The Twentieth Century: A Theological Overview

The 20th Century

I find many gems at the Daughters of St. Paul Catholic bookstore along Jalan Gasing, Petaling Jaya. At the price of RM32.50 it was hard to resist this purchase last month ūüôā

I confess I have not read the whole book. I managed to scan through it here and there but I paused at the chapter 18 on “The Postmodern Debate”. First, the fact that this 1999 published book had this chapter shows how so many tiring debates on all things postmodern today is pretty dated (or the Catholics were far ahead of us Protestants in these matters). Anyway, I was a little surprised by a number of insights which warranted the use of my marker.

to start the call rolling …

“The “postmodern debate'”means that many of the ideals of modernity have become “debatable,”that is, questionable, open to debate.”(p. 228)

Interesting that the above statement is what I still think about the debate from day one I got to know the word, “postmodern”. Of course, for those who see this as a mere label either for coolness or critique often have more closed ideas of what the process of debate involves. Sadly, the closing of ones mind speeds up when one takes that kind of posture. For m, the word “postmodern” opened up conversation. How did it land up being a conversation stopper? By the way, I’m referring to both those who are either pro or anti –> postmodern. Thus, while the word might still have some value for discussion, I’m well aware of it’s limits and at times irrelevance or even distracting.

And now to one insight which has haunted me for a couple of weeks.

“In discussing postmodern critiques of modern emphases we should keep in mind Gregory Baum’s cautions about “innocent critique.” Instructed by the important themes of critical theory, developed by the Frankfurt School, Baum insists that innocent critique of culture and society must stop. A critique is innocent when it does not critically explore the range of its own implications and possible consequences. Postmodern critiques of modernity are innocent when they jettison modern concerns without remainder — without caring to salvage the grains of truth and value in those concerns.” (p. 229)

Perhaps why the idea of “innocent critique” grabbed my attention is because I seem to have seen and experienced this on turbo the past 7 years in my interaction with myself and those who perhaps deep down want to move on but still get sucked into a whirlpool of paralysis of analysis. One might feel REALLY stuck and sick of life because he or she cannot move on to what the critique of the past is supposed to have liberated us from in order to be free. In short, we still remain in prison. Ouch … not so romantic after all.

The mark of of maturity is to keep a keen eye back on ourselves on whether we have fallen into the trap of “innocent critique”, and lost the energy to actually re-look at the past which actually did bring us to where are now for better or for worse and re-chart a new course forward rather than go in circles. To do that, ironically after even the most severe damning of all that’s wrong with the past, one actually needs to pause and dig for some “grains of truth and value” in what we are reacting against.

The chapters opening discussion on “Self” was spot on …

“Theological anthropology must reject this extremely “innocent critique” in fidelity to the biblical notion of self as person, as the responsible self in relation to others.” (p. 229)

It’s probably a short sentence … but to those who are on a long-suffering journey where they might feel the lost of “self”. A pause is needed in how we view our “self” again. I think what comes up in this paragraph is a good demonstration of the best which can emerge from engagement in conversations like the “postmodern debate”.

“In a postmodern approach that refuses simply to jettison human subjectivity, the modern question, What is the self? yields to the question, Who is the self? The “what” question is the metaphysical search for the unchanging, essential core of the human being. The “who” question invites a story for an answer, a temporal narrative filled with ever-changing situations . It is a social process that is responsible for the appearance of the self as a kind of “multiple personality.” In this process the “who” emerges in its different selves” of our different involvements in language and life against the background of multiple social memories, various customs, habits, and institutional practices revolving around a “responding center,” a personal sphere of interest and concern whence things are said and done. The “who” in a shifting center of initiative and response in the ongoing human “conversation”.”(p. 230)

There’s more but I think I should keep this post short. This little distinction between the “what” and the “who” is so helpful. After listening to many complaints about everything ranging from work/life balance to the busyness trying to get our careers going, from family adjustments to parenting woes, from personal growth to public responsibilities … from quiet reflective moments to sophisticated philosophical musings … the list goes on. We might in all honesty lost asking the “who” question and again and again return to the dis-empowering “what” question.

We need to STOP…. and Stop again and again … it’s plain hard work to keep the “who” question at the forefront .. because I humbly submit when we’re spinning round and round getting nowhere, perhaps no matter what language we use to try to explain ourselves and process our thoughts we’re still in the “what” sphere of reasoning … The “who” question is more life giving to me … and I believe to many who are willing to STOP and keep the big picture before us. I’m glad one chapter from this book helped remind me of that.

For better reviews of the book,

try Clark Pinnock’s review

“…the collection documents in a persuasive manner that theologians have in fact reacted creatively to the challenges of the twentieth century. They have produced insights and have developed perspectives that will (we may be sure) continue to enlighten the churches in the coming years. Despite certain episodes of betrayal, the story of twentieth theology is one of fidelity and of anguish Ė fidelity to Godís revealed word under changing historical conditions and anguish over the unanswered questions and the weakness of our Christian witness in a sinful world.

A helpful feature of the book is Baumís own reflections at the end and near (I suppose) the end of his own life. This is a man who has always kept attuned to the development of ideas and the contextual nature of our work. Thus his musings on the witness of this very volume only adds to its conviction and force as he supplies missing connections and profound interpretations to it. One can only appreciate his honesty too about what he himself has learned and how he has learned it. Of great interest to me are Baumís own latter day thoughts about the value of Marxism for theology. Before the fall of Communism, Baum saw promise in the political left. Now we hear a more chastened witness, but one which still interacts fruitfully with what Marx did contribute, not so much in the field of economics (where he got almost everything wrong), but in the area of a hermeneutics of suspicion and moral outrage.”

or David Gushee’s review.

About Sivin Kit

man of one wife, father of four kids
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