The Language of Dissent by Daniel Thompson is a book with passion, coherence, and eloquence. It reveals the pastoral passions of Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P. and Daniel Thompson in their respective searches for truth in theology, the coherence of writers who believe reason can craft basic lines of understanding out of graced human experiences as we encounter the mysteries of Christian faith, and the eloquence of artists whose works reflect the deep insights into unspoken needs and realities for themselves and others. In the book's penultimate paragraph Schillebeeckx says that the God of our faith, hope, and love is silent because "he is listening to our life story," our entire story made up of all our words, thoughts, desires, actions and passions, joys and sufferings.
Schillebeeckx, born in Antwerp Belgium in 1914, one of fourteen children, has lived a full life as a Dominican priest and theologian at the service of the church. In the mid 1930s he did his philosophical and theological studies at Louvain as a Dominican and worked with Chenu at Le Saulchoir, Paris where he eventually completed his doctoral work on Sacraments. He taught at the Dominican House of Studies, at Louvain, and the Catholic University of Nijimegen in the Netherlands until retirement in 1983. He advised the Dutch Bishops at Vatican Council II. Did the close scrutiny of his writings by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 1968, 1976, and 1982 make his works more popular than they already were? The scrutiny gave more publicity to Schillebeeckx's publications.
Thompson seems to leave no major work of Schillebeeckx, his context, or his commentators unexamined as he walks the reader through his revised doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago. One must read patiently through five chapters to reach the discussion of authority and dissent, titled "Symbols of the Church to Come: Theological Dissent and Critical Communities as Sacraments of the Future Church." The five chapters are lenses or stages on the way to the chosen topic of debate for Thompson: 1. epistemology, 2. salvation and revelation, 3. ecclesiology and its subset, 4. early and 5. later meanings for apostolicity in church sources and teaching. The major shift in S's theology is represented by pre and post Vatican II works; the latter involved him in the type of hermeneutical dicussions begun in the Frankfurt School for Social Research.
The first of three brief questions with which Thompson ends his book are posed in part as future tasks for theologians. Question one takes us back to chapter one on Schillebeeckx's three "circles" of epistemology and whether the "perspectival grasp" of objective reality embedded in the language of experience, narrative, and interpretation can still hold that truth is "objective" after Schillebeeckx turned to hermeneutical and critical theory. Schillebeeckx learned a phenomenological method that analyzed the intentionalities of human consciousness under De Petter at Louvain. Studies with Chenu at Paris helped Schillebeeckx integrate historical change and deep evangelical faith into the theology of Aquinas and the history of doctrines. Doctrines grow out of human creativity and reflection. The result for Schillebeeckx is an epistemology that recognizes the role of human experience in the theological shape of language and concepts of God, an actus significandi that has an "objective dynamism" toward the res significata, God. Our concepts of God have an intelligible content open to mystery, projecting, reaching out for, directing us toward, but never grasping, God. This is what classical theology understood as final causality, the human telos, that shapes objective reality as well as our language with proleptic, future, and eschatological orientations. At root Schillebeeckx's epistemology is a study in relationships, subjective, objective, communitarian, graced by dimensions of faith in the revealed and saving human destiny.
Due to limits of time and space the chapters on revelation and salvation, and ecclesiology will be summarized in terms we learned during and after Vatican II, that Christ is the sacrament of the human encounter with God and the church is the sacrament for the consecration and salvation of the world. Thompson provides a clear and precise development of these expanding and expansive creative relationships envisioned by Schillebeeckx. Apostolicity is the major theological key that opens the ecclesial door to democracy and the role of dissent and critical communities, a late life interest of Schillebeeckx. The critical task of theology is to unmask ideological language and practice in the church, society, and one's self. This opens the church to "the subversive memory of Jesus, the cumulative narratives of human suffering, and the eschatological proviso of God's fulfillment of the humanum." Critical Christian communities may originate in negative contrast experiences, (like WW II, the Shoah, poverty, world hunger), and histories of human suffering, but they move to create emancipatory movements that challenge political and economic structures of oppression. The later Schillebeeckx is a liberation theologian.
That leads Thompson to Schillebeeckx's notion of authority as the critical, cognitive, and productive force of an experience or a tradition of experiences that rest on truths that unmask ideological distortions to disclose meaning and effect liberating praxis. A Christian community needs prayer and praxis in the memory of Jesus and hope for the future to provide a vision for all humanity that anticipates the reign or rule of God to come. The whole church community of faith carries the entrusted pledge of the apostolic mandate, not just the Magisterium, particularly each local Church, to mediate the Christian experience and its social-historical context. This sounds like a version of the Dominican charism of preaching. There are fine points concerning the when and how of dissent, and the Magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit, but theological dissent and critical communities "are a necessary part of a living church."
As a Dominican whose history involved the critical dissent of St. Dominic against the medieval dualists, the Cathars of southern France, Schillebeeckx's dissent is always part of a "nonantithetical dialectic". Thompson returns to this refrain like a mantra throughout the book. Dialectical arguments for understanding, yes, but antithetical absolutes that either contradict one another or require a Hegelian aufhebung, no. There is no dualism in Schillebeeckx's theology, only improved, deepened, and expanded relationships. Like the prolific Neoplatonist, Origen, heaven for Schillebeeckx may be imagined as one great conversation in post sacramental, post ideological classrooms where divine communication continues with humans who through the experience of risen bodies, faces, speech, voice, thoughts and movements now know even as they are known.
The book is prefaced with a short "Forward" by Edward Schillebeeckx which enunciates the challenges that face theology in the third millennium. Schillebeeckx writes, "Ethical coherence and credibility are, therefore, the most important presuppositions of the church's service to the world and at the same time are the consequences of its message that God's kingdom is among human beings." The book has 50 pp of helpful notes, a bibliography of primary and secondary works, and a complete index.