On being catholic

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel 1563 aLast week, I was in Rüdlingen for a very fruitful gathering of the Network of Reformed Theologians associated with the work of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. (I chair the working group on Church and Society). One of the real gifts of being part of such a network, and of our regular face-to-face meetings, is that it occasions a situation in which it is extremely difficult, unattractive, and wasteful to engage in theological ruminations in non-catholic ways.

Catholicity, of course, does not mean uniformity; neither does it equate to the flattening of ethnic/cultural realities, a blending or hybridisation of such to the extent that all that remains is theo-cultural soup. But catholicity is, in fact, intrinsically related to the most radical particularity, the sui generis movement of the God who suckled on Mary’s breast. Responsible Christian theology will want to insist that both true unity and catholicity are possible only in the man Jesus Christ, the Son of the catholic God in whom particularism does not cancel out the universal horizon of love’s creative movement. It is the church’s claim, in other words, that the only reality that makes the church both catholic and one is not any particular form or set of practices but its catholic Lord who in his very person – i.e., in the hypostatic union – is the reconciliation between God and the warring factions that characterise the history of human cultures and relations, is the undoing of Babel’s achievement.

Moreover, in Christ, we learn to tell the truth not only about ourselves but also about our ‘others’, the recognition of which leads to what Miroslav Volf calls ‘double vision’ (the ability to view not only ‘from here’ but also ‘from there’) and thereby make possible the embrace of the other in such a way that both ‘our’ otherness and ‘their’ otherness is affirmed and blessed, made porous without loss of distinctives, and individual limitations transcended. Presupposing that we can both stand with a given tradition and learn from other traditions, and drawing upon Hannah Arendt’s notion of an ‘enlarged way of thinking [which] needs the presence of others “in whose place” it must think, [and] whose perspective it must take into consideration’, Volf describes the process by which ‘double vision’ is able to take place. It happens, he says,

by letting the voices and perspectives of others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspectives. Nothing can guarantee in advance that the perspectives will ultimately merge and agreement be reached. We may find that we must reject the perspective of the other. Yet we should seek to see things from their perspective in the hope that competing justices may become converging justices and eventually issue in agreement.

Responsible Christian theology will, I think, want to be explicit in grounding such talk of ‘double vision’ in trinitarian terms; i.e., in imitation of and participation in the triune dialogue. And there are important implications here too for interfaith engagement – that such be informed by a vision of the Triune Life who is both host and guest – and, as David Dark intimates, for the kinds of behaviour that characterise international politics:

To label entire populations – or even sections of the globe – as ‘enemy’ is bad theology, and no government that does so can claim to be operating in any mindful way ‘under’ God. To allow an all-too-human governing body to describe the world for us is to hand over our God-given duty to the likes of a phone book or a demonic stronghold. We have to take our thinking back. The same summons is communicated by Iraqi Christians who publicly pray that American Christians might consider more deeply their understanding of the body of Christ. Does our understanding of this communion move beyond national boundaries when it really counts? Do our imaginations, the way we think about other people, acquiesce to the idolatrous and destructive divisions of nation-states? The defensive distance we maintain between ourselves and the people we see in images of war and deprivation is a deadly construct.


  1. Thanks for this reflection Jason. I hope you are not feeling too isolated over there in the Northern Hemisphere. I am told there are people over there too, so I hope you are enjoying yourself. Re undoing Babel’s achievement… I’m guessing you’re referring to unity without catholicity, i.e. by some kind of social violence or imperial system


  2. Bruce, it strikes me that the only unity worthy of the name is that which is the profoundest expression of freedom, and entirely incompatible with violence, and et cetera.


  3. Jason, thanks for your post! I like your way of connecting catholicity with the particularity of Jesus Christ, and therefore with the Trinity, freedom (cf. God who loves in freedom), and double vision. For me this way of reflecting on it, makes it clear that catholicity has nothing to do with (liberal) tolerance but is, as it were, another name for hospitality or “open friendship” (Moltmann).


  4. Jason, my good fortune was that the SA rugby teams did well this weekend! So I can say with more certainty that our differences are minor! Having been with you at Rudlingen I can only concur. However, what was most surprising to me, and it was the similar in Mangalore in 2011, was that we from the South, or we who live and work in close proximity or as part of the so called “developing” world, focused on other issues or had another take on issues while those of you who excell in Northern theology use that as framework. It is indeed a beautiful framework to think and quote from, but if you have been “overwhelmed” by the poverty and hardship of the multitudes, somehow one want to talk about all the beautiful stuff in another way.
    What I do appreciate is how well you can articulate catholicilty as the identity which gives all of us room to share.
    Jurgens Hendriks


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