After a couple of days thinking about the fatal event that happened in Pittsburgh on Saturday, I return to R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology.
Three theologians feature in Soulen’s attempt to reinterpret the Christian gospel. The most important is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Hitler regime hanged him in its closing days. He had not fleshed out his thinking. So we do not know where he would have gone.
But one of his insights is that Western theology had departed from biblical religion in that it had become too much indebted to rationalist and individualistic tendencies in European thought.
Soulen uses this insight to go back and revisit the thought of Barth and Rahner, the other two important theologians.
Earlier Soulen found Barth wanting because he cut off the work of God in Israel after the coming of Christ. Barth, he says, was right to see God’s biblical work as a covenant history. However, he brought this covenant history with Israel to a premature conclusion with the incarnation of Christ.
Soulen, however, wants to reorient Christian theology to see that its center is the kingdom of God construed as the future outcome of history. This future event is when God’s history with Israel will get fulfilled, not the past event of the incarnation. Once this is understood, Barth’s theology can help us understand the history that keeps going on after Christ.
Soulen adopts Rahner’s idea that the orientation of humanity from creation is toward the consummation. However, Rahner fell into the modern way of individualizing and rationalizing thought. He did not concern himself much with biblical history.
I suspect that Soulen is right about both these theologians. I know both of them on a practical level. I used to often look up Barth’s interpretation of the scripture I was preaching on. His insights into particular passages were often eye-opening. I first knew Rahner through his prayers. His 1995 collection of Prayers for a Lifetime, showed the spiritual side of the theologian. Also I read a book of his on death. But I understand that later he changed his mind and sort of recanted what he had written there. Anyway, I do not claim to fully grasp either man on a theoretical level.
But I see signs that they both were stymied by the rationalist turn of modern European thought. There was a German philosopher, named Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781). Lessing thought there was an “ugly ditch” between history and philosophy. This, was because he saw a sharp distinction between the “necessary truths of reason” and the accidental or contingent truths of history.
This is an example of thought based on the idea of Descartes that “I think, therefore, I am.” We have direct access to our own minds, which gives us necessary truths. Our direct contact with our own consciousness is the only thing we can trust. But history is uncertain because it is not a necessary truth of reason. It comes to us indirectly.
I just think this distorts reality. Our existence does not consist of being individual minds. Reality is much more communal. I am aware of serious philosophical arguments for the participatory nature of reality in John MacMurray and Gabriel Marcel. Marcel countered Descartes by saying, “I participate, therefore, I am.” MacMurray explored how from infancy our self-consciousness depends upon our participation in society, beginning with our relationship to our mothers.
History, in my view, depends on our participation in humanity. We are not somehow confined within our own minds. There is no ugly ditch.
To come back to Soulen, he believes that when the church fathers saw human fulfillment as actualizing the image of God, they missed another aspect of creation which set the human race on its way to fulfillment through covenant and particular families. The idea of the image of God as an individual’s ability to reason appealed to rationalists.
Soulen cites Jean-Jacques Rousseau as one who wondered why, if God had something to say to him, he didn’t say it directly instead of through Moses. This is the modern temptation: to resent that God approaches us through Moses, Jesus and other Jews. We want to find God directly through turning inward to our own self-consciousness.