Theology at the Crossroads of University, Church and Society

Dialogue, Difference and Catholic Identity

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Lieven Boeve
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , August
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Despite writing within the Dutch context, Lieven Boeve has provided a comprehensive grasp of the situation of Christian theology in the world today for international readers. The European experience often gives us a preview of what will happen in other parts of the world in terms of developments in theology. Boeve situates his book in what he refers to as the post-secular and post-Christian period while diligently digging into theology’s historical, cultural, and philosophical roots, and reflecting on its relevance to higher education, society, and the Catholic church. Given the current world context, Boeve argues that Catholic theology has been pushed to the margins, and is now at a significant crossroad in history.

He points out that the post-secular, post-Christian is marked first by detraditionalization ,which does not all imply a removal of traditions but a changed relationship with traditions; second, by individualization that emphasizes the individual’s preference as the norm; and third, by pluralization that demands that alternative philosophical and religious positions are legitimate answers and not merely counter-reactions. Given the situation that Christianity is just one among many traditions, preferences, and answers to the quest for meaning, this challenges Christians to assert with competence their life choices and faith convictions. Boeve believes that theology must learn to think dialogically within this context of difference. The Christian open narrative proposes a God at the margins that interrupts and critiques to make a difference in the world.

Boeve’s central thesis is that theology and Christianity must assert its identity and not merely adjust to the post-secular and post-Christian context. He gives two crucial situations where theology and Christianity are being pushed to the margins. Among theologians, he sees the retreat to gentle spirituality rather than assertive theology as a missed opportunity in proclaiming a Catholic alternative in a pluralistic world. For Boeve, this is the best time to help people make an intelligent preference for reframing Christian theology in post-secular language without withdrawing from the discourse or deviating from orthodoxy. The Catholic university setting is another case in point, with its continuing debate on the replacement of theology with religious studies. Belgium’s highly secularized culture could not anymore relate to the sacraments and the catechism. Since the 1970s, the country’s Catholic education has in fact redefined itself in terms of Christian values education. This situation ended with a win-win proposal whereby confessional religious education and non-confessional religious studies would both be offered. This solution satisfies state requirements and enables graduates from both types of religious studies to face a pluralistic world. Boeve admits, however, that the orthodox group is truly just a minority.

As a final reflection, Boeve’s musings on and critique of Pope Benedict’s resignation offer an insightful look into the life of the Church at the margins. This marginalization, however, is its own doing. Ratzinger’s theological framework has largely been neo-platonic and has continually relied on the Augustinian idea that the heavenly world is the perfection of our earthly world. This framework, as Boeve argues, resulted in cognitive dissonance—a situation where the mind and emotions adjust to an unpleasant and unexpected reality. Pope Benedict has overemphasized discipline and conversion arguing that it is the members that need metanoia and not the Church. But the more he exacted discipline and orthodoxy, the more its members got embroiled in scandals. His training and character could not adapt to the situation, which led to his resignation, citing his declining health. The election of Pope Francis has certainly signaled a unique era that affirms that the Church is composed of people struggling to follow the Gospel. This new pope began his ministry by admitting his weaknesses. His papal ministry is now characterized by vulnerability, humility, compassion, and a desire to listen to the broader church community. As I see it, Pope Francis can speak the post-secular, post-Christian language.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James Laxa is Director of the Lasallian Pastoral Office at De La Salle University-Manilla, the Philippines.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lieven Boeve is professor of fundamental theology at the taculty of theology and religious studies, KU Leuven, Belgium. As of August 1, 2014, he has been appointed the Director-General of the general office of Catholic Education in Flanders (Fundamental Theology). His research concerns theological epistemology, philosophical theology, truth in faith and theology, tradition development and hermeneutics. From 2005 till 2009 he served as president of the European Society for Catholic Theology.


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