Reconciling the Cross in the Theologies of Edward Schillebeeckx and Ivone Gebara

By McManus, Kathleen | Theological Studies, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Reconciling the Cross in the Theologies of Edward Schillebeeckx and Ivone Gebara


McManus, Kathleen, Theological Studies


IVONE GEBARA, a Brazilian Sister of Notre Dame, is a leading ecofeminist philosopher and theologian in Latin America. She taught for many years at the Theology Institute of Recife, Brazil. Gebara is well-known internationally by members of grassroots women's groups and congregations of women religious, among whom she is a sought-after speaker and facilitator of theological reflection. Her published works include Out of the Depths: Women's Experience of Evil and Salvation (2002), Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (1999), and, with Maria Clara Bingemer, Mary: Mother of God, Mother of the Poor (1989). Gebara lives in a barrio outside Recife where her communion with the poor informs her scholarship. She holds the conviction that transformative truths arise from within the experience of suffering. For her, the particular sufferings of women and the earth give rise to a devastating critique of a maledominated Church's view of reality as a hierarchy based on dualisms.

Whether Gebara has ever read Edward Schillebeeckx is uncertain. The absence of any reference to him in her writings leads me to believe that she has not. My interest in placing the two in conversation arises, however, from my experience of reading Gebara and hearing a persistent echo of Schillebeeckx. At times, I found myself thinking: "Yes, Schillebeeckx levels that same critique." Or, "What you are saying here is a clear illustration of Schillebeeckx's notion of negative contrast experience." (1) But, the strongest evocations of Schillebeeckx I found in Gebara's work were actually my own experiences of negative contrast. I found myself simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with an assertion of Gebara's and wanting to point out that Schitlebeeckx asserts the same, but in critical continuity with a tradition that Gebara seems to eschew. The particular theological issue over which this sometimes dissonant convergence crystallized was the theology of the cross. (2)

Edward Schillebeeckx upholds the cross as the symbol of the "superior, defenseless power of vulnerability." Ivone Gebara decries the cross as a patriarchal symbol that has contributed to the oppression of the most vulnerable in this world, especially women, the poor, and the earth itself. She critiques the hierarchical system's use of the cross to manipulate guilt and impose sacrificial behavior in ways that have permeated Christian belief and practice in realms both personal and public. Schillebeeckx, too, critiques the damaging interpretations of the cross that have too often prevailed in Christian life, and he warns against naive proclamation of the cross's reconciling power without reference to real human experience.

Both Schillebeeckx and Gebara are grounded in phenomenological method, and both espouse a narrative theology that privileges the experience of suffering. Schillebeeckx's work suggests the path Gebara so concretely forges. The places where the two of them diverge reflect the sometimes radical divergence from what the Church names "Tradition" expressed by modern feminist theologians and those in economically challenged countries. For some, this constitutes an irreconcilable crisis. It is timely, therefore, to analyze the ways in which Schillebeeckx's theology might contribute both to the advancement and constructive critique of emerging voices such as Gebara's. To that end, my article explores areas of consonance and contrast in the respective theologies of Schillebeeckx and Gebara in relationship to the symbol of the cross.

PHENOMENOLOGICAL METHOD AS NARRATIVE SOURCE

Schillebeeckx and Gebara share a formative philosophical background in phenomenology. In its simplest terms, "phenomenology" may be defined as "the setting forth and articulation of what shows itself." (3) The field of phenomenology is concerned with an exploration of the intentionality of consciousness and a description of phenomena as they give themselves, free from cultural, ontological, and philosophical bias. …

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