North American Theology in the Twentieth Century
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com.. The following paper was written in August, 1991.
I. The Perspective
I take heart from Mark's indication that what is needed by mid-September is not a finished paper but a discussion-starter of some sort. This frees me to write in a quite personal style and very impressionistically. The task is not, I think, to inform members of the group about matters of which they are ignorant. It is simply to provide one person's picture of what has happened and is happening as a basis for sharing. I will hope for significant feedback from the group before I undertake to write a paper for publication.
There is in any case some advantage, at least initially, in this frankly perspectival approach. If we have learned anything in this century, it is the impossibility of objectivity. The Gestalt of twentieth-century theology that I will offer does not exist objectively there in the data or, more accurately from my point of view, it is one of many Gestalts that can be truly discerned there. No one of them is the correct Gestalt.
I do not conclude from this to a complete relativism. It would be possible to write accounts of what has happened in this century that were simply erroneous. Indeed, there will probably be some outright errors in this one. This is all the more likely, since I am writing at my cabin, away from any library. But more important, alternative true Gestalts differ as to their usefulness and relevance to the task and needs at hand. If the need now is to find a way forward for those on the critical left end of the theological spectrum, the preferred Gestalt will be quite different from the one that would be useful for a group of conservative evangelicals.
A double selective process is at work. First, of the large number of books and essays that can be construed as theological, the two Gestalts mentioned above will refer to different sets. These will overlap. But when I write for the Workgroup on Constructive Theology, I will simply ignore many of the books that would justifiably be seen as important by conservative evangelicals. Secondly, even where there is extensive overlap in the writings considered, the questions and issues that govern the perception and interpretation of the writings will be markedly different.
Before launching into the Gestalt itself, I feel the need to reflect a bit more about what I am doing, about what criteria are at work. It is clear that I am not engaged in judging theological writings in terms of their effectiveness among Christian believers. As the century has passed, the church market for theological writings of the sort I will emphasize has declined drastically. The books that sell in quantity to lay people are on a spectrum of which conservative evangelicals are the liberal end. If "church theology" means the theology expressed in the preaching and worship of most Christian congregations in this country today, then a Gestalt of church theology would be appropriate for conservative evangelicals, but not for us.
Does that mean that what we need is to disconnect what we understand as theology altogether from the churches. This is the move that Tom Altizer made decades ago. He understands theology in a deeply Hegelian way. The theologian's task is to discern the movement of Geist and to become a part of that movement. Geist, of course, refers to the cutting edge of creative novelty that grows out of and advances the cutting edges of the past. For the past three centuries organized Christianity has defined itself defensively in relation to Geist; so church theology cannot be authentic Christian theology. Indeed, from Altizer's point of view, any effort to relate authentic theology to actual churches is doomed to futility. This is as true of the efforts to deconstruct the tradition as of those to reconstruct it.
I think it is clear that our group does not follow Altizer either. We are not seeking a theology wholly disconnected from the church. Partly because of the consistency of Altizer's challenge, I decided long ago to identify myself as a church theologian, even if I could not mean by that what I described above. I think that in that decision I am at one with the dominant commitment of the Workgroup.
Perhaps our shared dilemma today is how we can think in and for the church when we are disconnected from the dominant interests of the church. Sociologically and institutionally the church continues to pay our salaries and to allow us to instruct future ministers. It allows us a great amount of freedom in our teaching and writing. Most of us find this an enjoyable and rewarding role. Yet what the church really wants of us in this role is in tension with what most of us are doing. As a result, the situation is unstable, and our need to reflect on who we are, and on how we might try to affect the church, grows more urgent. It is by no means certain that the opportunities we have had will be available in future generations.
This historical risk may seem remote to some of us. But we have all witnessed the two largest Christian bodies in this country crack down on their theologians. I refer to the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist denomination. I was fearful before the last General Conference that the third largest Christian body, the United Methodist Church, would adopt a theological statement that would provide weapons to those Methodists who would like to silence some of the voices now being heard. Fortunately, that did not happen. But it would be a mistake to suppose that our freedom is permanently secured, without regard to how we exercise it. The growing gap between our teaching and what the churches desire in the education of pastors, increases the likelihood of restrictions.
I think of our group as representative of a fairly large community of Christian thinkers who are a product of a very particular history. We are rooted in the church and genuinely want to serve it. Yet we are alienated from the recently dominant currents within the churches. Our definition of what would really serve the church is markedly different from the way the churches want to be served.
We are often critical of church leadership, but the truth is that if we had leadership responsibility in the institution we would not be able to do anything very different. The problem is not one that can be readily rectified by electing different people to high office. The problem is more that what we understand to be the true heart of our faith is different from the faith that motivates the great majority of church people, and that we have not found a way of swaying more than a rather small minority.
I have laid out my assumptions about our social location in some detail, because if I am wrong here, then much of the Gestalt I offer will be askew so far as its relevance is concerned. Since I have had so little personal involvement with the group, I may indeed misjudge its nature. Perhaps there are a number in it who are more comfortable than I suppose with the situation in the churches. Or perhaps there are those who have lost interest in the church and who either follow Altizer or take religious studies as their context. Or perhaps there are those who see the church as a worthwhile context within which to pursue their particular goals without feeling any responsibility to or for the church as a whole. If any of these orientations are prominent, then indeed my approach is not on target.
The truth is, of course, that I have projected much of my own situation on the group, and that what follows will be from my perspective. From that perspective it is helpful to understand how we are similar and different from our forebears in recent generations. It is also worthwhile to trace the course of events that has led to the odd character and precariousness of our present situation.
One more disclaimer. I am writing from the point of view of the dominant white male. I understand that Shawn Copeland will be writing on "suppressed knowledges." I will be presenting the history as it has been experienced by the dominant white male tradition. For that tradition, the one that has been most visible and powerful, Black theology, to take one important example, appeared in the late 1960's. It simply did not exist earlier in the century. That this is a judgment upon the dominant white male who claimed to be Christian now goes without saying. Someday we may be able to write a history of twentieth-century theology in the United States in which the many creative strands of Christian thinking during the period are displayed as shared sources for the emerging synthesis. Perhaps that is the vocation of this group. But I do not understand my assignment as going far in that direction. If I had understood it in that way, I would have declined. Today that task can only be a group project, and if a first draft by one person is desired, that person should be one who lives deeply out of one of the "suppressed knowledges."
II. The Social Gospel
From my perspective the first decades of this century were a period of relative health in theology. This does not mean that great systematic theologies were being written. But it does mean that serious Christian thinking was closely related to the best in the life of the church.
The movement that dominated the creative edge of church life and church thought was the social gospel. This was a response to the human suffering engendered by the industrial revolution in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest. It was led by pastors, with academicians and church bureaucrats falling into line.
The discovery of the pastors was profound and radical. It was that the Christian gospel as it had come down to them from the Reformation and had been refashioned on the American frontier was fundamentally wrong. The good news had been understood to be that in Jesus Christ God had met the conditions for the salvation of individual persons, that all that was required of the individual was faith, which was itself a gift of God.
This inherited gospel was certainly not oblivious to the conditions of life here and now. Especially in the dominant Calvinist tradition, there had been repeated efforts to order society as a whole in a way that fulfilled God's purposes. One who received the gift of salvation from God would express love toward the neighbor in deeds of charity and justice. But especially in the United States until late in the nineteenth century, the individualism of the salvation of souls was primary.
A good many pastors discovered that this individualistic approach simply did not touch the real suffering and injustice that the industrial revolution brought with it. To save individual souls and leave this suffering and injustice unchanged could not, they believed, fulfill their calling to serve Christ. Returning to the Synoptic Gospels, they saw that at the heart of Jesus' message was the Kingdom of God. They interpreted this to be an earthly society in which God's will is done. And they found much Biblical support for the view that God's will is justice and social righteousness.
The radical conclusion that they drew, is that the salvation proclaimed by the gospel is first and foremost the salvation of society as a whole. Individual salvation has its meaning and place only in relation to that!
What is astonishing, looking back, is not so much that this radical idea emerged, but that it penetrated the churches and came to be a controlling force in the leadership and bureaucracy of many of them. Of course, in the process, the full radicalism was softened. Individual and social salvation were affirmed as of equal importance, and the definition of the former was not as closely tied to the latter as by some of the leaders of the social gospel. Many Christians accepted the call to justice and righteousness in society without changing their views that social concern and action flowed forth in a secondary way from personal salvation. But the fact remains that generations of youth were energized by what they experienced as a new vision of what it means to be a Christian, that the mainline Protestant churches formed ecumenical organizations to work together to implement the new vision, and that, finally, in the depression, many of their practical proposals for social reform were implemented.
It is often supposed that the social gospel was antithetical to personal piety, and some do immerse themselves in social causes without caring about the inner life either of themselves or of those with whom they work. But it is not my impression that this hiatus characterized either the leaders or the followers by and large. Of course, the piety of bringing in the Kingdom was different from that which concentrates on the private relation of the soul to God, but it did not exclude that altogether. Growing up in the ebb of the social gospel, but in a denomination in which that ebb lasted a long time, I can testify that on the whole the persons I encountered who had the greatest fervor about reforming society were also those who seemed personally to be the most devout Christians.
During the same period there was a great deal of interest in religious experience. The psychology of religion was taking shape and influencing religious education and pastoral counseling. Today we might be inclined to juxtapose this more individualistic exploration to the social gospel, but at the time I think it was generally felt more as a division of labor in the process of bringing Christianity relevantly into the twentieth century than as sharp opposition.
The same could be said of the interest in the relation of science and religion that was the legacy of the evolutionary controversy. In progressive circles there were two main ways of dealing with this issue. One, influenced by European philosophy, was dualistic. In its view, there is the sphere within which science should have full freedom, and the other sphere that belongs to ethics and religion. In this solution it is held that the subject matters of science and religion are so distinct that when both are careful to stay within their allotted bounds, there can be no conflict.
The second solution, the more characteristically American one, was to develop a worldview that took account of the findings of science and to reinterpret religion in a way that fitted with it. The Bible could be read as the evolutionary or progressive discovery of the truth about God, a truth that is quite compatible with biological evolution. This truth about God could also be integrated with the thinking of the social gospel and the findings of the students of religious experience.
You may feel that I am romanticizing a bye-gone era, but I do not think so. I think it was the last period in our national history in which being a Christian and being at what was felt as the cutting edge of fresh thinking and social transformation went easily together for large numbers of young people -- and adults as well. The belief that the twentieth century would be the Christian century was convincing and did not feel oppressive or imperialistic. The Student Volunteer Movement attracted many of the leaders on college campuses to give their lives, often in other countries, to bring to them a Christianity committed to justice.
Needless to say this apparently successful wholistic vision and practice was exceedingly fragile. It was in principle open to new ideas and to criticism; so it could not defend itself against these. Yet it depended on selective attention to the social ills in the United States and ignorance of the complex relations between religion and culture in other parts of the world. It depended on the assumption that there has been progress in Western history. It assumed that the Christianization of the society that Western history has produced can engender a fundamentally satisfactory solution to the world's problems. It depended on the view that people can be deeply motivated by the truth, that Western education is in general an instrument for conveying that truth, and that the effects of internalizing truth are salvific. In short, from our perspective, it depended on an extremely parochial and naively optimistic view of American society and of the power of human rationality.
Perhaps the first part of this synthesis to become seriously doubtful within the American church was the religio-cultural parochialism. The First World Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair, had opened Americans to the positive significance of Asian religions. This openness played a considerable role in both the churches and the seminaries. Even in boards of missions there were some suggestions that the real struggle was of the higher religions against the rising tide of secularism and atheism, rather than conversion from one religion to another. Doubts about efforts at such conversion were sufficiently serious as to lead to the sending of the layman's commission to investigate first-hand what was happening on the mission field. The report of William Ernest Hocking, its chairman, and his subsequent writings played an important role in shaking some of the parochialism associated with the social gospel.
Analogous movements in Europe were brought to a dramatic end by World War I. That war was by no means so devastating in the American psyche. On the contrary, many felt that it was one more step in the extension of democratic and Christian values. Hence, American theology in the twenties was not in marked discontinuity with that of the teens. But the depression of the thirties, combined with the rise of dictatorships in Europe, finally shook the American spirit and opened it to new voices.
Already in the twenties, a few sensitive American Christians were hearing the new voices from central Europe and reappraising the social gospel in light of these. By the thirties these voices became a major force in creating a new climate in which adherents of the earlier synthesis were increasingly on the defensive in intellectual circles. Meanwhile the ecumenical movement came under the influence of neo-orthodox Europeans, and this drew many church leaders into their orbit.
The criticism of the social gospel was joined by others who came to their criticism out of internal participation in it. Of these, Reinhold Niebuhr was by far the most important. Whereas the interpreters of Barth and Brunner were influential chiefly in Calvinist academic circles and among denominational leaders, Niebuhr entered the public discussion and reshaped the American scene.
No doubt in this appraisal I am too much affected by my personal experience. Studying at Chicago after World War II, I was, of course, exposed to Barth and Brunner. But their way of thinking appeared reactionary despite its sophistication. On the other hand, it seemed to me that all of my professors were engaged in serious wrestling with Reinhold Niebuhr. He formulated the critique of earlier forms of American thought in ways they could not dismiss. Subsequently, also, I came to the conclusion that my whole generation was Niebuhrian to the extent of having internalized his criticisms of the social gospel and appropriated much of his anthropology.
III. The Niebuhrian Generation
Section II dealt with the flourishing and fall of the social gospel. I have used this as the Gestalt to cover the first four decades of this century in the United States. I concluded by speaking of a Niebuhrian generation. I have indicated above the common elements I discern in Niebuhr's influence. Obviously, they do not constitute a common theology or even a common program. Also, as I describe the Niebuhrian generation, the contrast with Niebuhr himself will become apparent. Nevertheless, I shall use the label to characterize the period from the end of World War II to 1965.
The beginning of the separation of theology from the life of the church can be found in this period. Certainly, Niebuhr was himself a churchman par excellence and deeply concerned with church policies and practices. Certainly also, his ideas were
profoundly influential in the churches. But it is hard to derive from his work a unifying direction for the churches.
Consider the matter of social reform. Niebuhr strongly supported continuing efforts to bring justice, and like the social gospel writers before him, he focused on the injustices generated by the industrial revolution. Hence, in one sense his leadership did not redirect church energies. Nevertheless, it created two problems for churches influenced by him.
First, whereas the social gospel writers had called on the church to act nonviolently and to support nonviolent ways of getting justice, Niebuhr saw the limits of what could be attained in that way and also that the appeal to nonviolence actually stacked the cards against the workers. It was far harder to rally Christian sentiment in support of worker violence than in favor of the application of nonviolent love.
Second, whereas the social gospel had seen a series of social goals that could be achieved, one by one, by mobilizing the loving energies of Christians, Niebuhr saw that the achievement of one set of goals, however meritorious, always led to a new balance of power that would in its turn be corrupted. As Niebuhr himself knew, it is hard to mobilize sustained effort to attain what is known in advance as a temporary and unstable good. On the whole the Niebuhrian generation of theologians were far less involved in struggles for justice than had been either Niebuhr himself or the social gospel writers he criticized. The churches did not withdraw from social programming, but this became secondary, as in the pre-social gospel days.
The social gospel in synthesis with the psychology of religion had made it possible for the various pastoral functions to have coherence. What one did as preacher was continuous with what one did in religious education and pastoral counseling. The Niebuhrian generation had no consensus about a new synthesis to put in place of the old. Religious education and pastoral counseling had to look away from theology to find their inspiration and direction. Only preaching could be directly affected.
There was no consensus as to the meaning of salvation. In general, salvation was once again related more to the individual than to society. The Kingdom of God was seen more as a principle of judgment on every society than as a realizable ideal that could be identified with the salvation that Christians seek. For some, salvation once again took on a supernatural cast; for others, it was described existentially; for still others, depth psychology began to play an increasing role in defining the goal. But on the whole, the churches were left with little guidance from the community of theologians and relapsed into a vagueness that allowed traditional notions of rewards and punishments after death to recover the predominance they had held before the social gospel, so far as popular church thinking was concerned.
In the early decades of the century, theology was not clearly separated from other styles of thought. The most influential thinkers might be philosopher-psychologists such as William James or social-historians such as Shirley Jackson Case. The greatest figure in the social gospel movement itself, Walter Rauschenbusch, wrote many books before he undertook one entitled "theology." Even Reinhold Niebuhr never called himself a theologian in the narrow professional sense.
In contrast, the Niebuhrian generation was composed of persons who were quite self-consciously Christian theologians, and their colleagues usually left theology to them. These theologians accepted the responsibility to interpret and transmit the theological tradition in responsible and relevant ways. This was felt to be inherently worthwhile. Only so could authentic Christian faith be credible to honest and open members of society.
There was thus a practical purpose in pursuing theology. If the church did not maintain a voice in the contemporary debate about the nature of reality and the purpose of human life, it could not hold or attract the kind of leaders it needed for the future. Also theologians were aware, in many instances, of their own struggles to relate their Christian faith with what they learned in the university. They saw that many young Christians went through a similar agony, and they wanted to help.
Nevertheless, theology was seen as a highly theoretical activity. A great deal of attention was devoted to the question of proper theological method. For example, there was a major debate about the relation of theology to philosophy. Although decisions about this relationship had significant effects on the whole project, the debate itself could become very abstruse and remote from the questions asked even by those most personally and intellectually concerned about their faith.
The separation of theology from most issues of practice was furthered by the distinction between theologians and Christian ethicists introduced into seminary faculties early in this period. The purpose was, of course, to sharpen the church's thinking about the social issues now perceived to be far more complex than previously supposed. The effect was to freeze most Christian ethics into the theological categories employed at the time of separation and to turn the social and ethical interests of theologians into avocations to which little professional attention would be directed.
Those who engaged in these discussions certainly intended to be helping the church think through the perplexing problems of what it means to be faithful in our new situation. But in fact they allowed theology to become one academic discipline among others, with theologians writing more for one another and for seminary students than for the church or the larger society. In the church, considerable status attached to theology in those days, so that the more ambitious pastors tried to "keep up." But what they learned about theological method or about the debates between Barthians and Bultmannians did not have much direct bearing on their weekly struggles to be good pastors. Increasingly they looked elsewhere for the help they needed.
Alongside this theology that developed in university and seminary settings was another that characterized the ecumenical movement. Of course, the two overlapped, but more striking were their differences. Although university theology worked seriously and appreciatively with tradition, it tended to emphasize the gulf between ourselves and pre-Enlightenment thinkers. Bultmann's program of demythologizing had great appeal, although others would talk of interpreting traditional stories and symbols in contemporary ways. Ecumenical theology, on the other hand, dealt generally with pre-Enlightenment issues in pre-Enlightenment language, seeking a rhetoric that would heal ancient divisions. It encouraged its participants to have a much less broken relationship to classical sources.
Ecumenical theology had the advantage of practical orientation. Long-estranged churches were actually brought again into positive relationships. Century-long misinterpretations of the beliefs of other communities were overcome. Mutual respect among diverse Christian groups grew. The churches learned to speak together to the world. But to those most concerned to formulate Christian faith in a way that can be genuinely convincing in the present situation, the rhetoric of ecumenical discussion often seemed quaint or worse.
As I may have romanticized the social gospel period; so, you may feel, I have been too harsh in my appraisal of what I have called the Niebuhrian one. Much could be said of its gains. There is no question but that its use of Christian tradition was far more sophisticated and nuanced. Also its appraisal of human history was far more realistic. Its discussion of theological method was far more rigorous.
Nevertheless, looking back, I do see this as the period in which theology became separated from the church. It accepted university norms that I believe to be unhealthy in all fields, but particularly destructive for this one. And theologians became an ingrown community addressing neither the church nor the wider public. The dominant neo-orthodoxy set back promising beginnings in the earlier decades, such as the theological study and positive appraisal of other religious traditions, and it intensified some elements of the parochialism of the social gospel.
I hope you will understand that the severity of the criticism stems in part from the fact that my own formation was in this period, and I am still largely what I was then formed to be. I felt then, and still feel, a great admiration for Niebuhr. Of course, I had my own angle of vision, one that made me critical of the dominantly Neo-Orthodox tendencies of the Niebuhrian generation. To a considerable extent, I felt myself an outsider, and I was often treated as such by others. But looking back I see that what I shared with the insiders was greater than what separated us. It took the shattering of that consensus, such as it was, to liberate me as well, to whatever extent I am liberated.
IV. Radical Theologies
The 1960's were a remarkable era in world history. There was a revolutionary ferment in many parts of the globe, especially among university students. Perhaps the new prosperity following from reconstruction after World War II allowed students in Europe and Japan to turn attention away from mere survival and economic success in their societies to deal with the deep dissatisfactions they felt with those societies. Certainly in the United States the threat of being drafted into an unpopular war spurred students to consider what had brought their country into this war, and this led to a deeper critique of American society. Perhaps also the long traditions of social critique had produced a literature with a critical mass sufficient to capture attention and suggest an alternative. But what happened transcends all these suggestions of explanation.
Certainly it is not entirely a coincidence that there was a theological explosion in the second half of that decade. Yet as one examines its separate ingredients, it is an exaggeration, amounting to a falsification, to explain the key ideas primarily by reference to the general social ferment. My own inclination is to think that the attention given to certain new developments, and their effect on the general theological scene, are largely explicable in terms of the social climate, but that the ideas themselves can only be understood by study of their separate histories. That several books or bodies of literature of crucial importance for theology appeared in close proximity to one another still impresses me as coincidental or providential rather than subject to a single sociological explanation.
Consider Tom Altizer's Gospel of Christian Atheism. Its publication was a truly important event in theological history in the United States. And no doubt Tom was influenced by the radical social climate of the sixties when he wrote this. But basically this book has its place in a succession of books from Tom's pen, whose thought constitutes one continuous development. None of the earlier books, and none of the later ones, have attracted much attention, although my own opinion is that his work is intrinsically of great interest and importance. I am not sure that the actual theological content even of this one has been very influential. Still, by running directly and explicitly counter to the conventions of the Niebuhrian generation, it opened the way to a quite different theological scene.
Members of the Niebuhrian generation were quite capable of very radical statements about God, statements that were in fact just as radical as Altizer's. But these were made as part of the vocation of theologians, that is, transmitting and translating the tradition in a responsible and relevant manner. Further, this transmission and translation was carried on within the academic discipline of theology, quite clearly separated from the church. Theologians were shocked when Bishop Robinson succeeded in popularizing ideas that were commonplace for them, and thereby generating a furor in the church.
The primary focus in the Niebuhrian generation was to formulate a doctrine, faithful to the tradition, that was also credible. To be credible included, of course, that the doctrine not describe an oppressive God, but the focus was on believability by people who were affected by historical, scientific, and philosophical thought. Members of this generation felt that if they could succeed in this effort, they would have fulfilled much of their vocation. There were, to be sure, many anti-Christian atheistic critics who were unconvinced by the efforts of theologians and continued to point out both the incredibility and the oppressiveness of God. Theologians were accustomed to this debate.
Altizer's response to this whole discussion was that the meaning of the word God in the spiritual history of the world cannot be determined by a few theologians acting in the privacy of an academic discipline. The word has a power and a signification that are quite independent of stipulative definitions offered by scholars. Further, what "God" truly means is oppressive, and it is good news that the course of cultural history has put an end to God's reality. Authentic Christian faith can only express itself today in the celebration of the death of God.
Obviously, most of the Niebuhrian generation continued on its way only superficially affected by Altizer's thesis. But for sociological reasons that I only vaguely understand, theology briefly became a public discussion. People in and out of the churches were freed to express their radical views. Theology took its place alongside pornography in public toilets, at least those for men. The unconvicing character of much that was being said in academic and ecumenical theology bcame manifest. The Niebuhrian brotherhood was placed on the defensive. Its ghettoization in relation to both the wider society and the church was intensified. Increasingly it has been excluded from the university as well, so that its only role has come to be in theological seminaries.
Consider now James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power. There is very little continuity between it and Altizer's work. It arose out of a very different course of events. Yet it appeared during the same period, and it may be that the climate of that time gave it also the visibility and importance that it clearly has had.
The timing of Cone's book is to be explained by the rise of the Black Power movement out of, and in reaction to, Martin Luther King's civil rights struggle. One of Cone's purposes was to show that Christian faith was not against the strong assertions of the new movement. Their apparently racist character had justification from the perspective of Christianity itself.
Cone abided by more of the established rules than did Altizer. His use of Biblical and traditional materials was more acceptable. But he used these materials to raise a question about the work of the Niebuhrian generation that was just as radical as Altizer's. Altizer relegated our work to triviality because it did not take seriously the real intellectual-cultural-spiritual movements of the world. Cone exposed it as immoral and unChristian because it ignored the fact that it expressed the perspective and interests of the oppressor race. It presented itself as Christian theology when in fact it was, like all white Euro-American theology, an ideology of whiteness.
Of course, there are elements of exaggeration in Cone's critique. One can show that he makes use of contributions by whites in his argument against them. One can show that there are elements in theological history that preserve the kind of self-criticism that is needed. But these defenses do not amount to much. The plain truth is that white theologians, even those of the social gospel period, ignored the situation of oppression suffered by blacks and made few and superficial connections between their theology and the egregious evils of slavery and segregation. We assumed that our situation was normative for Christian thinking, and we viewed the ideas and beliefs of the black church as naive and theologically unimportant. We admired Martin Luther King, but we did not think of his writings as serious theology.
Furthermore, the issue is not simply the blindness of us white theologians. This blindness is bound up with our reading of scripture and our explicit theological developments. The topics that have interested us and the way we have treated them can only be understood in terms of our social location, and this is one of being oppressors. Theology written by the oppressed will be very different throughout, and it will also be in greater continuity with the Bible, since the Bible was written by oppressed people.
Many of the same messages came from Latin American theology. Here, Gustavo Gutierrez' Theology of Liberation was the crucial book. Again, this theology arose in the same period, but the reasons seems quite independent. It was the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and the 1968 meeting of the Latin American bishops at Medellin that released the energies of Latin American priests and theologians to act and think in new channels.
Ironically, it was easier for white North Americans to appropriate liberation theology from Latin Americans than from North American blacks. This was, I think, for several reasons. First, its gospel of liberation could be understood as somewhat continuous with the social gospel. Its use of socialist analysis had antecedents in some of the social gospel writers. Second, although the issues raised had direct relevance to U.S. foreign policy and the practices of U.S. businesses, their implications were less immediately threatening than were black demands. Third, the style of argumentation was more familiar and congenial. Fourth, the quantity and range of this theology has been truly impressive. As a result Latin American liberation theology has been more fully mainstreamed in North American theology than has black theology. We whites still do not know how to deal with the fact that our theology is white.
Feminist theology emerged in the same period. It is harder for me to identify a single book in this case, but, speaking confessionally, it was Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father that awakened me from my dogmatic slumbers, and I think I am not unusual among white male North American theologians in this respect. Again, the history that gave rise to this book is a distinct one, involving the whole feminist movement, but also the hopes raised and dashed among Catholic women by the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath.
In one respect the shock to white male North American theologians produced by feminist theology was softened by the parallel to Black theology. Black theology had already forced us to accept the adjectival character of what we were doing and of the whole tradition whose heirs we held ourselves to be. To recognize that gender had played a role throughout, just as race had, was difficult, but more an extension of an already appropriated insight than a radically new idea.
On the other hand, feminist theology raised questions about the Bible in a truly radical way. Black and Latin American theologians had appealed to the Bible against subsequent theological developments. Even Altizer related himself positively to the Bible. But feminists pointed out that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are themselves patriarchal. Furthermore, this is not merely a reflection of the times. It is also a theological commitment made in criticism of other options at the time.
Of course, most theologians were accustomed to criticizing particular positions adopted by Biblical authors. The fact that there were many unacceptable doctrines affirmed in Scripture could be assimilated. For example, that the cosmology assumed by the Biblical writers is prescientific and untenable had long been evident.
But the situation with respect to patriarchy is different. If the Bible is fundamentally patriarchal, and if we must now recognize that patriarchy is one more form of oppression, perhaps the most fundamental of all, then how can Biblical authority be asserted at all? And without Biblical authority, what can Christian theology be?
These questions are among those with which feminist theologians and sympathetic male theologians continue to struggle, while many feminists simply turn their backs on Christianity. Feminism raises the question about the justification of continuing the Christian tradition at all, whereas black and Latin American theologians primarily call us to be more fully and responsibly Christian.
The criticism of Scripture as norm has also come from those theologians who have been most deeply affected by Christian responsibility for the Holocaust. With all of its horror, that event has finally forced Christians to examine their teaching with respect to how it affects the attitudes of Christians toward Jews. It turns out that subtle, and not at all subtle, anti-Jewish teaching pervades the Christian tradition. And it turns out that this tradition begins with the New Testament itself, especially the widely beloved Gospel of John, where the villains are always the Jews.
Those who are leading us in this reflection point out that what is at stake is not only the nature of the authority of the New Testament but also our whole understanding of what it means to be Christians. So much of our self-definition from New Testament times on has been over against Judaism. As long as that is the case, no amount of care in formulating what we are against in Judaism will save us from perpetuating enmity. Can we come to an understanding of what it means to be Christians that does not involve this opposition?
The relationship to Judaism is more important than that to other religious communities because of its central role in the self-definition of Christianity and the long history of Christian persecution of Jews. But since the rise of radical theologies, Christian understanding in relation to all the other religious traditions is again part of the conversation. We know that we cannot continue the tradition of simply claiming Christian superiority. But if Christianity is not superior, how should it relate to the other traditions? Is there any justification in continuing Christian missions? Does it make sense to continue to talk about Christian theology without the context of the other traditions?
Radical proposals are made that we abandon the myth of incarnation and, indeed, all doctrines that cannot be accepted by members of other religious communities. Another equally radical, but very different, proposal is that we keep the fullness of our traditional teaching but recognize this as just one cultural-religious-linguistic system alongside others. Still others look for some kind of syncretism or for a truly new religion that draws on the best of the traditional ones.
In some ways more shocking than the renewal of the demand to take other great religious traditions seriously and appreciatively, is the awareness of the truth and wisdom in the supposedly "primitive" religions. Earlier in the century, when there was a positive appreciation of the Asian traditions, it was in part because they shared with us the status of being "higher." Now we see that in the movement from the hunting and gathering society to the great civilizations, as much was lost as gained. Indeed, it is possible to understand the hunting and gathering cultures as those which understood rightly how to be in the world. One can then interpret all that has happened through the domestication of plants and animals and the rise of cities as repressive of what is truly human and oppressive of most human beings by a dominating few.
If civilization as such is the evil, and if Christianity is the greatest bearer and extender of civilization, then Christianity is the most evil force in history. This charge, too, must be taken seriously, as we recognize the truth in the perceptions of the peoples of the Fourth World. In my opinion, this is the challenge to which, thus far, the least response has been given.
One of the reasons that I have felt forced to take this charge very seriously is that it has become clearer and clearer that the present destruction of the environment is continuous with that which has been taking place ever since the domestication of plants and animals. Its pace and scale, certainly, are far more terrifying today. Doomsday now looms in the next century. Since the late sixties we have realized that Biblical teaching, at least as interpreted in the West, has encouraged and sanctioned this rush toward human self-destruction through the degradation of the biosphere and the exhaustion of resources. The analysis and reconstruction of Christian theology to overcome this destructiveness is urgent.
Related to the realistic warnings of eco-catastrophe, but also quite different, are the voices of those who would speak for the animals. The animal rights movement focuses on the suffering of individual animals, especially domesticated ones. Its call on Christianity to outgrow its historic anthropocentrism is particularly poignant and clear, as is the anthropocentric resistance that characterizes so many Christians, even radical ones.
There are many other radical theologies. Once we have recognized the adjectival character of theology, every ethnic group has had space to speak. I shall make no effort to list these. They are important for the formerly silent group and for the church's understanding. But they only adjust in detail the fundamental structural challenge to theology.
Of the other radical voices that have been heard so much more clearly since the mid-sixties, I will mention only one: the voice of the body and especially its sexuality. Much progress has been made here. The recovery of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body overagainst the immortality of the soul helped to prepare for Christian reaffirmation of the goodness of bodily existence and its sexuality. Feminists have carried this forward and given concreteness to what had otherwise been quite abstract teaching. In doing so they have also given voice to Lesbian sensibility. On the other hand, it seems that the voice of gays is still unheard except as the cry for justice. We need to hear them also into speech.
The relations of these radical theologies to the church vary widely. At one extreme, Altizer neither sought nor gained a hearing within the church, much less a following. His audience is the wider culture.
At the opposite extreme, Latin American liberation theology has had much the relation to Latin American churches that the social gospel had to the North American churches. This is the most positive model of recent years. Unfortunately, the Vatican is opposed to the more radical implications of liberation theology, and it is trying with some success to force the movement back into line.
Black theology has had some rootage in the black churches, but its acceptance in them has been disappointingly limited. This is one of the reasons that, after so promising a start, it has not flourished to the same extent as its Latin American cousin. Nevertheless, many of its insights have found their way into the thinking of sensitive Christians, black and white. It has given greater self-confidence to black denominations, and it has led to effective caucuses in predominantly white denominations. It has also contributed to the increased presence of black faculty in the major seminaries.
Feminist theology has contributed to gains by women in positions of leadership in the oldline Protestant denominations. It has raised consciousness about the use of sexist language in the churches and resulted in some changes there. But its truly radical implications have not been heard, or, to the extent they have been heard, they have been rejected. The task of bringing feminist insight, in distinction from women, into effective contact with the church, remains an extremely difficult one. But the increasing presence of women with feminist sympathies in positions of leadership in the church may open the way to more radical changes in due course.
The recognition of the need to repent for Christian anti-Judaism has made some headway in the churches. There are efforts to change in such a way as to soften, if not wholly to remove, this aspect of Christian teaching. Of course, the full radicalism of what is needed is still not understood.
Attitudes toward other religious traditions, even "primitive" ones, are changing in wide sections of the churches. Missions are being redefined. Dialogue is being affirmed and enthusiastically pursued.
The churches are now committing themselves to a concern for the natural world. A good deal of quite perceptive thinking is going into this. Here, too, the full meaning of the changes needed is not appreciated, but the progress is impressive. Discussion of animal rights has hardly begun, and is still strongly resisted, but there are signs of change even there.
In the area of sexuality, confusion reigns. Traditional morality is on the defensive, but it still has the votes. With regard to homosexuals, the line is still drawn against any actively homosexual lifestyle, as if homosexuality as such were a matter of morality. Nevertheless, the debate is on, and there are many courageous voices within the church calling for a new understanding and practice.
This recital should make clear a surprising fact. The life of the church is being affected much more by the radical theologies of the seventies and eighties than it was by the Niebuhrian generation. Of course, there is far more opposition, and this opposition is currently gaining ground. That is why I indicated at the beginning that there is danger that our freedom to speak in radical ways as paid servants of the church may not last. But there may also be the possibility that the reaction is temporary and that a new synthesis can emerge based on the multiplicity of new voices and radical insights. There is always a chance that a coherent new vision could capture significant elements of the church and play in the future a role analogous to liberation theology in Latin America or the social gospel in an earlier generation here.
V. The Constructive Task
My assigned title is "Theology in the USA: Types of Approaches." I have been asked to focus especially on the contemporary scene. I was asked to write this paper chiefly, I think, because, after participating in the Workgroup's 1982 Christian Theology, I called it a swan song. In terms of the Gestalt I have proposed here, I can describe that as the swan song of the Niebuhrian generation. In broader terms, I can call it the swan song of modernist theology in the United States, understanding by modernist theology the church's intellectual response to the issues raised by the Enlightenment. Although the chapters noted the rise of new issues, the book did not come to terms with the fact that the issues raised by the Enlightenment no longer capture the attention and concern of either church or society. To some extent, it recognized the emergence of new voices, but it treated them as offering new challenges to the one normative tradition rather than as an occasion for re-thinking the nature and task of theology.
I am assuming that, in this context, I am not asked to survey dispassionately the range of approaches to theology that can now be discovered in this country. Instead, my assignment is to discuss those approaches that take seriously the new pluralism and the contextualization of theology, but still continue to pursue the constructive task. The issue is what a post-modernist constructive theology can look like. With this in mind I shall discuss five approaches.
The contextualist move that is currently most attractive in the churches is the one well represented by George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas. Whereas the Niebuhrian generation was concerned that what is said theologically make sense in the intellectual climate shaped by modern thought, the new approach is to recognize that all thought is a function of language, and that all language is culturally specific. The Christian language, like all languages, has a logic and an integrity of its own. This involves no assertions one way or another about the value or validity of other cultural-linguistic systems or about the relation of Christian faith to any nonlinguistic reality. But it does define what it means to be Christian. The task of the church is to socialize people into the Christian cultural-linguistic system in such a way that their lives individually and together authentically express the implications of living out of that system.
Although this move does take with great seriousness the contextual character of theology, it does so in a way quite different from that to which the workgroup is committed. Its strong tendency is to find the norms for Christians in the depths of the inherited dominant tradition. That tradition is relativized in relation to non-Christian traditions, but the relativization of particular Christian traditions, including especially the dominant ones, is not part of the program. Since I believe the workgroup is committed to this second relativization, I do not see this approach as available for its use.
The second approach that I propose we consider is that of Juergen Moltmann. His theological program emerged in Germany at the same time as the radical theologies appeared in this country, and it shared with them a shift from the issues posed by the Enlightenment to practical historical ones. The affinities of his theology of hope to the various liberation theologies soon became apparent. To a truly remarkable extent Moltmann has been able to hear new voices as they arose, to learn from them, and to incorporate what he has learned into his ongoing theological development.
It is important to see that this is not just personal temperament and skill, although these play their role. The shift of attention to the future makes possible an openness that is much more difficult to attain if one finds the essence of Christianity somewhere in the past. Pannenberg has worked this out systematically in relation to other religious traditions, but his view of the movement of history puts an emphasis on the continuity of great intellectual traditions in a way that tends to silence the voices of the oppressed. Moltmann understands the historical movement toward the future in terms of a process of concrete liberation. Hence he can incorporate more and more ingredients of that liberation.
Moltmann's approach is practically revolutionary in relation to the dominant Christian tradition. Nevertheless, it works with that tradition in traditional ways. The appeal is to traditional authorities, above all, to the Bible. This has been his great strength. It has gained for him a hearing in the church throughout the world. It has enabled him to help redirect the attention of the World Council of Churches to issues of liberation. All of us interested in liberation owe him a great debt.
On the other hand, his acceptance of traditional patterns of authority also constitutes a limitation from the point of view of this workgroup. Feminist theology, especially, constitutes a challenge to Biblical authority. Although Moltmann is supportive of feminist concerns, the extent to which he has been able to internalize them in his theology is necessarily limited.
I personally find another limitation in his work. He makes clear a problem that I have with much radical theology. By shifting attention from Enlightenment questions of credibility to postmodern questions of practical effect, radical theology has accomplished a great deal. I hope that what I have written above about the Niebuhrian generation and radical theology will show that I do not underestimate this gain. Nevertheless, I do not believe that postmodern theology can avoid the question of credibility. I for one cannot believe something simply because the consequences of believing it seem desirable. Nor can I believe it simply because it is central to past Christian teaching and imagery or part of the cultural-linguistic system that is called Christian. And although my need is in part temperamental and idiosyncratic, I believe it also reflects something about human beings quite generally. Moltmann pays very little attention to this feature of the human condition.
My own project is formally parallel with Moltmann's. I also come from the dominant Euro-American tradition and seek to change it in such a way that it will be receptive to new voices. I differ in that I find in Christ a basis for critical liberation from many aspects of Biblical teaching. The pattern here is much like that of those who appeal to the prophetic principle as the Biblical basis for criticizing the Bible. I turn to Christ because I believe that Christian faith is inherently Christocentric, and that if Christianity is to be transformed, it has to be by appeal to this center.
By "Christ" I do not mean Jesus, although Christ cannot be disconnected from Jesus. By "Christ" I mean God's incarnate presence in the world, a presence that always expresses itself as creative transformation. Creative transformation is a process that is taking place at all times and places but that is particularly manifest in Jesus and in his impact on human history. It is a process in which the new comes into relationship with the old in a way that enriches the whole. It does not break the continuity to the past, but it alters the way that past informs the present.
I believe this process was brilliantly described by Henry Nelson Wieman in empirical terms and that the specultive philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead displays its ontological ground. My only contribution is to name it Christ and to offer theological justification for doing so. Faithfulness to Christ supports our recognition of our rootedness in the Bible and the history it recounts, but it alters the nature of Biblical authority as it opens us to awareness of the patriarchal character of all our Scripture and tradition.
I find this move strong where Moltmann's is weak. It allows for, even demands, greater openness to the most radical voices including those that oppose Biblical authority. It grounds faith in empirical and ontological analysis without separating it from history. But it is weak where Moltmann's is strong. It has gained no role in the church, and its radical approach to scriptural authority, together with the appearance of being tied to a particular philosophical tradition, may preclude its ever attaining any acceptance.
Another model is provided by Latin American liberation theology. This model differs from the two above in that it is the self-expression of one the new voices rather than an attempt to adapt the dominant tradition to the new voices. This is a very important difference, and it points to an approach available to each of the radical theologies. That is, a radical theology, whether giving expression to gender or ethnic perspectives (or to the rights of animals, for that matter), may develop into a comprehensive constructive theology appropriating from other traditions including the dominant one.
In practice Latin American liberation theology follows a pattern similar to Moltmann's. Whereas Moltmann initially selected "hope" as the hermeneutical key to scripture, the Latin Americans selected liberation. By this they meant quite concrete socio-economic liberation, the sort that can be attained by political revolution, although they did not limit it to that. They have succeeded brilliantly in constructing a complete theological system around this hermeneutic, one that can take its place beside the great constructive theologies of the past.
The great advantage of the Latin American approach over that of Moltmann has been its concreteness. It has clear and immediate meaning in the Latin American situation. In this way, it is truly contextualized. However, unless it is asserted simply to be theology for the oppressed classes of Latin America, it must claim broader relevance, and in fact it does so. For this extension, its concreteness is its limitation. One must describe it as the most fully developed example of contextualized theology, and thus as a model for contextualization in other places. But that implies that there is a higher level of generalization about what theology should be in all places and at all times that needs fuller articulation. This might be something like Moltmann's theology of hope, which, of course, requires contextualization in each time and place.
Beginning with one context, as Latin American theology has, and specifying the hermeneutical principle quite concretely rather than more formally, have the disadvantage that hearing what is said by other radical voices may be very difficult. Latin Americans have had difficulty assimilating insights from blacks, feminists, critics of civilization, and defenders of nature. This is not to say that they have been unwilling to try, or that they have failed in their attempts. I am referring only to an inherent tension between a more formal and a more material norm. Each has its strength, and each has its limitation.
There is, I am sure, no disposition in this workgroup to discourage continuing efforts to construct full-fledged theologies out of the insights of any one of the radical theologies. Yet this does not seem to be its special task or calling. My own recommendation is that it take as its model the approach of the Theology of the Americas conferences.
These conferences brought together Latin Americans, blacks, and feminists. The assumption was that these three groups of radical theologians had shared concerns, but there was no effort to identify these agreements in advance of the conference. Instead, the conferences were set up as no-holds-barred interactions among passionately committed Christians whose commitments were obviously quite divergent, even opposed. The faith of the organizers was that out of such interaction would emerge something of value. There was no need to know in advance what that would be.
The faith of the organizers was vindicated. The three groups worked through much of their mutual suspicion and hostility and came to the point of hearing what the other groups positively had to say. Each group was changed in the process, in that its understanding of the needed liberation was enlarged. In my opinion these conferences largely ended the possibility of opponents playing one group off against the others.
As a model for the workgroup, of course, I do not have in mind a repetition of those conferences. What I do have in mind is fostering an interaction among representatives of various radical theologies that leads to the emergence of a way of thinking to which all can subscribe. This will not, of course, include all the richness of each of the separate traditions, but it will be a theology that can coordinate their common efforts.
I want to make as clear as possible that this is not the process of discovering what is common to the several theologies. In the case of the Theologies of the Americas conferences, what emerged was not a commonality that existed at the outset. It was only out of the interaction that Latin Americans were able honestly to acknowledge the importance of race and gender, that blacks could acknowledge the importance of class and gender, and that feminists could acknowledge the importance of class and race. In some instances there has been continuing work to integrate these several considerations more deeply.
There are at least two respects in which the model must be extended. First, there are other radical theologies to be brought into the discussion. The emergent unity of the Theology of the Americas did little to oppose the continuing destruction of the tropical rainforests, or cruelty to domestic animals, or the exclusion of homosexuals from full humanity. They were even compatible with continuing Christian anti-Judaism and lack of appreciation of other religious communities.
Second, a major consideration must be integration with the heirs of the majority tradition. If these are treated simply as outsiders or, worse, as the enemy, no emerging consensus of radical theologians can guide the church. Still this approach differs from Moltmann's and mine in that the heretofore dominant tradition is acknowledged as simply one among others rather than as the place to begin.
The task I propose for the workgroup is a demanding one. Of course, in fact, no one group can ever carry it through. What the workgroup can do is to model this different approach to theology in illustrative and suggestive ways. That would be a great contribution, one that might also gain new appreciation and hearing in the church. It is certainly worth trying.
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