This issue of Let’s Talk features essays by seminarians who responded to the invitation to imagine the church and the world they will be serving in the years to come. This is a difficult question to put to students who are immersed in what’s happening now — like, what’s on the next test. Asked to think ahead students, like the rest of us, can only project into the coming years our current concerns and interests. There’s no telling which of these current concerns and interests will turn out to be mere fads.
Asked to think ahead students, like the rest of us, can only project into the coming years our current concerns and interests. There’s no telling which of these current concerns and interests will turn out to be mere fads.
The fads when I was a seminarian in the mid-1960s were the “death of God” and “the secular city” movements. Harvey Cox was extolling the secular city when I started seminary and celebrating “the feast of fools” the year after I graduated. These movements created a momentary stir and garnered media attention but were really blips between two weightier movements: the existentialist theology of the post-World War II years (Kierkegaard revisited, Barth, Bultmann and Tillich) and then the change from the personal to the historical in the “theology of hope” (Moltmann) and “revelation as history” (Pannenberg) after 1965. This new theology from Germany (weren’t all the theological movements from Germany?) coincided with the social and political revolutions of the late 1960s and provided a theological framework for grappling with these revolutions.
A Decade of Change and Upheaval
I was a student during the whole of the 1960s (college 1961-65; seminary 1965-69), and I lived through radical changes in that period. When I started college in upstate New York men and women lived in separate dorms, men wore jackets and ties and women wore dresses or skirts to dinner, and curfew was enforced. We were a pretty sedate bunch of men (yes, men) when I started seminary in Maywood. When I reached my last year in seminary in Hyde Park, draft dodgers were enrolled as seminarians, students were smoking pot in their apartments, and many were hooking up (as they say now) in various sexual combinations.
I came of age at the beginning of the civil rights era. In 1963 I worked in a summer Bible camp in the inner city Lutheran parishes of Camden, New Jersey. Among other activities, we took black city kids to white suburbs and integrated swimming pools. Later, in Chicago, I joined a march organized by a young seminarian named Jesse Jackson behind Martin Luther King, Jr. through Marquette Park. In my first call after ordination, in South Bend, Indiana in the fall of 1969, my first church council meeting was devoted to considering how we would respond if the Black Panthers invaded our Sunday worship to read the Black Manifesto. Since this Swedish congregation was located typically two blocks off the main drag we were never visited. But around the country there were “long hot summers.” It was difficult to translate civil and political equality into social and economic equality.
At the same time the Vietnam War was going on. On my internship in 1967-68 in Weaver Chapel at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio I presided at a service at which several students burned draft cards. A few miles away at Antioch College in Yellow Springs students were burning their bras and ripping their jeans and were generally wearing little or nothing (unless draped in the American flag before they burned it). But a few years later at Kent State University several students would be shot dead in an antiwar protest. I joined the Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam in two grand marches to Arlington National Cemetery behind Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967 and 1968 and heard some of the most riveting sermons I have ever heard in the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church from the likes of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Pastor Richard John Neuhaus, and, yes, from Dr. King. The war was waged on and came to an inglorious end.
The liturgical movement also gained a full head of steam during the 1960s and was connecting with the movements for peace and justice and the ecumenism also spawned by these movements. The Liturgical Conference brought all three movements together in the National Liturgical Weeks that drew tens of thousands of participants in the late 1960s. In our local assemblies we experienced some remarkable changes in styles of liturgical celebration as current concerns were voiced in prayers uttered in current English speech or sung to contemporary musical settings in contemporary buildings.
Speaking of contemporary church buildings, Joseph Sittler pondered the relationship between faith and form while also raising environmental concerns related to “the care of the earth” (1964). This was after addressing the New Delhi Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1961, at which he proposed a Christology cosmic enough in scope to meet the challenges of the nuclear age.
The Continuing Search for Theological Adequacy
That was then. This is now. And as I see it many of the movements begun in the 1960s have continued over the forty-some years in which I have served in the Church’s ordained ministry, but seem now to be floundering. African-Americans have now held the highest political positions in our country, including the presidency, but social and economic disparities remain, and are especially evident in school test scores. Passions over these disparities have cooled, but perhaps only out of weariness. Mainline Protestant denominations like the ELCA continue to demonstrate a public multiculturalism, but it is more staged than something that wells up genuinely from the ranks of congregations composed of people of color or language other than English.
We are still entangled in long-lasting wars in faraway places that don’t seem to have definable objectives or satisfactory exit strategies, but no moral theology is addressing the reality of global terrorism. The wars will end not with a bang, but with a whimper. Terrorism will continue to raise its ugly head in unsuspecting places. A president who seems to be a neo-Niebuhrian might inspire theologians to apply Reinhold Niebuhr’s realism to the reality of living with global terrorism.
The sexual revolution has so run its course that by now every possible combination of sexual relationship and family life has been or is in the process of being realized and the Churches are at a loss to provide a compelling moral theology of human sexuality. We have also de-gendered God in our worship materials so that the specificities of the Trinity are hard to name. Will a celibate Polish Catholic pope’s “theology of the body” provide the only large vision that puts together human sexuality and the inner life and outer work of the Triune God?
Environmental concerns, especially global warming, have attracted so much attention that even the Missouri Synod has produced a position paper on it. People are getting on board, but only if it doesn’t really adversely affect their lifestyle. I don’t see too many people sitting around in their sweaters because the thermostats have been turned down in homes, workplaces, and churches. Are we lacking the resources of an ascetical theology to apply to the need for lifestyle changes in the face of environmental threat?
Yes, we seem to be floundering.
What great theological system arches over all our current ecclesiastical works and social ways? The theology of hope was brought to bear on the social revolutions of the 1960s. What are the Germans thinking about these days?
If the writings of the German pope provide a clue, maybe we are thinking that we are stuck and need to get unstuck. Benedict XVI seems to be encouraging Catholics (and Christians generally) to get back to basics by discerning who we are called to be and articulating our theological and ecclesiastical identity. The point of coming to terms with our identity is to hone a message that speaks to the world as well as the church. Our theological enterprise should be not just retrieving what is useful from the great tradition but practicing what we might say, out of that tradition, to a world in pieces, all coherence gone. In other words, we need to take stock and reevaluate before we can press on with whatever we are called to do in the coming years.
What great theological system arches over all our current ecclesiastical works and social ways?
Taking stock of who we are in the world in which we live might result in reevaluating some of the verities that have guided us over the last forty years. At any rate, that’s what I expect the new generation of pastors and theologians to do. Seminarians should cluster around teachers who are raising questions. As Thomas Aquinas demonstrated long ago, the highest theology begins by asking the most probing questions and then drawing on all the resources of faith and reason to come up with satisfying answers.