In Reason, Faith, and Tradition, why does Martin Albl say that the Christian understanding of Jesus is shocking and offensive?

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In chapter 10.1, “The Incarnation,” Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology, Martin Albl delineates some of the common criticisms of the high Christology of Jesus of Nazareth. Albl notes that it is a scandalous assertion that a first-century Jewish carpenter from Palestine serves as the only savior of humankind (particularity) and, even more, that a transcendent God condescended to the level of human beings by having a son (humility).

By underscoring the Christian doctrine of Christ’s particularity, Albl contends in section 10.1.1 that many people will find the singularity of Christ unbelievable, incomprehensible, and unacceptable. He explains the difficulty people have with the idea that, among the myriad religious teachers throughout history, somehow this particular individual’s teaching and death atones for all of humankind’s sins and unites them to the Divine. The author goes on to explain the Christian doctrine of the hypostatic union, the idea that Jesus of Nazareth, as the incarnate Son of God, was both fully human and fully God. This high Christology endowed Jesus with the sole ability to bridge the gap between humans and God. This high Christology serves as the basis for further shock and offense by the postulation that the Divine is capable of condescending to a human level and fathering a son.

The doctrine that part of a triune, infinite, and eternal God left heaven to dwell among sinful humans is scandalous, shocking, and offensive. Albl cites this disagreeable doctrine as the humility of God. At the close of 10.1.3, the author draws attention to the Quran’s teaching that God is utterly transcendent, and Allah has no son. What people find so shocking is the idea that God could even become a human, much less that God could die. As humility is said to be a lowering of oneself, the concept here denotes that God lowered Himself down from His heavenly abode to become acquainted with the sufferings of humankind and to ultimately lay down His life for the sins of all humans. What is offensive is that such a lowering of God makes no sense, and if a God were to exist, such a narrative seems untenable to most. Furthermore, such a transgression between the sacred and the profane is shocking because of the logical separation between such polarities.

In conclusion, Albl draws attention to one of the strongest criticisms of the Christian faith, that of the limited nature of Christ’s atoning sacrifice—that it is reserved for those who believe. This doctrine is upsetting to many, as it creates a very narrow way to salvation. This narrowness, in all its offense and shock, rests upon the particularity of Christ and the humility of God, who condescended hypostatically in the form of a first-century Jewish man.

Suggested Reading:

Kreeft, Peter and Ronald Tacelli. "Chapter 7: The Divinity of Christ." Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith. Ignatius Press, 2009.

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In chapter 10 of Reason, Faith and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology there are two sections entitled "Shock and Offense 1:The Particularity of Jesus" and "Shock and Offense 2: The Humility of God."

In the first of these sections Albl sets out the basic problem. Christians believe that, several thousand years ago, in a remote corner of the world, God came down to earth as a fully human being to save every single one of us and give us all eternal life. That the divine savior lived and preached among us in the person of one individual at one particular time in human history is what Albl refers to as the "scandal of particularity."

Albl frankly accepts that, to many millions of people, this was and is a deeply offensive belief. It seems ludicrous to many that of all the billions of people to occupy the face of this planet it was just one solitary individual who took on the role of Redeemer. Would it not have served God's purposes just as well by investing such authority in many individuals over a long period of time, in every historical era, in all parts of the world?

The modern mindset instinctively rebels against the core Christian message. In an increasingly secular, faithless age, scandal has turned to contempt and derision.

In the second section, Albl discusses what he calls the scandal of God's humility. If the scandal of particularity is offensive to reason, then the scandal of divine humility is offensive to certain strands of religious faith.

Albl cites the example of Islam. To Muslims, the idea of God humbling himself as a man and dying a painful, degrading death as a common criminal on a cross, is not just offensive, it is blasphemous. In Islam, Allah is utterly transcendent, completely other. The distinction between God and human beings is absolute and can in no way ever be breached. The Incarnation as Christians understand it represents a confusing mixture of two completely different natures.

Yet, it is possible from a Christian standpoint to not just acknowledge the scandal of Christianity but to positively embrace it. A means of doing this is provided by Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher and religious thinker. Unlike Albl, he does make a clear distinction in his thought between faith and reason. Yes, Kierkegaard readily admits, Christianity is indeed a scandal to reason. However, because reason has nothing to do with faith, Christianity and its gospel remain untouched by any rationalist approach.

Important in this regard is the distinction Kierkegaard makes between subjective and objective knowledge. Objective knowledge is that which is not in any way dependent on what we believe. Mathematical and scientific knowledge provide two examples. For instance, two plus two will always equal four, whether anyone believes it or not. Likewise, the earth revolves around the sun even if, for whatever reason, I steadfastly refuse to accept it.

Subjective knowledge, however, is that in which my whole being is involved. It really does matter to me whether (say, the Incarnation) is true or not. For Kierkegaard, this is the paradigm of faith. Faith is not an intellectual assent to a logical proposition; it is something one accepts with every fiber of one's being, with mind, heart, and soul. Faith is not something thought about; it is lived.

This is Kierkegaard's answer to what he openly acknowledges to be the scandal of Christianity. One cannot try and reason the problem away; one can only make a leap of faith and embrace the scandal with both arms. Let us use a thought experiment to illustrate the point.

Imagine that two individuals, one a devout Christian and the other an equally devout atheist, were able to get into a time machine and go back to Jerusalem on Good Friday to witness Christ's crucifixion. Both would see the same event; both would have access to the same set of facts. The Christian would see the suffering man hanging there on the cross as the Son of God, whereas the atheist would see him as an unfortunate criminal being put to death.

In other words, the only way that one can accept the scandal of Christ's particularity and Incarnation is by an act of faith. Kierkegaard is not deprecating reason; he is simply suggesting that it can only get us so far. Just as Virgil could lead Dante to the gates of Paradise—but no further—reason similarly cannot ultimately bring us to the scandalous heart of the Christian faith.

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In Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology, Martin Albl focuses on the relationship between faith and reason, challenging the notion that they are incompatible with one another. He argues that through studying this relationship within the framework of Catholic tradition, one can obtain a truer and more satisfying understanding of the world and human nature. In essence, Albl believes that this realization cannot be obtained through reason alone, and faith requires reason to cultivate and maintain a balanced worldview.

In his efforts to connect reason and faith, Albl spends time addressing the questions surrounding the historical Jesus in chapter 11. He discusses the various misinterpretations of Jesus’s life, personality, and actions:

“Contrary to the claims of some Christians, it is historically highly unlikely that Jesus went about ‘talking as if He was God,’ claiming that ‘He has always existed.’ Passages such as ‘Before Abraham was, I AM’ (John 8:58) are found only in the Gospel of John, which tends to develop the claims of the historical Jesus in the light of later theological reflections” (Albl, 302).

Because of these contradictory elements in the Gospels, Albl argues that we must critically analyze these scriptures to obtain “a more historically accurate portrait of the words and actions of the first-century Jew named Jesus of Nazareth” (Albl, 302-303). Albl proceeds to offer a pithy version of this form of analysis throughout Chapter 11, calling out several other mainstream Christian misconceptions of the historical Jesus. In addition, he argues that the actual moment of Jesus’s resurrection cannot be studied as an historical event.

Although Albl may not have used the words “shocking” or “offensive” in this book to describe the Christian understanding of Jesus, his work in chapter 11 implies that he has problems with the mainstream faith-based view of Jesus. Albl’s analysis reveals how the common Christian interpretation has blurred the lines of faith, reason, metaphor, and history—ultimately leading to a misinterpretation that undermines (or offends) the spiritual value of the religious tradition itself.

Works cited:

Albl, Martin C. Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology. Winona, MN: St. Mary’s Press, 2009.

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