Critics Miss Deeper Truth of a Fully Human Jesus Christ

By DeCosse, David | National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Critics Miss Deeper Truth of a Fully Human Jesus Christ


DeCosse, David, National Catholic Reporter


What if those on the Catholic right most concerned today with defending the faith in fact have an inadequate grasp of the most central Christian doctrine? Not the doctrinal ban on artificial contraception: The Catholic right has that teaching down cold.

I'm talking about the claim that God became one of us.

The controversy last December at the Smithsonian in Washington over the withdrawal from an exhibit of a video featuring ants crawling on a crucifix evokes such a question. Of course, the question also arises at a time when the Catholic right, inside and outside of formal church structures, is increasingly linking Catholic faith to a series of boundary-marking litmus tests. One must oppose the legalization of abortion and gay marriage. One must think that Christ explicitly forbade women priests. One must appreciate the redemptive profundity of Mel Gibson's boring, bloody film "The Passion of the Christ."

Usually, the theological justification for such tests rests on two things. First, there is an appeal to an abstract Christ, sacred but detached from our messy world and lacking in human soul. Second, there is an appeal to this conception of Christ as justification for the authority of actions undertaken by the church's hierarchical teaching office.

But the Smithsonian controversy offers an occasion to see the theological weakness of such arguments--and of such litmus tests. The controversy began when the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights questioned why government funds were used to display a video that the League claimed was offensive to Catholics. Although the League did not ask to have the video removed, the museum proceeded to do so anyhow. The allegedly offensive footage was a brief segment of a much longer video by the late gay Catholic artist David Wojnarowicz that was a reflection on his own dying from AIDS.

New York Times art critic Holland Cotter said of the video, called "A Fire in My Belly," that Wojnarowicz "felt, with reason, mortally embattled, and the video is filled with symbols of vulnerability under attack: beggars, slaughtered animals, displaced bodies and the crucified Jesus. In Wojnarowicz's nature symbolism--and this is confirmed in other works--ants were symbols of a human life mechanically driven by its own needs, heedless of anything else. Here they blindly swarm over an emblem of suffering and self-sacrifice."

The central claim in all of Christian doctrine is that the Son of God became fully human. This means not only that Christ entered the world as a helpless infant. But it also means that Christ assumed the complex burdens of human freedom and embodiment, even to the point of freely accepting death. And when we consider that core doctrine, we arrive at two surprising conclusions. First, the Wojnarowicz video easily passes the test of this orthodox belief.

Second, the Catholic League and its allies appear to be operating from an inadequate grasp of this core Christian conviction.

The controversy over the Wojnarowicz video turns on the acceptance of the full humanity of Christ. In particular, the doctrinal issue at stake is represented by the ancient Christian maxim: "What is not assumed is not healed." Or, in other words, unless the Son of God was understood to have taken on the depths of human experience--including the fear and loneliness of death--it could not be said that Christ also redeemed this experience. This is a hard maxim because it requires seeing Jesus Christ not as an abstract, sacred figure whose power over sin is matched by his distance from all that might taint him.

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