A Man Who Could Organize Lebanon
The Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System
By Avery Dulles
Review Author: David Hartman
In divinity-school Bible courses, we innocents learned of a canon above the canon. It was called the historical-critical method. C.S. Lewis once advised a group of seminary students similarly trained to ponder the advantages of agnosticism: “Everywhere, except in theology, there has been a vigorous growth of skepticism about skepticism itself…. I do not wish to reduce the skeptical element in your minds. I am only suggesting that it need not be reserved exclusively for the New Testament and the Creeds. Try doubting something else…. For example, the dogmas of the historical-critical method.”
Being skeptical about New Testament criticism is not without its perils. Academic theologians, like other communities sharing a common font of pedantry, tend to speak their own lingua franca. This is not to say that academic theologians don’t disagree with one another — they do, often in terms that are contradictory and that would provoke fisticuffs in more robust arenas. Short fuses notwithstanding, most Protestant academics in this century have shared the common reference point of their critical training. Those who didn’t were either dismissed as “amateurs” (like Lewis, trained in the classics) or tarred with the dreaded “f” word — “fundamentalist.”
The focus has been different for Catholics. In this century, prior to Vatican II, neo-scholasticism provided the framework for clerical education. Avery Dulles was trained in this tradition. And while he is gently critical of it (Dulles is gentle in all his criticism), it has obviously served him well. He has mastered the methodology employed, most adroitly, by Aquinas: to absorb prodigious amounts of information; to assert systematically basic propositions of the Christian faith; to give due and respectful attention to the objections of the critics; to respond, with reason, to the criticism; and, in the doing, to establish the truth of the proposition. In Models of the Church and Models of Revelation, Dulles displayed his expertise in the methodology. In his latest work, The Craft of Theology, he establishes his mastery.
The first thing that must strike anyone who reads Dulles is the sheer range of his knowledge. There is not a major theological movement since the High Middle Ages with which he is not conversant. For that matter, there aren’t many minor ones, either. Do you know what Gallicanism is? And what exactly was the shelf life of Thomas Altizer’s goofy “death of God” theology? Dulles knows. The second thing that must strike any reader is his extraordinary organizational capacity. He sees relationships and connections that, once integrated, make perfect systematic sense. The man could organize Lebanon. And the third — most defining — thing is his resolute commitment to Catholic orthodoxy. This is not to say that Dulles is not committed to respectfully examining the truth claims of other religions — he has labored in the vineyard of ecumenism for over 40 years. But he also recognizes that in matters of faith, some things are simply not negotiable: “Christians, since they believe in the three-personed God and in Jesus Christ as the incarnation of the second divine person, will not be content to do theology as though the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were not true…. No one could admit the truth of the Trinity or the Incarnation (with the meaning these doctrines have for Christians) without being converted to Christianity.”
His orthodoxy is rooted in his conviction, affirmed through centuries of tradition, that theology must always be in the service of the Church. This is not a discipline for outriders — it must, for its own inherent integrity, be answerable to the community of faith. But though theology finds its raison d’être within the context of the Church, space must also be given to questing minds seeking to deepen our knowledge of God. This, then, is the creative tension in the theological labor: It must be prepared to follow the truth, wherever it leads, but it must not be destructive of the community it serves and by whose existence the theological enterprise is justified. Sometimes the tension is over-balanced in one direction or the other. After Aquinas’s death, many of his teachings were condemned by the Bishop of Paris and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and many of his disciples persecuted. On the other hand, it is hard to see how Matthew Fox’s theology, which places covens of witches on the same moral plateau as the community of the faithful, serves the pastoral needs of the Church in any serious sense. Dulles maintains the ancient, received wisdom that the vocations of scholars and bishops are interdependent — the health of the Church requires that both jobs be done, and be done faithfully and well.
While the Church cannot sacrifice herself on the altar of the Zeitgeist, she must observe the signs of the times. Karl Barth said clergy should prepare their sermons with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. That may be extreme — it is hard to equate something that serves the double purpose of wrapping fish with the revealed word of God. Nonetheless, the Church can never be indifferent to the present. Dulles holds, with many others, that we are entering a postmodern era — that the assumptions of modernity, arising out of the optimistic and skeptical spirit of the Enlightenment, have simply proved inadequate in addressing the deepest needs and aspirations of mankind. In terms of theology, this means we are entering a new era as well. Dulles calls this new era “postcritical,” to distinguish it from the pre-critical theology that prevailed before the Enlightenment, and the critical work that has been the hallmark of modernity. In postcritical theology, conversion is the essential precursor: It “begins with a presupposition…in favor of faith.” But postcritical theology also takes the stringent demands of the empirical sciences very seriously.
The parameters of postcritical theology require new perspectives in engaging those things that must, of necessity, affect or impinge upon the faith. This means both a renewed (but learned) commitment to the three pillars of Catholic theology — Scripture, tradition, and Magisterium — as well as engagement with secular philosophy and the empirical sciences. Dulles, perhaps because of his own essential decency and sense of fair play, believes that all things that engage the life of the faithful — which, in the broadest sense, is All Things — require respectful attention. In this he is much like Pope John Paul II, who Dulles says has encouraged “contemporary theologians to appropriate insights from the scientific methodology and from the philosophy of science.” Of course, respectful attention is not the same thing as wedlock: The Church must be mindful of her vocation to be the Church. As a wit has noted, if the Church marries herself to the scientific findings of any age, she will find herself a widow in the next.
A reporter once asked Chou Enlai what he thought of the French Revolution. “It is a little too early to judge,” he answered. The long view is a gift given to people with ancient cultural memories. It is part of the genius of Catholicism. This is why Dulles can be seen as a “splendid agnostic.” He is not agnostic about the faith — far from it. But if agnosticism requires both skepticism and a modicum of knowledge about the thing one is being skeptical about, Dulles is decidedly agnostic about the pretensions that this — or any other — age has to the perdurability of its products. He is hopeful that, in the postcritical era, Catholic theology will reflect the seasoning appropriate to her antiquity, as well as the relevance appropriate to the given age in which she happens to abide, without surrendering her vocation to be both the repository and the expositor of God’s revealed truth.
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