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The Pitfalls of Talking about God

The Congress of the European Society for Catholic Theology in Brixen


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 11/2013, P. 569-573
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The examination of the question of God is significantly dependent on the language that is used. This applies not only to the theological speaking about God but also to the preaching and other forms of religious speech - up to the commitment in old and new media. They each have their pitfalls.


The with the greatest verve propounded criticism aimed at the website of the Vatican. You needn't be a "Digital Native," in order to perceive it as antediluvian. For it does not only refuse Web 2.0; it has not even reached the standards of the first phase of the Internet - so the core of the criticism of the theological ethicist Jan Jans (Tilburg) at the Congress of the "European Society for Catholic Theology" (ET). He pointed out that not any link is set to the real world - not even to Episcopal Conferences and their meetings.

A sign of the Church's disturbed relationship to the public and of the Vatican's exaggerated fixation about itself and its own image - resulting from an image of God with authoritarian traits? This exaggerated thesis is something like the central background against which the speaker of this year's meeting of the Society acted. From 29 August to 1 September more than 220 theologians from 27 European countries but also from other continents met in Bressanone, after they had last been guests in Vienna in 2011 (see HK, November 2011, 581ff.). Under the title "God in Question: Religious Language and Secular Languages," in eleven keynote speeches and several dozens workshop contributions, they examined the difficulties of speaking about God. After all, the recently increasingly observable discussion about the question of God is significantly determined also by the language of theologians, preachers and other church officials. The central theme was here the dealing with exaggerated claims to a knowledge of God, which may easily change into an arrogant self-understanding of the Church. For this reason alone, the meeting fitted well in with the initial phase of the current pontificate - with the recently great response to the different interview statements of Pope Francis (see this issue, 541ff.).


Dialectic between Speech and Silence

A first block was the theological foundation, in which also high-ranking ecclesial voices played a part. Here, Bruno Forte's and Tomas Halik's great unity in warning against too much triumphalism was remarkable, in recommending the Church to ground theology on mysticism, and in declaring the dialogue with non-believers to be a prerequisite for theological speech, in order to approach the "invisible God." This dialogue, so Forte, Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto and member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, must in any case take place at eye level and be a "learning process for theology and the Church." According to him, God has spoken; but, as is generally known, he has not answered all questions. The dialectic between speech and silence is therefore necessary.



He was even convinced that believers and non-believers - where they together grapple sincerely with the real issues of life - are particularly close to each other, at least closer than it is often thought. Where the reflection on this question began, one would then also encounter the people on the other side. This is not least due to the fact that also the believer is not immune to doubt; he always remains seeker and learner. In this sense, it is necessary to show respect for one's own anxiety, to avoid not the "dark night" of faith (John of the Cross), and to accept the struggle with God as a constitutive part of the Christian faith.

Every believer and, as Forte emphasized, also every bishop has day by day to struggle to believe "anew". Otherwise, faith would not be faith but ideology. Especially in view of the absence of God, which is repeatedly experienced and suffered indeed, the believer may eventually recognize and acknowledge the unbeliever as "spiritually akin to him."

The philosopher and theologian Halík (Prague) quite similarly complained that mutual prejudices and suspicions between critics and defenders of religion have become more violent, after the word "God" is more often used again in recent years - this definitely causes distress here and there. He, too, called for "looking for a new type of alliance between secularity and faith, between saying nothing about God and speaking about God." Here, the mention of God means the basal opportunity to criticize every "cynical rationalism of power;" it has thus not the final say.

It is obvious that this has also implications for the Church's preaching. In his critique of an "ecclesiological triumphalism" Halik emphasized that not everyone who rejects the logic of the world, must lead a "fight against people of a different faith." From the inability to make this differentiation, a militant and intolerant religion would be the result.

While today a lot is talked about the Creator God, one should instead rather deal with the last words of the Creed, the Christian hope of a "life in the future world" - here, too, one must not talk too big. The time for a "negative eschatology" has come. It takes the mystical experience as its starting-point: You are basically only able to say of God what he is not. The critical distance to all human ideas and concepts of God is important, because they may quickly become idols.


Dulled Professions of Faith

In their workshop, the social ethicist Marianne Heimbach-Steins (Münster) and the Old Testament scholar George Steins (Osnabrück) would later precisely in this sense point out that it had been a mistake to try in the past few years to play off the term "crisis of God" against the term "Church Crisis." Johann Baptist Metz, who had created the phrase "crisis of God," had certainly not meant a decreasing level of religious knowledge but the tendencies of an exaggerated certainty about God. It makes insensitive to the suffering from the absence of justice, and leads to a self-immunization of the institution Church.

In another workshop, Christian Bauer, professor of pastoral theology (Innsbruck), reminded of the French worker-priests. They had first understood themselves as missionaries in the traditional sense. But then they had to realize that - in view of the experience at the "periphery" - their speaking about God must be spelled out in a quite new manner. As pioneers of a secular speech of God, they had understood that the Holy (saint) must not be understood in a narrow cultic sense (sacré), and they had thus developed a spirituality which has to be rediscovered today.

In this context, a research project in Ticino is also of interest. Christian Cebulj (Chur), scholar in the field of religious education, reported about it. There, the Catholic religious instruction is given in several languages; this is also in the spirit of bilingual teaching in a foreign language. What has its own pitfalls, turns out to be a "religio-didactic learning opportunity." After all, as for non-religious students, today religion is in many ways a 'foreign language' even for baptized children and young people. They have still to find an authentic language for their own religiosity. This religious instruction does not even need to deal with the prejudice of being a "subject of verbal diarrhoea."



However, especially in view of Forte's and Halik's borrowing from negative theology, the question remains of to what extent Christians must also speak in more concrete terms about God, especially in preaching, catechesis and religious education but also in the societal discussion. And on the basis of the biblical message they are also able to say more, and thus to make it clear what it means to believe.

This is true for instance when you take Jesus of Nazareth as starting-point. The Spanish New Testament scholar Ricardo M. Pérez Márquez, who is teaching in Rome, suggested that theology should take Jesus and his language as starting-point for speaking about God. Here, too, it was argued 'ex negativo': Certain categories of the Holy had been the reason why Jesus was extradited and convicted. The speech of God could thus definitely run into danger to promote violence. (Not for nothing, Jesus had only referred to himself as "son of man".) But those who speak the language of Jesus would be able to enter into a "dialogue with the world, and to overcome barriers and prejudices which still alienate God from the people and the people from each other."

In view of todays difficulties in speaking of God, the Old Testament scholar Arnold Stiglmair (Bressanone) in turn reminded of the fact that already in the Hebrew Bible a development took place. This is, on the one hand, important as regards content. For not least the - contrary to the biblical chronology - later written creation reports show that the world and the life on it were not felt as a matter of course.

The belief in God becomes thus a "fundamental counterweight" to every sometimes deeply, sometimes less deeply experienced existential threat. That life is a good gift, and a big yes to man and his world stands behind creation with its abysses - this belief emerged already almost three thousand years ago. It is, especially with regard to the in the modern age so painfully felt aporias, of a relevance that can hardly be overestimated.

This became apparent not least by Didier Pollefeyt's (Leuven), systematic theologian and scholar in the field of religious education, explanations about theodicy. They had brought about very much need for discussion. In his examination of this greatest challenge for any speech of God, Pollefeyt has expressly distanced himself from Augustine's interpretation of evil as a mere lack of good (privatio boni). This would not do justice to the experiences of the 20th Century, which are bundled with the word "Auschwitz."

On the other hand, it is likewise unacceptable to speak out in favour of evil entities, due to which people ultimately not only do evil deeds, but become - as in Manichaeism - evil beings. Pollefeyt therefore recommended to seek evil in the wrong wanting, and to regard it as the dark side of good. Scarcely anybody would do evil for evil's sake, but usually because of a supposedly good thing. Evil is therefore less the absence than the perversion of that good which manipulates and falsifies the evil. Given this scenario, God would be able to prove his superiority to evil; and this would then also play an important role in professing one's faith in Him, and in speaking about Him.

In addition to it, Stiglmair emphasized that the dynamism of the speech about God in the testimonies of the Old Testament was also formally of importance for today. Even if one may exegetically discuss the historical reconstruction in detail, it is striking that already at that time, in view of historical changes, a part of the "religious symbols" would become powerless. But it was possible to revitalize them by connecting them with a more 'handier' way of speaking about God - as Stiglmair tried to show with the help of the figures of speech regarding the Creator God. In terms of language, the embedding of Israel in its cultural environment has here proved to be productive to a large extent. His questions to today's theology: "To what extent are the elements of our speaking about God connected with the world of our experience? Are our statements about God open for an enriching cross-cultural communication - with the result that such cultural contacts may enable the creation of a new language for our Christian symbol system? As regards the internal area of our Confession, to what extent do we bring worn-out confessional statements to life, by a manner of speaking about God which still tugs at people's heartstrings" - as e.g. with regard to Christological statements?

Ultimately, it is art which time and again tries the respective animation - in Bressanone it, too, was included. Letizia Ragaglia, director of Museion, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Bolzano, presented artistic designs which only on first appearance were resistant - up to Martin Kippenberger's crucified frog. The latter had become known through the exhibition in Bolzano, and was confronted with reproaches of blasphemy. In comparison, Ragaglia underlined that the language of modern art deliberately avoids the category of beauty. In the context of the problems of theodicy, it deliberately wants to depict the "terrible human." From there it invites to reflect on the human being, as, for example, Christoph Schlingensief has done with his oratorio "A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within." Exaggeration and alienation are here just means to find the truth, in order to unmask the false appearance, to which also the religious kitsch belongs. The intention behind it is to inspire hope.


Is here a Lack of inner Freedom in the language of the Church?

What all this means for the preaching and other religious forms of communication was illustrated by Christiane Florin, editorial director of the 'Die Zeit'-Supplement "Christ und Welt" in a much applauded lecture. She was not squeamish in her criticism. On the one hand, there was her observation that for instance the liturgical language is contrary to the rules of good journalistic writing. In fact, it might make sense to use more verbs and fewer nouns when we address God in the divine service. And it is also true that some formulation admittedly sounds German but, taking todays language use as starting-point, is ultimately scarcely understood in public.



However, above all her requests to other religious expressions are worth considering. It is usually too little asked how the message is received, who are actually the addressees, and whether they are reached at all. "Far too many texts are spoken and written, because it is simply irrelevant whether anyone is listening to or reading them. What matters is that the funds for them are granted," says Florin. It is obvious that many expressions are formulated in such a way that the superior has no problems with them, or at least that I get no problems. Due to the propensity towards correctness, the concern is then lost.

The journalist identifies three types of religious speech in detail: There is first, in an attitude of resentment, the rattle of triumph - combined with being in love with "Not in this way!" ("Faith is not relativism," "no genuflection before the zeitgeist"). Here, however, one would withhold to what the Church is actually inviting. With her talking about power, glory and eternity, the church would too often puff herself up as a "sham giant." In addition, she caricatured the German mainstream Catholicism with slogans like "today together believe", "daring a new awakening" or "building bridges with Christ," the slogans of the last and the next Katholikentag served as evidence. The desired openness would suggest an element of freedom from obligation - in the Rhineland it is called "Müsstizismus" (One should sometime do it ...). However, this is essentially the "language of those who are afraid of saying the wrong thing. They bring thus on to the scene the type of the one who dogmatically sets the matter right." And finally, there are the put-on gestures of cries of joy of the fresh or long-term converts. In the reports of their conversion they tell about "stark" experiences with faith ("I! am! healed!"). However, life is certainly more complicated and unfortunately often "ambivalent - like faith, hope and love."

Those, however, who admit this tension could also tell thrillingly and formulate aptly, without pandering to everyday language or hurting others. Florin's conclusion: "Ecclesial language is therefore so negative because it lacks an important source of strength: freedom." This in turn is less a question of vocabulary than of that attitude which obviously distinguishes Pope Francis. It is crucial that you as a theologian or preacher speak to someone and not just about something, and that you do not retreat to the role of an expert - but you will thus also become vulnerable, commented Richard Hartmann (Fulda), scholar in the field of pastoral theology.

The social ethicist Stephen Bullivant (London) spoke then in concrete terms about the Vatican's commitment to the media. He illustrated that the popes have comparatively early used the new media for their own purposes. Especially with the Internet and its social networks today, however, curse and blessing of this development become apparent. On the one hand, the hierarchy-free rooms of the Web mean a challenge to the taken-for-grantedness of faith, because the Internet is able - this was also pointed out - to evade the most attempts to control it. But at least new plausibility structures are formed at a low level in the social networks in the respective groups.


Prophetical Speeches are in Demand

This applies especially also to the so-called "Christian Europe". In a European association with the large presence of theologians from the Benelux countries it goes without saying that this topic, too, plays traditionally an important role at the meetings - in Bressanone inter alia in the discussion with the former Austrian EU Commissioner Franz Fischler about the relations of the European Union to the churches. The French philosopher and Jesuit priest Paul Valadier (Paris) had already in the course of the meeting criticized the Catholic Church's practice of evangelization. The wind would admittedly blow sharply into her face - especially on the European stage. But the flight into a Catholic counter-culture, from where she insults the world as a "culture of death," will have no success, because that robs the gospel of its vigor. The ultimate goal of evangelization should after all not be the Church but humankind.

In his thoughtful lecture held on the final day, the Austrian Michael Kuhn, Deputy Secretary General of COMECE, examined the relationship between Church and politics - virtually, the speaking about God in the European public - in order to secure the respective freedom - ultimately also for the churches.

This lobbying is done rather by politicians and jurists than by theologians, whereas theologians are primarily perceived as ideologically influenced ethicists. In view of this, the question arises of how seriously is theology as such taken at all. According to Kuhn, it would be especially the theologians' task to look for traces of the beginning kingdom of God and to dare prophetic speeches rather than - in the attitude of defiant triumphalism - to slave away at the question of an "invocatio Dei" in the basic texts of the European Community, or - quasi in anticipation of Pope Francis' recent statements in interviews - to insist in a stereotyped way on the debate about the well-known, supposedly specifically Catholic topics. Otherwise, theology is in danger of "losing its soul."

Whether theological speech about God or ecclesiastical proclamation, it is important to take into account the level at which you speak, and in which 'speech situation' language criticism is practiced - generalizations are here rather misleading.



However, it has once again become more than clear that the language used in theology and in the church is not just a matter of wrapping up established truths. The matter of faith - in the sense of an inner attitude - is also determined to a considerable extent by the language used. The pursuit of a living expression is therefore particularly important - up to the liturgical language, which today is often enough experienced as desolate not only by people who have dissociated themselves from the Church.

The Church's examination of conscience will here also include the question of in what way she has too often suffocated the at all levels necessary freedom. This applies not least to theology (keyword: Nihil-Obstat refusals). Here, too, it will be interesting to see how things will develop during the pontificate of Pope Francis - below the level of papal statements in sermons and interviews.

In any case, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's words, which were cited several times in Bressanone, characterize amazingly aptly the direction of impact of the conference as a whole. "The day will come - when people will oncc more be called to speak the word of God in such a way that the world is changed and renewed. lt will be in a new language, perhaps quite nonreligious language, but liberating and redeeming like Jesus' language."


According to schedule, the moral theologian Martin M. Lintner (Brixen) takes the place of the moral theologian Sigrid Müller (Vienna) as President of the European Society for Catholic Theology. As new Vice President of the Society, which currently has about 850 members, was elected the former Secretary General, the Old Testament scholar Pierre Van Hecke (Leuven), new Secretary General is Karin Schelkens (Tilburg/Leuven). In the Presidium, Piotr Morciniec (Opole) and Katica Knezovie (Zagreb) are responsible for Eastern resp. Southeastern Europe; a member is also the editor of the ET-Studies, Gerhard Kruip (Mainz).

Chairman of the German section with about 190 members is the church historian Joachim Schmiedl (Vallendar). While remarkably few members of the German section were present in Bressanone, there are signs of awakening in other places. In addition to the recently established Hungarian section there will soon also be a Ukrainian and a Romanian.

During the congress, for the second time a prize was awarded for the "Theological Book". For the years 2011 and 2012 the dissertation by Leonardo Paris (Trento), "Sulla libertà. Prospettive di teologia trinitaria tra neuroscienze e filosofia" (Rome 2012) and the work of Michael Younès (Lyon), "Pour une théologie chrétienne des religions" (Paris 2012) were awarded a prize.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'