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Theology with the Loyola Institute: Jesus risen and ascended

The second presentation in the Loyola Institute’s online introduction to theology series, ‘Faith Seeking Understanding’, was given by Dr Michael Kirwan SJ on 3 February. He took up the discussion initiated by Dr John McDade in the opening presentation. The theme Dr Kirwan addressed was: How can Christians speak responsibly and healthily about God? How does Christian talk stand up to the concern that calling God ‘Father’ is bound up with patriarchal or authoritarian perception of the divine? And doesn’t parental imagery for God have the unfortunate effect of ‘infantilizing’ faith, locking believers into a childish dependency?

“These criticisms need to be taken seriously,” Dr Kirwan insisted; “‘Faith Seeking Understanding’ is precisely about nurturing an adult Christian faith, despite the arguments of people like Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, and even Levinas, that such a thing is impossible.”

Dr Kirwan noted Jesus’s own language of divine fatherhood, as well as scripture’s language of adoption, of ‘becoming’ children of God. This feature of revelation raises critical questions, which Jesus himself asked: “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” And, given the Pauline theme of Christians being ‘in Christ’, the question of who Christ is provides the necessary context for addressing the question of who we ourselves are.

Different answers to these questions emerge in the course of the New Testament. Dr Kirwan brings them down to three key ones. Firstly, John the Baptist encounters the earthly Jesus. Then, Peter knew Jesus in his life and ministry, but also encountered him in the resurrection appearances. And thirdly, Paul never met Jesus in his earthly life, nor was he a witness to the resurrection, but his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus was with Christ resurrected and ascended. It is Paul’s encounter that is the key to understanding our own experience of the Lord who is both risen from the dead and returned to the Father.

Dr Kirwan elaborated on the many different responses in Paul to the question of who Christ is, including the New Adam, the Messiah, the crucified Messiah, the Universal Saviour and the Cosmic Christ. It was the Damascus experience, he argued, that catalysed Paul’s thinking and brought the many identities of Christ into alignment. He invited attendants to pause and consider what those days of blindness after falling from his horse on the road must have meant to Paul. All of his understanding of scripture, with which as a zealous Jew he would have been completely familiar, was turned on its head. He was forced to reinterpret everything. Citing Rowan Williams, Dr Kirwan noted that what Christ revealed about divine power and love was utterly unexpected and, especially as it entailed a dramatic submission to struggle, pain and humiliation, would have constituted a huge challenge to a man like Paul.

Also a huge challenge to us. “If we are to take Jesus seriously,” Dr Kirwan said, “we need to rethink what we think God means, and what divine power and glory mean.”