A Prescription for the Ills of Modernity? Understanding A. James Reimer's Approach to Theology

By Heidebrecht, Paul C. | Mennonite Quarterly Review, April 2006 | Go to article overview

A Prescription for the Ills of Modernity? Understanding A. James Reimer's Approach to Theology


Heidebrecht, Paul C., Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: This essay seeks to engage Mennonite theologian A. James Reimer on his own terms, interpreting his theology as a response to his construal of modernity that has been shaped significantly by his reading of George Grant as well as Reformation and pre-Reformation history. It suggests further that Reimer's depiction of modernity resonates with, and could be further enriched by, the work of Charles Taylor and Louis Dupre. Taylor provides a critical assessment of modernity that is more balanced than Grant's harsh rebuke, and his emphasis on "frameworks" and "sources" for ethics appears to be closer to Reimer's own inclinations than the foundationalism Reimer espouses. Dupre provides a multidimensional ontology that goes beyond Reimer's reductionist categories of the horizontal and vertical, and his consideration of social history alongside intellectual history helps prevent the separation of theology from practice.

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"Postmodernity" was somewhat of a preoccupation for contemporary Mennonite theologians in the 1990's. Explicit attention to the topic started with a conference on the "Believers' Church Vision in the Postmodern World" at Elizabethtown College in 1989, (1) and culminated with another conference, this one called "Anabaptists and Postmodernity," at Bluffton College in 1998. (2) In the intervening years there were a flurry of publications, and even an informal working group known as "Anabaptist Radicalism and Postmodern Publics." (3) A. James Reimer did not attend any of these conferences, nor has he written an article with the word "postmodern" in the title. And yet, more than any other contemporary Mennonite theologian, Reimer has explicitly grappled with modernity. He has sought to articulate his understanding of the key issues and problems of modern thought in order to clearly describe the task at hand for contemporary Mennonite theology. Regardless of whether one is convinced that the modern era has been significantly reshaped (or perhaps even been left behind) in recent years, Reimer's project deserves a closer look because of his sustained attentiveness to these themes. After all, even postmodern approaches to theology are responding to, and thus dependent upon, particular readings of modernity.

The goal of this essay is to encourage further engagement with Reimer's approach to theology as depicted in his recent collection of essays, Mennonites and Classical Theology, (4) by examining and testing the philosophical and historical presuppositions that lie behind his construal of modernity. Following an overview of his basic approach, the essay summarizes Reimer's engagement with modernity, and then tests his conclusions by introducing two sympathetic conversation partners, Charles Taylor and Louis Dupre. In my encounter with the work of these philosophers I was struck by the resonance between their perspectives on modernity and Reimer's own view. Nonetheless, I will argue that the work of Taylor and Dupre can be used to significantly enrich Reimer's construal of modernity. The additional insights of Taylor and Dupre have the potential to make his theology more intelligible, and thus to move closer to his goal of strengthening the theological basis of Mennonite ethics.

AN OVERVIEW OF REIMER'S THEOLOGY

As indicated by the title of his collection of essays, for more than two decades Reimer has worked constructively to find a place for the resources of classical theology in contemporary Mennonite theological discourse. He has done so by reintroducing and practicing a doctrinal, or, more strongly put, a dogmatic approach to theology. Of course, terms such as classical, doctrinal and dogmatic need to be fleshed out to fully understand the nature of this project. For example, Reimer writes:

   By the classical period of Christian theology I mean the
   theological thought that arose in the formative period of
   Christianity, including the historical events of Jesus of Nazareth,
   the historical response to those events, and the theological
   interpretation of those events by the biblical writers and the
   early church, including the early Church Fathers. … 

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