Sensitive, sensuous, and sensual theological concepts

There was an interesting conversation today in which I participated. During a seminar yesterday, a discussion arose about the tension between the universality of the Roman Catholic Church and the particularlity of its local churches. The topic is a difficult one, particularly when some of us begin to use the word “autonomous” in this context. Personal and local backgrounds are so different – so contextual – that the meaning given to all these words becomes very loaded. For someone who lives in a place where Christians suffer persecutions making it difficult for them sometimes even to survive, the universality of the Church is crucial: it represents a life giving bloodline. For others, who do not suffer persecutions but the consequences of a faith that was brought to them through a history of colonization of which they feel the consequences in what they experience as the imposition of particular ecclesial or ecclesiastic cultures that do not correspond to their ways of living and doing, the situation is different. They feel the need to emphasize, not the universality of the Church (which they may view as the imposing of the ways of one particular, colonizing church) but the “autonomy” of their local church, which looks for its own ways and means to live and express its faith. That does not mean that they want to separate from the universal Church, but that they want to talk about the word “universal” when it takes shape in concrete contexts. Similarly, those who emphasize the universality of the Church will not want to deny that their own local church uses its own language, cultural expressions, historical references, and religious experiences, to faithfully articulate the universal faith and Church.

This indicates how sensitive such ecclesial concepts as “universality”, “local”, “particular”, and “autonomous”, are. Roman Catholics share a common faith and this “common” has embedded itself in ecclesial and ecclesiastical structures. This is a value in itself and in some contexts it becomes a necessity for survival, while in other contexts it remains in the background as a nearly unconscious dimension of our faith (we don’t really need to reflect about it). Some people live the experience that this “common” has sometimes expressed itself in forms of cultural oppression, so that the “common” has become an argument for power games and control. The question is, therefore, what the meaning and the content of this “common” is – an issue for fundamental theology and theologies of revelation. A supplementary aspect related to this is that, for Christians, the “common” has a universal dimension as it is meant “for all”, not only for the Christian. Here, the question arises how this sharing of what is common to some towards something that is common for all, should happen – one of the questions of mission. These are delicate questions, that deeply affect the lives of concrete people.

Such sensitive concepts sometimes divide us. We start quarreling about them, all the more so since they touch very personal and contextual experiences in which we experience close realities (persecution, cultural oppression, etc.). In that sense, these concepts could be called sensuous: they connect with our very concrete life conditions, they describe the material reality that is ours. This is where abstract theological concepts interact with our senses as their grip on concrete reality. It is important to understand this sensuous dimension of theological concepts: they are not floating above our lives, in a sphere that makes abstraction of our day to day material conditions. Nevertheless, they are not so close to reality that they cannot but target “this” or “that” reality, loosing their universal reference, as they indicate situations that pertain to experiences of every human being, be these rooted in very different context. Particular and universal connect here in a very creative way. For those who really like to go into the historical theological discussions: is this not what was at stake in Nominalism? Umbero Eco’s In the Name of the Rose, provides us a good insight in this.

Our most particular and sensuous experiences – where we connect concretely with reality through our senses that are not the senses of someone else – are, therefore, also very universal and we are invited to share them with others. There where we are most different from one another, we find the challenge to become close to one another precisely in discovering that “my” experiences are also “our” experiences, that “my” experiences are a gift to “us” all … as the experiences of someone else are also a gift to me. Our differences bring us together and allow us to discover, to descry, what is really at stake in the depths of our lives: the “common” arises when the sensitive concepts with their sensuous roots are shared, put in common, in a game of constructive difference … Paradoxically, the concepts of commonness in the human-divine Jesus-Christ or in the Trinity, may be of great help here – as also the deep human experiences of intimacy between human beings: friendship, marriage.

This is where I would like to use the word sensual: we allow our sensitive theological concepts, which reflect our sensuous reality, to connect sensually, bringing us to profound life together, to the “common”ness of the Kingdom of God. Part of the theologian’s task is, then, to allow the sensuous differences in sensitive theological concepts to arise as a sensual wealth, that helps us all to discern the depth of our faith, and in that the marvellous and unexpected ways in which God reveals Godself. Although we are vulnerable and may feel threatened by the way others (in other contexts) use our theological concepts and ideas, we are called to view and receive the experience of these others as a very dear gift in a very sensual process (in which we lovingly feel and reach out to the presence of God in one another), so as to discover the richness of God’s presence in our most sensitive theological concepts.

I hope and pray every day that we find the means to bring about this sensual and sensitive converations, in which we do not need to fear one another’s sensuous roots.


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