Modernity and Mineness – By Andrew Dole

Andrew Dole on Kevin Hector’s Theological Project of Modernism

Kevin Hector, The Theological Project of Modernism: Faith and the Condition of Mineness, Oxford University Press, 2015, 288pp., $110
Kevin Hector, The Theological Project of Modernism: Faith and the Condition of Mineness, Oxford University Press, 2015, 288pp., $110
Shop Indie Bookstores

My life revolves around a variety of projects. Some are mostly under my control: there are books I want to write, home improvements in which I hope to have a hand, and so on. Other projects are such that my own efforts alone cannot bring them about: I want to grow old and happy with my spouse, want my children to grow up to be responsible people with good priorities, and so on. And to yet others I can make only a drop-in-the-bucket kind of contribution: I want to see a global transition to renewable energy in my lifetime, to see the cause of social justice advance along a variety of axes (or at least to see the accomplishments of my forebears preserved), want my homeland to escape political insanity. All of these projects are such that if they do not come to pass, I will at a minimum need to re-think the issue of what gives, or what has given, my life meaning (well, maybe not the home improvements). This means that my sense of my life’s worth stands on shaky ground. For it is possible that, for example, my generation will be the one that ushers in catastrophes that will make the horrors of the twentieth century appear rosy by comparison. And in very many other respects, the outcomes on which I have pinned my hopes for a valuable life are at best only partly under my control. Given that it seems that I will live my entire life under such circumstances, the question of whether or not my life will have been the sort of life I want it to have been seems, similarly, largely outside of my control.

According to Kevin Hector, there is help for my condition in what might seem like an unlikely source: Christian theology, specifically in its modern, academic, Protestant incarnation (where the modern begins with Kant). As its title might suggest, The Theological Project of Modernism is a work with a broad ambition. Hector’s central claim is that the central project of modern theology has not been properly understood. Rather than an academic field narrowly focused on correctness of doctrine or the conditions of religious knowledge, Hector wants modern theology to be seen as a serial engagement with very basic issues of belonging in the world. He proposes his account as an alternative to the view that beginning with Kant, “modern [theological] thinkers tried to establish a new, secure basis for belief, namely, ‘reason’,” in the face of intellectual challenges to the Christian traditions. Hector counters that Kant also directed theology to a distinct problem: that of “how persons could identify with their lives or experience them as ‘mine,’ especially given their vulnerability to tragedy, injustice, luck, guilt, and other ‘oppositions.’” On his account, Kant and his (Protestant) theological descendants offered a series of formulations of and responses to the basic problem I have described. Hector coins the term “mineness” to refer to the quality of one’s life-experience being something other than a collection of disjointed events imposed on one from without. My life is ‘mine’ if its shape corresponds to hopes and intentions I have for it (ideally, if those hopes and intentions precede the events to which they refer). Central to Hector’s arguments is the claim that for modern theologians, “faith in a God in and by whom all oppositions are reconciled” is a reliable means of securing ‘mineness’ for one’s life.

The bulk of the book is dense and demanding reconstructive work, but Hector intends this to be relevant to conversations that are currently ongoing regarding the relevance of the tradition with which he is concerned. The issue he raises in particular is whether dead, white, (Protestant,) male theologians can really be understood as speaking for and to the entire human race (as they seem to have assumed), or whether their work is really of value only for those who have relevantly similar life experiences in virtue of having relevantly similar social identities. Early on Hector positions his work as an engagement with what J. Kameron Carter has termed “the theological problem of whiteness”. As described by Carter, modern theology’s whiteness is a matter of the universalization of a perspective of privilege and a “forgetting of the everyday practices of people in their real worlds of pain, suffering, poverty and death.” Hector counters that his (white) modern theologians “were in fact concerned with that which they supposedly overlook, namely the vulnerability and particularity of humanity, as well as our dependence of justification by grace.” Hector’s revisioning of the trajectory of modern theology is calculated not only to defend it against this charge by Carter, but in fact to make it relevant to the very theological projects that Carter advocates. (It is worth noting that Hector does not challenge a different claim by Carter, that through modern theology runs a racializing discourse that both reflects and buttresses white privilege).

The narrative Hector offers runs through the work of Kant (the classification of whom as a theologian will bother some people), Schleiermacher, Hegel (the classification of whom as a theologian will bother some other people), Ritschl, Troeltsch, and Tillich. Hector’s core chapters position their work as attempts to grapple with the problem of ‘mineness.’ Each author after Kant finds himself dissatisfied with the work of his predecessor, and dedicates himself not only to a better solution to the problem of ‘mineness’ but also to a more promising rendering of the problem. Thus the problem itself develops as the book progresses.

While according to Hector “Kant invented the problem of ‘mineness,’” the fit between Kant’s concerns and Hector’s own formulation of the problem is fairly loose. The positions that comprise Kant’s critical epistemology bear on ‘mineness’ inasmuch as they claim that “the laws to which nature and the understanding answer are our laws, the product of understanding’s own legislation”; this solves the problem of “how beliefs could be necessary (and so demonstrably non-arbitrary) yet self-legislated (and so recognizably “mine”). A second and more important sort of ‘mineness’ in Kant is practical in nature, that of “one’s life having a shape that one can identify with as a moral being.” Since on Kant’s account “conformity with the moral law is what frees one from natural necessity and in which distinctly personal life consists,” my life has the shape I intend it to have inasmuch as my actions conform to the moral law. Kant’s second problem of ‘mineness,’ then, is how a person can reasonably intend to live a moral life given the human propensity to evil and the apparent powerlessness of intentions to determine actions. Faith, as a matter of “hoping that God governs the world governs the world according to the moral law, and that this God would regard one as righteous,” secures this reasonableness.

Schleiermacher’s engagement with ‘mineness’ inherits from Kant a concern with the relationship between freedom and necessity. His response involves positioning freedom and necessity as ‘relative antitheses,’ such the one who beholds himself from a perspective ‘above’ this antithesis would thereby experience harmony between his own life and the course of the world. In his mature dogmatics Schleiermacher argued that such a perspective is possible inasmuch as one positions both freedom and (relative) dependence in relation to the absolute dependence that characterizes both self and world. Christian faith makes such a self-understanding possible in virtue of the historical influence of the perfect God-consciousness of Jesus, such that followers of Jesus become able “to experience harmony between themselves and their circumstances, including their relationship to other persons, and to put their stamp on those circumstances.” Hegel in turn criticizes Schleiermacher for denying genuine reciprocity with God, and argues for a more expansive sort of ‘mineness’ that includes this. Hector takes a concern with “being at home with oneself in relationship to objects,” including to Spirit, to be the locus of ‘mineness’ in Hegel’s philosophy; ‘mineness’ is secured when “one can see phenomena as reflecting one’s concepts back to one, and one’s relationship to these phenomena as simultaneously a self-relationship.” Religion offers a path to this result inasmuch as it mediates awareness of the unity of all things in Spirit: “insofar as we identify with and realize ourselves in this unity, we are reconciled to God and, increasingly, with the world, others, and ourselves.”

‘Mineness’ comes into clearer focus in the work of Ritschl and Troeltsch, both of whom were concerned with broad issues of personhood and individuality. On Ritschl’s account, true personhood is a matter of orienting one’s life towards a sufficiently good end of one’s own choosing; and faith offers the assurance, in the face of natural and human obstacles, that it is indeed possible to live in such a way. Through participation in Christian community “one can achieve a sort of spiritual wholeness or integrity, and can thus experience one’s life as oriented toward an end with which one can identify, as opposed to its being dictated by forces beyond one’s control.” Troeltsch in a sense radicalizes Ritschl’s position. Against Ritschl’s claim that a unified standard of personal wholeness is available to all in Christianity, Troeltsch argues for the “individual and creative act” whereby persons take up and synthesize what history presents to them, such that “in the new formation of values the acquisition of the past coincides with personal conviction, and the necessity of a driving idea within the development is united with the personal grasp of this idea.” Troeltsch defined the “Christian principle” in terms of such an act: “it is the principle of a religious rebirth or higher birth in a realm of spirits infused with God, so that everything that is merely natural becomes a means to self-development and self-production.”

Finally, Tillich, operating from the far side of Barth’s blanket charge of idolatry against modern theology, injects some theological content into the basic problem of ‘mineness.’ In Tillich ‘mineness’ assumes the form of “self-integration”, which is a matter of constructing “self-returning” relationships between one’s “center” and external reality. Estrangement from God is among the threats to self-integration. And accepting God’s undeserved acceptance — trusting in God as the ground of one’s being — is the key to self-integration generally: “one’s self-unity thus having been established in relationship to God, one is freed from certain kinds of dependence upon the world, which simultaneously frees one to bring more and more of the world into a self-returning relationship and, so, enable one to experience more and more of one’s life as one’s own.”

In the penultimate section of the book Hector offers a ‘creative synthesis’ of modern theology on ‘mineness.’ This synthesis has a strong Tillichian cast: “apart from one’s unity with God, one’s self-unity is more vulnerable to potentially disintegrating effects of circumstance … one who intends to be united with God, by contrast, intends that which cannot finally be overcome by circumstances, such that the latter cannot finally threaten the intention in terms of which one integrates one’s life.” Hector takes note of the charge (which he attributes to Freud) that religious faith so understood amounts to wishful thinking, and offers a set of capable responses (admirably, not spending more time on this subject than it merits).

Early in the book Hector expresses a desire to avoid anachronism in his exegeses. It seems to me that this worry is misplaced. Hector identifies his closing reflections as an attempt at Troeltschean ‘creative synthesis,’ but I think the designation applies far more broadly. Troeltsch’s contribution to the ‘mineness’ project involves his arguments for the propriety of putting one’s own stamp even on purely historical research — and, indeed, for the impossibility of doing otherwise. Hector’s manner of proceeding is impeccably Troeltschean, in that he allows a complex of ideas and valuations whose provenance is his own historical moment to serve as the master vocabulary for his reconstructive work. And claiming synthetic creativity for only the book’s last few pages obscures Hector’s skill in organizing exegeses of a large number of demanding texts towards the end of discovering a hitherto unrecognized project within them.

As lengthy and demanding as the book is, it ends too early. Hector’s closing ‘creative synthesis,’ for all that it moves deftly through a surprisingly large number of important topics, is too short. Reading at length about Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Ritsch, Troeltsch, and Tillich on ‘mineness’ leaves one wanting at least a chapter of Hector himself on the same topic. Hector hints at a sequel describing the next chapter of modern theology after Tillich (noting that “writing that chapter” would require “a book of its own”). This is a welcome hint, for one of the rather awkward features of the book is that the sections where Hector describes ‘mineness’ in his own voice outstrip (most of) the historical sections with respect to conceptual precision, perspicuity, and existential punch. And one consequence of this condition is that the historically attested recipes for ‘mineness,’ even as summarized by Hector himself, fail to do justice to the fragility, the complexity, and the limits of the phenomenon as he has described it.

Having learned from Hector how to think about ‘mineness’ I want to speak briefly to these matters, first discussing its fragility. Contra Tillich, it does seem to me that circumstances can threaten one’s intention to be united with God. I find it quite plausible to think that there are some persons whose experiences have caused them to cease believing that there is any such person as God; and this is largely because I find it quite implausible to think that all persons who have experienced a loss of such belief as the result of their experiences have made a choice not to believe. I imagine that many, if not most, of these people will not continue to intend union with God as that which ultimately gives their lives meaning. It may be that circumstances cannot finally prevent one from achieving union with God (perhaps nothing can do this, or perhaps only the creature’s eyes-open free refusal of God’s offer of grace is sufficiently powerful; I certainly hope nothing as simple as failure to properly believe can do it); but it does seem to me that circumstances can frustrate a bid to position the intention to be united with God as that which integrates one’s life. And it seems to me that a theological understanding of ‘mineness’ that does not recognize possibilities of this sort is insufficiently realistic.

‘Mineness’ is also sufficiently complex that I suspect that there is no blanket formula for preserving it against the forces of contingency. Consider the list of projects I offered above: writing books, raising children well, avoiding global catastrophe. The Tillichian recommendation is that I position the intention for union with God ‘above’ all of these, intending that it shall be this rather then those that make my life, finally, meaningful. I can readily accept this recommendation with respects to some of my projects: however fervently I want to write more books, it seems right to me to think that if I had to choose whether I should stake my estimation of my life’s meaning on this desire or a desire for union with God, I should choose the latter (granted, if I had reason to think that any of my books were likely to be widely read, this choice might not be quite so easy). But the recommendation that I should choose to prioritize union with God over my desire to raise my children well as the ground of my sense of my life’s meaning strikes me as perverse; and the same goes for the project of avoiding global catastrophe. It seems to me that my circumstances are such that there are intentions I ought to have for my life that are such that I should not seek to lessen the role they play in determining my sense of self-worth, even if in other respects I am free to choose ends for my life and assign them relative priorities. If, for instance, I live to witness the realization of our darkest imaginings related to global climate change, my estimation of the meaningfulness of my life will not escape unscathed, even if I can happily identify with my life in other areas. And it seems to me that I should not seek to insulate myself against this possibility.

This brings me finally to the limits of ‘mineness.’ I think it is possible to overestimate the importance of having a life that conforms to one’s intentions. For one thing, continuing the thoughts of the previous paragraph, it seems to me that some of the projects in which I am engaged are more important that ‘mineness’ in my own case — they are important enough that I should devote myself to them in a deep sense, pinning (at least part of) my sense of self-worth to their success, even if doing so poses profound risks to my ability to have a life that conforms to my intentions. But also, finding that one’s life does not or will not conform to one’s intentions is a common human experience, and if this experience sometimes causes despair, in other cases it leads to more constructive results such as re-evaluation or changes to one’s self-narratives (this all according to Hector’s own descriptions). Perhaps religious faith offers ways of being in the world that preclude any such situation — perhaps being a person of faith means never having to say that the world has frustrated one’s desires, at least not in ways that matter most deeply. But given how commonplace the phenomenon of forced, fundamental self-reorientation has been for our species, I suspect — although I would be glad to be wrong about this — that a life entirely sheltered from this possibility will have hidden and significant costs.

I find that Hector’s reframing prompts me to read history in new ways. I think there may be something important behind the gap between Troeltsch and Tillich. The term ‘historicism’ is sometimes used to refer to a particular kind of historical self-consciousness, one that regards the self as so deeply historically located that one cannot say what aspects of the self, if any, transcend one’s context. If I am right in seeing in Troeltsch a willingness to allow historical context to set the parameters of ‘mineness,’ then there may be more than idolatry critique at work in the disappearance of this move from the toolbox of later theologians. I am tempted to see the roots of this abandonment in the catastrophic failure, after Troeltsch’s generation, of the grand collective projects — projects of enculturation, civilization, and rationalization (in the sense of making-rational) — within which German theology had unfolded since the days of Schleiermacher and Hegel. Thus I am tempted to see both Troeltsch’s willingness to remain within history and Tillich’s appeal to a transcendent ground of ‘mineness’ as signs of their times, and to conclude that when conditions are sufficiently bad, the thought becomes plausible that life can be meaningful only if escape from history is possible.

This brings me to my last comment. Hector expresses the hope that contextual theologians will become torch-bearers for ‘mineness.’ Contextual theologians are those who are suspicious of theological work that does not attend to indices of historical contingency as these bear on personal identity categories — work, in other words, that purports to speak for and to an undifferentiated humanity — and who practice theology from a position of embeddedness in contingent particularity regarding race, gender, economic status, and the like. Hector’s example is Carter, who argues that “as a twenty-first century discourse, Christian theology must take its bearings from the Christian theological languages and practices that arise from the lived Christian worlds of dark peoples in modernity”. Hector’s rejoinder is that “‘mineness,’ and faith’s role in maintaining it, are not an exclusively ‘white’ preoccupation.” Inasmuch as this amounts to a recommendation that contextual theologians revisit the history of modern theology in search of resources for their projects, I find the proposal to be interestingly complicated. Among Hector’s modern theologians it is Troeltsch who leaves the door open to a plurality of appropriations of history whose sufficiency is context-dependent; the later Tillichian move seems to me to deflate the significance of any historical context. A trajectory that follows Tillich would seem to rule out a theology that insists on human flourishing in terms provided by historically specific categories, such as identity categories. Reconciling such an insistence with the idea that it is, in a sense, participation in God’s reconciling of all oppositions that secures human ‘mineness’ strikes me as a difficult task. I suspect that the Tillichian solution will not be an attractive one for context-specific formulations of ‘mineness’ , and that contextualists who do not take exception to the book as yet another bid to position white theology as universally relevant (a reception that I do not think Hector has done, or could do, much to forestall) will find Troeltsch a more promising resource.

Hector’s bid to reframe modern theology is a bold one. ‘Mineness’ is a rich concept, and one result of Hector’s careful and nuanced presentation of the notion is to show that doing justice to it is no easy task. The Theological Project of Modernity shows fairly clearly that Tillich left important work undone. I hope Hector’s bid succeeds, in that others join him in the project of directing theological reflection—both historical and constructive—towards making it possible for persons to identify with their lives. It may be that the arena within which persons peg the meaningfulness of their lives to the accomplishment of aims framed by the social categories that divide us is a particularly different area for such work. But then, academic theology is hardly a stranger to such difficulties.