Suffering in the Theology of Edward Schillebeeckx

By Mcmanus, Kathleen | Theological Studies, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Suffering in the Theology of Edward Schillebeeckx

Mcmanus, Kathleen, Theological Studies

AT THE THRESHOLD of a new millennium the world possesses unprecedented capabilities for advancing the quality of human life, transforming social structures, and restoring the damaged balance of nature. As inhabitants of this world, we have unprecedented power not only to realize our role in the divine-human partnership in creation and salvation, but also to destroy creation and each other--all that God has entrusted to us. We hope for the blessed outcome and occasionally, in fragmentary ways, we experience the realization of such aspirations. Too often, however, we experience hope thwarted, salvation opposed, the human situation threatened. Sorrow overpowers rejoicing in too many human lives, and the thread of suffering woven through human history seems to gain texture and density in proportion to human progress. Suffering is the greatest challenge to our belief in the goodness of creation and the possibility of salvation.

Edward Schillebeeckx has not only taken this paradox into account but has dialectically incorporated the reality of suffering (lijden) into a theology defined by its focus on the interrelated themes of creation, salvation, and eschatological hope. He has spent his life as a theologian proclaiming God's commitment to the flourishing of the human and has done so in a world more schooled in suffering than in joy. Schillebeeckx has grounded his entire theological project in the promise of a divine-human future made visible in creation and entrusted to human freedom. If he has given a privileged theological locus to the experience of suffering, it is against the background of a creation originally good and the horizon of eschatological promise. Because suffering is so tangibly present in human experience, it provides the means, dialectically, of imaging the horizon of our hope. Schillebeeckx has demonstrated that salvation can be articulated only in counterpoint to the reality of suffering. This is the essence of the notion of "negative contrast experience" that emerges in his later theology.(1) In other words, his method of doing theology corresponds to the content of his theological message. The dialectic of human suffering and salvation is most identifiable after Schillebeeckx's dramatic shift in which human experience assumes center stage in his theology. The fundamental elements of this dialectic are present however even in his earliest work, suggesting that suffering operates as a formative factor throughout the whole of his theological development.


Human suffering in all its forms confronts ordinary people with the essential questions of life's meaning and purpose. This brings us squarely up against the question of what "suffering" means for Schillebeeckx and for us. Suffering constitutes the raw and immediate challenge to countless concrete lives running desperately short of expectation, characterized by rawness, immediacy, and dearth of hope. These are the defining characteristics of the term "suffering." The quality of agony, the experience of affliction is part of the concept. The cause of affliction may be internal or external, emotional or physical, social or economic. Suffering may be the result of natural disaster, international violence, political injustice, or subtle personal oppression. It may be one's excruciating battle with terminal illness, or another's agonizing loss of a loved one to death. The term "suffering" may conjure up the unfathomable civil terror in Rwanda or Kosovo, ongoing starvation from India to the Sudan, and the ravaging of societies by earthquakes and hurricanes. Suffering evokes the increasing scourge of homelessness throughout North America. And in the drug- and crime-ridden streets of inner cities, suffering is exacerbated by society's brutal stripping of basic human services from the most destitute among us. It cries out in the overwhelming spectrum of human rights abuses in countries such as present-day China, as well as in the exploitation of women and children by multiple industries throughout the world. …

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