Visionary and Richly Satisfying

Christian Sacraments in a Postmodern Worldby Kenan B. Osborne, O.F.M.Paulist Press. 249p $18.95 paperback original

Kenan Osborne, O.F.M., professor emeritus at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, brings impressive credentials and an enviable reputation to the task he sets himself in this volume. The task is worthy of the man: a complete reworking of sacramental theology so as to open it up to new lines of reflection compatible with a postmodern hermeneutic. Moreover, he achieves his task in what is, given the project, an amazingly slender volume: the text itself covers 198 pages, and there are 42 pages of notes.

His first step, undertaken in the first two chapters, is to organize the present directions of the field. Chapter One, The Twentieth-Century Legacy of Sacramental Revolution, considers a variety of recent movementssocial, philosophical and theologicaland explores their implications for further development. Here we find precise, judicious evaluations of such diverse challenges as the changing role of the laity in the Catholic Church, the explosion of philosophical theories, liberation theology, and the extensive research done into the history of the sacraments, to name only a few of the themes considered. Chapter Two, Methodology and the Point of Departure, analyzes six possible points of departure for a new direction in sacramental theology. Osborne scrutinizes each of these to determine whether it is epiphenomenal and/or onto-theological, characteristics judged inadequate by postmodern hermeneutics. By epiphenomenal Osborne means the tendency to see the sacraments as extrinsic and linked to the human situation only by an accidental connection. By onto-theological, Osborne understands a theological perspective that considers religious realities as objective realities outside of the concrete human situation, rather than historically and relationally conditioned elements within the human condition itself.


Osborne illuminates the effects of contemporary globalization on theology and the questioning of Western hegemony that has resulted. He notes the growing theological conviction that God’s saving action cannot be limited to specific religious traditions and ecclesial communities. This leads him to challenge the hermeneutical ease with which Christian theologians have used the language of sacrament and sacramentality, and their assumption that sacraments exist in a normative objective order that can be invoked to judge particular cases. Osborne’s careful explanation of the uniqueness of each and every baptism or eucharist undercuts such ease. Further, such hermeneutic discourse assumes that the subject-object epistemology on which it depends is universal, whereas, Osborne points out, it is regionally limited and significantly eroded even in the Western world where it once held sway.

It is, therefore, from the epistemological critique of postmodern thought that Osborne considers three major themes (or points of departure, to use his words) of contemporary sacramental theology: the world as sacrament, Jesus as the primordial sacrament and the church as foundational sacrament. These themes are the burden of Chapters Three, Four and Five. He then sets out the foundation for a future sacramental theology consistent with postmodern hermeneutics (Chapter Six) and, as a kind of epilogue, suggests how this hermeneutic might be applied to solemn church teachings (Chapter Seven).

Osborne’s goal is reconstruction, not merely critique. For each of these themes and topics, Osborne moves carefully and creatively to reveal the challengeschallenges that come not only from postmodern thought (and the intellectual elite who pursue it), but also from the global and cultural diversity within which the Christian tradition finds itself. For instance, in regard to the theme of the church as a foundational sacrament, a popular and influential notion since the Second Vatican Council, Osborne suggests that the [believer] in God and in revelation must first understand the world itself as a possible sacrament, that is, as the place where God enacts the divine purpose to save all people. Then the believer can begin to see that the church is a sacrament only because God is present there, revealing God’s own self to those who assemble, in all their concreteness and intersubjectivity, in response to the prior act of a revealing God. The universality of the church comes from God’s universal saving love and presence, not from any absolute claims made by a finite church.

The names of thinkers collected in the Index of Authors at the end of the book summarize the wealth Osborne has culled equally from the tradition and from contemporary thought. Bonaventure and Aquinas are in conversation with Karl Rahner and Regis Duffy; all are engaged in important dialogue with Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Ricoeur. Serious and careful attention is given to major church documents, especially the sacramental sections of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly, the reader who has some acquaintance with the major authors, especially with those who represent postmodern epistemology, will make their way with greater ease through this deceptively slender book. But Osborne is both judicious and clear in his use of resources; the careful reader will understand what he draws from each. His patent pastoral concernthat sacramental theology be renewed so that it can be meaningful in a radically new contextmakes any effort involved more than worthwhile.

Osborne’s book is like good pain de campagne from rural France: bread made from many rich whole grains, dense and weighty, but baked into a loaf more complete than the sum of its parts. For those who are willing to chew it slowly and thoroughly, this book is profoundly nourishing, almost a meal in itself.

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