Christianity & Western Thought, Volume 3: Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century


Alan G. Padgett and Steve Wilkens, Christianity and Western Thought, Vol. 3: Journey to Postmodernity in the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). $35.00, 388 pages.

Tertullian, the North African church father, famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Athens was a cipher for rational philosophy; Jerusalem for revealed theology. Tertullian’s answer to this question was apparently, “Nothing.” In the two millennia of its existence, however, the mainstream of the Christian church has answered, “Quite a lot.”

Over the past twenty years, InterVarsity Press has published a three-volume survey of the interactions between reason and faith, Christianity and Western Thought, with an evangelical readership uppermost in mind. (Like Tertullian, evangelicals have often been suspicious of the philosophical enterprise.) Colin Brown wrote the first volume, From the Ancient World to the Age of Enlightenment, which came out in 1990. Alan G. Padgett and Steve Wilkens wrote the second volume, Faith and Reason in the 19th Century, ten years later. Now they have brought the series to a conclusion with a third volume, Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century (2009).

Two things differentiate this multi-volume history of philosophy from the comparable series by Frederick C. Copleston and Anthony Kenny: First, the intended readership is evangelical scholars and students. Second, the specific focus is how philosophy has informed or been critiqued by theology. Some readers in the history of philosophy might find this narrowing of readership and focus off-putting, but I think it adds to the value of the series. If you want an encyclopedic history of philosophy, read Copleston. But if you’re interested in that history with a specific set of faith-questions in mind, read Christianity and Western Thought.

Volume 3 examines the Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century. The century began with optimism in the ability of reason, specifically scientific forms of reasoning, to clarify and even solve humanity’s enduring problems. But it ended with the dissolution of that scientistic metanarrative after two world wars, the end of colonialism, and the growth of the civil rights movement—all of which called into question the West’s characteristic self-regard.

Like other historians of philosophy, Padgett and Wilkens classify the two main streams of twentieth century philosophy as analytic and continental. But they also point out a deep meeting of the waters between these two streams in terms of the questions they ask, even if the modes of analysis and answers or these two streams are strikingly different or even contradictory. Those questions center on four topics:

  • Philosophy and science
  • Ontology, or the nature of being—specifically, human being
  • Language and meaning
  • Postmodernism

 

As befits historians of philosophy, the authors present each philosopher’s argument from a sympathetically critical perspective, seeking first to understand each one on his (rarely her) own terms. But the history of philosophy is incomplete without a record of rejoinder and surrejoinder, and the authors attempt to capture the ongoing debate as well.

As befits a history of philosophy with an interest in its interaction with theology, the authors also provide, where appropriate, a narrative of how Christian philosophers and theologians have appropriated and critiqued the philosophical tendencies of their day. Chapter 5, “Existence and the Word of God,” helpfully surveys the relationship of neo-orthodox theologians to various forms of existentialism. Chapter 8, “Faith in Philosophy,” looks at the rise of a neo-Thomism among Catholic thinkers, as well as the surprising rise of what might be turned “analytical theology,” because of the use of analytical tools of language analysis and logic by Christian philosophers addressing specifically Christian theological themes.

Unlike some Christian apologists, who denounce postmodernism tout court, Padgett and Wilkens take a cautiously appreciative stance. Postmodernism is a bewildering variety of often mutually incompatible themes and strategies, so Christians ought to be very careful in their assessments of it.

On the whole, I enjoyed and recommend Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century, not to mention the preceding two volumes of the Christianity and Western Thought series. My only major disappointment was the near total absence of discussion of political philosophy and the dearth of discussion of ethics. Alasdair MacIntyre makes a brief (and welcome appearance), but Leo Strauss and John Rawls are completely absent. Obviously, authors must pick and choose what they are going to discuss, but politics and ethics (including bioethics) are often the only “philosophical” topics of interest to lay readers. And they have an immediate bearing on how we live our lives, in a way that technical discussions of science, ontology, and language don’t.

But again, I enjoyed this book and the entire series and recommend them for readers interested in a better answer to Tertullian’s question than he himself provided.

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P.S. If you thought this review was helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazo.com web page.

P.P.S. It’s hard to believe, but this is my 750th blog post. Holy Cow!

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