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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Eberhard Jungel (1934 - )
Despite the relative recency of Jungel's work, he remains representative of a theological school which derives its thought primarily from Karl Barth, who was ascendant in the earlier part of the 20th century. 

Jungel has helped perpetuate a perception of reality as essentially two-tier, consisting of the supernatural and the natural. He has also reinforced those who look to Jesus as an archetype - one from whom we can obtain a blueprint of reality and therefore a template for our behaviour.

Brought up in Communist East Germany, he was denounced as an enemy of the Republic while still at school. Jungel eventually moved to teach theology in Zurich and then at the Protestant Faculty at T�bingen University. He showed a keen interest in the work of both Barth and Bultmann. Some perceive him as attempting to cross the divide which apparently separates the two.

Jungel's work spanned a wide variety of subjects, including the philosophy of religion, religious language, Christology, doctrines of God, the trinity, anthropology and religion, and natural theology.

His approach to the latter subject, which was particularly at issue in the 1980s, is revealing of the central conclusions which inform the rest of his work. The latter part of the 20th century is characterised by efforts to move away from the idea of the supernatural. As the idea that the universe is an unbounded system gains wider acceptance, so the likelihood of a detectable "other" dimension which is (a) perfect and (b) is the home of God and various heavenly spirits seems more and more improbable.

Natural theology is the search for evidence of God in the natural order which can be discerned without the help of the concept of revelation - that is, the passing of knowledge from the "other" dimension to the natural order by various means. Jungel rejects natural theology in this sense. In his view, this sort of natural theology compromises the "particularity" of the Christian revelation. It does so because Jesus thus becomes only one instance of a more generally available knowledge of God. Jungel appears to insist that a Christian revelation focused in Jesus has delivered a set of absolute truths to mankind, applicable to all people for ever.

The traditional language of Christianity insists ... on the fact that we must have said to us what the word "God" should be thought to mean. The presupposition is that ultimately only the speaking God himself can say what the word "God" should provide for us to think about. Theology comprehends this whole subject with the category of revelation. [1]

If revelation is rejected then the created order has not been penetrated or disturbed by God over the ages. Rather, it has been subject to an historical process only. This contradicts what Jungel perceives as a crucial intervention in our world by God. For him, Jesus is an "elemental interruption" in the natural order and in that sense is the revelatory "Word" of God - the way God has spoken to us. "Natural theology" in its usual sense changes to become for Jungel human thought concerned only with the implications of revelation through Jesus.

It's not surprising that Jungel's conclusions about the nature of man propose that the only way of discovering the purpose of mankind is to search the nature and purpose of Jesus. This is because Jesus determines the humanness of everyone. This is in turn because he is to be defined as "God's humanity" - the primary decisive way in which God has transformed our reality. 

In other words, our humanity is defined through Jesus as God entering the world from outside the universe. If we want to know how to behave, Jesus is our primary source of such knowledge. So, for example, we can survey the life of Jesus and conclude that it is truly human to strive for righteousness. To know Jesus is to know God.

Because in line with Barth and others he holds that God is wholly different from humanity, Jungel needs to assert that we know God only through Jesus. God is completely "other". Therefore we can know God only through revelation. That is, God reveals himself through Jesus, and Jesus through the scriptures. Thus Jesus is the only source of faith.

The cross is a focal point of Jungel's theology. God transforms humanity in and through the person of Jesus on the cross, and hence determines how we think of God. In this sense human thoughts of God are not spontaneous but are stimulated indirectly by an external agency revealing itself in an historical event. We experience the "death of God" on the cross. Jungel thinks this is how we can explain a suffering God (insofar as language can capture any such concept). Jesus suffering on the cross is God suffering without becoming finite or himself subject to external cause ("contingent"). In the early Church this teaching might well have been regarded as heresy since it was thought and taught that God cannot suffer ("impassibility").

Thus the cross is our primary way of knowing what God is like. And because it is God who suffers, the cross can become a way to life through the resurrection. As Jungel puts it, God is "... the unity of life and death in favour of life" - an interesting juggling of words which appears to convey a sort of truth. But then, it seems to me, Jungel's talent is precisely for that: the ability to weave an intricate web of theological language, largely derived in his case from reworking the conclusions of others.

Jungel did a considerable amount of work on the New Testament. But his primary conclusions don't seem to take seriously the substantial differences between a historical Jesus (insofar as we can recall such a person) and a "kerygmatic" or "preached" Jesus of the early Church, Paul and the gospels. Nor does he consider the impact upon science, history and other modern disciplines of his essentially supernatural approach.

Jungel did not like traditional terms for God - transcendent, immutable, impassible and the like. He preferred to describe God through Jesus who "... is as it were the material definition of what is meant by God." This seems to mean that insofar as anyone can know God at all, a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, is the highest means.

It follows from the above emphasis that the person of Jesus looms large in Jungel's theology. It is the preaching of Jesus, especially his parables, which impacts decisively upon us. Jesus is unique - and becomes in himself an "elemental interruption" in the normal processes of the natural world. "Jesus is not himself apart from God " - an example of yet more clever word-play.

Jungel is known for his work on the philosophy of religion. One thing underpins this work - that God's "self-announcement" in Jesus is normative. Like Luther and Barth, he thinks that it is revelation which provides both norms and sources for any philosophy of religion. Reason is therefore not foundational in our conclusions about ourselves and our natural environment. They can't be set apart from Christian belief and they follow from it.

The theologian's job is therefore to study philosophy, not as a means of arriving at even tentative conclusions about the nature of reality, but in terms of its compatibility with the primacy of Jesus as God's self-manifestation in the world. Philosophy's role is "instructive" in that it is meant to help to clarify the Christian confession. It explicates the Christian faith. It furnishes arguments and concepts for the "positive language" of scripture and confession when they speak less clearly than they should. As Jungel wrote: "One must cease to be a philosopher if one believes in the God who only comes to speech in the gospel."

In terms of trends in the 21st century Jungel's case would seem to some to fail in its complete reliance on Jesus as the source of all knowledge of God - indeed as the source of everything foundational in life. Study of the New Testament over the past 200 years or so has revealed that we don't have sufficient information about the Jesus of history for him to be a behavioural and philosophical model in the archetypal sense that Jungel's position requires.

Jungel himself avoids this problem by asserting (with Bultmann) that the nature of Jesus is "kerygmatic". That is, the essence of Jesus is defined not by an historical person but by the interpretations and preaching of the early Church.
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[1] God As the Mystery of the World, T&T Clark, 1983

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