The end of Church Theology

Beatrice Addressing Dante by William Blake

“There would seem to be little doubt that we are now entering a period in which Christianity must confront the most radical challenge that it has faced since the time of its beginning. Certainly the churches are inadequately equipped to face such a challenge, and if we were forced to rely solely upon ecclesiastical Christianity to find a way to a new Christian life and witness, then we would very nearly be without hope. But there is no intrinsic reason why Christianity should be identified with its ecclesiastical expressions. Indeed, the identification of Christianity with the Christian Church may well be the major source of the troubles that now beset the Christian faith. This study has chosen to challenge this identification, and to do so with the conviction that there is no other way to a living and contemporary Christian faith. Few Protestants are aware of how much of our inherited Christian faith and witness has its source in an increasingly archaic ecclesiastical tradition, and even fewer theologians are willing to negate all those ecclesiastical norms and traditions which are incompatible with the contemporary life of faith. But there lies no way to a contemporary epiphany of Christ apart from a consistent and thoroughgoing transformation of the language and forms of all ecclesiastical Christianity.

A truly contemporary theology can only begin its task today by first seeking a ground outside of the given and established form of the Church. A sweeping transformation is taking place in the Church today, and even Catholic theologians are calling upon the Church to enter a post-Constantinian age, a historical era following the collapse of Christendom. Yet theology need not necessarily be bound to the life of the Church, not even to the vanguard of the Church, for theology must seek the presence of Christ in the world. The first duty of the Christian theologian is loyalty to Christ, and he must strive to open his thinking to the universal presence of Christ, to the presence of Christ in the totality of human experience. Above all, a contemporary form of theology is in quest of a contemporary form of Christ. In our situation this must mean that theology is now called to listen fully to the world, even if such a listening demands a turning away from the church’s witness to Christ. At a time when Christian theology is called upon to pass through the most radical revolution in its history, the theologian must not be thwarted from his goal by a false loyalty to the authority of the Church.”

— Thomas J. J. Altizer, preface of The Gospel of Christian Atheism


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