Ratzinger and the Reason to be Christ-centred


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.
~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~

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.

No deal on debts


The most ferocious parable Jesus told was one about two debtors. The lord calls in the first of the debtors, who owed a colossal sum, and demands he pay up. He threatens to thrown the slave in prison and enslave his family. The slave begs for mercy, for time to pay. The lord has compassion on him, and gives him more than time to pay: he forgives the debt and released him.

This forgiven slave then leaves the lord’s presence and meets a fellow-slave who owes him a much smaller debt. He throttles him and demands immediate payment. The fellow-slave falls to his knees and begs for mercy. The first slave refuses to respond. When the lord finds out how the forgiven slave has behaved, he reverses his generosity and has him tortured until he repays everything he owed.

‘And so,’ concludes Jesus, ‘will my heavenly Father do to you if each of you does not forgive brother or sister from the heart.’ (Matthew 18:35)

Kenneth Bailey describes the economic back story. In each village in the Middle East a principal landowner controlled all the cropping and grazing in the village. This abu or sheikh was like a feudal lord. Every aspect of economic life in the village derived from the sheikh.

Jesus makes first a comparison between this village economy and the economy of God. The lord in the story demonstrates a generosity that goes far beyond justice when he ignores the request for time to pay, and instead releases his servant and forgives the debt. This lord is not behaving as a prudent sheikh would behave. A prudent sheikh would be generous by making a deal. This lord reveals instead the divine generosity, which gives total freedom to those who seek it.

The expectation is that those who are graced with freedom should reveal the same generosity in dealing with others. The forgiven slave in the parable acts in the opposite manner than the lord expects and so receives the worst punishment the lord can inflict on him.

But as in the challenging parable of the dishonest steward, Jesus foregrounds the absolute generosity of the lord, the sheikh of the village and not so much the behaviour of the servants. Can you imagine the sheikh of your village forgiving the debt absolutely? If so, can you imagine a little of the extraordinary generosity of the divine economy? Once you start to get this picture of God you can begin to participate in the generous economy.

Imagine if we treated our sister or brother not simply with justice, but by releasing everyone from all the claims we might make on them. Our village, our community, would be marked by a wonderful freedom and genuine intimacy one with another.

At its best, we can glimpse this divine economy at work in our church and even in other communities.

But this parable holds up a mirror to the messy world of commerce as well as God’s economy.

Jesus’ attention is caught by the differential between the first and second slaves. The first slave owed his lord ten thousand talents. My Bible notes that a talent was equal to 6,000 denarii. One talent is what a labourer could earn in 6,000 days. The debt, 10,000 times 6,000 denarii, is in the order of eight billion dollars in contemporary money. Let’s not forget that this is a parable, and there is an element of exaggeration, but even so, the money owed by this slave is tying up at least the economic operation of this village, or more. The Gross National Income of our neighbour East Timor is only 2½ billion dollars.

Jesus contrasts this figure with the debt of the other slave: 100 denarii. This is about $14,000. It is not a trifle for someone who might earn only 300 denarii a year, but it’s a possible debt. The sort of debt I know people have on the credit card or in car finance. If I owed $14,000 and was asked for immediate payment, I could make it, but with difficulty.

Note the contrast in the debt: billions to hundreds. The economy of a nation contrasted with the economy of a small household. The first slave owed six hundred thousand times what the second slave owed.

This differential rings bells: the Institute for Policy Studies says that CEO’s are paid 340 times the average worker in 2011, compared to 42-1 in 1980. (The Institute calls itself a ‘progressive think-tank’, which probably means that is to the left politically, but its figures are compelling.)

Jesus understands the economic system where the sheikh holds the life of every villager in his hands. Everything is the ultimately the sheikh’s gift, and villagers can suffer enormously under greedy or incompetent village management. But surprisingly, Jesus does not criticise the system. His fierce words are for those whose greed exploits the system whatever it is, for those who feel entitled to hundreds of thousands times more resources than his fellow-citizens.

The system, Jesus seems to say, may evolve and repair itself slowly. But whatever the system the urgent wrong to right is the exploitation by the rich of the poor.

The system itself will reward greed: what is asked of us is to express our moral outrage that people feel so entitled.

In the end, Jesus does suggest a subversion of the system: rather than make generous deals with debtors, debts should be forgiven so that no member of the community is beholden to another. The existence of power of one brother or sister over another especially through indebtedness threatens the free functioning of a just and loving community.

We are challenged to make sure that we do not have claims over other people’s lives. Are there debts we can forgive? If there are we should forgive them now. Do we hold a sense of entitlement to things that should belong to all? What does it mean that I can live modestly on $30,000 a year and over a billion of my brothers and sisters are struggling to live on less than $2 a day? How can I let go of that claim?

When the parable is held up as a mirror to the messy world of commerce, these are some of the questions that are revealed. The big question is: How do we parallel the generosity of God?

Jesus tells the parable of the two debtors

Christian power: an oxymoron?


Yesterday the residents’ association of our village held elections. There was quite a tussle over the position of Chairman of the Social Committee, with arguments about the Constitution and fights about procedure. The sub-text was reasonably easy to discern: two strong people clashing and both leading with their shadows!

This made me reflect on the nature of power in Christian communities. You can’t avoid the reality of power and it usually plays out in the dance between leader and community.

When St Benedict wrote his Rule – or re-wrote that of the Master – he envisaged the Abbot as God for the monks. They owed him total obedience and he was elected for life. His absolute power was balanced by the requirement that he act to further the needs of the community.

The Rule of St Benedict

Benedictine communities could become dysfunctional. When they did, some believed it was because of the lifelong dictatorship of the Abbot. When St Francis of Assisi in the 12th Century, some four hundred years later, came to set out his ideal community, he made sure that its leaders had limited terms. When they had finished as leader, they went back to being a little brother again. Franciscan leaders are called Ministers, and their focus is to serve their brothers and sisters. Power, for St Francis, was exercised always by giving it away.

The downside of Franciscan leadership is that it can be chaotic, and when Franciscan communities are dysfunctional, it often manifests in fights that no-one has the authority to resolve.

Roger Shutz arrived in France from Switzerland during World War 2 looking for a site near Lyon to establish a community of reconciliation. By 1945, the community at Taizé was working, with Brother Roger as its founding Prior. Leadership, for him, was that of Prior, first among equals. He was evidently aware of the shortcomings of both Benedictine and mendicant leadership, and his Rule shows a new emphasis. Not only should the Prior consult with the majority of the community, but should also pay special attention to those in the community without power: the young, the voiceless, the marginalised, and allow those voices to be celebrated and followed.

Brother Roger’s style of leadership resonates well with our era. Its downside is that it requires a great gift of discernment to hear the voice of Christ when it is not the voice of mainstream members of the Christian community.

I beleive that the heritage of Christian leadership has much to teach us. We are, we claim, the Body of Christ, and the way in which we exercise power should reflect Christ’s way of power.

Brother Roger

Firstly, Benedict teaches us power is for the community more than the individual. Francis teaches us that power becomes oppression when it is held for oneself. Roger of Taizé reminds us of the ways the Bible holds up the little one.

These styles of exercising power can be seen in parishes and all Christian communities. There are some parishes where the priest is Father, and Father knows best what is in the interest of his parish. Father initiates people in Christian faith, particularly in the sacrament of baptism, and Father prevents the nasty nature of some people from dominating the parish agenda.

Other leaders are very conscious that their time in the parish is temporary. The minister is there to coach the ministries that were there before she came and will continue after she leaves. She is an enabler, and an encourager, and above all, she models the way in which Christ gave away his power to others.

In other parishes, the smallest member is heard. Children are on worship committees, clients of the soup kitchen design the ministry for the hungry, and the majority give way to the smallest voice with grace and gratitude that in them they have heard the voice of Christ.

Of course,no parish is purely one or the other of these leadership styles. But I hold them up like this partly as a warning that each can be dysfunctional. If we know that Abbots can become dictators, Ministers can be disengaged, and Priors can so honour the voice of the little one that they desert the way of common sense.

Power can spoil any community, and understanding how it works in the Body of Christ can lead to vibrant community living.

Spitting at capitalists


Tax and God
Calls to destroy capitalism and boycott Facebook and Google resonate well with Franciscans. They are a way of dealing with our anger at the greed of corporations and the selling of our personal lives to advertisers. My Facebook wall is filled with slogans against this consumerist plague.

But slogans are not an effective way to critique capitalism. Slogans have no hope of achieving their purpose, because capitalism is so entrenched that its power permeates everything we do. Our slogans will simply accrue to capitalism’s benefit as we use Google or Facebook to shout them. Religion scholar George Gonzalez puts it this way, ‘Capitalism buys and sells futures and shares in the ideas of its own enemies.’

A more thoughtful response will admit the value of capitalism. In the 19th Century, wealthy Christians wanted to respond to the growing urban poverty, and used the new technologies of the industrial revolution to raise many out of poverty into respectable working lives. They poured money into enterprises that not only gave workers the financial means to house and feed their families, but gave them consumer goods, infrastructure like electric lighting, and the sense of well-being that only meaningful work can supply.

The surplus money generated recycled into this system, and most of us in the West have seen the final results of this Christian endeavour in our living standards. Think of the difference in housing, consumer goods, entertainment, and communications in the last fifty years. These are the fruits of capitalism, and few of us protesting its evils are willing to give them up.

In the urbanisation of India and China today, we are seeing millions being lifted out of poverty annually, as the benefits of capitalism trickle down.

When I was young my parents taught me that I should always spend real money that I had actually had earned or owned. I should restrict debt to buying a house, and I should ensure that any shares I owned were shares in real life productive industries.

A rule of thumb current in the sixties was that CEOs should earn no more than four times the wage of their lowest paid employee, and that virtuous companies produced useful goods or provided useful services.

Most people failed to acknowledge the importance of the creative tension between unions and bosses. For this system to work at all the employers need to insist on making a profit to continue the operation of the industry, and the workers’ associations need also to insist that workers are paid fairly and that conditions uphold human dignity.

This ‘modest capitalism’ works. I am neither Calvinist nor conservative, and I believe, for example, that relying on the ‘trickle down’ effect is an abrogation of responsibility, but I understand that this system has its value and should not be easily abandoned. What makes me angry is the distortion of this system. We know the symptoms:

1. Executives paid thousands of times more than their lowest paid employee.
2. People exposed to risk through virtual money, derivatives and futures which relate to nothing in the real world.
3. The commodification of human beings to be sold by giant corporations to advertisers.

These expressions of greed should be condemned, but slogans are not sufficient. We need to understand more fully how the system we have inherited actually works and to thoughtfully articulate good reasons why these practices despoil the vulnerable and destroy our community.

I submit that the responsibility of Franciscans (who are called to be sensitive to the use and abuse of money) is to grow in their understanding of economics, to be real about how capitalism lifts people out of poverty, and from that position of understanding articulate their critique of greed.

Loss of Integrity


PSALM 12 PARAPHRASE
Help, Lord, there is nobody left with integrity.
Loyal and consistent people have vanished from Australia.

Everyone tells lies to their neighbours.
Their flattery is patently insincere. All they want is to get ahead for themselves.

If only the Lord would stop the lies and flattery,
and turn the spin into honest human talk.

They say, “We can talk our way out of everything.
No-one can stay in our way!”

Because of the abuse to Indigenous communities;
because the refugees are treated with disdain,
“I will arise,” says God, “and create safe places for Aboriginal children,
and warm refuges for those who seek asylum here.”

What God says is like tapping the bark of a healthy karri,
like the sympathetic vibration of a tuning fork.

You are sure to provide appropriate protection for us, O Lord.
You will keep us safe in this shifty world.

Though the ruthless strut on every side,
though the vilest call the shots in every State.

This paraphrase was written as an exercise in the Companions in Christ program. It also happened to be the week when Kevin Rudd was deposed as Prime Minister, and the backroom operators of the Australian Labor Party were briefly visible.

Sheep and Eternal Life


Like King David in the Old Testament, I grew up among sheep. The biggest difference was that where David’s sheep numbered in the dozens, our flocks were in the thousands. One of my earliest lessons about sheep was not to be concerned about individuals.

Dad forbade us to keep sheep as pets, knowing the heart-ache that came when a pet was killed for meat. I noticed too the seeming indifference to a sick sheep. If a sheep was suffering, it may have been simply killed, but in general, sick sheep were left to get better on their own – or not. The only exception to this was revealing: if a ewe was having trouble lambing, Dad would sit beside it, all night if necessary, and be midwife in every possible way.

Dad wasn’t a callous man. He was gentle and generous in character. His was the most humane way of keeping the flock healthy. The sheep’s purpose was to feed people, not to be our friends. But Dad’s emphasis on the flock was instructive.

I looked to nature. I loved watching ants go about their busy lives. I noticed that ants had wonderful powers of restoring their apparently dead companions. They would push them gently with one of their six legs, and the motionless ant would pick up its load and continue walking. But they simply walked around ants that were dead or too sick to recover.

I confess as a boy I sometimes stirred up their nests. They would rise up in anger, climbing my legs and stinging all the way. Ants from other nests would come to join their attack on the intruder. They did not care how many I slapped to death on my legs: their task was to defend the queen and her nest, and even their neighbours’ nest.

My studies at school and since have confirmed that in nature survival of a species is paramount over that of individuals. The health, comfort and life of an individual simply do not stand up against the powerful drive for the species to survive.

Nature is species-centred. Most animals seem to accept this reality. It is only humans, fired on by two important events in our history, who think differently and therefore unnaturally.

The first event was when human beings became self-conscious. Because we know we are alive as individuals, we can choose to protect our own life at the expense of others. It is notable, however, that in dangerous situations, people don’t always choose their own life over that of others. We hear often of people who choose to sacrifice their own safety to protect others, particularly women and children, who are the future of the species. They act naturally.

The second event was the European Enlightenment which encouraged us to think very highly of individuals. The Enlightenment accorded to individuals human rights. The Enlightenment encouraged individuals to greater self-expression.

Could it not be that the Enlightenment project is against nature?

It is natural to think not of the individual but of the species. It is natural for people to be stirred up about the damaging effects of climate change: our species is at risk. The plight of low-lying island nations like Kirabiti and the Maldives stirs deep emotions. We don’t want human habitat to be wiped out.

To think that God’s imagination can provide nothing better than the survival of individuals after death is to think poorly of God. God’s mind is on the main game, which is played by species not their individual members.

This is why I find the usual ideas about life after death lame in comparison with the glorious visions of future humanity put forward by say, Teilhard de Chardin and Ilia Delio. As individuals we are secure in Christ. But as a species, how much more secure is our life.

Teilhard’s vision was that homo sapiens continues to evolve. We have come to self-consciousness and are moving towards a complete humanity in Christ. Jesus, the true human is coming to his Omega Point, where humanity converges with God. We will be raised up into the One who has made us.

Ilia’s focus, it seems to me, is on a slightly closer time. What is the next step of this evolutionary journey? How close will humanity come to its machines? Will brains be uploaded into computers? Will human beings extend their thinking power through new digital media? Is our destiny – short-term – to be cyborgs?

In the broader vision, I suspect the speculations of Ilia and others will be swept aside by an even grander picture of what homo sapiens will become, and will have more to do with what happens as the individual is transcended and we each become part of a greater whole. Again, the technological revolution gives us the clue, as the Web becomes more and more an extension of individual minds into the minds of others.

It is true that there are dangers. Monsters may be born. But the teaching of evolution is that that which is best suited to its environment will flourish, and homo sapiens will become more a creature of the cosmos rather than less.

These are extraordinary and beautiful visions of our future life. Bring it on!