1974 Theological College – (Trinity College, Melbourne)
A fellow theological student and I were arguing ferociously. I was 25, and presented the Left’s view of Aboriginal rights in the sharply political terms I had learned from the Campaign for Racial Equality.
‘Come back and talk to me when you can argue as a Christian,’ my friend told me.
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I remember clearly the challenge he put to me that day, although I know he looks back on that statement with embarrassment at the priggishness of his former self.
Unless Christ is central, goes the argument, it’s not Christian. And unless Christ is central to your thoughts about any subject, then they are sub-Christian. All these decades later, I am still challenged by this position, and even more so by my reading of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Theology of History in Bonaventure.
I have wanted for some time to read this exploration of Bonaventure, and I am enjoying the experience. Ratzinger is learned and lucid, a teacher whose range is so wide that he includes the reader by providing enough backstory. For example, he shows how Bonaventure differed from Thomas Aquinas in his treatment of Aristotle, because Bonaventure wanted to preserve the primacy of Christ in his philosophy. Ratzinger delights by showing not only where they disagreed but the courtesy with which Bonaventure attacks the arguments and never the person of Thomas.
And the central challenge Bonaventure throws to us is to argue for a radically Christian view of history, in which Christ is the central point, and in this age of the Holy Spirit, we are returning to the Father. As Ratzinger diagrams it: Father > egressus > Christus > regressus > Father. (To read Ratzinger, your Latin needs to be reasonably tuned.)
In our age, we have become so used to secular versions of history and time, notably the past-centred view of conservatives; the apocalyptic view of ruptured time promoted by the Green movement and the various views of time implicit in scientists’ narratives around cosmic and biological origins.
Bonaventure’s challenge to us is to see history in God’s terms. The victory of Jesus on the cross and his sending of the Spirit change the direction of history – not just salvation history, but political history, human history and the history of creation. Bonaventure is a medieval scholar; he does play with different schema of sevens (seven days of Creation, seven days of Redemption, seven aeons of the new Creation), threes (Creation, Redemption, New Creation), and twos (Old and New), but these elaborate and fascinating frameworks all point back to the centre-point who is Christ.
We are rightly enthusiastic for inter-faith dialogue and the ways other faiths can deepen our own. But how do I deal with Bonaventure’s insistence that the final word is Christ’s? We fear ecological destruction, but does the confidence of our return to Christ sharpen our concern or bolster our hopes for the future? We worry about the imbalance of the world between a wealthy West, a rising China and poverty and violence. Do Bonaventure’s certainties reduce those worries?
Sometimes the Pope’s present pronouncements seem to come from another world. Maybe they do. His love for Bonaventure and the place of the Franciscans in history indicate that Ratzinger’s views have been heavily shaped by the ‘other world’ – that of medieval theology.
I am glad to be challenged again to argue as a Christian, and to place Christ at the centre in all my thinking.
3 thoughts on “Ratzinger and the Reason to be Christ-centred”
“Sometimes the Pope’s present pronouncements seem to come from another world. Maybe they do.”
That was very well said. I very much enjoyed Ratzinger’s book as well, and wrote a paper last semester which was heavily influenced by his treatment of Bonaventure. I think much of what Ratzinger writes does in fact come straight out of the Medieval period, which adds a delightful flavour; not only do I love the Medieval theologians (Bonaventure is my Patron Saint), but I see a trend even in philosophy (particularly Analytic Theology) in which medieval options are once again becoming live and formidable. Ratzinger, like his predecessor of great memory John Paul II, certainly will be remembered for challenging the whole Church to make Christ absolutely central.
Thanks for reading.
I wonder whether the Pope sounds odd sometimes because he refuses to tailor his message for the secular world. I worked for many years in a church agency dealing with public schools, and what we said about the Christian faith had to be sensitively couched if it was to be received: i.e. it had to make sense in a non-Christian framework.
Now that I am no longer in that position, I can see the strengths and weaknesses of moderating your statements for the secular world. The Pope always speaks qua Pope, so it is refreshing – and entirely appropriate – that he frames everything in Christ.
My challenge is different. If I want to speak to a secular audience, how do I translate what I have learned about the centrality of Christ from Bonaventure into that secular framework? Can I?
I have a few thoughts by way of response. On the one hand I am not convinced that anything should be said about Christ or the Christian faith in such a way that it is entirely palatable for secular consumption, since Christ and the Christian faith present themselves as a thorn to the secular project. However, I do understand tempering one’s presentation according to one’s audience. Having said as much, I think there is no way to speak about Christ or Christianity in a non-evangelical way; at least not while doing it justice.