Book Review from November 2000, THE AMERICAN CATHOLIC
By Gary MacEoin
Jesus Symbol of God By Roger Haight Orbis Books, 505 pages, $24, paper.
How to present Jesus Christ in terms meaningful in the postmodern world of the 21st century is the purpose of this book, which defines postmodernity as the fragmented cultures that characterize advanced industrialized societies and the understandings of reality attendant on contemporary life. The task requires reformulation of basic Christian beliefs in terms that are intelligible in our radically transformed culture.
The changes involved in inculturation of this message in the postmodern world are as radical as those needed to make a Jewish religion meaningful to the Greco-Roman world.
Haight views postmodernity, with its historical view amplified by discoveries in space and in the origins of life, in a positive light. He takes seriously the questions it asks. What are the grounds of the value of the person? What meaning does history have? What objects and goals merit our commitment to human freedom?
While the church accepts as orthodox many christologies that maintain a tension between the humanity and the divinity of Christ, Haight argues that increased historical consciousness makes a christology beginning from above highly problematic. For Christianity, Jesus is the central mediation of God in history. The scriptures and the church constitute a “second-order mediation of God’s revelation whose original source was Jesus.”
This is perhaps the point that comes across most emphatically in a book that covers a wide spectrum of theological thought. Existentially, our search for God must start with the human person, Jesus of Nazareth. Christology in the second half of the twentieth century has moved away from christology from above, away from placing a doctrine or theology of the trinity at the source of christology. If we want to know God, we must know Jesus of Nazareth, because—in the words of Juan Luis Segundo—“God is like Jesus.”
The many theories about the universality of the role of Jesus Christ in salvation are discussed at length. In the postmodern world, Haight says, we have become more open to other religions because more people recognize pluralism as part of the historical condition of human existence. The view that God could save only through Jesus, or that only Christians are saved, is no longer widely held. Instead, the dominant theology of the mainline churches today holds that Jesus causes the salvation of all, in other words, that outside the church one could find “anonymous Christians.”
Haight would, however, go further. He proposes the thesis that “the normativity of Jesus does not exclude a positive appraisal of religious pluralism, and that Christians may regard other world religions as true, in the sense that they are mediations of God’s salvation.” Indeed, he asserts, other religions are something positive, not something to be overcome, but rather agents of God’s salvation. This judgment does not ratify particular aspects of any specific religion. These Christians must assess Christians dialogically according to the norms of Jesus of Nazareth, even as Christian institutions are also critically examined by Christians and by others in dialogue.
The need for this dialogue, Haight argues, is increased by the reality that the world today has not only grown more interdependent but is marked by greater social human dislocation, poverty, social oppression, and many forms of dehumanization. He sees liberation theology, with its stress on Jesus as prophet committed to making the reign of God a reality, as a project meaningful to both Christians and many others in the concrete circumstances of today’s world.
Feminist readers will appreciate the author’s avoidance of pronouns that would identify God as masculine, a practice that slips up only once (p. 444) where the human becomes “it.” The book is not easy reading, due in part to the nature of the subject, but in part also to a diffuse style that would have benefited from heavy editing. And there are not a few technical or esoteric words, such as eisegesis, that force the reader to the dictionary. Small blemishes these in a profoundly important work.
Gary MacEoin, a scholar-journalist with special expertise on Latin America, is the author of some 30 books, most recently The Future of the Papacy (Orbis).