Monday, February 20, 2006

Point of Contact

Given my recent interest in natural theology, I thought it was appropriate to read Karl Barth's famous 1934 response to Brunner, "Nein!". Brunner had advocated a limited natural theology in his work, "Nature and Grace", suggesting that humans possess a "capacity for revelation" (i.e., a "point of contact" with the divine). Indeed, according to Brunner, God is knowable (albeit incompletely) through creation, and thus all humans are capable of sensing the will of God apart from specifically Christian revelation. Not surprisingly, Barth disagreed, arguing that the sole point of contact between God and man is to be found in Jesus Christ, not in human nature generally. His attack on Brunner is relentless and powerful, and I was left convinced that Brunner's position is wrong. However, I'm not quite satisfied that Barth's position is right.

The debate over the point of contact has often seem archaic and irrelevant to me. But the following quote from Tillich makes you realize how much is at stake: "One can distinguish two ways of approaching God: the way of overcoming estrangement, or the way of meeting a stranger." Barth's position is the latter, since he holds that humans have no innate capacity for God. God is a total stranger to man until a connection is forged through the miracle of Christ's revelation. In contrast, Tillich (and most Lutherans) have adopted the former position, nicely articulated in the following passage:
"What is this human entity? Can it be thought of only as something without the divine, without the capacity for receiving answers from the divine and for asking questions of the divine?... Certainly culture is not revelation, as a naive theory of culture assumes it to be. Certainly culture is a human possibility, while revelation is impossibility, which means a divine possibility. Yet revelation would not be even a divine possibility if it could not be received by means of forms of culture as human phenomena. It would be a destructive foreign substance in culture, a disruptive 'nonhuman' entity within the human sphere, and could have no power to shape or direct human history... In general, Barth leaves unexplained how revelation can communicate anything to man if there is nothing in him permitting him to raise questions about it, impelling him toward it, and enabling him to understand it."

Barth would reply that sin has destroyed any possibility of a "point of contact", but Tillich masterfully turns aside this line of reasoning:
"Sin could never be experienced as sin without the anthropological possibility of guilt and despair. Otherwise it would be an empty word, unintelligible communication, and not a revelation of man's status before God. Therefore, it is not correct to say that sin makes impossible any knowledge of God. On the contrary, in the experience of guilt and despair the question of perplexing knowledge about God is as radically presented as it ever can be apart from revelation. And only because of that fact is the answer 'sin and grace' a real answer and not an utterly meaningless formula."

The point of contact lies in our humanity - our language, history, culture, and religious impulses. These are not revelations in and of themselves, but they serve as the medium for revelation. To deny this is to deny humans their special place in God's creation.


Andy said...

Good stuff. I just posted some extended reflection, drawing on Luther, on my blog.

Basically, I think Barth's position is too cold. If God isn't in the world, being told about God seems little consolation.

Paul M. Kingery said...

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Paul M. Kingery, PhD, MPH