This is an excellent article about a topic very dear to my heart. As I mentioned on my Facebook page the other day, I read this piece over the weekend and have been planning to offer at least some commentary on the matter, but due to the number of other matters about which to blog (Merton’s birthday, for example), it has been postponed. Here we go…

Paul Crowley, SJ, chair of the Religious Studies department at Santa Clara University, wrote a piece titled “Tomorrow’s Theologians: A New Generation Imagines the Future,” for the renowned Catholic weekly, America magazine.

It is overwhelmingly excellent. I really like the points that Crowley makes and the themes he courageously names as issues of importance for postmodern, postcolonial, post-Vatican II, Catholic theologians in a digitally hegemonic and culturally diverse age. There are issues suggested and questions raised in the article that will, undoubtedly, upset some outside of the academic theological world — things that would seem to be scandalous or appear to be flirting with heresy. Rest assured, such issues are nonetheless real concerns that need to be addressed, engaged and studied by the current and next generation of theologians, no matter how unorthodox they may to appear at first.

The responsibility of theology, as St. Anselm made clear in his now-classic definition, fides quaerens intellectum, is to seek understanding of our faith. To do so today requires theologians to engage in a correlative project akin to what Crowley describes. Science, culture, technology and other areas of intelligent human life need to be reckoned with in a theologically astute way. If we do not take seriously all the facets of human life and history, how can one truly understand our faith?

As I often remind my students, Revelation is not simply objective information handed down to us by God. Revelation is about relationship, the experience of knowing God throughout the course of human history, which is likewise the history of salvation. God continues that relationship with women and men, Revelation, in our own age.

Crowley names several characteristics of today’s theological students that he believes — at times in a way contrary to preconceived notions — will better able the next generation of theologians to work toward that academic understanding of our faith. These facets include idealistic realism, being pioneers, cultural expertise, spirituality (not religious), and a no-nonsense outlook on the Church.

Each of these features of the next generation of theologians, according to Crowley, manifests itself in ways that seem to predispose these young theologians for engagement in a theological renewal.

While it is possible to criticize this generation for being overly idealistic, for not taking the problem of evil seriously enough and for being too sanguine about the virtues of popular culture, today’s students also raise questions that their elders ignore at their own risk and at risk to the Gospel… These students are not rebels; they ask such questions from the standpoint of their own cultural reality and in a search for intellectually honest truth.

The article wraps up with the listing of “Five Guiding Principles,” which highlight the pressing issue that Crowley sees as central in this matter: “the issue is less one of content than of how to engage that content.” So true. It is a list rooted, one might say, in the wisdom of Pope John XXIII at the start of the Second Vatican Council. The content of the faith is not what needs to change, but the seeking to understand (and articulation) the faith, the engagement with or study of the faith, is what needs to be renewed.

The only critique I have of the article and subsequent internet supplement, Crowley’s list of “Promising Young Theologians,” is that both are weakened by an admittedly insular perspective. Crowley limits his take — and perhaps it is only the responsible thing to do — to Jesuit higher education. He is a Jesuit, working at a Jesuit college and publishing in a Jesuit periodical. The list of “promising young theologians,” is limited to those on faculty at Jesuit institutions. Unavoidable or not, this is a weakness in the article. 

Nevertheless, Crowley admits this:

While I write from a particular vantage point, that of Jesuit education, I hope that some of these ideas might prove relevant to other Catholic universities. The real news here for theological education is what students are bringing to the table, for these are tomorrow’s theologians, those who will bring about a resurgence of Catholic theology in the near future. That should give us hope.

And, yes, this optimistic look at the future of Catholic theology, one grounded in reality and not the incestuous and irrelevant repetition of scholastic or neoscholastic “theology” deployed by some who wish to maintain an idiosyncratic “catholic theology” within a ghetto mentality, is a source of hope.

But what about the limited number of positions in the academy for the next generation of theologians? Where will those who are not already in tenure-track positions at Jesuit schools (i.e., his ‘promising young theologians’) be able to do their innovative fides quaerens intellectum? These too are questions that face the next generation of young theologians.


1 Comment

  1. My dream for the new generation of theologians–and the one to follow them–is that they will do for the future of the Church what the “nouvelle theologie” theologians did for the Church in the two decades leading up to Vatican II…theologians like Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Edward Schillebeekx, Karl Rahner, Teilhard de Chardin, Urs VonBalthasar … thinkers who engaged prayerfully in ‘faith seeking understanding’. I believe, after decades of stuyding and teaching theology, that the key is ‘prayerfully’: without prayerfulness, theology becomes just another ‘science’, knowledge studied for its own sake. What makes theology authentic–in the service of the Church–is the prayerfulness of the theologian.

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