Page 6, 25th January 1991

25th January 1991
Page 6
Page 6, 25th January 1991 — Celebrating a great theologian for today

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Celebrating a great theologian for today

Church: The Human Story Of God by Edward Schillebeeckx (SCM Press, £22.50) John Medealf

IF Alfred Nobel had endowed an annual prize for theology there would have been a wider readership for this Belgian theologian born a few weeks after the beginning of the first World War.

Inevitably this conclusion to the trilogy which began with Jesus and Christ will be compared with the ecclesiological writings of Ming and Rahner, but the points of comparison arc in fact few.

Kling is deliberately and iconoclastically polemical, whereas Schillebeeckx has a joyful and confident theology, in spite of his wistful foreword to the present tome declaring his "delight in belonging to this (Catholic) church, a delight which increased greatly during the second Vatican Council and the years immediately following, but has been sorely tested over the last decade".

Rahner's Ignatian spirituality frequently leads him to certain elitist conclusions, whereas Schillebeeckx drinks from a Dominican well which provides a mystical faith for all who are thirsty.

Schillebeeckx has evolved over four decades from being a theologian for the Catholic church to being a theologian for the world, a fact well illustrated by the verse from Amos (9,7) chosen by the author to preface this volume: "As I brought Israel out of Egypt, so I brought the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir".

Praxis has long been one of the Flemish theologian's favourite words, and he is here as ever acutely conscious of (what Gutierrez calls) orthopraxis being prior in importance to orthodoxy.

This book, like the rest of his opus, reads more like a course of university lectures than a polished text for publication, but this gives the less academic reader the advantage of watching Schillebeeckx mull over his thoughts with different turns of phrase and with the occasional brilliant analogy from outside the religious world.

There are viewpoints in this volume that will doubtless become memorised as catchphrases by theology students, such as the assertion "no salvation outside the world" as a counter-statement to "extra ecclesiam salus nulla", or that "the starting-point for ethics is indignation".

The conclusion that "the historical future is not known even to God" may well cause a raising of curial eyebrows, as will his personal view that hell will mean individual annihilation rather than eternal punishment.

Most of the controversy that has arisen from Schillebeeckx's written works in the recent past has been over his views on Christ's resurrection. In this part of the trilogy he insists that the death and resurrection cannot be separated from Christ's "career" — a useful new term for what used to be called Christ's "earthly life".

Undoubtedly the section of the book that will arouse greatest interest is that contained in the final 60 or so pages entitled Towards Democratic Rule of the Church as a Community of God. It is here that Schillebeeckx is at his most passionate and where his pleading is most eloquent.

His linking of democracy in the church with the untiring quest for truth will provide meditation for a generation of Christians disenchanted with the fundamentalist direction of the churches taken in recent years.

English-speaking students of theology have been well served by the publishers Sheed and Ward and especially since 1980 by SCM Press, with excellent translations from the Dutch language originals.

John Bowden has given us the sort of crisp, fresh English translation that achieves its object of making the reader forget that the work was first written in another language.

Bowden's biography Edward Schillebeeckx: Portrait of a Theologian also helped us to appreciate that we are privileged to celebrate one of the greatest theologians of our generation — perhaps the greatest of them all.

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