Continuities And Disturbances

A theologian of the turn of the century being reincarnated in the West (certainly the British part of it) of the present decade would find a good deal of congeniality. Much that has caused controversy in the past twenty years has represented intellectual values and approaches highly reminiscent of both the idealistically-based theology characteristic of much Anglicanism, and of Liberal Protestantism, of that earlier generation. In the writings of Maurice Wiles, for example, one sees a concern to do justice to a notion of God as ultimate reality relating to the world in a loving way—but whose 'actions' can be spoken of only as symbols and parables of his purpose. The cross of Jesus is the supreme parable of a loving, living God engaged with evil. Wiles, like many of his contemporaries, prefers the language of 'spirit' in reference to God, conveying as it does the nature of a quasi-personal reality existing only in relation to others. Wiles articulates the concern of many of his generation in stating the conception of God which he is attempting to articulate:

[It] must be a profoundly personal concept, yet one that bursts the bounds of what it is to be an individual person as we know that in our finite human experience. And secondly it is God in relation to us with which we have to do, for any knowledge of God that we have is so inextricably bound up with our particular experience of him that what we say about him can never be wholly separated out from the limiting and distorting prism of that contingent experience.

(Wiles 1982:120)

So too there is a re-routing of historical theology, behind the heavily incarnational, dogmatic formulae of the ecumenical councils, to 'Jesus as he was' in his first-century Palestinian context, as found for example in the essays in The Myth of God Incarnate (Hick 1977). The argument of John Hick, for instance, that what was primary in the first Christian community was an overwhelming experience of acceptance by God in Jesus, which later found expression in credal formulae, is strongly reminiscent of Harnack's view of early Christian history, as a steady decline from the religious consciousness of Jesus himself, and those of his first disciples, into Hellenizing, Catholic orthodoxy. Both views are based on a certain historical presupposition.

No less striking is the very close affinity between the views of John Hick in his study God and the Universe of Faiths (1973) and the thought of Ernst Troeltsch. For both, religion is a universal phenomenon. For both, God alone is the absolute to which the historical religions all point and of which they have apprehended some truth. No one religion can claim to be the centre, any more than any one planet can claim to be the hub of the solar system. Hick, one might say, has continued Troeltsch's thought into the contemporary context where the need for a full recognition of the multi-faith nature of the world has become urgent and unavoidable.

In the case of the English theologian who has excited most controversy since 1980, Don Cupitt, the debt to the nineteenth century is overtly paid at many key points. Cupitt's rejection of 'realist' or 'objective' theism, in deference to a view of all God-language as symbolic and unifying of our own spiritual and moral ideals, is explicitly based on a reading of the post-Kantian situation, reinforced by such as Kierkegaard and Feuerbach, which denies the possibility of any knowledge of transcendence beyond our human subjectivity. Here is the logical end of subjective idealism: God is 'only human'.

On the other hand, by the same token, religious language and symbolism are being taken much more seriously by contemporary theology than was the case during the period, roughly speaking the 1960s, when secularization was the dominant theme. Based on a certain reading of Bonhoeffer's prison writings, particularly his emphasis on human autonomy or the 'coming of age'

of the world, together with the sociological approach of such theologians as Harvey Cox in the United States and A.T.van Leeuwen on the Continent, 'secular theology' (often aided by the demythologizing programme set in motion by Rudolf Bultmann) saw a need for a stripping away of traditional symbolism and metaphor from Christian belief if the Gospel was to be reappropriated by contemporary Western society. Paul van Buren's The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (1963) attempted to translate the Gospel entirely into a matter of the contagiousness of Jesus' life-for-others existence, on the grounds that such a translation accorded far more with contemporary empiricist understanding of reality. For secular theology, in order to preserve the reality of faith the language had to be drastically changed. By contrast, for much contemporary radical theology the reality lies precisely in the language— symbolically and metaphorically understood. Liturgy is less in need of modernizing, indeed, it may perform far less well its function of integrating and motivating life for spiritual values if it is denuded of mystery and symbolism. Does this mean that the secularization thesis was wrong, both as a description of what was happening in Western (and Western-dominated) society, and as a prescription for the biblical message for today? Certainly it is clear that 'religion' as a phenomenon is far from over, not only in the societies where radical Islam and other Eastern faiths are reasserting themselves, but also in the Western world where highly conservative and even fundamentalist forms of Christianity are increasingly powerful. In an important sense, however, at least one aspect of the secularization thesis—as far as Western society is concerned—is in fact borne out by these developments. This is, that no one religious authority now dominates society. Society is increasingly autonomous and self-directing. Or perhaps one should say that now there are increasingly autonomous societies within any one 'society', each pursuing a self-chosen life-style and set of values. The freedom of secularity includes among its options the freedom to be 'religious', which in turn can take a very conservative (that is, self-enclosed) form, especially given the appeal that such versions may have for people in an age of uncertainty, looking for strong, authoritarian leadership and clear sets of rules for daily living. Or, that freedom may be expressed in those who choose a religious and liturgical life with which to identify, not as denoting 'objective reality' but because it does indeed, in Cupitt's sense, provide them with a framework of unity, community and spiritual aspiration, a meaning that can be found nowhere else.

We may therefore once again cite Maurice Wiles as speaking for a whole generation of contemporary theology, as well as furthering his own particular argument for wishing to speak of God as spirit, when he writes:

On the religious side the image needs supplementing by other symbols and images.

The primary advantage that I have been claiming for the image of God is its fruitfulness as a co-ordinating concept at a comparatively formal level of understanding. It is...not without value in terms of material content for the articulation of faith also. But other images which are less comprehensive in the range of their application may prove to have a far richer imaginative content for the furtherance of the life of faith.

(Wiles 1982:125)

This conveys well what is essentially a pragmatic approach to the assessment of theological languages: their utility and fruitfulness 'for the furtherance of the life of faith'. It is this perception of the purpose of theology by contemporary liberal or radical theologians which sets them apart from conservatives and traditionalists, quite as much as any disagreements over the 'content' of belief.

One factor in the contemporary theological interest in the nature of the language of faith, has been the impact—if uneven—of the neo-orthodox theology associated particularly with Karl Earth and Emil Brunner in the mid-century, which if nothing else raised acutely the whole question of how, if at all, human language may speak about the transcendent God. That theology, in reaction to the dominant liberal trends preceding the First World War, manifested a determination to reassert the distinctiveness of the Christian tradition of revelation in Scripture, as interpreted in the classic creeds, while at the same time recognizing that if God is indeed 'wholly other' even in his self-revelation to humankind, a sheer reiteration of that tradition is inadequate. God is more than the words we use about God. A further factor in the contemporary theological scene is therefore a continuing attention to the Christian doctrinal tradition—as material to be interpreted for the present. Vital here has also been the continuing impact of the Second Vatican Council with its recognition of the dynamic, historical nature of revelation and of the need for continual examination of Scripture and tradition.

To be concerned with 'tradition' is not necessarily in itself therefore a sign of 'conservatism' or 'traditionalism'. This fact in itself is one sign that classification of current theology and theologies is far from straightforward. It is, however, a necessary exercise and a brief look at two recent attempts at such analysis, namely those of Dorothee Solle and Hans Frei, is illuminating.

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