To Be or Not To Be Religious: A Clarification of Karl Barth’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Divergence and Convergence Regarding Religion

Christian theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) inherited a particular understanding of religion. In the broadly post-Kantian milieu, nineteenth-century thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack defined religion essentially, anthropologically, and subjectively. That is, religion has a particular essence, and is in some manner inalienable from our humanity. The emphasis of this conception is on the experience of the religious subject, instead of the knowledge of religion’s object (let alone its reality).[1] It is this notion of religion that both Barth and Bonhoeffer challenged.

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

However, despite the challenge they issued to their shared intellectual heritage, Barth and Bonhoeffer appear to diverge on both the definition and, therefore, the critique of religion – at least during the stage of Bonhoeffer’s 1943-45 imprisonment. While Barth unleashed a thoroughgoing theological critique of religion as faithlessness [Unglaube], he also insisted that humans were always and unavoidably religious.[2] Barth maintained that, despite the liabilities of religion, we cannot and should not be religionless because we are not truly godless.[3] Bonhoeffer, however, spoke in 1944-45 of a desirably “religionless Christianity.”[4] This, despite the fact that he ostensibly intended to carry forward Barth’s theological critique of religion – which was, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion, Barth’s “greatest merit” as a theologian.[5]

Whether Barth and Bonhoeffer share a common theological critique of religion has been subject to intense scholarly debate. To answer this question, we need first to ask another: What did Barth and Bonhoeffer mean by the term “religion”?  I propose that, although Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s definitions of religion diverge, their critiques of religion converge. Barth developed a systematic/dialectical concept of religion as self-justification, which the early Bonhoeffer inherited. However, in prison, Bonhoeffer developed a historical/psychological definition of religion as an inward and partial approach to human life. We must realize that these are two different definitions of religion, lest we compare apples to oranges, as it were, and conclude that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critiques of religion also diverged.

Once we realize the divergent definitions, we can see the convergent critiques of a particular essence of religion: the self-justifying projection of a deity – a projection which calls for theological analysis. That is, for both Barth and Bonhoeffer, at the heart of “religion” is the impulse to posit and make room for a “God,” in order to secure our own identities by means of and over against this deity. Although religion, thus understood, is inescapable, it is not constitutive of our humanity.

[[To continue reading, download the PDF: To Be or Not To Be Religious.]]

—Notes—

[1] See Christine Axt-Piscalar, “Liberal Theology in Germany,” in The Blackwell Companion to Nineteenth-Century Theology, ed. David Fergusson (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 468–85; Ernst Feil et al., “Religion,” in Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion, vol. 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 31–55; James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[2] See Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, trans. Garrett Green (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2006). This is a new translation of §17 in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 280–361. Henceforth, all references to the Church Dogmatics will appear in the following form: CD I/1, 1.

[3] CD IV/1, 483.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best et al., DBWE 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 361–67.

[5] Ibid., 429.

30 Works on Karl Barth & Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Are There Others?

  1. ABROMEIT, Hans-Jürgen. Das Geheimnis Christi: Dietrich Bonhoeffers erfahrungsbezogene Christologie. Neukirchener Beiträge zur systemaschen Theologie 8. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991.
  2. BEINTKER, Michael. “Kontingenz und Gegenständlichkeit: Zu Bonhoeffers Barth-Kritik in ‘Akt und Sein.’” In Krisis und Gnade: Gesammelte Studien zu Karl Barth, edited by Stefan Holtmann and Peter Zocher, 29–54. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.
  3. BENKTSON, Benkt-Erik. Christus Und Die Religion: Der Religionsbegriff Bei Barth, Bonhoeffer Und Tillich. Arbeiten Zur Theologie, II/9. Stuttgart: Calwer, 1967.
  4. BETHGE, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Edited by Victoria J. Barnett. Revised. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1967.
  5. BOOMGAARDEN, Jürgen. Das Verständnis der Wirklichkeit: Dietrich Bonhoeffers systematische Theologie und ihr philosophischer Hintergrund in “Akt und Sein.” Gütersloh: Chr. Kaiser/Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1999.
  6. BURTNESS, James H. “As Though God Were Not Given: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Finitum Capax Infiniti.” Dialog 19, no. 4 (1980): 249–55.
  7. DEJONGE, Michael P. Bonhoeffer’s Theological Formation: Berlin, Barth, and Protestant Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  8. EICHINGER, Franz. “Zwischen Transzendentalphilosophie und Ontologie: Zur kritisch-systematischen Standortbestimmung der Theologie beim frühen Bonhoeffer.” In Vernunftfähiger – vernunftbedürftiger Glaube: Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Johann Reikerstorfer-, edited by Kurt Appel, Wolfgang Treitler, and Peter Zeillinger, 65–86. Religion – Kultur – Recht 3. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2005.
  9. FEIL, Ernst. The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Translated by Martin Rumscheidt. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
  10. GODSEY, John D. “Barth and Bonhoeffer: The Basic Difference.” Quarterly Review 7, no. 1 (1987): 9–27.
  11. ———. The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960.
  12. GREEN, Clifford J. Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality. Revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
  13. ———. “Trinity and Christology in Bonhoeffer and Barth.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60, no. 1–2 (2006): 1–22.
  14. GREGGS, Tom. Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2011.
  15. ———. “The Influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Karl Barth.” In Engaging Bonhoeffer: The Impact and Influence and Impact of Bonhoeffer’s Life and Thought, edited by Matthew Kirkpatrick. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016.
  16. KAMPHUIS, Barend. Boven En Beneden: Het Uitgangspunt van de Christologie En de Problematiek van de Openbaring Nagegaan Aan de Hand van de Ontwikkelingen Bij Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer En Wolfhart Pannenberg. Kampen: Kok, 1999.
  17. KARTTUNEN, Tomi. Die Polyphonie Der Wirklichkeit: Erkenntnistheorie Und Ontologie in Der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers. University of Joensuu Publications in Theology 11. Joensuu: University of Joensuu, 2004.
  18. KRÖTKE, Wolf. Barmen – Barth – Bonhoeffer: Beiträge Zu Einer Zeitgemäßen Christozentrischen Theologie. Unio Und Confessio 26. Bielefeld: Luther-Verlag, 2009.
  19. LEHMANN, Paul L. “The Concreteness of Theology: Reflections on the Conversation between Barth and Bonhoeffer.” In Footnotes to a Theology: The Karl Barth Colloquium of 1972, edited by Martin Rumscheidt, 53–76. Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1974.
  20. MARSH, Charles. Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  21. MAYER, Rainer. Christuswirklichkeit: Grundlagen, Entwicklungen Und Konsequenzen Der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers. Arbeiten Zur Theologie, II/15. Stuttgart: Calwer, 1969.
  22. PANGRITZ, Andreas. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘Within, Not Outside, the Barthian Movement.’” In Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in His Thought, edited by Peter Frick, 29:245–82. Religion in Philosophy and Theology. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.
  23. ———. Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
  24. PUFFER, Matthew. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Theology of Karl Barth.” In Karl Barth in Conversation, edited by W. Travis McMaken and David W. Congdon, 46–62. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014.
  25. REUTER, Hans-Richard. “Editor’s Afterword to the German Edition.” In Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology, 162–83. DBWE 2. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.
  26. SHERMAN, Franklin. “Act and Being.” In The Place of Bonhoeffer: Problems and Possibilities in His Thought, edited by Martin E. Marty, 83–111. New York: Association Press, 1962.
  27. TIETZ-STEIDING, Christiane. Bonhoeffers Kritik Der Verkrümmten Vernunft: Eine Erkenntnistheoretische Untersuchung. Beiträge Zur Historischen Theologie 12. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.
  28. WITVLIET, J. Theo. “Bonhoeffer’s Dialoog Met Karl Barth.” Kerk En Theologie 16 (1965): 301–21.
  29. WOELFEL, James W. Bonhoeffer’s Theology: Classical and Revolutionary. Nashville: Abingdon, 1970.
  30. WÜSTENBERG, Ralf K. “Philosophical Influences on Bonhoeffer’s ‘Religionless Christianity.’” In Bonhoeffer and Continental Thought: Cruciform Philosophy, edited by Brian Gregor and Jens Zimmermann, 137–55. Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Press, 2009.

Christians and Wealth: An Argument for Downward Mobility

Great news! If you only have a minute to read about wealth, here’s my argument in a nutshell:


Outline of My Argument

  • Main Claim: American Christians should reduce their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor and oppressed.
    1. God is the firmest advocate for human flourishing.
    2. The pursuit of wealth is spiritually dangerous and crippling.
    3. Our culture’s inclinations toward upward financial mobility go against the message of the New Testament and the life of Christ.
    4. God is revealed in Scripture to have a special concern for the poor and the oppressed.
    5. Christians will be held accountable for how they treat the poor and the oppressed.
  • Objections:
    1. This line of reasoning is advocating asceticism and is unbiblical.
    2. Christians have every right to keep what they have earned and to do what they wish with their excess funds.
    3. Because the poor are lazy, Christians should not feel pressured to give, in case their generosity is taken advantage of.
  • Warrant:
    1. Christians want to remain true to Scripture and submit to God’s way of life in order to find satisfaction.

(For more on Christianity, wealth, and poverty, see my topical study on what the book of Proverbs has to teach us about poverty.)

Still interested in reading about this contentious topic? Continue below.


Introduction

In our current context of wealth and poverty existing side by side in a milieu of materialistic consumerism, the Christian gospel of denying ourselves and making much of God is being abandoned for the American gospel of denying others and making much of ourselves.

American Christians have become content to live a baptized version of the American dream, a hollow faith that is about maximizing your earthly portfolio once your salvation is secured.

My main contention is that Christians in the United States should lower their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor. In doing so, they will remain faithful to Scripture and discover a more satisfactory way of life.

Isn’t That Asceticism?

At this point, some may claim that I am trying to advocate for a form of asceticism. Continue reading “Christians and Wealth: An Argument for Downward Mobility”

Barth, Bonhoeffer, & The Theological Critique of Religion: My Reading List This Fall

This semester — my final one at Beeson Divinity School — I’m doing a directed study with Piotr Malysz on the topic of “Religion” in Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The impetus for this study was a discussion question in Dr. Malysz’s Spring 2015 20th Century History and Doctrine course. On March 24, our third class period on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, our second question for discussion read as follows:

“What is religion for Bonhoeffer? What are its anthropological manifestations (in Bonhoeffer’s day)? In what ways is Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religion similar to, and different from, that of Barth?”

Having taken Malysz’s Fall 2014 seminar on Karl Barth, I was intrigued by the question. We only spent a few minutes on the topic in class, focusing on how Bonhoeffer’s definition of religion focuses on a “necessary God of the gaps,” but I wrote down the following questions for further consideration:

  1. Is there a tension in how Barth and Bonhoeffer describe “religion,” or an underlying harmony?
  2. Barth speaks of boundary, Bonhoeffer of finding God at the center. Are they getting at the same thing?
  3. What is the relationship between Barth’s “No-God” and Bonhoeffer’s God as “stopgap”?

It has been over a year since that class discussion, but these questions are still on my mind. I’m convinced that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological critiques of religion can provide resources for the Church today.

In addition to that class discussion question, Tom Greggs‘ Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth [affiliate links throughout] has been an enormous catalyst for this project.

After graduating from Beeson in December, I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in historical/systematic theology. If all goes well, I’d like to expand my Barth/Bonhoeffer project this semester into a doctoral project – perhaps focusing on the relationship between Barth’s “No-God” and Bonhoeffer’s “God-as-stopgap,” or on the relationship between Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological interpretation[s] of Scripture and their theological critiques of religion.

My Reading List

Anyway, with the help of Michael DeJonge, Clifford Green, Garrett Green, Tom Greggs, and Paul Dafydd Jones, I have developed the following reading list for this semester’s directed study:

Primary Sources: 

Secondary Sources:

If you’re interested in Barth and Bonhoeffer, I’m interested in starting up a conversation! Based on what I’ve written above, do you:

Have any suggestions on how to improve this reading list?

Have any suggestions on who might be interested in supervising doctoral work in this area?

If so, let me know in the comments!

Thank God, I Went to Cedarville

As I prepare for my final semester at Beeson Divinity School, it strikes me just how well I was prepared for my seminary education by my undergraduate professors at Cedarville University.

All things considered, my time at CU exposed me to the riches of biblical and theological studies, and it left me hungry for more.

College gave me a love for Christ’s gospel and Christ’s Church – which has only increased since I arrived at Beeson.

Plus, I met my wife there! 🙂

pablo (10)

And yet, college also left a bad taste in my mouth.

See, in the year before I graduated, some crazy things went down at my alma mater.

Between my original blogpost and my “final farewell,” I tried to take a pretty active role in the student protests against what was going on at CU.

I’d like to think we made a bit of a difference – perhaps in slowing things down enough to let professors find jobs elsewhere before they got fired. Heck, we even made it into The New York Times. (Although, I will say: I’m embarrassed of the picture they chose for the article.)

However, in the long run, we failed.

Cedarville is now a much different place than when I arrived. What’s more, I became so entangled in the mess that I arrived to seminary with some burn wounds – from a prophetic fire that burnt a bit too hot.

I’m thankful for my time at Cedarville, however.

God has been healing those wounds. Beeson Divinity School and Anglicanism have both been balms to my spirit. And, with the healing has come the realization that I would not be who I am today were it not for my four years in Cedarville, Ohio.

Many of the lessons I learned there were sealed with blood, sweat, and tears – as it were. However, those kinds of lessons are often the most important and enduring.

By God’s grace, I hope to carry forward into my future ministry a combination of prophetic fire and patient faithfulness in the face of injustice and suffering.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m worried about the other members of the “Cedarville Diaspora.”

“Cedarville ex-pats”? Take your pick of terms.

No, not so much the professors who were pushed out. They’ve miraculously landed on their feet, and I’ve witnessed God’s powerful work of redemption through them in their current careers and ministries.

No, I’m talking about the alumni who got burned by fundamentalism and may have already thrown out the Christian baby with the fundamentalist bathwater. Or perhaps they’re seriously considering doing so.

See, God has blessed me with a wonderful seminary and church community in which to grow and heal after Cedarville. Without those things, I don’t know where I’d be after the awful ending to my Christian college experience.

Others, however, may be feeling very lonely and angry right now.

If that’s you, or if you know someone to whom this applies, would you let me know if there’s any way I can help you?

I’ll gladly listen to you vent. I’d love to pray for you specifically, and perhaps to share what I’ve found helpful along the journey.

~Josh (@joshuapsteele)

Reading Recommendations? Barth's & Bonhoeffer's False Gods

Hi internet – especially all you Barthians and Bonhoefferians (-ites?) out there.

I’m in the process of compiling a reading list, and I could use your suggestions.

Here’s my goal: to explore the possible relationship between Barth’s critique of the “No-God”(Nich-Gott) and Bonhoeffer’s critique(s) of viewing God as a “stopgap” (Lückenbüßer) or “working hypothesis.”

As far as primary sources go, I plan to focus on the Romans commentary, Garrett Green’s recent re-translation of CD §17, and Letters and Papers from Prison.

As for secondary sources, right now I’m starting the list with Tom Greggs’ Theology Against Religion. I’ve read this twice now, and it has been a major inspiration for the project.

I’ve also got my eye on Michael DeJonge’s Bonhoeffer’s Theological Formation, Ernst Feil’s The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Andreas Pangritz’s Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jeffrey Pugh’s Religionless Christianity.

I’m also working my way through Sven Ensminger’s Karl Barth’s Theology as a Resource for a Christian Theology of Religions. While this looks very helpful for a larger project on Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the theological critique of religion, I’m still looking for sources that deal more directly with Barth’s “No-God” and Bonhoeffer’s God as “stopgap” or “working hypothesis.” 

Do you have any reading recommendations for me? 

OR, even better: Have any of you translated Hans-Joachim Kraus’ Theologische Religionskritik into English yet? Because that would be fantastic.

Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches

INTRODUCTION: ACCEPTING, BLOCKING, AND STATUS

From the church’s perspective, is the state a promising offer, or a threatening one? At the risk of breathtaking oversimplification, Anglicans have tended to adopt the former perspective, leading to accommodation, and Anabaptists the latter, resulting in separation.[1] Following Samuel Wells in his theological appropriation of terms from theatrical improvisation, the Anglican tradition has tended to respond to the promising offers (invitations to respond) of the state by accepting – maintaining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[2] The historical legacy of the Church of England has given Anglicanism, as Anderson notes, an “inheritance of a strong loyalty to the state and a conservatism that has led the church to promote the status quo more often than it agitates for reform.”[3] This inheritance from the established Church of England has coincided with a dual tendency to adopt a high status (a strategy for getting one’s way), in terms of relative privilege and political optimism, and a low status, in terms of frequent subservience in church-state relations.[4]

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

However, the Anabaptist tradition has tended to respond to the threatening offers of the state by blocking – undermining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[5] For many contemporary Anabaptists, as Joireman summarizes, “[T]he state has the function of ordering the social world, and the church should be the visible witness of believers, the primary affiliation of Christians, and separate from the state.”[6] Passively, blocking the state can be “a choice to shut oneself away and keep oneself unsullied by the world.”[7] Most often, drawing upon their sixteenth-century inheritance of facing persecution from Catholics and Protestants alike, Anabaptists have adopted a low status as somewhat of a fringe movement. Actively, however, blocking can be “a choice to take up arms,” as seen during the (admittedly rare) example of high status Anabaptist opposition during the Münster Rebellion of 1534.[8]

QUESTIONING GIVENS

Continue reading “Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches”

Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?

Theology is confusing enough, much more so when you attempt to summarize it all in a single essay! Nevertheless, such was my assignment in seminary in 2015. Here are the results.


“At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross.” ~ Jürgen Moltmann[1]

Theology in Outline: A[n Attempted] Summary of the Christian Faith

We believe that, during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, God died on a Roman cross.[2] We also believe that, the third day thereafter, Jesus of Nazareth – the same person who had been crucified – rose again from the dead.

How can these things be?

How can the immortal, transcendent, omnipotent One come to a weak, immanent end?

How can a dead human leave his grave, living?

At this point, we face a crucial choice between:

  1. the posited “God” of metaphysical theism and
  2. the revealed God of the Christian faith.[3]

Should we choose the former, our Christ, canon, and confession are irreducibly docetic – the true “God” is aloof, and merely play-acting, at best.

Yet, should we choose the latter, God is irreducibly, ineluctably Triune – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe, we trust that the Triune God is who God has revealed Godself to be. Continue reading “Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?”

What does it mean to be human?

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

A clue to the answer lies in the asking of the question, for this act presupposes both a [human] subject and object in a dialectic of self-transcendence.

As Robert Jenson notes, “in asking this question, we somehow take up a vantage outside ourselves to make ourselves our own objects, get beyond ourselves to look back at ourselves.”1 The mystery of human existence is “that I am the subject of the object I am and the object of the subject I am.”2

But what do I see when I look at myself? At others? At God?

On our own, this self-transcendence leaves us humans at the mercy of our own divided desires – searching for definition. But with God, we receive our true humanity in the midst of divine discourse – finding significance in God’s recognition that we are true human beings. The failures of the former approach highlight the successes of the latter.

DIVIDED DESIRES

What Do I See When I Look at Myself?

One driven by desire.

Based upon human behavior, Sigmund Freud rightly notes that the primary human desire is for happiness, which involves the avoidance of the pain and the pursuit of pleasure.3

However, I quickly discover that my own body, the external world, and human relationships oppose my pleasure-drive.4 These oppositions help me to distinguish myself from that which is not me. For example, I am not the ground which hurts when I fall upon it. I am not my parents who fail to provide me with food the moment I desire it. I am not the external frustration and pain which I encounter. I am the one with the frustrated desires.

Despite the necessity of unfulfilled desires for human development in Freud’s framework, he recognized the unavoidable tensions which human beings experience as the result of two competing drives: Eros and Death.5

The former, Eros, is synonymous with libido, the desire for objects for the sake of preservation; while the latter, Death, leads to guilt when internalized, and aggression towards others.6

What Do I See When I Look at Others?

Ones who both inform and frustrate my desires.

Now, on one hand, this is necessary and beneficial for development. As a child, I learn to desire to eat and speak like my parents.

However, as Rene Girard observes, when these imitative or mimetic desires are frustrated, they lead to rivalries.7 When I desire something my neighbor possesses, and my neighbor prevents me from obtaining it, my desire for the object increases. Yet so does my neighbor’s desire, which produces tension between us.

Therefore, imitation distinguishes human desires from animal instincts for natural needs, yet simultaneously causes the conflicts of human existence. Mimetic desire “is responsible for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level as well as what elevates us above it.”8

Without a goal or telos to distinguish between right and wrong desires, I can only take cues from my neighbor and hope for a relative peace. Soon, “choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good,” as “all desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume.”9

When desire is turned in on itself, the pursuit of things (and not even the things themselves!) becomes my temporary respite from the restlessness of my existence. Since I cannot define myself, I go shopping instead.10 And yet, I cannot shop forever.

What Do I See When I Look at God?

If human self-transcendence in search of definition is an enclosed circle, the most I will ever see is a personified, projected “god” who is the opposite of my weaknesses and the abstracted absolute of my strengths.

Why even bother positing such a “God”? Because I live my life as a narrative awaiting a conclusion – death – which, although it grants meaning to the plot, prevents me, its main actor, from ascertaining its final significance!

As Jenson dryly observes, “if the conclusion of our play, hidden as we play our temporal stories in the impenetrable future of death, is nevertheless already enacted, then it can only be enacted in something like the mind of an author, standing above the play and holding what in the play are past and future in a superior present, in the ‘all-at-once-now’ of eternity.”11

And so I trade places with the indefinable God of past theological formulations, defining him against the contours of my own mysterious existence, which I expect him to justify and underwrite.12 Yet if I worship a mere projection, I am left on my own.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

To be at the mercy of our own divided, conflicted, and frustrated desires.

Karl Barth best describes the failures of self-definition:

“[T]he enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ (to justify our existence) is avenged by its success. […] Our conduct becomes governed precisely by what we desire. By a strict inevitability we reach the goal we have set before us. […] And now there is no higher power to protect [humans] from what they have set on high.”13

My idols (whether myself, my neighbor, or my “God”) exhaust and finally crush me. The attempt to establish my own identity isolates me from myself, whom I do not know; my neighbor, whom I love to hate; my “God,” whom I project; and God, whom I ignore.

DIVINE DISCOURSE

Who am I? What do I see when I look at God?

To solve the enigma of my own existence, I must reverse the latter question and expand the former.

What Does God See When He Looks at Me?

As Barth rightly inveighs, God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him.”14 Therefore, humans “ought not to be independently what they are in dependence upon God.”15

And because of this, I cannot define myself on my own, but merely describe the characteristics and tensions of my life. My self-transcendence has value only when it transcends the self in the context of a divine discourse.

As Eberhard Jüngel claims, “it is only as the human ‘I’ is addressed in such a way that it is simultaneously claimed by something outside itself, that one is really speaking about the human ‘I’ as such.”16

I am told who I am by God, and thereby enabled to exist in proper relationship to God, to others, and to myself – the very relations that I jeopardize in self-definition.17

Barth rightly insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place: the encounter between God and humanity. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return.”18

In Jenson’s terms, humans are unique in that God relates to us as “his conversational counterpart,”19 and this divine address to us “is the Son, who is the human person Jesus of Nazareth.”20

Therefore, as Barth puts it, “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus.”21 To be human is to be with God in the person of Christ.22

God Sets Us Free, for Himself and for Others

If true, the grounding of humanity in divine discourse is a profound liberation, for “our acts [and our desires] cannot determine our being. Only the one who determines being and non-being determines our being.”23

And the Incarnation decisively reassures us that God recognizes us as human beings. Indeed, “the truly human person is the person who is definitively recognized by God, and in that way one who cannot be discredited by anything or anyone, not even by him- or herself.”24

Once I see that the real God has, in Christ, broken through the veneer of my projected “God” to secure my humanity, I no longer have to drive myself mad trying to secure my humanity. I am freed to worship the true God, enabled to respond to his address in prayer and worship.25

I am also liberated to relate to my neighbor, not in conflict as a model/rival, but in love as a fellow human.

This is the ineluctable result of God’s incarnational address in Jesus Christ, for “to receive myself from God and be directed toward him is therefore to receive myself from and be directed toward a fellow human. And it is to receive myself from and be directed toward a human person who precisely to be himself brings others with him.”26

Because he provides the standard by which human desires are evaluated, Christ, who exists completely for God and for others, calls and enables me to reorient my desires toward human flourishing, “the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God.”27

I can now recognize the dignity of each fellow human, not as a means to my distorted ends, but as one whom God loves, one for whom Christ died.

As Martin Luther concluded:

“as Christians we do not live in ourselves but in Christ and the neighbor. […] As Christians, we live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith we are caught up beyond ourselves into God. Likewise, through love we descend beneath ourselves through love to serve our neighbor.”28

This is self-transcendence as it was meant to be. Divine discourse encompasses God, the self, and the other, grounding both anthropology and ethics.

(For an overview of what I believe, check out my essay: “Theology in Outline.”)

CONCLUSION

What does it mean to be human? On my own, I am unable to answer the question.

In my efforts to secure my own existence, I can only describe my incoherent estate at the mercy of my divided and frustrated desires. I am a mystery to myself, I love to hate my neighbor, and I project a “God” to comfort myself in light of death.

Yet with God, I am enabled to receive my humanity in the midst of divine discourse, and to respond to his address to me in Christ through prayer, worship, and love of neighbor.


NOTES:

1 Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 64.

2 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 64.

3 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010), 27.

4 Freud, 28.

5 Freud, 103.

6 Freud, 94-103.

7 René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 8-13.

8 Girard, 16.

9 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 13.

10 Cavanaugh, 34-5.

11 Robert W. Jenson, A Religion Against Itself (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1967), 18.

12 Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” in Theological Essays II, ed. J.B. Webster, trans. Arnold Neufeld-Fast and J.B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 223.

13 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, 6th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 51.

14 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), II/1: 285. Henceforth all references to the Dogmatics will be in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”

15 Barth, Romans, 247.

16 Jüngel, 220.

17 Jüngel, 221.

18 CD II/1, 284.

19 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 95.

20 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

21 CD III/2, 132.

22 CD III/2, 135.

23 Jüngel, 236.

24 Jüngel, 239.

25 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 58-9.

26 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

27 Cavanaugh, viii.

28 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, eds. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, 3 rd. ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), 423.