Friday, June 30, 2006

Is there a Gnostic Tendency in Modern Theology?

If you want you can read this post as frustration over Tillich's loss in yesterdays game, or over the fact that I still have over 400 pages of Panneberg's system to read, and I am supposed to go on vacation today.

I think Pannebergs victory in his current game is clear enough so I can say this: I am yet to find one engaging idea in this work, that would be Panneberg's own. He borrows a lot of good stuff (Barth, Moltman, Rahner...) and brings it all together in a impressive synthesis. But what I lack is the feeling of blood, sweat and tears on the pages. It's all too cool, aloft, balanced and... well, boring.

But my point is not to criticize Pannenberg. The thing that got me thinking is why this way of doing theology seems to be so popular at the moment, while the kind of theology that wrestles with the Christian tradition, that turns it around, breaks it up, kicks at it, shouts at it, loves it, and makes it shine seem to be considered not worthy of attention.

Gnostic? Well, gnosticism is a million things to a million men. I am referring to the notion that to create is to form pre-existent matter.

Now, what we see in Panneberg is a theology that is completely sealed, it is presents the Christian tradition as a unified systematic whole that encompasses most of the results of modern theological research. But like the demiurge of the gnostics, Panneberg has not created this theology ex nihilo, he has simply taken what is already there, modified some bits to get it all to fit together, and presented it all as a system. Now, this is no doubt a great intellectual achievement, and I am not denying it's usefulness. But it is a kind of encyclopedic knowledge. It is not alive.

My question is: Is this really a Christian way of doing theology? It is my firm belief that to be a Christian involves cultivating one's creativity. We believe in a God who created heaven and earth out of the ouk on. Divine creativity, according to Christian doctrine, is not about systemizing pre-existent ideas, it is bringing into being that which previously was not.

Obviously, as creations we cannot create ex nihilo, but we are still called to be the likeness of God. Creativity is what we are called to.

The gnostic notion of creation is stable. It is perfect (and thus evil, even the gnostic recognized that). This is not the case of the Christian notion. Even when God creates the result is not perfect, but it is good. God's creation has this element of insecurity in it, something that makes it alive. Maybe this is a way of understanding evil - it has to be to make creation able to move. (I know, this is metaphysics, don't use this in counseling...) Anyway, this, too is the case of human creativity - its goal is not to make something perfect, it is to make something that is alive.

This, it seems to me, should apply also to theology. We are called to create theology that is alive. This will make it maybe easy to criticize, but it will be so much more beautiful than theology that strives at perfection.

(I have probably misinterpreted Panneberg completely, and I'm sorry for that. See the reason in the first paragraph...)

Now let's get the quarter-finals started.


D.W. Congdon said...

No human person -- not even the most gifted artist -- creates ex nihilo. This is the major problem with Dorothy L. Sayers in her account of creativity. Human persons are not creators; we are stewards of what has been given to us by God. We shape and form what is already present. We are not little gods. We are created beings who can only work with what we've been granted by God's grace.

That does not mean we have to create poorly or dully. But we do not create out of thin air. I would have to say the most Christian form of creativity is stewardship for a few reasons: (1) anything approaching creatio ex nihilo is a devaluation of our proper, created place in the cosmos and an undermining of God's proper place as the sole Creator; (2) as part of the church, we are bound to tradition and thus never create anything on our own apart from those who came before us; (3) stewardship and the care of creation is written into the biblical narrative; (4) there has never been a case of a human creating out of nothing and there never will be.

Rev Sam said...

I was told in about 1990 by my then tutor that Pannenberg should be completely ignored, and that he would be forgotten in a generation. (He got me to read some Moltmann instead).

So I've never read any Pannenberg, and despite being rather surprised by the high esteem in which he is held in various places in the blogosphere, I still respect my tutor's judgement, and I've never had any desire to explore him.

Unlike, eg, von Balthasar. There's a lifetime worth plumbing.

Patrik said...

Well, obviously I agree that humans cannot create ex nihilo in the proper sence; what I aiming is a kind of analogy. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo was formulated in opposition against the greek notion of creation as ordering of chaos. I'm saying that this in an analogous way refers to humans as well.

Stewardship, too, should be creative. Take Jesus' parable of the the man who gave his servant parts of his fortune to take care of. (luk 19) The sevant's that had produced the most "creative" stewardship was revarded, but the servant sho had simnply take care of the coin, hidden it, was punished. We are not to simply preserve the tradition we are here to increase it!

We worship The Creator by being creative, this certainly is not taking away anything from him, but gives him honour.

I will never accept that tradition is something that binds us. Tradition is this increadible treasury of thought and experience: we aree called to take the ideas in this treasury and create something the same way those that went before us did.

Patrik said...

Rev Sam, I tend to agree that Panneberg's influence will not be very longlived... His system, at least will be of fairly lillte value as soon as all those reference will start to become old. Might take a few decades still, but not more.

Gaunilo said...

Hmm. I'd actually have to opine that it is Pannenberg, not Moltmann, that will be read in upcoming generations. Or rather, both will be read, but Pannenberg will be taken seriously while Moltmann will be torn apart (much like Milbank will, methinks). The reason? Pannenberg actually has a system, is deeply learned historically, exegetically, and philosophically; Moltmann really has no system and his arguments absolutely fall apart in later works (by which I mean, all of his contributions to systematic theology). I think your third paragraph is far more of an indictment against Moltmann; he generally just dismisses the tradition in a cavalier way (much the way I'm cavalierly dismissing him!).

Moltmann has creative ideas, and certainly a theological passion that no one should deny, and exemplary theological politics. But unfortunately, his articulations don't stand up under scrutiny. Pannenberg's do - for precisely the reasons that some find him cold and sterile. Nor is it the case that he's as indebted to modernity as he is often read to be - or rather, he is, but that does not cap the value of his theological system.

Having said all that, I do agree with you, Patrik, that he draws quite a bit on others (note esp. as well Dilthey and Herder), but part of his genius just is his ability to synthesize in dialogue with the whole of the Christian tradition. I understand that this can be seen as 'encyclopedic' and therefore dead; but perhaps it's simply the case that he's one of the few systematic, scholastic (in the best sense of the term) thinkers around right now.

byron said...

Pannenberg has always left me rather cold, even where I find his ideas interesting.

byron said...

Creativity within tradition is a way of saying the same thing at greater depth and in a new context, a way of bringing out the treasures of the Scriptures with greater force and clarity. I agree with dwc that ex nihilo is best left to God, though I do like the basic thrust of Patrik's point about theology being more than reshuffling pre-existing pawns around the same old board. Perhaps Vanhoozer's suggestions about the metaphor of drama and faithful improvision are useful here.

Anna said...

I think it's worth noting that not only do people not create out of nothing, but that as theologians within the body of Christ, we must be dependant on--and in active dialogue with--other theologians. We can't branch off on our own and come up with something entirely new, chances are high that would lead to something heretical.

Rather, it is the nature of doing theology as the body of Christ that makes us dependant on eachother.

Does that mean we can only repeat what has gone before? No! Other people spur on our thoughts, challenge our way of thinking, and our contribution is to add nuances that perhaps were not clear before, not really highlighted in recent thought, and enter the conversation with that contribution.

To try to find theology that's never been done before is to refuse to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and to ignore the influence of tradition in our interpretation.

It is functioning as the body of Christ through time that keeps us together, balancing eachother's viewpoints and coming together to hear what the Spirit is saying through the body for our time.

Shane Clifton said...

Patrik - Pannenberg can be thoroughly boring - especially when you try to read 400 pages in a day! Slow down a little (get an extension) - and i think you will discover that he is more than just a summarizer.

Ben Myers said...

G'day Patrik. I can understand why you find Pannenberg a little boring -- his Systematic Theology is one of the most rigorously scholarly works of its kind, and this kind of scholarship necessarily slows down the pace and creates a certain rhetorical "distance".

But I have to disagree with you when you say that he is not a "creative" thinker -- on the contrary, in my opinion he's probably the most creative Protestant thinker since Karl Barth. Instead of merely synthesising the theological tradition, he has sought for creative ways to press through the tradition into new perspectives, so that many traditional themes are "sublated" (in the Hegelian sense) in Pannenberg's own system.

Take, for instance, his theological method of verification with its radical orientation around the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. I'm not wholly sympathetic with what Pannenberg has to say about all this, but it's hard to deny that he has done something here that is astonishingly new: he has centred an entire theological method on the resurrection, and he has directly derived the "scientific" character of dogmatics from the resurrection of Jesus. Whether or not I agree with this (and whether or not I find Pannenberg's presentation to be rhetorically exciting), I have to admit that it's an extraordinarily creative conceptual achievement.

That's my two cents' worth, anyway!

Patrik said...

Ben, I agree that Pannenberg's historical approach can be considered creative. I don't like it much, I think it probably in the long run is counter-productive.

Shane, no I'm not trying to read 400 pages in a day. It's the fact that I will spend (a part) of my vacation with him that bother me.