Transcendence and the Secular World

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Ingolf U. Dalferth
Jo Bennett
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Company
    , September
     284 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How should Christians react to the secular world? In the secular age, the study of gods is no longer a norm of the university; as Ingolf Dalferth writes, it “becomes just one option among many others” (1). Under such a setting, there is a constant threat on the existence of theological studies in modern universities. To react to this threat of modern secularism, a new trend of theology emerged in the 20th century—one which advocates for Christians justifying their practices and beliefs to the world based on trinitarian theology. One of the most important figures in this movement is Karl Barth. Barth claims that Christian theology is an entirely self-referential enterprise because its starting point is faith in the triune God. Following Barth’s legacy, many contemporary theological movements have been developed to show their own unique trinitarian stance to the secular world. If the Yale postliberal school (George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and Stanley Hauerwas) represents the American response, and the Cambridge radical orthodoxy school (John Milbank, Graham Ward, and Catherine Pickstock) signifies the British response, Dalferth at Zurich characterizes the response of the German-speaking world to the secular world.

Along with Creatures of Possibility (Baker Academic, 2016) and Selbstlose Lidenshaft (Mohr Siebeck, 2016), Transcendence and the Secular World is the last part of Dalferth’s series of studies on questions of human life and existence. This book develops a Christian philosophy of orientation which can contribute to the post-secular society through seeing the world in the perspective of God’s presence. The aim of the book is to demonstrate how Christians should orient to the post-secular world within the presence of God. In this book, Dalferth critically engages as a Christian theologian with modern secularism like other post-Barthian theological movements, such as postliberal theology or radical orthodoxy. However, unlike postliberalism or radical orthodoxy, Dalferth argues that the secular world for Christians is not necessarily to be understood in negative terms (ix). Rather, he claims that “Christian theology ought to be adopting a critical attitude to the current swan song of secularization and the fashionable heralding of a new post-secular religious era” (x).

Although many postmodern theologians understand secularity as the opposite concept of religion with a negative nuance, in this book Dalferth tries to understand the term “secular” as vertical antithesis of divine and worldly. In other words, he recognizes the term “secular” in a neutral sense because secularity allows plurality in its development. For example, Dalferth points out that secularization in Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and José Casanova, highlights not only privatization and rationalization, but also differentiation (21). This implies that the use of secularity can be both positive and negative depending on how we use it. Thus, Dalferth rejects the conflict between religion and secularity, while asking us to move forward toward post-secularity, which allows every community to coexist and interact with one another through accepting “a differentiation of various ‘public spheres’” (36).

In these public spheres of post-secularity, Dalferth avers that Christianity can offer transformative insights into the world, such as the fundamental distinction between the creator and creation—that is, the distinction between transcendence and immanence. According to Dalferth, Christians believe that God shows God’s love to us in Jesus Christ. In this Christian faith, Christians decide to live a life in the fellowship with God and others (3). For Dalferth, being a Christian basically means to have a new orientation of life in God’s perspective. In such a Christian orientation, God through Jesus Christ makes Godself our neighbor so that all human beings call to be the heirs of God; “In this new community of God’s neighbours there are -as Paul says-no longer Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, men or women (Gal. 3:28)” (4). In this respect, Christian faith leads Christians to orient their life “with the aid of the distinction between transcendence and immanence, whether it is lived in a religious or a non-religious way” (259). In this Christian orientation of life, the distinction between faith and unbelief is not based on particular characteristics or human experiences, while the true distinction comes instead from the perspective of transcendence—God.

According to Dalferth, the Christian way of orientation “is different from all other public spheres of our life, which are constituted by communication between human beings” (278, italics original). For him, believers are distinguished from others because they orient their life in God’s presence as the ground (279). In this new orientation, the Christian God is relational to the world because the God is triune in nature. That is why believers illuminate others in the perspective of transcendence rather than staying in a worldly horizon or a particular human ideology. From there, Christians can live a totally different life because they become a being for others through opening the new possibilities of transcendence beyond the immanence of a secular world. Dalferth summarizes, “the Christian life orientation moves beyond the alternative between religious and non-religious life. . .rather, it is the self-mediating presence of God, and the distinction, established by this presence of God within the possibility space of the world, between a life that orients itself to that presence (faith), and a life which does not (unfaith)” (x).

Although this book is philosophically dense and hard to follow, I highly recommend it for the reader who is interested in Christian response to secularism, continental hermeneutics, and contemporary philosophy of religion. One of the strengths of this book is that it successfully defends the Christian orientation through using other contemporary philosophies and theologies. Overall, this book is an important book showing the cutting-edge post-Barthian response and theological hermeneutics in the German-speaking world. However, it could be stronger if it drew more attention to other contemporary trinitarian theologies reacting to secularism, which would highlight the uniqueness of Dalferth’s response. Regardless of its weakness, I think that this book deserves a huge reception in the academy in theology and philosophy of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Heejun Yang is a doctoral candidate in philosophy of religion/theology at the University of Münster.

Date of Review: 
November 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ingolf U. Dalferth is Danforth Professor of Philosohy of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Jo Bennett is a German/English and Malay/English translator.


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