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The Christian FaithA Systematic Theology For Pilgrims On The Way
By Michael S. Horton
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Michael Horton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDISSONANT DRAMAS: PARADIGMS FOR KNOWING GOD AND THE WORLD
Any genuine field of knowledge (the older meaning of scientia or "science") must have an object — in other words, a subject matter. Furthermore, that object must be knowable. Astronomy is a legitimate science because planets, stars, and other bodies in space actually exist and can be studied. Theology is "the study of God." For reasons explored later in the chapter, the object shifted in the modern era (with notable exceptions) from God and his works to humanity and its morality, spirituality, and experience. Science came to refer narrowly to the empirical sciences, and religion could only be a legitimate discipline only to the extent that it was studied as a natural phenomenon of culture. As a consequence, theology has become largely a subdiscipline of psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, or history of religions, even in universities with a Christian past. As we will see, theologians themselves pioneered this turn to the self in the hope of making Christianity more relevant and acceptable in our world.
The opening claim of this systematic theology is that the triune God is the object of theology and that this God is knowable because he has revealed himself to us. To explore this claim, we will begin with the widest horizon. Although this is the most philosophical chapter in this volume, our discussion will draw on the content of the Christian faith itself in order to develop the basic presuppositions of our worldview. From this widest horizon, we will narrow our focus to the character of theology, revelation, and Scripture.
I. Dissonant Dramas: The Nature of Reality
The widest horizon for theology — indeed for all of our knowledge — is the question of ontology: what is reality? Nothing is more central to our governing narratives than the God-world relation. In an important essay, existentialist philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) suggested that all of the varied schools and theories in philosophy of religion can be grouped under two contrasting paradigms: overcoming estrangement and meeting a stranger. Adding a third, which I will call the stranger we never meet, I will define these paradigms and then defend a version of meeting a stranger that fits with the biblical drama.
A. Pantheism and Panentheism: Overcoming Estrangement
The first grand narrative erases (or tends to erase) the infinite-qualitative distinction between God and creatures. Narrated in myriad myths across many cultures, this is the story of the ascent of the soul — that divine part of us, which has somehow become trapped in matter and history. Although it originates in dualism — a stark (even violent) opposition between finite and infinite, matter and spirit, time and eternity, humanity and God, the goal is to reestablish the unity of all reality. In some versions, only that which is infinite, spiritual, eternal, and divine is real, so all else perishes or is somehow elevated into the upper world. Nevertheless, the goal is to lose all particularity and diversity in the One, which is Being itself.
If one begins with a story of the cosmos in which the divine is somehow buried within us, a sacred spark or soul trapped in a body, space, and time, then the ultimate source of reality is not outside of us but inside. God does not enter into the times and spaces that he has created; rather, all of reality emanates from this divine principle of unity like rays from the sun.
In Platonism, for example, spiritual/intellectual entities possess more "being," while aspects of reality that belong more to history and matter fall down the ladder in diminishing grades of being. To the "upper world" belong the eternal forms: unchanging, one, and real; the "lower world" consists of the realm of mere appearances: ever-changing, diverse, and shadowy in their existence. In the case of human beings, the mind or spirit is the immortal spark of divinity, while the emotions are slaves of the body and its bondage to the realm of mere appearances. We just need to go deeper within to find the truth, overcoming our sense of estrangement from "being" by returning to the source of a single Light.
In this perspective, if God is considered in personal terms at all, not just as a unifying principle (namely, The One, Ground of Being, Absolute Spirit, the Unity of All, etc.), he is certainly not viewed as someone other, standing over against the self, especially in judgment. In other words, divinity is domesticated, brought inside of the self, so that it can no longer threaten, judge, rule, or condemn. This type of deity does not offend, disrupt, command, or save; rather than a stranger, God, the gods, or the divine principle is the most immanent and personal aspect of one's own existence.
Although the confusion of the Creator with creation characterizes paganism generally, it formed the horizon for Greek philosophy. In the second century, a movement arose within esoteric Jewish and Christian groups that tried to reinterpret the biblical narrative in a basically Greek philosophical framework. Known as Gnosticism, this heresy was decisively challenged by Irenaeus (AD 115 - 202), bishop of Lyons. In contrast to the biblical story of a good creation, the fall into sin through transgressing the covenant, and redemption through Christ's incarnate life, death, and resurrection, the Gnostics sought redemption from an evil creation through inner enlightenment (gnosis). Plundering the Bible for its material, Gnostic sects offered a radical reinterpretation. The God of creation (Yahweh), represented in the Old Testament, becomes the evil deity who imprisons divine souls in bodies, while the serpent in the garden sought to liberate Adam and Eve through inner enlightenment. The God of redemption (Christ), revealed in the Gnostic "gospels," is an avatar of sorts, leading initiates away from their bodily incarceration in history, toward their divine destiny.
While distancing himself from the Gnostics, Origen of Alexandria (AD 185-254) nevertheless tried to assimilate Christian doctrine to a fundamentally Platonist scheme. In this he was following Philo of Alexandria, who had developed a system of Jewish Platonism with great success a century earlier. Origen rejected the biblical doctrine of ex nihilo creation and downplayed the reality of Christ's physical embodiment in his incarnation, ascension, and return in the flesh. He also taught reincarnation and the final restoration of all spiritual entities, including Satan and the fallen angels. For these speculations, Origen was later judged heretical by the Christian East, but his Platonized version of Christianity remained powerful and long-lasting especially in monastic movements.
Within the history of Western Christianity there have been tendencies among some mystics to move in a pantheistic direction. An extreme example is the fourteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart, who wrote in a characteristic sermon, "To the inward-turned man all things have an inward divinity.... Nothing is so proper to the intellect, nor so present and near as God." The connection between rationalism and mysticism is as old as Platonism itself. This outer-inner dualism has characterized much of radical mysticism in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as in Sufi Islam and Jewish Kabbalism. This trajectory continued in radical Protestantism from the Anabaptists to the early Enlightenment. It is especially evident in the philosophy of Benedict Spinoza (1632-77), which was revived in German Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. Its influence is evident in the dominant forms of theological liberalism and especially today in New Age and neopagan spiritualities.
Even in its dualism (for example, between spirit and matter), the pantheistic worldview is ultimately monistic. In other words, all of reality is ultimately one. There is no distinction, finally, between God and the world. While bodies may be lower than souls on the ladder of being, all of reality emanates from a single source to which it returns. In spite of the hierarchy of being, all distinctions — even between God and creation — become gradually lost. For example, theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther seeks to go back behind Christianity to ancient Near Eastern pagan myths and Gnosticism for a holistic (i.e., monistic) worldview. "The visible universe is the emanational manifestation of God, God's sacramental body."
Some have tried to blend pantheism ("all is divine") with belief in a personal God (theism). Often identified as panentheism ("all-within-God"), this view holds that "God" or the divine principle transcends the world, although God and the world exist in mutual dependence. In varying degrees of explicit dependence, panentheism is the working ontology of process theology and the theologies of Teilhard de Chardin, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Jürgen Moltmann among many others, especially those working at the intersection of theology and the philosophy of science. 10 Some panentheists envision the world as the body of God.
B. Atheism and Deism: The Stranger We Never Meet
At the other end of the spectrum from pantheism and panentheism are atheism and deism. Although Buddhism denies the existence of a personal God, Western atheism rejects any transcendent reality beyond the world of sense experience. Deism affirms the existence of a Creator God, but generally denies that this Architect of the Universe intervenes miraculously in nature or history. Especially as formulated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, modern atheism sees religion as arising from a psychological need to project something or someone to whom one can pray in the face of the threats and tragedies in a random and chaotic universe.
Nietzsche advocated an "inverted Platonism," where the upper world is illusion and the lower world is real. In fact, the dualism of two worlds is rejected as an illusion perpetuated by Christianity. Drawing on classical Greek myth, Nietzsche identifies Apollo (the god of order) with Plato's upper world and Dionysus (the god of pagan revelry and chaotic self-indulgence) with the lower world. Where the death of ultimate meaning led Schopenhauer to a state of depression — a passive resignation to fate — his disciple Nietzsche embraced it as a call to create meaning for ourselves. "That my life has no aim is evident from the accidental nature of its origin. That I can posit an aim for myself is another matter." As Mark C. Taylor expresses it, "The lawless land of erring, which is forever beyond good and evil, is the liminal world of Dionysus, the Anti-Christ, who calls every wandering mark to carnival, comedy, and carnality."
Amid important differences, there are some surprising similarities between pantheism and atheism. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin. Both embrace the view that being is univocal: in other words, that there is only one kind of reality or existence. In this perspective, there is reality (that which exists) and then there are particular beings who exist, such as divine and non-divine entities. In the "overcoming estrangement" paradigm of pantheism, the physical world is a weak projection of an eternal (real) world. In the atheistic paradigm ("the stranger we never meet"), the projection is reversed; in fact, the longing for transcendent meaning and truth reflects a form of psychological neurosis, nostalgia for a nonexistent "beyond" that paralyzes our responsibility in the present. In other words, pantheism assumes that the upper world is real and this world is mere appearance, while atheism assumes that this world is real and the upper world is nonexistent. In their drive toward immanence, both paradigms locate the divine within the self (reducing theology to anthropology or psychology). When, under the influence of the pantheistic scheme, modern theologians emphasized religion as a purely inner affair of mystical experience or personal piety, the atheist was then quite warranted to regard God's existence as an entirely subjective claim with no bearing on actual reality.
Excerpted from The Christian Faith by Michael S. Horton Copyright © 2011 by Michael Horton. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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