Saturday 24 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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Oliver, for your helpful comments. I just have a couple of questions for further clarification. I haven't read the TT book, which probably discusses this in more detail, but could you say a little more about the distinction between substitution and mediation with regard to the sacraments? Is your concern that the real presence of Christ in the sacraments is lost? Related to that, in what way (and where) do you want to say Christ is bodily present? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Haven't read the book (yet: now I have to!), but I must say I strongly agree with your point about the location of the resurrected and still-embodied Jesus. I like Jenson, but I agree with you against his substitution of the Church for the embodied Christ. And I disagree with Calvin, too, for he removes the embodied Jesus from us altogether. This is, I think, just another form of substitution.

I would say the still-incarnate Jesus is in the New Creation, in that place John 14 speaks of. And his resurrected body allows him to be "here" and "there" without being any less himself in any time or space. And, for what it's worth, he can be (is!) "here" in the Supper, too, but without not being "there" in God's future (Jenson), in Life after life-after-death (Wright). The Spirit doesn't come to us instead of the resurrected Jesus, but in the Supper, makes it possible for us to discern him there.

Would you say it is only in the Eucharist that we meet the still-embodied Jesus? Or do we also meet him in "the least of these"?

I'm loving this!

Michael Anthony Howard said...

Thanks Oliver,

Like the others, I haven't yet read your book on TT. My answer (as I was thinking about it the entire time reading your post)to the ascention problem has been shaped by Moltmann, Pannenberg and Wright (while all a bit different) who seem to suggest our understanding of God should rest in looking at Jesus as a proleptic incarnation of God from the future (as Chris Greene has just suggested). I'm not sure whether this would be a future time inside our own "space-time" situation or some place outside our "space-time" situation, but either way it veiws the presence of the fully embodied and resurrected Jesus as being from and in the future of God: the "life after life-after death."

I am new to asking these kinds of questions (only been a student of theology for a year) and so there may already be a general answer to a problem that I see to be related. If so, perhaps you can comment on it. The problem with the "place" of the resurrected Jesus is not as much of a problem for trinitarian theology as might be the problem of the existence of the Son before the birth on Bethlehem. Perhaps Jesus has not always be fully human and fully God (I take issue with this theologically, but don't yet know how to handle it in "matter" talk). Might our answer to "where was Jesus before Bethlehem?" give us some kind of glimpse as to "where Jesus us after the resurrection?"

Just a few questions. BTW, thanks again for the post. I look forward to reading your book!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree.

In His Word (Bible, Preaching, Baptism and Supper)

He is there...for us.

These are the places He promised to be for us.

Why would we waste time and faith looking anywhere else?

Thanks much! I appreciate the great post!

- Steve Martin

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the questions. Just a quick response. Where to put the body is a cosmological question. It was well answered in the pre-modern period, since the belief in heaven within a finite universe allowed people properly to imagine the body, which is to say properly to set it in relation to ordinary space and time (though of course it was predicated on a false cosmology). Then with Newtonian cosmology, the question could not be meaningfully asked - and we stopped asking it. This was a mistake. We still needed to ask the question since it was a question which derives from scriptural sources as well as Christian experience of faith. Cosmology does not justify or prompt the question - it is faith that does that - but it does allow us to ask it more meaningfully. We can ask it meaningfully again now, and a lot of my current work is on finding a 'place' for the body within current cosmology. It is actually less difficult than one might think. We do not meet this body directly, in an objectifiable way (the body retains identity and history without being objectifiable in the sense of being an object to the senses: it is rather a presence within sensibility itself, since it is now co-terminous with world, or the world is now 'in' the body as well as the body being 'in' the world). The body comes to meet us through its disruptive and transformative effects: in 'the poor and the marginalised', in each other, and in the calling to vocation. Sanctification is an effect of this body, communicated through the Spirit. It is known in the advent of the New Creation as this breaks in, or is birthed, in each individual life. In my new book I am arguing that the body calls us into our own most radical freedom, of action, where the divine freedom which is made present to us through incarnation overtakes us and instrumentalises/mandates us. From one angle it is all pretty straightforwardly Pauline.
The question about the Eucharist is more difficult. Historically speaking, Eucharistic presence depends upon the 'local' existence of the body of Jesus in heaven (where it occupies a space). The height and exaltation of heaven gives cosmological justification for the presence of that body in particular form throughout the creation. Eucharist is a uniquely strong, because 'substantial', instance of this. The key point for TT about the Eucharist is that what is primarily disclosed in it is the nature of the world post resurrection/ ascension. The telos of the world as space and time is now determined by the transformation that has taken and still is taking place in the (material) body of Jesus himself. This means that it is the reality of world as contained in Christ which is disclosed in the eucharistic body. This is eschatological but we must be careful before calling it futural. What we may mean by futural, the telos or final meaning of the world, cannot be 'contained' in some future time since, according to contemporary cosmology, the future does not yet exist. It is rather a meaning that unfolds in the present, which we can grasp only obliquely ('prophetically' perhaps) but of which we can nevertheless become fully a part. Eucharist then is the disclosure to us in ecclesial space and time of the true meaning of the world from an incarnational perspective. As true meaning it is necessarily also about us. But it is not primarily about us, since it is primarily about the world of space and time, and the effects upon it of the presence of the transformed body of Christ within it.
TT places a great emphasis upon the divinity of Christ, known in its transformational effects - or power - from within Christ's humanity, spreading into the whole created order also through our bodies, where we are summoned into its power, thus becoming Church. Sacrifice becomes central to this: the sacrifice of Christ and our own free reception of that sacrifice, which is the focal point of the transformative effect of divinity in world.

Marc Manera said...

Thank you for this very interesting post!

Anonymous said...

I think I am not entirely unsympathetic to the gist of these remarks. But I do have some questions and reservations.

1. I don't know who the "we" is in these comments, especially when it points to a set of inadequacies and confusions. Just who really subscribes to them, and what it the evidence for these claims?

2. Is "substitution" really incompatible with "mediation"? What does "substitution" mean here? Does it rule out "representation"?

3. Why is there no reference here to the Word of God, especially in its function not of "mediation," but of "witness"? How does the author think mediation and witness are properly related?

4. Mission and eschatology also seem to get short shrift. Are they not entailed in any proper conceptions of mediation and witness?

5. Does not the mediation of Christ move not only from above to below, but also from below to above? Where is Christ's atoning sacrifice in this so-called "transformation theology"?

6. Is "transformation" something we are expected to accomplish or has it already been accomplished for our sakes and in our place by the Lord Jesus Christ? If "transformation" is entailed in the finished work of Christ, then the mission of the church is primarily a matter of witness, and in and with witness, mediation.

But it all depends on the self-witness and the self-mediation of Christ through Word and Sacrament in the power of the Holy Spirit. In relation to the active self-witness of the living and ascended Christ, we are but instruments and servants. Christ himself and Christ alone is the one true transformation of all things.

Anonymous said...

Does modern cosmology necessitate rejecting the possibility of a material heaven, or a heaven able to contain a material body? I don't see why. The idea that heaven is above the celestial sphere is vanquished, but the concept of material locations other than the visible universe remains viable.

Anonymous said...

Hi Oliver,

With George Hunsinger, I'm having problems with the language of mediation necessarily being at odds with the language of substitution and representation (perhaps your doctrine of the atonement will clear them up in due course), but my biggest problem is that I'm as puzzled as ever about the nature of the ascended Jesus who is being mediated, whose space-time somatic reality, commensurable with contemporary cosmology and, presumably, quantum mechanics (Schrödinger's Christ?) - a big ask - is so central to your project. You boldly want to eschew collapsing the ascended Christ without remainder into the mental (observer-contingent) or metaphorical worlds, into pneumatology or ecclesiology - so far I'm following you - but then proceed to talk about the presence of Christ in the eucharist (the elements?) and the poor, and to put "great emphasis" on the "transformational effects - or power - from within Christ's humanity" (which actually sounds quite Melanchtonian!). I guess I was hoping to hear more about your new take on the "locality" of "the living, wounded and ascended body of Christ" - i.e. Jesus of Nazareth - which (perhaps I'm just stupid or obtuse, but I don't mean to be facetious) so far seems to me more like the smile of the Cheshire cat than a particular first century Jew with a unique genotype, composed of matter-energy, if (with I Corinthians 15) now in heavenly rather than merely earthly form. You're gonna have to help me out here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for these postings. Let me try to pick up some of the points. Firstly, George’s point about the ‘we’. We (TT) are suggesting that there are deeply ‘idealist’ impulses at work in modern theology which have left a clear historical footprint. These have to be taken together with a common failure to rethink ascension in the post-Copernican context. This cannot be just a ‘where is the body’ exercise but calls for a deep reflection upon what exactly was being asserted about Jesus Christ’s current state and about faith, or Christian existence, as the reception of it in the classical tradition. That doctrinal core has to be retrieved and reasserted in a new way (much more possible now of course than during the Newtonian period), though without making the doctrine dependent upon the cosmology. There are many theologians aiming exactly in this direction but what may be distinctive about TT is the combination of critical reflection from both a philosophical and a doctrinal perspective. This has thrown up a much more cautious theology: aware of its limits and of its central indebtedness to doctrine and tradition (very attentive in its reading of scripture, especially of Pauline texts). A theology which, while reflection, is fundamentally witness through creedal reference*, entailing a whole-person transformation, in faith, which actually intensifies our being in the world. The ascended Christ always comes in, through or ‘with’ the world of space and time, always transformatively, and so we meet him there.
‘Substitution’ is used to mean the object of reference (or pointing to) in lieu of having an ascended Christ. The pre-moderns could point up, to heaven – they may have been wrong about that, but nevertheless have been more right than we are (generally) in that they were at least making real reference to a living, embodied Christ who – by virtue of the nature of their pre-modern heaven – was very closely related for them to their ordinary reality of space and time. Creedal witness requires real reference to Christ in the world (which comes to us in the form of the session), and we need to return to that reference even if its cosmological wrapping cannot be meaningful for us in the way it was for those who devised it. Modern cosmological accounts can be useful here but they cannot replace the purely doctrinal logic of a living Christ, fully human and fully divine, who is fully in relation with our embodied humanity, by virtue of his own continuing transformed humanity, and in a way that implicates or ‘contains’ world. My guess is that ‘representation’ can either be used in a substitutive sense or in a mediational one.
The key point though is that the ascended Christ is known not primarily through reflective, objectifying intellect but through divine command present in the circumstances of our daily living, our response to which is vocation, witness, discipleship and ethics. This is not a disembodied command but the command of one who is intimately with us in shared humanity, a real humanity but one which is so transformed according to the divine Logos that it unites with world: our real world of space and time in which we are called to vocation, witness and discipleship. We meet him in the circumstances of our lives, through command and vocation, as a full human figure who is therefore truly with* us, though in a unique way. The divinity is known not directly but in and through the transformation of his wounded and glorified humanity, and through him, in and through the living transformation of ourselves and of the space-time world.
The command of the Lordship of Christ is grounded in divine freedom. In him divine freedom enters space and time and this becomes real for us. It becomes real for us as command however (since we are not divine). This command summons us into our own most radical freedom. Freedom is being read here as something very different from the freedom to choose of secular tradition. Freedom is our entry into the actuality of history as embodied agents acting in the world in a way that reflects the totality of our identity. Our response to the divine command in him is our entry into history in this way, often through vocation or through the difficult caritative acts to which we are called by the presence of the poor, oppressed and the marginalised. He calls us into this freedom from within situations in which what we do will make a difference, though what we do will inevitably entail a degree of risk (since we might get it wrong, despite our best intentions). This acceptance of the risk of action, in response to divine command, is what makes us available to the divine providence and thus instruments of the divine will. But this is not an immediate relation between us and the divine freedom. The divine freedom only exists in the world, is only real for us, since it summoned the humanity of Jesus into his own most radical freedom, instrumentalising him in a uniquely total way. Sacrifice is the touching of the divine (unlimited) and human (limited) freedom. The sacrifice of Jesus is the making present in the world of divine freedom as real for us, or as real divine command, and so our - free - reception of that command is always a freedom that is exercised in him: it locates us through the Spirit in him, the Spirit being the Spirit of that body and thus in a sense the communication, or mediation, of the freedom of that body.
Picking up Kim’s point: there is a ‘place’ to put the ascended body in contemporary cosmology (I am currently working with this with others and not yet ready to put down details; the emergence of this particular possibility has a lot to do with Janz’s anthropology, as yet unpublished, which seems to me to give a new understanding of something which is reasonably well established among cosmologists). But the ascended form has to include the full, historical humanity: the role of the divinity is precisely to make that particular humanity real for us in a universal way. It is not that the world moved on after Jesus created the possibility of true discipleship, so that we are always looking back: it is rather that in taking space and time to himself, he ‘placed’ space and time, as transformed, ‘within’ the discipleship relation, through the continuity (or life) of his own body, shared with us, through the Spirit. This is the eternal (or heavenly) life we have in him while also living our mortal lives. Christian life as witness (which in a way is what this theology is all about) is the living out of these two.

MM said...

... This seems like one of the most promising prescriptions for post-Prot ecclesiology going, if the theologians involved prove willing to take it that far.

John Paul II's Encylical 'Ecclesia de Eucharistia' has tied much of these issues together already.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the thoughts above. I look forward to reading and learning more in the time to come.

I share the questions of a few readers as to how to think about the ascended body of Christ and precisely what the difference is between the views of Jenson, and others (Bonhoeffer for another--the church is Christ existing as a community) and that of TT. Suggesting that the body of Christ is perceived within the concrete sense-experience of Christians as they faithfully carry out the command of God looks quite a bit like suggesting that the body of Christ is found within the life of the Church under the power of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps there is a genuine difference between "mediation" and "substitution" but I'm not sure that I see it yet (and I'm suspicious of the distinction between the mental and the real that accompanies it).

I do hope to see more to come! Thank you for taking the time to interact in the far-too-mental wilds of the blog-country.

Pieter Pronk said...

Thanks for that nice piece about TT.

I was kind of imagining how I would hear this in a sermon. Sitting in the benches of my church, the preacher would bring up the question of the whereabouts of the body of Christ. "Ooooh, haven't heard that one in a while. Let's have a listen. I'm curious about the whereabouts."

Then the sermon explains that we have gotten too intellectual about it, and as such have intellectualised and internalised the whereabouts of the body of Christ.
And I as the listener would think: "That's true. We just turn him into one of our own thoughts. And sometimes even forget that he was a real person with a real body, AND that he still is! oh, now I really can't wait to hear the whereabouts of the body of Christ."

But then the sermon gets too difficult for me. Probably just like the preacher explained at the beginning of his sermon, that for some the idea is just too revolutionary.
This listener would be thinking: "The whereabouts of the body of christ is in the command of grace? Substitution no, mediation yes? His body is in his transformed state in the everyday reality of our lives, where he comes to meet us."

And then, that dreaded word: Amen. Sermon is over.
And the listener starts thinking "hey hold on. I was promised the whereabouts of the very real body of christ. And I've heard all kinds of explanations about his whereabouts already. In heaven. In our faith. In our intellectuality. In the church. In the people I meet. In the grace of God that still carries the world. In the Spirit and the Church. But I was promised the REAL answer this time. And I don't think I got it, since in the end it sounds a lot like the 'in the spirit and in the church' answer."

It's a good sermon for me in the sense that I'm gonna search for the body of Christ now. Now I want to see it. And when I see it, I won't chicken out like Thomas when offered the opportunity to touch his wounds. But really, your "his body is in the transformation" answer is either fundamentally shaking my foundations for me to "get it" or maybe in the end I can't tell substitution and mediation apart, or maybe I don't think "in the church and in the spirit" are that much different from "in the transformation".

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this discussion - it's very stimulating. I have to agree with a number of commenters though that I don't perceive a major difference between Christ's body being "in the church/Spirit" and "in the transformation/vocation".

But more fundamentally, I'm not convinced that there is a major cosmological problem: Just as recent scientific examinations of 'personhood' are closing the 'gaps' that once housed the soul, so post-Newtonian cosmology closes the 'gaps' that once housed the ascended Jesus. But the Christian God has never really been the God of the gaps... Even if my 'personhood' is entirely explicable in neuro-scientific terms, and even if the cosmos is entirely explicable in post-Newtonian terms, I see no problem whatsoever for traditional Christian conceptions of the soul or the body of Jesus. Does an exhaustive naturalistic explanation of consciousness do away with the Christian conception of a soul? No... and does an exhaustive modern explanation of cosmology do away with the Christian conception of an ascended bodily Jesus? I don't think it needs to. In fact, that the ascended Jesus is "hidden" from worldly access is entirely consistent with Pauline theology - which insistently looks forward to his "appearing".

Sensuous Wife said...

Jesus really used your post to bless me and nourish me. Please receive this word of thanks.

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