The incarnation of God in Jesus poses numerous challenges for the historical consciousness. How does a particular human at a particular time embody the eternal? And how does that embodiment work itself out in faith across the centuries? A gulf would appear to stand between what Christians say about Christ and the historical event of the man Jesus; indeed, the true reality of the incarnation seems unspeakable.
Unspeakable Cults considers the nature and potential resolution of the conflict between the relativistic assumptions of the modern historical worldview and the classical Christian assertion of the absolute status of Jesus of Nazareth as God's saving incarnation in history. Paul DeHart contends that an understanding of Jesus' history is possible, proposing a model of the relation of divine causation to historical causation that allows the affirmation of Jesus' divinity without a miraculous rupture of the world's immanent causal patterns. The book first identifies classic articulations of the conflict in nineteenth-century German thought (Troeltsch, D. F. Strauss), and then draws on the history of religions to suggest possible relevant motifs in first-century culture that mitigate the axiomatic "tension" between Jesus' humanity and his deified status in early Christianity. With a creative appropriation of Thomas Aquinas, the heart of the argument aims to understand the eternal Word's presence in a human being as a thoroughly cultural event, but one dependent on divine power conceived as quasi-formal rather than merely efficient cause.
Such an approach undercuts opposition between the absoluteness of Jesus and the relativism of historicism. DeHart ultimately confronts the resulting challenges to traditional belief resulting from this proposed model, including the irremediable ambiguity of Jesus' "miraculous" performances and the constitutively unfinished nature of his human identity. Rather than treating these as scandals of modern consciousness, Unspeakable Cults vindicates them as necessary aspects of the "offense" perennially confronting faith in the incarnation.
Introduction: Lagging Epiphany
I Cultic Speech: Catachresis or Recognition? 1 Ernst Troeltsch and the Cult of Neo-Protestantism 2 The Weight of Historical Consciousness and the Disintegration of Christology 3 Return of the Sorcerer: The Comparative Jesus (A Thought-Experiment)
II The Cult of Jesus: Historical Matter and Pneumatic Form 4 The Risen Lord: Frampton Comes Alive (An Allegory) 5 The Absolute Fact: Strauss’ Triumph and Schleiermacher’s Revenge 6 Aquinas as Dogmatician of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule
III Cult of the Unspeakable: From Aretalogy to Teratology 7 Perils of Recognition: Occluded Claritas and Surreal Testimony 8 The Sign of Offense: Miracle as Fact and as Trial 9 Campus Crusade for Cthulhu: Modernity and Monstrosity
Paul J. DeHart is Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
A brilliantly original, profound, witty, provocative book inviting us to look again at the connections between a full-blooded traditional Christology and the work of critical historical scholarship. It is one of the freshest and most stimulating works of theology I have read for a long time. Whether you agree or not, it will make you think harder about the need to see belief in the incarnation of the Word as more than just some kind of judgment on an individual human life.
~Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury
In this highly original and theologically-challenging volume, Paul DeHart returns afresh to an issue that no thinking Christian can afford to ignore: what exactly is the relation between critical historical scholarship about Jesus and the later, conciliar, ‘orthodox’ claims made about the incarnation and the ‘hypostatic union'? This problem consumed generations of liberal theologians, but was then curiously sidelined by conservative ones who relied on ‘revelatory positivism' as an escape from it, or who come to eschew the whole project of theological 'foundationalism.’ Returning afresh to the fray, DeHart redefines the issues at stake in a most ingenious and spiritually releasing way: the link between the two poles of reflection on Jesus must be via a rich theory of ‘signs,’ inflected by a theology of the Spirit that ever undergirds the path to true christological recognition. This is a remarkably rich, wise, and demanding book, full of surprising novelties right to the end.
~Sarah Coakley, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, Emerita, University of Cambridge, and Senior Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University
There are few who are better positioned than Paul DeHart to take theology beyond the mutual exclusivities that have plagued Christology. Long besieged by the Harnackian either/or, DeHart carves out a linguistic path toward a Christology that unites the ontological and the historical. Rather than negating orthodox affirmations of the full divinity of Jesus, DeHart sees the emergence of modern historical consciousness as part of the synergistic response to extend in language and culture the incarnation of the divine Word in the single, historically particular individual, Jesus. Insightful, probing, and daring—DeHart has provided a strikingly original exploration of Christology that is grounded in tradition and attuned to the present.
~Aristotle Papanikolaou, Professor of Theology and Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture, Fordham University
Unspeakable Cults is a novel approach to Christology, tapping into the possibilities of conceiving the divinity of Christ in terms of the Word of God as a semiotic reality that unfolds within historical communicative relationships.
~Evan F. Kuehn, Reading Religion
This mature and wide-ranging work, whose character is perhaps best described as the convergence of Yves Congar and a fairly sophisticated account of dialectical theology, tackles a question that has bedeviled Christian theology for two centuries and more: how is it possible "to affirm both classic incarnational thinking and modern historical consciousness as necessarily in tension yet not finally incompatible" (p. 19)? DeHart’s answer articulates a vision of the Christian community’s fundamentally ambiguous and historically bounded exercise in the "constructive, creative, and interpretive work" (p. 115) that drives cultural meaningmaking, centered upon the "pneumatic socialization into the Christian body" that "ultimately enables recognition of Jesus’ humanity as God’s self-vocalization" (p. 117).
~W. Travis McMaken, Lindenwood University, Interpretation: Journal of Bible and Theology