Theology needs radical revisioning

  • (Unsplash/Jeff Golenski)

    (Unsplash/Jeff Golenski)

In August 2018, the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg boldly went on a school strike to oppose climate change and inspired thousands of youth around the world to do the same. She has gone before parliaments and government officials to speak openly and passionately on behalf of a wounded and dying Earth. Her talks have evoked applause and agreement.

While the situation on climate change remains unchanged, the media this past week divulged another scandal in the Diocese of Wheeling, West Virginia, this time exposing the exorbitant lifestyle of Bishop Michael Bransfield, former rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Ho hum ... here we go again.

In the meantime, Pope Francis decided to modify a few words in the well-known prayers, the Our Father and the Glory Be. Really? There is something disturbingly wrong with this picture.

The officials, whether in church or government, are listening but not listening, interested but apathetic, agreeing but not really agreeing. In 1967, the historian Lynn White wrote a controversial paper, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," in which he blamed Christianity for the environmental problem, primarily because of its radical anthropocentrism and otherworldly focus. White said that the problems of the environment are essentially religious and thus the solution must be religious as well.

What does a "religious solution" to the environmental problem look like in a church that seems to be riddled with dysfunction?

The media has brought to our attention that we have an institutional crisis and it will not go away anytime soon. A crisis is defined as a rapidly deteriorating situation that, if left unattended, will lead to disastrous results. In other words, the crisis of the church will perpetuate as long as we assent to the institution — because the crisis is embedded in the structure of the institution itself.

But the crisis does not belong to the clergy alone; we also have a crisis of academic theology. It is not simply the conservatives versus the liberals or pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II theology. Academic theology, like the hierarchical church, is deeply patriarchal: By this, I mean there is a top-down, narrow-minded mentality that runs through it.

One has only to recall how theology began at the university in the Middle Ages. Growing out of the monastic schools, theology acquired a formal method of study through the rise of scholasticism and the logical approach to theological questions. This was a male endeavor and contentious between the secular clergy and those of religious orders. Student enrollment was based on the quality and effectiveness of the professor — no students, no job. The Dionysian hierarchy was the background of this rank-and-file order and impacted who had a position at the university.

In the 13th century, a conflict erupted when William of St. Amour, a member of the secular clergy, publicly lambasted the Franciscans for occupying the chairs of theology at the University of Paris. After all, the Franciscan were friars and on a lower in rank in the Dionysian hierarchy than priests and bishops. The gradual encroachment of the newly formed mendicant orders into the university was the immediate cause of this conflict.

The secular clergy had previously enjoyed unrivaled teaching privileges at Paris, but the friars presented a serious challenge to their monopoly, gaining a number of prominent lecturing posts: The career of Bonaventure is indicative of the friars' rising stature in academia. The seculars bitterly resented this incursion, and engaged in a prolonged conflict with the friars. According to Matthew Paris' Chronica Majora, this controversy brought the university to a point of near-collapse. The pope eventually sided with the Franciscans and William of St. Amour was excommunicated and exiled from France.

Cultures are born from the repeated patterns of systems. The university system of theology and the hierarchy of clergy were entangled systems in the Middle Ages. Faith and reason were structured together according to a particular male mindset that played out in the structures of religious life as well as the structures of the church.

The Reformation reinforced the need for apologetical theology and a closed system of power and authority. The clergy were trained in such an environment, giving rise to an elitism, as if their well-honed philosophical arguments and theological methods gave them private access to God over the hoi polloi.

Those who did try to challenge the authority of the church on theological matters were either silenced, exiled or burned at the stake, such as the Dominican Giordano Bruno, who speculated on an infinite world.

In our time, the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin tried to push the boundaries of theology in order to awaken the church to a new age of consciousness brought about by modern science. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith placed a monitum (warning) on his writings in 1962, primarily because of his position on original sin, and there has been a recent effort in the academy to "trash Teilhard" (as John Haught wrote in his recent Commonweal article).

I find the dismissal of Teilhard appalling and the distortion of his ideas is mind-boggling. Recently, I asked a theologian who is a scholar of Cardinal Henri De Lubac about De Lubac's relationship to Teilhard. He replied in a dismissive manner with a sleight of hand: "I don't pay attention to Teilhard."

The academy and the church do not pay attention to any ideas outside the accepted canon of theologians, books and rubrics. It is a coded club through and through. There is a well-known saying that is relevant to the state of affairs in the church and the academy: "You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created the problem." What makes Teilhard (and others such as Richard Rohr) so appealing is that they approach contemporary theological out of a new framework with new language that evokes new images and new inspirations.

It is difficult to descend the Dionysian ladder and embrace evolution, not as a concept for scholastic argument but as the deepest reality of our existence. We are in movement, which means everything of God, including creation, human personhood, social justice, everything, must be considered from the point of movement.

In the early 20th century, scientists realized that concepts such as biological essentialism, Brownian movement and the atomic number were no longer appropriate to describe nature. Rather, new principles were discovered such as complex dynamical systems, cybernetics and information.

What would an open systems theology look like instead of 19th- and 20th-century systematics? What would a complex dynamic ecclesiological system look like instead of 20th-century ecclesiology? The hierarchy of theology needs radical revisioning if we are to address the needs of the Earth. An integrative vision of science and theology is not an option but essential in the 21st century.

[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of 16 books, including Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015), and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe.]