Some criteria for judging theologians who will be remembered 50 years from now

Some criteria for judging theologians who will be remembered 50 years from now March 18, 2012

Thanks to all of you who have offered answers to my question about Christian (trinitarian) theologians who probably will be included in a book on late 20th century and early 21st century theologians 50 years from now.

I agree with those who have said it’s hard to predict because we live in a time when there are no theological “giants” comparable to Barth or Tillich. That’s what make this so difficult.

Recently I wrote about 19th century Christian (trinitarian) theologians. (This is not yet published.) What criteria did I use? Well, I didn’t exactly have a formal list of criteria, but I had some informal ones that are more noticeable looking back on the project than they were during the selection process. I’m not saying these are the right criteria, but I think they are the ones (more or less) that will be used 50-100 years from now (in academic and semi-academic books on what we call our contemporary theologians).

1) Broad, lasting influence on other theologians and popularizers;

2) Prolific writing widely read (usually in more than one language);

3) Originality and creativity (not just in inventing new ideas but in bridging divides);

4) Engagement with culture (not necessarily accommodation to it);

Usually such theologians were the subjects of many books about their theological contributions. Usually they were read and discussed by theologians and theologically-minded pastors and lay people outside their own denominations or traditions. Usually they received a lot of reaction both positive and negative.

So, about whom did I write? (I began by writing about some philosophers who stimulated theological creativity and reaction such as Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Reid, and Hegel. Kierkegaard could be considered both a philosopher and theologian.) Here are the 19th century theologians I selected: Schleiermacher, Bushnell, Hodge, Ritschl, Dorner, Troeltsch, Blondel and Tyrrell, Harnack and Rauschenbusch.

These 19th century (up to WW1) theologians stand out over a century later as THE giants of that era. Were there others? Yes, but they have been largely eclipsed by these. I could have written about Warfield, but I think I covered his contribution by writing about Hodge on whose shoulders he stood. I could have written about several American liberal theologians, but Bushnell is remembered (e.g., by Gary Dorrien) as THE 19th century American liberal theologian par excellence. (I actually treat him as a mediating theologian.) There is no “stand out” Catholic theologian in the 19th century except Newman and Blondel and I decided to write about the Catholic modernists because of their originality and influence on 20th century Catholic theology (for better or worse).

A perplexing question is this: Who would have been identified by a theological cartographer as the “mountain peaks” of 19th century theology THEN–say, around mid-19th century? I suspect there wouldn’t have been any consensus other than Schleiermacher and maybe Bushnell (in America). What caused these other theologians (e.g., Dorner) to be remembered? In his case, I suspect it is his influence on Barth and the fact that Claude Welch liked him.

When I write about today’s living theologians (or recently deceased) and have to narrow it down to, say four or five, who will they be? It’s a risk because even 25 years later some of them may be forgotten. There are no obvious theological giants stalking the land. (N. T. Wright comes about as close as one can get due to his prolific writing and broad influence but he’s not a systematic/constructive theologian per se; he’s a biblical scholar.)

The name I hear everywhere from almost everybody (whether conservative or liberal or postmodern or nothing) is Hauerwas. Why? Well, I think Time magazine naming him the “best” theologian has something to do with it. Also, he’s an iconoclast; we like iconoclasts. Also, he’s difficult to categorize and we no longer like neat categories. And, he’s prolific, broadly influential and arguably original and creative (at least in the sense of combining Barth and Yoder which is not easy!). Also, he spawned so many doctoral students!

But let’s put Hauerwas up against someone like him (in many ways) 50 years ago. Ever hear of Langdon Gilkey? Fifty years ago he was all the rage. Not only was he prolific, supervised more dissertations in theology than anyone else, and broadly influential, he was a hippy. (He looked kind of like Willy Nelson wore beads and a pony tail, etc.–even into old age.) Hands down, for about twenty years or so, he was considered America’s “best” theologian (even if Time magazine didn’t say so). Yet, now, 50 years after his peak, who even remembers him? Will it be like that for Hauerwas? Will he be remembered and talked about 50 years from now? WILL ANYONE?

Those are my thoughts and questions. Thanks for you suggestions–especially those of you who offered reasons. If you have any thoughts about what I’ve written here please feel free to comment.

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