He was a fellow minister of like mind with me and it was about five years ago when he said it: “How have so many things slipped so far so fast?” And now, five years later, a young college chaplain—age thirty-two to be exact—has said to me: “I must be getting old. I cannot imagine what has happened to the students in the last five years. They have really gone wild.”

So what has happened and how did it happen?

Everybody knows there has been a profound theological shift in our generation. What and How? Increasingly I have come to believe that the real starting place for modern theology is found in Schleiermacher; in fact, a close reading of Schleiermacher can give the clue to almost everything that has happened since. It is an oversimplification but a sound one to say that his departure from sharp doctrinal definition and the authority of the written Word, coupled with his emphasis on individualism and especially the “feeling” of the individual as authority in religion, set all kinds of things in motion. In his case and in his time, “feeling” in religion served to point out and perhaps support orthodoxy; what has followed in his train, however, has held on to individual “feeling” but somewhere mislaid the orthodoxy.

Kierkegaard was also highly individualistic in his emphasis. He fought all his life against the reasonings of Hegel (and there might be good reasons for fighting Hegel); he attacked the organized church and especially the state church (which he called Christendom); and always, if one may simplify Kierkegaard, he underlined the existential response in faith of the individual in his awareness of God.

As everyone knows, Barth drew on Kierkegaard and certainly on Schleiermacher. Even with his great contributions of the Word, the Living Word, the responses of faith, and even with such strong points of orthodoxy as his view of the radical nature of sin and acceptance of canonical Scripture and very evident elevation of Christ, still, in the last analysis, for Barth a man’s response is only under an existential authority; the written Word of Scripture and the definitions of theology give no absolutes in his system. This open-endedness is illustrated by Barth’s refusal to be called a Barthian. He has always insisted on the incompleteness of his system in view of what the total situation might bring next year or even next week.

Reinhold Niebuhr brought this kind of theology to life in ethical practice. Man-made institutions are limited because they are man-made, and therefore democracy is under judgment, as is Communism. A good case can certainly be made for this sort of thing, and Niebuhr made it. Then came the leap. The Church is also man-made, and the Scriptures are a guide only relatively, because they are the words of men conditioned by the cultures and also by men’s ignorance. Along with Schleiermacher and Barth, Niebuhr readily accepted much of the Scriptures as legend or mythos or confusion about the cosmos.

In this tradition, it followed by logical necessity that Bultmann was enabled to erect and sustain the demythologizing process; thus much of the Gospels and also much else was subjected to the most radical criticism. The authority of “It stands written” was undermined for the sake of the language and thought-modes of the twentieth century. At last men had reached maturity! They were no longer under the judgment of the Bible; the Bible was under the judgment of men. God speaks through the Scriptures, and man responds in obedience only according to his personal existential situation.

All kinds of lesser lights appeared. There was John A. T. Robinson with Honest to God, and Joseph Fletcher with Situation Ethics. And before long Thomas Altizer, William Hamilton, and others went past the Scriptures and shot God down. So now there is a theology where God himself is dead, and an ethic where no rules still hold.

It is hard to know to what extent theology in the last century has affected disciplines and to what extent it has been affected by them. Whatever the answer, everything seems to be “up for grabs” in every discipline. What are the canons of modern art? Who can say what constitutes proper harmony or dissonance in modern music? The Constitution is always a matter of interpretation, frequently subjected to the pressures of the moment. Often laws are not only conditioned by but also undermined by equity. In education, Deweyism has made everyone wary of absolutes and of rules. At this point no self-respecting institution can keep from endless tampering with its curriculum. In ethics and social action there are no fixed points. Revolutions understand how to destroy, but they are no longer like the American Revolution, for they lack principles for rebuilding after the revolution is over. No one can censor movies or plays or books, because to censor one must have a definition of obscenity, and even the Supreme Court cannot, apparently, define that one word. To get back to religion, how can anyone, even a bishop, be condemned for heresy? A man has to be a heretic against a doctrine or a body of doctrine, and who will define that? Meanwhile, the argument is that action must be based on the love of God; but the word “love” in popular understanding runs the gamut from Hugh Heffner to Fletcher and on to Tillich. (Significantly, large masses of Christians recognize Heffner’s name better than Tillich’s!) And so things slip.

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We have gone too far, and even Harvey Cox of Harvard is willing to say so (Time, March 15, 1968, page 53). Allowing for the fact that Time does not always quote a man at his best, and that some of what they quote from Cox sounds sophomoric, we have at least these words: “The world is important but not ultimately so”; “The recent focus of theology has been on doubt, unbelief, or on the church’s mission to the world.… What has been missing is the joy of serving”; or again, “Once you transform everything into a mission for social action and lose the intrinsic joy of the spirit of worship, you are in danger in losing both.”

This begins to sound better. The Puritans used to say: “Truth is toward action.” Right! It is about time now to talk about the Truth.

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