The nineteenth century Creativity and crisis

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In the recovery and criticism of the past a theologian frequently gives a special place to particular periods or contributions. It is often more true to say that a theologian seems gripped in this way, and is immersed in texts and debates which have an authority that permeates his or her theology. The Bible is most widely treated in this way, and the patristic period is likewise usually privileged. The other two main reference points before the modern period are medieval theology and the Reformation. Periods, traditions, and theologies interanimate each other in subtle ways, and it is often crude to draw clear lines of influence. Yet it remains important to understand with whom a theologian finds dialogue most worthwhile.

One period, however, stands out as the most helpful in understanding what it means for theology since 1918 to be specifically modern: the nineteenth century (which I will consider as extending to 1918). That was the century in which the issues of modernity were tackled comprehensively for the first time, and most of the main Christian responses to them explored. So it is not surprising that the main dialogue partners for twentieth-century theologians (especially those in the West or educated in the West) outside their own period tend to be either nineteenth-century figures or movements of thought which were shaped then. Even though most theologies are, of course, deeply indebted to other periods as well, in their understanding of them the philosophical and historical habits of nineteenth-century thought are usually very influential. Barth, for example, who wanted to break with much of what he saw as characteristic of nineteenth-century theology, was steeped in it and has to be understood in relationship to it. The cost of ignoring the nineteenth century is often paid in energetically repeating the exploration of options which were developed and thoroughly discussed then, and most twentieth-century theologians know this.

It is therefore worth surveying the nineteenth century in its importance for this volume. The brevity of this can best be expanded through two capable treatments of this field, one by Claude Welch and the other edited by Ninian Smart and others.2 There were three thrusts in nineteenth-century thought which especially need to be appreciated in relation to twentieth-century theologians. The first was the rethinking of knowledge and rationality, and the accompanying need to reconceive theology. This will be treated below through Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel. The second was the development of a new historical consciousness joined with the application of critical historical methods to religion. This will be traced through Hegel and Strauss. The third was the challenge of alternative explanations of religion, as seen in Feuerbach, Marx, Durkheim, and others. In the middle comes the awkward figure of Kierkegaard, and at the end the summing up of many of the issues in Troeltsch.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) died just inside the nineteenth century and is the crucial figure linking it to the eighteenth century, especially its rationalist tradition. He offered an account of knowledge, and especially of the human knower in interaction with the object of knowledge, according to which claims to knowledge by both "natural theology" and "revelation" were disallowed. In place of his denial of knowledge he affirmed a faith which was practical and moral rather than theoretical, and which was not especially religious. The central notion is that of freedom. Its reality cannot be either proved or disproved by "pure reason," but it is reasonable to postulate it in order to make sense of human action and morality. This is the realm of "practical reason," through which Kant argues for the rationality not only of freedom but also of God and immortality. His own main theological work, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, is a thorough "moralization" of religion, and in its pruning of Christianity to fit his philosophy is a good example of the fifth type of theology described above.3 Yet he is decisively theistic, with an austere conception of God as the "unconditioned" or "absolute," whose reality is beyond all knowledge or experience but is mediated through our sense of moral obligation. We see in Kant the most influential statement of the modern tendency to distinguish fact (pure reason) from value (practical reason) and to categorize religion and morality together under the latter. We see also the emphasis, typical of so many modern theologies, on the practical or ethical content of Christianity, especially the centrality of freedom. Sometimes this is developed focusing on personal freedom and intersubjectivity, as in existentialism's concern for encounter and decision. In others, such as Moltmann and liberation theologies, the practicality takes a social and political form and is more affected by post-Kantian ideas of history and society.

It is worth reflecting on why Kant's stress on the ethical, practical, and intersubjective in religion continued to be attractive. Partly it is because Kant shared common roots with many theologians in a Lutheran faith constituted by a dynamic interactive relationship between the believer and God. For those who came later, it also represented an appealing response to the most dangerous threats which modernity posed, not only to theology but also to the whole realm of value, ethics, and the personal. These were the challenges of naturalistic and other "reductionist" explanations of religion, morality, and humanity which by the end of the century had been built up to massive proportions by such figures as Strauss (critical history), Feuerbach (philosophy), Marx (politics and economics), Durkheim and Weber (sociology), Frazer (comparative religion), William James (psychology), Darwin (evolutionary biology), and Nietzsche (philosophy). These have decisively shaped the "common sense" of many twentieth-century educated Western people about religion, and in the face of them the claim of Kant that the realm of freedom and practicality could not be reduced to any "objective" explanation offered theologians something which was both widely appealing beyond Christianity and a medium through which to express Christianity.

Kant's ethical interpretation was challenged by two major alternative ways of conceiving Christianity and theology in the early nineteenth century, those of Hegel and Schleiermacher. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is usually regarded as the outstanding theologian of the century. At the root of his achievement was a reconception of religion. For him, it is primarily neither morality nor belief (knowledge) but is an immediate self-consciousness or feeling of absolute dependence on God. So the roots of faith are pre-moral and pre-cognitive, and this religious consciousness is common to all people, though very variously recognized and expressed. While, in Kant, God (the absolute or unconditioned) is present through our sense of moral obligation, in Schleiermacher, God is present in an immediate dynamic relationship that grasps our whole being. Christianity is the specific form of this God-consciousness shaped through Jesus Christ and the community of faith in him. This was a view of religion which had an integrity of its own in the subjective realm of feeling or consciousness, but which yet could be reflected upon and discussed intellectually in theology and could inform the whole of practical living. It offered an idiom through which all of Christian doctrine could be expressed afresh. The Christian Faith is his culminating work, offering a method of theology which relates it to other disciplines and working out the content of faith with central reference to Jesus Christ and the experience of those with faith in him.4

Schleiermacher's influence has been immense. Besides his powerful account of religion's validity rooted in the dynamics of awareness of God, he pioneered modern hermeneutics; he maintained the importance of aesthetics in theology; he offered a "noninterventionist" account of God's relation to the world, which included a critique of religious language; he suggested a restructuring of the whole theological enterprise which was, due to his advocacy, partly embodied in the new University of Berlin; and in his public ecclesiastical, cultural, and political life he represented a lively and effective integration of modernity and Christian faith. All this was seen by him as in continuity with the Protestant Reformation and its evangelical tradition.

The post-World War I twentieth century began with a reaction against him led by Barth, who yet always acknowledged his greatness. Schleiermacher is the grandfather of those who attempt to correlate or integrate faith with modernity, and particularly of those who see the point of contact in human interiority - Tillich's "ultimate concern." He is the principal creative sponsor of the whole revisionist and liberal enterprise, but he himself constantly eludes simple categories: in those used above he seems, according to interpretation, to oscillate between the third and fourth types.

The second major early nineteenth-century challenge to Kant came from G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831). He criticized both Kant and Schleiermacher for having an inadequate notion of rationality. Both of them had left the concept of God (the absolute, or unconditioned) relatively untouched. Hegel developed a system in which the absolute was conceived as rational and dynamic, realizing itself through a dialectical process in history. He saw the Trinity as the supreme reality, in which God differentiates himself and becomes actual in Jesus Christ and enters into suffering and death on the way to the ultimate reconciliation of all in the Spirit. The system thus had a dialectical logic embracing history with its developments and conflicts, and Hegel surveyed all of history, including the religions, in order to show the basic forms of life, society, and religion in their evolution. He also saw himself as a Christian, Lutheran philosopher recovering the truth of the basic doctrines of Trinity, creation, fall, incarnation, reconciliation, and the Holy Spirit. For him, Christianity was religion in its absolute expression, but, while its content could not be surpassed, philosophy could give a more adequate conceptual expression of it as truth, uniting it with all other truth.

The nineteenth-century shift toward more historical, process-oriented ways of understanding reality was profoundly affected by Hegel. Kant had separated the self from other reality: Hegel offered a comprehensive, historical integration of subjectivity and objectivity in which reason and even logic took on dynamic form, and Kant's restriction of theoretical reason in knowing God was overcome. Hegel daringly reconceived the idea of God and his involvement with the world (sometimes described as a type of "panentheism"); he placed the issue of truth, not religion, at the top of the agenda; and he encouraged rational and historical reconsideration of key doctrines.

The twentieth-century theologians who have wrestled most thoroughly with Hegel have often emerged deeply ambiguous about him as a Christian thinker - this is true in various ways of Barth, Jungel, Rahner, Pannenberg, Balthasar, and Kung. One reason may be that, insofar as he can be related to our types, he, like Schleiermacher, oscillates according to the interpretation. However, with him it is between the fourth and fifth types: some see him offering an appropriate modern conception of Christianity, others as absorbing it into his system on his own alien terms. But both by setting an agenda and in his contribution on specific issues (a way of conceiving the integration of history in the Trinity in Barth, Rahner, Pannenberg, and Moltmann; the death of God in Jungel and Moltmann; Rahner's way of affirming reality as rational; Balthasar's genres of epic, lyric, and drama, Pannenberg's concepts of rationality and universal history; Kung's approach to incarnation) he is still shaping theological debate.

In addition, the reactions provoked by Hegel resonate through the rest of the nineteenth century and into our own. One of the most passionate, that of the Dane S0ren Kierkegaard (1813-58), went virtually unnoticed in his own time, but exploded in early twentieth-century existentialism and especially influenced Barth, Bultmann, and Tillich. Kierkegaard rejected Hegel's rational integration, accusing him especially of failing to take account of the existing, deciding individual, and he put forward a radical concept of Christian subjectivity which was not dependent on rational or historical justification. We live life forwards, with no neutral or overarching standpoints. We are faced with decisions and have to choose without any guarantees that we are right. We are constituted by such decisions and through them become different in ourselves. All ethical and religious existence is participated in in such self-involving and self-transforming ways. The gospel faces us with the most radical decision of all; which probes us to the depths and challenges us to go the paradoxical way of the cross. In this Kierkegaard is expanding the practical side of Kant and giving it more full-blooded Christian content. He denies both Kant's and Hegel's versions of how reason relates to faith and sees instead the paradoxical reality of incarnation and cross eliciting the leap of radical faith.

More typical of the nineteenth century was the development of Hegel's stress on history, but rejecting his tendency to give ideas and concepts primacy over empirical research. David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74) was the most controversial figure in this. He applied historical critical methods to the accounts of the life of Jesus, found a great deal that he called "mythical" (that is, religious ideas given in the form of historical accounts), and decided that there was little reliable factual information about Jesus.

The issue of the historical Jesus in relation to the Christ of faith was now firmly on the theological agenda. The rest of the nineteenth century saw many other developments in historical study which are part of the essential background to the twentieth century, especially in the fields of history of dogma and (more widely) historical theology (outstanding figures being Ferdinand Christian Baur and Adolf von Harnack), but the controversial center of the field remained the figure of Jesus, a focus which has been a legacy to many theologians treated in this volume.

The middle third of the nineteenth century saw many attempts to rethink and restore orthodox Christianity in Germany, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, and many of these have continued to be influential, generally within particular churches or traditions (for example, biblical fundamentalism, Anglo-Catholicism, various types of confessionalism). It was also the time when new critiques of religion, such as those proposed by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), began to be developed. They multiplied as the century went on, as religion was scrutinized through the disciplines of history, literature, philosophy, geology, biology, physics, psychology, sociology, politics, economics, and comparative religion. These, as mentioned above, were to help cause a major intellectual and cultural crisis in Western Christianity after 1918, but they have also been engaged in a variety of ways by theologians, and the critical dialogues with them are a major theme running through theologies in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries - for example, Bonhoeffer with sociology; Tillich with socialism, depth psychology, and much else; Balthasar with aesthetics and drama; Pannenberg, Moltmann, Kung, and Tracy with almost every area; Teilhard de Chardin and process thought with evolutionary biology; Moltmann and liberation theologies with Marxism; Torrance and those discussed in Part III with the physical, biological, and human sciences; postmodern theology with Nietzsche; and theology of religions with comparative religion.

Finally, overlapping the two centuries is Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), who in many ways summed up the nineteenth century and is the indispensable background for the twentieth. He saw the Enlightenment, not the Reformation, as the genesis of modernity, and the main nineteenth-century development as that of a comprehensive historical consciousness. So, while constantly in dialogue with the theology of Schleiermacher and the philosophies of Kant and Hegel, he saw them all as needing to be criticized through a more thoroughly historical method. He was immersed in late nineteenth-century history of religions and sociology, and wrestled with the enduring problems raised by them, such as the absoluteness of Christianity, the role of the historical Jesus in Christian faith, and the inseparability of all religion from its social and historical context. He arrived at a complex critical and constructive position: resisting naturalistic, reductionist explanations of religion; emphasizing Christianity's distinctive values worked out through the centuries in interaction with different situations, and calling for a fresh, creative social embodiment of those values in twentieth-century Europe; and stressing the ambiguities of both Christianity and modernity. After World War I, the dialectical theologians, especially Barth, tended to see Troeltsch's main achievement as negative, showing the cul-dc-sac arrived at when theology tries to move from human experience, history, and religion to God. But Troeltsch has also been continually influential, as in the historical critical and sociological approaches to the Bible, the later Tillich's method in dealing with historical patterns and the world religions, Pannenberg's conception of a theology that is consistently and critically historical, North American attempts to work out a practical and sociologically aware theology in a pluralist society, the widespread move to take local contexts more fully into account in doing theology, and the discussion in theology of religions about the uniqueness of Christianity.

The above account of the nineteenth century as it has affected theologians writing after 1918 has been largely centered on Germany and on those most influenced by German-language theology and philosophy. This is because that German tradition, while having many limitations, is the most sustained and intensive example of engagement in the enterprise of modern theology, as already defined, and is the most direct way of introducing historically the typical problems of modernity, such as knowledge and rationality, historical consciousness, and alternative explanations of religion. Other parts of this volume portray traditions which often approach theology very differently and in some cases are in critical confrontation with the methods and habits of the German academy. A striking development in the last twenty years of the twentieth century was a surge in theological creativity and productivity in other languages, notably English and Spanish, and the German theological tradition at the start of the twenty-first century is facing a critical challenge as to whether its previous two centuries of achievement can be sustained.

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