1974 Theological College – (Trinity College, Melbourne)
A fellow theological student and I were arguing ferociously. I was 25, and presented the Left’s view of Aboriginal rights in the sharply political terms I had learned from the Campaign for Racial Equality.
‘Come back and talk to me when you can argue as a Christian,’ my friend told me.
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I remember clearly the challenge he put to me that day, although I know he looks back on that statement with embarrassment at the priggishness of his former self.
Unless Christ is central, goes the argument, it’s not Christian. And unless Christ is central to your thoughts about any subject, then they are sub-Christian. All these decades later, I am still challenged by this position, and even more so by my reading of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Theology of History in Bonaventure.
I have wanted for some time to read this exploration of Bonaventure, and I am enjoying the experience. Ratzinger is learned and lucid, a teacher whose range is so wide that he includes the reader by providing enough backstory. For example, he shows how Bonaventure differed from Thomas Aquinas in his treatment of Aristotle, because Bonaventure wanted to preserve the primacy of Christ in his philosophy. Ratzinger delights by showing not only where they disagreed but the courtesy with which Bonaventure attacks the arguments and never the person of Thomas.
And the central challenge Bonaventure throws to us is to argue for a radically Christian view of history, in which Christ is the central point, and in this age of the Holy Spirit, we are returning to the Father. As Ratzinger diagrams it: Father > egressus > Christus > regressus > Father. (To read Ratzinger, your Latin needs to be reasonably tuned.)
In our age, we have become so used to secular versions of history and time, notably the past-centred view of conservatives; the apocalyptic view of ruptured time promoted by the Green movement and the various views of time implicit in scientists’ narratives around cosmic and biological origins.
Bonaventure’s challenge to us is to see history in God’s terms. The victory of Jesus on the cross and his sending of the Spirit change the direction of history – not just salvation history, but political history, human history and the history of creation. Bonaventure is a medieval scholar; he does play with different schema of sevens (seven days of Creation, seven days of Redemption, seven aeons of the new Creation), threes (Creation, Redemption, New Creation), and twos (Old and New), but these elaborate and fascinating frameworks all point back to the centre-point who is Christ.
We are rightly enthusiastic for inter-faith dialogue and the ways other faiths can deepen our own. But how do I deal with Bonaventure’s insistence that the final word is Christ’s? We fear ecological destruction, but does the confidence of our return to Christ sharpen our concern or bolster our hopes for the future? We worry about the imbalance of the world between a wealthy West, a rising China and poverty and violence. Do Bonaventure’s certainties reduce those worries?
Sometimes the Pope’s present pronouncements seem to come from another world. Maybe they do. His love for Bonaventure and the place of the Franciscans in history indicate that Ratzinger’s views have been heavily shaped by the ‘other world’ – that of medieval theology.
I am glad to be challenged again to argue as a Christian, and to place Christ at the centre in all my thinking.