Does Theology Even Matter Anymore?
Toward the untimely end of his life, my friend and co-author Stanley J. Grenz was worrying about whether theology matters anymore. He was saying privately, to me and a few friends, that he felt theology’s time was over and that Christianity was entering into a post-theological phase. And not “phase” as in “passing phase” but permanent phase, new era, new stage. He talked about the “end of theology.” We had many discussions about this. I did not want to believe him or accept what he was saying because then, around 2000, I was at the height of my career and hoped theology had a future and that I could be part of that.
Now, as of late 2020, I am beginning to think perhaps Stan was right. I visit churches, many churches, often, all over the country. And I have seminary students from all over the world. Now, near the end of my career as a Christian theologian, I am feeling discouraged about theology’s influence.
Let me explain what I mean by “theology.” I mean the relatively formal, intellectual pursuit of truth about God (and things related to God) based on revelation using tradition, reason, and experience. Theologians are men and women trained to carry out this pursuit and (normally) teaching visions of truth arrived at in this manner, using these sources and norms, especially to Christians but also for public consumption and understanding. They/we do this in various ways—preaching (usually when invited), speaking, writing and publishing, reading scholarly papers at professional society meetings and symposia, etc.
Who listens to theologians anymore? Who cares about theology anymore?
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I have no data to go on; my only evidence is anecdotal. But it is based on forty years of experience as a theologian.
Over the past several years I have spoken publicly and written articles for various publications about the meaning of “evangelical.” Almost always the response is something like “That’s academic and irrelevant.” So who gets to define “evangelical” if not theologians? Well, sociologists and journalists do.
Recently I was asked about the Pope’s alleged endorsement of “civil unions.” I did some deep research that went way back to his time as a bishop in Argentina and discovered how it began and why and what it meant then and means now. I explained it and was told my answer was “academic” which I interpreted as meaning “irrelevant.” It means what it means to the gay community, is what I was told. I’m afraid that may be correct.
I would say that very, very few people, Christians included, care about what theologians say. How did this happen?
Well, it would be easy and self-promoting simply to blame it on American folk religion, what Nathan Hatch called the “democratization of Christianity” in America in which everyone’s hat is his or her own church (or vice versa). In other words, American populism—nowhere more evident than in religion. And yet, I know there was a time in American history when theologians’ words, messages, mattered to many people—especially pastors. I don’t feel that way anymore.
So let me suggest it’s our fault—theologians’ fault. We, as a profession, as a “guild,” if you will, have failed to speak with anything like one harmonious “voice” about anything. And when we speak we often speak only to other theologians rather than to the “man in the street” (or woman in the pew). For years I attended theological professional society meetings. I finally quit. Why? Because, besides one particularly large and extremely conservative one that I never joined, they are cacophonous noises with no agreement about anything.
Here is one notable example. Some years ago, not long before the end of the “cold war,” probably during the mid-1980s, I attended a meeting of theologians in Chicago. I attended it twice annually (every time it met) and was often enriched by the papers read and discussions that followed. But there was a turning point. At one meeting the main presenter, speaker, was the president of a mainline Protestant seminary. Her paper was entitled “God and Her Survival in a Nuclear Age.” She argued that we used to think of God as our Savior but now we need to think of ourselves as God’s saviors. How? Through nuclear disarmament and deep ecology. During the Q and A that followed her paper a male theologian dared to ask her for more explanation of her view of God. Her answer was “I don’t know anything about God.” Her inflection made clear to me that she didn’t think anyone knows anything about God. This from the president of a mainline Protestant seminary. She was using “God” as a cipher for nature—apparently.
Gradually it became clear to me that theology in Europe and America was losing influence at least partly because we theologians couldn’t agree about anything and couldn’t communicate anything meaningful or helpful to “ordinary people.”
Another possible reason for the plight of theology—at least in America. Some years ago I attended a conference on religion. I actually got to chauffeur Hans Küng around the city for three days. He was the main speaker at the conference. The conference was sponsored (at least in part) by the Luce Foundation and Henry Luce III was there. I found myself alone on an elevator with him and dared to ask him if he had ever noticed that after the infamous 1966 Time magazine cover “Is God Dead?” there has never been a theologian featured on the magazine’s cover. He said he had not noticed that but found it interesting. Before 1966 Time’s cover featured (among others) Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. I have to wonder if people, including journalists, concluded that if Christian theologians could say “God is dead” maybe theology is dead.
How often am I, a somewhat notable Christian theologian, ever asked about God or anything related to God by anyone other than seminary students? Rarely. And what happens when I am asked and I offer my best answer couched in easy to understand language and informed by sources and norms common to Christianity throughout centuries? Usually nothing, but sometimes a dismissive response that amounts to “well, that’s strange.”
Here, on this blog, of course, things are different and yet even here many of my visitors and interlocutors seem less interested in learning about theology from me than in arguing or promoting their own often uninformed and half-baked religious (or anti-religious) ideas.
(To you who actually listen to me and interact with me—with either agreement or disagreement—I express my deep appreciation.)
I became a theologian because I felt called to it, so I can never regret it. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like it has been a huge waste of time and effort on my part and that because I really, really wanted to speak into the lives of ordinary Christians, pastors, churches, and inquiring minds of seekers after truth. Instead, it seems, the vast majority of people, even my own family members and friends (not all but most) have never shown any interest in what I do. It’s viewed largely as “ivory tower,” speculative, merely academic, a waste of time.
Now, when eager young men and women come to me expressing interest in becoming theologians I applaud them for their passion but warn them that their family and friends and even their churches will probably distance themselves from them. I tell them they will feel isolated and unappreciated—except by a few people who think like they do—namely, that truth about God matters and the pursuit of truth is a good thing even if it is vastly under appreciated—especially in religion.
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