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A Time of Desert for Theology: Ressourcement versus Models of the Church

I began my philosophical and theological studies in 1964, at a moment when the theological curriculum in the Church was collapsing. I experienced what was the great crisis of theology during and after Vatican II. Here I would like to assess this crisis of the lst 30 years, and to offer what could be the remedies for the theological situation and theological formation today. In the mid-1960s, what had been for decades a common ground for theological formation, the so-called Neo-scholastic theology, collapsed. This was not solely a negative development; Neo-scholastic theology had its weaknesses. But its great advantage was that it provided a common reference network, a common language and a common methodology. Wherever in the world you studied theology, you had common references. Maybe these references were not the best ones, but they gave the possibility of mutual understanding and a common approach to questions.

The first great crisis of theology dealt with the question of history. The great criticism against Neo-scholastic theology was that it was unhistorical, extratemporal, as if faith and theology had no history. It was truly a positive discovery to introduce the historical dimension within the theological approach.

Vatican II, in its documents on priestly formation, speaks about the necessity of the genetic method, to know how a question has been brought up and sought out through history; for example, how Christology came to be what it is, how the Christological dogmas grew in history. To know this history is important to understand the content of faith. It was an important discovery to study Scripture in a historical perspective. Scripture had not fallen from heaven. Revelation is a history and has a history. The dangers of this historical approach, however, are relativism and historicism, as if everything were simply a matter of history. The question of truth, the question of the object of theology, is in danger of disappearing behind the question of how things grew in history.

In a handbook of theology today, you normally will find, first, the biblical data, the biblical approach; then the Church Fathers; then the Medievals; then the modern approaches. Somewhere you will find the Magisterium approach. In the last ten pages or (maybe I am exaggerating a bit) there is a synthesis. At the end the poor student is sitting there with all kinds of approaches; but has he ever approached the object of his study?

Now the history of dogma is important. But it must not lead to relativism, so that we forget what we are speaking about. Otherwise we are speaking only about approaches.

A second form of this danger of relativism is the method of models, which is widespread, mainly in the English-speaking world. Many handbooks of contemporary theology use the method of models: models of Christology, of the Church, of the sacraments, and so on. This is like a catalog of car models: Chevrolet, Mercedes, Volkswagen. Choose your model according to your tastes! The danger here is that the “model of the Magisterium” is considered on the same level as, let us say, the “model of Hans Kung,” as though they were equal. The models are presented as a matter of choice, without an organic analysis of the faith. Yet the study of theology is not a question of models, it is a question of truth.

A third danger in this new theology is that the author becomes more important than the content. We focus more on his personality than on what he teaches, and so, some theologians are Balthasarians, some are Rahnerians, some are Bultmannians, and so on.

A fourth difficulty concerns mainly the West, but probably touches the whole Church. I call it a tendency to encyclopedism. All of theology becomes a large encyclopedia. Ever since the 18th century there has been a tendency in the West to write encyclopedias. The Enlightenment tried to gather the whole of human knowledge in large encyclopedias. The teaching of theology has become largely a kind of encyclopedia of approaches, of models, of authors, which lack coherence and an organic structure. At the end of theology, students have bits and pieces of their faith, without a coherent, global view.
A fifth point is what can be called the tendency to secondarism: the inflation of secondary, secondhand approaches, and the vanishing of firsthand experience.

People do not experience works of art, but what people say about works of art. They do not experience music directly, but listen to CD players. Everything has become secondary, not direct experience. The new media, like Internet, increase this flow of secondary experience.

Theology is also influenced by a flow of secondary approaches. Just look at the theses in our athenaeums; it is frightening. The trend is also widespread in contemporary universities. You find, for example, big theses about the color yellow in Yeats’ poem (I do not know if Yeats even uses color in his poems) or theses about the comma in this or that author. The professors themselves probably do not even read these theses. But the students are burdened with them: secondary themes which give them neither a feeling of quality, nor a direct contact with the great works. There are theses about secondary authors; many of these will be forgotten by the next decade. By contrast, the great masters are ignored.

The real situation of theology today is that of poverty, a lack of greatness, a lack of great inspiration. The great masters of this century have gone, figures such as Langrange, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, even Karl Rahner. Now, we are in a period of poverty, a time of desert. If we humbly recognize that we are at a turning point in the history of theology, we can begin to build a better period of theology.

Now let me come to some elements of therapy. First, it is vital to recover a sane theology. “Zu den sachen!” was the great cry of phenomenology at the beginning of this century. “Back to the things themselves!” We could say today: “Back to the object!””

The first interest in theology has to be a common look at the object. It is not of primary interest what this or that theologian has said about Christ; rather, the passion in theology has to be to know Christ himself, to approach his mystery, to approach Christ himself.

Theology is a means to approach reality itself. How do we approach reality? How do we approach Christ, the Church, the Blessed Trinity, the Sacraments, the moral life, eschatology, and the other great questions of theology?

My first students used to ask me again and again, “What is your approach?” They wanted to know if I was Rahnerian or Balthasarian or Hegelian or whatever. I said, “Well listen, I must confess that I have no approach. I only want to know who Christ is, and I want to share this quest with you.”

Who is Christ? That is the path of theology. If a theologian can help us find a better approach to Christ, that is good. But it is not my first interest to have my method, my methodology, and to defend it against others. I want to approach reality.

What is the place of the historical method in approaching reality? There is a permanent tension between an approach of the object of theology and the history of the different approaches. But we have to look at history in the perspective of the object. What do the Church Fathers say about the mystery of Christ? Let us be guided by their view and by their approach. History is not a relativistic approach to the object. Rather, it is the history of approaching the object.
This is how the Catholic Church has always approached the history of dogma. It is the method of Cardinal Newman: to become aware of, to “realize,” what is the object of our faith, by those who, little by little, have deepened the approach of faith. As this approach grew through the centuries, the organic growth of dogma, the object itself, became more clear to our theological view.

So the very first and essential point is: away from the encyclopedia and back to the object.

The second point: Back to the masters. It is so sad to lose time with secondary authors. Read St. Irenaeus, read St. Anselm, read the Church Fathers, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure–but do not read all the secondary stuff that floats around our libraries. In Germany there are 7,000 theological titles published every year. Who can read all this stuff without getting indention? It is much better to have read, during theological formation, the Confessions of St. Augustine, than a book about Augustine.

A seminarian who has gotten the taste of a great master will be able to discern what is good food, and what is fast food. Much of what is on the theological market is fast food, even junk food. Seminarians should be encouraged to read the masters. Their own libraries should have the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but also some great Catholic masters: St. Augustine, the Church Fathers, at least one of the Medieval masters and the great spiritual masters. But really, the great ones!

Third point: the saints are the true theologians. If we consider what theology truly is, we must consider what St. Thomas Aquinas says about connaturality to the object. The study of languages is important-Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, if possible-but this is not enough if the seminarian does not grow in a certain connaturality with the object. That means he learns not only by intellect, but by experience. St. Thomas speaks, with Dionysius the Aeropagite, about the pati divina-not just to approach the things of God, the reality of God-but to suffer it, to be formed by what we study, to be tranformed by the object. This is the meaning of connaturality with what we study: familiarity with it.

The best formation comes when we become familiar with Christ, when the Holy Spirit leads our thoughts and our heart, and grace transforms our habits. Then we judge theologically, not only by reason, but by the heart. We made a judgment not only through intellectual knowledge, but through a spiritual intuition about what is right and what is wrong. It is vital during theological studies, then, to read the saints. Isn’t it true that only great intellectual capacity joined with true sanctity makes the true theologian?

My last point is the relation between study and prayer. It is an obvious point, but one worth recalling. Theology is sound only if it is a praying theology. It helps to consider the spiritual quality of the authors when recommending a writer to seminarians.

Let me finish with a word about School theology. School theology has been despised in the last decades. Yet I still find it very helpful to have, as reference works, those old handbooks of theology. These handbooks still help, because today we lack precision in our language, our notions and our concepts, as well as a certain systematic approach to theology. TheCatechism of the Catholic Church is an answer to this challenge.

Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, originally gave this talk to a group of heads of seminaries in Rome.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIX, No. 7, December 1999.