Thursday, May 11, 2006

Pannenberg's Ecstacy

“All spiritual experience has…an ecstatic tinge. But the same is true of life in general. There is no being that could live without an ecological context. Each plant or animal in a certain way exists outside itself in seeking its food and nourishing itself from its surroundings. When modern biochemists describe the phenomenon of life as autocatalytic exploitation of an energy gradient, such a description yields the same idea of life as an ecstatic phenomenon, a phenomenon which is surprisingly close to the Christian idea of faith as described in the theology of the Reformation: an existence outside itself, realized in the act of trust in God. Could it be that, basically, faith is the uncrippled and untainted enactment of the movement and rhythm of all life as it was intended by the creator? Could it be, conversely, that all life in its self-transcendence is related to God? The psalmist says of the young lions that when they “roar for their prey” they are “seeking their food from God” (Ps. 104:21). Can we take this as a clue to the understanding of all life, to the effect that its ecstatic self-transcendence is primarily related to God and that in this way the range of its finite object (including the prey of the lions) is opened up to a living being? Anyway, the ecstatic self-transcendence of life is not something that is in the power of the organism itself, but arises as its response to a power that seizes it and, by lifting it beyond itself, inspires life into it. --- Wolfhart Pannenberg, Introduction to Systematic Theology (pg. 44-45)

Does anybody care to comment on this fascinating quote from Pannenberg?


D.W. Congdon said...

I was concerned throughout most of the quote that Pannenberg is arguing that all life is essentially and naturally capable of self-transcendence. He mitigates such a position by asserting, at the end, that self-transcendence is only the result of an external presence or power, rather than something internal to the organism. But that still seems too much like natural theology -- one which does not begin and end with the revelation in Jesus Christ but instead looks at the natural world as quite analogous to the act of faith, almost as if faith is the natural response to the prompting of God.

The problem here is that faith is not a natural response but wholly a gift from God. We do not respond to God like a plant responds to energy sources, because we are wholly tainted by sin which cripples our ability to be in relation with God. We are entirely dependent, wholly passive, before the God who acts on our behalf not only in speaking to us but in enabling us to hear. God realizes the objective side of revelation (Jesus Christ) as well as the subjective side (our response of faith).

My critique aside, Pannenberg is better than most in his insistence upon the ecstatic nature of life. And he is quite right to state that all life lives ecstatically, in response to other creatures. I think Pannenberg is better off simply arguing that this reveals the relational nature of reality, the relational fabric of all being. If this were his point, then he does a very good job of presenting it. Where Pannenberg goes too far is in his assertion (in a rhetorical question) "that, basically, faith is the uncrippled and untainted enactment of the movement and rhythm of all life." I think as responsible theologians we need to reject this statement. Pannenberg naturalizes faith, and this leads to all kinds of problems. Faith is entirely a divine act on our behalf. Jesus Christ mediates both our (objective) salvation and our (subjective) response of faith.

Patrik said...

He got this from the existentialists and Tillich I guess. Pannenberg is mostly very critical of Tillich as you know, but he seems to approve of Tillich's life philosophy (chapter 13 part I,3.) This stuff sounds very similiar (there is more talk of this in part three of the system (Chapter 13, part II). He is also quick to add (rightly) that ecstacy is not about being irrational or in a state of intoxication.

Thomas Adams said...

D.W. – While I share some of your concerns regarding Pannenberg’s position, I think that we must be careful not to distinguish faith too sharply from other experiences of transcendence. You’re absolutely right that faith is a gift from God, and I’m sure that Pannenberg would agree. But such a gift is only possible because of the ecstatic nature of life, which allows us to be both “open to the world” and “open to God”. Even Jüngel would agree with this, as he often remarks that the fact that God addresses us implies that we are creatures capable of being addressed. I think that Pannenberg is trying to say this in his own way, and thus his statement that “faith is the uncrippled and untainted enactment of the movement and rhythm of all life" is acceptable. You’re right that this “naturalizes faith” but, if understood properly, that’s not such a bad thing.

Patrik – I haven’t reached chapter 13 yet, but I’ll take your word concerning Tillich's influence on this matter. However, the Pannenberg quote doesn’t sound very existentialist to me, although it’s highly pneumological.

Ben Myers said...

I'm not so sure about the existentialist influence. I reckon it might have more to do with Pannenberg's research into the findings of anthropological science.

In any case, the theme of self-transcendence is central to Pannenberg's whole theological anthrolopology.