I don’t think there is any question that theological formulations can create an astounding change in society. History has borne this out both in the West and the East. However, there do seem to be seminal moments in history where theology has had a momentous impact. These moments seem to ensue from the appearance of some charismatic figure with great insight and the subsequent development of those insights over a few decades or centuries. In regard to Christianity among those figures are Jesus, of course, Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther among others.
However, theological and religious inertia also seems to be a powerful factor. Once a particular theology takes root it can be incredibly hard to overcome the inertia of that change. Religion and its theological roots have great power because they speaks to deep existential concerns. When those concerns are answered in compelling ways it is extremely difficult to a incur any sort of radical change. People base their lives and psychological foundations on the religion they either choose or find themselves in. To abandon that grounding and jump into the abyss of uncertainty is a very disconcerting thing. This is true even when good reasons for doing so present themselves. Contemporary culture has offered many reasons for questioning the theology of the traditions. Critiques coming both from within the traditions and from secular society offer substantial and well reasoned augments that past theology is, in many ways, both archaic and contradictory to the picture of reality that emerges from the best explorations of science and philosophy. To their credit, prominent theologians always embrace these criticisms and addresses them in good faith as best they can. The question arises, however, how much effect these new theological formulations have on religion.
I have always been a great admirer of the theology of Paul Tillich. I have been rereading Tillich’s “Systematic Theology”. As I have reread particularly Tillich’s theology of God and his theology of Spirit I have been struck with how well suited for Christianity his theology would be for our current time. His system is, however, a radical change from the current theology found in grass roots Christianity. I remember so well thinking in my second year of seminary that as I approached my internship in a church if I tried to present his theology to parishioners it could be very disturbing. The “simple” theology at the grass roots level was not ready for this. Now this was in the late ’70s within the Lutheran church. Perhaps things have changed but I don’t think by much. I still believe that if modern theology is presented to the vast majority of church goers at the best their eyes would glaze over or at worst they would be greatly disturbed and perhaps belligerent. Now this might sound like an elitist view but I also think it is realistic. The meaning of symbols, rituals, and language used at the grass roots level has so much inertia one has to wonder how any marked change can occur in the churches. After all, its been over forty years since Tillich published his Systematic Theology and is there any indication that its insight has resulted in any significant change in the Christian church? From my experience the answer has to be, no. That is not to say that Tillich has been no influence on professional theologians. There can be no question that he has. He is probably one of the most quoted theologians of the last two centuries. However, that is professional theology. What about at the parish level? Has his brilliant theology filtered down? From my experience I would also have to say no. In fact, judging from the rise of fundamentalism it would appear that at least in our current time his thought would be opposed even more strongly. Now Tillich is not the only theologian who proposes a radical reformulation within a traditions. Most recently Marcus Borg has offered one in his “The Heart of Christianity”. In my view he offers a wonderful alternative theology for Christianity. Will it be embraced in the churches in any significant way? I doubt it. There will, of course, be “seekers” in many of the mainline churches who will take his message to heart and incorporate it into their own religious sentiment. These groups, however, represent a fringe element in most Christian churches and have little impact on the church in general. In fact, I have seen many of these types of people either abandon their church home to strike out on their own or try out more tolerant religious frameworks like Unitarian Universalism. From my experience with UU, these forays may be short lived because there is no commonality in belief and therefore little ritual, sacrament, etc. If I am correct, this raises an important question for theology and theologians. Can a theology within a tradition really create any significant change?
This is a particularly pressing issue when one realizes that there are over 4 billion theists worldwide in religious traditions. Can any radical change, which is what radical theologians like Tillich and Borg are advocating occur with this climate of inertia? I think there can be two answers to this. First there can be splinter groups within a tradition. We are seeing some of these today. Open Theism is one example for Christianity. Other examples can be found particularly in the East where different forms of Buddhism and Hinduism have arisen. The question about splinter groups is how much they still cling to an untenable core of the tradition. It is an open question whether the traditions can morph in these splinter groups to meet the needs of the current situation. The other answer is that radical change can come from outside the traditions. Process philosophy is a great example. Process thought at least in its beginning was formed without relying on any particular religious tradition. It has found a significant following outside the traditions. This is, however, still in the elitist arena and, as far as I can tell, has not resulted in a religious movement. To be sure “Christian” theologians like David Ray Griffin have attempted to incorporate process ideas into Christianity, but they have been met with the same intransigence as Tillich and other radical theologians. Can modern theology result in any significant change in the religiosity of 4+ billion people? That is the question and the challenge.
In my view, it is possible but also extremely difficult. If anything, pressure from “new” theologies will be, at most, a preparation for a kairotic moment for new religions that draw from traditional sentiment, as they should, but are formed either by “revolutionaries” within the traditions or those outside the traditions all together. In either case I would suspect that profound change will be not occur gradually but by a quick departure. The formation of Christianity is a good example. Does this mean that Christian and other theologians should despair at their efforts for change? I don’t think so. These efforts are noble in their attempt to create a more beneficial foundation for both individual spirituality and social structure. However, if these are the goals then theology is not enough. Theology must be embraced by the grass roots and its insights incorporated into the community of ritual, piety, and social action. New theologies can offer a profoundly transforming vision for who we are in the world and how we should act. Somehow, however, that vision must make its way into the deepest aspects of the spirit and the psyche. This will take a concerted effort by both theologians and religious practitioners to make it happen. They must work together to bring new religious insight to the masses. Otherwise these new theologies that are the best and most consilient with the divine will be found in the dust bins of history.