Teresa Hieslmayr OP
According to the Fundamental Constitutions of our Order, the aim of our entire Dominican existence is the “salvation of souls” or, in other words, “life to the full” for all people (John 10:10). Dominican study, therefore, has to be directed towards the salvation of people. For Dominican theologians, this means that, in their work, they are always at the “service of life” (M.-D. Chenu), extending far beyond the borders of the Church. The frame of reference for what the term “salvation of souls” means is Holy Scripture, the unalterable foundation of all theology. As Dominicans, we have an additional reference point, not only in the history of theology as a whole but, in particular, in our 800 year history as an Order, during which Sisters and Brothers at varying times succeeded, to a greater or lesser extent, in achieving this aim in their concrete circumstances.
It follows that a central aim of Dominican theology is to identify and pinpoint current states and experiences of salvation, and to interpret them in the light of faith. This should be a relatively easy task in a country like Austria which, by international standards, is among those with the highest quality of life. Not alone material wealth, but also the natural and cultural treasures, the human rights situation etc., can be counted as “structures of salvation” and made fruitful for proclaiming the Gospel. Such a theology could also have a healing effect when one considers that the subjective state of mind of the population is surprisingly negative given their objective quality of life.
A second theological task is to sense evil in all its forms, to name it, to reflect on its causes and, not least, to develop perspectives pointing towards the fullness of life. It is not enough to criticise injustice. As followers of St Dominic, we are called to be “prophets of hope” (M. Díez).
Faced with the infinite complexities of life, we would be well advised to take as our starting point that which is closest to us and to consider life and death where we are. Due to our global interconnectedness, this local perspective will, in any case, carry us out into the wider world. In addition, the complexity of many issues requires an academic foundation to our theology. The diversification and increasing specialisation of sciences and the humanities positively calls for interdisciplinary collaboration. In this, the task of theologians is not to lecture quasi ex cathedra but, from a place of genuine interest and on an equal footing, to search for life-promoting approaches together with experts from other disciplines.
Theologians who work and speak in such a way will, as a result, become important players in the social discourse. Asked or otherwise, and despite all taboos, they will bring the Gospel and Christian faith as a deciding factor to politics, economics, medicine etc. – in short, to all areas of human life. Theology can thus become a performative power which in “the following of Jesus penetrates deeply into the course of human history” (G. Gutiérrez).
True to the model of the founder of our Order, Dominicans will give preference to the dialogical, above all to the verbal word, rather than the monological word, particularly the written one. The credibility given to us as theologians depends considerably on how we are perceived as people. Is there a noticeable commitment to the world and a passion for faith and the Order? Have we embodied and enacted that to which our theology has led us in our thinking? In our words and deeds, do we show ourselves to be Gospel people like Dominic? One thing is clear: only the word from the heart can reach the soul of the other in a healing way.
An ongoing obstacle in this dialogue is our technical language which is often perceived as antiquated and obscure. Since, as theologians, we draw to a great extent on historical sources that use the language of their era, this remains a challenge to be faced. As F. Betto puts it, it is impossible to make oneself understood today if speaking a language of a past world. This is particularly true for a non-biblical vocabulary that developed over centuries and never with the intention of being perpetually valid. Neither are we concerned with creating an eternally valid theology, but rather with making faith communicable today, by searching, in dialogue with others, for words that express our message of salvation in an understandable and impressive way.
Certainly, such an approach needs the courage to experiment and the audacity to make mistakes or to fail in the process. This not only risks drawing criticism on oneself. We expose ourselves to the world with what is sacred to us. We do so in humble awareness of the limitations of ourselves and of our theology, but equally aware of the absoluteness of the sacred of which we speak. This is an ambitious task. Dominican spirituality calls us to keep contemplation and ministry in a harmonious balance, not for the fulfillment of this task but to allow us to persevere in it. Carried by the community of Sisters and Brothers, a unique energy springs from prayer which can be a saving and healing power, not only for us but for all for whom we work.
From the German by Eileen O’Connell OP and Sabine Schratz OP, both Dublin (Ireland)