New Dynamics in Theology: Politically Active and Culturally Significant

by Larry Rassmussen

Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, was an adviser at the Canberra Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis, May 16, 1988. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


For better than two decades the consensus in theology and ethics has been that we have no consensus. That is changing.

For better than two decades the consensus in theology and ethics has been that we have no consensus. Roger Shinn announced this fact before most people had noticed it ("The Shattering of the Theological Spectrum," C&C, September 30, 1963), but the years since have borne him out. At the American Theological Society’s plenary session last year, one panelist described the current landscape as the "Balkanization" of theology -- even, in a careless bit of exaggeration, its "Beirutization." If this is the lay of the land in the United States, how much more fractured is the theological terrain of the world church!

Yet something is afoot. "Consensus" is premature, and not quite the word, but shared dynamics and converging themes are visible. The themes number a baker’s dozen, though only a few can be uncovered here. Even those have to be seen in light of shared dynamics; so we begin there.

A Double Movement. We are on the forward edges of widespread religious renewal that is politically active and culturally significant. It may be happening in Islam with an intensity not yet matched in Christianity, but it is happening in Christian circles, and Jewish, nonetheless. We cannot foresee the outcome, but we can describe the effective forces.

The dynamics are not new. Ernst Troeltsch, writing at the turn of the century, saw them at work in the early church and watched them erupt now and again throughout church history. What is new is their currency for us.

The forces at work are characteristics of two movements that usually go their separate ways. One movement is the development of a dynamic, community-creating religion among lower socioeconomic classes or other marginalized groups. Here an urgent sense of clear, stark, human need is joined to a faith full of feeling and energy. This is an empowering religion with a common home among subjugated and disempowered social groups. It is marked by the exhilarating experience of divine power as the power for "peoplehood," and for making a way where there is no way.

The other movement is the conceptual and ritual revisioning of inherited traditions in times of deep, often bewildering, change. Cultivated criticism, bold theological reflection, and constructive exploration both in thought and in liturgical enactment are its trademarks. It is the ardent search for the new, powerful God-talk that Bonhoeffer yearned for, but thought would be forthcoming only after a period of necessary silence and renewal (at least in those quarters where Christianity was most acculturated and where the experience of the Holocaust and two World Wars shattered the confidence of both Western religious streams and alternative humanisms).

When these two movements come together, new religious vitalities are sometimes loosed upon the world, shaking things up and giving them new direction at the same time. The outcome is never unambiguous; it always caroms between new social unities and strengthened new social factions. The political expressions may be revolutionary, reactionary with a vengeance, or reformist. For certain, nothing is the same.

Crossing Over

The movements must join forces, Troeltsch noted, if religious, cultural, and social transformation is to occur. Intellectual and ritual "re-visioning" without the base communities doesn’t go further than the addresses of scholars writing books and articles for one another, or small clusters of the faithful engaged in "experimental worship" And community-creating religious movements without bold thinkers and practitioners who come from, or join, their ranks never escape the social backwaters and lagoons long assigned them.

Ours is a moment when these two movements are converging. Many in the U.S. haven’t taken full account of this yet, because we’ve not noticed that Christianity has shifted decisively from the religion of the rich to the faith of the poor. The poor have exercised a preferential option for the church, of all things! And the vitality of Christian faith has passed from the European and North American world to peoples in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, to the women’s movement most everywhere, and to the communities in our own midst who are most in touch with these.

More and more, Christianity is a faith of struggling peoples who are recasting it amidst those struggles. The one future trend we can be most sure of -- the doubling of the world’s population in the next fifty years, with most of the growth happening in poor countries -- will intensify this. The most dramatic church growth, the starkest human needs, and the most aggravated social struggle relevant to a rather confident secular and scientific age, will share much the same geography.

If this double movement is the dynamic, what common themes break the surface of theological reflection?

Emergent theologies are all socio-critical theologies in which reflection arises from group experience and identity. They are by no means identical: left and right evangelical and Pentecostal; Latin American, black, and feminist theologies of liberation; Native American, African, and Asian theologies of creation and culture. But they strike a common profile: shared group experience is the material of critical reflection; and theology is done as a communal process from a self-consciously defined and particular perspective. This process is no longer even within hailing distance of the Enlightenment quest for both universalism and individualism in one rationally coherent world, and for a nonprovincial theology and morality. (Who speaks any longer of the Christian doctrine of man’’?) Reflection emerges from shared experience and proceeds with a view to common identity and struggle, trying to grasp existence theologically and socially in the same moment, using it to consolidate and empower the group, and to further efforts at social change. This is a far cry from liberal theology’s effort to adapt Christianity to the modern world and make sense of culture on terms relevant to a rather confident secular and scientific age.

Massive, public suffering is the material reality addressed in much theological reflection; and the suffering and hidden God comes more and more to the fore. The character of this suffering moves theological attention to the social systems that shape our lives -- economic, political, cultural -- as well as to public events themselves (the Holocaust, programs and policies of economic austerity, military intervention, terrorism, ethnic nationalist expression, struggles for survival and freedom). Reflection characteristically happens from the underside of society itself, or with a view to reality as experienced there, thus reinforcing theology’s socio-critical character. Attention still includes the common events to which religion has always been party -- birth, rites of passage, death, and the cycles of days and seasons which give order and meaning to an otherwise chaotic, or sometimes vacuous, history. But the shift of emphasis to public suffering and to exposing the public dimensions of private pain, is decisive.

Poltics; Liberation

Two streams of reflection merit special comment. One is political theology in Europe, chiefly Germany, which is best characterized as the voice of the bourgeoisie questioning its own religious and cultural assumptions and its own economic and political systems. It arose from the collective experience of mass public evil and suffering: not only the World Wars, but especially the Holocaust. The Holocaust was theologically even more troubling than the international conflict itself because it was the genocidal effort of one self-proclaimed people of God to extinguish another. Elie Wiesel’s comment that "all the victims were Jews, and all the perpetrators Christians" is not factually precise in either clause, but the truth is much too close to deny. In any case, the Holocaust, the single most demonic reality in the single most deadly

century to date, together with increased attention to "North/South" economic issues, "East/West" peace issues, and threats to the global environment, have all found a voice in European theology. After the Holocaust any credible God-talk must be able to take account of burning children, and any credible theological ethic has to show it is determined to head off such atrocities at their very beginnings, deep in the habits of hearts and minds and in public policies. The conciliar project of the World Council of Churches -- "Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation" -- nicely names the broad theological agenda (not simply the moral one).

The second stream of theological reflection is the explosive emergence of liberation theology, whether of class (the poor). race (black), geography and culture (Asian and African), or gender (feminist) and sex (gay-lesbian). While each begins with identifiable group experience and each is a major new voice, none ends there. Any group’s experience makes no sense apart from its relationship to others’.

All liberation theologies represent what Michel Foucault has called "the insurrection of subjugated knowledges," and all insist that justice is the moral test of God-claims and spirituality. They are profoundly oriented to public life, and they push for the kind of Christian faith that would help end massive suffering.

The God of much current reflection is the suffering and hidden God. This is not Aristotle’s self-sufficient God. Nor is it the great God, immaterial and changeless, of all the "omni’s" of centuries of Christian allegiance (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent). Nor is it the timeless and impassible divine being who is known through the mind alone, and who was the keystone of Christian apologetics in its most formative encounter of all -- with classical culture. Neither is this the God of the mighty acts of intervention in human history, the crashing force from without. This is the agitated, but hushed, God of the cross; a God found, as Luther said, "not in speculative thought but in suffering experience." A God of pathos, compassion, and mercy.

Kosuke Koyama’s opening in Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai speaks for many. He relates a harrowing childhood experience -- the fire-bombing of Tokyo. One of the huge bombs screamed past his head and thudded into the earth just in front of him. The bomb, a dud, disappeared into the earth as Kovama leapt over the crater and continued to run from one shelter to the next in search of his familv.

Koyama says of it all: The slow assimilation of the traumatic events of l945, which only gradually yielded their theological implications, has moved me toward the emotive region of the cross of Christ. The theology of the cross, as the core of the gospel message, gives me the fundamental orientation in which to engage in theology while living in a world dangerously fragmented by violent militarism, racism, and nuclearism.

Heightened human power and greater public suffering have moved millions into ‘the emotive region of the cross. God is a suffering God whose power is hidden in weakness. But it is a power for hope and joy there, and sober moral responsibility. It is a power for life.

Grabbing Our Existence

A third theme has already been intimated, the ethical qualification and intensification of all Christian symbols. Ours is a time of "ethical theology," rather than ethics as an implication trailing at some distance after a presentation of beliefs established on other grounds. Ethics is part of grabbing our existence theologically. Moral problematics precede and accompany dogmatics.

General reasons for ethical intensification are not hard to come by. The great issues of our time are moral: the uses of power; wealth and poverty; human rights; the moral quality and character of society; loss of the sense of the common good in tandem with the pampering of private interests; domestic violence; outrageous legal and medical costs in a system of maldistributed services; unprecedented developments in biotechnologies which portend good but risk evil; the violation of public trust by high elected officials and their appointees; the growing militarization of many societies; continued racism; the persistence of hunger and malnutrition; a still exploding population in societies hard put to increase jobs and resources; abortion; euthanasia; care for the environment; the claims of future generations. The list is endless. With more and more attention necessarily riveted on matters of morality and ethics, it is hardly a surprise that we ask about moral content as a measure of the meaning of any God-talk, and test the potency of faith claims by the difference they make for human well-being and the well-being of the wider creation.

"Ethical" theology has become so commonplace that we easily forget how often it has not been so. The function of religion in most times and places has been to render the world meaningful for people who didn’t have the power to do much of anything beyond what had been assigned them by fate. Kings and peasants, rich and poor, masters and slaves, would always exist. Men were by nature suited to some tasks, women to others. Plagues and famines were "acts of God." Religion was there to offer some cosmic meaning for the natural order of things, and some cosmic consolation when people suffered because of it. This fatedness is gone for many now. It runs full grain against the ethos of modernity and another legacy of the Enlightenment -- human agency for the democratic transformation of society.

Simply put, the world can be different, it ought to be, and we are the agents of its transformation. This fact pushes socio-ethical and political-ethical issues into prominence. That almost all the new voices in theology are voices of emerging peoples who are driven to toss off the heavy layers of fate and circumstance, and who press justice as a matter of faith, only intensifies this theological trend. If the preoccupation of early Christian centuries was to give creedal expression to Christian faith in a way that would make intellectual and metaphysical sense in a Greek world, and the preoccupation of the Reformation was the status of the guilty sinner before God, the attention in our time has turned to the moral and ethical dimensions of making history.

This includes an ethical qualification for any serious faith claim. If the way in which we understand and talk about Jesus Christ permits or fosters anti-Semitism, then that way is rejected. If our interpretation of Scripture perpetuates the oppression of women, or racism, then that exegesis is disqualified. If Christian symbols mask and sanction imperialist relationships, then a nonimperialist rendering must be found, or the meaning of the symbol transformed.

Human power is on the agenda of virtually every creative impulse in theology today. The reasons are two: heightened power in some quarters and the quest for power in others. The former is in keeping with what is perhaps the distinctive mark of our age -- the quantum leap in human power to affect all of life in truly fundamental and unprecedented ways. Human power, largely through modern technologies, has a novel range of impact, novel objects, and novel consequences. The human capacity to author life and skip all over the genetic alphabet raises theological questions, just as does the human capacity to destroy life on a grand scale and actually put ourselves, for the first time, in a position to be uncreators. Even someone so cautious as James Gustafson says: "The ordering of all life is shifting in a sense from God to humanity and doing so more rapidly in this century than in all the previous centuries of human culture combined" (Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, vol. 1).

Yet the capacity to split genes and atoms, and to effect the environment on a new scale and in grave ways, is only one reason human power -- and its relation to divine power -- has become a theological preoccupation. The other is the strong theme of empowerment in the theologies of subjugated but spirited peoples. The theme of empowerment does not first appear with the question of decisions and strategy. (What now do we do?) It is a component of the most fundamental theological notions themselves -- power and the presence of God, power and the vocation of humanity, power and the work of Jesus Christ and the Spirit, power and conversion, salvation, transformation, liberation, the life of prayer, the meaning of the Scriptures and of the Sacraments, etc. As with the enhanced human capacities to create and destroy, so too here reflection is about the relationship of human agency to divine agency in a new era. How God’s power is imaged in relation to human power is a matter of much present exploration. What is clear is the rejection of monarchical and hierarchical images of power as "power over."

The preoccupation with human power will likely continue, both for reasons of the enhanced impacts of human power in a shrinking world, and growing social conflict. The history of the world is written around emerging peoples’ quest for land and other resources, and established populations’ defense of them. In a world where it is easier and easier to annihilate people but more and more difficult to conquer and subdue them social conflict will likely increase.


A radically theocentric Jesus with a decidedly human face emerges from many, and very different, quarters in present theological scholarship. The volume of attention is itself phenomenal. David Tracy has said that "more has been written about Jesus in the last 20 years than in the previous 2000." That is not a claim anyone would even want to try to verify, but it does point up extraordinary interest.

One would expect interest in Jesus from a pride or two of biblical scholars; they get paid for stalking Jesus and visiting old Christians. Yet their interest is hardly solitary. One of the premier liberation theologians, Juan Luis Segundo, has said that "Latin American theology has been mainly interested in going back to the primitive circumstances where, in the proximity of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians began to do theology."

Segundo wants to start fresh in large part because so many understandings of Jesus Christ have functioned as important elements in the pieties of dominant and exploitive groups. Armed with the fruits of a century of developing biblical scholarship and tools, Segundo expects -- and finds -- that the historical Jesus undercuts many long-held understandings of Christ. He finds a radically theocentric and socially radical Jesus, a Jesus who means major revisions in Christian notions, at least those regnant since Constantine.

Others are newly intrigued by Jesus for other reasons. Christians engaging in inter-religious encounter may seem an unlikely group, since Christianity has long attached a centrality, uniqueness, and exclusivity to Jesus, claiming there is in fact no other name under heaven whereby we might be saved. Yet it turns out that the historical Jesus now haunting the world of scholarship may just be the best thing going in inter-religious dialogue. It is a Jesus who does not well support Christianity’s triumphalist claim and a Jesus who keeps nudging a major shift, from a Christocentric theology to a theocentric Christology. Which is to say: God, not Jesus, is the power at the center of things, and a God-centered life is precisely what we see in Jesus. A theocentric Christology is far more ecumenical in the religiously plural world than is a Christocentric theology with its exclusivist absorption of all of God into the Jesus of Christianity.

One of the parties to inter-religious dialogue is the community of Jewish scholars. They have also shown new and extensive interest in Jesus. They share with others the discernment of a theocentric and radical Jesus who looks very different from later claims about him. Their contribution is more than the ever-necessary reminder that Jesus was a Jew and not a Christian, that he lived a Jewish life that he understood in a Jewish way, and that the movement gathered immediately around him was a Jewish one involved in Jewish renewal. Jewish scholarship goes on to let us distinguish Jesus the Jew and his movement from the communication of him and his message in the non-Jewish and sometimes anti-Jewish ways that are already present in early Christian writings. In doing so, it reinforces the shift from a Christocentric theology to a theocentric Christology.

Christian biblical scholars have also shown a vibrant new interest in the historical Jesus, much of it utilizing an approach to Christologv "from below," i.e., an understanding that begins with the humanity and ministry of Jesus, who, precisely as a figure embedded in history, moves toward God and lives as one wholly centered in God. Over and over again the Jesus found is a compelling disclosure of the suffering and compassionate God. Since Jesus has now become "the man who belongs to the world" (Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries), and since most of the Christian world now lives in the Third World, we will likely hear more of this radical, theocentric, and suffering Jesus with a very human face.

These five themes -- socio-critical and group-identified theology; public suffering and a suffering God; the ethical qualification and intensification of faith claims; a preoccupation with human power; and the unsettling lure of the historical Jesus -- are only a few of the converging concerns in current theology. They give witness to a more cohesive sentiment and promise than "Balkanization" lets on. Most of these themes, though not all, reflect the dynamics of the double movement of renewal and revision. Together with the responses they invoke, they portend the recasting of much of Christian faith. That recasting will continue.