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From past into present

by
24 March 2016

Andrew Davison brings his theological survey up to date

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Sarah Coakley

Sarah Coakley

IN THIS final instalment of theological history, we arrive at thinkers who are our contemporaries, or those whose lives have overlapped significantly with ours.

Ecumenism is a defining feature of this period. While the precise degree might differ from country to country, the way in which the interests of theologians today span confessional traditions is one of the triumphs of 20th-century ecumenism, especially in the UK. Anglican theologians fit particularly well here, since it is a defining characteristic of Anglican theology not to be concerned only with other “Anglican” theologians.

The ecumenical story is one of growing harmony, but the last five or six decades have also been marked by contrast, and even cataclysm. This was a period of turbulence, revision, and departure.

Criticism of where theology was “made”, as well as what was produced, came from several directions. Liberation theology puts the experience of the poor at the centre. A definitive text is A Theology of Liberation: History, politics, and salvation (English translation, Orbis, 1973, revised edition 1998) by Gustavo Gutiérrez (b. 1928), although an even better introduction is Jesus the Liberator (English translation, Orbis, 1993) by Jon Sobrino (b.1938). Yvonne Gemara’s Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Fortress, 1999) expands what has otherwise been quite a male field.

The life of Latin American communities was often a focus for this generation of liberation theologians. God of the Oppressed (Seabury, 1975, revised edition, Orbis, 1997) by James H. Cone (b.1938) remains an important presentation of theology from the perspective of African Americans. For a more recent theological consideration of race, see J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A theological account (OUP, 2008). Womanist critiques of both male black and white feminist theology have come from writers such as Emilie Townes and Dolores Williams, such as her Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Orbis, 1993).

A work by Serene Jones (b.1959), Feminist Theory and Christian Theology (Fortress, 2000), provides a compelling survey of the contribution of feminism to theology. Under this broad heading, several perspectives can be discerned. Some thinkers have seen the Christian theological tradition as so thoroughly conditioned by a male perspective, and shaped to male advantage, that they have stepped decisively outside it. Mary Daly (1928-2010) and Daphne Hampson (b.1944) are two particularly prominent “post-Christian” feminists: Daly argued that paganism more properly takes female perspectives into account, and Hampson rejected Christianity for its emphasis on particular revelation.

Others, such as Sallie McFague (b.1933) have remained within the Christian tradition but called for radical reappraisals of central ideas — in McFague’s case, for instance, by working through the metaphor of the world as God’s body.

Some theologians use feminist insights to help Christian theology to be truer to what they see as its still-basically-redeeming message: we might think, for example, of the work of Sarah Coakley (b.1951) and Janet Soskice (b.1951).

Among LGBT theologians, Patrick Chen’s Radical Love: Introduction to Queer Theology (Seabury, 2011) stands as a good introduction. Eugene Rogers’ Sexuality and the Christian Body (Blackwell, 1999) has been particularly influential, as has his reader Theology and Sexuality: Classic and contemporary readings (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002). Rogers is a good example of a theologian whose work has set out to enrich a shared theology, rather than to suggest that “gay experience” calls for a specifically “gay Christology”.

As a parallel, Elizabeth Stuart’s Gay and Lesbian Theologies (Ashgate, 2003) makes a particularly powerful case for the centrality of baptismal identity, not only to the Christian but for Christian theology, as does J. Kameron Carter in his interview with Rupert Shortt in God’s Advocates: Christian thinkers in conversation (DLT, 2005). This excellent collection of interviews provides 14 perspectives on the state and future of theology.

 

AMONG German theologians active in the second half of the 20th century, mention might particularly be made of Jürgen Moltmann (b.1926) and Wolfgang Pannenberg (1928-2014).

Moltmann’s work on the Holy Spirit and eschatology was part of a wider renewed emphasis on those doctrines. His influential (but criticised) approach to Christology and atonement, The Crucified God (SCM, 1973), put aside a traditional Christian commitment to divine immutability.

This is mirrored in his account of creation, in which — again in a departure from tradition — God has to withdraw to “make room” for creation (as if they occupied the same space). The existentialist-influenced Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was also born in Germany, but emigrated to the United States.

A particularly strident call for revolution in theology in the decades following the mid-1960s came in the form of “Death of God” theology. This often drew heavily on Continental theology and sought to elaborate either a mystical atheism or, at least, one of complete darkness in relation to divinity, sometimes expressed in the idea that the-God-who-is-now-no-more had died with the death of Christ (for instance, in Thomas Altizer, b.1927). This approach has very little purchase today, in either the Church or the academy.

 

MORE abidingly significant would be the reconstitution of Christian theology from post-structuralist sources, especially Jacques Derrida, by philosophers such as John Caputo (b.1940), or in the “A/theology” of Mark C. Taylor (b.1945). In the UK, Don Cupitt (b.1934) was at the centre of an approach to theology and religious life (often called “non-realism”) that rejected reference to a God as the transcendent source and goal, on the basis that such reference to transcendence devalues the world.

That claim was to remain centre stage for a future generation of theologians, based — like Cupitt — in Cambridge, who argued that to understand the world in relation to God (who is so utterly beyond it as to be intimately close) is precisely to value it, as the arena for the human encounter with God.

This idea, and a cluster of related convictions, stood behind the collection of essays entitled Radical Orthodoxy (Routledge, 1999), edited by John Milbank (b.1952), Graham Ward (b.1955), and Catherine Pickstock. The degree of interest in this group, and those who have subsequently become associated with them, demonstrates the present strength and international reputation of academic theology in the UK.

From a more Protestant, US perspective, Kevin Vanhoozer (b.1957) and James K. A. Smith (b.1970) have followed a parallel track in advocating a new confidence in theology, and an open but critical engagement with philosophy. Vanhoozer edited the Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (CUP, 2003); Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series offers a particularly fruitful theological response to present norms.

Over the past couple of decades, an approach to theology that uses the precise, logical methods of analytic philosophy has also burgeoned, often called “Analytic Theology”. Whether this brings helpful precision, or involves analysing the most glorious topic of human thought by the most stultifying means, will depend on one’s assessment of analytic philosophy. Exponents include Alvin Plantinga (b.1932) and Eleonore Stump (b.1947).

Other conversation partners for theology abound, and topics for provocation and application — as other articles in this series of supplements suggest — include environmental concerns, disability, biblical interpretation, science, and politics.

 

TODAY, the broad picture for doctrinal or systematic theology is of a new vigour, and of a return to ancient texts as contemporary sources.

Within that trajectory, the influence of “post-liberalism”, associated with Yale theologians George Lindbeck (b.1923) and Hans Frei (1922-1988), is significant. The emphasis there is on narrative, community, practice, and character. The ethical writers Stanley Hauerwas (b.1940) and Alasdair MacIntyre (b.1929) clearly stand within the same ambit.

Among UK authors, Rowan Williams (b.1950) and the Dominican Herbert McCabe (1926-2001) are notable contributors to the sort of resurgence within theology that might, in 2016, generate seven supplements on the doctrines of the Creed in the pages of the Church Times.

Forthcoming Events

3 March 2021
Dear England Book Launch
Hear the Archbishop of York in conversation with Adrian Chiles.

18 March 2021
Theology Slam Final
The third annual Theology Slam competition will feature talks on justice, creativity, and community in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

More events

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