I remember paging through a book of collected photographs and articles about Johnny Cash (above right) which Rolling Stone issued shortly after the country music icon died in 2003. One of the authors described how we shall never have another Johnny Cash because the cultural conditions that could create a Johnny Cash—hand-picking cotton in the Southern sun, cross-country train rides, rugged stone prisons—no longer exist.
That article came to mind as I recently read of the death of the Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx (above left). To be sure, Schillebeeckx was not to twentieth-century Catholic theology what Cash was to twentieth-century country music (the argument for the Cash-equivalent would have to be between Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, with Schillebeeckx being more of a Merle Haggard-type). Still, the Belgian Dominican’s death calls to mind the brilliant theologians of the twentieth century, whose collective theological sun stood at high noon in the heady and optimistic 1960’s. It also reminds one that that sun has now all but set.
In a review of Fergus Kerr’s Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians, R. R. Reno labeled the theological giants of the last century the “Heroic Generation.” Reno argues that in overcoming—destroying, even—the neoscholastic theology of their day, the theologians of the Heroic Generation disassembled the very foundations which allowed them to build their grand theological edifices. The result, according to Reno: “The most creative members of the Heroic Generation are now strangely inaccessible to us. Their achievement has been hollowed out—in part, at least, by its own success. Their revolution destroyed the theological culture that gave vitality and life to their theological projects.” And thus, Reno asserts, “The collapse of neoscholasticism has not led to the new and fuller vision sought by the Heroic Generation. It has created a vacuum filled with simple-minded shibboleths.” In conclusion, Reno argues for a “renewed standard theology,” saying that “We need to overcome the now old modern myth of new beginnings and recognize that the Heroic Generation achieved so much of permanent value because they were formed in a church culture already shaped by a refined, cogent, and considered standard theology.”
Reno is correct to point to a current dearth of theological savants. Survey the contemporary Catholic intellectual scene: What theologian writing today rivals the caliber of a Balthasar or a Rahner, a Congar or a de Lubac? (Since we allow comments on this blog, that need not be just a rhetorical question. And while we are at it, I would be interested in hearing who you think are the best theologians writing today . . .)
The reason, I would like to suggest, such thinkers no longer exist is that the intellectual and cultural conditions capable of producing such high-level theologians no longer exist. The classical education men in the Heroic Generation received from an early age is now almost non-existent. Graduate students today—already well into their twenties and thirties—struggle to learn Latin and Greek when scholars of an early generation had a facility—and sometimes fluency—in these languages early in their youth. Moreover, many theologians of the Heroic Generation emerged from a Catholic societal milieu in which the Faith was something one lived and breathed in all aspects of life—something which is helpful, even if not necessary, for grooming first-rate theologians.
To watch more than an isolated one or two theologians of the acumen of the Heroic Generation rise again will take far more than a renewal of a standard theology, even if that may be a step in the right direction. It will take the creation of intellectual and cultural conditions in which potential theological genius can be nourished and given all that it needs to flourish.
The mission of the brilliant theologians of the past century was a glorious one of propelling the Church into uncharted theological waters and embarking on grand theological projects. Ironically, the importance of those missions, in some cases, was the cause of their very defeat as they became crippled by hubris. In contrast, perhaps the mission of ecclesial theologians today has something of a John-the-Baptist quality to it, that is, preparing the way for the work of future theological giants by quietly and humbly piecing together a fecund Catholic intellectual culture. The humble nature and seeming insignificance of that task might be the very key to its success.