Sunday, 3 June 2007

Basil Meeking | Thursday, 31 May 2007 Fighting back

After a slew of books attacking Christianity by champions of atheism, the head of the Catholic Church has written a best-selling biography of Jesus of Nazareth which defends his perennial relevance.

Character assassination is almost a signature of the 21st century in business, in the media, in public life. Of course it could be argued that most of us are liable to it for crimes, sins, or just plain mistakes. It has gone on for apparently lofty motives among theologians for centuries: no hatred like odium theologicum.

With renewed venom these days, God has become a victim. All religion is under the gun, certainly monotheism, Christianity above all, and the Catholic Church is always the prime target. It goes back a long time. Already in the New Testament St Paul had to lament those "who set themselves up in rivalry against the truth". There were plenty of attacks on the Christian community from outside, but what really disturbed Paul was the subversion from within -- harder to take and more difficult to deal with. It is rather like that still. The diatribes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, of Dan Brown and Christopher Hitchens are difficult enough but, in the end, their own animosity and plain lack of logic or respect for truth shows them up as doubtful witnesses to the cause of atheism and agnosticism.

The diatribes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, of Dan Brown and Christopher Hitchens are difficult enough but, in the end, their own animosity and plain lack of logic or respect for truth shows them up as doubtful witnesses to the cause of atheism and agnosticism.

Much more damaging have been the Trojan horses within the household of the faith. At a time when the Church exhorts Catholics to ecumenical relations, it can be a trial to try to dialogue with those who do not share faith in basic Christian teachings. Far more difficult are the theologians and historians and exegetes and teachers of "spirituality" who do a reduction job on God, on Jesus Christ, on the Church, from within. It is not easy to know how to correct their errors and protect the unsuspecting from them. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, though he had entered the theological lists as an accredited liberal, encountered more than enough invective from former colleagues within the Church when, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he tried to uphold orthodox Catholic teaching and practice.

A weighty work of scholarship

Ever resourceful, Pope Benedict XVI, no less dedicated to right belief and right practice, with the book Jesus of Nazareth, has metaphorically stepped off Peter's Chair to stand on an even field to speak a graceful word of witness to the truth to all who will listen. His avowed aim is to attract unbelievers, uncertain Christians, and errant Catholics to join him in the Church in confessing with St Peter, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God".

Jesus of Nazareth is not in the first place devotional reading but a closely argued exposition written in a spirit of faith with the hope of eliciting rational reflection. But the thoughtful reader may well be led to prayer as well. To read the book is to experience the highly cultivated thinking of a clear and sharp mind, one that can present theological questions and insights in contemporary style. It abuses no one but is the civilised discourse that has its source in the Catholic culture of Europe.

Anyone who has followed Benedict's public utterances over the past couple of years will observe that he has a programme which this book furthers. It is, for instance, stated in his address to the recent assembly of Italian bishops where he insists that: "Jesus Christ, the human face of God, is our true and only Saviour, he whom the human heart longs for, the only answer to all the challenges of the age." His concern in this book is to lead the reader through the events of the first part of the public life of Jesus and to give a theological interpretation of it that might lead one to realise: this is God.

Always in the back of the Pope's mind is awareness of the loss of belief in God, especially in the West. He faces it with deep pastoral care by setting out to show that the Bible presents credibly Jesus, the man through whom God is made visible. Much of the book is elaborating on Jesus' claim: "He who sees me sees the Father". The person who becomes Jesus' disciple walks with him and is thus caught up with him in communion with God. At its deepest level the book is about God's actual entry into history in Jesus and the primacy of God for authentic human existence.

Jesus of history; Christ of faith

There is no disjunction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith: "it is of the essence of Biblical faith to be about real historical events". So the book goes systematically through the life of Jesus beginning with his baptism in the Jordan, one of those "precise datable historical events having the full weight that real historical happenings have", not just a "vocational experience" as liberal scholarship often wants it to be, but the beginning of Jesus' world-transforming struggle". It is the struggle that goes on in the temptations of Jesus, where the basic temptation is seen to be that of "pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary... The God-question is the fundamental question and it sets us down right at the crossroads of human existence".

The devil wants Jesus to use his power to bring about a better world, providing bread for all. Jesus shows that "anyone who claims to establish the perfect world is the willing dupe of Satan and plays the world right into his hands." Jesus offers instead a new world, not one brought about by rational planning, which has its place but which is limited and temporary. He opens up the possibility of the world of God who changes people's hearts, whose power to bring about a new world is the humble self-sacrificing love he, the Son of God, manifests.

If Jesus came to establish the Kingdom of God, is not the priority task of Christians in the world to work for justice and peace and the conservation of creation? However, experience raises a question. Neither Marxism not capitalism have brought about that Kingdom in any recognisable form. In fact the Kingdom is the rule of God, a life-shaping power that changes hearts and lives. Because Jesus is God, his teaching shows us in a way that goes beyond human vision or power how the world is made new in each generation.

The Sermon on the Mount

The heart of Pope Benedict's book is the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount. Interestingly, the recently deceased US novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a determined non-religious humanist, maintained that the Sermon on the Mount ought to be hung on the walls of American court rooms. In the Sermon, the Pope show Jesus as the new Moses, giving the new law of God, the new Torah, addressed not just to the people of Israel but to the whole world of every age. He shows how it demands a discipleship that can be lived only by following Jesus. From this, the message and person of Jesus stands out in new relief.

Benedict takes up the challenge, given by his good friend of many years, Rabbi Jacob Neusner, in his book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. It is a respectful dispute between this believing Jew and the teachings of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Pope acknowledges that it gave him a "better understanding of the authentic Jewishness and the mystery of Jesus".

Neusner, after struggling with the words of the Sermon and greatly troubled by the greatness and purity of what Jesus says, finally turns away. He cannot follow Jesus because he is identifying himself with God; he claims to speak with the authority of God; his words are the words of the living God spoken by the Son of God. This distinguished Jewish scholar of Christian origins finds Jesus' claim to be God clearly at the heart of the Gospel.

The Beatitudes as biography

The Pope traces the connections between the several Beatitudes which are central to the Sermon on the Mount, shedding new light on their application to human life in the contemporary situation. These Beatitudes do not at all replace the Ten Commandments, but rather show the spirit in which they are to be understood and observed. They relate directly to the situation of believers in the world; they "express the meaning of discipleship" in the light of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus yet to come.

In fact, says the Pope, they give "a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure. He is the one who is meek, pure of heart, the peacemaker, the one who suffers for God's sake. In him we see "the zone of response to God's love, the zone of obedience and freedom". This gives him the right to present God's will for the human family; not to set up a theocracy but to show how the Torah, the commandments of God, are to be used to bring about justice and peace. Jesus enables fulfilment of the Law "by assigning reason its sphere of responsibility for acting in history". The perspective established by Jesus means that "the social commandments are theological commandments and the theological commandments have a social character -- love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable."

The Sermon on the Mount shows that "being human is essentially about relationship with God". Integral to this relationship is the speaking and listening to God which is prayer. Jesus gave the Lord's Prayer, the prayer of the community and of the believer. Jesus of Nazareth is worthwhile if only for the light it throws on the meaning of the Our Father and the nature of prayer. It is the prayer of Jesus, the prayer to be said with him as he leads us from the primacy of God to the right way of being human. It shows us from heaven what we human begins can and should be like.

The chapter on the message of the parables leads us deeper into the heart of Jesus' preaching as the Pope expounds the three parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Again the genius of Benedict is to elicit fresh theological understanding and the connection to the human situation with its spiritual trials and the need of the world for truth, love and freedom. In the end it is the need for God and Jesus shows himself as God's great sign and means of salvation. In the parables Jesus is showing us the God who acts, who intervenes in our lives and who lays claim to the whole of our humanity. Through the Cross he shows us the ultimate meaning of the parables.

John's gospel and historical truth

The last three chapters of the book are among those written after Benedict became Pope. That may explain why they do not seem to have the same immediacy in applying the Biblical message to the human situation. Yet the chapter on St John's Gospel makes important points as when a good case is made for the Johannine source of the Gospel, its historical credibility and its correct rendition of the substance of Jesus' discourses without minimising the historical and exegetical questions that have to be answered. The Pope persuades us that what we have in this gospel is neither a stenographer's transcript of Jesus' words and deeds but an account that respects historical events. It leads to the conclusion that Jesus is a man of flesh and blood, a fully real part of history and truly the Son of God.

The final chapter, "Jesus Declares His Identity", sets out the conclusion to which the whole book is building up. When Jesus says, "I Am", he is saying that in him the mystery of the one God is personally present; he can give us life because he gives us God, because he is the Son.

When he points out that the Scripture experts of Jesus' day, those professionally concerned with the sacred writings, do not recognise Jesus for what he is because they are too taken up with the intricacies of their detailed knowledge, Benedict has an eye to the present. He does not hesitate to uphold the place of historical criticism in Biblical exegesis, while being equally firm about its limits and the excesses which have led some exegetes to opinions that "destroy the figure of Jesus and dismantle faith".

This is a relief. For too long the exegetical establishment, not least in the Catholic Church, has seemed unassailable. Already for some time, numbers of other Christian scholars have been admitting that the historical-critical method had overplayed its hand, claiming too much for itself. Had Catholic exegetes heeded their distinguished colleague, the late Father Raymond Brown, 20 years ago, they would not now need to be receiving the polite but edged criticism of Joseph Ratzinger in this book. Father Brown had warned that exegetes without an adequate theological formation risked becoming merely technicians of exegesis, with consequent damage to the truth of the texts they were studying.

The Bible is a book built on faith; it is always the book of the Church; it must be read in the Church, in the Tradition, with due account taken of the spiritual sense and with the help of historical criticism. With this new book, Jesus of Nazareth, that is the way Pope Benedict is teaching us to read it.

Basil Meeking is Bishop Emeritus of Christchurch. For 18 years he was a staff member of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in Rome with responsibility for Catholic relations with the World Couuncil of Churches among other things; he is still involved with one of the international ecumenical dialogues. Since retirement he did some work with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Of recent years he has been involved in the annual Byrd Festival of the Cantores in Ecclesia in Portland, Oregon.


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