Friday, September 4, 2009

Why 'Does God Exist?' Is Not a Very Good Theological Question

We speak below of 'theological epistemology' with polemical purpose.

The notion that anything properly called 'epistemology' actually happens is suspect. My opinion is that Christianity will do well to forsake the term altogether. A theological epistemology seems like an initially acceptable compromise. But we wish to do more by it than draw up differences.

Recent blog conference on Barth draws some attention to the matter I wish to dispute. But Barth is not to be treated as a figure in the abstract. What circumstances gave rise to Barthian hermeneutics are subsumed under the significance of the resources made available to Christian theologians like him from the New Testament authors onward.

What I mean may be approached like this. The question 'Does God Exist?' appears to be a very good and common sense question. Indeed, for many it obtains as the most determinative, the most preliminary question that ought to be asked prior to any worthwhile theo-logising. Many recent books have been written as though this were so. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion justifies his apathy and ignorance toward all things theological on this singular point. If there is no God, there is no God-ology of which to speak. The discipline is terminated. The theologians disperse. Reason reigns. Etc.

Yet what he and others of his kind do not seem to appreciate is that this question is not a very good theological question. It is not a very good theological question because it presupposes a rather poor theology, Christianly understood.

Not surprisingly, of course, this suggestion of ours excites all sorts of responses in his defence.

The first is predictable: Dawkins is not asking a theological question. Dawkins is asking a scientific question. Or maybe a philosophical question. However one defines the nature of the question, it is a question that precedes any theological work. This is the very intent of Dawkins' departure point.

To which the proper theological response is simply: and? In other words, the dispute is not over what Dawkins intends. It is over what is. Reality that is Christianly understood does not allow for any question to surface from man that does not bear witness concerning man as it pertains to his relation to God. In this sense there appears for Dawkins no neutral ground on which the question 'Does God Exist?' can stand apart from theological orientations toward the God that is now, at the outset of questioning, presumably held in existential limbo. And that kind of god is not the God to which Christianity witnesses. That kind of god is not the God with which Christian theology finds itself wrestling.

Because this God to which Christianity testifies is not one whose existence is like the static and passive objects of ordinary scientific methodology. He is not a chair. Nor even the most dynamic physical processes that hum undetectably beneath the skins of we stubborn creatures. He does not sit twiddling his thumbs at Dr. D's office, awaiting summons to be examined; awaiting to hear whether today he qualifies as patient, or tomorrow he must return, reapply, and repeat his stammering.

Rather. This is a God through whom all questions must traverse. From whom no critical thinking may flee. On whom all rejection must be spilled.

Which returns me to theological epistemology. Any theological epistemology worth its salt will have to do business with the fact that the 'object' of its study is presumably one over which nothing stands and from which nothing escapes. Suggesting that the question 'Does God Exist?' precedes or eclipses all our theological investigations is like to suggest a roving and ravenously hungry lion, now appearing right before us, is first the object of our curious estimations and diagnoses, instead of the imminent lord over our fear-seized will and reason.

Barth stressed as much. He tried to do theology rather than justify theology. I suspect his reasoning to be thoroughly theological on this count. Barth argued that theology follows the activity of God. The Christian theologian is not just so by virtue of her training in any school of theology or in his ascription to certain tenets and creeds, etc. Those are important, of course.

But what precedes theology is not an answer to the question 'Does God Exist?' but rather the grace of God efficient in the life of one formerly wedded to gods other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and most concretely in the face of Jesus Christ. He who treats the former as the one question that determines all other proceeding questions excuses himself from doing good theology, this is true. But this does not hold the science of theology in question. Christianly understood, it merely tells us something about the person who says so and proceeds about his business.

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