Monday, August 08, 2005

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

Fr. Joseph O'Leary, a liberal Catholic priest teaching English Literature at Sophia University in Tokyo, has written an essay entitled "Demystifying the Incarnation" (posted June 20, 2005 to his website, apparently first published in Archivio di Filosofia, vol. 67, 1999). His purpose is to offer a constructive critique of the Fourth Ecumenical Council -- the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) -- which is traditionally seen as having definitively defined the full humanity and divinity of Christ. Chalcedon affirmed the "hypostatic union" of Christ's two natures, meaning that His divine and human natures, though distinct, act together as a unit subsisting in one person, Jesus Christ.

Ecumenical Councils typically yield carefully-worded dogmatic formulations employing precise metaphysical conceptualizations borrowed from Greek philosophy. O'Leary grudgingly grants such formulations have a legitimate role, but is quick to observe how narrow and limited and negative he thinks this role is. At best such dogmatic formulations provide a check against obvious heretical tendencies like monophysitism (a favorite scapegoat of his, as we shall see). But even then, words like "dogma" and "metaphysics" seem to leave a sour taste in his mouth. Thus, he tends to describe formulations like those of Chalcedon derisively as "cold," "logical," and "bloodless." By contrast, he is fond of describing his own theological alternatives in language laced with warm expressions like "personal encounter" and "personal experience." It seems only proper, then, that we do him the favor of referring to his own Christological proposals in the thermal vocabulary he favors, and envision him vested as Gandalf, but in warm Pink, shepherding us out of the frozen wastes of Chalcedonian tundra into the warm, welcoming waters of his own existentialist hot-tub Christology.

This is not to suggest that O'Leary, as liberal as he may be, is simply a flake. He is clearly a deeply-sensitive, broadly educated man, familiar with the outlines of patristic and medieval tradition, appreciative of St. Thomas Aquinas, fluent in Latin, intimately conversant with the richly speculative currents of contemporary biblical theology, and deeply wedded to the Heideggerian vision of "overcoming" the onto-theological tradition of Western metaphysics. His concern here, quite simply, is with "overcoming" (there, that word again!) what he regards as certain historical and metaphysical "limitations" of the Chalcedonian formulation in order to more effectively call Catholic theology back to the Bible. (Who could possibly object to that!) Ultimately, he says he wants to reestablish the primacy of divine revelation over dogma and "reroot Chalcedon" in a living "encounter with Christ." (Who could possibly object to that!)

Nor is this to suggest that O'Leary is unappreciative of Chalcedon's dogmatic formulation as it stands. Indeed, he readily affirms the importance of doing justice to "the necessity and truth of Chalcedon on its own terms," as well as appreciating "how well this rule of faith ... served classical theology, holding in check the monophysite [note that scapegoat again] tendencies recurring throughout the tradition." (p. 2) Further, he asserts: "Even today, Chalcedon can be effective in correcting speculative distortions in Christology, such as the popular theories of a 'suffering God' which undermine not only divine transcendence but also the integrity of Christ's human nature." (p. 3) Moreover, he insists that "Chalcedon can be applied still more radically than its defenders have done." (p. 3) Hence, there is no question of O'Leary brushing aside Chalcedon as having no relevance.

Yet there is a profoundly disturbing unorthodox undercurrent running through O'Leary's essay that verges at times towards open apostasy. He would deny this charge, portraying his own proposals as faciliating the ongoing "development" of Christian doctrine and merely fleshing out implications embedded in Christian theology from its inception. He would also respond with countercharges of Catholic "fundamentalism," "rigid literalism" and "ossified traditionalism" against any "rigid" adherence to the dogmatic decrees of the Church. Yet by any traditional canon of orthodoxy, O'Leary cleary goes over the edge in this essay. He makes some attempt at concealing the bald implications of his own proposals by conceding a provisional value in the formulations of Chalcedon (as noted above) so as to cover his flank. But his clear intention is to push well beyond Chalcedon, and as one progresses through his essay, it quickly becomes apparent that he is heading towards conclusions that bear little conceivable affinity to traditional Catholic orthodoxy.

The first hint of this occurs in his opening paragraph in which he describes what he calls the "two realities" at issue in the Chalcedonian formulation as follows: "One is fleshly: the life and death of a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth. The other is spiritual: an encounter with the living God ...." The first, he says, is a "matter of fact"; the second, a "self-authenticating" matter of "Christian experience." Notice that the matter of fact here includes the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Not His resurrection. The resurrection, of course, is consigned to the "self-authenticating" realm of "Christian experience," which, please note, is beyond the realm of fact.

The distinction O'Leary is assuming here comes from that tired, old dichotomy of the biblical historical-critics, which severs the "Christ of Faith" (the resurrected Christ) from the "Jesus of History" (the historical man who lived and died). This dichotomy is simply a transposed, religious version of the "value/fact" dichotomy that runs back through Kant's "noumenal/phenomenal" dualism to still earlier versions of that bifurcation. It is that dichotomy that now pervades our culture's dictatorship of relativism and has gone to seed in such blithe sophomorisms as "Your opinions about religion are true for you, and mine are true for me," based on the uncritical assumption that opinions about religion, because they pertain to the realm of personal "values" and not to the realm of empirically varifiable "facts," cannot be objectively right or wrong.

All of which is silly nonsense. This dichotomy, long defended by logical empiricists and other positivists of yesteryear, has been soundly exposed for the piffle it is. The problem is that the dichotomy is utterly contrived and collapses the moment it meets with reality. For values are facts too; and facts are permeated with values. The positivist notion of a value-free fact is no more tenable than the postmodernist notion of a fact-free interpretive construct. What is positive in positivism is the healthy and robust insight that a real world of objective facts exists beyond our subjective efforts to interpret it and that it can be known. What is negative is the assumption that this reality can be known and described without the intrusion of any value-laden bias. What is positive in postmodernism is the fact it dispels the positivist illusion that reality can be known and described without the bias of value-laden presuppositions. What is negative is its denial that there is any reality beyond interpretative constructs to be known or described.

(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.

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