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How is Faith Today Inculturated?

The Concerns of the American Theologian Roger Haight


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 8/2009, P. 405-410
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has imposed a teaching and publication ban on the American theologian Roger Haight. What matters for the Jesuit is that the basic formulas of faith can be made understandable also to the people of today's Western world. What are the strengths and weaknesses of his principal work, "Jesus Symbol of God"?

Ten years ago the U.S. Jesuit Roger Haight published a Christological work entitled "Jesus Symbol of God" (Orbis Books, Maryknoll [New York] 1999). Already in the spring of 2000 the book was critically assessed by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and, since it was not satisfied by the various attempts of clarification, on December 13, 2004 censured in several key points as erroneously by a Notification signed by the then Prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. At the same time the author was forbidden to teach Catholic theology as long as he had not corrected his positions and was in full conformity with the Church's teachings.

Haight ended then his teaching at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and moved on to the Union Theological Seminary in New York, originally a Presbyterian but now a Protestant institution that is bound to no denomination, and at which Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich have taught.



In January 2009 it became known that Haight is generally forbidden to teach theology, i.e. he was also not allowed to teach theology at non-Catholic institutions; at the same time he was prohibited to publish on theological issues.

Up to now no work of Haight has been translated into German. But the points at issue are now world-wide virulent. It therefore makes sense to present the basic concerns of the American theologian. After all, he was for several years also president of the American Catholic Theological Society; moreover, in America he was repeatedly awarded for his works.


Contextual Theology

In the introductory chapter of his Jesus-Book the American Jesuit quotes from Decree 4 "Our mission and Culture" that in 1995 was adopted at the 34 General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. There it says in No. 3, "When the Word of God becomes embedded in the heart of a culture, it is like a buried seed which draws its nourishment from the earth around it and grows to maturity." And, "Inculturating the Gospel means allowing the Word of God to exercise a power within the lives of the people, without imposing, at the same time, alien cultural factors which would make it difficult for them truly to receive that Word. 'Evangelization is not possible without inculturation. Inculturation is the existential dialogue between a living people and the living Gospel'."

This view theologically takes up the demand of Pastoral Constitution on the Church "Gaudium et Spes", where the church's preaching mission is described as, "To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other." (No. 4).

In an essay of the American weekly magazine America from March 17, 2008 Haight has in seven steps personalized the theological developments of the last 40 years after the Second Vatican Council. He starts with Karl Rahner and his anthropocentric turn, more precisely, with his turn to the human experience and thus to man's historicity. It is realized in a new interest in history and the stories of people. What Rahner treats in principle is put in concrete terms by theologies open to history and politics, like those of Edward Schillebeeckx, Johann B. Metz and David Tracy. This is continued in the Latin American liberation theologies by Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuria, but also by other bridgings, which Haight connects with names that are known above all in America: Elizabeth A. Johnson, Shawn Copeland, Maria Pilar Aquino, Orlando Espin and Peter Phan.

The field widens with regard to theologians in the ecumenical dialogue (here Haight gives no names), then the efforts to inculturate Christianity in Africa (Charles Nyamiti) and Asia (Michael Amaladoss, Aloysius Pieris). The increasingly complex range of impulses leads to "comparative theologies" (for the USA Haight mentions Avery Dulles, Paul Knitter, and Francis X. Clooney). His review ends with a "cosmologically sensitive theology", a theology which faces the current scientific findings and eventually makes the anthropocentric view of things appear to be questionable. Haight's references to a "new theocentric," for which he refers to David S. Toolan, John Haught and Denis Edwards, show points of contact with the louder and louder call in and from Asia for a "non-anthropocentric" attitude to the world, which indeed calls again for the question of God but makes also room for new atheisms.

For the future of the Catholic theology Haight marks two fields to which has to be given special care: First, it is important that the basic formulas of faith have a meaning also for people of the modern Western world. In this sense, it needs also in its theology a new inculturation. But since this central task is neglected, a kind of theological illiteracy is growing both among lay people and in the clergy, with the result that many otherwise well-educated Catholics do no longer find answers to their questions and are looking for orientation elsewhere.

A second exigency lies, according to Haight, in a need for a critically conscious piety or spirituality. He wonders whether "the Catholic spirituality can find a place in a global human conversation that embraces many religious traditions?" Haight calls for an open theology, which grounds a strong religious identity and a vital Christian spirituality, and this from confessing one's faith in the God of Jesus.

The brief outline and the listed names emphatically refer to the actual place where Haight does his theology. Like a red thread they mark two keywords. First, the social pluralism, as it is reflected in the plurality of peoples and their languages, cultures, religions and ideologies, makes the world increasingly confusing.



The multitude of languages and cultures at the same time leads to the effect that many, many people become increasingly unable to understand each other fully. Many things in the world therefore remain unclear and become also increasingly threatening.

The second keyword is post-modernism. For Haight it formally consists in ways of life which are manifested above all in four factors in today's society (cf. 330-334):

Post-modernism implies a radically critical consciousness, which in the 20th century after the Holocaust and the many destructive experiences has led to the loss of confidence in progress and positive objectives, and to a deep pessimism. Since then history appears to be open and to a large extent indefinite in view of the loss and the relativization of all values and ideas.

Post-modernism is characterized by a radically social consciousness, in which the individual human subject loses its personality [Personsein] and man degenerates into a function of impersonal forces: interests of power, class, sex, and greed. The modern turn to the subject, to a universal and critical rationality, and to a transcendental orientation dissolves into social constellations and unconscious psychological balances of power.

Post-Modernism is characterized by a pluralistic consciousness, which becomes visible in an unprecedented sense of the differences and distinctions between the individuals but also between societies, cultures and religions and of the relativity given with them. It appears more and more impossible that a group sees itself as privileged, a religion as a central place towards which all others have to orient and can orient.

Post-modernity finally implies a new awareness of the world that results from the analysis of science, especially the modern sociology of knowledge and epistemology, and which has not least its effects in the field of natural sciences, astronomy and space research.

For Haight the changed world situation broadly outlined here calls the present conception of the world and the Weltanschauung into question. But for him it remains undisputed that people are now all the more looking for new ways of guidance. For him as a Christian theologian then the question arises about the consequences for Christianity and its theology.


"Critical Correlation"

Haight deals under the concept "critical correlation" (45-47) with the relationship between today and then, present time and Gospel, which has already been mentioned above with "Gaudium et Spes". The term reminds of Hans-Georg Gadamer's conception of the fusion of horizons and at the same time takes up Paul Ricceur's ideas. For Haight Christology and thus the figure of Jesus is indisputably the centre of theological reflection. It begins with the sources of the history of Christianity but continues, inspired by new questions and insights in the interpretation of the figure of Jesus, in the course of history. Three criteria are then decisive for him.

Loyalty to the Christian tradition: This particularly concerns the Scriptures in their direct relation to the historical life of the community and its common commitment to protect the Revelation by Jesus Christ against all harmful influences in history. The attention is first directed towards Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus Kerygma, which admittedly from the very beginning was expressed in several Christologies. Soteriology, i.e. the question of salvation, too, is connected with the questions of the beginning; it continues to develop in the course of church history and is always asked anew.

Comprehensibility in today's world: Haight insists that Christology itself has to be comprehensible wherever it criticizes certain ideas and values of a culture. It has to be credible and meaningful. Haight emphasizes mainly two topics worth discussing: the universal importance of Jesus Christ in view of the positive significance of other religions and the traditional understanding of the doctrine of Jesus' divinity.

Confirmation to a Christian life: The two above-mentioned criteria only serve their purpose if they lead to a Christian life. Haight thinks then of three sides of the concrete life: a positive response in the current existential Christian life, the ethical consistency and integrity of this life that adapts itself to the ethical challenges of our time, and finally, that it is about the "Symbol of Salvation" in today's world. With the term of "symbol" the key concept of his work is introduced, a term that can by no means easily be communicated.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reproaches Haight of the fact that the "critical correlation" held by him subjected the contents of faith to the intelligibility and plausibility in the post-modern culture. About it one has to say: In the field of tension pointed out in "Gaudium et Spes" there is without doubt the risk that in the end the sign of the times are not seen and interpreted in the light of the gospel but the gospel in the light of the respective time.

But that is not necessarily the consequence resulting from the analysis of time represented by Haight. One can certainly ask: a) is the analysis of time correct, and b) how does one deal with it? The notification gives unfortunately no answer to those questions, although the theses represented by Haight deal with problems that profoundly assail many people of our time. It is one of the greatest needs of today's people that they no longer have a firm position.



There is also the fact that in the church numerous people do no longer understand many articles of the creed and other dogmatic concepts, even the speaking of God has become alien to them. God is no longer the centre towards which they can orient and from where they can arrange their lives.

In the introduction to the interpretation of the two fundamental Christological Councils of Nikaia 325 and Chalkedon 451 Haight again brings up the fundamental problems. They concern a) today's conception of the world, b) the language and c) the connection between the classical Christology with the Christian life and its spirituality (see 273-274). Regarding the language Haight points to the changed imagination and world of images connected with the speaking about the Logos and its pre-existence, but also to the speaking about Christ's flesh and blood, which for many people today seems to be mythological and which therefore remains closed to them.

By describing the situation Haight is by no means interested in abolishing or reducing the central teachings. What matters for him is that "Christology must begin to create the foundations for a language that remains Incarnational but at the same time protects the human nature of Jesus and avoids any caricature of Incarnation." In other words, the intention of the author is clearly defined and is factually by no means erroneous. One can only wonder whether the implementation of his intention and the ways chosen by him were in every respect leading to the goal and whether they are successful.


The Structure of Religious Symbols

Understanding, about which it is here, is always human understanding and has therefore to do with the abilities and possibilities of man. It is today a fundamental insights that people are aware of their limitations. Christianity begins with the human being Jesus of Nazareth. Precisely because attention is given first to this human being, for Haight Christology begins "from below". For him it is an unquestionable fact that this humanity is in a peculiar and unique way connected with God. But this has to become accessible to us from Jesus' humanity. In order to express this unique connection Haight chooses the term "symbol" and calls Jesus "Symbol of God."

In the introductory chapter of his book he writes: "The title "Jesus Symbol of God" is a translation of the title of Schillebeeckx's work "Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God" in the new context "from below" (XIII). For him, too, the symbol is a sacrament and by no means "only" a symbol, but the concept seems to him, because of its wider use, more appropriate as an interdisciplinary category.

In a first approach to the term (12-15) Haight reminds of Karl Rahner's distinction between transcendental and categorical revelation, as he explains it in the "Foundations of Christian Faith" [Grundkurs des Glaubens]. Revelation is "transcendentally", non-thematically effective in every human being, whereas we "categorically", i.e. explicitly, thematically and in the way of reflection become aware of it as an object only by virtue of historical communication. Rahner does not use the term "symbol" in this context. But a symbol is actually an instrument used to communicate a different reality.

Haight differentiates here as well as later in his explanation of the structure of the religious symbol (196-202) between conscious and conceptual symbols. The concept is not unambiguous and is used analogously. As a conscious symbol it can be a concrete thing or a place, an event, a person - at any rate, something that reveals something else and gets it present. A good example is the human body, which gets the human spirit present and thus communicates it into history and society. "In the case of the conscious symbol of Jesus we speak of God's real presence in the world, which is in him and through him communicated. We know that Jesus is a conscious symbol, because people met and still meet God in him" (198). Under a "conceptual symbol" Haight understand a concept, a word, a metaphor, a parable, a poem, a story or something similar that reveals something else and brings it to the imagination and the mind.

Haight then in three ways uses the category "symbol" as a basis for describing the discovery of the transcendent reality. Firstly, every speaking about God is symbolical for him. Secondly, the knowledge of God opened to us by Jesus constitutes a specifically Christian symbolic knowledge of God. Thirdly, the speaking about Jesus as the Christ is symbolical.

The knowledge gained is then characterized by the following elements: A communication through the symbol requires participation, in other words: It cannot be realized without a subjective and existential commitment. It calls for an active use of the mind in a cognitive effort to discover the meaning of the symbol. Religious symbols imply something more than themselves; they point to transcendence and are deeply embedded in non-knowledge. They reveal the nature of human existence and make it possible to get as far as to the original, paradisical character of humanity below and above every particular historical realization. This also means that the basic data of the Christian faith elude a complete historical access. Finally, religious symbols are multivalent and dialectical. Multivalence and dialectic of symbols create on the one hand room for a variety of views, but on the other hand they lead to scepticism about final unambiguities, perhaps even to their rejection.

The crucial objection of the notification is directed against this understanding of the symbol. Haight is accused that his theological method was inappropriate. This applies especially to those propositions which communicate an unchangeable dogmatic meaning in the sense of the Church's faith. Haight's interpretation would not only lead to a different reading of the texts but to a reading that was inconsistent with the true understanding of the dogmas.



A Twofold Problem

The teachings of the pre-existence of the Word, the divinity of Jesus and the understanding of the Trinity, the saving nature of Jesus' death, the uniqueness and universality of Jesus' and the Church's mediation of salvation, and finally Jesus' resurrection are the topics which are mentioned in a rather unsystematic way. Those problems are time and again discussed in our time; and the Magisterium has already in the past, inter alia in the declaration "Dominus Iesus" taken a stand on them.

But it is totally ignored that according to "Gaudium et Spes" the wording "critical correlation" leads to a twofold problem. For since then theology can only be pursued as contextual-inculturative theology, with the consequence that it has to give attention to the time and the area of the preaching as well as to the contents of the Gospel. The notification virtually ignores the issue of the 'temporal horizon' mentioned by Haight as a pluralistic, post-modern one. The sweeping rejection of the theological method is therefore no help. But it is precisely the situation described by Haight that makes him deal with the fundamental theological questions about God, Jesus Christ and the salvation of humankind.

But before the actual theological issues can be tackled the basic question has to be clarified: How does man in the process of intellectual disintegration still gain a valid and binding position to which s/he can keep? After all, the unifying factor in the globalization of our time cannot lie in material technological uniformity and systems; it is also today to be sought and found in the areas of intellectual freedom.

But here it is then about defining and substantiating one's viewpoint in such a way that it is communicable and therefore understandable - an effort that from Christian side has been made right from the beginning by philosophy and theology, that is, by reason and faith. But since history is processual and already the experience of the multitude of languages and ways of thinking makes grow the sense of unknown and misunderstood things, and makes questionable the conviction of the abiding validity of one's own thought and action, a new struggle for communication is on the agenda.



Only where one is really aware of the tasks arising from the present situation and recognizes the good will and the objectively justified commitment of the individual in the service of truth, the turn to the Gospel and its communication is meaningful. In any case, about Haight has to be noted that he tries to find his answer from the centre of the Catholic faith and, consequently takes pain over preaching Jesus today. This in turn cannot happen in a fundamentalist way, by simply repeating old formulations.

Now the gospel is anything but a product of thought. On the contrary, according to Christian belief God has become man and entered in this way the limitedness of human existence and the history of humankind. The passing on of this joyful message happens from the beginning as an inculturation process. To say it in today's theology's language: Theology is consequently struggling until the present day to recognize how a concretum universale is possible. To say it with the Council of Chalkedon: How the Jew Jesus of Nazareth at the same time can be "true God and true man" and how this is of importance for the whole history of humankind.

Theology is then struggling for an understandable language. In our days man always anew reaches his limits, but even in recognizing his limits he is led beyond them and can learn wonderment and gratitude. Maybe that one thing is not sufficiently clarified in Haight's work: Where man at the boundaries of his cognition comes upon something incomprehensible, shouldn't he wonder whether this is simply absurd and meaningless or whether the actual challenge of his life hides in the for the individual incomprehensible and resistant matter? One misses in Haight's work a deeper examination of the issues of negative theology, of what Rahner and others call the permanent mystery, which even in the Revelation again eludes our understanding and which therefore can never be fully reached in the human understanding process.

In other words, you can ask Haight: Do you in the end not rather stay a bit in the attitude of rationalistic thinking on the side of the wise and clever men, to whom - in the words of Jesus - it remains hidden what the Father has revealed the little ones (cf. Lk 10, 21)?

Rahner said that not only the world in general is getting increasingly confused and complicated, but that also theology, given its current abundance and diversity, is even for the individual theologians no longer manageable in all details; even the individual specialist is in his way today an amateur. One can argue with Haight about some of his exegetical statements and about issues of history of dogma. He e.g. probably does justice neither to St. John's nor to St. Paul's writings. The Church has hardly reached the ultimate answer in the struggle to understand the possibilities of salvation open to followers of other religions. But there have been queries and discussions in theology at all times. During the period in which almost everything is called into question and is relativized, the room to move should not be narrowed but rather broadened. Moreover, in view of the countless seekers the number of players cannot be large enough.

On that occasion the Church's credibility, too, is at stake. She speaks repeatedly of dialogue, but in many places she is at the same time lacking in true readiness for dialogue and openness to dialogue. Like many other commuters across frontiers Roger Haight deserves a different treatment.


    {*} The Jesuit Hans Waldenfels (born in 1931), Lic phil., Dr. theol. (Rom), Dr. theol. habil. (Würzburg) is an emeritus professor of fundamental theology, theology of religions and philosophy of religion at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Bonn. He published, among other things: Kontextuelle Fundamentaltheologie, 4th edition, Paderborn 2005; Theologische Versuche I-III, Bonn 1990-2004; Löscht den Geist nicht aus! Paderborn 2008.


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