Theology Now?

by Paul van Buren

Dr. van Buren is a professor of religion at Temple University, Philadelphia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 29, 1974, pp. 585-589. 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.


It can hardly remain hidden that the American system of competition, domination and violence, of sexism and oppression, carefully programming us by the pattern of the marketplace and subliminally driven into us by advertising, inhibits, to say the least, our walking as men and women of love and hope.

Whether there can be theology here and now becomes a serious question only when the subject of theology is taken to be of the utmost seriousness. This condition has hardly characterized the religious scene in recent times. The question has therefore appeared to be not so much serious as interesting, or academic. Not knowing what to do with the matter of theology, many of us turned instead to the method of theology. But the theology whose method has been so much discussed seems to have been just more of man’s perennial conversation with himself. Can there be theology now? Our theologies all seem to be ours and about ourselves. So we have had theologies of the secular (definitely passé now), experiential theologies, all sorts of philosophical theologies, even American theologies (who needs them?), and more recently theologies of play, hope and liberation.

This parade of ‘New Theology" (already in ten volumes!), this wave of what some regard as faddism, may have had its positive side. The motive behind these swings may have been the altogether proper desire for theology now, a response that came genuinely out of our own situation. Yet hovering in the background is doubt whether our "now" is much different from all the other "nows" of human history. Theology now ought indeed to be our own response from out of our own situation, but is not theology set in the more fundamental context of something utterly final and transcendent (strange words, these!) said into our and every other human situation? Is not theology called upon to reckon with something other than one more human voice added to man’s endless talk with himself? If that is not really the setting of theology, then I fail to see on what grounds it can justifiably lay claim to our attention. Uncertainty at this point may be just the reason why theology has been so occupied with finding trendy titles for its latest up-to-the-minute variations.

If we theologians have forgotten the seriousness of our task (or have lost our nerve), if we have been uneasy about trying to lay hold on something well beyond our grasp, lest we seem foolish to an age devoted to problem-solving and conceptual clarity, events of the day are not short of reminders of seriousness for those who have eyes to see. Gone is the cheery optimism of the ‘60s. Fuel is short and tempers are shorter. The rising expectations of a decade ago are shattered on the hard, dull realities of a stagnant economy and rampant inflation. The incompetence and unwillingness of the administration to take matters in hand is matched only by the incompetence and unwillingness of a Congress of sheep and those among them whom we laughingly call "congressional leaders." The mail is slow, trains are late, the telephone doesn’t work, goods are shoddy, appliances break down, and jobs are hard to find and harder to keep. Whatever confidence we may once have had in political, economic, educational or ecclesiastical institutions as bearers and guardians of value is fast evaporating. We are, to put it simply, in a mess, a systemic mess so serious that few of us dare look it in the face and none of us dare look at it very long.

Far more serious than these matters, however, is the fact that the dying still goes on in Indochina, killing and torture and suffering paid for by your taxes and mine. We worry about our own forced shift in diet, but at least we can eat. That is hardly the case for millions in the Third World, whose situation is becoming much worse because of the drought in Africa, about which the rest of the world is doing precious little. And if fuel shortages are a bother for us, they are devastating to the poor countries; the energy crisis is widening the gap between the rich and the poor nations of this world at a terrifying pace. Meanwhile pollution approaches the danger point on land, in the air and in the oceans. As our "defense" bill approaches $100 billion per year, we stumble daily closer to the time when this earth will no longer tolerate life lived as stupidly as we insist on living it. The ‘70s are warning us of the precariousness of the human situation. The sign is there to read: memento mori!

Unaccustomed to saying such a word ourselves, we can hear from the world a cry that should sound familiar to us: "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" And from many poor souls in this world too weak and powerless to cry out comes a groan reflecting another that Christians ought to recognize: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Is it for such as these that we seriously offer our theologies of the secular, of experience, of play, even of hope and liberation? Should not such as these, if by some freak chance they should ever overhear us, just quietly vomit once (had they anything in their shriveled bellies to expel!) before breathing their last?


What then is the task of theology now? Surely what it has always been: to serve now a word spoken into the human situation. If this be a theology of hope, then it must be of other than human hope, even of other than Christian hope; for why should any of us put any trust in the hope of humans? And God knows the world has no grounds for trusting the hope of Christians! If this be a theology of liberation, then it must be of other than black liberation, women’s liberation, or even the liberation of the oppressed. Deeply as we may long for each and all of these, do we seriously expect that the almost-undreamable realization of the agendas of these movements will deliver us or them from this body of death? Can "liberation" of blacks, women, the oppressed, which leaves us in this body of death, really be the goal of history? Surely the liberation of which theology alone has any right to speak must be more radical than that. The liberation and hope of which alone theology is commissioned to speak and to serve can only be those of -- let us say it -- God! The task of theology now, in short, is what it has always been: to be radically theology, a service of a word of God.

"God," did I say? But what does theology know of God? What can it hope to do with that strange word, not to speak of the yet stranger "reality" for which it struggles to make the word do duty? Has not "God" become a problem for theology, and in just the wrong way? Indeed it has. Trusting too much in our own thought and experience, we have tried to make sense out of "God," tried to figure it out, to show it has a meaning, secularly and experientally, or eschatologically and existentially. Or we have tried to show that it had at least a function, perhaps that of marking the limits of language. And all these -- who knows? -- might indeed be possibilities. But they make of "God" still the farthest limit of our human possibilities, caught up with us just as surely within this body of death. If God can be known in what we call experiences of transcendence or ultimacy, then of course theology can talk of God, as it can of any other human concept. An adequate conceptuality of this God should be just a matter of some good, hard, clear thinking. But such a God is only a rather special aspect of our own conceiving and so an aspect of ourselves. If theology speaks of this God, it has nothing really new to say to humans, for here man speaks to himself about himself, and that is hardly news. Nor could such pretended news be good, for the world is all too aware, that it cannot rescue itself from this body of death.


How then can there be theology? If theology is to be a word about God and the service of a word of God, then theologians must be the first to insist that they know not of what they speak. That is the right way in which God is and ought to be a problem for theology. Theology’s God can only be the utterly Unknown, the radically transcendent, and therefore strictly and quite literally inconceivable. (I am quite aware that such a predication is ridiculous, for if God were literally inconceivable, we should not even have an idea of him as having this feature; namely, inconceivability. Yet if we take such a sensible route, we shall have missed the "infinite qualitative difference" [Kierkegaard] between God and man that led the early theologians of the Christian tradition to risk such paradoxical expressions.) Theologians should have no need whatsoever to. have to learn from philosophers that the concept "God" is incoherent. Of course it is! If our concept "God" is one which we know can’t do justice to, one which can only be our poor response to, that which broke in upon certain men at the Sea of Reeds, at Sinai, and in Jesus Christ, then how could it be other than incoherent, utterly inadequate to the "unreal" reality, the impossibility, to which prophets and apostles have pointed? Either theology has to take up the painful, impossible task of trying to say what can’t be said, or it had better pack up its bags and go home.

This begins to sound like the requirement that theology be theology without hyphens or adjectives, and surely that is an impossibility. We shall find names and qualifiers for any theology, which should serve to remind us that theology is always human theology, always our word and thought, and therefore part of the problem, not the answer to that problem. Any attempt to break loose from the path set out by Schleiermacher and to find a way in which to make the transcendent God our subject, rather than some aspect of ourselves, could be called an apophantic theology, standing as it does in that tradition of paradox or dialectic that marked the Cappadocian theologians and has always been a part of the theological tradition. Or we could call it a Barthian theology, for Barth remains the outstanding example of a theologian who tried to turn theology from the path chartered by Schleiermacher. We could better call it a theology of frustration, since this would be an attempt to acknowledge the frustration which must lie at the heart of every theological endeavor: trying to make clear what is beyond our powers of understanding. Faced with this frustration, the impossibility of "pure" theology, it is inevitable that such an attempt must turn out to be Christology. Yet what did he whom we call the Christ want, but that we call upon, really call upon, worship, serve and give the glory to God? We can only say to him what we must learn to say with him: My Lord and my God! We can only dare to call this man God of God, Light of Light, because he first said, "Why do you call me good? There is none good save God!"

Certainly, theology that seeks to be just theology will have its center in Christology, for Christology, the center of our response to God’s grace, is our answer out of our deepest selves and out of our truest situation. We know it is out of the deepest part of our being and from the center of our situation because that precisely is where it is shown to be by the fact of God’s grace having met us just there. That center of our selves, that place in which we really stand, is our human mess, that plodding on relentlessly into triviality, meaninglessness and death. That place is our human condition that is spelled out in Watergate; mangled bodies and land in Indochina; dry, dusty, suffering starvation in Africa; inconceivable poverty, oppression and torture in South America; humiliation and wretchedness in the slums here "at home": and all this supported by economic structures and a system which we have supported and which destroys human beings and rapes the good earth. So it goes. God have mercy on those who have time to sit around thinking up new theologies! When a certain devastating light shines upon the selves and the place from which we have to do our theology, the emptiness of both is revealed: who will rescue us from this body of death?! Not people, for sure. Not liberation movements, although who cannot stand with those who cry out in rage and frustration at the horror of what we are doing? Not Christianity. And surely not so frail and human a thing as theology, least of all a theology that wants, in all the weakness of human wanting, to be a theology of God. Only that which is impossible and incoherent, empirically meaningless and irrelevant can rescue -- only the God who is grace. It is of this that we all need to remind ourselves if there is to be theology now.


What has been said thus far may have needed to be said, but we have spoken only of the urgency of an impossible task in an impossible situation. Others could always come back at us with a liberal’s more balanced estimate of the context and more moderate definition of the task. Are there grounds for judging the situation and task so radically? There are indeed. The urgency of doing theology in the context of the cry "Who will deliver us from this body of death?" derives from the urgency of that cry itself, and that cry is revealed to be urgent in the light of that which is acknowledged in the shout that follows it: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" This is the light in which the utter darkness of our situation becomes known, and known as a situation about which darkness is not the last word. The grounds for a radical view of our situation and for holding to radical transcendence is the word of Easter. Without Easter there would have been no gospel to proclaim, and of course no theology. If there is to be theology now, it must be, as it has always had to be, first and foremost, a response to Easter.

How shall we respond to Easter? Note: how shall we respond, not what shall we say. Paul’s answer was that we start walking, not talking. "Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so that we might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). Since the logos of theology is an incarnate logos, so the task of theology is to get clear about how to walk in response to Easter. I should like to develop this programmatically in the following trinitarian form: (1) God is the liberator; (2) liberation has happened in Christ; and (3) this has happened for us. Reflection on these three related theses will clarify the walking we have to do.


1.Our first response to Easter is to walk as persons who know that there is a rescuer, a Liberator, and that that one is God, not man. Whatever else Easter leads us to say, it opens us first of all to say Yes, in response to God’s Yes. In truth, beyond all our experiences, ideas, conceptions, hopes and longings, there is one greater and stranger than any thoughts or imaginings we may have had about an Absolute, a Transcendent, a Wholly Other. This one is essentially, because self-revealedly, that which would otherwise never have occurred to us -- and something quite other than has in fact ever occurred to any great thinker, poet, philosopher or other inventor of conceptions of God, the one who raised Jesus from the dead. He is the liberator in just this way: as the liberator of Jesus from this body of death and out of its death. He is the God of history in just this way, as the one who intrudes his strange finger into history with this act that is hardly an ordinary historical event, hardly an event that we can handle with historical tools. He is the God who is our God and for us in just this way, as the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Our response to this, so far as words go (and why should there not be words, if we are people? Surely human walking leaves room for talking as we go), will therefore take the form of saying something quite extraordinary. The word which the apostolic community used and offered to us is the word "resurrection," hardly a term derived from or consonant with our usual conceptuality or our ordinary human experience, however rich and varied. As the word suggests, with this "event" we have been set free to talk in a new way about our human situation. Alongside such words as "mess" and "death," beyond "freedom" and "dignity," now come new words: "grace" and "resurrection," and with them, finally, "God." When we try to give an account of these words, to relate them logically or experientially to the rest of our language, we stumble, for these words are not our own, as though they could be seen to make sense within the framework of whatever else we may say as men and women. They are strange new words given to us as means to make a strange new response appropriate to the strange new situation to which we have been opened: Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father that we might walk in newness of life.

2. He was raised, not we. If anything be said about experiences of the transcendent, not to speak of "resurrection experiences," then let us be quite clear that we are speaking of him and his experiences. Only he is in a position to talk thus. If anything be said of liberation, above all of liberation from this body of death, then let us be quite clear that there, in him, is where this has happened, not here in ourselves or in our personal histories. We should not confuse any liberation which we might achieve in our place with the liberation which has been achieved in his place. We may and should walk as people who have seen a great light, but we are surely not that light ourselves. We are the darkness into which the light has shined. Our solidarity is with the darkness of this world and therefore with all the others in this body of death, with the unliberated -- and that not by any act of condescension, but in plain honesty. No, the dance in which we are engaged with all those who long for liberation is the dance of death. Let us not confuse our dance with a dance of the liberated, let us not call it a dance of liberation. It is a dance with death and unto death, for we dance along with all those who are not he.

The corporate, almost cosmic, but at least systemic character of our situation and condition, as seen by those who know that they are one with all who are not he, needs underscoring today. Some of us may find Marxian or neo-Marxian analyses helpful here, insofar as they help us to see that our mess is systemic, not merely individual. It is depressing, for example, to see liberals working so hard for Nixon’s impeachment, as if he were the enemy, as if changing the occupant of the White House would really begin to touch the forces and powers for whom the occupant of the White House, wittingly or unwittingly, is a mere flunky. Can any of us still believe that good old George McGovern would have solved the systemic problem of American industrial implication in Africa, Latin America, Europe or southeast Asia? A better Band-Aid is not to be shunned, of course, but let us not confuse better ways to run the system with analyses by which we seek to penetrate the sickness of the system itself. Those who believe that the analysis of a transcendent God led to measures of such incomprehensible radicality as crucifixion and resurrection can only be suspicious of any analysis that leads to a moderate view of our sociopolitical and economic situation. A milder assessment is of course open to those who can incorporate Good Friday and Easter into the framework of ordinary human experience, psychology and language. That, however, is to abandon theology for anthropology -- admittedly an easier task, but not the one we are asking about.

3. But now we must turn to the other side: what happened in him happened for us who are not he. The strange word of the apostle in response to this strange happening is: he was raised as the "firstfruits" of the dead! In Christ shall all be made alive! He was raised from the dead, that he might really be raised for those, all those, who are on their way to death. What a perverted watering-down of this it would be to think that he was raised only for those who believe in him! That is hardly what we have heard. How weak a dilution it is, further, to turn the apostolic witness into a message of individual hope in the face of individual failure. If we believe that Christ was there for all people in the mercy of the God of the cosmos, then the scope of the gospel may be more than systemic, but hardly less. How shall we regard, not just ourselves, but especially all other human beings, except as men and women over whom has been spoken a sovereign word of freedom and dignity and liberation far exceeding their or our wildest dreams of what it would be to be free men and women? If it has really happened in him, then faith cannot possibly be the ultimate and decisive dividing line among people. Faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead is at once hope for all.

Who then are "we"? We are those who have been given to see and therefore to walk. We are those who can no longer abide the death of oppression in which all people are victims, because we know what has happened to us. With our eyes open to that liberation, how could we possibly be at peace with the, death-destined and death-dealing system in which we see ourselves in the light of Easter? To respond to this situation with words only would be a betrayal of the risen Word-made-flesh. A theology that was only theology at this point would be no theology at all. Only a theology that was at once politics here could be seriously theology now.


Thus the really serious theological/political task comes into focus: to hold together in word and act, in talking and walking, what is one in the event of Easter: that the liberation of God, for us, has taken place in him. We find ourselves in this year of grace 1974 at a particular point lying between the event in him. Easter, and the final unveiling of Easter’s goal, the final liberation of all people and the whole creation. Meantime, it has been given to us to walk as well as talk, and both in a new way, a way which is at odds with our situation. In the light of Easter as it shines specifically on Christians in America in 1974, it can hardly remain hidden that this system of competition, domination and violence, of sexism and oppression, carefully programming us by the pattern of the marketplace and subliminally driven into us by advertising, inhibits, to say the least, our walking as men and women of love and hope. The apostle warned us that our fight is not with individual foes (how simple the problem and how simple the solution were Nixon the enemy, or even the men who direct the great transnational corporations that own little men like Nixon) but with principalities and powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with spiritual hosts of wickedness of a superhuman sort (Eph. 6: 12). Those who work to perpetuate this system are as much in bondage to it as any and need themselves to be liberated of their power to oppress. To walk in newness of life is to accept the call to warfare against this oppression.

No blueprint has been given us for this warfare, no plan of battle or map of the terrain. Instead we are given freedom to find our own way, to become witnesses by making use of this freedom and daring to exercise it -- freedom to discover that God’s liberation really is for men and women. My own view right now is that we need to be engaged in an intense systemic consciousness-raising effort in the light of radical transcendence. I take that to be the immediate task because the troops seem to be in a state of confusion. They seem to have forgotten, and need to be reminded, that we are here because of liberation, because Christ has already been raised by the glory of the Father, and that this has been done for us men and women, all of us. And if we get back to this serious task, then we shall have to remind ourselves again and again that the liberation in the light of which we walk is God’s doing, in no way to be confused with whatever we may hope to accomplish ourselves. What we can aim at, however, is to make it just a bit more possible for men and women to walk toward those who have seen and wait for a great light. Insofar as any engage in this task, to that extent they give positive response to the question of theology now.