Much of modern theology is intellectual twaddle

Much of modern theology is intellectual twaddle. That is a deliberately over-the-top statement that reflects a bit of my frustration with what I’ve been studying in the latest course in my theology Master’s degree program. For those wondering about what I mean by “twaddle,” a definition: trivial or foolish speech or writing; nonsense.

The primary text for the course is Roger Olson’s The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction, a daunting 720 page book. We also have to read from The Modern Theologian’s Reader, although none of our in-class discussions have made use of that text. I describe Olson’s work as daunting because I’ve seldom come across a text in which major portions are so entirely incomprehensible, even after multiple re-readings. This is not because Olson is a bad writer, necessarily, but because of the subject matter he covers and tries mightily to elucidate for someone like me.

I am no intellectual heavyweight. On the other hand, I don’t think I am particularly stupid (most of the time). This course, however, has challenged my comprehension so much that it makes me question whether I even want to continue studying theology at all. I struggle to grasp the highly intellectual pretzel-making that came up with process theology, for example. Or what the heck dialectical theology really means. Or how about this: eschatological ontology. Yeah. Try to figure that one out.

Part of my struggle is, I think, due to the strong link between theology and philosophy. Of course, the two have always been closely intertwined — that’s not new in the modern era. What is new, though, is how in-depth current philosophical thinking is combined with modernist theological perspectives. And I have no background or training in philosophy at all, so I feel at a disadvantage. To be really honest, though, I am not particularly interested in philosophy, either, and that’s a problem. Another problem is that so much of modern theology is dominated by Germans (this is meant as a bit of a joke): Schleiermacher, Troelsch, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, Moltmann, Pannenberg, just to list a few. Can we please allow others a bit of intellectual and theological breathing room?!

Perhaps the biggest struggle for me is that a great deal of what we’ve covered in this class on modern theology is really about liberal theology. I am not inherently rejecting liberal viewpoints here, really, while I acknowledge coming from a more conservative, orthodox perspective. That background makes me more reticent, perhaps, to intellectually understand or embrace more liberal perspectives.

On the plus side, there are some eras or movements covered in the course that have caught my interest and attention. For example, my interest was piqued when reading about some theologians in the 1800s who tried to balance orthodoxy and liberalism. One of them was Horace Bushnell, an American theologian, and my research paper focuses on the role of racism in assessing Bushnell’s legacy of progressive orthodoxy. Another area that I have found quite interesting to learn more about is liberation theology, something I’ve heard a lot about but didn’t really understand before.

In sum, the title of this post is meant to be provocative and does not fully reflect my views on modern theology. Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the course is how theology has responded to the challenges of what Olson labels “the acids of modernity,” particularly science. In spite of my struggles to comprehend and appreciate much of what we’ve discussed, I think the course is ultimately worthwhile.

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