Sunday, 25 May 2008

Transformation theology: Oliver Davies responds

A guest-post by Oliver Davies (responding to our recent discussion of his new co-authored book on Transformation Theology)

Hi everyone. Well, firstly I would really like to thank you all for picking up these themes. We really appreciate it. The first thing I have to say is how difficult it really is to communicate something new in the theological realm! We all carry around sets of idea in our heads and are open to some kind of refinement or amendment to those, but when something comes along which calls the whole lot into question, we struggle to make sense of it. The missing bit may only be very small but it can also be quite fundamental. From the point of view of those trying to communicate the problem and its answer (if that is not too reductionist a way of viewing it) our difficulty is that, since what we are working with is fundamental, we often don’t know ourselves where it is leading us. Only gradually do you get to see an overall picture. If the problem is fundamental, then it will touch everything, though it may do so in ways which simply confirm the status quo, tweak it in a new direction or radically challenge it.

The further problem with presenting this stuff is that you can go in from so many different angles – I have recently “gone in” through ascension and scriptural hermeneutics (see my recent paper, available in Italian at the Gregorian University website). So, since we are claiming that Transformation Theology is about something fundamental which has dropped out of view, let me tell you what I think it is.

Firstly, there is a small but massively influential Christological deficit. We don’t know “where the body of Jesus is”. We accordingly read the ascension as marking the absence of Christ, whereas it properly marks his presence in a new and more powerful way. Spirit and Church come to take the place of the body (as Jenson and others suggest), which just confuses a traditional Trinitarian structure of mediation (common ousia) with an innovative structure of substitution. We’ve lost the body but, hey, we still have the Spirit and the Church, so that’s okay!

There are two big problems with this. We lost the doctrinal affirmation that Christ continues to exist bodily (the “local” existence of scripture and tradition) in a mode which is fully human and fully divine – and we lost this on the grounds of changes in cosmology which were only ever expressive of the doctrine and never defining of it. Did we really want to do that? We keep the consequences of the ascension (i.e. Spirit of Pentecost and Church, universal presence of Christ) but can’t relate to the ascension itself (since it is expressed in terms of an alien cosmology).

That doesn’t seem right to me, since it shifts the axis of incarnation away from real time and space (where the living, wounded and ascended body of Christ must in some real sense be, if Christ is still fully human and fully divine) to ourselves as observers, meaning-makers, beautiful theoreticians, etc. If we have lost the reality of the continuing incarnation (contra Mt 28:20) since we lost a particular view of heaven as the place to “put” the body, then, never mind, we still have ourselves! And the human mind is a wonderful thing. If we no longer look to discover incarnational revelation in our space and time, in the actuality of our embodied lives, then we can nevertheless think it there: by the power of the creative intellect. And we have the sacraments too of course. To point to the sacraments is to point to Christ (never mind if sacramental theology was predicated in its origins on the real existence of Christ in heaven, without which we get substitution again and not the mediation which is the bedrock of classical sacramental theory). The affirmation that Christ still lives and is still embodied needs the corresponding affirmation that he is still in real relation to our space and time on his own account and not by virtue of substitution, which would imply that he has simply “gone off the radar”.

Secondly, all of this combines with the amazing work that Paul Janz has done on practical and speculative reason, and on ethics and revelation. I learned a fantastic amount from Paul, who came at the same questions from an entirely different angle. Paul has shown (largely in his forthcoming book) how thinking came to do the work of acting in Western tradition. Revelation is fundamentally about a new way of acting in the world (it is not those who “say Lord, Lord, but who do the will of the Father...”), under obedience to divine command. All that is to do with practical rather than speculative intellect; and yet, we have lost sensitivity to these distinctions. We constantly treat Christianity as though it were a philosophy or a work of literature (I am not against philosophy or literature) rather than a disclosure to practical intellect which calls us into the radical freedom of action in and for Christ in the world (i.e. the ascended, wounded and glorified Christ). Faith is faith in Christ who acts rather than thinks.

There are two fundamental problems that we are addressing therefore. The first is the Christological deficit which goes back four or five hundred years. The second is the shift in anthropology which is chiefly datable to the period immediately following the publication of Kant’s First Critique. Both changes, which were of enormous importance to Christianity, probably go back to radical developments in our understanding of what matter is, and thus of the relation between mind and matter, which is thematised both as a topic to be discussed and as a practice of thinking and living in the world. The latter is perhaps its more fundamental form.

We are not saying, however, that there is something radically wrong with Christian life today or the life of the Churches, but that the problems lie in the area of academic theology, as conceptual support for the life of faith. The faithful Christian always relates to a living Christ who lays claim to us in the fullness of our embodied actuality and in the particularity of our lives (I think this is what we mean by vocation). But theology more often than not just addresses the mind, through intellect and imagination, rather than taking its life and orientation from the world, which is both real in itself and taken up into Christ, where Christian intellect and imagination must find their home. Instead of allowing ourselves to be opened up to the revelation of Christ in the world, communicated through command at work through the senses and the particularity of space and time events (“the command of grace”, in Janz’s phrase), we focus on the mind as the place of insight, generativity and meaning. But if these things are to be properly Christian, they must also be real, which means they must be responses to the continuing incarnation or presence of Christ in the world – known not through the substitutions of Spirit, Church and sacrament, but through their mediations.

And here the third problem arises which follows from the first two: we have lost an understanding of the way we can and should access and be attentive to the presence of Christ in this way. We constantly bypass with mind the very place in which he is present for us in the here and now, which is to do with the senses and with command, since this is a place where the mind does not necessarily want to go. The Damascus Road appearance or revelation is paradigmatic for us here.

I could go on but I hope this helps! Paul and I both have books almost ready to go which develop these themes much more fully than we were able to do in the book Transformation Theology. All three of us are working on a new book, presenting this as a new Catholic Theology for Europe (which may appear first in European languages, though it should also come out in English). We continue to think and talk with people about a reformed version of TT. We have research projects gathering momentum in cosmology, law, scriptural exegesis, political theology, Pauline theology and aesthetics. We are also thinking about holding a forum at King’s where we can really enter into a good conversation with others, since once people “get it”, it quickly becomes a collaborative venture.

“Getting it” entails seeing that incarnational revelation still comes to us through the senses (“Jesus still lives, and his Lordship in the particularity of our lives is the mode for us of that life”), and that the senses cannot be absorbed without remainder into mind. Thus ascension allows that our faith in Christ can be far closer to that of the apostles than we might ordinarily admit, not on our own account, but on account of the nature of the transformation effected in Christ. Doctrinally (theologically) and anthropologically (philosophically) we have lost the tools and practices which help us to “recognise” him in his transformed state in the everyday reality of our lives where he comes to meet us.


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