Fall 1991, Vol.44 No. 3, pp. 220-239.

Mary Catherine Hilkert:
            The Spirituality at the Heart of Schillebeeckx's Theology

Schillebeeckx's theology of hope flows from his belief that God offers us a future full of hope and that human beings are the words God uses to tell the story of grace.

Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP, is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Aquinas Institute in St. Louis, MO. She is co-editor of The Praxis of Christian Experience: An Introduction to the Theology of Edward Schillebeeckx. Her articles on theology and preaching have appeared in The Thomist, Worship, and Theology Digest.

IN his memorial tribute to Marie-Dominique Chenu, the French Dominican theologian whom Edward Schillebeeckx once commented had influenced his thinking more than anyone else, Schillebeeckx refers to Chenu as a person of hope, a "graceoptimist" (genade-optimist).(1) While Schillebeeckx has become increasingly outspoken in his criticism of what he describes as ideological distortions being handed on in the name of the Catholic Christian tradition, the spirituality that continues to underlie his own theological project clearly reflects the "grace- optimism" which he claims made Chenu "a Thomist through and through." The fundamental hope that has sustained and empowered Schillebeeckx's theological vision is not a naive optimism that could be sustained apart from a profound belief in grace -- the presence of God among us. Schillebeeckx has made it quite clear that without the perspective of faith, he does not see any significant hope for the future of humanity -- or the authentic reform of the church (The Understanding of Faith, 149; Church: Human Story of God, 229-34). The two volumes most recently published in English, Church: The Human Story of God (entitled in the original Dutch Human Beings as the Story of God), and For the Sake of the Gospel (a collection of homilies and sermons published in the Netherlands in 1988), reflect Schillebeeckx's growing critique of official church structures that block, rather than foster, gospel freedom and of an ideological rhetoric that hinders ecumenical progress and the mission of the church to be a sign of salvation in and for the world. Nonetheless a deep "grace-optimism" continues to pervade both his theological work and his preaching. Some of Schillebeeckx's key contributions to the quest for a contemporary spirituality of hope emerge in reflection upon the central role he accords to "contrast experience" as revelatory, his conviction that the God experienced as absent by many is nonetheless a "God bent toward humanity," his description of human beings as the "human story of God," and the interrelationship of mysticism and politics he insists is essential for authentic holiness in our day.


The notion of "contrast experience" has been fundamental to Schillebeeckx's writings in both spirituality and theology since the mid-1960s. Given a pluralism of philosophical systems and the growing conviction that human beings construct systems of cultural values and are fundamentally open toward the future, it became increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to make any definitive claims about what it means to be human. Still, Schillebeeckx argues, we know what is not human -- e.g., the concentration camp, racial discrimination, homelessness, abuse of children, domestic violence, an economic system in which many face starvation and utter poverty while a small minority controls the wealth and resources of a country. Borrowing from the writings of critical theorist Theodor Adorno, Schillebeeckx adopted the term "contrast experience" to describe those human experiences of negativity (on both personal and social levels) which evoke indignation and protest: "No, it can't go on like this; we won't stand for it any longer!" (2)

Hidden in experiences of negativity and/or injustice is an implicit awareness of deeply-held values that begin to emerge in various forms of protest and resistance. The absence of "what ought to be" leads to dissatisfaction and action for change rooted in a very basic form of human hope. As Schillebeeckx explained in The Understanding of Faith:

All our negative experiences cannot brush aside the 'nonetheless' of trust which is revealed in human resistance and which prevents us from simply surrendering human beings, human society, and the world to total meaninglessness. This trust in the ultimate meaning of human life seems to me to be the basic presupposition of human action in history. (96-97)
In Church: The Human Story of God, Schillebeeckx describes this fundamental trust as an "openness to the unknown and the better" that is nurtured and sustained by the fragmentary, but real, experiences of meaning, happiness, and well-being that also constitute some portion of our lives (6). Considered in relation to one another, negative experiences of contrast and positive experienced of meaning ("fragments of salvation"), gradually disclose the future that God's Spirit holds open, a vision of what is possible for the human community and all of creation. This vision is none other than the reign of God Jesus preached in his liberating life-style as well as in his message of good news.

In the first two volumes of his Jesus-project (Jesus: An Experiment in Christology and Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord), Schillebeeckx wrestled with the Christian claim that Jesus is universal savior amidst all the evidence to the contrary -- the negative contrast experiences of the scandals of history in the twentieth century. In the third volume of the trilogy, Church: The Human Story of God, as in his earlier works on ministry (Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ and The Church with a Human Face) he focuses more on the "negative contrast experiences" within the ecclesial community of the Roman Catholic Church. A vision of church and ministry fully faithful to the gospel of Jesus remains an eschatological promise that escapes concrete realization or definition by limited and sinful human beings. Nonetheless, where baptismal freedom and equality and Jesus' vision of power and service are violated, cries of protest and communities of alternative praxis arise in response. Addressing forthrightly the present "period of church polarization," and the absence of the kind of church structures guaranteed by church law which would protect the Christian freedom recognized by the Second Vatican Council, he points nevertheless to the presence of grace in "an unprecedented and authentic flourishing of the gospel" throughout the grassroots church (Church: The Human Story of God, xiv).


The spirituality of hope that emerges amidst significant experiences of setback, discouragement, and even repression within the church is highlighted in a vivid way in the homilies Schillebeeckx preached in critical communities in the Netherlands in the 1980s. While the Second Vatican Council was a time of real hope and energy in the Dutch church, local communities that were critical of official church positions began to emerge soon after the Council in reaction to Roman decisions and actions that restricted pastoral innovations within the Dutch church. In addition to the critique of the Dutch catechism of 1966, these included the closing down of the National Pastoral Council (a democratic structure with representation by laity, priests, religious, and bishops) in the late 1960s, and the process of "Hollandization" in which the Vatican began in the early 1970s to appoint bishops who were more in line with Roman thinking.

In spite of the negative experience of the period some have called "the time of the anti-council," Schillebeeckx locates his hope in local communities of believers and ultimately in the Spirit of God: "Nevertheless this spirit lives on, faithful to the council, in the grassroots, among numerous believers, and there this spirit cannot be tamed" (For the Sake of the Gospel, 139). Describing this presence of grace among local communities of believers, Schillebeeckx says quite simply: "we see so much goodwill among men and women, so much warmth for the church, so much love for the gospel" (143). Remarking that "difficult churches are often lively churches," he reverses the direction of the usual plea for "trust in the church" and calls for the Pope and bishops to believe in the church of the people: "They must have trust in the faith of a church province where the faith of our fathers and mothers is preserved, and also the desire for an abiding bond with Rome" (143).

Schillebeeckx's confidence in the presence of the Spirit in local communities of believers is not blind, however. On the contrary, in preaching in the critical community of Ijmond, Schillebeeckx raised the concern that "the great tradition, the basic story of Israel and Jesus" may be compromised in an effort to avoid handing on oppressive dimensions of the Catholic Christian tradition. Schillebeeckx challenged the community: "What is at stake is the Christian identity of the messianic community, which is also critical of itself" (171). Later he is even more blunt: "Not to want to listen to what other communities say, confess and do is arrogance towards the gospel. It would be to claim for oneself a monopoly in the understanding of the gospel and thus in the embodiment of the presence of the Holy Spirit" (173). Expressing his concern that critical communities might become sectarian ghettos through either lack of selfcriticism or failure of the church hierarchy to understand, he argued for permanent mutual admonition among local communities as essential for a truly Christian identity.

While Schillebeeckx realizes that mistakes will be made by critical communities, he calls for a pastoral response on the part of those in leadership that respects people's "questing faith" and fosters deeper commitment to the gospel, rather than causes deeper alienation: "Certainly mistakes will be made . . . but in all their honest attempts, believers, human beings, look for encouragement and endorsement, for the raising up of the broken reed; for blowing on the dimming flame" (171).

In his own writing and preaching, Schillebeeckx has attempted consistently to foster hope amidst those believers and local communities who have grown discouraged. Speaking to more than 10,000 Christians who gathered at The Hague on May 8, 1985 (the "other face of the church," an alternative gathering to the official papal session scheduled for meeting with selected laity that day), Schillebeeckx called for "a year of jubilee" in the church which "can only raise people up, dry their tears, and bring them to mutual forgiveness, in justice and love" (159). Preaching again the following year at the now-annual May 8 gathering of alternative communities (from which the Roman Catholic bishops have officially dissociated themselves), Schillebeeckx reminded those gathered there that "Jesus, too, belongs to the other side of our history and precisely for that his suffering is remembered in the eucharist, also to the shattering of all power which is built on injustice" (164).

While his recent writings have focused on the grace and hope available even in the midst of negative experiences of contrast within the Christian community, those experiences of conflict and suffering can never be separated from the larger context of the radical human suffering beyond the boundaries of the ecclesial community. The Church exists for the sake of human salvation. One of the fundamental signs of an authentic Christian community is its faithful activity on behalf of God's reign where justice, peace, and the integrity of creation can flourish. The internal and critical focus of Schillebeeckx's recent work on ecclesiology and ministry is intended to help effect the kind of transformation necessary so that the church can become a more authentic "sacrament of salvation in and for the world." Activity that genuinely furthers the human cause -- whether within or beyond the boundaries of the Christian churches -- is sustained and empowered by the Spirit of God who holds open a new and different future when no future seems possible. Underlying Schillebeeckx's spirituality of hope ("grace optimism") is the twofold faith conviction that God holds open a future "full of hope" and that human beings are the words with which God tells the story of grace.


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.(3)
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 crucifiedand-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.(4)
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.


Schillebeeckx's insight that Jesus is the most basic Christian sacrament -- the one in whom human beings are drawn into relationship with the trinitarian God of love -- has become wellestablished since the publication of his groundbreaking volume Christ, the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (Dutch, 1960; English, 1963). The implications of that profoundly sacramental view of reality (the mystery of God is to be discovered in and through creation and human history) come to a new clarity in his recent works as Schillebeeckx focuses more on the claim that all human beings are created in the image of God. In and through the incarnation and the mystery of grace we can say that human beings are -- or at least can be -- sacraments of encounter with God. More precisely, human love, supported by God's absolute love, becomes "the sacrament of God's redemptive love" (Christ, 834).

Retrieving the basic Christian symbol of imago Dei, Schillebeeckx insists that the "living human being" is the fundamental symbol of God in our midst (For the Sake of the Gospel, 164). This means that human beings (supported by the absolute presence of God) are both free to create, and responsible for, the future of human history and our world. As Schillebeeckx remarks, the paradox of Christianity is that "we tread in the footsteps of the God who is to come to us from the future and, in so doing, it is still we who make history" (God the Future of Man, 190).

He recognizes, however, that "the human person fully alive" or the human community structured in a way that fosters truly "livable humanity" (the experience of salvation that includes ecological, social, and political, as well as personal and interpersonal dimensions) remains as eschatological hope, not a concrete reality, within the confines of limited and sinful human history.

Thus Schillebeeckx returns to the central notion of "contrast experience" or what he calls elsewhere "negative dialectics." We cannot define or even identify the mystery of "humanity fully alive;" but we do know when human beings are being treated with less than full human dignity. Thus Schillebeeckx proposes that the "image of God" in humanity is to be discovered in protest and action on behalf of humanity in precisely those situations in which human dignity has been denied:

If the fundamental symbol of God is the living human being the image of God -then the place where human beings are humiliated, tortured and forgotten, as individuals or as a community, by persons or violent structures, is at the same time, the privileged place were (above all in our time) religious experience, indeed mysticism, becomes possible -- becomes possible precisely in and through a human action which seeks to give form to this symbol of God, the human being; seeks to raise people up and give them a voice. Only then do we come home to the liberating communion of our creator and thus the depths of ourselves. (For the Sake of the Gospel, 164)
The parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 thus becomes a key for discovering at once the deepest truth about human community and the mystery of "God among us." In that depiction of a view of human history from the perspective of the end of time, our attitude to the most insignificant persons in our midst is shown to be the fullest revelation of our response to Christ and the compassionate God he preached. The parable insists that violation of those perceived to be "the least among us" is a violation against God. In a definitive way the mystery of the incarnation is proclaimed again: God's cause is revealed to be none other than the "human cause," or as Schillebeeckx would now emphasize, "the cause of creation" (God Among Us, 59-62). Precisely because the final fulfillment of human history and of creation remains an eschatological promise that exceeds human language and imagination, Schillebeeckx suggests that three classic Christian metaphors best disclose in symbolic language (and yet continue to conceal) the final Christian hope: the kingdom of God ("a living community in which masterservant relationships no longer prevail, pain and tears are wiped away and forgotten"), the resurrection of the body ("complete salvation and happiness of the individual within the perfect community"), and the new heavens and the new earth ("the consummation of the undamaged 'ecological milieu"').(5)

God's unconditional love and trust of creation, however, always leaves open the possibility that in radical freedom, human beings may choose to create a history of human sinfulness, rather than a history of salvation. Here it becomes evident that Schillebeeckx's claim that "God tells the divine story with human words" is rooted in a deep "optimism of grace" in spite of the reality of sin, the constant threat that "the guardian of creation will become its betrayer" (On Christian Faith, 2). While he speaks frequently and radically of human freedom, Schillebeeckx recognizes that freedom is both an eschatological hope and a human task.

Thus he criticized the overly optimistic view of human freedom that he saw as the heritage of the Enlightenment since it failed to take seriously the concrete historical situations and social structures in which human beings must attempt to become free. Whether secular or ecclesiastical, social structures can either support or block the development of authentic human freedom for all. Too often, Schillebeeckx suggests, unjust structures serve the interests of those who benefit from their inequities. Relating this critique directly to a theological understanding of original sin, Schillebeeckx argues that the optimism of grace cannot be identified with a mere optimism of reason. Rather, Christian hope (grace optimism) is rooted in an understanding of redemption that does not deny the reality and horror of human sin, but nevertheless insists with the apostle Paul that "where sin abounds, grace abounds still more" (Rom 5:17).

The Christian conviction that "grace abounds" cannot remain a mere supernaturalistic assertion, however; it is either mediated in the lives and words of communities of believers or it becomes an incredible proclamation. Thus the claim that God tells the story of salvation with human lives becomes a mandate for the church -- the universal call to a holiness that is at once political and mystical.


"Mysticism and politics," like "God and the world" or "nature and grace" are terms too often set in a false dichotomy, Schillebeeckx insists, when God is to be encountered precisely in and through creation and human history. The experience of God cannot be separated from our daily human lives and struggles. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we encounter the risen Jesus in the strangers we attend to "along the way." The way of Christian discipleship in our day comprises both our interpersonal relationships and our efforts to change the structures of our society and church into institutions that truly value and further human life. Spreading the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth involves not only offering a glass of water to one who is thirsty, but also working politically for a change in the structures of society (e.g., a national system of health care) or for more just structures within the church. Especially in our day when the majority of the world's people live in situations of structural injustice -- an interwoven complex of institutional racism, sexism, and classism among other forms of social sin -- the Christian gospel requires not only the "caritative diaconia" of a Mother Teresa, but also the "political diaconia" of those who work to remove the structural causes of poverty and all that limits or denies human dignity and the integrity of creation.

It is precisely in the midst of this life of discipleship (orthopraxis or "right living") that we encounter the God who is the source of all justice and compassion: "This is the most obvious, modern way to God: to give a warm welcome to our fellow human beings in this our wicked world, both on an interpersonal level and by changing the structures which enslave human beings (Church: The Human Story of God, 98). Christian hope makes a claim not only about the end of time, but also about God's presence and activity in human history. That kind of claim requires practical mediation -- fragments of human experience in which that hope is realized in however small a way both by individuals and by communities of faith. Returning to the centrality of contrast experience as revelatory, Schillebeeckx maintains that the context of immense human and global suffering in our day requires a spirituality that has been called by liberation theologian Jon Sobrino "political holiness." Awareness of the social as well as interpersonal dimensions of truly human life (and therefore of the well-being constituted by salvation) requires solidarity with all those who seek to bring about authentic human freedom. Spirituality can never be divorced from personal or social ethics.

Thus Schillebeeckx nominates Martha "whose concern for God makes her solicitous for human beings," rather than the "inwardly contemplative" Mary of Bethany, as a model for contemporary mysticism (Church, 77). The experience of mysticism as the experience of the God who is beyond all experience is essentially the life of faith which inevitably involves the experience of the "dark night" and which ends in paradox. The mystic, that is the person of faith, believes in God's grace and acts accordingly even when he or she does not experience that grace directly. Like Jesus, contemporary believers are called to "cling to God" and to act in fidelity to their mission when God appears distant, silent, or even absent and to discover God's presence mediated in the darkness. Drawing again the close connection between political action on behalf of the reign of God (which is also the cause of humanity and creation) and mysticism in our day, Schillebeeckx remarks:

In our time, for many people mysticism is the experience of the "situation of the oppressed poor". Yet it is always an experience of totality, a kind of feeling of the presence of the whole of reality, indeed the source of the whole. At all events, the Inexpressible that is experienced is more real than the chair on which the mystic is sitting, more real than all the mystic regards as reality .... Authentic mysticism is never flight from the world, but, on the basic of a first disintegrating sourceexperience, and integrating and reconciling mercy with all things. It is approach, not flight. (Church, 72)
Here Schillebeeckx locates his own stance within the Thomistic-Carmelite interpretation of mystical experiences as an intensive form of the Christian life of faith, hope, and love rather than the view (often associated with Jesuit spirituality) that describes mysticism as a distinctive sphere of religious experience that cannot be reduced to the ordinary Christian life of faith. (6) Returning to the Thomistic insight that the living God empowers and sustains humanity and all of creation as autonomous and "other than God," Schillebeeckx nonetheless reminds us that "in the depth of everything that is, the mystery of creation and the mystery of God coincide in an indivisible way. The boundaries are only on our side" (72). Yet precisely because the experience of boundary or distance from God is part of the limit of human finitude, a result of our embodied humanity, all experience of God is necessarily mediated. "Between God and our experience of God;" Schillebeeckx writes, "looms the insuperable barrier of the historical, human and natural world of creation, the constitutive symbol of the real presence of God for us" (809). Here again, at the foundations of spirituality, lies Schillebeeckx's "grace-optimism" and his sacramental view of reality. God is to be encountered in and through creation and humanity, particularly wherever human dignity is violated or endangered.

Mystical experience, is finally a form of contrast experience. What the mystics described as "the dark night of the soul" can be experience of God only in the darkness of faith, the "hope against hope" that trusts that "despite everything, goodness and mercy have me, all of us, in their grasp" (Christ, 815). Negativity and absence can be experienced by the believer as an experience of the real presence of God "in contrast," however, only because the believer has also experienced glimpses of disclosure of the living God mediated through human history and creation. Schillebeeckx sees prayer as the human search for the presence of the transcendent God, the mystery that is too immanent to ever be experienced directly. Because God's absolute nearness transcends human experience and categories of expression Schillebeeckx refers to prayer as, on the one hand, the playful search for God -- a "game of hide and seek" -- and, on the t other hand, "not so much meditation as conversion" (816, 817). Prayer, the radical act of faith made in situations of utter "impasse" where God's presence is perceived only as a "black hole" or "a wall," remains the source of all creative and prophetic energy for the Christian community.(7)

This context highlights the role of liturgy as the Christian community's proclamation, celebration, and anticipation in faith of God's final victory over the forces of evil, injustice, and death. Liturgical and sacramental celebrations both deepen our hope in God's power for salvation and empower our action on behalf of universal peace and reconciliation. Yet the very celebration of liturgy, particularly the eucharist, becomes a contrast experience as a finite and sinful human community of believers remembers and proclaims God's vision of universal inclusivity, equality, and reconciliation within the confines of ecclesiastical structures that block or limit the reign of God preached and embodied by Jesus. Catholics have long emphasized that the sacraments anticipate and mediate salvation. But in his recent writings, Schillebeeckx also stresses the "not yet" character of eschatological signs and their subversive power for conversion. Precisely as symbols of a future that is not yet realized in either world or church, the sacraments are "symbols of protest serving to unmask the life that is not yet reconciled in the specific dimension of our history" (836). Political holiness refers not only to the church's mission in and for the world, but to the structural reform necessary within the church if it is to be faithful to its vocation to be "sacrament of salvation in and for the world."


A real crisis of hope among believers in the Netherlands and beyond, prompted largely by the ideological operation of the institutional church in recent decades, motivated the shift from Schillebeeckx's original intent to write an ecclesiological thirdvolume to his christology to a broader work that re-presented the heart of the gospel. Ultimately both his call for the reform of the institutional church and his repeated insistence that in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, "mercy is at the heart of reality" emerge from his Thomistic "optimism of grace." The strong accent on grace -- the presence and power of God among us -- has characterized Schillebeeckx's theological project from its beginning. The creator God "bent upon humanity" has promised to be with us always -- even to the end of the world. Jesus' preaching of the reign of God continues in the community of believers who faithfully live and preach his gospel. The Spirit of God can be trusted to open up a future where none seems possible.

Yet trusting human beings remains God's great risk. Schillebeeckx insists on a basic Thomistic conviction: grace operates in and through human freedom. God will not intervene in the suffering of the world or in the conflicts within the church without human mediation. The story of God -- a promise of well-being and happiness for all -- is narrated with the words of human lives. The transcendent mystery of God is too near to us to be experienced directly, but in and through the "sacrament of human love" we come to know in fragmentary ways the mystery of absolute love at the heart of reality. In a world of global suffering the story of God among us is told most clearly in the stories of hope and resistance of those whose dignity is in any way diminished or denied and those who remain in solidarity with them. The mystical search for God leads, as it always did, to the way of discipleship, a following of Jesus that in this age forges a holiness that is political as well as personal.

  1. "Kroniek: In Memoriam M.-D. Chenu (1895-1990)," Tijdschrift voor Theologie 30 (1990), 185. For the reference to Chenu's influence on Schillebeeckx's theological thinking, see God is New Each Moment: Edward Schillebeeckx in Conversation with Huub Oosterhuis and Piet Hoogeveen (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), 16.

  2. Edward Schillebeeckx, "Church, Sacrament of Dialogue," in God the Future of Man, trans. by N.D. Smith (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968), 136. For another approach to the positive role of indignation giving rise to ethical activity, see Beverly Wildung Harrison, "The Power of Anger in the Work of Love," Union Seminary Quarterly Review XXXVI (1981): 41-57.

  3. Church: The Human Story of God, 60. Schillebeeckx notes explicitly that both the Y official morality of the church hierarchy and the theological symbolism of patriarchy can serve as stimuli toward the rejection of church and in some cases of the abandonment of all belief in God (61-62).

  4. "Doubt in God's Omnipotence: 'When Bad Things Happen to Good People" in For the Sake of the Gospel, 93. Sehillebeeckx's claim that this view of God's power as "non-authoritarian, vulnerable, even helpless" (Dutch: "Niet-autori taire,kwetsbare, zelfs ontmachtig ") should serve as a model for how ministeri al authority is to be exercised in the church. (Church: The Human Story of God, 221; Mensen als verhaal van God, 239) is intended as a critique of an authoritarian exercise of leadership by those in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. That model of ministerial authority, particularly in the English translation, is problematic, especially for women who have been characterized as "vulnerable" and even at times "helpless," and who are prevented structurally from exercising authority in relation to word and sacrament. A more adequate expression of Jesus' exercise of authority is reflected in Schillebeeckx's citation from Aquinas: "The power and rule of Christ over human beings is exercised by truth, justice and above all love." (III Sent., d. 13, q. 2; ST III, q. 8 and q. 59, a. 4).

  5. On Christian Faith, 29-30. In Church: The Human Story of God, Schillebeeckx adds as a fourth metaphor the parousia of Jesus (the becoming transparent of the real significance of Jesus of Nazareth in the midst of the world's religions, 133-134). See also the homilies in God Among Us, 128-148. For more theoretical discussion of dimensions of salvation in terms of what Schillebeeckx calls anthropological constants, see Christ, 731-734. Note also the conclusion to Schillebeeckx's Pentecost homily in For the Sake of the Gospel, 71.

  6. Church: The Human Story of God, 68-69. Schillebeeckx notes that this more voluntaristic conception of spirituality is not to be identified with all forms of Jesuit spirituality. Karl Rahner s writings on "ordinary mysticism" would represent an alternative strain of Ignatian spirituality. See "Reflections on the Experience of Grace," Theological Investigations Vol. 3 (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1967), 86-90; "Reflections on the Unity of Love of Neighbor and the Love of God," Theological Investigations, Vol. 6 (New York: Seabury Press, 1969), 231-249; Opportunities for Faith: Elements of a Modern Spirituality (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), 109-110; and The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1983).

  7. Church: The Human Story of God, 70. The image of "the wall" Schillebeeckx borrows from Therese of Lisieux. For a contemporary discussion of the experi ence of impasse in relation to John of the Cross' concept and symbolism of "dark night," see Constance FitzGerald, OCD, "Impasse and Dark Night," in Living with Apocalypse: Spiritual Resources for Social Compassion, ed. by Tilden Edwards (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984).

Schillebeeckx, Edward, OP. God and the Future of Man. Trans. by N.D. Smith. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968.

_______ . The Understanding of Faith. Trans. by N. D. Smith. London: Sheed and Ward, 1974.

_______ . Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. Trans. by Hubert Hoskins. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.

_______ . Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord. Trans. by John Bowden. New York: Seabury Press, 1980.

_______ . Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ. Trans. by John Bowden. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

_______ . The Church with a Human Face. Trans. by John Bowden. New York: Crossroad, 1985.

_______ . On Christian Faith: The Spiritual, Ethical and Political Dimensions. Trans. by John Bowden. New York: Crossroad, 1987.

_______ . Church: The Human Story of God. Trans. by John Bowden. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

_______ . For the Sake of the Gospel. Trans. by John Bowden. New York: Crossroad, 1990.