Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    From the Editor

Introduction: Theological Variations

Rumors of the death of theology have been much exaggerated.

Jay Tolson

Several Circles (detail), 1926, by Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA/Bridgeman Images, © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The distinguished Catholic thinker David Tracy once wrote that theology was “too important to be left to the theologians.” His intention, clearly, was not to slight his fellow guild members but to emphasize the extent to which his field enriches—and is enriched by—all other areas of intellectual inquiry. “Theology,” Tracy continued, “presumes to ask certain fundamental questions incumbent upon every thinking being—questions of the meaning and truth of human existence in relationship to itself, to others, to society, politics, history, nature, and the encompassing whole.”

Understood in such terms, theology as an academic discipline closely aligned with philosophy is often said to have emerged in the cathedral schools of early-twelfth-century Europe. The brilliant, disputatious cleric Peter Abelard—he of the scandalous affair with his equally brilliant pupil Heloise—is credited not only with bringing the dialectical method to questions of faith but with first using the word theology in the sense we have subsequently come to understand. To be sure, there was a much older tradition of fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding,” in Anselm of Canterbury’s famous formulation) going back to the early Church Fathers, as well as the great Jewish and Islamic thinkers and those of Roman and Greek antiquity. That said, the theologians of the Middle Ages engaged in pursuits that were so new and seemingly so radical that many of their coreligionists deemed them suspect, possibly heretical, and, at the very least, misguided. One such critic, Bernard of Clairvaux, the widely respected and powerful Cistercian abbot, charged that Abelard and his followers were more concerned with novel understandings than with securing the eternal and revealed truths of their faith. Detecting a slippery subjectivism that threatened to reduce church dogma to mere opinion, Bernard eventually censured Abelard’s work and lobbied successfully for his temporary excommunication.

Despite Bernard’s campaign, Abelard’s theological innovations not only survived but proved hugely influential, not least by initiating the nominalist turn against philosophical universals—the “forms” or “ideas” that Plato and centuries of his followers believed were the stuff of reality. By asserting that only particulars exist, Abelard put Western thought on the trajectory toward inductive reason, empiricism, and experimentalism, those indispensable foundations of modern science. That theology is thus implicated in the rise of both modern science and secularism is no small irony, since both contributed to the gradual demotion of theology from its place at the center of academic studies to an increasingly marginal and specialized pursuit.

That is, arguably, until recently. A growing disenchantment with disenchantment, as we might call the challenge to the once conventional confidence in the inevitable advance of secularism, has radically altered the intellectual terrain of the modern world during the last two or three decades. Not that theology has been restored as the queen of the sciences, but the spiritual, ethical, and metaphysical concerns of theology have regained an academic pertinence that has spread through the humanities and the social and human sciences. One reason for this, as theologian John Milbank (one of the contributors to this issue) argued in his seminal work Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (1990), is that theological perspectives provide a uniquely peaceable, rigorous, and systematic counterweight to what he believes are the inherently violent and power-oriented suppositions of secular social and political theory.

The thematic essays in the current issue reflect some of the concerns of this recent academic recovery of the theological, their topics ranging from the political and historical to the literary and technological. Certain aspects of this recovery were anticipated several decades ago, in the middle of the last century. Historian Charlie Riggs examines the efforts of Paul Tillich, a leading twentieth-century Protestant theologian, to interpret the central religious concept of sin for a world living in the aftermath of two devastating global wars—in light of both his own personal experience in the first of those wars and his subsequent witness to the rise of Nazism in his native Germany. Living in postwar New York, the émigré Tillich attempted to rethink theological categories in terms of an intellectual discourse dominated by existentialism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. But was Tillich’s attempt at theological translation also an exercise in evasion, a failed reckoning with his own personal weaknesses and transgressions? “When we hear a suffering man describe his own separation from God,” Riggs asks, “do we accuse him of making excuses for himself? Or do we listen to his cri de coeur, perhaps recognizing elements of it within ourselves?” However we judge the motives behind it, Tillich’s “correlation” of timeless religious teachings with contemporary realities stands as a significant theological exercise.

Turning from the existential to the technological, philosopher Antón Barba-Kay asks, “What is the relationship between our conception of our ultimate, transcendent purposes and digital technology?” His answer explores what are perhaps the two strongest (and most dissonant) human impulses of the digital era: on one hand, the desire to be guided or managed by expertise; on the other, the longing be ruled only by one’s own choices. To those who claim there is nothing new about the contemporary quest for greater choice through technical mastery, Barba-Kay replies that “it is in fact only very recently that we have started taking the view, whether implicitly or explicitly, that technological power could be an end in and of itself—an end that, as having no other positive content, has become so transparently compelling to us that we can speak of it as a momentous force in its own right.”

We are living through the seemingly endless “end of history,” when the triumph of the liberal order is tightly—indeed, almost seamlessly—bound up with a civilizational self-loathing that repudiates many of its core values and achievements in the name, writes John Milbank, of an “authorizing and entitling mutation” he calls “liberal progressivism: the final version of the West, because it is the name of its perpetuation for an indefinite perpetuity, paradoxically through disintegration.” Going beyond his dissection of the West’s terminal afflictions, Milbank posits a new “personalist” metaphysics of history that resists the boundlessness of liberal progressivism or the fatalistic cyclicism of the premodern and Romantic conceptions of history. It is a philosophy of history grounded in the Christian Trinitarian vision of the one in the many, the many in the one—a corporatism that recognizes the rights and expressiveness of the individual in concert with a spiritually grounded commitment to the common good.

Who is the great theologian of contemporary America? Paradoxically, the title might go to a novelist who would almost certainly never lay claim to that distinction: Thomas Pynchon. So argues literary scholar Alan Jacobs, in a tour de force of close reading that takes us through all of the author’s eight novels. Jacobs finds that “the distinctive function of Thomas Pynchon as America’s theologian has been to produce an elaborate, raucous, anarchic, and terrifyingly accurate portrait of all the forces, prosaic and demonic, that in our technocratic regime militate against the restoration of our full humanity—and at the same time to show us how resilient and inextinguishable are the energies of hope, generated as they are by the belief that ‘secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice.’”

In attempting to unite matters of ultimate spiritual concern, of meaning itself, with intellectual rigor in exploring the pressing social, political, and even technological issues of our time, those engaged in the return of the theological, whether theologians or not, face an almost overwhelming task. As David Tracy notes of the changes from Tillich’s day to our own, “What a contemporary analyst needs to note, above all, is that no single fundamental question (not even the fundamental question of meaninglessness of Tillich and his existentialist contemporaries) now dominates. Rather, we seem caught in a situation where all questions, often all at once, force themselves upon the attention of every theologian.”

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