Christian Thought in the Twenty-First Century: Agenda for the Future

Douglas H. Shantz and Tinu Ruparell, eds.
Published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in 2012

Reviewed by Ryan Scruggs, Theology, Alberta Bible College

Achieving some sense of mastery over a given discipline in the academy today is daunting for scholars, never mind for students or the general public. Without training, entry into a field such as medieval mysticism or philosophy of religion can feel like being dropped into a foreign city without a map. Christian Thought in the Twenty-First Century offers multiple maps, each with a personal guide for the journey. It is not – and nor is it intended to be – a work of groundbreaking research; it is a personal entry into twenty-five noteworthy Christian minds of the latter part of the twentieth century.

The book is a product of the Chair of Christian Thought at the University of Calgary (currently held by Douglas H. Shantz), a position created by the cooperative fundraising efforts of Christians within the Calgary community. Former guest lecturers of the Chair, representing a broad range of academic disciplines, were invited to reflect on the past, present, and possible futures of their respective areas of research. The essays are grouped into five general categories, each containing between four and seven essays: 1) Historical Perspectives on the Christian Tradition; 2) Philosophical and Theological Issues; 3) Encounters with Religious Pluralism and the Frontiers of Science; 4) The Academy and the City; and 5) Approaches to English Literature and Film. Each of the essays is a self-contained unit, and therefore the book can be entered at any point with benefit.

The methodology of the editors in inviting the response of scholars is both the book’s strength and weakness. Participants were invited to respond to four questions: 1) How has Christian Thought in my field changed in the last twenty-five years? 2) How has my mind changed? 3) What issues face Christian scholars today? and 4) What questions or problems would you list under the heading, “Agenda for the Future”? Most of the scholars responded to these questions with invigorating candor. For example, in the midst of a discussion on the value of interdisciplinary instruction in historical theology, Margaret Miles offers a blunt evaluation of the reductive nature of technology (in particular, PowerPoint) in the classroom today, concluding that “the time, money, and energy currently spent by institutions of higher learning on the newest technology could be used for intensive workshops that would expose students to the content, methods, and skills of fields other than their own specialization” (50). A few of the essays, however, read more like diligent histories of remote disciplines – of value to those within the discipline, surely, but not beyond. Still, the decision of the editors to allow the contributors the freedom to shape their own, unique responses is salutary. Certainly the essays that provide fresh and even unexpected insights far outweigh those characterized by a plodding tour of the field.

Despite diverse disciplines, there are recurring themes in this book that are instructive, especially for young Christian scholars entering the academic world. What areas of research will provide especially fruitful opportunities in the years, even decades, to come? Where do we need sharp Christian minds wrestling with significant and potentially volatile issues in our world today? A brief overview of several areas will have to suffice.

For many of the contributors, the fact of religious plurality – made pressing in large part due to globalization – is high on the agenda. Lamin Sanneh takes stock of the resurgence of religion globally, with Islam and Christianity both growing rapidly. He notes the varied responses to this trend, from tolerance to “cultural clash” and even “talk about new Crusades” (59). For Terrence Penelhum religious diversity is one of the three “challenges that our culture presents today to the Christian tradition” (69). He sees this challenge especially poignant as Christians increasingly encounter “the depth of the spiritual lives of those who follow other traditions” (70). Responding to the demands of interreligious encounter has been the life work of Paul F. Knitter, and he argues that dialogue is the only possible way forward for the church. Knitter believes that the fruit of dialogue will include learning to “co-exist.” It should also involve the sort of “cooperation” that leads to peace, and it can even imply a mutual growth in our understanding of truth as each tradition recognizes the epistemic distance between faith and understanding (93-99). In the wake of the dominant scientific approach to religious studies, Keith Ward’s evaluation of and contribution toward the relatively new discipline of comparative theology is refreshing. While self-identifying as “a fairly mainstream Anglican,” Ward does not hesitate to proclaim that “my understanding of Christian faith has been both deepened and widened by my attempts to understand the Indian religious traditions” (107). Finally, both Bonnie Thurston and Lynn R. Szabo point to Thomas Merton as exemplary in this kind of confessional approach to religion; Merton was one for whom the wisdom of the world religions was not necessarily in conflict with is allegiance to Christ. Can there be any doubt that an informed interaction with the world religions will be necessary for Christians in the coming century?

Another area requiring sustained and serious reflection is the Great Tradition of the Christian faith. While many address the shift in historical studies from what Margaret R. Miles describes as “intellectual history to a critical interdisciplinary hermeneutic” (49), for most their plea is for more than methodological reorientation: they expect that historical studies can also lead to personal transformation. Douglas H. Shantz, reflecting on what there is “to commend in … early modern religious radicals,” turns his critical eye toward contemporary “radical Christian piety” that seeks to reject the Christian tradition for a “return to true, biblical Christianity” by rhetorically asking how any one contemporary Christian leader can “act as a better guide than Augustine, Erasmus, Thomas Merton, and two thousand years of Christian wisdom?” (43). James R. Payton Jr. considers the increasing relevance of Eastern Orthodoxy for Western Christianity: “Whether … [it] is owing to Orthodoxy’s deep roots, its mystical practices, its embrace of symbols and icons, or its appeal to the five senses during the liturgy, Orthodoxy offers what many seem to be seeking in a postmodern world” (54). Along similar lines, Charles Nienkirchen reflects as a teacher attuned to the experience of the younger generation. He argues that students have a “new appreciation for Christian antiquity,” one that resonates with “the ancient Christianity of the Fathers with its openness to the supra-rational spiritual world, its respect for mystery and symbol, its reverence for liturgical traditions or worship, and its sense of aesthetic beauty” (138). Lastly, Arlette Zinck exalts Milton’s Paradise Lost as a text still capable of satisfying in students the “word hunger” created by a well-honed “hermeneutic of suspicion” (175-177). “The academy is hungry for a new way to read,” one that “make[s] room for the story” and therefore leads to “compassion and empathy” rather than ethical “paralysis” (182-183, 176). All this suggests that if Christian thought is to thrive in the twenty-first century, it must first drink deeply from the wells of its own fertile past.

A third area I want to highlight stems from Christianity’s engagement with science. There are numerous sub-categories here, but all are related to the presupposition that both science and theology are complementary and can therefore each be enriched by mutual appreciation. A second of Penelhum’s “challenges” is that of evolutionary biology. Christians have yet to wrestle sufficiently with this scientific paradigm and what it means for our understanding of suffering and death, and for our responsibility toward the non-human creation (71). Clark H. Pinnock sees pneumatology as a way forward:

Modern science has given us a twenty-first century “creation story” in blazing technicolor. A stunning world has been opened up in the big bang cosmology and in evolutionary biology. All of us were made literally out of star dust. Every atom in my body originated in the furnace of the stars. It is high time to develop a theology of the creator Spirit that does not begin with Pentecost but with the origin of the universe (76).

Not one to shy away from the difficult issues, he even proposes that “the Spirit is the midwife in the midst of [pain, predation, and death,] bringing about the birth of the new” (76). John Polkinghorne likewise sees significant opportunity for science and theology to be mutually enriching. Beyond his own significant research, he points to John Zizioulas’s Being as Communion as a lens through which scientists may begin to see “relationality … woven into the fabric of the universe” (112). Of course, the work of John B. Cobb Jr. and other process theologians here cannot be ignored. For Cobb, the issues surrounding science and religion become especially urgent in the realm of environmental ethics. He places in focus an issue that is mentioned by several of the contributors: “The threat to the survival of a livable world overwhelms other challenges, so that some of us measure all that we do in terms of its direct or indirect relevance to this overarching challenge” (83). Can a new generation of Christian scholars move beyond a defensive posture in this area by really listening and contributing?

Finally, there is the issue of truth. What is the role of the university with respect to truth? Is a scholar one who merely describes what they see, or are they called to seek after and cling to the Reality that pervades particular phenomena? Cobb recognizes the relatively recent shift in the academy from theology to religious studies, the latter only being able to “study how people in various cultures have thought about God but not with the idea of coming to any normative judgment as to how today one should think of God” (80). And in an essay that should be required reading for every Christian studying at the university, Dennis D. Martin delivers an impassioned eulogy for education that is capable of actually forming students:

Any explanatory power arising from Christian belief taken straightforwardly as a living reality remains out of bounds. The power of beliefs after they have been run through a cultural anthropology or psychology methodological grid is within bounds. We can study processes of belief as distant objects but not as engaging, living, personal realities. Van Engan’s call to begin to give attention to content (pp. 520-251) rather than mere process is not really being heard. Indeed, I think, it cannot be heard because the underlying problem is the university world itself. Higher education as a thirst for truth, for figuring things out—even simply figuring out what it truly means to be formed as a man or a woman, a husband or wife, a servant of God—such education as formation is largely gone (27).

Recognizing the continuing contribution of theology to the study of religion over the past twenty-five years, Peter C. Erb echoes these sentiments by suggesting “that the attempted elimination of theology [from the university] may have impoverished rather than aided the academic study of religion” (147). Is there room, in other words, for authentic dialogue not only between the university and the church, but also now between the university and temple, the synagogue, the mosque, and so on?

Christians seeking to live out a discipleship of the mind in the university today would do well to consult this unique and often inspiring collection of essays.

Ryan Scruggs

Alberta Bible College
Ryan Scruggs is Professor of Theology at Alberta Bible College.