February 14, 2005
Under Many Influences
Martin E. Marty
Charles E. Curran of Southern Methodist University asks a question people in his business and mine often get asked: "Where have all the dominant theologians gone?" (National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2005). He notes that last year marked the centennial of the birth of Catholic superstars Yves Congar, Bernard Lonergan, John Courtney Murray, and Karl Rahner. To this list he adds the influential figures Edward Schillebeeckx and Hans Kueng from the Second Vatican Council generation -- the two stars who are among the living. Curran asks, who will replace them? And why are there no such dominant figures today? He also offers some answers.
We do not usually do church housekeeping in Sightings, since we keep our eyes on the public realm. But at its best, theology does relate to the public realm. Even if most theologians are hard-going for readers, they influence the influencers at seminaries and conferences and retreats, where priests, ministers, rabbis, and lay leaders try out their teachings on believing communities, which are important in the public realm.
Charles Curran doesn't waste time complaining about the absence of megastars. Instead, he points out some good signs. The first is diffusion. Fifty years ago, there were relatively few theologians writing, at least in American Catholicism. With the much larger field today, it's harder for anyone to be a dominant, oracular voice for the many. Diffusion also means that Catholic (and Protestant) theologians are not quartered exclusively in seminaries, among clerics. They are at state universities and every other kind of academic and think-tank location.
Second, Curran notes, pluralization has taken hold. A John Courtney Murray (or a Reinhold or H. Richard Niebuhr, or a Tillich) could speak to a relatively coherent, if still contentious, community. Today, diversity of communities makes it harder for theologians to do the same. Vital currents run through Feminist, Black, Hispanic-Latino-Latina, and Asian theologies, or specialties such as medical-ethical theology; entire believing communities -- Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish -- are not likely to buy into all of them. That relates to Curran's third theme: Catholic theology not only "is" but "should be" inculturated if it wishes to speak to anyone.
Now a few of my own comments: Note that the waning of European Christianity has also meant that there is little importing from the giants going on. Gone are the days of the big "B's:" Barth, Bonhoeffer, Baillie, Brunner, Bultmann, Von Balthasar, Buber. We are more "on our own." Second, nostalgia for American gianthood is misplaced. Moan about the absence of the Niebuhrs, Tillichs, or Murrays today, but if you are asked to name any other twentieth-century figures who had public influence post-Social Gospel -- mainline, evangelical, or Catholic -- who would you name? Who is read among them?
Finally, while the three publics that theologian David Tracy names -- academy, church, and society -- should be confronted by what I call "theological theologians," most believers and seekers today derive theological meanings from literary, spiritual, and ethical writers. Maybe it's the old Greco-Germanic models that are changing. Whatever the case, cheers to Charlie Curran for not whining, but calling-forth.
In the article that provided the basis for Martin Marty's Sightings column last Monday, Tony Judt wrote that the U.S.'s record of capital punishment was not on a scale that matched "China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Congo." Mr. Marty, drawing just on the records of Western industrial nations, noted that the U.S. is "number one in executing people," and overlooked the horrendous records of the four nations mentioned above. We thank the readers who called this apparent discrepancy to our attention.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.