Saturday, September 20, 2014

Religious Ambiguity of the Universe: Wolfhart Pannenberg's Death

Fred Sanders - writing a quasi-obituary for Christianity Today on "The Strange Legacy of Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg" (September 18, 2014) - notes that:
For Pannenberg, God does not make himself known through speaking actual words, or through an interior, existential encounter, or in any other way. We know God because he makes himself known indirectly through historical events which are open to all observers, not just the eyes of faith.
This is an enigmatic position - i.e., that "God . . . makes himself known indirectly through historical events" - for historical events are known from imperfect records and their meaning depends, anyway, on inferences from those incomplete records. I understand this sort of theology as based on what I call "the theological ambiguity of the universe."

Everywhere we look - whether to the fine-tuning-of-the-universe design argument or to historical arguments for the resurrection - we find much ambiguity, such that judgment as to the existence of God could go either way, depending on the predilections of the individual.

I deal with this issue, albeit surreptitiously, in my novella, The Bottomless Bottle of Beer . . .

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At 12:45 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

If the description of Pannenberg's formulation is accurate, it sounds almost as if Pannenberg were describing a form of natural theology which, to my mind, would not be theologically ambiguous at all—at least not from the position of a person of faith. The evidence for the theology would be inscribed in nature and history itself, self-evidently there for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.

Donc la question se pose: what do you mean by "ambiguous" here? Is this meant as an objective epistemological assessment of the world's ontological status, i.e., it is objectively the case that we can't know the theological reality (sort of a "mysterian" position, I guess)? Or is "ambiguous" meant as a more subjective and phenomenological assessment of the truth, i.e., given my own experience of the universe, I personally can't know whether it has any theological underpinning?

And once we've decided on how "ambiguous" is being used here, how does this relate back to Pannenberg?

Shifting gears: I have to say that my first run-in with Pannenberg wasn't positive. He's not a religious pluralist, as I am. One collection of papers that I own, Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, contains a decidedly anti-pluralist paper by Pannenberg. So I think of him as an ideological adversary, but I realize that, since I haven't read the whole corpus of his works, I may be giving him short shrift.

(I no longer remember much about Pannenberg's argument in the aforementioned paper, but I think it was heavily based on scripture, which I didn't find impressive.)

At 7:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, you've gone rather more deeply than I have, and you obviously know more about Pannenberg than I do.

I didn't realize that natural theology includes history, but I guess I was lumping history and nature together.

The expression "known indirectly" was what caught my eye. My reference to the fine-tuning of the universe was intended as an example. The design argument is based on an indirect message from God even if we find the argument convincing. A direct revelation would require words.

Instead of words, we have improbable arrangements of various fundamental constants that make life possible in our universe. One individual sees the hand of God, while another sees the likelihood of multiple universes, as many as needed to account for our own.

My expression - "the theological ambiguity of the universe" - refers to these differing responses. Is the design argument persuasive? I see both sides and find that I cannot 'de-side' one way or the other. I therefore infer that the evidence is ambiguous.

I therefore think that one's choice - if it is a choice - to believe or disbelieve depends upon prior predilections.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:36 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

The Levelers saw their struggle as a manifestation of God through history, and, accordingly, with success in the 1640s and 50s they saw God's affirmation, but with the Restoration some saw their failure as a spiritual matter. This theology-through-history was therefore revised. Perhaps this can be read into Paradise Lost, where he Son's actions and successes are not so much a matter of his divine will or nature as it was a matter of his effective politics. And of course we can only wonder that's what Milton was thinking about as he sat their waiting in the Tower; and it was in fact this same "good politics" that Locke was formulating in his books a generation later.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

History is a harsh taskmaster . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:27 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...


I, too, lump history and nature together, so when people speak of natural theology as that theology which can be reasonably deduced from the workings of nature, I implicitly take history (if by "history" we mean the sum total of human events) as a subset of nature, since it occurs within the larger cosmos.

I really don't know anything about Pannenberg except what I read from that paper of his, so I don't know whether he in fact views history as I do, or takes history to mean something fundamentally, qualitatively different from the rest of nature (perhaps because history is infused with human will). I have to read more Pannenberg before I can comment intelligently, and as things stand, I'm already in danger of cramming my foot into my mouth.

Thank you, meanwhile, for clarifying your own stance re: ambiguity.

At 4:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'd prefer to distinguish human history from nature since human will is involved in the making of history.

But I lumped them together in this post because of Pannenberg's point about God being "known indirectly" from history.

If God is "known indirectly," then one has to infer his existence, and that's where ambiguous evidence comes in. How explain the fine-tuned constants that make life possible? Intelligent designer? Infinite numbers of universes? I can't tell.

Jeffery Hodges

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