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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

 

3. THE RETURN TO HISTORY
IN THE THEOLOGIES OF THE 1900s:
JESUS CHRIST, THE MASTER LIVING IN US - 1 -

The First World War, disproving the presumptions of the "long century", the bourgeois 1800s, and subverting the balances of political and spiritual conservation that seemed indestructible, opens that which for its accelerated processes and its traumatic changes would be called the "short century(19) while introducing into consciences the powerful perception of crisis: while the liberal myth of progress dies down, the space becomes empty and in a radical manner the question of the future is re-proposed with an awareness of the complexity of history found again. The rejection of the idealist-liberal monism gives to this awareness an open character: against a thinking that captures history, the possibility gains headway, that history invests thought with new freshness beginning with the history of revelation. "The destiny of this generation," Gogarten writes, "is to find itself amidst times. We never belonged to the time that today leads to the end. Perhaps we shall belong once to the time that will come? And granted also that on our part we were capable of belonging to it, will it soon come? Thus we find ourselves in the midst, in an empty space." (20) This space, however, is open to the question of the Absolute: "The space has become free for the question on God. Finally. The times have separated from each other and now time lies in silence." (21) If the temptation of reconciling the broken real through a thought of crisis – heavy with turns of violence and of domination (just think of the totalitarian ideologies) – that may be an overcoming of it, gains ground, the none other than crisis of thought shows, the imposing on it by the real with all its infinite possibilities and the undeniable risks that are connected with them. Through this second path, history enters into the veins of theological thought and animates it with new life thus opening up potentials not suspected before: one could recognize as the triple entrance of history into the theology of the 1900s.(22)

The first entrance is identified with the renewed attention paid to the pure Object of Christian faith, drawn from its dynamism of event or history of revelation: against the dryness of the liberal thought, prisoner of itself, it is a new, fresh resounding of the Word, a renewed and profound perception of the uncontainable and of the power of the divine event. It is Karl Barth who gives a voice to this new beginning: we need to let the advent speak, while discovering "in the words the relationship of the words with the Word." Jesus Christ is Master because in Him the subversive and transforming encounter of earth and heaven is accomplished, in Him the newness of God touches, judges and transforms the old of men: "Jesus Christ our Lord: this is the Gospel, this is the meaning of history. In this name two words touch each other and divine each other, two levels are cut, one unknown and the other known. What is known is the world of the ‘flesh’ created by God but fallen from its original unity with God, and hence needy of salvation; it is the world of man, of time, of things, our world. This known level is cut by another unknown, the world of the Father, the world of the original creation and of the final redemption... ‘Jesus,’ as the historical indication, means the place of breakage between the world known to us and another unknown." (23) "In Christ, God speaks, the way He is, and proves a lie the non-God of this world. He affirms himself inasmuch as he negates us as we are and the world as it is." (24) We owe trust and obedience to this Master alone and not to the false teachers of the different historical totalitarianisms, just as the manifesto, written by Barth himself, of the "Confessing Church", the soul of the Christian resistance to Nazism, affirms: "Jesus Christ, the way it is witnessed to us by the Sacred Scriptures, is the only Word of God, which we must listen to and to which we owe trust and obedience in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine according to which the church as the front of his proclamation, could and must recognize, other and beside this only Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths as God’s revelation." (25) This strong and dense underlining of the primacy of God and of the need for man to radically place himself in the condition of listening and of obedience to the only Master, the alternative to the false teachers produced by the cleverness of totalitarian and violent reason finds a meaningful correspondence in the Catholic antimodernist reaction, as well as in the broad "return to the sources", biblical, patristic and liturgical, that characterizes the theology of this period. In different forms and with different accents, it is the time of a new discovery of objectivity within the bosom and consequently in the strongly anti-ideological character of Christianity.

The reflex retaking of the value of the anthropological component marks the second entrance of history into the theological thought of the 1900s: in continuity with the modern emergence of subjectivity, but also in relation with the rediscovery of the pure Object, the openness of man’s heart and mind, the historical character of his reason and the radical seriousness of his questions would be manifested. And the recovery of the value of the encounter and of the existential interpretation in Rudolf Bultmann, but it also is the most broad hermeneutical need geared to see to it that the texts of the past should speak to our present and subvert or console it with their strength. The Master is not he who confirms the human subject in his presumptions but he who calls him to get out of himself in the act of freedom of the existential decision: "If we therefore encounter words in the story of Jesus, these must not be judged starting from a philosophical system in relation to their rational validity, but we encounter them as questions on the manner wherein we want to understand our existence." (26) "Jesus sees man as one who is in his hic et nunc, in the decision, with the possibility of deciding through his free action. Only what he accomplishes now gives him his worth. And this situation of decision takes place for man due to the act that the future of the Kingdom of God falls on him." (27) The Master does not propose a theory on God, but proclaims and makes present the living God before whom one must put to play his entire life: "Through Jesus God is the power that places man in the situation of decision, that comes before him in the need for good that determines his future. Hence God cannot be considered ‘objectively’ as a nature resting on itself, man instead can also understand God only in the effective understanding of his existence. If he does not find it here, he shall not find it in any nature." (28) The anthropological turn in Catholic theology and the reflection on human self-transcendence, especially in Karl Rahner, shall take up again, with a different perspective, the same need to think on the condition of the human subject before and in relation with the pure divine Object, thus, in a certain sense, making as theme the conditions and the expectations of the exodus before the advent. The Master is the "absolute bringer of salvation" ("der absolute Heilsbringer"). It is he who, revealing God’s mystery, calls man, "listener of the Word", to existentially locate himself before this revelation: "Man is the being which, freely loving, finds himself face to face with the God of a possible revelation. Man is listening to the word or to the silence of God in the measure where he opens himself, freely loving, to this message of the word or of the silence of the God of revelation." (29) "Hence, for as long as man does not participate in the immediate vision of God, he is – by virtue of the fundamental constitution of his life – existentially always a listener of the word of God. He has to foresee a possible revelation of God that does not consist in the direct manifestation of the content of the object revealed in its essence, but in its communication through representative signs that may indicate what must be revealed, although it is different from them." (30) "Jesus of Nazareth has been understood as the absolute Savior and in his resurrection came to fulfillment and was manifested what he really is... And in the relationship with him that decision is made regarding man’s salvation in general and it is his death that establishes the new and eternal covenant between God and man." (31)

Between the rediscovery of the divine advent and the rediscovery of human exodus, the synthesis is accomplished with the third entrance of the historical thought into the reflex conscience of faith: by grasping the value of the one and the other demand, attempt is made to appropriately think of the encounter of the two worlds, of God and of men in their reciprocal and diversified relations. Thus is rediscovered the primacy of eschatology, not as a chapter from among the many in dogmatic theology, but as "the dawn of the new expected day that colors everything with its light(32) and determines the reflection of faith as thought of hope: between the thesis, which is in the past (the "already" of the promise), and the antithesis, which is in the present, the synthesis is sought in the future of the forthcoming God, in that "not yet" of the promise to which one has to open himself with all the tension of the commitment and of the expectation. Different from what happens in the ideological capture, where the present is the place of fulfillment and the past and the future are nothing but the antitheses gathered in the unquestioned dominion of thinking, theological reason is captured as open reason for which will be the future of God that decides what one thing is, although it is in the advent already accomplished where are the promise and the anticipation of future fulfillment. The truth of the exodus is thus connected to the truth of the advent, in the tension between the "already" and the "not yet," which is constitutive of the salvation experienced in history. The pure Object enters human subjectivity determining it as an open structure to the beyond and to the new, always subverting and vivifying it anew; the historical subject relates with the forthcoming Mystery perceiving it in its own present and in respect to its own past as power of the future, anticipation and ever restless promise. "The eschatological element," writes Jürgen Moltmann, "is not one of the components of Christianity, but is in absolute sense the means of Christian faith, and the note on which all the rest are bound together, it is the dawn of the new expected day which colors everything with its light." (33) Jesus is the Master inasmuch as in Him the forthcoming kingdom of God and this advent opens the present of men to the tomorrow of the promise: "Christian eschatology speaks of ‘Christ and his future.’ Its language is the language of promise. It intends history to be the reality inaugurated in the promise. In the promise and in the present hope, the future of the promise, which is not yet achieved, finds itself in contradiction with the given reality. In this contradiction man undergoes the historicity of the real along the line that divides the present from the future that has been promised. History with its extreme possibilities and dangers is revealed in the promised event of the resurrection and of the cross of Christ.(34) The Master is the witness of the promise which changes the heart and the life, and, instead, he is the promise itself in person, who "stings as a thorn in the flesh however present and opens it to the future... It is precisely this promissio inquieta that impedes that the human experience of the world becomes a complete and self-sufficient cosmic image of the divine so that the experience of the world remains open to history." (35)

Continued: The return to history in the XIX century theologies: Jesus Christ, the living Master in us - 2 -

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           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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