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)



... 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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Existentialism  (Continued)

Because God is "utterly other", God can't be analysed or grasped by the human mind. Reason can take us so far and no further. We know God only through revelation. That comes to us through the Bible. We can analyse the structure and origins of the Bible using our reason. But in the final analysis it is "faith" which takes us through appearances into wisdom and salvation. There are no rational grounds for choosing Christianity. We choose through faith.

Contemporary with Barth was Rudolf Bultmann. His aim was to advance Christian understanding through critical analysis of the New Testament. The latter was, he thought, built upon pre-scientific cosmology. It is our task to extract from this the kernel of the gospel.

The shell of the gospel is made up of myths, the preferred way of conveying the truths of existence in Jesus' time. Bultmann wrote, "The historical person of Jesus was very soon turned into a myth in primitive Christianity." We can't recover the Jesus of history, but we can find the kerygma or divine message to humankind.

Merely to swallow whole the mythical Jesus is to avoid the angst of existential choice, said Bultmann. The alternative is authentic existence in which we can decide for ourselves about the divine message.

An example of authentic choice is when we face death. The New Testament is dominated by the eschatological idea that God will one day send Jesus to establish his earthly kingdom. Through this we will, it is told, either avoid death or be brought back to life. This is clearly a myth. Only when we accept that it is so are we freed to face up to the angst of our inevitable end.

Like Barth, Bultmann thought that we can't know God and God's purposes directly. Only through revelation can God come to us. He differed from Barth in proposing that revelation isn't confined to any one point or several points in history. Rather, "In every moment slumbers the possibility of being the eschatological moment. You must awaken to it" [4].

Paul Tillich became famous for the way in which he adapted existentialism to explore how theology deals with questions of being. He spoke of attempting to "correlate" the existential situation of humanity with Christian revelation. He tried to "... correlate the questions implied in the situation with the answers implied in the message" [5].

God or "being-itself", he thought, represents our existence when we overcome the angst and doubt which arises when we confront existential nothingness. "After this has been said, nothing else can be said about God as God which is not symbolic," he wrote. The traditional God of theism (that God is a person or entity separate from the universe) does not exist.

If reality appears meaningless to us we are called to adopt a way of regarding reality which gives it meaning. For example, to recognise our finitude is to also recognise the necessity of the infinite. 

Man's ultimate concern, therefore, is to seek in life for the ultimate ground of being. This is, of course, a symbol. But, said Tillich, we mustn't think that symbols are weak. On the contrary they are powerful conveyers of truth. For example, we can speak of God as a "person" who loves us. But that's only a symbol. When we mistakenly make any symbol ultimate, it immediately becomes demonic. Myths are symbolic and, unlike Bultmann, Tillich argues for their retention.

Because of its pervading and profound effect on 20th century thought, some general comments on existentialism in relation to the larger picture occur to me:

  • The potential devaluation of metaphysics detected by many in existentialism has proved temporary. It seems to me that, far from being downgraded, metaphysical thought has been strengthened. New theological and philosophical systems will always be devised on the basis of axioms. But consciousness of the inadequacy or relativity of all axiomatic systems has been immeasurably heightened. We are, I think, now more able than before to [a] appreciate the value of such systems while [b] recognising their inherent limitations.

  • In tandem with the above has arisen an increasing awareness that we create reality. Entire cultures sometimes adopt unique social perceptions. Each person perceives the world differently. Postmodernism is an extreme form of this conclusion. In effect, each postmodern person experiences his or her unique personal world. There is no such thing as "the meaning" of a text or painting. The viewer's is the only valid meaning. In consequence meaning can't be verified, but only reported on..

  • There has been a return to reason. Postmodernism's central thesis has been widely admitted in the West. But refuge of a sort has been found in the idea of sufficient consensus. That is, we take something to "really exist" when enough people concur that it "is there". If nine out of ten say a colour is red, then the pink vote takes a mandatory back seat - though the "reality" of the pink perception isn't necessarily denied. Nor is it necessarily true that the nine are "correct" in any absolute sense.

  • What is broadly termed the scientific method has in turn become more rigorous. This is because science has been found out in its claim to be objective. There is wide acceptance that scientific explanations are themselves creations of our perceptions. These are often termed paradigms. They are, in essence, metaphorical ways of rendering the results of experiment. Scientific revolutions occur when a new paradigm replaces an old. The resulting uncertainty about scientific "truth" has forced attention more onto method and technique than ever before.

  • The Barthian refuge in "faith beyond reason" halted historical research into the New Testament in the 20th century for decades. If reason took one only so far, and faith then delivered God's revelation, why fret too much about the historical Jesus? While not denying the value of taking commitment beyond reason, scholars have renewed the search for the Jesus of history. It has been recognised - though perhaps only by a minority as yet - that the Jesus of the first century cannot be fully recovered. At the same time, the Jesus of history we can discover delimits Christianity without specifying what it is. Jesus as pioneer replaces Jesus as archetype. When that happens, the way is open to reinterpret the faith.

[1] Twentieth-Century Religious Thought, SCM Press, 1963
[2] The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967
[3] The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, quoted by Macquarrie
[4] Kerygma and Myth, 1941 
[5] Systematic Theology, 1957

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