DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Emil Brunner (1899-1966)
Revelation is the concept around which Brunner centres his thinking. If Karl Barth emphasised the primacy of faith over intellect, Brunner excluded man's capacity to reason from any connection with revelation.

He was only 15 when in 1914 he wrote Symbolism in Religious Knowledge, a discussion of the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl. By 1924 he had evolved his ideas on revelation. In Die Mystik und das Wort he criticised Schleiermacher for supposing that Christianity might be one of a group of religions which could be more or less equated with each other. Brunner proposed that neither natural theology nor personal experience are adequate for true knowledge. Only revelation from God can provide that and Christianity is the perfect revelation - in which case Schleiermacher is wrong.

Revelation means rather the emergence of the eternal basis of all phenomena into consciousness, the perception of something which was always true ... hence in this connection both revelation and religion are spoken of in the singular. (The Mediator)

Brunner was educated in Switzerland. His army service in the Great European War (1914-18) gave him experience which he later used as a pastor. He became Professor of Theology at Zurich and lectured widely around the world. Brunner was later heavily involved in the work of the World Council of Churches. He also had a short spell supporting the Moral Rearmament movement.

Brunner, like Barth, is known today as one who thought of revelation as "dialectical". That is, following Hegel, revelation is a process of change in which humans pass over into and are preserved by their opposite. A point of view, a philosophy,  an ideology (thesis) are each inevitably engaged most starkly with their opposite (antithesis). That's the nature of how things work in our world. The engagement is dialectical - one in which there is a sort of argument back and forth. What happens as a result of this process is that neither extreme turns out to be correct. An amalgam or a third option is gradually adopted (synthesis). So in science an hypothesis may be opposed by another hypothesis. But when all the evidence is gathered and the experiments done, what usually comes out is not one or the other but a theory which turns out to be a third option.

This device diminishes and perhaps even gets rid of problems of contradiction which revelation normally poses. If, for example, God is good, how is it that he allows evil and the consequent suffering and damnation of people he's supposed to love and value? Brunner would answer that we are able to escape this contradiction if we choose what the intellect can't give us - namely, the absolute certainty which revealed truth potentially gives us. In more contemporary terms, his point might be expressed by the idea of polarity. God as the absolute good can occupy a dimension of goodness at the other pole of which is evil mankind. The difference is that there is no dialectic in the Hegelian sense, because God's polarity is the right one.

Karl Barth thought this was mistaken. He held that people are unable to "choose" revelation in this way. Salvation from sin for Barth was something given by God to a person of faith, freely and without strings attached, something to be grasped or entered into but not chosen from among alternatives.

Although, said Brunner, people are able to respond to revelation, they do so not to a set of propositions but to the generous act of a personal God. In harmony with Martin Buber, Brunner perceived this response as an "I-Thou" encounter, an encounter between persons.

Brunner's ethics and social philosophy were set out in The Divine Imperative (1932) and Man in Revolt (1937). He proposed, following Luther, that there are natural social orders in creation. These are not derived from God's revelation of truth but have always been there as part of the natural order. 

How then are we to know which of a large number of social orders - from autocracy to democracy, for example - are the right ones? Those which have been "authorised" by the Bible, answered Brunner. So, for example, we know that monogamy is better than polygamy or adultery because the former has been blessed by Jesus. Similarly, we know that the State has authority over the individual and over its constituent groups because Jesus said "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's". These are both examples of the clarity given us by revelation. So, for example, Brunner would not have found the idea of situation ethics appealing because it proposes that the situation, not revealed morality, dictates how best love is to be applied in life.

In short, social order has the function not of promoting good but of restraining sin. Brunner apparently perceives the Fall as resulting in original sin. People are essentially sub-human after the Fall - they become what Brunner calls "derivative" persons. God is the "original" person (shades of Plato) whose nature humanity in the persons of Adam and Eve shared before the Fall. Derivative persons cannot, he thought, fully comprehend their lost personhood. 

More than that, we all reject true personhood by our desire for individual autonomy, which can be equated with the first rebellion (the Fall) against God. Mankind in groups is equally sub-human. The Totalitarian State is the incarnation of depersonalisation. In this sense, Brunner was in direct opposition to the incoming tide of what is generally termed "humanism" by those who seek to preserve the inherent sinfulness and corruption of human nature. He would have been unable to affirm, as does the humanist, that human nature is created as it is. It is neither perfect nor corrupt. It is just what it is - the result of a long process of evolution, genetic coding and cultural forces.

This is not to say that humans don't sin, nor that the consequences of that sin don't percolate from generation to generation. But it is to say that a much smaller part of each of us can be termed sinful, and in a very different way, than traditional Christianity teaches. Brunner would hold that we need revelation precisely because if we didn't have it, we might not know (perhaps could not know) right from wrong as we should.

Brunner attempts to balance this rather gloomy and negative perception of human nature by his vision of Jesus Christ. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus, he says, is the personification of God. Only the perfect love which Jesus has demonstrated can break through the rebellious self-will which infects us all. Jesus is the perfect, final and only revelation of the person of God and it is to him that we must turn for renewal. Jesus is the perfect model or archetype for us all. He is the first of type upon which all of the same type should model themselves.

Revelation is thus "general" in the sense that God is always revealing the divine nature to us, even through primitive people and their religions. It is more importantly "particular" in the sense that Jesus is a once and for all revelation, a timeless and decisive revelation. Our vision of the original God is perverted by sin and so we can have genuine knowledge only through Jesus as the Christian revelation. Brunner wrote: 

Revelation is therefore fundamentally different from all other forms of knowledge, because it is not knowledge of something but the meeting of the Unconditioned with the conditioned subject.

What Christians give to society is really a sort of by-product because of the great distance between Christianity and any type of civilisation. Similarly, Christianity is distanced qualitatively from all other religions. Another way of putting this would be to say that the only true civilisation is a Christian one, built solely upon the vision of Jesus in the Bible. It therefore doesn't matter, for example, that we don't have as much information about Jesus as a normal biography would today require. What we have is enough because it is, to all intents and purposes, infallible.

True knowledge is typified by the title of his book, Truth as Encounter. We can only know God by encountering divinity in a personal way. "The Lordship and love of God can be communicated in no other way than by God's self-giving," he wrote. Revelation is directed precisely towards this goal - the establishment of a personal relationship between the God who reveals, and humanity which receives the revelation: 

Through God alone can God be known. This is not a specifically Christian principle; on the contrary, it is the principle common to all religion and indeed, to the philosophy of religion as a whole.

It follows that truth is not something we discover. Neither does it consist of propositions and ideas which are disclosed to us. It is something which happens in space/time - that is, it is historical in the same sense that any historical event is part of the complex web of events. Similarly the "content" of revelation isn't a philosophy but a person. Just as we don't primarily know facts about a personal relationship but experience it as a sort of gestalt, so also we don't know about Jesus but encounter him as a person in history in our own lives.

Whereas Barth proposed that reason can take one only so far along the path of knowledge, after which the "eye of faith" takes over, Brunner sets the human intellect aside completely. God cannot be represented by words, propositions or mental constructs. Philosophy is ultimately useless as a means of true knowledge. In Barth's model, human rationality is corrected by faith. In Brunner's, 

... in the case of the idea of God, it is not merely a matter of correction but of a complete substitution of the one for the other. 

Revelation dominates reason utterly. The God of philosophy is not the revealed God because [1] this God is an entity inferred, by exploration and reason, from nature, and [2] this makes God an object rather than a person who must necessarily be encountered to be known

What is to be made of Brunner's idea of revelation as history, something which happens in space and time? How can an historian identify a revelatory event as distinct from every other non-revelatory event? For it must be assumed that there are at least two classes of event, revelatory and others, since if all history is revelation there is no point in any distinction.

It seems to me that Brunner can only declare revelation as history if he means by "history" something else than is normally meant by it. The history of historians seeks to discover "what really happened". This requires, by all accounts, that the search begins with a scepticism which doubts the veracity of every version of the past except that which is backed up by good evidence, in turn selected by good judgement. Every piece of evidence is no good unless it is properly warranted as such. When the historian's considered version of history is presented, it is validated by consensus - a consensus of those who have examined the evidence and in turn exercised their own judgement. In the entire process of historical exploration, intellectual effort and integrity is at a premium. Good history is sought out by reason. As one philosopher of history (Van Austin Harvey) writes: "The morality of knowledge is not the antithesis of faith but its expression." 

In short, Brunner's version of "history" destroys history. And if that's the case, then there is no point in discussing the contents of the Bible in terms of historical discipline. The entire body of criticism must be dismissed because it depends on exactly the same criteria for its validity as does history. Although it's not easy to see it, Brunner is forced into what's essentially a fundamentalist position about the Bible.

The dialectical theologians of the Barthian school hold that faith extends beyond reason. Brunner says that faith negates reason. The position which I think is presently evolving is, very briefly put, that faith may reach further than reason but should never deny it. Reason may extend to faith - but faith without reason ceases to be faith.

If revelation is historical in the sense that there are revelation-events amongst other historical events, then it should be possible for historians to sort out one from the other. To do so it must be possible to posit those characteristics of revelatory history which ordinary history does not possess, and vice versa. I know of no such accomplishment. But if this is possible, then it's obvious to which type humankind should pay attention. Revelation is, by definition, impossible to refute.

Brunner's framework (intellectually argued, by the way, and hence, on his own account, not of much use) does not examine this issue directly. He assumes the answer lies in the doctrine of the Bible as God's "Word" or revelation. 

The Scriptures bear witness to this unique character of the Christian revelation - a revelation that can never be repeated. 

If so, he must maintain that the Bible is inspired by God in the sense that it has been written by God through the hands of men. If any human intelligence is allowed in this inspiration, then Brunner's idea of revelation falls away. It is also a profoundly circular argument. The Bible, which is God's ultimate revelation to humanity, bears witness to its own nature.

 It's not clear in what sense Brunner means the word "personal" when he says that revelation is a personal event. Nevertheless it seems to me that he implies that persons are not objects about which data is to be gathered, but entities which can only be revealed through encounter. Mere information I have about you isn't much good, because only when we have encountered each other can we truly know each other.

If this is true of God, it must be asked how we are to differentiate between "knowing God" as Person and knowing "about God" as data. Brunner must be using the word "person" in some specialised sense because personal knowledge is normally an assembly of data - albeit profoundly complex - about another person. We discover one another in relationship by gradually gathering information about past behaviours which allow us to assess present behaviours and sometimes to predict future behaviours. In other words, each of us consists in a huge range of complex data which is to some degree analysable. This is not to deny that we also simply experience each other from time to time without thinking about it.

If we use the "person" metaphor about God (metaphor being the only way we can "describe" the "totally Other"), in what ways precisely does it differ from the normal meaning of "person"? Brunner doesn't make this clear except to hold up Jesus as the nearest we'll get to knowing God. 

But the problem doesn't go away simply by removing it a step from the supernatural to the natural. Not only must one know Jesus in exactly the same way one knows anyone (since he is fully human), but we must have enough data to know him as a person - in the same way that individuals know each other in an intimate relationship. It has for at least 100 years now been acknowledged that we don't know enough to write a Biography of Jesus Christ. If we had, would we and could we know Jesus at a truly personal level even then? There are many biographies of President John Kennedy of the United States. Do they allow any of us to know him personally? I doubt it.

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