Modest Method

The latest work published by the prolific Australian Jesuit theologian Gerald O’Collins is an ambitious attempt to relaunch the discipline of fundamental theology—a discipline whose very academic survival is at stake in the many seminaries and departments of theology that have sidelined or discontinued it. As O’Collins notes in his preface, this drop in the discipline’s appeal has been exacerbated by a prevailing tendency to confuse “fundamental theology” with “foundationalist” approaches that claim to offer incontrovertible, rational evidence for truths of the Christian faith. Indeed, to many people the term “fundamental” sounds suspiciously like “fundamentalist.” To counter these misconceptions, O’Collins redefines fundamental theology as a more “modest” enterprise, one that makes no absolutist claims, but rather seeks to make a rational case for the central tenets of the Christian faith—and welcomes the aid of other disciplines such as philology, philosophy, and history.

Over the past fifty years, many influential thinkers, from Karl Rahner to Bernard Lonergan and Avery Dulles, have rethought and reformulated the first stages of the theological endeavor in an attempt to emancipate Catholic theology from the long hand of neo-scholasticism, which had set the terms of this debate until the eve of the Second Vatican Council. By 1971, Bernard Lonergan could write in Method in Theology that the task of theological reflection is to “mediate between a cultural matrix and the significance and role of a religion in that matrix,” signaling the demise of a fundamental theology grounded in the supposed normativity—and immutability—of classical European culture. Yet the development of a new theological paradigm proved more difficult than many expected. With no single “cultural matrix” emerging to replace the static certainties of the past, theologians have been obliged continually to revise or redefine their strategy to engage perpetually shifting socio-cultural realities. In The Future of Christology (2005), Roger Haight questions continued uncritical allegiance to existing doctrinal definitions and called for a more “modest” approach to theoretical speculation on the Incarnation. O’Collins’s take on fundamental theology may be seen as an analogous call for a more “modest” approach to the discipline: one that is less normative and more scriptural, and that eschews systematic temptations, preferring to address different issues as they arise in their specific cultural milieu.

Rethinking Fundamental Theology explores themes ranging from faith in a personal God to individual religious experience, the relationship between general and special revelation, the emergence of a scriptural canon, the role of Christ in mediating God’s self-disclosure to humanity, and the plurality of world religions. Its thirteen chapters deploy Scripture robustly, integrating it with frequent references to important figures from the tradition and to contemporary theological scholarship—though readers will also find citations from works of literature and poetry. Without being overweening or condescending, O’Collins reaffirms the credibility of the Christian claim, emphasizing the inner congruence between the gift of God’s self-disclosure and the deepest aspirations of the human spirit. He understands that different legitimate theological “styles” can coexist, as different cultural conditions may favor certain modes of reflection and thwart others; he regards such “styles”—which he links to the three transcendentals of Scholastic memory—as mutually complementary appropriations of the same divine mystery. Thus the Rahnerian preoccupation with truth is not in tension with the concern for the good that characterizes liberation theologians like Gutierrez or Sobrino; and neither approach would be complete without Hans von Balthasar’s appreciation for beauty.

As one might expect from the author of a treatise on systematic Christology (the second edition of his 1995 book, Christology, was issued two years ago to great acclaim), O’Collins devotes a major section of the current volume to the role of Christ as the fullness of revelation, addressing the fraught question of the “scandal of particularity.” If the testimony of Scripture presents revelation as “a living event and a reality,” how is it possible to speak of it as having reached “its perfect culmination two thousand years ago?” O’Collins answers that the reading of Scripture, the church’s worship, and the lived witness of countless faithful actualize in the present the event of divine self-manifestation in Christ. Distinguishing between past revelation and ongoing revelation, O’Collins emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in securing continuity between the two, and also in mediating the presence of the risen Christ. The tendency within Scholastic theology to reduce revelation to a set of propositions worthy of intellectual assent ensured that revelation—as an event—could be safely relegated to the past. O’Collins underscores the uniqueness of the unrepeatable events in the life of Christ and his followers, but also insists that later generations continue to share in their salvific value and are thus the recipients of an ongoing self-communication on the part of God.

This is a volume addressed primarily to an academic audience, though educated readers of all kinds will find much to inspire them and to challenge their preconceptions about the role and task of theology. O’Collins is adamant that theology as a discipline must be grounded in the practice of faith. Thus his “guidelines” at the end of the book exhort us “to be converted,” and—most important—to be prayerful. Fittingly, the very last sentence of Rethinking Fundamental Theology isn’t about thinking at all, but rather cites Luther’s admonition to his fellow theologians to “kneel down in your little room and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.”

Published in the 2012-07-13 issue: 

Thomas Cattoi is assistant professor of Christology and cultures at the Jesuit School of Theology, Santa Clara University.

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