Christian theology in the twentieth century has faced two crises and now faces a third. First, the presuppositions of liberal theology—primarily, that an ethical teacher, the “historical” Jesus, could be detached from the framework of eschatology and the miraculous within which he is presented in the Gospels—were shown to be without historical foundation. To adapt Newman’s remark that whatever historical Christianity may have been it was certainly not Protestantism: whatever the preaching of the earliest Christians may have been it was certainly not liberal Christianity. The liberal Christian was shot and stuffed by Schweitzer in his Quest of the Historical Jesus at the beginning of the century. Granted there is no single portrait that can be detached from the figure presented as Messianic, the fulfillment of prophecy, the preacher of an eschatology, what then are we to think of this figure, so strange and commanding and yet so discordant with how we take the course of the world to be?
Again, recognition that the eschatological was a fundamental element in the New Testament documents helped scholars toward a reappraisal of the character of the documents themselves. Whereas it had been a presupposition of the liberal approach that the New Testament was a mixture of history and legend, the great task being to disentangle the historical from the legendary, it was now seen that the New Testament writings were expressions of the faith of the primitive Church. In even the roughest of the Gospels, that of Mark, the theological themes are so interwoven with the narrative and characterization that a purging of the theological elements leaves nothing intelligible or coherent remaining. This is not to say that the New Testament is without historical value, but to bring out the degree to which a man’s response to the gospels and other writings cannot be separated from his response to the faith of which the writings are a witness.
The second crisis is connected with the first, though not directly dependent upon it. It is rather the other side of the problem confronting us once we see the Bible as challenging our present existence and not simply providing us with material for speculation and religious reflection. In both the Protestant and Catholic traditions it seemed to have been assumed that revelation, what (it is held) God has said to man, presupposed both the religious consciousness, that which shows itself in the other religions and in mysticism, and a body of knowledge—“natural” theology—capable of being established independently of, and logically prior to, what is said by way of revelation.
The great shock to this assumption was given by the dialectical theology of Barth. The publication of Barth’s commentary on the Letter to the Romans shook the ground upon which theologians thought they stood so firmly. In the history of theology, the work of Barth can only be compared with the work of Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin. Such men bring about revolutions in thought, shifts in the theological perspective. They have the effect in theology of Kant in philosophy or Galileo in natural science. One may repudiate their conclusions; but the forms of thought, the intellectual apparatus, with which one approaches the problems of one’s own time have been permanently modified.
We may sum up Barth’s central contention as being that Christianity is not a species of the genus religion, but another genus. He echoes Pascal’s “not the God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Indeed, it might almost be said that Christianity is not a religion at all, for religion is a product of the religious consciousness, and thus, it is argued, fundamentally idolatrous, in which man worships his own conception of the highest. But Christianity appears as the paradox: absurd to the Greeks (that is, to the philosophical mind), scandalous to the Jews, for God shows himself where he is most hidden and demonstrates his power where humanity shows its greatest weakness and redeems us where to the secular eye there is only guilt: in the darkness and dereliction of a man hanging from a Roman gibbet. The Word speaks most clearly where by all the standards of religion it is muffled.
The third crisis of Christian thought is now upon us and, just because we are living through it, it is hard to characterize. At its most superficial it shows itself in the fashionable death-of-God theology. It can be had in a, so to speak, instant form in Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God, though the reader should be warned that this resembles the work of Bonhoeffer, from which it is in part derived, rather as instant coffee resembles real coffee. Perhaps its ruling concern can be put in the following way. The processes of social and economic life in which all men, Christians and others, are implicated seem to proceed independently of the values of the groups subject to them; and this is true whether one lives in “Western” societies, or in the socialist societies, or in the societies of the third world. That a man is a Christian gives one very little information about the style in which he lives his life. It is more to the point to ask (in Western society) if he is a capitalist or a worker, a technician or an advertising man, even to ask about the pigmentation of his skin, than to ask if he is a Christian. (In a socialist society or in the third world, different but parallel questions would be to the point.)
How then can Christianity, with its inescapably eschatological outlook and with its emphasis on the love which is the sign of redemption, have anything to say to the modern world on the question how a man ought to live? And yet if it has nothing to say on this question, it seems as though it has, quite simply and finally, nothing to say.
There are two extreme forms in which one may believe oneself to have a way of coming through this crisis. It may be argued, as it is by secular and death-of-God theologians, that man has now come of age and that human existence is autonomous at all its levels. One has then to give a fundamentally different sense to such religious categories as Grace and the miraculous. The notion that human excellence—sanctity—is only to be had through dependence upon a transcendent source is rejected. It is true, once one is freed from traditional Christianity and lives within the autonomous orders of the world, it is not immediately plain how one ought to live. Indeed, it often appears that the secularist theologians write pour épater les bourgeois but succeed only in delighting them. For where, after all, do we find that form of religion of which the secularist theologians provide the rationale if not in the non-denominational community church of the middle-class suburb?
At the other extreme we may, following an increasing number of left-wing Christians, especially Catholics, in Europe and the third world and even the United States, transpose the old theme of eschatology and see the revolutionary day of judgment, as conceived by those Marxists who dislike the scholasticism of Engels and admire the work of the young-Hegelian Marx, as fusing with the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Here the command to seek the Kingdom of God and his justice is fulfilled in identifying oneself with the struggle for the emancipation from bourgeois society of the proletarian and peasant masses.
These reflections, these rude sketches, no doubt schematized and simplified to the point of caricature, of a variety of Christian positions, are provoked by the two very different works under review. The first, which contains a sympathetic but not an expert account of one vein of tradition in Buddhism by a Catholic priest and monk, the much loved and much mourned Thomas Merton, raises in an acute way the question so brusquely answered by Barth: What has Christianity to do with religion and with philosophical activity? The second, a powerful if parochial work in the German Protestant tradition—it is incredible that in a work on this topic there is no mention of the writings, so rich and in this field so fundamental, of C. H. Dodd—brings us up against the theme of eschatology.
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? Athens and the Academy are no more, and most “Western” philosophers would deny that it is their proper occupation to teach a wisdom that could in any way be thought to rival Christianity. Very bold philosophers may be found to comment on the grammar (in Wittgenstein’s sense) of theological statements; but that is all. But this gap between philosophical speculation and religious thought, so much taken for granted in Western cultures and perhaps connected with the unique experience of medieval scholasticism, is not present in the religious and philosophical traditions of India, China, and Japan; and perhaps in these places the religious and philosophical traditions can scarcely be distinguished, so much are they connected dialectically and in forms of culture.
Thomas Merton was for many years attracted by and interested in the Buddhist tradition, and especially in the difficult thought of the Zen school. It is understandable that a Cistercian monk, concerned with the renewal of the monastic life in Western society, should be attracted by the great religions of Asia. Only in the societies of Asia are poverty and detachment of the kind sought in the European Middle Ages still the badges of the religious life. Hindu and Buddhist cultures, wounded, even fatally wounded, as they may be by the steady pressure of the rationalist and scientific culture of Europe, whether in its Marxist or its liberal form, present us with the only remaining monuments of the interpenetration of material and religious culture that marked the European Middle Ages. Those who reverence the guru or the Buddhist monk or nun, the crowds of simple people who venerate the images in the Hindu or Buddhist shrines in the villages and the great cities, who go on pilgrimage to the sacred rivers and mountains, who at the end of their lives change the business dress of commerce or politics for the saffron robe of the monk, all these seem spiritually to resemble medieval Europeans.
Thomas Merton was a Cistercian; and the great abbey in Kentucky which he made so widely known was, in so far as it supported an authentically Cistercian life, at odds with its environment in a way that a monastic settlement in Asia would not have been at odds with its environment, not even in so industrialized a society as that of Japan. One guesses that the first thing which drew Merton (and other American and European religious such as Father Aelred Graham and Father Bede Griffiths) to a study of Eastern religious life was the suspicion that the tradition they cherished was most simply at home in Hindu and Buddhist societies.
The collection of papers in Mystics and Zen Masters exactly illustrates this point. Studies of Zen and of Buddhism in general mingle with essays on Russian mysticism, on the Jesuits in China (the hostility of Rome to Jesuit policy in China brought about what was perhaps as great a catastrophe for Catholicism as the Protestant Reformation), on the Shaker community in Kentucky, on the revival of monasticism among modern Protestants. Merton’s was an irenical spirit. He saw the great religious traditions as all of them contributory to a reformed and revitalized Catholicism, the Great Church of the future.
Nothing could be farther from the dialectical theology of Barth, in so far as this theology would wish to repudiate the non-Christian religions as idolatrous and characterize even Christian mysticism as a kind of parasitic growth upon the trunk of revealed religion. Merton saw the world religions as in part forerunners of the Gospel and prepares of it, in part genuine religions with an immanent tendency toward Christianity, always provided Christianity could bring itself to get rid of the materialism and shallowness, the obsession with military power and the contempt for the spirit of poverty, that had enfeebled it in the West, and especially in his own country.
Merton was thus both an extreme traditionalist, seeing Catholicism as essentially a synthesizing and hospitable religion, and, in relation to such issues as those of race and warfare, an extreme radical. If in the field of civil rights and in the struggle against the Vietnam war, young Catholics, and among them priests, monks, and nuns, have, no doubt to the great surprise of those who thought of Catholicism in old stereotypes, become leaders and witnesses, Thomas Merton, through his books and still more through the great many semi-published mimeographed essays by him that passed from hand to hand, was a creative source of new thought and action. In part, then, he is to be counted with those who transposed the eschatological themes of traditional Christianity into the themes of left-wing politics.
But in his studies of mysticism and of the Eastern religious traditions it is as though he were saying to the young lions of the Catholic Left, whether in the guerrilla-haunted jungles and mountains or in New York or San Francisco: There is also the Transcendent; the quiet witness of the simple before the shrine, of the monk with his begging-bowl, is as necessary to religious vitality as that of those who fight for political and economic justice.
Moltmann’s powerful and influential work appears to be utterly opposed to Merton’s in its approach to theological problems. Hope, he argues, is the fundamental category within which Christian faith exists. Once this is forgotten, then a “mysticism of being, with its emphasis on the living of the present moment, presupposes an immediacy to God which the faith that believes in God on the ground of Christ cannot adopt without putting an end to the historic mediation and reconciliation of God and man in the Christ event, and so also…putting an end to the observation of history under the category of hope.”
Now hope cannot be understood simply as an attitude of expectation in which absolutely anything would count as the fulfillment of hope. Hope is always for some event, some state of affairs, not now existing. Moltmann takes as paradigms of hope the hopes of Israel, in the Old Testament. Abraham, who believed the promise of the Lord that he would make of his descendants a great nation and hoped for the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise, is the great type of the man who lives by faith and hope. Paul claims, in the letter to the Romans, that the Church, as the new Israel, is composed of those who are spiritually, if not by descent, children of the promise; as such, they share in the hope of Israel, but it is now a hope wider in its scope than the patriarchs could have grasped, though their hope in the fulfillment of the promise was so unspecific, so open to a generous fulfillment beyond their imagination, that there is no radical break when the new Israel gives a richer content to the promise.
The promise which is the basis of the Christian hope is summed up by Moltmann as that of “the kingdom of God in which all things attain to right, to life, to peace, to freedom, and to truth…. And so, too, its love, its neighborliness and its sympathy are inclusive, excluding nothing, but embracing in hope everything wherein God will be all in all.” This formulation might be thought to fail through vagueness; but Moltmann sees the resurrection of Christ as establishing what he calls an “eschatological horizon,” and by taking the resurrection as the ground of our hope for the future, we are able to “disclose to modern history its true historic character.” For Moltmann, those messianic movements of the modern world analyzed by J. L. Talmon are, as it were, products of a kind of historical consciousness the modern world derives from the penetration of the preaching of the Gospel to every layer of European society. All the same, movements that see politics in eschatological terms tend to fall into a utopianism that strives to realize itself historically through terror; and this is because hope doesn’t endure. Such hopes contain within themselves “the seeds of resignation.” And Barth, who said in 1921 that “if Christianity be not altogether and unreservedly eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever to Christ,” does not qualify as a theologian who persists in hope, for Barth makes of the eschaton, the end hoped for, not something in the genuinely historical future, but the breaking into human history of something eternal, transcendental, that stands in the same relationship to all epochs. For Moltmann the great polarization of thought is between the Greek spirit which has perverted the Gospel and the historical experience of Israel.
The real language of Christian eschatology…is not the Greek logos, but the promise which has stamped the language, the hope and the experience of Israel. It was not in the logos of the epiphany of the eternal present, but in the hope-giving word of promise that Israel found God’s truth.
It is a commonplace of Biblical study that the New Testament contains a number of theologies, in the sense that the concepts and styles of thinking are different if we move, for example, from the writer of Mark to the writer of Luke, or from the Pauline writings to the Johannine writings. The tensions between different theological positions can be understood as eliciting from the reader a choice; but if we take seriously the witness of the New Testament as a whole we shall take these tensions as necessarily connected with the richness and complexity of the subject matter. Protestantism from the beginning has been reluctant to accept in its bewildering wholeness the witness of the New Testament—Luther’s characterization of the Epistle of James as “straw” and his sola fide are examples.
What is slightly disagreeable about Moltmann’s book is that he is not frank and open, as Luther was. His tone is urgent and dogmatic, but he never seriously faces the difficulty which the Johannine writings, for example, offer to his thesis; his citations from Paul are highly selective; he attacks what is plainly the presupposition of much if not all New Testament writing, that Jesus is already victorious and exalted, Kyrios, as a radical error; his interpretation of the Letter to the Hebrews is, at the very least, capricious. In short, the book is a vehement piece of advocacy and not a work of objective scholarship. Perhaps the latter genre comes under the prohibition of things Greek.
There are all the same some fine things in Moltmann. One sees why, quite apart from his immense debt to Hegel, Christians of the Left have come under his influence. He criticizes with justice that “inner emigration” which has so often been a device for the self-deception of men living under injustice. He shows why a living Church must be the source of a “constant disturbance in human society, seeking as the latter does to stabilize itself into a ‘continuing city.’ ” But the work as a whole lacks the note of magnanimity that we find in the work of the great theologians, in our own day in the work of Barth and Rahner, of Congar and Cullmann. It is at the level set by such men that theological discussion today can profitably continue.
April 10, 1969