Theology and the Future: Evangelical Assertions and Explorations
Edited by Trevor Cairney and David Starling
T & T Clark, 2014
Life is not easy for theology at the head of the 21st century. After centuries in the ascendant as Regina Scientiarum the past 250 years have seen her stripped of her regalia and cast from her throne. Once acknowledged as the voice of wisdom, the very counsellor of kings, she now calls from outside the halls of power, and even then she is rarely listened to (what, after all, could she possibly have to contribute?). Once seen as the one to connect all spheres of knowledge to form a coherent vision of the whole, she is now derided by the academy as an irrational non-subject (though she may be mercifully permitted to continue her futile labour so long as she doesn’t cause any trouble, ensures that her operations remain quarantined within the bounds set for her, and manages to get enough students to keep herself financially viable). Once prized and honoured in the Church as directive of the life of God’s people, she is now regularly treated with suspicion as both divisive and disconnected from the practicalities of discipleship. In the public square, the university, and even the Church, theology’s fortunes have declined, and as a consequence, the question of her future is, for many, moot.
And for that reason it is wonderful to have the collection of essays that make up Theology and the Future available to us. Going against the tide of current secularist and positivist opinion, the contributors to this book contend, and seek to demonstrate, that theology not only has on-going viability both in its own right and as a contributor to the broad range of contemporary conversations; it even stands as the critical voice in those conversations. Within the bounds of that shared conviction, the fifteen essays are marked by a diversity that resists simple summary in a review like this. Consequently, rather than focusing upon particular contributions for appreciation and critique, allow me to highlight two themes that are discernable through the whole and which seem to constitute, for many of the contributors, critical elements in their vision of theology’s future, and to raise one question of the collection.
If theological modernism has been characterized by a belief that the Great Tradition has run its course and needs to be rejected if theology is to have any staying power, contributors to this collection see the opposite as the case: it is through the retrieval of the classical sources and judgments of theology that theology stands to flourish. This is a major point of Michael Allen’s opening essay, but such a conviction is discernable within the arguments and appeals of most. Of particular note is the example within several papers of a recent, more widely observable theological surprise: the recovery of classical theism. Such a recovery was virtually unimaginable 20 years ago; yet here, explicitly within Stephen Long’s essay and embedded within those of Allen, Helm, Birkett and others, is a confidence that the future of Theology proper lies in the Theology proper of the past.1
Breadth: Inter-disciplinary engagement.
Christian theology has traditionally understood its field of study to be ‘God, and all things as they relate to God’. Consequently, it is an intellectual discipline that has concerned itself with everything. These essays see theology’s future as lying in a similarly catholic engagement. Against external attempts to keep theology cocooned within a limited field, and internal desires to retreat into the safety of that cocoon, these theologians have a cheerful confidence in taking up conversation with such diverse fields as educational theory (McDowell), literature (Jensen), the arts (Hart and Searle), the science and philosophy of emergence (Birkett), the nature of the modern city (Smith), and so on. In a cultural and academic context in which specialisation is the norm and secular rationalism would bid us operate with disconnected ‘facts’ – a context in which, as Chesterton put it, everything matters except everything – these essays demonstrate the imaginative resources of the gospel to enable a comprehensive and connected vision of humanity and the world, one which holds far more promise for the future than more atomised approaches.
A question of length: voices from the majority world.
Two essays in this collection address the future of theology from a non-Western perspective: Yeo’s call for humble cross- cultural conversation in the church and Chung’s illuminating discussion of the future of theology in Asia. (Another intended essay, on the future of theology in Africa, was unable to be completed due to illness.) That these essays are included is a great strength of the book; yet given that the shift of the Church’s energetic core from the West to the global South will be, arguably, the greatest shaping force for the future of Christianity and of theology with it, we might ask whether two essays (with a third intended) out of fifteen gives sufficient attention to this part of the Body of Christ. In particular, it would have been helpful to see theologians from the majority world contributing essays, not simply discussing Christianity in the majority world, but carrying out constructive theological work in their own right, as a glimpse of what the future may hold. Of course, the theological heritage of the West is something that will be of on-going importance – this affirmation is inherent in any vision of theology’s future that acknowledges the importance of retrieval (and indeed, picking up again the return to classical theism, such metaphysics are in many ways as foreign to the West today as they are to the South). But the church in the West – and perhaps we who are Anglican in particular – need to be quick and eager to listen to and dialogue with those brothers and sisters who represent what is increasingly the centre of gravity in the church’s mission and ministry, and no doubt will become so of her theology as well. We have much to contribute to the strengthening and equipping of the Majority church; but we equally have much to learn and receive from them. Any exploration of the future of theology will consequently benefit from their more extensive representation.
Thom Bull, Ellenbrook, WA
This return to classical theism is evident amongst recent Protestant (e.g. John Webster), Roman Catholic (e.g. Tom Weinandy) and Orthodox (e.g. David Bentley Hart) theologians.