Who is God and What is Faith according to Pollefeyt and Bouwens?
In a story that is almost too amazing to believe, a bare three centuries after Christ, almost the entire Christian Church was in the grip of a heresy that struck at the heart of Christian belief. It was an insidious ideology because it was not a frontal assault on our belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God – but rather claimed that He is not God.
Under the misguided leadership of Arius (c. AD 250–336), a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, the heresy of Arianism engulfed most of the Christian Church. Essentially it taught that Jesus deserves homage and respect because He is the Son of God – but is not God himself. Historically, at the root of the heresy of Arianism is the denial that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man.
Of recent times, Arian influences can be seen in the writings of many theologians. Popular speakers and authors often stress only the humanity of Jesus whilst downplaying his divinity. Popular culture often portrays Jesus as the ultimate good guy. Many Catholic authors continue to read the Gospels from this distorted point of view: that he was a prophet; that he was a social reformer who stood against exploitation, that he criticised the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders, that he preached peace, love and joy exclusively etc. All of these notions are part of the truth about Jesus but they avoid the singular reality of the transcendence of God – that whilst Jesus was a deeply good man, he was also fully God – transcendent, all-knowing, supernatural, omnipotent and the author and supreme judge of all Creation. That’s what makes the good guy view of Jesus essentially a crypto-Arian notion.
We also shall see that it is more than the transcendence of Christ that is called into question by Professor Didier Pollefeyt and Jan Bouwens, members of the Faculty of Theology at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Why is their thinking so important? There is one compelling reason to be concerned about their ideology; they lead a multi-million dollar project that claims to enhance Catholic identity in entire Catholic education systems in Victoria, Queensland and elsewhere in Australia – and they openly profess crypto-Arian views and worse.
What is meant by crypto-Arianism? The word crypto comes from the Greek word kruptos, which means secret, hidden, or concealed. So a crypto-Arian ideology expresses a hidden, concealed form of Arianism. No one actually comes out and says directly that Jesus isn’t God – rather, they speak and act out of an unspoken, hidden, conviction that Jesus is no more than a good man.
In their widely-distributed paper: Framing the identity of Catholic schools: empirical methodology for quantitative research on the Catholic identity of an education institute (2010), Pollefeyt and Bouwens call all Catholic teachers, parents and students to accept what they call Post-critical belief. In doing so they expose its crypto-Arian errors, and more, for everyone to see.
They claim that post-critical Belief is not literal faith, but only a “symbolic affirmation of faith contents.” Pollefeyt and Bouwens claim that there is a transcendent God but, “he is not considered literally present but is represented symbolically.” So Jesus is not even a person, but, according to them: “is the radical ‘other’ to whom we relate through a symbolical representation, through the interpretation of a sign that refers to the transcendent.”
So, in a document of nearly nine-thousand words about Catholic identity and faith how often are the words “Jesus” or “Christ” mentioned? Only once each, and on this one, singular occasion Jesus Christ is certainly not described as the God made man!
But, perhaps my suggestion that the Leuven academics have crypto-Arian views is unfair. Let’s look at what the authors say about faith in the transcendent – the God who exceeds everything we can image – who is wholly independent of the material universe. They say: “People relate to the transcendent reality through mediations only: through stories, rituals, traditions, institutions, churches, ministries, communities, social organisations, and so forth. Faith is acquired through the active, creative, and interpretative handling of these mediations.” They go on to tell us that belief and non-belief can somehow co-exist and be called faith. They say: “The term ‘post-critical faith’ refers to a well-considered faith in God despite critical reasons not to believe.”
The “God” that Pollefeyt and Bouwens and talk about doesn’t sound like the Christian understanding of a divine person who became a man like us to spend Himself utterly in sacrifice for us. To the Leuven academics, God can only be accessed through mediations – even if we do have critical reasons not to believe in Him. This speaks of something more than crypto-Arianism. It’s starting to sound like patent unbelief.
Have these academics made a theological departure from Christian faith? They say that to believe is an ever-recycling process with unpredictable outcomes – a never-ending re-interpretation of symbols, layers and significance – without any hope of certainty at the end. This is a far cry from the Christian faith (understood as a growth in faith toward the God who reveals Himself) because, for the Leuven theorists faith is no more than “… a continuous process of symbol-interpretation; the revelation of new layers of significance in the symbolic relationship with God.”
In a disturbingly sad corollary, the authors assert, “Post-critical faith is a continuous ‘searching for’ religious significance and meaning without ever finding a final, absolute, established, and certain answer.” Clearly, according to the Leuven reasoning above, God cannot be the answer that they are searching for. So, are we now reached the point of wondering whether the Leuven academics can conceive that there exists a God who calls us to life with Him, who gave His Son to us as sacrifice, promise and fulfilment, who pours out the abundant graces of the Holy Spirit on us?
Again and again Pollefeyt and Bouwens ask us to understand the profoundly moving pathos of the way the preferred Leuven-model of so-called faith is lived out: “They feel called to question constantly the religious contents and personal convictions from which they live. They are prepared for reinterpretation, are open to change, and are receptive of complex faith questions that feed the hermeneutical process.”
The Leuven world is a world utterly devoid of certainty. In Pollefeyt and Bouwens’ own words, the Leuven God is aloof, distant, inaccessible and seemingly irrelevant because he presents no final or certain answer. The best we can hope for, according to this mournful theology, is a “symbolic relationship with God.” Any notion of Jesus Christ as a real and approachable person – long understood to be a foundational bulwark of Catholic belief – is completely absent from the dismal Leuven world-view.
Sadly, the Leuven project seems beleaguered by far worse than mere crypto-Arian defects. In Leuven’s forlorn and bleak landscape there is no room for the untrammelled joy of a Resurrected Jesus if there is the prospect of no more than a symbolic relationship with God. A relationship that it based on symbols rather than interpersonal communication is not a human relationship at all. It predicts a desolate future devoid of faith.
No wonder, having argued that belief and non-belief can co-exist in their pathetic and dismal version of Christianity, they conclude with the dreadful realisation: “Symbolic believers live with the existential tension between uncertainty and trust.” Is that what we want our schools to give to children who struggle with their faith in a hostile culture that de-values everything that Catholicism holds to be true?
The Leuven academics are telling this empty message to the many thousands of Catholic school teachers and the hundreds of thousands of students that they influence: God does not present the final answer to their needs and aspirations.
Here’s the proof of a barren future for anyone exposed to Leuven’s propaganda. Pollefeyt and Bouwens say: “Based on theological arguments and on empirical research results, we defend that a symbolic style of faith is the most fruitful for the development of the identity of Catholic schools in a pluralising society, today and tomorrow.”
How could anyone possibly believe that this depressing ideology – this “existential tension between uncertainty and trust” – could ever be good for the faith of vulnerable Catholic students?