A Profound Ignorance
Modern Pneumatology and Its Anti-modern Redemption
- ISBN: 9781481310796
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: November 2019
Ephraim Radner’s voluminous work, A Profound Ignorance: Modern Pneumatology and Its Anti-Modern Redemption, offers a substantive genealogy of modern pneumatology (which is the study of the Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition, and in the modern age, the study of spirit or spirits generally), tracing it against the backdrop of human history. Rather than predicating a pneumatology on the resolution of suffering or making theodical claims, Radner offers a more nuanced, but no less substantive, approach.
Radner understands (modern) pneumatology as a problem insofar as it is a human projection and invention (89). This is caused by its unraveling from theological tradition: “The story of modern pneumatology is more about these experiential changes than it is about the evolution of theological ideas” (17). Beginning in the 16th century, Radner argues, pneumatology takes on the character of the age; it is interpolated with human anxieties and social strain. Modernity shaped empirical enterprises, including how to interpret and think critically about experience. Furthermore, birthed in the modern age of science and reason, pneumatology became a “new science,” (92) learning and integrating insights from the fields of naturalistic discourses and empirical science. Developing ideas meet experiential demands, by which the category of pneumatology is driven. And this shift accounts for the modern slippage between Holy Spirit and human spirit. Thus, pneumatology comes to mean “spirit” generally—a rather shallow spirituality.
Pneumatology is not free from the thumbprint of theories of everything, according to Radner. Modern configurations of pneumatology purport that if all matter is connected, then the connector must be the Spirit. However, when the Spirit means so many things, its meaning and dynamism is flattened, ironically, meaning hardly anything at all. As a result, terms like “matter,” “spirit,” and “energy” become interchangeable. For Radner, the emergence of modern (pneumatology divorces the Spirit from its Christological and ecclesial components: “Modern pneumatology has turned the Holy Spirit, mysterious and blessedly without shape, into a human form, stripped of its lamented and despised limitations” (18).
Radner’s critique of pneumatology is vast and his methodology masterful. He delves into the “pneumatic human being,” constructed through the writings and histories of explorers, doctors, philosophers, theologians, and poets across generations, offering insights into the social milieu that shaped their pneumatologies, most notably: the utopic longings of Pedro Fernandez de Quirós (21-49); the medical metaphysics of Paracelsus (89-92); Giordano Bruno’s integration of infinity into his natural theology (92-95); the moral theological work of the Cambridge Platonists, especially the work of Anne Conway’s tiered spiritual universe (95-102); John Wesley’s “witness of the Spirit” (131-139); Ralph Waldo Emerson’s moral imperative of the Spirit, which oscillates between the particular and the universal (139-144); and Walt Whitman’s pneumatic vision of self-actualization in the shadow of the Civil War (144-153).
This work cautions against the optimistic tendencies of progressivism without slipping down the slope of escapism or nihilism. Radner offers a pneumatic vision that embraces suffering and death in creaturely bodies as part of life in God: “To affirm a world where a perfectly good God and suffering coexist is the only way for Christians to speak truthfully, because that is the world ‘as it is’ in all its strange contradictions” (237). While acknowledging the difficulty of reconciling God's existence with human suffering, he offers in response that the Christian life is not so much about doing away with suffering as being aware of the coexistence of suffering alongside God. It is a paradox. As Radner points out, Jesus was not spared from the cup of suffering. But this suffering is not without redemption. Christian redemption can take two forms, according to Radner: martyrdom (i.e., testimony or witness) (210-211), and motherhood, (i.e., offering the body over to God for pneumatic acts/purposes) (304-305). Life in God is the life of birth and death, Incarnation and Passion.
It is through the recognition of Jesus’ incarnation that life in the Spirit is made possible. Only through embracing life in its fullness—the gifts and graces as well as suffering and sadness—can humans truly understand their place in creation. Humility, instead of hubris, may inspire mystery and reorient the human to new possibilities beyond the “ignorance” of modern pneumatology.
This study is not for those looking for a brief introduction on pneumatology. The notes alone amass 115 pages. However, Radner’s careful study is effective in inspiring curiosity about how theological ideas always say as much or more about humans as they do about the divine. Ultimately, the mystery of the Incarnation and the limitations of being human are enveloped—and redeemed, but not resolved—in the life of God and the God of life. This thesis may not be satisfying for some readers, but it is certainly thought-provoking.
Shea Watts is adjunct professor of religion and philosophy at Wingate University.
R. Shea WattsDate Of Review:March 21, 2022