Christology Low and High: Dafoe vs. Powell

Once more into the world of Catechist Formation: from a course on Christology.

Part 1: The Problems of Either/Or Christology

In the lecture we find, listed among the problematic texts of “The Jesus Wars,” the book/film The Last Temptation of Christ. [That it would appear so closely to the, ridiculous and far less literarily ambitious, DaVinci Code is an issue I’ll pass over simply by noting.] Now while I won’t say I’m exactly a fan of the film (or the book that spawned it), its listing here struck me since there is an aspect of its basic premise that I always found worthwhile.

The close of Luke’s account of Christ’s temptations in the desert sets the initial point of departure,

“When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Lk. 4:13).

Kazantzakis follows the lead of other authors, such as Bulgakov, in taking this “until an opportune time” as an invitation to speculate about when and how the devil might return. In The Last Temptation, this return happens while Jesus is on the cross. The devil invites him to come down, to “let this cup pass” (Mt. 26:39), and take up an entirely human life of marriage, sexual intimacy, and child rearing. As with the temptations in the desert, the devil shows all this in a vision (which in the film comes across as actually happening, hence its notorious status) and, again, Jesus answers “No.”

What Kazantzakis offers, however bizarrely, is an echo of Mary’s—necessary and necessarily human—first “May it be done” at the Annunciation in Jesus’ final “It is accomplished” at the Crucifixion. What is added is a choice to reject the temptation, not of worldly dominion and power but of a simple humanity. What, finally, is the critical Christological difference between the Agony in the Garden, the stumbling Stations of the Cross, the cry of “lama sabachthani” at the Crucifixion, and the imaginings of the Last Temptation?

Kazantzakis introduces his text with a Christological awareness, stating:

Every moment of Christ’s life is a conflict and a victory. He conquered the invincible enchantment of simple human pleasures; he conquered temptations, continually transubstantiated flesh into spirit, and ascended. Reaching the summit of Golgotha, he mounted the Cross.
But even there his struggle did not end. Temptation—the Last Temptation—was waiting for him upon the Cross. Before the fainted eyes of the Crucified the spirit of the Evil One, in an instantaneous flash, unfolded the deceptive vision of a calm and happy life. It seemed to Christ that he had taken the smooth, easy road of men. He had married and fathered children. People loved and respected him. Now, an old man, he sat on the threshold of his house and smiled with satisfaction as he recalled the longings of his youth. How splendidly, how sensibly he had acted in choosing the road of men! What insanity to have wanted to save the world! What joy to have escaped the privations, the tortures, and the Cross!
This was the Last Temptation which came in the space of a lightning flash to trouble the Saviour’s final moments.
But all at once Christ shook his head violently, opened his eyes, and saw. No, he was not a traitor, glory be to God! He was not a deserter. He had accomplished the mission which the Lord had entrusted to him. He had not married, had not lived a happy life. He had reached the summit of sacrifice: he was nailed upon the Cross. Content, he closed his eyes. And then there was a great triumphant cry: It is accomplished!

Not everyone should rush to this vision, true. Its imagery requires preparation or, as we’ve noted with other texts in the course, it can rapidly lead one astray. But, at the same time, it ‘completes’ Low Christology by giving Jesus the last, defining aspect of humanity—the tempting choice to be merely human and not attend to the divine.

And there’s the rub, the very point of this week’s work. The problem of The Last Temptation is that, in an attempt to make Jesus more comprehensibly human, it over-accentuates Low Christology. It cannot stand by itself because, especially in the redacted and closed and hyper-sensualized world of the film, Christ is too quickly reduced to only an inspired or possessed or even insane human being as opposed to the wholly divine, though wholly human, Word incarnate.

At the other end of the spectrum is the (now Easter classic) Jesus of Nazareth, which would seem to hope to avoid the human aspect altogether. There is little in Robert Powell’s silver-blue eyes that betray any direct, personal understanding of human nature or empathy for the human condition.

Over-turning the moneychangers is less impassioned than a Zuccotti Park drum circle, the Agony looks like little more than a hangover dream, and the Ecce Homo scene pictures a Jesus who seems more confused than pained. Thus, the preference for High Christology threatens too great an erasure of human aspect and a fall into a kind of Apollinarism, Docetism, or some peculiar Gnostic heresy.

What is highlighted in both of these examples is the basic problem confronting all attempts to capture Jesus Christ on film: Christ, the Word made flesh, necessarily escapes the eyes. If his divinity was obvious [as with, for example, the blue-colored skin that attends incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu], the whole story would be patently absurd. Who could not believe if they could see with certainty, without signs, and without faith? Why would Simon “the Rock” be notable for his early and accurate recognition of Jesus’ divinity if it was ‘written on his face’ for all to see?

Therein lay the paradox and fault at the heart of either particular focus, why Christology is so difficult to discuss without stepping into heresy (and why the Trinity is widely considered, among theology students and apparently within the diaconate, something better passed over in silence).

The Incarnation is, finally, a mystery.


On Part 2, regarding the focus of the Church today:

Today’s dominant Christology seems to include some unintended consequences falling out of Historical Criticism, to which the Church contributed no small part. The problem is that, as with attempts to portray Christ on film, the search for the historical Jesus can only be the search for the human, since the divine deposit cannot be found as athing or as any object of study except in and through the Church herself. But even that can only evince the presence of divinity when viewed as a living body imbued with the Holy Spirit, and that, of course, is imperceptible to human scientificism, so we’re left with the old unresponsive answer, “mystery of faith.”

The rise of Natural Theology and its unfortunate tendency towards anthropomorphism, the concurrent development and pride in Natural Philosophy, the Reformation’s rejection of objective truth in favor of a completely subjective and entirely personal Theology and Christology, and the consequent ‘murder of God’ announced by Nietzsche near the end of the “long nineteenth century,” all contribute to a dominant cultural sensibility that resists (if not outright rejects) High Christology as being ‘unEnlighten[ment]ed.’ It is an atavism of the medieval world and overripe for ridicule. Reacting to this condition, the essentially pastoral and public impetus of Vatican II (as opposed to the heresies and schisms that drove previous Councils) necessarily tended towards Low Christology.

Pastoral efficacy, for better or worse, today relies on the human and humanistic dimensions since—for all the reasons listed above among many others—appeals to the Holiness of a wholly other divine fail to be convincing or comforting, especially in times of weakness.

We should not, however, write off the presence of High Christology in the contemporary Church. We recognize that the human dimension—in Christ but also in humanity itself, that is, what makes us human—relies on the divinity of the Incarnation: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (Gaudium et spes, 22). Lumen Gentium reinforces and stresses the aspects of mystery, continuing to maintain the foundation even if, at a pastoral level, the points fall away.

John Paul II’s addition of the Luminous Mysteries to the Most Holy Rosary hinges on an interweaving of High and Low Christologies. The miraculous signs at the Baptism and at Cana are followed by the human effort and language put to work in Proclaiming the Kingdom. From this we move onto the unreservedly divine mystery of the Transfiguration, and end on the equivocations of of the Last Supper and the instantiation of the Eucharist.

Finally, what has been titled, The Ratzinger Report, expresses once again: “Thus, without a view of the mystery of the Church that is also supernatural and not only sociological, Christology itself loses its reference to the divine in favor of a purely human structure” (46). Though again, we should note that these are distinctions that do not generally land on a laity that is well prepared (or, sadly, particularly interested) to pay attention to them.

The popularity of Pope Francis today, in many respects, seems to rest his generally pastoral emphasis. Combined with the influence [which is not to say adoption or acceptance] of Liberation Theology that cannot have been absent from his past as a South American Jesuit, an increase in the appearance of Low Christology is to be expected. Nevertheless, he maintains the sense of that revealed divinity from High Christology even in his most pastoral exhortations, as when he writes,

“In their own way, all these instances of joy flow from the infinite love of God, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ” (Evangelii Gaudium, 7).

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