An oscillating continuum:
Paul Tillich in Systematic Theology (1951) wrote that “[t]heology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundations and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received.” I think the best way to approach wilderness theology is through such systematic thought which leads us to understand its content through “revelatory anchoring”.
Herein the name “theology” marks a certain form, i.e. it must contain an oscillation, for such is the Spirit. Thus, I find myself in accord with Adam Kotsko’s continuum-proposal (see here) that sparked a great discussion in the comments section. Of particular interest to me was Tillich’s proposition:
“Philosophy formulates the questions implied in human existence, and theology formulates the answers implied in divine self-manifestation under the guidance of the questions implied in human existence. This is a circle which drives man to a point where question and answer are not separated…”
To recap, both philosophy and theology therefore belong to the realm of thought. As a result, and as we have found (see my post here), they both cannot be teachable in the way that mathematics might be.
The commenter continues by suggesting that “The primary difference is that though theology and philosophy both exist in the realm of thought (and thus exist in a continuum), theology begins with data that is not native or natural to human thought: revelation.” noting well that the historical event (Religion) always comes before-hand to condition theology, while Philosophy proper is markedly ahistorical and unconditional — an infinite task.
This is a brilliant insight is one whose undertones re-emerge in a post by Anthony Paul Smith a few months later entitled What’s love got to do with it?: On theology (see here), which similarly sparked even more insightful conversation. He discusses the stakes of studying theology, and Adam chimes in with three powerful (theological) reasons for practicing theology even as an atheist: Intellectual fascination, a fixation on “lost causes”, and lastly personal salvation.
While the last one is surely important, I believe Anthony strikes the right four-letter word when “love” escapes from his keyboard. Is practicing theology ultimately a matter of a radical, liberating love? I want to make a contribution to this discussion by bringing my triad of Schleiermacher, Novalis, and Barth back into the equation.
In recent years, there has been a considerable effort (such as here) to bring to light the importance and positivity of Schleiermacher’s thought and preaching to the development of Barth. If one is to take the life and death of Jesus as the historical Event which conditions his theology, it is clear to me how Barth is perhaps the penultimate “Christian” theologian, second only to St. Paul himself. His thought is, to be sure, the limit of a Jesus-centered theology. This “consistently dialectical” limit is arguably the same as that of Hegelian Aufhebung (see my post here).
As far as “accurate” modern interpretations of Barth are concerned, Molnar/Hunsinger’s reading (see here) appears to be certainly most true to the letter. Yet, I am compelled to believe that Bruce McCormack’s neo-Barthian reading (see here) keeps alive the Spirit of this oscillation, especially in conjunction with his idea that “all theology is a failure” — including presumably his own. Or, as Scheiermacher rightly says, “beginning in the middle is unavoidable” (Dialektik (2001), 1.353). McCormack certainly is not finished developing his thought, and it appears as though he has truly come a long way in his own personal journey.
If Barth were alive today, I am inclined to think he would have continued in the direction of McCormack, judging by geographical concepts like “primal history” (Urgeschichte) found in his remarks on Romans 1:3. Consider this passage from The Historical Jesus Question: The Challenge of History to Religious Authority by Gregory W. Dawes:
The anchor so to speak of Barth’s “Christ-centered” theology is clearly Jesus of Nazareth.
To put it in Tillich’s words, it is this base which, for Barth, is the “eternal truth of its [his] foundations”. I should like to, at this point, make a clean break with Barth as it is clear that we can now, for example, be Barthians no longer. To do this, one must lift this historical anchor, dislodge the transcendental “eternal truth”, and set sail towards a non-theology (see here) by way of insight from philosophy until they are indistinguishable. Such a trial means a de-centering and dis-placing of the importance of the historical Jesus, a move which will immediately strike Christians as heretical.
Yet, this is necessary only insofar as Barth does not really have a theology, insofar as he has but a “Jesusology” in its place. Is Barth’s account actually “Christ-centered”? For it is clear that at this point there is no oscillation; there is no force and movement of thought whatsoever in Barth’s account of “Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus”. We know very well what Barth said, but what are you going to say? What am I going to say? What is there to say about the temporal situation of the past, the present, the future?
We must depart from Barth, just as Barth departed from Schleiermacher.
To continue, insofar as Barth is mostly concerned with the moment when “the relation [between the two histories] becomes observable and observed” he is not concerned with any of the rest of the (un)knowable plane as such, independently of the other. Here, he is not wholly interested in the Divine in its entirety, as One-in-One. Does some important revelation escape him as he fixates on Jesus-the-Man in this way? Is there a belittlement of the unknown Spirit, a disruption of its harmony?
This unknown: the impossible, the incomputable, the unobserved … each of these must be held in perpetual balance with their absolute opposites. Perhaps these two histories are, in our immanent life, an overlapping one and the same without distinction. Perhaps this primal history is that of the Kantian thing-in-itself! A proper (non-)theology must have some kind of existential inertia to keep it going. In other words, it must not ever be at rest. Always restless.
It cannot be a mere point on the line of intersection, but it must be a multiplicity or plurality of thought. It must be, rather, a set of points which may or may not be visible from our present vantage point. It must be forever marvelous.
It must approach, but can never be, non-philosophy. For non-philosophy requires the lifting of any theological anchors, but a non-theology will always have a revelation-in-the-last-instance to condition it. A revelation is different from a determination. To have a revelation is in many ways to be in-determined. That is, a revelation is always already determined for us from without us.
With theology, we are to be held within this outside determination so as to keep the movement alive. We are but a part of a larger Whole (e.g. Jeremiah 23:11) which itself moves autonomously.
For this reason, while we may dispute its content, I wonder if there’s something positive and useful which can be said of the form of Barth’s geometrical argumentation. The content of theological thought seems to be necessarily given by revelation. We must take Barth, then, as but one point on the line, along with all other revelations of all other people in all other places and times.
It seems Barth rightly recognized this, and his genius here should not be underestimated as he will continually surprise you if you do. Dawes continues:
What does it mean to be a “witness to revelation”? We have forgot to ask: What is a revelation, anyways? Let us now say, tentatively, that a revelation is that which places an anchor in our lives. Etymologically, there is an unveiling or disclosure which makes an impact on us. This anchor can and should be lifted with future revelations. At this stage only, theology and philosophy are indeed polar opposites, as philosophy lifts anchors but theology places them.
But, at what point in this circle does a placing of an anchor become a lifting of one? Where are philosophy and theology inseparable? Where are question and answer mixed homogeneously?
21. Doing philosophy is a conversation with oneself of the above kind – an actual revelation of the self – arousal of the real self through the ideal self. Doing philosophy is the foundation of all other revelations. The decision to do philosophy is a challenge to the real self to reflect, to awaken and to be spirit. Without philosophy there is no true morality, and without morality no philosophy. 22. The possibility of all philosophy rests on the fact – that the intelligence endows itself with self-regulated movement – that is, its own form of activity – through acting on itself.
A philosophy is but a theology of revelations-in-the-instance, any instance, perhaps this very instance.
If to think non-philosophically is to think of a determination-in-the-last-instance, can we speak of a non-theology of revelations-in-the-last-instance? Can we think, and therefore act, on the possibility of all philosophical decision? Theologically, what are we going to say, and therefore do, in-the-last-instance? Or, can we develop, and therefore live, a truly “Christ-centered” theology without any necessary historical anchoring conditions, but instead with a plurality of self-regulated ones?
Christ is not the name of a person, but that of a vast place of the marvelous One. From here, let us begin to develop this (non-)theology of revelations-in-the-last-instance which I should like to call “Wilderness Theology”.
In sum, I offer ten (10) propositions on theology, revelations, and philosophy:
- Theology deals with movements of Spirit (form); an oscillatory continuum.
- Revelations follow from historical religious events; revelations are given by such events.
- Revelations condition theology by necessity; theology is anchored to such revelations.
- Unlike theology, philosophy marks a free decision;. philosophy is conditioned by a free decision.
- Philosophy is distinct from theology through an absence of necessary revelatory anchorage.
- A revelation of self-regulated movements of Spirit is the overlap of theology and philosophy; Geist.
- Non-philosophy is marked by a determination-in-the-last-instance; a plurality of such decisions.
- Revelations differ from determinations; the latter marks a free decision, the former a necessary one.
- Non-theology is marked by a revelation-in-the-last-instance; a multiplicity of such anchorages.
- Non-theology is a properly “Christ-centered” theology; Wilderness Theology.
Or, for a more formalized analogy:
Let us now wander a bit further in that in that place.
Dawes, Gregory W.. The Historical Jesus Question: The Challenge of History to Religious Authority. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Print.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Dialektik. 1. Aufl. ed. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001. Print.
Stoljar, Margaret Mahony. Novalis: Philosophical Writings. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1997. Print.
Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. Print.