Theology in 1977 and Beyond

by Kenan B. Osborne, O.F.M.

Dr. Osborne is president and dean, Franciscan School of Theology, Berkeley, and professor in philosophical and systematic theology, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

This article appeared in the Christian Century February 2-9, 1977, p. 92. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In our tumultuous times, three areas need our attention in charting a theological program today, particularly for the preparation of future priests and ministers.: 1. Philosophy; 2. Professionalism; 3. Spirituality.

The preceding decades have been tumultuous, both within the theological world and outside it. For theology there was the post-Bultmannian school, the death-of-God theology, Vatican II and all that led to it and stemmed from it, the surge of ecumenical thought and dialogue, Christian-Marxist dialogue, Jewish-Christian discussions, liberation theologies.

But other factors, both social and, political, have also affected the theological enterprise: one need only think of war in Vietnam, the struggle of Third World groups, women’s liberation movements, student-led confrontations of the late ‘60s, and the radical political movements in the same period. One might note as well the growing trend toward teaching theology within a Consortium situation, the influence of the charismatic movement on all major Christian denominations, and the interest of Christians in non-Christian religions. All these factors and more have caused theology today to be in a state of ferment and change, and because of this ferment, it has become difficult to chart the theological program beyond an immediate future.


But are there signs of the times that might assist us? From my perspective I hesitantly offer the following items:

1. Philosophy. Western theology, Catholic and Protestant, has always been affected by the various philosophies that have been a part of our past; Aristotelianism, scholastic philosophy and Cartesianism have played a major role in this interplay of theology and philosophy. These three philosophies are controlled by either the category of primary substance or by the notion of clear and distinct ideas, but in all cases the controlling factor is something that is not changeable. Contemporary philosophies, however, tend to be controlled by something inherently changeable and dynamically relational. I have in mind here both process philosophy and phenomenology, at least as this latter appears in the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Paul Ricoeur.

There has been a beginning of interplay between such contemporary philosophies and theology, but the work to date is still preliminary in nature. Nonetheless, the whole question of absolutes and atemporal essences has clearly affected the theological enterprise. These efforts simply reflect the fact that historical consciousness has entered our very bloodstream, and relativity and change are part of the air we breathe.

Such historicity and relativity are quite difficult for Roman Catholic theology, since so many official statements have included the phrase “The church has always taught.” Today anything that appears atemporal, unaffected by the age, is increasingly challenged, so much so that whatever is proposed as unchanging must struggle to gain credibility. This challenge is healthy and cannot be set to one side, and even the stance for theological pluralism which Vatican II unmistakably took is not an answer but merely a widening of the arena in which the question of change and relativity needs to be answered. A forthright stance by teachers of theology on this question can only improve the entire theological enterprise.

2. Professionalism. More and more there is a need to widen the horizons in which theology is taught, and it would seem that this is particularly true of preparation for ministry. Theological studies are not pyramided toward a doctorate. Rather, there should be stronger emphasis on “readiness for ministry.” However, this readiness is attained not merely through field work, deacon apprenticeship and other related programs; it also requires a great deal more effort by the seminary to make theological studies interdisciplinary and more effort by the professor to integrate what he or she is teaching with the actual ministry. The current ferment between theory and practice is good, but it does mean that instruction must take on a far more focused goal of practicality. This accords well with the students’ desire to engage in ministry, but at a qualified professional level. In means too that not only traditional ministries are to be considered, but the new and imaginative forms of contemporary ministry as well.

3. Spirituality. It was Hans Urs von Balthasar who advocated “kneeling theologians,” and today’s interest in spirituality dovetails well with this call. The departmentalizing of the theological disciplines -- i.e., biblical studies, historical studies, systematic studies, ethics -- also occasioned the departmentalizing of spiritual or ascetical theology, thus separating it from its basic biblical, historical and doctrinal rootage. Uniting spirituality and the other disciplines is not an easy task, and we can certainly learn from the history of the theological enterprise some directions we should not pursue.

One of these is to make the study of theology moralizing. A theology lecture or seminar is not a sermon; nonetheless, there is a need to point out the implications some aspect of theological thought has on a given style of spirituality. A second point to be avoided is the confusion of faith and theology. It is one’s faith which is the source of one’s spirituality and religious enthusiasm. Courses in spirituality are not liturgies or prayer times, and such courses are meant to unpack the theological structures within a given style of spirituality.


In our own school, and perhaps in the consortium of theological schools to which it belongs, there is an effort to consider all three of these points. We are indeed blessed to have on our faculty professors adept in contemporary philosophy -- process philosophy, phenomenology and American empiricism. In the theology classes which these persons teach, the question of relativity and historicity is being addressed squarely.

Professionalism in ministry is also a goal of our school. Our programs in field education and deacon apprenticeship are new ventures but show promise. More important is the pastoral orientation of many theological classes. Such classes are taught quite differently from those oriented toward the M.A. or Ph.D., and our approach seems to have been extremely helpful to the students.

Within the Graduate Theological Union consortium there is the possibility of earning a doctorate in Christian spirituality. Naturally, some M.Div. students can participate in some of the more basic courses. Our own school offers a course in Franciscan spirituality which has been well received, but there still remains the difficulty of uniting spirituality to the major corpus of theology without falling into any of the dangers mentioned above.

At any rate, these three areas seem to me to be important for the charting of a theological program today, particularly for the preparation of future priests and ministers.