Religionless Christianity?

I found this interesting commentary on some of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts:

http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2010/12/letters-from-cell-92-part-4.html

I won’t copy/paste any of that to here – but I highly recommend it.

A few questions emerge after a careful reading of both the primary text (Bonoheffer) and the commentary: Does this kind of theology lead to a de-supernaturalized Christianity? Are these broad ideas grounded in the Old Testament, as Bonhoeffer claims? Can there be a non-metaphysical theology? Does such a concept even make sense? Do Bonhoeffer’s problems with the idea of ‘other-worldliness’ carry the weight he puts on them? Is personal salvation a foreign concept to the original message of Christianity and the Old Testament? Are things like individualism, metaphysics and religion all necessarily negative in Christianity? Do notions like these lead to a purely physicalist concept of Christianity?

These are all questions it is important to raise, engage and answer. One that comes to mind is the charges of individualism – is something individualistic just because it is personal – like, say, salvation? If this is the case, then it seems that Bonhoeffer’s thought and the commentary provided on Expirmental Theology fall victim to the same charge – if I am there for the other,  then I am there for the other person – and if I am there for the other personal, I am there for them in a personal way – and is not the personal the individualistic, on this view?

Folks like N.T. Wright have done, in my opinion, a great service by really taking on the idea of Christianity being primarily about saving the soul from this world and getting into heaven and redirecting it towards the reality which we inhabit which will be renewed – but might some of the ideas presented in the commentary be taking things to far?

For my part (briefly), I would say that they are. I don’t think one can so easily tie everything negative in Christianity to notions of individualism, religion, or metaphysics, even if I do think that each of these has in fact contributed negatively to the Christian faith. I don’t think that the personal aspect of Christianity (a personal God who approaches us in our hearts) is wrong. While the direction taken by the commentary (and even Bonhoeffer) is broadly a needed corrective, I think it ends up being far too reactionary. In particular (and again, briefly) I find the attacks on supernatural aspects of Christianity on account of it being dualistic misplaced and mistaken – one can acknowledge both a physical and non-physical aspect of reality while affirming that there is in fact one reality, with two aspects (in this case, the physical and non-physical) in an intimate, though distinct, union.

At any rate, these are some broad thoughts I’m having on the subject. More to come later.

Bonhoeffer on God

‘God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.’

‘Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way to seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.’

‘Christian apologetics has taken the most varied forms of opposition to this self-assurance. Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of “God.” Even though there has been surrender of all secular problems, there still remain the so-called “ultimate questions”–death, guilt–to which only “God” can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these so-called ultimate question of humanity. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered “without God”?’

Wittgenstein on Certainty

194. ‘With the word “certain” we express complete conviction, the total absence of doubt, and thereby seek to convince other people. That is subjective certainty.

But when is something objectively certain? When a mistake is not possible. But what kind of possibility is that? Mustn’t mistakes be logically excluded?’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘On Certainty’)

I will confess right off the bat that I have no idea what Wittgenstein means by his final sentence here. Maybe I can come to some kind of understanding by working through this proposition.

What kind of fact logically excludes mistakes? The fact that I exist? On Certainty is a sustained mediation on (duh) certainty – the opening line is the famous Moore quote about knowing that there is one hand in front of you. Wittgenstein goes into a very long and in my opinion needless exploration of the mental workings behind certainty on topics such as this. This, I think, is misguided. My response is typically, what reason have I to doubt that my I exist, that I am real, that the world is real? That’s my typical response to what I would regard as scepticism beyond necessity – if one requires hundreds of pages of tortured groping for whether one can be certain that they, or the world or their hand exists, I suspect that there are more important problems for said sceptic to attend to.

However, to think a bit more on this notion: what is meant by logically excluding mistakes? On the surface, it would appear simple: something is certain when its negation is logically impossible. The world exists – this excludes the possibility of mistakes. We may be mistaken as to the nature of the world, or something along those lines, but we cannot be mistaken that there is a world, because if there wasn’t, there wouldn’t be. This seems to me to actually be quite unhelpful – Wittgenstein’s tortured method seems to be contagious.

Wittgenstein on Scepticism

‘6.5 For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed.

The riddle does not exist.

If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.

6.51 Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked.

For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said.’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’)

This, to me, is one of the most brilliant lines Wittgenstein ever penned, if only for its rhetorical effect. There is more here, however, than brilliant prose. There’s a lot going on in these few lines – the most obvious question provoked here is simply. Is this correct?

What does Wittgenstein mean when he says ‘only where something can be said’? Reading through the Tractatus it becomes apparent that Wittgenstein intends for all speech to be reduced to an atomic language; that is, a language which does nothing but picture reality in a one-to-one ration of propositions/words to ideas. This left no room for any ambiguity in language (which is one of the things Wittgenstein realized in his later period, and can be seen quite clearly in his ‘Blue’ and ‘Brown’ books). Anything that can be said is a picture of reality – therefore, for Wittgenstein, anytime anything could be said (that is, word used in his atomic way) it would be a propositional picture of reality, and if it wasn’t, then it couldn’t be said. This left no room for scepticism in language.

While I would 100% disagree with his logical atomism (as would most folks, I would hope), it is a fascinating way to attack scepticism, and despite logical atomisms failure, Wittgensteins points made above provide some interesting brain food. Broadly speaking, I actually think it makes a decent point: a lot of scepticism is, in fact, senseless.

My personal favourite essay.

Theologians, Inc.

“Let them at least learn the nature of the religion they are attacking, before they attack it. If this religion boasted of having a clear vision of God, and of possessing Him plain and unveiled, then to say that nothing we see in the world reveals Him with this degree of clarity would indeed be to attack it. But it says, on the contrary, that man is in darkness and far from God, that He has hidden Himself from man’s knowledge, and that the name He has given Himself in the Scriptures is in fact The Hidden God (Is 45:15). Therefore if it seeks to establish these two facts: that God has in the church erected visible signs by which those who sincerely seek Him may recognize Him, and that he has nevertheless so concealed them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their…

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Relational Reality, Though, and the Universe

The universe is the totality of interacting and relating things, which exists independently of ourselves. We stand in an interacting relation to the universe, and we can therefore inquire, study and come to have knowledge of the universe. We grasp the objective reality of the universe through both our experience and mind, and it is our mental workings which set us apart from the universe. The scholastic definition of man as a rational animal is a good one, I think – a rational animal created in the image of a rational, relational, personal and interacting God, created in a rational universe which we are able to comprehend. Our mental powers and ability to grasp the universe are remarkable, as Pascal noted: ‘Man is a reed, the most fragile reed in the universe, but he is a thinking reed – through thought he comprehends the universe,’ (paraphrase). While the universe we occupy has many aspects to it, aspects which will astound and perplex us (the quantum level of reality being a prime example), they all remain part of a coherent whole. The human mind’s ability to grasp the universe is profound – but it is not unintelligible or mysterious or paradoxical.

‘Just as this very same science cannot be understood without recognizing the existence of a mind able to hold within its reach the wholeness of nature and thereby be superior to it, the understanding which science gives of nature will fully satisfy the urge to understand only when that urge is allowed to carry one to the recognition of that Existence which is not limited by any singularity… With an inexorable urge that limited mind reaches out for the unlimited in existence which, precisely because it is genuinely unlimited, cannot happen but only be and is therefore most aptly called He Who Is. Without keeping him in one’s mental focus, those singularities will appear as that “inexhaustible queerness” which J.B.S. Haldane once cited as the main characteristic of the universe. Cosmic singularities severed from their creator can easily become something akin to that proverbial “mystic chant over an unintelligible universe”.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Roads of Science and the Ways to God,’ p. 277)

A Few Reflections on Language and Reality

I’ve argued before that reality is fundamentally linguistic in its nature – for some more of my thoughts and developments on this theme, head here:

So, what are some of the implications of this viewpoint? To be brief, here are some of the ones that come to my mind (note: this viewpoint is not saying that everything is language, or that only language exists – this isn’t linguistic idealism):

1)      Reality, by virtue of being linguistic, is relational. This works with a realist notion of the universe as the totality of all interacting and relating things. Reality is interactive and relational.

2)      A linguistic reality would point to an objectively existing reality – language always points to a reality outside itself.

3)      It is this relational-ness that allows for scientific study – a relational, interacting objective universe can be studied by relational, interacting humans.

With these points in mind, it seems appropriate to me to tentatively call this idea linguistic realism – to sum up, a conception of an objectively existing reality based on relation and interactive-ness. This account of reality is a whole, coherent and interactive account, which is the kind of account required if there is to be any serious scientific inquiry into the empirical universe (see the numerous quotations of Fr. Stanley Jaki for more on the idea of an objective reality being necessary for science).

These are not dogmatic statements, and no doubt have weak points. My goal here is to work through the issues and implications of this thesis and come to at least some coherent conclusions. Perhaps all of this is worthy to be rejected – I certainly hope that if that is in fact the case, the astute readers of this blog will make it known.

A Prayer for Enemies

‘This is the punishment
that in the secret of my heart
I want to exact
for those who serve with me and those who sin with me –
this is the punishment that I ask
for those who serve with me and hate me –
let us love you and each other
as you will and as is expedient for us,
so that we may make good amends to the good Lord
for our own and for each other’s offences;
so that we may obey with one heart in love
one Lord and Master.
This is the revenge your sinner asks
on all who wish him evil and act against him.
Most merciful Lord,
prepare the same punishment for your sinner.’

(Saint Anslem, ‘The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anslem,’ p. 218)

Torrance on Natural Theology

“Torrance explicitly critiques the notion of analogia entis – the idea, especially associated with Thomas Aquinas, that there exists some intrinsic likeness between creator and creation arising from the creative action of God. The fact that there exists some form of correspondence between the creator and creation is not due to an inherent relation of likeness, but to the free and gracious decision of God that some such correspondence shall exist. We are thus dealing with an analogia gratiae rather than an analogia entis. There is no intrinsic capacity on the part of nature to convey God, nor is the created element as such part of the content of revelation. For Torrance, revelation must be understood to be self-revelation of God.

“It will thus be clear that Torrance considers a ‘natural theology’ which regards itself as independent of God’s self-revealation as a serious challenge to Christian theology. Natural theology has a place under the aegis of revelation, not outside it. In its improper mode, a ‘natural theology’ is an approach to theology which leads to the introduction of ‘natural’ or ‘commonsense’ concepts into theology without first establishing the warrant for doing so on the basis of revelation. In this sense of the term, Barth was entirely justified in critiquing natural theology…

“In this sense, ‘natural theology’ must be regarded as a serious threat to responsible Christian theology.” (190)

“It will be clear that Torrance’s careful discussion of the manner in which the creation can be said to have revelatory potential opens the way to some very significant developments. Torrance insists that creation can only be held to ‘reveal’ God from the standpoint of faith. Nevertheless, to one who has responded to revelation (and thus who recognizes nature as God’s creation, rather than an autonomous and self-created entity), the creation now has potential to point to the creator. The theologian who is thus a natural scientist (or vice versa) is thus in a position to make some critically important correlations. While the neutral observer of the natural cannot, according to Torrance, gain meaningful knowledge of God, another observer, aided by divine revelation, will come to very different conclusions.” (192) Alister McGrath, Thomas F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999).

(The above quotes were read and taken from http://derevth.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/TF%20Torrance?updated-max=2008-11-24T07:16:00-06:00&max-results=20&start=19&by-date=false)

The text above shows in a broad sense the main point of contention in the debate on the validity of natural theology, and expounds a bit on the issue of a ‘point of contact’ that I delved into in a previous post. Obviously, Torrance doesn’t hold that there is such an inherent or ready-made point of contact, and as such apart from faith, nature cannot reveal God. Someone of say a Thomistic frame of mind would deny this point. This is, in my mind, one of the few areas in theology where both sides have equally powerful and persuasive arguments.

For my part, as I noted in an earlier post, I generally end up favoring the Barthian position (sometimes more in spirit than in actual fact), while not going as far as Barth in a wholesale rejection of natural theology. Again, as noted before, philosopher/physicist Fr. Stanley Jaki presents a concept of natural theology that I find myself agreeing with. His position is as strong as Torrance or Barth’s– I would be interested in what Torrance would have to say to someone like Jaki. I actually imagine that as being one of the most fascinating conversations one could listen in on. (For those not familiar with Jaki: https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=783&action=edit&message=6&postpost=v2      )

More Thoughts on Natural Theology, Science, and God

‘The fall had cosmic relevance, but not in the sense of destroying the investigability of a rationally ordered contingent nature.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Roads of Science and the Ways to God,’ p.135)

The above quote I take to be true – we are capable of investigating the physical reality in which we live. The question of natural theology, however, is whether or not such inquiry can, apart from revelation, lead us to God.

Theologically, I think the answer is a firm ‘no’. While the heavens declare the glory of God, they are not God. St. Paul makes the point in his letter to the Romans that because of mankind’s propensity for sin (the heart turned inwards upon itself, to borrow language from the Reformation) such inquiry instead of leading man to God leads man to worship creation instead of God and to the denial of God. Man’s natural knowledge of God (to borrow from Calvin, his sensus divinatis) which would lead to a knowledge of and relationship with God under ideal circumstances, has been damaged by sin:

‘…Aquinas suggested that in response to the faint whispers of the sensus divinatis, humans might respond by positing an ultimate natural principle. That is, the sensus divinatis might be the cause of our belief in laws of nature. Scientists often speak as if natural laws – like the law of gravity – cause objects to behave in a certain way; yet natural laws…are merely our descriptions of the way objects behave. Perhaps this is an example of Paul’s words, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Like all idols, these laws might simply be placeholders for God.” (Mitch Stokes, ‘A Shot of Faith to the Head,’ p. 53-54)

The point being made is that natural theology, apart from revelation, given the inward turning of the heart upon itself from sin, cannot lead us to God – to paraphrase Kierkegaard, the truth must come from outside man.

This is not to suggest that God cannot work through a study of nature to effect someone’s salvation – it is to make the point that a purely natural theology apart from revelation cannot lead one to a knowledge of and relationship with God. Science can be a road that leads to the way to God, but it cannot be the way to God, simply because God is not a scientific principle to be arrived at via reasoning but rather a Presence which must be sought with all the heart, soul and mind.