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There were Giants in the Land

by Paul Sauer — December 18, 2010

December 12 marked the second anniversary of the death of Avery Cardinal Dulles. In commemoration of this occasion, Fordham University, where Dulles spent his last 20 years as a professor, held a forum discussing his legacy...

December 12 marked the second anniversary of the death of Avery Cardinal Dulles. In commemoration of this occasion, Fordham University, where Dulles spent his last 20 years as a professor, held a forum discussing his legacy.

As an attendee of the forum, and one who never met Dulles personally despite having mutual aquaintances, I was struck most by the personal descriptions of Dulles. He was an individual who was intellectually gifted,  but never arrogant. Descriptive phrases highlighted that duality: “He was agenerous reader of others, even those he disagreed with;” “As a theologian he was fair, clear, and charitable;” “He believed the tenor of the theological debate had become a problem – dissent from magesterium (which he allowed for as essential for the church) was to be rare, reluctant, and respectful;”  “He had a concern for all people – his theology, as can be attested to by his voluminous correspondence, was primary for the people.” “He was above all a gentleman.”

As a Lutheran pastor who owes much to the evangelical catholic tradition within Lutheranism for shaping my identity, those words could have been spoken just as easily about Arthur Carl Piepkorn, and indeed they often were by those who assessed his legacy in the turbulent years following his passing. Here were two theologians from a different era. They were men who were seemingly experts on a broad range of theological topics, and who when they spoke on an issue, commanded attention from others.

As the evening continued, the panel which represented a broad theological spectrum, all expressed admiration for Dulles and the significance for his work.  Toward the end of the discussion, however, one panelist lamented that “with Dulles' passing the age of theological giants is over.” The assertion found quick support among most of the other panelists who expressed little optimist, given the current theological climate today, that new theological giants are on the horizon in the next generation of theologians.

My initial instinct was to pass off the remark as the somewhat arrogant reflections of those who are too self-absorbed to see beyond their own generation's significance. But as I reflected during the train ride back home, I had to concede that the age of giants may indeed be over. The realm of theology has changed from the days of Dulles and Piepkorn. Theological specialization is the order of the day, which often leads to a theology that is divorced from the relevancy of the actual lives of real people.

Theology needs to speak holistically to people, not just to specialists. Even seminary education, despite attempts to cross-departmentalize in recent years, structurally reflects the specialization into historical, systematic, exegetical, and practical theologies. Given academic realities today, Piepkorn, with his PhD in Oriental languages and Literature (with a specialization in Babylonian Archeology!), likely would not have taught the subjects for which he is best known – ecclesiology, the Lutheran Symbols, and Liturgics. He would have instead been credentialed into the exegetical department and discouraged from venturing too far outside of his area of credentialing.

It is probably the sign of a good forum that I left with more questions than I had when I arrive:

Is the age of theological giants over?

Will there be another Barth, Rahner, Dulles, Piepkorn, or Schmemann?

If not, is there something inherently wrong with the system of doing theology today?

Obstacles To Raising Giants

Posted by John Hannah at December 19, 2010 21:42
All of these "giants" were formed before 1965 (close of Vatican II--a convenient milestone). Today?

1. Where would a budding theologian receive the classical immersion (both secular and theological) that these giants were given?

2. Who would encourage such highly gifted persons to give their lives to theology?

I would not rule out the possibility but it seems remote, al least, for American Lutheranism.

The problem is more widespread than Theology

Posted by Erik Fretheim at December 21, 2010 05:26
There seems to be a general problem throughout academia, and into the environment beyond as well. There was a time when for example a PhD marked not so much the creation of a specialist in a highly confined world, but a scholar who was recognized for their ability to pursue a subject in depth and in a comptemplative, careful, scholarly manner. When they taught, studied, or wrote, there wasn't so much concern that their PhD was an exact match for the subject, especially to the exact sub, sub, sub field as it is today, but rather that they were able to provide structured exploration to the minds they were teaching.

Now we see this extending to, or did it come from, the world outside of academia where we demand specialization, certification and percise experience to the degree where jobs go unfilled, not because there is no one who can do them, but rather because no one has the right collection of pieces of paper. We also see people who are completely unable to perform a job put into that position because they could produce that paper. In academia, we see light-weights in their field championed as experts, because those who can challenge them didn't obtain a qualification on paper which was so trivial to their ability they would have been wasting their time to acquire.

It's not that the giants aren't out there, they are just tied down by the paper threads imposed upon them.

Posted by John at January 13, 2011 02:41
Was this man really a "giant"?

Was he an Illuminated Saint, Yogi or Mystic?
Such Realized beings have always been the Spiritual giants of humankind altogether.

He once published an essay on First Things where he stated unequivocally that the Catholic Church via its Magisterium is the ONLY source of Truth and salvation in the world.
And that all other Faith Traditions, including liberal catholics and of course ALL Protestant Christians are in serious error, or living in "darkness".

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