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Christopher PramukOctober 28, 2022
Mosaic of St. John the Theologian above the entrance to the Cave of the Apocalypse on Patmos, Greece (iStock)

In his classic 1949 book Jesus and the Disinherited, the African American preacher, mystic and theologian Howard Thurman sets out a pattern for reflection on the significance of Jesus, especially for those in society “with their backs against the wall,” that, to my mind, remains unsurpassed.

The Nature of Theologyby Roger Haight

Orbis Books
184p  $27

Thurman opens the book by relating a life-altering conversation he had with a devout Hindu man while sojourning in India. The man asked Thurman how he, a Black man, could justify adhering to Christianity, a religion that for so long had been used to subjugate and deny the dignity of African Americans, and indeed all “the darker peoples of the earth.” The abrupt sincerity of the question set the two men to talking for many hours. Jesus and the Disinherited represents Thurman’s attempt to respond in a more systematic way to the man’s challenge. “What does the religion of Jesus offer to those in society who stand with their backs against the wall?”

Haight identifies the three cultural challenges to Christian faith and theology in our times 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 Jesus’ life and ministry. To understand Jesus, insists Thurman, we must begin with the fact that Jesus was “body and soul” a Jew, one of society’s “disinherited,” holding no social status or protection under Roman occupation. In the final chapter on “Love,” Thurman suggests that Jesus’ witness to love of neighbor in the face of oppression and even physical death represents the apogee of spiritual freedom for those with their backs against the wall.

Yet Thurman does not attempt to address the “love ethic of Jesus” before he lays out, in the book’s middle three chapters, the deep and often intractable obstacles to love, what he calls the three “Hounds of Hell” that overshadow the lives of the disinherited: fear, deception and hate. One cannot take Jesus’ love commandment seriously until one first confronts the powers of fear, deception and hate as positive means of survival among the disinherited.

Thurman’s analysis of Jesus and why the Gospel remains a source of liberating good news, above all for the oppressed, is a master class in Christian apologetics. It remains unsurpassed 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 having to do with survival in the face of societal oppression.

The Jesuit theologian Roger Haight’s latest book, The Nature of Theology, is likewise a master class in Christian apologetics, for reasons both similar and dissimilar to Thurman’s approach in Jesus and the Disinherited. Not unlike the Hindu who challenges Thurman to justify his faith in Jesus, Haight’s study rises from pointed questions put to the believer, and thus to anyone attempting to do theology responsibly, by the prevailing culture of our times, questions that cannot be ignored or wished away.

How might the contours of Christianity’s central beliefs be articulated in fresh ways that find purchase in the imaginations of contemporary seekers?

If Thurman’s book identifies the chief obstacles to love as fear, deception and hate, Haight identifies the three cultural challenges to Christian faith and theology in our times as metaphysical skepticism, relativism and ontic pessimism. These “filters of perception” are ever-present “as questions or suspicions, as doubts or opinions, that resonate in culture and within the critical theologian.” Though Haight does not ascribe to these forces the rhetorical, life-or-death intensity of Thurman’s three “Hounds of Hell,” each represents a serious challenge to a holistic, all-encompassing Christian way of seeing, judging and acting in the world. And like Thurman’s hounds, they arise as strategies for survival from within a horizon of immense human and planetary suffering, alongside a scientific picture of nature and an infinitely receding cosmos that seems indifferent to human beings.

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

The climactic chapters of Haight’s book attempt to meet this question with a positive, though critically informed, yes. How might the contours of Christianity’s central beliefs—God as creator, Jesus Christ as mediator, the Holy Spirit as God who sustains all things and empowers human freedom for love—be articulated in fresh ways that find purchase in the imaginations of contemporary seekers?

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

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

How, then, to articulate both the interior and outward-facing dynamism of faith before the mystery of God? And how to do so in ways that open up the narrative of salvation as it unfolds not “up there” or “out there”—as a drama that takes place primarily, so to speak, between God and God—but rather as a drama that can be recognized in the very contours of human life and indeed the whole of material creation, life coming into its own full and free participation in the eternal life story of God? The final third of the book takes up this task with an exploration of the central symbols of Christian belief, building from images and ideas that Haight has developed in his previous landmark works in spirituality (Spirituality Seeking Theology; Christian Spirituality for Seekers) and systematic theology (Faith and Evolution; Jesus Symbol of God).

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

Not incidentally, for Haight no less than for Thurman, the revelatory encounter with God for the Christian unfolds not first or foremost in assent to doctrines but in the personal encounter with a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jew of Palestine, as his life and teachings unfold in the Gospels. “When someone asks, ‘What is God like?’ the Christian responds, “God is like Jesus.”

Not everyone will agree with Haight’s interpretation of the core beliefs of Christianity. His emphasis on the symbol “God as Spirit,” for example, and development of a thoroughgoing Spirit Christology in which God’s presence to Jesus is qualitatively no different than God’s presence to all human beings and within all material creation, has been a much-debated aspect of his work for decades. Yet few theologians have taken so seriously the most pointed questions of our contemporaries, questions that, at the end of the day, are really our own, as followers of Christ who live under the shadow of skepticism, unjust suffering and looming despair.

It is said that Martin Luther King Jr. often carried a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited in his pocket, so important was the book to 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 pocket. While he describes the book as an introduction to theology that “directs the attention of a critical intellect to the questions that people are actually asking,” Haight’s rhetorical style is more suited to an audience found in a seminary or graduate theology classroom than to participants in public protest or nonviolent civil resistance in the streets.

Nevertheless, the fundamental pattern and liberating thrust of Haight’s inquiry into the nature of theology is akin to Thurman’s classic in striking ways. What are we doing 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, who liberates human freedom and provides the courage to help realize and defend God’s dream for humanity. For Haight’s contributions in 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 very grateful.

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