Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Elizabeth Johnson - Jeff Mirus and the Theology of Revelation

I received an article by Jeff Mirus on the recent censoring by the Catholic Bishops of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book “Quest for the Living God.” Dr. Mirus defends the positions of the bishops. I agree with the bishops, and the conclusion of Dr. Mirus. What bothered me with Dr. Mirus was his theology of Revelation and the epistemology involved. Among other things, he said the following:

“The only thing I want to call particular attention to here is the CTSA’s citation of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes to justify their portrayal of the theological task. After speaking of the need of the Church to “express Christ’s message in the concepts and languages of various peoples” so that everyone may grasp it, the Council goes on to state:

“It is for God’s people as a whole, with the help of the holy Spirit, and especially for pastors and theologians, to listen to the various voices of our day, discerning them and interpreting them, and to evaluate them in the light of the divine word, so that the revealed truth can be increasingly appropriated, better understood and more suitably expressed. (#44)

The CTSA comments on this passage as follows:

“To suggest that a theologian who engages in the difficult task of interpreting revelation for present times and cultures is denying the knowability of the very revelation­the Word of God­that theological reflection takes as its authoritative source, strikes us as a fundamental misunderstanding of the ecclesial vocation of the theologian.

This is very clever. It is, as we say in the schoolyard, a nice try. But of course the bishops have not said that the theological task in interpreting revelation amounts to a denial of revelation’s knowability. Rather, the bishops have said that Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, in doing exactly this, has failed egregiously in her ecclesial vocation to perform the theological task.

So has the CTSA, and the reason is not hard to find. Vatican II said that “the Church has learned to express Christ’s message in the concepts and languages of various peoples” (#44). The CTSA refers to this as “the difficult task of interpreting revelation for present times and cultures”. The two are hardly equivalent. Theologians are called upon to reflect on Christ’s message so that they, and the Church along with them, may understand it more deeply. They are not called upon to “interpret revelation” in the sense of making it fit the existing categories of time and place, as if these categories, unaided by Revelation, are sufficient to encompass it.

But that’s what Modernists do. They regard religious truth as whatever is manifested in the religious consciousness of each culture. In different times, places and cultures, truth is different. On this reading, the theologian succeeds in his or her task only when Revelation is reinterpreted as something which fits the existing patterns of prevailing cultural thought. That is, the theologian succeeds only insofar as he or she subverts the fundamental mission of the Church.

For the mission of the Church is to place a culture’s concepts and categories at the service of expressing not the usual message but the Christian message. The goal is not to reinterpret Revelation so that it fits comfortably within the existing consciousness of the group, but to use what the group already understands to enable it to see how Revelation relates to that understanding ­ and bursts its bounds.

Let us remember that Vatican II said all God’s people, especially pastors and theologians, are to “listen to the various voices of the day, discerning them and interpreting them, and to evaluate them in the light of the divine word”. What is being interpreted and evaluated here are the voices of the day, not Revelation. Rather, Revelation is the standard of judgment which lets us discern what is true and useful in making Christ’s message known.

This is something we must all do, and it would be very nice if the CTSA would help. Its first step must be to stop reinterpreting Revelation to fit whatever it wants to find in each culture (I use the phrase “wants to find” advisedly, though it is an argument for another day). The CTSA needs first to discern, interpret and evaluate these cultural ideas, so it can see where they can be helpful and where they need to be rejected, altered or expanded in the light of Christ. The CTSA needs to do something which is not conditioned by the culture it is supposed to be evaluating, something that is not culturally predictable. Only then will it be able to stop issuing statements which are always divided into the same three parts, statements which defend the false principle that the culture is to shape Revelation, and not the other way around.”

My comment:

Dear …..

I am not defending Elizabeth Johnson nor the CTSA. However, to mount an accurate defense of Truth, it will be important to recognize that Truth is the Person of Jesus Christ. Revelation is not a series of concepts reducible to propositional knowing. And it doesn't take place until someone receives the Person of Christ by hearing and doing ("Blessed is he who hears the Word of God and does it"). This lifts the entire discussion from sensible experience, abstraction, concept formation, judgment, propostional knowing and syllogistic conclusion. That is presupposed but it is not the arena where Truth is "understood" (Intellegere = legere ab intus). Faith is the experience of becoming another Christ. Consciousness of Christ is the noetic dimension of that faith-experience. Concepts are the intentional reflection on that consciousness. The Magisterium is the arbiter of the conformity of those concepts to the experience that is embedded in the person ex officio of the Roman Pontiff as Simon-become-Peter by his experience of entering into the prayer of Christ (Lk. 9, 18) ["Cornerstone" - Acts 4, 11] and his becoming "alter Christus." Ratzinger developed this in his "Behold the Pierced One" - thesis 1, 2, 3. Theology is the conceptual development that accrues to that prayer-experience. Without that, we are dealing with history and archeology. Most instructive here is Ratzinger's "Milestones - Memoirs 1928-1977" Ignatius (1999) 108-109).

I don't know Jeff Mirus. I am sure that he is right. But I would sift the theological aberrations through the seine of the above and refute it in the light of same.

Thanks for sending me this. Fr. Bob

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