Volume 41 - Issue 3
The Theological Project of Modernism: Faith and the Conditions of Minenessby Kevin W. Hector
To many potential readers another book on a number of emblematic modern theologians might not seem like a very good idea. After all, are we not beyond modernity in more than just one way? Singularly, modernity’s presumed “view from nowhere” can no longer be credibly entertained, especially since it is presumably in fact a mask of its white-, male-, and Euro-centrism.
Hector aims to demonstrate the ongoing fruitfulness of the modern theological project, not least in its adaptability to more contemporary concerns with context and perspective. He suggests a way of reading modern theology that locates one of its main interests to be the problem of “mineness.” “Modern theology,” Hector writes, “can be understood (among other things) as a series of arguments about what it would mean for one’s life to be self-expressive, and what role faith can play in making this possible” (p. 3). Standing in the way of achieving “mineness” are life’s inevitable oppositions. The modern theologians Hector discusses (Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Ritschl, Troeltsch, and Tillich) provide explicit accounts of dealing with such oppositions. They “were deeply concerned with just the sort of issues” we are sensitive to today, “including especially the role theology might play in enabling persons to face death, tragedy, guilt, and injustice” (p. 264).
The book is largely successful in its aim of demonstrating the viability of such a reading of modern theology, even if it picks up just one of the threads that makes “modern theology” modern. One particularly helpful feature of the book, related to its presence in a series on Analytic Theology is the clarity of argumentation. The author explains in just what way this is an exercise in analytic theology: “I have tried throughout to explain key concepts by relating them to well-understood examples and other concepts, to make the steps of my argument explicit (usually by putting them in the form of conditionals), to anticipate and respond to objections to which my claims are liable, and, in short, to submit my claims to the sort of discipline practices among analytic philosophers” (p. ix). In my judgment, he admirably succeeds in this. Some readers may be happy to find that the author does not utilize symbolic notations. Nonetheless, he is judicious in clarifying the thought of the various writers, but also translating it into more familiar concepts.
So what does the modern theological project look like from the vantage point of its concern with mineness? To start with, God is understood as resolving life’s oppositions, by taking them into union with Godself. On the horizon of faith, these oppositions are no longer experienced as ultimate. In faith we gain a new stance in relation to adversity, whether natural, social, of personal. Faith is precisely a way of responding to such circumstances. It is not defined by making abstraction of its relation to the self and its circumstances. “Patience and forgiveness are thus the form that faith takes in relation to circumstances, and which enables one to remain self-united in the face of these” (p. 257).
Against the objections of Freud, faith need not be reduced to wishful thinking; neither does faith necessarily stifle action. Hector helpfully shows that treating the oppositions as ultimate is even more likely to lead to denial and thus inaction. More interestingly, faith does not lead to passivity because faith is “necessarily expressed in certain kinds of action—or, more precisely, to have faith is to act in certain ways in response to certain circumstances, such that faith, so understood, is decidedly anti-quietistic” (p. 261).
Two observations need to be made at this point. First, Hector provides something like a dispositional account of faith. Faith is not simply an inward (or, indeed, a subjective) state. Rather, faith is a “stance” (p. 23) that is learned in the midst of dealing with life, but also as one learns from Jesus from within the community of his followers (there is an extremely nuanced account of social-epistemology here that deserves attention). Here the discussion of Schleiermacher is particularly illuminating, with Hector defending him against the customary charges of subjectivism.
Secondly, faith is not simply self-denial. In faith one’s humanity and individuality are not obscured, but precisely affirmed. The theological grounding for this is the divine act of union with humanity. Christ’s humanity is preserved and not superseded; similarly, our humanity is also affirmed. To encounter God is to find ourselves. This is clearly not exclusively a modern theme, but the theologians under discussion certainly highlight the self-involving nature of this faith: “one’s relationship to God is simultaneously a self-relationship” (p. 26). Hector clarifies and defends their position against facile accusations of subjectivism and idolatry (esp. pp. 122–25). Nonetheless, the integration of the oppositions must itself be “mine,” or “self-expressive.”
This raises an interesting difficulty in relation to the problem of normativity. Hector argues that each person’s response in faith to these oppositions, as self-expressive, opens up new expressive possibilities for others. In other words, since faith is a disposition that is learned in community, I learn a range of adequate responses from other “recognized” Christ followers and their own responses. In turn, as I become a recognized Christ follower, I add my own expressive range of responses to the responses of the community. Thus, the very meaning of faith changes with each new recognized follower of Jesus. One may wonder, then, what constraints are available to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate expressions of the faith? To put it differently, on what basis does one recognize other disciples?
The traditional Evangelical response to this question has been to appeal to the normativity of Scripture. Hector does not engage with this particular approach here, although he does deal with it more extensively in his Theology Without Metaphysics: God, Language, and the Spirit of Recognition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). No clear revisions appear to have been made to the earlier project here. We may thus assume something like the following. The appeal for non-contextual criteria is a foundationalist pipe-dream. The only adequate way of entertaining any discussion of normativity is in more holistic terms. Here, authentic expressions of the faith are just recognized as such by people who simply know what it means to “go on” (to put it like Wittgenstein, one of the inspirations behind much of Hector’s thinking). Hector calls this the “spirit of recognition.” As one who has much sympathy for (much of) the post-foundationalist project, I nonetheless find it increasingly difficult to reconcile (in our situation of grave moral disagreement) my recognition of other Christ followers with my moral assessment of their positions, or even life-choices. In other words, I find it increasingly difficult to simply “trust” that our communal “spirit of recognition” is always attuned to the Spirit who alone “searches hearts” (Rom 8:27). I am not suggesting that my negative assessment of other people’s claim to authentically express faith in Christ is infallible. Rather, this is an observation about our increasing difficulty to agree on whether this or that action, or belief, or lifestyle is indeed to be recognized as expanding the range of what Christianity means.
If I may be allowed a comment about the usefulness of this book as a modern theology textbook, the following should be noted. Hector does not contrast modern theology with pre-modern theology. That angle might have made epistemological issues, including the issue of normativity, Scripture, and history more central. The discussions of the six modern theologians are very clear, persuasive and often illuminating. Whilst the theology of the six modern authors is not systematically presented, Hector gives an excellent sense of the evolution of their thought, whereby other central features of their oeuvre are often brought to bear on the issue of mineness.
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
South Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA
Other Articles in this Issue
This article works toward a “theology of writing” in order to inform and encourage Christian writers, helping them to consider not just what they write but why they write, and in whose image they write...