Wednesday, May 24, 2017

New Theology: A Proposal

New Theology for the 21st Century 

Saint and martyr, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while imprisoned by the Nazis for complicity in the effort to bring down Hitler, called for a new theology for "a world come of age." One of my mentors, Rev. Doctor Martin Marty, took up his cause after his execution near the end of WWII in a series of books which he named New Theology in which I had the privilege of participating.

Bonhoeffer and Marty were considering the relevance of Christianity to modernity. As persons of faith in the Christian tradition, they recognized that the Judeo-Christian tradition was begun in the context, language, and cultures of antiquity and developed in medieval times utilizing the language and thought structures of Greco-Roman civilizations. They realized that the Enlightenment, new science, and the industrial and republican revolutions provided a new concrete situation for their faith. Thus, they engaged with others from many traditions in rethinking and applying the insights of their Christian tradition to modernity.

Some thinkers say, and I am one of them, that in the 21st century we are facing a changed concrete situation, still facing many of the unresolved problems of modernity, but also very new problems at a moment of a far-reaching shift in culture. They call this new epoch “postmodern” as did I. But I would rather label it “transmodern.” “Postmodernity” in art, morality, politics, and philosophy carries some baggage for people who have already made up their minds. To them it means moral relativism, post-truth politics, philosophical, cultural, and scientific skepticism, and, most of all, a rejection of the sacred.

By affirming the transmodern shift, I hope to affirm the positives and deny the negatives in modernity. Critiquing modernity is indispensable because modernity has brought us to the threshold of nihilism that abandons the world to despair, apocalypse, and terror.  But modernity has also brought us closer to the portals of the divine than our humanity, our earth, and perhaps our universe has never been. As we make our transition, how we understand and approach the sacred in ourselves and in all our fellow sojourners will make all the difference in our world.

In the mid twentieth century, despite the devastating wars and the possibility of global destruction, or because of them, humanity has reached a turning point. We are at a cusp of choice. Perhaps we always are. At the point that homo became sapiens. But now in the twenty first century that choice is more obvious and certainly more portentous. We really can be and are threatening the Earth, the very condition of our existence. We really are choosing what the next evolution of our species will be. We really are defining what is good and evil. We really are realizing our responsibility for the shape of the world and the meaning of the universe. Collectively, in our interactions with one another. In our politics, our culture, our economy, we are choosing who we are and who we want to be.

That’s why I want to contribute new theology for a world coming of age. My reflections are written for both church and non-church goers.

I have in mind young seminarians planning to take the pulpit and preach. I was a Jesuit seminarian struggling with faith and belief and the institutions that pretended to maintain them.

I have in mind teachers of religion and theology. I too taught theology while getting an  equivalent of a Masters of Divinity at Jesuit School of Theology at Loyola University and enrolled in a doctoral program in Social Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. I realize the quandary in young minds dealing with religion and theology.
I also have in mind those who have abandoned the churches to support new institutions of hope. I too became disaffected with the church in which I was raised and many others which I tried. But the church never left me and my imagination.

I want to engage evangelicals and all fundamentalists because, raised in a Catholic ghetto on the Baltimore catechism, I have been there and done that and understand why you are holding fast. I also want to engage atheists and other anti-religionists because I share your anger with religion as perpetuating fear, hate, bigotry, and injustice.

I also want to engage modern and postmodern philosophers, many of my mentors who claim that the age of the big systems of metaphysics and theologies is over. I agree with you. And yet the development of these ideas and doctrines from ancient to modern times are who we are and contribute to who we will be.

I also have in mind ordinary persons, those I meet on the streets, in coffee houses, on demonstrations, and in community associations. Those who are perplexed, as am I.

And so, I dialogue and invite dialogue on many issues that are in the news, on our websites, in opinions and polls, tweeted and blogged. For example: 
  1. Is artificial intelligence in process of changing our species? Do we have a transhuman future? Do we want that? Do we have any control?
  2. How do the stories of human origin and purpose in our religious traditions and, more so, in our latest fiction and films, shape our morality?  Can we develop a story that unites us rather than divides us?
  3. Can there be a science without faith, a politics without religion? Can we be faithful to our religious traditions and accept the findings of science regarding evolution, human sexuality, free will, and many other challenging discoveries. 
  4. How do we discover and express the sacred in our everyday life and our work?
  5. How do religious beliefs affect our economic behaviors? Can there be a common faith with many belief systems? Can there be a social gospel or social justice teachings based on religious belief?
  6. What does it mean to have soul? And how do we grow our soul? What are the tried and true stages of spiritual growth? Is there, or can there be, progress in human development, faith, truth, and morality?
  7. Who are the heroes of religion, the prophets, the teachers, the great-souled ones and what do they have to tell us in our world coming to age.
  8. What is the meaning of history in human affairs? What are the different notions of history and how do they make a difference to how we see ourselves and our world?
  9. What is the notion of transcendence? How did the concept of the divine arise in human psychology and history? Can atheists be persons of faith?
  10. Is there one true religion? A universal religion? A Way of ways?
  11. Is theology a worthy subject of inquiry? How does theological inquiry relate to scientific methodology? How does it differ from philosophy as a way of life?
  12. Most of all, how does new theology guide us to create a world of freedom, justice, and love?
  13. What is the substance of the global shift in culture that we are undergoing? What is the difference between modernity and transmodernity? How does that affect our thinking and acting?
And lots more. 

From my questions, you might infer that I believe that religion, understood correctly, does have an important place in our social order. For good or for ill. I believe that humanity has a “transcendent aim” that need not be frustrated. I believe that our vocation is to grow our souls, personally and collectively, in ordinary life and in our work and action. But at the same time, I believe that our expression and behavior must change to catch up with all we have learned and are learning about ourselves and our universe.

I begin once again the adventure of theology in our world come of age. Walk with me a bit. And please send me your own contributions to new theology which I can publish. 

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