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Dramatic Theology
(Its Meaning and Relevance)

Autor:Wandinger Nikolaus
Veröffentlichung:
Kategorieartikel
Abstrakt:Raymund Schwager gave his own theology the predicate "dramatic". In a short outline some essential aspects of this way of doing theology are described in memory of Raymund Schwager
Publiziert in:Presentation given at the Celebration in Honor of Raymund Schwager during the Conference of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, June, 2nd 2004
Datum:2004-06-09

Inhalt

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1. Introduction

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The expressions “dramatic” and “drama” occupy a special place in the theological work of Raymund Schwager: already his dissertation analyzed Ignatius of Loyola’s understanding of the church as dramatic. His main work Jesus in the Drama of Salvation and the subsequent book on original sin Banished from Eden: Original Sin and Evolutionary Theory in the Drama of Salvation both carry the term prominently in the title. In Innsbruck a whole school of theology is founded on Schwager’s approach to theology and calls itself Dramatic Theology.

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      My task today is – in memory of our teacher and friend Raymund Schwager – to give you an outline of this theological endeavor. What is it to mean? How does it differ from any other theology? And why was it so important for Raymund Schwager to think in this dramatic way?

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2. Dramatic Theology

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In order to do so, I will first try to give you the essential idea in a nutshell, and then elaborate a little on two important aspects of this theological approach.

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2.1 In a nutshell: revelation as dramatic inter-action

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What is revelation? A fairly traditional model conceives of revelation as God communicating something about himself and the world to a human medium who prophesies or writes down what he or she has heard from God. This conception has come under manifold criticism during and after the enlightenment period. In spite of many corrections made to meet these criticisms, two suppositions remained quite stubbornly: that revelation takes place by God saying something (after all we speak of the bible as God’s word) and that everything that has been said by God must be true in the same sense. Modern theology came to acknowledge that not every word contained in the Bible is directly God’s word, but still the problem remained that every word the Bible presents as a word of God’s relevant for human salvation must be taken at face value.

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        This conception of revelation in fact is the conception of an a-historic monolog. God speaks from eternity, and humanity listens in history. Some humans, some epochs and cultures, might be better listeners than others, but their part is merely passive and the message is always the same. The human listening process might be subject to the laws of history, but the divine act of revelation is above and beyond that. Well, what’s wrong with such a view?

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        If you consequently adhere to this conception, you will come to contradictory notions of God. The God of wrath and the God of love, the God who demands sacrifice and the God who protects victims, the God of violent retaliation and the God of non-violent reconciliation come to stand on a par. With this notion of revelation the idea of God remains blurred and contradictory – and such a contradiction would “cancel itself”1. A faith based on such contradictions would ultimately not be distinguishable from any arbitrary myth2. When human speech becomes completely arbitrary, it has become completely futile too. Therefore theology must find a way to avoid clear-cut contradictions in its talk about God, even if mystery and paradox cannot and should not be eliminated from theological language.

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        To do so, it is imperative to develop a concept of revelation that is modeled not on monolog but on dialog and to devise this dialog not just on a verbal basis. God not only reveals himself in words, he reveals himself in words and deeds and moreover not just in his very own deeds but also in the deeds of human agents throughout human history.

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        Revelation is “dramatic” because it occurs in a dialogical drama between God and humanity, and it occurs in words, deeds and here not only in the deeds an agent does, but also in the deeds an agent is object of, in the deeds an agent suffers, or in other words: in action as well as in passion.

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        The world-renowned theologian Karl Rahner – who also worked for many years in Innsbruck – is not the first one you would think of in connection with Raymund Schwager and dramatic theology. Yet Rahner has summed up this whole idea in a superb manner, and the following quotation may have been Raymund’s favorite Rahner text:

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        “Humanity is in real dialog with God. They give that response to God that they want to give and that can be contrary to God’s will. … Only in a like manner can we understand the peculiar way in which God acts in the world. God’s acting throughout the history of salvation is not like a monolog that God performs on Himself, but a long dramatic dialog between God and His creatures, in which God offers the human person the possibility to really respond to His word and thus in fact makes His own future word dependent on the free response of the human person. … History is not just a play that God enacts for Himself in which creatures would only be His puppets, but the creature is a real co-actor in this divine-human drama of history … .”3 “In spite of its event-character, diversity and plurality, God’s acting throughout history has a coherent inner structure, an inner teleology, so that every act of this history of salvation only  is intelligible as an element of the whole.”4

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      In retrospection from the NT we can even say: “God exercises His Lordship over the whole of creation by entering into the world with His own personal initiative, He gives up His sovereign grandeur above everything finite by becoming a co-actor in this world Himself”5.

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        What Rahner states here, Raymund Schwager has formulated and thought through in detail and he made it – other than Rahner – the cornerstone and centerpiece of his theology. In dramatic theology no theological topic can be adequately dealt with without taking this dramatic nature of revelation into account.

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        Let me now turn to develop some of its most important elements:

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2.2 Interdependent agents

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When God and humans really are co-actors and co-agents in this drama, God’s future actions are conditioned on human responses to His prior actions. Prophecies are not unalterable predictions, but extrapolations based on certain human behavioral patterns. That Christ must die on the cross, is not some divine imperative independent of human action – it is the consequence of human action, which God knows all too well. There are instances in biblical revelation that clearly exhibit the contingent character of prophecy. The most interesting and also amusing example is certainly the prophet Jonah, who has to prophesy the imminent destruction of the great city of Niniveh. Yet its inhabitants – unexpectedly – use their freedom to repent and God rescinds their condemnation. As a consequence Jonah is really angry because his prophecies turned out wrong and he made a fool out of himself. In Jonah we have a prophet who himself does not understand the dramatic nature of the prophetic voice, which is an instant of the dramatic nature of revelation: God’s future actions are dependent on human responses to his earlier initiatives.

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        But what about God’s omniscience? What about His immutability and independence from creation?

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        Raymund Schwager was no modern theologian who wanted to give up these traditional tenets of Christian theology. He held fast to them, but still tried to reconcile them with the dramatic view of revelation. For this he tried to readjust the relationship between God as the author of the drama of human history and the agents within that history.

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2.3 Author and agents

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Speaking of drama – let us for a moment turn to the master playwright William Shakespeare and – for the sake of illustration – look at his Life of Henry V, and let us consider two questions: what is the relationship of William Shakespeare to the words and actions of the characters in this play, and what do we know about Shakespeare’s thoughts on war and peace from this play?

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        Let us neglect for a moment that this drama is modeled on real persons and real events, let us concentrate on the fact that Shakespeare wrote the drama. Then we can say: everything the characters in it say or do or suffer, everything that happens in the drama happens because Shakespeare made it happen. It is his word, and once he has written it he knows its outcome. And Shakespeare is completely unaffected by the events in the drama, he is beyond its universe, so to speak.

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        But is he also an agent within his drama? Does he interact with the characters of the drama? Certainly not directly as its author, but he can have characters express his views in the play and he can have them act as he would act in the situation. So can we infer Shakespeare’s view on war and peace from a single character of this play? Does King Henry express them, when he wanders incognito through the English camp in Act 4 Scene 1? Or is it Bates or Williams in that same scene? Or is it Burgundy, who praises peace and laments war in Act 5, scene 2? Or is the mere enumeration of casualties and atrocities in act 4 scenes 7 and 8 the best guidance to Shakespeare’s opinion about war and peace?

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        I am not competent to decide that but I am confident to say that we actually cannot decide it by looking merely at one of these passages. Shakespeare’s opinion will not simply coincide with one of his characters’ opinions, because every character puts in certain aspects that are well worth considering. Also there could be characters who express attitudes that were completely contrary to Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare’s moral of the play cannot be inferred from single statements by or actions of the characters. If at all, it could be elucidated by the whole play. However, good Shakespeare interpreters tell us that in order to know what Shakespeare thinks about something, we have to take into account his complete works. René Girard has emphasized “the dramatic unity of Shakespeare’s theater and its thematic continuity”6 and K. Reichert demonstrated that Shakespeare’s histories are interconnected by the same mimetic themes, so that their meaning becomes only clear in their succession.7

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        Let us now come to the delicate comparison with the divine author of salvation history and the agents in that history. The author is beyond the universe of this history and yet everything that happens within it is his creation. Still not every word uttered or every deed committed reflects his omniscient wisdom: acts full of his wisdom are intertwined with those full of human stupidity and sinfulness, and only from the whole can we try to elucidate the meaning of this drama.

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        Yet, there are two important elements in Schwager’s dramatic understanding of salvation history for which my comparison with Shakespeare as the dramatist is inadequate: For one Shakespeare’s characters have no free will, they have to do what Shakespeare makes them do. The human agents of history do have a choice, they are not puppets, as I stated already. And two: Though world history is still going on, for the Christian theologian the meaning of salvation history is already discernible, because the divine author put a character into the play that represents Him completely: Jesus Christ, the ultimate revealer.

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        For Raymund Schwager’s dramatic theology Christ is the key to unlock the mystery of the play of salvation history. He is the ultimate representative of the divine author, though he is not the author. He still acts within the limitations and perspectivity of a character within the drama, but he does so in perfect unity with the author of the drama, who is the Lord of History. Therefore he can be the key. (It should be noted that R. Girard argues just in this way, when he declares at the end of his book on Job that he could only analyze it the way he did and could only distinguish the God of victims from the God of victimizers “because I have been guided from the beginning by the accounts of the Passion [of Christ]”8. Girard has dedicated the German edition of this work to Raymund Schwager.)

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        This way Schwager’s dramatic theology offers us a framework of interpretation that allows us – in accordance with Christian tradition and Catholic dogma – to view the whole Bible and all of its parts as authored by God, while at the same time accepting that the human agents and the human co-authors – or as I suggest calling the latter – the human narrators of the story have added their distinct understandings and misunderstandings in a way that makes them an inseparable part of divine revelation. However, inseparable does not mean undistinguishable. The Christological criterion allows us to distinguish between direct revelation and revelation sub contrario, between God’s undistorted notion and human projections that combine unblemished revelation with human error and sinfulness.

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3. Raymund Schwager: Dramatic Living

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There would be more to say about dramatic theology. But time is limited. Therefore I want to end with a remark about Raymund Schwager’s life as dramatic.

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      Seen from the outside it was not adventurous and dramatic in the modern sense of the word, indeed it seems that Raymund Schwager lived the quiet life of academia. Yet, he lived this life in a dramatic way.

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      From his notion of a dramatic history of revelation and of doctrinal development, he concluded that progress in academic life would happen the same way. So, unlike many German-speaking scholars who would rather develop a fully structured and systematically comprehensive theory than voice ideas and concerns that were not fully tested for their overall adequacy, Raymund Schwager took the opposite approach. More often than not he would propound some idea only to be confronted with criticism that it was not yet seasoned enough and lacked balance and thoroughness. He did not do so out of neglect, and certainly not out of complacency or short-sightedness. He did it because he thought it was better that someone voiced some idea than nobody said anything. And most of the time he was right: out of his initiative and the ensuing debate, which together constituted a process of dramatic dialog, a better approach to the problem developed. Raymund’s willingness to offer us his initial idea for attack was the catalyst for the development of a better idea towards a solution to a problem. This was made possible by his humility to subject his initial idea to our attacks and to integrate our concerns into his earlier conception.

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      Raymund Schwager not only invented dramatic theology for us as a tool to foment better theological understanding, he lived his life the dramatic way. And we are deeply indebted to him for both.

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References:

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1 Schwager, R.: Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption. Trans. J. G. Williams & P. Haddon (Ger.: Jesus im Heilsdrama. Entwurf einer biblischen Erlösungslehre). New York: Crossroad 1999, 163.

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2 Cf. ibid. 1.

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3 Rahner , Karl: Theos im Neuen Testament. In: Schriften 1, 91-167. Jetzt in: Sämtliche Werke (=SW 4), 346-403, 372f. My own translation. English in: Theological Investigations, Vol. 1. London 1961, pp. 110f. I prefer my own translation to the one given there.

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4 SW 4, 353.

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5 Ibid. 382. English version, p. 121.

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6 Girard , R.: A Theater of Envy. William Shakespeare. Oxford 1991, 6.

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7 Cf. Reichert , K.: Shakespeares mimetische Rivalen. In: Dieckmann, B. (Hg.): Das Opfer – aktuelle Kontroversen. Religions-politischer Diskurs im Kontext der mimetischen Theorie. Deutsch-Italienische Fachtagung der Guardini Stiftung in der Villa Vigoni 18.-22. Oktober 1999 (BMT 12). Münster 2001, 207-223, esp. 207-215.

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8 Girard , René: Job. The victim of his people. Transl. by Yvonne Freccero. 1. publ.. London: Athlone Pr. 1987, 162.

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