Review of Thiselton’s Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 59/1 (1997) 131-33. Used with permission.]

Anthony C. Thiselton: Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1995. xi, 180. $24.00, paper.

 

Thiselton’s wide-ranging book analyzes and responds to both modern and postmodern skepticism about God, traditional religion, and religious language. By starting with Hobbes and Nietsche the book quickly exposes the principal theme around which the whole discussion flows: is religion a human projection to satisfy human desires for comfort and power? There is undoubtedly a grain of truth here. Some religion, in the hands of some people, is manipulative, either in an obvious or in a subtle way. But one cannot settle truth claims merely by observing that the truth may be exploited and twisted for selfish ends.

The book proceeds to consider the narrower question of religious language within the broader discussion of postmodernism, with its suspicion not only of objective religious truth, but “metanarrative” and objective truth of any kind. Postmodernists see the play of power-seeking and manipulation at work not only in religion but in modernity’s substitutes for it in the exaltation of reason, autonomy, freedom, and other supposed absolutes.

While acknowledging the role of power and propaganda, and granting a role to flexibility and multiple associations in language, the book appeals to the setting of language in human action and society as an answer to the instabilities of deconstruction (Part I). In Part II it considers the role of the interpreter, in interaction with major thinkers like Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Gadamer, and Ricoeur. It acknowledges a complex interaction between author, text, and reader, appealing to Ricoeur in answer to one-sidedly reductive solutions.

Part III focuses on Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith Network, an attempt to interpret religion as wholly a human construct. The book effectively critiques the movement by showing how the earlier, “modernist” Cupitt carves out a place for religion within the human psyche by conceiving of humanity in quintessentially modernist terms, as a self-possessed cognitive and moral agent and determiner. The later, “postmodernist” Cupitt undermines the project because the self is decentered, and with the decentering there is no fixed rock within human consciousness on which a coherent religious edifice may be erected. Moreover, within the later Cupitt, postmodernist “tolerance” of all religious expressions wars against Cupitt’s propagandistic attack on the religious status quo.

In Part IV, the book turns toward addressing the gospel to postmodernists in terms that they might understand. The task is not easy because postmodernism has built-in barriers. It rejects all absolutist claims of salvation, because (it supposes) these always conceal human attempts at domination. And it rejects absolute truth because such is incompatible with the dependence of human expression on linguistic and cultural situations. Postmodernism has moved into a “passive situatedness” that has no answer to despair. The gospel comes, not as one more case of propaganda for social engineering, but as promise based on the transforming love of Christ. God is his Trinitarian nature is the foundation for interpersonal communion that is neither manipulative nor arbitrary. Knowing God through Christ sets in motion personal transformation through which texts and society alike undergo transformation and progressively more enlightening reinterpretation.

The book’s invitation to Christian hope is tantalizingly brief, but the solidity of Thiselton’s Christian commitment is clear. In some ways the briefness is fitting, almost necessary. The leading edge of Western intelligentsia, for all its brilliance, and the multiplicity and profundity of its insights, has twisted itself in rebellion against God in so many ways that the untwisting will take generations. The untwisting starts with the lost self and the hearing of the gospel as a answer to lostness, but even this hearing is muffled and distorted, and understanding grows through progressive straightening. Thiselton’s book is content to point toward the beginning of this road, leaving readers to a lifetime of traveling down it.

The book is commendable, and unique in its contribution. But it makes difficult reading. It is perhaps the most difficult of all the difficult books that Thiselton has written in the last few years. But it is not to be faulted on this account. The subject-matter is intrinsically difficult. Moreover, it is easy to lose the thread, because of the multitude of topics and thinkers covered, and the consequent brevity of remarks on any one topic.

Typical readers of the Journal may be troubled by the book’s reliance on modern theologians. The book defends the Apostle Paul against charges of manipulation (pp. 140-144), and mentions Luther and Calvin favorably. But for answers to peculiarly modern and postmodern concerns, it goes to Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Vincent Brümmer, Pannenberg, Jüngel, Rahner, Reinhold Niebuhr, and especially Moltmann. As a result one cannot tell where the book stands on issues that divide orthodoxy from mainstream modernist theology. But I believe that one should give the book the benefit of the doubt. Modernist theology in all its forms is built on the presupposition that we must make peace with modern thought forms and mainstream historical-critical research. With few exceptions, these cultural traditions are to be left intact, and theology can perhaps still carve out for itself a space alongside them by deepening and supplementing the whole. Insofar as modern thought and mainstream biblical research have built themselves on modernist foundations, Thiselton’s book calls for a thorough-going transformation, even crucifixion and resurrection, of both foundations and superstructure. So the book implicitly points toward a radical critique of modernist theology.

The book’s reliance on modernist theology may also be seen as an indirect comment on the limitations of orthodox scholarship. The orthodox have seldom engaged modern thought in depth except by way of denunciation. So whom should the book cite? Thiselton emphasizes affirmation and common grace where he can, and uses the language of neoorthodox writers in places where it formally matches orthodoxy.

 

Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia