Sunday, October 14, 2007

Jüngel: God's Being is Realized in Contradiction

For those of you wondering what I've been doing lately in my free time, I've been working my way through Eberhard Jüngel's Theological Essays II. That partially explains my lack of posting, since, among modern theologians, Jüngel is perhaps the most difficult to blog about. This is due to the depth and rigor of this thought, which is impossible to summarize in short posts, combined with his lackluster prose. Simply put, he's not quotable! Regardless, I would like to discuss some concerns regarding the most thought-provoking essay in the collection: "The Revelation of the Hiddenness of God."

Jüngel's goal is to rectify misconceptions regarding the deus absconditus that have historically appeared in Lutheran theology (those familiar with this blog will know that this has also been a concern of mine; see here and here). Jüngel begins by saying that if God is hidden and dark to us, "it cannot imply that God himself is dark." Instead, God is concealed because he "dwells in unapproachable light" (1 Tim 6.15).
"The absolute invisibility of God is, therefore, the expression of the excess of light that God essentially is. This light, one might say, is unbearably intense and blinding in its pure illuminating power. In this light, in the light of his own being, God is not visible, he is hidden. If there is in him an inaccessible depth, it is in no way a dark depth or a murky abyss, but rather the depth of his glory, the unfathomableness of primal light. It is the majesty of God that lets him be hidden for us."
Here, Jüngel discredits the notion, which can be traced to Luther, that there exists a terrible and wrathful God behind (or separate from) the God we encounter in Christ. For Jüngel, it is of the utmost importance that the God we meet in Jesus Christ be fully and truly God, such that there is no deus absconditus contrary to this revelation. But, in agreement with Luther, Jüngel argues that it is proper to speak the hidden works of God. These alien works of God (opus dei alienum), manifested as wrath, serve the purpose of God's proper works (opus proprium). "The work of God's left hand is always related to the work of God's right hand. God kills so that he can bring to life. Luther can also say: God annihilates, so that he can create the new out of nothingness."

It seems to me that Jüngel is walking a thin line here. Is it so easy to separate God's nature from his works? Is it not a contradiction for God to act in a manner "alien" to his being? Jüngel doesn't say, but the issue becomes even more problematic when, drawing on Barth, he writes:
"God does not contradict himself... Even in the greatest of all imaginable contradictions, even in the contradiction of eternal life and earthly death [in the crucifixion], God corresponds to himself. The being of God is capable of this contradiction. Indeed, God's being is realized in this contradiction without being destroyed by it. God endures it. And this endurance of the contradiction of life and death is God himself, it is the depth of God's glory."
Jüngel seems to be saying that contradictions cannot contradict God because he is contradiction. But how is this consistent with the statement of 1 John that "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all", which Jüngel himself cites in the essay? Moreover, how is it compatible with his earlier remark that "if there is in him an inaccessible depth, it is in no way a dark depth or a murky abyss, but rather the depth of his glory, the unfathomableness of primal light"?

I'm not convinced that Jüngel's efforts have resulted in a gain over Luther's original position. Luther understood the hiddenness of God under its opposite (the essence of his "theology of the cross") as an inscrutable paradox that could not be resolved dogmatically. But Jüngel, who shares Barth's distrust of paradox, attempts just this. In the end, he merely succeeds in moving Luther's paradox into the very heart of God's being.

Interestingly, towards the end of the essay, Jüngel appears to circle back to something akin to Luther's anti-speculative position. He writes:
"The ancient need for an explanation of evil and so for a justification of God in the face of evil, the ancient human need not only to pose, but also to solve, the question of theodicy, does not in fact stop outside the sacred halls of dogmatics. Dogmatics cannot ignore this ancient need. But neither can dogmatics satisfy it. And dogmatics should not act as if it could do so. Dogmatics must not even want to satisfy this ancient need."
Exactly! But Jüngel then goes on to say :
One can only speak of God as the uncompromising enemy of evil. There is only one, but one decisive, connection of God and evil. And that is the cross of Jesus Christ, the fundamental fact of Christian faith: that God conquers evil in that he suffers it himself."
Which raises my final question: does God really conquer evil (and death) if evil (and death) become part of the very being of God, even in such a way that they lose their power over humanity? Would it not be better to say that God remains free of contradiction even in the horror of the cross, although this statement involves a seeming paradox?


Lee said...

Whew! I've never read Jungel, but even from your admirably clear post I'm sensing how tough that must be to wade through.

What is it with these Germans and their love of positing contradiction and conflict in God? Does it all come from Hegel?

Anyway, I would agree with you that there's something problematic about putting evil and death into God's very being (assuming that can be given a coherent meaning). It would seem to give them a foothold in eternity.

Also, I wonder if there's a problem in the Lutheran (and "neo-Lutheran") emphasis on the cross in that it often seems to downplay the Resurrection. At the church we've been attending we had a guest sermon from the Lutheran Bishop of El Salvador this Sunday and he kept talking about solidarity in pain and suffering, which is surely part of the story, but what of the Resurrection and "Christus Victor" which are also prominent themes in Luther?

Thomas Adams said...

Lee – Thanks for your comment. While I agree that Jüngel’s doctrine of God exhibits some Hegelian features, in this case the greater influence is Barth. In this work, and particularly in God’s Being is in Becoming, Jüngel makes the case that the God of Barth’s theology is a God who can suffer, who can take evil into his being without being destroyed by it. Whether Barth would agree with this more radical interpretation of his work is another question.

I agree that Jüngel’s theology all but ignores the Resurrection, which is a major flaw. I think Luther’s emphasis on the “theology of the cross” has biased Lutheran thought on this matter. Lutherans have worried that an emphasis on the resurrection could lead to triumphalism, a theology of glory. But the cross is only half the story. With all the attention paid to what it means for God to “suffer” or “die”, perhaps we should ask what it means for God to live despite the crucifixion. This would bring back the Christus Victor motif that you mention.