Suffering for others in the theology of Edward Schillebeeckx

Elizabeth Kennedy Tillar, Fordham University


Edward Schillebeeckx has consolidated the theoretical and practical dimensions of the Christian approach to human suffering in his theology of suffering for others. His concept of beneficial suffering is defined in a two-fold way: (1) compassionate, inter-subjective service to individuals and (2) a critical orientation to unjust socio-political structures that dehumanize or oppress people. Suffering for others can take several forms, which are not perceived as exclusive of each other: suffering vicariously, instead of others; suffering with others for their benefit; and expiatory self-sacrifice. In Schillebeeckx's theology, suffering in any form is redemptive when it is unmitigated self-surrender through and for others in unwavering communion with God. Schillebeeckx also perceives mystical communion as redemptive, especially the suffering of the via negativa, or paradoxical experience of perduring faith in God's presence mediated by the negativity of God's absence. The two kinds of redemptive suffering are related in Schillebeeckx's theology in the following way. Both suffering for others and the mystical, apophatic experience of God provide access to knowledge needed to alleviate suffering. In Schillebeeckx's view, ethical consciousness is not simply a value transmitted by tradition and honed through discipline. Human beings are endowed with the capacity for contemplative knowledge and redemptive activity through a personal encounter with transcendent reality, or grace. Moreover, ethical praxis necessarily occurs within social structures, which constitute the historical medium in which grace is made manifest. This dissertation encompasses Schillebeeckx's concern with both the theoretical and practical, or symbolic and ethical, aspects of the Judeo-Christian traditions in his theology of suffering for others. Although the theme of redemptive suffering is not presented systematically in the body of Schillebeeckx's work, its various elements and sources can be gleaned from his later writings, especially those published during the 1970s and 1980s. His conception of suffering for others is anchored in the social critical theory of the Frankfurt School and a historical reconstruction of Jesus and the early church, specifically: (1) Theodor Adorno's “negative dialectics” and Argen Habermas's unification of theory and praxis; and (2) images of selfless service or redemptive suffering in eschatological Jewish and Christian texts correlated with critical concepts derived from interpretations of Jesus' identity in primitive Christianity and from social critical theory. Together with critical theory, the images and concepts shape the contours of Schillebeeckx's theological-ethical praxis.

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Recommended Citation

Tillar, Elizabeth Kennedy, "Suffering for others in the theology of Edward Schillebeeckx" (2000). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9955973.