The Dangers of Theological Prognostication

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I just finished reading John Bowden’s 1971 book entitled, Karl Barth. All in all, it’s a pretty good little book that can be read comfortably in an evening. Bowden gives a short “profile” of Barth, followed by assessing Barth as prophet, professor, politician, and patriarch. Bowden ends with a “problem” chapter in which he provides his own critical, yet respectful, assessment of Barth overall. The work is dated in its scholarship, of course, but can still be profitably read by those looking for an short secondary introduction.

However, I had to chuckle a bit at the end. Bowden suggests that there were those in his day who were saying that it was too early critically to assess Barth fairly or to predict what his future reception would be, and that it would take a generation or even a century before such assessment could really be made. Undaunted by this, Bowden goes ahead and predicts anyways:

It seems probable that those who see the Dogmatics as a work that will come into its own in future years are over-optimistic. It is not the kind of book for that. Nor is Barth the prophet likely to have the same impact in the years to come that he had in the 1920s. Both Barth the patriarch and Barth the prophet will pass into history as Barth the problem. (117)

I’m not trying to make light of Bowden, who actually appears to have a pretty good grasp of many of Barth’s ideas. In the day and age in which he wrote, what he was saying was pretty reasonable and plausible. Even by the end of Barth’s life, it looked like Barth’s thought was already being passed over in favour of the Pannenbergs and Moltmanns, for example. 

Nevertheless, there is probably an important little lesson: If the ascendency of Barth in the early 21st century could not have been predicted shortly after his death, it is also likely that we should be wary of making too many theological predictions ourselves about what will and what will not be a theological issue in the next generation. The thing that may seem the most irrelevant and absurd thing today could very well be the thing that will last longer and have greater theological significance than one might expect. And vice versa: the things that seems to be so vitally important today could very well turn out to be nothing than a fad here today and gone tomorrow. 

I suppose this leads me to wonder how we as students (and teachers) of theology are best able to ensure (and I mean ensure, not in the sense of “guarantee” but in the sense of “being confident”) that the time and effort we spend on theological research and writing will be on issues of greatest significance, while not getting sidetracked on issues that will be short-lived and short-sighted. Any suggestions?

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6 thoughts on “The Dangers of Theological Prognostication

  1. Dustin

    I’d be interested in what you think on this, David, but it seems to me that one of the reasons that Barth has proven to be of lasting influence is because of his close attention to the tradition of which he was a part. That is to say, Barth is influential because he was first and foremost a Reformed theologian. He read deeply in his tradition and used this particularity to access the entire Church catholic. His most important theological contributions would seem to me to be “developments” within the Reformed tradition particularly and, for that reason, contributions to the Christian theological tradition generally. Barth did not speak from no-where in particular (and therefore to no-body) but from a specific somewhere (to pretty much everybody).

  2. RogueMonk

    Dustin (and David), I wonder if Barth’s resuragence (or “ascendency” as David puts it) has something to do with the reality that Barth offers contemporary theology a way through the pitfalls of fundamentalism, on the one hand, and liberalism, on the other. Barth–better than other (and sometimes more skilled theologians) offers to his dialogue partners a way to be orthodox without the bancruptcy of these two 20th century poles.

    Now to David’s question, I’d wager a guess that themes of HOPE will have some signifigance in the years to come. As such, I would not be willing to throw Multman under the bus as quickly as I might Pannenberg. Moltman more than any other contemporary theologian could be a barth-like dialogue partner to the next generation.

  3. RogueMonk and Dustin, thanks for the thoughts.

    RogueMonk, on hope: What is it about “hope” that is peculiar and necessary to hear in our time? While I think hope is necessary for every generation, I wonder if Moltmann’s theology of hope is still too existentially driven by the Angst of post-WWI and WWII Europe and the Cold War that followed…

    Dustin’s comment reminded me of Barth’s essay in the book The Word of God and the Word of Man entitled, “The Doctrinal Task of the Reformed Churches” (218-271). There are many quotable lines therein, but this encapsulated something of what you were saying:

    “In Zurich a good deal was said about the coming controversy with ‘Rome.’ That a serious and necessary task lies before us in this connection is not to be doubted. But how can we take issue with ‘Rome’ before we have genuinely taken issue with ourselves as to what we non-Roman Christians are, what we represent, and what we desire? … ” (224)

    “One of the few real services which the German Reformed Churches might perhaps perform today for their confessional brethren of the West would be to recall them (after we have recalled ourselves) to the fact that in spite of all our temporal needs and seeming necessities the Reformed churches are in possession of something peculiarly their own.” (225)

  4. RogueMonk

    From my view, as a parish pastor, I think existential angst is alive and well. Will my kids abandon the faith? Will I die of cancer? Will the world go broke? Will my grand-kids have air to breath? Will my next pastor even believe in Jesus? Will the church survive? Can I still eat cold meats (lysteria) or beef (mad cow) or chicken (avian flue) or chocolate (melamine) or even potatoes and tomatoes (genetically modified foods)? Will an earthquake strike? Will a tsunami wipe us out? Will a hurricane destroy us? What if North Korea gets a bomb? What if the Taliban wins? Can we really trust Russia or China? In fact, can we even trust our own politicians? Will my car be stolen next? Will my kids get mowed down in their school cafeteria? Do I need an even better alarm system in my home? Will my son ever get off drugs? Will I ever stop picking up prostitutes? Will my daughter ever gain weight? What do I do with my homosexual son? How can I get over my daughter’s rape? The list could continue.

    When I preach and when I visit and when I sit in Starbucks and in most things I do as a minister, I am keenly aware that people need hope–not some pious platitude or rigorous scholarship–just plain old Christian Hope. Perhaps this points to a disjoint between the lectern and pen of the scholar and the pulpit and table of the clergy. I’m not sure.

  5. RogueMonk, I have no quibble with you about the ongoing need for hope–I said as much before. What I was commenting on was the specific kind of angst that theologians like Moltmann were addressing. The examples of despair and angst that you speak of seem to me to be something different, though I can’t quite put my finger on it.

    If there is a disjoint between the lectern and pulpit (there usually is some kind of disconnect both ways, isn’t there?), then in what way do you see Moltmann (a man of the lectern) as a way forward theologically for the man or woman in the pulpit and at the table? I guess I’m not convinced that his (and Pannenberg’s) universalist forms of hope really speak to the issues at hand that you listed. My opinion is that there is a certain “deferring” that takes place in their thought that somewhat rests in the hope of the “then and there” over against a “present hope” both for the “here and now” AND for the “then and there.”

    This is undeveloped, I realize, but hopefully will keep the conversation moving…

  6. RogueMonk

    David, I have no disagreement with you. My original point (or more rightly, pensive conjecture) is that I could see Moltman being at least a conversation partner. Much as Barth is today in some circles. Just as Barth was a man of his time, so is Moltman. But we can still glean insights in conversation—even those who are not Barthian. The same, I wonder, may be true with Moltman—although history will see.

    So to clarify, I am not advocating for Moltman in any systematic sense. Simply offering him as a potential dialogue partner re. themes of hope.

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