Who's Afraid of the Unmoved Mover?

Postmodernism and Natural Theology

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Andrew I. Shepardson
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , February
     2019.
     186 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532656774.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Andrew I. Shepardson’s book, Who’s Afraid of the Unmoved Mover?, deals in broad brushstrokes and consistent clarity with three main concepts: evangelical Christianity, natural theology, and postmodern critical theory. These concepts are woven together through an engagement with some of its key proponents: James K. A. Smith, Myron B. Penner and Carl A. Raschke. The book culminates in a fascinating proposal for an evangelical theology accepting the principles of natural theology  which Shepardson claims to have been rejected in order to accommodate postmodern critical discourse.

One of the most striking features of the book is that its methodological approach—evaluation to critique to original proposal—mirrors its content. The author’s approach is to evaluate and tease out the effects of the postmodern onslaught on evangelical theology, critique the loss of natural theology through unravelling its theoretical premises, and then proposing a way in which postmodern theory can more persuasively interconnect with evangelical theology.

Thus, the final section of the proposed theology is far more dense, detailed, and dependent on terminology. However, this is balanced with the clarity of the  the main concepts he discusses, as have been previously presented. These concepts span general philosophy in particular on analytic philosophy (such as relation to God as “Moral Lawgiver”), and also a mature reading of iconic postmodern figures, including Derrida and Foucault, from a theological lens. The intersections he presents through the likes of Smith, Penner, and Raschke attest to the development of existing models of what has recently come to be recognized as Christian “postmodern theology” (62) of which there is now considerable precedence.

He does go some way in situating his key concern amongst the growing field of Christian post-metaphysical theology, notably in his discussions of Merold Westphal and John Caputo. He succeeds to a significant extent in setting their thinking to the side in order to focus on his central protagonists, though one cannot help but wonder why certain figures, including Jean-Luc Marion, did not take a more central place on his stage. Having said this, he does enrich his discussion in relation to Paul Ricouer and George Lindbeck.

The book is a significant contribution to several theological movements in Christianity, each of which is driving its respective engagement with postmodern theory. It is interesting to ponder some of the parallels this critique has in other contemporary Christianity theological trends, such as “postliberal theology” and “reconstructive theology,” but perhaps most pertinently, “radical orthodoxy” which deserved more recognition here, and that hopefully he will draw on in future works.  

Contextualizing this scholarship further, one could point more broadly to a disillusionment with responses to the Enlightenment spirit, notably to Kant, Kierkegaard, and Hume, are reflected across the board in “postmodern theology” (and here in natural theology in particular), and veer off in different directions—continental analytic, as in general philosophy in itself. But, he claims “Truth is not propositional; it is relational” (85). In this sense, and in light of Shepardson’s work, it should not to be taken for the granted that even within a smaller denomination of Christianity, theology is up to date with postmodern theory, and is now entering a new era of asking the question, what happens next?

Further situating the book as postmodern theology, the theory (and practice) of scriptural reasoning led by David F. Ford, demands that in the shadow of the twentieth century, an ethical relationship to the Other must now form part of Christian theology. In Shepardson’s work, notions of truth in evangelical theological circles are probed, though he gives the impression of stopping short at boundaries of evangelicalism. There are brief mentions of Hinduism (81), and Taoism (29-30) and possibly more, though there is no index through which would ease the process of searching for ideas or names. Indeed, reviewing this book from a Jewish scholarly perspective, there appears to be a stark absence of theological approaches to Judaism.  

Is this point on otherness telling of a broader picture in contemporary evangelical circles? This reading certainly signals an imperative to seek out how these changing understandings of the nature of religious truth, in their connections with theoretical aspects of missionary engagement. This would have been particularly welcome at an interesting part when Shepardson discusses a “dialogue of persuasion” (63).

In a more general sense in his field, it would be encouraging to see a scholarly originality and deeper dialogue with contemporary Jewish theological thinking. Perhaps a partial response to this point, would be to reflect internally upon aspects of revised postmodern Christian theology, recognizing the demands of postmodernism, which include themes of hospitality and dialogue, and thus to demand that interreligious dialogue, even theoretically, form part of contemporary evangelical theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Miriam Feldmann Kaye is a Teaching Fellow in Jewish Philosophy and Religions at Bar Ilan University.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew I. Shepardson is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Denver Seminary and Life Pacific College.

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