Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Christological Eschatology as Context for Benedict's Three Encyclicals

The three encyclicals of Benedict XVI, “Deus Caritas Est,” “Spe Salvi” and “Caritas in Veritate” are situated in an epistemological drought of the experience and consciousness of God. That being so, the hope of “development” into becoming “another Christ” has morphed into an itch for “progress.” Instead of an “attitude” of relation to other, there is absorption with self, aided and abetted by information technology. Bored and alienated because of imprisonment in the self, one agitates for distraction by sound and screen in the enforced solipsism of self-sufficiency.

Benedict XVI sets the intellectual provenance of this state of affairs to be the work of Joachim of Fiore in the 13th century. He remarked: “I have tried to show in my professorial dissertation that this was what was believed concerning the theology of history throughout the first millennium of Christianity. The division of history into ‘before Christ’ and ‘after Christ,’ into redeemed and unredeemed time that seems to us nowadays the essential expression of the Christian consciousness of history, for we think we cannot formulate any concept of the redemption, thus of the keystone of Christianity, without it – this division of history into periods is in fact simply the result of the great change in thinking about the theology of history that occurred in the thirteenth century. This was prompted by the writings of Joachim of Fiore: his teaching about the three epochs was indeed rejected, but the understanding of the Christ-event as a point in time separating different periods within history was adopted from him. The change in the overall understanding of everything to do with Christianity that results from this has to be seen as one of the most significant turnarounds in the history of Christian consciousness. A reappraisal of this will constitute an urgent task for theological study in our time.”[1]

It is principally Bonaventure who explicitly rejects Joachim’s ‘third age’ of the Spirit because it destroys the central position of Christ. Ratzinger wrote in his thesis: “If is justified to say that for Joachim, Christ is merely one point of division among others, it is no less justified to say that for Bonaventure, Christ is the ‘axis of the world history,’ the center of time. Even though Bonaventure accepts and affirms the parallel structure of the ages which had been rejected by Thomas [Aquinas], he is led in this by a completely different tendency than that which led Joachim to his structuring of time. If Joachim was above all concerned with bringing out the movement of the second age to the third, Bonaventure’s purpose is to show on the basis of the parallel between the two ages, that Christ is the true center and the turning point of history. Christ is the center of all. This is the basic concept of Bonaventure’s historical schema, and it involves a decisive rejection of Joachim.”[2]

Ratzinger understands the Parousia (the “advent” – “presence” of Christ) to be “already-not yet.” We cannot see Him because we have lost the likeness to Him whereby we experience Him in ourselves, and therefore, “know” Him. Not experiencing Him in ourselves we cannot re-cognize Him with our external senses. We are scandalized by His “absence” and we lose hope. We are alone, thrown back on ourselves, and alienated in the world. The three encyclicals are calling us to conversion so that we begin to experience Him as Love, hope in His presence and power, and exercise that presence and power as self-gift in the world.

The Most Concrete Proposal: to live the spirit of becoming “another Christ” in the exercise of intramundane, ordinary, professional work as communicated to the Founder of Opus Dei. And since the Kingdom of God is not “up there” or “at the end of history” but a “Person with the fact and name of Jesus of Nazareth”[3] who is present in the world now – and working -, not only in the Eucharist or grace, but in all the persons who make the gift of themselves to God and the others in the service of ordinary work and rest, the Kingdom of God is present “already” – “not yet.” “Not yet” in the sense that, although Christ has come and is present, the number of those who are to become “other Christs” is not yet complete. The Kingdom is not a structure, certainly not an ideology, not even the Church, but the continuous conversion of persons into Christ by beginning again and again to make the gift of self in work and ordinary affairs.

Such action is the subjective experience that creates a change in “attitude” and consciousness of everything. It is the response of a call to holiness in the world. And of course, the rub is here. What is at stake in the pope’s mind is the universal call to holiness. Who today would agree that these world crises are crises of saints? Yet, that is exactly what is up at the present moment. The relationality of the human person in the image of the Triune God, turning work into an experience of gift and gratuitousness, “a new trajectory of thinking” (#53) which will be the “presence of God” is the deep work of a radical transformation into Christ in the middle of the world. Fundamentally, this is what’s up.

[1] J. Ratzinger, “What It Means to Be a Christian,” Ignatius (2006) ftn. 35-36

[2] J. Ratzinger, “The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure,” Franciscan Herald Press (1989) 118.

[3] John Paul II, “Redemptoris Missio” #18.

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