Predicaments in Modern Theology


Theologically, there have been multiple ways to understand Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity. I’ve already noted that the death-of-God theologians thought they were remaining faithful to his message, although their radicalism would likely upset the far more orthodox Bonhoeffer. While Gutierrez, the famous liberation theologian, argues that the church’s complete service to the world is a realization of Bonhoeffer’s call. In our more current theological debates between Hauerwasianism and Radical Orthodoxy vs. Secular/Radical theology (Taylor and Caputo) a disagreement over the understanding of ecclesiology and secularism remains. I also want to focus on the historical credibility of these different theological approaches.

Milbank’s brilliant but controversial genealogy of the secular in his Theology and Social Theory attempted to show how the notion of secular reason was a historical development, which ultimately stemmed back to the ‘heretical’ theology of Duns Scotus and his understanding of the univocity of being. From what I understand, Scotus dissolved the difference between existence and essence ultimately assigning the being of man and God to be of the same kind, although God’s being is greater in intensity. Being precedes God, and hence both men and God share being, which ultimately lead to the shattering of God’s transcendence. This facilitated the bifurcation of faith and reason and of the supernatural and natural that has led to the increasing privatization of religion perfectly epitomized in liberal theology. Milbank wants to bring together reason and faith. For instance, Tillich’s famous method of correlation, which allows the world to pose questions from philosophy and existentialism and theology endeavors to respond through the use of divine revelation, goes wrong because theology should set its own agenda and not have to answer to philosophy. Also, leveling the critique that postmodernism has offered against metanarratives, Milbank tries to out narrate other metanarratives claiming Christianity ultimately prevails against nihilism and humanism. It does so because Milbank believes that Christianity offers and ontology of peace/nonviolence that rivals the ontology of violence that is posited by the likes of Girard, Foucault, and Derrida. Here is where I get pissed. For one, as Clayton Crockett argues in his Theology of the Sublime, this ontology of peace that Christianity supposedly represents has to suppress hundreds of years of Christian violence, so it’s ultimately a non-historical account. Secondly, claiming that past expressions of Christianity were not truly Christian because of their connection with Constantianism or something of that matter, strikes me as odd considering how much emphasis they place on tradition. Third, as Crockett also points out even if the cross is a symbol that resists violence, it still suggests that violence and the sacred are at the heart of Christianity. Need I even mention the ridiculously violent interpretations that have perverted atonement theories?

Likewise, Hauerwas’ prophetic call for the church to be the church offers a helpful critique of liberalism in his postliberal theology. Postliberal theology emphasizes the narrative aspects of Christianity stemming from tradition and the Bible and endeavors to transcend the polarities between Conservatism (propositional and cognitive) and Liberalism (experiential and expressive). While I think reclaiming the emphasis on narrative is a helpful corrective, this position completely neglects the importance historical criticism has on Christianity. For instance, by focusing on tradition narrative the discoveries of the historical Jesus research or a historical critique of the Bible may be dismissed.

From the radical theological perspectives new works stress the parallels between Christianity and secularism. A helpful understanding of secularism arises in Mark C Taylor’s magnificent book After God. Here he argues that secularism is inherently linked to the Reformation. This is because with the Reformation, the tradition of the Catholic church is compromised and refocused on the individual’s justification through faith. Also, the increasing availability of the Bible led to the proliferation of interpretations, and hence authority now rests in the individual (not the holy and apostolic Church) . Hence, the death of God is contingent on the Reformation and the decentering of authority away from God and redirected towards the individual. Thus, he believes we should trace Modernism not back to Descartes but rather to Luther.

While the radical theologians take historical critique seriously, they tend to discuss only portions of the tradition. For instance, it’s no surprise that Caputo’s Jesus is derived from Crossan’s research that results from the Jesus Seminar. I’ve already discussed how those scholars de-emphasize Jesus’ eschatological orientation. Although he claims that this Jesus confounds all of our neat, hermetic systems, I find his presentation of the tolerant, liberal Jesus to have already removed one of the most profound offenses Jesus offers: the focus on the end of the world and the coming reign of God. Also, given Caputo’s hesitance to fully engage the tradition because of the fear of relapsing into onto-theology, suggests that his weak theology does not offer a very promising future.

In Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus, he offers the helpful terms of pre-critical naïveté and post-critical naïveté. The former refers to the conservative position that assumes the Bible is historically accurate and ignores historical criticism. The latter term is represented by the liberal tradition which embraces historical criticism, and thus events such as the virgin birth are not historical but express the deeper symbolic truths of humanity. I used to have sympathy for the liberal position, but now I find it more and more to be simplistic. Why not embrace both history and science to allow us to remain critical and  faithful to our tradition? I’m no apologist, and I don’t pretend that all of the truths of Christianity can be historically validated, but we cannot shy away from historical research. As NT Wright says, “True Christianity has nothing to fear from history”. I also believe that even if it’s untrue historically that it doesn’t loses all of its importance, but history should inform our faith. Or else we fall into the temptation of worshiping the Cosmic Christ as opposed to Jesus of Nazareth.

Here, I find Pannenberg to be the most helpful theologian. In his book, Anthropology in Theological Perspective he dialogues with the human sciences and allows the findings to offer a critique of modern orthodoxy. He argues against the position that Milbank adopts: that even if the Fall is not historical, it is necessary to assume ontologically. So, in Pannenberg’s opinion, we must remove the Fall from orthodoxy. At least, this is intellectually honest. Moreover, in Jesus: God and Man, he dismisses the virgin birth as myth because he feels as if this story in Luke and Matthew endeavored to situate a time at which Jesus’ divinity was secured. Whereas John adopted a pre-historical stance on the incarnation, Mark placed Jesus’ divinity as being instituted during his baptism when the Spirit descended on him and the Father blessed his ministry. I’m just glad he’s honest with history, and that he takes seriously research on the historical Jesus (especially his apocalypticism). Some argue against this dismissal of the virgin birth because Pannenberg assumes that because Mark, John, and Paul don’t mention the miracle they must have been ignorant of it. Even though, he incorrectly includes Paul in this list, and with John we really have no idea what he thought was historical given his mythological and theological perspective, it’s naïve to assume that Mark somehow forgot to include this miracle. If the virgin birth was historical, just what exactly would be Mark’s reason for excluding that narrative? Also, given the wildly different virgin birth stories that emerge in Matthew and Luke, it’s hard to imagine that these stories were not ideologically driven. Unfortunately, Pannenberg infamously refuses to take seriously post-structuralism and dismisses Derridean deconstruction as a mere fad.

Here’s my issue with modern theology. I respect Altizer’s death-of-God theology (especially its apocalyptic focus), but I’m not entirely convinced by his Hegelian interpretation of the cross. Likewise, Mark Taylor’s more or less complete abandonment of theology since the early 90’s suggests that his a/theology will not offer fruitful engagement in the future. I find Caputo’s emphasis on weak theology interesting, especially the weakness of God. But, I tend to find his stringent commitments to all things liberal and his complete dismissal of psychoanalysis to be discouraging. Also, even though his recasting of deconstruction in a religious light was useful (especially as a critique of Taylor’s overly atheistic theology), it’s obvious that he will never actually take the risk of being a robust theologian (as Zizek righly notes). Most of the deconstructive theologians restrict themselves to philosophy but never take up political theology. Their politics rarely vary much from modern liberalism. Milbank’s radical orthodoxy is clearly the most developed of all of these modern theologies, but his polemical nature and his utter dismissal of all things non-Christian as pagan or nihilistic strikes me as juvenile. I’d like to see him consider taking a more historical approach to Christianity, but as I’ve already noted he’d rathe preserve a pristine version of Christianity than seriously engage history. Hauerwas and gang mostly annoy with their fixation on the church, perhaps I’m still stuck romanticizing on the possibility of a ‘religionless Christianity’. I love Pannenberg’s (and to a lesser extent Moltmann’s) historical, eschatological theologies, but Pannenberg’s refusal to converse with modern continental philosophy doesn’t suit my appetite. Liberation theology certainly fascinates me with their radical politics, but their orthodox commitment to Christianity does not yield very interesting theological results (here I’m thinking mostly of Latin American theology, not feminist). Lastly, one of the most fascinating theological discussions I find occurring comes from Clayton Crockett and Zizek. Crockett’s engagement with psychoanalysis in his latest book Interstices of the Sublime was wonderful. His faithfulness to his mentor Charles Winquist will likely open up exciting theological horizons for the future. For Zizek, his Hegelian and Lacanian death-of-God theology while fascinating, tends to repeat the death-of-God theologians. I would’ve mentioned more on Marion’s post-metaphysical theology or process theology, but I remain mostly ignorant of these different strands.

In summary, I would like theology that is historical, engaged with the human sciences (like psychoanalysis), confronts actual doctrines and reformulates them, sensitive to continental philosophy, concerned with liberation struggles, apocalyptic, kingdom-of-God focused, and political.


4 Responses to “Predicaments in Modern Theology”

  1. Wesley Says:


    Does Grenz address these theories, etc… in that one book you recommended to me? (20th Century Theology, if I’m not mistaken.) Is this you’re critical reflection of what he writes in that book? I need to get my hands on that one…

    Your summary is everything theology should be, I think. Holistic.

    You’re second to last paragraph made me chuckle: “Here’s my issue with modern theology… blah blah blah.” You could have just said: “It sucks.” On a more serious note, is it that every modern theologian/philosopher you’ve brought up so far has failed to holistically engage theology? And if you/we were to put them all into a melting pot and skim away the parts you/we don’t like and make one nice neat little philosophy (dare I say narrative), you’d be satisfied? Maybe what I’m asking is, who is theologizing in a way you would be content with? Anyone?

    Really, bro, thanks for writing all this. I know its natural for you, but its really helping me in framing all of this and driving me towards what I need to be reading/studying. Thanks.


  2. jbsrh18 Says:

    No, he does not. His coverage of theology stops somewhere around the mid 80’s (it was written int he mid 90’s). No, his book does not offer that much of a critical reflection. First off, he’s an evangelical. Although he clearly wasn’t as conservative as some, he tended to be dismissive of liberation theology and radical theology (unfortunately 2 of my favorite strands). However, I would give you that book a read-through, just keep in mind his bias (hell, the book’s dedicated to Pannenberg, one of the main theologians he covers). Yeah, I mean what you have today with radical theology vs radical orthodoxy/Hauerwas is an unfortunate divide. You have two opinions of the secular, one good and one bad. However, radical theology tends to be so anti-church, anti-orthodoxy that much of the time it’s unfair to probably even label it Christian theology. For, R.O./Hauerwas they seem to focused on the church (for my liking) and they tend to have this church vs the world dichotomy that strikes me as nostalgic and annoying. I don’t want to say that RO/Hauerwas have not engaged holistically, but I don’t necessarily enjoy their engagement. As I mentioned though they’re theology tends to neglect the seriousness of historical criticism, radical theology is far from holistic (especially if you’re expecting some sort of systematics).

    I should’ve perhaps mentioned work being done by process theology especially Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep, it’s brilliant. Her exegesis of Genesis 1:1-3 is stunning. She more or less demonstrates that creation ex nihilo is a complete 2nd century fabrication, that is woefully unfaithful to the text. Check it out, that work is amazing.

    I’m skeptical of being able to synthesize the diversity of these thinkers, because at so many points are they radically antagonistic.

    I wrote this to summarize my position and readings at this point in time. I don’t think anyone is doing theology completely the way I’d like to see it done. But, I would encourage you to read Moltmann/Pannenberg (especially Crucified God and P’s Theology and the Kingdom of God/Jesus:God and Man) if you want engagements that are more orthodox. However, the bulk of their work came about in the 70’s/80’s.

  3. jbsrh18 Says:

    Also, I didn’t mean to suggest modern theology sucks. I think, perhaps I sit in an awkward position with regards to Christianity. On the one hand, i’d like to see a theology that plays with all parts of the tradition (atonement/trinity/eschatology), and on the other hand I realize my position is not entirely orthodox. So, for radical theology, they tend to be disinterested in playing the game of systematics, while to be fair RO doesn’t have a systematic theology, but it certainly engages the entire tradition. I think this blog will just be a recording of my erring on the way to a position that I find satisfactory

  4. Wesley Says:

    Isn’t that what this is all about though? Why can’t all these theologies just be friends? (Just kidding, of course.)

    I’ve done some exegetical work on Gen 1:1-3, I’ll have to check out Keller’s book. I gave a presentation for my Doctrine of Creation class this last semester on the text and (at a cursory glance) came to the same conclusion she did: creatio ex nihilo is conspicuously absent in the text.

    My quip on your summarization of modern theology was just that. I respect your critique and engagement with these theories, and am looking forward to the journey of this blog.

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