A (very) Critical Review of Nicholas Healy(‘s book)

Hauerwas: a (very) critical introduction
by: Nicholas M. Healy
Reviewed by Tony Hunt
My thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy

Why write a very critical review of Nicholas Healy’s very critical introduction to Stanley Hauerwas? In my opinion, Healy’s book has not as yet been subjected to the kind of exacting critical analysis that is appropriate for a supposedly systematic review of an entire life’s corpus. There have been a few good summaries of his main points, with several somewhat critical interjections, true, but none have as yet taken as hard a line as I wish to take.

I should clarify, though, that this is not a review of the entirety of Healy’s book. I only want to get a handle on the book as a whole and assess it as such. I will not discuss even those chapters that are rightly judged to be important or especially insightful, such as the chapter advancing the crude analogy between Hauerwas and Schleiermacher. For one thing, I do not have the expertise to be able to say anything of special interest about such matters. For another, although these are central chapters to his main arguments, I do not think they actually contribute all that much to those arguments. Thus the entirety of chapters 3 and 4 have been left out of the scope of this essay.

Now I do hope that this is not seen as criticism of Healy as a person. From what I’ve been able to gather he is an amiable fellow. I have not met him in person and have purposely gone to some length not to contact him, lest talking to him taint my interpretation of his work. That is the last thing I would want. Clarifications of his arguments, or elaborations of his points would only disturb the picture I have of Healy’s book as it stands. I would like here to introduce my first distinction, that between the work and the person. A theologian could be a powerful sociopath but their work is entirely distinct from this. No, who a person is has no bearing on the much clearer and straightforward message of the author’s texts on their own terms.

But before proceeding further I think it is important to understand just what kind of work Healy’s is. To do this I need to elaborate somebody else’s typology at some length, assume its authority, and locate Healy’s work on it.

Rowan Williams, in his book On Christian Theology, claims that theology operates in three registers: The celebratory, the communicative and the critical. Celebratory theology  is “an attempt to draw out and display connections of thought and image so as to exhibit the fullest possible range of significance in the language used. It is typically the language of hymnody and preaching.” (p.xiii)

Communicative theology, on the other hand, “seeks to persuade or commend, to witness to the gospel’s capacity for being at home in more than one cultural environment, and to display enough confidence to believe that this gospel can be rediscovered at the end of a long and exotic detour through strange idioms and structures of thought.” (p.xiv)

Finally, critical theology works in at least two different ways. “The critical impulse may issue in agnosticism, even nihilism;” But it may also dialectically move back toward the celebratory “by hinting at the gratuitous mysteriousness of what theology deals with.” (p.xv)

Why it is necessary to locate Healy on this schema may not be readily apparent but trust me, it’s important enough to dedicate three whole paragraphs and a series of criticisms to it. In fact I’ll probably keep referring back to Williams’ typology for the rest of this review. At any rate Healy can’t be found clearly in any one style and it’s perfectly natural that a work would move between registers anyway. On the other hand, that Healy navigates and sometimes combines the three categories of theology as organized by Rowan Williams probably is a kind of indictment, because problems arise when the three are conflated. The celebratory ceases to function well when it is mixed with the communicative, etc.

In the next section of my review I will elaborate further what kind of book Healy’s is. We have already seen that – in my view problematically – it does not fall distinctly into one of the three varieties of theology that Rowan Williams describes. Now we will attempt to get at the core of Healy’s style. Introductions to authors traditionally work by what I would like to call an “exegeticocentric” method. That is, for ages past when someone wanted to give a systematic presentation of an author’s entire life’s work they discussed at length the arguments of the texts, usually situating them in an historical context and relating them to the author’s influences and conversation partners. Healy takes a different route: His is a “typologicocentric” book, wherein what is important is to elaborate novel and extensive categorical schema within which an author may be placed. So for Healy, Hauerwas’s work is not traditional because it breaks with the “theocentric” strain of theology and instead advances the “ecclesiocentric” model typified by at least one old German dude. This problematizes Healy’s entire project because synthetic descriptions of other’s work are most faithful when they are exegeticocentric rather than typologicocentric.

A few examples may be appropriate. If Healy were using the traditional exegeticocentric method, he would have needed to include a discussion about the sizable influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Hauerwas, noting how Wittgenstein’s account of the acquisition of language and its use bears on the relationship between the liturgy, scripture reading, sacraments, and discipleship; a relationship Healy feels Hauerwas gets wrong. Then again, for Healy, Hauerwas may have his unique influences, but we do not need to know them to understand and assess his theological arguments. (Although it may have modified Healy’s argument that MacIntyre informs Hauerwas‘ understanding of tradition)  Or again, when criticizing Hauerwas for the apparent disparity between the church he proclaims and the empirical church, Healy would have needed to bring in the importance of eschatology for Hauerwas’ work. But with Healy’s typologicocentric method, neither Wittgenstein nor eschatology receive a single mention. Indeed Yoder himself is only brought into the book in passing.

In conclusion, if after reading this far you have learned very little about the content of Healy’s book; if you’ve found a disproportionate amount of space in this review dedicated to measuring the book by arbitrary organizational schemes; if you’ve been introduced to novel, vague, and misleading neologisms; if you’ve been surprised by the fact that I left out central chapters for consideration; if you feel that systematically introducing a life’s corpus should include locating the works in the context of primary influences and conversation partners – If all of this is bothersome for you, you will be equally frustrated by Healy. Indeed more than a few sentences in this review have been taken directly from his book.

A person who came to Healy without knowing Hauerwas would learn very little about Hauerwas. This is reason enough to criticize the book. But that it also succumbs to the aforementioned problems, makes it so that I cannot recommend this book at all.

Review: Mark A. McIntosh, Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology

Tony Sig

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (December 4, 2007)
  • ISBN-10: 1405102713
  • ISBN-13: 978-1405102711

My thanks to Blackwell for the review copy.

Very often times it feels like the very last thing the world needs is another introduction to Topic X. Not least to theology. Aren’t intro’s just the easy way for a teacher to get published with very little work or creativity? And it’s not like there aren’t good ones out there. Alister McGrath is now into the 5th ed of his (mostly historical) Christian Theology: An Introduction (with a simpler version of it, as well as a Reader 4th ed, and an intro to historical theology). Christopher Morse’s famous Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief is also a great intro. (My thanks to David Congdon for the recommendation).

 Yet even in such a world, Mark A. McIntosh’s Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology offers something unique and irresistible. I found myself learning much more from this intro than I do often times from “academic” pieces. There were so many places to pause and reflect, to soak in a rich theological wisdom. And at a shy 252 total pages, it was really quite astonishing what he was able to fit in.

This brevity, among other things, makes this book a standout from a pedagogical standpoint. Being as short as it is, there is a significant amount of free room that a teacher could take to supplement and expand the book in whatever way is deemed necessary for the kind of school or class that they are teaching. Are you at a Pentecostal school? Feel free to throw some readings in on pneumatology. Are you at a Catholic school? Take the time and compare McIntosh’s readings of Saints Augustine and Thomas on Sin or the Trinity. Are you Anglican? Throw some Herbert in there… anywhere could do as the whole book revolves around the contemplative life of prayer as being taught by the actions of the Holy Trinity.

And this life of prayer as participation in and learning from the Trinity is the broad outline of the book, hence the title. McIntosh has much experience in this. His PhD work was in Balthasar and he has written several works on “mystical theology” (see here and here) and even a little book for teaching in Church on the Mysteries of Faith. He is an Episcopal priest and is now teaching at Durham (in England). He is also an Anglican representative at this latest ARCIC meeting between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

The beginning of the book functions as a sort of prologue for those led to be skeptical of theology as mere irrational nonsense. Can one understand theology and not be a believer?, he asks. His answer is, surprisingly, no, not really. One can come to acquire knowledge of a tradition and this can be taught, but McIntosh says to be truly taught by God, one’s own inner life must be made ready to receive this knowledge as a gift. To show how this is so, he introduces a method that he uses several times throughout the book. On the left third of the page, he has a text, here it is Romans 6.3-11 but he does this for several other Scriptural passages and also works like the Nicene Creed; and on the right he comments on it. It’s really quite helpful. Nevertheless he does address the relationship of reason and faith by way of an exposition of Cardinal Newman’s Oxford Sermons.

From this first part of the book, “How God Makes Theologians,” McIntosh moves onto the larger more constructive part “Theology’s Search for Understanding,” in which he begins with the Mystery of Salvation, to the Divine Life, and finally to Creaturely Life. This movement, he believes, represents the kind of shape that Christians have experienced from the beginning. Trinitarian reflection came from a deep meditation and struggle with what had happened to them in Christ and Pentecost. He would no doubt agree with David Bentley Hart that early Christian trinitarian thought was a kind of phenomenology of salvation. Among his teaching methods, at the end of each chapter, McIntosh pauses for “Landmarks” and “Pathfinding.” In this section on salvation he includes Irenaeus, Augustine and Anselm. While recognizing that there are exaggerated critiques of Anselm available, he ultimately agrees with Lossky that Anselm (and much subsequent Western reflection) focuses on the Cross to the exclusion of the entire movement of the mysteries of faith. In the “Pathfinding” section, he brings in Orthodox, Feminist and Girardian contributions to soteriology.

But this critical thought about salvation itself gives way to a deeper movement from how God revealed God in Christ, to how God has always been if this is the one God. This middle section on the Trinity takes up the bulk of the book and includes a comprehensive walk through St. Augustine’s entire book de Trinitate! These 20 pages alone are worth the price of the book. But he also includes Karl Barth on the “God Who Loves in Freedom.”

The final section on Creaturely life doesn’t disappoint either. He begins with the fact that it is Easter which gives the ultimate shape to creaturely life, drawing generously on James Alison. But the main section rightly revolves around Aquinas, yet he also brings Pascal alive in a way I hadn’t expected. The combination of the two acted as a kind of apophatic trinitarian anthropology, it was quite a surprise and ended the book well. I appreciate that he didn’t feel the need to begin with this section to “ground” theology in epistemology. In this way he followed the general shape of traditional dogmatics so that even a strident Protestant couldn’t protest too much.

The book is not confessional in any denominational sense. And while the book is clearly more on the “catholic” side of things, this lack of polemic or overt sense of identifying with any group means that Divine Teaching can be used profitably by anyone who wants to teach from within the Nicene tradition.

McIntosh’s uncompromisingly Christian and trinitarian approach means that this book might not be ideal for use in a school where there is generally taken the traditional “comparative religion” or “religious studies” approach. Yet, if a school was open to actually teaching Christian theology from a “post-liberal” (in the broadest sense of that word) position, this is precisely the book I would use; not least since approaching Christian thought from the position of prayer and “mystical participation” would likely connect well with my generation of kids. But in order to do this, one would have to supplement the book with something to do with other faiths, as this is one area not really addressed in the book. Graham Ward’s True Religion could fill that void quite nicely I imagine.

I don’t know what it says about the book, but, as I often meditate on how I would teach theology in the future, this book has jumped to the very top of the list. There are so many strengths to the book, many of which I’ve tried to point out. Chief among them is that this book is all about how we might actually learn about God from God, in our inmost being, not as bits of true information, but as an abiding light that will illuminate all other seeing and knowing.

Graham Ward: A Minor Annotated Bibliography IV

Tony SigBe it the gripping Torture and Eucharist, the insightful Mystical Theology or the symphonic On Christian Theology, books in the Blackwell series “Challenges in Contemporary Theology” have yet to not drastically shift my worldview after reading, and Graham Ward’s Christ and Culture is no exception (I can’t wait to read the rest in the series).

Despite the fact that this is a collection of previously released and delivered essays, there is a certain deep similarity in theme, style and content between them.  These pick up on all the collective themes of Christology; “incarnation, atonement, the economics of the Trinity what it is to be human [and] the Church” (23) but do so in a manner steeped in discourses very distant to the sort of christology of predication that I’m used to reading such as hermeneutics, metaphysics and cultural theory. Topics like embodiment and the operation of desire also play a large role. (23)

Yet all revolve around very close readings of Scripture.  Ward pays particular attention to St. Mark’s Gospel but Scripture is used thoroughly and uniquely all throughout this book.  Even if one were to disagree with all of Ward’s conclusions, many of which are controversial, this book is hugely important as I see it for its christological and exegetical method(s).

Ward builds off Aquinas where in the Summa he says, “God is not known to us in His nature, but is made known to us in His operations. (Summa Theologiae, I.Q13.8).  Therefore Ward asks not “who is the Christ or what is the Christ [but] where is the Christ” (1) … and I might add, “what is Christ doing?”

The introduction alone is worth the price which not only concisely lays out his own vision but offers a substantive and wide ranging critique of Karl Barth, especially his christological dialectics which as Ward sees it, makes of Christ “either the absolute subject or the absolute object.” (12) (This seems not too unlike to some of Rowan Williams’ critique of Barth, cf. – “Barth on the Triune God,” Wrestling With Angels, pp.106-149) Briefly summing it up, Ward lays it out like this:

“Barth’s dogmatic approach to Christology (a) all too thinly defines the economies of salvation in which the gracious love of Christ finds a responding desire; (b) this finds expression in the thinness of his account of mediations (c) such that his mediating christology remains tied to specific cultural assumptions about the subject and nature; (d) this binds christology to the logic of dualism, itself a product of a certain cultural heritage in modernity; (e) this logic and these assumptions, on the basis of which we develops his dialectical method, render him unable to reflect upon his own cultural production of christology.  The world is so lost, so secularized, so ignorant of God that both Christ and subsequently a theology of Christ operate above and beyond such a world, in contradistinction to it.” (14-15)

Of the Ward books I’ve read, this and his Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice were the ones that really captured my imagination.  It is important in its own right (or seems like it to me at least) but also in that it renders such criticisms as “RO doesn’t deal with Christ or the Bible or discipleship seriously enough” in need of more evidence.  And it also disrupts the all too common saying I hear, that Ward is some sort of exception to RO, “Ward I can take, Milbank I can’t.”  Nevertheless, Ward would not want to be holed up on a “side” in contemporary theology.

I can’t wait to reread this one…hopefully I’ll make more strides toward comprehending the details.

Graham Ward: A Minor Annotated Bibliography II

See part I here.  Also, I hope to make all of these into a PDF at the end so you should be able to download it.
Tony Sig

I hope I did not seem to be too sure of myself when I said that Ward ‘saw weaknesses’ in Cities of God, as if somehow I am a fit enough mind to make such a judgement.  This conclusion becomes clear in the second book in Ward’s Cities Trilogy, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice.

Whereas I found Cities to be unsystematic and somewhat obscure, this book was a beacon of rigorous and focused thinking.  This must be in part because he asks three questions in this book and focuses exclusively on them:

“From What Place Does Theology Speak?”

“How Do Cultures Change?” and

“What Is The Relationship Between Religious Practices and Cultural Transformation?”

To examine the first question, Ward (who is no novice with respect to the theology of Barth) examines the relationship between Barth’s theology and his biographical context.  How do various and specific pressures on Barth work themselves out in his theology?  The answer, unsurprisingly, is that Barth’s work was profoundly shaped by the various situations and motivations that worked on him and directed his mind.  This is might be a controversial thing to say for those Barthinians who really think Barth explicated a “pure dogmatics of the Word,” but there is simply no “pure” anything so they’ll just have to get over it.

In examining how cultures change, Ward draws often on the work of Paul Ricoeur, as he does in his third section, to yield some sweet fruit.  This second chapter pays particular attention to the cultural structures and poetics that affect our praxis.  Within this he draws out how to understand the thinking “subject,” argues for “standpoint epistemology” and much besides.  He corrects the passive and impotent subject of Foucault and shows how intentionality and imagination enable people not to be content with being merely acted upon yet also how we don’t come up with ideas ex nihilo but draw and pro-ject from available resources.

The third chapter more clearly examines cultural change with reference to the practices of small groups with particular attention to Christian practice.  In order to do this Ward explains Benedict Anderson’s understanding of relationships as “imaginary” and moves on to talk about “authority” and “rhetoric” and even how the public sphere is created.

This book was concise, tightly and well argued, and made for exciting possibilities in how to think about many topics from doctrinal change to the situatedness of all discourses.  I would recommend it to any Barthinian and to anyone doing or thinking about theology or any academic practice for that matter; not only because it complexifies the “assured results of modern scholarship” and also of any “pure dogmatics” but also, it’s just a tintilating read.

Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir – A Review

Tony Sig

Hannah’s Child: A Theologians Memoir, by Stanley Hauerwas

Published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6487-1

My thanks to Kelly Hughes for the review copy!

This last Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, was at my parish a joyous celebration. We flew a dove in the procession, we read Acts 2.1-12 in 24 languages simultaneously in honor of the Spirit being poured out on all peoples, we prayed for, blessed and sent a pastor and his family as they prepared to leave us and return to ministry in South Africa having spent two years pouring in their gifts to our congregation, we had a baptism of a new child, pledging to raise the child in the faith and renewing our own baptism, and we even had a first communion.

I can think of nothing that would please Stanley Hauerwas more or that could sum up more appropriately the themes of Hauerwas’ new memoir, Hannah’s Child. Hannah’s Child is not a biography, thank God.  Rather than filled with dates and dry reportage, this book amounts to a theological reflection on his life. In fact originally Hauerwas had wanted the subtitle to be “A Theological Memoir” rather than “A Theologians Memoir” but Eerdmans didn’t think it would sell well! Which is, to be fair, probably true. But the original title itself ought to be an indicator of the theological character of the work.

Hauerwas’ mother and father had wanted to have a child for some time but they had remained childless. Desperate, his mother prayed the prayer of Hannah, promising to dedicate her child to the Lord should she become pregnant. It is then providential that that child should become, according to Time magazine, “Americas Best Theologian.” Whatever else he is, Hauerwas is at least controversial and few people who care about contemporary theology do not have an opinion of him. (Surprisingly, many in academia cannot reconcile themselves to his radical ideas. Hauerwas dryly notes that there seems to be a recent trend in younger academics to prove that they are not “Hauerwasian.” A trend I am more than happy to buck and hold in derision.)

As is to be expected, the book is filled with catchy one liners and quixotic stories:

“I don’t believe in California”

”I am not a pacifist because of a theory, I am a pacifist because John Howard Yoder convinced me that nonviolence and Christianity are inseparable”

”Most people do not have to become a theologian to become a Christian but I probably did.”

There are several themes that end up repeating themselves throughout. Whether this is intentional or not I don’t know; I don’t much care for authorial intent or original meanings of texts anyway.

Much of Hauerwas’ adult life was lived under the dark shadow of life with a mentally ill wife. Anne Hauerwas had bipolar disorder and was verbally abusive to Stanley and even their son Adam throughout much of the 20 years they were married. A large portion of the narrative is dominated by Anne and her behaviour. At times she manifested huge fantasies and delusions; sometimes believing that other men loved her and/or were being hounded by demons, from which only her and her bed could rescue them; or sometimes she would blame Stanley for all of the problems in her life; being an artist and having read feminist literature she thought him oppressive and patriarchichal. She showed very little interest in Adam even when he would win awards or get into great schools. Even after she left Stanley, she attempted drastic moves to pull him back into the swirling chaos, an attempt that ultimately failed. She died young of heart failure but she left an indelible mark on Hauerwas.

Besides Anne, the institutions where Hauerwas has worked have also exerted a lasting influence on him. He started out at a small Midwestern Lutheran school, Augustana. This is where he cut his teeth and was in turn cut by the world of academia of which to that point he knew little. Because of his minor involvement in disagreements over racism he stirred up enough waves to put him in poor relations with some in the school. His contract was not renewed. But he was to be picked up by Notre Dame. This is where he was to become a very Catholic Protestant, more Catholic indeed than most Catholics. This is also where he would come to know the work of John Howard Yoder. This had just as large an effect as anything else and he is to this day irreversibly in Yoder’s debt. He loved it there and would probably have never left but for the fact that Richard McBrien (who he affectionately calls “Dick” McBrien) became dean of the divinity school and enacted too many changes for Hauerwas’ liking.

“If you want to know where liberal Protestant theology has gone to die, one need not look much further than some Catholic theologians”

Hauerwas pulls no punches in his vivid descriptions of conflict with school and church leaders.

From there he ends up in Duke where he has been now for I believe 25 years. Though he has frustrations with Duke, not least of which is the separation of the divinity school from the university, Hauerwas is grateful for his time at Duke.

His account of all these institutions is peppered throughout with names of friends; far too many names for me to recall. More so than Anne or his time in institutions, the theme of Friendship is ingrained deep in the narrative. Hauerwas has many many friends and he is eternally grateful for these friends, without whom he says he could not be the person that he is. Friends got him and his son Adam through his years with Anne, friends made him the intellectual he is, friends are people who keep him accountable. His second wife and total love Paula is his closest friend. I was reminded of the great warmth of C. S. Lewis’ account of “Friend Love” in his stellar little book “The Four Loves.” Of things left for Hauerwas to write on, I hope he dedicates a book to a Christian understanding of friendship.

Similar to yet different than the large role of friends in his life, Hauerwas pays particular attention, appropriately, to the churches where he invested his life. From Lutherans at Augustana, to Catholics and Methodists at Notre Dame and Methodist and Episcopalians at Duke, he sees in these parishes, the incarnation of his own theology. The Church figures large in all he has done, apart from which he couldn’t be a Christian.

Finally, thanksgiving for all of these gifts is the glue that holds his entire memoir together. He cannot go more than a few paragraphs without pausing to give thanks for his parents, his employers, his friends and the Church.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is easily readable and I hope that many Christians can be enriched and challenged and blessed by the gift that is Stanley Hauerwas by the reading of this book. It is not an abstract nor academic work, most anybody can read it without trouble.  From it they could learn just how this theologian thinks of himself in relation to the Church, how he envisions himself serving, guiding and being guided by it.  I’ve found myself grateful for my own life, my friends and the Church on account of it. I will be digesting it for some time to come.

Review: “The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology”

Tony Sig

My thanks to Blackwell for the review copy!

Church of England clergyman Graham Ward, professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics at the University of Manchester is most notably (notoriously?) known in academic circles as being heavily involved in the so-called “Radical Orthodoxy” movement.  But what isn’t often noticed is that Ward has also over the years invested much scholarly energy in bringing continental critical theory into conversation with theology.  As I mentioned previously he has written an introductory book of sorts well worth the cost (the book is unjustifiably expensive).  That book provides a solid foundation to build on from which one cannot go wrong by then investing time and energy in the collection of essays which he edited, ‘The Postmodern God,” that I reviewed here.

Ward considers “The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology” a continuation of that work and I believe it is best read in conversation with the Postmodern GodPostmodern Theology is another collection of essays dealing in many and various ways with the perceived shift in theological method and exploration in lieu of the demise of the Western narrative of cultural, intellectual and moral progress.  This Companion extends the second part of the Postmodern God creating an even more comprehensive picture of how contemporary theology is creating new vistas and destroying old hegemonies.

The Companion is organized into seven categories or parts.  In his introduction Ward notes that he was having a difficult time knowing how to organize the essays and had all but decided to simply put them in alphabetical order according to author but at the prodding of Robert Gibbs he reconsidered and came up with seven categories with which to organize the work.  The categories are able to allow for the different emphasis’ and approaches of each author to rub up against each other, fill out or critique potential weaknesses, expand potential insights and create overall a more coherent picture of this branch of contemporary theology most in touch with continental thought.  The organization can therefore be only a pointer and should not be thought to determine the essays prematurely.  As with my previous review, given the nature of the collection and the sheer volume of the book, I will refrain from summarizing each essay but will point to the general structure of the book and its content.

Part I deals with “Aesthetics.”  The reader is lucky enough to be presented with the thoughts of some who are not widely known in anglo-american circles, not least among them Mieke Bal, an academic from the Netherlands who has an insanely wide field of research from unique biblical readings to reflections on the paintings of Rembrandt, but also well known figures like Gerard Loughlin.  Most of these essays reflect on art, be it paintings, movies or texts.

Part II moves into “Ethics” and features much material that most explicitly deals with traditional dogmatic themes (not that such themes are absent in the other essays, but most in this section will be most clearly understood by even those not familiar with continental thought).  Given my own interests this proved to be my favorite section and is alone good enough recommend the book.  The authors are well known in Christian circles and feature mostly “postliberal” and “radical orthodox” voices.  Stanley Hauerwas  and William Placher make appearances as do Milbank, Pickstock and Ward; Gavin D’ Costa and Mark I. Wallace fill out this part.

Part III relates to “Gender.”  Several American women mark this section such as Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Serene Jones.  The whole part is filled with female voices and the essays are excellent.  Among the pieces, Virginia Burrus contributes a splendid essay which deals with the figure of Macrina in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection and Jones examines what feminist theorists can gain from feminist theologians.

Part IV, with only three essays, is among the shorter sections but contains distinctly Jewish voices such as Peter Ochs and Edith Wyschogrod (I would have loved an audio companion telling me how to pronounce her last name).  Ochs essay is helpful for someone like me in that it elucidates the larger Jewish theological spectrum about which I know nothing.  I have a theory that that John Piper might have a different opinion than me of Wyschogrod’s essay “Intending Transcendence: Desiring God.”

Part V is concerned with phenomenology and is a phenomenal section of this volume (I’m willing to bet I’m the first to make the semantic connection between these two words).  Most of the authors are French Roman Catholics well schooled in Husserl, Heideggar and Derrida.  The most famous is Jean-Luc Marion (see especially his “God Without Being”) but there is a brief essay by the largely untranslated Jean-Yves LaCoste and a biblical essay by Richard Kearney, being one of several essays in this book dealing with the Transfiguration.  Marion’s essay considers the “Formal Reason for the Infinite” and posits that the very conditions for knowing are themselves Christological.  Joseph S. O’Leary’s essay on religious pluralism is also worth an explicit mention.  Again, really good.

Parts VI and VII represent what has been called the “postmodern liberalism.”  VI entitled “Heideggarians” and VII “Derrideans.” Thomas J. J. Altizer of  “Death of God” fame makes an appearance followed immediately by Laurence Paul Hemming on prayer, a more stark difference in product and approach I cannot think, but this goes to show how loose these categories are.  The famous hermeneuticist Gianni Vattimo closes this part with an appropriately themed essay on how the Christian message dissolves metaphysics.

The “Derrideans” finish out the book.  John D. Caputo is at the top of his game in his “The Poetics of the Impossible and the Kingdom of God” and the remaining essays by Walter Lowe (Is there a Postmodern Gospel?) and Carl Raschke, both widely regarded contemporary theologians, bring the party out with a bang.  There is unfortunately also an essay by Don Cuppitt, a “radical” theologian whose influence thankfully was as small as it was short lived, being consigned mostly to the annals of British oddity.

As with it’s sister volume, Ward contributes an introductory essay to the whole edition and all the authors are introduced with brief bio’s, though considering the number of authors the bio’s are justifiably shorter yet surprisingly packed with vital and concise information.

All things considered this book’s greatest strength is also it’s greatest weakness.  The material covered, the methods used, the insights gathered, are all so broad as to render the book frustrating when considering the implications in any depth.  But it has so many great little essays I cannot but recommend this book.  One potential use is as a reference book.  A person would have to scrounge around a lot of journals, books and original language material to gather some of these essays.  It makes for great “bathroom” reading material, an essay here and essay there for fun, challenge and edification.

But it works best I think as it was designed; as a “Companion” to the Postmodern God Reader.  If you consume all or even most of the essays in these two books you’ve set yourself a very broad foundational understanding in the varied braches of contemporary critical theology from which you can go anywhere.  This would be especially useful for upper (upper) undergraduate and graduate level readers who are still trying to figure out what the hell they want to study for the rest of their lives.

Review: “The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader”

Tony Sig

“The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader, ed. Graham Ward”

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (January 13, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0631201416
  • ISBN-13: 978-0631201410

Thanks to Blackwell for the review copy!

I know, I know.  We’re all sick to death of the term “Postmodern.”  I’ve found the term to be drastically decreasing in it’s utility.  I think that it can still carry meaning in reference to particular genealogies of “the modern” but I think we’ve all heard one too many people spout off about “postmodern” philosophy that haven’t but read a book by Tony Jones:  Perhaps the daring may have read some Peter Rollins but generally the word has been tossed around ad nauseum both for attack and dismissal and uncritical acceptance.

It is for this very reason that this book is very useful.  The Postmodern God is a reader in “postmodern theology” edited by Graham Ward, professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics at Manchester University.

The book is roughly divided into two parts.  The first being a collection of essays by various influential and authoritative authors loosely identified as “postmodern,” relating to specifically “theological” topics; the second part is another collection of essays by more recent theologians who build in diverse ways off of the foundational works of authors featured in the first part.

There is a short biographical preface to each of the essays by the “primary” authors which not only introduces the author’s bio but gives a concise sketch of the larger “projects” which they undertook.  I found these introductions to be spectacularly useful as I approached this book in self-study.  If I had read just the essays I would have had a rough time knowing which authors works to pursue more for my own interests.  Piecing these introductions together one gets a loose historical narrative of the development of early “postmodern” thought and how each author fits into the intellectual spectrum.  In this way I was able to see for myself how, for instance, the work of Roland Barthes will  be important for me as one who wishes to train in historical theology.

In addition to this, Graham Ward has written an introductory essay which is worth the price of the whole volume.  In it he gives shape to what “postmodern” means (to him) and gives a vision for what he believes are necessary correctives to “liberal” and “nihilistic” postmodernities.  Ward sees the information age as the logical and nihilistic pinnacle of the “modern” obsession with making men into gods.  The internet eliminates all boundaries of time and space thereby creating a false omnipotence:  On can access chat rooms in Argentina, databanks in Saudi Arabia, images of every place including a picture of the very house one is in.  Everything and everybody is immediately and unmediatedly present to the cogito who controls and manipulates all according to h/er whim.  Ward goes on to trace how postmodernity manifests itself in culture and gives a concise historical intro to the entire volume from Nietzsche to Cupitt.

It think that it would be rather laborious to sum up each of the essays but I will list the contents so that you can understand how wide the net is cast in this fine collection:

Part I

Georges Bateille: From Theory of Religion
Jacques Lacan: The Death of God
Emmanuel Levinas: God and Philosophy
Roland Barthes: Wrestling with the Angel: Textual Analysis of Gen 32.23-32
Rene’ Girard: The God of Victims
Michel Foucault: From The History of Sexuality
Michel de Certeau: How is Christianity Thinkable Today? & White Ecstasy
Jacques Derrida: From How to Avoid Speaking – think Peter Rollins
Luce Irigaray: Equal to Whom?
Julia Kristeva: From In the Beginning was Love

As you can see this features a wonderfully diverse crew:  Feminists like Irigaray and Kristeva; philosophers like Levinas, Derrida and Foucault; and Catholic thinkers like Girard and de Certeau.  Each of the essays are filled with potential insight and sparring material.  They relate to everything from epistemology to “thick descriptions” of phenomenon.  A veritable cornocopia of critical thought.

The second part features essays by John Milbank, Jean-Luc Marion, Catherine Pickstock, Jean-Yves Lacoste, Rebecca S. Chopp, Gilian Rose and Edith Wyschogrod.  Notable among them for me were Wyschogorod’s essay from her excellent book “Saints and Postmodernism” and also Milbank’s “Postmodern Critical Augustinianism: A Short Summa in Forty-two Responses to Unasked Questions” originally published in Modern Theology- is an absolute must-read introduction to his larger “project.”  It’s as clear as you’re ever going to get him to be, his language is much less obtuse and abstract than it normally is and it is a joy to read.

This volume is an outstanding introduction to “postmodern theology” that is both well conceived and well executed.  It can stand alone, but it can also be coupled with another Blackwell collection of essays that I will be reviewing very soon, the Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology.  I will also tip my hat to another Ward book that is very helpful, aptly entitled Theology and Contemporary Critical Theory.  Though expensive I’ve found it the easiest to read of any “intro” book to these sorts of topics.

In passing I should also mention that Graham Ward is a priest in the Church of England and a prize for us Anglicans.  I am currently composing a comprehensive essay examining his erotic ecclesiology through his “Cities Project.”  Expect that at the beginning of the summer.