God And Existence, Lecture 4 (Johannes Zachhuber)

The following is the fourth lecture in an eight-part lecture series.  Readers can also refer to lectures one, two, and three.

The first thing to be clarified in today’s lecture is the meaning of its title. What could it mean to relate God and existence, and what sense does this make? Surely, theology is in any case about the ‘existence’ of God? Do we not, for example, speak about arguments for the existence of God?

Indeed, it is crucial for the line of thought to be introduced in this lecture that existence is precisely not understood in this general sense of simply ‘being there.’ In fact, it is often contrasted with being in the sense of ‘essence’ as for example in the theology of Paul Tillich about whom you will hear in a moment. What then is the meaning of ‘existence’ here? And why would it be interesting for theology to consider it?

A first and provisional answer to this question would be that the existence that is spoken of here is in the first place human existence. In many ways the starting point for much of the theological and philosophical argument that stands behind our question in today’s lecture is the notion that the human being cannot be understood simply in terms of essence or nature. Why not? The reason is that in asking what the human being is we ask at the same time who we are ourselves.

The question thus is not only about an ‘object,’ it is also about the subject of enquiry. Ever since the mid-19th century, various thinkers have urged that reflection about humanity must take this particular fact into account. Studying human nature, we simply cannot abstract from the fact that subject and object of this study are the same. That this is the case, we can simply see from the complicated picture that emerges once we canvass all the disciplines studying human nature: we might start, perhaps with biology and medicine, but would have to include at least the social sciences, history, philosophy, and arguably also theology. There seems to easy way to synthesize all their findings into a single and simple picture of what human beings are.

It is for this very reason, people have argued, that the special status of human nature for ourselves must be reflected on the most basic, ontological level. It would then, strictly speaking, be misleading to speak of human ‘nature’ insofar as ‘nature’ is only one and possibly not the most important aspect of how we understand ourselves. The use of the term existence, in this situation, was introduced specifically to address this issue. It is then contrasted with ‘essence,’ ‘being,’ or ‘nature’ to emphasise the fundamental distinction between the way we understand ourselves and the way we understand the world around us.

This has profoundly influenced the interpretation of religion. The question may be framed thus: Do we come to appreciate what God is from reflecting on the course of nature? Or do we understand him from reflecting on human ‘existence’? The former was largely taken for granted in 18th century ‘natural theology’ – just think of Paley. Ever since the 19th century the general tendency has moved in the latter direction, albeit with important differences and qualifications.

A powerful theological argument was based on the nature of the Christian message. It was noticed that it was essentially soteriological. In other words, if we are to describe the fundamental contents of the gospel then this would be that human beings who currently are removed from community with God, are restored into communion with him through the salvific action of his son, Jesus Christ.

Yet this, it appears, is centrally a statement about human existence. Its two major elements (i.e. the ‘fallen’ human condition and the reality of its restoration) are both – if one so wishes – ‘anthropological’ in character. Or, to employ the terminology I have just introduced, they are existential in character. Christianity’s core message then would be concerned with human existence, and, consequently, its fundamental theological tenets ought to be articulated on this basis.

This of course raises the question: what is the relevance of the ‘cosmological’ elements of Christianity, notably its doctrine of creation? The answer would be that they are secondary, necessary only as an explanation for the physical possibility of salvation. Clearly, God’s salvific promise needs an author who has the power to fulfil it.

The theme of God and existence in modern theology has arisen out of this particular constellation. It is based on a strongly soteriological conception of Christianity; consequently, its understanding of God must be a response to this question: who is God so he can make this promise of salvation?

An issue lurking in the background is the confrontation with scientific developments. Existentialist theologies seek to evade this confrontation by arguing that it is based on a misunderstanding of what religion seeks to accomplish. It simply does not aim at an account of the natural order, and could not therefore be fundamentally at odds with physical or biological theories about the world. Rather, it replies to human concerns about their own existence, and these ‘existential’ problems are not, in turn, addressed by scientific discoveries.

Apart from these contemporary concerns, there are also more traditional motivations. It is no coincidence that most of the theologians falling under this heading come from the Lutheran tradition. Two elements are of importance here. One is Luther’s strong soteriological focus. In his explanation of the First Commandment in his Larger Catechism, he famously introduced the notion that whatever we trust in would properly be called our ‘God’:

The confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.

Luther in the following is prepared to designate money, but also “skill, prudence, power, favour, friendship, and honour” as “gods.”  The point for him of course is not that it makes no difference what your god is or that humans ‘produce’ all their gods; on the contrary, the meaning of the first commandment in a world where polytheism seems to have disappeared, is precisely to call Christians to put their trust in the one God and not in his many substitutes. Yet what is interesting here is that the notion of God itself becomes a subjective and, we might say, almost existential notion – he is defined through the believer’s attitude to him.

Let us look at a number of pivotal philosophical and theological figures in this particular strand of modern development. A first person who deserves our attention is the German-American theologian Paul Tillich. Tillich’s main work, relevant for us here, is his three volume Systematic Theology, of which the second part (contained in the first volume) is about God.

Tillich states what we may call the existentialist imperative as clearly as we could want him to:

Every being participates in the structure of being, but an existence alone is immediately aware of this structure. It belongs to the character of existence that man is estranged from nature, that he is unable to understand it as he can understand man. […]

Man occupies a pre-eminent position in ontology, not as an outstanding object, but as that being who asks the ontological question and in whose self-awareness the ontological answer can be found.[1]

It is for this reason that human ‘existence’ is specifically relevant for philosophy and theology. We have to be aware at this point, however, that existence has for Tillich a particular and in some ways an idiosyncratic meaning. To see this, it may be useful to start from his way of relating theology and philosophy.

He thinks that these two disciplines do not have to collide once we understand that they fulfil different, but related purposes. He thinks that philosophy represents our own thinking interaction with the world. Where does this lead us?

Tillich believes that, if our reflection is done properly, we end up with some ultimate questions. These questions concern the ultimate sources and purposes of our lives and of the world, and because of this we really need answers to them. Yet our own reflection cannot provide any ultimate answers.

Not that is if we exercise our intellect properly. This, for Tillich, is of vital and fundamental importance. Philosophy, he believes, comes down on either of two sides. It can either recognise the openness of these fundamental questions and the ensuing despair and even hopelessness, or it may pretend that human reflection leads ultimately to answers. Yet these answers are inevitably deceptive. They are deceptive, Tillich thinks, because philosophy could never develop them out of its own resources. In reality, it is the task of religion and theology to provide these answers.

This is how, in Tillich’s view, the two disciplines are a match. Theology answers the questions philosophy formulates. For theology this has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, Tillich thinks, it makes theology realise how vital for it the dialogue with philosophy (and philosophy here broadly means any human reflection other than theology) is. For theology cannot fulfil its own task without being aware of the questions coming out of non-theological reflections.

At the same time, theology must not fail to distinguish its own reflection from that of those other disciplines. Tillich believes that 19th c. liberal theology succumbed to the latter danger, whereas Barth’s version of ‘neo-orthodoxy’ fell prey to the former. He calls his own theological method famously the ‘method of correlation’ as it sought to steer a middle course between these two, listening to every aspect of philosophical and cultural articulation of current human queries, but at the same time being confident about theology’s potential of addressing them in a way quite unique to it.

For philosophy and theological appreciation of it, Tillich’s approach again has an interesting and in some ways unexpected consequence. Traditionally, theologians would mostly have preferred to ally themselves with philosophers who seemed to arrive, from their own philosophical point of view, at answers actually or supposedly corresponding to some of the more fundamental tenets of the Christian faith: belief in God, morality, hope in human immortality etc.

Tillich reverses this logic almost entirely. For him, there are in principle two types of philosophy. There is ‘essentialism,’ and there is ‘existentialism.’ Essentialism is every philosophy that pretends to be able to reach, through its own reflection, answers to humanity’s most fundamental questions. Existentialism, on the other hand, acknowledges that such answers are not to be found (by philosophy). From Tillich’s point of view, theology must distance itself radically from the former, for they overstep the boundary between philosophy and theology, while the latter is the natural ally of theology.

In other words, the result we get is that a philosophy that ends in despair, doubt, and nihilism may, for theology, be much more valuable than a philosophy that from its own resources appears to bolster theological insights. We can see here an echo of Kant’s famous phrase that he ‘had to take away knowledge to make room for faith,’ but one can also see the ambiguous heritage of Hegelian ‘essentialism’ for theology. Tillich, certainly, believes that a philosophy depicting the world and ourselves as broken and fragmentary is ultimately the one theologians ought to interact with.

This view of the relationship between philosophy and theology is of course itself in an important sense theologically conditioned. Why is it that philosophy leaves ultimate questions open, but is always ‘tempted’ to answer them nonetheless? The reason is our own broken or, to use the more properly theological term, ‘sinful’ condition.

This is where Tillich’s specific version of existentialism comes in. For him, ‘existence’ as distinguished from ‘essence’ is finite existence. To say that human beings ‘exists’ is therefore saying in an important sense that they exist as separated from God, who is infinite being, being in itself or essence. And we can see therefore how philosophy’s limitation as well as its desire to trespass this limitation are subtly connected to the Christian view of human sinfulness, which is exhibited specifically in their attempt to ‘be like God.’

For Tillich, then, God is infinite being – we could see this as a very traditional way of speaking about God, but it should be clear at this point that and how this view of God is in fact soteriologically and existentially conditioned. Theology can never be detached from the human predicament of finitude, which makes our interest in being start from what Tillich calls the ‘shock of non-being.’

In other words, thinking about being for us is never entirely detached from the insight that while we exist now there is the possibility (and this will be reality only a number of years from now) that we in fact do not exist (any more). Human beings are aware both of their own finitude then and of the principal possibility of being that is not estranged, but it is only in religion that they will actually be able to overcome this situation.

God then is the foundation of this possibility, as he stands for pure being as the ground of all that ‘exists,’ but understanding this for us is as much a problem as it is a promise. It is a problem because we realise alongside that we are not reconciled with him, that we are mortal. It is a promise because we are to believe that our history will eventually lead us to a unity with this fount of our own being and an overcoming of the tension between essence and existence.

To what extent is the existential approach an answer to the modern challenges to thinking about God? Let us address this question after looking at some further developments in the same direction.

The other classical 20th century theologian to be considered here is Rudolf Bultmann. In spite of many similarities that connect his theology to that of Tillich, there are substantial differences as well. Not least, his work has always been primarily that of an exegete, a New Testament scholar. The theological question of how we can think and speak about God in our time has therefore always for him been asked in the context of his probing attempts at understanding what the NT says and how this can be ‘translated’ into modernity.

Like Barth, Bultmann started from Kantian presuppositions. Human beings by themselves cannot know anything about God. Theology is therefore confronted by the paradox of its existence: that it seems to be charged with a task it cannot fulfil. You may remember that Barth took precisely this starting point. Yet he believed that theology had to accept the paradox contained therein and to try to work on the basis of its recognition.

Bultmann drew the opposite conclusion. He felt that, certainly for theology as an intellectual endeavour and an academic discipline, the impossibility to think God meant exactly that. Theology as God-talk could not be justified. Would this then be the end of the story; did theology simply have to dig its own grave and give up its own identity?

While Bultmann was convinced that theology could only remain credible if it had the courage to reform itself radically, he did not, however, think this meant its demise. For, according to him, the impossibility of speaking about God left still open the possibility of studying him in his effects on the world. He did not think such an indirect approach to knowledge about God was equally ruled out by epistemological limitations.

What effects did he have in mind? Once again, we find in Bultmann the idea of God’s action on humanity, and this is the primary reason why we have to speak about him at this point of our series of lectures; it is this starting point that makes him a theological-existentialist.

For Bultmann this idea was fascinating because it seemed to correspond with a hermeneutical tool he had developed for the theological study of the New Testament. For there a similar problem seemed to exist. Somehow the dilemma of NT scholarship seemed to be this: either scholars accepted the rules of historical scholarship with the consequence that their exegesis effectively ceased to be theological; or, they took the theological task of the NT scholar seriously, but then all too often their work did not correspond to the demands of historical and philological research.

Bultmann believed there was a way out of this dilemma. What did the theologian expect to find in the NT? Was it direct evidence of God’s revelation? What would this be? Anything we may find in a historical text would most certainly be something different or could be explained in a different way.

Bultmann’s suggestion therefore was to look at the effect the preaching of Jesus had on those who heard him and thus to gauge the source of that proclamation on the basis of its results. How could this be done? Bultmann assumed that the NT gave evidence for these effects in two ways: on the one hand, directly through many stories reflecting the transforming power of Jesus’ ministry. This seemed perhaps the more obvious trace to pursue. Yet there was another aspect to be considered as well.

It is clear that the NT writings have been produced by believers. This is sometimes seen as a problem because these authors would have been biased in their account of those events. Yet if we seek to discover traces of the transforming influence of Jesus’ ministry on those who heard him directly or indirectly, the faith of those writers may not necessarily be a bad thing, for it would once again allow us a glimpse of what happened to those who were originally affected by Jesus’ preaching.

These two ideas, one at first sight theological, the other exegetical, are for Bultmann only two sides of the same coin. For the theological reason, why we study the NT is, of course, that it represents the Word of God. Thus, the exegetical problem is – for the Christian theologian – tantamount to the problem of speaking about God generally. Any problem with the latter must be a problem with the former as well.

At the same time, the theologian who considers his task as thinking or speaking about God will, if he or she is Christian, probably turn to the Bible as the basis of divine revelation. Thus, a hermeneutical approach that can show how the Bible may be said to reveal God’s Word to us, is of fundamental importance for the theologian.

Thus, for Bultmann all boils down to the task of deciphering in the NT the transforming effect of God on human beings and to show how and to what extent this tells us something about God. This shows us the extent of his theological ‘existentialism’ – the transformation of human existence under the influence of God’s revelation is the very key to an understanding of God. What then is this transformation?

The Bible and the Christian tradition describes this in terms of sinfulness and salvation, but Bultmann believed that these terms will not speak to people here and now unless we are able to explain more specifically what they mean. It is at this point where he adopts the results of the philosophy of existence developed by Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger had, in his early book Being and Time suggested an analysis of human existence that emphasized, in particular, the importance of mortality. (Remember here Tillich’s notion about the shock of non-being – he had read Heidegger as well as Bultmann!). Our whole existence is determined by the fact that we know about death, which therefore hangs like a shadow over our lives in general and threatens to destroy their meaning.

We are naturally scared (‘to death’) by our inevitable fate and respond by either suppressing it or by becoming depressed; the task however would be, according to Heidegger, to use this knowledge in a way that allows us to transform our lives into a new and fuller meaningfulness, a meaningfulness that is informed by our knowledge that our time is limited. We can achieve this by facing death, by approaching it in our imagination and then, still in our own imagination, returning to our current situation. We would thus have ‘measured’ our own time and could hope, on this basis, to enable ourselves to live a more proper existence.

We can see that this Heideggerian vision involved a certain heroic acceptance of the finitude and the ultimate nothingness of human existence. Only by recognising this nihilism could we actually hope to overcome the dominance of death over our lives. Bultmann did not share this perspective at all. Yet he thought that Heidegger’s analysis of death’s dominance over the self was remarkably similar to traditional Christian notions of human estrangement in sin. After all, the relation between sin and death is explicitly made in the Bible in various ways, and the notion that sin is fundamentally a force destroying the core of our personality is equally rooted in biblical thought.

Thus, his argument is this: Heidegger correctly gives an account of the structures of human existence under the conditions of sin. For these to be overcome, however, Christianity offers a different solution, namely salvation through an encounter with the Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ which unlocks human existence from that fateful dominance by sin and mortality.

Bultmann believed that the NT, specifically the writings of Paul and the Gospel of John did indeed offer evidence for precisely this transformation. And it is this very element in the Bible that makes it irreplaceable even in today’s world. While Bultmann was happy to concede that many of the more particular ideas the New Testament contained could hardly be accepted by people in the 20th century, he believed that in this narrative of salvation this text did actually reveal something about God and humanity that was immune to the challenges of modernity.

What then are we told here about God? In a sense, we might argue, very little. Yet Bultmann would argue that, given the impossibility of direct knowledge and the factual reality of human sinfulness it was in fact all we could ever expect and all there was needed. If it is true that the fundamental experience of a life-transforming faith was possible today much as it was 2,000 years ago, then this would give us incontestable evidence about the existence as well as the attributes of God.

Tillich and Bultmann offer very different versions of the existentialist case for God-talk in the 20th century. Yet in their conjunction they demonstrate impressively how and why this seemed (and may still seem) a promising reply to modern challenges to the notion of God. The main point seems to be that it reduces the theological account of God to the core message of Christianity – the gospel of human salvation from the domination of sin.

God is God insofar as he is the originator of this message. This appears to deflate quite a number of the criticisms made on the basis of the inadequacy of philosophical arguments for his existence, for example. Christian theology is closely tied here to the actual experience of this liberating message by believers then as now, and it seems that it is mainly this experience that is presupposed for these theologies to work.

The major difficulty seems to be Feuerbach’s charge that religion is nothing but projection. It is difficult to see how a theology that bases itself robustly on individual experience can ultimately overcome this charge. Existentialism may then not be the ultimate answer to modern challenges, though it may contain elements that need to be preserved by any serious attempt at such an answer.

Johannes Zachhuber is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford. He is a Fellow of Trinity College. He earned his DPhil from Oxford in 1998 and obtained a habilitation in systematic theology at Humboldt University, Berlin, in 2011. His areas of specialisation include the history of Christian thought in late antiquity and the nineteenth century; secularisation theories; and religion and politics. He has authored or co-authored five books and edited or co-edited nine. He has written many articles and book chapters in all his research specialisations.


[1] ST I, 168.

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