1. Who is Jesus Christ? What would you single out about him from your theological reflection?
We know who Christ has been for the last two millennia of European history. At a level deeper than theology or dogma he has established himself as a living presence, a ‘life-giving spirit’ (1 Cor. 15:45), in the heart of Christians and also beyond the Christian fold. As we enter the third millennium I dare to say that the Christian tradition is in quite good shape. It has weathered the onslaught of eighteenth century scepticism and nineteenth century materialism and can present itself with intellectual candour and integrity in the public forum. Its spiritual traditions remain accessible and widely practiced. Its doctrines have found credible, modern expression. Its basic ethical values are widely recognized, and the world feels more and more how much they are needed. Christianity enters its third millennium as a purified and dialogal religion, one that may bring Christ's light and help to humankind more effectively in this millennium than in the previous one. As to the reactionary movements within Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism and the virulent fundamentalism in other quarters, it seems to me that they are deconstructing themselves and are serving to remind people how precious is the hard-won biblical common sense of the mainstream, of the ecumenical movement, and of Vatican II.
Not every period in church history produces a vibrant image of Christ. The early twentieth century thrived on the rich and powerful image of the Sacred Heart. In the 1960s, Liberation theology, inspired by Scripture and Vatican II, brought the image of Jesus the Liberator, but we have largely failed to embrace this and to build on it. Perhaps today the most promising way to a new understanding of Christ is to see him as a figure of dialogue, to see his Gospel as addressed to people of all religions and cultures and as eliciting a different response from each of them.
2. In Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth (Edinburgh University Press, 1996) you suggest that the truth of religion does not entirely consist in the claims of any single tradition, but in the ecumenical relation of the great traditions. How can one reconcile the singularity of this space of ‘debate’ among religions with the desired affirmation of the truth of one’s own tradition?
We are acutely conscious today of the historical finitude of Christ and of Christianity, of how dependent they are on the specific history of the Jewish people, and of how much the development of Christianity has been shaped, contingently, by the Western cultural context in which it took place. We are also aware of a much wider history to which we seek to relate this Jewish and Christian tradition. We can continue to affirm the truth of the divine election of Israel and the unique salvific role of Christ while admitting that for a full understanding of these claims we need to connect them with the wider context, not only with the other religions but with the whole dynamic of Evolution and with a reading of the ‘signs of the times’ such as Vatican II attempted.
The tendency to say that ‘we already have the fullness of truth in Christ, so no dialogue with strange religions is required,’ is in fact unchristian. The Bible shows us how encounter with the other – with the cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece – enlarges understanding of God and breaks down previous narrowness. This process continues today as we seek to make sense of our creed in dialogue with others. All truth is already pre-contained in the divine Logos, no doubt, but the unfolding of the incarnation of that Logos in history is a process in which there are always new truths to be learned (see John 14:25; 16:12-13; 21:25).
3. You underlined the importance of a universal dialogue for the enrichment of the Christian revelation. It's the idea that the understanding of the ‘Logos incarnate’ is developing along with the movement of history, through this dialogue. How can you translate this theological position into more concrete terms, taking into account the challenge of religious pluralism?
I agree that the ‘translations’ offered by theologies of religion that speak in general terms about how Jesus relates to the other religions have run out of steam. The general perspective that a theology of religions can sketch is only a provisional orientation. When we ‘cash’ it in encounters with particular interlocutors from other religions and cultures, we cannot say in advance what new pictures will emerge.
Indeed, it may be that inter-religious encounters are just as varied, heterogeneous and unpredictable as inter-human encounters in general. The encounters don’t happen only in the domains of spirituality and theology, but also in poetry and art, in politics and warfare. What a theology of religions can do is encourage a positive and hope-filled attitude to such encounters, an expectation that they will lead to mutual recognition and enrichments.
In the past, an apologetical and polemic stance prevailed, and our first thought about other religions is that they were ‘false.’ Since Vatican II’s declaration Nostra Aetate, our first thought about the other religions is that they are ‘true’ – that they exhibit a ray of the divine Logos that enlightens all minds, that they are products of the Spirit that is moving in all hearts.
The concrete inter-religious encounter that I have found most interesting is the exposure of Christian faith to Buddhist thought. The ex-Buddhist Paul Williams, who has now become a conservative Catholic, denounces Buddhism as an atheist religion that has no conception of divine grace, and this is taken up enthusiastically by people who regard Buddhism as an unhealthy fad, ‘a species of spiritual auto-eroticism’ (Cardinal Ratzinger, endorsed by Williams). Such an attitude seems to me incompatible with Vatican II.
In its sense of the absolute, its dismantling of idols, its conception of a gracious ultimacy embodied in compassionate bodhisattvas, Buddhism has plenty to tell us about the divine and about grace. This vast continent of spiritual insight cannot be measured by the yardsticks of a summary dogmatism or rationalism. Buddhism instills the awareness that all religious language and dogma has the status of ‘skillful means’ serving a purpose that transcends them. In its teaching of ‘detachment from views,’ it frees theology from the tendency to become trapped in obsessive tracks of thought. It shows up the clumsiness of our dogmatic terminology of nature, substance, person, hypostasis in regard to Christ; the Buddhist categories of dependent co-arising and emptiness are more suited to bring out the meaning of Christ (see John Keenan on this). Yet amid all its deconstructive impact, Buddhism remains constantly in touch with bedrock reality and constantly brings our mind back to this.
4. What are the most significant discoveries about the historical Jesus and which are their implications for the Christian faith?
I am no expert on that subject, but I do feel that anyone who wants to talk theologically about Jesus has to take with the utmost seriousness the historical questions about his life and about the composition of the Gospels. Schillebeeckx set a great headline for Catholic theologians in this regard in his Jesus-book of 1974. The exegetes may pick holes in it, but that cannot be helped. Theologians have to let themselves be schooled by historical critical study of Scripture even if it clips their speculative wings.
It seems to me that the most important discovery about the historical Jesus remains that which Reimarus originally intuited and that Johannes Weiss established in 1892, namely, the radically eschatological character of Jesus’ mission. People say that this is in the melting-pot again, but I don’t see why it should be. Albert Schweitzer is often taken to have said that the quest for the historical Jesus was a waste of time, because each of the questers only projected their own image into the sources. However, his great study (Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, 1913; originally Von Reimarus zu Wrede 1906) acclaims Johannes Weiss’s findings as a solid rock amid the chaos of contradictory hypotheses. Schweitzer saw life of Jesus research as a kind of negative theology, not because it reached no results, but because the Jesus it actually found was so remote from our expectations. Jesus’ message of the impending in-breaking of the Kingdom of God seemed alien and archaic, and the quester was left just with a mute impact of this prophetic figure on the will.
According to the eschatological picture, Jesus saw himself and his disciples as engaged in a decisive end-time battle in which the Kingdom of God was triumphing of over the demonic forces that had the world in thrall. As a later generation of Christians realized that the end of the world did not seem to be coming soon, they developed from the sayings of Jesus a broad ethical vision for the long haul. Matthew, writing for Jewish Christians, presented Jesus as a new Moses preaching a new Law and founding a community, with whom he would be present until the end of the age. Luke, writing for Gentile Christians, presents the Gospel as transforming society, turning upside down the hierarchies of rich and poor, insiders and outcasts; he ascribes to Jesus a manifesto, the speech in the synagogue in chapter 4, in which Jesus connects his gospel closely with the prophetic social vision of Isaiah. But despite this enlargement, Matthew and Luke keep the dynamic eschatological thrust of the Kingdom message. The labor of building up the Kingdom in this world is carried on in a spirit of hope and expectation, looking forward to the glorious future that is in God’s hands. The quest for the historical Jesus removes Jesus from assimilation by our usual categories. We cannot re-enter the eschatological pressure-chamber of his preaching. At best we can adopt the Matthean and Lukan accommodations of it to the long duration of church life.
The recent ‘third quest’ for the historical Jesus strikes different notes, portraying Jesus as a Mediterranean peasant, against the background of Galilean culture (as explored by Sean Freyne), finding resemblances to Cynic philosophers, or seeing him a charismatic led by the Spirit (Marcus Borg). I wonder how well these portraits would survive an acid Schweitzerian critique. One thing that is borne in on us by historical Jesus research is the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and that his entire way of thinking was Jewish. The exegetically conservative Geza Vermes, even without stepping behind the Synoptic Gospels, brings this out in a refreshing way (and is lauded for it in some Vatican document). David Flusser is another stimulating author in this area. Our piety has been so dominated by the Christ of the Fourth Gospel – who makes puns in Greek (John 3:3-4), and speaks of his non-duality with the Father in an almost Indian style – that we can still be shocked by the down-to-earth Jewish common sense of the sayings closest to his authentic words.
The stimulation of the historical Jesus does not lie in discovering something we never knew, but in realizing the gap between our received portraits and the original. This leaves us free to receive the impact of Jesus in our own creative interpretation today, taking liberties as great as those of the Evangelists. The quest for the historical Jesus does not answer the question, ‘Who do you say that I am’ but rather frees that question, poses it afresh.
5. How did Jesus live his two natures?
I think we must say that he lived his human nature the same as everyone else does. The Vatican Notification against Jon Sobrino repeats the claim that Jesus enjoyed the beatific vision almost immediately after his conception. This would clearly make Jesus so very different from ordinary human beings as to court the risk of docetism. This humanity of Jesus no doubt opens out on the divine in a very special way – we can ascribe to him the sorts of consciousness that we see in the great mystics, as Albert Nolan, OP, does in his recent book, Jesus Today. Following Origen’s vision of the close union of the soul of Jesus with the divine Word, theologians such as Rahner have spoken of gratia unionis, the idea that the divine status of Jesus is a grace conferred on his humanity, a climactic degree of the action of grace that is always afoot in all humanity.
We may imagine that the historical Jesus must have been intensely aware of God at work in and through him as he healed the sick and cast out demons ‘by the finger of God’ (Luke 11:20). That his fullness of God-consciousness made him not less human, but warmly, supremely human, is the central glory of the Christian religion.
The Evangelists tend to project onto Jesus all the biblical models of closeness to God – the inspiration of the prophets, a certain ‘Abba’ mysticism. Luke frequently adds scenes of Jesus praying and even makes the crucifixion a more prayerful event than it is in Mark. Some of these projections fit well with the impact that Jesus had, and do not stray terribly far from historical possibility or even probability. Others, especially in John, have more to do with the Church’s experience of Christ in their midst than with the historical Jesus.
There is a verse in Matthew and Luke that is known as ‘the Johannine thunderbolt’ or ‘a meteor from the Johannine sky’ because of its similarity to the Fourth Gospel: ‘All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ (Mt 11:27). Luke varies it slightly: ‘no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son’ (Lk 10:22). Scholars usually see this saying as coming from a very late stage of the ‘Q’ material on which Matthew and Luke are drawing. I suppose that even here we are dealing with a case of projecting back from the impact of Jesus on the early Christians an image of what his relationship with the Father must have been.
Did Jesus think that he was divine? Bultmann says that all the high claims the Church has made for Jesus are correct insofar as he is the Eschatological Event. More broadly, one could say that there occurs in and across Jesus an effectively realized divine manifestation that John calls the incarnation of the Logos. The historical Jesus, the prophet of the Kingdom, was caught up in this event. I doubt if he siphoned out of it a sophisticated theological sighting of his own ontological status. Four centuries later, Chalcedon offers a ‘horizon’ on Christ (translating horos in this way with Sarah Coakley, rather than as ‘definition’), stressing the unity in one person or hypostasis of the eternal divine Logos and the truly human Jesus. This is a deep and ungraspable mystery. The New Testament uses adoptionist language – ‘God made him both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36) – although Christian orthodoxy insists on his divine status already at his conception. I would think that ‘Jesus is God’ is misleading shorthand. The ultimate meaning and identity of Jesus Christ is the divine Logos breaking into human history – I think that is about as far as we can go, and that we ought to be more prudent and modest in our use of the language of high Christology.
As to the Trinitarian distinction between God as Father, as Logos and as Spirit, I recommend the minimalism of Newman, who reduced the doctrine in nine simple propositions. (The Father is God; the Son is God; the Spirit is God; the Son comes from the Father; the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son; the Son is not the Father; the Son is not the Spirit; there is one God.) When we step back from the biblical language of God, his Word or Wisdom, his Breath or Spirit to the Trinity-in-itself we are not stepping into a world of delightful speculation about a tripersonal perichoresis, but into the unknown. More sobriety is in order here. We have the scriptural events, and the dogma is a guide to interpreting them, but I am not sure that we should seek a ‘mystery of the Holy Trinity’ over and above these events, as people did so gleefully in the Middle Ages. Some people want to make a full-fledged and rather speculative account of the Trinity the central platform of inter-religious dialogue, finding Trinitarian structures in other religions as well. Knowing how slowly and cautiously the basic elements of the doctrine were put in place in the fourth century, I think of it as an end-product, a last stretch of Christian thought, rather than as a securely conquered basis for further systematic constructions, now given an inter-religious expansion. Even in our ordinary references to God, Logos, Spirit in our theology of religions, we should be careful not to let these expressions dragoon the phenomena of the other religions into the service of biblical vision.
From IHU On-Line, 17 December, 2007 http://www.unisinos.br/ihuonline/index.php?option=com_tema_capa&Itemid=23