The Common Good
May-June 1997

Sewing Together the Fragments

by Brett Grainger | May-June 1997

Theologian Douglas John Hall's systematic approach.

"Please. Would you close the door? We don’t want the truth to get out." So Douglas John Hall addresses his undergraduates at the beginning of "The History of Christian Thought," a course that attracted more students of literature and philosophy than theology at Montreal’s McGill University.

Comments such as this do not fly unnoticed, generating amusement for some, while bewildering others. At a time when it’s considered more hip to "deconstruct" the major texts of the Western Canon than to experience them as cohesive works of beauty, Hall’s sense of humor sounds hopelessly romantic, if not absurd.

So, if the artsy agnostics crowd outnumbers the so-called "religious" in a class on theology, then why isn’t anybody reading it? Harper Publishing has estimated the market for serious theology in North America at around 12,000 people, and with the rising popularity of more emotive forms of worship, many Christians fail to see why they would want anything more than a well-thumbed King James on their nightstand. Yet Hall is emphatic about the increased relevance of theology in our time, even if he doesn’t expect to see his royalties match Deepak Chopra’s.

"I would never exchange the writing of some musicologist for a Bach partita or fugue—please!" he told me, in a voice recalling the rumbling of a distant summer thunderstorm. "However, if I’m going to understand as best I can the Bach partita or fugue, I had better read some musicology.

"The same you could say with literary criticism. I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov again for the umpteenth time! Who would ever exchange this wonderful book for any writing about it? And yet I’ve learned a lot which helps me to avoid misinterpretation of the story and to see depth in the story that otherwise I would have missed." According to Hall, theology acquires particular importance during a time of increased "movements of the Spirit." By drawing out clues hidden in the gospel, theology can be a check on questionable outbursts of the Spirit.

"A SYSTEMATIC theology always runs the risk of blasphemy or idolatry; that is, turning something living into something too easily understood, because life is never easily understood. And on the other hand, as a Christian, one feels that truth is one, that if something is true, it’s got to relate to everything else that is true."

Doug Hall is staring across the room as he takes time to answer my questions, legs crossed, hands folded in his lap when they aren’t engaged in securing a particularly difficult point for his listener. Hall frequently will pound the table to make a point, his voice rising to meet the hands in an impassioned thunderclap. It is easy to understand why he was such a popular teacher at McGill and continues to be a sought-after lecturer at colleges and retreat centers across Europe and North America.

Perhaps success as a lecturer kept Hall from discovering his gifts as a writer. In any event, he didn’t actively begin to seek publishing for his work until his mid-40s. And it wasn’t initially in the master plan to write a three-volume set (titled Thinking the Faith, Professing the Faith, and Confessing the Faith, respectively; see "The Substance of Hope," page 53) of systematic theology. That came about only after experiencing the increasing fragmentation of theology arising from the proliferation of what Hall labels "theologies of..." (among them the "death of God" school, feminist and gay theologies, the "theology of hope," and the various "theologies of liberation"). As Hall says, "Then I thought, ‘Well, no. Why always theology of...?’ So I was pushed into the systematic thing by context."

In the 19th century, theologians may have felt it their duty to produce weighty tomes of systematics, but by the time Hall came on the scene, nothing could have been less in vogue. Unity was out; fragmentation was in.

The fragmentation that concerns Hall is not unique to contemporary Christianity. In fact, it can be situated as part of a larger trend known as "post-modernity," a catch-all generally meant to refer to the dismantling of the great expectations of the modern age, particularly its faith in reason and uninterrupted Western progress. "I don’t think anybody really knows what this means, except it’s after modernity," Hall says. "People say [modernity’s] finished, and something else has come in its place. And what this something is is fragmentary: It is bits and pieces. It is MTV: big pictures but no connections."

It has to be sweetly ironic for Hall that in the post-modern context, systematic theology, the drive to see the world holistically, has become the most audacious theological statement possible. To assert that there is a center, to assert connection where others see only severed strands, becomes a strangely radical stance. Systematic theology is so out-of-fashion, it’s cutting edge again.

BORN IN 1928, on the verge of the Depression, Hall grew up the oldest of six children in the rural countryside of Innerkip, a tiny farming community in southern Ontario, Canada. Hall’s father was a railway worker and a lapsed Anglican known for his drinking; his mother was a teacher whose quiet church attendance did little to cool her son’s often vocal frustration with the moralism of his Sunday school teachers.

Though working class in his roots, Hall’s careful enunciation and developed vocabulary betray a link to the "British" Canada of another generation, which is not meant to imply that he enjoyed easy access to higher education. Following 10th grade, at his father’s request, Hall left school to help provide for his younger brothers and sisters by working in the business offices of a local newspaper.

It was not until 1948 that Hall returned to his studies—in music. It was while studying piano and composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto that he became "seriously committed" to the Christian faith and decided to pursue ordination in the United Church of Canada. Admitted as an adult student to undergraduate study at the University of Western Ontario in London, he was exposed to the great works of English literature, philosophy, and theology.

But Hall’s major break in theology came during seven years of study at New York’s famed Union Theological Seminary, the hotbed of theology in those days. Hall came under the influence of such giants as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and into the presence of visiting professors such as the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. During his first year at Union, he met Rhoda Palfrey, another student (and his future wife). Beyond their four children and family life, the partnership has been theological in nature, and Hall is quick to acknowledge the definitive contribution she has made to his work, as an editor and co-creator.

While finishing his doctorate, Hall spent a brief stint as a minister, but he was soon invited to become principal of a theological college in Ontario. In 1965, he took a position in systematic theology at the University of Saskatchewan, on the Canadian prairies. He taught there for a decade, until moving to McGill University in Montreal, where he continues to teach even after his retirement in 1995. In the year following, McGill honored Hall by making him emeritus professor.

BACK WHEN Christianity was the new kid on the block in the world religion scene—say, up until the second century A.D.—it was still not clear how the adolescent faith would work things out with its Jewish roots. As early as the writings of Paul, one can detect the fissures that would eventually send the followers of Jesus down the road to Rome rather than Jerusalem.

But what the vocabularies of Roman and Greek philosophy offered in precision and depth of thought, they lacked in appreciation of the Jewish experience of God: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Much of what had distinctively marked the early Jewish followers of Jesus was lost in the translation. (If you don’t believe me, just compare all that stuff in the Nicene Creed about Jesus being "one substance with the Father" with any gospel account of his relationship with God.)

And that’s just the content. There was also the form chosen by the church. According to Hall, Christendom, the organized political incarnation of Christianity that has pretty much held power in the West up until the recent rise of representative democracy, has always been more about putting people on crosses than empathizing with the crucified.

Even today, the head-rush that comes with empire still lingers with us in subtler ways, like our clinging fixation with "bigness." Contemporary Christian behemoths like the megachurch, Pope John Paul II’s dream to re-Christianize the world by the year 2000, and the Christian Coalition are better understood as Christianity’s "Battle of the Bulge"—last-ditch efforts to deny dwindling numbers through the fabrication of false political and religious majorities.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is good reason to believe that redirecting our limited resources from quantitative concerns to whether or not the content of our faith is worth professing is a much more appropriate response to our situation. To perceive the church’s impact in terms of sheer numbers—as some sort of holy blitzkrieg—instead of on the basis of its message and mission is to forget Jesus’ own description of the community of the faithful as "salt," "light," and "yeast" for the world.

As Hall often says, "Who wants a whole plate of salt?" Before adherents got mixed up in the business of running an empire, he argues, Christianity was about smallness, not greatness. Being the church was being a small yet influential minority, a speck of yeast in the enormous breadbasket of the world. Whether or not organized Christianity will survive into the next millennium is not really the question, according to Hall. More important is whether or not it will still be salty enough to warrant a place on the dinner table.

If all this talk about getting into smallness spooks you, it should be comforting to know that Christianity’s predicament is not unprecedented. In 70 A.D., when the second temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, what was then the Hebrew people were expelled from their homeland and entered a "Diaspora" phase, becoming "strangers in a strange land."

No doubt, the destruction of the temple was traumatic to Jewish identity, but Jewish migration into majority Christian and Muslim cultures did little to diminish the positive contributions they were able to make as a minority tradition. The crisis of identity necessitated a creative response, and the synagogue appeared to fill the void left by the destruction of the temple while accommodating the new emphasis on daily prayer and teaching advocated by the emerging rabbinical leaders.

Quoting a conversation with Rabbi Irving Greenberg, Hall reinforces this urgent need to shift from maintaining an illusion of numerical supremacy to an emphasis on teaching and passing on the tradition. "‘We became the synagogue. Now you have to become the synagogue.’...I see more and more the connection between the faith of Israel and the faith of the church, to the point that I think that, unless the church is able to recover its authentic Hebraic roots, it’s going to continue even more and more to be a rootless community, a fragmented thing. A thing that is subject to every wind of change."

BRETT GRAINGER is a free-lance journalist and former Sojourners intern currently living in Montreal, Canada.

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