Contexts and interests

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical and sociological insights urge theologians to take fuller account of the situation in which theology is done and for whom and by whom it is done. The history of ideas is not enough. Theology needs to be seen in relation to many forces and events helping to shape it through the centuries. The twentieth century has added its own conditioning, such as the Holocaust and concentration camps; the unprecedented scale of mass killing of fellow human beings in wars; the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian revolutions; the emergence of new, postcolonial societies; the collapse of Soviet and European communism; the spread of mass communications, business corporations, technology, and science of many sorts; an unprecedented dialectic of the local and the global, especially in economics and culture; struggles against fascism, racism, and sexism; the ecological crisis; and a vast expansion of professions and academic disciplines and institutions. More specific to religion have been the Pentecostal movement, Christian and interreligious ecumenism, the World Council of Churches, the Second Vatican Council, the spread of Islam and Christianity (especially in Africa), many armed conflicts with significant religious elements, an immense amount of religious persecution and martyrdom, new religious movements outside the main world religions, the multiplication of "basic communities," liturgical reforms in Christian churches, and new translations of the Bible. Most of these feature in the theologies of this volume, though many are only implicit, or are ignored by theologians in ways that call for more explicit recognition.

More narrowly, there is the significance of the social and institutional context in which theology is produced. All of the nineteenth-century theologies mentioned above and most of the theologies in this volume, as well as the essays on them, were written in universities or, to a lesser extent, seminaries. They are therefore at home in an academic, largely middle-class "high culture," which, in its main centers in continental Europe, Britain, and the United States, has been remarkably stable through a century of traumas. One of the main tensions in Christian theology has been between its participation in this wider academic culture and its relationship to the Christian community. That has been sharpened by the growing professionaliza-tion of the clergy. In German-speaking countries academic theology and clergy education has long been integrated in state-financed universities, so that theology has been drawn both toward being an academic discipline on a par with others and toward serving the needs of a profession. These two easily conflict, and the results for theology are symbolized in the debate about the Jesus of history (academic emphasis) and the Christ of faith (clerical requirement).5

In the United States the separation of church and state tied theology more exclusively to seminaries and divinity schools and therefore to the clerical profession. This has tended to polarize "theology" and "religious studies," often in different institutions. It has also contributed to the present situation in which religion is widely practiced and influential but theology tends to be seen as a specialized professional discipline and is marginal within both academic and wider culture. In Britain many universities have departments of "theology and religious studies," often accompanied by institutional links with seminaries, thus developing a third option between the German confessional model and the American polarization.

The marginalizing of theology is not only an American phenomenon but has also happened in varying degrees in Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. It poses a problem for most of the traditions of theology dealt with in this volume: given the largely academic setting, together with the academic marginalization of theology, what sort of academic discipline is it? The main temptation within academic life is clearly to become increasingly specialized and allied with other specialized disciplines. That is just the temptation to which the sort of theology covered in this volume cannot completely succumb, because it is about major issues and their interrelation, and inevitably crosses disciplines. But if theology does not fragment into specialties or become absorbed into other disciplines, how does it understand itself? Other related hard questions follow. What is theology's relation to religious communities and their need not only for professional training but also for critical and constructive thinking? How should it handle its own "ideological" tendency to serve the interests of a particular group, culture, class, religion, or profession? Does theology abandon or compromise or fulfill its academic commitments by fuller involvement in practical social and political matters, whether radical, moderate, or conservative?

Another way of looking at such questions is to ask how theology relates to its three main "publics": the academy, the churches, and society.6 Most of the theologians who are the subjects of this volume are members of all three but concentrate mainly on addressing two of them, usually academy and church. Yet many (especially in the particularizing theology of Part V) question this in favor of more attention to addressing and changing society. But such an overview needs to be made more complex by noting major contemporary features of each public. The academy has become more pluralist and self-critical and, at the same time (especially in the West), more subject to pressures to serve the economy in short-term and direct ways. The pluralism of methods appropriate to different disciplines and the increasing awareness by other disciplines of their own often ideological character have somewhat undermined the self-confident positivism and secularism that contributed to theology being marginalized; while economic and political pressures have put many other disciplines in both humanities and sciences in a marginal position.

As for the public in the mainstream churches, there has been more corporate social and political controversy and involvement this century, especially in liberal and radical causes - two major instances are the World Council of Churches and postVatican II Roman Catholicism. In this context it has become harder for a "church" theologian to cover the major areas of Christian thought without grappling with social and political issues. For the "public," that is society around the world, matters of religion or quasi-religion have been (often tragically) prominent in recent decades, as with the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC this century. It has become less easy with integrity to privatize or cordon off religion and reduce its public significance. The interrelation of religious and secular aspects of society has rightly attracted a great deal of attention. It has been increasingly recognized, both by those who identify with or participate in religious traditions and those who do not, that the world is complexly both religious and secular, and that the flourishing of the world in the twenty-first century depends to a considerable extent on how various religious and secular forces learn to live together.

For these and other reasons it has become in some ways easier to make the case for the need for high quality public discourse within and between religions as well as about them. The theologians treated in The Modern Theologians try to provide such discourse. They have worked at the leading edge of Christianity since 1918 and have contributed to the making of its history. They are of interest both as a "religious study" of twentieth-century Christian thought and also as examples and partners for those who follow them in their discipline or try, without claiming to be theologians, to think through questions of meaning, truth, practice, and beauty in relation to God and the purposes of God. The coverage is not complete but, even including the omissions that had to be made in order that this book not be too large, it is worth remembering that the field of such theology is even wider. A great deal of theology is done by those who write little or who may not write it down at all. A lifetime's theological wisdom may be channeled into prayer, politics, family life, coping with suffering, teaching or other activity, and may have no written expression. That sort of theology cannot be treated directly here, but it helps to keep the whole enterprise in perspective to remember that at the origins of the two traditions most influential on the theologies of this volume are Socrates and Jesus, neither of whom left us any writings.


1 The typology that follows draws on the work of Hans W. Frei in Types of Christian Theology, though numbering the types in reverse order to that used by him. For a brief account and discussion of Frei's typology, see my review article, "On Being Theologically Hospitable to Jesus Christ: Hans Frei's Achievement," in Journal of Theological Studies NS 46 (October 1995), pp. 532-46.

2 C. Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, and N. Smart et al., Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West.

3 Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, first published 1793.

4 Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh, 1928; New York, 1948).

5 Cf. Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology.

6 See David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination, ch. 1.


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Classics of the Twentieth Century

World War I (1914-18) brought about a major crisis in European culture and society. This was the context for Karl Barth's The Epistle to the Romans and the explosion of dialectical theology, followed by Barth's attempt to rethink the whole enterprise of modern theology. Daniel Hardy describes Barth's development and the theology of his massive Church Dogmatics, traces the variety of responses by other theologians, and addresses probing questions to him.

Barth is an unquestionable name on any list of twentieth-century classics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's lifetime was less than half that of Barth, and for nearly twelve of his thirty-nine years he was caught up in resistance to the Nazis and did his theology piecemeal outside the university. Yet the publication of seventeen volumes of his collected works has shown the scale of his achievement. Wayne Whitson Floyd (editor of the English edition) shows not only why Bonhoeffer merits classic status, but also his significance for the present century.

Paul Tillich, after his exile from Hitler's Germany, became perhaps the most celebrated theologian in post-World War II USA. David Kelsey describes Tillich's lifelong concern for Christianity and culture, and his method of flexibly, openly, and creatively correlating the two. His central achievement is his three-volume Systematic Theology, the conceptual coherence and main content of which is laid out by Kelsey. Tillich's reputation suffered something of an eclipse after his death, but his work is now being freshly appreciated and stands as the leading twentieth-century classic in what the Introduction to this volume calls "type three" theology of correlation.

Henri de Lubac is unique among the classics selected here in doing his most significant work as historical theology. There is of course much else in his oeuvre, but John Milbank's vigorous exposition shows him identifying the prophetically crucial importance of questions surrounding nature, grace, and the vision of God, and bringing his massive learning and theological acuity to bear in demonstrating how their historical forms are relevant to key current issues. De Lubac is probably the least recognized of our classics, and Milbank's assessment of him challenges the "canon."

Karl Rahner is another theologian whose reputation declined somewhat after his death, especially in his own Roman Catholic Church. Chapter 16 in Part II of this volume illuminates some of the reasons for this decline, connected with the course of Catholic theology under Pope John Paul II. In chapter 5, Karen Kilby is more concerned to correct interpretations of aspects of his theology (and especially the relationship of philosophy to his theology) that allowed some to dismiss him too easily. She retrieves the breadth, variety, and richness of his vast oeuvre, while also asking some hard questions of it.

Finally, the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar came into its own in the aftermath of his death, as one of the theologians most favored by Pope John Paul II. Ben Quash follows the contours of his massive achievement and also opens up a range of critical engagements with it.

One of the marks of a classic is that repeated engagement with it is fruitful. Looking through other parts of this volume it is possible to see how each is affected by these six classics. As might be expected, all are influential in Part II's theologies of Europe and the USA. They are least significant for theology and the sciences in Part III (though note the contribution of Bonhoeffer to theology and social science), and for most of the global engagements of Part VI (the exception being ecumenical theology). Many particularizing theologies (Part V) have criticized them and called attention to their limitations. But this too is the mark of a classic - that it is unavoidable, even if one wants to reject it. Part I represents the editors' attempt to select those twentieth-century theologians with whom twenty-first century theologians and others should not avoid wrestling.

Karl Barth

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