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Theological Radicalism and Tradition, by Howard E. Root

11 May 2018

Better late than never to have these lectures from 1972, says John Saxbee

THOSE of us who associate the name Root with a theologian rather than the current England cricket captain will warmly welcome this very belated publication of Howard Root’s 1972 Bampton Lectures.

Root was the first (and last) Professor of Theology at Southampton University from 1966 before being appointed Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome in 1981. He died in 2007.

These lectures were delivered in an era dominated by the so-called radicalism of Honest to God, Soundings, the “Death of God” theologians, and the equally momentous implications of Vatican II. Post-modernism was still only on the horizon; so it was the challenges of modernity which dominated intellectual discourse.

The integrity of metaphysics and the intelligibility of religious language became subject to intense scrutiny. Could radical theology save the day, or a renewed confidence in traditional orthodoxy? What these terms mean, and how they relate to each other, was Root’s theme, which remains no less relevant with the passing of the years.

Back then, Leonard Hodgson’s question focused debate around doctrine and interpretation of the Gospels: “What must the truth be, and have been, if it appeared like that to men who thought and wrote as they did?” Root thought it an impossible question, and sought to propose a quite different model, one that allows us to begin where we are instead of asking us to pretend “that we can think ourselves into the minds and feelings of men 2000 years ago”.

This is the model that he tentatively promotes in these eight lectures as he tries to steer a course between simply turning up the volume on received Christian tradition as objectively true, or tuning into prevailing radical ideas with their overtones of reductionism and subjectivism.

If the latter, then theology loses its character and integrity; if the former, then theology is a quest for the univocal meaning of theological doctrines, which is, Root says, a “fantasy”. Both positions are in some sense conservative, and both are to do with tradition.

Using supernaturalism as a test case, Root seriously doubts whether dispensing with such a notion, as 1960s radicals appeared to recommend, would either win people back to the Christian fold or be theologically sustainable.

But a refusal to acknowledge that historical formulations of faith need regular applications of “additive imagery” will not work either. Such “enrichment and enlargement” of what is given from the past enables tradition to be “both altered and enlarged and yet remains Tradition no matter how many hands or generations it passes through”.

It is this openness to an expanded repertoire of “imagery-inspired invention” from the worlds of science, the arts, and diverse religious experiences which gives these lectures an abiding purchase on contemporary sensibilities.

So, by making these and others of Root’s writings available in this way, Christopher Brewer has put us in his debt — but, sadly, at a price that may entail going into debt to acquire them.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Theological Radicalism and Tradition: “The Limits of Radicalism” with appendices
Howard E. Root
Christopher R. Brewer, editor
Routledge £105
Church Times Bookshop £94.50

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