I’m over halfway through the last book on my God Project list. (Props to those of you who have been following along this far!) The book is God and the Mystery of the World, written in the 70’s by a German theologian named Eberhard Jüngel.
For centuries, only the most educated, intellectual Europeans could’ve even imagined atheism. The West was dominated by Christianity, and belief in God was obvious, woven deep into the fabric of life. But today, even for the most committed believer, atheism is always a possibility, always on our radar. How did we get here?
According to Jüngel, the “death of God” in our culture was inevitable. For millennia, believers defined God as a metaphysical “highest being,” totally infinite (in other words, unlimited), beyond space and time, absolutely superior to humans and everything else. This way of thinking about God has been called “classical theism,” which I’ve explored previously in my God Project.
But then along came the Enlightenment, and with it, modern philosophy. In modern philosophy, everything I know is known by me. Since I am limited, there are certain limits to what I can and can’t know, and those limits are important.
First of all, as a limited, finite person, I can only fit finite, limited concepts into my head. How could I know whether or not “the infinite” exists if I can’t understand the infinite? Further, to know if something exists, I must first meet it in the world of space and time. Ultimately, my knowledge is dependent (at least in part) on me, with my own limitations.
Do you see how this becomes a problem for God? How could a limitless, infinite God fit into a finite box inside my limited mind? How could a God beyond space and time be known by me within space and time? How could a God who is superior to everything be dependent on me and my beliefs in order to be known?
We’re faced with a dilemma: either I must admit that I can’t know God at all, or else I must reduce God to a limited object that can fit inside my mind. Either way, thanks to the modern way of thinking, the old school (AKA metaphysical) notion of God fails to make any sort of meaningful sense.
But Jüngel thinks that this is just one problem with the traditional way of thinking about God. Although Christian thinkers (before the Enlightenment, at least) by and large bought into classical theism, it presents some problems for Christians.
For starters, what about Jesus? If God is revealed in Jesus, the finite human who died powerless on a cross for the sake of others, why would we think of God in terms of superiority and limitlessness? If God was somehow in Jesus, then doesn’t that make God compatible with suffering, death, and human limits? This is a big problem for classical theism, which thinks of God as impassible, immortal, and limitless.
Perhaps even worse, classical theism presumes that we can reason our way to God. According to traditional thinkers, if we think carefully and pay attention to reality, we can reach a decent understanding of what the word “God” is supposed to mean (and/or not mean).
But does it really work that way? Wouldn’t it be far better to base our understanding of God on what God tells us about God? Again, Jüngel thinks that classical theism fails to take God’s self-revelation in Jesus seriously enough.
To summarize, Jüngel gives three reasons why Christians should give up on classical theism:
- It puts God outside the boundaries of human knowledge, a problem that we moderns are especially allergic to
- Classical theism makes God and Jesus incompatible
- Classical theism suggests that we can speculate our way to knowledge of God, instead of basing our knowledge on God’s revelation to us
Has Jüngel has won me over yet? I’m not sure. But at the very least, I find his take on God and the modern world to be refreshing. It’s one of the most interesting perspectives that I’ve encountered so far.