Who’s Catering the Theological Smorgasbord

by M. Colin Grant

Dr. Grant is assistant professor of religious studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 4, 1977, p. 428. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


As we become aware of the artificial appetites created by our consumption-compulsive society, it will be well to ask who is catering the theological smorgasbord now laid before us, and what appetites we who partake are attempting to satisfy. There’s a world of difference between one who is “hungering and thirsting after righteousness” and one who is merely seeking an intellectual snack.

The bewildering proliferation of theologies in the last quarter of the 20th century contrasts sharply with the blends of liberal, existential and neo-orthodox theologies outlined by H. R. Mackintosh in his Types of Modern Theology in the second quarter of this century. One is bewildered not only by the sheer multiplicity of theologies but by the precariousness of theology itself occasioned by this variety. What factor do all these theologies have in common that justifies their inclusion under the label of theology? Has theology, like religion, been spread so thin that it defies definition? The issue was clearly focused at the three-quarter mark of the century by such developments as The Christian Century’s series on “New Turns in Religious Thought” and an issue of Christianity and Crisis which asked, “Whatever Happened to Theology?”

Theology is not alone in experiencing the demands of specialization, but that is of little consolation to one whose responsibility it is to introduce students to the issues of contemporary theology. If one is to transcend the initial impression that theology is a smorgasbord from which one may pick and choose as a matter of taste, with some question as to whether one must partake at all, it is necessary to identify some nutritional requirements which theology is designed to meet.

We shall take the basic theological proteins, carbohydrates and fats (analogies are not to be pressed too far) to be represented by the doctrines of God, salvation and the church. This may seem no less arbitrary than choosing from the smorgasbord itself, but it will at least provide a means for organizing the menu; and a consideration of how these themes are treated in recent theology will reveal basic issues of appetite and nutrition underlying the current malaise in theology.

Debating About God

The debate about God that has dominated recent theology may be understood as a clash between two points of view: Santa Claus theology and Christmas Spirit theology. Santa Claus theology is exercised over Virginia’s question: “Is there a Santa Claus?” This outlook has represented a prominent strand in theology from the Hellenistic influence apparent in Hebrews 11:6 (“Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him”), through the medieval Anselmic and Thomistic arguments for the existence of God, reaching a climax in the 18th century deistic arguments for a Great Designer evidenced by the intricacy and harmony of the universe.

Despite the increasing suspicion of such proofs in the modern period, following the challenges of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, the outlook is still very much in evidence in popular polls which calibrate religion in terms of the question, “Do you believe in God?” The issue for Santa Claus theology is whether one believes in the existence of a divine being.

The problem with Santa Claus theology is that the same polls which show a high percentage of the population to be believers also show that this belief has no significant influence on the values and practices of daily life. But there is another type of theology which starts with consideration of the values and commitments affirmed, irrespective of the beliefs articulated. For some, this approach avoids the hypocrisy of the child who no longer believes in Santa Claus but continues the pretense for the benefit of parents and younger brothers or sisters. Others claim this approach to be a return to the biblical perspective which sees not the existence but the nature and will of God as the issue. In any case, from the viewpoint of Christmas Spirit theology, Santa Claus theology is at best an heirloom of Greek metaphysics, and at worst a hypocritical avoidance of the theological dimension of life as it is experienced today. What is experienced, Christmas Spirit theology alleges, is not the intervention of a supernatural being slipping down the chimney on Christmas Eve, but a mysterious universe whose origin and destiny remain hidden yet which encompasses moments of communion and compassion such as touch even the most cynical at Christmastime.

Long after the myth of Santa Claus is shattered, the spirit of Christmas maintains its vitality. But then Christmas is not basically dependent on Santa Claus anyway. Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ. But what is the Christ when belief in God is relegated to the status of a nonissue? Here Santa Claus theology and Christmas Spirit theology meet. The problem of Santa Claus theology is that it emphasizes belief for belief’s sake, or affirms a belief which no longer accords with contemporary experience. The problem with Christmas Spirit theology is that it endorses a virtually exclusive Christian allegiance without any wider basis for articulating and legitimizing that allegiance.

Thus contemporary theology is stalemated between a longstanding affirmation which does not touch the lives of many, and an appreciation of the needs and aspirations of contemporary experience which has great difficulty in being theological. The outstanding exception to this dilemma is the varied movement known as process theology. In line with Santa Claus theology, it is concerned with the reality of God -- not as a being, however, but as the source of direction” for the whole process of reality, which source in turn is affected by that process, thus aligning with Christmas Spirit theology’s concern to take contemporary experience seriously. Although process thought has been around for some time, it is only now receiving general theological consideration, and while it can hardly be expected to provide a panacea for the perennial problems of delineating the meaning of God, it does offer a way of avoiding the stalemate of Santa Claus and Christmas Spirit theologies.

A Cure for Life’s Ills

If the mushrooming of theologies constitutes a source of bewilderment for the student and teacher of theology, how much more devastating must the situation be for practicing clergy? Not only is the meaning of God in question, but what significance an answer to the question would have is by no means clear. One view suggests that no such answer can be forthcoming, because the question of God is addressed to the individual; therefore, the only authentic answer is an existential one. Another prominent perspective prefers to bypass the question in the interests of seeking to approximate more closely the Kingdom of God in society. Behind these two approaches lie different concepts of salvation and, consequently, different ideas of what ministry should involve. We may identify these approaches as Family Doctor theology and Public Health theology.

Family Doctor theology sees salvation and ministry in terms of the snatching of brands from the fire. The fire is the universal epidemic of sin. Beneath the competitions and confrontations of life there lies the universal egotism of the human creature who would be God. The child’s earliest demands for attention echo the rebellion of Eden: “You shall be as gods.” It has been suggested that the immediate result of the Fall, as portrayed in Genesis 3 -- “And they knew that they were naked” -- should be rendered “And they became self-conscious.” Rather than live as creatures who acknowledge the Creator, humanity has chosen to place the self at the center of life. Thus life is fragmented into a multiplicity of competing selves, alienated from their Creator, from one another, and themselves.

According to Family Doctor theology, this is the fundamental condition of life from which humanity must be rescued. But while the condition is universal, the cure is individual. The family doctor does not treat humanity. He or she deals with patients one by one. Disease demands individual treatment of the persons afflicted. Because sin has to do primarily with the individual’s orientation in his or her life stance, it can be dealt with only by challenging the individual in extremely personal terms. Thus whether in the person of the professional evangelist or in the informal witness of the individual Christian, Family Doctor theology prescribes individual conversion as the primary cure for the ills of life. If this aim is achieved, all other things will be added. If the basic orientation of life is corrected, the competitions and confrontations will be transformed in due course. Healthy individuals constitute a healthy society.

Although the apparent dominance of self-interest in contemporary society makes the Family Doctor diagnosis plausible, there is another type of theology which finds the cause of the malady elsewhere. Public Health theology argues that beyond the individual egotism which threatens to reduce humanity to a mass of gladiatorial combatants, there are dynamics in society itself which even the most saintly will not change by their saintliness. An epidemic is not halted merely by treating the individuals affected, but by getting to the source of the disease. Testing of water supplies, isolation of virus strains, and identification of carriers are the types of measures undertaken by public health officials.

Similarly, Public Health theology takes to heart Reinhold Niebuhr’s warning that it takes more than moral man to transform immoral society. Society is more than the sum of the individuals who constitute it. The battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. The most humane individual may participate, whether boldly or unwittingly, in the most inhumane social structures. Thus the liberation theologies -- black, feminist, Third World -- attempt to challenge the social machinery which legitimizes and perpetuates racism, sexism and imperialism. As long as the virus flourishes, society is not safe, no matter flow many individuals have been cured or immunized. What is required, according to Public health theology, is not the individual cure of conversion, but structural change in the political, economic and social systems that provide breeding grounds for the dehumanizing viruses.

Thus contemporary theology is stalemated between Family Doctor theology, with its concern for the eternal destiny of the individual, and Public Health theology, which challenges the institutions and systems that prevent wholeness of life in the present. But here too there is a striking exception. The theology of hope combines concern for the aspirations of the individual with visions of the coming Kingdom which will transform life for all. Again, the point is not that the theology of hope adequately reconciles these disparate tendencies, but rather that it does not succumb to either approach, and offers the most promising prospect for avoiding the stalemate between Family Doctor and Public Health theologies.

Concepts of the Church

Though the doctrine of God has occupied a prominent place in recent theology, and though concepts of salvation are implied in many of the positions articulated, the doctrine of the church generally has not been accorded even this implicit status. One of the dominant motifs of the secular ‘60s was the insistence that Christian faith is not a matter of churchiness. As a result, much energy was expanded on delineating the implications of Christian faith in life generally, without regard to the historic locus of faith in the life of the Christian community. Thus while we can identify a concept of the church against which a dominant strand in recent theology has reacted, we can make only a hypothetical construction of what might have resulted had historical questions of institutional continuity been pursued. On this assumption, once again we are confronted with two competing strands of thought: Service Club theology and Fraternal Lodge theology.

Service Club theology is directed to the needs of the wider community. As service clubs promote certain projects for the betterment of the citizenry at large, this type of theology takes on the causes of the neglected and the wronged. In this aspect it is close to Public Health theology. Indeed, it is Public Health theology practiced on an ad hoc basis. The service club is essentially an interest group consisting of a loose association of individuals whose basic unity is the cause at hand.

If Service Club theology eludes definition, the conception of the church against which it reacts is more manageable. Fraternal Lodge theology may also take on causes, and concern itself with expressing Christian values in the wider community, but its primary orientation is internal. The fellowship, offices and ritual of lodges characterize Fraternal Lodge theology. While it stands accused of introversion and complacency by the Service Club approach, it represents the conviction that service is doomed to be fragmentary and inconsistent unless it is grounded in a firm motivating and sustaining base.

The conflict between Service Club theology and Fraternal Lodge theology is somewhat different from the other stalemates we have identified. The problem here is that there is only sporadic confrontation, the usual procedure being an avoidance of the issue of the nature and function of Christian community. While the other theologies may often fail to communicate, here it is the fundamental basis of communication which is lacking. Service Club theology puts such a premium on service that it regards any consideration of club or lodge as a distraction from its mission. Part of the reason for this attitude is that the church is subject to the widespread suspicion of institutions. While there is good reason for this skepticism, it is ironic that a theology so geared to public issues should neglect the most public expression of Christian faith. This tendency suggests that the fundamental reason for the neglect of the church in recent theology lies elsewhere -- namely, in the change in locus of theology itself from church to university.

Moving the Game to a New Ball Park

Although the university provided the setting for some of the most enduring theology of the medieval and Reformation eras, and though the philosophy of religion in the modern period emerged under similar auspices, the recent development of departments of religious studies in secular universities represents a unique phenomenon that has profound implications for theology. For most of its long history theology lacked the self-conscious concern with its own identity which has accompanied the emergence of religious studies. If that concern had been present, it would generally have received the Anselmic answer, recovered in this century by Karl Barth, which regards theology as originating in, and issuing in, doxology.

Whatever doctrine happened to be at stake at any given time, theology’s role as practitioner of the intellectual love of God was generally taken for granted. This was the assumed function of theology as a servant of the church. It is not accidental that Barth’s recovery of Anselm precipitated the change in his program from “Christian Dogmatics” to “Church Dogmatics.” When theology, whether under that label or designated as religious studies, flourishes under the auspices of the humanities and social sciences, not only has the game moved to a different ball park, but the rules and umpires are also changed. Rather than owing a primary allegiance to the worship and service of God, theology is embroiled in the conflict between humanities and social-science orientations.

Here there seem to be three options: to continue the pursuit of theology as though this change had not taken place, to engage in introspective analysis of theology’s role amid the academic disciplines, or to identify theology with some social cause. Of the three pairs of theology identified, Santa Claus, Family Doctor and Fraternal Lodge theologies tend to take the first option. Christmas Spirit theology tends to be preoccupied with the second, and Public Health and Service Club theologies generally pursue the third route. In this situation, it is hardly accidental that current theology gives the appearance of a colorful, but perhaps not overly nutritious, smorgasbord.

Our attempts to organize the available nutrients have suggested a general lack of the traditional staple represented by the doctrine of the church. This absence should not be surprising, given the change of venue represented by the addition of religious studies departments to secular university curricula. But one should also consider the impact of this shift on the treatment of other doctrines. When religious studies departments are the caterers, the smorgasbord will boast different delicacies, in different proportions, than those provided by a theological banquet or a church-sponsored potluck supper.

But more important, the change of menu suggests changing appetites to which the religious studies caterers respond, and which they in turn define and promote. As we become aware of the artificial appetites created by our consumption-compulsive society, it will be well to ask who is catering the theological smorgasbord now laid before us, and what appetites we who partake are attempting to satisfy. There’s a world of difference between one who is “hungering and thirsting after righteousness” and one who is merely seeking an intellectual snack.