Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Player Haighter

I wonder of Nicholas will wish he'd thought of that blog title. :-)

The aforementioned Phatcatholic has posted on a number of texts he's reading for a Christology course. I haven't taken any Christology courses yet, but we've had a little in this Norms of Catholic Doctrine course I'm taking now, as well as some additional coverage in supplemental readings for the philosophy for theologians course. Anyway, Nicholas mentioned one particular text that is being used for the purpose of critique in the course. All of the other texts are preparation for an apology against this particular text, Jesus Symbol of God by Father Roger Haight S.J. Nicholas pointed to a notification by the CDF (under Cardinal Ratzinger) concerning this text and subsequent unfortunate response from the Catholic Theological Society of America. I say unfortunate because, in my next-to-worthless opinion, it is a stance that reeks of postmodern academic relativism.

Now, to be fair (too late!), I should say that I have not read this book yet. My current position is based solely on the summary provided in the CDF's notification. The summary of the book's prefatory statement, though, throws up enough red flags about it:

In the Preface of his book Jesus Symbol of God, the Author explains that today theology must be done in dialogue with the postmodern world, but it also “must remain faithful to its originating revelation and consistent tradition” (p. xii), in the sense that the data of the faith constitute the norm and criteria for a theological hermeneutic. He also asserts that it is necessary to establish a “critical correlation” (cf. pp. 40-47) between these data and the modes and qualities of postmodern thought, characterized in part by a radical historical and pluralistic consciousness (cf. pp. 24, 330-334): “The tradition must be critically received into the present situation” (p. 46).

The problem with this idea of correlating of "these data and the qualities of postmodern thought" is that the phrase "postmodern thought" conjures up a Derridean agenda of subverting the authoritative reading of the text. The whole point of postmodern thought is to question or overturn previous claims of authoritative interpretation. For example, if we were to take Cain's question to Our Lord, "Am I my brother's keeper (Gen. 4:9)?" and subject it to analysis from traditional and postmodern perspectives, Tradition would respond that Revelation says "Yes. We are our brothers' keepers." However, the postmodern would say, "That's a good question, one that gives us two opposing and contradictory answers, neither of which can be authoritative, so we're left with a meaningless question."

Tradition offers meaning. Deconstruction offers something else. This is a simplification, of course, but you can see how this method gives those on the so-called progressive side complete freedom to dispense with whatever doesn't fit the predilections of the one attempting to "make meaning" or to co-opt the Word and manipulate it to fit the spirit of the time.

Haight's book seems to have just such an agenda. Right out of the gate, the book intends to question Tradition rather than to engage it. The author says as much, as the notification relates:

With particular regard to the validity of dogmatic, especially christological formulations in a postmodern cultural and linguistic context, which is different from the one in which they were composed, the Author states that these formulations should not be ignored, but neither should they be uncritically repeated, “because they do not have the same meaning in our culture as they did when they were formulated [...]. Therefore, one has no choice but to engage the classical councils and to explicitly interpret them for our own period” (p. 16). [citation theirs]

Lest I make errant claims concerning the postmodern (in this case, deconstructive method) method at work here, let me give you some examples of his claims:

The dogma of Nicaea does not teach, therefore, that the eternally pre-existent Son or Logos is consubstantial with and eternally begotten of the Father.

Which, if course, is precisely what the Council of Nicea teaches, that the Son is consubstantial (homoousion) with the Father. This specific term was debated because the Arian faction attempted to claim that Christ was of "like substance" (homoiousion), hence subordinate and not one in being with the Father. As Mike Aquilina said, "Homoousios, homoiousios: it was just one iota’s difference. that was all the difference in the world, and good men were willing to die for the sake of the difference." (He really should've saved that line for a book. It's priceless.)

Of the canons of Chalcedon, we're apparently confronted with such difficulty in Tradition because of the problem of the hypostatic union. But no worries about that, claims Haight:

The “postmodern situation in christology”, says the Author, “entails a change of viewpoint that leaves the Chalcedonian problematic behind” (p. 290), precisely in the sense that the hypostatic union, or “enhypostatic” union, would be understood as “the union of no less than God as Word with the human person Jesus” (p. 442).

And so on. The Trinity, the hypostatic union, Christ's consubstantiality, all premodern misunderstandings of the symbol of Christ signifying transcendence, a signifier pointing to but wholly distinct and ever separated from the signified (the Father). (See the works of Ferdinand de Saussure concerning sign , signifier, and signified.)

And what of the salvific value of Jesus death?

It is also asserted that the traditional ecclesiastical language “of Jesus suffering for us, of being a sacrifice to God, of absorbing punishment for sin in our place, of being required to die to render satisfaction to God, hardly communicates meaningfully to our age” (p. 241). Such language is to be abandoned because “the images associated with this talk offend and even repulse postmodern sensibility and thereby form a barrier to a salutary appreciation of Jesus Christ” (p. 241).

Or the resurrection?

Moreover, according to the Author’s interpretation, “the historicity of the empty tomb and appearance narratives is not essential to resurrection faith-hope” (p. 147, n. 54; cf. pp. 124, 134). Rather, these stories “are ways of expressing and teaching the content of a faith already formed” (p. 145).

The author disputes essentially every basic doctrine of the faith in the name of postmodern thought, as if only we have the ability to truly know anything. At the same time, the very method he uses is the ground of his own unravelling. If his critique of the words and dogmatic formulas leave Traditional understanding in a state of instability or reversal, what does the postmodern decentralization of meaning do to his claims? They're just as worthless as any other, just as unauthoritative as the former authorities.

What's truly sad is that the Catholic Theological Society of America considers the CDF's notification to be contrary to the spirit of theological inquiry, or as they put it:

Ironically, rather than promote greater criticism of the book, the Congregation’s intervention will most likely discourage debates over the book, effectively stifling further criticism and undermining our ability as Catholic theologians to openly critique our colleagues.

This claim ignores two rather obvious factors:

1. The CDF made repeated attempts to engage the author in debate about the claims. Clearly, the responses they received were unsatisfactory.

2. Part of the CDF's particular competency is doctrine, hence, theology. They, as well as American theologians, have the right to engage in the debate, and when reasonable, make judgements about it.

What's particularly troubling is that the nonsense some theoligians spew in the name of postmodern thought simply confirms what many empiricists have believed about liberal-arts fields in general and theology in particular. Heck, they make jokes about it, submit bogus and nonsensical papers to critical journals and get them published, and essentially toss the whole realm of study out the window as lacking in seriousness because of a particularly bad methodology that happens to hold sway at this moment in scholastic history. Theologians who support this approach will never be taken seriously when they attempt to make historical or scientific claims, so they simply undermine the Church's doctrine on the ultimate complementarity of faith and reason.

I had plenty of pomo theory in grad school, and I loved the sense of freedom it gave me to play with the text. One of which I published has a particularly regretable line. I know see so much of the time I spent in such thought as wasted, in one sense (that I gave any credence to such balderdash). However, maybe that background can be of some use in combatting such fuzzy thinking in my future studies.

I always had a sense that Derrida was attempting to turn critical analysis into its own art form, not in the sense that all writing is an art, but in the sense that it compares to poetry or fiction in a similar regard—maybe an envy of the poet's pen.

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