Narratives of Theological Decline

Recently, I’ve been researching the various ways in which theologians and philosophers have articulated the misery of our current theological condition and the reasons for it. Now, I’m not necessarily agreeing that our age is at the bottom of a theological ravine, but the conception is popular in the literature. I’m fairly new to the field, so this post is a sketch of the big picture as I’ve pieced it together so far. I welcome any comments or corrections.

One of the most common narratives at the moment is  “Enlightenment as bad guy.” In these accounts, the Enlightenment is a sweeping current of intellectual ideals that produce revolt against traditional authority and religion in a push toward a new era —a free and secularized world. Christians who adopt this interpretation (Francis Shaeffer) view the Enlightenment as the great vomit of Satan, whereas secularists operating within this same understanding (Peter Gay) applaud the Enlightenment as the beginning of a better age unchained from a superstitious past. Narratives of theological decline that focus heavily on the Enlightenment leave me wanting. First of all, there is great dispute in the academic literature on a number of points: J. Pocock has argued for a number of different Enlightenments that varied in their attitude toward religion, Jonathan Clark has suggested dismissing the term “Enlightenment” altogether, and Jonathan Sheehan has advocated an understanding of the Enlightenment as the creation of novel cultural structures rather than as a unified philosophical program. In short, the Enlightenment as bad guy approach may not even accurately reflect the history of the 18th century, and if it does, it may not offer sufficient intellectual explanatory power. This view is popular with orthodox Protestants, though, because they tend to see the mid-17th century as the peak of theology. It’s tempting, then, to date Christendom’s undoing shortly thereafter.

Another popular approach, particularly within Catholic circles, is “Nominalism as bad guy.” Etienne Gilson, 20th century heavyweight champion of medieval philosophy, most fully articulated this view. Similar thoughts have been expressed by Richard Weaver and Michael Gillespie. Anyone with neo-Platonic or Aristotelian sympathies may gravitate toward this approach. In Gilson’s narrative, theology and philosophy both reached their zenith in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. His synthesis of reason and revelation is the monument of the Middle Ages. After him came Duns Scotus, William Ockham, and the nominalists. These progressively focused attention, not on reality as structured by God, but on reality as a projection of man’s thoughts. There was a corresponding turn from heaven to earth and from reason to either rationalism or irrationalism. Without the Thomistic synthesis (a pulling together), the modern conception of reality is necessarily fragmented. The many aspects of life – personal, political, social, ecclesial – no longer know how to relate to each other or if they even should. The Nominalism as bad guy theory, though, is not without its critics. Right around the turn of the 21st century, Heiko Oberman attempted to the common negative evaluation of nominalism upside down. Instead, he presented it as the full bloom of medieval philosophy. A few scholars, such as Alister McGrath and Steven Ozment, seem to have appropriated his work in their own articulations of late medievalism. Many Protestants have been less than thrilled with Gilson’s thesis since it is so positive toward Aquinas and implies (explicitly states?) that Protestantism is a result of a theological and philosophical decline.

One last and perhaps most intriguing narrative is “Greek philosophy as bad guy” in the form expressed by Colin Gunton (there are others). Gunton’s narrative is provocative in that it finds the seeds of dissolution much earlier than the other narratives. According to Gunton, Greek philosophy conceived of God as a monad, a largely impersonal being. Christian philosophers relying on Neo-Platonism syncretized the biblical (Hebrew) concept of God with the Greek concept. The result is that much of Christian theology illegitimately privileges the unity of God over his plurality. The mainstream tradition fails as well in attempting the knowledge of God through a priori philosophical categories rather than through his discrete acts of revelation, particularly the incarnation. Negative theology overshadowed positive constructions of God and tended to produce a picture of God in opposition to creation. In The One, the Three, and the Many Gunton expounds how this improper view of God was expanded by nominalism (note the similarities to Gilson) and radicalized by modern philosophers (Enlightenment as bad guy), resulting in the virtual exclusion of God from the world. Gunton’s narrative may be compatible with the others, although he would treat as symptoms what they take as the root problems. On the other hand, such a far-ranging critique of Christian theology is audacious and not to be adopted quickly. In addition, I wonder if there really is such a stark contrast between Greek and Hebrew concepts of God and if Gunton has not himself fallen victim to this age’s preference for the dynamic and concrete over the static and abstract.

I’m sure there are more narratives out there; these are the ones I’ve run into the most. (If I could have remembered what David Wells said, I would have included him; I think his big thing is secularization, so probably close to the Enlightenment narrative.) I’m also fairly ambivalent about all of them. I don’t have nearly enough familiarity with the subject to make informed evaluations, but I find the issue both intriguing and important.

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Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 10:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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