Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 6

This is the sixth of an eight-part (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight) miniseries on the concluding chapter of Helmut Gollwitzer’s The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion (Scribner, 1970).

For Gollwitzer, the Marxist criticism of religion sets six tasks for theology. The fifth of these tasks concerns a renewed consideration of what it means for theology to be a science. Gollwitzer recognizes that the tradition has long considered theology to be a science, and he affirms that status. Or, he at least defends its claim to be scientific even if it not strictly speaking an independent science:
Theology indeed participates in the other sciences, has a nexus with them, uses them, welcomes them in its own sphere, inasmuch as here also, for example, philosophy and history in the strict sense are studied. It is certainly not really ‘a’ science, but (in this resembling medicine), a sphere in which different sciences are united by their service of a determinate purpose, the critical self-examination of the Church in relation to the correspondence between its actual achievement and its task (157-8).
Gollwitzer goes on to list three points to bear in mind concerning the responsibility that theology must faced because of its scientific character.

  1. Theology must be sure not to mislead other sciences by taking up a posture that opposes free investigation, or that seeks to enforce a law other than that inherent within the subject matter itself.
  2. Theology must be sure to develop methods that fit with investigation of its subject matter, to do so critically, working to clarify its concepts.
  3. Theology must be true to its peculiarity, and thereby embody an uncomfortable question for the other sciences as to their limits.

Christianity’s peculiarity, and thus theology’s, “consists in the fact that it is related to a history, the history of revelation, about which it must make statements which go beyond the appearances which are accessible to the historian” (158). By doing so, it raises a serious question to the Marxist criticism of religion, making clear that every field of study has a special methodological perspective suited to its object and that, consequently, each perspective is limited. In this theology resists the temptation of the humane sciences to borrow the concept of “science” found in the natural sciences, and encourages the humanities to recognize their limited and provisional status.

The danger on which theology shines a spotlight here is scientism, “the superstition which makes a world-view out of modern science, and uses it as a quarry for the building of world pictures allegedly demanded and authorized by science” (159). For Gollwitzer, this impulse is a product of humanity’s inherently religious impulse deprived, by the Marxist and other criticisms, of the religious outlets previously open to it. Here is a good chunk of Gollwitzer by way of a conclusion (bold is me, as usual):
Every assumption, every hypothesis can in science grow into a prejudice. Rightly understood, theology opens the way unconditionally to every investigation of fact. Faith in the creator is actually an affirmation of things as they are, and is opposed to all well-meaning misrepresentation or taboo. Where science is understood as in conflict with faith (in the biblical sense of the word), and as a substitute for religion, the place is necessarily assigned to it [that] religion previously occupied. It is then required to give what it cannot give. It is then neither free nor subject to criticism, it becomes itself a taboo. Science must prove its freedom also in this, that it recognizes itself as a specific and therefore limited mode of knowledge, to which other aspects of reality are closed…The scientific attitude is not incompatible with Christian faith, but with the superstitious faith in science, and with the subjection of science to the demands of a need to believe, which finds an ideological satisfaction in it” (159-60).



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