William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Papers (Page 2 of 2)

A Brief Systematic Theology



The Existential Crisis

On July 11, 1995, in Juarez, Mexico, Silvia Morales was reported to be missing.  At age sixteen she was a beautiful young woman and a good student.  She had left home the previous day as usual to work her shift at one of the many U.S. factories (maquiladores) recently built in the commercial aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement.  This time, however, she did not come home.  After months of her mother’s tireless searching and refusal to admit her likely death, local authorities eventually discovered her body.  It was clear from the autopsy that Silvia suffered brutal sexually violation, mutilation and torture before being strangled and left in the desert.  Estimates today suggest that since 1994 thousands of women have been victims of similar crimes in the border state of Chihuahua.  Very few of these cases have been or likely ever will be solved.

1.  Anthropology

It could be said from the perspective of the comfortable and the living that to speculate about the possibility or nature of afterlife is a futile endeavor.  One could posit that fulfillment and meaning in life are best sought by strictly attending to the present, for that is all that can be controlled.  This might be a viable argument if the horror like the one described above in the story about Silvia was fictional (it also might not be a viable argument even then).  Seeing as this is not so, however, one is inclined to suspect otherwise.

The human condition is such that we live with a kind of openness directed toward possibility in the world, always becoming.[i] Unlike animals, human beings have to some degree an undefined nature insofar as we are constantly adapting.  There is present a certain un-development over and against definite instinct.  One might also say, at least culturally speaking, that a process of “creative destruction” takes place, to borrow the term from economics, where old forms are replaced by new ones.

Kathryn Tanner fore example characterizes human nature as such not by sinfulness but as “prewired” for strong participation in the divine life, which renders weak participation doomed for contamination.  Classically speaking, and somewhat in contrast to Tanner, the Augustinian tradition understands humanity to be inherently depraved as a result of “original sin” or self-love.  Other modern theologians have described sin in essence as pride.[ii] David Kelsey defines sin as “distortion of trust in God,” and this is primarily what will be assumed from here onward.[iii] This distortion can result in trusting the identifies given to us by our vocations in the world as opposed to God on the one hand, or “trusting” God to the abandonment of responsibility to a historical situation on the other hand – both are forms of idolatry.  And finally, there is the sin of trusting only oneself.  Though not explicitly naming it sin, this threefold depiction of sin has consensus with Pannenberg who calls trust in finite things a perversion caused by humanity’s desire for control of life.[iv]

Along with this openness or possibility then necessarily follows, in part because of sin, a restlessness, or what different existentialists have termed “angst.”  Pannenberg interprets this to mean that humans are longing for, or even dependent upon something beyond what this world can offer: “What the environment is for animals, God is for humanity.”[v] Such a claim need not be individualistic, however, nor extra-worldly.  In the first place, human beings actually acquire interests and needs from their environment and social setting, and so it would be hasty to submit that one’s configured existence is solely a consequence of preference or choices.  Such is partly the significance of Heidegger’s constitution of Dasein or “being-in-the-world.”  Secondly, Pannenberg argues that “the community that humanity has with God directs humanity back into the world” (italics added).[vi]

Epicurus’ implores us not think about death while living, implying that it would diminish our enjoyment of life.  In a similar vein, Wittgenstein argues that no one experiences death.  Jurgen Moltmann is interested in challenging these claims.  In the first place, and in agreement with Pannenberg, one mustn’t allow thought of life after death to deprive vitality from the present.  Such preoccupation risks “fatalism and apathy,” rendering the here and now empty and merely transitional.[vii] On the other hand, however, Moltmann is confident that “the thought of death and a life after death doesn’t have to deflect us from this life; it can also give this life a new depth.”[viii] Such a depth can enable us to love more fully.  It might be inferred from Moltmann, and Pannenberg as well, that if one is not disturbed by the question of life after death, she is deceived and is rather only suppressing what is a natural yearning.

Furthermore, ignoring every deliberation about death, as Epicurus recommends, is to live under the illusion that life will not end, which is to potentially miss something quite invigorating that comes from the consideration of one’s finitude.  Perhaps no one understood this better than Heidegger:

“What is characteristic about authentic, existentially projected being-toward-death can be summarized as follows: Anticipation reveals to Da-sein its lostness in the they-self, and brings it face to face with the possibility to be itself, primarily unsupported by concern taking care of things, but to be itself in passionate anxious freedom toward death which is free of the illusions of the they, factical, and certain of itself.”[ix]

At the same time, it seems Moltmann would want to depart from Heidegger’s understanding of the experience of death insofar as Heidegger might be construing death to be one’s “ownmost potentiality-of-being” and “nonrelational” in a hyper-individualized or isolated fashion, though there are those who would criticize this reading of Heidegger.[x]

To some degree it is a modern and perhaps Western phenomenon for individuals to conceive of death in these terms.  Moltmann readily reminds us that Eastern cultures like that of Korea or those of Native Americans for instance are aware of the communal experience that is death and the relationship that one maintains with family, ancestors and tribe even afterwards.  Thus, for Moltmann it is appropriate and even beneficial to contemplate how the possibility or hope for life after death might inform and energize the present.  It is important though in Moltmann’s account of Christian eschatology to be mindful of what one actually longs for with desiring life after death.  Moltmann insightfully notes how the popular and in some sense traditional notion of a bodiless, and therefore mindless soul is in reality something rather inconceivable.[xi]

2. Eschatology

Returning to Silvia’s existential crisis, the question inevitably arises once more:  “Are the murderers to triumph irrevocably over their victims?  Can their death be their end?”[xii] In response, Moltmann citing Max Horhemer answers that theology “is the hope . . . that injustice will not be the last word . . . [it is] the expression of a longing that the murderer may not triumph over the innocent victim.”[xiii] This quite natural hope is what prompts Moltmann to accuse those who would “push away the question about the life of the dead” as being “profoundly inhumane.”[xiv] In this same line of thought, and in order to disavow the cynical offering of previous generations as victims on “the altar of the future,” Walter Kasper concurs: “Consequently, unless we are willing to cut hope in half, as it were, and limit it to a future generation and to those who are in the vanguard of progress, our hope must imply the God of hope who gives life to the dead.”[xv] In other words, sincere eschatological hope maintains that every person in history will have the chance to become who God intended her to be.

This hope today is especially born out of a deep concern for those in the third world for instance who far too often die “unnatural, premature, violent, and by no means affirmed death.”[xvi] It calls to mind and invokes the promise that just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too shall be resurrected and “bear the image of the heavenly man” with our spiritual bodies, which are not mindless bodies or separated from the soul (1 Cor 15:49, NIV).  It is exactly this assurance in things hoped for but not seen that permits Paul to learn “the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil 4:12) and to ask, quoting the prophet Hosea, “Where, O grave is your destruction?”

This belief in further compensation in the life hereafter is not only about redemption for Silvia.  There is a twofold function.  During the postexilic period in the Jewish community and to a degree the concurrent Platonism developing in Greek thought about the immortality of the soul, the idea arose for one to also trust that every individual will “receive what is due according to his or her deeds” (2 Cor 5:10).[xvii] Thus, God’s people also hold out for a final judgment, which is not necessarily to speak of an eternal fate.

The profundity of this anticipation is fortified when compared to the liberal tradition of expecting a realized, humanly constructed and worldly utopia.  But at least two obvious objections can be raised precisely at this point: First, in the postmodern era, how is one to envisage any grounds for sensible faith in such a speculative and arguably triumphal narrative?  Furthermore, doesn’t this kind of conjecture lead down the same devastatingly foundational and world-fleeing path that liberals, skeptics and post-structuralists alike are determined to avoid?  A thoroughgoing apology cannot be carried out here, but I will henceforth attempt to very briefly sketch a theological and expositional vision for a plausible Christian framework that both instantiates what has thus far been proposed and seriously considers these two aforementioned difficulties.

The Hebrew Scriptures testify to both the prophetic and the apocalyptic, which respectively reveal meaning and fulfillment.  In Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God, these two culminations (meaning and fulfillment) are historically separated such that one has come (meaning), and the other will come (fulfillment).[xviii] Each end corresponds to two different biblical motifs – meaning with “the suffering servant,” which constitutes the present, and fulfillment with “the Son of man,” which substantiates the future coming.[xix] With this assertion, Reinhold Niebuhr and Moltmann are in agreement that Schweitzer’s conception of Jesus’ ethic being based on the illusion of his proximate return is mistaken. Without the forecast of a new and transformed future, despair is immanent.  Nevertheless, “sin is overcome in principle but not in fact,” so the love of Christ “must continue to be suffering love rather than triumphant love” for now.[xx] We still wait for the day when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes” and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4).

A complete juxtaposition between “already” and “not yet” however is not appropriate.  There is a sense of a synthesis in which the God’s reigning is dawning.[xxi] But a full realization is not something humanity can bring about politically; rather, it will be a cosmic irruption of God’s initiation.  The injunction to humanity is therefore one for preparedness and a call to decision:[xxii] “The time has come, he said. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  Hence, there is a unity between the eschatological and ethical in Jesus’ message, and this is the key to renouncing the liberal contention against proclaiming anything final.  We remember that Paul warns abrasively against idleness (2 Thess 3:11).  In this way, one can depart from a full demythologizing and still say with Bultmann himself that, “fulfillment of God’s will is the condition for participation in the salvation of His Reign.”[xxiii] Christians, conscious of their spiritual poverty (Matt 5:3), are to be liberated by grace from the grip of “superficiality and love of self and the world,” or sin, and empowered to embark on the impossible task of living like Christ as “merciful, pure of heart, and peace-making.”[xxiv]

Ultimately, never straying too far from Silvia’s predicament and the guilt of her perpetrators – the charge for sanctification and spiritual rebirth notwithstanding – the belief remains for God’s principle aim to be that of justice: “to put right what has gone awry, finish what was begun, pick up what was neglected, forgive the trespasses, heal the hurts, and be permitted to gather up the moment of happiness and to transform mourning into joy.”[xxv] If Silvia represents “the poor” defined broadly (Matt 5:1), then the pronouncement of the kingdom of God is not opposed merely to “the rich”, but those who make themselves rich at the expense of the poor.  Moltmann uses the phrase “the man of violence.”[xxvi] These oppressors are called to “change and seek liberating community with the poor if they are to be included as citizens of the kingdom.”[xxvii]

This kingdom Jesus brings is already solidified in the future, which means the status of the oppressed changes eschatologically [some text missing here].

Pannenberg on the other hand, while having much in common with Moltmann, lands faintly more on the side of openness to the future kingdom, indicating greater significance in what has not yet been disclosed.[xxxii] The character of God and the legitimacy of the entire Christian faith hang on the coming consummation of an unrealized, ontological priority of the future that must entail a new creation of the entire cosmos, when God will be all in all.[xxxiii] Thus, despite the fully present potential reality of the kingdom of God since Jesus’ ministry, Moltmann and Pannenberg both present what is truly a theology of hope.


The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. – Colossians 1:15-20

In light of the existential crisis of Silvia and the subsequent eschatological hope, from the Christian perspective one must now introduce a christology and soteriology almost simultaneously that coheres with the heretofore anthropological underpinnings. This is the third and fourth step together in the systematic progression that reaches the peak or center of the theological chiasm before descending back “down” toward the first doctrine.

3. Christology

The three offices of Christ as described by Thomas Torrance make for an excellent place of departure for a rough christological outline.  First, and most fittingly in view of Silvia, Christ assumes the role of prophet.  For Torrance the prophetic offices implies an incarnational assumption that has ontological consequences.  God became human through the hypostatic union, by what Athanasius called homoousion, and “was pleased to have his fullness dwell” in Christ.  Incarnation and atonement are inseparable, as Gregory of Nyssa claimed.  This phenomenon and breaking in or rupturing of God in history creates a new ontological horizon in an eternal present.  This is the logos made flesh as poetically illustrated in John’s prologue.  The divine act of love, humility, and self-emptying, from the hymn in the second chapter of Philippians, provides the initial performative act which establishes that solidarity between God and humanity that Silvia’s situation requires, such that she could reply:

“Away from me, all you who do evil, for the LORD has heard my weeping.
The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
They will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.” (Psalm 6:8-9).

The second office is that of the priest which “corresponds to the passive obedience of Christ, his submission to the Father’s judgment and his self-offering in sacrifice for our sins.”[xxxiv] The priestly function can be abused and misrepresented when the absorption of God’s wrath by the Son’s propitiation of sin is overemphasized.  This language is not absent from the New Testament, but a careful study of the Jewish sacrificial system can reveal possible alternative interpretations.  The violence against Silvia cannot be redeemed with more violence.  The passive obedience of Christ is a submission and non-violent protest to the violence of the world that would crucify the innocent victim or commit the atrocity against human dignity endured by Silvia.  In the work on the cross, Jesus condemns oppression, hatred, hypocrisy, and all kinds of evil.  In this respect the event is indeed a severe judgment on humanity’s failure to depend on and trust God, which can have terrible repercussions.

Thirdly Christ occupies the throne as king.  In some manner his reign has not yet come to the full fruition that the apocalypse foretells, but he nevertheless actively obeyed God, with subtle distinction from the passive priestly obedience, by conquering death in the resurrection and ascending to “the right hand of God,” which symbolizes the completion of incarnation by the return to glory. One has confidence in this event supplied by the testimony of the disciples and the early church, and most powerfully by the voice of the martyrs.  This third piece of the triplex munus (threefold office of Christ) is what most saves, but not without the other two parts enabling it. [xxxv] Thinking the three together gives a far richer comprehension of the atonement than by merely noting the various theories in themselves: exemplary, satisfaction/ransom, christus victor, penal substitution, and incarnation).[xxxvi] In sum, Christ shares in Silvia’s suffering, he judges her violator, and he raises her to new life.

4. Soteriology: The Climax

The soteriological outcome can be easily and similarly derived from this Christological portrait if thought in terms of three dimensions as well.  Firstly, “By grace through faith” in Christ’s action we are saved (past tense) – “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8). In the second place, the “already accomplished” facilitates a saving or being saved that is worked out presently in “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) leaving no room for assurance to produce lethargy.  The first level of theory informs the second level of praxis, but both are reaching together for something more that has not arrived.  Further still one awaits the third level of the ever-elusive parousia, the coming of the basileia that will shatter every horizon, about and by which the children of God can confess “we will be delivered” (Dan 12:1).

I cannot help but suspect, without certainty, however, that the second two depend on the first – not for proof – but for deep coherence.  If Jesus isn’t the resurrected Christ, who in some definite sense overpowered death, then the naysayers might be right.  He would be another prophet, and maybe even the greatest, but not God incarnate.  Hope for Silvia fades in this view.  How could we ever expect our own resurrection?  This does not mean one should attempt to empirically verify the event, but to say that it doesn’t matter or that it’s a distraction, as some have, is devastating to this particular eschatology.

Along with Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Luke Timothy Johnson, and in contrast to Jesus Seminar leaders John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, Terrance Tilley asserts that, “it is unwarranted for historians to separate the historical-Jesus from the movement that remembered and imitated him in its distinctive practices.”[xxxvii] So “whatever one thinks of the historicity of the resurrection, followers of Jesus were convinced that their experiences of seeing him after his death grounded their devotion to him.”[xxxviii]

Another matter remains.  It is not sufficient to merely put forth what, how, and why Christ saves without exploring the “who” question – one that has plagued the Christian community since its inception.  It will be helpful to turn attention once more to Moltmann.  Regarding the notion that individual salvation is determined by every person’s decision in response to an invitation for faith, Moltmann answers:


Is this theologically conceivable?  Can some people damn themselves, and others redeem themselves by accepting Christ?  If this were so, God’s decisions would be dependent on the will of human beings.  God would become the auxiliary who executes the wishes of people who decide their fate for themselves.  If I can damn myself, I am my own God and judge.  Taken to a logical conclusion this is atheistic.[xxxix]


Here in response I wish to express both appreciation and dissatisfaction.  To be sure it might seem asinine at first to postulate that human beings are given so much freedom in their futility to solidify their own fate, which at this time might be best summarily condensed to one of either communion with God or separation from God.  Before expounding on the implications of Moltmann’s statement, a succinct elaboration on the concept of justification will facilitate the discussion.  Karl Barth understood that reconciliation happens first with God’s judgment upon the sinner, achieved by Christ’s death, and is followed by the verdict of this judgment, which is announced in the resurrection – this is the process by which humanity is justified.[xl] N.T. Wright, relying heavily on Alister McGrath, introduces it thusly: “the heart of the Christian faith in found in ‘the saving action of God toward mankind in Jesus Christ.’”[xli] He goes on to argue that there are a number of biblical metaphors to reference how God saves people through Christ, but none should be elevated about the others.  Some might say this was the overreaction of the Reformers.  McGrath himself as a reformed theologian concedes:

The “doctrine of justification” has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins, so that even if it could be shown that it plays a minimal role in Pauline soteriology, or that its origins lie in an anti-Judaism polemic quite inappropriate to the theological circumstances today, its significance would not be diminished as a result.

In an extremely terse treatment of the text, a key to the puzzle, or better said, mystery of salvation is found in a proper exegesis of Galatians where Paul addresses the problems caused by ethnic and cultural discrimination in a church of both Jews and Gentiles.  Works of the law are not what justify – this much is clear.  But what are the works of the law?  Abruptly understood, these works include “living like a Jew” and the separation from “Gentile sinners” in Galatians 2:14-15).[xlii] Reading Paul in this context,

We are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that “to be justified,” here does not mean “to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,” “to come into right relationship with God” or some other near synonym of “to be reckoned ‘in the right’ before God,” but rather, and very specifically, “to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.

This statement does not refute nor undermine Ephesians 2:8-9.  What it does do is liberate us from hegemonic hermeneutics, just as with the varying atonement theories or offices held by Christ; and what one does have is a plurality of word pictures and allegorical passages that bear witness to an incomprehensible truth.  Thus I’ve conveyed my appreciation for Moltmann’s suspicion about individual salvation above, but now I aim to articulate what I think is deficient in his remarks.

As long as Scripture in its whole is thoroughly reliable and authoritative – divergent interpretation notwithstanding, and even with other resources for hermeneutics like tradition, reason, and experience – one cannot in good conscience presume universal salvation. Universalism as dogma is reckless.  Rather, like Hans Urns von Balthasar, one can only dare to hope that all humanity be saved.  And just to clarify, “an absolutely firm conviction of the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ need not undermine the truth of other religions.”[xliii] The warnings to evildoers throughout Scripture, however, are too numerous to ignore.  In my view the canonization of universalism, though far from the most threatening of deviations, inescapably disseminates complacency toward the responsibility of sharing the good news of the gospel and inviting others to participate in God’s mission of “reconciling all things” to God’s self.[xliv]

Concerning the human being’s response to God, Kasper says revelation exists in human, historical mediation so that the message is not concerned with theoretical speculation but is a “practical message of judgment because it ultimately says that man has no power over the mystery of God either through knowledge or through action.”[xlv] God confers revelation in order to evoke a decision from people.  Faith, therefore, is not a sheer momentary act of emotion, volition or comprehension, but encompasses all of these powers through an on-going choice and a “comprehensive mode of existing.”[xlvi] As this pertains to individual salvation, there is faint disparity between Kasper and Motlmann.

About the earliest Christians, the post-liberal theologian George Linbeck insightfully notices an “extraordinary combination of relaxation and urgency in their attitude toward those outside the church.”[xlvii] Without yet delving into ecclesiology, the “world mission” of Christians should be likewise.  Again, if one trusts God, both peace and exigency will rule – peace to believe God is just, and exigency to carry out the Great Commission by making disciples “as you go” (Matt 28:19).  The aim of outreach is not conversion but mutual understanding and transformation, but this does not prohibit extending an invitation to others to come, to lay down their lives life, and follow Jesus.  When it comes to interacting with other faith traditions, Moltmann decries any attempt to adhere to general pluralism and is representative of the view that “dialogue with other religions is not helped if Christians relativize that which is distinctively Christian.”[xlviii] Any comprehensively constructed theology today must confront the problem posed by religious pluralism, which is beyond the allotted scope here.  Suffice to say very inconclusively, however, that, as Moltmann insinuates, the God of Jesus Christ is merciful.

The end goal of a christological soteriology then is not the punishment of the man who killed Silvia, however unspeakable his deed.  His act was caught up in a whole web of violence.  No clear lines can be drawn from our perspective, demarcating the sheep from the goats and the wheat from chaff: “Judge not, or you too will be judged” (Matt 7:1).  In the words of H. Richard Niebuhr about Christ,

“his work is concerned not with the specious, external aspects of human behavior in the first place, but that he tries the hearts and judges the subconscious life; that he deals with what is deepest and most fundamental in man.  He heals the most stubborn and virulent human disease, the phthisis of the spirit, the sickness unto death; he forgives the most hidden and proliferous sin, the distrust, lovelessness, and hopelessness of man in his relation to God.”[xlix]


Once more drawing for the christological praise song in Paul’s letter to Colossians, one sees that “the Son is the eikona of the invisible God,” the image or icon by which we are able to say anything about the nature of the first person of the Trinity.  As Ian McFarland admits, “the iconodule argument that the incarnation creates a situation in which the whole material realm to be pressed into the service of imaging God would appear to suggest that genuine knowledge of God is now a universal human possibility.”[l] For this reason, McFarland advocates an apophatic christocentricism,[li] but this does not get divorced from the original existential crisis.  One knows already what the Pentateuch has professed: “The Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut 31:6).  The Minor Prophets declare: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2); and “The Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished” (Nah 1:3) as the God who liberates slaves.  Thus again even before the time of Christ the Jewish people acknowledged that Yahweh is faithful to the covenant and will both rescue Silvia and repay her attacker what is due him.

But God had not yet come.  The Spirit of God was there in the beginning (Gen 1:2), but she both came upon and forsook (2 Chron 24:20).  When Moses led the Israelites from Egypt out of bondage, she was powerfully present.  When Joshua commanded his armies to slaughter, she fled.  How can one say this? – Only by the ministry of Jesus which is the complete Revelation of this age, in whom God was pleased to fully dwell – our apophasis.  In this way he fulfilled Torah by surpassing it: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:43-45).  What is God like?  The answer, in a word, is Christ.  In a brilliant essay responding to Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology, Kathryn Tanner disagrees with Marion’s apophatic depiction of Christ and, depending on a close reading of Cappadocian Fathers like Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa, offers an alternative:


In Christ, humanity is exalted to its own full glory-Christ has a glorified humanity-by virtue of the fact that this human being is one with the second person of the Trinity. Finally, according to the account I am offering, the beauty and glory of the human form need not rival God’s, since God is the giver of it. Therefore God’s work is not done in the disfiguring of Christ-his beating, his scourging-that, for Marion, allows Christ’s humanity to become an icon referring attention entirely away from itself and only to the Father.[lii]

Embracing apophatic christocentrism permits a higher view of other religious icons (the Buddha, Mary, Krishna, Muhammad, and so on), but the Christian must concretely know God as the one who unbridles the chains of injustice and heals the broken, which was foretold in Isaiah and manifested in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  Thus, Tanner’s critique is duly noted.  Moreover, a devotion to Jesus then doesn’t have to contradict central tenants of Judaism.[liii] The same Spirit present in Jesus was always living and active.  In Christ “the prophet of Sophia [is] recognized as incarnating Wisdom who teaches the members of the movement not what is wise but how to exercise wisdom in practice . . . empower[ing] them to become creative and graceful reconciling agents of the commonweal divine”:[liv]

“For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of [the Lord’s] goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.” – Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-28

Without reducing her to Wisdom since this is also the divine Logos residing in Christ, the doctrine of the Triune God emerges with the action of God’s Spirit as the wooing and sanctifying agent of love in the present world.[lv] As Gustaf Aulen tells us through Irenaeus, “it is God Himself who enters into the world of sin and death for man’s deliverance, to take up the conflict with the powers of evil and effect atonement between Himself and the world.”[lvi] Balthsar speaks of God’s impassible suffering, a paradox that both conveys God’s immanence while guarding against anthropomorphic tendencies.  Perhaps it was best captured by Gregory of Nyssa when he spoke of “the lofty stoop[ing] to the lowly without losing its loftiness.”[lvii] Nonetheless, when it comes to God, because Jesus Christ is not exhaustive of God to us, we see now only dimly, returning to apophasis (1 Cor 13:12); but this same passage about love also signifies, as does the Johannine canon, that God is love, analogically.

Love evokes doxology.  It mystifies, and is not grasped or achieved in full.  So it is with God.  The language of praise and prayer and the proliferation of divine names in response to the revealed account of God in the tradition, in the Scriptures, in humanity’s finite reason and the experience of the Christian community through the centuries, becomes worship – worship because, to repeat, Silvia is set free, and what has gone awry will be restored to its original purpose, which is strong participation for the whole cosmos in the Divine life and communion with all of creation in God’s infinite freedom.[lviii]

What this love also does, however – intense as it is – necessitates the introduction of a third constituent of divine triadic unity as alluded to above with reference to Sophia.[lix]

This unicity of essence implies and includes the unicity of one single consciousness and one single freedom, although of course the unicity of one self-presence in consciousness and freedom in the divine Trinity remains determined by that mysterious threeness which we profess about God when we speak haltingly of the Trinity of persons in God.[lx]

An intricate elaboration on the doctrine of the immanent Holy Trinity, or “the inner life of God completely unrelated to us and to our Christian existence,” is unhelpful once the apophatic and mystical nature of God the Father is introduced.[lxi] This is what Karl Rahner calls the absolute holy mystery.  Consequently, one can deduce, as with Rahner and Tanner and in slight disagreement with Kasper, that for all intents and purposes, the economic Trinty is the immanent Trinity: “The psychological theory of the Trinity neglects the experience of the Trinity in the economy of salvation in favor of a seemingly almost gnostic speculation about what goes on in the inner life of God.”[lxii] Tanner too intends her own theology to function starting from what is most visible in Christ as the Word incarnate, which exhibits the general pattern of relationship with the other members of the Trinity.[lxiii]


“God presents himself to us little bit little.  The whole story of salvation is the story of God who comes.” – Carlo Carretto

Concerning the third agent, Ives Congar explains that “the action of the paraclete consists in urging the world to recognize its fault and to confess its guilt.”[lxiv] Never by encroaching on their freedom, the Holy Spirit guides and directs individuals in a subtle but sovereign fashion toward relationship with God by inviting repentance.[lxv] The Holy Spirit is the “immanent and anonymous presence of God.”[lxvi] God spoke through Ezekiel saying, “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek 11:19b).  The path of contrition is maneuvered by “walking according to the Spirit” (Gal 5:16), and the Spirit is “the principle of interior personal sanctification.”[lxvii] The fruit in the lives of all people and wherever there is holiness or purity of heart – the Spirit is the source.   The “already” and “not yet” age of the Spirit pulls and propels creation forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God.[lxviii]

Among the many telling biblical examples of this transforming process occurring are those of the Roman centurion Cornelius’ conversion (Acts 10) and Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19).  In the context of the latter narrative, Zacchaeus’ occupation in society was deeply entrenched in an exploitative and massively suppressive system of cruelty.  In the instance when Congar mentions this account, injustice and sin are used interchangeably.  Needless to say, Zacchaeus was a sinner, maybe not unlike the modern-day, corrupt Wall Street banker, dishonest lobbyist, or illegal arms and narcotics cartel leader – all of which are roles played by those complicit with the brutalities like the one that Silvia faced.

Similar to “posture of the heart” evidenced by the second thief on the cross, when Zacchaeus climb the tree to see Jesus, he becomes like “the man who knows how poor he is and who rejects all pride and self-sufficiency, even the pride of rags, the man who stands before God in his nakedness and his need – [and] that man knows the miracles of love and mercy, from the consolation of the heart and the illumination of the spirit to the allaying of hunger and thirst.”[lxix] When we cry out for help, it the Spirit that responds by bearing witness to our spirits that we are the children of God.  Even the sinners and tax collectors received mercy from Jesus.  Indeed, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13), but this is not a formula; nor does it take place in the economy of exchange.  The thief on the cross could not have known that Jesus was going to be raised from the dead.  He had no awareness of the creeds.  What distinguished him from the first man was he “feared God” like Cornelius.  Jesus tells him they will be together in paradise.  Nothing is mentioned about the fate of the first man, however, so the message is not one of exclusion.

The Spirit is “at the deepest level the longing that impels us toward God and causes us to end in him.”[lxx] Moreoever, Gregory of Nazianzus refers to a “gradual progress of the revelation of the mystery of God through the Old Testament to the New and in Christian reflection itself,” which both unifies and diversifies its manifestations.[lxxi] Identification of the Spirit’s work is rendered an ambiguous task in a limited sense.  On this idea, Congar and Kasper agree that one cannot point and say where it is (Luke 17:21).[lxxii] The Holy Spirit as comforter “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13-14).  Paul echoes Jesus by instructing his listeners to be taught by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:12-14), which depends and strengthens the faith of disciples.[lxxiii] Sometimes it is a “still, small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12), while in other cases the Spirit intercedes and prays for us in our weakness with groaning (Rom 8:26).[lxxiv]

The Spirit administers gifts to each person in the Church (1 Cor 12, Rom 12, Eph 4, 1 Pet 4), the purpose of which is the edification and building up of its members.  With respect to Church, which will receive more acute treatment below, the Holy Spirit animates the body of Christ, which is the Church. Where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church.[lxxv] In this way, the church can be identified, but one should be cautious before delimiting where it is not.[lxxvi] Those in whom Christ dwells by the power of the Holy Spirit can undergo theosis or deification, and the Spirit gathers together everything that is tending toward God.[lxxvii]


In her book, Discipleship of Equals, Schussler Fiorenza draws on J. Paul Sampley’s translation of the word koinonia or communion as “shared partnership and commitment,” and such consensual partnership is operative as long as the partners are of the “same mind” as when it was founded in the first place.  The common purpose and commitment of all Christians is . . .the witness to ‘the mystery of God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.’”[lxxviii] This definition corresponds closely with how Roger Haight through Schleiermacher construes the Church: “the institutionalization of the community of people who, animated by the Spirit of God, live in the faith that Jesus is the Christ of God.  The mission of the church is to continue and expand Jesus’ message in history.”[lxxix] In this first respect respect, the church makes proclamation.

Moreover though, the Church is not merely obliged to proclaim. The Church is instilled with the prophetic task of both criticism and construction, internally and externally in the process of change.[lxxx] It must be willing to “shake off the ambiguous protection provided by the beneficiaries of the unjust order.”[lxxxi] Whether in protest by means of a powerful witness to an alternative community (Acts 2) or direct participation in the creation of a more just society – it will depend on the church and its particular circumscription – the church has a duty as the body of Christ to participate in the transformational of both individuals and culture.  In both cases, it is required that the Church maintains solidarity with those who suffer from misery and deprivation,[lxxxii] and this solidarity means that we make ours their problems and their struggles.”[lxxxiii] Roger Haight defends the need for the church’s inculturation for precisely an end such as this; and inculturation for Haight does not connote assimilation, which precludes reducing ecclesiology to the sociopolitical realm.[lxxxiv] The enterprise of inculturation involves and names the church’s second operation as a sacrament, or visible sign of an invisible reality (Augustine).

This call to be poor is extended most expressly to church leaders, which means at times they will be expected to demonstrate the same manner of subversive, peaceful action against systemic violence that Jesus epitomized.  More recently one need only look to compelling martyrdom account of God’s servant Bishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador.  Unfair wages and exploitation, for instance, make up a sinful situation that offends God.  If the Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, like the bodies of believers (the Kingdom of God is within you!), the practical significance of clergy lifestyle cannot be emphasized enough.  A proper testimony to the contemporary world demands a restructuring of the financial dependency of clergy on the people they serve. Gustavo Gutierrez advises those who do not wish live on stipends or from teaching religion should be willing to experiment with healthy, secular jobs.[lxxxv] This is just one tangible route by which the Church can fulfill its third assignment, which is to be a medium for transformation.

For this reason, despite its consistency with New Testament apocalyptic literature, an ecclesiology that rests wholly on eschatology with an “ontological priority of the future” is not satisfactory for the third world.[lxxxvi] What this crucial qualifier discloses is that even a very balanced, dialectical theology of both/and or already/not yet tensions is contextual, and insufficient as a universal system.  As Haight affirms, there is no one New Testament model for church polity.[lxxxvii] This is not to say, however, that just any system can stand.  Even Gustavo Gutierrez himself does not reduce eschatology and salvation purely the socio-political sphere; nor does he renounce the necessity of separation between Church and state.  Different faith communities will inevitably and predictably be persuaded at times to stress one of the three roles of Christ (prophet, priest and king) over and against the others depending on context.  As such, a system protecting against the extremes may still be the best system, insofar as systems remain useful.

This is why Haight emphasizes in his ecclesiology the tension between unity and plurality, ideals and actualities; between community and institution, charism and office, progressive and conservative forces, continuity and change, and even history and eschatology as in Moltmann.[lxxxviii] Therefore, an Anabaptist Congregationalist church in North America can sustain partial communion with a socially liberal Catholic church in Argentina.  Different churches can administer the sacraments in different styles and still keep fellowship with one another.  “One baptism” can consist of various forms of Baptism.

However, considering what liberation theology has taught us, hierarchy poses a latent threat and impediment to liberation for Silvia – the importance of ecumenism notwithstanding, it is defensible that grassroots and democratic movements have historically been more effective than top-down, institutionalized enforcement of policy for social change.  Thus it may be that a criterion even for partial communion should be implemented entailing the expectation of more equitable governance in churches than has been traditional typified in many denominations.  Furthermore, such equitable standards today would not only need to transcend clergy and laity lines, but obviously break down divisions between gender, sexual, and racial barriers as well to establish a genuine priesthood of all believers.[lxxxix] Church leaders can have authority without hierarchical power, which parallels the Congar’s account of the Church as “no longer defined in terms of its priesthood, consisting of priests carrying out their task with lay people as their ‘clients’.  Instead it is seen as community that is being built up by the brotherly contributions made by all its members.”[xc]

There is a weakness with this recommendation though, for who would be in charge of enforcing church guidelines beyond local boundaries without some kind of hierarchical structure?  It is true: “the local church is not a freestanding, self-sufficient reality.”[xci] There are no easy solutions here, and like Moltmann’s eschatology, Haight’s approach may be the best that has come forward – the balance between community and institution in particular, and living out of the theological and ecclesiological tensions themselves in general.  In Haight’s ecclesial vision, cooperation replaces competition.  As Schleiermacher insists, diversity does not imply division.[xcii] Further, ecclesial existence for Haight is equated with communitarian existence.  In an important albeit restricted sense, community is the mission.[xciii] There are other foundational elements, or features and practices that comprise ecclesial existence, like gathering for worship and prayer and the hearing of the Word.[xciv] And in order to preserve its holiness, which is another key trait, the Church must constantly be renewed by the Spirit.  This happens through repentance and confession.

Again, a principle charge for today’s church will be that made by Congar: “A sound and critical rejection of any form of ecclesiolatry should find its place within an immense, deep and warm love of the Church, and experience has shown that such a love is very favourable to a life of prayer and praise.”[xcv] In one sense contextual, and in another sense, universal, by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of Christ the King, the Church assumes the role as both Silvia’s advocate for healing and justice and the administrator of forgiveness and grace for guilty sinners in the world.

[i] Wolfhart Pannenberg and Duane A. Priebe, What Is Man? Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective. (Fortress Press, 1970), 8.

[ii] David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 420.

[iii] Ibid., 422.

[iv] Pannenberg and Priebe, What Is Man?, 36.

[v] Ibid., 13.

[vi] Ibid., 14.

[vii] Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Fortress Press, 2004), 44.

[viii] Ibid., 45.

[ix] Martin Heidegger and Joan Stambaugh, Sein und Zeit (SUNY Press, 1996), 245.

[x] See Thomas A. Carlson, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human (University Of Chicago Press, 2008).  Here Carlson defends a reading of Heidegger that is unlike the way other postmodern thinkers have interpreted Dasein, like the French phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion who accuses Heidegger of the “highest kind of idolatry” and anthropomorphism with respect to being-in-the-world in the existentialist sense.

[xi] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 51.

[xii] Ibid., 105.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 108.

[xvi] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 108.

[xvii] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Human Nature, Election, and History, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 16.

[xviii] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Volume II, Human Destiny (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), 47.

[xix] Ibid., 48.

[xx] Ibid., 51.

[xxi] Rudolf Karl Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament; (Scribner, 1967), 7.

[xxii] Ibid., 9.

[xxiii] Ibid., 20.

[xxiv] Ibid., 21.

[xxv] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 116.

[xxvi] Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 1st ed. (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1995), 99.

[xxvii] Timothy Harvie, “Living the future: the kingdom of God in the theologies of Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no. 2 (April 1, 2008): 152.

[xxviii] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 27.

[xxix] Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology in The coming of God.,” in God will be all in all (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 245.

[xxx] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 10.

[xxxi] Bauckham, “Eschatology in The coming of God.,” 157.

[xxxii] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (Westminster John Knox Pr, 1969), 68.

[xxxiii] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, 1st ed. (HarperOne, 1996), 62.  Hays describes Eph 1:22-23 as a mystical meditation on cosmic ecclesiology, which seems consistent with both Pannenberg and Moltmann.

[xxxiv] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (IVP Academic, 2009), 59.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 60.

[xxxvii] Terrence W. Tilley, The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology As Reconciling Practice (Orbis Books, 2008), 45.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 64.

[xxxix] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 109.

[xl] Hans Kung, Justification (Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964), 33.

[xli] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic, 2009), 79.

[xlii] Ibid., 117.

[xliii] Roger D. Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3: Ecclesial Existence (Continuum, 2008), 194.

[xliv] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis Books, 1991).

[xlv] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 130.

[xlvi] Ibid., 120.

[xlvii] Mark S. Heim, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 271.

[xlviii] Jurgen Moltmann, History and the Triune God: Contributions to Trinitarian Theology (Crossroad Pub Co, 1992), xi.

[xlix] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and culture, 1st ed. (Harper, 1951), 191.

[l] Ian A. McFarland, The Divine Image: Envisioning The Invisible God (Fortress Press, 2005), 33.

[li] Ibid., 44.

[lii] Kevin Hart, Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion, 1st ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 225.

[liii] Tilley, The Disciples’ Jesus, 59.

[liv] Ibid., 70.

[lv] Yves Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit (Herder & Herder, 1997), 46.

[lvi] Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, Amercian Edition. (Macmillan Company, 1956), 42.

[lvii] Ibid., 46.

[lviii] With this comment I mean to create a kind of threefold interweaving of what Kasper, Tanner, and Pannenberg proposed in common as that which the Christian life offers, combining main ideas from their three respective works: The God of Jesus Christ, Christ the Key, and What is Man?

[lix] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 85.

[lx] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982), 135.

[lxi] Ibid., 135.

[lxii] Ibid., 135.

[lxiii] Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key, Current issues in theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 147.

[lxiv] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 122.

[lxv] Ibid., 33.

[lxvi] Ibid., 220.

[lxvii] Ibid., 46.

[lxviii] Ibid., 107.

[lxix] Ibid., 127.

[lxx] Ibid., 81.

[lxxi] Ibid., 73.

[lxxii] Ibid., 222.

[lxxiii] Ibid., 102.

[lxxiv] Ibid., 114.

[lxxv] Ibid., 209.

[lxxvi] Ibid., 223.

[lxxvii] Ibid., 224.

[lxxviii] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesialogy Of Liberation (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), 272.

[lxxix] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 36.

[lxxx] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988), 69.

[lxxxi] Ibid., 58.

[lxxxii] Ibid., 61.

[lxxxiii] Ibid., 68.

[lxxxiv] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 237.

[lxxxv] Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 71.

[lxxxvi] See José Miguez Bonino, “Reading Jürgen Moltmann from Latin America.,” Asbury Theological Journal 55, no. 1 (March 1, 2000): 105-114.

[lxxxvii] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 55.

[lxxxviii] Ibid., 47.

[lxxxix] Ibid., 120.

[xc] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 208.

[xci] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 22.

[xcii] Ibid., 6.

[xciii] Ibid., 107.

[xciv] Ibid., 60.

[xcv] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 210.

Works Cited

Aulen, Gustaf. Christus Victor. Amercian Edition. Macmillan Company, 1956.

Bauckham, Richard. “Eschatology in The coming of God..” In God will be all in all, 1-34. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999.

Bonino, José Miguez. “Reading Jürgen Moltmann from Latin America..” Asbury Theological Journal 55, no. 1 (March 1, 2000): 105-114.

Bosch, David Jacobus. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Orbis Books, 1991.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Theology of the New Testament;. Scribner, 1967.

Carlson, Thomas A. The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human. University Of Chicago Press, 2008.

Congar, Yves. I Believe In The Holy Spirit. Herder & Herder, 1997.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler. Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesialogy Of Liberation. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Revised. Orbis Books, 1988.

Haight, Roger D. Christian Community in History, Volume 3: Ecclesial Existence. Continuum, 2008.

———. Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion. 1st ed. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Harvie, Timothy. “Living the future: the kingdom of God in the theologies of Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no. 2 (April 1, 2008): 149-164.

Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. 1st ed. HarperOne, 1996.

Heidegger, Martin, and Joan Stambaugh. Sein und Zeit. SUNY Press, 1996.

Heim, Mark S. The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.

Kasper, Walter. The God of Jesus Christ. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986.

Kelsey, David. Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Kung, Hans. Justification. Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964.

McFarland, Ian A. The Divine Image: Envisioning The Invisible God. Fortres Press, 2005.

Moltmann, Jurgen. History and the Triune God: Contributions to Trinitarian Theology. Crossroad Pub Co, 1992.

———. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology. Fortress Press, 2004.

———. The Way of Jesus Christ. 1st ed. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1995.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and culture. 1st ed. Harper, 1951.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man Volume II, Human Destiny. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Human Nature, Election, and History. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.

———. Theology and the Kingdom of God. Westminster John Knox Pr, 1969.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart, and Duane A. Priebe. What Is Man? Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective. Fortress Press, 1970.

———. Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982.

———. Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982.

Tanner, Kathryn. Christ the Key. Current issues in theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Tilley, Terrence W. The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology As Reconciling Practice. Orbis Books, 2008.

Torrance, Thomas F. Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ. IVP Academic, 2009.

Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. IVP Academic, 2009.

Four Varieties of Atheism


“The god-less thinking which must abandon the god of philosophy, god as causa sui, is thus perhaps closer to the divine God. Here this means only: god-less thinking is more open to Him than onto-theo-logic would like to admit.” – Martin Heidegger


In the first place, and probably most common to mainstream Western culture, atheism can result from the standpoint of an apparent “negligible yield of evidence”[i] for God (already here we have already assumed a certain kind of God, and this issue will be taken up below). That is, one decides the classical and/or contemporary arguments for God’s existence to be less than convincing.  For now, it might be fitting to term this particular brand of atheism as “narrow,” but not “narrow” in a derogatory sense – quite the opposite, in fact, atheists would say.  Rather, it implies the disbelief in a specific variety of theism (the Christian, omniscient, omnipotent sort). Examples of classical theistic arguments include the ontological (of which there are many versions, but the most famous is likely that of St. Anselm), cosmological (specifically championed by Thomas Aquinas or in the form of the Kalam argument of the medieval Islamic philosophers embraced recently by the evangelical Christian William Lane Craig), teological (maintains the substantiation for intelligent design or agency behind the universe), and the mystical experience arguments.  Though he interacts with and claims to refute each argument in fair detail, it is sufficient for our purposes to summarize that Richard M. Gale is one atheist who contests these classical theories by amply underscoring a number of their weaknesses, gaps, and even potentially fundamental shortcomings.

Modern atheists are often reacting to theistic philosophers like Richard Swinburne for example who argues from an evidential position for the existence of God, and this typically entails accepting that the burden of proof be placed on the one who would argue for belief in God rather than the reverse.  A counterexample, however, from the theistic perspective, would be someone like Alvin Plantiga who rejects the epistemology of classical foundationalism and contends instead that faith in God need not be bolstered by arguments or empirical verification in order to be deemed reasonable.  In response to the postulations of the above-mentioned theologians, atheist Keith Parsons carefully examines and refutes in defensible fashion the case made by both thinkers.  Giving full credit to their brilliant minds, Parson nonetheless is respectfully “forced to conclude”[ii] that the best support theistic belief has found is unwarranted.  It is as if Parson echoes a complaint made by Richard Dawkins about the Christian theologian Alister McGrath: All theists seem to furnish is “the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God.”[iii] Even if this argument is granted (which for Dawkins it hardly is), it falls well short of inducing faith.

There are of course other legitimate grounds for atheism besides from the foundation of supposedly failed, classical theistic theories.  Some are satisfied with disbelief immediately following the theodicy problem set out by Epicurus.  Additional alternatives might involve atheism deduced from conclusions in the natural sciences (evolution, anthropology) leading to worldviews like physicalism/materialism or naturalism.  Interestingly enough though, some forms of naturalism can remain open to new information that would at least hypothetically permit a kind of gradually acquired supernaturalism; but such rare situations would tend to eventually be conformed to or incorporated into a quasi-enlarged natural landscape.  So while something like a mystical experience might provide prima facia grounds for belief, it would not be rational grounds.[iv] Sociologically speaking, Emil Durkheim typifies well what could be called one expression of naturalism.  Hence, Evan Fales cites Durkheim so as to reason that the “supernatural” can be super insofar as it is a product of “human artifice, not nature.”[v]

Challenging the view that morality requires a religious foundation, David Brink successfully (I think) shows that “voluntarism is subjectivism at the highest level,”[vi] and thus undermines the autonomy of ethics (ironically, Kierkegaard’s comprehension of faith in Christianity might concede to this).[vii] Brink then presents a list of natural, secular, or commonsense morality models like utilitarianism, the aggregate conception of impartiality, and reciprocity or the mutual advantage theory.

The chief shortcoming in my view with any theistic argument tends to be not so much in the method or starting point, however copious the presumptions therein might be, but rather in what tends to be asserted as conceivably attainable by the arguments themselves.  In other words, more headway might be made if less audacious projects were undertaken in what one sets out to prove or demonstrate.  The plausibility of assigning omniscience and omni-benevolence to the Christian God, for instance, is highly disputed even from within the faith tradition itself.


An important question to consider with regard to atheism and world religions is whether or not atheism is necessarily an antireligious position.  Michael Martin investigates the matter in an illuminating way.  In order to begin talking about this subject, one must first roughly define the concept of religion.  Whereas traditionally in the West is has been assumed that religion presupposes supernatural beings, a moral code, and distinction between the sacred and the profane, Martin is quick to point out that already this point of view, in this case espoused by William Alston, presumes too much.[viii] Indeed, such parameters as those laid out by Alston do typically constitute the nature of religions like Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism or Islam, but there are a number of exceptions to this paradigm, especially in the East.

In his very helpful little book on Buddhism, Damien Keown seems to agree with Martin and insists in a similar manor on the notion that “the categories of ‘theistic’ and ‘atheistic’ are not really appropriate here.”[ix] Keown continues by asking if it could be that “the idea of a creator-God, while a central feature of one religion – or family of religions – is not the defining characteristic of all religions.”[x] So with Buddhism then, while differing from say Christianity in part because it denies the existence of a supreme, transcendent being, some Buddhists do believe in spirits or gods, which would distinguish Buddhism significantly from an other kinds of atheistic or non-theistic worldviews like Marxism.

Thus, it becomes essential to redefine what characterizes religion altogether.  Relying on the work of Monroe and Elizabeth Beardsley, Martin suggests, in place of the old framework put forth above, that religions in general seek to answer one of five major questions in life: (1) What are human being and the “chief problems they face,” (2) “What are the characteristics of non-human reality that are of greatest significance for human life,” (3) Given these things, how should human live, (4) “Given the answers to the first three questions, what practices will best develop and sustain in humanity an understanding” of these things, and (5) “what method should be used” in seeking answers to all of these questions?[xi] Ninian Smart has argued for something similar in his book The World’s Religions, only he describes seven different dimensions of religion, but the outcome corresponds closely with what is outlined by Martin.[xii]

Martin explains how this new structure expands the horizon of religion to include a much wider range of religious traditions comprised of Eastern faiths like Jainism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, but it would also contain Taoism, Shintoism and various Hindu traditions that are not explicitly discussed in his article.  Therefore, some of these religions referred to above are indeed atheistic in the “narrow” sense, but this does not make them utterly atheistic.  It follows then that atheism, while probably renouncing most theological content within the various world religions, does not require the refusal of certain moral or aesthetic qualities and components within these great traditions.  In sum, what Martin means to illustrate is that “atheism and religion do not necessarily stand in [total] opposition to one another.”[xiii]


Thomas Altizer, in perhaps the most original form ever constructed from without of the Christian tradition, authors and calls for an atheism that is genuinely unlike any other. Drawing heavily upon Paul, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, and Barth, all of whom are shockingly and paradoxically allied with Altizer somehow, it is finally Nietzsche, Blake and Hegel who open the way for Altizer’s imaginative and inimitable scheme.

In Altizer’s consideration, God became a universal Godhead by the sacrifice that made God human and absolutely emptied.[xiv] Indeed, this was God’s self-annihilation and death invoking the age of the immanence of the absolute Spirit in history (Hegel).  And yet, Christianity nonetheless was born and lived on for centuries proclaiming that which for Nietzsche is the real nihilism[xv] – the founding of a religion based on the absolutely eternal, static, and changeless, heavenly realm, and such an affirmation of the endless “robbed life of its fragile, fleeting beauty.”[xvi] For Altizer, Nietzsche is also the most profound thinker of the weight of the forgiveness of sin because he purely explores our deepest darkness.[xvii] Therefore, Altizer’s Jesus is experienced in eternal recurrence, continually enacting a total forgiveness.

Altizer blames Constantine for introducing the hypostatic union into the Church at the Nicene Council and thereby empowering a hierarchical and imperial institution.[xviii] This Christianity does not speak to the modern world, and all otherworldly, Platonic notions of religion must be rejected.  Altizer’s gospel is an apocalyptic, dialectical theology of how in the present age we might live toward a totally new humanity without praising the ascended or kingly Jesus.  Affirming the enthroned Christ is in fact what causes Jesus to be most deeply forgotten.[xix] In place of the unprecedented turn to the past that exemplifies today’s fundamentalist theology, Altizer solicits an absolute future that is the reversal of all things past – a “negation of the negation,” like the prophetic period of Israel after the Babylonian destruction of Judah.[xx]


Not to his discredit, Bonhoeffer incorrectly predicted that the “world come of age” had no apparent need for God, which led to his account of “Religionless Christianity.”[xxi] Many others later extended this forecast with him.  Mark C. Taylor on the other hand exclaims boldly that, “you cannot understand the world today if you do not understand religion.”[xxii] He thereafter goes on to declare that religion and secularity are not enemies and alternatively proposes that secularity itself is a religious phenomenon.  Consequently, the two are always misinterpreting one another.  Furthermore, Taylor makes the controversial statement that the modern, supposedly secular world can locate its origin in Protestantism, or more particularly, in Luther – a Luther who gave birth to privatization, deregulation, decentering, and the reign of the human subject.

Just as atheists before him have expanded, or even blurred the boundary lines that encompass or divide theism and atheism, the key to Taylor’s analysis is a drastic augmentation of what delimits religion on the whole.  In this regard he follows Paul Tillich’s definition of faith or religion to some degree, as merely that which is the focus of our “ultimate concern.”[xxiii] This permits him to proclaim for instance that the counterculture of the sixties was a very religious movement and that so-called secularism is rooted in the same kind of dogma, resulting from the constant oscillation or “altaration” between structure and emergence, order and ambiguity, and location and dislocation.[xxiv]

Taylor is not alone in taking this course.  In his book On Religion, John Caputo does not “confine religion to something confessional or sectarian, like being a Muslim or a Hindu, a Catholic or Protestant.”[xxv] Going even further, for Taylor this means that religion in all its common appearances as an “emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals” not only serves to add meaning and significance to life, but it also functions to destabilize and disturb structures.[xxvi] Correspondingly, Taylor collapses the sacred into the secular and visa versa, and he endeavors to do this descriptively rather than prescriptively.  Whether or not he succeeds is maybe debatable.  To make the claim though, he needs only to draw attention to history, especially that of politics, culture, and religion in the United States for the last two centuries wherein the vacillation between immanence and transcendence has perpetuated (e.g., the liberal theology after Ritschl and Schleiermacher or the American religious right).

Taylor notices how people increasingly gravitate toward firm foundations promising security and certainty in a world gone mad.  From his perspective, however, uncertainty and instability foster the territory from which creative emergence can arise “at the edge of chaos in a surprising moment of creative disruption that can be endlessly productive.”[xxvii] Thus Taylor advocates risking a faith that embraces the unknown by re-appropriating (and yet moving beyond) the absolutely paradoxical faith of Luther, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and finally Barth before him – though each in their own unique and restructured way.  He departs from Altizer’s last modern grasp for a structure of pure immanence, as it too, not unlike Barth’s absolute transcendence, remains totalized and therefore excessively stable, however radical.  Taylor accuses Altizer of serving up yet another “metaphysics of presence.”[xxviii]

Taylor subverts the oppositional logic of religiosity, which is differentiated from religion, such that neither the either/or dualism of neo-orthodoxy in Barth nor the both/and immanent monism of Altizer (Nietzsche and a version of Hegel) are sufficient to comprehend the complexities of emerging network culture.  Any faith as absolute or foundational is unsuitable, and only a new, ever-unfinished, creative “schemata” will do.  In short, modern atheists don’t go far enough.  Belief is not managed but adapted.  Better, it is adaptive, and in this manor discovers mystery but never possesses it.  One must come to “the end of the end to be ‘right,’” to be certain she holds the whole truth.[xxix] That’s why Caputo can decree the age of “incredulity toward grand narratives” (Lyotard) to be “not a particularly friendly environment” for any metaphysical, fixed, or decisive affirmations or rejections of God.[xxx] Such a worldview allows someone like Derrida to state that he can’t ever really know if he’s an atheist or not.[xxxi] But something about Taylor’s a/theology is nevertheless incongruent with deconstruction.  He recognizes well the common criticism of deconstruction as a framework that tends to paralyze us in the face of the world’s problems.  So in its place, rather than the undeconstructable ideal of justice, Taylor posits a cooperative, vitalizing environmental ethic for a tenuous, volatile world.[xxxii]

Because, however, the great religions tend to name their God or gods in particular ways and trust authorized revelation in some measure thereof, it remains to be seen how one could integrate these traditions into the postmodern matrix without doing them serious harm.  I wonder uncertainly, for example, how much residue of absolutism from modernity might be sneaking in the backdoor as it were of the postmodern critique with respect to the rules governing truth claims.  It is at least safe to conclude that a thread of separation lies between hope and despair After God, solidifying Wittgenstein’s analogy that “an honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker.”[xxxiii] If what Taylor describes is really an a/theology, it must also be ir/religious, un/known, and a/theistic.  Even the God-denier cannot avoid hermeneutics concerning the God she denies.

[i] Michael Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 103.

[ii] Ibid., 117.

[iii] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 54.

[iv] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 129.

[v] Ibid., 132.

[vi] Ibid., 154.

[vii] See Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (CreateSpace, 2010).

[viii] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 13.

[ix] Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, USA, 2000).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 219.

[xii] Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[xiii] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 230.

[xiv] Thomas J. J. Altizer, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism (The Davies Group, Publishers, 2002), 51.

[xv] Ibid., 31.

[xvi] Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief (Paraclete Press (MA), 2008), 97.

[xvii] Altizer, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism, 120.

[xviii] Ibid., 80.

[xix] Ibid., 44.

[xx] Steven G. Smith, “The new gospel of Christian atheism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73, no. 3 (S  2005 2005): 892.

[xxi] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Updated. (Touchstone, 1997).

[xxii] Mark C. Taylor, After God (University of Chicago Press, 2007), xiii.

[xxiii] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, No Edition Stated. (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 63.

[xxiv] Mark C. Taylor, “Refiguring religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77, no. 1 (March 1, 2009): 110.

[xxv] John Caputo, On Religion (Routledge, 2001), 9.

[xxvi] Mark C. Taylor, After God, 1st ed. (University Of Chicago Press, 2007), 12.

[xxvii] Taylor, After God, xviii.

[xxviii] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 277.

[xxix] Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy (Baker Academic, 2008), 193.

[xxx] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 267.

[xxxi] Ibid., 274.

[xxxii] Ibid., 376.

[xxxiii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, New edition. (University Of Chicago Press, 1984), 73.

Anthropology and Soteriology in Walter Kasper and Kathryn Tanner (with a little bit of Pannenberg)

(This is my second formal paper submission this fall and first one for a class called “Studies in Systematic Theology” with Philip Clayton – it’s 12 pages and not really “blog entry friendly” just to warn those who aren’t interested in reading a lengthy post!)


The challenge raised by modern atheism has no doubt been recognized by Christians everywhere at least to some extent.  One could argue that, by and large, theology seems to have been stripped of its power to speak to people today.[i] The church has attempted to respond in a variety of ways.  Oftentimes the effort is made by means of strictly positive, analytical apologetics (somewhat ironically in the current anti-foundational, post-structural setting),[ii] as if God were merely an idea or concept to be grasped and proven.  Cardinal Walter Kasper however is fully aware that such an approach to theology is futile at best and the most ignorant kind of idolatry at worst.  He asserts that “God’s freedom-in-love in the form of a gratuitous self-communication would in fact be annulled if it could be shown to be rationally necessary.”[iii]

Kasper’s rigorous work in The God of Jesus Christ illustrates his ability as an expert synthesizer to take the reader through the criticisms of the Christian faith offered by modern and post-Enlightenment thinkers like Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche,[iv] followed by a comprehensive walk through the history of the development of the doctrines on the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is a journey through the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Church Fathers along with attention to twentieth century thinking in biblical criticism, the feminist movement, and the theologies of Rahner and Barth.  Kasper concludes the book by spelling out a specifically Trinitarian theology as the only true proclamation of the Christian God.

Despite the problem posed by those declaring the death of God, and despite the insufficiency of reason and words as finite structures to exhaust or define God, Kasper hardly relinquishes – far from it in fact.  Rather than committing sacrificium intellectus by resorting to some form of blind or irrational fideism, he is convinced that God can nevertheless be confessed in praise, in grounded (revealed) mystery, as the reality that includes all else, as triune, and as the God of Jesus Christ.  Conveying a classical, dialectical character in his doctrine, Kasper successfully avoids the fatal flaws of overly mystifying God on the one hand and reducing God to a proposition on the other.[v] Indeed, while there is always a risk in striving to conceive of God solely on the basis of what is (Heidegger),[vi] there is an equally grave danger with post-metaphysical God-talk of blurring the lines between theism and agnosticism.  If one wishes to elicit a wise silence about God, then it will nonetheless be necessary to determine something about what this silence says.[vii] So while God is incomprehensible and not situated on the ontological continuum of Being, Kasper knows that now more than ever are Christians responsible for demonstrating a scrupulous reasonableness about the faith – not to give an answer, but instead to add profundity to both the God question and the Trinitarian confession.[viii]

Having extended a similar critique of Feuerbach, Kasper states that, “the defects of the Marxist interpretation of religion are due, among other things, to the fact that Marx nowhere expressly analyses the phenomenon of religion in itself but a priori reduces it to economic and political functions.”[ix] As a result, like Freud, Marx is guilty of overlooking the possibility that atheism too could be the result of wishful thinking.[x] Concerning Nietzsche, Kasper observes that his attempt to locate eternity in the present life as opposed to a life beyond this one only eternalizes meaninglessness – the reality that Nietzsche’s nihilism knew so well.[xi] In a persuasive endeavor to take advantage of what Kasper identifies as a major weakness in Nietzsche’s insightful analysis of human nature, Kasper understands the historical hope of humanity to essentially be one for justice – justice not only for those of us living now or in the future, as that would be only a very feeble hope, but for all of the fallen before us in addition.  Without this hope (and he is careful not to call it a certainty), Kasper believes the case for faith to be senseless.  And yet, the hiddenness of God demands that Kasper not settle with a merely historical-philosophical argument.


A truly theological theology preserves the Godness of God not by abstraction but precisely by locating the image of God in the concrete, historically revealed Christ, and the communication of God in the present work of the Holy Spirit, giving humanity the perfect freedom and fullness of life it seeks.  It is also through this process that the mystery of God’s self-emptying and self-revealing nature is disclosed by an absolute freedom-in-love; namely, the radical love that is God.  God acts exactly to have communion with humanity even as humanity “is in quest of signs in which the absolute mystery of an unconditioned freedom addresses [humanity] and communicates itself”[xii] to people in the world.  In this way, Kasper’s soteriological and Trinitarian doctrine of God is not without an implied anthropology.  This “absolute mystery” and “perfect, unconditioned freedom” that Kasper speaks of is one that humanity actually “pre-apprehends.”[xiii] The human being is the one “who lives in the presence of the infinite mystery and who waits and hopes for the free self-revelation of this mystery.”[xiv]

While it was mentioned above that Kasper regards God as the reality which determines everything and in which everyone participates, citing Wolfhart Pannenberg, Kasper boldly admits that such a reality must even now “be substantiated by the experienced reality of man and the world.”[xv] Thus, while God is wholly and qualitatively other in essence (substantia), existing without contingency, Kasper’s doctrine of God does depend in a sense on the possibility of contemporary application.  This is exactly what obliges him to proclaim that “precisely because dogmas are true they are in constant need of new interpretation.”[xvi] At the same time, one can also say with Kasper that “knowledge of God . . . presupposes illumination by the truth which is God,”[xvii] and so his approach is at once anthropological and theological, resulting perhaps from an effort to hold the two in tension.  Furthermore, with the following contention one can see that while Kasper acknowledges many arguments from below in anthropological fashion (his theodicy for example), he does so from the starting place of fides quaerens intellectum (Augustine, Anselm), or with the “reason of the heart” (Pascal), making the whole of his theology still a project from above: “It is therefore possible for theology to develop the anthropological relevance of what it says only if it remains theology and does not turn into anthropology.”[xviii] Someone like Pannenberg is alternatively more comfortable with anthropology.


Kasper relies on anthropology, as one can now see, not for empirical verification but to bear witness to the revealed mystery that is the saving truth of God’s “turning to us” in unreserved grace and love.[xix] The culminating event wherein this disclosure is made manifest occurs with the death and resurrection of the Son, the consequence of which is the reigning of the kingdom of God in the present aeon. Proceeding in apologetic prose, Kasper traces the language of suffering love back to the Greek Fathers of the Church and relies upon Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen to support the claim that God suffered with Jesus on the cross.  For Kasper, such an assertion exonerates God of blame for the suffering in the world.

Though Kasper does not explicitly espouse or develop a tidy theory of atonement here, an erudite volume such as this one on the doctrine of the Christian Godhead inevitably leaves remnants for the reader to piece together.  It is necessary to consider what Kasper might say in full about Christ’s atoning work in order to both educe a more comprehensive soteriology and make a comparison below.  About this one can notice that Kasper seems to want humanity’s justification to be non-violent in nature.[xx] Perfect obedience and weakness are part and parcel of what is accomplished in Jesus’ death.  Despite this, however, as a Catholic cardinal, Kasper does elicit ransom speech and even suggests that the cross is the very purpose of the incarnation.

In response to God’s saving will and saving action, human beings, suspended between the infinite and the finite in the search for freedom, must open themselves to the truth of this mysterious self-revelation of God and, inspired and assisted by grace, believe – not because the “natural light of reason” has made the “inner truth of things” known, but because of the authority of God’s revealing self.[xxi] The revelation exists in human, historical mediation so that the message is not concerned with theoretical speculation but is a “practical message of judgment because it ultimately says that man has no power over the mystery of God either through knowledge or through action.”[xxii] God confers revelation in order to evoke a decision from people.  Faith, therefore, is not a sheer momentary act of emotion, volition or comprehension, but encompasses all of these powers through an on-going choice and a “comprehensive mode of existing.”[xxiii] In Kasper’s estimation, the revelation of the mystery of God is essentially and decisively the revelation of the mystery of humanity’s salvation.  In light of this very mystery, soteriology becomes doxology,[xxiv] and is professed in faith as the revelatory and saving action of God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit who gives absolute freedom and love.


Plainly working from a completely different starting point than that of Kasper, the Protestant and feminist theologian Kathryn Tanner begins her Christological exposition from a fairly a-historical perspective.  While she relies heavily on the Cappadocian Fathers (Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa in particular), the veracity of the tradition is merely presupposed for the purpose of an artful and almost playful experiment with the usefulness of the Christian faith.  If the Trinity is the hermeneutic for Kasper, Christ is the key for Tanner, and the Christ of the hypostatic union at that.  Assuming Jesus saves, or more accurately, justifies human beings primarily by means of the incarnation, Tanner seeks to answer other questions about human nature, sin, grace and the Trinity through the same interpretive filter.

In Tanner’s view, human nature is not innately flawed (here she differs from many other Protestants).  She says instead that humans are “neutral” (neither corrupt or nor predisposed to God) in this regard but as a consequence highly malleable and open.  Designed for strong participation in the divine life, human beings will inevitably venture astray when detached from relationship with God through Christ.  This participation is akin in some measure to what Pannenberg calls humanity’s destiny to participate in God’s eternal presence.[xxv] Nothing about humanity naturally lends itself toward seeking God, however.  Contra Kasper in some respect, grace does not merely assist or guide people further along in the right direction.  Even if grace is absolutely necessary for salvation as both Catholics and Protestants affirm, this grace in Tanner’s mind is performing a far more radical transformation in the way that human beings are subsequently able to live.  Said differently, and in this respect allied with Kasper, Tanner following Saint Thomas emphasizes the categorical disparity between the essence of God and creation (Tanner and Kasper both depart from, however, the Thomistic or mostly Aristotelian confidence in reason for knowledge of natural law).  Grace therefore is made available because God dwells in human flesh with Christ making visible the incomprehensibility of God.  Even Christ’s perfect imaging itself of the divine nature incomprehensible.  As a result of humanity’s strong participation made possible only by the advent of the second person of the Trinity, human beings too can experience the sanctification that leads to this incomprehensible nature.  As a kind of “Christian version of the basically Platonic understanding of participation . . . all that derives from a perfect exemplar for that reason approximates it.”[xxvi] Nonetheless, the imaging of the divine by those who are not participating in Christ is quite weak.  One could even say that there is really no imaging happening at all in this case.  Strictly by merit of being a creature, however, people have intrinsic value that still appoints them to be participants in a faint sense.[xxvii] It is necessary for Tanner to stress this weakness in order for grace to be bestowed upon the world in spite of the absence of a desire for God.


Like Kasper, for Tanner the Holy Spirit has a critical role to play, but rather than applying what the imminent Trinity may or may not tell us about politics (unlike Moltmann, Volf, Boff, etc.), again, Christ is the key.  As with later statements in the book about the Trinitarian Life, Tanner asserts early on that, “By virtue of that Spirit within us, we come to lead informed lives in imitation of him.”[xxviii] Thus, “In being attached to Christ, we gain the power of the Spirit to renovate our lives,[xxix]” so justification takes precedence over sanctification.

By this attachment to Christ, human beings are justified because of what Christ is (righteousness) and not because of what we are.  For this reason, nothing about humanity in and of itself has to change in order to be justified.[xxx] God forgives through Christ’s emptying of equality with God and lowering himself to the status of an obedient servant, subjugated to the waywardness and rejection of society.  One could say the resurrection is God’s resounding “no” to death, and the power demonstrated therein provides the hope for a final consummation.  In a certain sense, Christ’s coming and life are atoning, whereas his death and resurrection are instructive, but Tanner is prudent not to polarize these respective meanings.  There is still something indispensably justifying and solidifying about Christ’s death.  It is the ultimate act of solidarity with human beings and a loud protest against their detestable situation.  The incarnation is therefore the process of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection and not one immediate, saving moment.  Conversely, the West has customarily construed saving significance vis-à-vis the cross either in the form of ransom, victory, or penal substitution.[xxxi]

Due to her commitment and sympathy to feminist criticism, Tanner is convinced that the many common appropriations of sacrificial imagery in the Bible are outdated and in urgent need of reinterpretation: “the death and suffering of an innocent victim, in and of themselves, are in no respect good; there is nothing saving about them as such.”[xxxii] Tanner finds no evidence for propitiation as contractual or as a byproduct of payment as a penalty for satisfaction in the ritual sacrifices of the Jewish temple services.  Instead of being practiced for reasons of a moral sort, Tanner argues that, “sacrifice is all about the establishment of communion and exclusion in social terms, and about how community is to be organized.”[xxxiii] There is a function in these sacrificial rites for wiping away fault or impurity, but the purpose is not to plead for mercy from a wrathful God.  God is already desirous of communion.[xxxiv] In other cases the sacrifices are for thanksgiving.  The full sway of her argument cannot be brought out here, but it is imperative to understand that in Tanner’s view, this is not some new theory.  She believes it is the oldest one.

Tanner states that the succeeding decline of the incarnational model in modern theology could be attributed in part to the concurrent distaste for “the Platonic reification of universal terms such as ‘humanity’”[xxxv] and the charge of Hellenization raised by Adolf Harnack and Protestant Liberalism.  She appears to successfully counter this charge, however, and remarks further that rather it is likely the incorrectly assumed concentration of the theory on the birth of Christ over and against his death that turns people away – a criticism already addressed above.


An ecumenical spirit is much more recognizable in Kasper than in Tanner, especially with regard to reconciling divergent ideas on the Trinity (East vs. West or Barth vs. Rahner) or between contrasting conceptions of human nature and grace. While Tanner probably holds some kind universal or, at minimum, collective position on salvation, her low view of humanity’s orientation to the divine requires a correspondingly low view of other world religions.  Kasper’s willingness to maintain a hint of natural human inclination toward God, however limited, enables him to posit a more optimistic anthropology.

Kasper’s soteriology on the other has a trace of mystery to it.  Tanner is more straightforward insofar as she is christocentric and stresses the incarnation.  According to Kasper, because humanity seeks freedom and fulfillment, a process of interiorly opening oneself to this truth brings about a posture of faith in response to the revelation of God’s self-communicating love as portrayed in Christ’s sacrificial love.[xxxvi] Salvation is not earned but mysteriously gifted.  For Kasper, like Pannenberg, the basic form of faith is not to believe some thing (concept) but to believe someone – that is, to trust God.  This is what Pannenberg juxtaposes with humanity’s inherent yearning and reaching for control.[xxxvii] Trusting implies moving toward and depending upon something.  It also includes risk.  In short, it is to give up control or mastery of both one’s own existence and that of others (something Tanner capably characterizes in her treatment of ethical, political and social implications for the Christian life).[xxxviii] Kasper, however, because he explicitly strives to refute modern atheism, could be indicted for positing dogma precisely where reliance on a better reinterpretation of natural law and analogy would fortify his admittedly polemic rhetoric.[xxxix]

Tanner on the other hand, despite what is an otherwise a lucid explanation, does not sufficiently support her conclusions on the topic of sacrifice in the ancient world.  To the extent that she intends to show why focusing on “the death of Christ to the exclusion of attention to the social and political circumstances that surround it”[xl] is off-based and thereby dethrone this view, she obviously succeeds.  Regarding the perfectly sensible wish to expunge all seemingly atoning significance embedded in the event of the crucifixion and to  the apparent biblical references to such significance, however, there is much wanting.  At one instance her argument boils down to the following declaration: “Propitiation is not the reason why the rite wipes away sin; no real explanation is offered.  God simply wants to reinstate God’s people to full communion with God and this is what God tells God’s people to do in such cases.”[xli] While Tanner is clearly not naïve about this, if there is any hope of overturning what has for better or worse been the foundation of the Christian faith for millions of people since Luther and Calvin, a feat like this would require a far more extensive and less sentimental investigation.  Others have sought to refute penal substitution more convincingly,[xlii] but in circles where the authority of Scripture in undisputed, though such an undertaking is doubtful to be forcefully realized without painstaking effort.

The exegetical questions aside, one relatively major concern for some will be the question of what exactly is being forgiven in Tanner’s constitution of both atonement and human nature.  If the term sin has any reference to actual wrongdoings (maybe for Tanner it does not), one gets the impression that what is forgiven is not sin but the condition of separation – separation from participation in or attachment to God – which if anything only need be blamed on God, since for Tanner we have no “natural” desire for God and thus can’t be culpable.  This  outlook would be permissible only if either (1) one felt that judgment for specific sins committed by individuals, however atrocious, was unnecessary, or if (2) the testimony of Scripture and the Christian tradition could defensibly be shown to not promise some kind of repayment to evildoers in the eschaton, even if such punitive action were only provisionary and pacifying.

Tanner goes to great lengths to distinguish herself from the contemporary Catholic position of human nature by accusing it of failing to uphold the integrity of gratuitousness (God’s grace), precisely because it maintains a spectrum between natural and supernatural grace.  Though the distinction should not be reduced to a level of ambivalence, it seems to me that Tanner’s insistence on this discrepancy is moderately unsubstantiated.  Supposing that, as many Catholics believe, human nature did somehow naturally entail an identifiable desire for relationship with God that could potentially direct one toward God apart from supernatural grace, wouldn’t Tanner still have to admit that it is God who orchestrates this natural desire in the first place, rendering the alleged divide between nature and grace to be something of an allusion – much in the same way for instance that some evangelicals want to distinguish between micro and macroevolution?  Tanner herself concedes that humility before God is the proper attitude regardless of humanity’s sinful or severed condition.  In my judgment, while the resistance to anything resembling a works-based soteriology is warranted, the apparent chasm between sanctification and justification might be, in spite of historical (the selling of indulgences for instance) or biblical justification (Ephesians 2:8), a bit reactionary or invented.[xliii] Why else could one find such resemblance of strong participation in adherents to other faith traditions if humanity was not at least fragmentarily disposed to God?  Case in point is Pannenberg’s characterization of human nature as at once open to God/world/future and yet egocentric.[xliv]

Interestingly enough, such an alternative reading of justification language in Scripture is quite compatible with the incarnational model of atonement espoused by Tanner.[xlv] Moreover, for someone who depends mostly upon the classical tradition for a depiction of historical Christianity, her doctrine of justification sounds surprisingly like one birthed out of the Reformation.  She is Barthian and obviously Protestant in this regard, but her formulation and utilization of key aspects from both traditions (the Reformed and Eastern) should be praised and appreciated, as it accomplishes something anew and is truly constructive.  But while Tanner’s methodological approach to theology from above is not philosophically developed or defended on historical grounds like that of Kasper, she should not be accused of being extraneous or impractical.  For example, she made this startling assertion in a recent publication: “Theologians are now primarily called to provide not a theoretical argument for Christianity’s plausibility, but an account of how Christianity can be part of the solution—rather than part of the problem—on matters that make a life-and-death difference to people, especially the poor and the oppressed,” implying that “Theology’s closest analogue can no longer be a perennial philosophy.”[xlvi]

In this brief and rough comparison it may seem that the differences in the soteriology and anthropology of these two theologians outweigh any similarities elsewhere; but in my reading, the reverse is true.  In effect, I see their respective endeavors as complimentary.  The unifying themes found in Kasper and Tanner in my assessment are threefold: (1) a willingness to think critically about the Christian tradition and even amend it without dismissing it altogether, (2) a reinvigoration of God’s otherness and ineffability without reduction to absolute negation or inaccessibility, and (3) the courage to hold the Christian faith to a standard of historical contingency (though they do this in very different ways).  On this last point, like Pannenberg, Kasper and Tanner agree that “The Christian tradition opens a free view for the future of the world in the light of God’s future, yet does not rob men of an orientation to the richness of the forms of life in earlier times.”[xlvii] In other words, Tanner and Kasper exhibit in masterful form what Pannenberg describes as the balance between devotion to tradition and revolution.  There is unity amidst the diversity, maybe even as a direct result of the diversity,[xlviii] and working from the classical doctrine of God and Christology with contemporary yet faithful modifications may be the crux that conserves an authentic expression of faith in both of their accounts.

[i] Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 47.

[ii] Anthony J. Godzieba, “Ontotheology to Excess : Imagining God without Being.,” Theological Studies 56, no. 1 (March 1, 1995): 3.

[iii] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 268.

[iv] John H. Wright, “The God of Jesus Christ,” Theology Today 43, no. 1 (April 1, 1986): 108.

[v] John R. Sachs, “The God of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 54, no. 2 (June 1, 1986): 354.

[vi] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 54.

[vii] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte (University Of Chicago Press, 1995), 54.

[viii] See José Miguel García Pérez, “El Dios de Jesucristo,” Estudios eclesiásticos 61, no. 239 (October 1, 1986): 453. “El misterio cristiano de la Trinidad no sólo ofrece una respuesta, sino que ilumina y contribuye a profundizar en la pregunta.”

[ix] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 37.

[x] Ibid., 31.

[xi] Ibid., 44.

[xii] Ibid., 115.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid., 113.

[xvi] Ibid., 184.

[xvii] Ibid., 111.

[xviii] Ibid., 316.

[xix] Ibid., 129.

[xx] Ibid., 176.

[xxi] Ibid., 122.

[xxii] Ibid., 130.

[xxiii] Ibid., 120.

[xxiv] Ibid., 316.

[xxv] Wolfhart Pannenberg and Duane A. Priebe, What Is Man? Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective. (Fortress Press, 1970), 76.

[xxvi] Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key, Current issues in theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 9.

[xxvii] Ibid., 10.

[xxviii] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 25.

[xxix] Tanner, Christ the Key, 87.

[xxx] Ibid., 86.

[xxxi] Ibid., 248.

[xxxii] Ibid., 252.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 265.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 264.

[xxxv] Ibid., 258.

[xxxvi] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 105.

[xxxvii] Pannenberg and Priebe, What Is Man?

[xxxviii] See Kathryn Tanner, Economy of Grace (Fortress Press, 2005).

[xxxix] Elizabeth A. Johnson, “The God of Jesus Christ,” Horizons 12, no. 2 (Fall  1985 1985): 402.

[xl] Tanner, Christ the Key, 265.

[xli] Ibid., 264.

[xlii] See S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).

[xliii] See James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, Revised. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).  Also defending this perspective would be such New Testament scholars as Krister Stehdahl, E.P. Sanders, Richard B. Hays, Ben Witherington, and N.T. Wright.

[xliv] Pannenberg and Priebe, What Is Man?, 76.

[xlv] Kathryn Tanner, “Incarnation, cross, and sacrifice: a feminist-inspired reappraisal,” Anglican Theological Review 86, no. 1 (December 1, 2004): 35-56.

[xlvi] Kathryn Tanner, “Christian claims: how my mind has changed,” Christian Century 127, no. 4 (February 23, 2010): 41.

[xlvii] Pannenberg and Priebe, What Is Man?, 136.

[xlviii] Ibid., 86.

Kierkegaard and Existentialism

First Response Paper for Existentialism and Atheism: Kierkegaard among the other Existentialists


In order to respond affirmatively to the question raised in class recently of whether or not existentialism is relevant to the contemporary situation, one need only look to recent motion pictures like The Dark Night.   Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent states rather despondently in the film, “Either you die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”  Thomas Hibbs rightly insists that, “the Joker espouses a nihilist philosophy concerning the arbitrariness of the code of morality in civilized society; it is but a thin veneer, a construct intended for our consolation.”[i]

For starters, reading someone like Fyodor Dostoevsky, one would notice the brutal honesty, the disgust for hypocrisy,[ii] and even further his indulgence in the freedom to defy reason with remarks such as the following: “I know better than any one that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else.  But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite.  My liver is bad, well – let it get worse!”[iii] It’s almost as if one can hear Jim Carey in these words as Truman in the Truman Show mocking the “God” of his world and saying, “Is that the best you can do?”  One could also call attention to the movie Fight Club to find an embodiment of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Brad Pitt who plays the character Tyler Durden commented that the major theme running throughout underlined “the need to push through the walls we put around ourselves and just go for it, so for the first time we can experience the pain.”[iv] It’s like when Dostoevsky says, “corporal punishment is better than nothing.”[v] The protagonist and nameless narrator played by Edward Norton observes that “the fighting between the men strips away the fear of pain and the reliance on material signifiers of their self-worth, leaving them to experience something valuable.”[vi] The final message in Fight Club is deliberately ambiguous in nature and intended to leave the interpretation open for the viewers.[vii] Amidst the ambiguity, however, one might discover such themes highlighted as the critique of image-management, the deceptive nature of advertisement, the exposure of materialism’s empty promise to provide happiness, and the failure of human beings in general to live vigorously as a consequence of fear.


Like the aforementioned films, what each of the authors surveyed in the course thus far share in common is not just their coming to a point of despair, but the explicit realization of this despair.  Beyond that, there are of course other themes held in common between Jaspers, Sartre, Ortega, Rilke, Kafka, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Camus and Kierkegaard: a tendency “to stress the freedom, precariousness, and even absurdity of the human situation, along with the responsibility of the individual to define herself or himself through action.”[viii] In their work Walter Kaufman locates the heart of existentialism as “the refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life.”[ix]

An overwhelming experience of uncertainty leads Rilke’s character in The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge for example to take refuge by reciting a poem monotonously just to become fixated on something stable.[x] Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” reveals his sentiment that something can be accepted as necessary without inevitably being true.  In other words, the individual defines what is valuable.  Ortega would say that a person “has to make his own existence at every single moment,”[xi] and that “man is what has happened to him, what he has done.”[xii] This is because, as free beings, humans live in “constitutive instability.”[xiii] Maybe most emblematically, the state and behavior of the character Pablo at the end of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Wall” is a far cry from any noble adherence to a traditional religious or moral system, as Pablo has reached a point at once of impenetrable apathy and arbitrary obstinacy.[xiv] The only valor for him from this moment onward (indeed, after, and presumably in all subsequent moments) is derived from the nerve of pure, self-willed and independent individuo-determination.


In what could be more than a slight contrast, with Kierkegaard the reader might detect a trace of idiosyncrasy.  Is he the anomaly of the group?  While it is rightly put forth that those whom are deemed existentialists hold widely divergent doctrines and worldviews, is it possible for these doctrines and worldviews to be so easily filtered out, leaving such a pure, collective existentialist dogma to designate all of these writers and thinkers as unified and distinguished?  There appears to be something very foundational about Kierkegaard’s absurd postulations, which would count him in the ranks of a far removed camp from the vein of Nietzsche and some of the others.  While Kierkegaard’s thought is obviously foreshadowing and consistent with some of the chief concerns of modern existentialism delineated above, it seems that Kierkegaard is at the same time offering a radical critique of the notion of existentialism as it is demonstrated, for instance, by Jim Carey in the movie The Truman Show; namely in his suggestion that, to use Kierkegaard’s language, defiance of relationship with the Author, despite the appeal, leads to the highest despair – expressly, an inauthentic relationship to self because of a refusal/protest to be oneself, or otherwise said, an impossible demand to be oneself (to be absolute ruler of self, which actually results in ruling nothing).[xv] It is as if Truman is saying in the words of Kierkegaard, “No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against you, a witness to the fact that you are a second-rate author.”[xvi] Truman as the one who defies “does not want to don his own self, does not want to see his task in his given self, he wants by virtue of being in the infinite form [his own God], to construct it himself.”[xvii] According to Kierkegaard with regard to Truman, “What is required of him is to let go of this torment, that is, to humble himself under it in faith and take it on him as part of the self.”[xviii]


When Kierkegaard distinguishes between a less mature stage of despair as unawareness of despair or unconsciousness of the self, and the higher form despair as “before God,” he implies that the higher form of despair, though it might be seen as “blessedness,” almost makes the person in despair more culpable.  In this more culpable stage, the person is either constituted by a posture toward God of reluctance or refusal.  In the former case, the self does not wish to be oneself.  In the latter, and dialectically, the self decides exactly to be oneself – only here “being oneself” implies a refusal to stand before God and acknowledge complete dependence.  This highest state of despair is characterized by defiance (Truman).

The toil is only beginning once despair is brought into the light, and the despair is even worse when one comes to understand it as her real condition.  One can never just be.  Everyone is either becoming more or less of a self, says Kierkegaard.  Becoming more of a self (by the self relating correctly to the potential self) is a tremendous struggle.  It requires death to self, another absurd facet of the proposal.  Merold Westphal notes that Kierkegaard “is not the individualist he has often been taken to be.  He has a dialectical concept of the self as essentially relational.”[xix] The self, according to his definition, is “a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself to another.”[xx] The “another” aspect of the relationship is what becomes so focal.


In the analysis of Kristen Johnson, she is concerned that “though one can understand the proclivity of existentialism to draw upon the work of Kierkegaard, given his concern for selfhood and existence, it is unclear that those philosophers and thinkers who have invoked him have adequately accounted for the foundational role of sin in his thought.”[xxi] Obviously for Jaspers, as Kaufman states, the differences between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are far less important than the similarities.[xxii] In fact, as Kaufman also points out, Jaspers “dismisses Kierkegaard’s “forced Christianity” no less than Nietzsche’s “forced anti-Christianity” as relatively unimportant.”[xxiii] But is this the most appropriate rendering?  Certainly the extent to which these two major figures write from such a seemingly shared existential experience is fascinating, and clearly there is a remarkable correspondence provided the fact that they did so independently, but can one so quickly draw the conclusion that their resemblance rather than their distinction is most noteworthy?

It is critical for the reader to remember Kierkegaard’s statement: “how infinitely silly is the behavior of those who have defended Christianity by removing the offense.”[xxiv] Hence, it should follow that the interpreter of Kierkegaard likewise take special caution not to remove the offensiveness in Kierkegaard’s claim that, while anyone might come to knowledge of despair, only the Christian (the one before God and Christ) can, because of revelation, know despair as sin.[xxv] It is precisely this imperative feature that is so influential for later, modern reformed thinkers like Karl Barth.  This absolute paradox, however unthinkable, is still the reason Kierkegaard is so dissimilar to the others.  While he aspires to reject rationality at one level, this move is nonetheless permissible; for that which one cannot think can still be the subject of one’s thought.[xxvi] There are those like Stephen C. Evans who see this step by Kierkegaard as falling short of fideism, but others sharply criticize this view and accuse Evans of being unfaithful to Kierkegaard and his radical “leap of faith” postulation.[xxvii] Westphal for instance, and perhaps somewhat offensively as well, considers Kierkegaard’s distinction between the Christian and non-Christian experience of despair to be “illuminating”[xxviii] and “bold in freeing us from intimidation by secular appeals to reason.”[xxix]

At least from the perspective of a Christian in Kierkegaard’s case, could there be a more significant point of departure than from that point which separates the Christian from the non-Christian?  This is not to neglect of course the unique and authentic manor with which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche each represent their respective positions as Christian and non-Christian.  Furthermore, Kierkegaard might be the first to criticize such a simplistic disparity as the one just mentioned (between Christian and non-Christian), as he himself admits elsewhere that the worship of a pagan might be more faithful than the worship of a given Danish Christian.[xxx] Nevertheless, is not the critical gap evident between the leap of faith that Kierkegaard says one must take to obtain true selfhood and the divergent, albeit equally decided path of Nietzsche’s nihilism?  Indeed, it may very well be true that even for Kierkegaard, what Nietzsche achieves for himself is no less than some substantial degree of authentic selfhood compared to those who find themselves (or don’t “find” themselves) in a less developed stage of despair.  Would this be to say very much about Nietzsche’s accomplishments, however, at least from the point of view of Kierkegaard, when one considers how sharply Kierkegaard criticized his society full of supposed Christians?  Kierkegaard might even say of Nietzsche’s thinking that, “just because it is very close to the truth, it is infinitely far away”[xxxi] (italics added).


Kierkegaard explains that someone who is in love would not feel the need to “defend” the reason why, or prove that he or she is in love, and so it should be with the Christian.[xxxii] Instead of relying on proof or reason, faith comes as a result of a revelation from God.  But several inquiries might be raised this point.  Firstly, what Kierkegaard has described thus far begs the question of what kind of knowledge or state exactly is necessary to receive this revelation and move from a stage of unawareness of self to a stage of awareness of self.  Indeed, he says that only the Christian can understand sin.  And yet paradoxically it is entirely the responsibility of the individual to realize this sin.  For Kierkegaard, and by extension, for traditional Christian faith, sin is not merely ignorance of the good, as Socrates suggests.  This is the lie of the world according to Kierkegaard.  At the same time, sin in the unaware self is hardly sin in the strictest Christian sense of the term.  This person does not knowingly stand before God.  Theologically speaking, then, are there any soteriological conclusions to be drawn from this text?  What is the phenomenology for the reception of this revelation?

Even without looking to other works of Kierkegaard, there are implicit hints here of what might be considered an early expression of inclusivism toward the non-Christian on the basis of some kind of existential realization or self-actualization.  It might even be tempting to read into Kierkegaard a prefiguring of the Rahnerian “anonymous Christian” doctrine, but based on this text alone, that would perhaps be premature.  One mustn’t criticize, however, Kierkegaard’s limited horizon given the context within which he wrote, for his mission was primarily to challenge Danish Christendom and evoke repentance therein.  His historical setting could hardly be labeled pluralistic in any present-day sense of the term.  So while the material in The Sickness Unto Death is inconclusive, the possibility remains, however speculative, of conducting an explicitly Kierkegaardian and existential soteriology of the non-Christian from the Christian perspective.

[i] Thomas S. Hibbs, “Christopher Nolan’s Achievement: The Dark Night,” On the Square, July 22, 2008, http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2008/07/christopher-nolans-achievement.


[ii] Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (Plume, 1975), 81.

[iii] Ibid., 54.

[iv] “’Club’ fighting for a respectful place in life,” Post-Tribune, March 15, 2001.

[v] Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 78.

[vi] Stephen Schaefer, “Brad Pitt & Edward Norton,” MrShowbiz.com (October 1999), http://web.archive.org/web/20010417125217/http://mrshowbiz.go.com/celebrities/interviews/509_1.html.

[vii] Graham Fuller, D Eidelman, and JG Thomson, “Fighting Talk,” [[Interview (magazine)|Interview]] 24, no. 5 (November 1999): 1071–7.

[viii] C. Stephen Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (Intervarsity Press, 2010).

[ix] Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 12.

[x] Ibid., 141.

[xi] Ibid., 153.

[xii] Ibid., 157.

[xiii] Ibid., 156.

[xiv] Ibid., 298.

[xv] Louis H. Mackey, “Deconstructing the self : Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto death.,” Anglican Theological Review 71, no. 2 (March 1, 1989): 158.

[xvi] Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification & Awakening by Anti-Climacus (Penguin Classics, 1989), 105.

[xvii] Ibid., 99.

[xviii] Ibid., 110.

[xix] Merold Westphal, “Levinas, Kierkegaard, and the theological task.,” Modern Theology 8, no. 3 (July 1, 1992): 252.

[xx] Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, 43.

[xxi] Kristen Deede Johnson, “The infinite qualitative difference: sin, the self, and revelation in the thought of Søren Kierkegaard,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 53, no. 1 (February 1, 2003): 43.

[xxii] Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 23.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, 116.

[xxv] Johnson, “The infinite qualitative difference,” 42.

[xxvi] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte (University Of Chicago Press, 1995), 46.

[xxvii] William N A Greenway, “Faith beyond reason: a Kierkegaardian account,” Christian Century 117, no. 25 (S  -20  2000 13, 2000): 922-924; Douglas Hedley, “Faith beyond reason: a Kierkegaardian account,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 2, no. 2 (July 1, 2000): 233-234.

[xxviii] M. Westphal, “Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript: The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus,” Reformed Journal 34, no. 10 (October 1, 1984): 22.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript 1 : Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol 12.1 (Princeton University Press, 1992), 559.

[xxxi] Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, 98.

[xxxii] Ibid., 134.

The Trinitarian Religious Acceptance Model of S. Mark Heim

At the turn of the 20th Century, it was speculated by some that “non-Christian” religions would eventually die out.  Instead what has been seen is a “powerful resurgence of the so-called world religions: Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.”[1] And now as the world grows consistently flatter[2] because of globalization and the information revolution, a “melting pot” society of religious conglomerates makes the issue all the more pressing.  As a result, Christians are faced most directly with the question of whether or not their faith “is indeed something essentially different, something special.”[3] Hence the burgeoning field of theologies of religious pluralism.  Traditionally, there have primarily been three distinct paradigms through which Christians view the religious other: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.  Paul Knitter calls exclusivism the replacement model, inclusivism the fulfillment model, and pluralism the mutuality model.[4]

In general, exclusivists and inclusivists agree that salvation is obtained solely through the mediation of Jesus Christ.  Exclusivists hold that explicit faith in necessary for this salvation to be realized, whereas inclusivists do not.  Pluralists deny that Jesus Christ is the only means constitutive of achieving salvation.

Despite the multitude of options within and between these three models, many in the postmodern milieu determine these paradigmatic alternatives to leave much wanting.  None herein seem to adequately consider the true breadth of the major world religions.  Exclusivism leaves so many people both now and throughout history closed off to God’s grace that such a view can hardly be considered plausible if one wishes to uphold any sense of God’s goodness.  Inclusivists find Christian “bits and pieces” in the plurality of other religions, thereby rendering them subservient or inferior, and ultimately obsolete.  And lastly, though pluralists attempt to level the playing field as it were by giving every religion the same starting place, they end up undermining the very aspects of these religions that make them necessary and distinct for their adherents.

By either claiming that one religion is absolutely true, even while granting that others might have indirect participation with this one, or by arguing that all will be consummated by The Real or unknown ultimate reality in the eschaton,[5] inclusivists and pluralists effectively “deemphasize both the integral unity of other traditions . . . and the possibility of finding significant separate religious truths there.”[6] The mistaken approach by both groups that “blurs the distinctive features of the religious landscape” has been to assume other religions are seeking salvation.[7] Indeed, “no longer does it suffice to ask whether and what religious traditions have to do with the mystery of salvation of their adherents in Jesus Christ.  More positively and profoundly, the question is what positive meaning the religious traditions themselves have in God’s single overall plan of salvation.”[8]

So what then is the proper way to address this issue?  The first “rule of engagement” proposed by S. Mark Heim is to say that, “such theories stand among and not above religious accounts of the world.”[9] In other words, nobody has a “bird’s eye view.”  Everyone works from a specific context and worldview that has been conditioned by his or her environment, language, culture, upbringing, and so on.  It is impossible for someone to completely step outside of his or her respective point of view and be entirely objective or fair in judgment.  Like everyone, even the pluralists are forced to develop a value orientation, which is usually derived from existing religious traditions ironically enough.  Thus Heim says theirs is not the most generous hypothesis.

Following his own rule mentioned above, S. Mark Heim, though a convinced inclusivist, submits that the “’finality of Christ’ and the ‘independent validity of other ways’ are not mutually exclusive.”[10] It is only necessary that one be given up if only one religious goal can be effectively reached.  Heim suggest that from a Christian perspective, a scenario where other religions actually achieve the fulfillments they seek is permissible.  How he imagines this is a somewhat complicated picture, and admittedly a speculative proposal.  Heim’s hermeneutic strives to grant other traditions the maximum amount of legitimacy without diminishing his own Christian commitment or negating the confessions therein.  So for instance, “Nirvana and Christian communion with God are contradictory only if we assume that one or the other must be the sole fate of all human beings.”[11] Furthermore, while a single person cannot realize both ends simultaneously, there is no reason to think that the two ends could not be realized by different people at different times, or even the same person at different times.

One key advantage to Heim’s view is that other religions can adopt the exact same model from their perspective – that is, a Buddhist could still hold that their faith tradition is the fullest revelation of truth and reality, but permit that Christians might also realize some form of the end experience they seek.  Another important factor in this model for Heim is that while there is an effort on the part of the Christian to optimize the integrity of truth claims in other religions, it remains acceptable and even necessary for the Christian to believe there are some errors in these other religions, and likewise for other religions to believe this about Christians.  In other words, “the more incommensurable religious ends appear, the less the question of supersession seems even strictly applicable.”[12]

At the same time, Heim wants to emphasize the role that diversity within individual faith traditions plays and thereby recognize for instance that an especially devout Advaita Vedanta Hindu might very well be closer to the truth and to experiencing or relating to God than some Christians.  Not only that, but this Hindu would be encountering “the depth of the riches” of the Trinity in Hindu terms.  There is no need then to understand this Hindu’s experience as “anonymously” Christian.  Insofar as it does not directly contradict Christian teaching, the Hindu’s religious quest is an authentic pursuit with a real end.

It is noted by Heim and many others that the New Testament lacks a “definitive statement on the fate of the unevagelized.”[13] Because of this, Heim must “practice a kind of triangulation in which various texts on related issues are coordinated.”[14] In doing so, Heim aims to “tread with humility.”[15] To be sure, Heim is not postulating yet another pluralistic approach that acknowledges a more fundamental reality behind both the Christian understanding of ultimate truth and those of other religions.  Rather, Heim means to envision a Christian eschatological structure that is much akin to that of Dante’s Divine Comedy in principle and the Thomistic theology that influenced Dante’s “prose skeleton” within the allegory.[16]

Fully aware that the Bible typically lacks reference to gradations with respect to eschatology (though there are exceptions, i.e. Luke 12:47-48) and that when discussed it is primarily done so in dualistic terms, Heim does not say that this is in fact how the afterlife will be; but he does want to draw heavily from Dante’s schema.  First of all, by doing so Heim is convinced he taps into what had already been a developing and accepted part of the Christian tradition for centuries – namely, the concept of purgatory.  Citing the Church Fathers and other ancient Christian writings, Heim notices that Christians very early on began to recognize the logical inconsistency of a simple, two-fold division between heaven and hell.  It just didn’t make sense that all who fell short of being spiritually “reborn” would endure everlasting torment, nor that the most mildly committed Christian would be transported immediately into eternal communion with God.  So then we find traces unfolding of a third or “middle way” for purification and purging that would prepare people for fuller exposure to God’s presence.  The purpose is to make God’s creatures strong enough for the joy they cannot yet bear.  “It is about getting used to glory.”[17] Consistent throughout all levels in The Divine Comedy is the absence of suffering as brute or meaningless pain.

The operative criteria for Dante’s literary analogy of the afterlife is one centered on upholding human freedom at any cost.  God does not force Himself on anyone, and while there is recognition of sin before entry, the choices made by individuals largely determine their fate.  In this sense, nothing about hell is so much punitive as it is experienced as loss.  What is more, mobility exists between levels of hell, paradise, purgatory, and heaven.  This component is crucial to the overall concept and is all the more important within the discussion of various religious ends.  Somehow it is imagined that almost any place on the Heim’s eschatological map is potentially only penultimate.  If a state is deemed final, it has become so only because of a creature’s autonomous decision.  While Heim does not defend universalism, he sees it as still compatible with this model.  This feature of Heim’s eschatology is what allows him to believe that “honest mistakes” and “place of birth” will not ultimately privilege any one religion.  He wants desperately to preserve equal opportunity to salvation for all.  Whether or not and how he can maintain this is not entirely clear.

Each prospective end for Heim has its own internal coherence, and governing this logic in many ways is the extent to which the individual chooses to maintain relationship with God and others.  The degree to which relationship is retained depends on the pursuit by the individual of justice, truth, and love and the remnants discovered of theological virtues like faith, hope, and charity.  Faith for example is characterized by “acknowledgement of the need and gratitude for divine grace.”[18] This is one way in which Heim is able to account for how sin and judgment fit into Dante’s illustration.

A final trait of significance for Dante’s allegory is that “from heaven there is no delight at pain.”[19] It is not as if those in “higher” levels are unaware of the loss in lower levels, but it is the “knowledge of the consonance of God’s will the wills of all creatures that gives them peace.”[20] So like God, saints in heaven honor the freedom of all creatures and the perfect fulfillment of their desires.

At the heart of Heim’s post-mortem arrangement is also a thoroughly Trinitarian understanding of religions in this life.  He states, “The Trinity represents the Christian context for interpreting religious pluralism.”[21] Likened to the nature of the salvation, according to Heim the Trinity is understood most clearly and simply as communion-in-difference.  He follows Gavin D’Costa by crediting the Trinity with providing the “grammar” for relating the particularity of Christ and God’s universality activity and presence in the world through the Holy Spirit.[22] This also effectively sets the parameters for safeguarding against equating exclusive identity with God in Jesus Christ, as well as against creating other saviors.  The question of “What counts as salvation?” becomes more crucial though than “Which one saves?”, because the world religions are not all after the same thing.[23] How comprehensively a Christian theology of religions can acquiesce the widest possible range of data and elements distinct to other religions in Christian terms is a good indicator of its own universal validity.  The plenitude and diversity of the Trinity enables Christianity to do this in a very all-encompassing way.

In the case of Islam, adherents seek “a profound relation with God, characterized by obedience, devotion, love, and awe.”[24] They would interpret the Christian view of God as incarnational and the sought after process by Christ followers of deification or divinization to be extremely misguided at best and outright apostasy at worst.  Stressing the unity and oneness of God, it is also clear why they would reject any notion of the Trinity.  All the while both traditions recognize God as personal and wholly other, so a Christian could see how a Muslim view of God is true in its concentrated but limited sense, and because of this intensified obedience to the law and external conformity, a Christian can also learn from the Muslim.

A Hindu tradition like Advaita Vedanta on the other hand perceives Brahman, the ultimate reality, not to be personal in the way we perceive God, but instead recognize the vast and intricate interconnectedness of everything with the supreme reality that is Brahman, and therefore embrace what many Christians have experienced as “oneness” with God, nature, or universe.  Again, the Trinitarian approach includes this understanding of God but once more would see it as restricted and intensified.

Upon consideration of Buddhism, a heightened awareness of “emptiness” or “nothingness” like much of Hinduism shies away from concepts of knowledge about personal nature of the divine.  Escape from suffering and Nirvana are achieved basically at the point of greatest depersonalization.  It is here that true compassion can be born, and the “other” served, because the relative unimportance of and detachment from “self” has been realized.  Interestingly enough, some correlation can be found here with the Eastern and more apophatic traditions of Christianity, especially in mystical practices like centering prayer and meditation.  In this regard, even the Buddhist narrow concentration on one true aspect of and relationship with the divine can be appreciated by Christians.

This very brief and overly simplistic summary of similarity and difference between Christianity and other world religions serves only to highlight a handful of general themes throughout the faiths that can be accounted for in a Trinitarian vision of God.  It obviously by no means does justice to the complexity and beauty of these great traditions.  It is said in Heim’s work that, “this theory displaces the emphasis religious apologetics has tended to place on superior religious certainty about ultimate norms, and replaces it with an emphasis on the superlative “goodness” which these realities represent for the ideal believer.”[25] In doing so, he successfully shifts the focus from arguments in favor or against specific truth claims to genuine questions about what is best for everyone and what is most lucidly inclusive of other religions.  Heim adds to the conversation a persuasive case for the Christian position’s ability to offer both a more attractive salvation promise as well as a theology that can take seriously the broadest range of unique truth claims and religious ends present in other faith traditions.  At the same time, there is room in Heim’s  analysis for much mutual education and transformation cross-religiously speaking.

Helpful too is Heim’s recognition that while the very different and distinct features of all the world religions should be honored, they cannot be so purely divided so as to not allow any permeation.  The exact lines of differentiation between them are not so easily drawn.  There might even be some room for convergence, syncretism, and coalescence.  But this should only be expected from a Trinitarian standpoint, as it corroborates strong support for the view of God’s immanence and multiplicity.  After all, “discipleship entails working together with all creeds to overcome oppression.  Attentiveness to our neighbor’s faith, in order to learn what the Spirit may be doing there, and praxis for justice are co-essential with Christological devotion in the Christian life.”[26] Quoting the thoughtful comments of George Linbeck about Christians in the first century, Heim feels those today should have an “extraordinary combination of relaxation and urgency in their attitude toward those outside the church.”[27] Theirs was a concern for passionately sharing the gospel while also trusting that God would “do right” by all people.

Some lingering concerns for further inquiry could be the following:  How is this proposal, however elegant and perspicuous, any more inclusive or generous than traditional inclusivism if the end result for so many is something less than Christian salvation?  Perhaps the answer has something to do with continuity between this life and the eschaton in other religions that traditional inclusivism lacks.  Secondly, is salvation best understood as communion?  Forgiveness of sin, liberation, and deification are somewhat neglected in Heim’s description, and are these aspirations only means to the end of communion?  Interaction is needed with a more developed trans-religious atonement theory.

Heim’s work deserves to be challenged and responded to, read by Christians and non-Christians alike.  The issue of Christian witness and mission with regard to religious pluralism is one of the chief obstacles confronting the church of the 21st Century.  Many questions remain unanswered despite Heim’s useful and extensive project, but it seems he has really opened a door to a new kind of dialogue between the religions that should be more fruitful than most ecumenical efforts in the past.

[1] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis Books, 1991), 352.

[2] Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Picador, 2007).

[3] Hans Kung, On Being a Christian (NOVALIS PUBLISHING, 2008), 25.

[4] Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis Books, 2002).

[5] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Second Edition (2nd ed.; Yale University Press, 2005).

[6] S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Orbis Books, 1995), 6.

[7] J. A. Dinoia, The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective (Catholic University of America Press, 1992), x.

[8] Jacques Dupuis, Christianity and the Religions: From Confrontation to Dialogue (Orbis Books, 2002), 4.

[9] Heim, Salvations, 9.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Ibid., 149.

[12] Ibid., 162.

[13] S. Mark Heim, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 80.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 81.

[16] Ibid., 277.

[17] Ibid., 115.

[18] Ibid., 118.

[19] Heim, The Depth of the Riches, 114.

[20] Ibid., 112.

[21] Ibid., 127.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Heim, Salvations, 160.

[24] Heim, The Depth of the Riches, 124.

[25] Michael LaFargue, “Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical : A New Theory of Religions.,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 60, no. 4 (1992): 713.

[26] Heim, Salvations, 167.

[27] Heim, The Depth of the Riches, 271.

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