DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Henri de Lubac (1896-1991)
The early life of Lubac was set in the atmosphere of intense Church-State conflict (see Yves Congar). Lubac's first work, Catholicism, was not published until 1938. It included an apparently innocent assertion that the desire for a vision of God is at the heart of every person and that this vision is a free gift of God [1].

If this is the nature of God's relationship with us, then it follows that Christianity has an intensely social aspect since it embraces and expands into every aspect of the lives of all. Lubac's main purpose was to correct what he saw as the Roman Catholic tendency to withdraw into narrow piety - or at best be satisfied with a socially useful role in the greater whole of culture. Salvation for him was essentially a social phenomenon.

Lubac was widely read, and to that extent could be said to have been an early influence in what, after the Second World War, became a push to move Christians more into radical social action. This push was at its most extreme in so-called "Liberation Theology" which tended to see Jesus primarily as one who frees us from social, economic and political oppression.

He joined the Society of Jesus in 1913 and studied in its houses in Jersey and Fourviere. He obtained his doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained in 1927. He was forced to leave Lyon during the German occupation because of his activities with the French Resistance.

Lubac, like Congar, used historical data and references to demonstrate his points. He thought history shows clearly that the Church at its best addresses every aspect of human life. If salvation has been promised to individuals, he thought that this inevitably implies potential salvation at a social level as well.

In his later writing, Lubac expanded this theme to address the anti-Church secularism of the Third Republic in France. The State's position was, he thought, merely a mirror-image of an equally mistaken supernaturalist religion on the part of Christians. This supernaturalism  resulted in an empty shell of cultic rituals and barren observance, and gave rise to individualistic piety. 

Conflict between Church and State in France was, he maintained, not so much the fault of atheists but of theologians. They had, in effect, betrayed the patristic conception of nature as a unified whole directed beyond itself by God's grace to a supernatural destiny. In its place they had put a stark distinction between nature and grace. It was hardly surprising that as a result what is "merely" human tended to be downgraded. We might today remark that it accounts for a Christian tendency to think of, for example, politics as corrupt and of sexuality as something dirty.

He went further in his The Supernatural (1946) and was ordered by the Vatican to stop publication when doctrinal objections were raised. The dualism of grace-versus-nature, he thought, had been invented by Roman Catholics as a protection against Protestant and humanist ideas. Out of that dualism had sprung the self-made  "enemies" labelled as deism and atheism. The Church had, in effect, spawned its own detractors:

... for about three centuries ... many could see salvation only in a complete severance between the natural and the supernatural ... the supernatural, deprived of its links with nature, tended to be understood by some as a mere "super-nature", a "double" of nature ... after such a complete separation what misgivings could the supernatural cause to naturalism? For the latter no longer found it at any point in its path, and could shut itself up in a corresponding isolation ...

There is and has been a tendency amongst Christian theologians and ecclesiastics over the ages to assume that current formulations of  teaching represent some sort of absolute truth, a final word, a closing pronouncement. In doing so, they fail to see or deliberately ignore the currents in and changes to doctrine over the ages. Lubac's great strength lay in exposing errors in this respect by working simply as an historian of doctrine. 

So, for example, he showed conclusively that the "firm and final" teachings of his day about the nature of the Church and the Eucharist had changed radically from earlier eras - contrary to the official line that current Roman Catholic doctrine presents eternal truth for all. In fact, he said, a desire to defend Catholic teaching had caused theologians to distort the original teaching about the Eucharist by employing pseudo-rational methods. They had thus mistakenly come up with the doctrine of transubstantiation. 

This error meant that theologians of his day should, he thought, seriously rethink the relationship between the Eucharist and the Church. The Eucharist had originally been thought of as the mystical body of Christ. The term "body of Christ" was properly reserved only for the Church, following Paul's original lead (1 Corinthians 12.13). What had happened, de Lubac thought, was that the term "body" migrated in the 12th century to refer to the Church instead of the Eucharist. As a result the balance tended to shift from the Church to an isolated, individual piety and liturgical ceremony.

We should note that the Roman Catholic Church of Lubac's time was still dominated by neo-Thomism. At the same time the official Church was intensely fearful of the perplexing challenges of modernism - as many parts of it still are today. Lubac's approach to tradition and the Eucharist was considered shocking by many at the time (1944) and was quickly attacked. But he was saved from the full force of official retribution by the distractions of World War II.

His emphasis on change as a normal and natural aspect of Christianity (that is, what is theologically known by some as "God's grace" operating in the world) helped open up the Roman Church somewhat to ecumenism. This movement was gradually stifled in later years, and by the end of the 20th century had more or less ceased between Roman Catholics and other Christians at official level. (Though in some places a grass-roots unity is slowly being forged at local level out of necessity.)

In stressing grace, Lubac had to overcome the notion that God's action is alien from everything natural, and particularly  from human nature. The result of this way of regarding the world was that what is natural tended to be downgraded or even demeaned in relation to the so-called spiritual. Ironically, though, Lubac later became troubled by what he saw as a tendency to secularise important aspects of humanity in the 1960s. He thought that just as the Roman Church had retreated into a "spiritual" lager at the turn of the 19th century, so it now tended to exalt the immanent. This sort of imbalance was not what the Church should strive for.

In all this Lubac suffered considerable ongoing harassment from fellow Society of Jesus theologians - considerably more than his contemporary, Yves Congar, had to endure. He was never summonsed to the Vatican to explain his views. But who knows how much of what he expressed was dictated by considerations of prudence - or even how much of what he really thought was censored because of a need to survive? Not very much, if some of his writing is any indication. 

He became increasingly troubled by what he perceived as openness to the world in Vatican II, which he thought ran the risk of turning into an acceptance of secular humanism. In a 1969 address he linked unity of the Roman Catholic Church directly to a personal love for Christ. It is wrong to suppose that the Church and individual faith can be juxtaposed. The Church runs the risk of collapse when criticised from within, and

... when each one takes as his mission to criticize everything, when each one sets out to rewrite dogma and morality according to his own wishes, the Church disintegrates.

Those whose messing around with individualistic theology weakens the Church

... insult all those who hold on to what their faith requires of them as Christians. Inasmuch as it depends on them, they ruin the Church. A Church in which this form of disorder exists and where such morals are accepted is doomed, for it cannot be efficacious; it will have no missionary zeal, no ecumenical force.

These are strong words, hardly representative of one who is prepared to criticise the Church at a level deeper than its own inward-looking concerns. On the whole, de Lubac tended to be cautious in his approach. Typical were his two books on Teilhard de Chardin in which his broadly sympathetic judgement was tempered by sharp criticism of de Chardin's attachment to science in general and physics in particular.

De Lubac was summoned to take part in the earlier stages of the Second Vatican Council. Despite his earlier views, de Lubac falls into a group of theologians who resisted what they saw as a tendency of the Council to give in to secular (atheist) views of Jesus. Those who sought to connect with post-Enlightenment thinking were opposed by those who thought that the Church needed not radical change but renewal. The latter was best served by recovering the true spirit of Christian tradition. 

Significantly, in the light of events following Vatican II, those who followed this line included Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla (now John Paul II). Renewal implied ditching individualism and autonomy and returning to a patristic view of authority. If de Lubac had joined forces with Karl Rahner and Hans Kung his elevation to Cardinal Deacon in 1983 would have been unlikely.
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[1] My limited access to information on de Lubac has led me to depend very heavily in this summary on French Theology: Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, by Fergus Kerr, OP, in The Modern Theologians, Blackwell, 1997

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