Western and Eastern approaches to the Transcendence of God

An interview with Archbishop Malcolm Randjith, the Sri Lankan Secretary to the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship.
FAITH Magazine September - October 2007

EDITOR: Your Grace, in the last year you have given a number of interviews concerning Liturgy in the modern context. I wonder if I could ask your opinion with regard to the related state of Western theology after the Second Vatican Council and then perhaps to make some comparisons with your experience of Asian spirituality. Firstly, then, how might you characterise the most influential post-Vatican II theological developments?

ARCHBISHOP RANJITH: We know that in the past few centuries along with the growing tide of philosophical immanentism, rationalism and empiricism new trends in biblical study came to the fore bringing with them quite an upheaval. This tendency critically to analyse and seek out that which was historical as distinct from the elements of faith in the Old and New Testaments reached a peak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries especially through the studies presented by Rudolf Bultmann and the exegetical school of form-criticism. Along with this there was an intensive research into the historical development of religions and their comparative value in the study of Scripture. Several schools of theology arose which analysed the culture in which the figure of Jesusemerged. This research fostered uncertainties because most of it was unrealistically analytical, breaking down the text into a so called demythologised form in order to search for that which was real behind the words. The search was on for a so called demythologised Jesus. This way exegesis nearly made the search for the historical figure of Jesus an impossibility. Suggestions also emerged of a significant distinction between early Catholicism and late Catholicism. This type of analytical approach to Jesus, which had its own repercussions on theology, led to a certain amount of unsteadiness. The role of faith and of the living witness of the Church tended to be largely ignored. Theology suddenly seemed to lose its classical role of being at the service of faith and truth.

This was happening parallel to a process of secularisation of Christian society and the emergence of materialism. Reductive exegesis became an aspect of modern Western culture. This was accompanied also by a humanistic and man-centred outlook of life, which tended to marginalise the concept of God. It obscured the transcendence of God, and not only of God, but in the end analysis of Man too. These trends influenced the thinking of the Church and of her theologians to a large extent. We have had, as a result, an immanentist approach to theology, which has tended to damage the Church to a great extent. The clear and lucid presentation of Catholic theology by St. Thomas Aquinas who established rationally cogent principles for the discovery of truth, suddenly seemed shaky.

Fortunately this did not continue to be so. Some of the more recent scholars, including disciples of Bultmann such as Käesemann, became critical of that kind of approach, and showed that the analytical method alone would not suffice. There is a need to have a fuller picture of Jesus. Who is the real Jesus? Truly, Christian theology flows from the event of His Incarnation. First comes the person of Jesus, the encounter with whom gives rise to faith and the search for an understanding of that faith. This encounter was important and Jesus indeed was someone who touched the lives of so many of those who saw, heard and shared his life. For them he was not a myth. They were indeed fascinated and drawn to him. Thus a purely analytical approach in order to discern the historicity of Jesus lookedunscientific.

We now see the emergence of a better and fuller approach by Pope Benedict, through his newly published book, Jesus of Nazareth. It shows a more complete vision of the life of Jesus, and its background and purpose. This approach harmonises with a wholesome understanding of theology. For instance, we need to take note of the role of the community, the Church, and its early response to the person of Jesus: faith as a here and now experience of those who met him personally (cf. 1Jn 1:1-4). It is not merely through historico-critical presuppositions that we arrive at the truth. One needs to search for it within the context of a wholesome outlook of its deeper meaning, sensitivity to the hidden riches characterising human thought and knowledge. It also involves a spiritual as well as aprofoundly rational recognition of our capacity for God.

The Holy Father in his writings is clearly pointing to a realistic way of thinking about God, about faith, about the Church and so on. I feel that the Pope here is introducing a fresh approach in this type of research. This is an approach about which I am personally very happy.

EDITOR: Do you see this positive tendency more widely in our culture today?

ARCHBISHOP RANJITH: Even though humanity has by and large thought of itself as being self-sufficient, it is now discovering that this is not true: man has his limitations. And so he is looking out for the transcendent more and more. The search for the transcendent and infinite is gripping human life to an increasing degree, even among the young.

EDITOR: In what sense is Man’s search for the Transcendent a ‘wholesome’ and ‘spiritual’ phenomenon?

ARCHBISHOP RANJITH: The ‘spiritual’ does not just refer to the spirit that lives within man. The spirituality of man is the self-conscious link that we have with God, our yearning and capacity for God. This interior dimension is the most central part of human life. This is not to undermine or to look down upon human, physical, corporeal and bodily joys and happiness in a Jansenistic way. But it is to highlight the far superior dimension of each man – the yearning for wholeness in his relation to the eternal “Thou”.

EDITOR: How should one help modern men and women explicitly to recognise this dimension? Apart from showing that materialism has failed, and apart from developing a Christian theology within the Church which brings it to light, how can we actually in a positive way show that to people who are distant from Christ and the Church? How can we show that we have this capacity for God, that we have this need for God, that we’re so much more than the goodness of the body?

ARCHBISHOP RANJITH: The more that man goes deeper into technological and scientific progress, the more he feels that that alone cannot bring him fulfilment. We need to question ourselves as to where we could find true fulfilment of human life? There is this yearning for infinity in man. It is the seed of faith. For us Christians it is fulfilled in Jesus and in what he reveals to us: that the eternal “thou” is indeed “Our Father”. Our faith comes to meet and find fulfilment in that experience.

EDITOR: Does your own experience from beyond the European school of theology help in this regard? Can Asian insights or philosophies help towards highlighting the transcendence of God and the orientation of the human person in a holistic way towards the life of God?

ARCHBISHOP RANJITH: For Asians, religiosity or rather spirituality is something that is considered inbuilt in their very constitution. It is not something that is superimposed. It’s not a matter of something that is discovered through rational philosophy only. It is an attitude that is there deeply engraved in their lives, in their culture, and has been so for thousands of years. And this attitude of spirituality has then evolved into religion. It is deeply rooted not only among the poor and the disadvantaged. Some people’s prejudice is that this religious sense is only generally present among the poor. That is not true. Spirituality and religiosity for us Asians are not just matters of personal option but inbuilt in the very essence of our nature: rich or poor, educatedor not.

EDITOR: Possibly we in the west used to have something more like that within our culture, say before the Enlightenment. Since the Enlightenment it’s been stripped away, gradually as you said, by materialism and relativism. Is there a risk of something like that happening within the Asian culture?

ARCHBISHOP RANJITH: I do not think so. I do not think that is going to happen to the same extent because in spite of material progress, religiosity, spirituality and values remain strong in Asia even in the most economically progressed societies. Questions may be raised, but perennial wisdom then comes in to provide the answers. This very important and central role of religion in human life is clearly a benefit to Asian culture. And it somehow provides a background of optimism.

EDITOR: In other interviews, you have spoken about the strengths but also weaknesses of the development of liturgy in the last thirty years. The liturgy, it might seem, has become a little bit more man-centred. This seems to have been mirrored in what’s happened, according to your description, in Western intellectual thoughts. That type of thought has been developing in the West for at least two hundred years, whereas the liturgy within the Church has only changed in the last forty years. Would you say that there’s a cause and effect there, do you think that thinking in a more man-centred way has led to us praying in a more man-centred way, or do you think it’s the other way round, or is it a more subtle relationship between liturgy and theology in the Church?

ARCHBISHOP RANJITH: When you look at the Old Testament, you see that the people of Israel were born as the expression of the Covenant and the Sacrifice on Mount Sinai and the resultant experience of faith. It is an experience of God taking the initiative. It is the Lord who invites the people to worship him at Sinai (Ex. 3:12). Israel experienced this invitation and its consequence – the covenant with God – as an expression of His saving, liberating love. Israel indeed saw itself becoming a people, the people of God, in that covenant relationship. And this leads immediately to an attitude of veneration, and in that veneration, which is also adoration, faith is born. So theology is not the first thing. Liturgy comes before that.

Besides, one cannot forget that the earliest traditions of the Scriptures were born both in the Old and the New Testaments within the context of liturgical worship in Israel and in the early Church. This is not to look down upon the other disciplines of the Church but rather to put the facts in clear perspective. In any case the first expression of divine encounter was always Lex Orandi. Adoration and worship then led to a deep sense of faith and then, of course, as faith grew it led to an even deeper sense of prayer and adoration and so on. That means the response of veneration enhanced faith and faith in turn enhanced veneration. And then, of course, it led to coherence of life, the Lex Vivendi. In our context in the East too, it is the experience of God, in worship, which leads tofaith. When you experience God your heart opens out in worship and veneration and then in that relationship God reveals Himself to you causing a profound sense of faith in you. The consequent attempt to express your faith in different ways then leads to the formulation of Doctrine. And once the Community embraces the Sacred teachings, they become Canonical. So the first act in this consideration is always worship. Thus for us Asians, and we can experience this more in the Oriental Churches, the central consideration is what is celebrated: The God we adore.

EDITOR: : That’s a nice point to end on. Thank you very much.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2007