The Theological Project of Modernism

Faith and the Conditions of Mineness

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Kevin W. Hector
Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2015.
     288 pages.
     $110.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198722649.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the brief but telling preface to this book, Kevin W. Hector admits that the modern theologians he hopes to retrieve have come under heavy attack by contemporary theologians. Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Albrecht Ritschl, and Ernst Troeltsch have been accused, among other things, of subordinating the doctrine of God to a universal account of reason that, in the end, undermined the historical and bodily nature of human beings and transformed God into an idol. Such accusations have only deepened as so called “contextual theologies” (Hector’s term) have taken jabs at this tradition for universalizing what turned out to be the particular outlook of white European intellectuals who could not help but leverage their confidence in “reason” in racist and Eurocentric ways.

However, according to Hector, modern theology did not simply bestow upon us a deleterious universalizing method of reason, “but a problem, namely, how persons could identify with their lives or experience them as ‘mine,’ especially given their vulnerability to tragedy, injustice, luck, guilt, and other ‘oppositions’” (viii). For the thinkers at issue, faith in God played a central role in reconciling apparent oppositions in human life and providing the route for one’s life to hang together in such a way that one’s faith and actions could be self-expressive of who one is. As the subtitle suggests, modern theology sees faith as contributing to the conditions of identifying with one’s life-narrative, taking it as “mine,” despite circumstances that threaten its integrity. The book, then, is an attempt to offer a synthesis of modern theology as a project concerned with the “mineness” of one’s life, and specifically how faith relativizes, overcomes, or reconciles the various antinomies that might undermine the conditions of “mineness.”

The most constructive portion of the book comes in the first chapter, which through engagements with analytic philosophies of action, explicates a view of the narrative shape of life, the conditions under which we intend and own such a life and take it to be self-expressive, and the circumstances that undermine its narrative unity and self-expressiveness. This account of mineness provides the hermeneutic for the following chapters on Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Ritschl and Troeltsch, and Tillich, respectively. These chapters are truly worth the price of the book, as Hector, refusing all caricature, exegetically develops the most complicated regions of these theologians’ thought, showing in turn how their account of faith contributes to the problem of “mineness” in the wake of life’s disintegrating aspects. For example, in chapter 3 Hector shows how Schleiermacher’s account of absolute dependence on God provides a broader context that relativizes the ostensibly unending conflict of opposites between freedom and dependence, humanity and God, reasons and feeling, and so on. Schleiermacher’s concern for the ways our lives hang together and struggle to integrate oppositions allows his account of faith and christology to furnish the conditions in which identity and self-expression is possible. Similarly, Hegel’s account of self-consciousness and the human need for mutual recognition and reconciliation with otherness creates a context for elaborating a notion of Trinity, christology, and human faith rich enough to overcome our sense of the divisions and disintegrations to which our lives are subject.

The exegesis in The Theological Project of Modernism is far too rich and detailed to give a fuller picture here of Hector’s interpretations of these pivotal thinkers. But it is safe to say that he has given us one of the most sustained, penetrating, and perspicuous accounts of this tradition in recent scholarship. Theologians owe him a debt simply for articulating the historical and conceptual formulations of these thinkers that stand on their own as profound theological expositions. Breadth, depth, and clarity rarely unite in the ways Hector has managed in this book. In fact, the chapters on individual thinkers are so historically and exegetically attentive that the reader often forgets about the questions of faith and “mineness” that are meant to be the concern of the project. Readers looking for more explicitly constructive work in the vein of the first chapter will likely wonder if wading through, say, the subtle developments in Kant’s thought that eventually led to the Critique of Pure Reason is truly necessary for the recovery of modern theology’s attention to “mineness.”

There is, then, a lingering imbalance between constructive and exegetical argument such that one is left asking what the book hopes to accomplish. The preface and the brief final section of the book claim that reading these theologians according to the synthesis provided will actually allow “contextualist” critics of modernity to see, say, Kant or Ritschl, as their forebears rather than their enemies. Insofar as questions of injustice, tragedy, or suffering undermine the conditions of self-identity, and insofar as faith in God allows for the integration and self-expression of one’s life, then perhaps the role of faith in modern and “contextualist” theologies share companionable concerns. That truly is a bold claim, making for some potentially exciting theology, but it is one that Hector does not, and does not attempt to, come close to articulating. To begin articulating it, Hector would need to interact more deeply with modern theology’s detractors and explore the parallels between notions of suffering, self-estrangement, and faithful practice requisite to such claims of contemporary relevance. One hopes that Hector might utilize the excellent material from this book to make good on that suggestion in a future work. However, The Theological Project of Modernism stands alone as a clear, though difficult, introduction for newcomers to this tradition, while providing a wealth of novel insight and argument for seasoned scholars in the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brandon L. Morgan is a Ph.D. candidate in theology and ethics at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kevin W. Hector is Associate Professor of Theology and of the Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago. He teaches theology and philosophy of religions and his research focuses on the intersections between modern theology and philosophy.

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