Some of my favorite theologians to read are grand synthesizers who are capable of building conceptual systems of theology that are very beautiful things indeed to explore, linger, and wander about in. Two that come immediately to mind are Hans Urs von Balthasar and Thomas Torrance. Balthasar in particular is one of the greatest examples of holisitic thinkers. His thought is one of the grandest intellectual projects in all of theological history encompassing the breadth of Western philosophy, theology, and literature.
What I find most alluring about Balthasar is the degree to which his theology offers and answer to virtually everything. Balthasar’s system is able to incorporate almost any objection, perspective, insight, or particularity. It accounts for almost everything in advance. This is what makes is beautiful, impressive, and alluring. And I think it may be his greatest weakness.
I am becoming more and more convinced that there is a sort of inadvertent quest for totality at work in the thought of many theologians who put forth such aesthetic, holistic projects. David Bentley Hart strikes me as another recent example. There is a sort of Promethean longing in many theological projects for a holistic metadiscourse that is able to seamlessly situate both contesting perspectives and complimentary insights, accounting for them in advance from within. The attempt to be holistic and comprehensive in theology often mask a covert desire for conceptual neatness and security.
This is not to say that I am not impressed with or have no sympathies for these projects. They are, in fact some of the greatest pieces of theology I have read. The problem I have, or at least the lingering question I have about them concerns the degree to which they strive for a sort of premature closure that shuts out the possibility of being unsettled and disturbed by what may be discovered in the course of the theological task. The questions are all too often settled in advance. This is the haunting problem of such metatheologies. Beneath the gothic arches of these beautiful systems lurk the ghosts of forgotten voices, neglected witnesses, elusive protests subtly silenced. The quest for a holistic theology, then, is something that is suspect. To what degree does our longing for a holistic theology mask a sort of methodological Constantinianism that grasps after conceptual closure and wants to foreclose the possibility of dissonance and dislocation?
Too often I fear that theologians’ agendae are centered more on the desire to rule out disruptive difference that to cultivate the sort of Christic dispositions that would enable us to welcome such disruptions as divine gifts. The theologians’ task is not, then, to construct holistic systems that are able to situate and account for all contesting voices and challenges. Rather, the theological task is to call the church to the kenotic posture of self-dispossessive openness to the Word of God in Christ which always lies beyond us, welcoming us in the insecurity of promise, trust, and hope–the en via life of the pilgrims.