Brief Thoughts on our Contemporary Theological Task

Western culture is losing faith in the gospel of modernity. Modernity promised a democratic, rational, pluralistic culture. We have since realized that democracy can be used not only to empower but also to subjugate minority interests, that reason can be the tool of totalitarian oppression or the plaything of relativists, and that true plurality comes at the price of radical decentering. Scientific positivism and religious fundamentalism tear desperately at opposite edges of the cultural fabric, as if they know they cannot maintain their grip.

Technology and late capitalism erode the boundaries between high art and commodification. From this union is born the celebrity and virtual culture, a media matrix that displaces religion and education as the prime inculcator of social values and sensibilities. In the celebrity culture, we neither pray nor reason; we watch and imitate. Fictional characters in hyper-real settings shape our responses to real situations. In the virtual culture, “likes” and “pokes” replace conversation. Shared links stand in lieu of shared experiences. The concept of “friend,” so prized in antiquity, has reached its nadir, often indistinguishable from acquaintance, peer, or mark.

Yet, we are learning from our situation: the West is not the world. Modernity, anti-modernity, postmodernity— “All these modern Western namings of the present remain too self-centered and narrow. They name only the dilemmas of the Western center” (David Tracy, On Naming the Present, 20). If we Westerners are insecure about our cultural future, we may look to the resources of the modernizing world. No law of historical necessity dictates that they follow the same course, despite Bryan Turner’s unconvincing appeal to a Calvinist pattern of modernity. In charity, we wish that they learn from our failings. In hope, we ask what they may teach us.

The task of theology in a decentered age is not easy, but theology never was. The crusader who nostalgically quests for the golden age of Christendom is in fact a deserter from the present conflict. One challenge is the loss of a universal philosophy through which to mediate Christian ideals. Rahner recognized this reality but could not foresee that his own transcendentalism would become one more parochial ism. Charles Taylor sets before us the image of the immanent frame, our contemporary reality in which we do not feel the need to refer our lives to a transcendental referent. Leszek Kolakowski bemoans the blurring of the sacred and the profane.

Perhaps all the challenges to contemporary theology derive, in part, from the anthropocentric turn. That turn has led to a dead end, the decentering and dissolution of the subject. Man was not created to be the center; he cannot like Atlas bear the weight of the world, nor can he fully convince himself that the world is not heavy. The way forward is, at the beginning, the way back. A radical return to theocentrism, a retrieval of our creedal heritage, and an emphasis on the community of saints concretely localized in the proclamation of Scripture and the sacraments may open a new global future for us.

Published in: on August 29, 2011 at 11:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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