Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Fr. Joseph O'Leary's unorthodox ("Hot Tub") Christology

Part I

Fr. Joseph O'Leary, a liberal Catholic priest teaching English Literature at Sophia University in Tokyo, has written an essay entitled "Demystifying the Incarnation" (posted June 20, 2005 to his website, apparently first published in Archivio di Filosofia, vol. 67, 1999). His purpose is to offer a constructive critique of the Fourth Ecumenical Council -- the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) -- which is traditionally seen as having definitively defined the full humanity and divinity of Christ. Chalcedon affirmed the "hypostatic union" of Christ's two natures, meaning that His divine and human natures, though distinct, act together as a unit subsisting in one person, Jesus Christ.

Ecumenical Councils typically yield carefully-worded dogmatic formulations employing precise metaphysical conceptualizations borrowed from Greek philosophy. O'Leary grudgingly grants such formulations have a legitimate role, but is quick to observe how narrow and limited and negative he thinks this role is. At best such dogmatic formulations provide a check against obvious heretical tendencies like monophysitism (a favorite scapegoat of his, as we shall see). But even then, words like "dogma" and "metaphysics" seem to leave a sour taste in his mouth. Thus, he tends to describe formulations like those of Chalcedon derisively as "cold," "logical," and "bloodless." By contrast, he is fond of describing his own theological alternatives in language laced with warm expressions like "personal encounter" and "personal experience." It seems only proper, then, that we do him the favor of referring to his own Christological proposals in the thermal vocabulary he favors, and envision him vested as Gandalf, but in warm Pink, shepherding us out of the frozen wastes of Chalcedonian tundra into the warm, welcoming waters of his own existentialist hot-tub Christology.

This is not to suggest that O'Leary, as liberal as he may be, is simply a flake. He is clearly a deeply-sensitive, broadly educated man, familiar with the outlines of patristic and medieval tradition, appreciative of St. Thomas Aquinas, fluent in Latin, intimately conversant with the richly speculative currents of contemporary biblical theology, and deeply wedded to the Heideggerian vision of "overcoming" the onto-theological tradition of Western metaphysics. His concern here, quite simply, is with "overcoming" (there, that word again!) what he regards as certain historical and metaphysical "limitations" of the Chalcedonian formulation in order to more effectively call Catholic theology back to the Bible. (Who could possibly object to that!) Ultimately, he says he wants to reestablish the primacy of divine revelation over dogma and "reroot Chalcedon" in a living "encounter with Christ." (Who could possibly object to that!)

Nor is this to suggest that O'Leary is unappreciative of Chalcedon's dogmatic formulation as it stands. Indeed, he readily affirms the importance of doing justice to "the necessity and truth of Chalcedon on its own terms," as well as appreciating "how well this rule of faith ... served classical theology, holding in check the monophysite [note that scapegoat again] tendencies recurring throughout the tradition." (p. 2) Further, he asserts: "Even today, Chalcedon can be effective in correcting speculative distortions in Christology, such as the popular theories of a 'suffering God' which undermine not only divine transcendence but also the integrity of Christ's human nature." (p. 3) Moreover, he insists that "Chalcedon can be applied still more radically than its defenders have done." (p. 3) Hence, there is no question of O'Leary brushing aside Chalcedon as having no relevance.

Yet there is a profoundly disturbing unorthodox undercurrent running through O'Leary's essay that verges at times towards open apostasy. He would deny this charge, portraying his own proposals as faciliating the ongoing "development" of Christian doctrine and merely fleshing out implications embedded in Christian theology from its inception. He would also respond with countercharges of Catholic "fundamentalism," "rigid literalism" and "ossified traditionalism" against any "rigid" adherence to the dogmatic decrees of the Church. Yet by any traditional canon of orthodoxy, O'Leary cleary goes over the edge in this essay. He makes some attempt at concealing the bald implications of his own proposals by conceding a provisional value in the formulations of Chalcedon (as noted above) so as to cover his flank. But his clear intention is to push well beyond Chalcedon, and as one progresses through his essay, it quickly becomes apparent that he is heading towards conclusions that bear little conceivable affinity to traditional Catholic orthodoxy.

The first hint of this occurs in his opening paragraph in which he describes what he calls the "two realities" at issue in the Chalcedonian formulation as follows: "One is fleshly: the life and death of a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth. The other is spiritual: an encounter with the living God ...." The first, he says, is a "matter of fact"; the second, a "self-authenticating" matter of "Christian experience." Notice that the matter of fact here includes the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Not His resurrection. The resurrection, of course, is consigned to the "self-authenticating" realm of "Christian experience," which, please note, is beyond the realm of fact.

The distinction O'Leary is assuming here comes from that tired, old dichotomy of the biblical historical-critics, which severs the "Christ of Faith" (the resurrected Christ) from the "Jesus of History" (the historical man who lived and died). This dichotomy is simply a transposed, religious version of the "value/fact" dichotomy that runs back through Kant's "noumenal/phenomenal" dualism to still earlier versions of that bifurcation. It is that dichotomy that now pervades our culture's dictatorship of relativism and has gone to seed in such blithe sophomorisms as "Your opinions about religion are true for you, and mine are true for me," based on the uncritical assumption that opinions about religion, because they pertain to the realm of personal "values" and not to the realm of empirically varifiable "facts," cannot be objectively right or wrong.

All of which is silly nonsense. This dichotomy, long defended by logical empiricists and other positivists of yesteryear, has been soundly exposed for the piffle it is. The problem is that the dichotomy is utterly contrived and collapses the moment it meets with reality. For values are facts too; and facts are permeated with values. The positivist notion of a value-free fact is no more tenable than the postmodernist notion of a fact-free interpretive construct. What is positive in positivism is the healthy and robust insight that a real world of objective facts exists beyond our subjective efforts to interpret it and that it can be known. What is negative is the assumption that this reality can be known and described without the intrusion of any value-laden bias. What is positive in postmodernism is the fact it dispels the positivist illusion that reality can be known and described without the bias of value-laden presuppositions. What is negative is its denial that there is any reality beyond interpretative constructs to be known or described.

Part II

Chalcedon famously defined Christ's human and divine natures as united in the singular person of Christ. Its technical term was "hypostatic union," or the union of the two natures in an underlying hypostatis, meaning "substrate" or "substance." Remarking on this Chalcedonian clarification of the Church's understanding of who Christ is, Fr. O'Leary says: "Today this clarification is likely to be seen as an estrangement. Our search to articulate the relation of the human and divine dimensions of the Christ-event has to overcome the Chalcedonian perspective through a lucid critique of its limitations." (p. 2) O'Leary hastens to reassure his readers that he's not simply opposing the Council's Christological dogma, but, rather, preparing for "a hermeneutical retrieval of the truth of Chalcedon." (p. 2, emphasis added)

Throughout these statements, one hears the echoes of Martin Heidegger's existentialism, as one does in the demythologizing theology of Rudolf Bultmann. Expressions such as "Christ-event," "overcoming" (usually "overcoming of metaphysics"), and "retrieval" (usually retrieval of something long hidden, like Heidegger's "Being," or Paul Tillich's "Ground of Being") are nuts-and-bolts trade jargon in the industry of theological existentialism.

In order to get at how the divine and human are really related in the "Christ-event," then, O'Leary wants to "overcome" the limitations of Chalcedon in order to hermeneutically "retrieve" what he sees as the underlying "truth of Chalcedon." But before this "truth" (presumably heretofore hidden and overlooked) can be "retrieved," it would be helpful to know why this presumably hidden truth of Chalcedon has been overlooked for so many centuries. Why weren't earlier attempts at uncovering this truth more effective? One reason, O'Leary says, is that "[earlier] critics have been unable to bring into view the nature of the Greek metaphysical horizon within which the classical doctrine developed; here Heidegger offers resources for a critical genealogy which theology has yet to exploit." (p. 2)

Indeed! Just as fish don't know what it means to be wet, earlier theologians didn't know what it was to be immersed in a "Greek metaphysical horizon," because they lacked sufficient critical distance. And it is none other than Heidegger, according to O'Leary, who provides this critical distance through his genealogical deconstruction (or "destruction," as Heidegger sometimes calls it) of the western metaphysical and "onto-theological" tradition. In order to appreciate something of the significance of Heidegger's existential philosophy for such theological undertakings as O'Leary's, it may be helpful to know something about both Heidegger's and existentialism's relationship to Christianity.

Martin Heidegger (pictured right) was at one time a seminarian in formation to become a Catholic priest, but dropped out after losing his faith and went on to become a leading existentialist philosopher -- an existential phenomenologist, to be specific. From the research of John D. Caputo and others, we know that Heidegger translated the categories of his erstwhile Christian faith into secular, existential equivalents, so that his philosophy is in many ways a secularized substitute for his erstwhile faith. "Care," "anxiety," "averageness," "thrownness," "inauthenticity," "authenticity," etc., are all examples of Heideggerian shorthand for denatured Christian notions. Similar patterns in secularized existential theology can be found, for example, in John Macquarrie's Principles of Christian Theology and Paul Tillich's three-volume Systematic Theology. Further, in order to see how loosely tethered the concepts of such existential theology are to the historical claims of the Christian tradition, one may note that for the Nazi theologians -- Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch -- "Christ" was reinterpreted to mean the "spirit of National Socialism." In fact, dring the Nazi regime in Germany, Hedegger himself affiliated his vision, which John D. Caputo, following Emmanuel Levinas, describes as a "totalizing ontology," with the totalitarian vision of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. (See Martin Heidegger's German Existentialism, trans. by Dagobert D. Runes [NY: Philosophical Library, 1965] for Heidegger's speeches as the Nazi Rektor of the University of Freiburg) This in no way should be seen as a backhanded attempt at tarring O'Leary with an opprobrious association with Naziism. Rather, it is simply an illustration of how disconnected any such secularized existential theology can become from the historical realities of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

So what is existentialism, exactly? What animates it? Can this question be answered without distinguishing atheistic from Christian existentialism? Perhaps so. Albert Camus (pictured below left), an example of the atheistic variety, once wrote: "A literature of despair is a contradiction in terms .... In the darkest depths of our nihilism I have sought only for the means to transcend nihilism" (quoted in John Cruickshank, Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt [NY: Oxford UP, 1960], p. 3). Atheistic existentialism accepts the nihilistic account of the objective world that emerged historically from the worldview of naturalism, which, hard on the heels of deism, rejected the supernatural. With a mechanistically understood, deterministic closed-box universe, objective reality yields no hope of meaning. In the face of this hopelessness, the essence of existentialism may be described as the attempt to transcend nihilism. But how? The answer: through subjectivity. What can that mean? Camus declared that he was utterly certain of two propositions: (1) that he could not live without meaning, and (2) that life has no objective meaning. But rather than commit suicide, which would seem to have a prima facie logical compulsion, Camus embraced what he called an "absurd logic," by which he affirmed life (as in the myth of Sisyphus) despite its absurdity. Even if there is no objective meaning to be discovered, meaning can be subjectively generated, even if it is only through metaphysical rebellion.

What about Christian existentialism? There are always hazards in generalizing, but I think we can safely say this: Existential theologians tend to view the world in terms of two levels -- the objective and the subjective. On the objective level, like their atheistic counterparts, they tend to accept the account offered by a naturalistic world view, which excludes the supernatural, shutting the lid on the universe, as it were. Hence, the meaningful dimensions of the Christian Faith are nowhere to be found on that level. On that level, the Bible is viewed as an entirely human book, full of errors and subject to ineluctable skepticism. If the essence of existentialism lies in the attempt to transcend nihilism, then how do Christian existentialists propose this be done? The answer, again, is through subjectivity. In other words, the only meaning available is going to be that encountered on the level of subjective experience. Hence, while denying that the miracles mentioned in the Bible ever objectively happened, existential theologians affirm that miracles may happen as part of the "phenomena" of our personal experience. The "Jesus of History" may be a rotted corpse somewhere in Palestine. But the "Christ of Faith" is alive in our hearts and in the life-changing experiences within the believing "kairos" community. Existentialist theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth (if we read him carefully) are replete with such suggestions. Even Soren Kierkegaard (pictured right), the Lutheran father of the existentialist movement, though he may not have succumbed to the worst of these tendentious errors, defined truth as "subjectivity," and faith as "the objective uncertainty along with the repulsion of the absurd held fast in the passion of inwardness" (Training in Christianity, trans. by Walter Lowrie [Princeton UP, 1944], quoted in Robert C. Solomon, ed., Existentialism [NY: Random House, 1974], p. 27). The pattern is clear, and it will be helpful to bear in mind as we return to O'Leary's essay.

So what does O'Leary envision when he suggests that "Chalcedon can be applied still more radically than its defenders have done"? (p. 3) What does he mean when he says "still more radically"? As will eventually become clear, I think, what he wants is a Christ of Faith who is freed from the constraints of the Jesus of History -- a Christ who lives in our subjective personal experience in a rich and meaningfully-felt way in the collective experience of the community of believers -- not a Christ who is dogmatically linked to the Jesus of history by "fundamentalist literalism" about such things as the Incarnation ("Jesus is God") or the Resurrection ("Jesus was bodily raised in space and time") or His claims about everlasting punishment and about nobody being able to come to the Father "but by me" (Jn 14:6).

His immediate strategy is to exploit the Chalcedonian opposition to docetic and monophysite heresies (which denied the full humanity of Jesus) in order to assert that our obligation to embrace the full humanity of Jesus requires us to think of Him as something less than fully God, or, more precisely, of His human nature as not fully informed by His divine nature. First of all, he sets the stage by criticizing the limitations of the Chalcedonian perspective in the work of one of its foremost exponents, St. Thomas Aquinas. O'Leary writes:

Within scholastic perspectives, reinforced by Aristotelean conceptuality, it is hard to do justice to the link with biblical vision which Chalcedon had retained. Thus Aquinas takes the Gospel accounts of Jesus' preternatural insight and miraculous powers to warrant ascription to him of the greatest knowledge and power possible in a creature, including the capacity to see in the Word all that the Word sees. Only historical scholarship has allowed us to recover Jesus as a human being sharing the cognitive limitations of his culture. (pp. 3-4)
Several things are being asserted here. First, "scholastic perspectives" are clearly considered inadequate. Second, they are considered inadequate because they don't do justice to the full humanity of Jesus. O'Leary cites Aquinas as an example of a scholastic who, he thinks, fails to do justice to the full humanity of Jesus. This can be seen, according to O'Leary, in Aquinas ascribing to Jesus the "the capacity to see in the Word all that the Word sees." It's intersting that O'Leary refers to "Jesus" (= Historical Jesus) here, and not "Christ" (= "Christ of Faith"), although I suspect that, if pressed, he would accommodate some flexibility in language here, if not of conceptualization. It's also interesting that he describes Aquinas as ascribing to Jesus "the greatest knowledge and power possible in a creature" (emphasis added). I suppose this is only carelessness, as I would hope O'Leary would not go so far as to suggest that the Jesus of History was a "creature," in Arian fashion; but the slip, if it is a slip, is an interesting one. Third, O'Leary says that "historical scholarship," by which he means the secularized protestant historical-critical tradition of biblical studies, "has allowed us to recover Jesus as a human being sharing the cognitive limitations of his culture." Just what sort of a "recovery" does he have in mind?

O'Leary quickly assures his readers that his "recovery" is "not in conflict with the Chalcedonian tradition," that, in fact, Chalcedon "kept the stage clear for it" and allowed the Church "to take aboard the findings of scholarship as a welcome confirmation" of the humanity of Christ. Then he tells us what his "recovery" entails:

It helps us take in our stride the possibility that the human Jesus may have erred, due to the limitations of the framework of his eschatological thinking; such errors could include not only the Naherwartung [the expectation of an imminent return of Christ] (Mk 9:1; Mt 10:23), but the elements in his teaching that gave rise to anti-Jewish supersessionist doctrine (Mk 12:9) and notions of eternal punishment. (p. 4)
So whatever may be said of the pre-incarnate Word, the Jesus of History is a fallible human being, whose possible errors may have included not only errors in judgment about the timing of His second coming, but theological errors in his teachings concerning the relation of His Gospel to Judaism and the doctrine of hell. I have dealt with this notion of a fallible Jesus in some detail in an earlier discussion entitled "To Err is Divine???" so I will not belabor the question here. Suffice it to sum up by noting that O'Leary sees this fallible Jesus as a logical consequence of Chalcedon's affirmation of the full humanity of Christ and it's opposition to docetic and monophysitic heresies. Yet Catholic tradition, in addition to affirming the full humanity of Christ, affirms the hypostatic union of Christ's human and divine natures in the single person of Jesus Christ, with full communicatio idiomata, meaning that the properties of the Divine Word can be ascribed to the human Christ, and vice versa. Catholic tradition therefore affirms that Christ's human knowledge was free from positive ignorance and from error, a view with which O'Leary's proposals cannot be squared.

How, then, does O'Leary understand the Incarnation? "Chalcedon," he writes, "has often been taken to teach a massive ontological amalgamation of divine and human substances," which can be best expressed in such forthright statements as "Jesus is God," "the God-man," "God became man," and so forth. But an "authentic" Chalcedonian understanding of the communicatio idiomata, he says, can help to "smooth away some of the unease" of statements such as these. Statements like "Jesus is a man" and "The Logos is God" are direct predications, he says, but "Jesus is God" is misleading shorthand that needs to be spelled out carefully. He writes:

Because the man Jesus is hypostatically one with the eternal Logos, we can attribute to this one person all the attributes of the humanity and of the divinity; thus we can say 'Jesus is God', 'Jesus created the world' or 'The Logos was born of Mary', 'The Logos suffered and died', as long as we ward off any suggestion that the human nature as such acquires divine qualities or that the divine nature as such is subject to human limitations. (p. 4)
This statement is perfectly orthodox as far as it goes. What remains in question is how the properties of these divine and human natures are understood to be united in a common hypostasis, or substrate. O'Leary says: "The ultimate hypostasis of Jesus Christ is God's eternal Word," but then adds that God the Son, as a trinitarian mode of being, cannot be called a "person" in the ordinary human sense, suggesting that the innate limitations of the Chalcedonian formulation cannot be easily overcome:

Yet however subtly one expounds Chalcedon -- at the risk, indeed, of making it a wax nose --, people will object: Is it not enough to say that in Jesus we encounter the living God? The pursuit of the ontological grounds of this encounter seems epistemologically dubious and has divisive and alienating effects. Moreover, others may experience God's self-disclosure just as definitively elsewhere. 'Jesus was and is divine for those who experience in him the manifestation of God ...' writes J.D. Crossan, in Who Killed Jesus (San Francisco, 1996), p. 216.
Note what is being asserted here -- (1) the limitations of Chalcedon; (2) the supplanting of those limitations via the objection raised in preference for a personal "encounter" with the living God (here the existential primacy of subjective experience surfaces); (3) the negative judgment on the Chalcedonian-inspired pursuit of the (objective metaphysical) "ontological grounds" of this (subjective) "encounter" as "epistemologically dubious" and having "divisive and alienating effects." What O'Leary has in mind here is the "divisive and alienating effects" of asserting that the living God is encountered in His fullness solely in the unique person of Jesus of Nazareth. (4) this is confirmed by his assertion that God's self-disclosure is "experienced" by others (non-Christians) "just as definitevely elsewhere," and by the quotation from Crossan, which asserts the subjectivistic sophomorism that "Jesus was and is divine for those who experience in him the manifestation of God." Thus, the classic existential patter of disconnection between subjectivity and objectivity becomes apparent -- the disconnection between (a) the experienced subjective Christ encountered in non-rational, personal faith and (b) the objective Christ defined by dogmatic tradition so as to link Him ineluctably to the empirical Jesus of history, who is open to rational investigation. No wonder O'Leary could state, in another context, that it was "an open question" among the students in his seminary days whether the archiological discovery of Jesus' body in Palestine would refute the reality of the Resurrection! (See "Fr. O'Leary on the Resurrection") The "Christ" encountered in the warm, fuzzy "hot tub" categories of existentialist theologians has little more to do with the Jesus Christ of historic Christianity and the Gospel accounts than the "Buddy Christ" (pictured right) of Bishop George Carlin in the Kevin Smith film, Dogma.

Part III

Part II of O'Leary's article, "Demystifying the Incarnation," is entitled: "Rerooting Chalcedon in the Encounter with Christ." A vast number of post-Vatican II Catholics have been conditioned over the past four decades of exposure to low grade Protestant Liberalism to respond like pavlovian Fundamentalists to experiential expressions such as "encounter with Christ." Most of them seem to find affective responses, such as a strangely warmed heart or tears welling up in the eyes, more authentic tokens of spiritual veracity than any doctrinal tests of truth such as the Apostle John imposes in his First Epistle, or the Church imposes in her creeds and dogmas. Of course, the mistake is to think the one should be unhinged from the other at all. When O'Leary speaks of rerooting Chalcedon in the "encounter with Christ," then, it is pertinent to ask what he means. Perhaps it is even pertinent to ask why he uses such an emotionally charged expression as "encounter with Christ," with all of its predictable nuances and pavlovian responses. The answer is not hard to guess. His readers will be principally of two types, those who are ignorant of his existentialist theological presuppositions and those who are not. He knows that the former may very well be unwittingly swayed by their conditioned responses to think that they are here being guided by a good shepherd out of the wasteland of frigid and barren dogma back to a warm and living relationship with J-e-s-u-s! Thus he may hope that they will be won over to the view that his revisionist Christology is simply a more biblically faithful Christology, one that will yield a racheted-up "for real" relationship with Christ such as Kierkegaard described under the rubric of existential "contemporaneity." As to those who know where O'Leary is coming from, either they will find themselves in agreement with his pretheoretical commitments, or they will not. In the former case, such expressions as "encounter" are simply code for a revisionist reinterpretation of Christianity at work here, which O'Leary knows will be readily embraced. In the latter case, as in our own, where the reader knows where O'Leary is coming from but is unsympathetic, O'Leary realizes he has no hope of making his case, and he has little recourse but to respond, if he so chooses, with ad hominem attacks on his opponent's character, or bias, or the like. But let us see for ourselves how O'Leary endeavors to execute his proposed task of "rerooting" Chalcedon in an existential "encounter with Christ."

Chalcedon has often been spoken of as the foundation of the christological edifice (Seeberg), and as a beginning rather than an end (Rahner), observes O'Leary, "but today we need to register the sense in which Chalcedon is an end," its "possibilities of speculation ... exhausted," the confines of its discourse a "rut." It is no longer a matter of trying to overcome bad metaphysics with good, of trying to correct the speculations of process theology or kenoticism or tritheistic accounts of the the intradivine social life with good metaphysical theology in either its classical or modernized form. Rather, O'Leary seems to think that the problem is metaphysical thought itself, as a spent paradigm that must be "overcome" [Note that existential-Heideggerian term again]. Metaphysics must be "overcome," he says [and get this] "as the thinking of faith finds its proper path." (p. 6) [Ever the master of subterfuge, O'Leary will find every possible opportunity to couch his denaturing revisionism in the pious language of an ever more authentic recovery of faith.] He distinguishes four trends of "hermeneutical awareness that converge to impose this overcoming" -- (1) phenomenality, (2) pluralism, (3) historicity, and (4) epistemological limits. Translated into what they actually mean, as I will show, these become: (a) subjectivism, (B) relativism, (c) historicism, and (d) skepticism.

1. Phenomenality (i.e., subjectivism): "Modern theology," says O'Leary, "insists that faith is grounded in an encounter with God in Christ and only secondarily in dogmatic formulae." Notice the subjectivism implied in this statement. The existential "encounter" (something by definition subjective) is what grounds faith. And what it then means to say that dogmatic formulae are "secondary," if anything at all, is thrown into radical question by the decided subjectivity of the existential encounter. Let this caveat put the reader on guard against the sleight of hand that follows.

"Dogmas mark certain logical constraints which must be respected in order to guard the integrity of the encounter [Careful here! It looks like the subjectivism of the encounter is being protected by the logical constraints of dogma here, but watch!], but they do not provide a foundation or synthesis superior to or equal to the biblical events themselves. [Caution! Dogma is said to guard the subjective encounter, but isn't more fundamental than the biblical events themselves. Well, of course. Vatican II states that the Magisterium is a servant rather than a master of the Word of God, but take care to note what is meant here by O'Leary, who is no friend of the Magisterium and considers his own interpretation of the Word of God a viable, if not preferable, alternative to Rome's.] Metaphysical theology is built on a reversal of this priority of revelation over dogma. [OK, so does O'Leary mean metaphysics sees itself as sitting in judgment on Revelation in contradiction to the declaration of the Fathers of Vatican II? Keep an eye on the expression "metaphysical theology" in his essay, because this is what O'Leary hates, and it's thoroughly Roman Catholic!] In the space of thought it projects, the truths of faith are no longer grounded in encounter but in stable definitions and substances. [N.B. -- What emerges here is that O'Leary is contrasting (1) logic and dogma to (2) Revelation and encounter. This means that the concept of "Revelation" operative here is a distinctively existential concept of non-propositional, and therefore non-logical and non-rational, just as Revelation is subjective, personal, non-rational, non-logical, occurring as an event in an existential encounter. He does not explicitly point this out, but he does not need to. The contrast is clear: dogma, in his view, is logical and rigid, ossified, cold, and frigid, just as Revelation is warm, personal, and emotional -- the kind of thing that evokes hot tub imagery.] In seeking to clarify the biblical events by asking first and foremost for reasons and grounds and by setting them within a doctrinal system, it overleaps both the pneumatic and the fleshly phenomenality of these events, which are no longer free to deploy their significance in the space opened up by scripture and its ongoing interpretation. (emphasis added) [And here we have it, folks -- the dream of dissident Catholic Bible scholars since Vatican II has been that the open horizon of endless possible new ways of interpreting and requisitioning Scripture could provide them with an authority alongside and independent -- if not superior -- to that of the official Magisterium, by virtue of the fact that the latter is bound to a single irreformable apostolic tradition. Regardless of how this apostolic tradition may be deepend by the growing understanding of the Church through time, by what Cardinal Newman called the organic "development" of doctrine, to be distinguished from heretical deformations of innovations by seven "notes" (or tests) that he specified, this tradition of understanding is not amenable to the radical revisibility of the kind O'Leary would like to see. As Peter Kreeft says, "The Catholic Church claims less authority than any other Christian church in the world; that is why she is so conservative. Protestant churches feel free to change 'the deposit of faith' (e.g., by denying Mary's assumption, which was believed from the beginning) or of morals (e.g., by allowing divorce, even though Christ forbade it), or worship (e.g., by denying the Real Presence and the centrality of the Eucharist, which was constant throughout the Church's first 1,500 years)." (Source.)]Questions framed within a Greek metaphysical horizon, oriented to substantial identity, would not need to, and could not, be formulated in a thinking of revelation oriented to events and processes. (emphasis added) [Note the contrast here between "substantial identity" -- the former negative, the latter positive, in O'Leary's world of paternalistic revisionism.] Speculative construction would be stymied at the question stage by the impossibility of casting off the narrative vesture of biblical revelation in order to define the event in abstraction from its inexhaustibly pluralistic historical texture. [In this florid declamation, whose postmodern fluidity is surpassed only by its textured impenetrability of Derridada, O'Leary suggests the non sequitor that the "event" revealed in Scripture, because of its "inexhaustibly pluralistic historical texture," is incapable of yielding a "speculative construction" that can do justice to the "narative vasture of biblical revelation." But this is nonsense. While it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words and that reality is always inexhaustably more complex than any propositional account of it, it is nonsense to suggest that a proposition or a "speculative construction" cannot render an intelligible account of it or that metaphysical or dogmatic theology cannot render an intelligible and faithful account of the event disclosed in biblical Revelation. That has been the task of dogmatic theology since St. Paul exemplified it in I Corinthians 15.]
In summary, notice here the dualizations between Revelation/dogma, Scripture/metaphysics, Event/logic, Process/ substantial identity. Each of these is enlisted in the service of garnering theological autonomy from Rome, yet each is couched in the language of seeming piety, such as that of restoring the priority of Revelation over dogma, and so forth. The packaging is impressive. The content is predictably dull and disappointing.

2. Pluralism (i.e., relativism): "The biblical events come to us in a plurality of experiences, languages, literary genres, conceptual frameworks, and cultural contexts," notes O'Leary. However, "Metaphysical theolgy proceeds from a falsifying unification of these data under a homogeneous framework. Taking a view from above on the variety of biblical languages ... [its] ambition is to be the definitive, objective language which integrates all others. But it turns out to be but one more language, equally subject to historical and cultural plurality which cannot be ironed out." Therefore: "Even when the Church agreed on one dogmatic formula and maintained it through the centuries, the specific explanations of the formula … have never admitted of reduction to a single framework. Full recognition of this pluralism greatly limits the role that metaphysical speculation can play in the clarification of Christian truth." (emphasis added, pp. 6-7)

This reminds me of the sophomoric student who in his introductory philosophy class raised his hand eagerly in the midst of a class debate about moral relativism and declared with all the satisfaction of having offered a sublimely conclusive rebuttal, "But professor, that's just your opinion!" Whether we're talking about languages or doctrinal formulations, such a view takes no account of any differences between opinions that may be wise or stupid, or between views proclaimed by lawfully ordained successors of Peter or by mere ideologues.

The substance of this second point of hermeneutical awareness (pluralism), even if it is couched in the language of scholarship, amounts to an apologia for relativism of the most sophomoric type. The ad hominem implicit in it, after all, could be turned against O'Leary himself, whose own Heideggerian existential theology turns out to be but "one more language," which severely limits any instructive role it could possibly play alongside the opinions of any gutter snipe televangelist, in the clarification of Christian truth. This, at least would be the consequence of applying his own logic to his own theology.

3. Historicity (i.e., historicism): "All of the cultural frameworks within which Christian truth is articulated belong to limited historical epistemological contexts. They become to a large degree obsolescent and inaccessible when new contexts supervene. The metaphysics which attempts to isolate essential structures and foundations is itself a historically contextualized formation.... Full recognition of the historicity of theological thought makes us conscious that such notions as 'nature' and 'hypostasis' or any modern equivalent thereof are culture-bound constructs and provisional conventions. They may be aids to insight in certain contexts, but since they cannot be purged of historical relativity they refer us back to an ongoing activity of understanding that never halts in a definitive systematization." (emphasis added) (p. 7)

This is both true and false, depending on what one means. Everything O'Leary says here is true in the sense that anything said or written in any language is a historical-cultural artifact relative to a time and place in history. It is also true that our human efforts at understanding are always provisional and piecemeal and never exhaustive or comprehensive. But it is not true that nothing said or written in human language cannot be absolutely true and known to be so. The Chalcedonean formulation may never allow us with any certainty to specify the positive content of what is affirmed in the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity of Christ. Yet,, as with any dogmatic formula, it offers us absolute certainty as to what orthodoxy denies: without a shred of doubt, it allows us to know that a categorial denial of Christ's humanity or divinity is unconditionally false. Is there any part of this that is obsolescent or inaccessible, any part of this that we cannot clearly understand?

4. Epistemological limits (i.e., skepticism): O'Leary accepts the canard that metaphysics has become untenable since the critiques of Kant and Wittgenstein. He therefore believes that the truth of Christianity "has to be retrieved independently of the metaphysical frameworks which provided a stable background at the time the doctrines were formulated." In other words, the Christian Faith must no longer be saddled with the "inherently dubious" and now discredited tradition of western theological metaphysics. O'Leary writes:
In this postmetaphysical context ... the Nicene prohibition of denial of Christ's true divinity remains in force, but a positive definition of what this "true divinity" means becomes elusive; at best it becomes another rule of speech: "what is said of the Father as God must be said of the Son as God." Within a certain conceptual horizon, a certain language-game, such rules impose themselves, but the absolute necessity and validity of such a take on the divine may remain open to question.... This dogmatic minimalism undercuts the arrogance of a christological discourse that would directly speak of divine and human natures and hypostases, as matters of objective knowledge, obliging it to be rephrased in a tentative and hypothetical mode: "if we were to choose to speak in this archaic and rather problematic style, then this is what we would be obliged to say." [And this] apparent enfeeblement of dogma in fact renders it more functional and effective, calling it to its role as defender of revelation, and preventing it from becoming the foundation of an alternative system of Christian truth in rivalry with the order of events that unfolds from Scripture. (emphasis added, p. 7) [Note again the irony as well as the presumption: the "enfeeblement" of dogma (i.e., Rome) renders it more effective in defending Revelation (i.e., the existentially encountered "Christ event" experienced in subjective inwardness). Here's the ticket: dogmatic traditionalism is dismissed as benighted arrogance in view of radical skepticism concerning the limitations of metaphysical knowledge (on the authority of Kant's and Wittgenstein's critiques), therefore: Revelation becomes a wax nose divorced from dogma that can mean whatever O'Leary and his friends want it to mean.
Summarizing his discussion of these four trends of "hermeneutical awareness," O'Leary writes:
"Given that metaphysics is now so problematic [Oh, really? Is it?], and that classical doctrine has relied heavily on a metaphysical background, it is clear that the task of recalling Chalcedon to its roots in the encounter with God in Christ [I hear violins playing . . .] cannot be simply a matter of fleshing out skeletal categories with the richer languages of Scripture. It involves a fundamental overcoming of the Chalcedonian perspective ...." (emphasis added)
Heavens! So here we have it: that portion of the Sacred Tradition of the Church represented by the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon is to be "overcome" ... And how? O'Leary answers, "through subordinating it to the more originary horizon within which Paul and John sought to articulate an intangible and encompassing reality, the Risen Christ (emphasis added)." [Those violins again ...] Within this sphere of "encounter," suggests O'Leary, the language of Chalcedon falls away as something almost incidental -- as something having the status of a kind of legal codicil, to be invoked only when needed." O'Leary does not deny that it is ever needed, but he does say: "Dogma builds a barbed fence about the burning bush of revelation, and it has been a common idolatry to venerate the fence instead of the bush or what is encountered therein." (p. 8)

The question is, what is encountered therein? "Chalcedon," O'Leary says, "is at the service of encounter," its four negative adverbs warding off "falsifications of that encounter," urging us to respect the integrity of Jesus' humanity and divinity, neither fusing, altering, dividing nor separating them. But the Neoplatonic language need not be characterized in a "cold, neutral" way, in which the hypostasis and natures of Christ are "objectified and torn out of the context of lived encounter." Thus, O'Leary laments the "phobia about speaking naturally of Christ's humanity" that followed Chalcedon and undermined "incarnational realism." It was especially the condemnation of Nestorius, says O'Leary, that was most fateful for the history of Christology, because it made simple and natural language about Jesus impossible.

The true significance of O'Leary's criticism of post-Chalcedonian Christological language and theology becomes clear when we learn what he prescribes as a remedy: Rudolf Bultmann! A fundamental influence in Bultmann's thought, it will be remembered, was Heidegger's existentialism. Butlmann, says O'Leary, "remains an indispensable point of reference in the step back from an objectifying substance-based christology to one based on encounter" (emphasis added). So as to make no mistake about his meaning, he quotes Bultmann himself: "Jesus Christ is the Eschatological Event as the man Jesus of Nazareth and as the Word which resounds in the mouth of those who preach him.... Christ is everything that is asserted of him in so far as he is the Eschatological Event.... He is such -- indeed, to put it more exactly, he becomes such -- in the encounter -- when the Word which proclaims him meets with belief." (Rudolf Bultmann, Essays, Philosophical and Theological, London, p. 286). [In other words, belief constitutes Jesus!! Believing makes it so. Believing the earth is flat, flattens the earth -- at least, for you.]

O'Leary continues: "Through a nuanced hermeneutics, it may be possible to square this orientation with the claims of orthodoxy." How this squaring may be achieved through this nuancing is illustrated by O'Leary, first, with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, and, second, with respect to the doctrine of the Incarnation: "Orthodoxy as regards the Trinity is satisfied with the recognition of some kind of objective distinction in God between God, Word and Spirit .... But the elaborate superstructures built on this in speculative trinitarian theology need to be dismantled if the original core of dogma and its necessity are to be brought into view. Ortodoxy as regards the Incarnation is satisfied with the assertion that the final meaning of Jesus is inseparable from the divine Word. The personality of the human Jesus and the personality of the divine Word cannot be one and the same, since an infinite abyss separates human personality from what we project as divine personality. The identity of Jesus and the Word has to be rethought in terms of event and process, as a coincidence of the human historical adventure of Jesus with the revelational activity of God. To encounter the risen Christ in faith is to encounter the divine Word .... But since the divine nature cannot be mingled with the human or subject to change ... Jesus is free to be integrally human, with all that this entails." (p. 9, emphasis added)

"Nuanced hermeneutics," "event and process," "encounter with the divine Word ...." Before pulling up a chair to play poker at this Bultmannian table, one would be well-advised to examine the deck of cards O'Leary is dealing you with some care. You will immediately note the markings of their Heideggerian existentialist genealogy. What would be the yield of a rich Heideggerian biblical hermeneutical poker game such as O'Leary envisions? Hold on to your wallets my friends, and watch his eyes as he speaks: "When we recall Chalcedon to its biblical basis," he begins . . . [Note carefully the pious-sounding hubris here: an Ecumenical Council whose deliberations the Church holds to have been guided, like those of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:28), by the infallible direction of the Holy Spirit, is declared by O'Leary to be "recalled to its biblical basis," as though that God-breathed (GK. theopneustos) product of divine guidance (Holy Scripture) could contradict the decrees of the Ecumenical Council. There is nothing shocking in the least here for O'Leary, of course, because he does not believe for a moment that either the inscripturated words of the biblical writers or of the authors of conciliar decrees are anything more than a wax nose to be bent (or "nuanced") as he (O'Leary) sees fit. The "authority" of any of these written words is a convenience that may be appealed where they can be used to support his own agenda and ignored where they do not.] O'Leary's quotation, in its entirety, reads thus:
When we recall Chalcedon to its biblical basis, we find that it is no more than a footnote to the incarnational vision expressed in John 1:14. But that text may allow of a subtler and wider exegesis than classical dogma countenanced. "The word became flesh" may mean: "The divinity manifest in the creative Wisdom through which the world was made and in the Torah through which the holy community of Israel was assembled is now manifest in a more fleshly, historical form, in and across the entire career of Jesus." It is not Jesus as an artificially isolated individual, but Jesus in the entire extent of his connections with Jewish tradition and his ongoing pneumatic presence within the community as the "firstborn of many brethren" (Rom. 8:29), who is the enfleshment of God's creative, revelatory Word. God made Godself known in Israel .... It is not through a radical break with this tradition or some monstrous metaphysical paradox that God once again dwells among us in the warm fleshliness of Jesus, that is, . . . in the anamnesis of the Christian community. (p. 10, emphasis added)
[So what is important about Jesus Christ is no longer the "artificially isolated individual," the historical Jesus who lived and died, and, according to tradition, is also the Christ of faith who rose again for us. No, what is important is that which is distinguishable from this "artificially isolated individual" and historical Jesus, which is incarnate in the whole historical community of Israel -- something much larger than just one man, even the man Jesus Christ. What is larger and more important than this "artifically isolated individual" is the "pneumatic presence" of the Christ of faith, as distinguished from that isolated and relatively unimportant Jesus of history (whoever he was), because this is what is alive and living in the collective spirit of the community in its encounter with the living Word of God (which -- lovely! -- means just about whatever we want it to mean). And by no means should it be supposed that this Christ of faith continues to dwell among us through some sort of "monstrous metaphysical paradox" as, for instance, would be required in supposing that He was really bodily there in the consecration, the Blessed Sacrament, or in the Tabernacle. All that's so much "hocus pocus," really (which, of course, is a protestant corruption of the Latin words of consecration: Hoc est …corpus meum -- "This is my body"), and it's good that we modern or postmodern Catholics are done with such medieval superstitious nonsense. Thus O'Leary suggests here.]

What is new about the new Covenant, says O'Leary, is not the presence of the Word, which was living and active from the beginning, but rather the role of the flesh in a more intimate presence with us. Note carefully where O'Leary goes with this incarnational thought. Take, for instance, the statement: "The word became flesh." If we take this, he says, not as a metaphysical statement, but as a "resume of Christian experience," we can get beyond trying to pin the event down to "objective ontological privileges enjoyed by Jesus." [Follow this now!]"Rather than a once-for-all ontological conjunction, somewhat magically and fetishistically located at the moment of Christ's conception, can we not think of incarnation as the transformation of this human life, in all its extensions, into manifestation of God, just as in the Eucharist ...?" he asks. [Why does O'Leary favor understanding the incarnation as transformation of "this human life" of Jesus, analogously to the Eucharist, rather than as understood traditonally in the moment of His conception, which he dismisses as somewhat magical and fetishistic? The answer is that existential theologians cannot wrap their minds around the motion that the Christ of Faith might also be the Jesus of History. In the neo-Kantian tradition, they split off values from facts, the noumenal from the phenomenal; and since the Jesus of History, on their reckoning, is just a fallible human being whose bones are mouldering somewhere in Palestine, he surely cannot be identified as the Christ of Faith. Hence, if there is an Incarnation at all, on their view, it must be a "transformation" -- like the Eucharist -- without residue: the Incarnate Christ is a docetic Christ, a gnostic Christ a divine Christ with no human residue. This answer would seem provide yet another means for O'Leary and Company to pry loose their own dreamy vision of what constitutes divine "Incarnation" within a human community from the orthodox magisterial understanding of what Christ's incarnation means.] O'Leary continues:
"This more open-textured interpretation of incarnation attenuates the clash between the Christian claims and non-Christian religions, for the incarnation of God in Christ continues to unfold along the paths of historical, fleshly contingency as his Gospel and his pneumatic presence are redeployed in different cultures, and enter into dialogue with other historical apprehensions of divine presence in the world" (p. 11, emphasis added). [Here is what O'Leary really wants, you see -- for "the incarnation of Christ" to be translatable into "other historical apprehensions of divine presence in the world." Let me simplify: for Christians, there is J-e-s-u-s; for Buddhists, there is B-u-d-d-h-a. Either one is simply another name for what Christians have called the "Incarnation" -- viz., a culturally relative apprehension of the divine (whatever that really means) by yet another fallible people among the family of multicultural human peoples. To this extent O'Leary is Hegelian: there is no vantage point outside the river of history from which an absolute judgment about any historical "truth" may be rendered. To this extent O'Leary is Feuerbachean: anything we say about God and His truth is only by way of subjective projection. In short, to put the matter crassly: we're screwed. We're just a bunch of individuals sitting around talking to ourselves. There is no Word of God that has broken through the scrim of heaven to divulge any infallible truth to us. There is only "encounter" with the ineffably "divine," which is usually a touchy-feely way of pretending to know what you're talking about when you're talking nonsense and trying to pull the wool over the eyes of your audience before fleecing them.]

"Christian faith and devotion gravitates to Christ in a spontaneous and instinctive way, conferring on him the high titles which dogma subsequently interprets in a critical clarification. Is this gravitation a brute given, or can we map it as a geodesic within a relativistic interreligious space? Is the Incarnation a massive and unique event, the central reality of history and indeed of being? Or is it a cipher for a more subtle, historically textured disclosure process which is intimately linked with the broader web of human evolution, not as dominating that web, but as drawing its sense from it?" (p. 11, emphasis added)
[O'Leary poses these sentences in the interrogative form, perhaps thinking them less likely to get him tagged for the heretical nonsense they imply. But it's far too late for such subtleties here. It's altogether clear where his sympathies lie and where his heart is. He embraces "interreligious dialogue," not by virtue of any interest in evangelization or invitation to convert to Christ and to His Church in anything resembling the ways these have been intended by Catholic Tradition, but because he believes what historical Christianity offers is only one relative instance of what can be also found among many other religions. The Judeo-Christian tradition, whatever its claims to special revelation, has no monopoly on truth. His alternate sentence expresses O'Leary's own view more accurately: the Incarnation is "a cipher for a more subtle, historically textured disclosure process which is intimately linked with the broader web of human evolution." Here his thinking is of a piece with that of process theologians, such as John Cobb, Charles Hartschorne, and their mentor, Alfred North Whitehead. The metaphysic of "substance" is eschewed for a paradigm of "process" and "event," in which no-thing is finally identifiable because it is in flux. Who knows what new reality, new conception of the divine, new revelation, may lie ahead in the evolving species? The trick is to eschew the arrogant posture of certitude and remain "vulnerable," "open" to infinite possibilities. In truth, it may not so much be that the Buddhist is an "anonymous Christian," as Karl Rahner once suggested, groping in ignorance towards what is made explicit only in Christ; but rather, that the Christian, bowing before the Incarnation, is an "anonymous Buddhist," groping in ignorance toward the truth of Buddhism that he who knows does not speak and he who speaks does not know, and that all is ultimately empty (Sunyata), since everything is Mind and Mind is no-thing, and the self is no-thing, and there is ultimately no nirvana because there is no self to attain it and because nirvana is, after all, no-thing and therefore nothing to be attained.]

Part III of O'Leary's article is entitled "The Demystifying Role of the Historical Jesus." Here O'Leary argues that closing the gap between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History requires demythologizing the Incarnation. In view of the liberal protestant biblical scholarship on the historical Jesus over the past two centuries, of which O'Leary speaks with unqualified and uncritical approval, "The 'God incarnate' schema seems to impose an alien mythological framework on the eschatological prophet [he means Jesus] who announced the imminence of God's Kingdom ...." In other words, the historical Jesus yielded by historical-critical Bible scholarship (whatever its multitudinous recensions) seems so vividly and familiarly human that the "God incarnate" thing seems like a foreign interpolation -- perhaps by the later believing community, the Church, and its dogmatic fulminations. So how does O'Leary propose to "close the gap" between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith (and dogma)? "In order to close the gap a degree of demythologization of the incarnational tradition seems to be required," he says. Now think about the move O'Leary is proposing here: he says he wants to close the gap between the Christ of Faith and Jesus of History -- by doing what? By means of a degree of demythologization. What needs to be demythologized? The Christ of Faith, with its Incarnational dogma. How does this close the gap? There are at least two options at play here. First, it would seem that he might be proposing to close the gap by eliminating the Christ of Faith altogether, by collapsing the Christ of Faith into the Jesus of History. Such an option would close the gap by effectively eliminating it, by leaving nothing but the Jesus of History with nothing beyond it opening a distance to be spanned. But that would be the alternative of simply naturalistic atheism, and that is too simplistic for O'Leary, even though atheism's naturalistic assumptions utterly dominate the hermeneutic he embraces when confronted by the data for the Jesus of History. He does not consider himself an atheist, any more than other existentialist theologians such as Bultmann, Barth or Tillich would. Second, it would seem that O'Leary's only other option would be to re-open the gap again by some sleight-of-hand after having claimed to have "closed" it by demythologizing. How is this to be achieved? By his process of regression, or "stepping back," from Chalcedon to the primal "Christ event" "encountered" in "Revelation" itself (the quotation marks signal the technical existential significations of these term). Hear it from O'Leary himself: "The step back from Chalcedon to Paul and John has to be followed by a further step back to earlier understandings of Jesus, including his own self-understanding." What does this mean? It means that we shouldn't take the Church's word for who Jesus Christ is. We need to step back from the dogmatic Christ of creed and tradition and examine the living faith of Paul and John in their New Testament writings -- a step away from dogmatic definition and towards the living fluidity of subjectively experienced "event" and "process," in O'Leary's paradigm. But even this New Testament framework is too constrictive. O'Leary would have us "step back" to even earlier understandings of Jesus, "including his own self-understanding." And how is that to be retrieved? Through the expertise of the "scientific" historical-critical research of Bible scholars over the last 200 years as adjudicated by the paternal expertise of wise and knowledgeable ministers of theological truth such as O'Leary himself, it almost goes without saying.

But this is interesting: how does O'Leary propose to retrieve Jesus' own self-understanding, really? He criticizes Hans von Balthasar's opposition to critical exegesis in the latter's work, Kennt uns Jesus -- Kennen wir ihn? (Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him?, Ignatius Press), in which von Balthasar presents what O'Leary calls an "idealized" account of Christ's life "from which historical contingency is banished" and the whole Gospel is presented as a cosmic drama and divine work of art. "But it is precisely to the extent that the Gospels are literary works of art that we must suspect them of being false to the murkiness and accidentality of real life," objects O'Leary (p. 13, emphasis added). "But a theologia gloriae which misses the broken, all-too-human texture wherein we are given intimations -- 'hints and guesses' (Eliot) -- of the divine glory, or which stylizes this fleshly texture into a sacralized icon, undermines the reality of the divine assumption of humanity in Christ" (p. 13, emphasis added).

O'Leary quickly comes to the point: "Reference to the historical reality of Jesus before the post-Easter interpretations provides an invaluable critical resource over against the entire christological tradition, preventing it from balooning off into vacuous idealism." Setting aside the implication that the whole Catholic christological tradition has presumably "balooned off into vacuous idealism" in theologies of glory and incarnation, it may be wondered how "the historical reality of Jesus before the post-Easter interpretations" arose are to be accessed. Conceding the difficulty, O'Leary valiantly endeavors to make a virtue of necessity: "The very difficulty of such a reference, the uncertainty and obscurity of the enterprise, can [note the irony] free our faith from a narrow positivism of facts as much as from a blithe confidence in theological portraits of Jesus" (p. 14, emphasis added). So ignorance and uncertainty has the virtue of freeing faith from the cumbersome world of facts, as well as from blithe confidence in the post-Easter theological portraits given us by St. Paul and Catholic Tradition. One can't help but be impressed at O'Leary's ebullience over such sublime nonesense. Freedom from fact! Freedom from certainty! Freedom apparently to believe in anything!

He continues: "We can no longer rest uncritically in our imaginings of Jesus; we realize that they are a 'skillful means' (Buddhist upaya) suited to a given epoch and in need of constant readjustment." And what does O'Leary think "our imaginings of Jesus" are in which we must no longer rest uncritically? These, of course, are the portraits of Jesus handed down to us in Catholic Tradition -- in art, iconography, hymns, chant, children's stories, Sunday sermons, and writings, spanning everything from the portraits given in the New Testament itself to the ecumenical creeds, and defined dogmas of the Church. These, he says, are merely "skillful means," borrowing an expression from Buddhism for the half-truths and myths concerning Nirvana, Bodhisattva, Karma, and reincarnation, which are entertained only because expedient in furthering the Buddhist goal of achieving a psychological outlook that most effectively effects an overcoming of suffering. Likewise, O'Leary is suggesting that what he takes to be our traditional Catholic "half truths" and "myths" about Jesus are mere expediencies "suited to a given epoch" for the purpose of furthering the Christian goal, which he presumably takes, by some contorted reasoning, to be some sort of analogous psychological or emotional state of well-being.

But if he wants us to give up our mythical "imaginings of Jesus," O'Leary also understands that we cannot simply cease these imaginings by a return to the "bare facts about Jesus," for as he notes, "these come clothed in religious interpretation from the start ...." Thus, he writes: "Even the earliest interpretations of Jesus, by himself and his disciples, are subject to historical contextualization and critical reassessment. There was an abundance of mythic schemata to draw on, and their application to Jesus was a human interpretive activity, however much it may have been led by the Spirit .... Since Christology is so much a product of the mythic frameworks then available, the retrieval of its truth for today demands a radical reinterpretation" (pp. 14-16, emphasis added). So we can't separate myth from fact or fact from myth, and therefore we must radically reinterpret the "truth" of the Christ myth (whatever that may be) for today. By what canons of veracity and interpretation, he does not say, though it's clear that it can't be the "bare facts about Jesus," because he knows that positivistic ideal is humanly unattainable. So it must lie in some contemporary existentialist criteria O'Leary thinks is available to him and others, though he doesn't spell out what they might be.

O'Leary is quite certain, however, that a hermeneutical regression is in order: we can't take the Christology of official Church teaching (Chalcedon) at face value, so we must go back to Revelation, understood as encounter with the divine Word (whatever that means). We can't take the portraits of Christ in Paul and John at face value, so we must go back to the "Christ event" they herald and presuppose. We can't take the portraits of Jesus in the Gospels at face value, because Jesus' own self-understanding and his disciples' understanding of Jesus are so assimilated in "the abundance of mythic frameworks then available" that they require critical deconstruction before they can be rendered serviceable for our postmodern contemporaries. So "Jesus' own messianological notions, thus, must in turn be interpreted against the background of Jewish religion and culture in yet another step back.... But under pain of naïve biblicism we must recognize that these Jewish categories also need to be demythologized. This applies even to the ruling idea of Israel's election, which cannot really mean that God binds himself to the physical descendants of Abraham; rather, Israel is the people of the Torah, and the Covenant is centered on that. Israel's identity is not secured by literal obedience to the Mosaic Law or to its Rabbinic reinterpretation, but more largely by its spirit of Torah fidelity ...." (p. 15, emphasis added) So we can't expect to garner true insight into the "Christ event" even by examining the Old Testament Jewish categories of Israel as God's "Chosen People," or even in terms of their Torah or "literal obedience" to the Law of Moses, but more properly through insight into Israel's "spirit of Torah fidelity"! Hence, it's not the literal demands of the Law (Torah) that Jesus says he came to fulfill that are important here for understanding who Jesus is, but rather Israel's (and, by implication, Jesus') "spirit of Torah fidelity"! But how is a "spirit of Torah fidelity" to be identified apart from and understanding of what would constitute "literal obedience"? Doesn't Jesus himself repeatedly stress the importance of being a doer of the law, and not a hearer only, of demonstrating true discipleship by keeping (rather than merely hearing) his commandments?

But O'Leary is adamant: all reduces to myth, which must be demythologized. It will not do to substitute Hebrew myth for Hellenistic myth: "The obsolescence of Hellenistic myth does not entail any rejuvenation of Hebrew myth. The task of rearticulation in contemporary categories what the ancients envisaged in mythic terms is even more daunting in this case, for however refreshing we may findthe older biblical representations by contrast with stale Hellenistic notions, it is the latter that harmonize with the tracks of thought most familiar in Western culture.... A reappropriation of the Jewish mythical categories in an existential translation ... may challenge theology to break out of its Hellenistic rut, but it will also cut a swath through the over-abundance of mythological motifs in the Gospels" (p. 16). Myth, myth, everywhere, and not a drop to drink! Where is the thirsting soul to turn?

O'Leary concludes: "We begin to see that the historical, Jewish fleshly existence of Jesus is the locus of his unique revelatory and salvific status, and that it is a bridge rather than an obstacle as our tradition opens out to other major loci of divine disclosure, especially the Jewish and Buddhist traditions." The thirsting soul must probe beyond the facades of historical mythologies and mine the sources of Revelation itself in the warm hot tub of existential encounter. From that comfortable vantage point, the mythological infrastructure of Christian tradition -- from the "Jesus myth" of the New Testament to the Christological myths of Chalcedon -- need not be viewed as "obstacle," but, rather as a "bridge" (in Zarathustran fashion, echoing Nietzsche), since hot tub religion of existential encounter allows its hallucinating adherents to perceive "the divine" as wearing many masks. Let the carnival revelers of this Dance Macabre be reminded that the sun also rises at Dawn.

  • All pagination is from the printed internet essay (which may be vary with printer specifications), not from the published article in Archivio di Filosofia, vol. 67, 1999.
  • Anyone wishing to access an online copy of O'Leary's essay my do so from O'Leary.Org.
  • Blosser's critique of O'Leary's article was first published serially in the former's Blog, "Musings of a Pertinacious Papist" -- Part I (August 8, 2005), Part II (August 15, 2005), and Part III (November 28, 2005), with extensive comments by readers, including O'Leary.