Monday, August 15, 2005

Fr. O'Leary's unorthodox ("hot tub") Christology (Part II)

What follows is Part II in a series analyzing an essay in Christology by Fr. Joseph O'Leary (pictured left), currently professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan (For the first installment, see Part I: Link)

Chalcedon famously defined Christ's human and divine natures as united in the singular person of Christ. Its technical term was "hypostatic union," or the union of the two natures in an underlying hypostatis, meaning "substrate" or "substance." Remarking on this Chalcedonian clarification of the Church's understanding of who Christ is, Fr. O'Leary says: "Today this clarification is likely to be seen as an estrangement. Our search to articulate the relation of the human and divine dimensions of the Christ-event has to overcome the Chalcedonian perspective through a lucid critique of its limitations." (p. 2) O'Leary hastens to reassure his readers that he's not simply opposing the Council's Christological dogma, but, rather, preparing for "a hermeneutical retrieval of the truth of Chalcedon." (p. 2, emphasis added)

Throughout these statements, one hears the echoes of Martin Heidegger's existentialism, as one does in the demythologizing theology of Rudolf Bultmann. Expressions such as "Christ-event," "overcoming" (usually "overcoming of metaphysics"), and "retrieval" (usually retrieval of something long hidden, like Heidegger's "Being," or Paul Tillich's "Ground of Being") are nuts-and-bolts trade jargon in the industry of theological existentialism.

In order to get at how the divine and human are really related in the "Christ-event," then, O'Leary wants to "overcome" the limitations of Chalcedon in order to hermeneutically "retrieve" what he sees as the underlying "truth of Chalcedon." But before this "truth" (presumably heretofore hidden and overlooked) can be "retrieved," it would be helpful to know why this presumably hidden truth of Chalcedon has been overlooked for so many centuries. Why weren't earlier attempts at uncovering this truth more effective? One reason, O'Leary says, is that "[earlier] critics have been unable to bring into view the nature of the Greek metaphysical horizon within which the classical doctrine developed; here Heidegger offers resources for a critical genealogy which theology has yet to exploit." (p. 2)

Indeed! Just as fish don't know what it means to be wet, earlier theologians didn't know what it was to be immersed in a "Greek metaphysical horizon," because they lacked sufficient critical distance. And it is none other than Heidegger, according to O'Leary, who provides this critical distance through his genealogical deconstruction (or "destruction," as Heidegger sometimes calls it) of the western metaphysical and "onto-theological" tradition. In order to appreciate something of the significance of Heidegger's existential philosophy for such theological undertakings as O'Leary's, it may be helpful to know something about both Heidegger's and existentialism's relationship to Christianity.

Martin Heidegger (pictured right) was at one time a seminarian in formation to become a Catholic priest, but dropped out after losing his faith and went on to become a leading existentialist philosopher -- an existential phenomenologist, to be specific. From the research of John D. Caputo and others, we know that Heidegger translated the categories of his erstwhile Christian faith into secular, existential equivalents, so that his philosophy is in many ways a secularized substitute for his erstwhile faith. "Care," "anxiety," "averageness," "thrownness," "inauthenticity," "authenticity," etc., are all examples of Heideggerian shorthand for denatured Christian notions. Similar patterns in secularized existential theology can be found, for example, in John Macquarrie's Principles of Christian Theology and Paul Tillich's three-volume Systematic Theology. Further, in order to see how loosely tethered the concepts of such existential theology are to the historical claims of the Christian tradition, one may note that for the Nazi theologians -- Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch -- "Christ" was reinterpreted to mean the "spirit of National Socialism." In fact, dring the Nazi regime in Germany, Hedegger himself affiliated his vision, which John D. Caputo, following Emmanuel Levinas, describes as a "totalizing ontology," with the totalitarian vision of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. (See Martin Heidegger's German Existentialism, trans. by Dagobert D. Runes [NY: Philosophical Library, 1965] for Heidegger's speeches as the Nazi Rektor of the University of Freiburg) This in no way should be seen as a backhanded attempt at tarring O'Leary with an opprobrious association with Naziism. Rather, it is simply an illustration of how disconnected any such secularized existential theology can become from the historical realities of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

So what is existentialism, exactly? What animates it? Can this question be answered without distinguishing atheistic from Christian existentialism? Perhaps so. Albert Camus (pictured below left), an example of the atheistic variety, once wrote: "A literature of despair is a contradiction in terms .... In the darkest depths of our nihilism I have sought only for the means to transcend nihilism" (quoted in John Cruickshank, Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt [NY: Oxford UP, 1960], p. 3). Atheistic existentialism accepts the nihilistic account of the objective world that emerged historically from the worldview of naturalism, which, hard on the heels of deism, rejected the supernatural. With a mechanistically understood, deterministic closed-box universe, objective reality yields no hope of meaning. In the face of this hopelessness, the essence of existentialism may be described as the attempt to transcend nihilism. But how? The answer: through subjectivity. What can that mean? Camus declared that he was utterly certain of two propositions: (1) that he could not live without meaning, and (2) that life has no objective meaning. But rather than commit suicide, which would seem to have a prima facie logical compulsion, Camus embraced what he called an "absurd logic," by which he affirmed life (as in the myth of Sisyphus) despite its absurdity. Even if there is no objective meaning to be discovered, meaning can be subjectively generated, even if it is only through metaphysical rebellion.

What about Christian existentialism? There are always hazards in generalizing, but I think we can safely say this: Existential theologians tend to view the world in terms of two levels -- the objective and the subjective. On the objective level, like their atheistic counterparts, they tend to accept the account offered by a naturalistic world view, which excludes the supernatural, shutting the lid on the universe, as it were. Hence, the meaningful dimensions of the Christian Faith are nowhere to be found on that level. On that level, the Bible is viewed as an entirely human book, full of errors and subject to ineluctable skepticism. If the essence of existentialism lies in the attempt to transcend nihilism, then how do Christian existentialists propose this be done? The answer, again, is through subjectivity. In other words, the only meaning available is going to be that encountered on the level of subjective experience. Hence, while denying that the miracles mentioned in the Bible ever objectively happened, existential theologians affirm that miracles may happen as part of the "phenomena" of our personal experience. The "Jesus of History" may be a rotted corpse somewhere in Palestine. But the "Christ of Faith" is alive in our hearts and in the life-changing experiences within the believing "kairos" community. Existentialist theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth (if we read him carefully) are replete with such suggestions. Even Soren Kierkegaard (pictured right), the Lutheran father of the existentialist movement, though he may not have succumbed to the worst of these tendentious errors, defined truth as "subjectivity," and faith as "the objective uncertainty along with the repulsion of the absurd held fast in the passion of inwardness" (Training in Christianity, trans. by Walter Lowrie [Princeton UP, 1944], quoted in Robert C. Solomon, ed., Existentialism [NY: Random House, 1974], p. 27). The pattern is clear, and it will be helpful to bear in mind as we return to O'Leary's essay.

So what does O'Leary envision when he suggests that "Chalcedon can be applied still more radically than its defenders have done"? (p. 3) What does he mean when he says "still more radically"? As will eventually become clear, I think, what he wants is a Christ of Faith who is freed from the constraints of the Jesus of History -- a Christ who lives in our subjective personal experience in a rich and meaningfully-felt way in the collective experience of the community of believers -- not a Christ who is dogmatically linked to the Jesus of history by "fundamentalist literalism" about such things as the Incarnation ("Jesus is God") or the Resurrection ("Jesus was bodily raised in space and time") or His claims about everlasting punishment and about nobody being able to come to the Father "but by me" (Jn 14:6).

His immediate strategy is to exploit the Chalcedonian opposition to docetic and monophysite heresies (which denied the full humanity of Jesus) in order to assert that our obligation to embrace the full humanity of Jesus requires us to think of Him as something less than fully God, or, more precisely, of His human nature as not fully informed by His divine nature. First of all, he sets the stage by criticizing the limitations of the Chalcedonian perspective in the work of one of its foremost exponents, St. Thomas Aquinas. O'Leary writes:

Within scholastic perspectives, reinforced by Aristotelean conceptuality, it is hard to do justice to the link with biblical vision which Chalcedon had retained. Thus Aquinas takes the Gospel accounts of Jesus' preternatural insight and miraculous powers to warrant ascription to him of the greatest knowledge and power possible in a creature, including the capacity to see in the Word all that the Word sees. Only historical scholarship has allowed us to recover Jesus as a human being sharing the cognitive limitations of his culture. (pp. 3-4)
Several things are being asserted here. First, "scholastic perspectives" are clearly considered inadequate. Second, they are considered inadequate because they don't do justice to the full humanity of Jesus. O'Leary cites Aquinas as an example of a scholastic who, he thinks, fails to do justice to the full humanity of Jesus. This can be seen, according to O'Leary, in Aquinas ascribing to Jesus the "the capacity to see in the Word all that the Word sees." It's intersting that O'Leary refers to "Jesus" (= Historical Jesus) here, and not "Christ" (= "Christ of Faith"), although I suspect that, if pressed, he would accommodate some flexibility in language here, if not of conceptualization. It's also interesting that he describes Aquinas as ascribing to Jesus "the greatest knowledge and power possible in a creature" (emphasis added). I suppose this is only carelessness, as I would hope O'Leary would not go so far as to suggest that the Jesus of History was a "creature," in Arian fashion; but the slip, if it is a slip, is an interesting one. Third, O'Leary says that "historical scholarship," by which he means the secularized protestant historical-critical tradition of biblical studies, "has allowed us to recover Jesus as a human being sharing the cognitive limitations of his culture." Just what sort of a "recovery" does he have in mind?

O'Leary quickly assures his readers that his "recovery" is "not in conflict with the Chalcedonian tradition," that, in fact, Chalcedon "kept the stage clear for it" and allowed the Church "to take aboard the findings of scholarship as a welcome confirmation" of the humanity of Christ. Then he tells us what his "recovery" entails:

It helps us take in our stride the possibility that the human Jesus may have erred, due to the limitations of the framework of his eschatological thinking; such errors could include not only the Naherwartung [the expectation of an imminent return of Christ] (Mk 9:1; Mt 10:23), but the elements in his teaching that gave rise to anti-Jewish supersessionist doctrine (Mk 12:9) and notions of eternal punishment. (p. 4)
So whatever may be said of the pre-incarnate Word, the Jesus of History is a fallible human being, whose possible errors may have included not only errors in judgment about the timing of His second coming, but theological errors in his teachings concerning the relation of His Gospel to Judaism and the doctrine of hell. I have dealt with this notion of a fallible Jesus in some detail in an earlier discussion entitled "To Err is Divine???" so I will not belabor the question here. Suffice it to sum up by noting that O'Leary sees this fallible Jesus as a logical consequence of Chalcedon's affirmation of the full humanity of Christ and it's opposition to docetic and monophysitic heresies. Yet Catholic tradition, in addition to affirming the full humanity of Christ, affirms the hypostatic union of Christ's human and divine natures in the single person of Jesus Christ, with full communicatio idiomata, meaning that the properties of the Divine Word can be ascribed to the human Christ, and vice versa. Catholic tradition therefore affirms that Christ's human knowledge was free from positive ignorance and from error, a view with which O'Leary's proposals cannot be squared.

How, then, does O'Leary understand the Incarnation? "Chalcedon," he writes, "has often been taken to teach a massive ontological amalgamation of divine and human substances," which can be best expressed in such forthright statements as "Jesus is God," "the God-man," "God became man," and so forth. But an "authentic" Chalcedonian understanding of the communicatio idiomata, he says, can help to "smooth away some of the unease" of statements such as these. Statements like "Jesus is a man" and "The Logos is God" are direct predications, he says, but "Jesus is God" is misleading shorthand that needs to be spelled out carefully. He writes:

Because the man Jesus is hypostatically one with the eternal Logos, we can attribute to this one person all the attributes of the humanity and of the divinity; thus we can say 'Jesus is God', 'Jesus created the world' or 'The Logos was born of Mary', 'The Logos suffered and died', as long as we ward off any suggestion that the human nature as such acquires divine qualities or that the divine nature as such is subject to human limitations. (p. 4)
This statement is perfectly orthodox as far as it goes. What remains in question is how the properties of these divine and human natures are understood to be united in a common hypostasis, or substrate. O'Leary says: "The ultimate hypostasis of Jesus Christ is God's eternal Word," but then adds that God the Son, as a trinitarian mode of being, cannot be called a "person" in the ordinary human sense, suggesting that the innate limitations of the Chalcedonian formulation cannot be easily overcome:

Yet however subtly one expounds Chalcedon -- at the risk, indeed, of making it a wax nose --, people will object: Is it not enough to say that in Jesus we encounter the living God? The pursuit of the ontological grounds of this encounter seems epistemologically dubious and has divisive and alienating effects. Moreover, others may experience God's self-disclosure just as definitively elsewhere. 'Jesus was and is divine for those who experience in him the manifestation of God ...' writes J.D. Crossan, in Who Killed Jesus (San Francisco, 1996), p. 216.
Note what is being asserted here -- (1) the limitations of Chalcedon; (2) the supplanting of those limitations via the objection raised in preference for a personal "encounter" with the living God (here the existential primacy of subjective experience surfaces); (3) the negative judgment on the Chalcedonian-inspired pursuit of the (objective metaphysical) "ontological grounds" of this (subjective) "encounter" as "epistemologically dubious" and having "divisive and alienating effects." What O'Leary has in mind here is the "divisive and alienating effects" of asserting that the living God is encountered in His fullness solely in the unique person of Jesus of Nazareth. (4) this is confirmed by his assertion that God's self-disclosure is "experienced" by others (non-Christians) "just as definitevely elsewhere," and by the quotation from Crossan, which asserts the subjectivistic sophomorism that "Jesus was and is divine for those who experience in him the manifestation of God." Thus, the classic existential patter of disconnection between subjectivity and objectivity becomes apparent -- the disconnection between (a) the experienced subjective Christ encountered in non-rational, personal faith and (b) the objective Christ defined by dogmatic tradition so as to link Him ineluctably to the empirical Jesus of history, who is open to rational investigation. No wonder O'Leary could state, in another context, that it was "an open question" among the students in his seminary days whether the archiological discovery of Jesus' body in Palestine would refute the reality of the Resurrection! (See "Fr. O'Leary on the Resurrection") The "Christ" encountered in the warm, fuzzy "hot tub" categories of existentialist theologians has little more to do with the Jesus Christ of historic Christianity and the Gospel accounts than the "Buddy Christ" (pictured right) of Bishop George Carlin in the Kevin Smith film, Dogma.

(To be continued ...)

  • All pagination is from the printed internet essay (which may be vary with printer specifications), not from the published article in Archivio di Filosofia, vol. 67, 1999.
  • Anyone wishing to access an online copy of O'Leary's essay my do so from O'Leary.Org.