The complex title of this book is an immediate signal that the book is only a portion of a theological opus magnum already underway. First, a few words on the book's wider context. Volume One of van Beeck's project appeared in 1989 under the title of Understanding the Christian Faith. Volume Two, The Revelation of the Glory, is appearing in book-length portions. The current fourth portion had itself to be subdivided into Part 4/A, The Genealogy of Depravity: Morality and Immorality, which appeared in late 1999; now its completion appears in the form of Part 4/B. A straightforward Christology, to be called "The Glory of God in the Face of Christ," is envisioned as the fifth portion bringing Volume Two to an end. A third volume, treating sacramental theology, is foreseen as completing Van Beeck's project in systematic theology.
The subtitle of both installments of Part 4, Genealogy of Depravity, harkens to van Beeck's wish to reclaim the genuine Christian humanism of "the Great Tradition," which is the author's way of identifying an older and more integral Catholic intellectual tradition predating rationalistic scholasticism, a rich tradition more rightly associated with Patristic thought, the theological syntheses of the High Middle Ages, and with balanced Catholic mysticism (such as Tauler and van Ruusbroec, but not the modalism of Eckhart).
But why the motif of "depravity" to both installments of Part 4? Van Beeck is here recognizing the pessimistic influences of Calvin and Nietzsche in defining the misery of the human condition in later Western thought. Calvin described an inexorable servitude to sin chaining down all human beings, and an individual had only to entrust in an obviously joyless manner his or her salvation to God's inscrutable but already decided "double predestination." Nietzsche described human misery for an opposite reason: Morality was fabricated out of cowardice and a failure of nerve to "will to be," to be self-defining and self-actualizing as one would say today. Nietzsche would have one throw off moralizing shackles. Against Calvin van Beeck wishes the Christian realities of genuine joy and well-grounded hope, all the time taking sin as seriously as Calvin did; against Nietzsche he wishes the efficacy of genuinely free choices in shaping our human lives but without the fault of Pelagianism, or stated conversely, with a healthy doctrine of grace infusing free human choices.
Living the Christian life, with all of its ups and downs, within a genuine Christian humanism is the via media van Beeck proposes that avoids the extreme solutions of Calvin and Nietzsche. There is an interesting affinity to Thomas Aquinas in Part 4 of van Beeck's systematic theology. He begins IV/B by noting that Aquinas's five arguments for God's existence are based on humanity's relatedness to God. The first three relations are cosmological, involving realities of change, causality, and finite dependency; the fourth is anthropological, involving graduated resemblance, and the fifth is most properly theological, involving the natural tendency of every being to becoming present to God as one's fulfillment. Sinfulness disrupts our cosmological relationship to God, and by this notion van Beeck is viewing the fragile and negative influences of our "cosmic" or worldly milieu (this material world, other human beings, our own selves). Such sinfulness is to be overcome by "dint of mastery and control" (p.4). IV/A treated this aspect of the Christian life in terms of the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
There is a second level of sin, qualitatively graver than the cosmic, where degeneracy occurs at the level of "intelligence and freedom," wherein resemblance to God and one's finality in God (echoing Aquinas's fourth and fifth ways) are undone by sin. Here the antidotes are divine gifts: faith, hope, and love. Such are the foci of IV/B. Van Beeck's preface quotes an English Carmelite whose words to his mind capture the "entire content" of the book: "The opposite of sin is not virtue but faith." Van Beeck adds hoping and loving as equally the opposites of sin. What Aquinas called the theological virtues as his mainstay of the middle portion of his Summa, van Beeck is here calling the "theonomous" life as the mainstay of the middle portion of his God Encountered.
The dual themes of van Beeck's vision of the moral life (viz., all persons never lose their "native attunement to God" and we live in a global situation "intrinsically marked by sin") come to a head in his concluding chapter on Original Sin. He faults Augustine's Adam-centered reading of eph ho pantes hemarton (Rom 5:12) in terms of in whom [in quo] all humans have sinned. He faults Erasmus's translation of "inasmuch as [quatenus] all humans have sinned." He opts for J. A. Fitzmyer's "consecutive meaning," i.e., "with the result that all have sinned." Something awry is truly inherited but our own actual sins effectively contribute to the human predicament that nonetheless never loses its native attunement to God. However, Rom 5:12 is centered on Jesus more than the original Adam.
Two concluding observations: (1) Tucked away in a small footnote (p. 355) is the following self-evaluation about van Beeck's opus as a whole: "The idea of God Encountered is precisely that we discern the mystery of both God and humanity in the mysterious originality contained in any interpersonal encounter worthy of the name." (2) Apropos college teaching, which many of us do, undergraduates would find this text difficult to follow. But for practitioners of religious studies it is a thoughtful read.