The Twentieth Century
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Baum, Gregory, ed., The Twentieth Century: A Theological Overview. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis; Ottawa: Novalis; London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1999. Pp. vii + 264. Paper. ISBN (Novalis) 2-89507-01506. CA $29.95.

    Born in Germany, Gregory Baum is a senior Canadian Roman Catholic theologian. He has been editor of The Ecumenist since 1962 and is presently Professor Emeritus on the Religious Studies faculty of McGill University in Montreal.

    In this substantial book of essays, Dr. Baum has gathered together a company of eighteen internationally renowned scholars to offer their readers a theological assessment of the century past. Baum has always been cognisant of the political setting and significance of theological work, and is the ideal person to bring forward such a project. He is sensitive to the contextual nature, not only of some, but of all our theologies.

    The book falls naturally into two parts. Part One examines the impact of major events such as the Great War, the Russian Revolution, and the Great Depression on the interpretation of the Christian message. We hear from James Reimer on German theology under Hitler, from Douglas John Hall on the impact of the Great War, and from Rosemary Radford Ruether on the Holocaust. Other authors include Gary Dorrien, Victor Consemius, and Bernard Dupssuis.

    Part Two offers theological reflections from a contemporary perspective upon leading cultural and religions developments of the twentieth century. Here we find reflections on the process of secularisation by Harvey Cox; on the rise of the ecumenical movement, by Duchrow; on the dialogue with feminism, by Susan Ross; and reflections on ecological concerns. by Stephen Sharper. The volume is an ecumenical undertaking. Some articles are written from a Catholic perspective, others from a Protestant, and still others from a Christian vantage point that does not reveal its confessional background.

    Despite its breadth, the book does not claim to be comprehensive. Unnoticed is the extraordinary and unexpected rise of Pentecostalism and with it the huge evangelical surge complete with an army of movers and shakers, even in the theological arena. Nothing much is said about the regime change in South Africa, the role of the churches in the fall of communism, or Latin American theologies of liberation. We find nothing on Pannenberg or Moltmann, on Sölle or Metz. No one writes about theology and science or the positive significance of affluence. But theology is such a rich and diversified field that no such volume as this can pretend to be complete.

    Nevertheless, the collection documents in a persuasive manner that theologians have in fact reacted creatively to the challenges of the twentieth century. They have produced insights and have developed perspectives that will (we may be sure) continue to enlighten the churches in the coming years. Despite certain episodes of betrayal, the story of twentieth theology is one of fidelity and of anguish – fidelity to God’s revealed word under changing historical conditions and anguish over the unanswered questions and the weakness of our Christian witness in a sinful world.

    A helpful feature of the book is Baum’s own reflections at the end and near (I suppose) the end of his own life. This is a man who has always kept attuned to the development of ideas and the contextual nature of our work. Thus his musings on the witness of this very volume only adds to its conviction and force as he supplies missing connections and profound interpretations to it. One can only appreciate his honesty too about what he himself has learned and how he has learned it. Of great interest to me are Baum’s own latter day thoughts about the value of Marxism for theology. Before the fall of Communism, Baum saw promise in the political left. Now we hear a more chastened witness, but one which still interacts fruitfully with what Marx did contribute, not so much in the field of economics (where he got almost everything wrong), but in the area of a hermeneutics of suspicion and moral outrage.

Clark H. Pinnock is Professor Emeritus (retired) of Theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.