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.