Saturday, July 4, 2015

Chapter 2

In Chapter 2, Pannenberg will explore the concept of God and the question of its truth. The chapter is actually an exploration into the philosophy of religion. To offer yet another contrast with Karl Barth, here is a chapter that Barth would say no theologian should write. Barth begins quickly in his prolegomena to proclaim the Word of God and revelation. In contrast, Pannenberg thinks that to gain a hearing for the Christian message, one needs persuade others that the discussion of God is still credible, valuable and meaningful. I will divide this chapter into two considerations, one being whether the word “God” is still meaningful in a secular culture, and the other is the yes Pannenberg gives to the notion of a natural knowledge of God and the no he gives to natural theology.

           The challenge of secularity is always before him. In this case, he thinks that the mention of God or the divine sounds like a holdover from a childish and superstitious time to one immersed in secular ways of thinking. The challenge he wants to offer to secularity at this point is that “God” or the “divine” has been part of human history from the beginning.

          First, he is unafraid to ponder the question of what humanity would lose if it lost its talk about the divine. We might lose reflection on our “ultimate concern,” the “totality of our commitments,” or the totality of meaning. In fact, the challenge that religions offer to secular culture is their quest for what is good and what is meaningful. His challenge to religious communities is that they have abandoned metaphysics at great risk to their basic task. Secularity relies upon science, and science has the presumption of atheism as one of its principles as it explains the world. The universe, as science explains it, is an ambiguous witness to the divine. Yet, religions will bring this questionable notion of God to the table for discussion, a table set up by a secular culture. On the one hand, even a secular person can acknowledge that talk of the divine has been part of human history. On the other hand, an appeal to God prevents the secular person from hearing the teaching of religions. For the Christian, loss of talk about God makes Jesus unintelligible. The same would be true of the Jew, the Hindu, and the Muslim.

          Second, subjectivity is a theme of secularity. Willard Quine (From a Logical Point of View, 1953) will write of our need to make ontological commitments, but that the basis is not what there is in the world, but only what someone says there is in the world. Thus, one can say what one believes but everyone understands that you are making a private, subjective decision about a reality that still needs discovery. Secularity will assume that testing of religious truth claims will lead nowhere. One can make assertions arising out of psychology and sociology, but religion will not receive the same credibility. In the words of Karl Rahner, “God” has become as puzzling as a blank face. Third, he refers to the loss of a sense of guilt. This arises from a loss of norms. Nietzsche and Freud wanted to remove the experience of guilt, so they advanced the release of people from norms. Fourth, he refers to the loss of appreciation for the language of the transcendent. G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell ended philosophical idealism and metaphysics. The verification principle, developed by Carnap, Schlick, Wittgenstein, and Ayer, focused on verification of all principles by sense experience. W. T. Blackstone (The Problem of Religious Knowledge 1963) is worth exploring in this area. The problem with such an approach is that psychology would fail such a test as proposed. Of course, religions use language in ways that one cannot analyze as if they were science, but then again, philosophy, psychology, political theory, and sociology would not stand under such a test.

          If we go back to where we began, if religion refers to the totality of the commitments one makes regarding the course of one’s life, such a commitment will not be falsifiable in the mind of the adherent. One can always argue that one has not seen the totality yet. Nothing will change the mind of the convinced communist either, regardless of the facts on the ground. I could refer to the person convinced of global warming and its human cause as another example, but I will resist – or not. Part of their reason is their eschatological orientation. The communist envisions a utopian classless society and the global warming activist envisions a dystopian future if “we” do nothing. Further, the religious person lives within the context of a revelatory experience that will always feel mysterious to the non-adherent and depends upon future verification. One can refer to John Hick (Philosophy of Religion, 1963), I. M. Crombie, (“The Possibility of Theological Statements,” 1957), William T. Blackstone, and Anders Jeffner, (The Study of Religious Language, 1972). Making a commitment one intends to refer to the totality of life is highly risky. The plurality of the religions is enough to show its ambiguous nature. Most human beings are not content with meaninglessness, either of their individual lives or their view of human history. Now, the primary purpose of extraordinary experiences that we hear of in religion is to disclose the disposition of the divine toward humanity. Yet, even the everyday experience of the faithful and wise can provide a new perspective, enrich life, and deepen a sense of responsibility. The disturbing quality is the reference to the transcendent and its manifestation in intimacy in this time and in this place. The claim to an extraordinary experience, such as the paranormal, dreams, mystical, and prophetic vision, still must use ordinary language to communicate it. Such experiences also have their dark side. One can see H. D. Lewis (Our Experience of God, 1959) for this view. All of this is to say that one who has “faith” does not “know,” for one does not stand in the proper place, that is, the end of the process of history. Joseph Butler (The Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed to the Constitution and Course of Nature, 1736) suggested that probability is at the heart of some of our most important decisions. Such decisions require discernment, especially when faced with the total commitment of which religion asks. One can think of it as coming alive, a light dawning, the ice breaking, and so on. One sees the depth of the situation in a new way that provides insight into the course of one’s life. Existentialism might refer to it as authenticity. The disclosure event is a life calling, where life claims us for various projects. Again, such disclosures on frontier situations of suffering and death may provide hints of transcendence, but they may also become an opening for dark forces. Religion has to admit that what feels like transcendence in such circumstances might be nothing more than experience with ourselves. In any case, the heart of such moments in religion is a disclosure of a total and loving commitment. To use Wittgenstein here, such a language game is strange for some people, but the game is playable. “God” may feel strange to some people in this secular setting, but if one sheds one’s hesitancy, one can “play the game.” Of course, in this case, the “game” is your life, the beliefs and values by which you will live. Schleiermacher is close to all of this as he wrote of secular people having a hunger for depth and meaning that one experiences through perception and feeling, especially as the feeling of absolute dependence. He wrote of it as devotion and piety. Of course, talk of such experiences still relies upon a prior concept of God.

          Anders Jeffner points out that we must not dismiss the sense of awe and mystery that surrounds the language of faith traditions. One could refer to such experiences as gestalt, an experience that organizes the world in a new way for you, but providing no basis for preferring it in contrast to another. Frederick Ferre (Language, Logic, and God, 1961) refers to metaphysical facts as a conceptual model in which a concept plays a key role within the system and without which the system would founder. Such a notion must also provide consistency, coherence, and relevancy to experiences, all of which are quite consistent with the approach of Pannenberg to Systematic Theology. The point Pannenberg will make is that even we who live in a secular setting have no other symbol that directs us so definitely toward our ultimate point of reference that will help us understand human life. As Gordon Kaufmann (In Face of Mystery, 1993) puts it, life confronts us as a profound mystery, and “God” focuses our attention on our finitude and limits. “God” reminds us that our personal norms are not the highest court of appeal in morals or in truth. Paul Tillich (Systematic Theology 1951) will say that “God” is the answer to the question implied within our finitude and limits. “God” is the name for that which concerns humanity ultimately. Yet, “God” is not simply an expression that qualifies a view of life or an orientation toward action, but rather, refers to reality. Therefore, theology must not abandon metaphysics in the way much of secular society has done.

          Now, Pannenberg will discuss the natural knowledge of God. He thinks that humanity does have such knowledge, turning to Romans 1:18-20 and 2:14. He will discuss the conscience and the formation of personal identity in this context. His conversation partners are Hegel, Heidegger, Paul Ricoeur, and Freud. Pannenberg, turning to Erick Erickson, will also reflect upon our experience of a basis of life on which we can put our trust. He will then explore some philosophy, especially Descartes, to support the notion of the Infinite embracing the finite. Pannenberg modifies Descartes at this point, using the phrase, “the nonthematic awareness of God,” an intuition, if you please, that may well be a holdover from the infantile experience of symbiotic union with the mother, but an important indicator of who we are. Human beings have openness to the world that says that life is a process of inquiry, to which God is the answer. Nihilism suggests that humanity has a question for which there is no answer. Yet, we cannot live with this openness, which would be an emotional abstraction. In reality, we live with provisional answers to the question of existence. The question of human existence arises out of dissatisfaction with the finite things of worldly experience.  As Paul seems to put it, we have a vague sense of infinitude. In the process of human experience, we have the religious experience that filters through our experience of creation. This experience has always led to explicit affirmations regarding God. True, they may be nothing more than idols, as Paul in a one-sided way put it in Romans 1:23, 25. Theology today needs a nuanced view of world religions that Paul did not possess. Pannenberg will argue that Barth does not do justice to world religions at this point.

          He will now go to say to “No” to the notion of natural theology. This notion arose out of early Christian reflections and in conjunction with the philosophy of its time. The philosophical notion of God, while moving toward the unity of the divine and the stability of the world, was not sufficient to the biblical notion of the creative activity of God that is always new. The classic proofs for the existence of God were not successful, of course, but, especially with arguments regarding cosmology, they do show the demand of reason for meaning as it faces the contingency of the world. They help make talk of God intelligible. Philosophical theology can perform a critical function with respect to the way Christian theology, or any religion, talks about God. For example, the retreat into subjectivity, begun with Kant and the ethical interpretation of religion and merging with existentialism, has fallen apart. This led to a focus on personal devotion and piety. Yet, the common norms of culture no longer cohere with the Christian faith. This has meant a decline in the experience of guilt. The focus of Protestant preaching on sin, justification, and sanctification will not address the new cultural setting. In response, Paul Tillich has helpfully pointed the church toward questions of meaning in this secular setting. Pannenberg does want theology and philosophy to take each other seriously. He reminds us that the structure of meaning proposed by Christianity remains open to a future that will find fulfillment. This makes possible constant revision of the Christian understanding of existence in every detail. It provides a context for human freedom without leading to its destruction. In any case, no argument for the existence of God removes the debatable quality of that affirmation.

          In terms of the anthropological argument, he points to Kant, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Fichte, Karl Rahner, Hans Kung based on Erik Erikson, and Paul Tillich and his notion of courage. Of course, none of this proves the existence of God, but they point to an unfathomable reality that transcends us individually as well as the world. Such reflections give “God” a secure place in the reality of human experience. Pannenberg discussed the theological criticism of natural theology as conducted by Ritschl and continued in Barth. However, Schleiermacher had a better understanding of natural theology and its philosophical connections than Ritschl (von Harnack as well) did. Barth has little to offer but rhetoric. Pannenberg discusses how this happens in his discussion of Karl Popper in Theology and the Philosophy of Science, 332ff, and which we have discussed in Chapter 1. Every religious message must demonstrate its truth claims by philosophical reflection. Philosophical reflection on the anthropological necessity of elevation to the thought of the infinite and absolute retains the function of imposing minimal conditions for talk about God that one wants taken seriously. 

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