Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Viability of God Talk in the Secular City

Given the current emphasis on the term (or title) Lord, Avery Dulles’ reflections in The Assurance of Things Hoped For may be of relevance:

Faith is a religious act.  It involves an adoring submission of one’s whole self to God as supreme lord of all things.  In faith I abandon the self-centeredness of my normal vision and consent to look at reality from God's perspective.  I transfer my concern from narrow self-interest to the God on whom I depend and who is to be unconditionally esteemed, trusted, and loved for his own sake.  The intrinsic motive of faith, the ‘authority’ of God, is God himself in his wisdom, truthfulness, holiness power, and fidelity. These divine attributes, though conceptually distinct, are all identical in God (p. 275).

In the important work of coming to term with modernity many of the more liberal Protestant denominations and theologians sacrificed at least to some degree the clarity and power of this fundamental faith act.  In reading through Dulles I get the impression that on the whole, Vatican I & II did a better job than Protestantism of grappling with the intellectual premises of modernity as well as that of inter-religious dialogue, while maintaining the radical particularity that in Christ the fullness of God’s revelation to humankind has been given once and for all even as there are always new insights to be gleaned from this core revelation.

To be sure this religious act is a matter of faith all the way down which cannot be proven by human reason, logic, or evidence.  Nonetheless, these can, and need to be helpful, for without signs it would be very difficult to see, even in a glass darkly.  Even still such faith viewed exclusively through secular channels might readily be viewed as absurd, or more charitably as obscurantist. 

In seeking to come to terms with modernity, liberal Protestantism at its worst accepted too readily the underlying assumptions of secular intellectualism, particularly a diminishing of the radicality of God as transcendent Other over and above anything that can be conceived in the natural world or in the realms of our inner and social experiences.  Thus, one might say that the notion of God was repressed from 20th century intellectual history and philosophy as a manifestation of a broader “death of God” phenomenon, particularly in Europe and less so in the US, notwithstanding persistent strains of fundamentalism as well as evangelical resurgences throughout the century.

At its best the effort to come to terms with modernity is indispensable, if there is going to be a credible apologetic aspect to the faith at all, not only in response to overt unbelief (and therefore to the culture at large), but in response to the multiplicity of identities among many who are overtly Christian (like many of us?) in their (our) various constructions of reality which are anything but purely Christian.  Perhaps I might suggest that at least in Protestant circles that apologetic work has barely begun to take place outside the realms, say, of Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Langdon Gilkey.  One might also place Walter Brueggemann in this apologetic category in his “funding” of postmodernity in the compelling breakthrough of the kairotc moment through the imaginative stimulus of the Holy Spirit.  Such apologoteic theology is indispensable if such fundamental religious acts of claiming Christ as Lord and Savior are going to mediate in ways that are compelling.

As many here have pointed out, there is a broad range of problems linked to the liberal (post or otherwise) or neo-orthodox solution.  Might we see as a next step a thick reformed-grounded evangelic apologetic that does not merely collapse into dogmatics, but confronts the intellectual premises of modernity and postmodernity on their own terms while maintaining a distinctively Christian perspective?  Donald Bloesch and Gabriel Fackreand George Hunsinger, UCC centrist stalwarts, have done substantial work in this arena. I suppose one could argue that Barth’s turn to dogmatics was also a subtle form of apologetics by indirection, but a fuller apologetic effort may be needed, such as that as exhibited by Jurgen Moltmann if the religious act of faith is going to be viewed as credible by more than a remnant.  

I don’t disagree that the more fundamental work may still be the need to sharpen a subtle dogmatic project right in the heartland of the UCC denomination and its supporting seminaries.  In fact, I think it’s essential. Let that work go forth! On Bloesch, on Fackre, on Brueggemann, too!  Still given the pervasive cultural and religious pluralism of our times along with a profound agnosticism in the heartland of the “thinking” middle class and contemporary intellectuals, perhaps there is a need to move beyond Karl Barth’s dogmatics (while drinking richly from his wells) and incorporate richer apologetic work in the very creation of a more subtle articulation of faith.  On that score, perhaps Dulles may have a point or two in Ch 11 in The Assurance of Things Hoped For, titled “Properties of Faith.”  In that chapter, Dulles points to five key properties:  “supernaturality, freedom, certitude and doubt, and obscurity.”  For Dulles, faith is primary, but it is faith in search of knowledge amidst the dynamic tension of certitude and doubt within the context of the ultimate obscurity of the mystery of God, given the fathomless range of His Kingdom and the inherently limited and flawed nature of our own understanding and will.  The gap between what we seek and what we possess is itself fathomless, though we press toward the mark in the midst of our groaning and travail, and in the process are occasionally given the light of the beautific vision of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of human history. 

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