Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ratzinger and Rowan: Leadership and Theology

Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict XVI (Eureka Street)
When Josef Ratzinger was elected Pope as Benedict XVI in 2005, the western Christian world found itself in the remarkable position of having both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches led by men viewed by many as their leading theologians.

Williams and Ratzinger, although a generation apart in age, had more in common than academic credentials when they came to office. Both are steeped in the theology of the early Christian writers known as the Church Fathers, and although Williams focussed his Oxford doctoral studies on eastern Christianity, he also has a deep and sympathetic engagement with Augustine of Hippo, on whom Ratzinger had written at Munich, before going on to his second doctoral thesis (as is normal in Germany) on Bonaventure.

Both have also used this training in the depths of Christian tradition to do theology in a way that involved new insights and potential controversy. This is reasonably well-known on William's part; his famous essay "The Body's Grace" remains one of the most important starting points for a revised assessment of homosexuality that is more than lazy indifference to sexual morality in the name of inclusion.

It may seem a more surprising assessment of Ratzinger, who at least from mid-career had acquired a reputation for being a guardian of orthodoxy rather than an explorer of its frontiers. His Bonaventure thesis had however been savaged by an examiner for alleged traces of "modernism", and he was one of the theological advisers at the Second Vatican Council.

If he subsequently leaned towards tradition more clearly, is fairer to say that Ratzinger has, like Williams, always written and acted with a deep commitment to the truth as well as to his perceptions, right or wrong, of the needs of the Church.

Yet Ratzinger came to the papacy, as far as many in the West were concerned at least, as threat more than promise. Having headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for most of John Paul II's papacy he had a reputation as a watchdog, who had acted against theologians such as Leonardo Boff and Anthony de Mello as well as seeming to slow or reverse the momentum for change initiated at the Council.

Williams on the other hand was a figure greeted with hope by Anglicans but also by others, across traditions, who anticipated that his combination of grounding in tradition and openness to change would be reflected in his role as Archbishop of Canterbury. He had not, however, had to exercise comparable authority, or at least to occupy a role relevant to the whole Anglican Communion, before that.

Now that Williams has returned to academic life and Ratzinger's retirement has been announced, it is tempting to commit both their reigns to the category of failure, and debate mostly the nobility or otherwise of their inability (or unwillingness) to bend lurching structures or less gifted minds to their own wills. This would not, however, be the whole picture in either case.

Their shortcomings, real or perceived, have tended to cluster around the Church as institution and the way it treats its members. Williams struggled to hold together the disparate views of the various national Anglican groups, on human sexuality in particular. Ratzinger's Church and its challenges were altogether different, but he struggled to master a Vatican bureaucracy whose disarray has become more apparent with time. Opinion is divided about whether the increased attention he paid to the reality of clergy sexual abuse has made sufficient difference to be a matter of great credit to him.

There will be those who see this real or perceived failure of the theologians as implying a need for a different kind of leadership; Justin Welby's elevation to the see of Canterbury arguably reflects not only his personal virtues, but a shift towards managerialism, given his previous corporate experience. If the Cardinals perceive what the faithful in general and the world at large do, they too will surely respond to the present needs of the Roman Catholic Church in terms that allow for some sort of new broom.

This may however be to do the departing prelates some injustice. The deepest problems faced by these Churches have to do with the changing environment in which they find themselves, and the growing secularism of the West in particular. Both Williams and Ratzinger have made important contributions of an "apologetic" nature - that is, related to the defence of faith as possible and powerful. Williams' dialogues with such as Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins have been important and public examples. The outgoing Pope has not been willing or able to contend on similar ground - his important Regensburg lecture in 2006, which was a thoughtful reflection on religion and power among other things, caused an outcry after a misleadingly-excerpted quote from a Byzantine emperor was attributed to the pontiff himself.

His encyclicals and other writings deserve more attention than sound bites or mainstream media have allowed, and will continue to get it from the thoughtful among Roman Catholics and others. His books on Jesus have been popular, but while they involve an important critique of reductionist interpretive methods, it is hard to see them going beyond mere traditional piety in the actual working out of a picture of Jesus.

Ratzinger's powerful defence of reason and critique of relativism are more important than his own quick jump from these to intractable positions about a set of difficult moral questions allows many to see. Like Williams, he is capable of defending and promoting a Christianity which is intellectually plausible and challenging, not only to obvious forms of moral relativism but also to injustice and environmental irresponsibility. His pontificate has not been a time when many beyond the Roman Catholic Church took him seriously in this regard - we could hope that relinquishing the burden of office may free him to be read, and heard, again.

[First published in Eureka Street here]

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Atonement: Richard III, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible

The discovery of the body of Richard III has attracted much attention and reminded us of a controversial figure of English history. Richard was the proverbial "bad uncle", depicted in much of history--including Shakespeare--as a real villain who got his come-uppance in death.

While in recent days the body found under a car parking lot in Leicester was attracting attention and reminding us of sins committed long ago, I was discussing the doctrine of the Atonement with other members of the Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia. As some of you know, we Australian Anglicans are a diverse lot to put it mildly, and our group includes people who see penal substitution as central to Christian doctrine and others who are suspicious of it, or at least of its exaggeration and potential for abuse. As usual however our conversations have been cordial, and we have learned from one another.

We spent some time discussing the English word "atonement" itself. Some of us have tended to use it expansively, to refer to the Christ event, the whole reality of salvation offered to the world; for others--some critics or deniers, as well as advocates--it seems to have narrowed in meaning to refer to how human sins are expiated, or even penal substitution.

Words, of course, are slippery things. There is no ultimate solution in a resort to etymology or to "authoritative" definitions, but consideration of origins and of the ways words have been used can still be enlightening.

Much theological language in English has been influenced by biblical translation and the King James Bible in particular, although that version carries over much of the language of earlier Bibles.  A number of these include the language of "atonement" to refer particularly to sacrificial rituals of the Hebrew Bible. But it's widely acknowledged that the word means "at-one-ment", or reconciliation.

The word has sometimes been attributed as a coinage to William Tyndale, who used it in his rendering of 2 Cor 5:18 to the effect that God "hath given unto us the office to preach the atonement"; modern translations tend to refer to this as a "ministry of reconciliation" but the sense of what atonement means here is clear, and not expiatory.

But in fact there are older uses than Tyndale, and remarkably the equal oldest instances are from no other work than Thomas More's History of Richard III; you can see them here. The sense there is certainly of reconciliation, and this is also what all the references in Shakespeare a century later are about. Richard III scores again in one of the bard's two uses of the term:

...he desires to make atonement
Betwixt the Duke of Gloucester and your brothers,
And betwixt them and my lord chamberlain;
And sent to warn them to his royal presence. (Richard III, Act 1, Scene 3)

All Shakespeare's uses are like this; "atone" always has two objects, direct and indirect, who are people; a person has to be "atoned with" another.

The use of "atonement" to refer to sacrificial offerings starts I think (h/t to Michael Jensen) with Coverdale, and continues into the Geneva Bible of 1560, where Exodus 29:33 is "And they shall eat those things wherewith the atonement was made, to consecrate [and] to sanctify them: but a stranger shall not eat [thereof], because they [are] holy.". KJV would go on to render this and comparable texts similarly.

This is an intriguing interpretive move, namely to render the Hebrew words related to expiation (from the root kpr) in terms of reconciliation.

The subsequent history of the word is complex, but it is probably fair to say that despite the use of "atonement" in English Bibles to render these words related to sacrificial expiation, "expiation" itself as an idea has won out by subverting what "atonement" means; for despite Thomas More and Shakespeare's uses about him, few people  who might have turned their minds recently to Richard III's need for atonement are imagining his reconciliation with enemies; instead we think of the wicked monarch's need for purging from sin.

Perhaps this is closer to at least some of the original biblical language, including not just the Hebrew of the OT but the metaphorical uses of cultic language in the NT in relation to how Jesus' death and resurrection effect salvation; but still, there is a bold and profound statement about the deeper truth that lies underneath cultic, economic and other metaphors that struggle to render how God deals with the world, in the original meaning of "atonement" as reconciliation. Tyndale perhaps deserves this credit, unless Paul does; for in the same verses of his NT, where the first English use of "atonement" in the Bible appeared, we read more fully:
For God was in Christ, and made agreement between the world and him self, and imputed not their sins unto them: and hath committed to us the preaching of the atonement (2 Cor 5:19, Tyndale)


Sunday, February 03, 2013

Atonement as Paschal Victory: Sacrifice in Athanasius of Alexandria


The long life of Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296-373) spanned a period of real change in experience and practice of sacrifice. Growing up before Constantine's promotion of Christianity as a quasi-state cult, and through the last great period of persecution under Diocletian, he lived to see the the sacrifices of traditional Greek and Roman religion decline into relative disuse as Christianity itself grew.

Sacrifice was therefore not merely an idea to play with, but an area of dispute and contest. While Athanasius uses cultic language to explore aspects of Christian belief and practice, he also uses it as a means of dispute with Judaism (whose offerings he sees as redundant "types" of Christian ones) and Greco-Egyptian religion (whose sacrifices he rejects as demonic).

In using sacrificial ideas and images to discuss Christian theology and ritual, Athanasius does not work with one single idea of sacrifice, since the world he inhabited and the biblical text he used reflected various offerings, with different purposes attached. On the other hand, he and other ancient authors are arguably in the process of developing such a single notion, pointing to an archetypal priest and offering of which the others are images (or imitations).

Athanasius speaks freely of the Christ-event as a sacrifice; indeed at times “sacrifice” seems for him to be a way of alluding to the work of Christ in general:
The Word himself assumed a human body, in order that He might offer it in sacrifice for other similar bodies: “Forasmuch then as the children are the sharers in blood and flesh, He also Himself in like manner partook of the same, that through death He might bring to naught Him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver them who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” For by the sacrifice of His own body, He both put an end to the law which was against us, and made a new beginning of life for us, by the hope of resurrection which He has given us (De Incarn. 10, ANF revised)
In this case Athanasius does not develop any specifically cultic aspect of Jesus’ death, but uses “sacrifice” to refer to his death and gift of self, and what is emphasized (as in Hebrews, which he cites here) is the solidarity involved in his being a human offered for humans—which is in fact not a typical element of sacrificial cultus at all. There is certainly an element to this logic that can be regarded as “substitutionary”, but as George Dragas points out, it is not forensic or merely a “swap” ; his humanity actually represents and encompasses our own. That work, De Incarnatione, is deeply concerned with the mystery of salvation, but conceives of the problem and solution as related to the corruption of the divine image in humanity; salvation is achieved by its restoration in Christ, and this is what any “sacrifice” must achieve.

The Festal Letters tend to reflect more specifically on the Paschal aspect of Christ’s death and resurrection, not merely assimilating it to a broader sense of “sacrifice” or to expiation, but drawing out the character of the Passover as victory over sin, the devil, and death, and the historic events of the Exodus as a type:
Now, however, that the devil, that tyrant against the whole world, is slain, we do not approach a temporal feast, my beloved, but an eternal and heavenly. Not in shadows do we show it forth, but we come to it in truth. For they being filled with the flesh of a dumb lamb, accomplished the feast, and having anointed their door-posts with the blood, implored aid against the destroyer. But now we, eating of the Word of the Father, and having the lintels of our hearts sealed with the blood of the New Covenant, acknowledge the grace given us from the Saviour (Festal Letter 4.3, ANF revised)
Athanasius uses the motif of blood on the doorposts to cast the sacrifice of the Passover as one of “aversion”, as Frances Young puts it. The necessity of Jesus’ sacrifice is to combat evil.

In the sixth Festal Letter, Athanasius explores the (near-)sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, which does not have a particularly Paschal character, and finds in it a significance that is salvific and perhaps expiatory, but certainly also therapeutic:
The patriarch was tried, through Isaac, not however that he was sacrificed, but He who was pointed out in Isaiah; ‘He shall be led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers he shall be speechless;’ but He took away the sin of the world…. For the sacrifice was not properly the setting to rights of Isaac, but of Abraham who also offered, and by that was tried. Thus God accepted the will of the offerer, but prevented that which was offered from being sacrificed. For the death of Isaac did not procure freedom to the world, but that of our Saviour alone, by whose stripes we all are healed. For He raised up the falling, healed the sick, satisfied those who were hungry, and filled the poor, and, what is more wonderful, raised us all from the dead; having abolished death, He has brought us from affliction and sighing to the rest and gladness of this feast, a joy which reaches even to heaven (6.8-9)
This sacrifice is offered to God, although Athanasius tends to work out the logic of the Passover itself in terms of an offering to death, or the devil.

Athanasius therefore works largely within what has been called the “classical” view of the atonement, and illustrates how this might be possible while using sacrificial ideas and images from the Bible quite fully; in part this depends on the varied character of cultus itself. The emphasis given to the Paschal character of the atonement is also important here, and is biblical but also doxological in character. Since the celebration of a reinterpreted Pascha had been experientially central to Christian life from the outset, Easter itself was a sort of liturgical “canon within the Canon” (and indeed "before the Canon"), that served as a touchstone for Athanasius' and much other early Christian thought, not least about the atonement.