Friday, August 28, 2015

A View From 1967 - Richard McBrien on Fridays

Re-reading the columns of Richard McBrien it's interesting to see how much his ideas and focus changed over those decades of change.  His view of liberation theology definitely changed as did many other things in his thinking.  So much for the theory that religion and, especially, theology is static.  Here are two columns from the first years of his column on a book by the Canadian philosopher of religion, Leslie Dewart.  It is quite fascinating in a lot of ways, especially considering the many popular prophesies of what the future will bring for religion, almost a half a century later.   One thing that jumps out is that, back then, Michael Novak was taken as a liberal and as someone who was seriously worth mentioning.   Back then.

I haven't thought a lot about the idea of "deHellenizing" religion but I think a lot of the trouble that has arisen was due to trying to make the Hebrew tradition of Jesus and his earliest followers fit into Greek ideas.   I think that most of the neo-atheist invective is based in the tension that inevitably results from that practice.  Today is the feast day of St. Augustine, which I'll throw in to that mix.  He's not my favorite saint for a lot of reasons, a lot of it, I'd guess, flowing from his pre-conversion education in pagan philosophy and rhetoric.  But that's for another time.

[This is the first of a two-part discussion of Leslie Dewart's Future of Belief: Theism in a. World Come of Age, Herder & Herder, 1966.] 

The distinctive mood of contemporary Christian theology is secular. Intramural questions such as the liturgy, biblical inspiration, transubstantiation, etc., will continue to engage the interest of serious theologians (and rightly so), but the pioneering work is being carried out at the "creative center" of culture, at that "jagged edge" where theology must grapple with the swiftest currents of the age. 

Accordingly, the questions which are of primary concern to radical theology today are secular in orientation: the secular meaning of the Gospel and the secular mission of the Church. 

How can the postbiblical, postmedieval Christian continue to make sense of his faith in the light of his own contemporary experience (the secular meaning of the Gospel)? If, indeed, the world has "come of age" through the process of industrialization, urbanization, and secularization, then what is to be the specific place of the Christian community (the secular mission of the Church)? 

Radical theology must work at both these points. It must have both a theoretical (or speculative) and a functional (or pastoral) dimension. And these are not opposed to one another. "In fact the strictest theology, that most passionately devoted to reality alone and ever on the alert for new questions, the most scientific theology, is itself in the long run the most kerygmatic" (Karl Kahner, Theological Investigations, I, p. 7). 

The functional side of contemporary radical theology is concerned primarily with the task of rethinking the mission of the Church in the light of the Suffering Servant of Jesus, the "man for others." The Church is a remnant community, a minority in the service of the majority, a community scattered throughout the world(in diaspora whose fundamental responsibility is one of witnessing and service, of healing the divisions and wounds in the community of mankind. 

This secular reinterpretation of the Church's mission (as opposed to the more restricted notion of the Church as the community of the "saved," whose primary, if not exclusive, task is to preach the Gospel, to convert, to baptize -- to grow numerically and to consolidate these gains) has been inspired in large measure by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and has been carried through by such theologians as Bishop John Robinson and Harvey Cox. 

What this functional approach to theology has lacked, however, has been a solid theoretical foundation. Bishop Robinson certainly did not provide it in Honest to God (1963), nor does Harvey Cox go much beyond a functionalism in The Secular City (1965). Bonhoeffer himself did not have the time to work out the theoretical basis for his own essentially functional approach and it is not at all easy to predict what the outcome would have been. 

The so-called "death-of-God theologians" have been working in this same area, but with dubious success. They, too, have been attracted by the Bonhoeffer vision of the world in its secularized adulthood and they have been among the first to explore the theoretical foundation of Bonhoeffer's "man for others" ethics. 

Although Thomas Altizer attempts a theoretical substitute for traditional Christian theology (see his Gospel of Christian Atheism), he has much in common with William Hamilton and Paul Van Buren insofar as their common response seems to have been a kind of wholesale theological reductionism: God, the New Testament, the Jesus of history, the Church, and all transcendental reality have gone by the boards. The place to be is at the side of Jesus, in the service of the neighbor. 

There is a strong temptation on the part of a functionally-oriented theologian to adopt the antitheoretical posture of this school. "God-talk" is meaningless; we must live as if God is dead. The Christian life is ethical, not theoretical. A Catholic or High Church functionalist would want to leave considerable room for the Christian community as well. Even so, the theoretical work remains unfinished business. 

It is in this particular context that Leslie Dewart's Future of Belief should be viewed. Professor Dewart has performed a service to contemporary Christian theology in attempting to construct a theoretical foundation for its radically secular ethics, or at least for reminding us of the need to do so. 

But what, specifically, makes Dewart's performance any more useful than that of the "death-of-God theologians," and Thomas Altizer in particular? If their concern with the reality of God is to be criticized for distracting the attention of the Church from her mission of suffering service in a "world come of age," why should not Leslie Dewart be discounted on the same grounds? 

I shall indicate some reasons in next week's essay. 

Unlike the "death-of-God" triumvirate, Leslie Dewart takes history seriously -- not only the present and the future, but also the past. In a distinctive comment on the inadequacy of the Trinitarian doctrinal formulations of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, he notes that "it is because we have not managed to do better that we must depart therefrom and proceed forth" (p. 144). 

This is typical of Dewart's approach throughout the book. He is careful to set his position apart from Fideism, from Modalism, from Modernism, and so forth. He recognizes the fact that we must come to grips with history, that the evolutionary consciousness of mankind which he celebrates is a product of earlier stages of development, that our contemporary self-understanding is the result of an organic growth from these earlier stages. This is a far cry from dismissing the first 18 centuries of Christian tradition as hopelessly beyond redemption. 

Secondly, Dewart's concern for the reality of God is not narrowed to the question of his existence or nonexistence (see p. 176). To formulate the question in this fashion is already to have opted for a Hellenic metaphysics -- and this is what the argument about the "death-of-God" has done, at least implicitly. 

For Dewart, God is a presence in history, and history "consists in the mutual presence of God and man in the conscious creation of the world" (p. 195; see also pp. 197-8). Dewart's theism is one which can have immediate functional import -- even though it is as elusive as it is suggestive. But reflection upon it need not be a distracting enterprise. It could enhance the theological basis for the mission of the Servant Church in and for the world. 

Thirdly, Dewart manifests far greater competence in theology than some others who have addressed themselves to the theoretical question of Christian theism. His conceptions of revelation and faith, for example, are very much in the tradition of contemporary Christian theology. Faith is not so much an "act" as an orientation of the whole person (see p. 61), and revelation is a here-and-now occurrence. It has roots in history -- in the word, work, and ministry of the Lord -- but revelation is nothing if it does not happen in the human consciousness. 

The relatively popular, derivative work of Brother Gabriel Moran (Theology of Revelation, Herder & Herder, 1966) is but one indication of the present course of Catholic theology in this fundamental area. And two key entries in the recently-published symposium, The Word in History (Sheed & Ward, 1966), are in this same general tradition: Karl Rahner's "Theology and Anthropology" and Edward Schillebeeckx's "Faith Functioning in Human Self-Understanding." 

I do not mean to imply, however, that good Catholic theologians have been saying all of these things all along, and that Dewart really isn't making any contribution to the current discussion. Schillebeeckx himself admits that, while theologians such as Robinson, Cox, Tillich (and, yes, Altizer and Van Buren) have been concerned about these problems, "this whole question has yet to find a conclusive answer on the Catholic side" (p. 41). 

I think that the essential merit of Dewart's book is that it is, from the Catholic side, the first real, systematic attempt to come to grips with this issue at its radically theoretical level and in a form which is accessible to a wider reading public. Michael Novak's vehement dismissal of Dewart's book in Commonweal ("Belief and Mr. Dewart," February 3, 1967) is reminiscent of some of the scholarly reaction to Bishop Robinson's Honest to God. 

Robinson brought the issues of contemporary Christian theology to the surface of avid public interest and debate. Of course Robinson was superficial. Of course he displayed ignorance of certain key developments in theology and misunderstanding of still others. But Bultmann, Tillich and the other theologians never succeeded in bringing the theological issues to the people as Robinson did. 

Leslie Dewart's look may sound like an uncertain popgun alongside the philosophical cannon of Bernard Lonergan, S.J. (see his Insight, New York: Philosophical Library, 1957). But, like Robinson, Dewart has brought these issues to the public in a way in which Lonergan could never do. (Nevertheless, Dewart's failure even to mention the work of Father Lonergan is an inexcusable deficiency in his study.) 

Finally, Dewart's call for a dehellenization of dogma (to liberate Christian doctrine from any one particular philosophy) is unexceptionable -- as unexceptionable as the earlier call (by the above-mentioned Rudolf Bultmann) for a demythologization of Sacred Scripture. Here again, Dewart is certainly not the first to sound the trumpet, but his book gives the issue an immediacy which other, more scholarly, efforts have failed to do. 

There are some items in The Future of Belief which can be disturbing even for those who are sympathetic with Dewart's central thesis. Is it really very helpful to suggest that "Christianity has a mission, not a message" (p. 8)? Is there really no distinction, even in primitive Christianity, between Kerygma and didache (p. 135)? How is this to be reconciled with the Pauline notion of the paradosis in 1 Cor. 11:23 and 15:3? Must the freedom of history actually exclude the possibility of a "divine plan" (p. 196)? What is to be said of the theology of history in St. Paul and St. Luke? Is it merely a hellenized view of history, or are there very different suppositions at work therein? 

There are additional difficulties, and other reviewers have called attention to these defects. (See, in addition to Michael Novak, the comments of Louis Dupre, "The God of History," Commonweal, February 10, 1967, and Edward McKinnon, S.J., The Boston Pilot, February 18,1967. The entire January-February issue of The Ecumenist is devoted to a critical evaluation of the book.) 

But just as Bishop Robinson's Honest to God served as a prophetic reminder of the breakdown of communication between professional theology and the Church-at-large, Dewart's Future of Belief (and precisely where the book is weakest) discloses a similar problem for contemporary Catholic thought.


  1. One thing liberation theology moved away from was the obsession with "progress" and "maturity" and "adulthood." This was a primary concern of Bultmann and others, and a response to the secularism of the modern age. But the idea of progress, of perfection, of leaving behind the past as an adult leaves behind adolescence, was itself already an outdated idea. "The Child is Father to the Man," Wordsworth told us, and it took Freud and the Vienna school to finally make that concrete and not just poetic. Bit still we held on to the idea that "maturity" mean putting aside childish things (the influence of St. Paul was strong! Or Paul was just saying what everyone assumed to be true; children were not human until they were no longer children. Which puts Jesus' statements about children in quite another light altogether!). It took us another century to catch up with Kierkegaard's psychological insights, and those of Wordsworth.

    We are still, in other words, catching up with the results of the revolutionary century, and with the crisis of faith and culture engendered by the first half of the 20th century. Even in the second half of that century McBrien sounds like he still more in the 18th.

    Which is no slight on McBrien; it points out how slowly we really change and how long it takes us to absorb revolution. The famous response to the question about the French Revolution was right: it is still too soon to tell. Much of the concern McBrien raises here about theology is resolved if you set aside the notion that history moves toward perfection, toward a telos (Aristotle, and Hellenism). I'm sympathetic to removing Hellenism from Christianity; I'm just not sure it can be done, anymore than one can take a purely objective stance.

    We've been writing footnotes to Plato too long to stop now. Even the idea of theology is itself Hellenistic, after all.

  2. The point being: it is remarkable how much has changed in the near half-century.

    And how much still needs to change. The problem is still being posed in much the same way: "How can the postbiblical, postmedieval Christian continue to make sense of his faith in the light of his own contemporary experience (the secular meaning of the Gospel)?" But the "contemporary experience" of the Christian in question is no longer that of a postbiblical, postmedieval person. It's really the issue Kierkegaard addressed in the mid-19th century, one finally come fully to realization; it is the Christian in the post-Christendom world.

    But that world is not so atheistic or scientific as the rest of the 19th century presumed, or as even the theologians of 50 years ago assumed. The "death of God" in the 19th century (finally accepted in the mid-20th) has not led to the nihilism of Nietzsche, but to a renewed appreciation of the importance of faith.

    Even as we still define "faith" as the antithesis of reason (also a 19th century dichotomy, born of the Romantic revolution, which we need to once and for all set aside).

    We have the new wine; we just need, as McBrien understands, the new wineskins.