Learning From Schillebeeckx

Last week, I participated in a Schillebeeckx Research Seminar, co-organized by KU Leuven and Radbout University. The seminar consisted of two days crammed with presentations and discussions, having me fill up page after page in my note book in an attempt to make sure I would be able to retrieve as much insights as possible afterwards.

The most exciting, or, rather, anxious moment for me was when I was allowed to present my own paper on Schillebeeckx and evolutionary studies of religion, a paper I previously presented at the Schillebeeckx conference last August. This time I had not only my peers commenting on the paper, but also Stephan van Erp, my new co-promotor, and Erik Borgman, who certainly ‘knows his Schillebeeckx’. The first question I had, was if I had done justice to Schillebeeckx’ theology in my paper. A second, no less important question, was if my approach seemed a fruitful one. I think, although a lot of work still needs to be done, I can feel assured regarding both worries.

From all remarks that were made, two in particular have kept me busy after the seminar. The first one was made by Borgman, on my proposal that theology is still a viable way to speak about religion. What I tried to do in the paper, was to defend the importance of theology over against a certain tendency in evolutionary studies of religion to act as if theses studies now have the last word on religion. What I forgot to make clear, is that theology not just talks about religion, but also, maybe even foremost, from religion. The choice to speak about religion, the choice to be ‘neutral’ regarding the question whether religious beliefs are true (whatever your definition of ‘true’), already loads the questions you ask and the answers you give. The same goes for theology’s choice to speak from religion. It’s important indeed to be clear about the choice I make (and the choice being made in evolutionary studies of religion) and its implications. Such a clarification could sharpen the edges between theology and evolutionary studies of religion a bit. This does not necessarily imply a return to the conflict model, rather it might help us to identify limit questions between both fields, supporting dialogue between them.

The second remark concerned my presentation of the relation between history, deep history, and salvation history. Trevor Maine, one of my colleagues, wondered whether I saw no connection between cosmology and eschatology. If science is part of human experience, a suggestion I made in my paper, shouldn’t then science not also be part of the eschaton? At first I understood him to suggest some kind of naturalistic reduction of eschatology to cosmological knowledge about the end of the universe, but his question was, obviously, more fine-grained than that. How can we relate what we know about the physical universe to what we believe about the coming of the Kingdom of God (the latter being a recurrent topic in Schillebeeckx’ work)? Is my current position, which sees salvation history as becoming unveiled through the interpreted experience/experienced interpretation (following Schillebeeckx) of history, enough to bring science and theology in connection with each other, allowing us to discern meaning, maybe even ultimate meaning, in the world of which we are part? Or does it just turn eschatology into a cultural construct? I am not quite sure on this yet (maybe that will never happen), although I have some hope I am on the right track, avoiding the second possibility.

What made me a happy theologian, at least for a while, was that my proposal to take history as a vantage point to bring together evolutionary studies of religion and theology, in order to learn more about the emergence of religion and the role religion can play in human ongoing evolution, received supportive comments. That seems to suggest I managed to build a bridge, however shaky it might be, where at first I saw only a canyon.

To be continued, as research always has to be, in a sense…

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