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THE MASTER IN THE THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION
FROM THE MODERN ERA TO OUR TIMES

Acts of the International Seminar
on "Jesus, the Master"
(Ariccia, October 14-24, 1996)

by Fr. Bruno Forte

 

2. THE MODERN TRIUMPH OF THE SUBJECT: CHRIST MASTER, MODEL OF ACCOMPLISHED SUBJECTIVITY (5)

The new speculative reception of the new emergence of subjectivity is brought to fulfillment by René Descartes: "cogito, ergo sum" is the reflex registration of a dense and concrete existential act; it is the bringing to the world, in a systematic manner and in a manner that it re-founds the universe of knowledge, of the subject’s rights rooted on the same act of reason. It is precisely for his having known to express the anxiety of an entire era that the influence of Descartes would be enormous: before being a teacher of content, he is a teacher of thought who educates towards search with such clarity and obviousness to the spirit so that they become norm and measure of the truth of knowing. In spite of the attraction that it would exercise on many religious spirits, the Cartesian form invariably opposes the thought of the divine advent: it departs from the exodus movement of man, in its knowing and elaborating aspect, and ends in itself. Descartes’ God is a product of reason which is in need of Him as supreme guarantor of its truth and of the relationship – otherwise unresolved – between "res cogitans" and "res extensa," but not of the subversive God, disturbing for the worldly horizon. It is because of this also that the theological and spiritual reaction to Descartes and Cartesianism shall be broad and deep.

In the field of theology, the need to express objectivity of the truth against the adventures of the emerging subjectivity leads above all the Catholic teaching to present without solution of continuity the strongly speculative reflection of Scholasticism, progressively impoverishing it from every presence of concrete Christology that could even just give the impression of an exemplaristic and subjectivistic intent. The very use of the Scriptures is ever more reduced to a collection of probing arguments or of pious sayings, up to reaching the conceptual aridity of manuals. It is not surprising then that Christological piety, separated from the theology of the Schools, would find nourishment through other ways that go from the accentuation of union with Christ, a characteristic of Pierre de Bérille (+ 1629), to the spirituality of annihilation in conformity with Him who is priest and victim, to the Janseenist rigorism of Christ Judge, to the devotion to the Sacred Heart as a way to entering in the intimacy of the mystery of Christ Love whose thoughts, affections and desires are scrutinized and imitated (St. John Eudes: + 1680). If in Protestantism the strong Christological-biblical accentuation of the origins is kept, the consequences of the extremization of the implicit subjectivist principle in the origins of the Reform would proliferate in all its weight: confessional piety would develop intimistic themes accompanied by moral rigorism like in the pietism initiated by Philip Jakob Spener (+ 1705). Meanwhile, the reflection on the Scriptures would open up to the challenges of illuminist reason, not only in the birth of critical exegesis – which eventually would find in the Oratorian Richard Simon an initiator in the Catholic world – but also and especially in the development of rationalist reductionism.

A name that stands out among all in the scenario of the anti-Cartesian resistance is that of Giovanni Battista Vico, the thinker who, "from a dead corner of history" ingeniously reacts to the captivity of absolute subjectivity by reestablishing the exact relationship between objectivity in the circularity proper to knowing history.(6) His anti-Cartesianism is above all a rejection of the assumption that man is reason alone, in the name of the recovery of sentiment, of imagination and of reason itself as concrete reason. The "cogito" is seen, in short, as a perception of a mode of presence, which can not be in any manner the exclusive criteria or absolute source of knowledge. The criterion of the truth has to be found in the meaning of explanation, not in that of the mere internal deduction to thought: something is known when it is explained in its causes, in its historical process. And one thing is explained this way when it is done and hence when its evolution, live could be presented: "verum ipsum factum." The deep meaning of the Vico axiom "verum et factum convertuntur" comes to oppose as much an idealistic reduction of the real to the ideal, so much as to a materialistic capture of the ideal in the real in order to establish an exact correlation of subjectivity and objectivity in knowledge, that it does not sacrifice either the informative value, the datum, or the transcendence of the norm, the divine truth on which the epistemological capacity of the human mind is measured. The correlation of truth and fact is hence always open: there is no such a thing as progressive linearity, but the permanent possibility of course and recourse, that do not state an abstract law of the eternal return, but that do express the concrete permanence of freedom and of its possibilities of falling and rising. Vico’s history is an open history: in it the passage to successive and superior stages of civilization reveals a heterogenesis of ends that refers to the intervention of divine Providence, at once transcendent and sovereign and immanent to the affair of His creatures. Far from competing with man, Providence opens in a more radical manner to the new, to the beyond and to the more.

An indication of the possibility to perceive in the thought of faith Vico’s ingenious intuitions and their profound anti-Cartesian spirit can be gathered from another Neapolitan, St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori.(7) His moral theology and his spiritual writings – that would have very vast influence in the Christian world – marvelously connects the sense of the divinity of God and the sense of humanity of man and at the thought of their meeting in Jesus Christ: if the clear affirmation of the divinity lets Alphonsus avoid falling into arid rationalisms, the strong perception of what is human makes him diffident and liberating in comparison with the Janseenist rigor. In him the circularity of exodus and of advent is full, in pure respect of the different proprieties of both: a synthesis that is a fruit of the same world wherein were born and developed the fruitful Vico intuitions. In Alphonsus the reference to Jesus Christ is never that of an abstract and distant moral model, but always and only to the experience of love of the living God made possible in Him: love alone corresponds to love; and it is in loving and letting one’s self be loved that one learns how to love.(8) Jesus Christ is the Master in the sweetness and in the strength of His love that attracts and forms the heart and life: "Here is the Lord of the world who humbles himself up to taking the form of a servant... He loved us and because he loved us he gave himself into the hands of pain, of ignominy and of death more painful than any man on earth has ever suffered." (9) "It is the same love that teaches never to do anything that displeases God, and to do everything that would please him." (10)

The emergence of subjectivity, however, is not maintained, in the development of the modern era, in the equilibrium reached by Vico and St. Alphonsus: the process started with Humanism and the Reformation surfaces instead in that triumph of the subject. This is the subject of Illuminism either in the practical application, which is the French revolution, or in its theoretical expression, which is the German idealism. The process is complex, but can be evoked, even but in part, also in its loftiest reflex formulation, that one produced by G. W. F. Hegel. Hegel wants to think of life, bringing to the word, the movement, the contradiction, the overcoming, which runs in the bloodstream of our life and of history. In him truth is not made up of immutable and eternal essences, it is not an object: it is a perennial becoming that affirms, denies and accomplishes, in order to overcome itself anew. Thought thus acquires a formidable practical dignity: it is conscience and doer of the change, a movement of the spirit inexorably overcoming itself in the real history of men. Against the thought of stagnation and of dead identity, philosophy should think of life and hence also of contradiction as a moment proper to every becoming, of relation as concrete texture of relationships wherein subject and object are placed, and unity as final reconciliation, rich of all the dynamism of the process, or else ever initial moment. All this constitutes the attractiveness and the beauty of Hegelian philosophy: life of thought is thought of life... One can understand in this light how the weighty Hegelian monism of the Spirit really takes its beginning from Christology: the meeting between the Spirit and history – that manifests this as phenomenology of the Spirit, absolute in the eternal process of its dialectic realization – in Jesus Christ, the divine man and the human God, who is in himself universal self-awareness wherein everything finds peace and reconciliation. A reconciliation and a peace that is nonetheless in a world closed in itself, rationally self-satisfied, incapable of hosting the Difference and to respect its excess and hence, in the end, exposed to the choice of a despotic reason, inevitably totalitarian and violent just how the ideological reason in all its expressions would be.

It is precisely this aspect that constitutes the risk and the incompleteness of the Hegelian philosophy: too ambitious is the project of one though that embraces the perennial fluidity of life in a kind of "triumph of Bacchus where there is no member which is not drunk". To stop seems inevitable: and the Hegelian methodology of the concept, the final victory of the system over the permanent fluidity of real life is together the giving in of Hegel and the temptation of him who welcomes the challenge. Reason needs a fulfilled reconciliation in order to feel itself secure and satisfied: and Hegel seems not to know how to resist the seduction of this ultimate satisfaction. A certain presumptuous awareness of being the harvest, the ripe fruit of an entire era was pushing him there: in him the demands of modern subjectivity were pushed to their extreme tension, beyond which there seemed to be nothing but the desert and boredom. The reactionary brake followed by the French revolution that asked for restoration and tranquillity, ideal order face to face with disorder experienced in reality, was pushing him there. Finally, the instinctively defensive – and thus so human – attitude of thought, especially if exercised for long in relation with the "plus ultra," was pushing him there. The philosopher of event thus ends with the closing the movement of life in the quiet of the system, in the reconciliation of that monism of the spirit that no longer leaves to the novelty of the future and to the surprises of the event. In this light Jesus Master is nothing but Him wherein the process of the world has been definitively published and accomplished: "What the life of Christ represents... is the process of the nature of the spirit, God in the human form. This process is, in its development, the progress of the divine idea towards the loftiest split, towards the contrary of pain and of death, which is in itself the absolute conversion, towards the supreme love, in itself the negative of the negative, the absolute reconciliation, the overcoming of man’s opposition to God and the end, which is resolved in that splendor that is the joyful receiving of the human nature in the divine. The first, God in the human form, is real in this process, which shows the separation of the idea and its unification, its accomplishment as truth. This is the totality of history." (11)

Nonetheless, if "Hegel denied the future, no future shall deny Hegel." (12) Hegel denied the future because he made an absolute the event of reason, thus celebrating the triumph of modern subjectivity. The future of thought will not however deny his problem, the challenge to think on the force of life in order to transform it and to transform history. The Hegelian malaise would inspire undertakings from the right and from the left, the recovery of singularity and the class struggle: in all these attempts, thought different among them, would revive the Hegelian efforts of the concept, the rejection, that is, of an abstract theory in favor of an ideal that is under the care of the dialectic concreteness of the real and hence of the passion of history. Not even theological thought could negate Hegel in his being the challenge and problem: and this non only because also this has been provoked by the emergence of modern subjectivity, but also for its being more readily available to this effort to think of life. Here one can gather how the Hegelian roots are theological: it is the thought of the encounter between the Absolute and history, which is the Incarnation of God, the profound nourishment of the radicality of the antithesis and of the depth of the synthesis of which the Hegelian system lives.

This explains how an entire Christian theological world came to feel the enticing influx of Hegel: Schleiermacher would see in religion "a province of the spirit," a dimension that is of subjectivity opened to the sentiments of infinite dependence, which finds in Christ its exemplary form. The search of a universal value of the Crucified Risen One, which would make him arise by "the truth of reason" beyond the poor and contingent "truth of fact" of his historical existence shall lead to accentuating Christ as pure and loftiest example of moral conscience: Gotthold Efraim Lessing presents Jesus as "the first worthy teacher of faith and attentive to practical life... worthy of faith for the prophecies that seemed to come true in him; worthy of faith for the miracles done; worthy of faith for his resurrection after the death with which he had sealed his teaching... Watch out about practical life, because one thing is to hope and to believe in the plausible philosophical speculation; another thing it is to found on this faith one’s own interior and exterior life." Lessing, however, adds: "I leave without answer the question on the possibility of his resurrection and of the real nature of Christ’s person. All this could have its own importance then for convincing to the acceptance of his doctrines, not necessary now for knowing the truth." (13) Jesus becomes the model of the beautiful soul that has known how to live till the end the absolute dependence on God and the unconditional dedication to others: "The ideal of humanity pleasing to God... is not conceivable on our part than through the idea of a man who is not only ready to accomplish by himself all the human duties and together to spread around himself what is the most intense possible good through teaching and example, but also ready, in spite of every temptation and trap, to subject himself to greater pains, including the most shameful death for the good of the world and also of his own enemies." (14) Christ would be viewed as the projection of man’s self-transcendence (L. Feuerbach), or would be modeled on the basis of the criterion of investigating reason, declining itself after so many images proposed in the biographies of Jesus of the "Leben-Jesu-Forschung." These images of the Nazarene teacher of life proper in his ordinary humanity, drawn in the search of His authentic face, would spoil all to the same result of projecting on Jesus the desire, the tastes and the aspirations of an era. The Jesus of a liberal Protestant is nothing but a liberal Protestant." (15)

The reaction to this thesis would be expressed no only in the criticism and in the rejection of liberal reductions and of the rationalist temptations, but also in the positive attempts of opposing the triumph of subjectivity, with the recovery, necessary and healthy, of objectivity. If the School of Tübingen would exert the effort of recovering through the recourse of historical data – making clear how "Christian faith and theology rest on the divine word pronounced once and for all in history and in the historical action of God," and, hence, how "theology as such has nothing with general ideas and abstract principles but as history," (16) and hence with a Teacher alive and living, who is the Lord Jesus risen from the dead – the Neoscholasticism would counterpoise against the modern shipwreck of objectivity that is expressed in the great teachers who have Christianized Aristotle. In this second line, nonetheless, "the modern historical thought and the Catholic faith appeared from the beginning as contradictory terms(17) and the communication of ever diverse languages, like that of the medieval dialectics and that of the modern reason, resulted impossible: Christ Master would counterpoised – wall against wall – against the magisterium of absolute and crazed reason. In his turn Kierkegaard would react to an idealistic reduction of the Christ (but also a certain rationalistic and evasive abstraction of certain theology...) recalling the infinite value of his singularity: "Jesus is the humble man and the savior of humanity... the sign of scandal and the object of faith..." The invitation of Christ, "lies in the crossroads that divides death from life...:" regarding him, "two roads start, one leads to scandal and the other to faith, but one never arrives at faith without passing through the possibility of scandal." (18) The impression that the Christian reaction to the Hegelian challenge leaves is therefore, on one hand, that of subjection to modern reason (till the epigons of modernism), and, on the other hand, that of a closing in and rejection without sufficient dialogue. The critical problem, that the XIX century leaves open to the conscience of faith would then be that of a more profound conciliation between fidelity to the Eternal and the fidelity to the modern times, between the objectivity of the living God and the subjectivist disclosure of man. And the theme of Jesus Master, for the declensions, to which it serves between objectivism and exasperated subjectivism, would be a most valid map for return of this confrontation. (return to summary)

Continued: The return to history in the XIX century theologies: Jesus Christ, the living Master in us - 1 -

return to summary

 

           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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