18 October 2005

haight's jesus discussion

Today was a faculty panel discussion regarding Jesus: Symbol of God, by Jesuit theologian, Roger Haight. I only finished reading the book over the weekend and only started writing up some comments last night. I ended up staying awake until a bit after midnight trying to work on my comments and spent my office hours today finishing them up.

The past week has be unusually busy (as I expect this week will also be), so my patience level is probably somewhat attenuated. Nonetheless, I hope the remarks I made regarding Haight were fair and accurate, even if they were at times rather pointed. Also note that these remarks were given in a context in which those more supportive of Haight had ample opportunity for response, defense, and clarification.

Here are my notes:

Roger Haight, Jesus: Symbol of God


When this panel discussion was proposed, as the token Protestant, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting myself into. While I’ve read widely enough in New Testament studies, christology, and historical theology, I hadn’t heard of Roger Haight and was unaware of the controversy surrounding his book on Jesus.

Indeed, it wasn’t until I was well into Haight’s lengthy book and found myself increasingly puzzled by his methods and claims that I finally Googled his name and discovered some of the hullabaloo that the book has stirred up. And while I’ve seen numerous reviews that describe the book variously as “rich,” “magisterial,” “wonderful,” “thoughtful,” and “inspiring,” I find it difficult to see what such reviewers find so attractive about Haight's hefty tome.

As far as I can see, Haight’s presentation of New Testament christology isn’t an especially plausible interpretation of what the New Testament actually says about the person of Jesus. Rather, it strikes me more as a clever exercise in theological gymnastics by an individual who finds himself unable to believe the Gospel as that has traditionally been understood.

At times it seems that Haight seeks to console himself with what often come across to me at least as spiritual platitudes about the concern and compassion of God - all very true, of course, but lacking the untamed edge of the biblical God worshiped in the splendor of holiness by Israel and by Jesus. And what Haight’s book lacks in theological depth of insight is only compounded by English prose that I found difficult to slog through given its persistent redundancies and, at times, seemingly vacuous assertions.

So far, however, my remarks might be regarded as merely unfounded bluster on the part of an evidently narrow-minded dogmatist. Thus, allow me to move on to some more detailed remarks.

Questions of general method

In a tome of this length that, to my mind, evidences so many problems, one scarcely knows where to begin, but I will begin nonetheless by looking at a few of Haight’s methodological suggestions.

Some of his suggestions are not, in themselves, at first blush necessarily inimical to useful and orthodox theological reflection upon Jesus Christ. Haight is correct to emphasize the practical implications of the gospel for the realities of human life. Haight is also correct to draw attention to the ongoing necessity to contextualize theology for contemporary audiences. But as Haight goes on to fill in the details and to deploy and apply his methodological considerations, problems begin to surface.

Haight, for instance, makes a number of remarks regarding the nature of “religion” and “religious experience.” The way in which he does so, however, simply assumes the universal phenomenon of “religion,” conceived in such a way that we can discuss and draw generalizations about it, quite apart from the specific content of particular systems of belief and practice as those are embedded and embodied within particular traditions, narratives, rituals, and so on.

Likewise, Haight wants to make what seems a fairly sharp distinction between “faith” (on one hand) and “belief” (on the other), where “faith” refers to some kind of underlying and unspecifiable religious attitude or experience which may, in turn, generate “beliefs,” but is somehow prior to and unconstrained by belief, so that the putatively same faith-experience may give rise to a range of incommensurate beliefs or systems of belief. But this is 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.

And when Haight does begin to fill in the details of his vague notions of the “religious” or “faith,” he speaks of it as a “universal form of human experience” that involves “an awareness of and loyalty to an ultimate or transcendent reality” and is tied to the experience of “salvation.” But this is pure assertion and a highly debatable one at that.

First, Haight’s assertion would seem to run afoul of the actual lived experience of various world religions. I would think that most Buddhists, for example, would not recognize Haight’s description as fitting their own experience, which, as I understand it, does not involve that kind of faith in a transcendent reality, let alone a notion of “salvation” of the sort that Haight seems to assume. And this is to say nothing of the various other forms of religious belief and expression that exist or have existed within human experience, from animism and polytheism to ancestor worship and forms of filial piety.

Second, even within the bounds of Christian theological reflection, Haight’s approach here, while consonant with that of Karl Rahner, would find significant opposition in theologians such as Karl Barth (among Protestants) or Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar (among Catholics). Some theologians, from Schleiermacher to Rahner, have been content to situate theology and Christian revelation as a particular instance within a universal class of experiences that can be called “religious” or within a generalized account of human consciousness of the transcendent, placing thereby distinctively Christian claims squarely within the horizon of human expectation.

Other theologians, however, have insisted that a consistently Christian account of theology, revelation, spiritual experience, and so on must proceed from the concrete particularities of Christian revelation in Christ and its unique claims, noting how the gospel challenges and hyper-fulfills our human expectations in entirely unexpected ways.

Haight’s account, therefore, makes its starting point within a metaphysics of human subjectivity that is, in the first instance, purely general, apparently ahistorical, and universal for each individual. While Haight, like Rahner before him, does go on to qualify all this with a discussion of history, events, texts, human community, and so, this subsequent discussion often has the appearance of supplementing an account that is already largely complete in itself. As such, the social nature of the Christian faith, its embeddedness within narrative, typology, and ritual, and, its groundedness in particular historical events, is something that Haight fits into an already essentially complete account of the individual subject and the a priori structure of human knowledge for any given person.

The end result is that Haight appears manifestly uncomfortable with fully committing grace and salvation into the hands of historical events in their concreteness, incommensurability, and - especially in the case of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ - their unexpectedness and unpredictability. The person of Jesus and events of the gospel are reduced by Haight to mere symbols and ciphers of a universal transcendence that has always been there all along. Rather than wonder, worship, and adoration, the appearance of this Jesus under these conditions can only elicit a yawn.

Third, despite Haight’s repeated refrain about the necessity of speaking to supposedly “postmodern” people, Haight’s own approach here strikes me as insufficiently postmodern. A genuinely postmodern account would harbor much darker suspicions about the notion of a universal religious consciousness, noting how such an idea is itself historically situated and conditioned by the development of post-Kantian philosophy, phenomenology, and existentialism. Indeed, as a number of thinkers have argued, the very notion of “the religious,” as it is discussed by fellows such as Haight, is a relative newcomer on stage of history, emergent with the dissolution of the medieval synthesis in the wake of late nominalism and complicit with the rise of modernist categories of thought and the isolation of an identifiable realm of secularity.

Despite Haight’s self-proclaimed taking up of the postmodern mantle, his own prophetic voice makes an uncertain sound. While Haight champions the postmodern need for a critical and historicized consciousness, Haight himself remains seemingly oblivious and unreflective about the contingent and historically situated nature of his own methods and practices as a theologian.

Haight, of course, 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. Nevertheless, his supposed concern for a “postmodern” perspective sounds to me little different from an all-too-modernist liberalism of the sort that suggests people who live in a world of electric lightbulbs simply find it impossible to believe in miracles.

In addition, despite Haight's suggestions to the contrary, it is hardly the case that religious pluralism is a problem that newly faces the Christian church. While it is true that the past several centuries have brought an end to the hegemony of European Christendom, the original context in which the Christian gospel was proclaimed in late antiquity was one that manifested a religious pluralism and relativism that would rival the experience of any modern or postmodern person.

Another aspect of Haight’s methodology is his understanding of “symbol.” Given the centrality of this notion for his overall argument and, indeed, its prominent place in the title of the book, one would expect a serious and extended discussion of the nature of symbols within the Christian faith. Unfortunately, Haight seems set on disappointing the reader and fails to give a defensible account of the nature of “symbol,” instead simply repeating that notion that symbols point to transcendent realities that remain “other” than the symbol itself.

Haight goes on to use this understanding of symbol to eviscerate the most central events of the gospels of historical content, maintaining for instance that the resurrection of Jesus is a symbol of the transcendent reality that Jesus is alive with God, a claim that Haight is ever so careful to disentangle from thorny historical questions involving empty tombs, resuscitated corpses, bodily appearances of the resurrected Jesus, and so on - not to mention Second Temple Jewish expectations and language about the eschatological resurrection of the dead. Apparently, for Haight, none of these things can really impinge upon our understanding of Jesus’ resurrection since the resurrection, after all, is a “symbol.”

In light of such a wholesale re-casting of orthodox Christian teaching, one might hope for a more vigorous defense of such understandings of the symbolic. Such an account of symbol, after all, seems susceptible to a number of relatively common criticisms.

First, returning to the sorts of comments I have already made, why should we assume a naturalistic ontology that defines the symbolic by reference to its place within a natural field of semiotic activity. To do this, results in treating the symbolic events and texts of salvation history as mere instances within the larger and more general class of symbols.

But such an assumption ends up misconstruing the nature of the symbolic within the divine economy of salvation, supposing that a naturalistic and philosophical understanding of symbol is somehow more basic than a theological understanding of these particular symbols, within this concrete historical context, as mediations of this God and his salvation.

Second, Haight’s approach here indicates a deficient understanding of creation and providence and the place of salvation history in the effecting of God’s redemptive plan. Haight’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, his notion of the “transcendence” of God is one that remains un-integrated with a proper notion of God’s immanence as creator and sustainer of all things, including history, time, culture, and language.

God’s operation in the world and his self-disclosure and self-communication within the world is not one that remains external and extrinsic to the created world. On the contrary, symbolic mediations of the divine participate in that which they reveal and thus the actual events and patterns of sacred history cannot be construed as so much window-dressing on a salvation event that, in the end, occurs elsewhere in some realm of transcendence.

That is to say, symbols within the Christian economy surely function in a way that proceeds through the symbol to a reality that the symbolic mediation itself, as a gift of grace, partly constitutes and makes present. Haight’s comments at this point sound much more like the non capax of Ulrich Zwingli than the thoughts of a Catholic theologian.

To put this another way, Haight seems to lack a working familiarity with the doctrine of analogy, rooted in the doctrines of creation and Trinity, as that has informed Christian ontology for centuries. On such a view, the whole created order, created in and through the eternal Word and Image of the Father, by the power of the Spirit, is always already a disclosure of the divine and thus apt and capacious for even greater graciously-given measures of analogical disclosure.

On such a view, events, history, signs, ritual, thought, language, and indeed, the human imagination, are not entirely closed to a transcendent realm where they cannot follow, but are created in and through the eternal Word and Image of the Father for the very purpose of sharing in the life of God.

Third, in light of these remarks, it seems to me that a more genuinely catholic understanding would view events within salvation history and the social reality of the church, not merely as mediating structures by which a transcendent salvation lying elsewhere is encountered. Rather, as Henri de Lubac has insisted, salvation is inherently historical and social, so that salvation history and the church not only mediate salvation, but are also the very fabric and goal of salvation.

In terms of salvation in history, de Lubac situates salvation historically in relation to human events that are, at the same time, divine actions in the world. Building upon Blondel, de Lubac’s conception of the relation between nature and grace sees human action as the event of desiring God and accepting grace, not as something that is universally present alongside each action, but as the very particularity of action itself.

As such, human persons experience salvation in that historical particularity insofar as their actions are connected to the particular historical event of Christ. Events of salvation history cannot, therefore, be re-envisioned and de-historicized without changing the character of salvation itself (see his Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man).

One could critique Haight’s methodology for the better part of a day, however, so allow me to move on to some more specific difficulties.

Specific difficulties

After wading through Haight’s introductory remarks regarding methodology, I had hoped that his grappling with the actual text of the New Testament might provide something more substantive.

While his reflections upon the Gospels do provide some interesting insights, they remain, on the whole, an exercise in which the all-too-easily understood faith of the earliest church, becomes more and more eclipsed by a complex hermeneutical apparatus designed, it seems, to make that faith easier for contemporary people to believe. But as I noted in my opening remarks, such an easily accepted faith, suited to modern sensibilities, comes at the cost of a far more unbelievable interpretation of the New Testament.

And Haight gives no justification for such a procedure except his own unargued prejudice about what postmodern people might find possible or impossible to believe. Consider, for instance, his argument on page 124 in which he objects to the attempts of Wolfhart Pannenberg and Nicholas Lash to maintain the essentially historical and factual nature of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. What is Haight’s argument here? It seems to be the following:
What occurred in the resurrection of Jesus pertains to another order of reality that transcends this world because it is God’s realm...being in “God’s sphere” implies transcending this world in a way that human imagination cannot follow. (124)
That is to say, Haight simply assumes and asserts the kind of problematic ontology that I have mentioned already in which the immanent creation is external and extrinsic to the transcendent.

Moreover, he assumes that the human imagination, despite being created by God, in God's own image, and directed towards God as its end, is nonetheless unsuited to thinking about the transcendent. Haight then turns this assumption into an argument against Pannenberg and Lash, suggesting that their approach “tends too strongly to associate the resurrection with the empirical, making it a this-world event, and subject to an imaginative construal.” He adds, “Such historicizing undermines the fundamental nature of the resurrection as a transcendent object of faith” (124).

This sort of argument comes across to me as simply bald assertion on the part of someone who, finding himself unable to believe in the historicity of the resurrection, still wishes to cling to the vestiges and language of Christian faith. There might be all sorts of reasons for doubting the historicity of the resurrection based on textual and historical considerations, but this kind of a priori discounting of the resurrection as a historical event is unhelpful and unreasonable.

I’m also puzzled by Haight’s biblical reflections which, in their footnotes, appear to demonstrate a wide familiarity with contemporary biblical studies, both Catholic and Protestant: Luke Timothy Johnson, John Dominic Crossan, John Meier, James Dunn, E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, and so on. But the actual text of Haight’s book seldom seems to engage the lines of argument that these authors outline and, more often than not, take their conclusions in directions very different from what these authors would like. Indeed, Haight synthesizes together very disparate perspectives.

This, of course, is not a problem in itself, but it is troubling that Haight seldom notifies the reader that this is, in fact, what he is doing. A reader could too easily come away with the (often mistaken) impression that these authors might endorse Haight's methods or conclusions.

One might also criticize what sometimes seems to be a lack of theological imagination on Haight’s part. For instance, when negotiating the issue of Jesus’ relation to God (in this context, the God of Israel), Haight seems caught between what one might see as [a] more ontological categories regarding divinity, which he finds problematic from the standpoint of the New Testament, and [b] more functional approaches to divinity, which can place Jesus in relation to God as a mediation of God’s presence, but would seem to fall short of the kinds of dogmatic conclusions to which the church arrived in the early councils.

At this juncture, Haight’s work might have been helped by the thought of New Testament scholars such as Richard Bauckham and Tom Wright who suggest a middle way between ontological and functional approaches using the category of God’s identity.

A number of other specific points might be raised, but I will mention only one more and leave the rest for the discussion that will follow. Haight notes that traditional discussions of christology have had a tendency to privilege John's Gospel over the synoptic traditions in the formulation of christological dogma, particularly the pre-existence of Jesus as the eternal Logos. This, of course, is true and Haight is certainly correct to emphasize the necessity of taking each Gospel on its own terms (though I find his treatments of the individual Gospels rather superficial at times and insufficiently reflective on a literary and theological level).

Haight, however, then goes on to assert that the Gospel presents us not merely with christological pluralism, but also with christologies that are in tension or even contradiction. Nonetheless, Haight never does anything to demonstrate this claim beyond noting that it is “obvious.” I remain unpersuaded.

Even if we may speak of christological pluralism within the New Testament, it is a distinct question whether or not this pluralism entails contradiction rather than, say, each christological perspective making its own contribution to an overall theological account of the person of Jesus. Besides, if the Johannine christology is the last that the New Testament gives us (as Haight himself, among many others, suggests), might it not rightly have a crowning (though not dominating) role in our christological formulations as the most mature reflection upon the person of Jesus Christ that the Christian canon affords us?


In the end, therefore, it seems to me that Haight is asking us to exchange the rich and hearty fare of Christian orthodoxy for the barely warmed over, thin gruel of 1970s Protestant liberalism. But such liberalism didn’t do much for Protestantism, leaving us languishing in a state of spiritual emaciation. One would hope that in these days of Protestant post-liberalism, Catholic theologians would learn from our mistakes, rather than merely repeating them 30 years too late.

Allow me to end with a few words from Roger Haight’s fellow Jesuit theologian, Edward Oakes, who, in the conclusion of an essay on the state of contemporary theology, writes:
…these versions of “Christianity” teach us that a little bit of the gospel is more damaging than would be forthright rejection of the whole package. Watered-down Christianity has only given us absurd hopes, the vision of a non-existent future, lukewarm zeal, a narcissistic ethic, incantatory theology, invented grievances…and preaching in which, in Dante’s harsh words, “sheep leave church, having been fed on wind.” No wonder T.S. Eliot tartly observed, “We know too much, and are convinced of too little. Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion.” (from "Reconciling Judas: Evangelizing the Theologians")