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Brümmer on Meaning and the Christian Faith. Collected Writings of Vincent Brümmer.
Aldershot: Ashgate 2006. X, 476 S. m. 1 Porträt. gr.8° = Ashgate Contemporary Thinkers on Religion: Collected Works. Lw. £ 70,00. ISBN 978-0-7546-4028-8.
After spending some time at Harvard, Vincent Brümmer, the son of a South African, Dutch Reformed minister, wrote his dissertation in South Africa on Herman Dooyeweerd’s philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea. It was in the tension between the Dutch academic and the South African society that he formulated his theological thought as analyzing »hermeneutical factors« that either hinder or further a consistent understanding of the meaning of Christian faith. The present collection of articles reflects this intention by circling around the meaning of life and its intimate relationship to Christian faith. It is structured into nine thematic parts ranging from questions of Christian and philosophic theology to religion and science and from questions of method, language, and knowledge to questions of the nature of God, the possibility of evil, and spirituality. Its recurrent theme is that meaning and Christian faith coincide in the loving relationship of God with humanity as »partners in the fellowship of free personal agents« (306).
This collection begins with a basic dilemma of »Christian Philosophy« (Part II): that its possibility is limited by »our religious commitments« that »necessarily determine the way we interpret experience philosophically«. Hence, »philosophical agreement and communication between the Christian and the non-Christian are impossible because the differences between them are basically differences in religious commitment that are not arguable in terms of common criteria« (56). Hence, he opts for accepting the fact that, from the perspective of different faiths, the world looks significantly different. What we can achieve is merely (but importantly) some »common criteria for the acceptability of interpretation« without becoming enabled to prove whether and which one of the religious philosophies is ultimately superior to another. Instead, we find the potency of various »views of life« — as a synthesis of five criteria: freedom from contradiction; coherence; relevance; universality of explanation; and impressiveness (78) – that determine valid alternatives as a basis for a critical and rational discussion, but not their correctness.
It is on this basis that B.’s reflection on »Values and Fact, Religion and Science« (Part III) articulates his understanding of the relationship between religion and science: They do not contradict each other, but rather compliment each other. They relate in humanity’s »need to explain, predict and control our factual environment, and equally to make sense of or ascribe meaning to the demands with which this environment confronts us« (96) as indispensable ways of »coping with the same demands of life« (96). This hermeneutical relativity of »views of life« and the »demands of life« becomes the key to B.’s understanding of »Language and Thought« (Part IV) and »Knowledge and Reality« (Part V). By advocating a »tool model« of language in which »words are not immutable representations of timeless essences but are subject to cultural change« (103 f.), as opposed to a »name model« in which words are thought to refer directly to things or concepts, he argues with Sally McFague that »metaphor« is not simply a figure of speech, but rather a way of thinking that allows us to »break through our mental set of ›literal‹ terms« and reminds us of the »selectivity and one-sidedness of all our conceptual forms« (154). Language is interpretation. Similarly, it is with postmodernity, not modernity, that we »sustain the meaning and rationality of religious belief« (209) because it avoids reductionism and de-contextualization »by focusing on the religious form of life that is the only appropriate context within which religious belief is to be understood« (209).
The next four parts on »Coping with Evil« (Part VI), »The Nature of God« (Part VII), »Prayer, Mysticism and Spirituality« (Part VIII), and »Christian Doctrine and the Dialogue of Traditions« (Part IX) articulate B.’s central theological conviction: namely, that God is a free, personal agent, acting from essential goodness and in love. Despite the danger of anthropomorphizing God, we must think of God as a free and loving agent in order to make sense of God’s action in, and reaction to, the world. Not only would God be otherwise unable to respond to our prayers (which undermines meaningful spirituality), but without the so called »free will defense regarding the agency of God« (248) goodness would be impossible. In arguing against Swinburne and D. Z. Philips alike and in adopting a version of Karl Popper’s » limited negative utilitarianism« (225), B. prefers the reduction of suffering instead of Augustine’s eudemonic aiming at the greatest good to establish a moral sensitivity to those who are suffering. A God of free love necessitates vulnerability and, hence, »the possibility of evil,« but »not its actuality« (224) — as defenses of theodicy other than from free will would have it. The »loving fellowship with God« (248) necessitates an omnipotent God who out of love insists on freedom. In using St. Bernard’s argument of three kinds of freedom (of choice, sin, and freedom from suffering) against Calvin, B. declares that »God in his grace enables us to know and consistently to act according to his will, and he inspires us to do so with delight, but in no way does he oblige or compel us to do so« so that our »will remains free from compulsion« (345).
This collection concludes with a reflection on »Philosophical Theology« (Part X) that B. identifies with the major intention of his project: the questions of the meaning of Christian faith. This emphasis on meaning is that which, for B., sets philosophical theology apart from revealed and natural theology alike, which cannot »demonstrate the truth of religious claims«, but also a descriptive theology, which is limited by its method (432). Against critics who claim that theology has no place in the university because it is not scientific, B. argues that in a collective of criteria philosophical theology would have its valuable place in academy by placing the dialogue between Christians and non-Christians and furthering an open and critical discourse on the meaning of life.
While I can find some complexity in B.’s employment of modes of interpretation and the relativity of love and freedom, his theology remains strangely aloof. His engagement of current discourses in philosophy and theology suffers from a detachment from the real social background from which he was writing (Apartheid) and an entrapment in a mixture of classical theism with its inherent power structures (omnipotence), and a theological personalism with its abstract notion of freedom and its ecological insensitivity. B. never makes constitutive use of his invocation of life for the ar-ticulation of a more socially and ecologically responsible interconnectivity that would resonate with current varieties of postcolonial, poststructuralist, process, or liberation philosophies and theologies. Although his aim to address a God of love remains a deep (Christian) motivation of theology, B.’s eclectic theological muteness leaves him being more available to, or more vulnerable to be claimed by, versions of radical orthodox as well as conservative evangelical articulations of the lost empire of Christendom than his creative impulses of life, metaphor, and freedom would have promised.