Thursday, April 21, 2011

Haunted by Relationality

Carter Heyward recently gave a lecture at Episcopal Divinity School. I was glad to meet her, having been away from our school during her tenure there, and I was very impressed with the lecture. I am glad that it is now posted on the 99 Brattle blog and I recommend it.

The idea that some of us are haunted by relationality originated with Jewish theologian Marc Ellis. Carter's lecture got me me thinking - again - about the strange and perhaps rather empty victory of the high Christology John's Gospel during the first centuries of the Church's life. When I read Jesus saying, "The Father and I are one" I hear it relationally. But in the world in which the philosophy of Plato was so dominant, theologians tended to hear it as a statement about substance. Thus we get in the Creed "one in being with Father," or, as the new English translation of the Eucharist for the Roman Catholic Church phrases it, "consubstantial with the Father." I suspect that quite a few worshippers will find that hard to say, and even more difficult to understand.

We don't talk or think about the world and our place in it in with the philosophical language of Plato. Not many of us - outside the chem lab - think about the nature of things in terms of substances. We are more likely to be interested in relationships, in how things and people interact with one another. And that, I think, is how the very first followers of Jesus thought about things. What was so apparent about Jesus was his relationship with God, a relationship which he wanted to share with others, with everyone. While in the pictures of Jesus we get from the other Gospel accounts we can see this relationship, in John's account we see it in bold face. For the Johannine community the relationship of Jesus and the Father, of their being one, was of central importance. Explaining that in terms of substance, speaking of Jesus as being consubstantial with the Father, may have been appropriate in those early centuries, but clinging to that language now makes little sense. What does make sense is a relational Christology, the kind of Christology that we find in the writings of theologians like Carter Heyward.

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