Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Blumenberg on Curiositas in the Catalog of vices: The Danger of a Voluntarist God

Karl Barth (1886-1968)
Defending a voluntaristic God?
(Not in the Image of God from Wikipedia)

In the concluding paragraph to his chapter titled "Curiosity Is Enrolled in the Catalog of Vices," Hans Blumenberg noted that God's status as Ruler of the Cosmos embued Him with a voluntarist character that bore implications in a time of somewhat arbitrary imperial power:
To the surrounding Hellenistic world in the time of the Caesars, the right of the Ruler of the World to arbitrariness vis-à-vis His creation could be made plausible more readily than the much more threatening meaning of the supposed miracles as announcements of the revocation of the existence of the world as whole. But just this concealed radicalness stands behind the disputes over the right of curiositas to guarantee itself the future of nature under laws. Dependability, rational constancy, regularity are characteristics of a concept of nature that does not want to admit the world as a metaphysical episode stretched between beginning and end, between creation and destruction. As the behavioral correlate of this concept of nature, with its insistence on man's intra-worldly possibilities, curiositas is definitively entered by Augustine into the catalog of vices. (Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 323)
Thus does Blumenberg position Augustine at a crucial turning point in the development of Christian theology's conception of God's character, for Augustine emphasizes God's arbitrary will. In extreme form, this can pose problems, as Pope Benedict XVI noted in his Regensberg address by citing Theodore Khoury on the example of the Muslim scholar Ibn Hazm:
Theodore Khoury . . . observes [that] . . . for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry. (Pope Benedict XVI, "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections," University of Regensburg, September 12, 2006)
But the Pope acknowledges that this conception of a totally arbitrary, voluntarist deity was also a danger internal to Christian theology:
In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit [of reason] and the Christian spirit [of faith]. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. (Pope Benedict XVI, "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections")
Interestingly, the Pope cites the intellectualism of Augustine. Granted, Augustine was a complex thinker, but from Blumenberg's analysis, Augustine himself bore some degree of responsibility for the Nominalist conception of an arbitrary, voluntarist God.

But I think that the Pope is right in noting some things that preclude Christianity from falling completely into a radical voluntarism:
As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which -- as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated -- unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, "transcends" knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul -- "λογικη λατρεία", worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1). (Pope Benedict XVI, "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections")
The Pope here grounds Christian belief in a rational God on the anthropological-theological concept of a "real analogy" between human beings and God, which in turn is based on the biblical teaching that people are made in the image of God and can therefore trust that the human power of rationality can conceive truths about God. The Pope backs this up by reference to St Paul's thought in Romans 12:1 on God and human worship in harmony with reason, which is even more notable for what the Pope does not explicitly note, that he is also arguing against one influential Protestant tendency in its insistence upon the radical sovereignty of God, a tendency to deny the "real analogy" implied by the biblical teaching of mankind as being "in the image of God." I believe that the Pope is thinking of Karl Barth, who argues in his great commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, that when we stand confronted by God:
[W]e are bound to proclaim the entire absence of every human presupposition. We proclaim that God is free. The Gospel is the glad tidings, precisely because all human conjunctions and adjustments and presuppositions -- however transcendentally conceived of -- are there confronted by the sovereignty of God . . . . [W]e are concerned only with obedience . . . . Obedience means that there is encountered in the known man of this world a vacuum, a place of irruption, where the new [saved] man is able to breathe and move. Obedience is the sense for the specific peculiarity of the Divine and for the Wholly-Other-ness of God, the King, the Monarch, the Despot. (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, translated from the sixth edition by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), page 386)
One has to place this glorification of a God who is wholly other than mankind in the context of its times, for Barth was writing these words within earshot of battles being waged during the First World War, whose terrible toll on Europe destroyed belief in so many things, Christian faith among them, and Barth's theology is merely one step short of the agnosticism that much of his generation stumbled into from that war.

But beyond the specific circumstances of his time, Barth's appeal to a wholly-other God demonstrates that the Islamic option of the radically voluntarist deity remains ever a temptation in the unstable Christian coalition of reason and faith.

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At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I notice that hardly anybody commented on your latest string of posts about curiositas, and all that. Just wanted to let you know that I, like many probably, nevertheless read them with great interest. Keep going!

At 4:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous. At least, I now know that somebody's actually reading them.

Fortunately, since I'm writing them to figure out my own views, the daily blogging of them -- as with virtue (or as also with the vice of 'curiosity') -- is its own reward.

Thanks again.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:47 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

Karl Barth, a familiar name in my youth, but his words totally unfamiliar now. Somehow then, I was on the edge of theologies without understanding any. I read this post hoping to remember in what context Barth seemed familiar. Still perplexed.

At 10:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I suspect that Barth -- despite being situated in Switzerland -- would have been critical of America's role in Vietnam, perhaps also of the South's segregation policies.

I'll try to check on these things tomorrow if I have time.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:17 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Yes, fascinating posts, Jeffery. I've enjoyed them very much also.

At 3:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Malcolm. You've been so busy lately that I wondered if you'd seen them.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, just a follow-up...

Martin Luther King studied Barth's theology in the seminary and is said to have been influenced in some way or other (though I wasn't able to locate precisely how).

I didn't find much on Vietnam and Barth, but I didn't have much time for searching.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:53 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I think he may have been referred to in sermons I heard. At the time I wrote this, I had forgotten that I had attended a retreat (Presbyterian) in the early sixties in Montreat, NC.
It may have been there in which I heard Barth discussed.

I appreciate your search. I am sorry if I led you down that path. I don't know why I am so forgetful. It could be, although interesting, that my memory didn't do what it takes to remember what I read or heard. I am reading you last post and I remember reading some Aristotle, but what? Was is most of his writings or just one book, I know I read something because it was required in an ethics course I took. I see how easily others remember. In my profile, my favorite books are the ones that had enough impact that I remember specific parts from them.

I didn't mean for the comment to go this long.

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, no need to apologize about that sort of thing. I myself was interested in knowing the link to Martin Luther King, if any.

As for having a bad memory, I think that I take the prize ahead of you. I have to look everything up.

Mr. Gypsy Scholar may sound rather smart, but Jeffery Hodges is rather ordinary...

Jeffery Hodges

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