Modern theology gains its penetration and wide appeal by relying on the technique of ambiguity

A leading Russian Orthodox scholar has often said of one of the most celebrated and most difficult to understand of modern theologians: “Either what he is saying is true, but in that case it is trivial, or else it is false.” Ambiguity is not found only on the modern stage; it is also well represented in much “modern” theology. In such theology, as on the stage, the ambiguity is sometimes deliberate, sometimes unconscious. In theology, it is partially technique, a way of securing attention for theological opinions in an intellectual market where, as in bookstores after Christmas, we find “all theology 50 per cent off.” But it is at the same time also a symptom of a complex of problems in the modern intellectual climate. Both as a technique and as a symptom, it is self-aggravating. Every successful use means that the next time a heavier dose will be required.

In several currently popular schools of theology, such as the “new theology” of J. A. T. Robinson, the “religionless Christianity” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or the “death-of-God theology” of Altizer et al., this ambiguity is not incidental but central. Modern theology depends on it both for its penetrating impact and for its wide appeal. Yet ambiguity is also deadly, and is in itself enough to ensure that none of these schools or fashions will ever be able to produce a “new Reformation” or renew the modern mind. As Georges Florovsky so aptly pointed out in lectures delivered at Harvard University last year, this ambiguity is itself ambivalent: is it what the new theologies mean that is in doubt, or whether they mean anything?

“Religionless Christianity,” “death of God,” and similar theologies have a fascination that the scholastic monologues of typical academic theology cannot match. Yet one cannot help feeling that it is not the fascination of the mysterium tremendum, of the mystery and majesty of the vision of God, but rather the perilous attraction of the brink of the abyss, or of the glittering eyes of the snake. Men touch, and claim to handle and even to dismantle, the highest things in time and eternity. This is fascinating and frightening, or both at once; but if indeed they succeed in this undertaking, then those things were neither high nor eternal, and the new theologians are not dragon-slayers but canary-fanciers. New theologies depend for their viability on being sufficiently ambiguous to pass for both piety and blasphemy. To cry, “God is dead!,” as Thomas J. J. Altizer does, catches attention precisely because it is fraught with blasphemy and yet somehow claims to be said on behalf of God. Both the blasphemy and Altizer would be insignificant if God were not really there.

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Altizer of course recognizes that if he were fully convincing, his outbursts would no longer be marketable; and this is why he makes the fundamentally illogical statement, “God is dead,” instead of the more rational but quite colorless one, “There is no God.” Altizer, however, is somewhat extreme and thus atypical among modern theologians, for there seems to be no satisfactory way to put a good, orthodox, conventional face on what he is saying. He lacks an adequate depth to his ambiguity, and in time his ideas will probably be expelled from the growing corpus of new theology. Others, such as Britain’s Bishop Robinson and America’s Harvey E. Cox, always speak and write with loopholes, so that a well-intentioned or muddleheaded reader can always think of them as eccentric but essentially Christian, and call them “not so far off the track, if they mean what I think they do.”

This oscillation between shrill blasphemy and platitudinous conventionality is extremely frustrating to the orthodox theologian who tries to examine them fairly—witness the painstaking efforts of Professor Eric Mascall of London to be fair to Robinson and Paul van Buren in The Secularization of Christianity (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1965). Like Ingmar Bergman films, the new theologies use and abuse powerful symbols and rouse ancient memories, playing on all the heights and depths of human experience and imagination, and thus are compelling and fascinating. The similarity goes further: Ingmar Bergman uses Christian symbols to say essentially nothing, and thus really says that Christian symbols mean nothing. A movie director is under no obligation to produce sound doctrine, but a theologian is—or used to be.

This ambiguity is evidently deliberate, at least to some extent. It is too protracted, and at times too farfetched, to permit one to accept Bishop Robinson’s disclaimer that it is just “thinking out loud.” Critics like Walter Kaufmann and Alasdair MacIntyre, both atheists, accuse the new theologians of dishonestly cloaking atheist ideas in Christian expressions, and acidly suggest that they do this because there are many professorships of theology but few of atheism. Such criticism may be unfair, but it cannot be refuted in a climate of frustrating imprecisions and apparently premeditated ambiguity. At the very least we are entitled to complain with Samuel Sandmel of “The Evasions of Modern Theology” (The American Scholar, Summer, 1961). In short, modern theology often does not read like real theology at all. The authors often seem to have assumed the kind of pose a Scientific American staff writer might assume if he were to try to-write an account of rocket research today as though it had been written as science-fiction prophecy in 1875. Either he would reveal that he was not really the man he impersonated by obviously knowing too much, or he would have to falsify some things so as not to give himself away. Somehow it would be sure to ring false. So, too, there is something not quite right about these new theologies; it is as if their proponents are keeping something back—or putting something on.

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Canon J. B. Phillips’s little book Your God Is Too Small deals with problems that beset the man who has an inadequate idea of who God is and of what he can do. Phillips was writing for laymen, but he could have directed his title judgment at modern theologians. Much of the malady of modern theology is a problem of scale, or of proportion, or of position—like looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Forty-odd years ago, in The Principle of Authority, P. T. Forsyth warned that much nonsense was coming about because men were looking at the God-man relationship from the wrong perspective, e.g., starting with a consideration of man’s rights. (Or, as a Bultmannite or Robinsonian might say, “Modern man simply cannot conceive.…”) His warning has gone unheeded, and so today J. B. Phillips’s expression would serve as a good title for a literary history of mid-twentieth-century Protestant theology.

Phillips has pointed out that often inability to believe in God is the result of a completely false idea of God—one that does not accord at all with the view of the Bible or of historic Christian thought. In an age when the presentation of Christian doctrine has been replaced to a great extent by platitudes from both the pulpit and the political podium, when churchmen can take comfort in such nebulosities as songs about “Someone in the Great Somewhere,” it is not surprising that laymen often lack even an intimation of the majestic conception of God found in traditional Christian teaching and have not the faintest inkling of how well the great Fathers, Doctors, and Reformers stand the test of time and overshadow their contemporary detractors.

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Denis de Rougemont remarked, in his piquant book The Devil’s Share, that the penalty for not knowing the history of Christian theology is to have to make the same mistakes all over again. This is indeed happening in theology on the lay level, where we can observe a recrudescence of all the second- and third-century heresies amid wondering shouts of “How new! How brilliant! How relevant!” But why do the professional theologians, who should know better, come in for De Rougemont’s penalty? It is not always easy to conclude, as Georges Florovsky does, that they too are simply ignorant of the grand dimensions of Christian thought—not that they have never been exposed to them, but that they have exhibited toward them that invincible ignorance with which the Church of Rome was wont, in more controversial days, to charge Protestants. With examples at hand of how each of the “new” theologians mentioned above has distorted, sometimes consciously, a facet of Christian teaching as a necessary step to his own restatement of it, ignorance would be the most charitable explanation one could suggest, although ignorance too is culpable in a man’s specialty in which he claims authority to teach.

Paul van Buren is the most courageous of these radicals; he does not seek to veil his questionable and misleading statements of Christian doctrine by quoting them from others, as Harvey Cox does, or by merely saying that Christianity “almost teaches” them (whatever that may mean), as John Robinson does. Even so, the misstatements of all these men, particularly in works intended for popular consumption, are often so crass as to point us back to the question of basic honesty raised by Kaufmann and MacIntyre.

Thus, in ridiculing the creed of the Council of Chalcedon in Honest To God, Robinson distorts it in a way that will not be recognized by the average reader unfamiliar with the text and history of that fifth-century document, but that can only produce embarrassment and suspicion in the reader who knows something about the magnificent vision of God held by the fourth- and fifth-century Fathers.

A great deal of modern theology suffers chronically from such a shriveled view of God (e.g., the volumes of idiotic but perfectly serious discussion on whether modern science permits God to produce a virgin birth) that it hardly deserves to be called theology but would be better suited by some such term as anthroposophistry. Such a designation could even be applied to the monumental work of Paul Tillich (and probably would have received a tolerant and approving smile from that universally educated giant), and it is certainly appropriate for his lesser and more banal imitators. The charge that it implies is warranted and, if proved, would deprive much of what is called “new theology” of the right to be recognized as a voice in any Christian dialogue. Since few Christians have the courage to point this out, the observation has come from atheists, or from a Jew like Samuel Sandmel, who seems to feel somewhat cheated at discovering that the “Christian” theologians are not firm enough for him to challenge them.

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Leaving other allegations aside, it seems abundantly clear that a whole generation of “theologians” not only have no vision of God themselves but also are unaware of the vision others in the history of the New Testament people have had. Their theologies lack substance, and they try to make up for it by providing a constant series of sensations. In this, at least until they have exhausted the range of possible stimuli, they are successful.

A sidelight on the smallness of “new” theology may come from another angle. Why is so much of it so shallow, even though, following Tillich, it is fascinated by the idea of depth. A comparison with Greek drama provides a clue. Aeschylus and Sophocles were concerned with the dread underworld divinities, the powers of the earth, blood, and death; and their Olympian deities by contrast shine in a luminous glory. Euripides, only a few years their junior, trivialized the forces of evil, and his Olympians are feeble wraiths—or, as the Christian classical scholar Nebel puts it, “his heavens are an empty facade, with only blackness behind the empty windows.” Even the severest orthodox critic of the late Paul Tillich must recognize the grandeur, intensity, and depth of his thought. Tillich throughout his life was always sensitive to the personal, mysterious, and superhuman nature of the power of evil, and this gave to his vision at least an Aeschylean, if not a Christian, sweep. Cox, by contrast, considers the very idea of the demonic the opposite of New Testament faith (The Secular City, Macmillan, 1965, p. 154), and Robinson would emasculate all evil to “the benign indifference of the universe,” interpreted by love (Honest to God, S.C.M. Press, 1963, p. 129 et passim). Is it an accident, then, that these men do not share, like Tillich, in the breadth of an Augustine or the intensity of an Aeschylus, but only reproduce, in the modes of the twentieth century and in the mythical conventions of a bloodless, post-Christian, academic Protestantism, the tired trivialities of a Euripides, too pale even to reproach the gods for forsaking man?

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Despite the validity of the observation that this whole school of theology is simply too small, it will remain fascinating, for it has the fascination of any attempt by the small to handle—or manhandle—what is great. There is in all of us enough of the desire of Faust—or Jean-Paul Sartre—to be God that we will continue to be intrigued, though perhaps with a trace of horror, by such attempts. And, as long as these attempts are made by man furnished with all the accomplishments of the human intellect, and with at least a fragmentary record of wrestlings with God, they will continue to show flashes of insight and of the sharply valid criticisms of more complacent traditionalists. Perhaps we can indeed hope that the fate of these new theologies will finally be that of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, who wanted to be “a part of that power, which always wills evil, and always causes good.”

In trying to decide what to do with the schools of thought and the books produced by the new theologians, one is led to the suggestion made by some wag on resolving urban traffic jams. Wait, he said, until all the highways are fully congested, and no automobile can move, and then plaster over all the cars with a second layer of highway and begin again. Attractive though it is to one who has painstakingly shared the analysis of Mascall or the frustration of Sandmel, such a suggestion is more easily applied to cars than to men. Yet beyond a certain point, it really is necessary to plaster over some of these movements, by recognizing that they are indeed no longer theology at all and simply ignoring them, living, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, as if there were no theology. Above all we should recognize that this smallness of theology is a hunger phenomenon, and that the hunger results from the scarcity of the Word of God and from the lack of the vision of God. To feed these men themselves may not be possible, because they have largely rejected fact and chosen fancy and fantasy in theology. But we must not be led by them into neglecting the people they are not feeding the truth. The loss of the vision of God, the pitiable smallness of what passes for theology today, must be counteracted by those of us who hold the Word of God, who are the legitimate heirs of the prophets, apostles, and martyrs. We must counteract this inadequacy in the vision of God with a theology not merely accurate in detail but also adequate in scope, soundly based biblically, and recapturing some of the magnificence of historic Christian thought. If these poor men had caught but a glimpse of the splendor of the Christian vision of God, they might never have lost the substance of its faith. To the analysis of J. B. Phillips, so painfully applicable to “new” theology, “Your God is too small,” there is added, inevitably, the solemn sentence, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).

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