Tuesday, 10 July 2012


Germain Grisez drew attention to what he calls the Christomorphic character of the Christian life: it is divine and human in a dynamic unity. An underlying difficulty in moral debate within the Church is, he says, ‘an inadequate understanding of how Christian life must and can be at the same time completely human and completely divine’. Moral theology must now face into its ‘fourth century’, he says, as it tries to develop the best way of speaking about this Christomorphic character of Christian life. He believes that St Thomas (Aquinas) ‘leaves many unresolved difficulties as to how the fulfilment of human persons as such is related to their vocation to share in divine life’. Are we made for this world or for another world, is one way of putting this question. Are we at home here or somewhere else? The answer is both: ‘The call to intimacy with God who definitively reveals himself in Jesus is also a call to protect and promote the flourishing of human persons and societies in the goods which fulfil human nature’ (so Grisez).

So we do not have to choose between Christian responsibility in this world and concern with the world that is coming. But we do find it easier always to choose, or at least to set things up in opposition rather than try to hold them together. We will certainly feel that every way of putting it is inadequate and it probably is. All of this is just a way of recalling also this fact, that the great commandment is twofold and that we must take this seriously, that this twofold commandment is one and this one great commandment is twofold.

The Church eventually arrived at the conclusion (or is it a starting point?) of Chalcedon, with its statement that Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son, is one person and one hypostasis in two natures, those natures united without confusion or change, without division or separation. It follows from what Grisez says that understandings of the Christian life as a divine-human dynamic will likely go wrong in ways comparable to those in which the Christological debates of the first four centuries went wrong. Mistaken understandings of the divine-human dynamic in Christian life will then be analogous to the heresies that emerged in the Christological debates. Applying this to Dominican life, the way in which we believe we have been called to follow Christ, we can then think about these Christological heresies and consider whether such thinking helps in the task of maintaining the balance of our own lives, doing justice to the goals of our vocation, to save our own souls by preaching for the salvation of others.

The first Christological heresy, already mentioned in the New Testament, is docetism. It is a difficulty not about accepting the divinity of Jesus but about accepting his true humanity. We might think that that is not likely to be our problem about our own way of living: to think we are too divine and not human enough. We are more likely to be hypocrites, surely, pretending to be more divine than we are, rather than docetists, having a difficulty about the reality of our humanity.

But maybe it is not as simple as that. Docetism has a problem with the incarnation, the truth of the Word becoming flesh. It had no difficulty with the Word hanging around in our neighbourhood but it could not see how the Word could become flesh and dwell amongst us. The physical body itself was one difficulty and the suffering of physical bodies compounded the difficulty. Divinity cannot dwell in a suffering body: that’s Docetism.

And perhaps we do subscribe to that view also, in our actions if not in our words, finding it difficult to accept that the divine Spirit, the divine Life, is living and moving and acting within suffering bodies. We have no difficulty accepting that the divine Spirit and Life might be in our neighbourhood, close by, but to accept them in the suffering body? I wonder. And the body that is to be discerned is not just the physical body of Christ, or our own physical body, but the body of the community, the Church, and the body that is the Dominican community to which we belong. How sound is our conviction that the Word becomes flesh in those suffering bodies?

A related heresy from the first century is that of Marcion who could not accept that the suffering body of creation could be the work of the God of Jesus. It seemed clearer to him that the suffering body was the work of a bumbling, even malicious, God, the one called Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. His creation is defective and a place of suffering. Christianity, Marcion proposed, reveals another God, one not known before, who is simply mercy and love, and Jesus is a spiritual entity sent by this God to lead us out of the earthly trap. Marcion edited the Bible drastically, only Paul and a radically reduced Luke faithfully present the truth about Jesus, he says, and the rest can be ignored. Considering his views of the body and of suffering, it is not surprising that Marcion’s Christology is docetic.

So how might our living of Christian life be docetist or marcionite? One point has already been mentioned: a refusal to believe that God can be present in the suffering body. The embodied life generally is already a problem, as it was to be for many heresies down the ages. Suffering too was to prove tricky, with Christian understandings and practices of suffering sometimes taking bizarre forms. But to think of this ordinary human living as a kind of charade, a veil, perhaps a Buddhist-style illusion: this seems like what a docetist understanding of human life would be like.

Christian, Dominican, life can become unreal in various ways, can be idealistic in a way that is mistaken, seeking a pure place or experience, one that does not involve a full entry into the body with all it entails, one that looks instead for a way out of the earthly trap. Marcion also then gives us permission to drop certain periods in history, certain moments in the unfolding story of God’s people, as if some periods of time or some aspects of the cultural journey undertaken in the body could be simply cut away and ignored. Other moments or aspects can then be privileged as if they are the only ones that count. It is what we all tend to do in relation to the body that is the community – whether it is our own history, the Church’s history, the Order’s history – to be partial and selective, to choose some things and ignore others, to refuse to enter fully into the body, to embrace it fully, with all that entails.

So what does that mean, to enter fully into the body? Well it means above all understanding and accepting suffering and sin. For docetism the Word cannot become flesh because the flesh is about suffering and sin. What are we to do about suffering? Understand it in terms of the paschal mystery is the obvious answer, which is why the Church’s faith as expressed at Chalcedon, about who Christ is and who it was therefore that suffered, is central to our salvation.

We tend to accept that suffering will come our way, that there is no need to go looking for it, and that our task is to accept what comes and not seek it out. The third way of prayer of St Dominic is a real difficulty now, the one in which he is beating himself with the discipline. In our culture such behaviour is associated in the first place with sado-masochistic sexual practices so it is best that we not engage in it, at least until the culture changes.

But the Order was renowned in the beginning as a penitential order, an Order that took the suffering body seriously (again not just the individual human body but through that the body of the community, all who suffer and are in distress, particularly through sin: that’s what the third way of prayer is linked with, reparation for sin). I was struck at finding in Humbert of Romans a description of the key elements of Dominican life as prayer, study, preaching and asperitas (penance) – I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before – whereas we now speak of the four pillars of prayer, study, preaching and communitas. Instead of penance, community. Instead of something bitter, something sweet, the precious oil upon the beard. Well, hardly. Perhaps living faithfully with each other is enough for us to enter fully into the suffering body.

We learn compassion through suffering and we are called to follow Jesus by taking up our cross each day, being prepared to share his sufferings so as to share his glory. The task is to find the divine life within the human life, suffering and sinful, not above it or below it or before it or behind it, but to find the divine life within the suffering human body, of the individual, of the community that is the Church, of the community that is the Order. I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me to drink, naked and you clothed me.

‘Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God’ (1 John 4:2) and ‘many deceivers have gone out into the world, people who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh’ (2 John 7). These are the anti-docetic passages in the Johannine letters. And Paul wrestles with the twofold destiny of Christian life in his letter to the Philippians:

It is my eager expectation and hope that now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus (1:20-26).

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