Leslie Houlden and Peter Byrne

The aim of this Companion Encyclopedia is to provide as comprehensive a guide as possible to the present state of Christian theology in its Western academic manifestations and in the setting of the modern world. To understand the present, especially in the case of a long-standing phenomenon like Christianity, it is necessary to be aware of the past. So here there is much history as well as contemporary reflection and assessment.

The contributors are drawn from many different traditions of belief and thought, but all reflect broadly the assumptions and methods of the modern Western academy, and write as analysts rather than propagandists. No attempt has been made to seek or impose a single viewpoint, and readers will sometimes find themselves presented with different angles on the same material. Inevitably, too, some features of the scene will recur, most notably the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: readers will at least become convinced of the cruciality of this episode, greater, from a modern standpoint, in many ways than even the early period or the Reformation. At the same time, however far-reaching the developments or the applications which it undergoes, Christian theology never loses sight of the originating impulse given by Jesus of Nazareth. Behind and beneath all the ideas and all the books, it rests on the story that centres on him.

Modern Christian theology (and everything in this book is 'modern' in standpoint even when it examines writings and ideas of the distant past) is far from being a unified phenomenon. In the first place, there are significant differences of theological agenda, ethos, priority and content between the various Christian Churches, from the largest to the smallest; and, especially in the case of the great Churches, there are also significant internal differences, traceable both to history and to contemporary movements of thought and life. Thus, the Anglican Communion contains strong 'Catholic', 'Protestant' and 'liberal' elements, and the Roman Catholic Church includes both traditionalists and reformists.

Second, theology involves different styles and emphases according to the location of its practitioners: whether, for example, they operate in the context of church life, schools or universities. In the first, there is likely to be a note of authority and commitment and a tendency towards construction and synthesis that would usually seem inappropriate in the academy. Matters of church order and discipline (one has only to cite the question of the ordination of women, often scarcely intelligible as problematic to people outside the Churches) are likely to figure prominently in church theology, and often the posture is dogmatic rather than critical.

In school theology, on the other hand, the agenda tends to be formed by society at large; hence the interest in the world faiths and what they have in common, and in currently pressing ethical issues. Here there is often a felt need to respond to urgent social demands, fuelled perhaps by government or parent power.

When we turn to university theology, which this book chiefly and essentially reflects, we find a third situation, quite distinct from the other two, even though individual theologians may well feel loyalty to the Church or sensitivity to the needs of the school. Here, the dominant atmosphere is provided by the secular university as a whole, as it has developed in the West, where, despite regional variations, there is much homogeneity. While there may often be unadmitted ideology (sometimes erupting violently as in the literary world), the public stance is deeply antipathetic to anything that smacks of sectionalism or propaganda: in these respects the Churches' tarnished past is often hard to forget and theology's attempts to present itself as a reformed character are not always trusted. The emphasis is on openness, the critical assessment of all ideas, however venerable or (it may sometimes appear) trivial. More nobly, the quest for truth, by its very nature never concluded and certainly inimical to other authorities, is pre-eminent.

There can be no doubt that, despite setbacks and failures to penetrate beyond the academy as widely as may be wished or expected, this style of theology has done much to reduce bigotry and to foster human understanding. One may point, for example, to the shaming of anti-Semitism, attributable, at least in part, to developments in New Testament studies as conducted in the modern academy, giving us a more balanced picture of the Judaism that Jesus knew and inhabited; and to the ecumenical movement, where Christians of long-warring traditions have sought to let greater comprehension of one another's historical positions bring about better relations in the present.

But if we look at the university from within, then theology's situation is undeniably complex for it owes allegiance in several different, even conflicting, directions. (It is worth noting that even the numerous confessional higher educational institutions, whose teachers are usually trained in universities, are often sensitive to the complexity, even if not as strongly.) Theology owes allegiance first to the modern secular academy in which it is placed and which is its paymaster. This 'parent' may indeed be in many ways beneficent, as has been indicated, but it may also be subversive or corrosive, for the secular university has no interest whatsoever in the claims concerning God or 'the Other' which are the lively centre of theology's interest and, many would say, the single mainspring of its whole life. Theology, in other words, however dispassionate and critical it may be, can never reduce itself to purely secularist terms—to the 'study of religion' as a phenomenon in human life (alongside, for instance, sport or work). It is aware of itself, bluntly, as concerned with the holy—not only as a major presence in the world but also as a factor whose claims (whether true or false) are unique in kind and scale. Christian theology has its own distinctive features, of course, but here is the nub of the matter, and the source of theology's strange mixture of ease and unease in the modern university—a situation of which, despite its wide tolerance, the university itself occasionally, though perhaps surprisingly rarely, takes cognizance. To put the matter at a more personal level, there is something both hard and peculiar in engaging in the study of God as if he were an object in one's hand, while knowing of him also as the one in whose hands one exists (whether as idea or as reality). However, Christian theology's own bringing together of God as mystery and yet as involving himself radically with the world suggests ways of resolving the difficulty.

All this is a way of saying that theology owes allegiance not only to the university but also to the Christian tradition, even perhaps, in some settings, to that tradition as currently instantiated in a Church. But most of that tradition was formed and expressed in conditions far removed from the modern post-Enlightenment academy, breathing authority and often even compulsion for the enforcement of its teaching. Not only is this a legacy still sometimes hard to live down (e.g. when a church seminary asks for accreditation by a university; though either side may well blur the issues at stake-corporate memory is often weaker than one might expect!); it is also bound to mark the study of the Bible and the tradition, and to rub off, perhaps quite subtly, on critical scholarship in general.

This book is about 'thought' rather than 'life'; so, though the distinction cannot be absolute without artificiality, this is not a survey of Christianity and the Churches as social phenomena—their distribution, worship, organization, and so forth. The book reflects the various intellectual disciplines which have grown up over the centuries to investigate and consider aspects of theology. It makes abundantly plain what a rich and diverse field this now is—and indeed long has been.

Some of the forty-eight chapters that make up the book are largely descriptive, whether of a period of past thought or of the current state of scholarship. Others are more ambitious and deliberately sketch out new ways of considering the matter in hand, pointing to possible and even desirable future developments. But all through, every effort has been made to transcend the merely informative. Even though, naturally, a great deal of essential information is given, there could be no attempt at completeness, and contributors have sought to stimulate as well as to instruct, to suggest patterns of comprehension rather than to burden the reader with raw data.

The book falls into six Parts. The first three deal with major foundational aspects of Christian theological reflection: the Bible, the tradition, and the contribution of philosophy, especially in the modern period. Though there can be no rigid division, the other three Parts are more concerned with application: in relation to spirituality and to contemporary ethics, and, finally, issues in and aspects of present-day theological construction.

The editors acknowledge with gratitude the work of those who have contributed to this book and the collaboration they have enjoyed with their publishers, in particular Jonathan Price, who initiated the idea which now reaches fruition, Seth Denbo and Colville Wemyss.

Secrets Of Becoming A Meditating Expert

Secrets Of Becoming A Meditating Expert

Discover the Secrets of Meditating Like an Expert In Just 7 Days Or Less And, Start Enjoying More Happiness, Peace, and Better Health, Right Now. Now, you too can learn to go deeper, and enjoy all the benefits of meditation, even if you have never tried to meditate ever before.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment