Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, by Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1308 – 1311)
Pope Benedict’s new book Jesus of Nazareth has just been released, a book being described as one that "seeks to salvage the person of Jesus from recent 'popular' depictions and to restore Jesus’ true identity as discovered in the Gospels." At the same time, according to this article:
In a preface, the pope makes an unusual disclaimer, saying the book should not be read as an expression of official church teaching, but as the fruits of his personal research.
"Therefore, anyone is free to contradict me," he said.
Not to sound impertinent (I applaud the fact that he has written this book), but thank you Holy Father, for writing something that you admit is an invitation to dialogue, and does not have to be held definitively by the faithful.
Apparently the book contains some strong criticism of globalization and capitalism in the way it has been practiced by first-world countries, and it takes those countries to task for having mercilessly "plundered and sacked" Africa and other poor regions, and for having exported to them the "cynicism of a world without God". My goodness... Does he sound like one of those liberation theology guys?
Not exactly. A self-described Augustinian through and through, the Holy Father clearly sees a distinction between the City of God and the City of Man... and a Kingdom that is not of this world.
Benedict XVI said Christ must be understood as the Son of God on a divine mission, not as a mere moralist or social reformer... While Christ did not bring a blueprint for social progress, he did bring a new vision based on love that challenges the evils of today's world -- from the brutality of totalitarian regimes to the "cruelty of capitalism," he said.
The idea that the meek or the poor are particularly blessed has struck some -- including the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche -- as a resentful complaint against the world's more fortunate or successful people, the pope said.
But recent decades have demonstrated the lasting value of this Christian vision, he said. After witnessing the way totalitarian regimes of the modern era have trampled human dignity and beaten the weak, "we understand once again those who have hunger and thirst for justice," he said.
"Faced with the abuse of economic power, faced with the cruelty of capitalism that downgrades man to a commodity, we have begun to see more clearly the dangers of wealth and understand in a new way what Jesus meant when he warned against wealth," he said.
The pope said the widespread modern expectation that religion should act as a recipe for earthly peace and justice finds an echo in Satan's temptation to Christ -- to change the stones of the desert into bread to relieve his hunger.
Still, many people may ask "what Jesus really brought, if not peace in the world, well-being for everyone, a better world," the pope wrote.
"The answer is very simple. He brought God," he said. By revealing himself as the Son of God, Christ lets people know that God is close to their lives and at work in human history, he said.
With all due respect to the Holy Father, this is where he loses me a little bit. I'm not sure what it means to say that God is at work in human history, yet to deny the expectation that religion should act as a recipe for earthly peace and justice. God works through the human. I am, however, very familiar with this way of looking at faith and the meaning of Christ's life and of the Cross. In his distrust of mixing Christ with man-made political solutions, especially those that smack in some way of socialism, he echoes very much what we used to hear from the great Cold-Warrior Fulton Sheen on the meaning of "the temptation to turn stones into bread". From his book Life of Christ:
Knowing that Our Lord was hungry, Satan pointed down to some little black stones that resembled round loaves of bread, and said: If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread. Matthew 4:3
The first temptation of Our Blessed Lord was to become a kind of social reformer, and to give bread to the multitudes in the wilderness who could find nothing there but stones. The vision of social amelioration without spiritual regeneration has constituted a temptation to which many important men in history have succumbed completely. But to Him, this would not be adequate service of the Father; there are deeper needs in man than crushed wheat; and there are greater joys than the full stomach.
The evil spirit was saying, "Start with the primacy of the economic! Forget about sin!" He still says this today in different words, "My Commissar goes into classrooms and asks children to pray to God for bread. And when their prayers are not answered, my Commissar feeds them. The Dictator gives bread; God does not, because there is no God, there is no soul; there is only the body, pleasure, sex, the animal, and when we die, that is the end." Satan was here trying to make Our Lord feel the terrific contrast between the Divine greatness He claimed and His actual destitution. He was tempting Him to reject the ignominies of human nature, the trials and the hunger, and to use the Divine power, if He really possessed it, to save His human nature and also to win the mob. Thus, he was appealing to Our Lord to stop acting as a man, and in the name of man, and to use His supernatural powers to give His human nature ease, comfort, and immunity from trial. What could be more foolish than for God to be hungry, when He had once spread a miraculous table in the desert for Moses and his people? John had said that He could raise up children of Abraham for Himself. The need was real; the power, if He was God, was also real; why then was He submitting His human nature to all the ills and sufferings to which mankind is heir? Why was God accepting such humiliation just to redeem His own creatures? "If You are the Son of God, as you claim to be, and You are here to undo the destruction wrought by sin, then save Yourself." It was exactly the same kind of temptation men would hurl at Him in the hour of His Crucifixion...
Our Lord was not denying that men must be fed, or that social justice much be preached; but He was asserting that these things are not first. He was, in effect, saying to Satan, "You tempt Me to a religion which would relieve want; you want Me to be a baker, instead of a Savior; to be a social reformer, instead of a Redeemer. You are tempting Me away from My Cross, suggesting that I be a cheap leader of people, filling their bellies instead of their souls. You would have Me begin with security instead of ending with it; you would have Me bring outer abundance instead of inner holiness. You and your materialist followers say, `Man lives by bread alone,' but I say to you, `Not by bread alone.' Bread there must be, but remember even bread gets ill its power to nourish mankind from Me. Bread without Me can harm man; and there is no real security apart from the Word of God. If I give bread alone, then man is no more than an animal, and dogs might as well come first to My banquet. Those who believe in Me must hold to that faith, even when they are starved and weak; even when they are imprisoned and scourged.
"I know about human hunger! I have gone without food Myself for forty days. But I refuse to become a mere social reformer who caters only to the belly. You cannot say that I am unconcerned with social justice, for I am feeling at this moment the hunger of the world. I am One with every poor, starving member of the human race. That is why I have fasted: so that they can never say that God does not know what hunger is. Begone, Satan! I am not just a social worker who has never been hungry Himself, but One who says, `I reject any plan which promises to make men richer without making them holier.' Remember! I Who say, `Not by bread alone,' have not tasted bread for forty days!"
In his days as head of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger was well-known for his criticism of liberation theology in Latin America, and for his campaign against it. Much of that criticism was for LT's ecclesiology. Recently the Jesuit liberation theologian Jon Sobrino received a notification questioning certain elements of his christology.
If I may be so bold, it is my own humble opinion that the Pope makes a certain caricature of it. I wouldn't go as far as to say that he doesn't understand it. Joseph Ratzinger is well-known for having a deep understanding of everything that ever crosses his desk, but for some reason, he seems to construct a straw-man to attack out of LT and describes its theologians in ways that they wouldn't describe themselves. Perhaps he is more afraid of where he thinks it will lead instead of what it is.
If he is including LT in his latest critique (and granted, I'm not 100% sure he is), he is making the mistake of applying to them the same critique that Sheen rightly made concerning the secular socialists - that Jesus was only a social reformer. As far as I understand any of the liberation theologians, they would never claim that about Jesus. I admit that I'm not very far into Sobrino's book, but it seems to me that what he is getting at is the importance of stressing Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God, a kingdom which historical-Jesus research indicates was concerned about this world as well as the next world. "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven... ". Sobrino lays emphasis on his thesis that the Kindom of God message should not be as totally subsumed to the more traditionally "orthodox" christological doctrines as it has been up until now, particularly in places like Latin America. In his view, the living out of the Gospel has suffered in Latin America under a sort of quietistic piety that has failed to challenge societies to recognize the importance of God's justice in both the Old and New Testaments, in which God's people are trusting in His strong arm for their liberation and deliverance.
In short, I don't think Sobrino is trying to replace "orthodox" christology with another type. I think he is issuing the challenge that "orthodox" christology should be careful not truncate the full Gospel message.
The early Christians were able to massively transform the world in a non-violent way ("look how they love one another"). Today we hear all too often how the non-Christian world fails to hear the "Good News" because quite frankly, Christians don't act like Christians... We haven't practiced what we preach. Is it too much to expect the world to be transformed? The earliest believers certainly expected to see it transformed. Did the other-worldly message start to get more emphasis when Jesus did not immediately return, and the Kingdom did not arrive as expected? Why do we push the other-worldly message at the expense of the this-worldly message so strongly? Do we lack the faith that Christ really can work through us to bring justice and transformation? If so, does that say more about a desire to preserve and perpetuate a system than a desire to live out the Gospel? An excerpt from the Introduction to Jon Sobrino's Jesus the Liberator.
Christology can be useful to good ends, but can also be used to bad ends, which should not surprise us, since, being made by human beings, it is also subject to sinfulness and manipulation. We should not forget that historically there have been heretical christologies, which have truncated the total truth of Christ, and, worse, there have been objectively harmful christologies, which have put forward a different Christ and even one objectively contrary to Jesus of Nazareth. Let us remember that this continent has been subjected to centuries of inhuman and anti-Christian oppression, without christology giving any sign of having noticed this and certainly without it providing any prophetic denunciation in the name of Jesus Christ.
In this way christology, even in its orthodox forms, can become a mechanism to prevent faith from guiding the faithful to reproduce the reality of Jesus in their own lives and to build the Kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus, in history. This is why Juan Luis Segundo, using a deliberately shocking expression, set out to write an "anti -christology," "a speaking about Jesus that opens a way to seeing him as witness to a still more human and liberated life."' Christology therefore has to put an end to the apparent innocence of supposing that the mere fact of writing about Jesus means that what is said is first useful and then used correctly…
Christology is, finally, necessary, since human beings are always affected, astonished or challenged by important realities, and this forces them to think. Christians, furthermore, are explicitly told to give reasons for the hope that they have (1 Pet. 3:15). And in Latin America, as we shall see, christology is a necessity for historical reasons: we need to present a Christ who, as a minimum, is the ally of liberation, not of oppression. But none of this can silence the question of what is most necessary and whether and how christology relates to this.
If I may be allowed a personal comment, I have often thought, on seeing the proliferation of books on Christ-including my own-that if we Christians could put into practice a modest percentage of what is said in any normal work of christology, the world would change radically-and the world is not changing radically. This, of course, is not just the fault of christology. But it does make one think that in certain quarters there might be a sort of avidity and curiosity to see "what the latest book of christology has to say," and that christologies thereby become market products or views put about in the Athenian market-place, from which we can all pick and choose at whim, compare them, discuss them, defend them or attack them ... while everything stays exactly the same in reality.
We sincerely believe that the new Latin American christology has tried to serve "the one thing necessary," but there is still a fear of what J. L. Sicre denounced in his book on the prophets of Israel happening: "The best way of avoiding the word of God is to study the word of God."'
So, before starting a christology and before Jesus passes through the filter of concept and loses his freshness, it is good and necessary to allow oneself to be affected and challenged by the gospel. It is true that without the reasoning supplied by christology, reading the gospel can and usually does degenerate into dangerous fundamentalism, and this provides the need for christology. But we must be careful not to end up as enlightened christologues and illiterates of the gospel, of overcoming "fundamentalism" while losing sight of the "fundamentals," what the whole world understands (or should understand) without too many explanations: Jesus' option for the poor, his mercy and justice, his confrontation with the powerful, his persecution and death resulting from all this, his revindicating resurrection. And above all, that it is this Jesus we have to follow.
Why do I personally think this is something important to discuss, keep alive, and continually reconsider? Because I believe that the problem of theodicy will constantly be an Achilles Heel for the faith unless we do work to change the world as Christians, and besides, if the world doesn't change radically in the way we relate to each other, I fear we may not make it too much longer anyway... and I don't think eschatology is supposed to occur the way Tim LaHaye thinks it does....
The future of everything we have accomplished since our intelligence evolved will depend on the wisdom of our actions over the next few years... these years may be the last when civilization still has the wealth and political cohesion to steer itself towards caution, conservation, and social justice... the 10,000 year experiment of the settled life will stand or fall by what we do, and don't do, now.
-- A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright