In the church today we are witnessing the rise of a new legalism, a new pharisaism. Subtle, largely unrecognized and steadily growing in power, it is beginning to choke off life. The legalism of our age is the legalism of a scientific theologizing, a rigid historically based liturgics and a new canonicity and hunt for orthodoxy that are operating too much in isolation from creativity, imagination and piety. Don’t get me wrong. I am a theologian, solidly committed to defending scholarship. I will go to my grave defending the necessity of scientific scholarship in theology as well as the need for academic freedom for theological research. Heaven knows, our faith and piety are intellectually underdeveloped; a fact which should be daily decried. We are too much a people whose intellectual faith development has not kept pace with our other developments. Intellectually too often, our faith is infantile, we understand little more than we did on the day of our Confirmation. Small wonder that for so many of us our faith is unable to meet the test of an intellectually sophisticated modern life!
As well, if history has made one fact clear it is that every time there is a decline in scholarship and/or an anti-intellectualism in the church, the church declines, an imbalance sets in, and superstition replaces faith. So what is my point? We must be careful that the very scholarship which helped unseat a former legalism does not itself claim that idolatrous throne. Theological scholarship, the scientific and historical study of our faith, can easily become a new form of pharisaism. How? The salient aspect of a harmful pharisaism is that a pharisee is first of all totally confident that he/she is dealing the final truth and, thus, there is always a disdain for others who are less informed. That aspect is too present in some circles of today’s church. Moreover, the deadliest aspect of a harmful pharisaism is a self-blindness, the pharisee never suspects that he or she is a pharisee. Rather the feeling is that what he/she is teaching is precisely the way, truth and life. Today among the community of professional theologians and liturgists, and among the new breed of persons who are so suddenly keen on canon law, pharisaism is a real danger. Much good is happening as misunderstandings, superstitions, religious and liturgical accretions, and a lot of simple bad scholarship is being moved beyond.
However, what is less praiseworthy is that daily our church is growing less creative, less imaginative, less pious and more restrictive. Every day there is a little less room to move. When I look at theologians in the past, people such as Augustine and Origen for example, I see that their works are full of piety, metaphor, allegory, inaccuracies, wishful thinking and simple bad scholarship. Facetiously, one doubts that either Augustine or Origen would be able to get a Louvain or Harvard doctorate, unless they seriously curbed their imaginations and tightened up their scholarship. What thesis board would approve Augustine’s views on the Incarnation? Yet, what an inspiration they are! His words are full of flesh and blood, sin and sex, guilt and expiation, imagination and piety. How unlike so much of what appears in church circles today, stuff that reads like a computer printout, information without passion. Yet, heartless information of itself is not dangerous. The danger lies in a certain theological, liturgical, canonical and dogmatic Nazism, that is, in the guest for a purity, an eliteness, a super-race which becomes oppressive and death dealing. Our present over-infatuation with scientific scholarship, purity of doctrine, and strict canonical and liturgical norms, does to the church what an over-infatuation with the empirical sciences did to the world, namely, it starves the heart. It is like putting someone on a diet of antiseptics; one will never die of poisoning, but there is nothing to nourish the body!
It is interesting to note that even in the sphere of science, the greatest scientists of our age, Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck and Bohr, distinguished themselves not so much by their research skills as by their imaginations. Unlike their colleagues, who also had great research skills, they were able to construct imaginative models and use metaphors and analogy. What else is Einstein’s theory of relativity other than a good imaginative guess? The great Protestant theologian, F. Schleiermacher once said that “the guess” is still the best means of understanding. That is what this plea is for; namely, that theologians, Scripture scholars, liturgists, canonists and church leaders back off just a little and leave some room for “the guess,” for the heart, for the imagination, for a piety in which there is a lot of wishful thinking and a lot of guessing. Whenever that happens, we end up eating a whole lot more than just antiseptics; we end up eating some poison, that is true, but there is unleashed a flood of poetry, romance, emotion, mysticism and insight that comes from love’s eye.