Theologian’s perspective: The Leuven Project presents a God who is always ‘there’, never ‘here’

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“The (Leuven) Project has an extreme aversion to immanence. God is always ‘there’. He can never be ‘here’.”

The recent discussion of the Leuven Project in The Catholic Weekly by Fr John Flader, Monica Doumit, and Paul Sharkey has prompted me to offer a theological critique of the Project.

The Project is a diagnostic tool for assessing the Catholicity of people within Catholic schools in order to make recommendations for enhancing the Catholic identity of those schools. In essence, it does so by plotting people on a map with two axes.

One axis plots the kind of belief – “literal” at one end and “symbolic” at the other. The second axis plots the presence or absence of belief – “exclusion of transcendence” at one end and “inclusion of transcendence” at the other. The ideal Catholic is one who has what is called a “post-critical belief”, with maximal “inclusion of transcendence” and “symbolic belief”.

Since space precludes me from delving into the psychological (Fowler), philosophical (Ricoeur, Lyotard), and theological (Schillebeeckx, Boeve) roots of the Project, its failure to treat Sacred Scripture as the soul of theology (Dei Verbum, 24), and its radical rejection of new evangelisation, I shall confine myself to four of its key concepts: literal, transcendence, symbolic, and interpretation.

First, a “literal” Catholic believes in a transcendent God whom one can have immediate access to, and reads the Bible “literally”. Believing the world was created in seven days, and that Jesus actually walked over water are examples of “literal” faith. The problem here is the definition of the term “literal”. The Project makes no distinction between two different kinds of literalism.

One form of literalism is that of someone who has grasped the “literal” meaning of Sacred Scripture, that is, the meaning intended by the human author. The second is that of a person who has misinterpreted the meaning intended by the author. So, someone in the second category, in thinking that the author intended to teach a seven day creation, would be incorrect.

There are indications in the text itself (for example, the fact that the first creation story takes place over seven days, while the second takes place in one day, as well as the fact that the order of creation is different in each story) that the teaching of a seven day creation was not the intention of the author.

However, someone who believed that Jesus really walked on water would be grasping the literal meaning of the text, what the author intended to teach. The healings, exorcisms and miracles of Jesus are affirmed by the Church as historical events (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 547-50).

By the Project’s understanding of “literal”, I, Pope Francis, a creationist, and a snake handler from the Appalachians would all be literalists.

Second, a Catholic who accepts that God is transcendent is one who thinks that contact with God can never occur directly, but must always be mediated through symbols. God is “Other”, the radically different one, whom we can relate to only through symbolic representation. One relates to God through interpreting a sign that refers to God. The Project has an extreme aversion to immanence. God is always “there”. He can never be “here”.

How the Project can present this as the best way of being Catholic in the face of our faith that, through the Incarnation, Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us; that it is no longer we that live but Christ that lives in us; that we are members of Christ’s body, the Church; that we are partakers of the divine nature; that our lives are now hidden with Christ in God; that those who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit have had the love of God poured into their hearts and are now temples of that same Spirit; that the Father and the Son also abide in us, is the great conundrum. The truth is that the transcendence barrier has been broken down by Christ. In Christ, God is now immanent and, in Christ, we are now transcendent.

Third, like “literal”, the Project recognises only one meaning of “symbolic”. Catholic symbols communicate meaning but no more. One’s understanding of God is mediated through “traditional Catholic objects and practices such as crucifixes, Bibles and Scripture quotations, statues and artwork, the school chapel, prayer tables, celebrations, posters, icons, candles” [Sharkey]. The Project is not adverse to symbols. Liturgical celebrations may abound. However, these symbols will not be understood as mediating presence, since, for the Project, God can never be Emmanuel. This means that a Project-enhanced school may appear to be very Catholic, but it may well be like looking at plywood scenery in a play.

The truth is that Catholics use three kinds of symbols. The first kind communicate meaning, for example, the procession of the Gospel at the beginning of the Eucharist in order to remind us that Christ is coming into our midst. The second we call sacramentals, whereby material things, like water, communicate the real blessing of God the Father, “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). An example would be blessing oneself with holy water when one enters or leaves a church. The third we call sacraments, which communicate the presence of God. In Baptism, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit come to dwell in us, and we dwell in them. In the Eucharist, we receive the presence of the Son of God in the fullness of his divinity and his humanity. As St Augustine said, this food is unlike any other. When we eat any other food, it becomes a part of us, but when we eat this food, we become a part of it, the Body of Christ.

The final concept is that of “interpretation”. According to the Project, only Catholics who have a post-critical belief are able to engage in interpretation. The symbols which communicate meaning about God from the other side of the transcendence barrier must be interpreted, for they are mythological and religious, as opposed to historical and secular. So, the Bible never means what it seems to be saying to literal-minded believers, for example, that Jesus literally walked on water. Rather, the post-critical believer is aware that this story is an attempt to stress the special divine nature of Jesus Christ in the mythological and religious terms of the original audience’s historical context.

Furthermore, this task of interpretation is never finished, since we remain locked into our historical context. We are trapped in our immanence. When our context changes, we must re-contextualise. The meaning communicated by our symbols keeps changing. In a way, we are like the prisoners chained up in Plato’s cave, who can only see flickering shadows of divine reality on the wall of the cave, with two exceptions – the shadows keep changing, and, in this life, we can never crawl out of the cave into the transcendent light of the sun.

The truth is that everyone is engaged in interpretation. You have been engaged in interpretation in reading this article. If you come across a term which you cannot interpret, you dust off your dictionary or google it. Spiritually, because we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths in the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 2:13).

Nor do we need to engage in a continual reinterpretation, although with the mind of Christ that we now possess must continually strive to deepen our understanding of the mystery of Christ which was hidden in God from all time, but which has now been revealed. Since Christ is in us and we are in Christ, he is not trapped in his history 2,000 years ago, and we are not trapped in ours.

Because we are in Emmanuel, we have transcended mere history. God has raised us up with Christ “and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6). We can encounter Christ “face to face” in real prayer and sacraments, in Sacred Scripture, in the priest who is in persona Christi (acting in the person of Christ), in our brothers and sisters in Christ, and in every human person, to whom we can minster what St Teresa of Calcutta called the Gospel on five fingers – you did it to me.

We need to enhance the identity of our Catholic schools in the face of pluralism and secularism. We cannot do it by hitting the reset button marked 10th October 1962 – sending those schools back in time to the day before the Second Vatican Council began. Nor will it be done by giving a preferential option to a hollowed-out Catholicism which will inspire neither love nor hatred in those to whom it is presented.

In order to truly enhance the Catholic identity of our schools, we need in them teachers, auxiliary staff, and students who fulfil Pope Francis’ desire for spirit-filled evangelisers, ones who are full of “fervour, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction” (Evangelii Gaudium, 261), people who are eager to enter into an evangelical dialogue with others (Evangelii Gaudium, 127-128). We need birds of paradise, not chameleon Catholics.

Emphasis added.