An ‘Intermediary Theology’: In Service of the Hearing of God’s Word

by Sallie McFague

Sally McFague is Carpenter Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 25, 1975, pp. 625-629. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The issue in Christian theology is not reflection or action, belief or life style, but both together — an incarnational religion really has no other choice. God himself in a lowly man, Jesus of Nazareth, meant that human life in all its problematic, historical, ambiguous reality is the realm of the truly significant.

Sixth in a Series: New Turns in Religious Thought

Women theologians are still rarities; in another ten years this may not be the case. Fifteen years ago when I started work on a Ph.D. at Yale, they were even more rare, but I realized it less then than I do now. Formation counts, of course, and those early "sex-blind’ perceptions at Yale (preceded by similar ones at Smith College under the tutelage of some grandes dames of the feminist movement of the ‘20s) have stayed with me to the extent that while my femininity qualifies my theology it does so adjectivally and indirectly. My femininity was not then and is not now the determining factor in my theological pilgrimage and the projects emerging from it. Its impact initially was of a negative cast; that is, it made me aware that I was something of an outsider, and this role permitted me a perspective on academic theology which most of my male peers playing the game as regulars did not possess. To put it bluntly, I became disenchanted with theological gamesmanship of the doctoral variety and decided (with one baby born and another on the way) that I had no time for theological reflection if it were only an academic exercise.


The positive formative influences did not come from feminist sources, however, for what gave some substance to my critical perspective on theology were the tomes of Karl Barth and, even more importantly, the presence and writings of H. Richard Niebuhr. While few of us who were seminarians and graduate students in the late ‘50s and early 60s are still Barthians, many of us, were then, and whether we stayed with Barth or, more commonly, departed from him, the in-depth exposure to his Church Dogmatics left its mark. For me it has meant understanding the task of theology as serving the hearing of the word of God in a particular time and place. Such an understanding is of course the shared legacy of the so-called dialectical theologians of the ‘20s (one must include not, only Bultmann and Tillich here but the new hermeneutic movement as well), but it was Barth’s formulation of it that I found particularly potent, especially his insistence that the theologian is the helpmate of the preacher, both as servant and as critic.

For many of us at Yale during the late ‘50s and early 60s H. Richard Niebuhr and his central concerns provided a perspective from which we both criticized Barth and weaned ourselves away from him. More than that, Niebuhr’s deep appreciation of Schleiermacher and of liberalism’s concern for experience, relativity, the symbolic imagination and the role of the affections set the questions that many of us were to continue to wrestle with in our own subsequent theological careers.


It is precisely these concerns of liberalism, set in the context of Barth’s basic understanding of the task of theology, which have been the formative influences on my own work. My first book, Literature and the Christian Life (Yale, University Press, 1966), wrestled with this orthodox-liberal dilemma somewhat obliquely. I was bothered by theological critics of literature who, following Tillich’s too-easy baptizing of the secular order (epitomized in his phrase "as the substance of culture is religion, so the form of religion is culture"), tended to overlook the differences between Christianity and the insights of art. I wanted to insist that the Christian faith has an integrity which must be preserved and that the arts also have an integrity which must be preserved, so that whatever relation pertains between them must be one that compromises neither. At this stage I was "Barthian," I suppose, although in my anger at what I saw as illegitimate linkages between Christianity and literature, "graduate student cockiness" might be a more accurate appellation (the review of the book in The Christian Century was titled "Charming Audacity").

When I wrote about a legitimate relation between Christianity and literature which I could support, I turned in directions which I now recognize as distinctly Niebuhrian (though at the time I was not really conscious of that dependence), for it was in the moral life of the Christian that I centered. Since the nature and function of literature as I saw it was to acquaint us with the "felt" experience of life, to enlarge our sympathies and, quicken our sensibilities, and since the primary commandment of Christianity was to be disciples of Jesus Christ who had loved God and human beings totally, then the appropriate juncture between Christian faith and literature came at the point of living out our faithfulness. Literature could (but would not without a decision to let it) make us more sensitive to the actualities of the world, both its cosmological and anthropological dimensions, in which we are called to be faithful.

The connection was somewhat tenuous, it veered away from strictly "religious" issues, and only in the last chapter of the book did I venture a few comments suggesting a more "intrinsic" connection between the Christian view of human existence and the nature of human life manifest in Western literature. These closing comments, deeply influenced by the work of Erich Auerbach and William Lynch (as in a sense was the entire perspective of the book), were a feeler attempting to deal with Christianity’s distinctive mode of "secularity." Somehow I knew that Auerbach’s statement was on target: God himself in a lowly man, Jesus of Nazareth, meant that human life in all its problematic, historical, ambiguous reality is the realm of the truly significant. The dichotomy between the sublime and religious versus the lowly and secular is overcome here. I did not yet know what to do with this insight, and it took several years of reflection and eventually a study of Jesus’ parables to work it out.


While in retrospect I can see that much of my reflection was in keeping with theological currents in the mid-’60s (secularism, the death-of-God movement, personalism), I was not aware at the time that such was the case. I felt isolated both personally and intellectually: as a mother at home with young children I was in a different world from my male peers, and I was conscious that my first book had alienated many colleagues in the field of religion and literature (I had called much of the current enterprise into question). Apart from editing Soundings (a task which I did not assume until 1967), I had minimal stimulation from teaching and professional conversation. Nevertheless, very slowly the pot was beginning to simmer again with ingredients from the last chapter of Literature and the Christian Life.

The issue that engaged me was the nature of human existence as understood in Christian faith and in Western literature. At first it took the form of wanting to understand radical Christian life styles. I was interested in people like John Woolman and Bonhoeffer: Christians whose deep commitment led to radical stances, not of an ascetic but of a worldly sort. In 1967 I saw such work as concerned with case studies" (later I realized I was dealing with religious autobiographies), not in order to draw conclusions but to understand how a person’s destiny unfolds, much as the destiny of characters in our Western novels unfolds. The end result would not be an entirely academic one, for (like the parables, as I was to see later) such study points the finger finally to the reader, whose own life story is called into question.

At the time I first reflected on these matters I did not know that such thoughts were germinating in other minds as well. Even when I taught a course at Vanderbilt University divinity school in 1971 called "Forms of Religious Reflection," in which we looked at the limitations and possibilities for religious reflection of various literary genres (parables, autobiographies, novels, poems, etc.), I did not know that a movement was aborning concerned with story and autobiography in theological reflection -- a movement of which I was soon to feel very much a part. But teaching that course was a lightning bolt to me: all sorts of things fell into place, and without intending to (or having the time for it), I wrote the first draft of another book, Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (Fortress Press, 1975).


I have rehearsed this history in some detail because it is perhaps relevant that someone who was so "out of it" in many respects (a woman, a mother, an outsider not teaching regularly) should turn out to be "in it" nonetheless. It may say something about the quality of experience at a particular time which leads to changes in theological styles -- which are not merely a matter of reading the same books or attending professional meetings. My reflections arose, as I have indicated, in part from formative books and teachers, but they also grew out of grappling with Scripture (one of the lightning bolts here was the simple but profound insight of realizing once again the ineradicable connection of form and content -- for instance, what is said in a parable cannot be said in any other way), and with the complex business, endemic to academic theologians, of, as Kierkegaard would put it, becoming a Christian (not in general or for someone else but in particular and for me). The mix is the oldest one -- Scripture and what it means to be a Christian in one’s own time and place in history.

It is no surprise, then, that I find myself leaning toward a style of theological reflection that is shared by many of my peers. I will try to suggest some of the contours of this style in a general way. Others would characterize it differently; my own work and biases necessarily affect the scenario I write.

The broadest context for this style of theological reflection is the assumption widely held by many contemporary philosophers, scientists and literary critics (Martin Heidegger, Paul Ricoeur, Susanne Langer, Max Black, Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, Alfred North Whitehead, Philip Wheelwright, Elizabeth Sewell, Owen Barfield, etc.) that all new insight in whatever field is metaphorical. This epistemological assumption is, of course, post-positivistic and directly counter to positivism. It means that theological reflection is no longer alone (except for its perennial partner, the arts) in insisting on the necessary role of the imagination. The language used in scientific discovery and in philosophical discourse is also rife with images, metaphors, paradigms, and hence is on a continuity with poetic and religious language. This assumption means, therefore, that the image rather than the concept is primary, or as Ricoeur says, "the symbol gives rise to thought."

The spectrum of symbol to thought provides another, somewhat narrower context for the style of theological reflection I am suggesting. This spectrum is suggested by Robert Funk’s statement that the way from the parables of Jesus to theology is "circuitous and tortuous." The way between the primary form, the parable, and discursive thought is difficult, but as Funk’s statement suggests, the two are on a continuum and that continuum should be evident in all theology. The funding for this style of theological reflection is, then, from the imaginative genres of Scripture (parables, stories, confessions, prayers, and so on) rather than from philosophical concepts, the other major source for Western theology. The work of Amos Wilder, particularly his book Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel, which deals with major literary genres of the New Testament, as well as the work on parables as extended metaphors by such scholars as Robert Funk, Norman Perrin and Dan O. Via, Jr., has become important for many of us.

One footnote I would add here is the necessity for precision in discussing the primary forms of religious reflection which fund theology. Some theologians, for instance, who have become interested in "story" as a source for theology have used the term so broadly that it means everything and hence very little of significance. Any narrative, after all, whether historical, mythical, autobiographical or fictional, is a story, and the philosophically oriented theologians who have a tradition of precision rightly object to such vagueness. I have found it necessary and helpful to turn to one kind of story, the parables of Jesus which I understand as extended metaphors, and to move from this concrete and definable base to the broader implications for a style of theological reflection partaking of the characteristics of parables; i.e., secularity, epistemological relativism and skepticism, insistence on the unity of belief and life, and so on.


A third note of this style is its insistence on an experiential base. The influence of Schleiermacher and liberalism generally is evident here; also H. Richard Niebuhr’s concern with the role of the affections (à la Jonathan Edwards). Perhaps it is a reaction to Barth’s refusal to deal with this dimension; perhaps the theology arising from the women’s movement and black liberation is an ingredient also; perhaps it even partakes of some personalistic elements from the charismatic and Jesus movements. At any rate, among such people as David Burrell, Stephen Crites, Samuel McClendon, Donald and Walter Capps, James Wiggins, John Dunne and, in a different way, Richard R. Niebuhr and William Lynch, it is a concern with concrete, ordinary experience that for some has meant a renewed interest in religious autobiography -- Paul’s letters, Augustine’s Confessions, John Woolman’s Journal, Kierkegaard’s writings, the theological work of Teilhard de Chardin, Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers, Dorothy Day’s autobiography and so on. The simplest way to characterize this note is to say it is a remarriage of theology with ethics, or a renewed insistence that Christian faith inexorably involves a style of living in a concrete, actual time and place. It is also on the part of some the insistence that, as Richard R. Niebuhr says, "believing is generated in experience," or as William Lynch puts it, faith is "a way of experiencing the world."

The insistence on experience, especially in an autobiographical form, might suggest a highly individualistic and personalistic note, but I do not think that this is the case. For life in the faith in this way of thinking is seen in a communal and ecclesiastical context, although in a broad, indeed an ecumenical fashion. The autobiographies which are of greatest interest to these theologians are those not of the mystics but of the activists, those who have been pastors, bishops, prophets and martyrs, who have struggled to work out their Christian belief in and for the church and the world. The autobiographies are vocational in the deepest sense; that is, these men and women, even the mystics such as Teresa of Àvila and Teilhard, are public figures deeply committed to the church and to its reformation. But no denominationalism is evident -- the contemporary theologians interested in this style are Roman Catholics as well as various kinds of Protestants (not to mention Jews such as Elie Wiesel and Richard Rubenstein), and the classical autobiographies they turn to also cover the spectrum of Christian ecclesiastical allegiances.

Finally, as should now be evident, this is Christian theology and not phenomenology of religion. While some people whom I would include in this mode of thought are involved with "religious studies," particularly at the undergraduate level, and see autobiographies as a valid way of introducing students to different religious traditions (and I would agree that it is a valid way), the main drive, I believe, is focused on the central task of theology -- serving the hearing of the word of God in a particular time and place. Perhaps I should avoid presumption here and say more personally that while some may have other agendas, mine is definitely in terms of the service such theological reflection can render the perennial task of all Christian theology. I see the need of what I would call an "intermediary theology," a style of theological reflection which stays close to characteristics of the parables but also, as a discursive mode, is coherent, consistent and precise -- characteristics of systematic theology. "Bible stories" on the one hand and abstract, conceptual theology on the other hand will not, I think, address the hearing of the word. More theologians, concerned with excellence of an imaginative cast of mind, need to struggle in the "circuitous and tortuous" no-man’s land of a style of theological reflection which is highly imagistic, experiential and confessional on the one hand and coherent and consistent on the other hand. The theologian who exemplifies such a style most fully is the first Christian theologian, Paul of Tarsus -- a high standard, to be sure, but it is no coincidence that most major reformations of the church and theology have been sparked by and return to Paul. His mode of reflection constitutes a paradigm for those concerned with a theology in service of the hearing of God’s word.


Let me close with a caution, a caution to myself as well as to others engaged in this style of reflection. Recently I assigned a class Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation, a book that to my mind combines at a fairly systematic level many of the qualities I have been speaking about, most notably the insistence on the relation of Christian belief and life style. The students by and large found it to be one of the most "convincing" Christian theologies they had encountered -- it appeared to them to be a modern interpretation of the gospel.

The temptation of that book for those really taken by it is to experience an impatience with thought or reflection of any sort. One should simply stop thinking and writing and get on with the business of "doing" the gospel it depicts. The tendency of the style of theology I am suggesting is toward activism, or if not that, toward a lowering of standards for reflection. Gutierrez does not succumb to that temptation, even though he is personally involved in very practical political and social organizing in South America among the world’s most oppressed people. Nor did Paul succumb to it. While his letters are not models of philosophical precision, they are reflection of the highest order and in their own way are as precise (in the way that metaphors and images are precise) as are any philosophical concepts. The question in Christian theology is not reflection or action, belief or life style, but both together -- an incarnational religion has no other choice.

My own work for the next several years will undoubtedly lie within the contours of the style of theological reflection I have sketched, and I hope eventually to produce an "intermediary theology." The prospect both challenges and frightens me, but I am glad to be part of a group of persons who will provide both support and criticism for this venture. One must not expect too much of oneself or one’s time -- I do not expect from myself or from my peers a new systematic theology. Ours is not, I think, a time of giants. The Tillichs and Barths have departed, and I am not optimistic about the emergence of others to take their places -- nor am I convinced that a comprehensive systematic theology is possible or appropriate at this juncture. Our time may well be one of occasional theology, theology that is partial and particular, oriented to specific issues. That is not necessarily a depressing prospect, if it is well done by many hands. Paul was an occasional theologian; if he is the one setting the standard and the scope of such theology, it is high enough and wide enough for all of us.