Perhaps Chenu’s most powerful text in this regard was published in January 1965, when the council was still in full swing. Addressing the conundrum of how to recognize the signs of the times in concrete historical events, Chenu wrote:

The storming of the Bastille in 1789 was, as the deed of a few Parisian insurgents, a fact of preciously little importance; such actions have occurred at countless times throughout history. Yet it was and became so significant that it could serve as a symbol for revolutionary disturbances, with many reverberations around the world, for the better part of a century. [... ] What matters, then, is not so much to determine with much erudition how a specific event in the past occurred in all its details. We must instead strive to discover the hidden force within such an event, that element which constituted its soul [... ] The directly tangible content of such an event—however important it may have been—is no longer the most crucial aspect, but the way in which it allowed the awakening of minds, capturing the energies and the hopes of human beings. [... ] History consists indeed not so much out of a sequence of intricately related events, but instead out of collective, yes indeed, massive leaps forward by human beings, leading to qualitatively new levels of consciousness, a reorientation by means of which humanity suddenly steps into mental spaces of whose existence it had, for the longest time, not the faintest idea.[1]

Chenu here describes the process of human history as marked by a number of sudden leaps forward rather than a never-ending stream of countless individual tiny actions, all equally valid and of similar importance. It is a dynamic view of history, which has parallels in the writing of social scientists and even scientists tout court, not the least of which is a certain intellectual proximity to the Marxist view of history which pinpoints revolutions as ‘locomotives of history’.[2]

In an earlier work I have drawn attention to Chenu’s recognition of such a moment of rapid change in the socio-political conjuncture at the very end of World War II when he suddenly realized ‘that liberation would not only bring about the military expulsion of the enemy but, on a much more profound level, the joyful and triumphant explosion of a social and political aspiration in existence for some time’; that ‘large numbers of hitherto amorphous human beings’ suddenly were becoming conscious ‘of their own power’, just as ‘we have witnessed in the demonstrations of 1936: this arrival of the masses at a consciousness of themselves’. ‘In this manner, the human being chained to the assembly line, dehumanized and proletarianized; in this hour [i.e. during the final assault on the last redoubts of Nazi occupation strongholds], when he practises hatred to the maximum extent, he will simultaneously discover what one may call his myth, his ideal goal, his secret enthusiasm, his massive energies: the sense of a brotherly community of human beings.’72

In mid-twentieth century, Marie-Dominique Chenu had placed his hopes in the liberatory potential of the most visible radical social agent at that time. The blue-collar working class then appeared to incorporate the signs of the times. Twenty years later, Chenu’s focus broadened, though the underlying concepts and categories remained identical: ‘The 1955 Bandung Conference was something entirely different from a mere encounter of representatives from underdeveloped countries. The emancipation of women in the contemporary world is more than an improvement in economic, psychological and cultural life conditions. The gathering at the Second Vatican Council was more than an assembly of 2,500 bishops for deliberations and common decisions.’73 Hope was now invested in such unforeseen movements and unpredicted developments. What had changed, however, were not only the precise agents of the desirable changes symbolized and indicated by the signs of the times. The eschatological dimension of such moments of crisis and opportunity was now stated far more explicitly than in Chenu’s earlier texts.

The true significance of the study of the signs of the times for Chenu was precisely the way in which such facts or actions prefigured the ultimate salvation of humanity and the world in the Kingdom to Come, the ultimate state of grace. ‘One must commence with the facts, “events” which determine the actual human condition and its profound mutations in order to

I have attempted to theorize the relevance of such crucial ‘moments of crisis and opportunity’ in modern history in my European Socialists Respond to Fascism. Ideology, Activism and Contingency in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 11-12 and 157-66, with some empirical studies of recent moments of transition showcased in Gerd-Rainer Horn and Padraic Kenney (eds), Transnational Moments of Change. Europe 1945, 1968, 1989 (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).

  • 72 All citations taken from my Western European Liberation Theology, pp. 108-9, punctuation and translation slightly amended.
  • 73 Chenu, ‘Reflexion theologique’, p. 210.

recognize the implicit resource of the capacity of grace’;[3] ‘the process of considering and identifying the signs of the times is part and parcel of the intelligence of belief, which grasps the mystery in its making and its historical realities in the past, present and future’;[4] or, as Chenu put it elsewhere in the same article: ‘It is therefore the “movements of history” which are the field of dialogue between the church and the world.’[5] ‘The encounter with the world is an evangelical operation, which renders the church unto itself, according to the rules of incarnation of the word of God. God is immersing himself within history.’[6] The phenomena of the present obtain their true significance as signs of the times precisely ‘because of the leap they introduce, not without ruptures, in the continuity of human history’.[7]

Similar to Congar, Chenu now became firmly convinced that the anticipation of the ultimate state of grace can only be grasped by means of concrete engagements in temporal reality, in the here and now. Salvation and human liberation are thus two sides of the identical coin for Chenu as much as for Congar. Earthly pursuits and millennial goals are intimately and indissolubly interlinked. ‘The same distinction and the same unity’, argues Chenu, ‘can be seen in the hopes of human beings. There exist, to be sure, analytically speaking, two kinds of hope: temporal hope, so often praised and so fascinating, and Christian hope, all too often discussed and then forgotten.’ Chenu then comes to the point by stressing that ‘these two hopes do not only stand in no opposition to each other but they are linked to each other. Terrestrial hope appeals to the other, Christian hope nourishes the former: giving a sense of purpose to human beings, fighting against hunger in the world, installing justice, fraternity and peace, promoting the orderly and peaceful unification of nations, etc. [... ] Human history is henceforth saintly history in the course of fulfilling its messianic promises. For that juncture between creation and redemption, within a unique history, has a name, a specific name, within Scripture and the Judeo-Christian tradition: it is messianism.’[8]

Christian Bauer, in his important two-volume study of the theology of Marie-Dominique Chenu, summarizes his findings in the following precise fashion: ‘The messianic dimension is the decisive element of Chenu’s theology. [... ] The messianic dimension heads the entire theology of Chenu just like a mathematical “sign”.’[9] My sole dispute with Bauer on this point regards the chronology of Chenu’s messianism. Though always implied and sometimes explicitly stated even in pre-Vatican II publications, the suddenly unfolding signs of the times in the course of the long sixties pushed Chenu further along a road he had already entered when he first ascribed redemptive powers to the working class within the social conflicts of the twentieth century. The awakening of the Third World, the unpredicted millennial flashpoint in the course of ‘global 1968’, and the inspiration and hopes unleashed by Vatican II made Chenu, not unlike Congar, a leading interpreter of the messianic message in the final decades of his life.

  • [1] Marie-Dominique Chenu, ‘Les Signes des temps’, in Marie-Dominique Chenu, Peuple deDieu dans le monde (Paris: Cerf, 1966), pp. 40-1. This contribution was a reprint of an articlefirst published in the pages of Nouvelle revue theologique in January 1965.
  • [2] Note Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of ChicagoPress, 1962), together with Niles Eldrege and Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibriain evolutionary biology, for influential statements emerging from the world of natural sciences.
  • [3] Chenu, ‘Reflexion theologique’, pp. 212-13.
  • [4] Chenu, ‘Reflexion theologique’, p. 213. 3 Chenu, ‘Reflexion theologique’, p. 215.
  • [5] 77 Chenu, ‘Reflexion theologique’, p. 219. 5 Chenu, ‘Les Signes des temps’, p. 42.
  • [6] 79 Marie-Dominique Chenu, ‘Une constitution pastorale de l’Eglise’, in Chenu, Peuple de
  • [7] Dieu, pp. 31-2; emphasis in the original.
  • [8] 80 Christian Bauer, Ortswechsel der Theologie. M.-Dominique Chenu im Kontext seiner Pro-grammschrift ‘Une ecole de theologie: Le Saulchoir’, Vol. II (Berlin: LIT, 2010), p. 774. Bauer’s
  • [9] magnum opus, over and above its detailed intellectual biography of Chenu up to 1942, the
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