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Religion after Postmodernism: Retheorizing Myth and Literature.

RELIGION AFTER POSTMODERNISM: RETHEORIZING MYTH AND LITERATURE. By Victor E. Taylor. Studies in Religion and Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2008. Pp. xii + 217. $55; $19.50.

THEOLOGY AFTER NEO-PRAGMATISM. By Adonis Vidu. Paternoster Theological Monographs. Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2008. Pp. xx + 308. $39.99.

It appears that "theology after" has now evolved into a genre unto itself, suggesting that some thinker or movement is so seminal as to have compelled a fundamental reimaging of the theological tradition. The two books under review belong to this literary type, announcing that postmodernism and neopragmatism have significantly altered the theological landscape, pushing the discipline in new directions.

Taylor's book treats of religion after post-Modernism, a term that, at this point, may induce a certain degree of exhaustion. Not that T.'s book begets ennui. On the contrary, those conversant with postmodern texts will recognize T.'s insistence that thinking not be precipitously foreclosed by the invocation of ultimates; that the grounding discourse of peremptory archai be avoided; that texts must be "re-marked" for the sake of interpretative plurality; and that repressive metaphysical cohesion must yield to "difference." Everyone now has some familiarity with these postmodern themes and their attempt to overcome the drab univocity of imperialist modernity. T.'s argument is that thinking and interpretation are always provisional and contingent, deconstructing in the process any attempt to establish unconditioned totalities. Although explicit reflection on Heidegger is not central to the volume, Heidegger always lurks in the background with his intensive accent on the Event character of Being, on the unending dialectic of presence and absence, on the reciprocity of lethe and aletheia, and on the impossibility of finally "nailing down" the name of Being.

Central to T.'s argument is the claim that theoretical reflection on the nature of literature presents new opportunities for religious and theological deliberation. The works of Tolstoy and Kafka offer good examples of hermeneutical possibility and literary indeterminacy. Such literature allows for the creative reinterpretation of textual meaning, offering a salutary lesson to religious thought that itself must be open to continual "re-marking" and to transgressive interpretative possibilities. The best literary language also has a decentering function, drawing language away from its traditional representational role and suggesting that there can be no foreclosure of hermeneutical plurality in the interests of metaphysical durability. As such, literature cannot be deployed as an esthetic illustration of some "deeper," more stable, metaphysical truth. Rather than being manipulated by religious and theological thinking, literature here turns the tables by showing theology how to think creatively and pluralistically.

To what extent can T.'s perspective, the much-vaunted "postmodern return to religion after religion," aid Catholic theology? The manifest difficulty, of course, is that, while the complexities of language and the intricacies of hermeneutics remain central concerns of theological reflection, theology is not open to the same kind of interpretative indeterminacy as literature without ultimately calling into question (or profoundly reinterpreting) the very nature of revelation on which theological principles necessarily rest. Theology as "representational," even in the highly nuanced sense sanctioned by the tradition, appears in T. to be totally overturned in the interests of unlimited deconstructive plurality; this perspective limits the usefulness of his proposals. At the same time, his book inventively outlines the various challenges that post-Modernism presents to theological and religious reflection.

The work of Adonis Vidu, an evangelical theologian from Romania who now teaches in the United States, is similarly concerned with a post-Enlightenment account of rationality and its effect on contemporary theological reasoning. As with T.'s volume, this book is clearly intended for those who already have some familiarity with the topic. V. offers thorough and exact discussions of W. V. O. Quine and his attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction (From a Logical Point of View, 1961), of Wilfrid Sellars's critique of the "myth of the given" (Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, 1997), and of Donald Davidson's deconstruction of scheme-content dualism and his defense of a coherentist theory of knowledge (Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 1984). V. also examines a sampling of theologians who have been influenced by neopragmatic philosophy, often in very different ways.

Broadly speaking, neopragmatism wishes to move theology away from self-justifying epistemic argumentation and toward the notion that claims to knowledge are validated in the self-correcting social practices and practical judgments of the interpretative community. Because knowledge cannot be justified by appeal to indubitable foundations of any kind, epistemological priority--for the justification of truth and meaning--is extended to (self-critical) social forms of life. Careful account is always taken of the background knowledge and contextual notions within which claims are justified, eschewing those warrants smacking of naive formalism, whether philosophical or theological. V. argues, then, that there exists no normative tradition that one can read in an ahistorical way because traditions and their meaning are always read in social groups and within social practices; as such, traditions inevitably change over time (although within certain limits). V.'s intent here is to draw our attention to the holistic ways of justifying truth and knowledge characteristic of neopragmatism, moving us away from an unsophisticated reliance on any kind of theological positivism.

Much in this approach is attractive, particularly the pronounced accent on the weblike interrelationship of praxis, truth, and knowledge, a concern (though differently expressed) at the heart of earlier theological movements (e.g., Newman and Blondel). At the same time, a question arises: Can neopragmatism adequately account for the perduring identity and material continuity of Christian doctrine over time? One way of philosophically underwriting identity in historical difference--unity in sociocultural-linguistic plurality--has been through some (classical or updated) metaphysical horizon, a path in which V. and neopragmatism, needless to say, have little interest. Richard Rorty's judgment is apposite here: The desire to jettison both Plato and Kant (to whom we can add Aquinas and Husserl) is what unites European post-Nietzschean thought and American pragmatic philosophy (Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 1991). But it is just this jettisoning of the metaphysical tradition that leaves one wondering how V.'s neopragmatism explains the kind of transcultural and transgenerational identity and relative meaning-invariance that belongs, for example, to the Nicene Creed. V. states that he has not abandoned the propositional, but inscribed the propositional "within the practical." The propositional and the practical are indeed deeply related and practices are, in some manner, identity-constituting, as V. justly argues. But does his version of neopragmatism fully protect the normative constancy of Christian doctrine (while allowing, of course, for architectonic development)? V. tells us, finally, that he anchors "the propositional transcendentally to the mind of God" (293). Does this, however, dichotomize the philosophical and theological realms in a way that is antithetical to the Catholic understanding of the faith-reason relationship, whereby reason, in its own relatively autonomous domain, sustains the philosophical intelligibility of faith's prior claims? Despite these lingering questions, V. offers a rich and impressively thoughtful account of neopragmatism and its contemporary theological relevance.

I am not convinced that either postmodernism or neopragmatism offers the most beneficial path for Christian theology. Both movements, however, advance important insights that contemporary theological thinking will continue to assimilate.


Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J.
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Title Annotation:Theology After Neo-Pragmatism
Author:Guarino, Thomas G.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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