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date: 03 April 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This chapter first discusses the meaning of the terms ‘modernity’, ‘European’, and ‘thought’, used in the title of this Handbook. It then sets out the book's primary aims: (1) to identify those questions and issues that have been common to and formative of both theology and modern European thought; and (2) to avoid reducing the subject matter to a one-sidedly theological or secular philosophical view.

Keywords: modernity, European, thought, theology

What might readers expect from a Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought? For a start, they might expect a book that is ten times larger than the one now being presented. Each term of the title—‘theology’; ‘modern’; ‘European’; and ‘thought’—is eminently contestable and invites almost unlimited commentary and disagreement. Whatever the editors’ sins of commission, they are therefore deeply aware of sins of omission, some of the more important of which will be addressed later in this Introduction. But whatever the details of what should or shouldn’t have been included under this rubric, it seems to us clear that theology and modern European thought are not two things that might or might not be brought into relation. The chapters collected here demonstrate that they belong together in such a way that theology cannot be neatly partitioned off from the whole intellectual and cultural environment in which it is practised. Conversely, the intellectual and cultural environment of modernity remains deeply entangled in theology—even (and perhaps especially) when it most wants to rid itself of it. For these reasons, we shall not here attempt to narrow the definitions either of theology or of modern European thought. This does not mean that attempts to develop what has been called a properly theological theology, i.e. a theology governed by its own intrinsic sources and norms, are without value. Nor does it mean that programmes of radical secularization are meaningless. But it does mean that both the theologians’ attempts to preserve the distinctiveness of their discipline and the secularists’ efforts to strip society, culture, and intellectual life of what they see as its residual theological trappings never entirely escape shared—if sometimes elusive—horizons of linguistic and symbolic orders and of moral and political commitments. A greater acknowledgement of the reality of this situation will not, we believe, lead (as some might fear) to the further secularization of theology itself and its absorption into some form of cultural, anthropological, or philosophical studies. On the contrary, we suggest that such acknowledgement is likely to (p. 2) demonstrate how well-placed theology is to contribute—on its own terms—to the continuing debate (dispersed across a range of faculties in the university) as to what it means to be and to flourish as human beings. Conversely, descriptive and normative interpretations of the human phenomenon that simply exclude theology from the conversation will be shown to be not just self-limiting but potentially self-destructive.

In commencing with the term ‘theology’ we are not committing ourselves to any particular view of how theology might be more closely defined. That being said, we are broadly taking it as applying to those forms of theology that have been developed and taught in university contexts in the European world of the last two centuries. Today that includes many scholars working in faculties or departments of religion, culture, philosophy, modern languages, or other subjects, who are nevertheless heirs to many of the key texts and debates of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although sharp differences may still exist between institutions committed to strong confessional identities and those that have been significantly de-confessionalized (or never were confessional in the first place), the fact is that scholars across these divides read and comment on each others’ work, share in conferences, seminars, and research activities, and contribute to each others’ collected volumes. Of course, edges are blurred, and there are contexts where ‘theology’ shades off into one or other neighbouring disciplines, but there is also a broad swathe of contemporary intellectual life where scholars take themselves to be practising Christian theology and are recognized as so doing by their fellows, including those who propose vastly different views as to just what theology is or ought to be. Recognizing this breadth, contributors to this volume are drawn from virtually the whole spectrum of theological positions widely encountered in contemporary western academic discourse and neither they nor the collection as a whole can be assigned to any particular school, movement, or tendency.

I. Modernity

What, then, of the term ‘modern’? What is it to be modern? And who really speaks for ‘modern man’—and the implied exclusion of ‘modern woman’ from that most ubiquitous of mid-twentieth-century jargon already indicates a major fault line in the very conception of ‘modernity’! Is there in fact just ‘one’ modernity?

In 1979, the French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard published a short book entitled La Condition postmodern. Rapport sur la savoir. It was translated into English in 1984 (Lyotard 1984). We can take the publication of this book as a convenient starting point for a critical turn within thinking about concepts that had come to dominate so much cultural and intellectual activity: the modern, modernity, modernization, and modernism. Lyotard, with his critique against what he called the ‘metanarratives of modernity’ and his introduction of the term ‘postmodern’, opened the debate about whether modernity was over. The 1970s were a critical point in western cultural history, as the British sociologist, Daniel Bell, saw clearly in his prescient book (p. 3) The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (Bell 1976). Industrialism had been almost synonymous with modernization (Kumar 1995). Now reflections upon a changed condition—primarily, economic changes associated with the oil crisis, demographic changes that emerged through increasing migration, and cultural changes with the increasing recognition of multiculturalism—began to spawn a number of sociological terms to describe the new situation. ‘Postmodernity’ was obviously one, and others followed: late capitalism (Harvey 1989; Jameson 1989), post-traditionalism (Giddens 1995), post-Fordism (Amin 2003), liquid modernity (Bauman 2000) and post-colonialism (Said 1985). What is most significant about Lyotard’s volume is that the cultural hegemony of modernity, and its claim to speak to all social situations in a universal language, was now being questioned; and it is from this questioning that talk about ‘modernities’ emerged.

Modernity was never allergic to critique. In fact, critical thinking was exactly what modernity championed in its exultation of rationality and instrumental reasoning. Critique was one of the signs of being modern and no longer in thrall to traditional and unquestioned modes of thinking and doing. Critique was at the forefront of modernity’s investment in the word ‘progress’. Progress mapped well on to the concept of modernity, because modern is a temporal term from the Latin conjunction modo (meaning ‘just now’). As the Latin suggests, newness is what the word is attempting to capture; change is not only what modernity announces, but what it explicitly celebrates. Modernity means going with the flow. It is committed to temporality and to contingency; as is ‘postmodernity’. But, particularly in France, the intellectual climate turned from philosophies of time towards spatiality. New phenomenologies of space (LeFebrve and Bachelard) emerged and combined with the rise of structural semiotics (Levi-Strauss, Gennette, and Lacan, among others). Lyotard’s thinking grew out of the structuralist tradition which began to emphasize, alongside contiguities, concepts like difference and alterity. So that when, a decade after Lyotard’s thesis, David Harvey and Fredrick Jameson both proposed descriptions of the postmodern condition (1989), critics were quick to point to how their shared notion of late capitalism was in fact a modern one (a development within capitalism) and at odds with spatial differences; both their history (which was singular and in accord with Marx’s view of history) and their geography (which was specifically western/USA) lacked complexity (Massey 1994; Thrift 1997). In the debates that now arose, debates which included important defenders of modernity (Habermas) and Nietzsche-inspired proponents of post-structuralism (Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, among others), the French sociologist and anthropologist, Bruno Latour, published his influential book Nous n’avons jamais été modernes. Essai d’anthropologie symétrique (1991) [We Have Never Been Modern (1993)].

Latour marks the next move in the development of the concept of ‘modernities’, in so far as his book challenged both the notions of modernity and postmodernity. Latour drew attention to the way modernity was structured according to certain fundamental dualisms (nature and culture, public and private, law and freedom, chaos and order, etc.). It structured a world view around these dualisms and the importance of keeping (p. 4) one from the other. Contradiction is then written into the very process of becoming modern. Latour’s book is mainly concerned with the nature-culture dualism. In what was already a developing intellectual trend in the philosophy of science, the sociology of science, Latour pointed to the non-negotiable tensions, the leakages and the hybridities between the isolated notions of nature and culture that had always existed and existed still. The distinction between Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenshaft, central to modern thinking, was a social construction, he claimed.

The sheer ambivalence of the term modernity was now becoming obvious at a time when there was a growing reaction to ‘modernization’. During the Cold War threat, when communism was an attractive option for third world countries contemplating a future, ‘modernization’ became a US and Western European led programme for global development. If it took place first of all among Asian societies such as India, Burma, Vietnam, and Indonesia, it soon spread to Middle Eastern countries, and finally Africa. The modernization of Latin America began much earlier. It coincided with the first wave of Western European culture to North America (under the British and French). Only the westernization of South America developed under the Spanish and Portuguese. Modernization, in which ‘progress’ soon became ‘development’ was a colonial venture. In its wake and its failure, subject also now to post-colonial criticism (from Fanon onwards), ‘modernization’ became synonymous with Americanization, Europeanization, and globalization (mainly spearheaded by US and European transnational corporations). But the diverse cultural conditions in these regions led not only to different programmes for modernization, and different speeds at which it could take place, but also different understandings of what being modern meant.

Modernity was splintering under the excess not only of its meaning, but the highly differentiated cultural predicaments it was trying to describe with a homogenous term and the internal critiques (of gender, race, ethnicity, and religion) it fostered. From the point of view of ‘developing’ countries, modernity was seen as a long list of dead, white, Christian men who had composed a history of global progress from the perspective of their own successes, and which was becoming, in fact, only a form of ideological domination as more white, Christian men now attempted to impose it upon the rest of the world. Modernity was pushed back to times prior to the Enlightenment, such as the Renaissance (Toulmin 1990); it was broken down into four major and causal social processes—the political, social, economic, and cultural—so that their different operations and interactions might be assessed (Hall 1992); its history was charted in all its hybrid complexity to trace an essential, though dialectical, character and predict its future (Touraine 1992 [1995]); and it was heralded as a victim of its own success such that a reflexive modernity, a modernizing modernity, now made possible either a new modernity (the ‘risk society’ according to Beck 1992) or even many (consecutive) modernities.

‘Multiple modernities’ is a geohistorical term coined independently but simultaneously by the British geographer, Peter J. Taylor (1999) and the German sociological historian, S. N. Eisenstadt (2000). Taylor, with whom we shall start because his is the less radical vision, proposes an historical axis along which ‘primary modernities’ have (p. 5) developed; ‘primary’ because they became hegemonic for the cultures they fostered and the imitation by others they inspired. This axis begins with the Dutch Republic following the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the developments of mercantile capitalism, international law, the nation as a state, and the celebration of ordinary life. This modernity then undergoes a major shift in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when Britain becomes hegemonic in a second modernity following the Congress of Vienna (1815) and with the developments of industrial capitalism, the cult of progress, and the comforts of middle class domestic life. The third modernity follows the end of the First Word War when America becomes hegemonic and benefits from a swing away from productivity to consumption, the creation of a management culture (Taylorism) and the development of suburban life. Taylor is emphatic that there is nothing necessary about the transitions from one modernity to another; there is no Hegelian Weltgeist. In fact, the shifts emerge when a hegemonic cycle begins to generate more complexity and uncertainty than it can control. This new situation then calls forth a new form of modernity. The world power in the best position to take advantage of this complexity and uncertainty (or find a convincing way to surmount it) steps up as the next purveyor of another hegemonic modernity that others will imitate. What is central to all modernities in this scenario is modernity’s commitment to change. In the wake of a declining Americanization, morphing now into globalization, Taylor is in fact pessimistic about the future of the current world-system (Taylor 1999: 130) and the scope there is for change.

With Taylor there are multiple modernities, but they are serial. This is not the case with Eisenstadt’s depiction of ‘multiple modernities’. If Taylor’s account is governed more by temporality (though he has a chapter on space and its colonization of place, see Taylor 1999: 95–108), Eisenstadt’s is a complex geographical as well as historical account. For him, modernity is open to many interpretations and each different culture embraced and embraces its agendas (such as emancipation, collective identity, the struggle to establish the boundaries of the realm of the political, the place of reason, and emotion in social life, etc.), but they did and do so in the context of distinctive cultures, patterns of institutional life, traditions (including religious traditions), and historical experiences. They all develop distinctly modern dynamics but are pursuing different programmes reflecting different views on what makes a society modern. So, from the beginning, modernity was never one because a range of possible modernities emerged; although, through military and economic imperialism, colonialism and new diasporas the variability of modernities has much increased. This has led to the gradual and exponential decoupling of westernization from modernity. In part what fuels the distinctive character of these multiple modernities are the ways such reflexivity has to handle the antimonies within modernity itself (the dualisms we noted above with respect to Latour’s work) and find ways of resolving them. To employ a metaphor used by the British sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, modernity has now ‘liquefied’ (Bauman).

We might ask what binds these modernities together, such that we can still speak of modernity as an embracing concept. Both Taylor and Eisenstadt would agree that every one of their modernities is a cultural, political, social, and economic improvisation on a (p. 6) number of dominant modern phrases: the capacity for reflexivity or the ability for continual self-correction; a commitment to the new, to being up-to-date, and, therefore, change; and a loose ideological framework composed of certain key ideas such as freedom, the individual, economic expansion, rationality, the social, and management. Both of them end their work on the limits of modernity, particularly if modernity is so harnessed to capitalist expansion and the space for such expansion is limited. Both are aware they must raise the question, but both are also aware that they cannot answer it. After globalization, what is there? If there is such a condition as postmodernity perhaps then, and only then, will it emerge.

II. Europe

A further dimension of this multiplication of modernities is what we might call modernity’s regional dimension, its topology. If the intellectual axis of modern European philosophy and theology—a big ‘if’, of course—lies between France and the German-speaking world, the French-German lineages are interpreted, supplemented, and controverted by other national and regional traditions. Without such supplementation and disputation our term ‘European’ would be significantly thinner. Nowhere is this more so than in the history of modern Russian thought, consistently haunted as it has been—and continues to be—by questions as to whether it really is European at all or in what way it is European. Perhaps, some have argued, Russia is better seen as Eurasian or as governed by a distinctive Russian idea. No topic is more fiercely contested in Russian literature, philosophy, and politics than the relationship between Russia and ‘the west’. In such debates ‘the west’ has taken a variety of forms, including the rationalizing agendas of Russia’s westernizing despots of the eighteenth century, the scientific and historicist influence of French philosophes and physiologists, the thought of English utilitarians or Left Hegelians, and the encounters displayed in industrialism, capitalism, and a succession of wars, including those of 1812, the Crimea, 1914–17, and 1941–5 (as well, of course, as the long Cold War that followed). But the debate has also—always—had a distinct theological edge, as when Dostoevsky equates Roman Catholicism with the spectre of socialism or speculates about the Slavophile vision of Russia as a ‘God-bearing’ nation.

Acknowledging the irony that many of the core ideas of the Slavophiles bore a striking resemblance to ideas found also in several varieties of western Romanticism (Slavophiles themselves stressed how deeply their inspirational thinkers were acquainted with early nineteenth-century German figures like Schelling and Hegel), Russia in turn has often played the role of being the west’s ‘significant Other’. Stravinsky’s ballet score Rite of Spring (1913), first performed in Paris, seemed to reveal to western audiences a previously unknown or long forgotten world of primordial energies, epitomizing a collective image of Russianness that had been formed through the early translations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and other great modern Russian authors. (p. 7) Thus, Barth and Thurneysen could invoke the figure of the ‘Russian man’ encountered in Russian literature as a counter to the rationalistic bourgeois individual of western society (and something similar can be seen in the Catholic writer Romano Guardini). After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian ‘Other’ acquired further (and for many deeply sinister) significance, conflated as it was in Nazi propaganda with international Jewry and seen as revealing the unsettling presence of the Asiatic world on Europe’s own frontier. Yet, in another very different horizon, Russian religious philosophy and orthodox spirituality would be perceived as sources of renewal in western theology, with their (perceived) emphasis on apophaticism, mysticism, and a concern for the hidden depths of personal life.

Russia is not, of course, the only source of significant regional alternative to the intellectual axis. In the late nineteenth century, German versions of literary modernism were strongly impacted by a succession of influential Scandinavian authors, such as J. P. Jacobsen, Ibsen, Strindberg—and, theologians might add, Kierkegaard too belongs in part in this reception. Spain and Italy would have their own receptions and contributions, offering eloquent testimony to the singular political histories of those countries in the modern period and of the strong polarities of Catholicism and communism. Whilst this often led theology to retreat into an exclusively ecclesiastical sphere, it could also open up to moments of dialogue and convergence, that might take the form of Christian Marxisms or the kind of post-ecclesiastical and post-communist philosophies of Agamben and Vattimo that accept the unavoidability of key theological tropes.

Of course, the relation of Marxism to theology is the subject of a volume of its own. It was Marxism that was responsible for renewed engagement with Hegel’s philosophy in the twentieth century, through the lectures of Alexandre Kojève (himself an emigré from Russia), whose influenced was dispersed through an audience which included Bataille, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and many others. It was Marxism that shaped two generations of (especially German Catholic) theologians who placed a concern with solidarity with the working class at the heart of their theologies, initially through the reception of figures like Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin, and then more formally through such institutions as the ‘internationale Paulusgesellschaft’, which included Karl Rahner and J. B. Metz. It was Marxism, mediated through this German intellectual context, which provided the basic theoretical categories for Liberation Theology in the 1970s. It was Marxism that shaped some of the leading ideas of influential late twentieth-century English-speaking theologically engaged intellectuals like Alasdair MacIntyre and Terry Eagleton, as well as theologians such as Nicholas Lash. After the crushing disappointment for many intellectuals that followed the failure of the student protests of 1968 to reshape European universities, overt rapprochements between theologians and Marxists sharply declined, and today’s theological students must make a significant imaginative effort if they are to appreciate how heavily many of the core concerns of contemporary theology are dependent on Marxism for their early development.

The twentieth century has been referred to as the Jewish century, and if one thing is clear it is that modern European philosophy and theology would have been vastly (p. 8) different if it had not been for decisive contributions by a succession of Jewish thinkers, many of whom were also Marxists. Martin Buber, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Franz Rosenzweig, Ernst Bloch, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Lev Shestov, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida are only an initial selection of Jewish thinkers who have done much to shape the ideas and movements discussed in this volume. And even if, to use a distinction developed by Levinas, they are not thinkers of Judaism, they remain thinkers whose Jewish intellectual heritage contributed importantly to their thinking. But, of course, the question of Judaism is unavoidable in both theology and modern European thought for another, more terrible reason—what Jankélévitch called the ‘unspeakable’ event of the Shoah or Holocaust, as is especially reflected in this volume in Jennifer Geddes’ chapter on ‘Evil’.

Yet, ubiquitous as it has been, the significance of Jewish philosophy for theology in its relation to modern European thought has not been easy to gauge for two related reasons. The first is that many of the most significant figures were German, and in emigrating to countries like Britain and the USA, they often found they needed to re-author their theoretical apparatus in terms that were more readily intelligible in their new contexts. This process of translation has a tendency to obscure debts to this tradition’s origins. The second is that these émigrés gradually formed what became the increasingly discrete discipline of Jewish Studies, which encompassed Jewish history, the study of rabbinical literature, and Jewish philosophy. That universities were hospitable to Jewish Studies meant that a (predominantly German) intellectual tradition continued to live and to develop, despite the catastrophic destruction of that heritage in mainland Europe. But the existence of a discrete discipline meant that this tradition did not so readily cross-fertilize with mainstream developments, especially in faculties of philosophy. This is now changing, as Jewish Studies becomes in some universities more dispersed across different disciplines, and it is likely that exchanges between Jewish and Christian intellectual traditions will become deeper and less of a specialist interest in the coming years. Only the surface of this cross-fertilization has been scratched in this volume, and much work remains to be done.

Much ‘European’ thought, like much ‘continental’ philosophy, does not go on in Europe, or on the continent, but is found in North America, whose university populations, and whose educational endowments, now dwarf those of the old medieval institutions. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. Theology flourishes where there are ecclesial constituencies that can afford to educate their ministers and their young people in their theological traditions. As seminaries in the USA grow in number and size, faculties of theology in Europe are shrinking, and this trend seems set to continue for the foreseeable future. This volume on theology and modern European thought thus marks a transfer of intellectual inheritance from one continent to another, or at least a significant investment in that inheritance in America that is not mirrored in Europe. This is not to say that theology has no place in Europe, so much as to register a change of geographical focus, and a shift of centres of gravity that has in many cases already taken place. Because the focus of attention here is on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the geographical centre of gravity of this volume is Europe; but (p. 9) it is clear to the editors that the development of this tradition is widely dispersed—not only in North America but in South Asia and increasingly in East Asia.

In some ways, this volume on theology and modern European thought comes at precisely the point in the history of Christianity not only when Europe has ceased to be the centre of gravity, but when the European tradition in North America itself is ceasing to be the centre. Christianity is growing fast in South America, South Asia, East Asia, and especially in Africa. What was until now been called ‘non-western Christianity’ and then ‘world Christianity’ is no longer a peripheral development stemming from the missionary endeavours of the nineteenth century and before. European Christianity has already been numerically surpassed, and it is surely only a matter of time before the intellectual centre of the tradition shifts from the great medieval European universities, and from those American universities which continue their traditions. Institutions in Africa, China, and elsewhere, which have much less continuity with the European traditions, will almost certainly take centre stage. It lies beyond the scope of this volume to chart these changes, but it needs to be acknowledged that the modern European centre of gravity which marked the twentieth-century’s greatest theology—much of it in French and German—has to a significant extent come to an end, to be replaced by developments whose contours are perhaps already visible in the study of world Christianity, but which have yet to register in the core curricula of faculties of theology and of religion in Europe and North America. It is likely that this volume is a contribution to a tradition whose future will be fundamentally reshaped by a geography and by languages that only recently encountered the Bible. All this is to say that the word ‘European’ is a word that no longer signifies a straightforwardly delimited geographical intellectual heritage.

III. Thought

The use of the word ‘thought’ suggests that whilst the contributions of philosophers will certainly be an important part of the discussion, the issues are not limited to the projects of philosophers conceived in a narrowly disciplinary way. Instead, it might helpfully be taken as indicative of the kind of cultural life represented by that old phrase ‘writers, artists, and intellectuals’—as well as by the professionally academic philosophers and theologians. Nevertheless, philosophy remains a central feature of modern European thought and of the chapters collected in this Handbook. The relationship between academic philosophy and modern European thought has three features that are especially relevant to this collection. First, it has often been academic philosophers who have provided the most synoptic, rigorous and generative accounts of the key issues of modern European thought. In so doing they have stimulated and provoked formative responses by those writers, artists, religious thinkers, and scholars in other disciplines and outside the academy who have both inspired and made effective the arguments of the philosophers. Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida (p. 10) are philosophers of this kind, whose work both reflected and generated movements and counter-movements in scholarship, culture, and religious thought from Romanticism through existentialism to postmodernism.

Secondly, philosophy and theology were for much of this period pursued in a kind of symbiosis. Enemies of theology have often been the first to point out (as Nietzsche pointed out with regard to German Idealism) that many of the issues with which modern European thinkers have wrestled are, at heart, theological. Equally, from Schleiermacher to postmodernity, theology’s own agenda has driven it to engage and shape philosophical investigations, as well as to participate in culture wars and political movements. ‘Hermeneutics’, ‘existence’, and ‘the race’ are just three of many signs of this theological contribution to the key terms of modern philosophy.

Thirdly, continental philosophy has not only taken up (however transformatively) issues of a theological provenance, but has engaged wide-ranging issues of culture and, not least, politics, and few philosophers have separated their work from the cultural and political battles of their time. Again, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida are the more obvious cases. But once they enter these debates, the philosophers may find themselves wrestling with intellectual challenges similar to those being addressed many theologians. For even the most theological of theologians were driven by their own agendas to distinctive cultural and political commitments, a claim for which the history of dialectical theology provides considerable evidence. Recurrent themes in this area concern the conflicting claims of tradition, authority, autonomy, and the nature of that most modern—yet also most theological—of all modern ideas: ‘freedom’.

Philosophy and philosophers will therefore play a central part in this volume. However, this is not limited to themes in the philosophy of religion, narrowly conceived, for these form only a fraction of the material in view. The volume is constantly attentive to the wider questions that many philosophers have posed, and which are also central to other ‘modern European’ thinkers whose work has been no less significant in shaping the intellectual culture of the last two centuries—thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Benjamin, or writers such as the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century or Rilke, Mann, and Hesse in the twentieth (these are, of course, merely examples, and readers will readily supply their own ‘canon’ of culturally formative figures).

These last names indicate that literature has been an unavoidable ‘tertium quid’ in the relationship between ‘theology’ and ‘philosophy’ in the field of modern European thought. Like all the arts, literature is a response to the world, a world that that is already interpreted through the matrix of ideas which make up both a particular culture and a tradition. In turn, like the arts, literature fashions and impacts upon that world enabling us to see it differently; a line of hawthorn trees is never quite the same after reading the opening novel of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Du côté de chez Swann just as the Brandenburg Gate is never see in the same way after Wim Wender’s Der Himmel über Berlin. Without then speaking of modern literature reductively in terms of secularization, we can say that to the extent that modernity concerned itself with the significance of affairs in this world, its immanent scientific (p. 11) laws, its production of wealth, urban society, and the politics of the nation state, etc., then literature represented these concerns. The Enlightenment produced philosophical works about living in such a world like Voltaire’s Candide and or Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man, and, indeed, the tradition of philosophers as writers of literature continued in the nineteenth century with writers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and in the twentieth century with the existential novels of Jean-Paul Sartre and the semiotic novels of Umberto Eco, among others. But literature is not simply about ideas and it cannot be reduced to its contents or what it is representing. While, from the early eighteenth century onwards, novels in particular attended to social realism (Defoe, Richardson, and later George Sand and George Eliot), throughout modernity there have been writers reacting against a simple materialist view of world: some expressing longings for transcendence (like Goethe, Novalis, and the Romantic poets, and, more recently Iris Murdoch); some reflecting imaginatively within an explicitly theological world view (like Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot, and Flannery O’Connor); and some wishing to evoke a rich aesthetic sense that was divorced from transcendence and even espoused the nihilist flux of all things (Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, in France, Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm, in Britain, and, more recently, Vladimir Nabokov). In fact, literature becomes the means for understanding the sheer cultural complexity of modernity, its restless search for the new, and its inventiveness in trying to capture that which was most authentic about the human condition. We might define modernism as an aesthetic movement in which modernity is fully conscious of itself, and in literature this entailed language being conscious of its own ability to fashion and make new. It produced works of remarkable originality which conflated any boundaries between prose, poetry, and dramaturgy—works like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Kafka’s The Trial, and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Literature flourished in modernity, along with new technologies for the mass production and dissemination of its literary products. Increasingly, this led to the professionalism of literary criticism. If there has always been some reflection upon literature itself (Aristotle and Sir Philip Sidney), modernity greatly fostered such reflexivity with the likes of Johnson, Carlyle, and more recently Levis and Bloom becoming more important and influential than many writers of literature themselves. In fact, these people sought to raise literary criticism into an art itself. Of course, writers too became more conscious of their own artistry as a consequence of this increasing interest in the literary. In the wake of Coleridge and the rise of aesthetics in Germany, we find Henry James thinking through the poetics of the novel, Mallarmé on symbolist poetry, and Brecht on drama. Philosophers too drew on literature for developing their ideas, creating hybrid discourses between philosophy and literature: most notably Heidegger, Benjamin, Ricoeur, and Cavell. Even theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar on Hopkins and Claudel or Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky reveal the line between literature and theology to be permeable. In modernity the Bible itself comes to be read as literature. If it becomes difficult to draw a distinction between literature and philosophy in the work of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, then in the twentieth century we have philosophers who explicitly reject the view that philosophy is a different mode (p. 12) of discourse from literature: Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, most particularly. In both philosophy and theology, important literary forms such as metaphor and narrative, generated new methods of ‘doing’ philosophy or theology and new lines of enquiry.

It might also be thought that space could or should have been found for exploring the ways in which the visual arts have interacted with modern European thought and theology. Painting and other visual arts have provided illustrations, points of reference, and even, arguably, extended the content of modern philosophers and theologians and in a variety of ways. We might think not only of the enormous role that expressionist painting played in the theology of Paul Tillich, but also of Barth’s repeated recourse to Grünewald’s Crucifixion, while, among the philosophers, Heidegger took a painting of some old boots by Van Gogh as a focus for his reflections on the origin of the work of art (reflections responded to, in turn, by Derrida) and Merleau-Ponty gave Cezanne’s interpretation of the task of painting a pivotal role in his development of a philosophy of embodied existence. Conversely, artists have themselves responded to philosophies and theologies of art and have sometimes taken them as programmatic for their own practice, as in Eric Gill’s espousal of Jacques Maritain’s neo-scholastic interpretation of art and culture. In works such as ‘The Ways of Worldly Wisdom’ the contemporary painter Anselm Kiefer has commented on the twentieth-century crisis of German culture and ideas and his work has in turn been brought into dialogue with philosophy and theology (see, e.g. Taylor 1992; Biro 1998; Pattison 2009). Moreover, some of the great works of modern art criticism are themselves highly ‘theological’, as in John Ruskin’s classic Modern Painters—perhaps the most powerful theology of art produced in modern times (see Fuller 1988; Pattison 1991).

More broadly, we may say that while ‘theology and modern European thought’ will inevitably involve political theory, art, and literature as well as philosophy, all of these are also affected in this period by a significant revisioning of the relationship between body and mind. Descartes’s last book was entitled The Passions of the Soul and in it he attempts to modify the dualism between body and mind that is evident in Meditations and Discourse on Method. His attention is upon the physiology, psychology, and, to a limited extent, spirituality of the affections. This intellectual interest in the emotions was continued throughout the eighteenth century through philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith. In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume will frequently list desire (often plural) with the passions and he recognizes the important motivational functional these have upon human behaviour (and the imagination), but desire itself was not explicitly examined. It is with Kant and his Critique of Pure Reason that we have a named faculty of desire, and it comes very late in his thesis in relation to practical reason and freedom, and is not developed there. On the whole, during the Enlightenment, when the topic of desire arose it was treated negatively in so far as it was considered necessary to subordinate it to the Stoic primacy of the will and the intellect. When Kant relates desire to the faculty of the imagination he is following a standard association (found in Hume and Smith, for example), but for Kant desire is an intellectual property of the mind—it is the mind that desires and what it desires is the (p. 13) product of the higher faculties of understanding and reason. As such, desire, for Kant, is detached from passion and detached also from corporeality. Although it receives impressions of the sensuous it also announces determinative laws ‘which are imperative and objectives laws of freedom and which tell us what ought to take place’ (Kant 1934: 456). He goes on to inform us in the Critique of Practical Reason that the faculty of desire is fundamental for the production of representations of the Ding an sich, or what he terms (in his late definition of this faculty) the ‘faculty to be by means of its representations the cause of the reality of the objects of these representations’ (Kant 1996: 144). In harmony with the moral law, determined by the notion of the good and in line with the eudemonistic principle of every rational individual wanting to be happy, desire is at one point called a ‘vital force’ but is conflated with the will.

It is with the young F. D. E. Schleiermacher, in an essay written around 1792, never published in his lifetime and only published in the Gesamtausgabe in 1984, that we see the early re-establishment of the importance of desire. In Über die Freiheit, a reflection concerned with Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, Schleiermacher turns to the question of receptivity, developing Karl Leonard Reinhold’s explorations of Kant, In so doing he announces a more primordial operation upon the sensuous called ‘impulse’ (Trieb) and viewed desire as an ‘instinct’ (Instinkt) which ‘craves’ (gelüsten) (Schleiermacher 1984). Desire, now closely associated with embodiment and a positive appraisal of the erotic, plays an important role in his (1799) On Religion and probably an even more important role in his conversations with the Schlegel brothers and the development of early Romanticism. It resonated with a new appreciation of the body, inspired by a love of all things Greek, as it found expression in the earlier work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (see Mosse (1999) on the impact of Winckelmann on the development of the male physique, the cult of masculinity and the introduction of sport into gymnasium education). It resonated also with a rediscovery of Spinoza whose appreciation of desire (the ‘conatus’ of his Ethics) has been a major influence on twentieth-century French philosophies of desire (most particularly Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Luce Irigaray). Furthermore, the identification of desire as a primary human drive was complimented also by, first, new biological investigations into sexual reproduction, sexuality, and sexual difference (see Halperin 1990; Lacquer 1992; and Lloyd 1993) in which, eventually, we have to situate the work of Freud, and by the development of sexual politics (the older Wollstonecraft and late Mill). This development of modern physiology arose at the same time as the idea of the body and what Foucault called biopolitics were being expanded. In the Enlightenment, for example, the state was viewed as a machine. But, from the early nineteenth century until today, the state was being understood not mechanically but organically. Notions such as the national body, the social body, the civic body, and even the city as a body began to complement older theological construals of ecclesial and sacramental bodies (see Ward, Chapter 3 in this volume; Pile 1996; and Sheard and Power 2000).

One might best plot the philosophical history of desire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the genealogy constructed by Judith Butler in her book Subjects of Desire (Butler 1999), since, with Butler’s work, we gain entry to the (p. 14) contemporary concern with desire in gender and queer theory. Butler begins with an account of the ontology of desire in Hegel and then moves on to the French reception of Hegel’s work in the twentieth century through Alexander Kojève and Jean Hyppolite. Two prominent figures emerge at this point: Jean-Paul Sartre who became interested in desire in his early phenomenologies of emotion and imagination and Jacques Lacan in his recasting of Freud in the wake of structuralism. Butler concludes her study with an examination of the work on desire in Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Other figures might have been named to supplement this genealogy: most notably Nietzsche and his twin interests in the body and the Dionysian, in the nineteenth century; the work of the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty on embodied perception, in the twentieth; and the French feminists Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Helena Cixous.

These contemporary philosophies of desire and the body have impacted considerably upon modern Christian theology. In part, they have done so by inspiring an excavation into the important role desire played in the theology of the Alexandrian and Cappadocian Fathers and Augustine, down into the Middles Ages with Bonaventure and into the Renaissance with Marsilio Ficino (see Burrus 2002 and Castelli 2007, among others). In part, they have also inspired new developments in feminist and queer theology (see Althaus-Reid 2003 and Loughlin 2007, among others).

In summary, this volume challenges and transforms certain ways of opposing, as well as fusing, ‘theology and modern European thought’. We are not primarily attempting either to track the influence of modern European thought on theology or to detect the theological topics that often underlie supposedly secular forms of thought and cultural practice. Each will have its place. We have two principal aims, one positive and one negative: (1) to identify those questions and issues that have been common to and formative of both theology and modern European thought; (2) to avoid reducing the subject matter to one-sidedly theological or secular philosophical views. There will be points where it seems that theology is the driving force in a given debate, there will be other points at which theology seems more re-active. The material is complex, spanning the cross-currents of wars, revolutions, and social and cultural transformations of many nations over two centuries. Any attempt to press it into the confines of any simple narrative are likely to do poor service to the task of reflecting generatively on what it means for our contemporary theological task.


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