Religion within the Limits of History Alone: Pragmatic Historicism and the Future of Theology by Demian Wheeler

[1] The day I started writing this essay a review of a new musical appeared in the New York Times under the headline, “History Always Gets To Sing the Last Note.”  According to Demian Wheeler in Religion within the Limits of History Alone, history gets to sing the first note as well.  It is history all the way down, he argues, in concert with the multiple thinkers he cites in this compendium of ideas about history as the water in which all of nature and culture and we as human persons swim.  “Historicism,” as Wheeler defines it, “is the notion that, like anything else, human beings and all their concepts, theories, communications, texts, and so on, are historical—that is, conditioned by contingent circumstances and tied to particular contexts” (7).

[2]  But in this text, historicism is not singing a solo.  Wheeler partners it with pragmatism, an American philosophical and intellectual tradition that, as Charlene Seigfried, a feminist pragmatist philosopher, puts it, “came out of the powerful idea that philosophy is more than abstract thinking.  It is something you became and did.”  Wheeler’s objective in bringing together historicist ideas with American pragmatism is to create a “bigger, pluralist, naturalistic” historicism that can respond to some of the most pressing religious/theological/philosophical questions of our day:  how to understand the potential of a radically contingent historicist worldview for theology without reducing its claims to an enervating, isolating relativity; how to think about the multiplicity of religions in the world and their relationship to each other; how to make a distinction between “truth” and “certainty;” how to shape a metaphysic within a naturalist framework; and how to lay out a “pragmatic historicist theology of the divine.”  For Wheeler, pragmatic historicism has the potential to offer theology a set of dynamic ideas and perspectives that will insure its future against irrelevance, indifference, and skepticism on one hand and a legalistic, nondynamic, ahistorical conservatism on the other.

[3] Wheeler’s conversation partners are multiple.  He draws from the works of four sets of interlocutors, some of them former professors:  later nineteenth-century German scholars, Ernst Troeltsch in particular;  American pragmatist philosophers, among the most prominent Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey; early Chicago School pragmatist theologians and philosophers (the list of names in this category is long);  and contemporary historicist philosophers and theologians of the last two generations of scholars, among them Gordon Kaufman, Sheila Davaney, Delwin Brown, William Dean, and Nancy Frankenberry.

[4] This is a work of both descriptive and prescriptive (constructive) theology.  It is about ideas:  dense, challenging, evocative, and provocative.  These ideas are both radical, at least to some, and at times surprisingly conserving, for example when Wheeler pushes pragmatic historicism in a more constructive direction, particularly in Chapter 8, “Sacred Conventions, Sacred Nature:  Toward a Pragmatic Historicist Theology of the Divine.”

[5]  The book’s intricacies will appeal primarily, I think, to academic theologians of several disciplines, philosophers, and historians of religion.  I’d argue at the same time that the author’s broader themes, among them experimental theologies of religion and the divine and non-competitive ways to understand the world’s many religious traditions, will be compelling to anyone interested in how some theologians are addressing ever-evolving conversations about authenticity, credibility, religious pluralism, and “truth” in contemporary religious thought and life.  Wheeler is skilled at clarifying and re-clarifying what he’s up to, but I found it helpful to re-read Chapter 1, “What Is Historicism: A Multileveled Definition,” several times along the way.  And I confess to jumping ahead to read and read again the nine themes of the book on the first page of the Conclusion in order to reground myself in Wheeler’s big picture amidst the theses of the major chapters.  I’d also suggest that reading this book with a study group would be a rewarding experience.

[6] The book has eight chapters of varying lengths and the aforementioned conclusion.  After some hand-wringing, I decided not to summarize the chapters in turn but rather to delineate some of the assumptions within which Wheeler is working and to focus on several of his ideas about a pragmatic historicist theology of the ultimate in Chapter 8.  Suffice it to say that between Chapter 1 and Chapter 8  there is an ever-cascading flow of ideas and issues that are by no means negligible: inter-religious dialogue and “truth reconsidered” (Chapter 7) among them.

[7] Chapter 8 offers compelling examples of what post-atheist God-talk might look like.  Wheeler has intriguing things to say about “ironic atheism” (for this concept he gives much credit to William Dean who draws from William James) and the strangely emancipatory power the “new atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.) have had on contemporary theologians:  “The irony of atheism is that new theological resources reside on the other side of atheistic desolation and disbelief.”  For Wheeler these resources lie within pragmatic historicism.  What he says about the spirit of this work reminds me of one of Paul Ricouer’s famous statements about “second naivete”:  “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”  It brings to mind, as well, feminist theologians who continue to ask whether after all the critiques of religions about their exclusion and oppression of women have been articulated, there is anything positive left to be said about religion, theology, and organized religion.  A great deal, as it turns out, given the ongoing stream of creative women’s theologies that we’ve seen since the 1960s.  I don’t think it’s putting words in Wheeler’s mouth to suggest that he has felt called to write about theology in some new ways:  both to dismantle and to reconstruct.

[8]  Wheeler describes himself as constructing his theology of the ultimate within a historicist, non-foundationalist, naturalist, realist, religiously pluralist, contingent, fallibilist worldview.  If that does not sound like very fertile ground in which to cultivate a metaphysics and a theology of the ultimate, he assures readers that pragmatic historicism should not dispense with metaphysics.  Rather, it has the capacity to “cultivate chastened metaphysicians not antimetaphysicians.”  He argues, “a fellow traveler on classical pragmatism’s highroad around modernism [rather] than an errant nomad lost in the postmodern wilderness, pragmatic historicism refuses to throw the metaphysical baby out with the foundationalist bathwater,” (249).   Bluntly and, perhaps, too simplistically said, in Wheeler’s metaphysics and theology of the ultimate, supernatural doctrines don’t count as empirical fact.

[9] So what does count?  Nature and history, according to Wheeler, and—irony again—our own religious histories and traditions:  “The awareness of the all-surpassing, incomprehensible mysteriousness of the ultimate, of nature in its spiritually breathtaking, ambiguous, and relativizing wholeness, compels us to return to the cataphatic and symbolic landscapes of our religious histories (including our historically constructed deities), which alone can house our highest hopes and ideals and sustain our institutional, ethical, and cultural endeavors” (278).

[10] If this sounds complicated, let me assure you, it is—intellectually and theologically—in part because of the multitude of conversations and conversation partners that pervade the pages of this book and the conflicting and converging lines of thought.  There is also the depth, breadth, and difficulty of ideas and variations of ideas considered.  Nonetheless there is a graspable and moving piety—piety in the sense of an orientation toward the ultimate—in Wheeler’s pragmatic historicist worldview.  In the quote that follows (one of my favorites in the book) Wheeler is riffing on William Dean’s contention that beyond atheism lies “a path to new, deeper theological riches, to a sense of mystery.”  Wheeler takes off from Dean’s claim:  “I will go a step further and suggest that it can even pave the way for the development of a thoroughly naturalistic, but spiritually vigorous, theologically realist, and mystically inflected metaphysics of ultimate reality—a pragmatic historicist theology of the divine.  The sublime, awesome, terrifying, ambiguous, transcendent, and mysterious depths of nature, I submit, are opened up to us by historicism and its reductive, atheistic conventionalizing.  The way beyond humanistic religion is, ironically, through it” (295).  Wheeler is not dispensing with “religion” as we know it.  He is pondering its possibilities within a naturalist framework.

[11] By way of concluding, I want to offer some thoughts about this book within several broader frameworks.  First, I see it as offering further refutation of the secularization theory that dominated religious studies and some theologies during the last half of the 20th century.  The assumption that religion and theology are fading away as credible human enterprises is no longer a thesis that holds much credibility, and Religion within the Limits of History Alone offers intimations of why this is the case. It offers evidence of the extent to which religion and theology are vast arenas of human creativity that are not going to disappear.  The depths of the theological imagination are bottomless.

[12] Second, this book affirms Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s contention that models of God/ultimate reality “function” for good and for ill in the world.  This is not a text that takes on specific issues of social justice as such, but the implications of the worldview Wheeler is constructing for addressing matters of racial, economic, gender, and ecological injustices are very close to the surface and readily accessible.

[13] Third, and related to the above, Wheeler’s book offers a forceful example of what Gordon Kaufman (a primary intellectual mentor for Wheeler) is talking about when he insists that an adequate model of God must be relativizing, that is, attesting to the reality that all theological claims are susceptible to reform.  And it must be “humanizing,” that is, moving us to ever-greater embodying of the Gospel values of love and justice.

[14] Fourth, this book offers an excellent example of the “transcendence downward” trajectory of theological creativity in evidence, or, better said, “acknowledged,” since the nineteenth century.  Can our religious symbols, rituals, credos, and ethical systems survive the journey to earth?  Can they continue to demonstrate power and depth and resilience in a naturalist dwelling place?  Wheeler, as you’ve already discerned, answers in the affirmative.

[15] Fifth, this book prompts this question–for me, anyway:  Might we be moving in some ways (or have we already moved to some extent) toward a pragmatic historicist Catholicism (my own tradition) or Lutheranism, a naturalist Catholicism or Lutheranism, for example, that retains the profundity, the theological claims, and the “dearness” of what has gone before and what will unfold in the future?

[16] I close this review with a quote that I think is apt.  It’s from a review of Mary Szybist’s book of poetry, Incarnadine (Graywolf Press) about the Annunciation and other spirit/matters, including her own self-identity. Incarnadine, to the astonishment of the poetry community given its subject matter, won the 2013 National Book Award for poetry.  A sentence from the award judges’ citation sums up well the spirit of Demian Wheeler’s Religion within the Limits of History Alone:  “This is a religious book for nonbelievers, or a book of necessary doubts for the faithful.”  I would say that it’s both.






Mary Farrell Bednarowski

Mary Farrell Bednarowski is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at United Seminary of the Twin Cities.