals that the settled truth of dogma is of less importance to faith than the unsettling truth which emerges unpredictably in poem or parable, in the prophetic reading of a situation, in enlightening gestures – Jesus healing on the Sabbath – which transcend every formulable principle or regulated practice. The identity of Christ is constantly being uncovered in such unsettling moments of truth, which show him to be semper maior, as elusive in his final identity as God himself. It is only because beneath all formal affirmations the question “Who do you say that I am?”remains an unmasterable question that the notion of the divinity of Christ can be a credible one. As we attempt to trace the import of that notion at the level of phenomenality, in a “loving strife about the matter itself’ with the great texts which by their dependence on myth or metaphysics partly occlude this level, we will come to see that the figure of Christ as it has been grasped in traditional horizons is but a partial and provisional sketch of the Christ to be discovered in the great learning process thrust upon us by the opening up of larger horizons of questioning today. As tradition is overcome under the pressure of this vaster future upon it, the cross and resurrection of Jesus come into new focus in the travail of difference. The Christ we have known is only a limited historical manifestation of Christ; the Christ whom faith holds to be universal is not yet manifest. The former is the seed which must fall in the ground again and again and die if the full dimensions of the incarnate phenomenality of God are to become apparent. The entire language of pre-existence, resurrection, and exaltation names this hidden dimension of Christ towards which Christian faith is always underway, losing Christ again and again in order to find him in his fullness. Knowledge of Christ “according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16) is always surpassed and relativized in the quest for the Lord who is Spirit (3:17-18). To present any defined concept or representation of Christ as the key to world history can only be a form of metaphysical imperialism. But if one lets the figure of Jesus be a divine question to the world, a question whose full implications – “the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3:18) – are always unfolding, often canceling former understandings, then the universality of such a question is not offensive, since the question is modified by each new group to which it is addressed, and each such modification undoes old answers.
THE NICENE CREED
How does the question of Christ to this generation alter or undo the classic Christian understanding of Christ expressed in the Nicene Creed? Can the Creed be recited today as an adequate expression of the question of Christ in its universality, or does it confine that question within the limited cultural horizons of Jewish myth and Greek metaphysics? Some contemporary theologians claim that the divinity of Christ is sufficiently acknowledged if he is accepted as God’s word to our Western culture. This view undermines the New Testament claims at a basic level. It stems from a confusion between the authentic Christ of faith, who is semper maior, and the figure of Christ which was absolutized in the West and presented as the “concrete universal” (Hegel) in which all other religious traditions found consummation; in reaction to this the “myth of God incarnate” theorists produce an equally metaphysical account of a culturally limited Christ, an account probably originating in nineteenth century Neo-Hegelian circles. The universal status of Christ in the New Testament, on the other hand (cf. Mt 28:18; Jn 17:2; Heb.1:2; Rev. 1:8, etc.), can no longer be adequately grasped in the traditional mythical and metaphysical expressions of it, such as those of the Nicene Creed, and demands of us, not only the demythologization and dehellenization which our sense of historicity makes mandatory in any case, but a new style of thinking which will permit the question “Who do you say that I am?” to resound both in Western and in other cultures in a more penetrating way, no longer stifled by the prompt metaphysical or mythical answer.
In addition to asking whether the Creed matches the true universality of the Christ of faith, we must also ask if it effectively poses the question of Christ in its historicity. For although the Christ of faith is always greater than the historical manifestations of Christ (including the historical Jesus and all reconstructions or idealizations of him), nonetheless the ongoing revelation of Christ can never be ripped from its historical sheath and can never be apprehended independently of a narration of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. This narration must be raised to a pneumatic level, under pain of idolatry, and this is already accomplished in Paul and John. A contemporary narration would have to take into account the larger history that has opened up for us, enlarging both the “Old Testament” past to which Paul and John referred and the conception of the “Gentiles” which was their measure of the universality of Christ. The concrete historical self-understanding of the Christian community is expressed in such a narrational topography of the revelation of Christ which need not fear to revise and enlarge that of the New Testament. While the Nicene Creed does set the figure of Jesus Christ in a narrational context, within the predominantly metaphysical structure of the Creed that history is frozen and stylized, subordinated to the timeless patterns of the Trinity and of the distinction between Creator and creation. The reciter of the Creed is not drawn into close engagement with the historical texture of the Christ-event; instead such engagement is reduced to anamnesis of Jesus and expectation of his second coming. Just as the Creed confines the universality of Christ within a metaphysical concept of that universality, so it reduces the historicity of Christ to the “essential facts” about the earthly Jesus and the exalted Christ, with no indication that both are being refocused constantly as history unfolds.
As the universality of the question of Christ unfolds, anamnesis of the historical Jesus is correspondingly modified. The historical Jesus may never be erased, but there is truth in the idea that it is the “that” rather than the “what” of his life, teaching, death, and resurrection which matters. If Jesus was a male Jew, the Christ of faith is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female (Gal. 3:28), though a merely metaphysical notion of this universality has gone hand in hand with anti-Semitism and racism and has not been able to celebrate the Jewishness of “the Christ according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:5). If Jesus was a celibate, the bridegroom of the Canticle could represent a sexual fulfillment which accords eminently with spiritual liberation (here Goethe may correct Augustine or Asia heal Europe). If Jesus died at one place and time, the Christ recognized in the breaking of bread is a gift to all places and times (but how our liturgies confine the gift!).Theological appeals to the humanity of Jesus should always be conditioned by the full breadth of the present form of the question of Christ. Contemporary secularity, for example, allows us to project images of the humanity of Jesus as “the man for others” (Bonhoeffer) or as the one whose existence reveals that life itself is grace (James Mackey). It does not really matter if these portraits solicit the exegetical data, for the Christ of faith has always supplemented and corrected the historical Jesus, and reshaped the memory of Jesus according to its own requirements, nor does a scholarly reconstruction of the historical Jesus offer a yardstick for measuring these developments. (The value of such historical research for faith is indirect, helping to shatter images of the humanity of Jesus which have become unworthy of the Christ of faith and prompting new focusings of that humanity, but never itself presenting an image of Jesus which can be directly assumed by contemporary faith.) Furthermore, the memory of Jesus is never adequately realized unless he is also grasped as “the human face of God.” Any image of Jesus can become an idol, and the iconic status of Christ crucified has to be reconquered again and again in an effort to refocus it as divine revelation. Because the Christ of faith is never definitively apprehended, the figure of Jesus can correspondingly be remembered in an unending variety of ways. Because the universality of the Christian message is never fully manifest (except in premature or illusory metaphysical projections), the historicity of Christianity is correspondingly subject to unending reassessment. It appears that the Nicene Creed forecloses this process of questioning at both ends.
However, the Nicene Creed may still be used as a badge of Christian identity in a way similar to that in which the Marseillaise, despite the disappearance of its Sitz im Leben, serves to express the historical identity of France. Thus recited, the Creed is not a fully direct expression of contemporary faith, but an act of commitment to the tradition of faith, mediated by historical memory of a classical moment in the life of that tradition. A historically conscious recitation of the Creed accepts it as binding on faith, but only across a number of transformations which the language of the Creed itself, when critically sifted, is found to prescribe. In the second article of the creed, for instance, we can differentiate the following layers of language:
(1) The assertive and commissive speech act “I believe in…”which governs all the other statements, ensuring that they are neither simple statements of fact, on the one hand, nor merely devotional or affective utterances on the other;
(2) The confessional naming of “One Lord, Jesus Christ,” which indicates the primary object of this assertion and commitment; the entire second article is an explicitation of what is thus named;
(3) What seems bare statement of fact – “crucified under Pontius Pilate”; the credal context implies a declaration that this fact is religiously significant and not to be forgotten;
(4) More stylized diction in which the credal coloration of fact becomes manifest – “suffered and was buried”;
(5) Quasi-historical statements whose texture is permeated by numinous references – “he came down from heaven, took flesh of the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary,” “he rose on the third day… and he ascended into heaven . . . and he will come again in glory.” Here the confession regards historical events in light of their heavenly background with the help of representations which are mythical in texture. When one realizes the obsolescence of the cultural matrices from which such representations are drawn and the impossibility of stepping behind history in order to view it from an eternal vantage point, then one finds that the language of the Creed prescribes a recovery of the phenomenological foundations of such statements. The descent/ascent schema is an archaic and cryptic pointer to the mystery of Christ, which challenges our faith to apprehend it in more accessible terms;
(6) Interpretative clauses which give a theological (chiefly soteriological) reason for the events recalled – “for us men and for our salvation,” “for us,” “according to the Scriptures,” “to judge the living and the dead”;
(7) A statement of the ontological significance of the Incarnation – “and became man.” Perhaps we can convincingly recapture the force of this affirmation only by translating it into the language of a Christology from below;
(8) The historical data are transcended toward their foundations in a more radical way in the narration of a celestial pre-history – “the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father”;
(9) The celestial post-history, ”he sits at the right hand of the Father,” differs from 5 and is closer to 8 in the boldness of its construction in a mythical space and time quite beyond history. Contemporary faith understands that the ultimate identity of Christ is to be sought in the divine dimensions thus indicated, but cannot make convincing use of the mythical language to point to that dimension. Instead it is challenged to apprehend the phenomenality of the Christ of faith in terms which make it comprehensible why such language was used;
(10) Theological notes appended to ward off heretical misreadingsof the mythic narration – “before all ages” (against Arius); “of his kingdom there will be no end” (against Marcellus of Ancyra; without this polemic intent it would be merely a devotional reminiscence of Luke 1:33, in tension with the economy of credal language);
(11) A second set of theological notes imposing a new logical precision on the mythic narration – “God from God... true God from true God, begotten not made.” This reflexive underlining of the ontological status attaching to the terms of the narrative reveals th e emergence of a logically vigilant doctrinal consciousness. One senses that a metaphysical insistence is beginning to overload and distort the narrative texture;
(12) The doxological supplement “light from light” may be an effort to compensate for this distortion, providing a mythical, narrative equivalent for the daunting bareness of “God from God”;
(13) A second layer of logical clarification using the notion of “substance” – “that is, of the substance of the Father” (Nicea, 325, only), “of one substance with the Father.” These clearly cannot be reintegrated into the narrative context. For the metaphysical culture from which the Creed comes the reduction of the mythic narrative to its logically defined ontological foundations may have been a liberating demythologization. To a contemporary believer these efforts at precision are likely to seem questionable in themselves (can the logic of ousia be at all useful in such a rarefied region of application?) and to increase the questionability of the mythic language they presuppose by revealing the path of increasing abstraction onto which it leads us if we try to sustain it consistently. Again we are referred back to the level of phenomenality, where we must seek the pneumatic Christ who belongs to the same realm as God or the Spirit of God and cannot be thought of in lesser terms;
(14) A phrase from the narrative of creation which serves to define the ontological status of the three divine hypostases in the Creed – “through him all things were made” (cf. “Creator of heaven and earth” and “Lord, giver of life” of Father and Spirit respectively). This location of the being of the triune God in terms of creation is not unproblematic to a contemporary believer either; its perspective is still that of the celestial pre-history and it attempts to grasp the phenomenon of the world from a point outside it. The phenomenological foundation of faith in the creative roles of Father, Son, and Spirit needs to be elucidated, and the process of that elucidation might be an unending one, making it very difficult to summarily project the notion of a Creator and to define the ontological status of Creator and creation.
The Creed offers an exhaustive topology of the being and function of Jesus Christ, within a horizon which embraces Creator and creation, the being and manifestation of God, the origin and destiny of the world, eternity and time, past, present, and future. But it seems that this comprehensive horizon is no longer accessible to us, that we are thrown back on the intra-historical phenomenality of revelation, so that our confession of Christ (or of the Father or the Holy Spirit) can spell an opening up to that phenomenality, but not a leap beyond it. The Creed provides the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit” with an ontological foundation, referring to a divine substance and tracing the being of Christ to his eternal divine generation; the contemporaneous theology of three “hypostases” of one “substance” completes this ontological underpinning. But it seems that our faith is unable to transcend the naming of Father, Son, and Spirit towards its ontological ground. For us they indicate dimensions of the phenomenality of God in revelation; the terms “substance” and “per-son,” and even the language of the divine “relations,” seem an unnecessary redoubling of faith’s naming of God, which distracts from the exploration of the phenomenality of which is thus named. The unity of God is not effectively preserved by the declaration that there is one underlying substance behind the three names, but should be sought instead in the interplay of the three dimensions in the experience of revelation. The Creed fixes the trinitarian names as points of departure for their salvation-historical and ontological explication. But it seems that even these names can be desacralized by a linguistic and historical awareness which sees their formation neither as a divine mandate nor a conceptual necessity, but as a human effort to map the phenomenality of revelation, a creative or poetic achievement influenced by many contributory cultural streams (none of the three names are unique to Judaism or Christianity). It is not particularly surprising that our faith should be left in the lurch by its traditional language when one considers not only the general problem of the transmission of meaning through history, but the peculiar fragility attached to religious expressions by reason of their ambitious metaphorical structure. Paradoxically, the intrinsic fragility of religious diction has not lessened its extreme durability in practice. This paradox is probably to be explained by the sacralization of this diction which made it seem adequate even when it wasn’t and which ensured that endless efforts of reinterpretation and repristination would be made before any element of the sacral diction was abandoned. But we may be moving into a period in which faith will live with a more humble awareness of the fragility of its language. The saying of faith may turn out-to be something qualitatively different from the sonorousness and pathos of religious diction. A faith which constantly sifts and questions its language mav become incapable of exerting the hypnotic fascination characteristic of religion. But that too is part of the price to be paid for a future culture of questioning faiths in dialogue.
The fragility of the Creed is chiefly due to the dependence of the referring power of metaphorical expressions on context and intention. The metaphor “smitten by Eros” might have had a serious meaning and a distinct reference for Sappho, but it is impossible to use it except in a facetious sense today. This impossibility is not a question of taste but of necessity. The cultural coordinates of the original metaphor have not been transmitted; in the course of the tradition Eros has degenerated to a rococo Cupid. The change of context makes it impossible to use the metaphor with the same passionate intentionality as Sappho might have invested in it. Analogously, the power of the metaphor “born of the Father before time began” depends on a cultural and religious context in which the representation of an eternal sonship can have a rich significance and also on the speaker’s intentionality of faith which can effectively refer to the object of faith by means of this metaphor. At the time of Nicea faith in Christ culminated in the recognition of him as God’s eternal Son. It was not realized that this provision of the celestial backdrop to the figure of Jesus was largely a work of imagination rather than a literal and logical definition of the thing in itself. Yet the extension of the word “son” beyond its normal usage clearly betrays the metaphoricity which cannot be ironed out of the credal expressions. Now the use of this image to express faith’s apprehension of the ultimate significance of Jesus Christ has become problematic to the degree that the cultural coordinates of the image have not been transmitted. These coordinates include a mythical concern with origins, a metaphysical concern with grounds and an anthropological valorization of paternity, three attitudes which converge to reinforce the image of eternal sonship. But if these attitudes have become obsolete (for reasons no less numerous and complex than those which established them in the first place) then the intention of faith cannot securely ride on their back. Thus the confession of Christ as eternal Son no longer satisfactorily fulfills the intention of faith, no longer effectively refers to the object of faith. No amount of work on the terms “substance,” “hypostasis,” or “relation” in the theological laboratory can correct this deficiency of the primary metaphor, for theology can only make sense of the biblical metaphor through retrieving the phenomenality it names. If the metaphor of divine sonship no longer opens out onto the ineffable, but reveals cultural limits which make it impossible for faith to rest in it unquestioningly, and if one cannot find the way back to the original context in which that metaphorical name could be meaningfully uttered, then one is obliged to explore the present context of the language of faith and to find those expressions which best express the intention of faith today. If the name “Son” is retained it will be in a sense that allows it to signify a contemporary apprehension of the phenomenality of Christ.
It seems then that as we recite the Creed today we experience the tensions of Christian tradition in a particularly rich way. We affirm the Creed’s witness of faith and consciously stand in continuity with it in the one tradition; in this affirmation all Christians stand united. But on the other hand we are aware that the Creed is assailed at every point by questions arising not only from the exposure of its language to general laws of semantic relativity and semantic obsolescence (and meaning and reference are so closely intertwined that these laws threaten even the basic capacity of the Creed to refer to its intended objects) but also from the present concern of faith to do justice to the phenomenality of Christ, which is felt to be occluded by metaphysical universals or mythic origins. In reciting the Creed, then, we assume our history as an uncompleted task, seeing clearly in retrospect the poverty and provisionality of this past language, and realizing that we must seek new words having the same poverty and provisionality. An experience of this historical depth was not available to previous generations of Christians and it is one which is bound to have a transforming effect on Christian language and Christian self-identity. This experience with the Creed sends us back to Scripture with a double expectation. On the one hand we hope to find there some clues to the phenomenality of Christ which the metaphysical presuppositions of the patristic theologians caused them to miss. On the other hand we expect the language of Scripture too to be inadequate to the contemporary question of Christ, so that our use of this language too can be valid for faith only if we subject it forcibly to the present concerns of faith. Just as Heidegger aimed to understand the Greeks better than they understood themselves, in a certain sense, so we seek to understand the New Testament witness to Christ in opposition to the obsolescent frameworks of understanding in which it is embodied. As the Johannine writings can be regarded as the most highly reflected articulation of the phenomenality of revelation in the New Testament they are the most promising source for the primordial understanding of faith to which the dogmatic, metaphysical tradition has referred us back. The violence of the following sketch will consist merely in reading John exclusively in the key of phenomenality (in opposition, for instance,to the governing descent/ascent structure insofar as it is mythical and insofar as John’s own language does not at times subvert it; opposed also to the highly personalized language of Father, Son, and Spirit, again, insofar as John himself does not relativize this).
THE FOURTH GOSPEL
The fundamental teaching of John is that the phenomenality ofJesus Christ, as apprehended in faith, is one with the phenomenality of God. Only faith can make satisfying sense of the works or signs of Jesus; their significance comes into focus only in the confession which names what they reveal Jesus to be: John 1:49; 2:11; 4:53; 6:69; 9:38; 11:27; 19:35; 20:28. That significance expands throughout the series of confessions, until fully expressed in the post-resurrection “My Lord and my God.” The works of the historical Jesus are apprehended from a post-Paschal perspective throughout the Gospel, although the two halves of the Gospel also mirror the two phases of the existence of Jesus Christ. Thus the works attributed to the historical Jesus are at the same time to be read as accounts of the believers’ ongoing experience of the pneumatic Christ known in faith, who knows their hearts (1:48), changes old into new (2:1-11), dispels inborn blindness (9:1-7), and raises the dead (11:43). He who does these works can be understood in no lesser terms that those of 1:14: “The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory.” The phenomenality of Jesus is a divine phenomenality; it cannot be named in lesser terms; these are either a lie (stemming from the world’s incomprehension of the signs – 6:26 – or from a direct refusal of the truth – 8:45-46) or a partial apprehension to be subsumed in a fuller one. Truth, spirit, love, light, eternal life – each of these words has a phenomenal bearing, names a dimension of the revelation of God in Jesus. John integrates all these themes into a mythical structure. But a phenomenological retrieval can allow these themes to burst this framework open. Transposing the Buddhist insight “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” one could say that the form of Jesus is correctly apprehended only as divine Logos (the phenomenality of God); and this form itself subsists on the basis of the divine emptiness with which it is coterminous; as our eyes are opened to the form of Jesus they are at the same time being opened to the emptiness of God. God is intrinsically unseen (1:18), yet to see Christ in faith is to see God (8:19, 14:9). One can trace the contours of this contemplative situation without using the language of pre-existent hypostases which was so impressive in a mythical or even in a metaphysical perspective but has now become a liability. The Christ has come in the flesh (cf. I John 4:2; 2:22), that is, the phenomenality of God is manifest in a unique fullness in and through the figure of Jesus (cf. 1:16-17).
The language of Father and Son can be interpreted in these quasi-phenomenological terms. God is manifest as love, of which Jesus is the unique vehicle, incarnation and gift (3:16; I John 4:9) and when that love is brought to its consummation the form of the risen Christ is totally identical with the divine glory. The believers, who live through Christ, will also share this form (I John 3:2); this is not a matter of blind hope but is phenomenologically discernible in the experience of love. It is when he lays down his life and takes it up again (10:18) that the glory of God is fully revealed in Jesus (13:31)and at the same time (euthys 13:32) Jesus is fully absorbed into the divine glory, becoming the pneumatic Christ (“God will glorify him in himself’ 13:32). It is natural to speak of this as Jesus being adopted as God’s Son, or “appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness through the resurrection from the dead”(Rom. 1:4). John goes further and reads the paschal manifestations back into the life of the earthly Jesus. Furthermore, he projects the earthly Jesus back into the realm of pre-existence; “that glory which I had with you before the world came to be” (17:5). The phenomenological ground of this language is the realization that the earthly Jesus has become the pneumatic Christ, one with God’s phenomenality as love, light, and spirit. Since the resurrection that phenomenality is fully manifest to human beings as the Christ of faith; Jesus is henceforth inseparably identified with that Logos; the meaning of his life and death are revealed as the incarnation of the phenomenality of God as love. John images the mode of being of the risen Christ as an intimate personal communion of Father and Son, or a mutual indwelling (10:38; 14:10), in which the believers will share (17:21-23). The phenomenological ground of this language is the experience of God as love, which inevitably calls forth such representations. But one might perhaps equally legitimately use the language of the mutuality of emptiness and form – through love the humanity of Jesus (and of the believers in dependence on it) is shaped into that form which is fully transparent to the emptiness of God.
But this form of the pneumatic Christ can never be fully grasped in this life; John’s Gospel teaches us again and again to discard the forms we have grasped as inadequate and instead to let the Spirit guide us into all truth (clearly a never-ending process). The Spirit might be defined as the immediacy of God, that aspect of God which vitally touches our existence. It is what lights up anew the phenomenality of Christ as the phenomenality of God; without it our memories of Christ would become idols blocking out all sense of God. John also speaks of the Spirit in personal terms, for, phenomenologically, to be touched by the Spirit is to encounter a love and a wisdom which call forth such names as “comforter” or “helper”(14:16). Spirit in its immediacy shatters all forms which fall short of the form of truth – hence the believers are to worship “in spirit and truth” (4:23); only such worship places no idolatrous blocks against the divine emptiness (hence “the Father seeks such worshippers,” 4:23). The form of Jesus is similarly transcended: “If you loved me you would rejoice that I go to the Father, because the Father is greater than I” (14:28); “It is better for you that I go away. If I do not go away, the Spirit cannot come to you, but if I go, I shall send him to you” (16:7). Yet there is no gnostic disregard for the historical origins of revelation (cf. 4:22 “salvation is from the Jews”) and anamnesis of past forms can mediate present insight; the entire Gospel is an exercise in such anamnesis, refocusing the past in light of the form of the pneumatic Christ. “The Spirit blows where it wills” (3:8) constantly reforming our image of Christ (our grasp of the Christic form of all reality – cf. 1:3) so that it accords with the true emptiness of God (knowledge of which is eternal life – 17:1 – cf. Buddhist nirvana).
This phenomenological reduction of the Johannine language of pre-existence and of Father, Son, and Spirit is a continuation of the reductive movement of the Gospel itself, which so artfully subordinates many quasi-synoptic pieces of tradition to its own more spiritual perspectives and which frequently develops figurative modes of expression only to lead to a statement which abolishes them, as the language of the “good shepherd” culminates in the non-dualist utterances of 10:30, 38 or the images of 14:l-5 prepare the identifications of 14:6-11. A phenomenological reduction would not serve its purpose if it lost the full dimensions of what John names as Father, Son, and Spirit. Talk of the emptiness, phenomenality, and immediacy of God might lead to a colorless, modalist image of God, a danger which the biblical names ward off; but on the other hand, the repetition of these biblical names without a constant effort to realize their meaning at the level of phenomenality can be equally damaging. Two halves of Christianity have disputed for the greater part of their existence the question whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father only or from the Father and the Son; this shameful debate proceeds largely from an oblivion on both sides of the phenomenality of what is named as Father, Son, Spirit. Our makeshift terms, emptiness, phenomenality and immediacy, are only pointers intended to show the kind of questioning to which New Testament language must be subjected when its mythical terms are suspended and it can no longer be subsumed into metaphysical frameworks. Furthermore, the search for such phenomenological formulations might facilitate the dialogue with other religious traditions, whose namings of the divine might be subject to similar reductions, or whose own exercises in discerning the phenomenality of the absolute and its manifestation might reveal an unsuspected proximity to the New Testament thus demythologized. It is clear that this deconstructive reading of the New Testament aims less at a recovery of the phenomenality of revelation as the New Testament communities experienced it (for this is scarcely to be abstracted from the cultural forms which mediated it) than at a realization of the present force of revelation and a credible contemporary naming of Father, Son, and Spirit.
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This book has attempted to sketch an answer to the question: what does fidelity to the Christian tradition entail today? The reader concerned with such fidelity will have to sift its claims critically in accord with his or her own experience. Many former bulwarks of Christian certitude have become twilight zones today, and those who focus their faith on these metaphysical aspects of the Christian tradition are bound to succumb either to corrosive skepticism or to a defensive traditionalism and fundamentalism. On the other hand the Christ of faith is becoming known in a new way as Christians become more compassionately responsive to the questions of peace, justice, and freedom which press on them so urgently, and more contemplatively aware of the unending mystery of God. As faith builds on these latter foundations it must reshape the meaning of tradition in accord with them, in a counter-metaphysical reading which frees faith from the morose, introspective provincialism characteristic of the metaphysical theology which is still dominant. It does not seem that any less radical approach can represent a faithful continuation of Christian history or effectively bring about the integral liberation of faith from its imprisonment in representations which have become idolatrous.
From: Questioning Back: The Overcoming of Metaphysics in Christian Tradition, Minneapolis: Winston-Seabury, 1985.