Suffering is central to the later theology of Edward Schillebeeckx. Aloysius Rego thoughtfully examines this focus as it relates to the question of the salvific meaning of suffering. Rego sets the groundwork for the study by establishing the emergence of the theme of suffering in Schillebeeckx’ theology, examining his philosophical influences, and exploring his theological method, especially in light of his focus on experience and the method of correlation. Rego provides a very accessible treatment of this background.
The heart of Rego’s study begins in chapter four as he explores the significance of Schillebeeckx’s distinction between “meaningful” and “meaningless” suffering and his identification of suffering as a “negative experience of contrast.” While Rego accepts the value of this distinction, he questions where the “dividing line” is between the two types of suffering (162). In particular, Rego is troubled by the lack of an “objective” distinction between the two types of suffering, arguing that because Schillebeeckx understands human experience as interpreted experience the distinction between meaningful and meaningless suffering is primarily a subjective one. Rego identifies various problems with defining the category of meaningless suffering: Isn’t it possible for a religious believer to find meaning in any negative experience? Weren’t there people even in Auchwitz who turned their meaningless victimization into meaningful worship of God? Can’t people who find suffering meaningless now find it meaningful later? (163-164). Rego defends Schillebeeckx’ distinction by connecting it to H. Kuitert’s distinction between an upper and a lower limit of salvation, noting that persons must experience at least fragments of salvation in this world (the lower limit) and not just in the eschaton (the upper limit). Such a lower limit is defined in terms of whether an event enhances or diminishes the humanum, and thus connects to an objective standard (166). Thus subjectively experiencing suffering as meaningful is not enough to define it as meaningful—to be considered meaningful suffering must also enhance the humanum.
Rego further explores suffering as it connects to the themes of revelation, creation, and divine omnipotence in Schillebeeckx’s theology. In chapter five he draws out Schillebeeckx’s distinctions between secular history and salvation history, between God’s absolute power and God’s power conditioned by creation, and between God’s omnipotence and God’s “defenselessness.” This provides the foundation for the chapter on Christology in which Rego highlights Schillebeeckx’s focus on Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God and his faithfulness to that message in his life. He further studies Schillebeeckx’s attempt to locate the meaning of Jesus’ death in the life that preceded it and not in the suffering and death itself (295). Rego presents Schillebeeckx’s refusal to mystify suffering and his rejection of “explanations” of suffering and evil as rooted in his Thomist notion of God as a God of “pure positivity.” Rego says he prefers to avoid “unnecessary critical comment” (318). This approach is generally very helpful in letting Schillebeeckx’s voice be heard, however, it also makes Rego’s short and subtle critiques seem more pointed. For example, Rego seems dissatisfied by Schillebeeckx’s “apophatic” position on the relationship between God and evil, as though Schillebeeckx leaves too much room for evil (276). One could defend Schillebeeckx on this topic by further emphasizing Schillebeeckx’s concern to speak of “overcoming” rather than “explaining” evil (and thus God’s “action” or “presence” rather than “plan”), and God’s “victory” over evil and suffering in the resurrection that is the goal of both human praxis and eschatological hope, and is “not yet” fully achieved. Rego does not ignore these issues but he does not treat them at length.
Rego’s approach takes seriously Schillebeeckx’s innovative attention to suffering and salvation, accepting Schillebeeckx’s claim that not all experiences of suffering are redemptive, but also concerned to explore experiences of suffering that are redemptive (7). Rego thus fittingly concludes his work with attention to the redemptive quality of suffering modeled after Jesus’ suffering as suffering for others, and also by criticizing Schillebeeckx’s Christology for overemphasizing Jesus’ humanity and downplaying his divinity, and for downplaying a New Testament theology of atonement (329-330). Rego seems concerned that Schillebeeckx excessively limits the salvific importance of Christ.
Rego provides a thoughtful study of Schillebeeckx’s writings on suffering and salvation in a clear and concise style. Rego appreciates much of Schillebeeckx’s theology and provides a helpful introduction to it, while nevertheless quietly raising some significant critiques. I think this is an important conversation to continue, especially in light of the question whether Schillebeeckx’s attention to praxis, resurrection, and his return to the language of sacrament could address some of these critiques.