Christianity today doesn’t look like Christianity in the time of Paul. Christianity today doesn’t look like Christianity in the time of Augustine, Luther, or Kierkegaard. It doesn’t even look like Christianity did when your grandparents were young.
The Christian religion is an organic thing, shifting and morphing, reassessing its relation to the culture around it. It sometimes changes to accommodate and learn from developments in the outside world, but it also responds to and rebukes, even transforms the world. Undoubtedly, the heart of the faith is an unmoving foundation, but the face of the Christian faith has always provided a fresh answer to the questions and woes of life.
In the last century or so, countless suggestions have been made for conceptualizing Christianity. Different movements and thinkers have stepped forward to offer a comprehensive theology for the faith. This week, I want to outline some of those and take note of the diverse directions in the Christian tradition.
Of course, any discussion of theological trends must start by acknowledging the dominant traditions in Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Western Protestantism. These massive forces in the Church still provide the framework or starting point for most theological projects today.
Catholicism and theologies coming out of it are centered on a tradition that stands alongside their sacred text; they emphasize the history of God’s Church. Today, Catholicism is shaped by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the Church that directed Christians toward a more open experience of the world, most notably encouraging Catholic thinkers to engage in biblical criticism.
The Eastern Orthodox Church bears many similarities to the Roman Catholic Church on account of their ancient ecumenical origins, but it departs significantly in its emphasis on the mystery of theology. Eastern Orthodoxy has reentered western discussions of religion and philosophy because of its coherent answer to postmodernism.
Modern Protestantism, subdivided in denominations and movements, is too diverse to give any real, meaningful synopsis. Still, its Reformation origins suggest that theology coming out of Protestant circles values Scripture over History and is not afraid to attack traditional ideas of the faith.
With this background established, we can zoom-in on some of the more specific theological projects of the 20th and 21st centuries. Though the following three projects are claimed less and less by contemporary circles, understanding more recent theologies depends on understanding these formative movements.
The first and oldest of the three is Liberal Protestantism. While overlap exists, Liberal Protestants are not simply progressive or leftist protestants; rather the title refers to a movement that—specifically—found God primarily in one’s own experience of God and—more broadly—tried to incorporate the insights of secular philosophy into religion.
Many movements are said to be “in response” to Liberal Protestantism which dominated the West after the Enlightenment, but none are as influential as the Dialectical theologians (also called Neo-orthodox or crisis theologians). Its most famous advocate was Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian working before and during WWII; he taught that we ought not look outward for truth but to God’s revelation in which he meets us and convicts us of our sin. Dialectical theology emphasizes the need for faith.
Ignoring the voice of the dialectical theologians, some saw a specific secular philosophy as relevant for Christian theology—thinkers like Charles Hartshorne and John B. Cobb adapted Process philosophy into Process theology. Process theology holds, among many other beliefs, that God is changeable and experiences time along with the world. In respecting free-will, God cannot be omnipotent but offers possibilities. While there are still those who identify with Process theology, its influence is most felt among those who identify as “open theists.”
The next big movement in theology came in the 60s in the form of political and special interest theologies. In school, you’ll typically study these beginning with the Liberation theology of Jürgen Moltmann, Latin American Catholic priests like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Óscar Romero, and Black theologians like James Cone. These three projects, all distinct, find common ground in their acknowledgement of God’s emphasis on liberating the oppressed and the hope found therein.
Other special interest theologies have risen up in parallel or in consequence to Liberation theology, the most prominent being feminism. Feminist theology seeks to account and correct for clear male bias and patriarchal influence in the Christian religion.
More recently, Queer theology has also gained momentum in Christian circles. Queer theology seeks the sexual and gender minority in the biblical text and reinterprets the Christian faith through a liberating lens in order to better accommodate the LGBT community.
Instead of focusing on the liberation of the oppressed, some have emphasized the liberation of God’s created world. Christian environmentalism and reassessments of food ethics are thus as much an outflowing of special interest theology as Black, Feminist, or Queer theology.
While the following Christian movements existed earlier in the 20th century, they took their current form in response to the aforementioned radical theologies. They are in this way theologies of conservatism while simultaneously introducing novel approaches to the faith.
The first such response is that of evangelical Christianity, a trans-denominational movement within Protestantism, including my own fellowship. The United States contains the largest concentration of evangelicals, distinguished by its emphasis on salvation through grace and the need to spread the gospel of Christ.
Related (and possibly a sub-group, depending on who you’re asking) is the Pentecostal movement. Pentecostalism, most commonly associated with ecstatic gifts and speaking in tongues, is the largest Protestant denomination and is actually best distinguished by its prioritization of baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Though the debate ebbs and flows, evangelical Christianity has continually dealt with the issues of faith and science. For some, this is the foremost concern of theology and religion, demanding that Christians defend the faith from external attacks. Arguments here center on evolution—biological, cosmological, and psychological—as well as philosophical and sociological concerns.
The newest theological projects to garner large followings deal primarily with theories of epistemology (how we know truth) and restating the value of the Christian heritage over-against secular worldviews.
Most pervasive of these is the school of thought called postliberalism (or narrative theology) associated with Yale. As the name implies, it is a response against Liberal Protestantism, insisting that Christian identity is not found in accommodating outside philosophies and ideas but by doubling-down on the distinctive identity of Christianity.
A more recent approach is Canonical theism, a project that while interested in epistemology, claims that no theory of knowledge is inherent to Christianity—rather all theology must begin with those features that are inherent to the faith, the features found in Christianity’s “canonical” heritage. This heritage is nebulous and indeterminate, but we begin to find it in Scripture as well as early creeds, councils, saints, hymns, and—most of all—the doctrine of the Trinity.
Today, all of these diverse approaches are present in the academy and in church settings. Probably the most prominent if you open a recent journal of religion or simply check your Facebook are the theologies of liberation. More than ever, these theological projects are needed to answer pressing questions for our society. In each of them, the newer and the older, the special interested and the orthodox, there is an attempt to describe the indescribable God. And that is the duty of Christians—that impossible task—and so we continue to study and assess and build on these theologies of God.