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.