We will now discuss theologians and theologies of the modern era that have had great significance to me. This review will not necessarily be systematic. Over the years, as various books came to my attention while perusing libraries, bookstores, and used book stores, I was introduced to new ideas. I don’t claim that I discovered these books, ideas, or experiences by the leading of God, whatever that means. Nor do I deny it. I recognize that we tend to read and discuss those things that are consistent with the views we hold, whether inherited or developed with experience and learning, or a mixture of each (which is most likely true of each of us.. I believe that, despite differences, those which have meaning to me are consistent in that they generally reject a dualism of spirit and matter, embracing instead the divine as revealed in the marvelous mystery and miracle of humankind and nature. I would not claim a mere pantheism, but neither do I believe that the divine suspends the laws of nature to satisfy a whim or to grant a prayer. Whatever one may say about “God,” God is much more.
Throughout this blog, I have attempted to give a fairly balanced view of theology in the various periods. However, I am having difficulty in organizing theology in the modern era. For example, Karl Barth is considered by many to be the greatest theologian since Augustine. His voluminous Church Dogmatics is considered to be a monumental work examining the entire body of Christian dogma for logical coherence, and restating it in contemporary terms. He is considered by many to be the pastors’ greatest resource.
But, I have no interest in dogmatics. The problem with a literal interpretation of the Bible is that it must begin with one of two premises: either that all of it is equally God-inspired, or that all of it came directly from the revelation of God through the hand of the original scribe. With either assumption, the task of the Christian, then, is to put all of those parts together to reveal Truth, “rightly understood,” in the context of the whole. As a result, many Christians attempt to put the four Gospels of the New Testament together into a meaningful whole, such as a picture puzzle. If one examines those gospels carefully, each is distinctive in its own way, and at least parts of any one of them conflicts with at least parts of each other of them.
The difficulty is that many of the reports in the gospels of Jesus’ life are contradictory from one book to another, and sometimes inconsistent with been the book, itself. Likewise, many concepts, such as” blood of the lamb,” may have been originally intended as metaphor, but when treated literally, as fact, those statements may lose both the author’s original intent, whatever that may have been, as well as any meaning for the reader today. Moreover, many of the stories, such as Joshua’s successful petition that daylight of a single day be doubled so that the Israelites could slaughter “the enemy,” if taken literally, would have had great consequences of scientific significance inconsistent with the story.
When growing up and as a young adult, when I expressed difficulty with some church doctrine that seemed inconsistent with my life experience, learning, logic, or intuition, I was often met with objections by a fundamentalist (usually one or more of my ten siblings) that human understanding, logic, and reason are frail, but “the Word of God, as revealed in the Bible when rightly understood, is True and reliable, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I have been accused of building structures on the shifting sands of human understanding, when all we need to know is revealed in that Holy Book; I simply needed to believe. Over the years, as I’ve reflected on those criticisms, I have come to understand that use of my human powers has never been to build structures of logic, but rather to remove obstacles presented by doctrine and imposed beliefs that have been declared to be “beyond man’s understanding.” But, can I check my intellect and reason at the door of faith? Can I ignore the inhumane consequences of that faith in action? Some of the worst atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, perhaps never as egregious as that committed by Christians in the Crusades and in the Inquisition. How does one choose , for example, between Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer, between neo-orthodoxy and the revelations of Biblical criticism, i.e., historical analysis, textual analysis, reason, and, as Joseph Campbell would describe it, the power of myth?
What we need is not dogmatics, but to be motivated and to learn to bear good fruits, to love our neighbor, and to live in right relationship with our world – all aspects of it, both physical and spiritual, human, other animal and plant. Therefore, I will return to a principle to which I have consistently (I hope) harkened throughout this blog: “By their fruits you will know them. ” I certainly do not know whether Karl Barth bore good fruits or not; but I do know that Albert Schweitzer bore many good fruits: fruits of the spirit, fruits of intellect, fruits of artistic expression, and fruits of medical care to those in Africa who “bore the mark of pain.” I know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer neither shrank from his duty to act in a difficult human situation, nor attempted to justify it by theological manipulation. Rather, quoting Luther, as I understand it, he faced the duty to act in the real world, an act which did not fit theological precepts or standards: ” Sin and sin boldly, but love Christ more boldly still. ” I do not expect the latter theologians to agree in every respect, or even on very basic precepts; but I do know that while acting consistent with the principles that they held, they produced good fruits.
Faced with a choice to make as to which path to follow, I choose to follow the advice of Shakespeare’s Polonius to his son, Laertes in Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
My presentation of theology in the modern era will therefore depart from academically and popularly recognized paths, and I will follow the theological bent of modern theologians who I know bore good fruits.
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