Culture, Philosophy, Postmodernism, Theology

The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. , ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

At the very height of the evangelical discovery of postmodernity, Vanhoozer edits this little collection of articles that purports to tell its readers about the various flora and fauna of the postmodern condition. Vanhoozer’s opening article is valuable in setting the stage for the book. Vanhoozer deftly describes what postmodernity is without making it seem messianic, as some other authors might make it seem (see James K. A. Smith’s corpus on the same subject). He is rather forthcoming regarding postmodernity’s pitfalls as well as the variegation of thought that moves under the aegis of postmodernity. Vanhoozer cites two sources which provide four-part typologies for classifying postmodern theology. He then goes on to deconstruct postmodernity with its ethic of freeing the repressed other who constantly seems to disappear, and its reflexive denial of certainty, making any object of faith nearly impossible.

The next chapter aims at describing Anglo-american postmodernity by invoking the critique of Cartesian modernity in Nicholas Lash. In this chapter, Nancey Murphey and Brad Kallenberg seek to demonstrate the force of postmodern theology’s contention that knowledge is socially constructed.

The third chapter seeks to describe Lindbeck and his school of postliberal theology at Yale. Although Hunsinger gives basic credit to Lindbeck for his founding of postliberal theology, he is nevertheless critical of him as well. Apparently progress has been made since Lindbeck. This leaves one with the suspicion that postmodernity is really just more modernity turned in on itself. According to Hunsinger, there have been more appealing postliberal proposals since Lindbeck. Hunsinger’s main clarifying statement concerning postliberalism is the admission that all knowledge assumes certain a priori beliefs anterior to that knowledge, and that constructs of knowledge are necessarily analogical. Hunsinger seems to opt for Frei’s high Christology, as one of those a priori tenets held by postliberal theology, with an open view of salvation.

The chapters on postmetaphysical theology and deconstructive theology both deal, to a certain extent, with the thought of Jacques Derrida and his import for theology. Postmetaphysical theology seeks to remove being as the primary category for understanding reality. The primacy of being in Western thought led to “ontotheology” which this postmetaphysical theology rejects. Indeed, according to Carlson’s explanation of Jean-Luc Marion, God is prior to being. It is the love of God that provides for being as a gift. Ward’s chapter on deconstructive theology is a bit more negative, asserting with his Radical Orthodox colleagues, that Derrida has provided a transcendental argument for nihilism.

Reconstructive theology seems a poor name, but it is the name by which Griffin christens Process Theology. This chapter is followed by a chapter on feminist theology. These two chapters are somewhat predictable even if they seem odd juxtaposed to one another. The former seems focused on the unity of reality, while the latter seems more focused on the otherness of certain realities.

Long’s treatment of Radical Orthodoxy is probably not the best out on the market. Smith, Milbank, Ward, and Pickstock seem to give better accountings of the project which seeks to affirm the sociological aspects of knowledge as well as a certain giveness of reality.

The first half of Vanhoozer’s collection of essays deals with a description of postmodern theologies. The second half treats the effects of postmodern theology on Christian doctrine. Our esteemed editor opens this section with an essay that seeks to affirm postmodernity’s repristination of tradition as important to the task of exegesis. For Stiver, theological method is first and foremost hermeneutical. Cunningham seeks to use the trinitarian formula as a paradigm for doing theology. Cunningham’s approach  is reminiscent of some of Vanhoozer’s earlier work in his First Theology. Clayton promotes panentheism as a resolution to the dilemma posed between an objective world or an animated world. I am fairly certain that Clayton may have presented a false dilemma.  After Webster’s foray into anthropology, Lowe seems to bring the same criticisms to classical Christology and soteriology that N. T. Wright does in his fresh perspective on Paul. The West’s soteriology is too individualistic for both Lowe and Wright. Grenz summarizes his ecclesiology of human community in Christ and in the Spirit, and Ford reappropriates Bonhoeffer’s theology for postmodern spirituality and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Vanhoozer’s collection is a mixture of introduction and application, but it does neither very well. One would be hard pressed, however, to find something better in so handy of a size.

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