Tuesday 22 April 2008

Against relevance

One more quote from Michael Korthaus’ new book, Kreuzestheologie: Geschichte und Gehalt eines Programmbegriffs in der evangelischen Theologie (Mohr Siebeck, 2007) – this is from his chapter on Gerhard Ebeling:

“The believer who in the confidence of the word of the cross confesses the death of the sinless Christ as her own death…, no longer requires any worldly assurance, nor any display of faith’s ‘relevance’. To put it another way: the one who asks about the ‘relevance’ of faith, about its supposedly necessary authentication in experience or some other life-praxis, has not yet really believed” (p. 218).

Take that, Moltmann.


Ben Myers said...

Incidentally, I like this critique of cheap appeals to "relevance". But the whole idea of "not needing any worldly assurance" is nicely countered in Rowan Williams' book, Tokens of Trust, pp. 20-28 (the book I mentioned in the previous post).

Williams talks about Christian lives as those lives which take responsibility for God's believability: the purpose of a Christian life is to help other people to believe in God, to make God believable. (There's obviously a tacit theology of "saints" here — some lives have an extraordinary capacity for rendering God believable.) To my mind, this sounds closer to the truth than the old Lutheran/Bultmannian picture of a solitary believer who grimly battles his own angst, "needing no worldly assurance". Let's face it, sometimes I can't believe on my own — but other human lives remind me that it makes sense to trust in God.

Anonymous said...

Relevance - and being "realistic" - and with it efficiency, effectiveness, utility, practicality, expediency, control, and all the rest of the church's managerial captivity. Constantinianism lite.

Rachel said...

Wait, I'm confused. What part of Moltmann's theology are you criticizing here?

The Big Bad Banker said...

One only seeks after "relevance" if they are not experiencing the heavenly realities that Christ longs for us to experience. As John says, as He is so are we in this world. I don't know how much more "relevant" one could be than that.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I agree, this is excellent, and indeed much better than the grit your teeth and bear it angst. I preached recently about how in times of trial, it is often that we can only be prayed by the Holy Spirit, through the hearts of those who love us and are vigilant witnesses in our struggles and doubts.
Since I've been back into Stringfellow for a bit, I can't help sharing this tidbit from his My People is the Enemy on the same problem of 'relevance'. He writes:
“From my own vantage point and experience on that issue, the Christian faith is not about some god who is an abstract presence somewhere else, but about the living presence of God here and now, in this world, in exactly this world, as men know it and touch it and smell it and live and work in it. That is why, incidentally, all the well-meant talk of ‘making the gospel relevant’ to the life of the world is false and vulgar. It secretly assumes that God is a stranger among us, who has to be introduced to us and to our anxieties and triumphs and issues and efforts. The meaning of Jesus Christ is that the Word of God is addressed to men, to all men, in the very events and relationships, any and every one of them, which constitute our existence in this world. That is the theology of the Incarnation.”

Brian D. said...

Ben, can you expand on your statement re: the "old Lutheran ... picture of a solitary believer who grimly battles his own angst, 'needing no worldly assurance'"?

I understand the excess that is often carried by appeals to Luther's emotional struggle with a God of judgement, but I've never encountered this lack of worldly assurance in my Lutheran reading or experience. Perhaps this is something more commonly found in Lutheran pietism and rationalism?

Brian (who for the record in a reluctant Lutheran)

Brian D. said...

Oops. My signature above should say "for the record is a ...".

You would think a Lutheran could get the word is right! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm also wondering how this applies to Moltmann.

Chris Tilling said...

G,day Ben,

"To put it another way: the one who asks about the ‘relevance’ of faith, about its supposedly necessary authentication in experience or some other life-praxis, has not yet really believed"

Hmm. This sounds like one of those loose and exaggerated remarks that ought to have been reformulated to better correspond with reality.

Could not one just as easily claim that only the one who asks about the ‘relevance’ of faith has believed, for it is only such an "asking faith" that seeks to live in the Nachfolge Christi. I'm sure Korthaus provides reasons for his view, and I would love to hear them.
A provocative quote! That’s why you’re enjoying the book, own up!

Ben Myers said...

Regarding Moltmann: sorry, my comment was just tongue in cheek! In any case, Moltmann's praxis-oriented theology is miles away from the conception of faith that Korthaus is discussing here (with reference to Ebeling). Perhaps that's a compliment to Moltmann though...

Brian, a quick response to your question. You find this emphasis on the absence of assurance in a lot of modern Lutheran theology — most strikingly, in the Bultmann tradition (e.g. Bultmann and Ebeling). Bultmann, for example, thought that the idea of the reliability of the biblical texts or the possession of historical information about Jesus were simply obstacles to true faith (since faith needs no assurance). But perhaps the most astonishing example is Gerhard Ebeling's argument that the empty tomb is an obstacle to faith in the resurrection: "one should have to believe in the Risen One in spite of the empty tomb"! Sure, this depiction of faith is manly and heroic — but it's no accident that this conception of faith has, at certain points in 20th-century theology, passed over into sheer nihilism. (In all honesty, this is what also attracts me to this conception of faith: its strange proximity to both God and the devil.)

Anyway, I hope that helps...

From Ben (who for the record is reluctantly a non-Lutheran)

Anonymous said...

As far as I can tell, which isn't far, any theology of the cross is the most practical, and thereby, the most relevant that is. If God really is the God that reveals himself on the cross by becoming man and expending himself for the other to the point of death, thus revealing himself as the Trinity, then theology of the cross shows what reality is really like. I cannot think of anything more relevant. To me a theology like this, without making light of, or making easy, validates sacrificial suffering for the other as the alternative to the world's means of happiness. On top of that it shows that God himself has in some sense suffered, he knows the plight of the oppressed.

Anyhow, I think that any quest towards "making theology relevant" is lost from the beginning, but I think a valid starting point is that if Jesus is anything like who the gospels say he is, then theology is supremely relevant to anything, just like gravity is relevant, it is just the way things are.

But I'm retarded, so that makes things difficult for me.

tchittom said...

I'm also a bit hazy on what Moltmann has to do with this? Moltmann isn't exactly a proof-text theologian, so no clear rebutting word comes to mind, but I would be quite shocked to find him asserting that relevance or experience is a proof of the existence of God or something like that. On a completely different note, Ben, how would Korthaus respond to Jesus's own invitation, loosely paraphrased as, "If you don't believe on the basis of my words, then look at the signs that I am doing"?

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