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Working on the Concept of God

An Investigation Based on Recent Publications


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 12/2009, P. 623-628
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Today, the Christian faith in God is often called into question. Academic theology and church proclamation only inadequately succeed in translating the theme of God into the many and diverse fields of experiences of today's contemporaries. What are the most important insights of recent publications?


There is the threat that the Christian belief in God is undermined by esotericism. A religiosity shaped by Asian influences has long since gained ground 'intra muros ecclesiae'. It distances itself from a content-related and personal concept of God and recommends spiritual techniques of self-detachment. On the other hand in the current discourse on religion the suspicion is raised that the biblical monotheism was potentially prone to violence and intolerance. The Mosaic distinction between true and untrue complicated the intercultural and interreligious understanding.

There are also difficulties associated with the problem of theodicy: How can a good and omnipotent God allow that blatant injustice happens, without intervening and rescue? Finally, the academic theology but also the Church's proclamation obviously only insufficiently succeed in translating the topic of God into the many and diverse fields of experiences of today's contemporaries. Human self-understanding seems more and more frequently to get along without 'God' as a leading figure of communication, even though some people raise the issue that something is missing. The work on the concept of God has therefore many construction sites.

To counter the growing religious illiteracy among the believers, non- and semi-believers, the bestselling author Manfred Lütz has submitted "a small history of the Greatest" that avoids theological jargon in order to reach a broad readership (Gott: Eine kleine Geschichte des Größten, Munich 2007). He wants to startle people because of the widespread forgetfulness of God, and remind of the fact that the question about God is of existential importance. Neither a sanctimonious faith that is only conventionally practiced nor a saturated Salon atheism that is simply avoiding such fundamental questions does justice to the theme of "God". In fact, against the background of a faith in God the questions: Where do I come from? Who am I? Where do I go? find a different answer than in atheist or agnostic interpretations of the world.



Lütz acknowledges that the access to God is now blocked in many cases. He reviews the typical objections of criticism of religion and tries to find new approaches to the belief in God. He places special emphasis on the dimension of the aesthetic. Music, art or literature can give even ingrained materialists an intuition that matter is not everything. Bach's St. Matthew Passion may be no proof for the existence of God, but it can productively unsettle an agnostic who has ears to listen in his agnosticism. Lütz talks about the easygoing relationship of children to the question of God, discusses a bit polemically deficits of religious education; he notices a widespread repression of religion among psychologists and discusses - sometimes a bit rakishly - the god of the scientists and philosophers.

However, he succeeds in tracing the Galileo case and the controversy over Darwin, beyond all medial dramatisation, back to a factual core. The main emphasis he puts on the biblical understanding of God. God is alive; there are people who have met him. Lütz has the skill of appealingly telling the biblical stories of these encounters with God; he does not content himself with the Bible, when he repeatedly refers to biographies that have been turned upside down by the reality of God. Conversions, but also - resulting from faith - resistance to political ideologies show that the Christian God is not a dead concept-idol but a living reality.


Negative Theology has an Unmistakable Affinity with the late-modern Feeling

But how can we speak properly about this living reality? The word "God" is historically charged and has often been abused politically. With the question of how one cannot talk about God, the programme of the negative theology is indicated (see the anthology: Alois Halbmayer / Gregor Maria Hoff [editors] Negative Theologie heute? Zum aktuellen Stellenwert einer umstrittenen Tradition [Negative theology today? The current status of a disputed tradition], Freiburg, 2008). In contrast to a too affirmative speech of God, which adopts the categories of human experience directly to God, it reminds of a border-line: finite language is inadequate to express the infinite.

The familiar strategy of taking up attributes from the human experience (via affirmativa), then to subject them to the proviso of finiteness (via negativa), in order finally to apply them as comparative or superlative to God takes the insight into account that concepts are easily misapplied to the incomprehensible: Si comprehendis, non est Deus (If you understand him, he is not God). In their foreword Halbmeyer and Hoff point to the fact that negative theology has an unmistakable affinity with the late-modern feeling of God's absence, which has been articulated not only in literature but also in the philosophical discourse of the late 20th century.

Adorno's Negative Dialectics that does not want to keep silent about reconciliation without being able to grasp it in positive categories, Derrida's thinking about 'derance' [différance] that equally avoids affirmative and negative purpose attributions [Sinnzuschreibung], but also Levinas' philosophy of alterity are led by a reserve against a fixing identity thinking, and indicate a proximity to the biblical prohibition of images. The aesthetics of presence, which was connected by Botho Strauss with the provocative thesis that the "midnight of absence" had been passed, is not specifically acknowledged as, so to speak, contrapuntal challenge.

Already the biblical speech about God is marked by a peculiar tension between presence and absence, commitment and withdrawal. The story of the Burning Bush shows this, in which God reveals himself as "I am he who is." (Exodus 3:14). This revelation of his name contains a promise that points to the open dynamism of the history of the Covenant, which can neither be enforced nor anticipated by human beings. The biblical ban on images claims this unavailability of the freely acting God. A negative theology that unreservedly follows the footsteps of the Neo-Platonic tradition and celebrates the Divine as the supra-existence [Überseiende] and as ineffable is in danger to miss God's relation to history and the regulations connected with it.

That's why Magnus Striet (theologically focusing on freedom) and Thomas Schärtl (linguistic analysis) suggest taming the thesis of God's indescribability by means of the theology on Revelation. Others - as e.g. Hildegund Keul - insist that the incomprehensible mystery of God exceeds in principle the capability of human comprehension. Just the falling silent before the Unspeakable calls for expression. The mystique of the Middle Ages and early modern times indeed offers impressive examples of the awestricken silence in the face of the Incomprehensible. From certain places of experience linguistic practices are formed here in order to touch, beyond the border-line of what can be said, the hem of the divine mystery. On the other hand, the guard duty of negative theology is required wherever God is functionalized and used for specific religious or political interests. Critique of ideology is one of its most important tasks (Alois Halbmayr).

By pushing forward negative theology there will unmistakably be a certain tension between it and the evidence of the biblical Revelation, where God is not just the world-transcendent and completely different. In history he comes close to us and communicates with us.



Negative theology that tries to take this communication seriously has therefore the task to find the right balance. Out of the polyphonic discourse upon negative theology the following cornerstones can be stated: By emphasizing God's radical indeterminableness, on the one hand his self-determination in history must not be revoked and the main feature of his revelation, i.e. Incarnation must not be betrayed. On the other hand, the theological information that God has communicated himself in Jesus Christ's flesh and remains present concealed in the mission of his Spirit cannot be used as justification for transferring God in a unilinear way into the theological terminology.

In fact, the provocation of the biblical stories is that when they are talking about God, not abstract but offensively concrete words are used. He is a God who acts in history, is not indifferent to people's doings, is angry and punishes but shows also mercy and rescues.


Examination of the Theses of Jan Assmann {*}

Gunther Wenz (Gott. Implizite Voraussetzungen christlicher Theologie [Studium Systematischer Theologie, volume 4], Göttingen 2007) has recently in an exemplary manner brought out that both sources, the monotheism of Israel and the philosophical teachings about God of the classical antiquity influence the Christian speech about God. By relying on exegetical studies he shows that the monotheism of Israel is the product of a complex development that leads from polytheism over the pre-exilic Yahweh monolatry up to the monotheism of the Torah.

Special significance in this process has the Babylonian exile where the insight of Yahweh's uniqueness and universality emerges. The catastrophe of the exile is not interpreted as a weakness of Jehovah, but as a righteous judgment on the people that has broken the Covenant. With Israel's monotheism also a superior ethics is connected, which has found its paradigmatic expression in the Decalogue. Against this background Wenz critically examines Jan Assmann's thesis that the Mosaic distinction between the true God and false idols had brought more misery than happiness to humankind.

Assmann assumes that Israel's monotheism is a historical echo, a memory of that revolution that Akhenaten in the 14th century BC has performed in Egypt. Unlike Akhenaten, who gave his monotheism a cosmotheistic form, Yahweh's claim to sole veneration - which is essential for the Mosaic monotheism - would not tolerate the veneration of foreign gods. The zeal for the Lord that rejects idolatry as a sin promoted a problematic friend-foe mindset.

Wenz, on the other hand, emphasizes that the Mosaic distinction between God and idols at the same time holds on to the difference between divine justice and human sin. The systematic point of this distinction lies in the fact that it does apply not only to the peoples but also to Israel. Even in the extinction of the state Israel the Mosaic distinction proved its power of interpretation by teaching that the defeat has to be understood as God's righteous judgment on his rebellious people. Assmann's suggestion also ignores the fact that the (after-) exilic monotheism gives up the idea of a God who forcibly stands up for his people (about the discussion see also Peter Walter [editor], Das Gewaltpotential des Monotheismus und der dreieine Gott, Freiburg 2005).

However, just the breakthrough to monotheism also provides opportunities for discussion with Greek philosophy that is interested in a critical unmasking of the myth since the epoch of Presocratics. Both Biblical Monotheism and Greek thought about God are jointly interested in people's enlightenment by refuting polytheism. The course that was set in the dialogue between Jerusalem and Athens is therefore a central theme of today's theology (cf. Walter Kasper, Der Gott Jesu Christi, Freiburg 2007; Jürgen Werbick, Gott verbindlich. Eine theologische Gotteslehre, Freiburg 2007).

Interpretations that speak of a Hellenising distortion of the Gospel or of an organic synthesis of biblical and Greek thought are not likely to meet the complex process of adoption in the era of the Church Fathers. An interpretation based on the model of a taking up in contradiction seems to be more appropriate. The taking up of the philosophical concept of God is facilitated by its tendency to unity. The biblical one-god-faith can form an alliance with the philosophical "monotheism" against the popular polytheistic belief. And the attributes of omnipotence and freedom can be fully assigned only to a God who creates out of nothing everything that exists. However, God's freedom and his powerful action in history witnessed by the Bible contradict the philosophical concept of God according to which God acts by necessity and without relation to history. That the eternal infinite God is active in history and is supposed to have revealed himself in the life and death of a finite human being is not conceivable in Hellenistic thought.


Queries to the Categories of Paternity and Omnipotence

Today's work on the concept of God cannot ignore this complex process of adoption, if it wants to fulfill its most important task, namely to make the faith in God the Father Almighty hermeneutically accessible.



Immutability and apathy, which are introduced by the theologia naturalis [philosophischen Gotteslehre] as attributes of God, need to be modified from the perspective of the Bible as memory of God's doings, if Jesus' powerlessness on the Cross is to be taken as Revelation seriously.

At the same time, attention has to be given to the queries to the categories of paternity and omnipotence, which result from the current horizon of experience. Thus, the suspicion hangs in the air: male fantasies of omnipotence would here frivolously be transferred into the concept of God. The sociological erosion of the father image as well as the feminist critique of patriarchal power structures impede the access to the traditional speech of God. However, father is a primordial word of the cultural and religious history. According to Walter Kasper it has two main functions: First, the speech of God the Father is genealogically and mythologically understood: He is the producer and supporter of all living beings. Second, in patriarchal societies the Father God supports the authority of the paterfamilias.

The Biblical parlance adopts the two motives, but it transforms them by disconnecting God's fatherhood from the natural descent and by linking it with the free election. God is the Father; the Israelites are his sons and daughters. From the Covenant motif the lines are drawn to Creation and the World to Come. The God who promises Israel his liberating proximity is the free Creator of all reality and the Father of the living; despite all the setbacks, he will also complete the once opened history of the Covenant, and establish the promised kingdom of peace and justice.

These notes on the biblical understanding of fatherhood, which are radicalized in the preaching of Jesus, are important for the theological interpretation of the attribute of omnipotence - for which the connection with history is essential. The ontological speech about God's being threatens to circumvent the biblical speech about the God who is with us and cares for us. Kasper has therefore suggested thinking God no longer, in the horizon of metaphysics, as a perfect substance but in the horizon of the modern thought about freedom as absolute freedom. It belonged to God's essence that he is related to other beings differing from him.

This suggestion has been systematically developed by Thomas Pröpper and his disciples. Jürgen Werbick, too, has adopted it in his doctrine of God, which probably is the most significant redraft of the topic, and where he equally treats issues of philosophy of religion, fundamental theology and dogmatics.



The motif of God's willingness to take up relations and his power to establish them is in the centre of Werbick's partly very comprehensive thoughts. In the light of this motif also the issue of God's omnipotence is contoured more detailed.

First, however, the query is raised: If God has the power to do everything, why does he not intervene in view of the barbaric excesses in the history of human freedom and does not stop the suffering? Hans Jonas has almost classically formulated this objection to the question of an omnipotent and likewise good God in his lecture "The concept of God after Auschwitz", which in Werbick's re-reading is dealt with in a way sensitive to the problem. Jonas wants to hold on to God's goodness and comprehensibility, but in view of the Shoa farewell had to be said to his omnipotence. God had not intervened because he had not wanted it but because he was not able to do it. The theodicy question is thus answered, because an impotent God cannot be held accountable. But the price for this answer is too high, because the consummation of the world cannot be expected from such a God.

However, Werbick wants to stand decidedly by God's intelligibility, and in order to make sure he carefully examines step by step the stations of the problem both in the Bible and in the history of theology. The biblical metaphor of power does not mean an abstract all-rounder in the sense of omnipotence and could not be equated with the voluntarists' construct of an arbitrary God. When the Bible speaks of God's power it is always in concrete terms with regard to certain relationships. Even the awkward speech of a zealous and angry God aimed ultimately at the healing of disturbed relationships.

Instead of taming the Bible's offensive and often heterogeneous manner of speaking about God with the help of the criteria of the philosophical doctrine of God, Werbick follows the tension-filled biblical metaphors when considering the omnipotence. For example, Werbick allows the definition of the concept of omnipotence to benefit from the metaphor of the patient beast of burden (see Is 46:3): God is a God who wants to achieve through the persuasive power of his love the free compliance of the people, without, so to speak, losing patience and subduing them.

In the Trinitarian theology of the Cross of the 20th century some theologians spoke of a voluntary (co-) suffering of Divine Love and that the Father was affected by the suffering of his Son. Theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann and Hans Urs von Balthasar have tried to identify the inner-Trinitarian conditions for God's historical commitment and then boldly spoken of a suffering or a primal kenosis in God.

Werbick does not want to follow those experiments; he suspects that here the suffering is too carelessly transferred into the concept of God. He, therefore, takes a middle path between a strict understanding of apathy that excludes any historical affectedness of God, and a pathic speech of God, which threatens Gnostically to universalize the suffering. He is guided here by the kenosis metaphor that in the Philippians hymn is applied not to God but to Jesus Christ. According to Werbick, the main point of the speech of Christ's kenosis is to express that God in history accompanies man in the utmost situation of suffering. In this kenotic companionship of God, however, lies the hope that God himself enters into the humiliation of those who suffer and have been destroyed and fills it with his presence. Unlike as with Jonah, in the act of identification God does not give up his ability to act. However, God's determination to make human beings the addressees of his love requires of him the utmost, so that the project of creation and history does not fail.


God's Omnipotence in the Light of his Goodness

One of the strengths of Werbick's theology is that he repeatedly interrupts his thought process and confronts it with queries. So he gives room to the objection, whether the speech of God's readiness to enter into relationships, which proves itself also in extreme suffering, inconsiderately slides over the abysses of history. Would not it be more appropriate to refer to the dark sides of God and helplessly to acknowledge God's incomprehensibility? With Kierkegaard, one could point to the story of the fettering of Isaac. Abraham, the model of faith, was led into the dark night of incomprehension, so that he might learn anew the faithfulness of God to his promises, by undergoing this disturbing test.

But what does this mean in regard to Auschwitz? Can the fate of the Jews be seen as a test? And would the absence of the saving intervention not show that God in this case - for whatever reason - was not in keeping with his promises? There are probably only the unconsoled queries to God, lamentation and cry - leading categories for a theology sensitive to theodicy (see, Johann Baptist Metz and John Reikerstorfer, Memoria passionis, Freiburg, 2006). But even lamentation is pressing again for an answer, as Werbick rightly notes. Also lamentation is guided by the hermeneutic interest that God takes away the barriers against understanding and declares himself.

Werbick therefore starts again and identifies God's omnipotence in the light of his goodness. In Kierkegaard's footsteps, he defines omnipotence as the ability to withdraw oneself in order to give others freedom and to allow them to lead their own life. God wants the relationship to beings that differ from him; he wants co-lovers. For that very reason, any semantics of overpowering has to be kept away from the concept of omnipotence. The omnipotence of God is quasi the patience of his love to be able to wait indefinitely. This idea of Hansjürgen Verweyen (Gottes letztes Wort, 3. Aufl., Regensburg 2000, 360 f.) is not taken up by Werbick, although it is almost unavoidable as regards the style of his thinking.



But how can the speech of God's willingness to take up relationships be applied to the abysmal history of guilt and suffering? Werbick carefully explores the eschatological meaning potential that is contained in the motif of the creative power of God's love. He points out that God one day must turn to the past, if the sufferings of the victims are not to be forgotten and the crimes of the offenders not simply annulled. In case of broken relationships, however, it cannot be about a role reversal that makes criminals victims and victims perpetrators. As Werbick tentatively formulates, it would rather be necessary that "the perpetrators by identifying with their victims actually reverse their being perpetrators, so that they internalize what they have done to them, and that the victims are able to forgive what cannot be returned to them" (511).

The hope that the unforgivable can still be forgiven and reconciliation is possibly through the creativity of love does only then not fall to the level of a cheap harmonization of relationships of a dissonant freedom [dissonanter Freiheitsverhältnisse], if the last judgement uncovers the truth of history. Reconciliation can only become reality by passing painfully through this truth, but not by skipping over it.

In the final chapter of his doctrine of God Jürgen Werbick tries with the help of the Trinitarian theology to sound out the motif of a God who is ready and able to take up relationships; and in the end his thoughts lead to a prayer. This may seem risky in an academic context, but it is entirely on the line of a thinking that theologically examines the motif of relationship. Thus, the scientific speech of and about God, which is always in danger of becoming a learned Glass Bead Game, returns in the end back to its starting point: the talking with and to God.

The work on the concept of God knows other 'construction sites': e.g. the dialogue between the religions, which is becoming increasingly important in a globalized world. Especially in the dialogue between Christianity, Judaism and Islam it is necessary clearly to bring out commonalities but also differences in the respective understanding of God (cf. Karl-Josef Kuschel, Juden, Christen, Muslime. Herkunft und Zukunft, Düsseldorf 2007). In the philosophical landscape partially a new openness to issues of religion can be noticed, which deserves to be taken up constructively and theologically critically. The challenges arising from science's enquires to the belief in God would be another field. In any case, a theology that is faithful to the Bible's remembrance of God will oppose the semantic diffusion of the concept of God and remind of the fact that God decided to become the God of the people in history. To this remembrance a hope is bound beyond which no greater thing can be hoped for.


{*}See also Franz Kamphaus - "Where is your brother Abel?" and Arnold Angenendt - Violent Monotheism - Human Polytheism?


    {*} Jan-Heiner Tück (born in 1967) is extraordinary professor at the Institute of Systematic Theology at the University of Freiburg, editor of the international Catholic journal "Communio"; recent publication: Gabe der Gegenwart. Theologie und Dichtung der Eucharistie bei Thomas von Aquin, Freiburg 2009.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'