Friday, June 12, 2015

McBrien on Fridays

Because of the ignorant snark about theology that I also got this week - from someone so ignorant that they think I'm engaging in theology, here - I'm posting this explanation from a theologian, written forty years ago, tomorrow.

Three Different Levels Of Contemporary Theology

For some people, theological interest is like ice cream. You have to lick it quickly before it melts.

You weren't "with it" in the mid-1960's if you hadn't read "The Secular City," or, failing that, at least adopted the vocabulary of Christian seculiarity.

You weren't "with it" soon thereafter if Altizer, Hamilton, and Van Buren -- the so-called "death-of-God" theologians -- weren't as familiar as your favorite double-play combination (Tinkers-to-Evers-to-chance, and all that).

You were dragging your feet if you did not leap aboard the "theology of hope" cavalcade of the late 1960's, with its focus on prolepsis, "the power of the future," even "the future of the future!"

The reform of sociely, the expiration of God, and the vision of a new aeon -- all in five years! But no sooner had we begun to catch our breath when transcendence was back in fashion, with all its works: festivity and fantasy, mystery and mirth, prayer and play. And under exactly the same sponsor that brought us "The Secular City!"

But the activist urge would not die a peaceful death. A virulent life-form, sornewhat akin to the presidential bug. Once it gets into your bloodstream, a former U.S. senator said recently, it can be expelled only by embalming fluid.

Our balloons were no sooner in the air, floating lazily in the reflected glow of the strobe lights, when word came forth that certain late entries in the secularity sweepstakes were to be given a respectful glance; black theology, liberation theology, feminist theology. Affirmative action, perhaps.

But transcendence was jealous of its newly gained prominence, and did not yield ground without a fight. If we were supposedly beyond God as creator, judge, and father, we were not beyond the Devil as possessor, chain-rattler, and mischief-maker. The demonic became delightful.

And if archbishops no longer broke the bread of wisdom, we found Don Juans aplenty to lead us in the Yaqui way of knowledge, with the sacramental assistance of peyote, Jimson weed, and mushrooms.

All of this was enough to frustrate the most diligent observer of the religious scene. Keeping up with theology seems to have had about the same appeal as pushing the rock of Sisyphus up a mountainside -- with roughly the same effect.

What the confused reader has to keep in mind is that theology makes its entry at three different points: the popular-serious, the scholarly-serious, and the journalistic.

By "Popular-serious" theology I mean the kind of work that Charles Davis did so well in the late 1950's and early 1960's while he was still one of the leading Roman Catholic theologians in Great Britain.

I mean, too, the very helpful popularization of biblical scholarship that John McKenzie provided with his pace-setting "Two-Edged Sword" in 1956.

By "scholarly -serious" I mean the kind of work that Karl Rahner and Yves Congar, the two most distinguished Roman Catholic theologians, have done over the past several decades. Strong on history, carefully analytical in method, their books and articles have been models of theological scholarship.

Finally, by "journalistic" theology I mean the kind done at the talk-show and magazine levels. It feeds on publicity and is discernibly commercial, generating book sales and higher TV ratings.

Its practitioners have about the same relationship to academic theology as Dr. Stillman has to medicine. They may interest Johnny Carson, but the rest of the profession is wincing.

It is "journalistic" theology -- whose right to exist I do not challenge -- that gives popular-serious theology a bad name.

Too many otherwise responsible people in the Church make up their minds about "popular-serious," and even "scholarly-serious," theology on the basis of their reading of "journalistic" theology alone.

That's neither reasonable nor fair.

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