Monday, April 13, 2009

After fourty years a theological catch up!

As most of my friends and colleagues know I spent my early adult years in Rome studying theology.

They were four fruitful years of intense intellectual exploration of Catholicism and the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I returned to Australia in 1969, did an Arts degree at Sydney University and subsequently began a long career in publishing.

I have often wondered, however, how theological thinking has developed over the last 40 years. We all know how the institutional church has developed, if 'developed' is the appropriate word, but what about the academic study of theology? I never had the time to keep abreast of things, until now.

So over the last few months these are the books on theology I have read:

Consider Jesus and Quest for the Living God, both by US feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. These books bring anybody up to date who, like me, wants to know what the current thinking is around core Christian beliefs. She is an exceptionally lucid writer and stylist but I must say I was disappointed. Despite being a leading feminist thinker, conscious of the 'oppressive patriarchal, androcentric' nature of the tradition, she seems to show little awareness of post-structuralist philosophies that have dominated European thought over the past three decades (the dreaded 'po-mo'!). She writes from 'inside the beltway' as it were, using language without any sense that the 'God-talk' itself is problematic.

I've never had much truck with the feminist school in any case. To wipe whole linguistic articulations off as 'patriarchy' is just not deep, especially formulations forged in the furnace of fierce debate and controversy over hundreds of years. Feminist theology is a sub-category of liberation theology, as are Latino and black theologies. Ecological theology is also currently influential. The problem I have with all these perspectives is that they self-evidently shoehorn Christianity into the service of a left wing political agenda, and thereby limit and weaken it, and constrain its possibilities. However theology seems to have developed this way. The river has overflowed into numerous streams and tributaries, satisfying discrete and diverse populations, and running in different directions.

Rausch's and McBrien's books on the history and future of the Church are refreshing reminders that today's arch-conservative, established, defensive institution is far from all there is. Both books give superb overviews of church history over the course of the last two millennia, and deep insights into contemporary challenges. Although huge strides have been made in the ecumenical dialogue between Christian churches, the one big challenge is Islam.

Charles Curran's history of moral theology as practised in the US brought home to me how deep the fissures in the Church really are. Progressive, or revisionist, theologians have been routinely castigated and silenced by Rome, frequently in league with US bishops, for their liberal views on abortion, in-vitro fertilisation, euthanasia, homosexuality, divorce, etc. The left/right split is not merely an academic tussle but a fierce, career defining struggle.

I've long thought that the Church should just get out of the business of worrying about contraception. Why does it matter what natural, chemical or mechanical methods couples use to inhibit conception? They are all means to an end that the Church has no problem with. Avoiding conception itself has never been the issue. Where the Church ensnares itself is in its residual attachment to the old medieval 'natural law' belief that all sexual intercourse is about procreation, and even when married couples are indulging primarily in Eros, or pleasure, the act must remain open to the possibility of conception. This is where sense leaves the planet. The ancient belief that semen was the prime source of life (the existence of the female ovum was not discovered until the 19th century) has led to the church's horror of semen 'wastage' and 'unnatural' extrusion. Thus, not only is any deliberate contraceptive act that thwarts the semen's essential life-giving role morally wrong, but so is masturbation. Very soon this thinking spirals into inanity. Sperm banks are wrong. IVF therefore is wrong....

The great majority of Catholics around the world continue to ignore the church's official position on contraception as outlined in the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, but plenty of conservative theologians, along with the hierarchy, are still vigorously defending it. After 40 years I'm amazed that this is still a lively debate.

There doesn't seem to have been much advance in thinking on the critical subject of homosexuality either. This is profoundly disappointing. Of course many progressive theologians advocate inclusivist views, but an understanding of what homosexuality actually is and what positive role it plays in human society is missing. You have to go to literary and cultural critics such as the fabulous Camille Paglia for this. No-one expects any major religious tradition to grant homosexuality a privileged status, but this does not mean it can't be celebrated. (For those up for an invigorating challenge, read Paglia's masterpiece Sexual Personae, one of most provocative and ground-breaking books on cultural criticism written in the last 20 years).
It's been exciting embarking on this theological adventure once again. But it's also been disappointing to witness the sameness and tentativeness of many of the debates. Progressive thinking and exploration is obviously being repressed by hierarchical authority. Too many theologians are effectively being shut down. Academic freedom is tokenistic.

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