Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Thinkability of God

I've been meaning to write a few more posts about Eberhard Jüngel's book God as the Mystery of the World (GMW), but I often find myself lacking the courage. Jüngel is the most challenging and frustrating theologian that I have yet to encounter, and I sometimes feel that his obscurity is well-deserved. As John Webster writes in this excellent article, Jüngel's style is "fearfully elliptical", requiring sustained concentration and multiple readings. At least in GMW, it is quite clear that Jüngel does not want to be accessible, as his writing style makes no concessions to the reader (the reader must adopt to Jüngel, and not the other way around). However, I've decided to stick with GMW, for two reasons. First, my stubbornness requires that I finish any book that I've started. Secondly, while Jüngel's writing is far from clear, it's obvious that his theology has plenty to offer, and I sense that my hard work on GMW is starting to pay dividends.

A large portion of GMW is dedicated to the problem of how modern man can learn to "think God again." For Jüngel, the seeds of atheism were planted when Descartes asserted that the existence of man is grounded in the "I think" of the cogito. This had the effect of making the human subject the measure of all things, since "the ego first of all ascertains itself, as being present to itself, in order then to ascertain God and the world and thus its own continuity." Of course, Descartes was not an atheist. He was a firm believer in what Jüngel calls the "metaphysical God" - the eternal, unchangeable, infinite, omnipresent, omniscient, transcendent God. However, the combination of the Cartesian "I think" with this "metaphysical" concept of God eventually made God unthinkable. This becomes evident in Fichte's demand that "God should not be thought at all", since to "think God" necessarily subjects him to the conditions of space and time, thereby making him captive to the Cartesian subject. So as modernity progressed, God became more and more distant and unthinkable, until theology was limited to the statement that "God is God". It could say no more. Of course, by this time, the concept of God was deemed irrelevant by most people, who were able to take that small step from a purely transcendent God to a non-existent God.

In contrast, Jüngel argues that God becomes thinkable in his word. And God is able to speak this word to us because he is the God of the Bible (i.e., the Trinitarian God), and not the metaphysical God:
"God's being must be thought as a being which allows that it be participated in, that is, a being which turns outward what it is inwardly. This happens in the word and only in the word of God. For it is part and parcel of the essence of the word to allow participation in the being of the one who speaks by bringing that being to turn itself to someone else. In the word, the being of the speaker expresses itself... God in the word expresses his most inward being without reservation. He turns outward without holding back any part of himself. He gives himself entirely in the word which he speaks. In this sense, it is true that 'God alone comes in the word alone.' If God makes participation in himself possible through his word, then this gift of participation is an event of the divine being itself. The explicit cognition of this gift of participation, the thinking of what faith is, implies then the possibility of thinking God as he really is in and of himself."

In this passage, Jüngel expresses his deeply sacramental understanding of language. God is truly present in his word, just as he is present in the bread and wine. Yet this claim requires that we think differently about God's being, since it implies that God is subject to transitoriness, perishability, and change:
"One of the major reasons that the word is to be considered as the place for the thinkability of God is that it unites within itself a high degree of perishability with the most intensive power of becoming. What else is simultaneously as perishable and as creative as the word? Where else do perishing and becoming, past and future, reality and possibility, being and nonbeing reside so closely together as in the word?"

The metaphysical God is necessarily silent, as it holds itself above the perishability of this world. In contrast, Christianity tells of the "Word made flesh" - the God who is able to speak because he submits to death on the cross.
"If one understands the divinity of God out of its unity with the poverty of the existence of the Crucified One, then God's being can no longer be thought as infinite in contrast with every finitude, and certainly not as independence in contrast with every dependence, and obviously not as an eternity which excludes time, nor as a highest essence which does not know nothingness. The God who is in heaven because he cannot be on earth is replaced by the Father who is in heaven in such a way that his heavenly kingdom can come into the world, that is, a God who is in heaven in such a way that he can identify himself with the poverty of the man Jesus, with the existence of a man brought from life to death on a cross."


Ben Myers said...

This is a really excellent post. I'm delighted that you're sticking with Jüngel, in spite of his own "unthinkable" difficulty at times!

By the way, if you're looking for a first-rate book about Jüngel's theology, you should check out Paul DeHart's Beyond the Necessary God. I've read most of the secondary literature on Jüngel, and this is the best thing I've come across.

Anyway, keep up the good work. Perhaps, after God as the Mystery, you might like to post something about God's Being Is in Becoming as well? This one's a much smaller book, but in some ways it's even more difficult.

Ab Truth said...

you know what i really hate...

guys like you who are 8 yrs younger than myself who are obviously much smarter than me.... grrrr :-)

don't you know i have books to read! now i have to read everything on your blog to see what you understand that i don't.

Thomas Adams said...

Ben, thanks for the encouragement to stick with Jungel. I plan on reading God's Being is in Becoming after GMW, provided that my brain has not already melted. I'll also try to get my hands on DeHart's book.

AbTruth - thanks for the compliment. I hope you didn't waste too much time reading through my earlier posts.

Pontificator said...

Trackback Pontifications

Greg said...

Thank you for this post. Some criticize Jungel for this because it seems to make God eternally outside of God, thus reducing God's immanent life to the outward. Others criticize Jungel becuase it seems he does not go far enough to say that God is the event between Word, God, and Spirit. Nevertheless keep with him!!!

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Juengel intended GGW to be a work of foundatinal theology on which a material dogmatics was to be built. He says that at the end somewhere. That really has not happened, has it? Either by the man himself or others (tho' EJ has been influential). I have wondered what it would be like to apppropriate EJ in this way. What would we have? (1) More confident speech about God (2) A Protestant view of contemplation and delight in God (3)