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Going in search of right praise

24 March 2016

What we have in common is where we’ve come from, suggests Ian McFarland

Glory to God in the highest: Christ enthroned (detail from The Last Judgement in the Florence Baptistery, 13th c. mosaic)

Glory to God in the highest: Christ enthroned (detail from The Last Judgement in the Florence Baptistery, 13th c. mosaic)

IT IS a bit of a cliché (though not an altogether inaccurate one) that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was marked by a tension between two competing theological slogans: on the one hand, aggiornamento — updating the Church to fit in with the modern world — and, on the other, ressourcement — the retrieval of classic sources in order to reinvigorate church life.

But whatever one’s views on Vatican II, in the 50 years since the Council ended Christian theologians of all stripes have increasingly come to view the relationship between aggiornamento and ressourcement in complementary, rather than competitive, terms. That is, they have come increasingly to see ressourcement — retrieval — as the key to successful aggiornamento, so that reclaiming the full range of Christian witness from across the centuries has become a crucial component of constructing a viable theology for the 21st-century Church.

This development is striking, partly because it has shifted the emphasis away from theologies defined by some narrow church or “confessional”’ identity, in which theologians tended to limit themselves to sources from within their own traditions, and direct their writing primarily to others in that same tradition. It is certainly not the case that contemporary theologians lack confessional commitments, but their theologies no longer tend to be as strongly marked by those commitments as they might once have been.

As a result, it is increasingly difficult to identify the confessional identity of a theologian by simply examining his or her bibliography. Even where theologians have very particular theological commitments, they increasingly draw on a wide range of resources that not only cut across established confessional divisions, but also include writers such as Origen of Alexandria, Meister Eckhart, and Julian of Norwich — writers who have frequently been viewed, on all sides, as standing at or beyond the limits of the theological canon.


WHAT underlies this move toward retrieval? Certainly, the ecumenical movement has played a part in prompting theologians to engage constructively with figures outside their own confessional traditions. While this sort of exchange may have had its origins in formal dialogues between church bodies, it now extends well beyond those particular, and somewhat artificial, contexts to shape the character of theological instruction and research more broadly. An obvious case in point is the extent to which Protestants, who once read Thomas Aquinas only as a foil to the Reformers (if they read him at all), now see him as an invaluable theological resource.

Another, and perhaps even more important, factor contributing to the place of theological retrieval in contemporary theology is, I suspect, that rather amorphous cultural and intellectual development known as post-modernism. Although that term is interpreted in many different ways, one common theme is a suspicion of “master narratives” that are presented as capable of organising all human experience within the confines of a single, unified story.

While the benefits of this post-modern sensibility are debated (critics worry that it all too easily leads to intellectual indifference, or even nihilism), within theology it can encourage an appropriate modesty, in which it is recognised that any theological proposal is merely one, contestable, account of the Christian story, and, as such, necessarily omits much of interest and value. That attitude can, in turn, stimulate engagement with hitherto marginalised voices in the Christian tradition, recognising that such omissions can be made good only by other theological proposals that bring different voices to bear on the topic under discussion.

One can see something of this situation in comparing two contemporary American theologians: Kathryn Tanner and Catherine Keller. At one level, the two could not be more different: Tanner’s theology is noteworthy for its defence of traditional Christian doctrines (especially creation from nothing, and the two-natures Christology of Chalcedon), while Keller believes these require serious, if not wholesale, revision. Yet both theologians make extensive use of Christian resources from the patristic as well as medieval and modern periods (that is, they are, in their own very different ways, both practitioners of retrieval). And they do so with the explicit aim of developing theologies that challenge the ways in which received forms of Christian discourse have been used to exclude significant groups of people from the life of the Church and society at large. Both, in short, are also committed to the “updating” work of aggiornamento).


I DO NOT want to suggest that all is well in the realm of theology. If old confessional boundaries have ceased to be the chief marks of theological division, new lines of polarisation that pit “conservatives” or “Evangelicals” against “liberals” or “progressives” darken the horizon. But the focus on retrieval that is increasingly characteristic of the work of theologians on both sides of this divide may help to ensure that the resources needed for bridging it are in place.

In light of the risk that theological differences might harden into division, one further benefit of retrieval as a theological practice is its potential for helping Christians rethink the meaning of orthodoxy. Interpreted as “right teaching”, the term is applied to doctrines judged to be correct, with proponents of alternative formulations dismissed as heterodox or heretical.

But orthodox can also be translated as “right praise”, and I would suggest that this rendering is to be preferred. For when the goal of theology is right teaching, one formulation necessarily excludes alternatives; and yet, if God is truly God, none of our doctrinal propositions, however carefully formulated, can succeed in capturing the divine. Praise, by contrast, is more flexible. All praise is not equal, neither need all praise be identical in form in order to be “right” — that is, fit for the purpose of glorifying God.

And so where the task of theology is conceived as judging right praise, diversity of expression can be valued, even when limits to that diversity are acknowledged. Indeed, since no one theology can include the full range of faithful Christian witness from the past two millennia, there is a positive need for multiple theologies, which, drawing on different strands of the Christian tradition, lead the Church to an ever broader and deeper appreciation of the glory of God.


Ian McFarland is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge.

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