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Where have all the (theological) giants gone?

Where have all the (theological) giants gone? October 29, 2010

There was a time when the theological landscape of Christianity was stalked by “giants”–theologians and biblical scholars of world wide reputation whose scholarship was read by nearly every serious student of theology.

Think about the 1950s–Barth, Brunner, Niebuhr, Bultmann, Tillich–to name just the main theological giants.  (I’ll leave it to my biblical studies colleagues and friends to name the giants in their field.) 

Now, for you fundamentalists out there, calling these people giants does not endorse their doctrinal formulations.  I am simply commenting on the fact that there were once these men (and maybe a few women) who were not only read by seminary students but who were recognized as public intellectuals.  Many of their faces were on covers of TIME magazine–Barth, Tillich and Niebuhr especially.  (Niebuhr’s face was on the cover of TIME’s 25th anniversary issue.)

Then came the terrible 1960s and “paperback theology”–faddish, radical theology that led to the infamous 1964 TIME cover with the big, bold letters “Is God Dead?”  Theological dwarfs and monsters stalked the theological landscape.  The great giants were fading away.  They all died in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Who replaced them?  Well, Pannenberg and Moltmann appeared and gained world wide fame with books like Theology of Hope and Jesus–God and Man.  I had the privilege of studying with Pannenberg for a year (1981-1982) and I’ve met and talked with Moltmann on a number of occasions.  Both are now retired.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s theology tended to fragment.  Tribes arose to replace the giants and their influences: liberation theology, feminist theology, process theology, narrative theology, postliberal theology.  Some of the theologians behind these movements were and are important and influential thinkers–Gustavo Gutierrez, Rosemary Ruether, John Cobb, Hans Frei.  But were/are they giants?  None have graced the cover of TIME magazine.  Most movers and shakers of culture (journalists, educators, etc.) have probably never heard of them.

What happened to theology?  One theory I’ve toyed with goes back to that infamous 1964 TIME cover “Is God Dead?”  Since then not a single theologian has been on TIME’s cover.  A few have received brief treatment in TIME–Carl Henry, Pannenberg, Hans Kung, Stanley Hauerwas.  TV evangelists and popes have been on TIME’s cover since 1964, but no academic theologian or biblical scholar has made it there. 

Could it be that so-called “Christian atheism” is to blame for this situation?  I don’t know.  It’s just a question.  Perhaps someone could do a research project on that.  But I find it interesting that 1964 seemed to be a turning point in theology.  After that year the great giants of theology fell silent and none arose to replace them.  (Unless you consider Pannenberg and Moltmann giants.  I would consider them mini-giants compared with the other names I mentioned.)

Let me explain that last parenthetical statement.  It’s not meant to be a judgment of Pannenberg’s or Moltmann’s contributions to theology.  I’m commenting here on theology’s reputation and influence more than on individual theologians’ contributions.

The same trend can be seen among Catholics.  Who has arisen to replace Rahner, Kung, von Balthasar, Congar, etc.?  How many movers and shakers of culture could name a single Catholic theologian except Benedict XVI (Josef Ratzinger)? 

Back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s theology had some traction outside the churches.  Go back further.  Harry Emerson Fosdick, Jr. was on the cover of TIME twice in the 1920s and 1930s.  Some may not consider him a theologian and he probably wasn’t in the sense of the giants I’ve mentioned above.  But his appearance on TIME’s cover (based on the articles inside) portrayed him as America’s theologian.

Perhaps the infamous 1964 cover of TIME was a watershed (or reflected a momentous shift in world wide opinion of theology).  When so-called Christian theologians could publicly declare themselves atheists, no wonder many people began to consider theology a joke.  Then came all the talk of God/ess, God as “the matrix of being,” God evolving, theology as grammar (not referring to anything or anyone outside itself), etc., etc.  I’m not saying there was nothing valuable in any of that, but I am suggesting that theologians themselves may be responsible for the apparent fact that most people do not take it seriously as a discipline.

Soon I’ll be at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) where I’ll spend a good deal of time in the publishers’ display area.  Over 100 theological and religious publishers will put their best new books (and some old ones) on display for academics of religious studies to peruse and perhaps buy and order as required reading for their students.

What will I see there?  Based on past experiences one thing I’ll see is a whole lot of titles meant to shock–especially ones promoting “gay theology” (often with the word “queer” in the titles) and “animal rights theology” and putting down monotheism (as leading to terrorism), etc., etc.  What I probably won’t see are any relatively new books by theological giants dealing with big issues and questions of theology or new systematic theologies (except in some of the evangelical publishers’ displays). 

Some years ago I was offered a chair of theology at a leading Baptist seminary.  I passed it up to come to my present seminary and I’ve never been sorry.  But a few years ago I asked our then dean about the possibility of ever having an endowed chair here.  His response was enlightening: “Probably not.  Baptists don’t care about theology.”  He could just as well have said “Christians don’t care about theology.”

Go to any Christian (or secular) bookstore and look for the section marked “theology.”  It probably doesn’t exist.  I’ve been alive long enough to remember when EVERY Christian bookstore had a fairly large section labeled either “theology” or “doctrine.”  An editor at a well-known Christian publisher told me “Few people read religious non-fiction.”  If you want to get a theological message out to the Christian (or non-Christian) public you’d better package it as fiction–The Shack, Left Behind, etc.

So, what I’m saying is that perhaps the fault for the lack of theological giants isn’t just the radical theologians.  Perhaps it’s also part of an overall “dumbing down” of society and especially the churches. 

So why does it matter?  Well, I think it was a good thing that Christian theologians (even some heretics) were public intellectuals and that theological debate was part of the larger cultural landscape.  It helped hold folk religion at bay.  Without that public theological discourse, American Christianity has by-and-large fallen into the hands of folk religion and folk theology–an anti-intellectual mix of cliches and religious urban legends and individual “spiritual” feelings.

This is perhaps an extreme example, but some years ago I met a Christian student at an evangelical liberal arts college who claimed that God spoke to him through the songs of Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead).  For him, these messages were just as authoritative as anything in the Bible or Christian history.  His evolving theology was a subjective stew of ingredients drawn from pop culture.  Sometimes when I read “theology” books I pick up at AAR I find something little better than that!

Finally, where are the influential “deep thinkers” among evangelical Christians?  Where are our giants?  We once had Carl F. H. Henry, Bernard Ramm, Donald G. Bloesch, Millard Erickson and, yes, even Stanley Grenz.  These were people all evangelical students of theology once read and talked about whether they agreed with them or not.  They transcended the petty divides and wrestled creatively with theology’s big issues and questions from an evangelical perspective.  Who does that now?  A few names come to mind, but I’m not sure they are nearly as widely read or influential as those earlier evangelical giants were: Kevin Vanhoozer, Alister McGrath….?  What’s amazing is how short the list is!  (I’m sure I left someone out, but the point is–who is replacing the giants of the past?  It’s difficult to come up with names!)

Is THAT kind of theology simply dying away?  In my more pessimistic moments I’m tempted to think so. 

So, to stir up thought and comment–who do YOU think are the actual or potential giants of theology today?  If you can’t think of any, why?  (A word to my fans–please leave me out of this.  It would be embarrassing!  I don’t think of myself in this category or anything close to it and I’m sure very few do.  But I deeply appreciate those who read my books.)

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