Both education and theology dead-end when either begins without a transcendent perspective.

It is a commonplace these days that public education is in crisis. The public media remind us almost daily that the schools are “failing at the task of educating our children.” Formerly the charge was that our educational system fails to provide learners with basic skills, such as the ability to function well in the areas of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Latterly, however, the charges are becoming more specific at issues more fundamental to society. It is now being admitted, however grudgingly, that the overpowering concern of public education at the planning level has been not the transmission of a culture, but social engineering. This means that the emphasis has been placed not upon the improvement of techniques for performing the task of education, but upon the overturn of both values and manners in society.

Can it be that theology is facing a crisis very similar to that which is gripping public education? Granted, there is no broad public that is able to bring theologians to account for the factors leading to the crisis; possibly this will come later. But the similarities between the two crises seem clear: theologians who call themselves by the elusive term “liberal” (e.g., Harvey Cox, Robert McAfee Brown, Schubert Ogden, José Miquez Bonino) have turned from the task of projecting the essentials of historic Christianity, and have turned their efforts in the direction of giving radical revision to the essentials themselves. While this attempt has taken many forms, there is a methodology common to all. It may be described as “Doing Theology from Beneath.”

The “doers of theology” show a remarkable nervousness in the face of social change. They seem at times to fear failure to catch the latest vogue in worldly thought more than failure to reflect the underlying realities of Christian faith. Actually, they are engineering a decided theological shift in that they abandon, whether overtly or covertly, the normative role of divine revelation for the theological enterprise. This stance is not new. A “newer hermeneutics” canonized by Rudolf Bultmann has captured the major areas of theological attention.

Impelled by an obsessive search for novelty, the “doing” of theology has not only embraced newer guidelines, but also a set of enchanting shibboleths. Among these are “change,” “meaning,” and “experience,” all employed to validate a thorough overturn of both methodology and content in theological formulation.

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Change has become almost an enchantment to the newer and “trendy” theologians. A series of non-Christian or sub-Christian thinkers have elevated this motif to an absolute. The concept of change or flux as a controlling concept dates to the times of Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 536–470 B.C.), and after varying fortunes in the history of thought, it has found adoption as a normative concept by many in theological construction.

In the wake of Darwin’s biological assumptions, and the articulation of the theme of change in Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, a “Theology of Process” has found acceptance as a major aid in the search for theological novelty. Teilhard de Chardin added elements of paleontology to the theme, and adorned it with woolly Christology and poetic mysticism. His view of the slow-but-sure evolving of universal perfectibility, of the so-called Cosmic Christ, and the concept of a future Omega Point, have served to give to the theological area a pseudo-Christian absolutizing of change.

A second and more fuzzy key word to theological doers is meaning. The term has gained both currency and respectability. Logical Positivism, Linguistic Analysis, and related philosophical forms have given the catchword additional respectability. In a strict sense, “meaning” is found in two major ways: either by contact with reality in experience, or through the symbolization of reality in verbal form.

What needs to be emphasized is that meaning is strongly dependent upon subjective factors. As such, it cannot legitimately be utilized by theological speculation as an objective criterion for truth, whether empirical or transcendent. It is precisely this latter employment that underlies the relativity (and the weakness) of much of “done” theology.

Again, the term experience shares a similar ambiguity that is ignored by those who attempt to make it a criterion for passing judgment upon the validity of revelation. To make a univocal use of either meaning or experience, making forms of human need determinative for theology, cannot but lead to shallow and erroneous conclusions. Here is a total inversion of historical criteria, from recognition of a source from above man, to a theology which begins from below.

It is small wonder that many forms of theological elaboration today, in spite of their surface disagreements, share in a radical (from radix-root) crisis. Like trendy education experts who perceive their task to be that of social engineering, the doers of theology venture upon a total inversion of both the source and the method by which they do their work.

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One needs only to read current literature dealing with the newest theologies (Robert McAfee Brown’s Theology in a Now Age; José Miquez Bonino’s Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Age) to realize that today’s theological scene is one of disarray. Indicative of this is the manner in which varieties of theology are “Theologies of …”

Here is a close parallel between the current crisis in public education and that of theology. The confusion in which education finds itself is due, in part, to the deviousness marking the objectives toward which social engineering is sought. Theological confusion issues, in part, from the fact that doing of theology is too frequently determined by the parochial wishes of those involved in formulation. This leads to a corresponding neglect of the historic criterion of divine revelation.

Both education and theology have fallen into the trap of granting criteriological ultimacy to concepts and objectives of questionable validity.

Faulty maxims for theology have been mentioned: the absolutizing of the motif of change, the univocal employment of such terms as meaning and experience, and above all, the canonization of the related concept of process. Modern man’s semantic fashions and subjective insights are utilized for theological engineering, which currently takes precedence over the ever-fresh searching of divine revelation. And as in education, failures in the basics are remedied by all sorts of electives, many of which are banal at best, and of the nature of “pop” at the worst.

If beginning with man is self-defeating, are not evangelicals under strong obligation to deal with utmost seriousness with revelation, and to apply a searching, believing scholarship to ongoing development in Christian theology?

Harold B. Kuhn is professor of philosophy of religion, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky.

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