What Is Living, What Is Dead in Christianity Today?
Breaking the Liberal-Conservative Deadlock
by Charles Davis
San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986

In his latest offering, the British-Canadian theologian, Charles Davis, has written a book that may well provoke more serious discussion, despite its less popular style, than did his A Question of Conscience two decades ago. This time it is not simply Roman Catholicism that is called into question, but the whole of Christianity, and more immediately, its whole theological enterprise. Intended as the "prolegomenon" to "a critical theology ...[based] on a critical theory of society and history" (p.4) Davis believes that he has stumbled upon (as the subtitle indicates) a key to "breaking the liberal-conservative deadlock" that demands consideration in its own right.

Davis begins both by stressing the centrality of religious belief for the survival of the human race and by proclaiming the breakdown of the ability of the "symbol system" of Christianity to lay claim to universal validity or ability to insure the accomplishment this vital task. The time has come (indeed is long overdue) that we face this fact and begin to critically discern what is salvageable to meet the challenge that awaits us.

The key that Davis presents is four models or modes of expression that the Christian faith has taken during the course of history. Following Hayden White's tropological analysis of the metaphoric patterning of thought, relating these to Norththrope Frye's four modes of dramatic emplotment, Stephen Pepper's four methods of philosophical argument, and even to a fourfold modification of Karl Mannheim's varieties of ideological orientation, Davis comes up with a four basic forms of Christianity: the mythical (total order as absolute), the pragmatic (Christianity as a practical way of life), the visionary (new world in contrast to the old), and the mystical (unmediated experience of the Absolute) in turn. Each of these is typlified, correspondingly, as being either "conservative", "liberal", "radical", or "anarchical" in terms of its ideological implications.

Although he sees primitive Christianity as predominantly "visionary" (contrasting the new world or new age to the old), Davis designates mythical Christianity as having been the primary mode of Christian self-understanding from the time of Constantine onwards. It is this "mythical" mode, founded on obsolete world-views and giving rise to various "metaphysico-theological" syntheses, that has become most unconvincing, not just because of unverifiable metaphysical claims in the face of modern science, but also because of the attempts to establish Christianity as the system of salvation, whether explicitly and exclusively so, or more implicitly as when camouflaged in more contemporary "inclusive" approaches to other religions.

Furthermore, not only is this failing once-dominant mode of Christianity still vociferously defended by Christian conservatism today, but it is also in essence, although by radically different approaches, still defended by the followers of more "liberal" thinkers such as Teilhard, Rahner, Lonergan, and, most recently, David Tracy. Such theological efforts, no matter how innovative or brilliant, are not only futile, but as far as Davis is concerned, are essentially retrogressive.

The answer, according to Davis, is to be found in a more pragmatic Christianity that is broadly "liberal" in outlook. However, Davis's understanding of this "pragmatic liberalism" must not be confused with the kind of doctrinaire liberalism of the enlightenment with its stress on individualism and privatization of ethics and morality. Instead, the liberalism Davis would promote would preserve the "conservative" (not to be confused with reactionary) respect for community and tradition as an on-going historical processes. It would also share conservatism's distrust of utopianism, yet at the same time retain a "transformative" vision inspired by Christianity's transcendent core.

Despite its conservative elements, such an eclectic approach would nevertheless remain pragmatically liberal in its stress on the function of critical reason and its rejection of the pretensions of speculative reason and theological metaphysics. Instead, it would found its theology in a renewal of the great search for the historical Jesus as the exemplar of human moral integrity and courage, rejecting "both the dogmatic claim to an immutable body of revealed doctrines and the ecclesiastical claim to a divinely appointed hierarchy" (p. 84).

While Davis readily admits his debt in all this to the early "liberals" (Ritschl, Harnack, etc.) what is needed is more than just a revival of liberal Protestantism and the social Gospel. Although he singles out the early Catholic "modernists" such as Tyrrell as exemplars of what he means by retaining the transformative principle of Christianity, he curiously leaves out any mention of contemporary collaborators in this effort, such as Küng or Schillebeeckx.

Davis, however, would add two more elements to his deadlock-breaking brew. His pragmatic-liberal version of Christianity will become a living force only if it allows itself to be refertilized by something of the radicalism of a visionary Christianity. But modern Christian radicalism must be purged of its present tendencies to fall back on either biblical literalism or of any futile efforts at reestablishing the all-encompassing theological world-views associated with mythical Christianity. (Davis hints that he sees such flaws in Liberation Theology.)

This, in turn, requires that the "anarchial" or relativizing tendencies of "mystical" Christianity (that has always, even if clandestinely, undermined the pretensions of dogmatic absolutism) be brought to bear on mythical and visionary Christianity alike. At the same time, the pragmatic emphasis will counterbalance the tendency of mysticism to withdraw from the exigencies of involvement with this world. In this way, Davis would appear to be calling not simply for a truce between liberals and conservatives, but for a coalition or collaborative effort to revitalize the Christian message.

What are the chances for this revitalization of Christianity being actually accomplished? Davis points to the possibility of a "new confluence of modernity and mysticism" (page 104) as prophesied by Schleiermacher and Troeltsch as the agent of Christian influence on the world, with a renewed appeal to the transformative power of Christianity's undying vitality as "a way of life ...rooted in the experience of transcendent love". The life and writing of Thomas Merton is cited as an example of such a socially transformative mysticism.

Oddly, Davis seems to miss the great significance of Teilhard's efforts in precisely this regard -- his this-worldly spirituality and its influence on Lumen Gentium and post-Vatican II thinking. Instead, Davis focuses on Teilhard as having only having produced a "restatement of the Christian myth, using modern science symbolically" (page 66). I would question whether it was not just the opposite -- a mystico-mythological presentation of modern science, using Christian symbols. Even such a reactionary critic of Teilhard as Maritain understood this as a radical reorientation of Christian priorities, "a kneeling before the world"!

Davis spends much more time on his criticism of Rahner (see pages 57-9) believing that because of Rahner's insistence upon finding in the "categorical" revelation of Christianity a degree of certitude that can only belong to the universal "transcendental" that Rahner's efforts only result in a more subtle form of a return the exclusive claims of dogmatic mythology, relegitmatized under the canon of salvation for "anonymous Christians".

Lonergan (whose genius Davis believes was greater still) comes in for similar criticism (see esp. pages 62-72) for not having realized that the "conversional" theme of his Method in Theology calls into question the specifically dogmatic implications of his otherwise stupendous epistemological achievement of his earlier Insight. In terms of his categorization, Davis believes that Lonergan really was pointing toward the core of radicalized "liberal" Christianity instead of the breakthrough in dogmatics that he seems to have imagined he could achieve.

What then is the future of theology? Having disposed of Teilhard, Rahner, and Lonergan as appparently having been engaged in the futile task of preaching only to the converted, Davis goes on to question (pages 102-4) David Tracy's treatment of the theological project as "public discourse" in The Analogical Imagination. Here Davis seems even more negative. Davis considers such discourse in the realm of systematic theology a dead letter within the "ecclesial public" of the Roman Catholic Church, and as far as the supposed "academic public" and the "public at large", as the proper locales of foundational (philosophic) and moral theology respectively, Davis believes that no such publics exist in any dialogically meaningful way. Theology, at best, ends up talking to itself.

Having thus disposed of much of modern Christian thought, what is left of or still living in Christianity? Davis concludes that once we have dispensed of the dogmatic pretentions of theology, there can still can be an "authentic conversation" centered in our experience of Christianity as "... a way of life, rooted in the experience of the reality of transcendent love and finding its cognitive expression in a symbolic heritage that serves to give continuity to the various patterns of Christian experience, enabling them to pass from the past into the present and from the present into the future" (page 123).

Nicely put, but is this enough? -- how can this Christian sense of continuity be passed on from generation to generation (a question that Davis himself asked, and left unanswered, not too long ago in an article in the National Catholic Reporter without a distinctive Christian world-view, complete with specific credal or doctrinal content? It appears that Davis has painted himself into a corner and that we should remain skeptical of his "pragmatic" approach as offering any final solution. One might wish that Davis had himself paid a little more attention to the researchers in religious education and psychology and had come up with a bit more hard data before pronouncing on the death of mythical Christianity or the demise of academic theology.

For example, Davis's four-part type-casting of Christianity into the "Mythical", "Pragmatic", "Visionary" and "Mystical" modes resembles (with some renaming and a few other adjustments, including a transposing of the middle two terms) the final four stages of James W. Fowler's "stages of faith".*

The persistence of inherited world-views and their mytho-theological elaborations in the "Conventional" stage of faith is, by definition, widely prevalent. Visionary radicalism flourishes in many varieties of "Individual-Reflexive Faith" and the liberal pragmatism of what Fowler calls "Paradoxical-Consolidative" or "Conjunctive Faith" abounds wherever psychological maturity and the appreciation of all or most of humanity's great religions (including a commitment to one's own) coincide. Finally, true self-transcendence can be found wherever a "Universalizing Faith" takes root in a genuinely "mystical" life that is not disengaged from the world.

What is most fascinating about this parallel that Davis has overlooked is that it should caution us about several things that he appears to take for granted. One is that the metaphysico-theological world-views that typlify the "synthetic-conventional" stage are quite distinct from the "literal-mythic" stage that generally precedes it (converts to fundamentalism revert to it, most likely out of security needs). Still, the "mythical" and "onto-theological" forms of thinking are normal as well as necessary elements of faith development that most persons pass through -- if not often remain in. Furthermore, once a truly personal faith matures beyond the reactive phase necessary for the purification or refinement of earlier stages and ideas, a reappropriation of "myth" (as constituent of a rethought and maturing world-view) is a hallmark of a "Paradoxical" or "Conjunctive" faith.

Indeed, besides questioning any claim of pragmatism or liberalism to be free of metaphysical presuppositions or to result in a vision of reality that does not involve, at least implicitly, a Weltanschauung or world-view of some sort, it appears that Davis's attempts to jettison "onto-theology" and "metaphysico-theological" speculation are highly unrealistic. While any world-view must be questionable as far as it be taken for granted except as an adequate starting point for an understanding of Christian life, nevertheless (as all good missioners know) one must start from wherever one's hearers "are at." Furthermore, current research (such as that conducted by The Religious Education Association of the United States and Canada**) suggests that while a maturing faith, almost of necessity, results in a reappropriation and rearticulation of such world-views, that nevertheless a fully mature, "universalized" faith is able to both value as well as relativize them all, including the claims for a strictly "pragmatic" view, once the full reality is encountered.

In sum, although Davis's book undoubtedly gives us a good insight into the typological or ideological modalities of religious thought -- something of major importance in its own right -- I suspect that the real key to breaking the liberal-conservative deadlock is not so much a question of intellectual analysis as it is mostly a matter of spiritual growth.***

R W Kropf - March 2, 1988

* See James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1981) as well as his more recent Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984).

** See Faith Development in the Adult Life Cycle - Module 1 as prepared by The Gallup Organization, Princeton, New Jersey, 1985, and Module 2, as prepared by Dr. Constance Leean, Lutheran Church in America, New York, NY, 1985.

*** See my own book, Faith: Security and Risk: The Dynamics of Spiritual Growth, Paulist Press, 1994, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2003.

Return to Review Index