Sunday, November 29, 2009

The challenges of theology in the 21st century

Some thoughts by Belgian theologian José Comblin to contemplate this Advent.

by José Comblin (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Our starting point is the distinction between religion and gospel. Christianity was not originally a religion and Jesus founded no religion. Christians later founded the Christian religion, a human and not a divine creation.

Religion is a product of human culture. There are a great variety of religions, and all have the same structure although they are very different in their external forms. All have a mythology, a cult and a class dedicated to performing it. In that sense, the Christian religion is no different from the others. It is also a human creation, a product of diverse cultures. Religion is a basic fact of human existence. It raises the problems of the meaning of life on this earth, the problem of values, the place of human beings in the universe, and the problem of the salvation of this world from all its evils.

Religion has been studied by religious anthropology, religious sociology, the psychology of religion, the history of religions. All this also characterizes the Christian religion. As a human creation, the Christian religion has changed and may still change in the future according to changes in history. This is even one of the great challenges of the present, because the Christian religion is exhausted and offers no response to the orientation of today's culture, except traces of the past.

The gospel of Jesus is not a religion. Jesus founded no religion: He did not proclaim any religious doctrine or mythology, no discourse about God, He did not found any cult and founded no clerical class. Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated the Kingdom of God on earth. The Kingdom of God is not a religious realm, it is a renewal of the whole human race, which changes the meaning of human history, opening a new era, the final one. It is a message for all humankind in all cultures and religions. You could say that it is a message and a meta-political history.

Since humans can not live without religion, for 2000 years the followers of Christ built a religion that was like a coating for the Christian message, with the danger of transforming Christianity into a religion. The religious coating can mask the message of the gospel or lead to the message, according to the evolution of history. In many cases, religion hid the gospel. Christians enunciated a doctrine that used many elements of Judaism and of religions that were neither Christian nor Jewish, they created a cult of the same inspiration and an entire legal system that frames a very complex institution.

We can say that the history of Christianity is the story of a tension or conflict between religion and the gospel, between a human tendency toward religion, and the voices or lives of those who wanted to live by the gospel.

Religions are conservative and believe in a permanent world where everything gets a religious explanation. Religion changes unconsciously but resists any request for voluntary change. Many Christians and Christian structures unknowingly struggle against the Gospel. There is some truth in what Charles Maurras, the twentieth-century French atheist, said when he said he congratulated the Roman religion for having taken all the poison of the gospel out of Christianity. It's a bit exaggerated but suggestive.

The gospel is change, movement, freedom. It cannot accept the world as it is, because it has to change it. The gospel is conflict between rich and poor. It is a choice between rich and poor. In religion, rich and poor are part of the general harmony. They are so because it must be so, although the rich have to help the poor without changing the structure created by God or the substitutes for God. Religion wants peace, even if it is through an alliance with the powerful. The gospel means conflict.

The task of theology is to show the distinction, seeking what is the gospel and all that was added, and it can or should change to be faithful to that gospel. It's liberating the gospel from religion. Religion is good if it helps to seek the gospel and not to forget it under the cloak of religion. It is a human need but it has to be investigated and corrected.

Theology is at the service of Christian and even non-Christian people, so that they will know the true gospel, can come to true faith and not religious sentiment. For centuries theology was serving to defend the institution from heresy or the enemies of the Church. That's how it was after Trent until the twentieth century and in many areas until Vatican II. It was apologetics, the intellectual weapon in the fight against the Reformed Churches and all modernity, at the service of the hierarchy. In some ways it was a weapon directed against the laity so that they would not let themselves be seduced by the enemies of the Church. Up until Trent, theology was Bible commentary, free, open to all, as free intellectual work. The Reformation started from theologians and then theology was under the tight control of the hierarchy.

1. God

Most Catholics understand by the word "God" the idea of a God that is common to all humankind in different ways. God would be a cosmic God. He is within the cosmos as the One who created it or put it in order. He is all-powerful, eternal, omniscient, capable of punishing or rewarding, responsive to prayers and demanding sacrifices and donations. One must ask Him for forgiveness and pay for that forgiveness with various services. He is part of the universe at the highest level, sitting in Heaven from which He runs the whole world. He is the author of order or what humans call order in the world and which, in reality, is the disorder of the world. He does not want that order to change.

They think they know God and they do not know Him. They know just one idea common to all humanity under many different forms. They do not know God, because no one has ever seen God and nobody knows what He is. They think they know Him, they are wrong, and they deceive others.

2. Revelation

God made Himself known in Jesus Christ. He announced this revelation through the prophets, but had not revealed Himself. He made Himself known in the life of Jesus. Jesus did not make Him known through words, speeches or doctrines. He didn't do any of that. He never said He was the Father in a theoretical way. Thus He invalidates any discussion of God and any theology that is a human construct. They assume that this discussion expresses what Jesus meant to say and didn't. It is a mistake. If He didn't say it, that silence itself is already a revelation.

The Word or the revelation of God became flesh. He did not say "man" because man is an ambiguous category. What is being a man? The official doctrine of the Church is inspired by the Greek categories used by the great Councils that speak of two natures in Jesus: divine and human. Jesus would have a human nature. But the word nature says nothing about what John meant. Jesus was flesh, which means a human life with all its weaknesses, exposed to all accidents of the material world, a life of hopes, dreams and disappointments, projects, successes and failures, made of joy and sadness, which ultimately results in death. Flesh is all that and much more.

The Word became flesh, that is God became flesh. This means that God gave up all his power and became weak as any human being. He didn't even accept what is power in human society. God became poor, lay, without money, without political power, without cultural power. He became a peasant from Galilee, a province cursed by the Jews faithful to the law. God is weak, He knows suffering, persecution, the infamous death on the Cross. The Father is never separated from the Son. One is in the Other.

Where is the revelation of God? It's in the life of Jesus, first in the overall project of His life. Jesus had a well-defined project that He exposed in all His actions and words. The project was a radical change of all humanity in view of a just and fraternal humanity.

This project consists of: declaring the religion of Israel obsolete in order to return to the promise of Abraham, the debate against the authorities who want to maintain the Jewish system until the final conflict leading to the Cross. The Cross is the final conclusion of the fight against defenders of the traditional law of Judaism. Besides, Jesus gives the signals of the new humanity by caring for the sick, giving priority to the oppressed and the victims accused of being sinners, choosing a group of disciples in charge of communicating the gospel to the whole world; signs of openness to pagans and Samaritan heretics, replacing the law with freedom. Jesus wants a free humanity. Paul sums it up well when he defines Christianity as a call to freedom. What Jesus did reveals the Father. We can not read the pages of the gospel out of their global context which is the life project of Jesus.

3. The Freedom of God

The freedom of God is shown in that which abandons all power. The life of Jesus is without power, He does not impose Himself, does not condemn, does not make requirements, a program that was the one of Dom Helder when he arrived in Recife -- two forbidden words: command and demand. Jesus showed the way by walking as He did.

He comes to open the way to a free humanity. On this way, there is no power. He acts freely without fear, resisting the temptations of Satan's power, enters into conflict with all the authorities without fear and with the greatest boldness. God respects human freedom and thereby opens the way to freedom so that they will follow that path. The cross shows the path of freedom: better to die than kill. He believes in the efficacy of the death because He knows that God walks the path of freedom without domination. The strength of God is in the witness and love to the outcasts, sinners, victims, the poor in general. These are His forces. He is a God very different from the gods imagined by religions, including Christianity.

Freedom comes from love and love comes from freedom. To love is to make men and women free, or freer. Freedom is love.

To love one must be free. Human beings are prisoners of their individualism, their concern for themselves which is what blocks love. God is love because He makes others free. That's His love. He is free and wants human beings to be free too.

4. The liberation of men and women

History is a history of liberty. Because humans are not born free, they are born into a society of domination and exploitation. There are men and women who dominate others and subject them to their will, to the service of their wealth, their privileges, their power. There is an immense mass of men and women who are dominated, exploited and excluded so that others dominate and grow. Therefore, history is always a constant and repeated struggle by the powerful to impose their domination over the dominated, and the dominated fight or try to fight to defend their livelihood, and win some freedom. All religions offer an image of humanity as something fixed, stable, positive on the whole, immutable, God's creation. To want to change is to be against God. The Christian religion has taught that, at least since the 4th century and even before. Religion does not accept any conflict other than the conflict of religions. For Jesus, the conflict is not between religions; it is the conflict of two classes -- the rulers and the ruled. That's why Michel Henry, a contemporary Christian philosopher can say that the first Christian philosopher was Karl Marx. The Greek philosophers were philosophers of being, the order of being, both Plato and Aristotle. Instead of being good servants of theology, they separated it from the gospel.

Personal, group and structural domination is the sin that has existed since the origins of humanity. It is not an obligation, but all human beings contribute to maintain these structures of domination. It is a sin of all and is the sin of the world that is so strong in humanity that human beings can not free themselves from this dominion of sin by themselves. They are victims of sin, and sin through submission to universal sin. Jesus came to liberate human beings from the bondage of sin. Power is the great temptation: rather than being service it becomes domination. Therefore, God does not manifest any power because He has relinquished all power of domination or imposition. Jesus is free from sin because He does not dominate, does not accept any form of domination.

5. The place of the poor in liberation

All religions preach that we must help the poor. Charity is highly esteemed in all religions. The gospel says otherwise.

The gospel is directed at the poor because they are called to liberate humanity. They do not dominate and so can be free. They can, because there are some who do their best to dominate too. But many do not aspire to dominate and try to love their neighbor. It is they who constitute the people with their words, their testimony, their collective actions of free will. The liberation of humanity comes not from the top down, but rather from the bottom up. This is the foolishness of God of which Paul speaks. God chose the weak to destroy the power of the strongest. A new humanity is born from the poor, from all those who do not want to dominate and who try to love. They may be Christians or not, it doesn't matter. They can be atheists, because the Holy Spirit comes to all.

The poor find a tremendous resistance from the powerful: they pass through the cross, but have the promise of the victory of the resurrection.

The big challenge is to convince the poor that they have the power of the Spirit to follow Jesus' way and are able to build a new world, even without money, without political power, without cultural power. Because the poor have a sense of powerlessness, fear, submission to the higher-ups. The task of the disciples of Jesus will be to encourage and convince the poor to have faith. Because faith is not accepting a universal doctrine applicable to all.

Such a doctrine does not move anyone. It would be only a submission to a system of concepts. Faith is believing that I am able to follow the path of Jesus and build a new world by the power of the Spirit, despite all my weakness. That faith is very difficult of course, but most Catholics do not have faith. They accept all dogmas, but don't have faith.

The Tasks of Theology

The main and somewhat unique task is the critical study of the whole Christian tradition, to return to the gospel. It's about rediscovering what was actually revealed in the life and death of Jesus. This is not to destroy religion. It would be useless, because humans need a religion and if it is eliminated, it reappears in other forms. The problem is to know everything about religion that is no longer understandable and acceptable in the new modern culture that goes into all religions. One must find what is really understandable and meaningful and can be an acceptable coating for the gospel. Let's look at the elements of religion.

1. The doctrine or mythology

Jesus formulated no doctrine. He spoke through metaphors, stories, parables, judgments, advice, comments on the experience of the moment. This means of expression is popular, it is the means of the poor. If God expressed Himself in that form, He did not do it for entertainment or as an adaptation to a supposed intellectual inferiority of the poor. He used it because that mode of expression is less rigorous, less imposing, less limited. A doctrine is always marked by an era, a culture limited in time and space. The metaphorical language retains its meaning in the midst of many cultures. It lacks the precision that concepts have. If God did so, it's because He chose it as the best means of expression. If that language does not have the precision of abstract concepts, it is because God did not want that precision. Jesus' expressions allow for various interpretations and God willed it so. He did not want His disciples to be prisoners of a doctrine.

Later the Church defined a mandatory doctrine in the form of concepts that were often drawn from Greek philosophy. It imposed a rigid interpretation of the gospel. The dogmas have always been a source of questions, problems, resistance because not all accepted this discipline of thought that Jesus had not imposed.

The task of theology will release the gospel from the rigidity of dogma. We will have to critically examine all documents of the magisterium. Since Trent, theologians have usually given the maximalist interpretation of dogmas. We need to return to a minimalist interpretation of: what is it that the gospel really requires? Moreover dogmas function historically by what they do not say. The first 4 councils concentrated everything on the concepts of person and nature. They put aside the human life of Jesus. That's why the human life of Jesus stopped being a subject of reflexion for Christians for centuries. Thomas a Kempis could write a book on the Imitation of Christ, without any reference to the human life of Jesus. What Christ is that? The dogmas hid the human life of Jesus for centuries. At Trent, there was no talk of faith in the biblical sense, but of a religious faith that is not Christian. The end was centuries of lack of communication between Catholics and Protestants, which could have been avoided.

The dogmas were defined by popes and bishops. But they do not necessarily represent the entire Christian people, as if the Spirit were not also in the people. There were councils that deeply divided and expelled immense sectors from the Church: the Churches of Syria, of Egypt and of the whole Orient, not to mention Protestants. Within the assemblies there were dissensions that were not heresies. For example in Vatican I. This weakens the definitions. All of that is the subject of theology.

Of course theology itself is suspect in light of the gospel and must be examined critically to see if it helps to understand the gospel or hides it, which has happened many times. Because since Trent, theology became a polemic against Protestants and modernists. It began serving the hierarchy. That is not the task of theology. It serves to help the Christian people to better understand what the Gospel says. It serves the Christian people and not their hierarchy.

2. Worship

In religion the most important part is worship. Over time, Christians created a huge liturgical edifice, very rigorous, very determined in every gesture and every word. The rituals are inspired by the Old Testament, by the religions of the Christianized people. It came to be defined that there would be 7 sacraments. There are also countless blessings and other acts of worship, whether more popular or more intellectual. After Vatican II, there were some very superficial changes because everything essential stayed the same. The consequence is that many Catholics have left a cult that means nothing to them. Indeed it is difficult to understand how this liturgy is related to the individual and social life of modern times. The anointing of the sick is little practiced. Very few still practice the sacrament of penance. Everything had meaning when it was introduced in the official cult. But many rites became incomprehensible. What are the gestures and words that would be significant for the new generation? Instead of looking for what is required by the current state of humanity, there are important groups in Rome that would like to return to the past of Trent. Then it would be the definitive expulsion of young people. They would like to return to Latin. Why not to Greek or Hebrew?

3. The organization

All religions are an institution whose basic element is the priests whose mission is mainly the cult. The Christian religion could not escape. A clergy appeared - especially after Constantine - that socially separated itself from the people and formed a caste with its own subculture. In fact until Trent the clergy created many problems, but Trent was able to bring order and define the clergy that still exists today. The system is strictly monarchical. All powers are in the pope and the pope delegates a portion of them to the bishops and they, to the presbyters and deacons. The problems caused by the current situation of the monarchical system and the separation between clergy and people -- what makes true community impossible -- are well known and there is no need to repeat them. Clearly the system is broken. The rejection of the clergy is one of the primary reasons for the abandonment of the Church. In the other so-called historical churches, the problem is the same.

For centuries, theologians have devoted themselves to explaining and justifying all elements of the system. Times have changed. All that was linked to traditional culture lost its meaning and legitimacy. Theology should put the gospel and the contemporary world in contact with each other.

[Presentation by Fr. José Comblin, in Jornadas Teológicas Latinoamericanas: Actualización de la Teología Latinoamericana a la Luz de Aparecida, Santiago, Chile. October 2009 - Editor: Enrique A. Orellana F, Cuadernos Movimiento También Somos Iglesia Chile. Mail: / Rosas 2090 -D. Santiago. Chile / Celular: 09 3659171. Published on on November 24, 2009]


  1. Too many random thoughts here that make it difficult to truly appreciate what Fr. José Comblin is trying to state. The column sort of rambles on.

  2. please do the 21th century pose any challenge to the sacrament of penance. and what might those challenges be?