What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (Januray 2000): 29-31.

[Symposium Contents]

Edward T. Oakes

Leaving aside genuine scientific discoveries such as relativity and the helical structure of the genetic molecule DNA, or the truly original innovations in linguistics from Noam Chomsky, the twentieth century has, in retrospect, shown itself to be singularly poor in intellectual creativity. Even a quick glance at the events from 1900 to the present reveals that nearly every idea driving the passions of what Nietzsche called "Great Politics" in the last one hundred years was conceived during the reign of Queen Victoria: communism, anticolonialism, psychoanalysis, socialism, protest atheism, evolution by natural selection (and its malign cousin, Social Darwinism), feminism, utilitarian ethics, behaviorism, racism (and the racist version of anti-Semitism)—all were hatched in that overheated terrarium, the late-nineteenth-century mind. (Fascism might seem uniquely twentieth century in its genealogy, but it is merely the fusion, however awkward, of socialism and ethnocentric racism, as the term National Socialism already indicates.)

Moreover, with the lone exceptions of feminism and evolution, not a single one of these ideas has survived its (at times bloody) trials in the laboratory of the twentieth century. In fact the two major legacies of the eighteenth century, free-market capitalism and universal human rights, show much more promise of animating the politics of the next millennium than anything conjured up in the nineteenth, let alone the twentieth, century.

Something similar applies to Christian theology, although because there is almost always a significant time lag between developments in secular culture and the Christian churches, one must move the threshold ahead by almost a century. For in the decades between 1919 (when Karl Barth published the first edition of his famous commentary on Romans) and 1988 (when Hans Urs von Balthasar died) the Christian churches witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of theological genius, while after that date everything seems faintly derivative and hollow, where positions have already begun to harden into rote ideologies, and "ignorant armies clash by night." To compare the achievements of Barth and Rudolf Bultmann on the Protestant side or Balthasar and Karl Rahner on the Catholic side with contemporary efforts immediately leads to the dismaying realization that perhaps the era of theological creativity will pass from the churches in the next century in much the same way that genuine intellectual creativity almost completely disappeared from twentieth-century culture generally (again, Einstein, Chomsky, and a few others excepted).

One recent and sure sign of contemporary decadence is the habit of pigeonholing every theological position into the hoary categories of liberal and conservative and then judging the position on that basis, often without any direct acquaintance with the text advocating that position. I do not wish to deny some initial utility to these terms, but their constant invocation remains worrisome. For one thing, these terms are largely irrelevant in the history of theology (was Arius conservative or liberal?). And if the liberal/conservative spectrum cannot truly describe the past, why are these categories not similarly pointless today?

In my opinion, the reason for this dreary state of affairs is that great curse of the contemporary intellect, what I shall call the digital mind. In the famous debate over whether computers can think, I hold with John Searle and Roger Penrose that they cannot, precisely because they operate by manipulating binary oppositions. But I would also say the same of humans: they too prove incapable of anything passing for real thought whenever they browbeat every insight, like cattle being herded in a slaughterhouse, into the binary boxcars of liber al/conservative, progressive/traditional, liberating/constraining.

For this reason, predicting the future of theology becomes not just impossible but bootless. Any real theology will be startlingly new, as unexpected as the emergence of Augustine’s Confessions, or Pascal’s Pensées—or Karl Barth’s famous No to liberal theology with his commentary on Romans, which, in Karl Adam’s well-known phrase, hit the playground of the theologians like a bombshell. But such newness, should it come, will strike contemporaries not just as unexpected but also as a grace. For whatever the history of theology teaches, it surely must be that theological creativity is not a birthright of the Church. On the contrary, some centuries are numbingly sterile in terms of theological creativity: the sixth to the tenth centuries in Western Europe; the era of nominalism in the fourteenth and fifteenth; the eighteenth in Roman Catholic seminaries.

Speaking of seminaries, Catholic theologians in the academy are currently in a dither about Roman control of their product, especially after the promulgation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Ad Tuendam Fidem, Roman documents that, to judge by some reactions, have reduced the role of the theologian to that of a public relations officer for Microsoft Church. Cardinal Bellarmine once said that the Church’s visibility differs in no way from that of the Republic of Venice; and in that regard the Catholic Church has in recent times taken on (perhaps inevitably, if Bellarmine is right) certain aspects of corporate culture, with gleaming skyscraper chanceries, slick videos, banks of lawyers advising the CEO bishop. (I once called an out-of-town chancery and got a voice-mail message that gave a menu of options that came close to this parody: "for annulments, press 1; for liturgical complaints against your local pastor, press 2," and so forth.)

But this lament ignores Rome’s entirely legitimate worries about an even more obvious ideologization of the academy. "Pious scholars are rare," Pascal once observed, and under that rubric the increased professionalization of theology cannot be an entirely unmixed blessing. I hunger for real debate in theology as much as anyone, free of the instant kibitzing of some low-rung Vatican cleric in the Roman Curia; indeed I salute the medieval university precisely because it embodied the reality of structured debate so well (in which, of course, the hierarchy was fully a participant, making an institutional adversary relationship between theologian and Magisterium inconceivable).

But is this true of the academy today? For example, how much debate really goes on in the Catholic Theological Society of America nowadays? Has it finally become, as so many critics assert, the equivalent of the General Assembly of the United Nations, that is, a group that likes to pass resolutions that seem daring in their desire to épater les Curialistes (that is, to tweak Rome on women’s ordination, nuclear weapons, and so forth) but which in fact never stray from the politically correct norms of the academic left?

Rather than answer such questions or seek to predict the future, I will simply say that insofar as either Rome or the academy regards any particular position across a range of issues—especially pertaining to the deliverances of science—as the only one that can be publicly advocated, then we are still stuck in the era of digital theology, which in fact is not theology but ideology.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department of Regis University in Denver, Colorado.