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Monday, January 18, 2010

The adventure of creation is full of risk

I've become interested in Edward Schillebeeckx since his death and especially in his ideas about Jesus. Looking online, I haven't found a lot - no articles by him (but a sermon - Thomas Aquinas: Servant of the Word) and only a few articles about him at the now defunct Dominican journal Spirituality Today. The articles, for those interested, are Christian Ministry in Light of Schillebeeckx's Theology of Grace by Edward van Merrienboer OP, "Grace-Optimism": The Spirituality at the Heart of Schillebeeckx's Theology by Mary Catherine Hilkert OP, and Schillebeeckx's Jesus and Christ -- Contributions to Christian Life by Benedict T. Viviano OP.

All the articles are fairly long, but here's just a bit of "Grace-Optimism": The Spirituality at the Heart of Schillebeeckx's Theology, about a quarter of the way into the article, which touches on the "problem of evil" ........

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GOD BENT TOWARD HUMANITY

At the heart of both our fragmentary experiences of salvation and the hope and courage that arises in the midst of negative contrast experiences is the power of the God Schillebeeckx describes in Jesus: An Experiment in Christology as "bent toward humanity" (267). Schillebeeckx realizes, however, that most people's experience of God in our day is more an experience of God's absence than of God's consoling presence.

Amidst the crisis of secularization in the 1960s, Schillebeeckx suggested that the death of the "God of the gaps" can be a blessing that can give birth to a more profound understanding of human responsibility for the future of human history and the cosmos. That responsibility is always undergirded and empowered, however, by the creative presence of God. The impact of radical secularization and Western technological cultures' "shift to the future" led Schillebeeckx to seek a spirituality of hope including a new image of God as "the future of humankind as a whole." He remarked at that time, however, in God the Future of Man, that this new idea of God was actually a rediscovery of the overlooked biblical vision of the living God as "our future," the one who consistently promises to open up a new future for those who seem to have no human future (188). Grace becomes then, the power of the future within us already straining for fulfillment, thus the basis for a profound "hope against hope" in terms of what is possible for human history and the created world. The Spirit of God is the one who holds open the possibilities of the future as well as who calls to mind the "dangerous memories" of the unfulfilled promises of the past. God is the source of a creative dissatisfaction with all that is less than God's vision for humanity.

This focus on God's Spirit as the source of the human ability to "hope against hope" became even more central in the spirituality of Schillebeeckx's writings as he turned his attention to the vast and senseless suffering in our world today. The main focus of his two-volume Jesus-project was to begin a socio-political retrieval of the Christian claims that God desires the salvation of all and that Jesus is universal savior in the face of such fundamental historical evidence of the demonic in history as Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, and irreversible ecological destruction.

In his Church: The Human Story of God, Schillebeeckx further connects the contemporary difficulty with belief in God with the way churches as institutions not only domesticate religious experience, but also become real stumbling blocks to the preaching of the gospel. Given the human condition, Schillebeeckx grants the necessity of some "institutionalization of belief in God," but he continues:

However, things become different when the official religious institution, in its behavior and attitude, above all as a result of explicit or at least de facto alliances with the "powerful of this world," in practice leaves the little ones in the lurch and in one way or another contradicts the message which it preaches. In that case the institutign becomes incredible and a stumbling block to belief in God.

The scandal created by the suffering of the world and, to some extent even by the churches themselves, raises the fundamental question for contemporary believers of the relationship between God's power and God's love. If God is both omnipotent and loving, why does God allow human injustice and natural evil? Schillebeeckx does not attempt any theoretical response to the problem of human suffering. Instead he explores God's own response in and through the life-story of Jesus.

Even Jesus' experience of God, Schillebeeckx suggests, was a "contrast experience." Jesus' Abba experience, the core and secret of his life, was "an immediate awareness of God as a power cherishing people and making them free" (Jesus, 268). Schillebeeckx is careful to point out, however, that that experience was not a self-subsistent religious experience, but rather a constant search for God and God's will (in the tradition of his Jewish spirituality) in the face of "the incorrigible, irremediable history of human suffering, a history of calamity, violence and injustice, of grinding, excruciating and oppressive enslavement" (267). Jesus' death becomes the ultimate experience of contrast in which he clings to God in love and is faithful to the mission of his life in the darkness of apparent abandonment and failure. The crucifixion of Jesus, the summation of human injustice and rejection of God becomes also a radical question about God and God's fidelity. But the God who remained hidden even from Jesus during the course of his life-story is revealed in the resurrection to be the "God of the Living" that Jesus proclaimed and trusted. In and through the human story of Jesus, the crucified-and-risen one, God has defeated evil, injustice, and even death in a definitive way and been shown to be a "God bent toward humanity."

The liberating God remains, however, the God who respects and trusts creation. Jesus' story also reveals that the divine way of liberating is always in and through human freedom. Thus Schillebeeckx argues, the omnipotent and free God has become vulnerable in relation to human beings and human history. Schillebeeckx writes of God's vulnerability or "defenseless superior power" (weerlose overmacht) in terms of God's defenselessness at creation, God's defenselessness in the Messiah Jesus Christ, and the defenselessness of the Holy Spirit in the church and the world.

The adventure of creation, Schillebeeckx remarks, is full of risk for God as well as for human beings:

Daring to call human beings to life creatively is from God's perspective a vote of confidence in humankind and in its history, without any condition being placed on human beings or any guarantee being asked of them. The creation of human beings is a blank check for which God alone is a guarantor. By creating human beings with their own finite and free will, God voluntarily renounces power. That makes [God] to a high degree dependent on human beings and vulnerable.

God's vulnerability does not contradict God's power, rather it highlights that God's power is indeed immanent within creation. While God's love remains the power which gives life, freedom, and the challenge to "choose life" to human beings, God refuses to break into human history or block the power of human freedom. Until the end of human history, God remains present in redemption and forgiveness, but God will not alter the course of free human decision -- even the decisions that are choices for death and injustice.

The radical choice of God to respect human free choice even the choice for sin and radical evil -- with the consequences that holds for the vulnerability of God is brought to radical clarity in God's non-intervention in the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet when considered in the context of his life and ministry and the mystery of the resurrection, Jesus' death also reveals God's power. To speak of the crucifixion or death of Jesus apart from his life and resurrection as an atoning, redemptive death, Schillebeeckx insists, is scandalous ideology. Death is the enemy of life; the crucifixion of Jesus is the summation of radical human injustice. In no way can death or suffering in itself be considered the will of the God of the Living. However, precisely because the God bent toward humanity is also the creator God who respects human freedom, God's way of "undoing death" and defeating the power of evil was to take on solidarity with the human condition even to the point of death. God's grace was victorious precisely in and through the human freedom of Jesus. Just as Jesus revealed the "superior power" of God (God's grace) in disarming evil and creating new life throughout his life and ministry, so too, he filled the meaninglessness of death with meaning in choosing to face his death in fidelity to his life's mission and in solidarity with humanity. The proclamation that "Jesus lives" is also the confirmation of the preaching of Jesus' entire life and death, the definitive proclamation of God's "superior power" over evil. Schillebeeckx writes in Church: The Human Story of God:

The basic experience of the first disciples after Good Friday was: no, evil, the cross, cannot have the last word. Jesus way of life is right and is the last word, that is sealed in his resurrection. . . Suffering and death remain absurd and may not be mystified, even in Jesus' case; but they do not have the last word, because the liberating God was absolutely near to Jesus on the cross, as during the whole of Jesus' career. (96-97)

Yet, God both conceals and expresses superior power over evil in Jesus in order to draw human beings into solidarity with oppressed women and men. Schillebeeckx's reference to the "defenselessness of the Holy Spirit in the church and in the world" underscores the implications of God's entrusting a "blank check" to humanity in creation and Jesus entrusting the mystery of salvation to his followers. As Schillebeeckx's most recent volume emphasizes, the divine story is told only in and through the human story .......

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6 Comments:

Blogger Cura Animarum said...

I'm quite fond of Schillebeeckx's theology, very open and grace-filled. Much of his work tends toward the universality both of God's love and the redemptive power of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

I think one challenge the average Christian faces is that we see the cross so often, it looses its deep, eternal power and meaning(I wanted to say symbolic but, as Schillebeeckx points out...its much more than a mere symbol).

I haven't read any Schillebeeckx stuff in a few years. Thanks for the reminder Crystal.

7:08 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I liked the summary until it got to this part:

> But the God who remained hidden even from Jesus during the course of his life-story is revealed in the resurrection to be the "God of the Living" that Jesus proclaimed and trusted.

To me, this rings hollow. It seems like cheating.

So far as I can tell, we're given no good reason that "the God of the Living" would raise Jesus on the spot and not ... well ... anyone else. Maybe in your continued reading you'll find that Schillebeeckx has something helpful to say about this problem, because as far as I can tell, nobody else does. =P

9:24 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:25 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

I hope you and Oliver are well :)

I still haven't read any of what he's written himself - this article is my first introduction to his work. The part I especially liked, speaking of the cross, as this ...

To speak of the crucifixion or death of Jesus apart from his life and resurrection as an atoning, redemptive death, Schillebeeckx insists, is scandalous ideology. Death is the enemy of life; the crucifixion of Jesus is the summation of radical human injustice. In no way can death or suffering in itself be considered the will of the God of the Living.

I think the cross stuff is over-emphasized so often.

12:34 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Matthew,

Yes. Each time I find a new theory about the problem of evil I'm hopeful. This one seemed to be going well until it got to its own version of the free will defense - disappointing. I think MM Adams says very well why that doesn't work. I wonder how Rahner explains it - maybe I'll try him next. I have the depressing feeling, though, that all Catholic theologians are going to be thinking pretty much within the defined territory.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

<3

Good luck. Keep us in the know. =)

12:47 PM  

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