Roger Haight's Theology of the Cross


The ‘scandal of the cross’ has, from the earliest Christian witness, been at the center of the Christian vision of salvation. The torture and execution of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity, should be hailed as an absolute failure, an unequivocally bad thing, and yet Christians refer to that day as ‘Good’ Friday and decorate their homes and their bodies with representations of the instrument of his death, and sometimes with representations of his corpse itself. How did this come to be, how has it endured, and what can such a paradox mean for a postmodern world? Postmodernity has posed a series of questions to the Anselmian theology of the cross which has dominated Western Christianity for a millennium, and Jesuit Father Roger Haight, writing for that postmodern audience, hopes to take up their critiques and respond. However, while Haight has bent over backwards to make Christian claims intelligible, the question remains whether he has done so in a way that is faithful to the tradition.

Postmodernity, aware of the historically conditioned nature of all language, demands moving beyond naïve literalism in our appropriation of all language, and especially our language about the transcendent. Attempting to become aware of the range of voices in the tradition, postmodernity also questions the hegemony of Anselm's model in the West and the possibility of other models, such as the Incarnation-driven theosis model of the East. Within the Anselmian model, postmodernity questions the necessity, from God's side, of the violent death of God's son as the means of restoring God's honor, the place of the ministry of Jesus and the resurrection in the drama of salvation, and the danger of positing violence as the means by which God saves, and submission to violence as the means by which Jesus cooperates with God's plan. Finally, in that scope, postmodernity questions a salvation which is conceived of solely in extramundane terms, which seems to have little to say to a world which is so in need of salvation.

Postmodernity and Biblical Language

Postmodernity, in its ‘linguistic turn,’ poses a critique of language in general, and religious language in particular. All of language, as rooted in particular cultures and linguistic structures, is limited and limiting: like all symbols, language conceals as it reveals. Moreover, language about transcendent reality is doubly limited and limiting, insofar as the object is transcendent, it is beyond direct observation; it requires mediation via the symbols of our world, which, again, both conceal and reveal.1

When it comes to Biblical attempts to speak about transcendent reality, Walter Brueggemann claims, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Truth is an army of metaphors.’2 Is Jesus a scapegoat, becoming the ‘utterly impure’3 embodiment of evil and bearing sin away, or a sacrifice, which is (and remains) so pure as to be a means of spiritual cleansing or a gift to please God, or one who pays a ransom, either to God or the devil, or who was killed by the historical forces of empire and powerful religious authority? Even if one were inclined to take these metaphors as literally corresponding to ontological reality, as Christians have seemingly been inclined to do through much of Christian history, contemporary Biblical critics point out the metaphors themselves are too numerous and distinct to boil down in any clear way to a model that can be univocally applied. Whereas (Stephen Finlan argues) Paul takes his metaphors with enough seriousness to not take them literally, switching metaphors ‘with a rapidity that suggests that any one metaphor, by itself, would be misleading,’4 the Anselmian model has held such a hegemony in Western Christian theology for so long that the metaphor has become functionally a literal description of the interior life of God, which has in turn caused us to miss the plurality of Paul's own imagery.

Cur Deus Homo?

Anselm's classic Cur Deus Homo? is ‘a jewel: it is simple and translucent, but cut in such a way that it can be viewed from many angles.’5 Set against the backdrop of the feudal worldview, and against that of Anselm's monastic vision, the book outlines the notion that humanity, in offending an infinite deity, has caused infinite offense. Humans must make satisfaction to God but are incapable of doing so (although they, as finite beings, are somehow capable of infinite offense). So, to answer the question which he asks in the title, why the God-man, Anselm answers, ‘only a God-man can bear the burden of this satisfaction “which none but God can do and none but man must do.”’6

Problems with Atonement

Anselm has become the whipping boy of choice in numerous postmodern theologies of the cross. One of the most common objections to the later models that developed from Anselm is that they seemingly posit a sadistic God who demands the bloody death of an innocent, and in particular God's Son, in order to appease God's wrath toward sinful humanity as a necessary step to saving them from an otherwise universal damnation. Calvin stands squarely in this framework, arguing, ‘God, to whom we are hateful because of sin, was appeased by the death of his Son to become favorable toward us.’7 This implies that the particular manner of Jesus' death (or more generally, that it was a bloody and hideous death) was scripted, planned, necessary. ‘Could Jesus have been savior if he had died of natural causes, of a heart attack, or during his sleep as an aged person? Did he have to be killed in a manner that involved torture and execution?’8 It also implies that God has damnation as the ‘baseline’ position of humanity out of which some people (usually this means only Christians) may be shifted. This seems out of touch with a God of love and out of touch with the tone and content of Jesus' preaching. ‘Jesus does not say, “your faith has saved you, contingent upon your accepting a soon-to-come interpretation of my death as a cosmic cleansing, a penal substitution, or a massive ransom payment.”’9

That an event which is so blatantly negative has become such a centerpiece of Christianity is not without its own dangers for the Christian life. Liberation and feminist theologians, among others, have argued that one danger of placing the cross at the center of soteriology is that, ‘Since Jesus is the model of the Christian life, the revealer of what human life should be from God's perspective, suffering is turned into a kind of negative bonum, an ascetic ideal that should not only be imitated but made into the ideal pattern of human existence.’10 The idea of ‘offering up’ one's suffering or joining one's sufferings to those of Christ has been used all too often to persuade battered women to stay in abusive relationships, to keep campesinos from working for liberation from structural injustice, and to create a sort of Christian masochism as an (the?) accepted form of Christian piety.11

Similarly, standard atonement theories that make Jesus' death and resurrection the locus of salvation often do so to the detriment of the life and ministry of Jesus, and in ways that Haight believes seem grotesque to many educated Christians. A line in one popular piece of liturgical music says, ‘You came to die.’ Many other parts of popular religious culture share the embedded sentiment: the purpose of the Incarnation was that Jesus die (that is, die violently), since without that grisly execution, humanity would have been universally damned. This makes the rest of Jesus' life a kind of holding pattern until the moment in the divine script at which Jesus' ‘stage directions’ move him to Calvary. The teachings are good moral lessons (albeit often unrealistic), the miracles may give hints of Jesus' divinity, but the essential feature of the drama of salvation is getting Jesus to his violent, preordained execution. ‘Increasingly, an interpretation of Jesus' crucifixion, seen more and more as a transaction, indeed as a cultic, juridical, and even quasi-magical transaction, became the core message, while the actual teachings of Jesus, which had little, if anything, to do with such an interpretation, “became a secondary body of information.”’12

It is for this reason, argues Lisa Sowle Cahill, that there is a need to ‘recover Anselm from the “Anselmians.”’13 Responding to ‘Christus Victor’ models that claim that Jesus' death defeats the devil, Anselm's project frames human responsibility in the direction of God, not the devil. Rather than focusing on Christ as substitute for the punishment rightly owed to us (as later interpreters of Luther and Calvin did), ‘Anselm does not see the cross or suffering as the main point of the incarnation, much less as necessary to mollify an angry, unforgiving, and violent God.’14 Rather, Cahill argues that Anselm sees Jesus' obedience, not his death, as the crux of salvation. She claims that this can make sense of the ‘necessity’ of the death of Christ: ‘Jesus' death is “necessary” insofar as death is the place of our ultimate desolation, where the infinite love of our Mother-Father God comes to meet us and lift us up.’15

Soteriology and Postmodernity

The language of salvation in the Biblical tradition is a holistic one, encompassing physical healing (see, e.g. Acts 4:12, dealing with the ‘no other names’ by which the person is saved, i.e. healed); forgiveness of sins; restoration of right relationship; flourishing of creation; and, ultimately, eschatological fulfillment. However, the symbol of salvation through much of the Christian tradition has been seen in a narrowly extramundane sense, i.e. going to heaven, ‘saving one's soul,’ so that the body, which seemingly is not saved, is denigrated in contrast with one's authentic self, which is spirit. Postmodern thinkers challenges this dualistic anthropology and the concept of salvation which accompanies it, while situating salvation in the framework of the broader matrix of reality beyond anthropocentric, and particularly, ‘spiritualized’ concerns: the disharmony of our ecological systems; social sin; psychological angst in the face of death and meaninglessness. ‘Theologies of redemption that see them as a reality offered only to the human race, and not something integral to the entire universe, including whatever other “alien” life-forms may be out there, are inadequate. Those that focus on the redemption of the individual are positively harmful.’16

Haight and Postmodern Concerns

Haight establishes three central criteria for orthodoxy in responsibly doing theology: ‘fidelity to scripture and the landmark interpretations of Jesus Christ from the history of the community, such as the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon,’ ‘intelligibility to a present-day community,’ and ‘an ability to empower a Christian life in the contemporary world.’17 For this reason, Haight argues that Christology today must be apologetic in the sense of speaking to those who do not presuppose Christian principles.18 However, while Haight knows that theology today must be done with the pluralistic world in mind, his audience is less non-Christians, and more those educated postmodern Western Christians who struggle with how to affirm the particular faith claims of Christianity, especially the relationship of Christianity to the world religions and the meaning of the cross viz. salvation. As Haight puts it, ‘Many of the traditional expressions of how Jesus saves are expressed in myths that no longer communicate to educated Christians; some are even offensive.’19

Haight attempts to do his Christology entirely ‘from below’; this refers, not to whether the final product is ‘high’ or ‘low,’ but to the means by which Christology is itself explored. Christology ‘from below’ begins with human experience, in this case with the early Christians' experiences of Jesus of Nazareth, which gave rise to the later formulations of Christology. This involves a measure of retrieval and reconstruction of the possible experiences that could have given rise to particular beliefs; while Haight realizes that an absolute reconstruction is impossible, he believes it is important to make the effort to understand those early experiences so that theology can do its task of interpretation in a way that is as faithful as possible to the experience that the tradition wants to convey. In this Haight uses a linguistic phenomenological approach, assuming that communication of the outline of an experience is possible across languages, cultures and times, but he knows that if it is possible, it is not going to happen by simple repetition of formulae. Repetition is itself interpretation, and despite the difficulty of trying to translate an experience into another milieu, without that potential the tradition reduces to Lindbeck's model, with doctrines serving as heuristic ‘placeholders’ for the structure of religious grammar, but not truly attempting or needing to point to the real world. Trying to understand the experiences that gave birth to the association between the cross and salvation, Haight notes, ‘by the time of Paul salvation was associated with the way Jesus died … It is possible to imagine that the attention to and interpretation of Jesus' death as the specific way in which salvation was mediated by him began as a reaction against embarrassment at Jesus' death.’20

Haight states that he does not want to reduce the reality of Jesus to only the Jesus who actually walked around Nazareth, that is, excluding the Jesus whom he claims is alive in God. However, he does assert that, ‘We do not have any knowledge or data about this risen Jesus that does not originate and have some connection with his earthly appearance.’21 Haight's method moves exactly in the opposite direction from a Christology ‘from above,’ that is, one which begins with Jesus as Second Person of the Trinity and deductively moves from there. Finlan's understanding of the importance of the death of Jesus fits squarely into that model: ‘But why does it matter that this one died? Because of who that person was and is: the uniquely divine Son.’22 For Haight, this makes no sense insofar as the experience of Jesus as uniquely divine Son has to come from somewhere. This insight becomes a fundamental principle of his method: ‘Christology is a function of soteriology, or at least the experience of salvation.’23 The early Christians, particularly those who knew Jesus personally, would almost inevitably have claimed him before his death as a holy man, a prophet, a healer, so that his execution would have a distinctly different cast than that of a known brigand or a petty criminal; however, Haight believes that they would base whatever assertions about Jesus' being in the encounter with God that they experienced in Jesus.

At the same time, Haight is uncomfortable with religious language that makes claims about what is going on in the interior life of God; in particular for our purposes, ‘transactional’ models of the death of Jesus propitiating God or enacting some kind of change in God's relationship to humanity are beyond our access, and we should keep that in mind to avoid taking mythological language from the tradition too literally. Images such as being freed from our sin by the blood of Christ (Rev 1:15) or Jesus offering himself ‘as a ransom for many’ (MK 10:45), among other examples, represent for Haight ‘searching, symbolic language of people striving to express the paradox that God was somehow manifested as savior in the cruel fate of Jesus.’24 While this kind of language is worthwhile to the degree that it knows its own limitations, and within the context that generated it, and while it may be useful as a means of mediating an experience of salvation, Haight has little use for it on its own terms for a postmodern audience.

‘The salvific character of Jesus' action then must be found precisely in his historical action, his this-worldly comportment. It cannot be understood by projecting actions and behaviors of Jesus outside this world about which in principle we know nothing.’25 That simple claim, it seems, removes much of the Anselmian tradition from the table insofar as it makes claims about transactions within God's interior life or alterations of God's stance toward humanity. All we can say about salvation, Haight argues, is what we can actually see Jesus doing. This leaves him with almost exclusively this-worldly options for discussing salvation; Haight's God-image, while not static, is always offering salvation, so any novum that Jesus effects is on our side, not God's. That is, we can see God and ourselves and our world differently, we are empowered to live in new ways, we experience forgiveness in a new way, but not because it was not there before. Haight's thought here turns on one of his primary assumptions about God in relationship to salvation: God wills the salvation of all and is active via the mediation of culture in all times and places; this means that any ‘scandal of particularity’ that would make God appear to make the means of salvation accessible to only a few is unacceptable methodologically. In his book Problems with Atonement, Stephen Finlan asks about Paul, ‘does he think that Christ's death changed God's mind, “purchasing” a salvation which otherwise would not have happened?’26 Haight would quickly answer that, whatever Paul might say, God does not operate that way. He acknowledges that there is a divide between those theologians who see Jesus as efficient cause of salvation and those who understand him as symbolic cause (or revealer) of salvation, but he comes down squarely in the latter camp.

Haight presupposes ‘the thesis that one can pinpoint a primary Christian experience “behind,” “beneath,” and “within” all the interpretations of Jesus Christ and thus all christologies.’27 Haight reviews five New Testament Christologies (Paul's ‘final Adam,’ Mark's ‘Son of God,’ Luke's ‘Spirit’ Christology, the ‘wisdom’ Christology, and John's ‘Logos’ Christology), and claims that the common denominator in them, and in all of Christology, is that ‘they all refer to Jesus and his mediating or making present God's salvation by what he did during his public ministry.’28 Christology, Haight claims, is a function of soteriology; people are concerned about who Jesus is because of what Jesus does: he mediates God's salvation.29 Some other theologians might argue that some metaphysical claim about Jesus is the true center of the various texts of the New Testament, but Haight argues that this does not do justice to the plurality of models of Jesus' relationship to God and misses the point that the Christological question flows from the soteriological one. Haight acknowledges that he follows Rahner's (and Sobrino's) premise that this was a symbolic rather than efficient causality. Jesus did not cause a salvation that God would have otherwise withheld; rather, Jesus reveals a salvation which would otherwise be less existentially available to people, since all of our access to the transcendent is mediated historically. Haight argues that the Council of Nicaea's statement that the Logos was not less than God was in fact addressing a soteriological concern raised by the logic of Arianism: if the Logos were a subordinate divinity it could not save, insofar as only God can save, so that the Incarnation fails to have the salvific character that drives the Christian experience of God in Christ. However, says Haight, ‘A negative result of this was to shift the focus of Christology to the person of Christ and to his divinity and to lessen a soteriological concern, at least overtly, for the work of Christ, and especially the historical career of Jesus, as the starting point of Christology.’30

Salvation and Liberation

Haight, like numerous other postmoderns, is dissatisfied with notions of salvation that so focus upon the extramundane as to make salvation have nothing to say to the world in which people live; such a model almost inevitably denigrates the physical world, since it is the soul which is to be saved, and it says little or nothing to those human realities that are in need of salvation but that are not personal sins. In line with this reinterpreted concept of salvation, however, come renewed questions about what effect Jesus could possibly have upon those aspects of human reality that typical notions of salvation have missed. It is one thing to claim that Jesus' death saves the soul from damnation because of some kind of transaction or substitution, since such things are beyond direct experiential access and thus beyond affirmation or denial. It is less clear how Jesus' death influences or overcomes the social realities that Haight says are in need of salvation: abuse of human rights, the threat of meaninglessness, violence, and so on. Jesus' execution did not end slavery, for example; does it nevertheless have anything salvific to offer to the reality of slavery?

‘The symbol of salvation refers to the flourishing wholeness that the doctrine of creation affirms is the will of the creator. It seems thwarted on two levels: in this world human freedom seems to be held in a bondage of sin and self-interest that prevents both personal and social fulfillment. On a broader scale, finitude and death threaten existence itself with final annihilation and senseless insignificance.’31 However, given that salvation is so variously conceived and symbolized across the tradition (and, Haight would want to add, across religious traditions), he has to account for it in a way that does not so flatten out the symbol as to make it worthless. ‘An “experience” here does not refer to the perception of an overt object, but to a human existential awareness, however its object may be conceived or expressed in language, that is prior to whatever language is used to describe it.’32 Haight, realizing he is walking a razor's edge with such a claim, immediately acknowledges that there are no experiences which are not shaped by the language we have available to name them, but states that the transcendent nature of such an experience enables it to encompass more than one linguistic formulation.33

Salvation and Meaning

Haight argues that what is most in need of salvation from our postmodern perspective ‘consists in the crisis of the meaning of historical existence as such which is raised by the degree and the sheer amount of human poverty and suffering that history displays.’34 In other words, we face a crisis of meaning, not in a way that is detached from the concerns of liberation, but precisely in how to see existence as meaningful in the face of overwhelming absurdity and massive suffering, which make life seem precisely meaningless for such a large segment of humanity.

Haight argues that we can only take account of Jesus' life as it actually did come to completion; the reality is that Jesus did die violently, suddenly, but that death did not come out of nowhere. It was a result of the social and historical and theological forces at work in the concrete situation in which Jesus lived and worked, and the ultimate commitment to a holistic salvation (i.e. the Kingdom of God) which Jesus lived out to the very end. ‘This action of others in killing Jesus in itself saved nothing; it was rather part of the massive surd of evil whose meaninglessness threatens existential meaning and coherence itself and hence calls out for some salvation.’35 Jesus' torture and violent death, meaningless on their own terms, were nonetheless an integral part of Jesus' life and were therefore ‘saved’ despite themselves. In fact, they become ‘the media or instruments for God's revelation, dialectically, through a negative experience of contrast.’36 Similarly, Haight argues, the absurdity which touches all life at points but seems to dominate the lives of so many is not erased, but is ‘finished’ (to use Haight's term) in God.37 ‘History may be meaningful, or it may indeed be meaningless … Jesus thus reveals that meaningful history is possible, that is, it has a possible and not an inherent or necessary meaning, through God's power to the extent that human beings are willing to accept and live in God's power.’38 For Haight, that model of life is primordially captured in the symbol, ‘Kingdom of God,’ which Jesus holds out by his preaching and life as a potential salvation, effective only if it is enacted. Based on that theological framework, Haight claims preferences for soteriological models, while acknowledging that others would also be appropriate. Haight favors Paul's ‘Second Adam’ Christology, insofar as it holds out a new vision of what being human truly looks like, and his kenotic Christology (cf. Phil 2:5–11) because of its vision of Jesus' total commitment of himself to God's purposes and the ‘therefore’ of his being raised because of that absolute commitment: ‘On the basis of that dedication to God, God raised him from death and exalted him.’39

Acknowledging the gross potential of life to seem (be?) meaningless, Haight works to avoid a nihilistic outcome, doubling back and linking salvation itself with the living of the values of the Kingdom of God, despite the near-inevitability that living out those values will lead the person to the ‘massive surd of evil’ that Jesus himself faced as an agent of the Kingdom of God. ‘Salvation does not lie in an affirmation that there is a God, nor even in a promise of immortality … Rather salvation appears in the way Jesus lived his life. His life was not simply an affirmation of the Reign of God; it was rather a creation of the Reign of God.’40 Whether this is paradoxical or contradictory is still an open question for me; on one hand, living out the life of the Kingdom of God is itself salvation, but on the other hand living that life almost inevitably leads to the cross, which itself is radically in need of salvation and would be better if it never happened.

But what of the ‘necessity’ of the cross, as Lisa Sowle Cahill puts it, even as she qualifies that claim by adding that it ‘was not willed as such by God or by Christ himself’?41 As Soelle puts it, ‘Love does not “require” the cross, but de facto it ends upon the cross … Love does not cause suffering or produce it, though it must necessarily seek confrontation, since its most important concern is not the avoidance of suffering but the liberation of people.’42 That said, Haight, while stating that it would have been better for Jesus and for us had he not been killed violently,43 still argues that Jesus' obedience to the demands of proclaiming the kingdom of God, to death if necessary, makes clear his dedication to the kingdom of God in a way that would not have been so clear had he died of old age: ‘it would have left open as a possibility that the lives of millions who suffer innocently and without relief and never reach old age but die unjustly before their time would stand outside the logic of Jesus' own life.’44 The cross was necessary for us to fully experience the possibility of overcoming meaninglessness in life, but it was not necessary to enact God's salvation against that meaninglessness.

Does it Work?

So, given Haight's own criteria of orthodoxy, is his project adequate? ‘Any Christology that intelligibly explains the current Christian experience that Jesus embodies God's action for salvation, is also faithful to the witness of the New Testament, and empowers a praxis that is ethical, is ipso facto orthodox. This is so by the doctrinal norms because it is what the doctrines themselves set out to do.’45 His proposal certainly authorizes Christian praxis; he is clear about the necessity of liberation and work on behalf of liberation in any talk of integral salvation. In terms of intelligibility, he navigates the mythological waters of the tradition and reinterprets them in a way that could be sensible to the postmodern Christian reader (at least, this postmodern Christian reader). The cross can no longer be the eternally scripted means of changing the divine will about the eschatological salvation of humanity, and hence can no longer be a good or necessary thing. It remains a bad thing that can nevertheless show something good, namely, the place of fidelity to God and the promise of God's fidelity to suffering humanity. One critic of Haight's work asks him, ‘Your methodology demands that such a statement (People experience God saving them in experiencing Jesus) be not simply alleged but warranted by historical Jesus research. Can it be? … Even if it were so, would it persuade the postmodern cultural Geist?’46 I feel inadequate to the task of fully answering that question; while his proposal for a soteriological ‘common denominator’ makes sense to me, I understand that postmodernity is a broad enough categorization that some postmoderns might dismiss his claim. As for the question about Haight's faithfulness to the tradition, this is of course the criterion that has landed him in so much hot water in the last decade. He seems to believe that his final product is orthodox, while others, even those who respect his effort, are less convinced. I take up that critique below.

Haight and Classical Christology

Questions of Haight's faithfulness to the classical Christological formulations are of central concern. As much as I appreciate Haight's retrieval of the soteriological ‘point’ of Nicaea, it seems to do away with any kind of qualitative distinctiveness about Jesus, which Nicaea certainly intended to protect. If all of reality is potentially a mediator for the true God, it certainly seems sacramentally sound to argue that what is mediated in me, in you the reader, in the tree outside my office window, is not less than God. In you, gentle reader? In the tree outside my office window? Presumably human sinfulness clouds our capacity to make God present, whereas the doctrine of the sinlessness of Jesus implies that he is transparent to the divine reality in a way that other humans' sinfulness makes more ambigious. Is the sinlessness of Christ, then, the crux of his uniqueness?

One negative aspect of Haight's method in contrast to the standard formulations done ‘from above’ is that the distinctiveness of Christ is clear. While Haight wants to emphasize that Jesus is homoousion to einai, Nicaea wants to say that he is also homoousion to patri in a way that the rest of us are not, but this is an angle which Haight's interesting but peculiar reading of Nicaea never adequately engages. This issue stays with Haight as he tries to promote Spirit Christology as a more accessible model for a postmodern audience. Interestingly, he sees problems in Christologies which depend on the symbols of Word or Wisdom, which, ‘insofar as they become personified and then hypostatized, tend to connote someone or something distinct from and less than God that was incarnate in Jesus … By contrast the symbol of God as Spirit is not a personification of God but refers directly to God, so that it is clear from the beginning that nothing less than God was at work in Jesus.’47 While this does uphold God's action in Jesus, it makes the distinctiveness of Jesus from other prophets or holy people very hazy, as opposed to Word/Wisdom Christologies, which make the distinction crystal clear.

Haight and the Normativity of Jesus

Haight has repeatedly been accused of blurring any kind of distinctive, qualitative difference between Jesus and other religious figures. This is problematic to the degree that it presumes that other ‘founders’ or prophets at the center of other religions are really doing the same kind of thing (even if doing it with different content) that Jesus is doing in revealing God. Haight does not care for the term ‘unique’ in reference to Jesus, since the Buddha, Muhammad, and all other human beings are unique, but he claims that he wants to hold onto something that keeps Jesus from becoming just another prophet. However, he does also argue that much of the concern to make Jesus qualitatively different from analogous figures in the other religions of the world is an unworthy spirit of competitiveness that Christians would do well to overcome. Rather, he argues, ‘God at work in other savior figures does not undermine the radically affirming sense of being addressed by God and united to God through Jesus. Although there may be other real mediations of God's salvation, the Christian cannot expect that they can authentically represent God to be less than God is encountered to be in Jesus.’48

If Jesus reveals God and God's salvation by mediating God via his entire life, including his faithfulness to the death, why have other religious figures who have faced torture and/or death (of whom, unfortunately, there is no shortage) not been experienced as raised, and hence as revealer of salvation, in the same way? According to tradition, Jeremiah was lynched by his own people in Egypt; was it simply because of the linguistic/mythic limitations of Jewish ‘mental furniture’ of the time, namely a lack of belief in a substantial afterlife, that no one ever claimed to experience Jeremiah as ‘risen’ or ‘saved’ by God? Similarly, even though Archbishop Oscar Romero famously said, ‘If they kill me, I will arise in the Salvadoran people,’ and that claim seems to be true, people do not claim Romero as savior, nor do they worship him (or, as Haight would put it, they do not worship God through the mediation of Romero, as they do with Jesus).49 As Ternant puts it, ‘Many other people have undergone sufferings, both moral and physical, as great as or greater than those of Jesus, but only Jesus is for God “the Son,” the Beloved.’50 Methodologically, Ternant's move here is inadequate for Haight: to say that what makes Jesus' death unique is the uniqueness of Jesus' metaphysical relationship with God is to collapse the variety of voices to one, namely, a literal Incarnation, and to make that presupposition rule one's project. However, he does not seem to provide a sufficiently potent alternative framework.

This area of Haight's thinking has been critiqued, rightly I think, as being the weakest. Even those who generally disagree with Haight's overall project often enough commend him for the insight he brings to the table, but here, even those who generally agree with him acknowledge that he is in over his head on a number of issues, central of which is the eternal snakepit of claiming some center that all religions are really about (à la Hick's ‘Reality-centrism’ or Knitter's ‘soteriocentrism’). While acknowledging that numerous religions do not seem to concern themselves with a salvation that is in any way like Christianity's vision of salvation, he attempts in places to hold on to a soteriocentric framework by saying that the true centerpiece of religion is the experience of negativity: meaninglessness in human history, finitude, suffering, death, and massive social evil. At other times, while holding onto christomorphism (not christocentrism) for Christians, i.e., seeing Christ as the definitive lens through which Christians encounter God, he ends up with a loose theocentrism that would still seem troublesome to some postmoderns, and to many non-Christians with whom he theoretically wants to engage. Haight wants to claim that the principle of non-contradiction does not necessarily apply when speaking about transcendent realities in the same way that it does about the rest of reality. He argues that therefore the Christian horizon of a personal and compassionately involved God is not ultimately contradictory to the nontheistic horizon of the Taoist or the Vedantist (although it is still God, however understood, that he seems to think that those traditions can mediate!). However, it seems that he has put all of his eggs into the basket of God desiring the salvation of all, so to back up and remind himself that it is all metaphorical language (true enough) and may well be compatible with such different-sounding images of the transcendent (e.g. as impersonal, hence having no desires about the salvation of all) sounds like an afterthought at best. Still, this problem hounds theologians who specialize in this particular field, so while one can criticize Haight's product, one may still laud his courage in not evading the tough questions despite not being a specialist in the theology of religions. He does avoid pluralism-become-relativism in affirming that not everything in every tradition is compatible with an authentic encounter with God; a priori we should approach other traditions with an attitude of openness to finding real mediations of God, but claims about any particular aspect of a tradition are to be made a posteriori, in the situation of dialogue.

One remaining problem is with the gap between Haight's notion of liberation and the place of God in saving from social evil. Haight argues decisively that God is savior, is always savior: ‘There never was a time when God was not savior, nor a period in human history when God's salvation was ineffective.’51 However, he quotes Schillebeeckx (approvingly?) in responding to the question of God's action against evil: ‘Resisting and overcoming suffering in this world is the human task: “It is not a matter for God, except that this task is performed in his absolute presence and therefore is a human concern which also is close to his heart.”52 Does this mean that liberation, which is so central to Haight's vision of salvation, is a solely human enterprise? Does the notion that liberation is close to God's heart actually involve God in overcoming human situations of evil? If not, the salvation that God offers ends up reverting to an extramundane ‘overcoming’ of history, contra Haight's definition, and humanity is fundamentally on its own in working out its problems, so that God does not really save in an integral fashion at all. Haight argues, convincingly, that salvation should be seen less as a moment, less of a yes/no question, (à la ‘Have you been saved?’) and more as a process, with aspects of our individual and collective reality being more and less ‘saved,’ but he asserts so forcefully and so often that only God can save that to not have God vitally engaged in the thick of history shifts the emphasis of salvation to the eschaton in a way that would continue to be highly problematic for postmodernity (and anyone concerned with the unbelievable depth of evil and absurdity in the world).


What resources are there in Haight's toolbox to address concerns about his project? It seems that he has committed himself enough to what he is doing, and the tradition is so invested in Logos Christology as the standard against which all other Christologies are to be measured, that concerns about orthodoxy would have a hard time moving forward.53 From the side of intelligibility to the postmodern audience, Haight's ‘Christomorphism’ model seems to offer a way to remain Christian while remaining open to the real religious truth of the other world religions; Lakeland argues in favor of this vision: ‘while Christ will not be in the foreground of Christian mission in the postmodern world, Christ will be the distinctive element “behind” Christians engaged in this task.’54 While this may be adequate for Kingdom-centric postmodern Christians, I doubt that such a vision will ever be palatable to official claims that make Jesus not only normative but constitutive of salvation, that make Christ not only the form of God but the content of the proclamation.


  1. 1 See Tracy, David, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (New York: Harper and Row) 48.

  2. 2 Brueggemann, Walter, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) 85.

  3. 3 Finlan, Stephen, Problems With Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005) 36.

  4. 4 IBID. 66.

  5. 5 Haight, Roger, Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999) 228.

  6. 6 ‘… seul un Dieu-homme pourra se charger de cette satisfaction … que nul ne peut faire sinon Dieu et que nul ne doit sinon l'homme.’ Ternant, Paul, Le Christ est Mort Pour Tous (Paris: Cerf, 1993) 22, my translation.

  7. 7 McNeill, John, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadephia: Westminster Press, 1960) 530. This is not solely a postmodern concern; see Lisa SowleCahill, ‘Quaestio Disputata: The Atonement Paradigm: Does it Still Have Value? Theological Studies68 (2007) 418432, at 420: ‘Only a generation after Anselm, Abelard complained “how cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain – still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!”’

  8. 8 Haight, Roger, The Future of Christology (New York: Continuum, 2005) 78.

  9. 9 Finlan, Problems with Atonement 111. Finlan notes at 43 that this ‘baseline’ is not truly Pauline either, or at least that Paul's intimations to that effect are inconsistent with his larger picture: ‘Paul's arguments are not consistent with his metaphors; his arguments always defend the generosity and free will of God, but his metaphors imply that a transactional payment or ritual was necessary.’

  10. 10 Haight, The Future of Christology 78.

  11. 11 See in particular Soelle, Dorothee, Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) 17 on the danger of masochism in Christian spirituality: ‘Why God sends affliction is no longer asked. It is sufficient to know he causes it. In this way one represses all other causes of suffering, particularly the social causes, and doesn't deal rationally with the actual causes.’ Mark Heim in Saved from Sacrifice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) 26, warns, ‘Christlike humility, self-sacrifice, and submission are an unbalanced prescription for women or others who may be exploited, powerless, or struggling for identity. Victims of domestic abuse don't need advice to persevere in their suffering as a way of sharing in Christ's redemptive work.’

  12. 12 RobertDaly, ‘Images of God and the Imitation of God: Problems with AtonementTheological Studies68 (2007) 3651, at 42.

  13. 13 Sowle Cahill, 421.

  14. 14 IBID. 423.

  15. 15 IBID. 430.

  16. 16 Lakeland, Paul, Postmodernity: Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) 46.

  17. 17 Haight, The Future of Christology 43.

  18. 18 IBID. 39.

  19. 19 RogerHaight, ‘Jesus and Salvation: An Essay in Interpretation,’ Theological Studies55 (1994), 225251, at 225.

  20. 20 Haight, The Future of Christology 77.

  21. 21 IBID. 37.

  22. 22 Finlan, Problems With Atonement 4.

  23. 23 Haight, The Future of Christology 45.

  24. 24 IBID. 94.

  25. 25 Haight, Jesus Symbol of God 338.

  26. 26 Finlan, Problems with Atonement 59.

  27. 27 IBID. 78.

  28. 28 Haight, Jesus Symbol of God 341.

  29. 29 For an alternative model of the ‘common denominator’ of New Testament Christology, see Ternant, Le Christ est Mort Pour Tous 28: ‘Des auteurs contemporains, dans de bons ouvrages de synthése, disent encore que l'idée selon laquelle Jésus a souffert “à la place des autres” est la clef principale de la sotériologie néotestamentaire.’

  30. 30 Haight, Roger, An Alternative Vision: An Interpretation of Liberation Theology (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1985) 117.

  31. 31 Haight, The Future of Christology 68.

  32. 32 IBID. 84.

  33. 33 See Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity 48: ‘We do not first experience or understand some reality and then find words to name that understanding. We understand in and through the languages available to us, including the historical languages of the sciences.’ Given the categories available to people through the ages, it seems clear that ‘salvation’ has pointed to a wide range of objects and so does not have one final, readily available meaning that is obvious to all; the person in the Old Testament who speaks of God as ‘saving’ means something quite different from the evangelical who asks, ‘Have you been saved?’ Nevertheless, Haight seems to believe, contra Lindbeck, that the term does not serve a purely heuristic or grammatical function and points to an experience which, albeit diffuse, is not a merely mental category.

  34. 34 Haight, An Alternative Vision 121.

  35. 35 IBID. 88.

  36. 36 Haight, The Future of Christology 102.

  37. 37 This notion of claiming that Jesus is saved by God in the aftermath of the cross remains problematic, however, because it would seem methodologically that Haight stumbles in dealing with the disciples&aspos; access to the experience of Jesus being saved after death. While he wants to affirm that the resurrection is far more than simply Jesus rising in the faith of the community, insofar as the resurrection is a ‘transcendent object of faith’ (Jesus Symbol of God 124) rather than ‘camcorder theology,’ it must be somehow mediated to be available to the disciples in their faith-hope, as he puts it, but there is little solid data, of course, given the necessarily mythic language used to convey the experience.

  38. 38 IBID. 134.

  39. 39 Haight, The Future of Christology 99. The danger here for questions of orthodoxy is whether Haight's ontic claim about Jesus can in any way have ontological significance. While he wants to argue that it does, his wariness of ontological claims in general means that his response is loaded with dialogical qualifications.

  40. 40 IBID. 134. See also Lakeland, Postmodernity 110: ‘following Christ is salvation and not merely the way to salvation.’

  41. 41 Sowle Cahill, ‘The Atonement Paradigm’ 421.

  42. 42 Soelle, Suffering 163–4.

  43. 43 Cf. Haight, The Future of Christology 87. By contrast, Mark Heim, in Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, follows a Girardian reading of the cross, and sees the cross as a fundamentally bad thing, but as one that God uses to reveal the evils of scapegoat violence. Sacrifices, which have for so long been seen as offerings to God, are in fact meant to unify fractured communities against a common enemy who can then be blamed for the fracture; since the destruction of the scapegoat brings renewed social cohesion (for a while), so says the logic Girard hopes to reveal, that victim must have been the cause of the social break in the first place, reinforcing the rightness of scapegoat violence. For Heim, the cross is portrayed as uncovering the hiddenness of the scapegoating of the innocent, which has to remain hidden to be effective, so Jesus' saving action is in effect a dismantling of the apparatus of scapegoat violence as a means of social cohesion, making future victims impossible (in theory) because they look too much like Jesus. For Heim, Anselm goes astray by seeing God as the author of the death of Jesus and the one to whom it is offered, in effect celebrating sacrifice instead of overcoming it. Ternant (49, n.4) critiques Girard's conflation of the categories of sacrifice and scapegoating: ‘Identifiant “sacrifice” et “victime émissaire”, sur laquelle se concentrerait la violence sociale, le philosophe et ethnologue René Girard tient que la mort du Christ, bien loin d'être un sacrifice, constitue la denunciation radicale de ce mécanisme de violence collective. Il y a là une grave méconnaissance de ce qu'est réellement le sacrifice dès l'Ancien Testament.’

  44. 44 Haight, The Future of Christology 102. See Soelle, Suffering 43–5 for discussion of Kazoh Kitamori's concept of God as pain versus an apathetic or uninvolved God. ‘He sees God as one who suffers because of sin and yet cannot maintain his wrath, who reconciles wrath and love in pain because he loves the object of his wrath, which always entails suffering.’

  45. 45 RogerHaight, ‘Jesus and World ReligionsModern Theology12:3 (July 1996) 321344, at 338.

  46. 46 Edward JeremyMiller, ‘Jesus Symbol of God: Does it Work? Horizons27:1 (Spring 2000) 164178, at 169.

  47. 47 RogerHaight, ‘The Case for Spirit ChristologyTheological Studies53 (1992) 257287, at 272.

  48. 48 Haight, ‘Jesus and World Religions’ 339. However, Haight's language remains problematic. What exactly does ‘less’ mean? Is Hinduism in its polytheistic variation presenting God as ‘less’ because it presents the gods as plural? Is Theravada Buddhism's picture of reality ‘less’ because its impersonal worldview lacks the personal nature of the Christian God? Is there anything that makes Greek mythology inadequate, apart from the historical reality that it no longer funds a living religion?

  49. 49 In that vein, Haight believes that there are in principle a multiplicity of saving figures who are mediating God's salvation in a way that is on par with Jesus. Must he say, therefore, that it is possible to have a multiplicity of saving figures within Christianity? If Upanishadic Hinduism can produce a figure like Siddhartha Gautama, who, Haight might argue, is in principle capable of mediating salvation in a way that is on par with Christ, why can Christianity not, in principle, produce a figure who manifests God as fully as does Christ? While it does not seem that he would claim that Archbishop Romero, for example, should be seen as a mediator of God on par with Jesus, he does not make clear what the distinction is. The standard claim is that Romero did what he did precisely because of his Christomorphic lens, i.e. that he did what he did because of the Christian vision of God mediated by Jesus.

  50. 50 ‘Beaucoup d'autres hommes ont subi des souffrances physiques et meme morales aussi grandes ou plus grandes que celles de Jésus, mais Jésus seul est pour Dieu “le Fils”, le Bien-aimé.’ Ternant, Le Christ Est Mort Pour Tous 173, my translation.

  51. 51 IBID. 91.

  52. 52 IBID. 73.

  53. 53 Although my topic is ostensibly soteriology rather than Christology, since there is no ‘official’ soteriology like there are official Christological norms, and since Haight sees Christology as derivative from soteriology, the outcomes of his soteriological method control his Christological claims.

  54. 54 Lakeland, Postmodernity 108.