Magazine article The Christian Century

British Theology after a Trauma: Divisions and Conversations

Magazine article The Christian Century

British Theology after a Trauma: Divisions and Conversations

Article excerpt

IF THERE WAS one intellectual development in living memory that separates the "grandparent" from the "parent" generation of British theology, it was the rise of logical positivism and analytical philosophy. A fairly homogeneous educated class, largely shaped through a few major universities, received a massive assault from within those universities not just on its philosophy but on its beliefs, ethics and worldview. "But how can you prove ...?" "But what do you really mean by ..." were the reigning questions, and the conclusion of the inquiry was usually that your meaning had no empirical basis and did not make sense. The assault was made by a confident army of elite intellectuals, who appropriated the prestige of modern science and offered a rational rigor that might provide a place (however confined) to stand amidst world wars and huge changes in every area of life.

The story is far more complicated than that, yet it is vital to understand how, in the middle two quarters of the 20th century, a drastically reductionist way of thinking became the bottom line against which everything was measured. In the present grandparent generation of theologians, those who ignored the challenge were easily written off, while those who tried to meet it risked being intimidated into reductive or at least very apologetic and defensive forms of Christian theology. In the face of aggressive, confident and often brilliant critiques (key figures included Bertrand Russell, the early Wittgenstein, G. E. Moore and A. J. Ayer), it was easy to lose theological nerve, become wary of exposure, and be tempted to withdraw into safe havens of academic respectability. The grandparents had an extraordinarily difficult task, and their achievement in sustaining and developing a university environment where theology could still flourish has been remarkable. Yet the effects of the trauma persist, directly and indirectly.

One of the effects has been on the classic forms of mediation in British (and especially English) theology. I remember having a great many discussions with colleagues around the country in the course of preparing The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century. The eventual consensus was that the headings for the sections on British theology should be: "Theology through History" and "Theology through Philosophy" (with "Theology and Society" added in the second edition). In other words, this tradition of theology is best described through its conversations and the ways it has been mediated through various disciplines, not primarily through its systematic expositions, doctrinal tendencies or star figures. But the mid-century trauma just described has had its effects.

This approach is most obvious in relation to history, especially to the patristic period. British theology has a distinguished tradition of doing theology "through the fathers," meaning the theology and history of the first six centuries or so of Christianity. But increasingly the classicists, historians and text scholars have become suspicious of theological interpretations of "their" material, and the tendency has been for those with academic posts in this field to stay within the dominant academic respectability of the scholarly guild and not stray into contemporary theological debate. This has been intensified by the fact that until recently many British theologians had a thorough grounding in classics (Greek and Latin), but this has now become rare.

A pivotal figure has been the doyen of English patristic scholars, Henry Chadwick, who has largely directed the field toward guild concerns. Maurice Wiles, Kallistos Ware and Frances Young have been exceptions to this, but of the following generation Rowan Williams has been almost alone in doing rigorous scholarly and historical work in the period and integrating that with a critical and constructive theological position. The reigning prejudice of the guild that theological interpretation can only mean "contamination by faith" has strongly inhibited those with posts in the area (a diminishing number). …

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