Archive for June, 2011

Jungel – God as the Mystery of the World (Part II)

06/28/2011

Eberhard Jüngel’s God as the Mystery of the World is a remarkable book, ranging impressively from constructive appropriations of the theologies of Hegel and Bonhoeffer, particularly their understanding of the incarnation, to theological evaluations of atheism in Nietzsche, Fichte, and Feuerbach, and to masterly and original theological insights on the analogous talk of God (which he carries out adroitly in conversation with Barth), all while trying to avoid a simplistic dichotomy between theism and atheism. Perhaps the only real weakness in the book is that it’s missing a discussion with, or even mention of, Altizer, given that so much of its contents centre around discussing the meaning of the death of God. Jungel also represents one the finest example of constructively building of Bonhoeffer’s theology in the Barthian tradition, which seems to some degree to have ignored some of Bonhoeffer’s more radical insights (although I realize there are somewhat different schools of thought regarding how one should interpret Bonhoeffer’s corpus, particularly his famous Letters).

Although this is becoming something of a platitude in prefaces to my posts, I would like to note that this book is peculiarly difficult to summarize, although, to be fair, this is probably due as much to my poor skills of summarization as it does with Jüngel’s distaste for succinctness. As an example of Jüngel’s work, I want to isolate a small section where he discusses Nietzsche and Paul together on his chapter of the unity of perishability and God.

Jüngel speaks of this antithesis between the metaphysical conception of God, which cannot think God as anything other than totally apathetic and immutable and cannot, consequently, think of God as crucified. Paul’s understanding of God, Nietzsche astutely realized, was not a continuation or a mere revision of the God concept understood thusly. It was its complete negation, deus, qualem Paulis, creavit, dei negation (205).  The “God” who Paul creates as the crucified one, the God who is the sole source of discussion in the apostolic literature, is a God who confounds the wisdom of the world. As Jungel writes, “For Paul, the Crucified One is weak, subject to death” (206).  This thinking of God as weak – of linking perishability with God – was not a source of sorrow for Paul. On the contrary, this is the centre of the gospel, the source of joy and rejoicing. Jungel notes that, for Paul, there is one phenomenon that does not see a contradiction between power and weakness: love. (One could, consequently, read God as the Mystery of the World as a commentary on the statement “Deus caritas est” from John’s Epistle). “It is the unity of power and weakness, and such is certainly the most radical opposite of the will to power which cannot affirm weakness. Pauline ‘theology of the cross’ (theologia crucis) is, accordingly, the most stringent rejection of all deification of self-willing power” (206). For Nietzsche, even if this God was true he could not believe in him (ibid).

This robust logic understanding of the incarnation, the logic of which Jüngel outlines with the help of Nietzsche, Paul et al, is for me the most impressive part of Jüngel’s work. Jüngel has no fear of exploring the consequences of the death of God. Few are the theologians who truly pursue the logic of the incarnation to its end.

Jungel – God as the Mystery of the World (Part I)

06/19/2011

I’m going to offer some reflections on Jungel’s brilliant God as the Mystery of the World Sections 1-10.

1) The nonnecessity of God – Jungel’s work is an attempt to respond to questions Bonhoeffer raises in Letters and Papers. God is no longer a necessary working hypothesis. Furthermore, Jungel claims that arguments that attempt to prove God are the “midwife of modern atheism” (19). A God of necessity is always construed to be Lord and believed to be a God defined by power. This necessary omnipotent God always has to make room for His love, which is secondary to power. To move beyond this necessary God, Jungel wants to argue for a God who “is more than necessary” (25). God’s desire to come “to himself with out man” (38) is more than necessary. Following Barth, Jungel argues that God comes from God and we only know God through God’s self-revelation. From this perspective of revelation, God is groundless, unconditioned, and more the necessary. Finally, as a good Lutheran, Jungel declares that we “can speak of no other God than the ‘incarnate God’ and the ‘human God’” (37). This christological perspective has not informed God-talk in modernity because theology has been under “the dictatorship of metaphysics” (39).

2) Methodology –  Jungel charges Pannenberg for  beginning his theology with “the “claim to intellectual veracity” is better dealt with by assuming from the anthropological relevance of talk about God is first demonstrated ‘apart from God’” (17). For Jungel, this concedes too much and sets the ground for atheism. This probably explains why Pannenberg opens up his systematics by beginning a study of the history of religion and makes history such an important aspect of his theory of revelation.

3) Death of God – Jungel self-consciously takes a non-apologetic approach when discussing the death of God. He is not trying to rescue theology from such challenges, rather he states “[t]heology is either interesting on its own, or not at all” (45). Historically, Jungel recognizes that the question “Where is God?” is implicitly a question of theodicy. In my opinion, this is precisely what radical theology tried to address when Altizer et al. raised the question about the death of God. Is it still possible to speak about the goodness of God after shoah?

4) Bonhoeffer – Jungel gives credit to Bonhoeffer who opened up the path to begin engaging the question of the death of God, perhaps best exemplified by his provocative statement to live in the world “even if there were no God” (59). What is key for Jungel is that Bonhoeffer grounds this discussion christologically. The God on the cross of Christ is revealed to be a weak and suffering God. God does allow Godself to be pushed out of the world on the cross.

5) Hegel – The first philosopher to integrate the death of God into his metaphysical system was the Lutheran Hegel. Although Hegel discusses a speculative good Friday, this is never detached from its christological basis. For Hegel, the idea that “God himself is dead” is based on the understanding that God finitized Godself, as the self-negation of God. This God “does not desire to be “in and for himself” and does not desire to forsake the world in its finitude” (74). Against the docetic tendencies of the church fathers, Hegel boldly claims that “it was not the man who dies, but the divine; that is how he became man” (77). In Hegel’s theology, the incarnation is “immediately related to the death of Jesus Christ” (77). Ultimately, Jungel wants us to recognize that Hegel’s understanding of the death of God is christologically driven and is strongly related to the atheism of modernity.

In the next sections Jungel engages the question of atheism and God in modernity by evaluating the philosophy and theology of Descartes, Fichte, Kant Feuerbach, and Nietzsche. However, I don’t have time to analyze Jungel’s discussion of these great philosophers.

Bonhoeffer – Ethics (Part II)

06/16/2011

Let’s face it: Bonhoeffer’s Ethics is quite foreign for the first-time reader, especially for one who studied philosophy and ethics as an undergraduate.  As Adam noted last week, the first sentence of the book overturns the traditional ethical paradigm by disregarding the concern with the possible prior to the actual.  By the time the reader turns to the second page, Bonhoeffer has already asserted that one can only ask the ethical question by coming to terms with the actual; this would be the ultimate reality located in God Himself as the world’s Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer.

The latter half of Bonhoeffer’s magnum opus contains a plethora of life-altering statements and insights into the reality of God and how this defines humanity.  As such, I am unable to offer any type of satisfactory account of this work in one short blog post.  I decided, therefore, to probe a bit deeper into this work beyond offering a description of Ethics.

One might be tempted to read Bonhoeffer’s radical ethical reorientation and assume that these thoughts were simply occasional.  I am not trying to argue that Bonhoeffer’s writings in Ethics can be taken out of his historical context.  But I also want to suggest that his ethics are not detached from his broader theological commitments.  In short, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics stems directly from his christology and soteriology.  It is only because of Bonhoeffer’s views concerning Jesus Christ and salvation that he can proceed to offer his particular ethical framework.

Let me explain.  As I made my way through Ethics, I found this one particular line to be rather intriguing.  After dismissing the possibility of humanity possessing the ability to discern absolute good or absolute evil, Bonhoeffer boldly declares that such inability “throws the freedom of those who act responsibly into the sharpest relief: it is freedom from servitude even to an ‘absolute good'” (222).  In short, it is the freedom of the Christian that makes such absolutes unnecessary.  This very freedom from absolute standards of good and evil is dependent upon Bonhoeffer’s belief that “human beings cannot justify themselves by doing good since it is God alone who does the good.  The power of the divine guidance of history leaves human beings dependent upon God’s grace” (227).  Since humanity can do nothing to save itself, all are redeemed by the unmitigated grace of God.  The notion that one must (and can) possess absolute certainty that they are carrying out an absolute good action against an absolute evil negates any commitment to sola gratia.  Therefore, the Christian reality of freedom thrusts one upon a level of ambiguity when discerning the ethical task, for only in God’s action is there certainty of good.

At this point, it is necessary to discuss Bonhoeffer’s christology.  Bonhoeffer’s entire posture toward the theological task is one of complete humility, dependence, and ultimately freedom.  He writes over and over again that there is nothing inherent in humanity that is valuable, worthy, or good.  God did not choose to love humanity in Christ because humanity possessed intrinsic worth.  Rather, humanity is valuable because God took the “No” of judgment upon Himself in Jesus Christ.  By doing so, God reconciled us to the world.  As a side note: I found it fascinating that Bonhoeffer puts the love of God before His judgment.  If the undeserved “Yes” did not precede the justified “No”, there would be no incarnation and no reconciliation through the Son.  In this way, Bonhoeffer presents the best that the Reformers had to offer.   To repeat what I’ve said thus far: the belief that humanity is justified solely by God’s grace offers genuine freedom for the Christian from the bondage of ethical absolutes.  But such freedom brings ambiguity.  So how is the Christian to proceed?  Well, the only way to discern the ethical is through the concrete historical standard found within the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In this way, Jesus Christ not only makes the doctrine of sola gratia possible, but He also provides the very possibility for discerning good and evil within the world.  One must start with the actual reality found within Jesus Christ in order to find any hope for ethical decisions in life.  But there is one small caveat: such christocentrism still doesn’t provide certainty.  Humility always remains for Bonhoeffer since the Christian makes all ethical decisions through a risk of faith.  This is the only way that one can ensure their dependence upon the grace of God.

Cone Interview

06/09/2011

Check it out.

Bonhoeffer – Ethics (Part I)

06/06/2011

In my post on the first half of Bonheoffer’s Ethics, I’m going to concentrate my focus on his first chapter, titled appropriately “Christ, Reality and Good.” [I should also mention that we are using the newest English language edition of Bonhoeffer’s works, Ethics being volume six].

Bonheoffer begins startlingly with this abrupt statement:

Those who even wish to focus on the problem of a Christian ethics are faced with an outrageous demand – from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem:  ‘How can I be good ?’ and ‘How can I do something good.’ Instead they must ask themselves the wholly other, completely different question: ‘what is the will of God?’ (47).

In this, the first sentence of his Ethics, Bonheoffer’s intimates his intention that he seeks to overturn to entire project of conventional philosophical ethics. For Bonheoffer, theological ethicists are not to attempt to adjudicate what is good and bad in abstracto or even in relation to the world, through its values and conventions; they are to find out what the will of God is, a wholly different and more radical question, because “it presupposes a decision about ultimate reality, that is, a decision of faith” (Ibid).

While the oft-used ‘Christocentricism’ risks becoming passé from continual misuse, Bonheoffer can hardly be described as anything else. His is a powerful discussion of Christian ethics, one that I’ am in overwhelming sympathy with (this book, it should be mentioned,  is read profitable with his Discipleship). Bonheoffer ethics are really an expansion of Luther’s theologia crucis. For Bonheoffer, a Christian ethics is not something that can be thought generally or abstractly, apart from God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Bonheoffer offers  an ethica crucis, if you like. One cannot simply adjudicate difficult ethical questions through general philosophical principles which one may presuppose and ratiocinate. Being good, moreover, is not some correspondingly abstractive orientation that one only simply ‘is’ or ‘is not.’  Instead, good is only known through knowledge of Christ. “Faith in this Jesus Christ,” Bonheoffer says, “is the source of all good” (75).

Of all the theologians I have read, only Bonheoffer truly grasps the fullest expression of the disjunction between being in the world and being in God. Bonheoffer fully affirms the world in all its profane vicissitudes. The only way to be truly for Christ is to be truly in the world. There is no escaping or avoidance. The church is not a community that separates itself from the world, offering a crass “Platonism for the people” (Nietzsche) that despises the world, longing only for an ethereal or otherworldly heaven. It is a body that recognizes the unity of the world and God affected by Christ. “It is a denial of God revelation wish to be ‘Christian’ without being ‘Worldly,’ or to wish to be worldly without seeing and recognizing the world in Christ (58).” The monk and the cultural bourgeois Protestant are thus two sides of this same coin: the former ignoring the world, and the later ignoring Christ. As Bonheoffer argues, there are not two realities battling over each other for supremacy. The reconciliation between the two has been affected by Christ. The only way to be truly in Christ is to be fully in the world. Reality is made one in Christ.