The Postmodern Question the End of Modernity

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At the start of a new century and a new millennium, one of the questions that theologians, along with many other intellectuals, are asking is whether the increasing influence of "postmodern" thought represents the end of the modern era and the advent of a new age. Though it is surely too soon to know for certain, most commentators seem to agree that postmodernity is best understood as the latest chapter in the ongoing history of modernity, now spread from Europe to virtually the entire world. Whatever the labels one chooses, it is evident that something basic has changed about how (post)moderns think about their world. Fewer and fewer thinkers are prepared to accept what would once have been the bedrock of modernity, the assumption that there are enduring standards of rationality inherent in human experience that transcend differences of time, place, and culture. Antifoundationalism in philosophy has spread rapidly to theology, and the pressing issues now have to do less with the alleged undermining of religion by science and more with the threat of relativism. Throughout the modern era there have periodically been voices of protest against the assumption that a common rationality can provide a foundation for theology - for example, in the Counter-Enlightenment of J. G. Hamann, F. H. Jacobi, and J. G. Herder in the eighteenth century; in Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century; and in Karl Barth in the twentieth. In the past, such figures have often been labeled "irrationalists" or dismissed by critics as merely "confessional." In the postmodern environment of contemporary theology, such criticisms are less persuasive, and these thinkers are being read with renewed attention. The generation of theologians that once dismissed Barth as "neo-orthodox" is giving way to younger scholars who see in Barth's refusal to accommodate Christian theology to the requirements of an earlier "modernity" a possible model for revitalizing theology in a postmodern environment.

Meanwhile, the great problems of theology and modernity will continue to challenge religious thinkers of the twenty-first century: the relationship of religious faith to modern science, the historical particularity of the Bible, the authority of Scripture, the proper use of philosophy in theology, the truth of Christianity in a religiously pluralistic world - and many others, whose shape we can only begin to imagine.


1 For an analysis of Nietzsche's interpretation of Christianity and a Christian theological interpretation of it, see my book Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination (2000: chs. 5 and 8).

2 The following account of the Aristotelian-Christian world picture is based on Emanuel Hirsch (1949:113-28).

3 For an explanation of the concept of positivity and the distinction between positive and natural religion, see Green (2000:26-30).

4 According to Kant, "Religion is (subjectively regarded) the cognition of all our duties as divine commands" (Kant 1956:153; emphasis as in original); cf. Kant (1960:142).

5 "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! ['Dare to be wise!']. Have courage to use your own understanding!" (Immanuel Kant, "An Answer to the Question: 'What is Enlightenment?'") (1991:54).

6 They are published in English as What is Christianity? (Von Harnack 1957).


Green, G. 2000. Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of

Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hirsch, E. 1949. Geschichte der neuern evangelischen Theologie, vol. 3. Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann. Kant, I. 1956. Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft, ed. K. Vorländer, Philosophische Bibliothek, vol. XLV. Hamburg: Felix Meiner. Kant, I. 1960. Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. T. M. Greene and H. H. Hudson. New York: Harper.

Kant, I. 1965. Critique of Pure Reason, trans. N. Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin's Press. Kant, I. 1991. "An Answer to the Question: 'What is Enlightenment?'," in Kant: Political Writings, ed. H. Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet, 2nd rev. edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nietzsche, F. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals, and Ecce Homo, trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J.

Hollingdale. New York: Random House. Nietzsche, F. 19 74. The Gay Science, trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Random House. Tindal, M. 1967. Christianity as Old as the Creation, ed. G. Gawlick. London, 1730; facsimile reprint, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Fromann Verlag. Toland, J. 1969. Christianity not Mysterious. London, 1696; facsimile reprint, Stuttgart-Bad

Cannstatt: Friedrich Fromann Verlag. Von Harnack, A. 1957. What is Christianity? New York: Harper and Row.

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