Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Problem of Religion

  Christianity, at its heart, is not a religion. Christianity, at its core, is not about doctrine or dogma. Yet, we have made it to be so. We have been led astray to think that Christianity is about following rules, being moral, and being a good person. Yet, this could not be further from the truth! We have been swindled out of our faith, replacing an encounter with God with an encounter with morality.

    Brunner opens his second work on Christian Doctrine (Dogmatics: Volume II - Christian Doctrine of Creation & Redemption (Library of Theological Translations) (v. 2) saying that, "Those memebers of the Church who passively accept what they have been taught as 'revealed truth' seem to be unaware of the fact that their view of 'faith' is hampered by an age-long tradition which has misunderstood the meaning of 'faith', regarding it not as 'encounter' with the Living Christ, but as the acceptance of 'revealed truths'." (pg. vi) 

   With this damning statement, Brunner makes us wonder what has gone wrong. Why are we content to no longer encounter God? We have exchanged "the personal encounter with Christ" for "rigidity and ethical sterility" (pg. vi) This part of Brunner's answer why we no longer seek an encounter with God. We, in our quest for certainty, left the unstable realm of relationship for the stable realm of Reason and thought. We want to know, not to experience, Christ.

   We have lost sight of the creational decree that God is "being-for-us" and that "it is because He wills to communicate Himself....the world exists." (pg. 4) God did not create to come into Being (the Greeks thought that God and the World were correlated so that one could not exist without the other, just as right and left) nor did He create in order to be thought. God created in order to establish a relationship with us.

   And not just any relationship. God did not create an "it", an object for Him to manipulate and control. God created a 'Thou", a subject that could enter into communication and relationship with Him. Yet, we have decided to treat God as an "It", something to be studied, to be figured out, to dissect, to critique and to analyze.

   By doing this, humanity was left to its own devices, trying to figure out who this "It" is. And as Brunner says, "It is no accident that when man is thrown back upon his own methods of acquiring knowledge, he knows nothing of such a 'decree of creation', the history of philosophy...is silent on this point." (pg. 4) No amount of speculative or abstract thought can turn this "It" back into an "I". 

   Before we elucidate this more, we need to understand Creation. For it is here, "at the point where all Christian faith arises, namely in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ." It is by Creation, God, through Jesus Christ reveals Himself to us, and invites us into relationship with Him. "Faith in God the Creator is 'truth-as-encounter'." (pg. 8), not faith in merely truth. For in truth, we can only know, but we cannot experience. we can only perceive, not receive.

   Thus, Creation is the start of not a truth but of a narrative, of a story of God and the World. It is not the beginning of a scientific understanding of the origins of the cosmos, but a "personal summons; it is not a truth which is the fruit of reflection; hence it is truth which, from the very outset, makes me directly responsible." (pg. 8-9) Brunner warns us here that it is not "that I start from the idea that God is the Creator of the world, and then argue that since I also form part of the world I also recognize Him as my Creator, and then come to the conclusion that I belong to God." (pg. 9) It is indeed, the very opposite. The relationship comes first, and then we can speak of God as our Creator. It is from this start, a relational belonging, that we can begin to understand the cosmos and its Creator.


  1. I can't believe I am saying this, but Paul makes such a statement and summons in Corinthians when he says, "The new covenant is not in a written code, but inthe Spirit, for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives lie. (2 Cor. 3:6. Hans Urs von Balthasar elaborates on Paul's statement equating religion to the literal word (which kills) when he says, "The Religion of Christ will be no book-religion... Just as Christ is not his own word, but the Father's, so what the Spirit addresses to us in Scripture and preaching is not the literal word of Christ but Christ's word in the language of the Spirit. Only so is it truly a Trinitarian word, only so, too, a word which ever raises from the dead and brings new life... This applies equally well to the 'sacramental magic' of Catholicism, as to the 'Bible magic' of Protestantism." (Mysterium Paschale, 261-62.

    I find all of this so exciting and confusing since I grew up in a Church worshiping "literalism". In fact, the statements made by Paul were always batshit crazy to me, until I realized all of the above mentioned. However I am still not convinced by Brunner's overly existential ideas of our personal, individual "encounter" or "moment" with God. It is here where the claim is made that "it’s not about [insert really anything here, usually "truth"], but a personal encounter. Well as Nicky would say, why can't it be both?

  2. Eric-
    Brunner's existential leaning is very interesting to me, but at the same time, I think he over-emphasizes the freedom of humanity. However, I think that leaning on Buber and Kierkegaard is a great foundation. And by starting with those two, we have to realize that there is no either-or, it is a both-and. It is a truth-encounter. We should not get rid of either concepts, and not over-emphasize either (though I think Brunner over-emphasizes encounter over truth)

  3. Agreed! For me the question becomes, what does, for example biblical interpretation look like (It's my field after all) when we take Paul summons to the Spirit, rather than to the law (To use Luther's distinction, to religion, to the way current academics operate, to the kingdom of death according to Stringfellow)? Do we go back to a four fold sense of scripture, typology, allagory, etc? Or do we forge ahead with some new fangled existential non-system? That sounded harsh, and I did not mean it to.