The Task of Theology in the 21st Century

The 20th Century witnessed, through a number of religious communities, though especially in Christianity, a realization that if traditional spirituality was to have any relevance in the future, it was going to have be able to reinterpret and re-express itself in the new language and understanding of modernity. Not just the traditional myths, but even central ideas like God, salvation, and sin would have to be re-understood. The alternative, as many saw it, was irrelevance and rapid extinction of older religious forms, especially Western Christianity.

This hadn’t actually begun in the 20th Century, but had started in the 19th Century at least, arguably the realization could be traced back to the 18th Century and the Enlightenment. It was in the 19th Century, primarily in what is now Germany, that “liberal” theology was launched. Liberal theology essentially aimed to turn Christianity into a morality tale, a set of teachings that could be easily digested and inserted into modern life. But eschatology (ideas about the end of the world), sin and atonement, and even the role of a deity were largely sidelined. Jesus was viewed largely just as a moral teacher whose message, far from being radical or apocalyptic, fit neatly with European bourgeois values.

This line of thinking was carried into the 20th Century and would become a dominant force in the mainline Protestant denominations of Western Europe and North America. Though it made for a Christianity that fit more easily with a Newtonian/Copernican universe, it also made for a Christianity that inspired little if any devotion, love, or dedication. It stripped some of the most radical and essential aspects of the Christian message from Christians’ lives, and the result was as rapid as it was predictable: attendance at the mainline Protestant churches dropped precipitously throughout the second half of the 20th Century.

Now it’d be a huge leap to claim that the introduction of liberal theology was single-handedly responsible for this drop; obviously a wide range of political, social, and economic factors were at play. Nonetheless, the hollowing out of Christian theology no doubt played a role, which is further attested to by the success of those denominations that didn’t embrace liberal theology, especially the various Evangelical churches that have come to such cultural and even political power in the last few decades.

However, these churches, though they haven’t embraced liberal theology, have embraced something really much worse: a stripped-down fundamentalism that distorts Christ’s message even more. Christ is turned from a mystical social critic who spoke in tricky parables and hung out with prostitutes to a moral absolutist cheer-leading for war and capitalism. The liberal interpretation may had cut out a lot of Christ’s character; the fundamentalist interpretation totally reversed it. Their Christ seems more like his evil twin than anything else.

Throughout these developments, Christians throughout a number of denominations continue in their faith through an ever-more confusing terrain of belief. In many quarters, there is a recognition that neither the liberal nor the fundamentalist theology will suffice, that neither really captures the heart of Christ’s message. And yet the past few centuries of theology don’t offer a lot of immediate alternatives. I think that the future of theology will lie in both fully embracing the scientific critique and our most ancient and committed traditions.

At first, this approach seems to mix oil and water. But the heart of our traditions are not as reactionary as many might assume–and the scientific viewpoint, evermore complex since the development of quantum mechanics, will prove, I think, less an obstacle to a spiritual perspective than many believers may fear. I hope to contribute to this emerging understanding of the reality we live in, and on this blog I hope to engaged in conversations about how we should craft, critique, and perfect that understanding.

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