Pope Benedict XVI on Hellenization

I was re-reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address–famous for the supposed link he makes between Islam and violence–when I came across this bit on “Hellenization,” or the shaping of Christian thought by Greek culture. He notes that this development has come under significant attack in the past century, as something foreign to biblical thought itself. The Pope’s response to these claims are nuanced:

In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was an initial inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieu. This thesis is not simply false, but it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.

This states something quite different than a simple defense of the development of Christian thought in Greek thought-forms and language, a blind reassertion of the Hellenization process. Instead, what must be preserved is the concordance of faith and reason recognized in this process. Not necessarily those “elements” unique to Greek culture. But also, Christianity was born in lands breathing this culture–even in Israel itself, a process of Hellenization had taken place. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was that most widely known by Jews in the first century. The New Testament, itself written in Greek (except perhaps Matthew), “bears the imprint of the Greek spirit.” There can be no simple translation, then, from the New Testament to cultures other than those influenced by Greek ways of thinking, other, that is, than Western cultures. There is no bare return. The New Testament is itself doused in Hellenism. But there may be reasonable ways to express its truth in terms recognizable to cultures-other-than-Western.

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Sarah Coakley Interview on Pain and Spiritual Transformation

As part of her work editing Pain and Its Transformations: The Interface of Biology and Culture, Sarah Coakley gave an interview for ABC’s Radio National. While they have a partial transcript there, I decided to listen to the full mp3 myself and transcribe some of the other potent bits. On second thought, I really should just transcribe the full 40-minute interview, but for now, here they are for digestion (with time markers):

“Pain and suffering are often kept separate in our language, but actually they are acutely entangled, for reasons I’ve outlined, and different kinds of pain are subject to different sorts of interpretive or ritual or meditative amelioration or transformation. Some may not be capable of that.  In extreme cases of torture, for instance, agonizing pain that obliterates thought and language, then I think we’re at a place in which we move beyond what can easily be dealt with by interpretation.” (3:58)

“The imposition of pain has been a feature of the use of a penance for instance in the monastic tradition in Christianity, but is rather frowned upon nowadays and not without good reason I think, because that suggests a kind of manipulative use of pain for religious purposes.” (5:36)

“And then the interesting question is-is this pain that I have either in my body or my soul, or in both, something that is part of the divine plan for me? How do I respond to it? How could it perhaps be something which is a means of proceeding through to a deeper closeness to God in Christ? And in the case of some of the most exalted literature of mystical theology, especially that of the 16th century Carmelites, there is very subtle and rich reflection on how different kinds of pain may be significant for spiritual advance ultimately towards union with Christ.” (6:10)

“What’s very distinctive about John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, is that they see an unbroken intimacy with Christ, as something that can happen to at least to a few specially chosen people, in this life. And it can be an unbroken union, which once achieved, one doesn’t fall away from.” (7:27)

“It is an eroticism that arises out of long years of purgation and transformation of the physiological life to be in accordance with the spiritual.” (8:25)

“It is a spiritual wound, yes, and it bespeaks that utter unification of the soul with the what you might call the redemptive project of Christ which includes suffering as well as redemption and transformation. So it is not technically an obliteration of pain, spiritual and physiological, but it is its utter transformation because of its binding of itself in oneness with Christ’s redemptive life.” (9:10)

“But rather, because her [Teresa of Avila’s] body has become more used to this intimacy with Christ, it is a state of unbreakable closeness to Christ when Christ is being let into the innermost part of the self, the interior castle.” (10:48)

“In the night of sense, what is happening is that the spiritual feeling of dis-ease is actually God weaning you from needing to have nice feelings while you’re praying to a stage in which you are willing to wait on God in silence and relative sensual discomfort whilst your senses are being trained to be in alignment with your spirit. That’s the first stage, the stage of arid contemplation in which all delight is taken away from you in order that your senses be purged from delight in experiences in order to delight in God.” (15:48)

“Unless we have a sure spiritual guide, someone who can discern the signs, it is very difficult to know at any given time whether the pains that we feel really are purgative and transformative, or whether they are signs that we are off the road. And that’s part of the mystery of what one is undertaking, one can’t manipulate this in a way that has complete control precisely because one is handing over control by progressive degrees to God.” (17:32)

“Not seen simply as things that may ameliorate our sense of affliction immediately, but undertakings which are transformative in themselves because they draw us closer to God. They’re not tools that we can manipulate, but they are means to a possible transformation of consciousness and even physiological awareness.” (19:53)

“The point is that it’s so completely infused with the intimacy and presence of Christ that its distress is transfigured.” (21:10)

“Because there are ways of thinking about, positioning oneself in relationship to Christ’s suffering which can be, given the way that John and Teresa speak of … a wound that is the result of the divine cauterization of our human pain, into which as it were Christ is fully inserted in union, you see them as the most amazing, paradoxical combination of intense pain and pure delight and transformation. A secularized culture can probably only hear this as S&M, which it most certainly is not.” (21:55)

“But if you look at the great religious traditions, such as the Carmelites in the Christian tradition, you’ll see that tackling that question is completely impossible unless one tackles that deeper and profounder question of how the very self, body and soul, is being transformed in its response to pain.” (25:49)

“Because they’re able to distinguish between pains that indicate to us that something is awry, whether physiologically or spiritually, and pains which are a sign actually of our being stretched and purged and transformed, in order to arrive eventually at the ultimate spiritual goal, whatever that is in the particular religious traditions.” (30:23)

“But at the end of the day, those mystical theologians like the Carmelites are willing to say, ‘Only the pain that is the sign of complete union with the Christ who redemptively suffers for the world is a good in itself.’ And even then, it is only a good because it’s partaking in Christ’s actually leading people into a place of healing.” (30:55)

“We place ourselves at the disposal of divine intervention, healing and we also help each other in this by various practices of combined rituals. But I don’t think we can ever actually predict the outcome.” (32:08)

“Whatever God gives one in this life as a baptized person, that process of transformation is always on offer. If pain and grief come, then one must take it first and foremost as at least the possibility and opportunity of such transformation.” (34:19)

“When people have a meaning system that involves eschatological verification, that is, someone who believes that the meaning of life will be discovered after death, then as they approach death, they realise that this isn’t just going to be a snuffing out, it’s some kind of passage which is of extraordinary spiritual significance, and therefore sometimes they may undergo more suffering because of the significance they impart to this.” (38:15)

Rowan Williams on Romero

Speaking on the recent 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, gunned down while saying Mass, Archbishop Rowan Williams delivered a remarkable homily in his memory. Among his reflections:

Sentir con la Iglesia: ‘feeling with the Church’. This was Oscar Romero’s motto as a bishop – you’ll see it in many photographs inscribed on the episcopal mitre he wore…

His breakthrough into a more complete and more demanding vision came, of course, as a result of seeing at close quarters what the wolves were capable of, and so realising the responsibility of the shepherd in such a situation. The conversion that began with the vicious slaughter of innocent peasants by the Salvadorean National Guard in 1974 and 1975 came to its decisive climax with the murder of his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande in March 1977, a few weeks after Romero’s installation as Archbishop. From that moment on, sentir con la Iglesia had a new meaning and a deeply biblical one. ‘The poor broke his heart’, said Jon Sobrino, ‘and the wound never closed.’

‘Feeling with the Church’ meant, more and more clearly, sharing the agony of Christ’s Body, the Body that was being oppressed, raped, abused and crucified over and over again by one of the most ruthless governments in the western hemisphere. In the early summer of the same year, 1977, in the wake of the atrocities committed by government forces at Aguilares, he spoke to the people in plain terms: ‘You are the image of the divine victim…You are Christ today, suffering in history’. These words were uttered in a town where the soldiers had shot open the tabernacle in the church and left the floor littered with consecrated hosts. There could be no more powerful a sign of what was going on in terms of the war of the state against the Body of Christ.

You can find the full text of his message here.

Coakley on Belief and Practice

In the volume, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, theologian Sarah Coakley has an essay on “deepening practices” (79-93). In it, she argues for an alignment of three sets of practices with the traditional three stages of spiritual progress. In mystical theology, there are three steps in a deepening pattern or practice of prayer: the “purgative,” the “illuminative,” and the “unitive.” Of course, the three are not so neatly divided, but are interwoven in the “messy reality” of day-to-day faithfulness (79).

To the first stage, the “purgative,” Coakley links the sort of practice of turning away from evil practices associated with new converts or beginners in the faith. In this early phase, “Much of the emphasis is on setting one’s life in a direction different from that of the world” (84). The second stage, the “illuminative,” Coakley illustrates with Benedict’s monastic Rule. This stage is about ingraining the love of Christ on one’s interior through repeated, habitual practices. Over time, things like worshiping together, welcoming the stranger and giving charity to the poor shape one’s life to become more like Christ. A “habituating of love” takes place (86). This not just in external matters, as in the first stage, but in one’s deep attitudes or dispositions.

The third and final stage, the “unitive,” as the name suggests, is the stage of spiritual union with God. At this level of grace, the soul is so empty of self and filled with God that it becomes “transparent to the divine” (90). Here a level of holiness or sanctification is reached that “even the skeptical outsider” must begin to recognize as a supernatural grace (80). As with von Balthasar, so too with Coakley: “The saint is the apology for the Christian religion” (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, 229). Importantly, however, this level is not necessarily even consciously attained for the believer. Sanctification, or growth in grace, proceeds, as Coakley writes,”discreetly, quietly, and often even unconsciously in the recipient—through the ‘long haul’ of repeated practices of faithfulness” (83).

As we progress, through the “‘long haul’ of repeated practices of faithfulness”, a subtle transformation of our beliefs takes place as well. What initially began perhaps as a dogmatic clinging to truths proposed to us by an authority, by the Church, becomes the truth out of which we live and breathe. Our practices begin to “infuse beliefs with richer meaning” (92). Coakley speaks of the final stage this way:

This practice of contemplation is, strictly speaking, God’s practice in humans—a more unimpeded or conscious form of that distinctive human receptivity to grace that has sustained the process all along and that is itself a divine gift. But it does not obliterate or invalidate all the other practices; rather, it sets them all in a new light, reversing more obviously now the logical relations of beliefs and practices as this practice finally discloses the incorporative telos and meaning of ‘beliefs.’ In particular, the Trinity is no longer seen as an obscure though authoritative ecclesial doctrine of God’s nature, but rather a life into which we enter and, in unbreakable union with Christ, breathe the very Spirit of God. (93)

The Perils of Missionary Theology

Theology is a fundamentally missionary enterprise. “It has,” as Linda Woodhead writes, “more to do with witness than invention” (in Gunton, ed., The Practice of Theology, 403). The fundamental ambiguity of missionary discourse, of course, is the attempt to communicate truths across idioms, to introduce a message which originated in another historical moment in the present. This inevitability is not detrimental to mission, but simply the natural outworking of an historical revelation. This feature distinguishes Christianity (and its quite different relatives, Islam and Judaism) from the Eastern religions.

In Pannenberg’s Christianity in a Secularized World, he confronts this inherent difficulty head on: “So how,” he asks, “should the churches conduct themselves in the world of a secular culture in order to make it easier for people to move from the implicit presence of the religious theme in their lives to an explicit Christian commitment of faith? What can theology contribute to this?” (in Gunton, 360). The missionary theological options–which, one should note, are ecclesially situated–range, Pannenberg writes, “from the various forms of assimilation to a move in precisely the opposite direction” (ibid.).

When theology completely assimilates itself to the thinking of secular culture, “the content of faith becomes so empty that the question arises why one should still turn to religion at all” (361). On the other hand, when a sharp antithesis is driven between faith and the dominant, secular culture, the former “appears as irrational commitment to a content which is regarded as ‘true’ only in a private perspective” (360). What is actually needed, Pannenberg argues, is a theological account of rationality.

From the early murmurs of the risen Christ in the margins of the Empire, the Christian gospel has had to confront the claims of pagan reason. As Pannenberg states, “From the beginning the link with reason has been part of the missionary dynamism of Christianity. In the Christian patristic period it characterized the claim of the gospel to universality against all the irrationalisms in which late antiquity was particularly rich” (364). To overcome absorption into the pantheon of Mediterranean religions, Christian theology had to demonstrate that it was the bearer of a universal truth, and thus, a universal rationality. Pannenberg, in this light, states, “the opportunity for Christianity and its theology is … to oppose the shortcomings of secular culture with a deeper and broader reason” (363, 364).

Linda Woodhead confronts a homologous issue in feminist theology, which she laments “has failed to be sufficiently theological” (in Gunton, 399). Importantly, this results, in Woodhead’s view, from insufficient attention to the church, which “feminist critique relegates … to a secondary role” (401). Woodhead reads feminist critiques of Christianity as oddly uniform, despite their divergent conclusions. They together share “main features [which] may be traced back to the early days of the Enlightenment” (ibid.). Feminist theological critiques typically reduce Christianity to a set of dogmas, or what Rosemary Radford Ruether calls, “codified collective experience” (ibid.). In Woodhead’s own phrase, “textually encoded beliefs” (400). This “thin reality … occludes the thick reality of the Trinitarian God and of those communities which are caught up in His [sic?] life” (401).

In a manner parallel with feminist theologian Sarah Coakley, Woodhead argues that the life of the Trinity makes the Church a site of grace. Instead of a rigid hierarchical–worse, patriarchal–institution, the Church is “the place where human beings are caught up into God’s life” (402). In other words, the place where people are, in Mary Daly’s phrase, “becoming whole persons” (in Gunton, 390). By such healing, “women can generate a counterforce … challenging the artificial polarization of human characteristics into sex-role identification” (ibid.). But this occurs only in the Church.

Which leads to the central thrust of Woodhead’s concern: that feminist theologians are more fundamentally feminist than theologians. It may be possible to hold a strong feminist concern as “less a meta-narrative than an ethical conviction or principle” (402). But too often, feminist theologians “hold it as a more basic commitment than their commitment to Christianity, even as their sole and unrevisable commitment” (403). In this, the project of theology is essentially abandoned, for to be a theologian is to witness to the God who has come to us in Christ–a witness that occurs only within the sphere of being caught up into the life of Christ’s service to the Father, in the fellowship of the Spirit.

Thus, theology without Christian commitment becomes necessarily impotent. In Linda Woodhead’s words:

The failure of feminist theology to produce truly constructive Christian theology is due, in my view, to the incoherence of its project. Christian theology has never been constructed on the basis of ‘experience.’ Rather, it has been constructed on the basis of encounter with God in Christ, mediated through the Christian tradition. It has more to do with witness than invention. (403)

Pope Writes to the Catholics of Ireland

My pastor this morning spoke of the God of new beginnings. The Catholic Church in Ireland certainly needs such a new beginning. The unequivocal condemnation of child abuse is prominent in the Pope’s Friday letter to the Catholics there. Priests who are guilty of this crime “must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals” (§7). To begin the healing process, “the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children” (§2). It is reminiscient of Paul’s judgment: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate… And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?… With such persons do not even eat” (1 Cor. 5:1-2, 11).

Yet, the future is not utterly bleak. In equal measure with condemnation, the Pope speaks of hope for “the rebuilding and renewal of our beloved Church” (§9). The Pope speaks with deep compassion, having met with many victims of sexual abuse in the Church: “I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them” (§5). He prays that they do not despair:

At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning. (§6)

I hope and pray too the Church in Ireland can emerge from its darkest and most hopeless situation. You can find the full text of the Pope’s letter here.

David Bentley Hart Interview

Jason Goroncy, over at Per Crucem ad Lucem, has pointed out the availability of a new six-part interview with theologian David Bentley Hart. Just based on the topics covered–violence in Christian history, the new atheism, the gnostic gospels–sounds like a tantalizing piece. Check it.