Has Europe Become Theologically Barren?

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 cobbj@cgu.edu..

This lecture was given at the Catholic Theological Seminary in Linz, Austria, March 10, 2002. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Cobb reviews the theological tradition of European thought, particularly the Thomists, Nietzsche and Kant, then considers the theologians of the past century, including of Maritain, Tillich, Moltmann, Rahner and Teilhard de Chardin. He believes that even if European apologetic theology responded brilliantly to the intellectual challenges of the twentieth century world, it is not so well positioned to respond to the challenges that now face us, and he gives three reasons why.

The nature of theology has changed dramatically from time to time during the course of Christian history. There have been periods of greatness followed by others when little happened of long-term interest. The high Middle Ages was one period of greatness. The task of theology then was to provide an overarching context in which the whole of human thought and life could find a home. Catholic theology to this day is deeply informed by the achievements of that epoch. In my opinion this is still the most important goal for theology.

The Reformation was another great period of theological work. For the Reformers the task was to recover what they believed to be the Biblical message and develop its implications for the whole life and thought of the church. They still thought that the message they proclaimed was relevant to all areas of life, but they were less concerned to provide a context for the whole of intellectual activity.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a third great period. By the end of the eighteenth century, the twin challenges of the natural sciences, along with their philosophical interpreters, and of scientific historical study profoundly challenged the credibility of received forms of Christian faith. The primary response was from the Protestant German-language world. It began with Kant, and even in its Hegelian forms, it was throughout deeply affected by Kant's critical philosophy.

Its task was not to provide an overarching context, since it no longer located theology as the queen of the sciences. Instead, it sought to identify and justify a continuing role for Christian faith in an intellectual context that had become inhospitable. In that sense it was apologetic. Its achievements were truly remarkable. Although theology was no longer queen of the sciences, it held its head high in the German universities and had the respect of the culture, as well as the church. It participated in developing a style of humanistic scholarship that insured that the work of one generation built upon that of its predecessors in a highly responsible way. At the same time, each new generation produced great new systems that responded to the intellectual and cultural problems posed to faith.

This theological program was difficult for anyone not schooled in continental European universities to enter. Americans who recognized the brilliance of this theology and wanted to share in it were always late and derivative. The English largely went their own way, but could not compare in depth of scholarship or originality of thought.

Catholics both on the continent and in Great Britain developed their own creative systems. Neo-Thomism, especially in its French version was a serious contender in the theological world. Other Thomists decided to adopt the Kantian framework, thus moving closer to the dominant, Protestant tradition.

Despite its brilliance, the apologetic tradition began to run dry early in the twentieth century. Its justification of basic Christian claims became more difficult. The critics became more profound. I think here, especially, of Nietzsche. When we read the neo-Kantians against the background of Nietzsche's critique, they seem somewhat superficial. As knowledge of other religious traditions became more important, the easy affirmation of Christian superiority was harder to maintain. I think here, especially, of Ernst Troeltsch, and his giving up of the claim to the absoluteness of Christianity.

My own judgment is that the Kantian critique, which had given such a powerful impulse to Christian intellectual life in the nineteenth century, ceased to be an asset to the Christian cause by the end of the century. It could work well when basic Christian values were largely unquestioned. But against still more fundamental attacks it was weak. Its discouragement of speculative thought curtailed the range of its relevance. It cut theology off from interaction with the changing worldview growing out of the natural sciences. It failed to criticize this worldview, only relativizing it as a human creation. Meanwhile, human creation or not, the so-called scientific worldview gained practical dominance over the Kantian one in the culture as a whole and among Christians as well.

This Protestant Kantian apologetic tradition failed to respond to the increasing fragmentation of the academic disciplines. More and more, therefore, theology became only one technical discipline among others. Paying attention to it was simply one elective among many. Fewer and fewer people chose this option.

For a few decades, there was a brilliant response to this decline of Protestant theology. It was based on a recurrence to the Reformation appeal to sola scriptura. If apologetics no longer worked effectively, theologians could try dogmatics. If one could not justify Christian faith in terms of current thought and knowledge, then appeal to revelation! This strategy worked better than one might have expected. The discovery of Soren Kierkegaard gave support to this new direction.

Needless to say, there was great variety among Neo-Reformation theologians. Many found the bold appeal to revelation in Karl Barth and Emil Brunner excessive. Rudolph Bultmann offered a much more moderate response to the situation. There remained the transcendent act of God in the rise of faith, but this was affirmed in the context of acceptance of the modern worldview and the use of modern historiographical methods.

A contemporary of the Neo-Reformation theologians who shared some of their critique of the earlier liberalism was Paul Tillich. Unlike the others, Tillich continued the apologetic tradition, drawing on Heidegger as a way of circumventing the limits of the earlier tradition. Partly because Tillich was forced to leave Europe before his major work was written, his influence their was limited. But in the United States he represented a major theological option.

To some extent the success of the Neo-Reformation movement depended on the Kantian background. Kant had shown the limits of reason in order to make room for faith. This limitation of reason was presupposed in the appeal to revelation. Furthermore, in contrast to the more conservative heirs of the Reformation, the Neo-Reformation theologians accepted the status of theology as one academic discipline among others. They did not seek to make theology the queen of the sciences. They emphatically gave full freedom to all other disciplines to pursue their studies without interference. They only claimed an equal right to pursue the theological vocation.

But in another respect the Neo-Reformation theology was a break from the whole Kantian tradition. That tradition was anthropocentric in the extreme. In an important, even fundamental sense, it declared the human mind to be the creator of the world. There was little left for God to do. It was a very short step to see the human mind as the creator of God as well. Against this tendency the Neo-Reformation theologians emphatically declared the primacy of the radically transcendent God. God once again became God in an unequivocal way. This was part of the power of the message.

This mixture of theological realism and Kantian dualism was also an inherent weakness of this movement. Believers were asked to enter a biblical world that was profoundly different from the modern one. Yet they were expected to live also in the modern world and to take seriously the academic disciplines that instructed them about its nature. The biblical world was presented in a way that did not flatly contradict the results of the many disciplines, but, existentially, its meaning was in profound tension with theirs. Although many believers found it exhilarating to adopt this stance, as its novelty wore off, the problems rose to the surface. Most difficult was to affirm the actuality of the transcendent God without any evidence other than God's revelation, interpreted as radically discontinuous from all else in history.

In Europe in the sixties, two young theologians, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Juergen Moltmann rejected the picture of a vertical transcendence. Instead of abandoning God-talk, however, they renewed it by locating God in the eschatological future. Beyond this central point of agreement, they differed profoundly. Moltmann continued the tradition of sola scriptura, pointing out the importance of futurity in the Bible. Pannenberg shared this understanding of the Bible, but he grounded his theological affirmations also in philosophy, historiography, and the social sciences.

The radical theocentrism of the Neo-Reformation thinkers faded in both. In Pannenberg the ontological claims about God continue in this new form, but the characteristics of the God thus affirmed were quite different from what had been asserted by the Neo-Reformation theologians. In Moltmann, the emphasis is on the Christian symbol system and how it shapes Christian existence in the present. Pannenberg engaged in extended polemics against the limits of reason to which so much of Protestant theology had appealed, opening the door to renewal of the bolder claims of Christian theology to affirm universal truth and to encompassing the sciences. Moltmann directed attention to how Christians engage the world ethically and socially.

The "theology of hope", with which both of these theologians were identified, was the last Protestant movement in continental Europe to attract great interest and a large following in the United States. In Germany itself, so far as I can tell, neither Pannenberg nor Moltmann has been widely followed. The Protestant theological scene globally became leaderless and fragmented.

Some theologians have returned to the nineteenth century for inspiration, with Hegel enjoying a considerable revival. But despite impressive scholarship, the useful theological yield has been modest. Much of their work is of interest only to members of the theological guild. Others have tried to continue the Neo-Reformation tradition often without the daring affirmations of God's ontological reality that gave power to the first generation. Instead they present Christianity as one symbol system among others within which the church calls us to live and think

I will attempt to add some comments about Catholic theology during this period, realizing that I speak very much as an outsider. I have mentioned transcendental and Neo-Thomism. Outside of Catholic circles, the former did not attract much attention. Neo-Thomism, especially the work of Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, however, had an important role in the wider public, representing an alternative to the post-Kantian theological tradition and presenting itself as a plausible alternative to modern philosophy generally. When I was a student at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago in the years after World War II, along with Tillich, Neo-Reformation theology and Neo-Thomism appeared to be the major European options.

About the same time that Neo-Reformation theology began to unravel, Vatican II transformed the theological situation of Catholics. In large numbers they moved into the discussions going on among Protestants. They brought new zest and energy into those discussions, breathing new life into them. Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner became respected voices in the broader conversation. J.B. Metz brought vigor and insight into the political theology that developed out of Moltmann's theology of hope. But even this new vitality could not really restore to health either the apologetic tradition of the nineteenth century or the dogmatic one of the twentieth. For the most part, now, although they continue to provide massive scholarship equally important to the Protestant world, Catholic theologians have withdrawn from the wider discussion to renew the distinctive Catholic tradition

Although I have been asked to speak of the European tradition, I cannot evaluate its power without referring to its impact on the American scene and to independent movements there. Throughout the nineteenth century there were American theological movements that were partly dependent on continental European ones and partly independent. They could not compete with the German apologetic tradition in depth of thought or rigor of historical scholarship. They were less professional and more connected to the distinctive issues that arose in the American churches. The most important of these toward the end of the century were those posed by evolutionary theory on the one side and the results of industrialization on the other. These raised the question of the validity of Marxist analysis. Also the importation of the "higher criticism" of the Bible was an important source of controversy in the churches.

The importance of the controversy engendered by evolutionary theory indicates that Kant influenced the intellectual climate of the United States far less than that of Europe. Christianity was understood as a worldview, or at least as depending on one. This worldview included the idea of divine creation and of human freedom. The new evolutionary theory seemed to reject both and, of course, to conflict with the biblical account.

We call the response to this complex challenge to nineteenth-century American Protestant Christianity the "social gospel." It embraced an evolutionary worldview, although it reinterpreted evolution as the way God created. It treated the higher criticism of the Bible as leading to a view of the development of spiritual insight culminating in Jesus. It presented Jesus' message as centering in his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which it understood as a world of peace and justice. It undertook to reorient the energies generated by faith in God toward the transformation of society. And it sponsored a missionary movement to carry this vision of social salvation around the world.

To identify the work of the social gospel leaders as "theology" is hardly justified if we take the German apologetic tradition as defining what "theology" is. Measured by European standards, it was, at best, "lay" theology. Nevertheless, it was a way of understanding the meaning of faith in the contemporary scene that deeply informed the old-line churches and captured the hearts of millions of believers. Although scholars and professional theologians might be condescending toward it, and look to Germany for intellectual guidance, for the American Christian community as a whole, the "theology" imported by scholars was of little more than academic interest.

This changed with the coming of Neo-Reformation theology. This was understood as engaging the church where it lived. Even though it was appropriated very selectively, it reinforced the American sense that we should look to the continent of Europe for theological understanding. It thereby had the effect of rendering the social gospel, as well as other more indigenous American forms of theology, outdated and largely ineffective.

Nevertheless, one strand of the older American theology continued. At the University of Chicago Divinity School, thinkers who participated in the social gospel tradition developed the socio-historical understanding of Christianity and applied this perspective to Biblical, historical, and systematic study. These scholars acknowledged some influence of the German tradition appreciating especially the work of Troeltsch. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, this was a distinctively American tradition. The Chicago school went through a series of permutations and continues today as "process theology", the tradition in which I stand.

Given this background of distinctive American concerns, the European developments that really interested the American public were most were often peripheral to European theology. An important example was Teilhard de Chardin. He provided reinforcement to that aspect of the social gospel synthesis that incorporated a modified evolutionary theory into theology. The Phenomenon of Man sold millions of copies in the United States.

In the United States, Neo-Reformation theology began to unravel in the nineteen-sixties independently of parallel developments in Germany. The unraveling was dramatically expressed in the death-of-God theology. This declared that in all integrity we must live in the modern world. We cannot truly believe in the transcendent God known only in supernatural revelation. At the same time, Barth's polemic against the various ways in which apologetic theology had justified God-language was accepted. Honesty calls us, therefore, to declare a thoroughgoing atheism and see what faith can mean in that context. In some instances, this atheism was quite straightforward. In others, as with Thomas Altizer, it was more the self-emptying of transcendence into immanence, albeit a nihilistic immanence.

The theology of hope gained wide attention in the United States as an alternative to the death of God. But the unraveling of Neo-Reformation theology was also the untying of the strings that bound Americans to European hegemony. Attention was grasped by new voices arising in the new world. The three most important were Black theology and feminist theology, arising in the United States itself, and Latin American liberation theology.

At this point the distinction between Catholic and Protestant ceased to mean much. Black theology was primarily Protestant and Latin American theology was primarily Catholic. But these differences were unimportant for the discussion. The strongest early voices of feminist theology, such as Mary Daly and Rosemary Ruether, were mainly Catholic, but Protestant women were fully engaged. Of course, one could draw connections between these new theologies and those of Europe; and the Latin Americans, in particular, were at pains to do so. Those grasped by the new themes appreciated the support of Moltmann. Those who closed ranks against them sometimes appealed to Pannenberg. But most of the discussion largely ignored contemporary developments in European theology. .

These liberation theologies were highly critical of the dominant European theological tradition. The mood of criticism extended much further. The contrast between the Christian claim to universality and the actual European hegemony led to interest in listening to theological voices from all over the world. Awareness of the global situation of religious pluralism, reflected also within the United States itself, led to strong reaction against traditional exclusivist claims. Especially the terrible history of Christian persecution of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, forced recognition of the need to change Christian theology quite drastically. Traditional teaching about sexuality, and in particular about homosexuality, was recognized as repressive and as having led to horrible treatment of homosexuals. The issue of full acceptance of homosexuals tore the old-line Protestant churches in North America apart.

Equally important was the realization in the late nineteen-sixties that the dominant Protestant theology had ignored the natural world and human responsibility for its degradation. In some respects it did worse than ignore, actually celebrating human exploitation of nature with no sense of limits. Fortunately, this realization of the need to repent, emerged all over the world, but Christians did not look to Europe for leadership in response. The Kantian base of European theology made it difficult to give full place to the autonomous reality and importance of the natural world.

The extreme dualism that was responsible for the worst in Protestant theology with respect to nature was shaped by Kant. Although transcendental Thomism had accepted the anthropocentrism of Kant and reinterpreted theology in those terms, Catholic theology as a whole was not as guilty as Protestant. Nevertheless, European Catholics did not give conspicuous leadership in a creative response. Even Teilhard de Chardin misdirected his followers in this regard.

Closely related to this is the general silence of the churches in response to the hegemony of the economic order over all other social, political, and even religious orders. The ecological crisis is accompanied by a social crisis brought about by economic globalization as a new form of colonialism. Our churches are as complicit in this as in the earlier form practiced in the nineteenth century, and our theology is as silent. This is true of North Atlantic theology as a whole. It is only in Third World countries that effective voices are being raised. Fortunately, these are heard in the World Council of Churches.

The European Catholic theologian who retained the greatest visibility and influence in the United States was Hans Kueng. Initially he was admired for challenging the structure of authority in the Catholic Church. But he showed sensitivity to many of the other troubling issues, and gave truly impressive leadership in the area of religious pluralism.

The dominant mood was what we have come to call "deconstructionist". It became far clearer what progressive Christians do not believe than what they actually affirm. Theology that did not seem sensitive to the limitations and, indeed, evils of the dominant tradition was pursued in conservative circles, but it lost any claim to attention from others. French deconstructive philosophy resonated with this mood of tearing down, and today the deconstructionist thinkers are cited in theological circles more frequently than are European theologians.

The title I was assigned asks whether Europe has become theologically barren. Let me try to answer that more directly. In doing so, I need to emphasize that I speak as an American. There is a great deal that takes place in Europe of which I am quite unaware. I offer only impressions that I cannot substantiate.

I have identified two truly great periods of modern Protestant European theology: the apologetic tradition of the nineteenth century and the Neo-Reformation tradition of the twentieth. I believe that both are played out. The collapse of the latter renewed interest in the former, but this has not led to important leadership for the future.

Whereas European apologetic theology responded brilliantly to the intellectual challenges of the modern world, it is not so well positioned to respond to the challenges that now face us. These are sometimes collected under the heading of the postmodern world. Whether we like to use that term or not, we must recognize that many of the features that characterized the nineteenth century world to which apologetic theology responded are now ending. I will identify seven.

1. It is now widely recognized that Christendom is ending. The church is no longer widely established, and where establishment lingers, there is a sense of its being a relic of a bye-gone age.

2. The assumptions of the European Enlightenment no longer appear self-evident. Its ideas appear as culture-bound as do the ideas that it ridiculed and replaced. Its conviction that human reason could lead quite directly to universal values and truths is no longer convincing. Its individualism seems not only false but also profoundly dangerous.

3. Much of the prestige of the Enlightenment came from its close association with modern science. That science claimed objectivity and universality. It understood itself to provide an objectively true account of the world. Today that science has displayed its own limitations. The assumptions inherited from the Enlightenment epoch do not work. It is very confused as to whether it describes a real world at all.

4. Modern Europeans took for granted that the history of the world centers in that of Europe. Eurocentrism was hardly mentioned because of its self-evidence. European culture and society provided the norm for evaluating others. Today cultural pluralism is replacing this Eurocentrism. World history is now the history of many cultures.

5. Closely connected to cultural pluralism is religious pluralism. The superiority of Christianity cannot be taken for granted, and its long history of arrogance counts against any claim of superiority. Conversion from Christianity to other religious traditions is as common as conversion of others to Christianity. Christian apologetics and missionary theology has been succeeded by detached study of the history of religions and by dialogue among believers in various faiths. If we continue to claim something of special value and importance in our tradition, we must show it in open discussion of the alternatives.

6. The anthropocentrism that has characterized all of the "higher" religious traditions, but modern Christianity in the most extreme way, is now a threat to the future of the planet. Humanity needs spiritual guidance in re-experiencing the relation to other creatures in terms of kinship and shared destiny rather than dualism and domination. There are resources in Christianity as in other traditions, but they must be brought to the fore. A Christian theology that continues to operate in dualistic and anthropocentric ways is part of the problem and not part of the solution.

7. It is too much to say that we are coming to the end of patriarchy. Its hold on our society and others is too deep and pervasive for such a claim to be assured. Nevertheless, we have come to the end of the period in which patriarchy can be taken for granted as the proper way to organize society. We are now busy unveiling the effects of patriarchy in other deep-seated assumptions and social customs. The close connection between patriarchy and traditional theology and ecclesiastical practice is now apparent. Feminists are showing us what a non-patriarchal theology must be.

Alongside the analysis of what is ending must be a vivid recognition of the new form being taken on a global scale. This is that, not just of a market economy, but of a market society. This has not gone nearly as far in Europe as in the United States and in the poorer countries that have been structural adjusted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But it is affecting Europe as well. It shows us what the global worship of wealth does, and it calls urgently for Christian response.

This global market society together with the domination of American political life by transnational corporations is now bringing vividly to the surface the latent global imperialism of the United States. The declaration of war against terrorism provides a context in which the world's only superpower can attack any enemy of the global dominance of corporations. Of course, the other wealthy nations and their corporations are complicit in this new American imperialism. A theology that ignores this new reality will not be adequate to our needs.

If theology of any sort is to have the energy and vitality today that European theology has had in its great periods in the past, it must respond to the new situation now as effectively as it responded to the challenges of the nineteenth century. It is the absence of leadership in this response that leads me to answer the question posed for me in the title I was assigned positively.

I suggest three reasons for the weakness of European theology in responding to the changed global situation. First, as the church grows weaker it seems to tighten its demands on its theologians. The daring freedom of so many Protestant theologians in the nineteenth century is not so visible today among either Catholics or Protestants. To be Christian theology at all, a statement must draw strongly on the wisdom of the tradition, but to be effective in our time, it must not be a defense of that tradition. Only as the traditional teachings of which use is made genuinely illumine the issues of our time can they be usefully employed.

Second, scholarly ruts are deep. The system of scholarship that made continental European theology the unquestioned world leader for nearly two centuries may now be as much as obstacle as an aid. It channels acceptable work too narrowly and makes it difficulty to take a point of departure quite outside of that which was appropriate in the earlier period. Those who dare to do this are not regarded as quite responsible to the academic discipline. They are not wissenschaftlich and, therefore, cannot be taken with full seriousness in the ongoing theological discussion. But to be effective in our time, theology cannot limit itself to working out the problems derived from the tradition. It must address the new realities with whatever methods are most effective.

Third, the influence of Immanuel Kant is no longer productive. There can be no doubt that his opening up of the creative work of Geist enabled theologians to respond to many of the problems of the nineteenth century. But today the separation of Geist from Natur has become more an obstacle than a help. Catholics are not as fully committed to Kant as our Protestants but even their work is informed by him and shares in the anthropocentrism that is inescapable when the first critique shapes the theological starting point.

It is not, however, as if the role Europe once played has been taken over elsewhere. Instead, there is a great lacuna. Some celebrate the fragmentary character of theology in our time. Others have given up hope of serious theological guidance and turn elsewhere. Many simply turn back to modes of thought that have been shown to be destructive. The church's need is great, and continental Europe, probably Europe alone, has the cultural and scholarly resources to respond adequately.

My hope is that the situation today is like the one that preceded Vatican II. From without, Catholic theology seemed largely barren, absorbed in questions that were remote from the dominant human concerns of the day. Then Vatican II brought to light the fact that a great deal had long been going on behind the scenes. It released powerful energies for the whole Christian community.

Perhaps there is a great deal already taking place in Europe that simply has not become globally visible. Perhaps it is just about to burst upon us to point the way for a healthy and creative future for the whole Christian community. If so, I, for one, will surely rejoice.