April 2006 Heidebrecht

A Prescription for the Ills of Modernity?

Understanding A. James Reimer’s Approach to Theology


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 Dupr. 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. Dupr provides a multi-dimensional 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.

“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 Dupr. 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 Dupr can be used to significantly enrich Reimer’s construal of modernity. The additional insights of Taylor and Dupr 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.


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. . . . It was in this Jewish-Hellenistic-Roman matrix that Christianity as we have come to know it first took shape.[5]

Reimer is convinced that the theocentric worldview of this period-what he calls the “classical imagination”-is “far richer and more fruitful for Christian systematic theology than acknowledged in much modern and postmodern thinking” (p. 554). Time and again he stresses that the joining of Jewish and Hellenistic thought should be seen as a positive development in Christian history; Jerusalem and Athens were not as far apart as Mennonites have tended to think.

Thus, Reimer is convinced that systematic theology should not start with the Bible alone, but with the Bible in conversation with the creedal statements of the church tradition. The central doctrine for the church, and the starting place for theology, must therefore be a trinitarian understanding of God. In this regard Reimer either anticipated or caught a wave of interest in the Trinity both in Mennonite circles and beyond.[6] But even more than his study of particular doctrines, it is Reimer’s emphasis on the development of doctrine that is most timely. In recent years historians have unearthed and compiled numerous Mennonite confessions of faith, challenging the self-understanding of Mennonites as a noncreedal church tradition.[7] This evidence suggests that the articulation of faith in doctrinal formulations has been an important part of the Mennonite church tradition, especially when these formulations were not fossilized but were engaged and developed in light of the ongoing experience of the community. It is this dynamic understanding of doctrines that Reimer is advocating: “In this approach ‘doctrines’ would not be considered as static, literalistic propositions . . . but as a dynamic genre mediating between the diversity of biblical texts and the tradition, and the complexity of the contemporary situation (p. 210).”[8] While this linking of theology to experience has a modern ring to it, Reimer is convinced that it is true to the biblical understanding of doctrine-experience is not elevated above tradition, but is put in dialogue with tradition (pp. 358-361). Furthermore, it is supported by the Christian tradition: “History does not bear the burden of proof against contemporary experience. It is the other way around” (p. 361).

Dogmatic thinking for Reimer is imaginative thinking. It is imaginative thinking because ultimately it is grappling with, and trying to express, things that are “too deep for ordinary human speech and thought” (p. 554). Theology is always tentative and provisional, and yet theologians can rest assured that all of creation is contingent upon that which is eternal and unchanging. The classical approach that Reimer advocates “puts historical reality in the context of a much larger ontological, metaphysical and cosmic framework” (p. 201). This requires attention to both the “horizontal” and “vertical” dimensions of religious experience, and achieving this synthesis is the goal of Reimer’s theological project.

In describing his theology as classical, doctrinal or dogmatic, Reimer is clearly distinguishing himself from other contemporary Mennonite approaches to theology. While Reimer is motivated by the central Mennonite concern with ethics, he is convinced that this motivation is best served not by (as he puts it) reducing all theology to ethics, but by paying greater attention to the theology that is needed to undergird our ethics. He agrees that Mennonites “have perceived their distinctiveness not to be in the area of doctrinal questions but in the consistent application of belief and faith to life” (p. 184). And he also agrees that (like Catholics) Mennonites have had a high view of the church: “moral and ethical issues need to be addressed not on the basis of individual hermeneutics, reason or experience but corporately in the context of the church” (p. 514). But he argues that contemporary Mennonites have failed to recognize the way in which their tradition saw doctrinal statements as the necessary theological framework for ethics: “Mennonites have in the past taken ‘right belief (orthodoxy)’ as being the basis and theological framework for ‘right action (orthopraxis)'” (p. 239). And so, far from diminishing the importance of Mennonite ethics, Reimer has tried to strengthen Mennonite ethics: “I sought not to compromise the Mennonite peace witness but searched for ways to ground it theologically. I remain convinced that ethics devoid of metaphysical-theological foundations is like building a house upon the sand” (p. 248).[9] He continues: “We need doctrine because of ethics! Doctrine can never be a substitute for ethics or an escape from an upright moral life” (p. 367).

Reimer’s striving for this kind of balanced attention to both theology and ethics reflects a deeper conviction: “One’s moral stance within the world surely follows logically from one’s presuppositions in theological method” (p. 32). In short, in order to get our actions right we need to get our thinking right. While he acknowledges the “thorny question” of whether ideas or social-historical forces hold more sway in the movement of history, as a systematic theologian he feels compelled to focus on ideas, on the “normative questions arising out of any study of historical events” (pp. 212-213). He is convinced that theological developments “cannot be explained comprehensively with reference solely to the socio-political milieu in which [they] occurred” (p. 269).[10] Practice should not be severed from theory, but to counter the Mennonite overemphasis on practice, Reimer stresses the importance of theory. In fact, he goes so far as to say that that “theory always in some sense is prior to and even separate from practice” (p. 585).

This emphasis on doctrine, theology and ultimately theory is a reflection of Reimer’s assessment of the contemporary situation, and it is at this level that his work needs to be engaged. Reimer makes this point himself in several ways:

[O]ne’s stance toward the modern world and tradition will to a great extent determine how one goes about constructing one’s theology (p. 30).

It seems to me that the way one engages in the theological enterprise today depends to a large extent on how one views the analytic, technical, and scientific achievements and assumptions that grow out of the Enlightenment and define the modern age (p. 37).

There appear to be . . . conflicting sets of theological agendas arising out of different diagnoses of the present global situation in contemporary theology (p. 71).

My turn to classical theology was occasioned by my dissatisfaction with the modern answers to the modern crisis (p. 322).

Discussions between Reimer and other contemporary Mennonite theologians have remained, in most cases, confined to his systematic theology.[11] By focusing attention on Reimer’s assessment of our contemporary situation, an alternative discussion emerges. If the adequacy of Reimer’s approach to theology depends on the adequacy of his construal of modernity, then this construal deserves a closer look.


Part One of Reimer’s collection of essays, “The Crisis of Modernity,” provides an interpretation of the problems of modernity that relies heavily on the Canadian philosopher George Grant. It was after encountering Grant’s work as a graduate student in theology that Reimer experienced an “intellectual conversion” that continues to shape his thought (p. 22). Under Grant’s influence, Reimer began to think critically about modernity, undercutting the sympathetic interpretation that had been nurtured by his master’s degree studies in intellectual history. Thus, Grant’s influence is reflected in the particulars of Reimer’s assessment of what is wrong with modern thought.[12]

Grant describes modernity as the “post-Enlightenment age”-a time in which Enlightenment thought has been taken to its logical conclusion in liberalism, and is characterized by the combination of individual freedom and technology.[13] The key intellectual shift that led to this age is identified by Grant as the reduction of time to history.[14] Reimer notes that the classical view of time did not deny that time was “the movement from past to present to future,” but it placed “historical reality in the context of a much larger ontological, metaphysical and cosmic framework” (p. 201). Of critical importance was the “equidistance of all historical moments to God” (p. 192). Indeed, because of this understanding of time, the Christian tradition did not see human history as the only or even the primary level of reality-its significance was seen only in the context of an eternal plan. In the words of Grant, “we are not on our own.”[15] Time was reduced to history in modernity because of the conviction that we were on our own, and, according to Grant, this radical historicism is what made both individual freedom and technology possible. Reimer summarizes this well: “At the heart of the modern western view of self and world is a historicism which assumes that one belongs to oneself and that humans have an unlimited capacity, potential, and freedom to shape and control nature, history, and themselves” (p. 25).

Many have viewed this shift as an important gain, and both Grant and Reimer cite the famous aphorism on the tomb of Marx an example: “The philosophers have thought about the world long enough; now it is time to change it.”[16] While Grant does not wish to reject modernity outright, his work has quite rightly come to be seen as a harsh critique of the technological spirit of modernity. As Reimer points out, Grant does unequivocally reject the modern concept of the good, or justice, that this spirit has given birth to: “The classical notion of justice as ‘rendering each human being his due’ is replaced with ‘justice as a human creation’ in which in fact ‘some human beings have no due'” (pp. 25-26).[17] Marx got his wish, Grant says, and look at the results. After relatively few years of obsessive human action in the name of improving the world, the scale and scope of our problems threaten to overwhelm us. Reimer concurs:

The horrors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki [and] Auschwitz . . . are not mistakes that modern western civilization has made along the way toward a utopian classless society; rather, they have grown out of and are intrinsically linked to our view of nature, science, and the human as creative agent with unlimited freedom as a historical being to shape his or her destiny without reference to some absolute realm of justice or limit (p. 53).

As a result, Reimer is suspicious of “all utopian, historicist, progressivist, and future-orientated or ‘directional'” theologies (p. 68).

Aside from the obvious political and environmental problems, Grant argues that modernity is a failure on its own terms, for technology, the product of our newfound human agency, has turned on its creators and threatens to subsume our freedom. Technology is a threat because it embodies monolithic and homogenizing forces that counter the diversity and pluralism promised by unfettered human freedom. Instead of greater freedom, we actually have less.[18] Once again, Reimer concurs:

I do not believe that what defines the modern and postmodern period is a new communitarianism but a fundamental paradox: the increasing fragmentation and disjunction of human experience in the face of a growing homogenization-brought about by the all-pervasive fact of modern technology (in the form of computers, television, and so on). It is not pluralism and competing stories which ultimately define the postmodern age but one monolithic story-the technological story (p. 507).

Reimer argues that although recent modern or postmodern thought claims to have struck a fatal blow to the quest for universals, in actuality it has simply masked the emergence of an even greater universal logic-the instrumental rationality embodied in technology. In striving for diversity, we have ended up with a stronger unity, a unity premised upon modern historicism. Not surprisingly, Reimer concludes that those who call for a “radical deconstruction and reconstruction” of Christian theology are “simply compounding the problem which [they want] to solve and hardening the direction in which we are already heading” (p. 196).

According to Reimer, it is a mistake to think that the quest for universals is a problem; in fact, it is the reality of the universal that he is convinced we need to acknowledge and strive toward. For the denial of universals blinds us to the universal scope of our problems. Indeed, postmodern thought claims to reject metaphysics and ontology, but Reimer’s reading of Grant suggests that it is merely promoting a “historicist ontology” (p. 93).[19] Reimer argues that moderns and postmoderns alike have “reduced reality to ‘one tier’-the material, physical, empirically verifiable, and historically horizontal tier. We need more dimensions, more tiers to our thinking, rather than fewer” (334). We need more dimensions to our thinking because modernity has lost the foundation or grounding that is so desperately needed to guide and make sense of our technological spirit. Not only does modern historicism misrepresent the human situation, but it also ultimately leaves us without an adequate basis for ethics.[20]

In the end Reimer is dismissive of modernity because the reduction of time to history led to unfettered human freedom, which led to the attempt to seize control of that history as epitomized by technology. This dramatic expansion of human power coincided with the demise of an adequate metaphysical and ontological worldview, leaving us unable to acknowledge, much less address, the universal ethical challenges arising out of modern technology. Thus the radical historicism of modernity is a dead end, and a culture that remains in its trance is in trouble. Reimer’s turn to classical theology in his search for a theological foundation for ethics is his response to the problems of modernity. He wonders if it is now time to reverse Marx’s aphorism: “We have acted upon (dominated) the world long enough; now it’s time to meditate upon it.”[21]

Given the influence of Grant on Reimer’s analysis of modernity, one would expect Reimer to remain focused on the Enlightenment in any discussion of the roots of modernity. Indeed, Reimer points to the influence of the German sociologist Ernst Troeltsch in Grant’s attention to the “intellectual currents of the Enlightenment, rather than the theological and ecclesiastical motifs of the Reformation” (p. 69). Yet Reimer also reminds us that Grant “is fully aware that there is something inherently Christian, particularly in its western interpretation, about the history-making spirit of the modern world” (p. 27). And so in subsequent sections of his collection of essays Reimer goes deeper than Grant’s construal of modernity, elevating rather than diminishing the connection between the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Furthermore, Reimer’s search for the roots of modernity doesn’t stop in the sixteenth century; he continues on to consider the fourteenth-century Renaissance. In both of these cases his central concern is to demonstrate the way in which the shift from the classical consciousness to the historical consciousness-the shift from patterning life after transcendent norms to seeing ourselves as creating the patterns of our lives-was aided and abetted.

The Mennonite fascination with Reformation history is understandable, given the obvious connection with the Anabaptist movements born in that time. But according to Reimer, an emphasis on this particular historical context has had the unfortunate effect of periodizing history in a simplistic fashion. The first period of significance is the New Testament era, the second is the sixteenth century and the third (and final) period is our own time. Reimer calls this a “restitutionist pattern of historical thinking . . . a past normative state of the church, a radical fall of the church, and a radical renewal” (p. 251).[22] He attempts to enrich this overly simplistic and idealistic reading of Anabaptist history by drawing connections between Anabaptist theology and modern thought-by looking for continuity rather than discontinuity. Along with the German historian Hans-Jrgen Goertz, Reimer wonders:

Did Anabaptism simply contain certain elements which anticipated the modern spirit but which were then later taken over and actualized by more powerful modern movements? Or did Anabaptism itself actually contribute to the rise of modernity in the sense of some historical continuity (p. 214)?

One commonly noted distinctive of early Anabaptist-Mennonite confessional statements was that they espoused the freedom of the will, siding with Erasmus rather than with Luther in their famous debate.[23] Reimer finds this “highly significant,” and suggests that it “links the Mennonite tradition to modern assumptions about human freedom” (p. 222). Of course, Anabaptists such as Balthasar Hubmaier couched human freedom in a theological framework, insisting that “the good we do is not due to our own merit but is God’s grace working within us”-freedom relates to a person’s ability to be open to God’s grace (p. 534). But even this limited sense of freedom is suggestive of a much more positive anthropology, since human beings are transformable within the context of the church.

A second Anabaptist distinctive was its eschatological focus. The common Anabaptist insistence on a life of radical discipleship needs to be seen within its early sixteenth-century context in which the expectation that the end times were near, if not at hand, was common. The difference was that, in light of their positive anthropology, many Anabaptists believed that the visible church made up of transformed or regenerated followers of Christ would usher in the kingdom of God. This had the effect of elevating the expectation that church members would be transformed and adhere to strict ethical standards.

Reimer points to this “anthropological optimism” and “historicalist understanding of the kingdom of God” as the distinctive characteristics of what have come to be known as “voluntaristic” or free church traditions (p. 165). Of course, the most visible mark of this voluntarism was adult baptism-baptism was linked to church membership not citizenship. In the air we breath today, flavored by democratic politics and free-market economics, the idea that when individuals come of age they should be asked to make a choice about whether to commit to their faith community does not seem at all radical. Reimer is supportive of the genuine freedoms that have emerged in modernity, including the freedom of religion. But he reminds Mennonites that if they want to claim even a small portion of the credit for the modern, voluntaristic air we breathe, they need to also be prepared to accept some portion of the blame for the shortcomings of this air. And Mennonites need look no further than their own tradition to see the shortcomings of pluralism and fragmentation evident in numerous church divisions. Furthermore, by grounding church membership in individual choice, by “presupposing a rational capacity to understand,” Reimer wonders if Mennonites are “implicitly defining what it means to be fully human too narrowly” (p. 525).

In addition to suggesting a possible connection between Anabaptist theology and the modern emphasis on individual freedom, Reimer looks back further in history in an attempt to locate the seeds of this theology. Reimer points to the rise of nominalism in the fourteenth century, as well as the writings of Erasmus and the development of Christian humanism, as a significant influence on early Anabaptist theology. Indeed, Reimer’s description of the shift from realism to nominalism suggests that this was the key force in the turn from a vertical to a horizontal worldview. Prior to the fourteenth century Christians “assumed an eternal cosmic order”-they were realists shaped by the Platonic tradition and thus considered the universal to be more real than any earthly particulars (p. 525). Aquinas began to take the empirical and observable world of the senses more seriously, but it was William of Ockham who reversed the priority completely, considering particulars more real than the ideal world of universal forms. For nominalists such as Ockham, universals were useful abstractions that did not have an independent existence. Reimer goes on to say that:

. . . even God was understood not as universal, metaphysical essence, supreme intellect in whose mind existed all ideal forms, but as absolutely free, singular and willing subject (or agent). Things or actions were good or evil because God willed them to be so, not because they corresponded to some eternal ideal form or essence. . . This shift from seeing the world as a rationally structured and ordered universe to one in which personal subjectivity and willing was at the heart of things helped to give shape to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and all of modern western thought (pp. 525-526).

The connection between the elevation of personal subjectivity and voluntarism is an obvious one to make. But it is also important to remember that this elevation occurred gradually, and so for Reimer early Anabaptist theologians such as Balthasar Hubmaier are more nominalist when compared to their medieval predecessors, but more realist when compared to their modern descendants (p. 534).[24]

To sum up, Reimer’s familiarity with Reformation and pre-Reformation history allows him to go deeper than Grant in describing not only the problems of modernity, but also the historical roots. He draws attention to the affinity between early Anabaptist theology and the modern project, and points to nominalism as one of the seeds of this theology. As a Mennonite, Reimer does not want to turn away from his voluntaristic tradition, but wants to ground it in a realist worldview that stands in sharp contrast to the radical nominalism of modernity. As discussed above, Reimer wants to synthesize the vertical and the horizontal, rather than reducing theology to the horizontal. And so once again it is apparent that Reimer’s approach to theology has been shaped by his construal of modernity.


While Reimer has found a significant philosophical conversation partner in George Grant, his theological prescription for the problems of modernity would be enhanced if he were to seek out additional opinions. The lack of nuance in Grant’s perspective means that Reimer at times appears to overstate the problems that can be blamed on modern thought-or at least he underestimates the resources that are available within modernity to address these problems. One obvious place to begin to address this shortcoming is with the work of another well-known Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, especially his Sources of the Self.[25] Taylor, now professor emeritus at McGill University and professor of law and philosophy at Northwestern University, is widely regarded as one of the most influential political philosophers of our time.

Unlike Grant, Taylor takes the time to defend some developments characteristic of modernity-the commitments to benevolence and justice, for example-that are attributed to a notion of the self that has turned inward. However, while Taylor has reason to be appreciative of the modern turn, like Grant he is also deeply concerned with the direction this turn is headed. Taylor’s main point is that moderns share a sense of amnesia and inarticulacy about moral sources-we ignore or conceal the moral heart that motivates us. This amnesia is not the result of an accident of history, but is a chronic condition that has developed due to the cumulative influence of philosophers like Descartes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant. Amnesia about moral sources is the common thread that Taylor uses to hold together such diverse aspects of modern thought as Cartesianism, Deism and Romanticism.

In order to illustrate this amnesia, Taylor points to the rejection of metaphysics by postmodern philosophy, which seeks to curb the abuse of power and uphold the ideal of unconstrained freedom. “To the extent that this kind of freedom is held up as the essence of ‘post-modernity,'” he argues, “it shows this to be a prolongation of the least impressive side of modernism.”[26] Unlike radical historicists, Taylor is not concerned with moral progress per se:

What is remarkable is that the basic moral and political standards by which we congratulate ourselves were themselves powerful in the last century. Even more strikingly, the very picture of history as moral progress, as “going beyond” our forebears, which underlies our own sense of superiority, is very much a Victorian idea.[27]

Taylor’s concern is to articulate the moral sources that are required to support our advanced moral commitments. Our amnesia means that we have been left with nothing but our modern notions of the self-our preferences, emotions and feelings-as the basis for making moral judgments. Taylor’s fear is that this is not enough, that our sources have become so thin that they will buckle under the weight of our lofty moral expectations. Since “high standards need strong sources” we may be “living beyond our moral means.”[28]

Overcoming this amnesia is, for Taylor, the crucial task for modernity. And yet he remains optimistic that the resources for this task are available to us if we look beyond the “parasitic” or oppositional philosophies currently in vogue.[29] In fact, we need to look beyond our own powers and nature, to a transcendent or theistic source; upon closer examination, Taylor argues, we can see that there is still room for this type of source in the moral space of modernity. Thus, Taylor’s advanced modern or mildly postmodern project is ultimately characterized by its spiritual nature. His is a work of “liberation” to overcome our culture’s tendency to “stifle the spirit.”[30]

There are clearly many points of connection between Taylor and Reimer’s mentor, George Grant. For example, both are concerned with the negative effects of unconstrained freedom and instrumental reason (characteristic of technology).[31] And both are concerned about the way in which modern notions of “justice” (Grant) or “hyper-goods” (Taylor) have enabled us to ride roughshod over the weak and broken in our midst, like the mentally handicapped, or fetuses with genetic defects. Although they describe it differently, both are convinced that the loss of the transcendent is leading to the downfall of modernity. The difference is that Grant sees this loss as an inevitable and permanent feature of the modern, historicist worldview, while Taylor sees this loss as something we can unlearn without losing everything else that was learned along the way.[32]

In reading Reimer’s later work alongside his earlier essays, he appears to end up closer to Taylor than to Grant. As destructive as he thinks modernity has been, Reimer believes that the Christian tradition calls for a more hopeful attitude toward the world than Grant allows. God’s redemptive work is ongoing in every historical period; moderns are not closer to God, but neither are they further from God (p. 581). The adjustment in perspective provided by Taylor’s construal of modernity could help Reimer avoid some of the hackles that Grant’s harsh rebuke raises. It may become more apparent that he is offering a constructive response to modernity, not simply rejecting modernity outright.

Furthermore, Taylor could help Reimer overcome a barrier to dialogue with theological conversation partners by talking about the need for theological frameworks or sources to support ethics, rather than foundations or metaphysics. Following Grant, Reimer is attracted to Platonic thought-to belief in a realm of eternal values and to the possibility of making universal truth claims. Thus, he has chosen his vocabulary to distinguish his position from the “anti-foundationalism (the rejection of an underlying rationality) that reigns in contemporary theology” (p. 15).[33] And yet the underlying tone of Reimer’s work, as reflected in his dynamic understanding of doctrine, is much more tentative than the likes of Thomas Oden and John Milbank, both of whom share Reimer’s turn to premodern theological sources in their effort to avoid plunging over the precipice of modernity.[34]

It is not clear how deep Taylor’s frameworks go, but practically speaking, it may not make any difference if they go all the way to the bedrock of an eternal structure, or if they reside in a tradition that, when placed next to our contemporary theological projects, appears virtually eternal. Taylor may indeed assume a realistic moral ontology-that there are certain features of being human that we have not just made up-but he also assumes that we will never be able to see that reality well enough to know how closely our descriptions match. We must be content with our best account of that ontology. In no way does this diminish the importance of frameworks for ethics; like Reimer’s foundationalism and emphasis on the role of doctrine in theology, Taylor’s emphasis on frameworks and sources is clearly motivated by ethical concerns. Indeed, Taylor thinks that these frameworks are “inescapable.”[35] What Taylor’s language does diminish is the hubris of modern theologians that Reimer himself is so sensitive to. Not only should we resist the tendency to assume that reality is only temporal-that it is one big human construction project, and thus we are further along than those who came before us[36]-but we should also resist the tendency to assume that the eternal structure of reality is within our grasp.

The work of another philosopher, Louis Dupr, could also deepen Reimer’s analysis of modernity’s roots. Now a professor emeritus in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University, Dupr has written on a wide range of topics ranging from Marxism to mysticism, topics connected by his interest in the relationship between religion and the culture of modernity. Just as Reimer attempts to overcome overly simplistic Mennonite readings of Christian history, Dupr attempts to overcome overly simplistic accounts of the history of philosophy. And just as Reimer tries to resist collapsing church history into the restitutionist pattern, Dupr tries to resist the all-too-convenient division of intellectual history into clearly defined periods with clearly identifiable links of direct causation. For example, in his widely acclaimed book Passage to Modernity,[37] Dupr provides a thick description of the transition from the premodern to the modern that both resonates with and goes well beyond Reimer’s depiction of the roots of modernity.

Dupr describes modernity as an intellectual worldview that took hold in fits and starts between the end of the fourteenth and the middle of the seventeenth centuries.[38] Over that period of time the premodern “ontotheological synthesis”-“the ontological dependence of all things on a single principle”-disintegrated.[39] Like Reimer, Dupr locates the first intellectual lunge toward modernity in the shift from a realist to a nominalist worldview.[40] This shift started to redefine the relationship between the transcendent and the cosmos, moving from an integrated whole to separation into “efficient causality” and objective nature. It started to redefine the relationship between Creator and creature, moving from the unity to the separation of nature and grace. And it started to redefine the relationship between the sign and the signified, moving from an understanding of language as bonded to the divine Logos to language as being self-referential.

Dupr does not think that the disintegration of the ontotheological synthesis was a logical necessity, nor does he think that some kind of reintegration is impossible. Indeed, his portrayal of history demonstrates the complex and even contradictory nature of developments-the currents of history are more likely to be turbulent than smooth. And so, after presenting the failed attempts of humanists and reformers to reunite nature and grace,[41] Dupr ends his book with an account of the successful, albeit temporary, synthesis found in Baroque culture:

despite tensions and inconsistencies, a comprehensive spiritual vision united Baroque culture. At the center of it stands the person, confident in the ability to give form and structure to a nascent world. But-and here lies its religious significance-that center remains vertically linked to a transcendent source from which, via a descending scale of mediating bodies, the human creator draws his power. This dual center-human and divine-distinguishes the Baroque world picture from the vertical one of the Middle Ages, in which reality descends from a single transcendent point, as well as from the unproblematically horizontal one of later modern culture, prefigured in some features of the Renaissance.[42]

The search for a comprehensive synthesis continues, and thus for Dupr, “in that sense at least, our present and future projects remain modern.”[43]

As with Taylor, one can find many points of connection between Reimer and Dupr’s construals of modernity. Both identify the birth of modernity with the emergence of nominalism in the late fourteenth century; but the most significant connection is found in their identification of modernity with the loss of some kind of premodern ontological synthesis. For Reimer, this was a synthesis of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of reality. At times Reimer seems to go beyond these binary opposites-for example, suggesting that we “need more dimensions, more tiers to our thinking, rather than fewer” (p. 334). And in another essay he suggests that “some form of dualism, or better, trinitarianism, is a more adequate foundation for Christian social-political ethics” (p. 497). But in most cases his language is confined to the two-dimensional space defined by horizontal and vertical axes-examples include:

natural world vs. transcendent world (p. 13)

historical-ethical vs. metaphysical-ontological (p. 173)

prophetic-eschatological vs. priestly-sacramental (p. 173)

prophetic-ethical vs. mystical-aesthetical (p. 190)

social-historical vs. confessional-theological (p. 213)

immanent-structural vs. transcendent-derivative (p. 532)

These axes may have a variety of names, but they define the same two-dimensional space. Reimer concedes that the premodern synthesis may have floated too far in the vertical direction, but it is clear that in modernity the vertical has completely collapsed, leaving us with horizontal monism.

For Dupr, the picture is much more complex. In the first place, he thinks that the premodern synthesis was less of a balance between two dimensions than the collapsing of several dimensions into what Reimer calls the vertical. This “ontotheological” synthesis was found in the dependence of the cosmos, the human person, and language on a transcendent source. Secondly, while Dupr agrees that modern ontological “space” has been reduced to what Reimer calls the horizontal, more than one dimension has been collapsed. Thus any synthesis needs to encompass a collection of axes, multiple spaces that were collapsed for different reasons. As illustrated in his depiction of the temporary synthesis achieved in the Baroque era, for Dupr the premodern synthesis is no longer possible, and in any case, it was no panacea. Reimer certainly does not claim that a return to a premodern theology is possible; on several occasions he indicates that we cannot recover and conserve the past “in its pristine form.” And so, while he argues that we need to recover classical categories, they must first be taken through the “crucible of the Enlightenment” before contemporary theologians can effectively appropriate them (p. 56). Reimer’s theology does indeed grapple with the content of doctrines in light of modern thought, but his ontology does not seem to demonstrate the same dynamism-it remains an idealized premodern synthesis.[44] In following Dupr’s example, Reimer would be better able to engage contemporary Mennonite theologians who view his ontological categories as being “problematically reductive.”[45]

Dupr’s reading of history can also enrich Reimer’s construal of modernity because his discussion does not remain confined to the history of ideas-he includes social history as well as intellectual history. Dupr describes modernity as more than the logical outcome of changes to an intellectual worldview; it is “an event that has transformed the relation between the cosmos, its transcendent source, and its human interpreter.”[46] Not that Reimer remains blind to social history-in fact, he acknowledges that his book alone cannot provide a systematic treatment of Christian social ethics because it does not include “a careful analysis of the historical, sociological, economic, and political factors determining modern societies” (p. 457). But his own priority is clear. For example, voluntaristic churches arose in the sixteenth century because of the combination of Anabaptist theology (anthropological optimism and a historicalist understanding of the kingdom of God) and nominalist philosophy (the elevation of personal subjectivity). Technology became prominent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because historicism led humans to believe that their freedom to shape and control nature and history was unlimited. In the latter example, it seems likely that ideas have reflected social changes as well as dictated them-the expansion of the human capability to shape nature made possible by technology may have resulted in the expansion of a historicist worldview. And even in the former example, Dupr makes it clear that the philosophical shifts of the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries need to be seen in the broader context of cultural change, and draws upon illustrations from art and politics to make this point.

This is important because Reimer’s focus on ideas runs the risk of levitating his theology above ethics. In practice, for example, in his dynamic understanding of doctrine, Reimer’s theology is firmly grounded in the life of the church. And so there may not be a substantial difference between Reimer and Mennonite approaches that eschew theory in favor of ecclesial practices as the starting point for theology. But Reimer’s method may lead to a theology that is divorced from Mennonite ethical concerns, something he seems to acknowledge at the end of his book when he discusses the work of Thomas Oden. Reimer acknowledges the similarity of Oden’s theology to his own; he is “attracted to Oden’s theology and the need to recover classical thought as a framework for ethics.” However, he objects to Oden’s ethics, which reflect a “social and political conservatism couched in a language of ‘tradition-maintenance'” and is “in danger of ending up as a religious ideology of the right” (p. 561). Not only can theology be divorced from ethics, and lose touch with the concrete ecclesial practices that provide the context for engaging human experience, but ethics can then be co-opted by historical, sociological, economic and political factors. Once again, I am not suggesting that Reimer himself has divorced his theology from ethics, but that the approach to theology he espouses is in danger of doing just that, especially if it is taken up by others who do not share the same grounding in the practices of the Mennonite Church tradition. One way for Reimer to avoid this danger would be to pay more attention to social factors in his construal of modernity.


It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss all the implications that the work of Charles Taylor and Louis Dupr might have for enriching Reimer’s approach to theology, but it does seem clear that further engagement with these two thinkers would have the potential of bringing Reimer closer to his ultimate goal of strengthening the theological basis of Mennonite ethics. Ideally, this essay would prompt other contemporary Mennonite theologians to examine their own presuppositions regarding modernity in order to fully engage Reimer’s project. It may be true that this exploration of Reimer’s longstanding interest in understanding the problems and roots of modernity ends up highlighting his own debt to modern thought. Perhaps he has allowed his agenda to be determined by the very thing he is most critical of. But before asking whether Reimer’s theology is shaped more by contemporary experience than Scripture or church tradition, we must test ourselves with the same question. How would we describe our contemporary situation? What are the problems that we are responding to? Where do the roots of these problems lie? In my view, many differences in the way theology is done can be related to how these questions are answered.

[*]Paul C. Heidebrecht is a doctoral student in theological ethics at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wis.
1. See Ted Koontz, “Mennonites and ‘Postmodernity,'” MQR 63 (Oct. 1989), 401-427.
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[2]. Essays from this conference were published in Anabaptists and Postmodernity, ed. Susan Biesecker-Mast and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press U.S., 2000).
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[3]. Cf. eight essays devoted to the theme “Mennonites and Postmodernity” in MQR 71 (Apr. 1997), and three subsequent responses in MQR 72 (Apr. 1998).
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[4]. Subtitled: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, co-published with Herald Press, 2001).
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[5]. Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 332. All subsequent page references for this source will be noted in parentheses.
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[6]. Reimer acknowledges this wave of interest: “At the time [1983] my apology for a recovery of classical trinitarian thought especially in Mennonite circles appeared to go against the grain. . . . Since then, there has been a virtual explosion of interest in trinitarian thought, including among Mennonites” (322).
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[7]. Cf. Howard John Loewen, One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985); and Karl Koop, Anabaptist-Mennonite Confessions of Faith: The Development of a Tradition (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2004).
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[8]. Reimer makes the same point in several ways: “Doctrines ought to be conceived as ‘mediating principles’ somewhat akin to the ‘middle axioms’ espoused by John Howard Yoder. . . . What we need are mediating principles . . . which help us find some overarching unity in the biblical material and enable us to move beyond the biblical text in the particulars while still remaining faithful to the biblical narrative as a whole” (228); and: “Doctrines are not literal pictures of divine realities, nor are they simply models or archetypes; they are symbols . . . in the Tillichian sense-they participate in the reality to which they point; that is, through them deeper levels of reality are opened up to us in a way that ordinary literal language is incapable of doing” (357-358).
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[9]. In this way Reimer sees his project as being in concert with the growing recognition among Christians working for social justice that if their “struggle is to have staying power, it will need to be rooted in spirituality” (271).
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[10]. Elsewhere Reimer states that “my own systematic theological reflections generally emerge out of the history of ideas” (443). In addition to his bias as a systematic theologian, I think this reflects Reimer’s engagement with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory-see his “Introduction” in The Influence of the Frankfurt School on Contemporary Theology: Critical Theory and the Future of Religion, ed. A. James Reimer (Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1992), iii-xii; as well as chapter 3, “Doctrinal Renewal and the ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment,'” in Mennonites and Classical Theology. Reimer also comments favorably on the neo-Marxist historian Ernst Bloch’s analysis of Thomas Mntzer in chapter 28 of Mennonites and Classical Theology: “Dreams, emotions, enthusiasm, and inspiration are clothed by more than pure necessity and suffering, and are never only hollow ideologies . . . economic conditions and means of production depend upon higher simultaneous mental constructs for reinforcements” (454-455).
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[11]. Cf. Gayle Gerber Koontz, “Review of Mennonites and Classical Theology by A. James Reimer,” The Conrad Grebel Review 20 (Winter 2002), 112-117; and J. Denny Weaver, “Mennonite Theological Self-Understanding: A Response to A. James Reimer,” in Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Calvin W. Redekop and Samuel J. Steiner (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988), 39-61. There has also been one creative attempt to highlight the significance of Reimer’s social location, specifically his Canadian context, for his theology-see Rachel Reesor, “A Mennonite Theological Response to a Canadian Context: A. James Reimer,” MQR 73 (July 1999), 645-654.
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[12]. Evidence of Reimer’s interest in Grant can be found in his involvement in conferences on and discussions with Grant. Cf., A. James Reimer, “George Grant: Liberal, Socialist, or Conservative'” in George Grant in Process: Essays and Conversations, ed. Larry Schmidt (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1978), 49-57. For a compilation of Grant’s key works, see The George Grant Reader, ed. William Christian and Sheila Grant (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).
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[13]. George Grant, Technology and Empire (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1969), 114. Paraphrased in Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 90.
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[14]. This thesis is most forcefully stated in Grant’s Time as History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969, rpt. 1995).
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[15]. George Grant, “Conversation,” in George Grant in Process, 63. Quoted in Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 35.
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[16]. Grant, Time as History, 23; and A. James Reimer, The Dogmatic Imagination: The Dynamics of Christian Belief (Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2003), 64.
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[17]. Reimer’s agreement with Grant on this point is reflected in his position on abortion-see Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 575-576.
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[18]. George Grant, “Technology as Ontology: The Computer Does Not Impose on Us the Ways It Should Be Used,” in The George Grant Reader, 417-434.
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[19]. Reimer gleans this insight from an essay by Laurence Lampert (“The Uses of Philosophy by George Grant,” in George Grant in Process). See also Grant’s “Confronting Heidegger’s Nietzsche,” in The George Grant Reader, 309.
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[20]. Reimer includes an apt quote from the Jewish philosopher of technology Hans Jonas: “the very same movement which puts us in possession of the powers that have now to be regulated by norms . . . has by a necessary complementarity eroded the foundations from which norms could be derived” (75).-Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 22.
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[21]. Reimer, The Dogmatic Imagination, 64.
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[22]. In the case of the early church, the radical fall is most often identified with the convergence of church and state power symbolized by Constantine. In the case of renewal efforts in present day Mennonite churches, appeals are made to the model of early Anabaptism and/or the New Testament church. The reasons given for the fall of the church in the present day are diverse, ranging from moral relativism to social injustice, but they all can be seen as symptoms of a struggle with modernity.
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[23]. Cf. Thor Hall, “Possibilities of Erasmian Influence on Denck and Hubmaier in their Views on the Freedom of the Will,” in MQR 35 (Apr. 1961), 149-170.
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[24]. Contemporary Mennonite theologians also exhibit varying degrees of nominalism, although Reimer insists that thinkers as diverse as Harold S. Bender, Robert Friedmann, John Howard Yoder and Gordon D. Kaufman all share similar basic assumptions in this regard-see chapter 8, “The Nature and Possibility of a Mennonite Theology,” in Mennonites and Classical Theology.
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[25]. Subtitled: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).
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[26]. Taylor, Sources of the Self, 489.
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[27]. Ibid., 393-394.
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[28]. Ibid., 516-517.
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[29]. Ibid., 339.
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[30]. Ibid., 520.
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[31]. For an explicit discussion of technology, see chapter 9, “An Iron Cage'” in Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), originally published as The Malaise of Modernity (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1991).
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[32]. In Taylor’s view, modernity’s problems are the result of a complex interaction of numerous factors. Having said this, in a more recent work Taylor has identified one of those factors as a change in our understanding of time, providing a further connection with Grant.-Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004), 91-99.
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[33]. Anti-foundationalism, radicalized in the anti-methodologism of John Howard Yoder, certainly dominates contemporary Mennonite theology. For a summary of this perspective, see John Howard Yoder, “Walk and Word: The Alternatives to Methodologism,” in Theology Without Foundations: Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy and Mark Nation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 77-90. The extent to which Reimer is going against the Mennonite grain in this regard can be seen in his contribution to a recent conference on Yoder-see “‘I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it’: A Positive Theology of Law and Civil Institutions,” in A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking, ed. Ben C. Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz (Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House, 2004), 245-273.
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[34]. For example, Reimer points out that Oden’s elevation of “ancient ecumenical consensus” excludes peripheral voices (556). Reimer has only recently begun to address Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy movement in his writing-see his comments on the Mennonite Scholars and Friends Forum he organized for the 2002 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting (“Radical Orthodoxy and Radical Reformation”) in “Introduction to the 2002 Forum,” The Conrad Grebel Review 23 (Spring 2005), 6-8.
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[35]. See chapter 1 (“Inescapable Frameworks”) in Taylor’s Sources of the Self.
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[36]. This is one of Reimer’s pet peeves: “Nothing outrages me more than the almost unquestioned assumption in our society and particularly in our institutions of learning that we in the twentieth century are smarter than the ancients, and that the ancients (intellectual pygmies because of their premodern and pre-scientific cosmologies) have little to teach us of eternal things, other than how we got to where we are” (113).
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[37]. Subtitled: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993).
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[38]. Ibid., 11.
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[39]. Ibid., 87.
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[40]. Ibid., 39.
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[41]. Dupr’s account would have benefited from attention to Anabaptist history-Reimer can be used to enrich Dupr in this regard.
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[42]. Dupr, Passage to Modernity, 237.
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[43]. Ibid., 251.
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[44]. Again, this reflects Reimer’s Platonic leanings.
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[45]. J. Alexander Sider, “Review of Mennonites and Classical Theology by A. James Reimer,” MQR 76 (Jan. 2002), 139.
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[46]. Dupr, Passage to Modernity, 249.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
A. James Reimer’s Approach to Theology
MQR 80 (April 2006)