Theology can be one of the idlest of disciplines, creating more problems than it solves. Yet theology is an essential activity of the Christian church, serving to ensure the health and sanity of the life of faith. The medieval slogan, "faith seeking understanding", fides quaerens intellectum, is not a charter for rampant speculation. Thomas Aquinas even at his most speculative remains firmly harnassed to the essential task of clarifying and defending the faith.
The current issue of Recherches de science religieuse, the theological journal of the Paris Jesuits, strongly suggests that we are entering the period of preparation for the next Ecumenical Council. If so, a major role of theology is to lay a broad and firm basis for that event. Vatican II had observers from the other Christian churches. The next Council may be a truly ecumenical one, inviting active participation and consent from non-Roman Catholics, perhaps in association with the World Council of Churches. Such a Council would be a powerful expression of the unity of Christian tradition, and bring the churches together as "uniting churches" if not yet perfectly united ones.
Transdenominational theology would focus primarily on the Christian fundamentals on which all Christians can agree, providing a reservoir of thought on which such a pan-Christian Council could freely draw. Claims specific to an individual denomination would be treated as secondary matters, and presented in the broadest horizons of ecumenical discussion.
Such a theology would be rejected by fundamentalists and by neocaths who believe that theology begins with the acceptance of the infallibility of the episcopal and Roman magisteriums. But the vast majority of Christians, including Roman Catholics, should accept it in view of its potential contribution to church unity, interreligious understanding and world peace.
Hans Kung's Global Ethic is an example of how wide a consensus can be formulated among communities of very different religious and cultural backgrounds. A pan-Christian doctrinal consensus would have an equally salutary effect in creating a luminous perspective on the nature and function of Christian faith.
Would such a consensus be as minimal and as general as the Global Ethic is? Even if it were, that would not render it powerless. Belief in a good God, in the saving role of Jesus Christ, in the working of the Spirit and of grace, in the reality of Christian community and its signs, in the future triumph of God's creative and redemptive purposes -- all this may seem a minimal content of Christian faith, but it is nonetheless a very powerful teaching and a shared expression of faith in it would be a very powerful witness to the world.
It might be said that when theologians set to work articulating these simple themes they immediately find themselves entangled in the thickets of denominational controversy. But it need not be so. Just as a teacher of literature can expound the richness of a text of Shakespeare, for example, without becoming embroiled in disputes among literary critical theorists, so there can be an exposition of Christianity that suavely transcends the topics of acrimonious debate, seeking out the vantage point from which this debate is seen in its true, limited, historical dimensions.