What are your top five?
Tired of arguing about politics? Me too. Let’s argue about books!
The October 19th issue of The Christian Century asks a panel of Protestant and Catholic theologians the following question: “Suppose someone who hasn’t been keeping up with theology for the past 25 years now wants to read the most important books written during that time. What five titles would you suggest?” The theologians queried were Stanley Hauerwas, Amos Young, Emilie Townes, Sarah Coakley, Lawrence Cunningham, Kevin Vanhoozer, George Hunsinger, and Willie James Jennings.
I found the answers fascinating on a number of levels. First of all, there was relatively little overlap. The only books that ended up on more than one list were John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (3 lists) and J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account (2 lists). Depending on your point of view, this illustrates either the rich diversity or the fragmentation of the discipline, probably both.
Secondly, it wasn’t clear to me what the panelists’ criteria for “importance” were. Carter’s book, for example, is only a few years old, so its importance may lie more in the future than the past. At times, it seemed as if the panelists were including books that they simply liked rather than ones that were truly groundbreaking in some way. I’ve been thinking about how I would answer the question and I am also interested in the views of other DotCommonweal contributors as well.
My own criteria would be 1) a work published in the last 25 years or deeply influential in the last 25 years if published before that time; 2) a work that has been broadly influential in shaping a particular theological debate or serves as a reasonably definitive overview of that debate; 3) an expanded definition of “theology” that includes exegetical works as well. My judgments on this score are, of course, eminently debatable, which is what makes this sort of exercise fun.
So without further ado, here are my picks:
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (4+ vols.), by John Meier
Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, by Jacques Dupuis, S.J.
The Nature of Doctrine, by George Lindbeck
A Community of Character, by Stanley Hauerwas
She Who Is, By Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.
Justifications (warning: they are somewhat lengthy) after the jump.
So what about you? What five books would you choose?
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, by John Meier (4 volumes and counting).
Over the last 25 years, the debates associated with the “third quest” for the historical Jesus has had enormous practical significance in the life of the church. Most readers probably remember the uproar several years ago when members of the “Jesus Seminar” used multi-colored beads to vote on which sayings of Jesus in the Gospels were actually authentic. Popular presentations of Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary or a wandering cynic philosopher have influenced contemporary preaching and catechesis.
Meier’s work is not only the definitive guide to this debate, it has also shaped it as well. His careful research raises doubts about some of the more outlandish historical reconstructions of Jesus. Meier has also been criticized by more radical scholars for being too cautious and by others, like Luke Timothy Johnson, who raise doubts about the ultimate value of research on the historical Jesus.
Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism by Jacques Dupuis, S.J.
Dupuis’ work tackles two major (and inter-related) topics in Christian theology that have enormous significance for evangelization and mission, namely the soteriological significance of explicit faith in Christ and the theological significance of non-Christian religions. Dupuis worked in India for much of his career and his work has particular relevance for Christians in Asia who find themselves as minority faiths in dialogue with Hinduism and Buddhism.
Dupuis’ work provides a thorough historical overview of the key issues, demonstrating even before Vatican II the Church was moving away from a “hard” position that denied the possibility of salvation for those who did not profess explicit faith in Jesus Christ. Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes developed this doctrine further, stating that “the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with [the] paschal mystery.” Karl Rahner famously developed the concept of “anonymous Christianity” to explain how followers of other religious traditions could be saved through Christ.
Dupuis tries to develop this line of thought one step further in a way that could positively affirm the soteriological value of non-Christian religions. Officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, however, thought Dupuis had conceded too much and launched an investigation into his work. Dupuis ultimately escaped censure, but future editions of his work were required to contain a “notification” clarifying points that could be seen at variance with orthodox teaching. The work of Dupuis and others also played a role in the Congregation’s promulgation of the document Dominus Iesus in 2000.
The Nature of Doctrine by George Lindbeck
Like nitroglycerin, Lindbeck’s book was a big explosion in a small package. This short work tackles the question of what we mean when we say that religious doctrines are “true.” The traditional view, which was that doctrines were truth claims about objective realities, was gradually replaced in the 19th and 20th centuries by the view that doctrines were symbolic representations of human religious experience. This latter orientation, generally associated with “liberal” theology,” is termed “experiential-expressivist” by Lindbeck.
Lindbeck argues that both positions cannot adequately account for doctrinal development and, in particular, efforts at doctrinal reconciliation among separated Christians. He proposes a third path, which he calls a “cultural-linguistic” approach in which doctrines are essentially “rules” governing the use of the kind of religious language in prayer and preaching. Lindbeck argues that this approach provides a better understanding of how doctrines actually function in Christian communities and how ecumenical dialogue aimed at doctrinal reconciliation is possible.
Because his view of religious truth stressed the inner coherence of a tradition rather than the correlation between the tradition’s claims and a universal religious experience, Lindbeck’s work became one of the key texts of “post-liberal” theology. Influenced by Barth and MacIntyre (among others), post-liberalism stresses the specificity and uniqueness of Christian beliefs and practices. It has become increasingly influential in both Protestant and Catholic circles. Lindbeck’s ongoing dialogue with Catholic theologian David Tracy has become one of the classic expressions of the liberal/post-liberal debate.
She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.
It is almost impossible to understand many of the important theological debates of the last 25 years without understanding the challenge posed by feminism to traditional Christian language and practice. Feminism has changed who many Christians see in the pulpit or before the altar on Sundays and the words that they sing, pray and read. Within the Catholic world, the issue of gender-neutral language was one of the key issues cited by the Congregation of Divine Worship when it rejected ICEL’s 1998 translation of the Roman Missal.
The tough part is choosing a single work to be representative of a very diverse movement, particularly a work published in the last 25 years. I decided to go with Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, published in 1992. As a number of reviewers noted at the time, the work was reflected a new self-confidence among feminist theologians, who were moving beyond a critique of institutionalized sexism within the churches to a broader engagement with the central doctrines and symbols of the Christian faith. There is nothing more central to Christian faith than the Trinity, and Johnson’s successfully brings feminist insights to bear on it.
A Community of Character by Stanley Hauerwas
It would be an exaggeration to say that the recent (well, not so recent anymore) recovery of virtue ethics offers a way out of the debates of the 1970s and 80s over the merits of “proportionalism.” However, because virtue ethics places particular emphasis on the moral agent, it can be attractive to those who feel that other approaches overemphasize the role of individual moral acts. However, virtue ethics sees acts as fundamentally important in forming (or deforming) character, which may be attractive to those concerned about the (arguably) excessive idealism of approaches to moral theology that emphasize concepts like the “fundamental option.”
Choosing a representative and influential work on virtue ethics in Christian moral theology is not easy, but I am going with Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character on this one. Admittedly, it was published in 1981, so it falls outside the 25-year window and it is a collection of essays rather than a sustained book-length argument. During that time, however, Hauerwas’ influence has only grown. His particular approach to virtue ethics comes through the lens of a post-liberal narrative theology influenced, like Lindbeck, by Karl Barth and Alasdair MacIntyre. Even those who disagree with him—and the list is long—have been forced to respond to his arguments.
I could resist adding a three more of my favorites very quickly: Louis-Marie Chauvet’s Symbol and Sacrament, for going beyond sacramental theology to develop a fundamental theology of sacramentality; Nature as Reason, by Jean Porter, for her masterful recovery of natural law as a tradition of theological reflection on creation; and John Zizioulas Being as Communion for effectively bringing together patristic and modern insights on the Trinity in a way that can help bridge differences between the Eastern and Western traditions.