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Theology meets Modernism

20 September 2013

Gavin Ashenden finds a handbook good but inevitably with gaps

The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought
Nicholas Adams, George Pattison, Graham Ward, editors
OUP £95
Church Times Bookshop £85.50

THIS is an impressive and commanding set of essays: ambitious in its scope, courageous in its complexity, and attractively important in its contribution to theology and its relationship with other disciplines.

As the editors acknowledge in their introduction, every single element of the approach is contested. What "Theology" may be, what Modernity was or is, what Europe has been and might become, and what the contours of "thought" consist of are all areas of intense interest and continued speculation.

What is the book not? It is not a dull historical survey of the interaction upon one another of modern European thought and theology. It is more stimulating and creative in its scope. The essays in this volume set out to challenge certain ways of both opposing and fusing "theology and modern European thought".

The editors helpfully set out their intentions in the preface. "We have two principal aims, one positive and one negative: (1) to identify those questions and issues that have been common to and formative of both theology and modern European thought; (2) to avoid reducing the subject-matter to one-sidedly theo- logical or secular views."

There are, of course, a wide spectrum of interactions in which the role of theology moves from being the primary catalyst to a passive and sometimes apparently impotent reactor to other disciplines. The recognition of fluidity in the cross-currents of social, political, and intellectual arenas is what sets these essays free to adapt to the contours and dynamics of intellectual and cultural complexity.

The structuring of the book gives the clearest map of its intentions. It is divided into six sections. The first five delineate areas or aspects of Modern European Thought. The sixth is a section offering theology as a separate arena. But this is prefaced by six essays on Identity, five on the Human Condition, six on the Age of Revolution, four on the World, four on Ways of Knowing, and finally five on Theology itself.

The structure is consistent with the editorial mandate. Many of the essays in the first five sections contain strong theological components contrasted with areas that are rooted in more "humanistic" associations. For example, under the section labelled Identity, we are offered "The Self and the Good life" - of necessity, overly theological - in contrast to "Language", which has a wider remit. In the section Human Condition, "Evil" is an essay definitely theological, and we also find "Work and Labour"; in the Age of Revolution, "Messianism" accompanied by an essay on "Sovereignty"; under the World, "Beauty and Sublimity" and also "Technology"; under Ways of Knowing, "The Metaphysics of Modernity" but additionally "Phenomenology".

Of particular interest is, of course, the structuring of the final section, Theology. There we are given five essays covering the subjects "The Bible", "Incarnation", "Sacramentality", "Atonement", and "Divine Providence". Why those five areas? The editors don't explicitly say so, but the assumption must be that these are areas critical to the theo- logical quest which have become the most strategically contested in the Modernist project.

One inevitable drawback of a volume of this kind is that essays vary in length and quality. At the most concise, they are 15 pages long; at the most expansive, 25. Inevitably, at their most condensed, some read like concise narrative summaries of the gathered headings of the com- missioned subject, with a brief running commentary. The format imposes constraints and limitations.

Others have an occasional eccentricity of structure which suggests authorial comfort zones of familiarity rather than more rigor- ous global analysis. But the strongest essays are concise, elegant, and informative.

In a work of such scope, there are bound to be areas that are not adequately covered. But, given the importance of the way in which a Freudian critique of religion grasped the popular imagination so deeply and for so long, only to be supplanted by a popularised Jungian alternative that still maintains an iron grip, it is surprising that so little was written on Freud's psychology of religion, while Jung is lamentably wholly ignored.

One of the strengths of the book is that each author is asked to provide a list of further reading as well as his or her own bibliography. Some will wonder why no references to internet resources are documented. There is a great wealth of critical reference on the internet, and it is an impoverishment in a volume as expansive as this to have no internet references for the reader to use.

As an overarching commentary on the whole project, the editors note several seminal changes. One is that the growth of Christianity is now outside Europe, and to some extent this marks a critical development and shift of experiential balance. Another are signs of the end - the end of Modernity, that is. They suggest that, since capitalism's successes and failure form the bed- rock of the European project, rumours of its approaching demise may signify the approach of a turbulent denouement.

Additionally, there is the inexorable shift of both economic power and influence from the Occident to the Orient. In the face of this perceived cultural apocalypticism, a moment of hope for theo- logy emerges. Theology has been decimated in universities over the past 50 years, but the editors rightly discern a resurgence of religion in the public space, which may indicate and prefigure a renaissance of public and academic interest.

For all these reasons, this moment seems to be propitious for gathering the strands of cultural and intellectual interaction, and offering an informed and comprehensive view- ing of the tapestry of our times.

Canon Gavin Ashenden is Vicar of St Martin de Gouray on the Island of Jersey 

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