The God Who Can Save Us

A Theological Journeyby By Ghislain Lafont, O.S.B.Translated by John J. Burkhard, O.F.M. Conv.Liturgical Press. 151p $15.95 (paperback)
Ghislain Lafont is a Benedictine monk of la Pierre-qui-Vire in France and formerly professor of theology at the Ateneo Sant’ Anselmo in Rome. Born in 1928, he has had a long theological career in Europe but has received little attention in the United States. A Theological Journey (Promenade en Théologie) is only the third of his 10 books to appear in English translation. Described by its author as a “short, synthetic initiation,” the book has a deceptively simple appearance. Although promenade in French suggests a leisurely stroll, and the presence early in the book of definitions of such basic terms as “council” and “heresy” reinforces that impression, the book is more like a strenuous hike on a mountain trail, and the reader receives no help when it comes to “onto-theology” and “constitutive rupture.”

A Theological Journey begins from Martin Heidegger’s saying, “Only a god can save us.” Christian faith responds to the perennial human need for salvation—how to escape or transcend “all-embracing evil” by finding meaning in suffering. It answers that the god who can save us is “the God who saved Jesus Christ from the dead.” Contemporary theologians have tended to start from either the question or the answer, with the liberal tradition (e.g., Paul Tillich) beginning from human experience while the neo-orthodox (e.g., Karl Barth) and the post-liberals (most recently Robert Barron) start with Christian revelation. Lafont begins with both the human search for salvation and the death and resurrection of Christ, holding the two starting points in a creative tension.

Sometimes it is helpful in reading a difficult book to start with its index. Here the author cited most often is Thomas Aquinas, and the modern author cited most often is G. W. F. Hegel (who is, I think, the influence Lafont feels most strongly). In the book’s first part, a survey of the history of Christian theology, Aquinas appears as the culmination of ancient and medieval theology, working out the implications of Christian revelation in terms of a stable, harmonious world, but at some cost to human freedom and the historical dimension of salvation. Modernity, which Lafont dates from the early 14th century, shifts the focus from timeless truth to human autonomy and history. Initially, modernity saw humanity as both “triumphant” and “wretched”—“triumphant” in Enlightenment philosophy that celebrated human advances in science, technology, the arts and statecraft, but “wretched” as Protestant thought emphasized the uselessness of our works and awareness grew of the great evils that human freedom brought about. Catholic thought, meanwhile, lacked creativity and did not so much respond theologically to the questions of modernity as erect “a monument of doctrine” against them.


It was Hegel, at once theologian and philosopher, who integrated the triumph and the wretchedness. His dialectic, in which each thing finds its identity only through its negation and the consequent “emergence of a new state of affairs that both addresses and transforms the old state of affairs,” made possible the recovery of “the negative element in Christian revelation—the cross of Christ.” Subsequent Christian theology, Lafont believes, has been dominated by the image of the cross, considered as the “kenosis or self-emptying” of God. “Dialectical modernity,” however, tends (in Hegel’s Absolute Spirit and Marx’s classless society) toward an equilibrium in which history is no longer “open to new possibilities.” Hence it is perceived by its successor, “critical modernity” (what others call “postmodernity”), as “death-dealing.”

In the second part of the book, titled “Theology in Outline,” Lafont proposes a way forward that both affirms freedom and offers hope in the face of “the suffocating power of evil that...neither Luther nor Hegel were able to exorcise from the world.” Central to his approach is a distinction between “tragedy” (tragédie) and “drama” (drame). For Lafont, tragédie is the inevitable suffering that results when freedom must limit itself in order to enter into relationship and community. Drame refers to human failure—the refusal to enter into communion, the affirmation of the self at the expense of the other—and the consequences of that failure. This resists rendering in English, in which tragedy is a kind of drama, not something to be contrasted with drama. In French, however, le drame can refer to a genre that is distinct from both tragedy and comedy and is characterized by suspense and calamity.

The translator, John J. Burkhard, expresses Lafont’s contrast as between “tragedy” and “tragic misfortune,” but the latter is misleading. “Misfortune” happens to us, while drame is of our own making. (A French speaker whom I consulted sent me to a Web site in French on the drame of Lindsay Lohan’s life. In English, too, we would call it “drama,” and we would regard it as a result not of some misfortune but of Lohan’s own choices and actions.) So I am going to render drame as “drama.”

Lafont’s outline of theology is contained in two chapters, corresponding to the two “languages,” or thought-frameworks, of history on the one hand and of creation and being on the other. Contrary to Hegel, Lafont believes these cannot be integrated into a single system. As in the physics of light, we have to set particle-language and wave-language side by side without synthesis, so in general, “The human spirit cannot in any domain arrive at discourse that is both true and exclusively one.”

In keeping with modern thought, and with biblical thought as well, he begins with history, the meaning of which is revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ. Finite human freedom, Lafont says, cannot coexist with other freedom, either human or divine, without the “tragedy” of renouncing itself, dying to itself, in order to allow the other to be. The encounter of freedoms generates a conflict that is beneficial, in that it opens a space for love. But human history is equally the story of reason acting without love, and this causes the “drama” of sin. The cross of Christ reveals that the meaning of death is “the self-less invocation of God by humanity,” and the resurrection is “the pure invocation of humanity by God.” “Drama” is transformed into the tragedy of love.

History read in the light of Christ reveals that “God is love”: God can only be God in the complete giving of self. This giving is internal to God—the eternal self-giving that constitutes the “immanent Trinity” (the Trinity as it is in itself) —but revealed in the Incarnation of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit (the “Trinity of the economy of salvation”). Admonishing caution in the use of language about God, Lafont is leery of the tendency to transpose language about the self-emptying and suffering of Christ into talk about the suffering of God (Lafont mentions no living theologians by name, but Jürgen Moltmann comes to mind). In God, Lafont says, there is neither the tragedy of finitude nor the “drama” of sin.

Against the current of postmodern theology, Lafont holds that there is a place for theological speculation on God and creation—the more static approach that is characteristic of ancient and medieval thought—although it “must be inscribed at the center of reflection on time and covenant.” “God does not exist apart from or before the gift,” but even so we may say—as postmodern theologians are often unwilling to say—that God “is.” And what God imparts in creation is a “true though limited participation” in God’s self-gift. If it were not thought of in terms of creation, finitude would be something evil. Metaphysical theology, then, “far from obscuring the meaning of history, provide[s] the criteria for reflecting on it and living it.”

In the preceding paragraphs, I have surveyed Lafont’s trail as if from the air, overlooking the mountainside life that gives the hike much of its interest. I have passed over the trail spurs that lead into ecclesiology, liturgy, ethics and globalization. There is much in this short book that rewards reading and re-reading. My hope is that the publication of A Theological Journey will stimulate American theologians to engage with this challenging and too-little-known European thinker.


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