16 August 2005

jesus: symbol of God

I may have mentioned earlier that I'm supposed to be on a faculty panel this autumn discussing a book entitled Jesus: Symbol of God (Orbis 1999), by the Jesuit theologian Roger Haight.

I've begun to read the tome this past week and trying to evaluate it. So far the opening chapters are largely preoccupied with methodological concerns. I'm also finding them a bit tedious, so I hope that Haight's writing style picks up as he moves into the main argument of the book.

So far, while they are rather problematic at points, his methodological suggestions are not necessarily inimical to useful and orthodox theological reflection upon Jesus Christ. It will all depend upon how Haight deploys and applies these methodological considerations.

For instance, he makes a number of remarks regarding the nature of "religion" and "religious experience." Now, some of these remarks strike me as problematic in that they assume that there is this universal phenomenon of "religion" that we can discuss and draw generalizations about, quite apart from the specific content of particular systems of belief and practice.

Likewise, he wants to make what seems a fairly sharp distinction between "faith" and "belief," where "faith" refers to some kind of underlying religious attitude or experience which may, in turn, generate "beliefs," but is somehow prior to and unconstrained by belief, so that the same faith-experience may give rise to a range of incommensurate beliefs or systems of belief. Again, this strikes me as problematic in that it assumes that there is an identifiable aspect to human experience that we can isolate and meaningfully discuss apart from any specific propositional content or about which some beliefs might be necessarily more fitting while others are excluded.

Not having read the rest of the book, I can only speculate about where he takes these methodological considerations. While they are, to my mind, highly problematic, I can imagine an author deploying them in a fairly innocuous manner. But I can also see them being taken in very troubling, even heterodox, directions.

Haight also makes a number of rather vague comments about the "postmodern" world and what people who have a "postmodern sensibility" can and cannot understand, grasp, or believe, particularly regarding what premodern people might have said or thought. The nature of his comments, however, are general and abstract enough so as not to have much specifiable content or assure me that he has any significant grasp of what serious postmodern theory in the academy actually entails.

In this context, he rightly notes that classical christological formulations, in order to communicate effectively to contemporary people and culture, will need to be re-expressed and re-interpreted in language that communicates more clearly to those around us. But given his vague statements about postmodernism, I worry what precisely that will mean and whether his re-formulations will actually preserve classical doctrine in any meaningful sense. At times his supposed concern for a "postmodern" perspective sounds to me little different from all-too-modernist liberalism of the sort that suggests people who live in a world of electric lightbulbs can no longer believe in miracles.

At any rate, the faculty panel discussion was sparked by the fact that Haight's book led to an investigation into his views on the part of the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The investigation led to the publication by the Vatican, in February of this year, of a "Notification" reagrding the book, suggesting that it contains "grave doctrinal errors against the divine and Catholic faith of the Church." Since the issues here are ones of christology and trinitarian theology, I imagine the opinion of the Vatican's theological watchdogs carries significant weight, though I've not yet read through the "Notification" they issued.

I know that at least one of the other panelists will probably side with Haight against the Vatican, which will likely put me in the odd position of being a Protestant defending the Vatican's opinion over against the claims of a liberal Catholic colleague. Still, I'll have to read the book myself first and try to make a determination about the author's claims. If any of you have read Haight's book, I'd appreciate whatever comments you might have regarding it.