After a retreat into the confines of an academic discipline, theology is searching for ways to move beyond these primarily self-imposed strictures. One strategy appears to be an attempt to be in conversation with other disciplines. Another strategy appears to be an attempt to cast a conceptual framework for conversations within these disciplines. Ian S. Markham's A Theology of Engagement is reflective of the former aspiration. As a volume within Blackwell's Challenges in Contemporary Theology series, Markham also aims to "engage traditional theological concerns with mainstreams in modern thought and culture that challenge those concerns" (ii). While his willingness to support this aim and the larger efforts of many theologians is admirable, I believe Markham's methodological commitments leave his contribution unable to make good on such noble convictions.
In terms of argument, Markham seeks to unfold a robust and meaningful understanding of what he identifies as engagement. For Markham, "engagement matters because it opens up a necessary option for the churches, as well as one thoroughly customary in the Christian tradition" (20). It gives the people within the Church a way to interact with the larger world while also going beyond the accommodations of liberals and the entrenchment of conservatives. In essence, Markham's understanding of engagement is more a theological process than a product. As a result, the best way to come to terms with what he means is to identify the key assumptions that underpin it. First, Markham claims that engagement seeks to critically make "sense of the complexity of the world" (17). Second, he asserts that engagement seeks to identify theistic similarities that exist in various religious traditions. Third, Markham argues that engagement seeks to "build usefully on certain discoveries of modernity, such as a critical study of Scripture" (15). Markham argues that a theology of engagement is discriminating about which components of the legacy of modernity it seeks to accept versus those it seeks to reject. It neither practices the sweeping acceptance of liberals nor does it practice the sweeping rejection of conservatives. In summary, Markham contends that a theology of engagement is a set of methodological commitments that seeks to go beyond these alternatives.
The assumptions that give definition to a theological process of engagement involve three key tasks. Markham spends the majority of his text establishing the nature of these activities and then providing examples of individuals who he believes practiced them. First, assimilation refers to the fact that theologians have consistently worked any number of ideas into their own. For example, Markham claims that "In this most fundamental of areas – our understanding of God, the Church had assimilated certain platonic categories for talking about perfection" (52). Although the origins of such ideas are not necessarily found within the Church, they are nonetheless adopted by the Church and integrated into its own system of ideas. Second, the Church has a responsibility to resist certain oppressive ideologies and practices. The example that Markham addresses in his text involves the notion of state sovereignty. He argues, "For a culture or nation on earth to claim absolute 'sovereignty' is, in traditional language, an act of sin" (85). Finally, Markham argues that overhearing demands that Christians listen to the internal debates that persist within other traditions. The operative assumption in such an effort is that Christians can learn from members of other traditions just as members from other traditions can learn from Christians. Overhearing can generate mutually beneficial circumstances. In the end, Markham believes that these tasks fulfill the charge given to the Church to be in conversation with the world in order that it may serve the world's deepest needs.
Underlying the assumptions and the tasks that give definition to Markham's theology of engagement are several key methodological commitments. Chief amongst these commitments is sympathy for process philosophy and the work of individuals who give this movement a theological voice. Markham depends heavily upon the theological work of Keith Ward and he upholds Ward as an example of a theologian who values the assumptions and puts into operation the tasks of a theology of engagement. According to Markham, Ward transcends the liberal/conservative dialectic by virtue of his commitment to an open orthodoxy or an open theology. Ward comes to such a commitment because the Church "used non-Christian sources without positive celebration of their revelatory origin" (165). Ward believes his commitments are in line with theologians from the Church's past—particularly the commitments of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. As a result, Markham claims that Ward, along with Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, serves as an example of one who practiced a theology of engagement.
While the intentions behind Markham's theology of engagement are admirable, his methodological commitments impair the potential success of such a project. In essence, Markham places theology within an anthropologically defined horizon of possibility. His insistence that engagement is possible across religious traditions diminishes the significance of divine revelation. For better or for worse, the Church was chosen by God to bear a message not of its own creation. This gift of revelation is what initiates an ordering presence or reason that emanates from God alone. Like the liberal and conservative students of modernity he criticizes, Markham refuses to acknowledge that reason is cultivated within a particular tradition. For the Church, that sense of reason is fostered by the practices in which members of Christ's body participate. Markham attempts to support his project by appealing, like Ward, to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. However, participation in the practices of the Church and the sense of reason such practices initiate prove to be the point of origin for the efforts of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
While I appreciate Markham's intentions to establish a sense of engagement between theology and modern society, the methodological commitments he exhibits in A Theology of Engagement reduce his project to one with a horizon of possibility that is anthropological in nature. Theology must move beyond the self-imposed confines that come with being a discipline within the academy. Markham's prodding in this sense is to be appreciated. However, his acceptance of reason as a neutral arbitrator between traditions leaves him unable to transcend the dialectic spanned by his modern interlocutors. A theology of engagement must first and foremost focus upon the sense of participation which occurs within the practices of the Church. Such practices shape the desires of the members of the Church and establish the terms upon which they will engage the society around them.