Archive: What is Theology Coming To?

by Rev. Dr. Thomas C. Oden, Professor of Theology and Ethics Drew University, Madison, New Jersey

Condensed from the new book, Agenda for Theology: Recovering Christian Roots © 1979 by Thomas C. Oden. Reprinted by permission, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.

… I once had a curious dream that rekindled my deepest theological hopes. The only scene I can remember was in the New Haven cemetery, where I accidently stumbled over my own tombstone only to be confronted by this astonishing epitaph: “He made no new contribution to theology.” I was marvelously pleased by the idea and deeply reassured. Why? Because I have of late been trying in my own way to follow the mandate of lrenaeus “not to invent new doctrine.”

No concept was more deplored by the early ecumenical councils than the notion that theology’s task was to “innovate” (neoterizein), which to them implied some imagined creative addition to the apostolic teaching, and thus something “other than” (heteros) the received doctrine(doxa), “the baptism into which we have been baptized.” What the church fathers least wished for in a theology was that it would be fresh, self-expressive, or an embellishment of purely private inspirations, as if these might stand as some decisive improvement on the apostolic teaching.

Yet from the first day I ever thought of becoming a theologian I have been earnestly taught that my most urgent task was to “think creatively” and to make “some new contribution” to theology eventually. So you can imagine that it took no small effort to resist the repeated reinforcements of my best education in order to overcome the constant temptation to novelty. And you can understand how relieved I was to see such a lovely epitaph prefigured in a dream. …

Suppose Christian teaching were considered essentially under the category of fashion. That in fact seems to be the way much “media theology” has functioned in the last quarter century, searching breathlessly for the next new mushroom in the meadow. And we in ministry have colluded with it. Much of the energy of Christian teaching recently has gone into the effort, first, to achieve a kind of predictive sociological expertise about what is the “next new cultural wave” coming (politically, psychologically, artistically, philosophically, whatever), and then, having spotted an “emergent movement” cresting in the distance, to see if we might get some small foothold for Christianity on that rolling bandwagon so we can enjoy at least a brief ride as long as it lasts.

Does this describe recent theology fairly? Again and again when I have asked audiences of pastors that question, I have been reassured that the description is not at all unfair. …

Suppose theology were fashion and we were fashion designers. Let us go all the way and imagine that we are in the company of Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Givenchy, and Dior, assembled in Paris to discuss possibilities for next year’s theological market. Suppose we, sensing a crisis of boredom, had set our heads on inventing some astonishing novelty in theology. What would be the most novel, unheard-of, and outrageous new possibility for modern theology? It is quite evident: orthodoxy. We would say: Is it not about time for a reappearance of orthodoxy?

Why? Well, because the excesses of rapid change in our industry almost require it, because people are becoming tired of everything that has paraded itself before them for decades as ever more frenetically modern and even more up to date than the last up-to-date thing. It is clear, since all that has become tiresome, that the least modern option is now our best bet, and that, by definition, is orthodoxy. In fact, one might say, with a wink, if theological fashion is to recover, it must turn to orthodoxy.

The point of our analogy is not to show that Christian theology is like fashion or that it should begin with market research, but rather that even if it is conceived only on this lowest level of critical sensitivity, at some point the designers would have to come full circle back to the classical models. But Christian teaching, of course, is least understood when it is conceived as fashion. Fashion appeals to the spirit of novelty; Christianity transmutes the very idea of novelty.

I have been confidentially taken aside and gently warned by worried friends that my recent fixation on ancient ecumenical orthodoxy[1] is really … well, let’s face it, intolerable. Orthodoxy by any other name would smell much sweeter. They have cautioned me that the whole idea is unmarketable, will have no effect, and will be wasted effort. They have anxiously pleaded with me to say whatever curious or crazy thing I have to say but, please, in some language less embarrassing to the modern consensus than that of orthodoxy.

All this is amusing. Whether orthodoxy is high or low on a Nielsen chart strikes me as a subject for a vaudeville act or an extended situation comedy. Classical Christianity has always been far less concerned with high acceptance ratings among its human audiences (even with esteemed academic audiences) than with its single divine Auditor. This does not imply that Christianity should masochistically wish for low ratings or hope desperately to be ignored, as it has on some occasions. But neither can it congratulate itself on the fleeting applause of the majority if that should imply a backdoor sellout of its historical memory.

Rather than prudishly stomping away from this vaudeville show or abruptly switching off this situation comedy, (the popularity rating of orthodoxy), I would prefer to watch it play for a while and see whether it might be unexpectedly entertaining. Suppose we imagine a theologian, fresh out of graduate school, who has determined to begin the construction of a massive new doctrinal system solely on the basis of extensive market research into the needs and hungers of the current cultural audience. (Don’t laugh; it could be done.) The samples are meticulously gathered and calculated, fed into the computer, and the results eagerly awaited. (Yes, I admit the p remise is ridiculous, because it turns theology into something that it decidedly is not—namely, public opinion analysis and salesmanship. But bear with me and see if we can learn something even from a disreputable premise.) Now our focus will be an assessment of the current cultural momentum as the sole basis of doctrinal definition.

Our young genius double-checks his figures to see if they are correct. A surprising readout is beginning to burp out of the computer. It indicates that there apparently exists a deep itch in our society to settle things down, ask how things got this way, recover our identities, and see if we might be able to conserve and renew our more stable moral, political, and religious traditions. Further examination of these data reveals something more than a minor trend to nostalgia or sentimentality, the subtle influence of some incipient fascist trend in politics, or the validation of some backlash theory. They appear to reveal an immense appetite for historical identity and roots in a compulsively mobile society whose magic words are change, now, and breakthrough.

He runs the punch cards back through the computer thinking that it might have made a mistake, perhaps a reversal of key components of the equation. But no, on second run again it is confirmed: The actual audience for our new theological construct is amazingly different from the one we thought was there on the basis of our listening to Bultmann ‘s description of “modern man,” Tillich’s concept of “correlation” with the “kairos” of our times, or the process theologians’ estimates of the Zeitgeist.[2]

All of these standard portrayals render a profile of an audience that is extremely dissatisfied with the encumbrances of tradition, insatiably thirsting for “fundamental change” based on a wholly this-worldly rejection of all super-naturalisms and so on. Our clever young theologian then discovers to his astonishment that other eminent public opinion analysis—Gallup, Harris, Yankelovich—are all coming up with similar conclusions. The actual audience being discovered out there is one that is preeminently characterized by the hunger for continuity, stability, the freedom to sustain and enhance traditional values, historical identifications, and old-fashioned ways. This comes as quite a shock, because we were prepared to construct a quite different theological system.

In order to sharpen our portrayal of theology’s amiable accommodation to modernity, I will describe a particular individual, an ordained theologian whom I have known for a long time, whose career in some sense can only be described as that of a “movement person.” If I appear to go into needless detail about this person, it is nonetheless useful to get some sense of the specifics of what we mean by an addictive accommodationism. In all his pursuit of movements, his overall pattern was diligently to learn from them, to throw himself into them, and then eventually to baptize them as if they were identical with the Christian center.

Now in his mid-forties, our subject took his first plunge into “movement identity” almost 30 years ago when, at 16, he joined the United World Federalists to promote world government through various educational and church groups. From 1953 (when he attended the Evanston Assembly) to 1966 (at the Geneva consultation on Christianity and the Social Order), he was involved in ecumenical debate, promotion, and organization. His deepening involvement in the civil rights movement began at about 17, later intensified by his attendance of the national NAACP convention in 1953 and by subsequent participation in marches, demonstrations, pray-ins, sit-ins, letter campaigns, and other forms of political activism.

More than a decade before the Vietnam War, our “movement theologian” was an active pacifist, struggling to motivate the antiwar. movement during the difficult McCarthy days. The fact that he understood himself as a democratic socialist and theoretical Marxist during the McCarthy period did not make his task any easier. He spearheaded the first Students for Democratic Action group to be organized in his conservative home state in the early 1950s. By the mid-1950s, he was active in the American Civil Liberties Union; in the pre-1960s women’s rights movement, as an advocate of liberalized abortions; and as an opponent of state’s rights, military spending, and bourgeois morality. His movement identity took a new turn in the late 1950s, when he became enamored with the existentialist movement, immersing himself particularly in the demythologization movement, writing his doctoral dissertation on its chief theorist.

The early 1960s found him intimately engaged in the client-centered therapy movement. Later he became engrossed in Transactional Analysis and soon was actively participating in the Gestalt therapy movement, especially through Esalen connections.

His involvement deepened in the “third force” movement in humanistic psychology, struggling to move beyond psychoanalysis and behaviorism, as he contributed to its journals, and experimented with its therapeutic strategies in his theological school classrooms. This was supplemented by a several years involvement in the T-Group movement associated with the National Training Laboratories, which he tried to integrate into his religious views. In the early 1970s, he joined a society for the study of paranormal phenomena, taught a class in parapsychology, and directed controlled research experiments with mung beans, Kirlian photography, biorhythm charts, pyramids, tarot cards, and the correlation of astrological predictions with the daily ups and downs of behavior.

My purpose in reciting this long litany is not to boast, for indeed I am that wandering theologian, less proud than amused by the territory I have covered. Rather, the purpose is to recite a straightforward description of what at least one theologian conceived to be his task in successive phases of the last three decades. So when I am speaking of a diarrhea of religious accommodation, I am not thinking of “the other guys” or speaking in the abstract, but out of my own personal history.

I do not wish contritely to apologize for my 30 years as a movement person, because I learned so much and encountered so many bright and beautiful persons. But I now experience the afterburn of “movement” existence, of messianic pretensions, of self-congratulatory ideal ism. It is understandable after this roller-coaster ride, that I would be drawn to a “post-movement” sociology of continuity, maintenance, and legitimation, hoping to ameliorate the “movement psychology” of immediate change. The very thinkers I once excoriated as “conservative” (the Burkes, the Newmans, the Neo-Thomists) I now find annually increasing in plausibility, depth, and wisdom.

The shocker is not merely that I rode every bandwagon in sight, but that I thought I was doing Christian teaching a marvelous favor by it, and at times considered it the very substance of the Christian teaching office. While Christian teaching must not rule out any investigations of truth or active involvement to embody it, we should be wary lest we reduce Christian doctrine to these movements and should be better prepared to discern which movements are more or less an expression of Christ’s ministry to the world.

It was the abortion movement, more than anything else, that brought me to movement revulsiveness. The climbing abortion statistics made me movement weary, movement demoralized. I now suspect that a fair amount of my own idealistic history of political action was ill conceived by self-deceptive romanticisms, in search of power in the form of prestige, that were from the beginning willing to destroy human traditions in the name of humanity, and at the end willing to extinguish the futures of countless unborn children in the name of individual autonomy. So, reflected in the mirror of my own history, I see my own generation and my children’s generation of movement idealisms as naively proud and sadly misdirected, despite good intentions. If I have grown wary about movement people, it is because I am wary of the consequences of my own good intentions.

Meanwhile, my intellectual dialogue has been embarrassingly constricted to university colleagues and liberal churchmen. When I discover among brilliant Roman Catholic, neo-evangelical, and Jewish brothers and sisters a marvelous depth of historical and moral awareness, I wonder why it has taken me so long to discover them, what was it about my liberal Christian tradition that systematically cut me off from dialogue with them, and why my tradition has been so defensive toward them. All these questions are subjects for further historical and sociological investigation, but they arise out of a vague sense of grief over lost possibilities and out of confusion that a tradition that spoke so often about tolerance and universality could be so intolerant and parochial.

[1] Ancient ecumenical orthodoxy: The historic Christian faith, traditionally held by the church’s mainstream, based on Scripture, as summarized in the confessions of the church, and illuminated by the understandings of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, etc.

[2] Zeitgeist: spirit of the present times.


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