Review: A Master Class in Christian Apologetics for the 21st Century



In his classic 1949 book Jesus and the poorthe African-American preacher, mystic and theologian Howard Thurman offers a model for thinking about the meaning of Jesus, especially for those who, in society, “with their backs against the wall”, remain, in my opinion, unmatched.

Thurman opens the book by recounting a moving conversation he had with a devout Hindu while in India. The man asked Thurman how he, a black man, could justify his adherence to Christianity, a religion that had been used for so long to subjugate and deny the dignity of African Americans, and indeed all “peoples the darkest on earth. The abrupt sincerity of the question kept the two men talking for long hours. Jesus and the poor represents Thurman’s attempt to respond more systematically to the challenge of man. “What does the religion of Jesus offer those in society who stand with their backs to the wall?”

Haight identifies the three cultural challenges to Christian faith and theology of our time as metaphysical skepticism, relativism, and ontic pessimism.

The structure of Thurman’s book is telling. The first chapter describes the social, political and religious context of the life and ministry of Jesus. To understand Jesus, Thurman insists, one must begin with the fact that Jesus was “body and soul” a Jew, “disinherited” from society, without social status or protection under Roman occupation. In the final chapter on “Love,” Thurman suggests that Jesus’ testimony of love of neighbor in the face of oppression and even physical death represents the pinnacle of spiritual freedom for those with their backs to the wall. .

Yet Thurman does not attempt to address “Jesus’ love ethics” before exposing, in the book’s middle three chapters, the deep and often insurmountable obstacles to love, what he calls the three “hounds of hell” that overshadow the lives of the poor: fear, disappointment and hatred. One cannot take Jesus’ command to love seriously until one has first confronted the powers of fear, deceit, and hatred as a positive means of survival among the dispossessed.

Thurman’s analysis of Jesus and why the Gospel remains a source of liberating good news, especially for the oppressed, is a masterclass in Christian apologetics. It remains unmatched because Thurman deals so directly and honestly with the psychological forces in human beings that resist the liberating power of love that Jesus embodies, often for good reasons related to survival in the face of societal oppression.

The latest book by Jesuit theologian Roger Haight, The nature of theologyis also a master class in Christian apologetics, for reasons both similar and different from Thurman’s approach in Jesus and the poor. Much like the Hindu who challenges Thurman to justify his faith in Jesus, Haight’s study rises from pointed questions posed to the believer, and thus to anyone who attempts to do theology responsibly, culturally dominant of our time, issues that cannot be ignored or desired. a way.

How might the contours of Christianity’s central beliefs be articulated in new ways that find an anchor in the imagination of contemporary scholars?

If Thurman’s book identifies the main obstacles to love as fear, deception and hatred, Haight identifies the three cultural challenges to Christian faith and theology in our time as metaphysical skepticism, relativism and pessimism. ontic. These “filters of perception” are omnipresent “as questions or suspicions, as doubts or opinions, which resonate in the culture and in the critical theologian”. Although Haight does not attribute to these forces the rhetorical, vital, or deadly intensity of Thurman’s three “hounds of hell,” each represents a serious challenge to a holistic and comprehensive Christian way of seeing, judging, and act in the world. And like Thurman’s dogs, they arise as survival strategies against a horizon of immense human and planetary suffering, alongside a scientific image of nature and an infinitely remote cosmos that seems indifferent to human beings.

Is it still possible to find meaning and hope in the religious “grand story” of a God, in Christ and by the Spirit, who sustains all things and loves every person, every creature, infinitely? Many reasonable people today answer no.

The concluding chapters of Haight’s book attempt to answer that question with a positive, albeit critical, yes. How might the outlines of Christianity’s central beliefs – God as Creator, Jesus Christ as Mediator, the Holy Spirit as God who sustains all things and enhances human freedom through love – be articulated in ways news that find takers in the imagination of contemporary researchers?

Just as Thurman did in his climactic chapter on “Love,” Haight resists a constructive response before beginning to consider the hold that skepticism, relativism, and pessimism have on today’s culture. today. The middle three chapters tackle these forces head-on. As in previous books, the rhetorical, life-or-death center of gravity of Haight’s concern is the question of theodicy, the challenge to faith and to all of God’s discourse in the face of evil. For Haight, the Hounds of Hell relentlessly traverse the planet today in the form of massive human deprivation, poverty and hunger, “concentrated human hatred and a vast lack of opportunity for natural human development”, forces structured in the fabric of society which cast “a veil over human existence itself.

With theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and James Cone as examples, Haight here presents his most compelling argument for theology as a “practical and humanistic discipline.” If Christian theology “is a critical interpretation of the world through the symbols of the Christian community”, then all theology “must be liberationist in order to be faithful to the Gospel and be credible as a reflection of the human spirit in the face of pessimism. cosmic”. .”

How then to articulate the interior and exterior dynamism of faith in the face of the mystery of God? And how to do it in such a way as to open up the story of salvation as it unfolds not “up there” or “there” – like a drama that takes place mainly, so to speak, between God and God – but rather as a drama recognizable in the very contours of human life and indeed of all material creation, life taking its full and free participation in the story of God’s eternal life? The final third of the book takes up this task with an exploration of the central symbols of Christian belief, building on images and insights that Haight developed in his earlier landmark works on spirituality (Theology in search of spirituality; Christian Spirituality for Seekers) and systematic theology (faith and evolution; Jesus Symbol of God).

For Haight, the revelatory encounter with God for the Christian does not take place first and foremost in assent to doctrines, but in the personal encounter with a human being, Jesus of Nazareth.

It is no accident, for Haight no less than for Thurman, that the revelatory encounter with God for the Christian does not take place first or foremost in the assent to doctrines, but in the personal encounter with a human being. , Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jew from Palestine, as his life and teachings unfold in the Gospels. “When someone asks, ‘How is God?’ the Christian replies: “God is like Jesus”.

Not everyone will agree with Haight’s interpretation of Christianity’s core beliefs. Its emphasis on the “God as Spirit” symbol, for example, and the development of an in-depth Christology of the Spirit in which God’s presence in Jesus is qualitatively no different from God’s presence in all human beings and in all material creation, has been the subject of much debate. aspect of his work for decades. Yet few theologians have taken so seriously the most pointed questions of our contemporaries, questions that are ultimately truly ours, as followers of Christ who live in the shadow of skepticism, unjust suffering and impending despair.

It is said that Martin Luther King Jr. often carried a copy of Jesus and the poor in his pocket, so important was the book for King’s understanding of the heart of Christianity. Haight’s The nature of theology is not the kind of treatise that many Christians or Catholics today would be inclined to carry around in their pockets. While he describes the book as an introduction to theology that “directs the attention of a critical intellect to the questions people really ask”, Haight’s rhetorical style is more suited to an audience found in a seminary. or a higher theology class than to participants in public protest or nonviolent civil resistance in the streets.

Nonetheless, the fundamental pattern and liberating thrust of Haight’s inquiry into the nature of theology bears a striking resemblance to Thurman’s classic. What do we do when we dare to do theology? Out of love for a suffering world, we dare to give an account of our enduring hope in the God of creation; in Jesus Christ, who reveals the character of God; and in the Spirit of God, which liberates human freedom and gives courage to help realize and defend God’s dream for humanity. For Haight’s contributions to this new book, the sum of a lifetime of teaching and writing, and for his many books on the liberating nature of Christian theology and spirituality, I am most grateful.

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