I recently finished Martin Thornton’s The Rock and the River thanks to recommendations from Fr. Cobb and others. Like his other books that I’ve read, it contains much valuable information that yet requires a certain amount of translation for the current American context. Typically, the translation is pond-differences; the Church of England is a different beast from The Episcopal Church and expectations about knowledge and practices aren’t necessarily the same. The translation here was different—less a translation in space, more of a translation in time.
This book is Thornton’s attempt to wrestle with the new directions in Protestant theology that erupted after World War II, specifically in terms of the Existential turn in Tillich and Bonhoeffer but also the reassessments exemplified in Robinson’s Honest to God. Thornton’s central thesis is that as the authors attempt to construct new systems of religious thought, they are fundamentally restating standard Christian teachings and goals—but casting aside the traditional means for attaining these goals.
Thornton tells us that his editions of the works of the New Theologians (as he terms them) are littered with the acronyn “YBH?” (Yes—but how?) indicating that here a great point has been made—but with no practical consideration of how the discussed spiritual state may be acheived. A case in point is one near and dear to my heart, Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship:
In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer, having poured derision on rules, rites, sacraments, and formal prayers, pleads for “costly grace which demands a genuine discipleship of obedience and exclusive attachment to Jesus Christ”. All will aplaud his sentiment, but what, in daily life is such “obedience”? Obedience to what? A moral code? No, for we have seen that this is impossible without grace. To a system of prayer? No, because anything so “formal” has been rejected. How do ordinary men and women, bankers, typists, farmers and nurses, achieve “exclusive attachment to Jesus Christ”? Certainly not by a superhuman act of will, or by an intellectual decision that this is the right way. “It is achieved,” continues Bonhoeffer, “only when the form of Jesus Christ itself works upon us in such a manner that it moulds our form in his own likeness.” Yes, but how? “When” introduces a perfectly orthodox theory about the work of grace in the human soul; and we are given only the negative statement that “this is not achieved by dint of efforts ‘to become like Jesus'”. The alternatives appear to be either a predestinarian quietism, in which grace acts within the chosen soul by divine fiat—or even as a sort of magic—or there must be some particular, practical, concrete method of responding to grace offered: in other words a proven regula. If this latter alternative is rejected, and Bonhoeffer would certainly not entertain the former, then we are left with an impassioned plea for a wonderful theory. (pp. 30-1)
Now—I don’t know if Thornton was aware of Bohoeffer’s Life Together which may answer this (it’s not cited in the book and my copy is in hiding), but Bonhoeffer is the single one of the New Theologians who comes closest to what Thornton is talking about and even he falls short.
As I look around at the beginning of our brave new century, I see that the direction of the New Theologians has only accelerated. So many of the laity and laity-who-become-clergy seem to have seized on the popularizing works of Borg, Crossan, Pagels et al. as the only alternative to fundamentalism or a rote unquestioning orthodoxy. And these folks take the existentialism and iconoclasm of the New Theologians and push them to new extremes.
I think Thornton’s point is still true: many of the icons they think they’re breaking are not icons at all but golden calves against which orthodoxy has always warned; many of the psycho-religious states these books advocate are again not contrary to classical orthodox teaching—but in rejecting traditional expressions of faith, they have jettisoned the tools through which we attain them.
Too, these orthodoxies are also mingled with material heresies in these books as well…
What Thornton offers, it seems to me, is a reminder that “Ascetical theology is the Church’s own built-in apparatus for taking intellectual and cultural change seriously and intelligently.” (15)
I need to think about this more, but all in all, Thornton once again points us in the right direction.