Monday, October 31, 2016

Eberhard Jüngel on Moderntiy, Theism, and Atheism – As told by Archie Spencer

Part of what Archie Spencer is up to in his recent book—The Analogy of Faith: The Quest for God’s Speakability—is to argue that Barth, as followed up by Jüngel, provides an account of the analogy of faith that solves a number of knotty theological problems. Along the way to this more constructive contribution he takes some time to explicate pertinent aspects of Jüngel’s thought. One of the bits of this explication that caught my interest, and that I suspected would likewise interest you, gentle readers, is his discussion of the logic of theism and atheism under the conditions of modernity. He also ties this into the medieval period. Here’s the set-up (as usual, italics, bold, etc.):

If the Middle Ages was an exercise in the unknowability of God, modernity follows it with an affirmation of his unthinkability, and atheism/agnosticism, or the unknowability of God, becomes the only alternative. (251–42)

Got your attention? Good. Hang on…

The shocking thing about this state of affairs is that it is precisely a development internal to the Western Christian tradition. Modern atheism as it comes to expression in the hermeneutics of suspicion, and as it is embedded in the modern philosophical notion of the necessity of God, is the result of a prior condition within theism and is therefore the cause of atheism. The emphasis on the simplicity, perfection and transcendence of God, in terms of radical otherness as the God who is “fundamentally and exclusively over us,” lent itself to a form of radical doubt that ultimately led to God’s displacement and banishment. The God of medieval metaphysics was not amenable to a God who may share in the suffering, death and perishability that was the predominant expression of the modern human condition. Furthermore, speaking ontologically, the perfect God of metaphysical signification was established more on a philosophical than a biblical basis. He was a product of the classical tendency to identify existence and essence as the real but at the same expressible only as the “distinction between essence and existence” due to epistemological lack within the realm of finite human knowing . . . . When modern philosophy, following Descartes, posted God as a being necessary to our own thought and existence, it no longer saw him as a unity but precisely as a rational distinction between essence and existence. Such a rational conception of God had the effect of introducing a split between God, as he is in himself, and our rational perception of God. The net result is to establish a God beyond God, making the intellectual apprehension of God itself a threat to the God beyond the rationally perceptible God. (252)

So, by distinguishing between God as God can be known and God as God is in Godself—that is, by introducing some kind of an, shall we say, apophatic extra?—it became difficult to understand how God (at least the God-est part of God, the God behind God) is thinkable. But this reservation is necessary on the basis of philosophical / metaphysical orientation that tries to think the infinite on the basis of the finite—at some point you have to throw up your hands and start gesturing mutely. So Spencer continues:

In this way the attempt to establish God as a product of our capacity to think him leads to impossibility of thinking God as God, as per classical theism. Modernity thus becomes the nursery that brings forth atheism from theism. Or as Jüngel puts it, “Proof of the necessity of God is the midwife of modern atheism.” In this sense atheism is the flip side of theism. (253)

So, what’s the solution?!?! You’ll have to read the book for that. But Spencer gives us a few lines, again channeling Jüngel, that point in what he thinks is the right direction:

The gospel points us to the God who dies in our place rather than an absolute and perfect being of metaphysical signification.



God is only above us insofar as he is with us, and he is with us only insofar as he is above us.



God is speakable because he is thinkable, but he is only thinkable because he has spoken in his Word. (254–55)

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2 comments:

George Plasterer said...

If I understand the direction of thought here, Barth's emphasis on knowledge of God in revelation makes God knowable and thinkable.

Unknown said...

So is he just repeating Jüngel's point in "God as the Mystery of the World?"