Seeking a new basic theology

Rethinking Fundamental Theology
by Gerald O’Collins, SJ
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, £18.99 paperback; also available in hardback, £37.99).

Martin Henry

At the outset of his study, Gerald O’Collins engagingly admits, as if to forestall inevitable criticism, that the task he has set himself in this volume (released as a paperback in 2013) “could readily appear an improbable project” (p. 5).

This is because fundamental theology, as a separate discipline within theology, has tended recently to be dismissed as a thinly disguised form of irrational ‘fundamentalism’, or as a kind of hyper-rational ‘foundationalism’, leaving nothing unexplained in a robust defence of Christianity.

In seeking to resuscitate the discipline of ‘fundamental theology’, the author seeks a golden mean between a wilful, anti-rational, simple assertion of religious convictions, which is how ‘fundamentalism’ has been perceived, and an exclusive reliance on reason alone, which foundationalism can perhaps be accused of.

Given the fact that Blaise Pascal is a frequently quoted writer in this book (his saying that Christ will be “in agony until the end of the world” is quoted on four separate occasions), it is not surprising to note that O’Collins’ approach echoes another famous idea found in Pascal: “There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

There, however, the comparison seems to peter out. O’Collins’ book lacks any of the power to move that Pascal’s writings on religion have in such abundance.


Admittedly, to measure any theologian or any thinker on religion against Pascal is to place the bar unfairly high. Even Heidegger, in the eyes of the celebrated Romanian sceptic E. M. Cioran, was, in comparison to Pascal, simply “a profession”, Pascal “a destiny”.

Yet, if the author sees himself as following in the footsteps of giants of fundamental theology, like Avery Dulles, Gerhard Ebeling, René Latourelle and Karl Rahner, all of whom, taking their cue from Scripture, sought “to offer a faithful and reasonable account of basic Christian beliefs and ‘give an account of their hope’ (1 Pet. 3: 15)” (p. 7), one might be entitled to expect that he would engage a bit more directly than he does with “objections to faith”, which he asserts he intends to deal with, and furnish a more “rational case for the central claims of faith” (p. 6).

Divine reality

To give just one example, in chapter 4 (‘General and Special Revelation’) the statement occurs: “It is the divine reality that evokes faith, not faith that ‘creates’ the divine reality”. (p. 62)

Surely some mention of Feuerbach’s critique of religious faith would not have gone amiss at this point.

Even if, like Golo Mann, one regards Feuerbach as simply a 19th Century sophist, his thought, for better or for worse, was vastly influential in his time and subsequently, and at least some refutation of his ‘projectionist’ explanation of religion might have been hinted at.

But Feuerbach’s name is not to be found in the ‘index of names’.

Nor, for that matter, are the names of the three best-known “masters of suspicion” of the modern age, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, for all the turmoil they caused for religious thought in their own day and since.

Now, it may well be high time for such thinkers to be taken down a peg or two by contemporary authors, but to ignore them entirely seems to border on the imprudent. The author has perhaps anticipated this kind of question, and given his answer, as when he recommends in chapter 10 (‘The Truth, Canon, and Interpretation of the Bible’) that the Bible be read “with consent (not suspicion)” (p. 261). Quite.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, while this book contains a huge amount of patient, informative, circumspect and reasonable writing (despite some serious slips in proofreading), it does not really take too seriously the caesura in the Christian tradition represented by the Enlightenment.

Whether this is its fatal weakness, or will be seen as its finest triumph, time will tell.


Martin Henry, sometime lecturer in theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, is a priest of the Diocese of Down and Connor