Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 - 2009)
This Roman Catholic theologian is remarkable for having explored traditional concepts in the light of 20th century understanding on one hand, and on the other having survived no fewer than three examinations into possible heresy by the Vatican.

Schillebeeckx was born in Antwerp, one of 14 children. He became a member of the Dominican order and was ordained in 1941. He taught dogmatic theology and at one stage worked with Yves Congar. His theology emphasised historical research and a return to biblical sources - in contrast with the prevailing scholastic approach of his earlier life, which emphasised deduction from dogmatic propositions. He published some 400 works in 14 languages, teaching the history of theology at Nijmigen University for much of his active career.

Fairly typically for theologians of his time, Schillebeeckx attempted (as a committed member of the Roman Catholic Church) to work out a satisfactory statement of the relationship between the Church and the "world". Although this distinction goes back to Paul's letters, it's one which has become increasingly difficult to sustain in terms of right (the Church) and wrong (the world).

His writing nevertheless shows an incomplete grasp of the impact of analytical thinking on the Western world. So, for example, in trying to make sense of sacraments in general and the Eucharist in particular, Schillebeeckx seems to have thought that inventing new terms would solve a much deeper problem. Transubstantiation (the doctrine that when a priest says certain words over bread and wine, these elements become the actual, physical body and blood of Jesus) was replaced by terms like "transignification" (consecration achieves a change of meaning) and "transfinalisation" (consecration changes the purpose of the elements).

Similarly, he seems unaware that by the time his Jesus, An Experiment in Christology was published in 1974, the word "paradigm" had already taken on a meaning other than the one he gives it in the "Technical Information" section of the book. I refer to the use of the term by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. For him a paradigm is a

... primal image, norm and criterion in accordance to which our earthly life should be formed ...

as when in Greek philosophy

... the terrestrial is only a reflection of the true reality, present in the celestial spheres ...

Schillebeeckx applies the term to the person of Jesus. In attempting to explain in what sense Jesus is special, he seems to move away from a crude scholastic rendition of incarnation. Rather than somehow being a miraculous "God-in-man"  person, he thinks that Jesus is more of an eschatological prophet, the "parable of God and the paradigm of humanity" as he puts it.

When Jesus is called the paradigm of true humanity, this means that Jesus has lived out in advance, before us, what we have to bring about in creative fidelity and in circumstances different from those he himself knew.

Thus Jesus is the clearest possible revelation of God available to humanity - and only in that sense is he a God-man. Schillebeeckx came up with a  miraculous man nevertheless, if only because he took far more of the New Testament material as history than today seems valid.

The deeper problem was, of course, the impossibility for many today of thinking of the universe as only part of a greater reality - as the imperfect physical manifestation of a supernatural perfection. I suspect that to have challenged the idea of the supernatural would have got Schillebeeckx into dire trouble with the authorities.

Schillebeeckx displays true greatness (in terms of his time and circumstances) when he considers how humanity knows God - that is, in traditional Christian terms, the nature of revelation.

Reality does not consist in the passage of information between human and divine realms through a process called revelation. The vehicle through which knowledge of God comes is humanity itself - or rather, the total range of perceptions and events in which humans participate. Schillebeeckx hedges his bets somewhat by talking about how we are faced finally by a "mystery" because revelation can't be completely captured by concepts and reason. There is a dimension to revelation we can't grasp - though if that's true, he doesn't explain how he knows it's there.

Revelation thus isn't simply experience. It "critiques" experience dialectically through a complex perceptual and cognitive process which transcends the human mind and will. It is more than words and propositions, although it is "mediated" by language. How then is revelation grasped? Both by reason and by "intuition", the latter apparently consisting of some sort of sub-conscious process which we can't describe.

Although Schillebeeckx seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it, he at least attempts to reconcile contemporary perception with tradition. Intuition seems for him to be a process by which we reach conclusions without being fully aware of how we get there. But a point often obscured is to question whether or not intuitive conclusions should be tested by reason. If an intuitive conclusion is clearly not reasonable, should it stand? If I intuit that you are not telling the truth, should I try to find out if my intuition is fact or fiction?

Experience is, in the end, the measure of right teaching, says Schillebeeckx. It is "concrete" and as such may contradict Christian theory and doctrine. Schillebeeckx seems to be saying that "orthopraxis" rather than orthodoxy is what matters. Right belief must be practical. History is  concrete and therefore human injustice and suffering must be actively faced up to. It isn't enough just to hold right beliefs. One must do the right as well. The implication is that right action supersedes right belief.

He writes: " 'Being human for the other' is a task as it were sketched into the structure of our 'human constitution'". This is true even when experience "contrasts" with the doctrinal ideal human life (what Schillebeeckx calls the humanum). So for him experience is the strongest and deepest form of revelation even though it may be in "contrast" with dogma. "Contrast experiences" are expressed most definitively by the life of Jesus, who did good but came to a violent end.

The Vatican questioned this approach from the point of view that certain Christian truths have to be maintained out of revealed (therefore true) dogma rather than from changing, situational "experience". So, for example, the resurrection of Jesus is a doctrinal fact of history and is not based, as Schillebeeckx would maintain, upon the experience of the disciples. He retorted: 

Apart from faith-motivated experience, it is not possible to speak meaningfully about Jesus' resurrection ...

and somehow got away with it.

Schillebeeckx went further: he held that the premises of ideology must always be tested by experience from a stance of what he calls "critical negativity". This is an essential activity if the na�ve premises of ideology are to be kept in balance with reality. Our "contrast experiences" give us a clearer view of the world and drive us towards justice. The humanum on the other hand will not be realised until the day when Jesus comes to complete the creation.

Does God work in his creation? Does he have a providential presence? Schillebeeckx seems unable to take his view of experience as the vehicle of revelation to what seems to me to be its logical conclusion. True, God uses creation, human experience and history to be "present" to us. Creation is not a barrier between us and heaven but a means through which God is with us.

Creation is an adequate but not comprehensive vehicle for divinity. Schillebeeckx does not explain, however, in what way God's presence in a suffering world is primary. If God does intervene in creation, why does God need to work through our experience? Or does God intervene to give us the experiences we need? Or perhaps God gives us specific experiences as a way of teaching us something?

It seems to me that Schillebeeckx attempts to bypass Roman Catholic ideology with his heavy dependence upon human experience as a means of revelation. But he does not face up fully to the implications of his emphasis. Revelation, because (even in his rendering) it breaks into the physical system which is the universe, destroys the fundamentals of history.

If doctrine is revealed truth from a supernatural reality (God), then surely it must be absolutely true? One response might be that our main task is to understand the truth - though we might fail to fully grasp it. But if absolute truth is beyond the grasp of even one person, then surely it fails as an effective communication from God? Is there only one proper formulation of such truth, as in the creeds for example? Can subsidiary formulations such as the Catechism be called "true" if they use other words? Can revealed truth, once stated, be changed?

Another response is that we can fully grasp absolute revealed truth, and that our main task is to apply it properly in our lives. We might fail to do so - but that's our fault, not God's and we rightly pay a penalty for failure. If this is correct, then isn't it right that those who can live out the revelation adequately should bring defaulters to book? From this follows, I think, the entire machinery of Church discipline from mild penance to (at least logically if not actually) heresy trials and perhaps even the Inquisition.

Having said that, however, it is clear that Schillebeeckx's intention was not to support any claim by the Church to possess absolute knowledge. The Church's claim to be the body of the elect should be questioned. If such a religious claim is made, it can be valid only in the context of "the universal election of all humankind".

If not, threat, danger and violence toward people of a different faith are inherent to the self-understanding of being elected of individuals, peoples and communities of faith. Christian-religious imperialism should be radically condemned for humane reasons. [1]

To sum up: Schillebeeckx offered for his time a step away from the stultifying, dependence-creating stance of the Roman Catholic Church. What surprises me is that he got away with it, becoming a popular and widely-read author. But it has been the task of others, not constantly threatened by official sanction, to work out where the road he walked is going [2].
[1] In an interview with Die Presse in 1997
[2] See In Memoriam by Erik Borgman

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