Friday, March 24, 2006

Towards the Heart of the Matter

While surfing the web to avoid writing my dissertation, I came across this interesting article written by Eberhard Jüngel, my theologian du jour. It's a charming reminiscence that traces his life from childhood to the fall of the Berlin Wall, providing a memorable account of his development as a theologian. I was particularly struck by his experiences growing up in East Germany. His family was not religious, and his father was openly hostile to Christianity. However, his path in life was set by "one experience" that affected him very deeply:
"That was the discovery of the church as the one place within a Stalinist society where one could speak the truth without being penalized. What a liberating experience in the face of the ideological-political pressure that dominated in school! Friends were arrested, I myself was interrogated more than once -- only because we dared to say what we thought. Immediately before the Workers' Revolt in 1953 I was denounced, together with other young Christians, as an 'enemy of the republic' and expelled from school before a full assembly of teachers and students expressly convened on the day before the university entrance exams. Our fellow students were ordered to break off all contact with us... In the Christian church, however, one was free to break through the silence and the pressure to lie that was growing stronger all the time. Here one dared to bear witness to the truth of the gospel in such a way that its liberating power could also be experienced in very worldly, very political terms."

When the Berlin Wall went up, Jüngel was eventually forced to choose between East and West, and of course he selected the latter, but not without sadness. But his decision allowed him to interact with some of the greatest thinkers of modern times: Barth, Bultmann, Heidegger, and others. I especially enjoyed this anecdote about his initial encounter with Barth:
"At first Barth looked upon me as a sort of spy from the Bultmann school and greeted me with unconcealed skepticism. But when I dared, in an unforgettable meeting of his group, not only to contradict the Basel criticism of Bultmann with a vehemence born of youthful audacity but also proceeded to interpret one section from Barth’s anthropology to his satisfaction, I was invited for a late-night dispute over a bottle of wine. And a few days later the entire Church Dogmatics stood in front of my door with the dedication: 'To Eberhard Jungel, on the way into God's beloved eastern zone.'"

Jüngel admits that he learned a great deal from Barth, but it's interesting that, contrary to what most people assume, he does not consider himself a Barth disciple. Indeed, he does not think that theologians should have "schools" or "disciples." Instead, he encourages his students to embrace "a 'theology of pilgrims,' who are 'on the way to the heart of the matter' and who must always keep widening the boundaries of their insight. 'New frontiers . . .'"

Jüngel also makes some interesting theological points in the article, particularly with regards to atheism (the subject of my previous posts on Jüngel):
"I felt myself understand atheism better than it understands itself, and I tried to go into the heart of the matter... I have been and continue to be concerned with discovering a moment of truth in atheism, a moment which is at least as important as that to be found in a theistic metaphysics. Is it merely an accident that the young Christian movement was charged with atheism in its religious environment? Did not the radical negation of the ancient world of gods by the Old Testament prophets and by the Word of the crucified Son of God prepare the ground upon which modern atheism could thrive? Did not Nietzsche recognize, more clearly than many theologians, that the proclamation of the crucified God threatened to become a negation of Deity? The answer to this question is certainly not to be found in the 'death-of-God theology' that aroused some interest in the U.S. a quarter of a century ago. But the fact that the expression 'death of God' has a Christian origin should give us something to think about. I have thought about it, and I can conceive of the God who overcomes death only in such a way that God himself is nothing other than the unity of life and death on behalf of life. As such he bears the marks of our godlessness within himself: a godlessness the overcoming of which was and is his concern, not ours.

It goes without saying that I resolutely reject any old-style or new-style theological apologetics that denounces atheism as a deficient mode of human existence. What gives us the right to suppose that the atheist is less a human person than the pious Jew or Christian? On the basis of such religious propaganda the proclamation of the justification of the godless can hardly flourish. Whoever wishes to advocate the overcoming of godlessness through God would do much better to take the atheist seriously as a particularly mature specimen of homo humanus.

All in all, a very interesting theological testament from one of our greatest living thinkers.

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