Where Do We Go From Here?

Benjamin A. Reist

Pacific Coast Theological Society, 3/29/00

Step I

It was more than a passing remark, since I heard him say it many times, but the first time I heard Bernard Loomer say that ``Historical Understanding'' is a better typifying phrase than ``process thought'' for referring to the significance of Alfred North Whitehead's insights a major shift began to set in my own reflections. I could now begin to work on relating the work of Troeltsch to that of Whiteheard. Troeltsch's second major work, Der Historismus und seine Probleme, yields an incisive clarification of historical reflection: Historical understanding presupposes a cultural synthesis which always discloses how the historian thinks things ought to go from here. The word ``ought'' is the clue to the fact that historical reflection pivots on ethics, and this in turn raises severe epistemological questions. Ethics and epistemology always demand attention when history is considered with integrity. This is true regarding everything that follows here. It will also be the case for any similar effort.

It is interesting to reflect now on Troeltsch's claim that the search for an authentic Universalgeschichte is doomed to fail. His test case was the contrast between the West Europaertums and Islam. Each have different histories, and the best that can be expected is a sense of mutual understanding between the two of them. From his point of view the Christian mission to the Muslim world was impossible to defend. I have always recognized the cogency of his argument, even though I reserved judgement concerning the conclusions he reached on the issue of the mission to the Islamic world. Later I would come to recognisze that historical reflection, precisely as Troeltsch outlined it, is intrinsically processive in character. Troeltsch had his own way of stating this, but it was not nearly as comprehensive and open-ended as would be the case when Whitehead's insights are taken into account. Events would call into question the finality of Troeltsch's conclusions regarding the futility of wrestling with the notion of an authentic Universalgeschichte.

We live on this side of events Troeltsch had no way of anticipating. The jet age, and the information revolution, have brought the possibility of the globalization of history onto center stage. And it is no longer simply a possibility, it is an emerging fact. New histories emerge when old histories intertwine. For better or for worse there is no way back to the old hermetically sealed off borders between discrete histories.

Now it is obvious that we have always known diversity, even within the context of the former histories of various cultures. But what is taking place now is the emergence of a diversity which knows that pluralism is an ontological constant, trancending all former confidence that the ideal scene would know its disappearance.

Thus there emerges a new problematic for theological reflection: How are we to understand a theology of theologies which now presupposes the impossibility of wrestling with this question apart from disciplined reflection on the history of religions?

As a charter member of the faculty of the Graduate Theological Union I was being prepared for this question without knowing it. But it was one thing to recognize that an ecumenical age dooms all ideological theological assumptions. It was quite another to grasp the fact that this sensitivity spills out beyond the confines of Christian ecumenism.

The place to begin, or to take up with new urgency, the task now before us is to ask: What is the specifically theological yield of the work of those whose vocation has been prolonged involvement in the study of the history of religions?

Step II

In the spring of 1981 John Cobb and Charles Birch gave the T. V. Moore Lectures at San Francicso Theological Seminary. Birch, the Challis Professor of Biology at the University of Sydney, co-authored with Cobb The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community. In the context of their discussions at SFTS Birch made a remark that struck me then, and does now: ``If you want to know what something is, ask what it has become.'' This is a one-line statement of the process thought that has become so central for me. But I would now push this remark one step further: ``If you want to know what something is, ask what it is becoming.''

The extension to ``is becoming'' gains cogency for me as I work through the remarkable strides that have been taken during the last couple of decades in our understanding of the first century of the common era. James Robinson and Helmut Koester helped me understand just how drastic a transformation was setting in when New Testament scholars stopped talking about the background out of which the New Testament writings emerged, and stated wrestling with the trajectory along which these writings took shape.

The most significant development in my own reflections during the last several years has taken place as a result of the remarkable work of John Dominic Crossan. The methodological breakthroughs developed in his The Historical Jesus and the sequel volume The Birth of Christianity, have disclosed for me the true forcefulness of moving from backgrounds to trajectories in understanding the origins of the Christian faith. More than that, I can no longer resist, in any sense, the conclusion that the trajectory is still under way, and that it will never reach finality.

With all this, then, a new question emerges: What comes to the fore when we ponder the becoming of the Christ on the assumption that it is still under way, and that it will never cease? This in turn raises the question of the relationship between this set of concerns and those informing the question at the end of Step I.

Step III

Any answer to the question of the relationship between Steps I and II must entail at least the following assumption. Deliverance into permanent pluralism, on the trail of an ever renewing Christology discloses the new world into which we are summoned.

Note well: Permanent pluralism is not new. It has been around for ages, and it is the first complexity that hits the serious historian's eye. What is new is the fact that the whole arsenal of weapons for avoiding its implications is hopelessly obsolete because it is totally ineffective. Tillich was right in contending that culture is the form of religion, and religion is the content of culture. But the accelerating tempo of the globalization of history forces the conclusion that hitherto separated cultures are becoming intrinsically and irrevocably intertwined to such an extent that the interrelated complexity and diversity cannot be tamed or controlled. Diversity within the context of a singular globalized culture, when it arrives in all its coming of age, will be an unprecedented phenomenon. The interrelating of the world's religions must then be attempted in similarly unprecedented ways.

Each of us will be involved in this effort in terms of the religious identity we bring to it. From my own perspective the following developments seem inexorable:

  1. We face the end of evangelism as we have known it. It must be radically revised: The task of the Christian communities will entail the exportation of the confesison of Jesus of Nazareth to be the Christ with no strings attached. It will always be central to Christian faith that what has happened in the coming of Jesus the Christ took place ``once and for all.'' But there will never be a defensible once-for-all understanding of that once-for-all-ness. We have always known this. We now must make it the point of departure of our reflections.
  2. Such efforts will feed the fundamentalism of the Christian right with frenzied energy. Schism within the churches, all of them, is inevitable. [In my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we are now facing the lunacy of those who de facto defend a doctrine of the verbal inspiration of 16th and 17th century confessions!]
  3. It may well be the case that a far-reaching forum for interaction between the religions will be the realting of theological efforts and religious convictions to the moving horizons of the natural sciences.
  4. All of our efforts will continue to be confronted by the cries of the oppressed. The work of the liberation theologians will face new demands, and some will resist these, but in any case the ever-present predicament of the poor is likely to be just as demanding, perhaps more so, as it is now.

There is much work to do, much heavy lifting is demanded -- so much so that the semiannual meetings of this society should be busy for years to come. Ethical urgency attends wrestling with these problems. Contextual integrity demands their recognition.