As I recently shared with a friend, I am up to my eyeballs here at Emory in Religionsgeschichte: the study of religion as a body of human ideas and practices. In my case, the study of ancient Israelite religion(s) – and their god(s), including Yahweh.
The difference between the study of Christian theology and Religionsgeschichte is the difference between treating God as a counterpart to humans and treating God as a product of human psychology or culture. I like Langdon Gilkey’s formulation of this difference, resident at the level of language: “though God is the subject of all the verbs of the Bible, Hebrew religious faith and Hebrew minds provide the subjects of all the verbs in modern books on the meaning of the Bible” (197, “Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language”).
At first blush, this looks to be a fatal difference – at very least, the presuppositions of the one appear to exclude the other. What kind of theism could it be that is able exhaustively to trace its own evolution as a history of human religiosity?
In fact, I hope to write elsewhere about the question whether etiology – hunting down causes – can ever be a form of love (I think it can; imagine lovers retracing their history together, enjoying the process of ferreting out the hidden little causes for various happenstances along their way. So also with God). But for now let me say, I think that there is a kind of theism that can fully own up to its own history and need not resort to “supernaturalism” for a direct explanation of its course.
That may sound paradoxical, and perhaps it is. The word “direct” is important. Many Christians are familiar with the idea of “the God of the gaps,” that is, allocating to God’s agency those portions of our world and experience that as yet defy explanation in terms of immanent causality. Sometimes these are cosmological (“what started the Big Bang, then, huh? God!”) or aesthetic (“why do we marvel at sunsets? Well, God!). The problem with leaving God these (very marginal) areas of direct supervision is that they are always in peril of vanishing. No gap is durable enough that we can assert it as God’s permanent prerogative. What I had not thought through carefully before graduate school is the fact that the history of God is also almost completely amenable to immanent explanations. Nothing in the appearance and development of Yahwism screams undeniably, “a real, extra-human God was active here!” In other words, there are few gaps even in God for a God of the gaps to go.
This could result in atheism, to be sure. A perfectly understandable response.
Or – alternately – a rediscovery of the “worldly non-necessity of God” – as a deeply theological and indeed Christian truth.
This is what Eberhard Jüngel has been teaching me. In the introduction to his book, God as the Mystery of the World, he revisits the issue of God’s necessity (trans. Darrell Guder; Eerdmans, 1983). And he makes of God’s “worldly non-necessity” not an “alien element” but “a genuinely theological discovery” (22, 23). God can no longer be a “working hypothesis” for moral, political, and yes, religious matters (18). God as a direct explanation is dispensable to the modern world. God’s presence is gratuitous.
And that is the thesis that Jüngel develops: God’s gratuity. God is not shoehorned into this world as one amongst other directly observable causes. God’s activity originates in God’s own freedom alone. And the evidence of that agency is not marked by special fanfare or insignia (think Isaiah 53:2, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”). It is a freely chosen and lowly presence in human affairs! Veiled and yet discernible to the eye of faith. I.e., not directly readable off the surface of the world.
Jüngel furthermore argues that where God is conceived as necessary in the world, as occupying a chunk in the causal continuum, God is conceived there as Lord (21). That is, God’s attribute of effectual power is all that is needed for God to intervene as a causal force in cosmology or human religion. On such thinking, theologically, God’s power and God’s love work in coordination, non-competitively. But, in effect, Jüngel says that this is not the way of Christ. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you”—nor, says Jüngel, is it so with their God (Mark 10:42, 43), who renounced power for the sake of love by going to the cross. Nothing is more integral to Jüngel’s theology than the identification of God with the crucified Jesus.
The God who is necessary in the world was understood as the almighty Lord whose love and mercy appear secondary and subsidiary to his claim to lordship. This is the earthly way of thinking of a lord: first, he has all power and then perhaps he can be merciful – but then again, perhaps not…the thesis of the worldly non-necessity of God is directed precisely against this view of God according to which God, as the almighty Lord who can be differentiated from his love, is necessary in the world (ibid.).