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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

My Dinner with Roger.

Haight, that is.

Not really, but it is a mini-debate with one of the censured Jesuit theologian's student/disciples, over at Dom's blog. Haight's theology is the salmon mousse at the table, and it is my first real experience in interfaith dialogue--yes, I use that term deliberately.

For those of you who don't know, pluralism is a theological doctrine that holds, in essence, that Jesus is not the savior of the world, just for Christians. Indeed, other religious traditions are salvific in and of themselves. While Catholics can and should admire what is good and decent in other religious traditions--think "seeds of the Word"--saying Jesus is not the universal savior as the Son of God...isn't remotely Christian.

But Haight doesn't stop there--he goes one better and denies that Jesus' body actually left the empty tomb.

That certainly is news. Not particularly good news, but news indeed. It makes Christ a rather gruesome mascot--think a Jesus-as-El-Cid approach--celebrated by confirmed hysterics and hallucinators. Pass the peyote, Pete.

For his trouble, the Vatican took aim at Prof. Haight, and after four apparently fun-filled years of investigation and attempts to get clarification, slapped his views down hard. RTWT, and you'll see where I was getting at with the use of "interfaith." He no longer teaches at Weston Jesuit in Massachusetts. He now draws a paycheck from Union Theological Seminary, a most ecumenical place, apparently. But his views live on, and will no doubt be propounded at an enlightened pulpit near you for years to come, even though it's pretty clear that the theology is a dead end in every possible sense of the term.

But it certainly is a disturbingly popular, if ludicrous, view.

I post the discussion because I think it is most instructive, and demonstrates how few non-negotiables are left among certain self-identified American Catholics. Let me know what you think. Yes, I was employing the needle a lot, and got a little sharp in spots.

Me in black, Weston Jesuit student in red.

[After the WJ student tried to portray a maverick Boston priest as an Aquinas, condemned by contemporaries as a heretic and vindicated by history:]

Here’s the problem with claiming the Aquinas mantle--it rarely fits the claimant, who usually espouses something entirely at odds with a core truth of Catholicism. Aquinas was attempting to integrate a new philosophy within the theological structure of Catholicism. Nowhere did he, say, deny the inerrancy of scripture or attempt to undermine the understanding of one of the sacraments.
Here’s a less trivial criticism of WJ:

Until recently, Weston Jesuit proudly featured Roger Haight, S.J., amongst its ranks of professors. The same Roger Haight who said the Resurrection did not require an empty tomb, for starters. Then there’s the matter of Jesus not being essential to the salvation of non-Christians, and other liberating insights.
Yes, quite a gospel cutting-edge Jesuits and their wide-eyed studentry have to offer these days. If that’s where “orthodoxy” is headed, I’ll sleep in on Sundays, thanks.
Posted by:
Dale Price on Sep 26, 05 8:30 am

"If that’s where “orthodoxy” is headed, I’ll sleep in on Sundays, thanks.”
Fair enough. We’ll miss you and pray for you.
BTW, have you read any of Haight’s works? If you had, you’d understand how taking a few sentences out of context can completely mutilate the man’s real message. Haight does not deny the historicity of the resurrection; indeed, he refers to it as a transhistorical event, meaning it permeates all of history back through the past to the beginning of creation and into the future until the eschaton. We call it redemption, not just of any one of us or even of all humankind, but of all creation and history. He says that our faith ought not rest on whether there was actually an empty tomb or not. Our faith is an encounter with Christ, not with an empty tomb.
I still hold that Haight’s thinking is ahead of its time, which is why it is being misunderstood. Human knowledge is growing exponentially in nearly every field of study; why are we Catholics so complacent about wishing that our theology grow at a similar rate?
And sarcasm does nothing to further your cause.
Posted by: Alan on Sep 26, 05 1:26 pm

Fair enough about the sarcasm. A fault of mine. However, pot, kettle, black: alas for your own sarcastic jibing, as I’m not going anywhere. Unlike Fr. Haight, who is now taking a paycheck from Union [Theological Seminary].

More to the point, your finger-waggling also bids adieu to Fr. Gerald O’Collins, S.J. in the process:

Jesuit Fr. Gerald O’Collins, who teaches at Rome’s Gregorian University and is widely considered a leading Christologist, said the basic problem with Haight’s approach is that “there’s no difference in kind, only in degree, between Jesus and other religious people.”

“Mother Teresa was also a symbol of God,” he said. “I wouldn’t give my life for Roger Haight’s Jesus. It’s a triumph of relevance over orthodoxy.”

O’Collins is not a knee-jerk defender of Vatican crackdowns; he was the advocate for Dupuis in his lengthy back-and-forth with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was critical of both the process and outcome. Yet O’Collins said he sees major differences between Dupuis and Haight.

“Dupuis took Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, and for him that was not debatable,” O’Collins said. “That Christ rose from the dead was nonnegotiable. This isn’t the case with Haight.”

There’s no need to follow you down the rabbit hole of what Haight means because you already tell me where it leads--"He says our faith ought not rest on whether there was actually an empty tomb or not.” Oy.

“Who do you say that I am?” The empty tomb is not negotiable, because it is part and parcel of the encounter with Christ, as all of the Gospels indicate. The empty tomb is the vindication by God of his Christ, and in addition to speaking profoundly about Christ, speaks to our destiny as well. This is not the place for self-regarding academic ambiguity: there is an unbridgeable chasm between belief in an empty tomb and belief in a mouldering corpse.

In other words, whether there is an empty tomb or not determines the nature of the “faith” being professed. Hence, Roger Haight’s faith is not that of church catholic. That this is not obvious only speaks to the decay of Catholic theology in the U.S. Moreover, it makes a laughingstock of faith, turning the nature of faith in Christ into a theological Schrodinger’s Cat, with the question of Christ being “risen” depending whether you are looking at the open box with the eyes of “faith” or those of objective history.

I thank you, though, for your remarkably forthright answer to “Quo vadis, Weston Jesuit?” Right out the door to a wordy pluralistic Unitarian irrelevance, it seems.

Far from St. Thomas, Fr. Haight is a remarkably wooden late 20th Century answer to Loisy or Tyrell, only filtered through Derrida.

I’ll end with this: the “out of context” defense is the last refuge of the accurately-quoted. Especially when the investigation in question took nearly five years and afforded him ample opportunity to explain the context. Yes, I’ve only read a minimal amount of him, which is just as well. There’s only so much multisyllabic theological bafflegab I can stand. Frankly, I trust Fr. Gerald O’Collins’ verdict and avoid further endeavors regarding JSOG [Jesus: Symbol of God]. I don’t need to go spelunking in an outhouse to understand the nature of the contents.
Posted by:
Dale Price on Sep 26, 05 2:13 pm

Oh, and another thing:
John Cavadini [Dean of the Theology Department of Notre Dame] on Haight.

If Jesus is merely a symbol, I have no burning reason to invest the time and energy it takes to pass this faith on to children, or to spread the Word to others when other symbols (even the Roman emperor?) serve just as well. I see no particularly urgent reason to take up my cross and follow a symbol (or even to teach for one). Pace Roger Haight, and to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, “If Jesus is merely a symbol, I say, the hell with it."
Posted by:
Dale Price on Sep 26, 05 2:18 pm

[Editorial Note: The WJ student never even acknowledges Fr. O'Collins' trenchant criticism. Make of that what you will.]

"John Cavadini on Haight.
If Jesus is merely a symbol, … “
I don’t know Cavadini, but it’s apparent from this quote that he misunderstands the Christian notion of “symbol.” The theological notion of symbol is not the same as the common usage. “Symbol” in theological usage is a vastly richer concept than is the common definition. It’s analogous to saying that my body is a symbol of me, if I understand Haight correctly. My body alone is not me, but is a physical symbol of all that comprises me, even those things that are unseen and inarticulable. Similarly, the fullness of an infinite God is unseen (and unseeable) and inarticulable, especially to finite minds such as ours. In this way, to say that Mother Teresa was a symbol of God and that Jesus is a symbol of God is to use the word symbol in profoundly different way.
Furthermore, I don’t know this for certain, but I would bet good money that one would not find the adverbs “simply” or “only” or “merely” modifying symbol anywhere in Haight. That would undermine his whole thesis. Perhaps his biggest mistake is not calling his book, “Jesus, THE Symbol of God.”
I also recall that Haight is not the first Catholic theologian to refer to Jesus as the symbol of God.
Finally, even the Haight’s use of symbol is a metaphor, which in theology tries to shed some light on a belief that is rationally opaque. We say God is Father, but that doesn’t exhaust what God is, any more than saying that Jesus is the symbol of God exhausts what Jesus is. If Jesus were only a symbol and nothing, I would agree with Cavadini. I would say the same thing about a God who was only Father and nothing else. (And I loved my father.) “I see no particularly urgent reason to take up my cross and follow a symbol [or father](or even to teach for one).” This sort of misrepresentation is what results from doing sound-bite theology.
But we have digressed quite significantly from the original point, which was Walter Cuenin. And since he’s now been disciplined and is no longer a pastor, which is what so many of you here wanted, I don’t see what more need there is of continuing to bad-mouth him.
Posted by: Alan on Sep 26, 05 7:32 pm

Sorry. I meant to say above, “If Jesus were only a symbol and nothing MORE ...”
Posted by: Alan on Sep 26, 05 7:36 pm

Alan, it’s probably just as well to drop it at this point. Neither one of us wants to admit it, but in reality this is an exercise in interfaith dialogue, and without an acknowledgement of this it is futile.

However, I am genuinely heartened by it, though not for reasons which will please you or your mentors. It convinces me that El Cid Christologies and the pluralist gospel as defined by Haight are dead ends. Even in the loosey-goosey theological world of the American church, the refusal of Haight or his disciples to admit any error pretty much guarantees the steady death of what he expounds. To refuse to answer the criticisms of an O’Collins or to snidely dismiss a Cavadini as a sound-biter goes a long way toward explaining why the hammer fell as hard on Haight as it did (very much unlike Dupuis).

As little as they liked it at times, Aquinas, de Lubac, Congar and Curran [Editorial note: Brainlock of gothic proportions on the last name--I meant John Courtney Murray. Like Haight, Curran is also afflicted by an incurable case of sola ego.] acknowledged the authority and discipline of the Church and honed their propositions accordingly. Haight stubbornly radiates infallibility and flees to a Protestant theology school at crunch time. This is a telling and decisive distinction denying him the mantle his disciples want to clothe himself with.

Or: in the extreme unlikelihood Haight is remotely orthodox, he is the worst communicator American Catholic theology has ever produced, a poor standard bearer for his position and his own worst enemy. Either way, I join Fr. O’Collins in prayers for him and add further prayers for those who find him a prophetic voice.
Posted by:
Dale Price on Sep 26, 05 9:24 pm

I thought you agreed to end this. I can’t possibly let this slide.
“To refuse to answer the criticisms of an O’Collins or to snidely dismiss a Cavadini as a sound-biter goes a long way toward explaining why the hammer fell as hard on Haight as it did...”
I was not quoting Haight when I referred to sound-bite theology, so please don’t blame that on him. That was purely my choice of words, and based on this conversation here, I think it still stands. It’s very easy to make snap judgments of a man based on a few sentences out of context. My impression is that you’re doing it with Haight, and I suspect I’m probably doing it with Cavadini. I told you right off that I don’t know Cavadini.
“I join Fr. O’Collins in prayers for him and add further prayers for those who find him a prophetic voice.”
I’m sure we appreciate any prayers that come our way, since God’s will prevails in the end anyway. I’ll do the same for you. I suspect that when we meet in heaven, both of us will be somewhat embarrassed by this little interchange and how little we really understood of God’s ultimate glory. I only wish I knew now what I’ll know then.
Posted by: Alan on Sep 26, 05 9:58 pm

Indeed, I was too ascerbic in parts and apologize for that.
However, I cannot, and do not, apologize for the content. The core of Christianity is at stake, and the yawning chasm between Haightian pluralism and what Christians across the centuries (including creedal Protestantism and Orthodoxy) have always held cannot be shrugged off as de gustibus.
May God be with you and yours.

And that's where it ends. What struck me first is the certitude that Haight is entirely right and his opponents simply are distorting his message and cannot understand him. No doubt you know people like that, gentle reader.

They have a remarkable aptitude for being wrong. Consistently.

The second thing that struck me is the airy refusal to acknowledge that what the pluralists are propounding is a complete break with Christianity--indeed, it is a different religion entirely, lifting the Christian theological structure and emptying it of the inconvenient content. Apparently, it is simply the wave of the future and will inevitably triumph.

Heartening, at least as a demonstration that triumphalism is hardly the exclusive province of orthodox Christians. I'll finish with the words of occasional commenter and thoughtful and unfailingly polite critic Liam:

I have spent many years in the groves of progressive Catholic communities. What has been rightly denounced in what Haight proposes is mortal poison to all of Christianity, of whatever flavor. Pure poison. Poison, again. It is philosophical materialism of the most insidious sort, and philosophical materialism is ultimately only a friend to the Ubermensch.

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