Dr Tracey Rowland is one of Australia’s most respected Catholic theologians. She is a leading scholar on the theology of Pope Benedict XVI, for which she won the Ratzinger Prize for Theology in 2020, and has served on the International Theological Commission, the Vatican’s "think tank" on doctrinal issues. In her latest book, she acquaints us with six German theologians who, although relatively obscure for most of us, speak with words of profound and abiding relevance.
The book is Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (2021) and while short, provides robust monographs of six theologians: Carl Muth, Theodor Haecker, Theodor Steinbüchel, Gottlieb Söhngen, Romano Guardini, and Erich Przywara. Writing in the early half of the twentieth century, they were all associated in some way with the University of Munich.
Most of them would be unrecognisable to non-academics, perhaps with the exception of Romano Guardini. Their significance lies in the fact that they were part of a Catholic literary and cultural renaissance that was occurring across Europe before, during and after the Second World War. They were highly influential figures who shaped the development of Catholic theology in such a way that they became the intellectual background to the Second Vatican Council.
The wonderful thing about reading Tracey Rowland is that despite the intimidating title for lay readers, at no point along the journey do you feel lost in the woods of academia. The questions wrestled with are still relevant to such a degree that you find yourself and your world in these pages. And, as Tracey recently shared, despite their bleak backdrop, these six theologians offer much hope and humour for us today.
For the uninitiated, it might be good to say a word or two about the characters in the title, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. The German theologians in this book are all struggling with the influence of these two titans in the history of philosophy.
To simplify a bit, Kant, on the one hand, epitomises nicely what we mean by ‘modernity’: the search for freedom and autonomy from the traditions of the past, and to think only along the lines of ‘pure reason’, a process that shaved Christianity of any seemingly mythological or dramatic elements. The question of God was ultimately unknowable, and morality was a matter of duty divorced from love and affection. Nietzsche, on the other hand, epitomises nicely what we mean by ‘postmodernity’: the search to create one’s values, admitting to an inherently nihilistic worldview, and the consideration of Christianity as inherently anti-humanistic – hostile to life, culture, and the development of the personality.
Writing in a Christian culture that had been decimated by a long history culminating in the Second World War, what these thinkers did, and did uniquely, was plumb the depths of the Christian tradition in order to bring out the truth, goodness and beauty of Catholicism; to recall the very meaning of what it is to be human in a dehumanising age. Dehumanising not only because of the totalitarian societies under which they lived but because of their era of mass commercialised culture, of ruthless capitalism, and of the reigning bourgeois ethos.
What they sought to do was reconsider what it was to be human in light of the Incarnation: to reject the notion that Christianity was inherently anti-humanistic and also the ideas of Kant and Nietzsche about what it meant to be human. They wanted to restore the fundamentally Catholic intuition that humanity only finds its meaning and purpose in light of the God who became man and showed us the way; a theme that would be picked up and expressed with some conviction by the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et Spes:
‘The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light’ (§22).
It is this theological anthropology that is the antidote to the truly anti-humanistic implications of modernity and postmodernity.
Another problem these thinkers were responding to was this loss of Christian culture in Europe. Christianity, in their opinion, had become ‘bourgeois’. The term ‘bourgeois’ usually refers to the ‘management class’ of society. Christianity, they thought, had become run by a class of managers and bureaucrats, averse to mysticism and chivalry and culture. Christianity was marketed along the demands of modernity to detrimental results: the loss of its own self and its own integrity.
The sense that there was a spiritual drama to creation was lost and replaced with the sense that any problems in the Church can be fixed by better policies and more meetings. The sacraments were a matter of duty or simply milestones in one’s life and not, as Joseph Ratzinger has called them, ‘existentially decisive.’ The sacraments were also no longer a remedy for sin, which was viewed largely as an issue of mental health. Bourgeois Christianity, in its attempt to be inclusive and accommodating, reacted nastily to the idea that good culture is inherently aristocratic. That is, it pursues intellectual, moral, spiritual and artistic excellence and loathes mediocrity and banality.
For the bourgeois class, morality was the beginning and end of Christianity. Gone was the drama of the Incarnation and salvation; gone was the imaginative medieval picture of the knightly man, an image that spoke to the Christian ethos of heroism and sacrifice, of courage in the face of evil.
As Rowland puts it in the conclusion:
‘An image of St George killing a dragon makes no sense to the bourgeois Christian for whom there are no dragons.’
It is this last point in particular that truly shines as a theme Rowland is convicted about. It was a theme that made her last book, Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (2019), such an inspiring and beautiful read. Chivalry has always been an important part of Christian culture, she wrote, because it was fundamentally about the strongest among us putting their gifts, talents and strengths at the service of the weakest among us. It was a recognition of the dramatic nature of Christianity, of the cosmic battle we are in, and of the reality of sin, evil, and the need to lay down our lives in service to a higher Good.
Modern Christianity has in many ways become dull, ugly, and moralistic. To some, there is nothing captivating about it, nothing inspiring or ennobling or beautiful. The thinkers Rowland outlines in this book reveal the face of an older, more beautiful Catholicism, one whose priority was not pandering to the lowest common denominator but inviting us into a drama that captured our whole being. It did not abandon its message in order to remain relevant but knew that its message was the only thing of enduring relevance to the mystery of the human heart.
Melbourne Catholic26 October 2021
Melbourne Catholic10 November 2020