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The Crisis of Modern Theology (a historical overview)

In Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, Culture, Education, Faith, God, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Society, Spirituality, Theology, Thoughts, Tradition on August 13, 2007 at 10:12

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, broadly comprehending the “Rationalist” and “Liberal Revolutionary” periods, the various Christian groups, particularly the Catholic Church, were subjected to successive shocks that many feared (or hoped) would be fatal. In these 2 centuries, the 2,000-year-old faith of the intelligentsia weakened considerably, perhaps irreversibly; a strong anti-Christian ideological movement arose across Christendom’s ancient heartland; and there emerged a deep social prejudice against Christian belief and historyThe Christian groups were also forced to deal with major changes in the political landscape which left them reeling, the vanguards of each new political pattern eager to exercise coercive control over the Church and ready to destroy her when she resisted.

Nor was this a mere “hostile takeover” of society, for it often involved a direct attack on the Christian groups and organizations that once constituted the very sinews of Western society.  In many places the groups’ cultural patterns were disrupted, and their intelligentsias shattered, with the destruction or takeover of their organizations and schools. In the Apostolic Church, the abolition in the 18th century of the Jesuit order, peopled with the most intelligent, loyal, and intellectually daring members of the clergy, was especially devastating. Seminaries went into survival-mode, producing religious technicians and soldiers but not theological scientists, ready to apply and defend the content of faith but unable to deepen it.

It was not all intellectual darkness, however; and Thomism, for one, retained its progressivist stance through the dark ages of the aufklarung, being open to at least endogenous speculation. In orthodox Catholicism, debate still existed, between the rigorists and tutiorists who adopted an almost Jansenist moralism, and the casuists and probabilists (led by St. Alphonsus of Liguori) who championed greater latitude for conscience; between Ultramontanes who stressed Papal authority and the neo-Gallicans who championed the autonomy of the national churches; and between the Liberal Catholics (the early champions of Ultramontanism) who sought to reconcile the Church and political liberalism, and the conservatives who strove the reverse the political changes. Unfortunately, as the sneers of the philosophes became the bullets of the fussilards, the former vitality and variety of Latin (“Medieval”) and Tridentine thought became submerged in a fortress mentality that demanded uniformity, and not merely fidelity, in speculative thought; and Thomism itself became a kind of fundamentalism, as the apparent hostility of the new philosophies and ideologies forced its practitioners to take a defensive pose, viewing Thomism as the only source of valid philosophical insight in an increasingly error-filled world.

The members of the Church and the denominations thus raised three different responses to the new ideological order. The first was Modernism. The Modernists sought to adjust the Church to the new realities by conforming her teachings and culture to the dominant perspectives of the day, even to the extent of setting aside long-held beliefs and practices that were deemed incredible and irrelevant by the spirit of the age. Schleiermacher and Renan, for instance, (followed in the twentieth century by Bultmann and Schweitzer), sought to “de-mythologize” Christianity by de-emphasizing its belief in miracles, and more importantly, by replacing assent to the objective truth-content of its tradition with a vaguer embrace of the subjective spiritual value of its teachings.

The less extreme Modernists sought to replace the ancient statements of Christian dogma with new and often complicated and more abstract formulations that reflected the referential suppositions of contemporary thought, effectively making Christianity both easier to believe and harder to understand. Like the extremists, however, they tried to change the ultimate allegiance of Christian thought, sundering it from Apostolic Tradition and surrendering it to the contemporary philosophers; though the watered-down faith could not command the belief of the Christian masses, many of whom abandoned their denominations in practice if not in name. Often, to fill the resulting vacuum, the denominations stressed the social activist dimension of the Christian mission at the expense of its other aspects, elevating liberalist Justice and modern Reason from counselors to masters of the ancient Faith. Dogmatic Protestantism collapsed in the mainline Protestant communities; in Anglicanism, a theologically modernist and socially liberalist “broad Church” faction took center stage in a disheartened denomination ruled by an indifferent State.

Giving the second response, the Fundamentalists answered the contemporary ideological challenge by rallying to the standard of tradition and raising barriers to the entry of non-Christian thought. Often, seeing how rational speculation raised the forces that threatened to destroy the ancient Faith, they adopted a thoroughgoing fideism that expelled Reason and listened only to Faith, as did the Pietists and the Quietists. Suspicious of the philosophical reflections of the present, Fundamentalist piety came to depend almost solely on the insights of the past; and denied the explorations of the intellect, Fundamentalist faith especially in Non-conformist Protestantism shifted its foundation from thought to emotion, as Fundamentalist assent marrying the Pentecostalist emphasis on the emotional experience of primary conversion. The theological study of General Revelation (nature’s reflection of God as discovered by reason, now increasingly seen as fallible and flawed) declined, as Special Revelation (especially in Scripture) became the sole source of the Christian thought: Protestant Fundamentalists limited Christian theology to the exegesis of Scripture, while Catholic “traditionalists” (to be distinguished from orthodox traditionalists who did not deny the validity of reason) such as the Vicomte de Bonald proclaimed that all knowledge came from tradition alone.

Within the denominations, therefore, the Fundamentalists fought the Modernists for the soul of their religion: Protestant Non-Conformists battled the liberalism of the mainline Protestant theologians; John Wesley (aided by his brother Charles, a master of Christian music) stirred Methodist revivalism; and within Anglicanism, a “Low Church” movement, influenced by Methodism and stressing individual salvation (later followed by a “High Church” movement that sought a return to historical Christian practice), rose to challenge the rationalists of the “Broad Church” with their stress on social activism. The Fundamentalists thus saved the content of traditional faith, but they lost the insights of new thought; and speaking solely in terms of received faith, they lost the ears of the new non-believing intelligentsia: for their sole common ground would have been the philosophical study of nature, but Fundamentalist fideism now studied only the Bible (and, in Catholic variants, tradition), which the rationalists dismissed as beneath belief.

Against these two currents the adherents of the third approach, which I call dynamic traditionalism, loyal to faith, respecting reason, struggled valiantly as against a raging tide. Its triumphs were manifold: The rise of Neo-Orthodoxy and its “enlightened fundamentalism” in Barth and Brunner raised Protestant theology to a level it had not seen since the Protestant Scholasticism of Der Groot and Pufendorf; while in the Apostolic Church, the revival of Thomism and the Reformation of Pope Leo XIII led to the most vibrant period of Catholic thought since the heady days of Spanish Scholasticism (when Suarez, Vittoria, Molina, and a whole cloud of thinkers had speculated, debated, and created the ideological matrix that would later define European liberalism). Whether they proposed new approaches to life and thought as did Newman, Bergson, Maritain, and Lonergan, or, like De Lubac and Congar, they sought an affirmation of Christian roots (or ressourcement), the new theologians manifested a confident approach to the world that both sought its valid insights and proclaimed its incompleteness without Christ; and their different systems–to all of which Gilson’s label of ‘Christian humanism’ could well apply–would be foundations of Christian social action, which, reaching its zenith in the early Postwar West, has continued uninterrupted since the days of Manning and Rerum Novarum.

Nonetheless, this was a mere shadow of what dynamic traditionalism could have been. In the Latin centuries, especially in the 13th, Christian thinkers could claim that all knowledge, however specialized in its parts, was an integrated whole centered on God as its source and destiny; and St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, St. Bonaventure, and Roger Bacon could attempt systems of integration that saw no clash between science and faith. It was different now. Lonergan’s insistence that theology must shift from objectivity to “interiority” is symptomatic of the change; for Christian theology was now relegated in scope to internal experience, and was increasingly limited in effect to private life. Likewise, the new fields of secular thought insisted on their independence, an act nowhere more damaging than in economics, whose divorce from morals allowed its thinkers to see the suffering of the poor as the inevitable workings of “objective”, non-moral economic “laws”. Christian thinkers were thus left outside the City of Man to nibble at the edges of thought and otherwise gnash their teeth; and if at times they entered its gates, as with the rise of Christian democracy under the “Carolingians” Adenauer, De Gasperi, Guardini, De Gaulle, and Schuman, they could not change the fact that Christianity now dwelt where it had begun–outside the walls, a scandal and madness, alongside the Crucified Lord.

*From an unpublished history

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