Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Possible

For me, one of the most interesting things about Eberhard Jüngel is his unique relationship to philosophy. On the one hand, he exhibits a remarkable familiarity with the history of philosophy, and his writings are dense with philosophical terminology. However, he continually asserts that Christian theology must reject many of the dominant trends in Western thinking, since they are broadly incompatible with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. But his rejection of philosophy is only partial, as a major goal of Jüngel's theology is to create an alternative philosophical framework conducive to the Christian faith. This is what makes him so ambitious and difficult. He has assigned himself the enormous task of constructing a novel theological system on the foundation of a radically reformulated philosophy - a very tall order, indeed.

The confident manner in which Jüngel dismisses some of the most cherished tenets in Western thought can be an exhilarating experience for the reader. This is nowhere more true than in his rejection of the ancient (and somewhat commonsensical) notion that "actuality is prior to possibility", which was first set forth by Aristotle. The implications of Aristotle's statement become clear in his ontology, which ascribes being only to the actual; indeed, "being and actuality are identical." Possibility has no real being because it is simply the "not yet" of actuality. This doesn't mean that things cannot change, but that "the possible is defined as the possible only by reference to actuality." In other words, what is possible is determined by examining the present actuality. Actuality then determines its own future by acting on its inherent possibilities, and, in this way, the actuality of the past produces the actuality of the present. Thus, nothing is ever really new and nothing is ever really lost, since the past contributes to the present that it produces, and the future is already latent in the present.

While Jüngel acknowledges that this type of thinking in the basis of all scientific and historical thought, he strongly objects to the priority of the actual over the possible in theological matters. For one, such thinking turns God into a "pure actuality" that is "free of all possibility" and thus "unmovable" and "unchanging". Secondly, the primacy of the actual misunderstands the world, since it ignores the decisive dimension of the world - the possible. But possibility, as Jüngel understands it, is not derived from the world and its actuality, but is instead a gift of God that allows the world to exist "beyond the dimension of actuality." In other words, God liberates the world from its bondage to the cause-and-effect framework of actuality by creating new possibilities, which are "not within but external to its actuality." He accomplishes this by reducing "the actual" to nothingness, and creating new possibilities ex nihilo:
"As future, possibility is the concrete way in which the world is determined by nothingness, out of which God's creative love lets being become. What can be made of the future on the basis of past and present, does not belong to possibility; rather, as that which is not-yet-actual, it belongs to the dimension of actuality. What can be made does not become, in the strict sense of 'becoming ex nihilo'. We make actuality out of that which is actual. We change, we transform. In this way, we make the future. God, however, is not one who transforms; he is the creator, who allows possibility to move towards actuality. But this possibility arises from the divine distinction between the possible and the impossible, arises, that is, ex nihilo."**

In this passage, Jüngel articulates a very distinctive approach to thinking about God as Creator. For Jüngel, when God creates he creates possibility, not actuality. This means that genuine Christian hope is not hope in a "particular future worldly actuality", but a "hope in God alone which hopes for a future for the world." This hope for possibility is grounded in the word of the cross. The following passage, which is quite appropriate as we near Good Friday, makes this point clear:
The gospel proclaims that the risen one lives as the crucified. And in this the death of Jesus comes to have its real meaning, namely, as the event of the love of God (Jn 3.16). Jesus' resurrection from the dead promises that we shall be made anew out of the nothingness of relationlessness, remade ex nihilo, if through faith in the creative Word of God we allow ourselves to participate in the love of God which occurs as the death of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christian existence is existence out of nothingness, because it is all along the line existence out of the creative power of God who justifies."

The last line of that passage hints at the reason why Jüngel is so adamant that "possibility must precede actuality" - it's the doctrine of justification. In actuality, we are lost sinners with no possibility for redemption. We cannot save ourselves through our acts, we cannot make ourselves righteous. This is only possible for "the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were."

**The quotes are taken from Jüngel's essay "The world as possibility and actuality. The ontology of the doctrine of justification.", Theological Essays, Vol. I

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