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Mapping the Different Approaches

Readers will likely know that Jesus studies and Christology, like other fields of study, exist within an intense conflict of approaches, stemming from the social and historical vectors noted in the first chapter.  Those interested might benefit from the following map.  Like all maps, it leaves much out; too much detail, and the roadways will not appear.  Since our participative approach works from a certain commitment to how faith and reason are related, and even from a certain understanding of what they are, our map will roughly chart various options one might take to these.

Writers involved in our areas of thought may opt for some kind of working relationship between faith and reason, although a rather wide spread exists as to just how faith and reason might be understood.  On the other hand, they may think that legitimate inquiry in our area is only an issue of either faith or reason, understood obviously in a certain way.  We can then suggest the following grid:

reason only –> (3) some combination of faith and reason <– (2) faith only

In terms of the grid, the reason-only (1) and faith-only (2) perspectives are on the outer edges.  They are “extreme,” so to speak, in that sense, and deliberately so.  The central position (3) opts for the combination.  The arrows indicate that the lines between these options are leaky, which should become evident as we move along.  My impression is that combinative approaches have been more common in the historical tradition, and remain so, but I am not aware of careful sociological studies of the matter, so I may be mistaken.

 Reason Only

Traditionally, whether in the area of religion and theology or beyond it, thinkers opting only for reason might be called “rationalists.”  But that seems rather unfair, for there is much diversity in this camp as to just what constitutes reason, ranging from a rather narrow view that only data based on sense experience counts as reasonable on to a wider view allowing for insights stemming from experience more broadly interpreted (moral, aesthetic, mathematical, even religious).  “Faith” for these reason-only types takes one beyond what is reasonably knowable, and so faith’s alleged insights might be viewed more negatively as dangerous or at least unreasonable, or perhaps more neutrally as simply matters of personal taste.  Reason, however understood, is thought to exist in a faith-free zone, and can get along quite well without it when all is said and done.  It seems fair to suggest that at least the western form of modernity has generated a good number of thinkers who hold that the reasonable should be faith-free in some meaningful sense.  We can always debate examples, a fact which illustrates the limitations of maps like the one I am sketching here.  Reality is always more complex.  In any case, I think Hegel would be a fair example of the reason-only type in religion and beyond, but reason-only in a wider, more than sense experience view.  For more narrow experience examples of reason-only types on matters religious, perhaps the philosopher Bertrand Russell or the scientists Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins.

Are there reason-only types in the area of Jesus studies and Christology?  It would seem so.  A good historical example for us U. S. Americans would be Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to rewrite the Gospels in a “reasonable” way, which in his case meant eliminating just about anything not “provable” according to the scientific standards of the Enlightenment.[1]  The Enlightenment generated several well-known attempts to rewrite the Gospels along “rational” lines (e.g., Herman S. Reimarus, D. F. Strauss), and late modernity did too (e.g., Freudian Erich Fromm and Marxist interpretations).  The trend continues among some of the more severely reason-only types of the celebrated Jesus Seminar today.[2]

Faith Only

Faith-only types hold that their insights and convictions stem from faith, understanding “faith” sometimes rather broadly as any anthropological form of trust (or “belief”), or more narrowly as a religious trust, Judaic, Muslim, or Christian trust, etc.  These types may employ reason as an instrument (or “tool”) of their faith, for some kind of thinking and understanding cannot be avoided, but the only valid source of truth is faith-conviction.  Quite apart from currents in the culture at large inclining in this direction (those radically skeptical of reason’s claims), in the area of Christian thought and Jesus studies the goal is a form of Christian faith as uncontaminated as possible by the claims of human reason.  Usually this means that one believes one is privy to a divine revelation that does not need to be tested against the bar of human reason.

Typically in grids like this one the third century Christian writer Tertullian is trotted out as the classical example of the fideist (the shortened term for the faith-only type).  “What has Athens [i.e., reason] to do with Jerusalem [i.e., faith]?  What harmony can there be between the [philosophical] Academy and the Church?”  It is hard to know how to read him, for perhaps he represents a young Christian Church growing surer of itself against the narrowness of perspective of the surrounding cultural elites.  When he writes, “The Son of God died; it must needs be believed because it is absurd . . . ,” does he mean that the more insulting to the claims of reason beliefs are, the more credible they are?  Or does he more modestly mean that believing in a Savior condemned to die on a cross is something of a “scandal” to our usual way of thinking of saviors?[3]

Today rather typically one hears the charge of “fundamentalist” being hurled at Christians who are not particularly bothered by the need to demonstrate the reasonableness of their faith convictions.  Perhaps at the extreme edge these might well be inclined to think that the more “irrational” one’s faith convictions seem, the more credible they are (because thus thought to be God’s gift, and God is way beyond our feeble reason).  Thus, for example, a virgin birth and a bodily resurrection are, precisely because they seem to assault human reason’s capacity to verify, credibly divine.  We can surmise that a culture loaded with reason-only types will likely generate in reaction a response from faith-only types.  Something as emotionally arid and unsatisfying as reason-only, particularly when it is a narrow sense-empiricism, is calculated to generate the counterposition of faith-only.[4]

Combinative Approaches

Although contestable, the author holds that combinative approaches are more common, likely because human experience leads us in that direction.  A more soft combinative approach would be that which holds that some forms of collaboration between faith and reason can at times be mutually beneficial, both on the wider level of reality as a whole, and certainly in the areas of religion and theology.  For example, there are times when we need to rely upon (trust) the testimony of the historical record or of the community of scientists, if we are to make much progress in historical or scientific studies.  Or in specifically Christian studies, the insights derived from revelation regarding the incarnation or the trinity, for example, might receive some helpful elucidation from insights derived from human reason.  The area of science and religion is another fruitful one, in which much mutual collaboration can occur.  Some Big Bang theories of cosmology certainly seem congenial to, even if they do not prove, some Christian doctrines of creation.  The anthropic principle, in either its hard or soft form, seems to be congenial with the Christian notion of a cosmos planned and guided by a benevolent deity.  Moving into the political, the Christian teaching about the God-given dignity of the human person made in God’s image is congenial with the western human rights tradition.

But the congeniality can be more critical, in the sense that insights derived from one side can alter and refine the insights from the other.  The growing insight into human historicity can cause Christian scholars to take more seriously and appreciatively the historical fabric of the Bible and Jesus’ own historical and cultural formation, not to mention that of the doctrinal teaching of the various Christian churches.  The numerous quests for the historical Jesus are a good example of how historical science can impact and broaden Jesus studies.  We have noted in the first chapter the various challenges which can broaden our understanding of the claims of faith, from modernity on to postmodernity.  But openness counsels that the challenge comes from the side of religion as well.  Openness to the divine Ground is for many the sine qua non of avoiding the fall into rationalistic hubris or premature closure in one’s viewpoints, for example.

Robert Monk and Joseph Stamey suggested that Thomas Aquinas would be a representative of this more soft form of combinative thinking in theology.  He employs the insights of Aristotle to help him think through the traditional teachings of Christian doctrine.  He would, however, transform them to some extent as well.  Coming to our more contemporary context, one might think of theologians drawing upon U. S. American process philosophy, or the American pragmatic philosophical tradition, or the ever influential European continental philosophy, to name a few.

The “harder” form of combinative thinking is that which keeps the relationship between faith and reason more tight and intrinsic, holding that on a deeper level, inasmuch as we can pierce through to it by way of common sense and various forms of quasi-phenomenological analysis, faith at least in the broad sense as the fidelity to reality’s appeal, which is itself a form of trust in the meaningfulness of reality, is the ground of our questioning reasoning.  The word “ground,” taken from the German mystical writers (Grund), means originating and ever present sustaining and drawing source.  We question and so find our reasoning capacities aroused because we are drawn to do so by the attractiveness of reality.  Reality exhibits a drawing power.  To put it in Aristotle’s terms, reality displays a final cause, and the final cause is not off in the distance, but present within the seeker, as source, sustainer, and lurer.  Voegelin once suggested that our attunement toward this Ground was neither an argument nor the result of an argument, but the presupposition for being able to enter into any argument at all.[5]

Plato, at least on some readings, seems a representative example of this.  His exploration of the questioning mind, if we think of the celebrated cave parable of the Republic, 7, or of the “Ladder of Ascent” spoken of by Diotima in the Symposium, roots the philosophical endeavor in an originating mystical experience of the Ground.  The cave in which we find ourselves opens out onto the light of the sun, “the cause for all things of all that is right and beautiful, giving birth in the visible world to light, and the author of light and itself in the intelligible world being the authentic source of truth and reason, and that anyone who is to act wisely in private or public must have caught sight of this … their souls ever feel the upward urge and the yearning for that sojourn above.”  Diotima, for her part, says “every lovely thing partakes of [the beautiful],” which [subsists] of itself and by itself in an eternal openness.”  While we mount “the heavenly ladder” on our way to it, note that we are already participating in it, and upon reaching it, we become “the friend of god.”[6]

Plato then teaches that all our questioning and reasoning emerges from a primordial participation in the divine Beauty.  The category of Beauty is suggestive, for it evokes the experience of being caught up outside ourselves in the beautiful reality, the ecstasy which is our side of the Other drawing us.  Art of all kinds, for example, immediately becomes relevant as a source of such ecstasy and potential religious experience and insight.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, for example, has made much of aesthetic experience, along with the corresponding experience of human love, as an analogy for the Christian experience of grace, which is a similar intersection between divine drawing and human response.[7]   Some earlier followers of Thomas Aquinas also sought to rehabilitate an appreciation for his “participation metaphysics of essence and existence,” which was able to combine Plato’s insight into participation in the divine Ground with Aristotle’s stress upon the role of our senses in coming to know.[8]  The Basque philosopher-theologian Xavier Zubiri, for example, was indicating this when he spoke of the need in our time to study more deeply how “St. Thomas affirms that ‘knowing God in a certain confused and general way is something naturally implanted . . . but this is not to know simpliciter that God exists; just as knowing that someone is coming is not knowing Peter, although it may be Peter who comes.’”

This implicit but confused knowledge is the participation metaphysics: We participate in God through our existence.  This more basic foundation is what makes it possible for the so-called demonstrations of God’s existence, which Aquinas goes on to give, to actually illuminate our experience.  What seems more vaguely distant although dimly present, takes on more clarity upon closer study.  But there is no hope of greater clarity without the grounding experiential participation.  As Zubiri suggests, “in our moment of history, this prior [fact] has gained sufficiently in importance to deserve treatment by itself as the primary way of intellectually discovering God; to the man of today it is not obvious that someone is coming.”[9]

This same tight relationship between faith and reason, then, holds all the more when we come to consider its working in the area of Christian revelation.  Whatever theological knowledge be forthcoming, it will be by way of the interchange between faith and reason.  No “faith-neutral” theological knowledge of Jesus, for example, is available.  Faith’s venture will always be present, as our response to the arousing, sustaining, and luring Ground.  And in this author’s opinion, some elements of hope and love (which forms community) will also be present, and along with these, a reason affiliated with imagination, language, feeling, and willing.  But here we come to something of a parting of the ways, or at least a family quarrel, about the more precise nature of this grounding faith.

Some maintain that only explicitly Christian faith gives access to Jesus and the realities of Christian revelation strictly so-called.  The thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Karl Barth of his final period in which he wrote his Church Dogmatics are typically thought to be representative of this viewpoint.  Others, obviously, take a “softer” view, suggesting that faith in the broader, anthropological sense is initially adequate, this serving as the medium by means of which deeper levels of luminous participation may develop.  For these latter, and the author is among them, all have the capacity in varying degrees of formation, to access Jesus and the claims of Christian revelation, if they will but go along with the flow of their fidelity to reality’s appeal in hope and community-forming love.  A more compact faith affiliated with reason can become a more differentiated faith, in other words.  This need not be thought to be a purely autonomous achievement by humans, for the divine Ground present within is luring, sustaining, and forming community.  If you will, what Christians name “grace,” that is God’s gift of invitation to personal and social interchange, is at work.  The thought of Friedrich von Hügel and Karl Rahner and perhaps Wolfhart Pannenberg, for example, would be representative of this perspective.

General Tendencies toward Jesus

Painting with a broad brush, we would expect faith-only types to develop a very exalted view of Jesus, stressing the suprahuman traits of divinity, miracles, and the humanly extraordinary, like Jesus’ sinlessness.  Faith-only types tend to disparage human reason, preferring the certitude of the gift of faith.  We might say that they tend to hold a very suprahuman view of faith:  It is very transcendent, verging on the docetic (not really human or bodily).   Reason-only types, the mirror-opposites of the former, would tend to develop very humanistic views of Jesus.  As the faith-only types hold a very suprahuman view of faith, so the reason-only types hold a very religiously neutral view of what it is to be human and of human reason.

Combinative approaches (faith and reason in various forms of collaboration) would tend toward honoring in varying ways the claims coming from both faith and reason.  We might venture the hunch that for those holding the soft view that faith and reason can occasionally complement each other either by way of enrichment or critique, the tendency in Jesus studies and Christology would be toward approaches that seek something of a balance between the claims of faith and reason.  Neither possesses an hegemony theoretically, although in practice this might well tend toward the claims of reason setting the limits of what faith might find palatable.  Much would depend, it seems, upon the sociohistorical climate of opinion.  It is not uncommon for Christian thinkers of this orientation to hold that Jesus is a special representative of God’s presence in history, who preached a sublime message of radical, selfless love, who did extraordinary deeds of healing (miracles in this sense), and whose death on our behalf continues to be an inspiring act of hope to the rest of us.

Those opting for the tighter relationship between faith and reason would likely tend to think of faith as the hegemon, so to speak.  Faith grounds and sustains reason.  Reason and faith are not equal partners, although they can and should be mutual partners, for faith is not a tyrant, but an attunement to the loving, divine Ground.  Faith, when properly attuned, should be able to practise the discipline of listening to reason and submitting to its purifying critique, but the hegemonic, guiding role of faith should lead reason to expect that it will not erase the Mystery of the divine Ground nor the need to trust in a reality far more vast and complex than reason’s ability to fully decipher.[10]

In terms of Jesus studies and Christology, this perspective would tend to be open to some of the more exalted claims of a “high” Christology, namely, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, the unique personhood of Jesus (the “hypostatic union”), universal salvation by the one Savior Jesus, miraculous deeds, God as Trinity, the sense of being called into community as the Church and the desire to witness to this, for example.  But this does not mean that the challenges coming from reason do not bring their own hesitations, need to rethink, and so on.

Is Mysticism another Way?

Monk and Stamey suggest that the mystics’ claim of a direct knowledge of God provides us with yet another route to follow.[11]  Without entering into a prolonged discussion of this, let me suggest that Christian mystics live out of a faith perspective, and their approach to reason runs across a large span of possibilities.  We have noted Teresa of Avila’s suggestion, for example, that at times reason needs to be stilled as it follows the stirrings of love.  My perspective is that mysticism is not an alternative to faith and reason but a radical expression of their combination.  Each has achieved a purifying and transparent relationship to the other, although the implications of this may not always have been thought through with adequate differentiation.  But I realize this is contestable, and it is only a suggestion.  Particularly attractive to this writer is Eric Voegelin’s suggestion that the mystics’ inner tendency, when thought through, is toward a doctrinal minimalism, inasmuch as they are aware of the immense complexity of the divine Ground and the corresponding limitations of all symbols and concepts for it.  Doctrinal maximalists are rather more like rationalists, exaggerating reason’s capacity to articulate the Mystery.  But while the mystics might well lead us in the direction of a doctrinal minimalism, they also lead us toward a maximal form of participation in the divine Ground.  They are participative maximalists.  That is what makes a mystic a mystic.[12]  In terms of Christological claims, such mystical tolerance would lead in the direction of honoring roughly equivalent views of the Christ, simply because this kind of mysticism has learned to relativize or perspectivize both our understandings and our linguistic formulations of the divine Ground.

Beyond Faith and Reason?

I suppose one might argue that faith and reason, of all stripes, are the path to be taken by ordinary humans and Christians.  However, one might then go on to claim that some extraordinary types have been lifted above such pedestrian pathways, and have a kind of knowledge (“gnosis”) which eliminates the need for a humble trusting in reality’s mysterious drawing of us, or for the corresponding questioning use of our reason in the exploration of reality’s dimensions.  Mockingly, early Church father Irenaeus wrote of these “gnostics” as people who “treat God like a book to be opened and act as if [they] had already found the unfindable.”[13]  As we read of Irenaeus’ description of the gnostics, we are easily led to think of Nietzsche’s notion of being able to rise beyond good and evil.  Those categories are for ordinary mortals; the extraordinary see beyond such limited perspectives.

Today gnostic studies are in a state of reevaluation, given the recent discovery of gnostic manuscripts from Nag Hammadi in 1945, which has complicated our knowledge considerably.  We know, for example, that some gnostic texts do speak of faith with considerable respect, even if we note a corresponding tendency to associate a nearly perfect form of knowledge with it in the gnostics of highest attainment.  The Gospel of Truth, for example, speaks of faith as bringing “the warm fullness of love” and as being “unity of perfect thought” (7.28, 33).[14]  Thus, our scholarly language is in a state of flux as we seek to sort through the new materials.  Irenaeus may be directing his attack against only one, very extreme form of gnosticism, or he may be exaggerating.  Scholars are divided on these matters.

On a practical level, however, even if one continues to use the category of “faith,” should this be thought to bring one beyond the need for humble trust in reality’s mysterious drawing and the corresponding need to search through disciplined reason, then it would seem to land one in a position equivalent to Irenaeus’ gnostics.  The Gospel of Thomas, for example, is instructive from a Christological point of view.  There is no narrative; it seems to be a series of mysterious utterances from the risen Jesus.  The absence of narrative makes knowledge of Jesus a matter of inner inspirations, unable to be tested against historical reality.  It also has a tendency to lift one above the limited perspective coming from a location in space and time.  Who is this “Thomas” who has written down these utterances?  The name means “twin,” and does this indicate that Jesus’ own historical particularity is removed by the gnostic who “twins” Jesus through this knowledge?[15]  This would be rather solipsistic too, and not particularly formative of community.  In fact, the normal “laws” of history and nature are so transcended that the female gnostic “makes itself male,” because “females are not worthy of life” (GTh 114).[16]

From the point of view of our grid, we would suggest that only the most extreme forms of either reason-only (option 1) or faith-only (option 2) would likely transmute into forms of gnosticism (in Irenaeus’ sense) given the right set of historical and social circumstances.  The fideist turned gnostic would resemble the more traditionally religious kinds of gnostic found in early Christian history.  They would think that they have attained to perfect gnosis through some kind of special assimilation to the deity.  The rationalist turned gnostic, on the other hand, would tend to be a more modern (or late- or post-modern), secularized gnostic, claiming a theoretical or practical recipe unlocking reality’s secrets.[17]  What kind of circumstances would cause such transmutations?  The most obvious would be situations of extreme alienation from historical existence, leading one to seek to rise beyond it through assimilation to the transcendent deity or through the kind of perfect know-how enabling one to change one’s very “nature.”

Problem of Evaluation

Again and again we will come to this question of evaluation, for the complex pluralism of perspectives forces it upon us.  Simply to list these various perspectives heightens our sense of the pluralism, and at a minimum moves us toward that “second naivete” suggested by Paul Ricoeur.  But can we actually get there?  And how do we know we are there?  The reader will quickly understand that differing answers to these questions will come from the various options we have just surveyed, for implicit in each of them is a view of knowledge and its sources.  If this be so, then it would mean that ultimately one’s perspective is a matter of spirituality, that is, a matter of one’s fundamental life orientation.  We will hazard the generalization that we always do our thinking from within our spirituality, basic forms of which we have sought to typify above in our options.  The issue would seem to be, not whether we do so, but what form of spirituality are we working from?  In fact, our thinking is an expression of our spirituality, namely, that spirituality in its mode of thinking.  And this can range from a very compact, unanalytic form all the way to more differentiated forms of thought.[18]  And like our lives, our thought can be quite inconsistent, surprising, subject to the luck of circumstance, and always able to be shocked by the divine Ground.

Writers at times have written of the historical separation of theology (and philosophy) from spirituality, I among them.  I now think, given what I have just written, that this is not a sufficiently differentiated way to put it.[19]  What this formulation was perhaps evoking was a form of thought severely detached from the matrix of experience amply viewed.  In other words, a rather severely cerebral-rationalistic form of thought.  And that not surprisingly tends to foster its opposite, a severely emotive form of “thinking.”  And so on.  And so we get the idea that theology, for example, is a very abstract, theoretical pursuit, while spirituality is a more pious devotionalism geared toward satisfying our emotional needs.  Spirituality would then be a fuzzy-wuzzy sort of thing, while theological thinking would be good, hard thought!

Are there grounds for preferring one of these options (forms of spirituality) over the others?  That is the question we are struggling with here.  Note that the reason-only and faith-only options claim, or at least imply, an Archimedean space beyond history.  Reason-only need not submit to history’s mystery; it does not need faith.  Faith-only claims to have transcended the need to patiently think through as best we can the perplexities of the historical process.  Each of these implies a totalistic perspective.  The combinative approaches would seem to be willing to submit to the in-between space of being within history, with no ability to perch on an Archimedean vantage point.  The faith dimension expresses a fidelity to history’s mystery, a willingness to follow it without pretending to master it.  It also joins us in community with others, who are likewise following the appeal of the Mystery drawing all.  The reason dimension expresses the arousal of our wonder and interest within history, and our desire and need to pursue that with as much care as possible in dialogue with others.  We would not need to do this were we above rather than within history.

So, if you will, combinative approaches attempt to do their thinking, feeling, and acting from within history.  They are “empirical” in this broad, historical sense, according to which “experience” embraces the full range of human possibilities.  Human experience is not less than sense experience, but it is always more too.  These combinative approaches trust that while history offers us many challenges, it will supply us with whatever guidance is available for us.  The option, then, for the combinative form of spirituality is, like all such basic options, a pre-scientific, common sense judgment arising from one’s living experience with others.  This “chosen” spirituality expresses the shape of our experience more or less adequately, and takes on greater differentiation through the testing provided by historical experience itself.  To return to something noted in our first chapter, historical experience is a mixture of familiarity and strangeness.  Too much familiarity, and we would neither need to trust, nor to search, nor to dialogue, with others.  Too much strangeness, and we would find it impossible to achieve any light whatsoever.  Dialogue would also be impossible.  But we are in-between.  That in-between space is a place of luminosity, sometimes great, sometimes less.  One would need to presuppose this space and at least performatively dwell within it to be able to deny it, which would illustrate the contradictory nature of such ultimate skepticism.

Obviously there are family quarrels among the combinative types, and they can be both strident and yet quite fruitful.  Perhaps the most significant has to do with whether faith and reason are fully equal partners which might collaborate with one another from time to time (our “soft” combinative type), or whether faith is the mutual yet guiding ground of reason (our “hard” combinative type).  The attraction of the former is that it seems truly inclusive and fair.  Why should faith and reason not be equal partners, “who” may or may not choose to collaborate?  There may well be times when faith needs the guidance and critique of reason, and vice versa.  Would not according a hegemony to faith end up choking reason (and imagination, etc.), for example?

The response from the hard combinative type might be the traditional one of distinguishing between fides qua creditur (the faith by means of which we believe) and fides quae creditur (the faith which is believed).  The first may be said to be our faith-as-fidelity to the drawing of reality, while the second would be the propositional articulations, so to speak, of our faith journey.[20]  One might then suggest that only the fides qua is hegemonic, which would thus allow maximally free play to the questioning reason as it seeks to articulate the “truths of faith.”  On the other hand, is it possible to sever so completely the fides qua from the fides quae?  Would not this tend to make the former into an empty abyss, which could always justify delaying any commitments whatsoever (other than to one’s own preferences)?[21]  The fides qua is our response to the drawing of reality, and we could not make the response did we not have some familiar yet strange awareness of the nature of this reality.  Much, then, depends upon the nature of the reality which is drawing.  Is the divine Ground a lovingly drawing reality?  Does the divine Ground guide us in such a way that the legitimate claims of reason will not be thwarted?  Does the divine Ground know how to lead our faith to take a pause, so that our faith may open itself to intellectual dialogue and critique, undergo the purifying dark night of maturation, and emerge all the stronger?  Obviously these are questions that can only receive a more luminous reply from attentiveness to history’s disclosures.  Clearly, however, the traditional view of the Incarnation is that the divine Ground knows how to practice such humility.

For More on “Participation”

As our first chapter sought to illustrate, faith, hope, and love, as well as reason, along with imagination, language, feeling, and willing, are participative phenomena.  Fidelity to reality’s drawing calls us out in love and hope to question, explore, and understand through imagination, reason, image and language, feeling and deliberative doing, all in the context of dialogue.  Reality, of which we are a part, draws us into participation.  We are not spectators, but participants.  But at times we can be rather spectator-like participants.  This book is seeking to explore as fully as it can what occurs to us as we do participate, but particularly in our case, as we participate in the phenomenon of Jesus, his companions, and their effects within history.  Not all the options listed above necessarily agree with the weight we are placing upon participation.  Some may agree that it is present, but prefer to stress other dimensions within the faith and reason exchange.  That is fair enough, although this book wants to argue that participation is an inclusive sort of thing that would open the participant to whatever dimensions reality itself calls for.  Minimally this book suggests that participation is present in the exchange of faith and reason, whether admitted by others or not, and that we are following in a venerable tradition by attending to it as carefully as possible.

Readers interested in more on this theme may consult the writings of political philosopher Eric Voegelin, at least as a starting point.  His magnum opus, Order and History, is introduced by a suggestive vision of God, world, society, and humans constituting a “primordial community of being.”  This community “is knowable only from the perspective of participation in it.”[22]  He proposed that our participative knowledge of the four partners of this community ranged from the more compact to the more differentiated, and that this achieved and continues to achieve articulation through language symbols in a complex historical and multicultural process that knows regressions, parallel and equivalent breakthroughs, revolutions, stasis, and much more.  Over the years, Voegelin refined his understanding of this, as he worked through an immense range of historical materials.  He did propose that critical moments of differentiation have occurred here and there, whose luminosity is still fundamental for the rest of us.

Voegelin came to speak of the noetic differentiation of the Greek philosophers, in which the dimensions of human intelligence were impressively articulated, typically through the symbol of the nous or the “soul.”  He also wrote of the pneumatic differentiations of Israel, Jesus, and the early Christians, in which the loving descent in grace of the divine Ground achieved a stunning symbolization, and in the Christian orbit the human site of this descent in Jesus and his companions as representative of us all was most clearly differentiated.  Missing in his earlier volumes was much attention to the non-western world, but in his later work he paid much more attention to the parallel but unequal differentiations of China and India, a rich mix of the noetic and the pneumatic.  Throughout it all is the view that the divine Ground is guiding the entire process, and that history mysteriously displays great varieties of human response thereto.  Voegelin also deeply appreciated the earliest, primary experiences of the community of being, which were more compactly expressed in the various myths of humanity, inasmuch as we can get to them.  We never simply leave the myth behind; it remains as the matrix out of which our later differentiations may occur.

Voegelin’s philosophical vision, which accords so much prominence to the themes of participation, history, the four partners (God, society, world, and humans), language symbols, and human consciousness and imagination as the “central” point of the historical differentiations, has greatly guided and inspired this author.  His work is not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure.  For some it seems too ambitious; for others, too western and limited.  In a postmodern period which is suspicious of syntheses and totalistic visions, Voegelin’s work can seem off-putting.  I think it can stand up to all these charges relatively well, but this is not a book on Voegelin, and the reader can consult the literature.  I recommend his work here as a more sustained, philosophical study of the key dimensions of our approach.  Where appropriate, we can consult more of the “details” in the pages to follow.

Before leaving Voegelin, however, perhaps one final observation prompted by his last volume in his magnum opus will be helpful.  We have spoken of participation as yielding knowledge, along with Voegelin, Plato, and others.  Yet this can seem vague.  In the earlier writings of Order and History one could almost get the impression that, for Voegelin, any formulation of our participation in the community of being was a derailment and distortion.  In any case, by the time he reached his final, posthumously published volume, Voegelin introduced a clarifiying set of distinctions.  He spoke of “It reality” and “Thing reality.”  The former refers to our participation in the community of being (the “It”), which is always the more comprehensive experience of us humans in history and society.  Here knowledge is from within, and never from some Archimedean point outside of the community.  In other words, our knowledge is real yet perspectival and not totalistic.  What we know (truth) takes the form of luminosity here.  The appropriate language term corresponding to participative knowledge is “symbol.”  Thing reality is Voegelin’s term for a less comprehensive moment within the more comprehending It reality, namely, our experience of being subjects who seem to go out in search of objects to know.

Here our experience is not so much one of union with others, but of separateness, and of trying to bridge a gap.[23]  This is how Voegelin interprets what philosophers call “intentionality,” namely, the experience of subjects intending objects.  The appropriate language term corresponding to intentionality is “concept.”  Note that intentionality, while real, is but a moment of the much more comprehensive It reality.  The point is that we do conceptualize and objectify; we cannot escape that, being embodied as we are.  And the physical sciences likely tend to emphasize intentionality more than the humane sciences, although there is no final wall between the two.  However, the more comprehensive knowledge of luminosity, to the degree that we remain aware of it, keeps our concepts relativized, such that we understand them more comprehensively as moments within the more comprehensive world of symbols.[24]

A Hesitation (Irigaray, Levinas)

Let us end this supplement to chapter one with something of a troubled conscience.  If participation is going to work for us as a mode of access to Jesus, his companions, to ourselves, and to others, it must not simply project more of ourselves onto others, but really bring the other before us.  If we think in terms of “the same” and “the other” as a pair, we seek not simply the same (ourselves), nor the other of the same (simply a further projection of ourselves), but the other of the other. The middle option here, the other of the same, is the difficult one.  I want to know myself, following Socrates’ advice, or Augustine’s, for that matter.  Do I really own the “other” of myself, its dimensions, attributes, etc., which await appropriation rather than denial?  Or do I project onto myself more of the same old self with which I am comfortable?    We may repeat this mental experiment with our friends, our acquaintances, those about whom we read, all possible “others.”  Even Jesus, even God.  Each of these may simply be more of the same old me, that is, projections of what I think they should be, rather than what they truly are.  The writings of the spiritual masters are replete with warnings about this danger of illusion.  Teresa of Avila even invented a colorful word (in Spanish) for this, namely, abobamiento, the state of falling into boobishness, as distinct from arrobamiento, the state of genuine religious ecstasy.[25]

The way I have just formulated the problem is influenced by the thought of philosopher Luce Irigaray.  “For if the other is not defined in his or her actual reality, there is only an other me, not real others: the other may then be more or less than I am, might have more or less than me.”  But in this case, she is suggesting that we are the measuring norm of the other.  “And so it may represent (my) absolute perfection or greatness, the Other: God, Master, logos; it might denote the most insignificant or the most destitute: children, the ill, the poor, the outsider; it might name the one I consider to be my equal.”  But no matter: “It is not the other we are really dealing with but the same: inferior, superior, or equal to me.”[26]  The preposition “to” in the title of her book, “i love to you,” attempts to express the space within which I and you can meet, a space which is not immediate, thereby abolishing difference.[27]

Irigaray thinks the man-woman relationship is perhaps the great relationship in which our ability to encounter difference is tested and experienced.  She creatively translates the “holy spirit,” who is traditionally thought of as the bridge or linking reality between Father and Son, as the “ventilation,” the “breath” that enables communication.  We need a symbolic of ventilation, if we are to encounter rather than abolish the other.  She reimagines Mary’s Annunciation, for example, as an example of this other-protecting breath.  “In my view, respecting Mary’s virginity does not mean forcing a Father-logos upon her whose son she conceives outside of her female body, as is all too often taught; rather, it means not touching her body without asking her if it is what she wishes or desires.”  In other words, we are celebrating “in the name of the Annunciation . . . the time of shared words between a man and a woman prior to any carnal act or conception.”[28]

Somewhat similar in sensitivity to the other is philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who might well be considered the philosopher of the other par excellence.[29]  Like Irigaray, in postmodernist sensitivity he distrusts projects of totalization, that is, constructing or implying the reality of final schemes and syntheses.  Such finalities abolish the in-between spaces in which we truly find ourselves facing the other, with all the new challenges that entails.[30]  Totalizers, despite their contrary claims, always sneak themselves onto the Archimedean perch from which they can dominate and so suppress the other.  Levinas seems somewhat more radical than Irigaray in some ways on these matters.

Irigaray does not seem to object to the word “participation,” if it is understood to mean the space of non-immediacy in which companions can truly meet.[31]  Levinas, however, suggests that participation, a category going back to Plato and traditional western philosophy of being, presupposes the totalizing project.  For participation sneaks in the notion of being part of the whole, and so it implies a totality, in the light of which one defines one’s place and the place of the other.  That “whole” is the Archimedean perch from which we define one another.  Levinas does not mean that we are not in relations with one another.  But he is seeking a form of relation in which one is not “defined by something other than oneself” (“being,” for example).[32]  “Essence, the being of entities, weaves between the incomparables, between me and the others, a unity, a community (if only the unity of analogy), and drags us off and assembles us on the same side, chaining us to one another like galley slaves, emptying proximity of its meaning.”  In the end, using Hegelian words like Irigaray’s, Levinas writes, “As disclosed the other enters into the same, and the experience of transcendence immediately becomes suspect of artifice.”[33]

These are difficult waters, and if the reader is somewhat confused, take courage.  Levinas especially seems to seek to challenge and disorient, but so does Irigaray.  After all, they are seeking to uncover (deconstruct) what is hidden in the very structure of our western thought.  Levinas, for example, does not seem to argue that we can simply escape the language of “being.”  His books are full of it, and he seems to argue that some form of metaphysics is still needed (not ontology!), albeit in second place to what he mysteriously terms “ethics.”  In any case, he seems to seek a form of thinking rooted in the ethical relationship, in which the other person (“neighbor” in his beloved Hebrew traditional language) can truly “assault” me, in which one finds oneself exposed to the neighbor, in proximity and face to face.  Levinas piles one paradox upon another, to bring home the experience of how this proximity is really “other.”  We are there in the relation, but as an “accusative that derives from no nominative.”[34]  One has to use one’s imagination here, as one thinks of the neighbor accusing oneself, and so the experience of selfhood is indirect, mediated by the neighbor and beyond our ability to dominate.

Irigaray and Levinas will accompany us on our participative journey, as we seek to be challenged by Jesus, his companions, and neighbors.  We are seeking a form of participation with maximal ventilation, a space of true reciprocity and not just more of the same old self projected onto everything and everyone else, including the divine Ground.  And we have no intentions of claiming that we can ever simply be satisfied that we have adequately listened to the viewpoint represented here by Irigaray and Levinas.  We will, however, ask whether they have fairly enough put a good word in for the middle term of reference, the “other of the same”?  We recall this as the middle term, between the same and the other.  Irigaray, and Levinas even more, are suspicious of such middle terms, in their writings.  But are all forms of the otherness of the same projections in the pejorative and destructive sense?  And if we do admit that we somehow know some sameness shared with the other, why is this necessarily subordinate in quality to the radical otherness or difference so prized by Levinas and perhaps by Irigaray too?  How would one know this, without somehow succumbing to that Archimedean perch of totalization?

Perhaps in the end it is a matter of what we each seem to find within history.  The Christian, following the Gospel of John, believes that the Word has become flesh.  The divine Ground is, in a way, the Other who shares some sameness (the flesh) with us.  It is not simple sameness, nor simple otherness, but other-sameness that lies at the heart of reality.  Is this something of a difference, too, between a more Judaic, expectant form of philosophy and theology, and a more Christian, incarnational form?  And was Plato, for example, close to this incarnationalism in his participation thinking?  I notice that both Irigaray and Levinas will write of the flesh becoming word, which is something a Christian could say too.  But it is not the same thing as the Word becoming flesh which we find in the Gospel of John (1.14).[35]  A God-Word becoming flesh is strange, perplexing, scandalous, assaulting, very different from our expectations, to be sure.  Here we have “otherness” in heaps.  But if it be God’s Word, in whose image we are made, it is in some way our word too, in which we share.  Here we would seem to have some shared sameness.[36]  By becoming flesh, it remains in history, and does not seem to thrust us into a totalizing space beyond history.  But of course we must take precautions to help us remember that we cannot escape the in-between of our history.  We will return to this theme of historical precautions here and there.



[1] See Dixon W. Adams, ed., Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels: “The Philosophy of Jesus” and “The Life and Morals of Jesus” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).  I was originally stimulated to work out this faith-reason grid by a similar grid sketched in Robert C. Monk and Joseph D. Stamey, Exploring Christianity: An Introduction, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984), 128-57.

[2] See N. T. Wright, “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols., ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: 1992), 3:796-802, for an overview of the terrain.  See Erich Fromm, The Dogma of Christ and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology and Culture (Greenwich: Fawcett, 1963), 15-93, for a Neo-Freudian view.  For the Jesus Seminar, let the reader judge:  See Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus according to the Jesus Seminar (Sonoma: Polebridge, 1999).

[3] Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, 7; On the Flesh of Christ, 5 (The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius, ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956], 14); see Against Praxeas, 5-7 (Bettenson, 188-20), however, for a defense of reason.

[4] See Ernest R. Sandeen, The Origins of Fundamentalism, Facet Books, vol. 10, Historical Series (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968)

[5] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, Collected Works, vol. 6, trans. M. J. Hanak and Gerhart Niemeyer (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 353.

[6] Republic, 514a, 517c-d; Symposium, 211a-d, 212a (The Collected Dialogues of Plato: Including the Letters, Bollingen Series LXXI, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982], [Republic, trans. Paul Shorey; Symposium, trans. Michael Joyce]).

[7] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969).

[8] Gerald McCool, The Neo-Thomists, Marquette Studies in Philosophy, vol. 3 (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1994), 12.

[9] Xavier Zubiri, “Introduction to the Problem of God,” in his Nature, History, God, trans. Thomas B. Fowler, Jr. (Lanham: University Press of America, 1981), 308-9.  The reference is to Thomas Aquinas,  Summa theologiae, 1, 2, 1.

[10] I borrow the terms “purifying critique” from John Paul II, Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship between Faith and Reason, encyclical letter, no. 123 (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1998).  My impression is that this letter displays elements of both the soft and the tight combinative approaches in a somewhat undifferentiated way.

[11] Monk and Stamey, Exploring Christianity, 144-45.

[12] William M. Thompson, “Eric Voegelin: A Pre-Nicene Christian?,” The Ecumenist 38 (2001): 10-13.

[13] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.28.7 (trans. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus against the Heresies, trans. John Saward [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990], 35).

[14] Bentley Layton, ed. and trans., The Gnostic Scriptures (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1987), 261; see index, s.v., “faith.”

[15] Ibid., 376-99.

[16] Ibid., 399.

[17] See Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 66-74, for the inspiration here.

[18] We might borrow the language used by some liturgical theologians, namely, theologia prima (primary theology) and theologia secunda (reflective, second-order theology).  The categories could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to philosophy and other areas of thought.  Our basic life orientation is primary theology; this way of living always involves some form of knowing, if it be human.  It may or may not become varyingly differentiated into a more reflective mode of thought (theologia secunda).  Liturgists speak of liturgical celebration as always expressing a form of primary theology, with elements of the more reflective kind as well.  See Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, A Pueblo Book, 1992), index, s.vv., “theology, primary, secondary.”

[19] In other words, there is in actuality never a separation of spirituality from theology, or theology from spirituality, for all forms of theology are expressions of spirituality, ranging from theology in its “primary” to its “secondary” forms.  What we actually have are forms of spirituality and theology of varying levels of quality.  At times the quality can be rather problematic.

[20] For a range of ways in which these distinctions can be used, see Avery Dulles, The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith (New York: Oxford, 1994), 63, 148, 150, 173.

[21] Irenaeus thought this was one of the tactics of the gnostics, whose god was always too profound to come within our reach.  See his Against Heresies, 3.24.2 (The Anti-Nicene Fathers [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979 (= ANF)], 1:458).

[22] Voegelin, Order and History, 1: Israel and Revelation, ed. Maurice P. Hogan, 39.

[23] Very helpful on how our primary experience is not that of the gap between subject and object, but of a united matrix, see, besides Voegelin, Karl Rahner, Hearer of the Word, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Continuum, 1994), esp. 31-32, 43, 51, 96, and perhaps most extensively yet, Xavier Zubiri, Sentient Intelligence, trans. Thomas B. Fowler (Washington, D.C.: The Xavier Zubiri Foundation of North America, 1999), esp. part one, on the “primary mode of intellection” (11).  Obviously this issue of a “gap” has been at the center of western philosophy since at least Kant, and Rahner, Zubiri, and Voegelin are only some of the more notable attempts to rethink the matter.  Heidegger deserves credit in this regard too.  But I have not come upon a thinker who has thought it through more extensively than Zubiri in the work noted.  Its “philosophy of intelligence” is on the level of Bernard Lonergan’s Insight in its sustained analytic power.

[24] See Voegelin, Order and History, 5: In Search of Order, ed. Ellis Sandoz, esp. 27-62, 109-10, 119.  For helpful Voegelin primers: Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989); Glenn Hughes, ed., The Politics of the Soul: Eric Voegelin on Religious Experience (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999); William M. Thompson and David L. Morse, eds., Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation: An Interdisciplinary Debate and Anthology, Marquette Studies in Theology, vol. 19 (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2000).

[25] St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 4.3.11 (333, 490 n. 13).

[26] Luce Irigaray, i love to you: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History, trans. Alison Martin (New York: Routledge, 1996), 61.

[27] Ibid., 109.

[28] Ibid., 121, 122, 123.

[29] See Colin Davis, Levinas: An Introduction (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996).

[30] Irigaray, i love to you, 105, 107; Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Duquesne Studies, Philosophical Series, vol. 24, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), passim, esp. 21-30.  The critique of totalization continues in his Otherwise than Being: Or beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1997), 29, 95, 171.

[31] Irigaray, i love to you, 139.

[32] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 61, 109, 276.

[33] Levinas, Otherwise than Being, 182.

[34] Ibid., 11.

[35] Irigaray, i love to you, 124; she will use the Johannine formulation too, but her more or less nontheistic view of reality would seem to reduce it to the equivalent of the former.  Levinas, Otherwise than Being, 94: “In the approach of a face the flesh becomes word, the caress a saying.”

[36] This is the basis of metaphor, analogy, and philosophies of being, all greatly contested.


This excerpt is from Jesus and the Gospel Movement: Not Afraid to be Partners (University of Missouri, 2006). Also see Eugene Webb’s review of “Your Kin-dom Come” and William Thompson-Uberuaga’s “Interview,” “Participation and Interpretation Theory,” “Eschatology, Geography, and the Advancing Jesus Movement,” Being, Becoming, and Metaphysics,” “History and Place, Historiogenesis and Geogenesis,” and Craig Baron’s “The Postmodern “Christian” Theology of William Thompson-Uberuaga.”


William Thompson-UberuagaWilliam Thompson-Uberuaga

William Thompson-Uberuaga

William Thompson-Uberuaga is an Emeritus Professor of Theology at Duquesne University and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He is author of eight books and a co-editor, with David L. Morse, of Eric Voegelin's Collected Works Volume 22: History of Political Ideas - Renaissance and Reformation.

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