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Today’s Theologians Failing to Excite Public, Church Historian Contends

From Religious News Service

Contemporary theologians often write in unintelligible language and take up questions that “do not excite much of the public,” said church historian Martin Marty in asking--and answering--the question, “Where Have All the Theologians Gone?”

In an article with that title in the fall issue of The Critic, published by the Thomas More Assn., the University of Chicago professor recalls that in the 1950s and early ‘60s, theologians had “at least enough recognizability that they could be at ease on a Time cover.

Theologians Recalled

“Seniors among us recall how John Courtney Murray, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Paul Tillich could grace that symbol of ‘making it,’ while a Gustav Weigel or an H. Richard Niebuhr belonged there at the head of a cast of other characters who had their place.”

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Today, Marty said, “the onlyreligious figures who are widely known are the Pope, some cardinals and TV evangelists. The only theologians whose names reach the public are those the Pope or his lieutenants condemn--Hans Kung in Europe, Charles Curran in the United States--and they become known not for the substance of their thought but for the fact of their condemnation.”

In many cases, the Lutheran scholar writes, theologians are taking up “a set of questions that do not excite much of the public. Some literary critics, on whom they draw, fight over issues of hermeneutics, textuality, structuralism and deconstruction. They are read only by other literary critics . . . The people want to talk about God, and they too rarely find theologians grasping their theme and speaking in ways that address them.”

But the fault is not all with the theologians, Marty said. He advises that “if there are to be great theologians there must be great congregations, and we who should make up the readership may have turned so trivial, so much the victims of television narcotics and superficial journalism, so ready for airport newsstand junk food-books, that we cannot be drawn to serious language, even language about God and the believing community.”

No More ‘Good Old Days’

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There is no point in talking about the “good old days,” Marty said, because “the folks who went before were also busy, hedonistic, distracted, apathetic. Yet among them were serious people who by drawing on the work of systematic theologians clarified their language and their mission, their vision and their dreams.”

Today’s theologians are “in search of an audience, a readership” while the faithful are “in search of people who can, with clarity and power, address the questions they now take elsewhere than to theologians,” Marty said. “If the two can begin to get together, a new generation may emerge.”


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