Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Theological Musings, Following Karl Barth and A.N. Whitehead

I'm working on an article that compares Karl Barth and Alfred North Whitehead and offers some conclusions for 21st century theology. On the way toward its completion (which is not imminent, by any means), here are some excerpts...

Who is God, what is the world, and how do the two relate? Certainly they have woven through my mind and created a winding path of challenge, perplexity, and discovery. It could even be argued that, in some way, these questions animate all of Christian theology. And sometimes when I wonder about the most fruitful next direction for theology—and really Christian thought generally—I’m concerned, even a bit dismayed, that there seems to be no clear guiding voice at the moment leading us forward. To state what others have decreed, we have no Reinhold Niebuhr or Paul Tillich that guides our discipline today as those voices did in the middle of the last century.

For that reason, I will take the approach of looking backward and seeing what we can learn from two voices that set out two distinct poles for theology, namely the master of confessional and Reformed theology, Karl Barth, and the mathematician cum philosopher and theologian, Alfred North Whitehead. And it leads to a central question: Is there a way forward theologically that allows for a “thick description” of the reality of God revealed in Jesus Christ and that also takes in the insights of science? Incidentally, in mentioning “two poles” in theology, I suppose I am arguing for a very Barthian concept, a dialectic—one, in this case, that’s defined by two essential opposites. This project is embedded in conviction that neither of the two opposites has all truth.

Here then is my thesis: The way forward for theology in the 21st century is recognize some areas where these two great voices found common agreement and then head in a double movement (or “two ways at once”). To find a path that takes in both confessional theology, best exemplified by Karl Barth, and is in constructive conversation with other forms of human knowledge (such as science), exemplified by Alfred North Whitehead....
I do not know all the ways that heading two directions would work out, but I can sketch some contours. First of all, theologians will flourish when they go deeply into their own theological sources and create a rich and thick description of the God they know in Jesus Christ. At the same time, they will find fruitful work as they engage with other forms of knowledge, such as science and literature and philosophy. And in this regard, Whitehead’s philosophy is particularly useful.
In a word, what I’m saying is that Christian systematic theology has as its task to be mindful of the world around, and those theologians who are mindful of the world of culture have as their task to be related to the specific event of Jesus, to the “tremendous fact” of Christianity. Or as Whitehead phrased it:
 It starts with a tremendous notion about the world. But this notion is not derived from a metaphysical doctrine, but from our comprehension of the sayings and actions of certain supreme lives. It is the genius of the religion to point at the facts and ask for their systematic interpretation. In the Sermon on the Mount, in the Parables, and in their accounts of Christ, the Gospels exhibit a tremendous fact. The doctrine may, or may not, lie on the surface. But what is primary is the religious fact. (Religion in the Making, 50-1)

This tremendous fact is indeed, in Barth’s theology, the place where we understand the nature of God.

The meaning of [Jesus Christ’s] deity—the only deity in the New Testament sense—cannot be gathered from any notion of supreme, absolute, non-worldly being. It can be learned only from what took place in Christ. (CD IV/1, 177)

What can be taken away from this common point of agreement, and more specifically from the doctrine of God when Jesus becomes the means of inquiry? That’s one of the questions I’m still working on.

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