Hans Frei (1922-88) has proposed that any theology can be analysed in terms of how far it is first, an exercise in internal self-description by the Christian community, and second, a function of the wider and general religious or philosophical activity of its cultural context. By taking these two poles as possible reference-points, five main types of theology may be identified, both historically and in the present (Frei 1992).
First, theology may be considered simply to be a branch of philosophy, i.e. the emphasis falls entirely on the second pole to the exclusion of the first pole, above. The task of theology in the modern Western world of intellectual discourse, where ultimate meaning is searched for, is to explore and clarify the function of the term 'God'. Two such functions emerge: to indicate a limitation to the concept 'world', and to refer to the humanizing possibilities that can be brought to the world. This is the approach of a thinker such as Gordon Kaufman. 'The images or symbols of specific religious traditions become imaginative representations whose meaning is their paraphrasing. of the metaphysical, conceptual master construct' (Frei 1992:29). If theology is an activity of the Christian community itself, then it has significance only as exemplifying this wider cultural-philosophical activity. In itself, it brings nothing that cannot be produced elsewhere. Christianity is one expression of a universal and inalienable human capacity or necessity, and like every other religion 'its message is a republication of the natural and universal quest', and theology is but part of a general intellectual—cultural enquiry. In some respects the radical subjectivism of contemporary British theologians such as Don Cupitt could be classified under this heading. Its basic assumption is that religious and theological discourse is one imaginative and symbolic way of expressing the universal spiritual quest and insights. Christianity and its theological expressions have no unique contribution to make to it.
Second, theology is seen as a philosophical discipline, but one within which Christianity does have a very specific contribution to make. Theology is therefore a kind of synthesis of external philosophical reflection and Christian self-description. The American David Tracy is a definitive contemporary example of this theological model which he formulates thus: 'Contemporary Christian theology is best understood as philosophical reflection upon the meanings present in common human experience and the meanings present in the Christian tradition.' Philosophical reflection upon experience points to limit-experiences of crisis and ecstasy in which the ordinary is transcended. The specifically Christian contribution is found in the parabolic language of the New Testament which discloses, in its own limit-language, that a certain way of being in the world, through faith and love, is possible. Theology therefore seeks certain correlations between the philosophically perceived generalities about human existence and the offers of particular possibilities disclosed in the Gospel. In a way, of course, this model has an honourable tradition—it can be seen as heir to the medieval synthesis of nature and grace, reason and faith, as well as to Paul Tillich's method of correlating culture's questions and Christianity's answers, or to Rudolf Bultmann's use of the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger to describe the condition of human existence to which the New Testament makes the offer of authentic existence through the Gospel. A contemporary British exemplar of this model is John Macquarrie, who utilizes the phenomenological approach to uncover those features of human existence and experience within which discourse about God, grace, sin, sacraments etc. take on significance, and which in turn are further illuminated by the theological language. Many would wish to place
Wolfhart Pannenberg in this category in so far as he wishes to locate an exposition of the specifically Christian doctrinal tradition within a universal anthropological horizon of meaning, especially that of history.
For his third model Frei takes as the classic exemplar Friedrich Schleiermacher, for whom religion, centred on the inner emotion of the feeling of dependence, was entirely distinct from knowledge (whether scientific or metaphysical) and therefore for whom philosophy and theology were entirely autonomous. But though autonomous, theology and the disciplines of science, philosophy, history etc. require to be correlated to the extent that they need to be seen as at least compatible—for example, the theological understanding of miracle (as of God's activity in the world in general) has to be shown not to contradict the scientific understanding of the interconnectedness of natural cause and effect. Its contemporary counterpart is found in the widespread 'liberal' view that 'religion' and 'science' represent quite distinct yet equally legitimate understandings of the world. A particular affinity is found between Schleiermacher's understanding of providence as relating to our religious consciousness and Maurice Wiles's suggestion (see above) that God's action is recognized as that which evokes a personal response of commitment from us.
Fourth, more unequivocally than in any of the previous models, theology is a function of self-description by the believing Christian community, yet, in the responsible freedom of being true to the reality which it is setting forth, theology can and will utilize whatever philosophical, anthropological or other tools it perceives as appropriate—not according to any general theory or principle of knowledge but simply in accordance with the particular task in hand at any given moment. Here the great role-model is Karl Barth who, despite his rigorous diatribe against natural theology and all pretence that there exists any a priori point of departure for the knowledge of God in fallen human nature, recognized the need for theology, as rational discourse, to have a formal or technical philosophical vocabulary, and whose Church Dogmatics include dialogue with philosophers as much as other theologians. Philosophers no less than the apostles and prophets deal with humankind, God's elect creatures, and may at times be in line with the word of God, even serving the word of God, in their insights into human nature. The relation between internal Christian self-description and external philosophical and cultural discourse therefore remains ad hoc— almost one might say utilitarian, from the theological side. It is undoubtedly true that while the precise extent of Barth's direct influence since his death in 1968 is debatable, his legacy is still apparent in the confidence with which many in the present generation, both Catholics and Protestants, have been able to combine exposition of the Christian doctrinal tradition with deep and wide anthropological, cultural and political interest going far beyond the bounds of the purely ecclesiastical (cf. the work of e.g. Jürgen Moltmann, Hans Küng, T.F.Torrance, and J.Lochman).
Fifth and finally, Frei cites the British philosopher of religion D.Z.Phillips as exemplifying one for whom theology is not only autonomous, but a discipline from which philosophy is rigorously barred since Christian discourse can only be a matter of Christian self-description. 'God' cannot even be remotely 'understood' from outside the religious community of faith and discourse. A completely different logic applies to this reality, distinct from any other logic which philosophy may analyse. Theology is internal to religion, and religion and its rule of discourse are of a quite different order from all other activities involving knowledge-claims. Not only this, but it is not clear what place there can be even for theological reflection (as distinct from reassertion of first-order utterances of belief). As well as being a radical philosophical position, round the back it meets a kind of fundamentalist assertion that 'This is the truth' which brooks no argument or questioning. Here is where modern, open, pluralist society ironically sees one of its products in the autonomy of completely closed communities beset by internal conservatism and which, paradoxically, now have more freedom to be conservative if they so wish, than ever before.
Frei's analysis takes us further than Solle's does into the dynamics of theology now, in its wider cultural and intellectual context. It does not, however, address what is for many today the crucial issue of that wider context: the world of different faiths. To talk about Christian theology's context being that of 'the West', and to talk about 'Western culture' as if it was a homogeneous entity is on the one hand to deny the worldwide, multicultural scope of present-day Christianity. It is also seriously to underestimate the multifaith nature even of 'the West' today. In the light of this, the first model may be extended to view the universal human quest for meaning as embracing that of all the non-Christian faiths as well. Christian theology is but one element in that wider religious quest—and it is that wider religious quest which should therefore be the real object of theology. In this respect the approaches of John Hick and Wilfred Cantwell Smith towards a 'global theology' would belong. This, however, is not the only option on offer. Gavin D'Costa argues that what is crucial is simply the recognition that the context for systematic theology today is now, for example, Hinduism and Buddhism, with their critical questions to the theistic tradition, as much as it has been natural science and atheistical thought in Europe for the past two centuries or more (D'Costa 1992:332). This does not mean a direct attempt at an universal theology which all faiths can find acceptable, so much as establishing a dialogue where mutual encounter, including that of mutual criticism, becomes possible. This can be expected to be one of the critical debating points of 'theology now'.
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