Modern Theology In The Cartesian Theater

Historian Claude Welch writes that "at the beginning of the nineteenth century the theological problem was, simply, 'How is theology possible?' This was a question of both rationale and method, and included, at least implicitly, the question whether theology is possible at all."13 In this section we consider the role of Descartes's legacy in raising the question of the very possibility of theology. This will serve as background for recognizing recent developments in both theology and philosophy that move decisively beyond modern dilemmas.

Cartesian anxiety led to a quest for foundations for all academic disciplines. In theology it manifested itself in the development of theological prolegomena - attempts to answer the question how theology is possible, and especially how it can be shown to be universally valid. Earlier these endeavors were described as fundamental or philosophical or (most reveal-ingly) foundational theology. Today, with foundationalism in disrepute, the same goal is pursued as "public theology."

If generalized epistemological anxiety is not sufficient to account for questioning the entire theological enterprise, we find further insights in the image of the Cartesian theater. Descartes's own approach to the problem of God set the stage for the majority who followed. Descartes cast about within his mind and found the idea of God. By means of complicated arguments (drawing on the scholastic philosophical resources he meant to leave behind) he managed to prove to his own satisfaction that his idea of God could only have been caused by a real God distinct from himself, and thus God exists.14

Yet Karl Barth has argued that this Cartesian "turn to the subject" has been fatal to theology: whenever Christianity is founded on human religious experience (as Friedrich Schleiermacher [1768-1834}, the father of modern liberal theology, set out to do), the question will arise whether religion is a purely human phenomenon and thus God a mere projection (so Ludwig Feuerbach [1804-72]).15 This argument has been summarized in the slogan

13 Claude Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972, 1985), 1, p. 59.

14 Meditations on First Philosophy, third meditation.

>5 E.g., Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 1, part 2 (Edinburgh: T. &T. Clark, 1956), pp. 288-91.

that "a Schleiermacher will lead inevitably to a Feuerbach." We might rather say that an inside-out approach to theology will lead inevitably to religious skepticism.

But why turn to religious experience to support the theological structure? Because more traditional approaches faced comparable problems: historical-critical methods applied to the scriptural texts led to an image of the text as a veil of words. Hans Frei noted that, for moderns, the referent of the biblical texts came to be seen as the history lying behind the texts, and scholars thereafter argued over the extent to which the texts reveal or conceal what one needs to know in order to provide a foundation for theology (see chapter 3 below). Theologians of the fundamentalist movement solved the problem by positing an act of God: the Holy Spirit guarantees the inerrancy of the texts and their accurate representation of what lies behind them (just as, for Descartes, God had guaranteed accurate sensory representation of the external world).

Against this historical background we can see the significance of Lash's opposition not merely to the common notion that God is experienced by turning inward but, in Lash's words, to the entire "philosophical temper which finds it necessary and unproblematic to draw a global or metaphysical distinction between 'objective' facts... and 'subjective' beliefs, impressions or attitudes."16 With these words Lash echoes the most formidable opponent of the Cartesian theater: Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951).

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