Saturday, May 28, 2022

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading

MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A Introduction. Classical, Evangelical, Philosophical and Global Perspectives. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2020.

According to MacGregor, contemporary theology starts with Schleiermacher, or at least, I suppose, you need to know about Schleiermacher in order to know about modern theology and hence contemporary theology. Schleiermacher is presented as the start of liberal theology, a theology of emotion and experience, against which many other theologians since have reacted. This is possibly a fair assessment, but whether Schleiermacher was trying to do that is of course, moot.

The other root MacGregor identifies is Hegel. Hegel is, of course, mainly a philosopher although it can be rather hard to disentangle philosophy and theology from each other. MacGregor suggests that Hegel is very influential in contemporary theology. I confess to not being quite as convinced by that as by Schleiermacher, although there are modern theologians heavily influenced by Hegel, Rowan Williams for one, I think.

The rest of the book gives brief chapters on lots of different topics. I have already referred to Reformed Epistemology, which gets one of the longer chapters (12 pages), in an earlier post. MacGregor seems, in a way to lay the problems of modern philosophy of religion, theology, and even, possibly society firmly at the feet of Wittgenstein, asserting that whenever someone says ‘That’s true for you, but not for me’ they are arguing on the basis of language games and this sort of relativism is dangerous (p. 157).

Well, maybe, but it does rather depend on what you call a language game, of course. One model which does seem to be around is that language games are separate modes of language use that do not interact. This, it seems to me, is untrue. I can be equally at home in the language game of Christian religion and in that of physics. Further, in my mind, the two interact. Thus I can find dissonance in my thoughts about the creation according to Genesis and that according to modern physics. Finding some way of holding the two beliefs together is important for my ability to function in both language games if I am reasonably attentive to both.

The book is squarely based on North American Christianity, and hence has quite a bit about evangelical theology post World War II, in particular about the growth of serious evangelical scholarship. This then returns in chapters on complementarianism and egalitarianism, which are basically arguments within North American Evangelical constituencies about the role of women in churches and, in particular, church leadership. This chapter follows on from one of Feminist Theology (which gets a slightly shorter chapter). As with so much evangelical argument, it really seems to come down to the discussion of a handful of verses in Scripture, and their interpretation.

Roman Catholic theology gets a couple of chapters, one on Vatican I and neo-thomism and one on Vatican II and its aftermath. It is a bit of a shame that some of the figures in Roman Catholic theology do not get a bit more space; for example, Rahner’s influence is quite significant, but only gets a page or so. Again, the North American perspective is clear, assigning influence to Opus Dei and its publishing house for bringing right-wing Catholic writers (von Balthasar, de Lubac, and Edith Stein) to the American reader. Whether these three can be quite so easily classified I am not sure.

There are some efforts at a global perspective. Liberation theology gets a chapter, as do African Christology and Chinese Eschatology, both of which are quite interesting and do bring a different point of view. Perhaps there could have been more on the effects of colonialism and imperialism on these various theologies. After all, both still suffer from the effects of colonisation and, if there is such a thing as neo-imperialism, from that as well, as does South America.

Still, there is a limit to how much one can squeeze into one book, and there is a lot of it. Each chapter comes with further reading and sources, and each would be helpful to a student grappling with a new subject, or a more experienced theologian seeking basic information on a subject matter which they are less familiar with. What is, perhaps, missing, is an overview of the trajectory of theology over the last two hundred years or so. As presented, while there are links between some of the chapters, I feel a bit left with a babble of voices, although academic theology is a bit like that.

Perhaps the problem is with the academy. Zena Hitz (Lost in Thought) describes her academic career as more about hierarchy and point-scoring among her colleagues than seeking something that was true. Basil Mitchell in How to Play Theological Ping-Pong would agree. The modern academy does not really seem to favour lengthy reflection or solid synthesis. It is, perhaps, a language game of its own, spinning plates for its own amusement and rarely touching real life and real people. This is, perhaps, a problem, particularly in the arts and humanities. The sciences are seen as knowledge-making and money-making, while the arts are regarded as less useful, at least, up front.

That said, of course, those educated at private schools in the UK often undertake arts degrees and land up in Parliament or running big businesses. This leads to something of a dearth of scientifically trained people in these roles, and a continuation of the gulf between science and the arts. Perhaps that is inevitable, but the academy on both sides does little to improve the situation.

In my view, the history of philosophy and theology over the last two hundred years (and more) is made up of responses to the advances of science and technology. These responses have, perhaps, come to be seen as less and less convincing, and thus the subjects have started talking to themselves, even in areas where there is a self-conscious effort to engage with science and technological subjects, such as science and faith. That is to the detriment of both science and theology and philosophy, in my view.

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Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...