John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
The following paper was written in August, 1991.
We are seeing a shift of world history to a new center around the Pacific basin. What hopeful implications does that have for theology in the next century? It opens up the possibility of a liberation from the dominance of Mediterranean and European habits of thought without a loss of the achievements of these traditions. Dr. Cobb suggests implications for religious pluralism, the relationship of science and religion, the character of postmodern thought, and the construction of a postmodern theology.
I. Morikawa’s Vision
Jitsuo Morikawa was a prophet. His farsighted reflections on what was going on, and what must go on, if Christianity is to play the role for which it is called, encourage others of us to enter the discussion. Morikawa was an optimist in the sense that he believed the church would eventually do what it must do. Hence, as I respond to this topic in the spirit of Morikawa, I will not give vent to the pessimistic conclusions that a study of what is now transpiring within many of our churches suggests. I will talk about what can happen in the twenty-first century.
I emphasize, however, can. That is both because I am not in fact making predictions and because I do not want simply to dream of what I would most like to see occur. Morikawa was a realist even in his optimism. He discerned positive elements in what is going on and projected them. He was also an activist who actualized much of what he projected.
One feature of his vision was his emphasis on the growing role of the lands in and around the Pacific Ocean. Japan is the most obvious case of the new importance for the whole world of what happens here, and because of his Japanese ancestry, Morikawa could not help but take special interest in Japan’s growing global leadership. But for him this meant not so much ethnic pride as concern whether Japan would exercise its new power well. Also, he was not preoccupied with Japan.
Morikawa’s concern was for the whole Pacific basin. Although, for many, talk of the Pacific basin tends to have an Asian-North American focus, for him developments in Latin America were also important. It has been there that global leadership in liberation theology has emerged. Morikawa recognized and appreciated this.
If we follow through this shift of world history to a new center around the Pacific basin, what hopeful implications does that have for theology in the next century? Internal to theology itself, it opens up the possibility of a liberation from the dominance of Mediterranean and European habits of thought without a loss of the achievements of these traditions. Almost all of the Christianity in the Pacific basin has come there through Europe so that the European heritage is very much a part of it.
Down through this century, indeed, this European heritage has often limited the contributions of the great cultures of East Asia to the Christianity of Asia. Christianization has generally meant Europeanization. But that situation is now changing. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, creative energies of Asian Christians have gone into the re-thinking of the Christian heritage in relation to East Asian traditions. In the twenty-first century a genuinely East Asian form of Christianity will emerge, or rather a number of such forms. Instead of translating the Biblical message into the categories of Greek, Roman, and Germanic thought, it will be translated into the thought forms of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Philippine, Samoan, and Malaysian cultures, to name only a few.
The main contribution of Latin American theology has not been the reformulation of the tradition in terms of non-European thought patterns but the appropriation of the European tradition for the sake of recovering the original political meaning of the gospel. This meaning had been lost as Christianity became established and came to function as the ideology of the powerful. Blacks in the United States have joined leading theologians in Latin America to bring this basic point vividly to the consciousness of the global church.
Once seen, this insight cannot be dismissed. It must more and more pervade the churches. It is being included in the indigenization process in East Asia as well. Breaking the gospel free from its European captivity is at one and the same time clothing it in new thought forms and relating it to the realities of Pacific societies. While Pacific and East Asian Christians will learn much about how to do this from Latin Americans, Latin Americans can learn sensitivity to cultural diversity from the East Asians. Both can learn from blacks in the United States how these two modes of sensitivity inform each other.
A converging movement is feminism. The United States is the center of this movement, so that it has the problem of its connection with particular features of the white culture of North America. But white North American Christian feminists have shown a great deal of sensitivity to the need for cultural pluralism within the broader movement of women, and even in this respect they are able to give encouragement, if not leadership, in other cultures. In the twenty-first century, the emerging theology will express sensitivity at once, both to the social and cultural contexts. and to the gender issues that have been basic to all social and cultural contexts thus far.
This kind of multiple sensitivity and creative integration will not be comfortable, and the process of moving to this new kind of Christian thinking and acting will alienate many who look to Christianity as a sanction for familiar patterns. But the new synthesis will embody the true energy and vitality of the faith. It will embody one portion of the Morikawa vision.
But that vision has also some more specific emphases. Morikawa never disparaged social, cultural, and gender analyses, but he was particularly impressed by the importance of institutions, and he noted how this analysis was neglected. He saw that much of our lives is controlled by religious, educational, governmental, and business institutions, and he rightly objected that most social analysis neglects these. This neglect still continues, but here and there new beginnings can be found. Morikawa was himself instrumental in stimulating some of these, especially in the area of educational institutions.
This is also a message which, once clearly heard, cannot be gainsaid. We do need a theology of institutions in the sense of Christian reflection as to the true purposes of organizing society in this way, as well as a specific analysis of each institution. Once the ends to be served by each institution are clear, we can make realistic proposals as to how they should be adjusted so as to serve these ends better. Often the needed changes will be revolutionary. At present such work as is being done is mainly in North America. But once the need is widely recognized, the analysis of institutions will be integrated with the work of Latin American and East Asian theologians, and leadership is likely to pass into their hands. Their social and cultural sensitivities will provide fundamental insights as to what our present institutions can and cannot do, and as to the new institutions that the new day requires.
In the early seventies Morikawa was one of the first leaders of the church really to hear the truth about what human beings had done and continue to do to the environment. With characteristic optimism and realism, he determined that his denomination should face the fact that the lifestyle of its members was part of the problem. True Christian faith calls all of us to a profound change. He led his denomination in toughminded reflection on the change that is needed. It would be too much to say that the “evangelistic lifestyle” for which he called has been adopted with respect to human pressure on the environment, but it would not be too much to say that under Morikawa’s leadership the American Baptists were far ahead of any other denomination.
Ideas that in the early seventies were appropriated only by a few have now become commonplace. Most people, at least in the developed nations, know that the environment is suffering from human abuse, and that its deterioration will have severely deleterious effects on us and on our children. Most people now know that there must be major changes. Yet even now few are ready to act in the ways that Morikawa knew were needed. His work remains prophetic for the church of the twenty-first century.
He understood that concern for the environment cannot simply be added to an already long list. Just as liberation theologians have shown that human liberation cannot be considered simply as an additional topic tacked on to an otherwise unchanged theology, so also changing the way human beings relate to the natural world cannot be simply an additional item on the already overcrowded agenda of the churches. Once the environmental problems and their causes are truly understood, everything must change. A Christianity sensitive to the needs of all creatures, and rejecting anthropocentrism, will be quite different from the Christianity of the past in both thought and practice.
Today these various concerns about culture, socio-economic justice, true equality for women, institutions, and the natural world are in some tension with one another. But already in the closing decade of this century, there are happy signs that their several advocates recognize the need for collaboration. Yet Morikawa understood that the need is for more than such collaboration. It is for an integrated vision that incorporates all these perspectives and concerns.
Fortunately, as one probes the separate concerns deeply, one finds that elements of integration are already there. I have already noted that Black theology deals at once with cultural and justice issues in a thoroughly unified way. Feminist theology is deeply sensitive not only to these concerns but also to the way humanity has related itself to the natural world. Indeed, it sees oppression of human beings, especially of women, and oppression of the natural world as of a piece with male domination. The post-patriarchal society for which feminists call will have to dig up the deepest roots of oppression.
II. Religious Pluralism
Morikawa was profoundly convinced that Christian hostility toward other religious traditions was mistaken. He rejoiced that in the last decades of the twentieth century there has been a great increase in friendly interaction among the religious traditions of the world. In part this is the result of our joint decline in the face of secularism. In part it is growing awareness of the evil done by religious competition and mutual opposition that has made us more interested in working together instead of against one another. But in part, at least in some traditions, it is our awareness that others have attained wisdom that we lack and that we need.
The first section dealt with the need to reformulate the Christian gospel in various cultural contexts rather than to identify it with its Mediterranean and European form. Culture is so closely connected with religion that it is difficult to indigenize in terms of culture without assimilating religious ideas and practices as well. The fear of syncretism has been an important factor in discouraging cultural indigenization. Until these issues are carefully sorted out, much of the development to which Section I pointed will not take place.
For all these reasons the twenty-first century will be a time when the flourishing interreligious dialogues of the last quarter of this century will bear fruit. They will not lead to one great unified system of belief or institutional expression. But they will lead to much more than mutual understanding and appreciation. Christianity will be transformed as it cleanses itself from those of its aspects that have so often made its relations to others destructive.
The most urgent transformation here is one that cannot be associated primarily with the Pacific. That is the removal from Christian thought and feeling of its hostility to Judaism and to Jews. The last quarter of this century is marked by a growing recognition that the roots of the Holocaust are to be found in Christian teaching going back to the New Testament itself. The understandable polemic within Judaism of a persecuted Christian minority has become the orthodox theology against Judaism of a persecuting Christian majority. The history of Christianity, read in terms of its relation to Judaism, is a history of demonic power.
To exorcise that in ourselves which has expressed itself almost continuously in this demonic way is no small task. But it is a task to which hundreds of thoughtful Christians are dedicating themselves. The church grows more and more responsive despite its repeated lapses. The twenty-first century church will be a repentant church whose theology is profoundly reformulated to express appreciation and respect for historic Judaism and for contemporary Jews.
The theological transformation that is required in relation to other religious traditions has a different character. The hostility to Buddhism, for example, does not arise out of Biblical teaching about Buddhism. Biblical authors knew nothing of Buddhism, and we can only speculate as to how they might have responded to it. The hostility arises instead from the general Christian assumption that since our teaching is true, any teaching that differs from ours must be false, and from the belief that salvation can be found only through Jesus Christ.
We now see that these exclusivistic assumptions have blinded us to much that is true and good in other religious traditions. One of the great gains in the last decades of the twentieth century, beginning especially with the Second Vatican Council, is the transformation of Christian views of other religious traditions. This reconsideration of historic Christian exclusivism involves a great deal of excitement and vitality, but it is still in a confused state, and it adds to the general theological confusion of the church. Nevertheless, some clarity has been gained, and in the twenty-first century we can anticipate that these problems will no longer deeply trouble the church.
There is now emerging a pluralistic attitude toward belief and practice. We all realize how deeply our beliefs are a function of our particular situation. They are historically, culturally, psychologically, and sociologically relative. In terms of the concerns emphasized in Section I, they are affected by gender, race, social location, and a particular history of ideas. This is now fully established. The question is, given the relativity of our thinking, what confidence, if any, can we place in any of our ideas, even our ideas of relativity?
We see that if we only emphasize relativity we can end up in a relativism that undercuts itself and the value of critical thinking in general. We then leave the field to fanatics who are not troubled by the limitations of their beliefs. Is there an alternative to the choice between exclusivistic absolutism, on the one hand, and a debilitating relativism, on the other? There is, and it is the direction that is actually emerging in the practice of interreligious dialogue. It will pervade the twenty-first century. This is so important that we will consider it in more detail.
The problem with thoroughgoing relativism is that it undercuts confidence in what seems to one to be true. If x seems true, but one knows that from other perspectives y seems true, the tendency is to feel that neither x nor y is true. Truth comes to be seen as simply inaccessible. We are all shut into our private worlds. There is not much reason to try to correct x or to improve its formulation, since the end result will be no truer than the initial uncritical belief. Finally, if we follow this line of thought, it seems that belief can have only a crude pragmatic warrant. If acting on x works alright for me, there is no reason to change.
The problem becomes more acute when it is pragmatically important to me that others act in terms of x, although they in fact believe y. The relativism adopted partly out of tolerant laissez faire attitudes then backfires. Since no truth transcends my pragmatic interest, and my pragmatic interest is that others accept x, the appropriate action for me is to impose x on others. Meanwhile it may be equally appropriate for them to impose y on me. This imposition cannot be by persuasive argument, since argument is possible only where there is some shared court of appeal. Hence the struggle can only be one of power, either democratic rule of the majority or autocratic rule of a power elite. Might finally makes right is the final outcome of thoroughgoing relativism. This cannot be the direction for Christian reflection.
The alternative reading of the relativity of belief is quite different. It acknowledges and affirms the plurality of perspectives. But instead of viewing this as a reason to abandon the quest for truth, it sees it as an opportunity. Each perspective illumines or highlights some aspects of the immeasurably rich reality in which we are all immersed. What we see is there to be seen.
The problem has been the tendency to interpret the fragment one sees as if it were the whole, or the most important part of the whole, or the one key that unlocks the true meaning of the whole. This tendency has led to absolutistic exclusivism. If what I see is the most important aspect of the whole, then what someone else sees, to whatever extent it differs, must be false, or at least inferior.
But the actual course of dialogue overcomes this tendency. In Buddhist-Christian dialogue, for example, Christians may begin by affirming the reality and centrality of the human self. Buddhists seem to deny this when they say there is no self. But in the context of dialogue, instead of simply rejecting the Buddhist idea, Christians listen to what Buddhists mean by their doctrine. They are likely to find that the Buddhist account is different from what they have learned in their tradition, but that it is not a matter of flat contradiction. The self the Buddhists deny is a substantial one, and while many Christians think in substantial terms, most do not regard that as essential to their faith. They can give up their substantialist formulations, and they can learn to think in the relational terms so central to Buddhism, without denying the necessary element in the Christian affirmation of a morally responsible self. Indeed, Christians often find that their thought about the self is enriched and clarified by what they have learned.
The alternative into which we are being drawn by our experience in dialogue is to affirm, with great conviction, what we positively have learned from our own tradition, but to restrain the tendency to negate what is different. If reality is immeasurably complex, and if the historic experience of other communities has focused on features of reality that we have neglected, then our concern is to learn from them. Our perceptions are truly relative to our perspectives, but they are, or can be, complementary to one another. We will never overcome the relativity, because we will never exhaust the reality. But there can be a gain in the truth-value of what we affirm.
We cannot determine in advance how our learning from others will interact with what we already know from our own tradition. But we can note how this has usually functioned in the past. Usually it has led to some reformulation, a reformulation that sharpens the positive insight (with regard to the responsible self, for example), while overcoming elements in the past formulation that are unneeded and even detrimental.
In this way the tendency of strong conviction to express itself exclusivistically, so natural to the enthusiastic response to revelation, gives place to the willingness to have that strong conviction clarified, sharpened, and supplemented through encounter with others. The new experience is of integrating the new wisdom with the old. Usually the integration is made possible and implemented by a deepening of the rootage in one’s own tradition. Christians become more deeply committed to Christ while appreciating the fact that Christ liberates us from clinging to received formulations of our faith, and opens us to what others can teach us.
This means that in the twenty-first century the tension between wholehearted commitment to Jesus Christ and wholehearted openness to the wisdom of other traditions and communities will fade into the past. Instead of being oppressed by the dualistic sense that the more closely we identify with our own heritage, the less we can internalize the practices and beliefs of others, Christians will understand that the more closely we identify with our own heritage, the more we will be ready to learn from others. We will be critical and selective, of course. But above all we will be nondefensively open. When we are not, we will know that our defensiveness and closedness are an expression of sin, not of faith.
There will continue to be competition among the religious traditions. But the competition will be in their ability to learn from one another. They will all seek a greater completion, a greater wholeness, and they will understand that they can gain that wholeness only as they learn from one another as well as from all other sources of wisdom. There will be no decline in the diversity of traditions, for the value of this diversity to all will be recognized. But their ability to come to shared understanding as a basis for cooperation will increase. Religion will cease to be a divisive force in the world and will contribute to peace and harmony among all peoples.
III. Science and Religion
Morikawa was concerned also with the relation of science and religion. He saw that an era was ending in which the authority of science was almost unquestioned. This is chiefly because in the latter part of the twentieth century, and led by liberation theologians, we have come to view science sociologically. We see that there is a community of scientists who engage in certain activities directed to certain ends. We discover that for the most part these ends are not the pure pursuit of truth. For the most part they are governed by the availability of money, and this is available chiefly to advance military and economic interests. The actual effect of the work of most scientists is to make the powerful more powerful, the rich richer, and to further disempower and impoverish the poor. Christians have the responsibility to name this as sin and to engage in critique.
The subordination of science to money leads to even more blatant abuse. We now expect that every economic interest will hire scientists to testify in support of the ways it hopes to make money. Tobacco companies hire scientists to argue that tobacco has not really been shown to be harmful to health. Polluters hire scientists to argue that they are not really the source of any serious problem. And of course public interest groups hire scientists to argue just the opposite. Whereas once arguments could be clinched by saying: “science teaches . . .;” now such statements evoke laughter.
There are philosophers of science who go even further in the relativization of science. They argue that any given science is one way of ordering thought or language alongside others. No way of ordering thought or language actually describes reality, and there are no objective ways of judging among them. The judgment will be pragmatic, but what is pragmatically desirable is also context dependent.
Overagainst the supposition that science attained absolute truth to which all other interests and ways of knowing should be subordinated, and overagainst the view that all thinking should follow the methods of science, the new humility and relativization of science is a great gain. But sheer relativity in science, if taken seriously, will have results even more disastrous than religious relativity.
Consider the question of whether we need now to take steps to slow down global warming through the greenhouse effect. There is a consensus among the scientists who have studied this question that the greenhouse effect is a reality, and that its results will be very destructive. But it is also possible to find scientists who oppose the consensus. If we take a purely relativistic view, we will have no basis for action. Indeed, our president has leaned in this direction. Only complete agreement of every scientist will lead him to support action — or so he seems to say. Even that does not reflect the most extreme position, for that would deny that discussion of the greenhouse effect is talk about events in a real world at all.
The solution to this problem is like that to the problem of religious relativity. The actual physical world is immensely complex, so complex that human thought can never match it. Nevertheless, certain patterns of thought may correspond with certain aspects of it. Sometimes quite diverse patterns, even apparently incompatible ones, have considerable correspondence with significant but diverse aspects of that total reality. The idea, therefore, that a single scientific formulation will grasp the truth about nature once for all is an illusion. But that genuine scientific work can increase the likelihood that certain formulations are applicable to aspects of the real world, that certain predictions are correct, and that some ways of viewing reality are more comprehensively accurate than others — that we must believe if we are to continue with the scientific enterprise at all. And so far as I know, we have no reason to deny such a view. We may hope that in the twenty-first century the present confusion will be reduced, and the physical sciences will be humble but effective co-workers with religious traditions in seeking a more satisfactory, and a more inclusive, understanding of the whole of reality.
At the fringes of science and religion this is already happening. Whereas most scientists are not interested in questions of worldview, some are seeing that what physics has learned in the twentieth century supports a worldview with deep religious meaning. The old idea of matter has given way to energy. Instead of reducing life to mechanism, the evidence points to something like life pervading nature. Instead of viewing purposive subjectivity as an odd by-product of a purely objective evolutionary process, there are indications that a purposive subjectivity is present everywhere. Instead of viewing God as an external initiator of a process which is otherwise autonomous, it is coming to seem more realistic to acknowledge that there is a mystery present and active everywhere, which has the characteristics of divinity.
If science in the twenty-first century builds on these ideas that now appear at its fringes, and if religions open themselves to one another and to truth wherever it can be found, the long separation of science and religion will be ended. While science becomes religious, religion will become scientific. Neither will claim exemption from human finitude, but together they will inspire confidence that enough can be believed with sufficient assurance to give reliable meaning to life and to the directing of human activities.
None of this deals directly with the problem that most scientific work is ordered to the interests of the rich and powerful. That cannot be dealt with apart from political and economic changes. Yet a different understanding of science will help. When sophisticated thought denies that science advances knowledge of how the world really is, the old impulse of the quest for truth is weakened. Scientists then turn to the advancement of technology. Further, when sophisticated thought asserts that there are no objective values, that all claims to the good are a function of perspectival interests, there is little basis to decide what technology to pursue other than where the money is. If, on the other hand, in the twenty-first century there is renewal of a humble claim that there is some objectivity in values and in claims to know reality, other motivations can influence the decisions of scientists. The self-criticism already present in that community will increase along with willingness to pursue inquiries that truly benefit humankind.
IV. Postmodern Thought
The new situation emerging at the end of this century is now commonly labeled “postmodern.” There is a faddish aspect to this use of the term, but it remains accurately descriptive of the cultural and intellectual situation. It means simply “after the modern,” and its use reflects a changed connotation in the word “modern.”
Until recently people heard in the word “modern” a reference to what is going on now at the cutting edge. “Modern art” meant the art of our time. “Modern technology” meant the technology of our time. “Modern philosophy” and “modern science” meant the philosophy and science of our time. The contrast was always to what is outdated.
Of course, in each case, the term also called to mind a history. “Modern art” began in the late nineteenth century. “Modern technology” began in the industrial revolution. “Modern philosophy” and “modern science” began in the seventeenth century.
Now a shift has occurred such that the historical connotations have become dominant. “Modern art” is bound to the particular assumptions and directions of its origins, and many believe these have now played themselves out. “Modern technology,” as the form of technology suited to the industrial revolution, has now become problematic, as we define the human and ecological needs of our time. “Modern philosophy” and “modern science” are committed to modes of thought connected with the particular circumstances of their origin, and they have passed through a remarkable trajectory that is now exhausted.
To whatever extent this shift in meaning has occurred, “modern” ceases to be synonymous with “contemporary.” Indeed, “modern” now tends to be mean “outdated.” The question is, then: What is now happening, now that the energy and creativity of modernity are exhausted, and it is seen that modern technologies are leading us to destruction? In other words, what comes after the modern?
Understood in this way, it is inevitable that the theology of the twenty-first century be postmodern. But the content and the character of the “postmodern” are left quite open by the term. It is important to assert this, because a particular meaning arising in literary criticism and French deconstructive philosophy have tended to dominate and even to foreclose the discussion.
In fact, no debate is currently more important than that over the direction of creative energies today. If this were a merely descriptive question, we might sit back as observers to see what happens. But it is a prescriptive one as well. The issue is how we should employ our own energies, now that we cannot take our cues from habits well-established in the modern period.
Consider the important case of political economy. Let us assume that we recognize that there is in this area, too, an ending and a beginning. Let us call what is ending the “modern order.” In that case, we need to decide what the key features of that order are so that we can place our energies into building the postmodern one. The importance of the question becomes clear when we consider some options.
Some judge that the modern world was the world of nation states, closely bound up with industrialization. Then the postmodern world may be one in which all barriers are removed in one great post-industrial global market that is directed by the information sciences. Others may judge that the modern world was one in which the dominant structure of society was that of capitalist exploiters and exploited workers. The postmodern world is then that of the classless society. In this vision, too, national and cultural boundaries are erased, and an homogenized world results.
My own judgment is that the modern world, so far as political economy is concerned, is the economized world, that is, the world in which economic values dominated over all others. Traditional communities, first in the industrializing nations, and later in those they conquered for raw materials and markets, were systematically destroyed for the sake of expanding production. People were understood primarily in terms of their relation to production and consumption. From this point of view, classical economic theory from Adam Smith on, and Marxist theory as well, are paradigmatically modern, and both of the scenarios derived from the accounts summarized above, instead of breaking with the modern, carry it through with a more thoroughgoing consistency than ever before. David Griffin has taught us to call ideas and movements that carry major features of modernity to an extreme “mostmodern” rather than postmodern.
The practical conclusions derivative from this third view of what is modern in political economy are diametrically opposite to those drawn from the other accounts. Instead of destroying all boundaries for the sake of one homogeneous global market, it calls for the subordination of economic activity to the building up of human community, and community with the natural environment as well. That requires local and regional self-reliance rather than subordination to those who control the movement of capital and goods around the world. This would be a true reversal of the dominant trends of the past two centuries, a new beginning, rather than the fulfillment of the modern economist’s dream.
The nature of the theological enterprise will differ according to the economy for which we work. In the latter part of the twentieth century we have come to prize cultural diversity. We have called for multiple expressions of the Christian faith appropriate to this diversity. We have also appreciated the diversity of religions rather than viewing the other religions simply as a field for conquest. But if the “postmodern” economic order is a homogeneous one, then the diversities of cultures will become, in time, a superficial cover for the essential homogeneity of Homo economicus.
The importance of how the modern is characterized can be seen in another sphere, this time, a highly theoretical one. For many, modernity is thought to be characterized by rationality. The height of modernity in the eighteenth century is called the “age of reason.” The French revolutionaries enthroned “Reason” as their God. In the modern view, the medieval period was one of authority, faith, and superstition.
When modernity is defined in this way, then the postmodern is understood as the radical self-criticism of reason that leads to its dethronement and even its final negation. This is not in the interests of faith or authority, but for the sake of a deeper liberation. Yet this liberation seems to lead to a relativism that borders on nihilism. This is the most widespread use of “postmodern” at present, and it engenders a healthy reaction of defending modernity as necessary for sanity.
There is another reading of modernity, offered by Alfred North Whitehead in his Science and the Modern World. He points out that in the medieval period reason was highly prized and vigorously pursued. Its great intellectual achievement was a scholasticism that based faith itself on reason. It was the Reformers and the scientists who opposed this rationalism, and it was they who inaugurated the modern era. The so-called Age of Reason is not noted for profound works of intellectual analysis. Its appeal was to common sense and obvious empirical warrant. These were the tools of the scientists as well. They did not probe the meanings of their key terms. It is hard to find real definitions or analyses of mass, force, or causality. As long as this language worked well for their purposes, they were satisfied.
Of particular interest is to see how modern thinkers responded as the limits of common sense were forced on their attention. Hume, for example, pointed out that the notion of causality, so central to scientific thought, could not mean what scientists took it to mean. At least, it could have no empirical warrant. The response of one who truly believed in reason would have been to explore more carefully what the word “cause” really can mean and how it can be justified, and then to adjust its use in science accordingly. Instead, Kant cut the Gordian knot by declaring it to be a necessary principle of thought imposed on the empirical reality. Science was then left free to proceed without criticism of its basic ideas until its own internal developments forced it to give up the common sense notions with which it had begun and which Kant undertook to save for it.
A second crisis occurred for science at the end of the nineteenth century as the analysis of subatomic entities, and especially of light, forced it to give up the common sense worldview to which it had long been attached. A rationalist response would have been to attempt to build up another worldview that fitted the new evidence. A few such efforts were made. But by and large the community of scientists decided that if the common sense worldview did not work, they would proceed with no worldview at all, or employ different worldviews for different purposes with no concern for how they relate to one another. Within each of the separated sciences, they defined procedures and developed mathematics that enabled them to continue to gain information. That would not have satisfied medievalists, but for moderns, it was enough.
From this perspective, and it can be supported from the history of modern philosophy as well, the modern period has been one that appealed away from reason to history, empirical data, and practice. There were excellent reasons for this move. But we are now finding that when these tendencies are give free reign and checked by no others, they collapse upon themselves. To carry these tendencies to their consistent outcome is mostmodern rather than postmodern. A postmodern approach will try to probe the reasons behind the failure, and to construct a new vision that fits with the actual findings of the sciences, rather than to abandon the enterprise. Whereas modern thought has cut us off from the natural world as being wholly impenetrable, or even nonexistent, postmodern thought will seek a level of understanding of nature that will restore our sense of kinship and connectedness.
I dare to believe that what I take to be the more fundamental analyses of the modern will prevail, and that the energies of the twenty-first century will go into reconstruction on new lines, rather than pressing toward the nihilism that is the final outcome of the modern. If so, the twenty-first century can develop a healthy worldview in which it can have basic confidence.
Much is at stake for theology also in this debate. If the radical attack on reason dominates, the prospects for Christian theology in the twenty-first century are dim. The climate will encourage sectarian, cultic, and authoritarian expressions of religious life, rather than rational ones, even though this is far from the intention of those who call us in this direction. Because I am writing this essay in the spirit of Morikawa’s optimism, I will assert that human energies will flow again into an attempt to understand the world deeply and to find the place of human beings within it. I am confident that this effort will succeed. I am also confident that when issues are probed at this deep level, the religious questions will be prominent, and Christians will be able to bring the wisdom of our tradition to bear upon them. But I am also confident that the only form of Christianity that can speak in the new situation will be one that is itself postmodern.
V. Postmodern Theology
Although I did not introduce the idea of “postmodern” until Section IV, I was discussing postmodern theology already in Sections I, II, and III. The new relations among religions described in Section II is postmodern. So is the relation between science and religion described in Section III. But there is much else to be said, especially referring back to Morikawa’s vision for the Pacific basin sketched in Section I.
There is general agreement that one dominant feature of the modern world was that it was Eurocentric. To be modern was to be Europeanized. Everything else was viewed as backward. Theology shared that feature of modernity until very recently. A postmodern theology rejects it. It approaches other cultures, not to judge them by its own standards, but to appreciate their integrity and value, and to learn from them what it can.
Eurocentric theology was also elitist. Theology was written by a cultural elite who obviously belonged to the dominant social class. Black theologians were the first to point out how radically social location determined the topics discussed and the ways they were discussed, and excluded the perspectives of the oppressed. A postmodern theology must arise out of the Christian experience and insight of people from many cultures and diverse social locations within those cultures.
Eurocentric theology was also colonializing. This took the form of foreign missions. These expressed many authentic Christian impulses, and they did much that was positive; but that they were also tainted by the spirit and practices of colonialization cannot be doubted. Rarely was the intrinsic value of “native” cultures and religions deeply appreciated. Usually Christianization was closely connected with Europeanization. Postmodern theology has the extremely difficult task of sorting out what is Christian and what is European so that in the process of indigenization the gospel can appear with greater clarity. The twenty-first century will offer the context for this work.
Eurocentric theology, especially in its Protestant forms, was individualistic. Although the social gospel offers a partial exception, the overwhelming emphasis of modern Protestant theology was on individual decision for Christ. It shared with other colonial practices in the breaking up of traditional community. Postmodern theology will be oriented to the upbuilding of human community, and community with the natural world as well.
Eurocentric theology was markedly dualistic in many ways. There was a dualism of God and the world. There was a dualism of spirit and matter. There was a dualism of the human and the natural. There was a dualism of soul and body. These dualisms fragmented what many traditional societies had held together. They also assigned science and religion to radically separate compartments. Postmodern theology will work to develop a new wholeness.
Two of these dualisms deserve special attention as we project theology for the twenty-first century. Modernity sharply separated God and the world. Of course, modern theology has not been monolithic, but in its most characteristic expressions, it depicted God as a sovereign will outside the world and unaffected by events within it. God’s chief relation with the world was creation out of nothing and final judgment. If God were affirmed to act in history, this could only be understood as a supernatural miracle.
This vision has become increasingly implausible. It was connected with a view of the world as a machine that is no longer supported by the natural sciences. There has been a recovery of a more personal and intimate view of the relation to God, so that it has become almost a commonplace of contemporary theology that God suffers with us in our suffering. In the twenty-first century God will be seen as pervading the world and as including the world within the divine life. The dualistic view will pass.
The second of the dualisms requiring special attention is that of soul and body. In particular, modernity has suffered from the implications of this dualism for sexuality. Sexuality has been viewed as the epitome of the bodily, and therefore as something to be subordinated to, and controlled by, the soul. The sexual revolution has forced the churches to re-think that negative attitude toward sexuality, but they remain confused.
Today the issues about sexuality focus most heatedly on homosexuality. The church clings to its condemnation of any homosexual activity, justifying itself by means of dubious Biblical warrants of a sort it would be ashamed to use on other issues. Its stance betrays continuing deep fears of the body and its sexuality. A postmodern theology will seek to heal the ancient fear of the body and celebrate its capacity for enjoyment, without failing to subordinate sexuality, like every aspect of life, to the service of God and neighbor.
Eurocentric theology was also profoundly patriarchal. So were most of the cultures to which it was carried. In some instances, at least, authentic elements in the gospel served to liberate women in important ways. But at a very profound level, Christian theology has served to reinforce and deepen patriarchal modes of thought, even when it alleviated certain social injustices inflicted on women. Postmodern theology will probe the depths of patriarchal thinking and feeling, and will begin the long process of moving toward a truly postpatriarchal society.
There is a final change implicit in what has been said that should be made explicit. Modern theology has become an academic discipline, what the Germans call a Wissenschaft. This has enforced high standards of scholarly rigor, and this has had its advantages. But it also tends to separate theology from the church and from the people, and to enforce the elitism referred to above. It tends to leave the determination of the issues to be discussed to the needs of the academic discipline rather than to those of the world or the church. As a result, the theology actually operative in the church has moved farther and farther away from that studied in the university.
This is a part of the fragmentation that is so prevalent in late modernity. Postmodern theology must overcome it. Indeed, all the movements of thought in the late twentieth century to which I made reference in Sections I, II, and III actually have struggled against it. None of the liberation theologies can do their work in the kind of academic isolation characteristic of what has been considered the normative tradition. The extent of their success in breaking into the university is still unsettled. But whether they do transform what goes on in the university, or do their necessary work in other settings, it is they that point the way for theology in the next century. They take their cues from real problems in the real church and the real world, rather than from a history of ideas.
They realize, nevertheless, that they cannot do their work apart from knowledge of the tradition that is taught and transmitted in the university. However critical they may be of this tradition, they must understand it and deal with it. The theology of the twenty-first century will take as its starting point the urgent issues of the day, and it will bring to bear upon them multiple traditions, but of these the great tradition of European theology will be one, and a very important one.
There is a profound limitation of this tradition in its modern form, one imposed on it by its conformity to university norms. I have said that it has defined itself as an academic discipline, one among others. One price of such a self-definition is that it discourages fresh and original thinking. The primary role of professors in a department of philosophy is to teach the philosophy of others, not themselves to be philosophers. And the primary role of professors of theology is to teach the theology of others, not themselves to be theologians. Academia recognizes as proper to its concern historical and textual study and interpretation. Constructive thinking is not encouraged.
Further, even if professors of theology decide to function as theologians anyway, they are socialized into understanding their professional responsibility narrowly. They are not supposed to deal with material in other disciplines. They may borrow here and there from them, but they are not supposed to make their own contributions to what is done in these other disciplines or to criticize the way its experts function. The theologian is given freedom by the university to develop theology, but this is defined as one discipline alongside others, with a distinct subject matter separated from that of others in clearly definable ways. Postmodern theology, on the other hand, refuses disciplinary boundaries. It treats the issues that are most important, however they relate to existing disciplines and approved methods, and it criticizes the assumptions of all of the disciplines established in the modern world.
Now the question is whether theology in the twenty-first century can exist and function in the context of the university. The answer is that postmodern thinking in general cannot flourish in the mostmodern institution that is the university of today. The issue, then, is whether we can also envision a postmodern university in the twenty-first century or must think of quite different contexts for postmodern theology.
This is an important question for realistic thinking about the future of theology. Universities are extremely conservative institutions. Down through the eighteenth century, European universities remained essentially medieval. As late as the early twentieth century significant traces of this heritage still remained. The originators of modern thought worked largely outside the universities. The pattern may have to be repeated in the shaping of postmodern thought.
Still, we should not despair of the university as an institution. It affirms self-criticism, and it may actually be able to engage in it. Although it is unlikely to be the place where postmodern thinking is formed, it may be more hospitable than its present structures suggest. Perhaps a postmodern leaven working inside the universities can change them. But it may also be that the university either r canalizes postmodern energies in modernist ways or excludes them altogether.
If postmodern theology cannot find a home in the university, can it be nurtured in the church? In Latin America it has a home in the base communities. In some countries it can arise from pastors in local congregations. In the United States, Morikawa showed that it can find a home in the bureaucracy of some churches, and there are some possibilities in the ecumenical movement. But the main question is whether it can flourish in seminaries. Today the answer is encouraging. Many seminaries are open at least to some of the liberationist modes of postmodern theology. Disciplinary lines are not quite as tight as in the university; so the meaning of the postmodern perspective can gain fuller expression in its rejection of disciplinary boundaries. The chance of reforming seminaries in postmodern ways is greater than that of reforming universities.
Nevertheless, there are risks here, too. The churches are growing more restrictive. Instead of looking forward to a postmodern world, they are looking back to the modern one to which they have grown accustomed, indeed, the one in which many of them arose. However difficult and distorting it has been to espouse the Christian faith in the modern world, these are familiar problems. Struggling to survive, the churches have little energy left for adventure. They want their seminaries to help them with their survival needs and prepare ministers who can succeed in existing congregations. Those are different tasks than giving birth to a postmodern theology for a postmodern world.
Thus far the churches want to give a place to the voices of blacks and women. But they want those voices not to be too threatening to existing patterns of church authority and life. The full implications of black and feminist theology are not welcome. Still worse, the voices of Lesbians and gays are silenced.
I say all this to warn that however optimistic we may be about the ultimate outcome in the twenty-first century, the road from here to there will not be an easy one. Those of us who believe in the postmodern world may have to create our own institutions, as feminists have already begun to do. Indeed, it would be surprising if a change of the magnitude now called for took place without new institutions. If these are needed, I hope that Christians will be in the forefront in building them. There is a chance for Christianity to appear again as part of the vanguard of human thought and life, moving into a better world. For it to cling to its chains in modernity and to refuse to lead into the twenty-first century would be a deep betrayal of its calling. Let us share Morikawa’s optimism that the church eventually will do what it must do. Then we can anticipate with hope a new day for both theology and the church.