John E. Wilson. Introduction to Modern Theology: Trajectories in the German Tradition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.
I got this book from Christian Book Distributors for a low price. It
is about Christian theology in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and
twentieth centuries. Although its subtitle is “Trajectories in the
German Tradition,” and it has a chapter about Christianity in Germany in
the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, it does not limit
itself to Germany. Actually, it has a section about Martin Luther King,
Jr.! But the book is largely about the impact of German theology,
which was quite significant, and which many theologians, even those
outside of Germany, have seen a need to address.
In terms of lucidity, I would probably recommend that readers consult William Placher’s Introduction to Christian Theology if
they are seeking a clear summary of a theologian’s thought. Still, I
would not say that Wilson’s book is superfluous, not by a long shot.
Wilson’s book not only talks about well-known theologians (i.e., Barth,
Tillich), but also a number of lesser known ones. Wilson’s book has
breadth and also depth. Something that made the book difficult for me
to read was that it threw a lot of information and theological figures
at me. While that may not make for easy reading, however, it can be
helpful to students, scholars, or people who have the time to sit down
and really hammer out and digest what theologians were trying to say.
Although Wilson’s book had depth, I did often get the feeling that
theologians were rendering simple concepts into complicated language.
Many of them were addressing such issues as the problem of human
selfishness, or the thirst for something greater or fulfilling. I can
read about that in popular Christian books, without the complicated
language. There was also the desire to find something (or someone)
absolute amidst the fluctuation of history and culture. While I have
encountered such issues in other books, I did learn from Wilson’s book
about problems with which many theologians wrestled that did not occur
to me: how can humans, or God, be free in a world of cause and effect?
Some believe that God is the one who provides that freedom.
A question that I often had in reading this book concerned the basis
for which theologians were making their claims—-such as the claim, for
example, that there is a God, or an Absolute. What was the foundation
or evidence for what they were saying? Is it religious experience?
Observations about the way that the world seems to work? A sense that
humans have needs, and that Christianity offers answers that appear to
make sense? None of these things is necessarily an iron-clad
foundation—-the data can probably be interpreted differently, meaning
the data by themselves do not point in one unambiguous direction or
obviously demonstrate the truth of what the theologians are saying—-and
yet there is a rhyme of reason to such attempts at a foundation.
Speaking personally, though, I have long struggled with liberal
theology, or (more accurately) theology that is not fundamentalist, for,
while I thought that it effectively discredited fundamentalist
approaches to Scripture as reliable, I wondered on what basis liberal
theologians were making their own truth-claims. They seemed to believe
in parts of the Bible, even as they showed that the Bible is not
inerrant in every detail. On what basis were they believing some parts
of the Bible, and not others? Were they embracing the parts that just
sounded good to them? Certainly they would need a better foundation
than that—-I was usually challenged to come up with a better foundation
for my beliefs!
I would like to say four more things:
1. One thing I learned from Wilson’s book: I do not understand Kant
as well as I thought I did. And this was after reading stuff about
Kant, including a lengthy biography! What I understood Kant to be
saying was that there is a difference between how things appear to us
and how those things really are. There is the thing in itself, and
there is how we see that thing, and the two are not necessarily the
same. I thought that the thing in itself was the object, but Wilson was
associating it with the noumena. My understanding from Alvin
Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief is that the noumena are
not objects on earth but are metaphysical: Plantinga (as I understood
him) was arguing against the claim that Kant excluded the possibility of
knowing God by saying that Kant himself believed in metaphysical
realities, the noumena. Wilson said that, for Kant, the thing is itself
has an impact on our perception. What exactly does that mean,
especially if the thing in itself has to do with the noumena? Are the
noumena like Plato’s forms—-concepts that things on earth merely
reflect—-and Kant is saying that we can understand things on earth, on
some level, because we have some understanding of the noumena,
metaphysical realities, or forms that things on earth reflect?
2. There was some debate in the book about the importance or
relevance of the historical Jesus to theology. Bultmann appeared to be
saying that it was not particularly relevant: Christians encounter the
Christ of faith, and that is valid even if historical-critics can
nitpick the Gospels (as Bultmann did). What went through my mind was,
“Okay, then does the Bible have any use for Christians?” Paul Tillich
said that we should go with how Jesus is presented in the Gospels, but
that made me ask: “What if the Gospels’ portraits of Jesus are not
historically accurate? Is Tillich ignoring critical scholarship? Or
does he think that it hits the main points of what Jesus was about, and
we can go with that?” Some embraced the historical Jesus, seeing him as
in touch with the divine and unattached to the world out of a belief
that the end was near—-a belief that did not turn out to be true, but
which led Jesus to live an admirable spiritual life. There was also
Pennenberg, who dismissed arguments that Jesus’ disciples merely saw a
hallucination when they beheld the risen Jesus, and yet maintained that
the only solid evidence for Jesus’ resurrection will be when we
ourselves are raised from the dead! I guess I can ask how that helps us
now, but I do admire Pannenberg’s honesty!
3. I liked what Wilson said on page 53 about Hegel’s thought:
“History is the ‘work’ of the Spirit: in and through the struggles of
human life, Spirit is driven to find solutions to the problems of
alienation, of ‘otherness.’ Its suffering of history’s real
contradictions forces it to hard, difficult work.”
4. I also appreciated the discussion of anonymous Christianity on
page 270—-that God can be near an atheist who does not believe in him,
or that an atheist by embracing self-sacrifice shows his knowledge of
the Christian truth, even if he does not explicitly confess it or
recognize it within a Christian context.
This is a book that I read all the way through, but I could not
exhaust it in one reading alone. Maybe I will reread it someday. I
probably will consult it as a reference.