Further reflections on Roger Haight’s Jesus: Symbol of God

The Catholic News Service reports that the The Catholic Theological Society expresses it’s profound distress at the Vatican’s censure of Roger Haight. CTS President Roberto Goizueta complained:

“What they’re trying to do is get him to restate the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That’s not what theology is. Theology is about creative exploration of revelation and the doctrine of the church.”

(Catholic News Service, Feb. 16, 2005.

Bill Cork (Ut Unum Sint) reads between the lines and observes:

Other theologians said Haight’s book was pretty bad, as well as “bland” and “watered down,” “flawed.” But some clearly want theologians to be the magisterium, and have a fault not with the Vatican’s conclusions, but that it was the Vatican that jumped in.

Jamie Blosser (Ad Limina Apostolorum) offers in turn his personal reflection on the nature of “theological exploration”, with reference to the example Origen of Alexandria (the subject of his dissertation, and on whom he is already quite familiar). Jamie concludes:

. . . whether or not Haight is guilty of taking tradition lightly, it is certainly the case, as the opening quote from Goizueta demonstrates, that this is true of many theologians today, who see their fundamental vocation as exploring outside the bounds of tradition than probing more deeply within it. If so, then my hope is that all doubt is erased that this profound misunderstanding of the theologian’s role is a properly modern misunderstanding. It has no place in the tradition.

* * *

I’d like to offer some further thoughts on the nature of Fr. Haight’s “theological exploration,” having recently discovered the text of his address at a 2002 Call to Action conference “Four Gifts of the American Church to the Universal Church” 2002). Commenting on Dominus Iesus, Fr. Haight insists:

The problem [with Dominus Iesus] consists in the absolutist form of classical doctrine, not its message. On the one hand American Catholics believe that there is salvation outside of Roman Catholicism and even outside of Christianity. On the other hand, Catholics strongly believe that Jesus Christ is the real mediator of salvation from God. This last doctrine has to be affirmed and taught with clarity, but in a new pluralist context and a non-competitive spirit. Religious freedom, it is being realized, is also a religious doctrine. Its explanation must accommodate in principle the theological grounds for religious freedom and not simply the political principle that people have a right to be wrong.

The reaction to Dominus Iesus shows that Catholics need a new theology and then a new doctrine that preserves the Christian commitment to God in Jesus Christ and at the same time guarantees the intrinsic validity of other religions in principle. Respect of peoples who have long histories of religious experience and practice demands in part that we acknowledge the autonomous truth and value that constitute their religions. This process is, I believe, going on in the mutual reinforcement of the work of theologians and the sensus fidelium of American Catholics. The point at which this experience will pass into doctrine is still far off, but one can see it on the horizon.

Haight’s choice of words is very interesting, as it clarifies his intent in “theological exploring” the salvific role of Christ and Christianity’s relationship to other religions. But he seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place, if his desire is to simultaneously uphold traditional belief in Jesus Christ as the “real mediator of salvation” AND maintain a “non-competitive spirit” that “guarantees the intrinsic validity of other religions.” It’s difficult to be “non-competitive” when identifying one’s self with a Savior that says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

I suspect that Fr. Haight would find fault not only with Dominus Iesus but Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio as well, which figures prominently in the Congregation’s declaration, and is equally insistent on Christ as the “one mediator between God and mankind” and “the definitive self-revelation of God.”

As Redemptoris Missio acknowledges, the Church grants the possibility that Christ will save those without conscious and explicit knowledge of Him or formal membership in His Church (Redemptoris Missio 10):

The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.

For this reason the Council, after affirming the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, went on to declare that “this applies not only to Christians but to all people of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for everyone, and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in this Paschal Mystery in a manner known to God.” [Gaudium Et Spes 22].

However, Catholics engaged in dialogue with other religions are sure to encounter those who will not content themselves with John Paul II’s qualification, who would positively bristle at the mere suggestion that Jesus Christ in any manner whatsoever “mediates” in their relationship with the Divine. Perhaps it is in response to such complaints that Fr. Haight argues against a Christianity that posits Jesus Christ as a “constitutive mediator” of salvation in his book Jesus: Symbol of God:

. . . there is little evidence that Jesus preached himself as the constitutive mediator of God’s salvation for all human beings. By contrast, abundant evidence and the common opinion of exegetes indicate that Jesus did not preach himself, but the rule of God. The message of Jesus himself is theocentric: God saves; God is loving, providential creator and the exclusive cause of salvation wherever it occurs. Jesus, I have argued, is a cause of Christian salvation because he is the symbol and mediator of God’s salvation in the Christian community. He thus participates in God’s saving activity within the church as the instrument or medium or sacrament of God’s saving self-manifestation. But by definition no historical causality links Jesus to people outside the Christian community. (p. 405)

You have to admit, it’s a very convenient strategy for one engaged in interreligious dialogue. By isolating and confining the mediatorship of Jesus Christ to the “Christian community,” one may freely participate in discussion in a genuine spirit of “non-competitiveness,” recognizing that

Religions are true and the traditions valid and positively willed by God insofar as they are the actual channels of God’s gracious presence. This requires that they open the human spirit out of itself and turn it toward self-transcendence. It does not require that the power of God as Spirit be understood in the same terms as the revelation of Jesus Christ. The primary mediation of God’s presence and salvation for Christianity is the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But the fundamental mediation of God’s salvific presence in other religions need not be a person: it may be an event, a book, a teaching, a praxis. (p. 415)

But one doesn’t have to read all 500 pages of Haight’s book to discern the intent of his “theological exploration” — he conveniently provides a summary of’the Christian case for religious pluralism’ on p. 417:

. . . the truth of other religions and other religious mediations of God can be seen to rest on the deep experience that reaches back into Jewish tradition of the simultaneous immanence and transcendence of God. The step beyond exclusivism and inclusivism is a large one. It cuts the necessity of binding God’s salvation to Jesus of Nazareth alone; it moves the Christian imagination from a christomonism to a theocentrism where Jesus mediates a revelatory encounter with a creator God who is immediately and imminently present to all creatures. I believe that people who fail to acknowledge the salvific truth of other religions may implicitly be operating with a conception of God who is distant from creation. Jesus testifies to the immanence of God. When the world’s religions allow transcendence to press in upon them and, in turn, open human beings up to self-transcendence, they reflect and mediate the immanent God as Spirit whom Christians know through Jesus. But this God is also transcendent. Knowing this God transpires an encounter with mystery. Neither Jesus nor Christianity mediates any complete possession of God. Without a sense of God’s transcedent mystery, without the healthy agnostic sense of what we do not know of God, one will not expect to learn more of God from what has been communicated to us human beings through other revelations and religions.

Haight suggests here that Christianity’s belief in Jesus Christ as constitutive mediator of humanity’s salvation is an impediment to interreligious dialogue, relenquishment of which is a precondition for a fruitful encounter with other religions or in the interest of conducting theology itself in the modern world. Little wonder, then, that the Congregation took notice of Haight’s work, or that he should in turn criticize Dominus Iesus, which specifically addresses and repudiates propositions remarkably similar to those advanced in Symbol of God:

  • That “Christ is a particular, finite, historical figure who reveals the divine not in an exclusive way, but in a way complementary with other revelatory and salvific figures”
  • That “there is an economy of the eternal Word that is valid also outside the Church and is unrelated to her, in addition to an economy of the incarnate Word”
  • “The hypothesis of an economy of the Holy Spirit with a more universal breadth than that of the Incarnate Word, crucified and risen”

Against which the Congregation firmly stated (with liberal quotation from Redemptoris Missio):

Thus, the recent Magisterium of the Church has firmly and clearly recalled the truth of a single divine economy: “The Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions. . . . The Risen Christ ‘is now at work in human hearts through the strength of his Spirit’… Again, it is the Spirit who sows the ‘seeds of the word’ present in various customs and cultures, preparing them for full maturity in Christ”.38 While recognizing the historical-salvific function of the Spirit in the whole universe and in the entire history of humanity,39 the Magisterium states: “This is the same Spirit who was at work in the incarnation and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and who is at work in the Church. He is therefore not an alternative to Christ nor does he fill a sort of void which is sometimes suggested as existing between Christ and the Logos. Whatever the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures and religions, serves as a preparation for the Gospel and can only be understood in reference to Christ, the Word who took flesh by the power of the Spirit ‘so that as perfectly human he would save all human beings and sum up all things'”.40

In conclusion, the action of the Spirit is not outside or parallel to the action of Christ. There is only one salvific economy of the One and Triune God, realized in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, actualized with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, and extended in its salvific value to all humanity and to the entire universe: “No one, therefore, can enter into communion with God except through Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit”.41

(38) John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris missio, 28. For the “seeds of the Word” cf. also St. Justin Martyr, Second Apology 8, 1-2; 10, 1-3; 13, 3-6: ed. E.J. Goodspeed, 84; 85; 88-89.
(39) Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Redemptoris missio, 28-29.
(40) Ibid., 29.
(41) Ibid., 5.

“The Incarnate Logos and the Holy Spirit in the Work of Salvation” Dominus Iesus II, 9-12.

Defending his book against the Vatican’s investigation, Haight responds:

“They’re saying that one has to attend to the tradition, to the community. I try to do that in what I write. I proceed very, very carefully and responsibly to address issues that cannot go unaddressed. . . . My fear is that educated Catholics will walk if there isn’t space for an open attitude to other religions.”(National Catholic Reporter Feb. 8, 2005)

If the Vatican’s allegations are correct (and a glance at Height’s book suggests that they are and that the CDF has “done their homework”), I believe Haight’s requirements for “an open attitude to other religions” will be deemed far too demanding for those who wish to remain faithful to Christ and his Church.

Then again, perhaps we (and his Vatican inquisitors) just aren’t “educated” enough to appreciate him.

Related Links:

  • A Metaphor Gone Wild, review by John Cavadi. Notre Dame. Commmonweal Oct. 8, 1999.
  • Vatican Notification on “Jesus Symbol of God”. Published in the Feb. 9 weekly English edition of L’Osservatore Romano.
  • Further discussion on Haight at Amy Welborn’s ‘Open Book’, including some excerpts of Haight’s response to his critics, and this memorable quote from the one and only Dale Price (Dyspeptic Mutterings):

    “. . . this is why the CDF broke out the lumber. He’s absolutely inflexible and refuses to acknowledge the possibility he may be wrong. Four years of trying to dialogue with that mindset and you’d have the Little Flower baying for his head.”

    Heh.

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