There were Giants in the Land
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?