Monday, 11 July 2005

Prayer: Its Hermeneutical Significance

Heinrich Ott succeeded Karl Barth as professor of dogmatics at the University of Basel (Ott had been one of Barth’s students; but his theology was above all indebted to Bultmann and Heidegger). Admittedly I am not a great admirer of Ott—on the whole I find his theological existentialism embarrassingly superficial. Nevertheless, Ott’s view of the hermeneutical significance of prayer is worth reflecting on.

In his little book entitled God (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1974), Ott raises the problem of whether it is possible to speak about God. And he suggests that a solution to this problem is prayer. In prayer, God-talk happens—not as talk about God, but as personal address to God. The language of prayer thus functions within the I-Thou structure of a personal relatedness to God, such that prayer is itself the living act in which the problem of God-talk is overcome.

One hardly feels that Ott has plumbed the depths of the hermeneutical problem; any coherent response to the problem of God and language must move beyond this kind of analysis of prayer. Still, one has to start somewhere, and prayer is not a bad place to start.

God would not be God, after all, if we could merely talk about him. If he is truly God, then first and foremost we must be able to speak to him.

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