From The Editor’s Desk
Theological Studies 2017, Vol. 78(2) 297–298
Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0040563917699081
Theological water cooler talk not infrequently circles around the lament that the age of the “giants” has passed. There are no Barths, Tillichs, Rahners, Lonergans, Congars or Balthasars on the horizon, the narrative goes; most theologians at work today are lesser lights, and their theology is derivative. Systematic theology in particular has lost its way. When will there be another Golden Age such as we knew in that crop of European-trained theologians who came of age in the mid-twentieth century?
It is easy to think this way, for we do stand on the shoulders of these and other giants. Yet it is equally easy to forget the conditions that gave rise to some of the theological greats of a generation past: a common intellectual patrimony, a defined theological lingua franca, well established schools of theology in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, and a clerical foundation and stamp to theology that made it an in-house enterprise among a few intelligent, well-educated men. Women were of course rendered absent from the aulas.
What makes these theological giants memorable today is that they arose in a time of kairos for the church. Rahner, for example, produced some of his most incisive work in the years following World War II and leading up to the Second Vatican Council. It was clear to him and a few others that the clock had run out for the ancien régime of the church and its late nineteenth-century theological habits. This was a time of percolating creativity under the surface of what seemed to many a still serene and unchanging Roman Catholic façade. People like Rahner saw the opportunity and seized it. Eventually, after some resistance, their way of theologizing found a welcome in the council itself—a confluence of circumstances that left a legacy that theologians are still grappling with today.
Perhaps the lamenters are right; perhaps we never will see a generation of giants such as those we saw in the mid-twentieth century—or the thirteenth. Perhaps this can only happen once every five hundred years or so. But such a view seems myopic. To begin with, this lament too conveniently dismisses some of the truly important theological developments of the past fifty years, especially the revolution inaugurated by liberation theology, finding expression today in other genres, where the reality of the poor and marginalized is foundational. Here we find a new generation of giants to reckon with. Equally, there are the giants who have given us a Catholic feminist theology that has plumbed the depths of Scripture and tradition so as to question long-held assumptions about women and about gender roles in the life of the church and in the service of the Gospel. Furthermore, I can attest from my perch as editor that there are many brilliant, dedicated and fresh new theologians at work who will surprise the church in the years to come. I have great hope in what is coming around the bend.
But there is also the fact that theology is increasingly being done differently today, often collaboratively and as a result of collegial conversations that draw upon theologians from all over the world. A new form of theologizing is emerging from the connected age within which we live. One thinks, for example, of James F. Keenan’s project, Catholic Theological Ethics in a World Church, that draws together theological ethicists from all parts of the planet; or the International Network of Societies of Catholic Theology, which fosters communication among theologians globally; and projects emanating from groups such as the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians in the United States and the Black Catholic Theological Symposium; or, in Africa, the Circle of Concerned African Women theologians. There are countless other examples of global collaborations, and this is already producing a new form of theological schol- arship, often jointly authored.
Like the giants of mid-twentieth-century Europe, theologians working en conjunto are seizing the opportunity of the kairotic moment within which they find themselves in society and church. One of the latest was the first Ibero-American Meeting of Catholic Theology, held at Boston College in February. This meeting of theologians from Latin America and the United States, and conducted in Spanish, addressed the moment within which Latino/a and Latin American theology now stands in the life of the church. The “Boston Declaration” that came from that meeting captures the col- laborative spirit shared by many theologians today:
In light of the gravity of this historical moment, which calls for the deeper commitment of our communities, we insist on the urgent need to collaborate with the theology and pastoral plan of Pope Francis. We support a theology that attends to the reality of social conflicts and makes its way through the peripheries. Just like the shepherds who live with the smell of sheep, theologians must smell like their people and their streets; thus, the need to pay back the pastoral debt that professional theology still has with our poor people. Within this context, theology must be saturated by an evangelical mercy that promotes a church of the poor and for the poor—a church where the poor become the subjects of their own history and not the object of ideological manipulations. The poor, many times victims of violence, are privileged theological places. Our commitment is not only to walk with them, but also to let ourselves be evangelized and transformed by them in an ongoing process of pastoral and missionary conversion.
In the face of such a new language from theologians about the work of theology, the lament over a past generation of giants can seem misplaced. For what is emerging is important in a new way. Along with more traditional forms of theology, it is abundantly clear that we also need to come to understand, appreciate, and welcome into our routine discourses these newer approaches to the work of theology.
Paul G. Crowley, SJ