I recently finished a series of essays by high-profile (mostly German) theologians entitled How I Have Changed. The idea came from Jurgen and Elisabeth Moltmann, who wanted to hold a symposium of their theological generation and share the overarching themes of their work over the past thirty years and how they were changed. The symposium happened in June of 1996 in conjunction with Moltmann’s 70th birthday. Participants included Eberhard Jungel, Dorothy Soelle, Johann Baptist Metz, and Hans Kung. I found the essays themselves very interesting, and the dialogue between theologians (often heated) was quite insightful. There is no arguing that this generation of theologians is quite remarkable, and the idea to get them all into one room to talk with each other about their life’s work is wonderful. If you like this sort of theological insider conversation, you’ll love the book.
However, I have been positively stewing over the foreword, written by John Bowden, for days now. I know nothing of Boden other than what I learned through Google; he is an Anglican priest, the former Editor and Managing Director for SCM Press, and has translated many books, including this one, from German into English. What I can definitely tell you is how I feel about what he wrote in his foreword.
Bowden described how he can’t help but compare his experience at this symposium with his first trip to Germany nearly 30 years prior, where as a publisher he met with Rudolf Bultmann, Gerhard von Rad, Hans Conzelmann, Ernst Kasemann, and other well-known biblical scholars and theologians. He made two observations about what he has seen that has changed. First, the symposium’s theologians were far more personal in their work, using stories from their lives and describing how theology intersected with their own senses of identity. He said this kind of personal rapport between the speakers and the audience would have been “unimaginable” in relation to the first group. He said this with a benign sort of interest, but I got the feeling that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. I find it to be a step in a hugely positive direction, because in my estimation the single worst element in biblical studies or theology is lack of spirit, or presence, or vitality. Every reader knows it when a scholar is approaching the text like a surgeon rather than a friend. Personally, I have a hard time giving weight to arguments of people who seem so apparently bored and disdained by what they are studying. (I realize there are generational cultural factors involved here; my point is that I see the prevalence of “deeply personal accounts” in theological studies as a good thing, and not a bad one.)
Secondly, he bemoaned what he called “the retreat from biblical criticism.” He said, “This absence of the critical method still troubles me.” Certainly, compared to Gerhard von Rad and Rudolf Bultmann, everyone has left the building of biblical criticism entirely. I don’t personally lose ANY sleep over this. This is a classic example of academic modernity assuming that other forms of academic inquiry are somehow less intellectual, informed, or important. I run into this assumption more often than I’d like, but that still isn’t what infuriated me most.
The zinger came in the very last line: “Will a future generation see again the like of those appearing here?”
Look, we all know I think Moltmann is one of the most fantastic people walking the planet. (Because he IS.) And I don’t expect there will be anyone else like him. However, it irritates me to no end when I hear people in academic theological circles bemoan the end of all the great thinkers of our time. Did people not think the early church fathers were the best thinkers we’d ever have, and that Aquinas was the last great theologian, or Calvin, or Barth? And were any of them right? (Well, no doubt some of you would argue yes.) My point is: The mere assumption that just because systematic theology may be dead (dear God, please) and that disinterested, from-a-distance biblical studies may be dead (oh Lord I hope so), we are resigned to some horrible fate of a future with endlessly bad ideas and small thinkers…well, that’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.
When has the world ever been that stagnant? When has the Spirit ever been THAT uninspiring?
John Bowden may be right that we will not have some huge symposium in Tubingen in 50 years to celebrate the next generation of (German) theologians. But that is because, in my estimation, theology has now gone viral, and has extended beyond the confines of the ivory towers of our seminaries, and is now being done, thoughtfully and creatively, by a whole slew of people that will for the most part remain unknown. When I look into the future, I still see some academic scholars and theologians doing creative work. But I also see moms, artists, authors, church planters, new monastics, justice-driven entrepeneurs, bookstore owners, nonprofit workers, public service officials, and a lot of other everyday people who are doing the most important work of theology there is: living a well-intentioned and thoughtful life.