Do we really need Redemption?
Seminar delivered by Fr Gerald O'Collins, SJ on August 7, 2007
Fr Gerald admitted at once that it was a "huge but practical" topic to address, and asked what language we should use. He intriguingly defined theology as "watching one's language in the presence of God," noting that the Name of Jesus means God Saves. In answer to the seminar question, Fr Gerald began by asserting that bondage and corruption — or lack of love — are two main reasons for our needing redemption. Bondage could today refer to contemporary idol worship. Corruption or defilement refer to things being out of place or needing cleansing. People too could be self-regarding, that is turning in on themselves.
Fr Gerald then discussed three ways of experiencing the Redeemer. Firstly he spoke of the Exultet or rich Easter prayer, which concerns the victory over death's chains. People, said Fr Gerald, still respond to the cosmic conflict between good and evil. An example is the number of people reading 'The God Delusion' by Dawkins. Secondly, he spoke of being cleansed from sin, and thirdly receiving the saving power of Grace.
Fr Gerald discussed the nature of love at some length. Love means approval, and in divine form is unceasing. It is creative, "has its reasons", and works for the welfare of the beloved. The famous words of 1 Corinthians 13: 4 to 7 beginning "Love is Kind ..." are often used in marriage services. Yet love too can be linked with vulnerability, or with passion and suffering, such as in the Crucifixion. The good Samaritan does the good deed himself; he doesn't just notify authorities. Love too unites, but does not smother, and joy is "a natural spinoff" of love.
Where in literature, asked Fr Gerald, are there references to redemption? Dante's 'Divine Comedy' has it as its theme; Botticelli did 92 illustrations for this book. In some, like 'Macbeth', redemption through violence is attempted. In the film 'Red' a retired judge has to learn to let things go and a kind lady allows him to be redeemed. Many other films include such a theme. What is our role in sharing in redemption? For some, pain, negativism, or an accident can trigger a deep experience of God. For others, nature, beauty, or a particular liturgy can provide the same insight. At some length, Fr Gerald used the example of Tim Guernard's life experiences in his book 'Stronger than Hate' to show how people can appreciate God's Love despite human suffering.
In answer to the question, where does redemption show up in our lives, Fr Gerald at first referred to love being redemptive, noting that the three theologians Rahner, Bultmann, and Tillich do not talk of hate in reference to this matter, while St Thomas Aquinas made a clear distinction between hatred and anger. When comparing the contents of the Bible and the daily newspapers, the latter seem to concentrate on "tribal hatreds". "Hatred," said Fr Gerald, is "free, irrational, self-destructive and doesn't lead anywhere." Love unites and hatred separates, and the latter can be a diabolical, sadistic kind of joy.
At question time, Fr Gerald was able to expand on some earlier points. Love can come through the impact of beauty, as in the simple Christ-like figure of Prince Mishkin in 'The Idiot' by Dostoyevsky. That author showed both the beauty and goodness of redemption. When asked about the act of redemption as a process, Fr Gerald talked of "imperfect, evolving creatures being redeemed by God's love." People who are eager and hungry for the fullness of truth need grace to achieve the redeemed state.
Again, Fr Gerald noted that for others there is a need to avoid absurdity and escape from death and avoid isolation. He observed that in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus says that forgiveness is conditional on our forgiving others.
Pelagius, the early 'heretic', preached the doctrine of self-salvation, sturdy individualism, salvation through effort and sweat. Others have asserted that "we are so bad, we can't be redeemed." Both views Fr Gerald questioned with pastoral "tact and help" being useful. Fr Gerald's wide ranging talk, punctuated by a wide variety of theological and historical research data was a challenging response to a topic that will never have a simple answer for everyone, for writers, for thinkers, in fact for anyone who likes to ask questions.
Gerald O'Collins' book 'Jesus our Redeemer : a Christian approach to Salvation' was published this year by Oxford University Press. It is available to order from the St Peter's Bookroom.