Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue
I began to focus on the problematical things that some of the Catholic participants in
East-West dialogue were saying, and then on how they were, perhaps, part of a wider aspect
of Catholic theology. This dimension of Catholic theology I ended up calling theology
without a net, or a reaction theology.
Someone who read the book wrote me a letter:
"I take the liberty to share with you some questions I have been wrestling with for quite some time in the hope that you will find time to address them.
"The main one is the Person of Jesus. In my Catholic upbringing I was taught and accepted the traditional orthodox doctrine that Jesus is the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Over the years I have read works by Hans Küng, John Hick, John Dominic Crossan, the Westar Institute (Jesus Seminar material), Paul Knitter, Bede Griffiths, Abhishiktananda, and others whom you critique in Christianity in the Crucible.
"I sometimes use Jesus as a sort of koan. By this I mean that I know I wont figure him out intellectually, but may grasp his person mystically. Most of the folks I have read in the past few years either avoid the question by using the terms "Son of God," and "Divinity" in a vague way, or they are certain Jesus was just a great spiritual teacher comparable to the Buddha. To my mind, the most radical of the latter group are some of the Jesus Seminar fellows (especially the founder, Robert Funk).
"Catholic writers often use the traditional language, but I dont think they give the words the traditional meaning or, as I noted above, they avoid the matter. Perhaps I am asking you the wrong question when I ask: Do you believe Jesus is the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity? Perhaps there is no Yes or No answer.
"If you prefer to avoid the question, I will understand. Perhaps I am being impertinent to even ask.".
I wrote in response:
"I dont think you are being impertinent at all. I think your question goes to the heart of the matter. By now, some 40 years after the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, we are so used to the polarization in the Church between the progressives and the conservatives that it might take us a while to realize that some of the theology of today should not be looked at in this way. Rather, we have to ask whether it is compatible with our Christian faith, itself. If we dont believe that Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, then we have lost something so essential to the faith that we have to seriously ask what is left."
This concerns me. Has theology become so self-absorbed that it fails to see that it is meant to be a reflection on the great Christian mysteries which we hold by faith, and instead of actually strengthening faith, weakens it?
It would be possible to imagine that what I am seeing as a problem is simply this or that individual who more or less inadvertently is saying something I am too quick to take exception to. That would certainly be preferred to coming to the conclusion that we are dealing with a more general phenomena which has as its end result to cast doubt on the most fundamental mysteries of Christianity.
In this regard it is puzzling that some of the objections that are being raised are quite unsophisticated, e.g., we used to believe in a God living up in the sky, and now the new cosmology has taught us better, and so they may be driven not so much by purely theological considerations, but emotional ones.
Another Time Bomb?
Michael Morwood, a former Australian Catholic priest, ( National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002) suggests that after pedophilia "there is another time bomb ticking away" in the Church rooted in a "general episcopal refusal to face reality. The issue that will explode in our faces very soon is traditional Catholic belief about God and Jesus." The Church, he tells us, is mired in literalism and an antiquated notion of the cosmos in which we believe in a male God in the sky sending his son, Jesus, to save us, and we need the new cosmology to set us free.
There are two very different ways to read this critique. In the first, we assume that it is another example of the call to renewal of the Church that has been going on, especially since the time of the Second Vatican Council. Part of this renewal is the genuine need for a reformulation of Christian doctrine to make it more accessible today.
But is this really what Morwood is saying? It appears not. What he is doing is questioning the Churchs basic self-understanding of the fundamental Christian mysteries. If in this short piece he focuses on the Eucharist with a mention of the Ascension, elsewhere he characterizes the Churchs teaching on paradise and original sin as "nonsense," and urges us to say about the traditional understanding of the Resurrection of Jesus and His sending of the Spirit, "I just dont believe it any more." It is hard to imagine that the great theologians whose work underpinned the Second Vatican Council, people like Karl Rahner, would be comfortable talking in this vein. They knew perfectly well through long experience what it meant to suffer at the hands of the institutional Church, but they saw that the institution could not be equated with Christian faith, itself.
But what we are seeing on Morwoods part is a very different kind of theology, a reaction theology, if you will, a theology born out of a reaction to the over-conceptualized theology of the past which was married to legalism and a less than forward-looking hierarchy. But instead of creating a genuine theology to counteract these deficiencies, this kind of reaction theology has lost sight of faith, itself, and its fundamental sense of the Christian mysteries. The fact that these mysteries have been taught in inadequate ways by an institution that had often ignored due process and common sense is now taken as proof that the Churchs basic grasp of the central doctrines of the faith is grossly defective.
We have to ask what drives this kind of enterprise. One can only surmise that it is rooted in the long decades of conflict and polarization that have engulfed the Church since the end of the Second Vatican Council. Those closest to the institutional Church, that is, any number of priests and religious, have become deeply disenchanted with it. And they finally reach a point where they consider anything connected with the institution is to be considered suspect. Why should we trust those who have wounded us, this line of unconscious reasoning goes. Lets stand up to them and pay them back in kind. They have weighed us down with their precious teachings of the faith which they imposed on us, while at the same time they failed to treat us in a human manner, still less than a Christian one. What value, then, could these doctrines of the Church have? In this way I believe that a reaction theology has developed and is now making its appearance in the Church.
Morwood is right about one thing. The next crisis might very well be a crisis of faith, but not because we are somehow being forced to remake Christianity according to the norms of the new cosmology. In fact, this kind of reaction theology has little to do with the new cosmology in itself, that is, what is actually being said in scientific cosmological circles, and the careful evaluation of what this could mean for philosophy and theology. It is easy, for example, to facilely talk about some kind of quantum theology, but it is quite another matter to actually figure out what implications, if any, quantum theory has on our understanding of the Christian mysteries.
No. The real crisis of faith is not going to come from the challenge of scientific cosmology, but from our losing sight of the Christian mysteries and the faith and love needed to contemplate them ever more deeply and try to express them ever more adequately. Morwood, demolishing theological straw men, i.e., a male God up in the sky, is not going to take us very far in that direction.
What is Really Going on in this Doctrinal Crisis?
Here is my hypothesis of one of the dynamisms that appears to be driving the doctrinal crisis that we are facing.
1. The process starts with a poor or childish faith commitment. We are born and grow up in the Church, join priestly or religious life at a young age, never get adequate theological formation as lay people, and so forth. Thus, it is understandable that we could have immature notions about what our faith is, and uncritically accept very human and defective ways in which it has been formulated.
2. This human state of affairs is compounded by poor theological formation. The institutional Church often does an inadequate job of instructing us.
3. We begin to grow up and go out into the world where our faith is challenged, and we see that there are, indeed, childish elements in it. For example, the way we picture God and His action in the world, and so forth. We even realize that the institutional Church, that is the Church in its dimension of being made up of fallible human beings, has often acted in such a way to keep us both psychologically and spiritually immature.
4. We rebel. We need to strike out and find ourselves, and grow into an adult faith commitment. In the process, we can strike out against the institutional Church and against our childish view of faith. Then we run the temptation of rejecting faith, itself, because of the poor way it has been presented and the deficient way we have understood it. We have arrived at a critical point where the road divides.
5. One road leads to the dark and difficult journey to a true adult faith commitment. This is not easy, especially in a world which considers Christian faith infantile, unscientific, irrational, etc. Faith is not a blind acceptance of a series of conceptual statements. It is animated in its depths by love, a love that compels us to go out of ourselves and search for a genuine loving relationship with God. On this road there are serious philosophical and theological problems that we need to honestly confront.
6. The other road is much more human. We realize our faith is deficient, and we strike out at the institutional Church that has helped foster it. This rebellion becomes more complex if we have suffered psychologically and spiritually at the hands of the institution. Then we can have a desire to wound it in return, and this desire can express itself by attacking whatever we feel we hold most dear. We might even imagine that our own childish views of faith, which we are putting behind us, are what everyone else in the Church holds, and now we have a new mission, as it were, not to preach the faith as we once did, but to preach the destruction of faith under the guise of true liberation. The tragedy of this path is we lose sight of the faith, itself.
7. The impetus for this kind of liberation can be reinforced if we now, as adults, discover something that genuinely makes sense: Zen meditation, Jungian psychology, scientific cosmology, and so forth. Then we compare this discovery to our childish faith, and think we need to discard the faith, itself.
8. The progressive media sometimes rather mindlessly applauds these adolescent attempts at liberation, especially if one has run afoul of the authorities in Rome. It talks of due process, but not about what the theologian is actually saying. Its periodicals and publishers wash their hands of the issue of how compatible what is being said is with what the Christian faith teaches.
Unfortunately, the right often focuses on doctrinal orthodoxy, while sometimes reducing that orthodoxy to excessively narrow conceptualizations, and even ignoring due process and dialogue. The result is that we continue to wallow in the old polarities that have impaired the unity of the Church for the last 40 years.
9. Sometimes, too, the Catholic laity applauds these adolescent kinds of theological rebellions, focusing on the rebellion against the institution, but not on the way the faith is being poorly presented, or even denied. It talks about spirituality without religion, which is fine if that means not becoming entangled in the sometimes very human machinations of religious institutions to the detriment of attending to the central business of faith and prayer. But if this slogan becomes the banner under which we propose a spirituality without faith, which loses sight of the central Christian mysteries, where will that leave us?
What does all this amount to? We need to carefully distinguish between deficient faith formulations and the faith, itself. Otherwise we will reject the faith on the strength of our childish notions of it, and fail to embark on the road, however arduous, that leads to genuine adult faith and a theology and spirituality built upon it.
You are right to be worried about a crisis in theology and in some cases its detachment from faith. As you mention in Christianity in the Crucible there are many problems in the Church today, remarkably problems related to faith. Some Church documents have tried to answer certain issues. For example, recently, Dominus Iesus. Some theologians are confused on what they believe, in what their real values are. But it is clear that anyone that believes Jesus is an avatar, or simply a great spiritual leader, or just a wonderful model for human beings, is missing the mark. He is simple not Christian.
To be Christian one must believe that in his love God spoke His Eternal Word to humanity and through the Holy Spirit incarnated in the Holy Virgin. That happened only once in history, and will never happen again. It is and will remain a unique event. For human history the main event after the creation of man, is the wonderful act of love by which God becomes man, or as San Augustine puts it the Infinite became finite. Certainly the Incarnation is a mystery, that is why to believe in it is an act of faith. Pope John Paul has very clearly addressed the relation of a truth seeker with faith in Fides et ratio, a must read for anyone who wants to understand the greatness and limits of human reason. It can also help to understand how faith is a very valid way of knowing through our confidence in the other, in this case God.
Many people are confused. But it is not only in relation with theology or beliefs. There is a rationale of dehumanization in different aspects of human life. The pro-abortion arguments make one remember the Nazi rationale for killing unwanted people. Any one who has seen pictures or films of what is being done with unhelpful little human creatures being killed by different methods cannot less than see a mass murder going on and raise his voice in alert of the decline in the conscience of the value of humanity. Euthanasia is another dehumanizing issue.
What I mean by all this is that you cannot separate the cultural crisis, what the Pope has been calling "culture of death", with the problems in certain theology detached from faith. The main problem is the "crisis". It is spreading in many ways in humanity. For example the 45 million Christian martyrs of the XX Century are but an eloquent sign of this. The "thanatic", violent, and erotic culture we are living in are all very clear cultural trends that are driving humanity to lose respect for human beings and life. And some theologians are victims of such a cultural, human and worldview. That reflects a loss of faith. In transforming themselves into unsatisfied people who deeply want the divinity, but are weak in their maturing as human beings, they seek to detach themselves from what they sense as a demanding faith from their reflections in a secularization or new age trend theology.
It is in the center of that cultural crisis that people and theologians are having their own personal crisis. Obviously the difficulties they live with express themselves in their personal theology and afterwards in their written theology.
So, I believe there is a paramount crisis in humanity. We have inherited it from the end of the XVIII century, and like a small snow ball falling over a mountain covered with snow, it has became so huge its effects are reaching everywhere. And one must say we are so accustomed to that as to not react in any way.
So, as a partial conclusion to the argument, in Christianity in the Crucible you are touching a real and very important aspect of todays crisis in todays world. It is not the only sign of a decline in humanity as we know it, but it is surely the central problem. Behind every human crisis, there is a crisis in faith.
I must say it is a matter of hope to read papers such as
yours. They reveal that some persons are really worried about what is happening.
A Response from Lesley
I think that there is a crisis of faith in the Church because
there is such a crisis on an individual level. I can say that I had my crisis of faith
when I was in 5th grade. I was raised in a traditional Catholic family, sent to a Catholic
grade school, brought to Mass. I had a difficult time as the Church made no sense to me
and the questions that I asked were not answered, rather I was slapped with a yardstick or
pointer and set up in the corner. I was a gifted child and history was, still is, my
favorite subject, so I knew about some of the less loving history of the Church with Popes
having children etc. I also could not understand or accept the philosophy of the exclusion
of women priests. I remember the beauty of the ceremony and how I longed to celebrate
Mass, the glow around the priest and the holiness of all the actions. When we were talking
about what we wanted to be when we grew up and I said a priest...well, it didn't go over
too well. The nun was laughing and then the class. She tried to explain why I could only
be a nun, how I would marry Jesus, etc., but no questions were answered and I was laughed
at as she called me Father from time to time. By the following year I had declared myself
an atheist, but then at 15 found a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, which I still have to this
day, so began to follow a more mystical, Hindu based pathway, though I would not consider
myself a Hindu. Rather a Spiritual person that has Eastern leanings. I could not really
reenter the Church, though I will respect it, until celibacy is an elective not a
requirement, women can be priests, and we are taught how to bless things ourselves. One
thing that impressed me was the fact that other religious paths encourage you to have a
one on one with God, however that word is perceived, rather than having to use an
intermediary. No Catholics that I knew read the bible unless you signed up for an extra
curricular bible study class. It was more the priest read it and then told you what it
said. That should not be the base of the Faith, it should be integral in the teachings to
explore different levels of understanding, allegorically.
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Our parish held forums once a week for the month of November. The topic was DEALING WITH THE TOUGH QUESTIONS. The response was huge ........as a matter of fact, they had to move from the large room chosen to the cavernous church hall. People are definitely interested. I would consider myself on the more traditional end of the spectrum and am just now realizing that I need to look at possibilities for change (perhaps). It is very easy to like the rut one is in. When I hear my friends on the more liberal side speak, though, I often feel they believe in nothing. Jesus was a good man, the Eucharist is a symbol or my personal favorite--I don't believe in organized religion, I see God everywhere.
It seems to me that this new version of Catholicism is about as life-changing as a bucket full of warm spit. I sympathize because I was there more than once. Without an experience of God, how can anyone in today's world believe ? But, I guess that was always true.
I'm not a theologian, just an ordinary woman, but in the short term I fear for so many young people today who are missing something precious that could make their lives so much richer. In the end of course, all will be well.
About 12 years ago I found myself in a place of deep, cold
spiritual darkness. This lasted 10 years. Years completely devoid of life, meaning or
light with only a very rare flicker of something sort of like hope. When this ended, which
it did quite abruptly, I found that most of what I once would have called a spiritual life
had been burnt away. I found that I had been given faith and a profound sense of gratitude
instead. I think all people who love the Church as the Body of Christ, must let whatever
purification is needed, happen and not lose hope.
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