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The Road Ahead in Theology -- Revisited

by Deane William Ferm

Dr. Ferm is dean of the chapel at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. This article appeared in the Christian Century May 9, 1979, p. 524. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In the early 1960s I published, my first three articles in The Christian Century, suggesting directions that Christianity should take if it were to function significantly in the future. “The Road Ahead in Religion” (May 25, 1960) proposed that Christianity de-emphasize its claims to uniqueness in favor of a vital universalism, advocating a Creative and positive relationship among the religions of the world. That article stimulated a deluge of protesting letters to the editor, and the Century saw fit to editorialize (“A Road with Pitfalls,” June 29, 1960), indicating that such an overwhelming negative response “would suggest a prevalent antipathy still to the sort of universalism championed by Hocking and Toynbee and now by Mr. Ferm,” and that the road ahead appears, “at least to many Century readers, rocky and snare-ridden.” “The Road Ahead for the Church” (November 29, 1961) offered the thesis that the churches should play down their historical creedal affirmations -- the Trinity, number of sacraments, apostolic succession, the deity of Christ and so on -- and work for the abolition of racism, a renewed dedication to human justice and freedom, and greater understanding among the peoples of the world. “The Road Ahead in Theology” (September 19, 1962) declared that theologians ought to become more sensitive to the proper use of religious language and that there is a demand for a natural theology that will eschew dogmatic revelation claims and seek a responsible and reasonable Christian faith able to win its way in the marketplace of ideas. Such a theology should be relational in character since “the priority of the relational” makes the ultimate test of faith one’s life and not one’s label.

Almost 20 years later these predictions which raised so much protest seem mild, and most of them have been realized. We have seen a burgeoning of interest in the religions of the East, and even Harvey Cox has belatedly moved in that direction (Turning East, 1977). To be sure, many of the current manifestations of this Eastern trend have been shallow and cultish, but they have had a powerful influence in calling into question the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Except for a phalanx of conservative rear-guard figures, I know of no mainstream theologians today, Catholic or Protestant, who are brazen advocates of the uniqueness and once-for-allness of the Christian revelation. How different is this situation from that of two decades ago when neo-orthodoxy in the persons of D. T. Niles, Edmund Soper, Hendrik Kraemer and Edmund Perry insisted that Christianity was, is and ever shall be “the one and only.”

As far as adherence to historical creedal affirmations is concerned, one only has to read pre-eminent theologian Hans Küng’s major tome (On Being a Christian, Doubleday, 1976) to realize that religious liberalism is alive and well . . . in Tübingen. He has demythologized every major Christian dogma in the repertoire of the Catholic Church (including papal infallibility and the resurrection), and he has performed this surgery thoroughly in 602 pages. He insists that current differences even between Catholics and Protestants “are not the traditional doctrinal differences”; they are “traditional basic attitudes, which have developed since the Reformation, but which today can be overcome in their one-sided-ness and integrated into true ecumenicity.” And “the priority of the relational” in theology has become so central that Richard Quebedeaux has credited it with having a major impact in loosening up evangelical theology, this trend being spearheaded by Keith Miller, Lloyd Ogilvie, Lyman Coleman and Bruce Larson (cf. The Worldly Evangelicals, Harper & Row, 1978).

Doing One’s Thing

Yet for the most part I am disappointed by the efforts of many theologians of the past 15 years who have seduced theology into well-meaning but largely self-serving purposes. The neo-orthodoxy of the 1940s and ‘50s was bad enough when it tried to hold on to a revealed kerygma that no longer made contact with an increasingly secular world, but at least those theologians took seriously the larger questions of ontology and epistemology and sought for some meaningful overview. This has not been the case with the hop-skip-and-jump fads of recent date.

Take a quick look. The “death of God” theologies so popular in the media of the middle ‘60s insisted on being Christian without God, which is akin to being an individual without being human. How can one even begin to take Jesus seriously without Jesus’ radical affirmation of God? It is no surprise, then, that “death of god” theology has completely expired and surely must bear some share of responsibility for the emergence in the 1970s of a shallow spirituality whose adherents yearn to fill the god-gap. Indeed the leading “death of God” theologians of the ‘60s are no longer taken seriously as theologians, some of them by their own choice. Paul van Buren seems primarily interested in the State of Israel, William Hamilton in Herman Melville and Thomas Altizer in obfuscation. Take a look at the latter’s latest book, The Self-Embodiment of God (1977). Here is a typical sentence: “Voice is the embodiment of a negation of a quiescent silence, and the hither side of that negation is a beginning, a beginning which is the end of innocence, the omnipresence of a plenum or an eternal now.” And Richard Rubenstein? He was not even mentioned in Eugene Borowitz’s recent survey of “Judaism in America Today” (The Christian Century, November 8, 1978).

Most theologies since the late 1960s have been built on variants of the liberation theme, each one doing its own thing for its own purposes. Black theology has made the oppression of black people its overall concern. James Cone claims that his book Black Theology and Black Power (1969) was the first book published on that subject. (What about Martin Luther King, Joseph Washington, Benjamin Maya?) In this book Cone declared that “Christ is black, baby,” that black power means “complete emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary.” Such strident rhetoric does little to win friends and influence people. Since then, black theology has matured considerably and James Cone has mellowed and enlarged his vision. In Atlanta in 1977 he declared:

I think the time has come for black theologians and church people to move beyond a mere reaction to white racism in America and begin to extend our vision of a new socially constructed humanity in the whole inhabited world . . . For humanity is whole, and cannot be isolated into racial and national groups.

Cone has learned that theology has universal implications, that “liberation knows no color bar.” At present the field is in a period of confusion and revaluation as indicated by Cecil Cone’s Identity Crisis in Black Theology (1975), Warner Traynham’s lectures on black theology (1977) and Peter Paris’s Black Leaders in Conflict (1978). Its earlier one-sided approach to theology, however well meaning, could only be divisive and counterproductive in the long run.

The same critique can be made of feminist theology. What began as an important effort to legitimize “women’s rights” in the field of religion has often degenerated into a one-sided, man-hating polemic. The worst perpetrator is, of course, Mary Daly, whose significant work in The Church and the Second Sex (1968) and the even more important Beyond God the Father (1973) has degenerated into her latest effort, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978); about “Spinning and Witches and Great Hags,” it is a book which makes one want either to laugh or cry. I am told that on occasions Daly won’t even take questions from men in the audience. How childish. What’s the point of substituting one half-baked ideology for another? To be sure, more astute feminist theologians, such as Letty Russell, Penelope Washbourn, Sheila Collins and Virginia Mollenkott, have made important strides in relating female concerns to religious claims, but making theology essentially a cause célčbre for women is to distort theology.

South American forms of liberation theology are vulnerable to the same charge. Robert McAfee Brown, one of the most vigorous defenders of this brand of liberation theology (Theology in a New Key, Westminster, 1978), claims that its major concern is to “see the world in the light of the gospel through the eyes of the oppressed,” using Marxism as the chief instrument for social analysis. Actually as Brown himself admits, this “new key” in theology is very similar to the social gospel movement instituted by Walter Rauschenbusch and other Protestant liberals. Affinities, Brown notes, include “the social or communal stress as a safeguard against individualistic Christianity, the stress on praxis, a methodology arising out of the human situation rather than being imposed on it, a passionate commitment to the dispossessed, and a recognition of the systemic nature of evil” (p. 141).

The limitation of liberation theology is its tendency to narrow the interpretation of Christianity to a particular socialist political program and to use rhetoric that seems to encourage violence. (James Cone has noted that “dogmatic Marxists seldom succeed in the black community.”) Liberation theologians who want to appreciate the truly radical ways of Jesus might ponder these words of Hans Küng, who writes in On Being a Christian that Jesus’ revolutionary method means “love of enemies instead of their destruction; unconditional forgiveness instead of retaliation; readiness to suffer instead of using force; blessing for peacemakers instead of hymns of hate and revenge” (p. 191)

For the Future

The point of this article is not, however, to give a full-blown summary and critique of recent theology, but rather to indicate its one-sidedness and to make suggestions for the road still ahead. I have four proposals.

First, the central task of theology is to ask the larger questions about the nature of ultimate reality. Is there a God? What is she like? Is the universe friendly? Does it make sense? Harvey Cox is quite right:

Despite the efforts of some modern theologians to sidestep it, whether God exists or not is a desperately serious issue. All the palavar about the terms existence and being and all the sophisticated in-group bickering about nonobjectifying language cannot obscure the fact that there remains an indissoluble question after all the conceptualizations have been clarified . . . Is man alone in the universe or not? [The Secular City, revised edition, 1978, p. 212].

The ontological, question remains basic for theologians. Are black holes and eternal darkness the fate of the universe? If so, said one eminent scientist recently, “it would make the whole universe meaningless. If that were true, I would quit and spend my life raising roses.” I believe, this question of ultimate meaning looms with greater and greater importance as we delve even deeper into the mysteries of existence, including the theoretical implications of the Big Bang theory (cf. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 1978).

It, is only insofar as we deal responsibly with this “ultimate” question that we can see the implications for all of life. The religious person is the one who comes down on the side of the universe as inherently suffused with eternal light and not darkness. Charles Hartshorne puts the matter succinctly: “He is most religious who is certain of but one thing, the world-embracing love of God. Everything else we take our chance on; everything else, including man’s relative insignificance in the world, is mere probability:” If one believes in the world-embracing love of God, what does this mean for human relationships, for the dignity of women, for the plight of the economically, politically and racially oppressed? The all-encompassing love of God means full liberation and dignity in every area of human existence. Liberation is not an end in itself but a clear implication of the love of God.

Second, in the days ahead we should put less emphasis on the historical Jesus. Since Vatican II, Catholics and Protestants have increasingly stressed their agreements. A similar movement is gaining strength between Christians and Jews, as both Catholics and mainstream Protestants are renouncing efforts to evangelize Jews. We are increasing contact with other. religions of the world, and an insistence on the uniqueness of the historical Jesus can only be a hindrance. Christians should never have made a god out of Jesus. It is just too preposterous to believe that God gave her /his world-embracing love uniquely through Jesus. We Christians may use such phrases as “anonymous Christian” and “the cosmic Christ” in our attempts to universalize. Christianity, but then we should empathize with such terms as “the universal Buddha” or “the plurality of avatars.” The world-embracing love of God cannot be confined to any particular historical person, including Jesus. I stated earlier that in comparison to 20 years ago there is little mention now of the once-for-allness of Jesus. Still it seems as though everybody tries hard to lay claim to the man from Nazareth -- the revolutionary and the pacifist, the Marxist and the capitalist, the evangelical and the liberationist. I suggest that we leave him alone for a while. Just as Jesus said to his disciples, “It is best for you that I depart. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you” (John 16:5) so, too, must we have the courage to say that it is best for Jesus to depart for the sake of the love of God.

Third, we must be more vigorous in resisting the conservative trend in religious circles these days. To accommodate theological thinking to the current evangelical thrust because it is the popular thins to do will in the long run only be a disservice to the responsible theological task. Fundamentalism of any stripe is dangerous and inherently inhuman, for it fails to acknowledge the mystery and ambiguity of life and consequently the inability to espouse simple, clear-cut answers. The wise words of Betty and William Gray about their own Episcopal Church should be heeded by us all:

If the mainline churches fail to enliven and strengthen their membership, what will happen to modern Christians -- to those concerned with evolving creation, biblical criticism and social action? Presently, Episcopal Church leadership seems to be responding to this question by trying to incorporate elements of fundamentalism and evangelical expression, and to embrace charismatics and fundamentalists who have never had currency in Anglicanism [The Christian Century. January 24, 1979, p. 79].

We are only fighting a losing battle if we succumb to the evangelicals.

Faith and Analysis

Finally, we must reaffirm the critical task of theology and the importance of reason in clarifying issues and making plain the alternatives for belief. Reason has taken a beating in recent years as theological trends have caricatured it as a tool of the imperalists or as dealing with a realm of abstract essences devoid of earthly substance. But we all have our ideologies, explicit or hidden, and whether we call reason “critical reflection on praxis” or systematic thinking about ongoing experience, reason remains one’s attempt to make sense out of all dimensions of life’s experiences, including those of the oppressed and oppressor, the poor and rich, white and black, female, and male, and so on. When we abdicate responsibility for the role of reason, we make ourselves vulnerable to the fundamentalists and dogmatists of every type. Critical analysis never leads us to the final act of faith, but it can and should eliminate roadblocks along the way.

In conclusion, I quote with appreciation some helpful words of Hans Küng:

Theological study does not solve any problems of decision. It can only define the scope and the limits within which an answer is possible and appropriate. It can remove impediments, clarify prejudices, bring to a head the crisis of unbelief and superstition. . . It can examine whether an assent is not unreasonable . . . It can help to guide the process of decision-making in a rational way [On Being a Christian, p. 515).

This, I hope, is the road still ahead in theology.


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