Religious Relativism and Revelation

Another and more ancient dilemma forces modern theology to begin with revelation. Briefly stated it is this, that one can speak and think significantly about God only from the point of view of faith in him. Knowledge of this second limitation of theological reason doubtless goes very far back into Christian and Jewish history, but we need remind ourselves only of the more recent recognitions of its actuality and of the way in which theological self-criticism has enforced the conviction in modern times.

At the beginning of the modern era Luther vigorously and repeatedly affirmed that God and faith belonged together so that all statements about God which are made from some other point of view than that of faith in him are not really statements about him at all. "What does it mean to have a god," he asked, "or what is God?" And the answer was that "trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol. . . For the two, faith and God, hold close together. Whatever then thy heart clings to . . . and relies upon, that is properly thy god." The great empirical theology of the nineteenth century was at least partly based on the renewal of this understanding. Both Schleiermacher and Ritschl owed no small part of their success to their observance of the limitation of theology to the point of view of faith in the God of Jesus Christ. The former saw that the God whom theology could describe in its very inadequate fashion was a being who was the counterpart of that subjective trust which he defined as the feeling of absolute dependence and never a being who could be mated with feelings of relative dependence and relative freedom. It was Schleiermacher's knowledge of the inseparability of God and faith quite as much as his idealism which led him to reject the speculative method in theology and to approach his subject through the pious feelings of the religious man. It is necessary, he contended, to keep the feeling of absolute dependence and God together because otherwise one will speak about the world instead of about God. We may paraphrase him in this fashion: the being we talk about in Christianity is, whatever else he is, a value and absolute value, that is a being on whom the self feels wholly dependent for any worth as well as any existence it possesses. Now we cannot begin to speak about a being who is absolute value by talking first of all about some being which has no value or which is dependent on us for its value. Schleiermacher refrained from making the apologetic statement that we are never bare of some sense of personal value-relation so that when we speak about something on which we are not absolutely dependent we necessarily speak of something that is partly dependent on us. He recognized the fact but confined himself to faith; it was not the business of theology to transcend its limits as a theology of faith. It had enough to do in this area; God and faith belong together. "There are many," wrote he, "who, confident of the fact that they possess an original idea of God, wholly independent of all feeling, reject the feeling of absolute dependence as something almost subhuman. Our statement does not wish to challenge such an original knowledge of God but only set it aside as something with which we can have nothing to do in Christian theology since evidently it has no immediate connection with piety."

Ritschl carried on this relational value-theology in a form which has become very familiar. His treatment was based on the recognition that Christian affirmations about God, sin, Christ, salvation, etc., are meaningful only in a Christian context, or -- to state the idea in the broader way in which he put it -- religious judgments are value-judgments which report not simply experience but value-experience in which there has been a response of the whole feeling, willing, desiring person. When a Christian says "God" he does not mean that a being exists who is the beginning of the solar system or of the cosmos, or the great mathematician who figured out a world in which mathematicians can take delight. What he means, what he points to with the word "God," is a being infinitely attractive, which by its very nature calls forth devotion, joy and trust. This God is always "my God," "our Good," "our beginning" and "our end." To speak about God otherwise, in the first place at least, would be like speaking about beauty in a picture to which one did not respond with delight, as though color and texture and balance, just as they are in themselves or impersonally considered, were beauty. Ritschl's insistence on the valuational character of Christian concepts and judgments helped to clear up many confused and confusing points in Christian thought. It indicated why the intellectualistic approach in theology always remained religiously unsatisfactory, why it led away from the religious community, why it tended to bring forth neither prayer nor repentance, neither adoration nor reformation. He helped also by means of this approach, as Schleiermacher had done before him, to clear up the discrepancies between religious and non-religious views of the same event. As Schleiermacher had pointed out, "the strange question whether the same statement can be true in philosophy and untrue in theology, or vice versa, can no longer arise for the reason that the statement as it occurs in the one can find no place in the other and, alike as they may sound, their difference must always be presupposed." The renewal of the faith method in theology had other important consequences: it gave impetus to the historical examination of Christian faith, since scholarship was encouraged to seek the bases of that faith in Christian life itself rather than in idealistic or other philosophic dogma; it re-enforced the interest of Christians in the historic Jesus and in his religious faith; it provided strength for the growing social gospel and invigorated the moral life of the church. The fruits which this faith-theology produced gave some evidence of the correctness of its method.

But if the test of a method is to be found in its results then the empirical faith-theology of Schleiermacher and Ritschl must not only be praised for its good consequences but blamed for the misconceptions to which it gave rise and which revealed their fallaciousness in the experience of the church. Today an ungrateful generation of theologians, owing far more to its predecessors than it acknowledges, delights in pointing out the evil which lives after Schleiermacher while it inters his good with his bones. Yet there is justice in its criticism, however unjust its pride, for Schleiermacher apparently was betrayed into an inconsistency in his method which brought fateful consequences with it. Though he acknowledged the togetherness of God and the feeling of absolute dependence so that one could not speak of the former save from the point of view of the latter yet he did not really take this standpoint in his theology but made the feeling of absolute dependence his object, so directing the attention of faith toward itself rather than toward God. Schleiermacher, indeed, was far less subjectivistic than many of his followers who used the sin of the father as an occasion for committing sins of their own. Nevertheless his faith-theology became a "faithology" or a "religionology" which turned attention away from God to religious feelings and tended to make the religious consciousness the object of confidence. The temptation is one to which all Protestant theology since the time of Luther has been subject. In Lutheranism the subjectivistic inversion manifested itself in the tendency to ascribe saving power to faith itself rather than to the God of faith and in Schleiermacher's successors it appeared in the ascription to religion of all the attributes which religion itself would ascribe to God. Religion became for them the enhancer of life, the creator of spiritual and social energy, the redeemer of man from evil, the builder of the beloved community, the integrator of the great spiritual values; the God of religion, however, came to be a necessary auxiliary, though it could be questioned whether a real God was necessary to religion or only a vivid idea of God. The term "religionist" which has been invented in modern times applies aptly to those who follow the tendency inaugurated in part by Schleiermacher, for religion is the object of concern and the source of strength for them rather than the God whom an active faith regards as alone worthy of supreme devotion. This tendency in religion is the counterpart of the inversions which take place in other areas in which value-relations are made ultimate values; so aestheticism values aesthetic feelings rather than beautiful objects and moralism makes virtue in the self rather than the good toward which a virtuous life is directed the object of its concern.

Ritschl's theology of faith went astray at a slightly different point than Schleiermacher's and became inconsistent in more explicit fashion. After all his insistence that "one can recognize and understand God, sin, conversion, eternal life in a Christian sense only insofar as one consciously and purposefully counts oneself a member of the community which Christ founded," and in spite of his criticism of traditional theological method as inconsistent because it jumped from a standpoint outside of Christianity to a standpoint in Christianity, from natural theology to revelation, without awareness of the leap, Ritschl also began to analyze God's nature simply from the point of view of a member of the human community confronting nature. Having said that Christian judgments are value-judgments he proceeded to set forth a value-scale which was not that of Christian faith, for which God is the highest value and could not be God were he not absolute in worth, but was rather the value-scale of civilized man. His value-standard is well known: "The religious view of things rests on the fact that man distinguishes himself in worth from the phenomena around him"; "in every religion what is sought with the help of superhuman, spiritual power, reverenced by man, is a solution of the contradiction in which man finds himself as both a part of nature and a spiritual personality claiming to dominate nature." Having said originally that God, as known in Christianity, can only be spoken of as he appears to one who responds to him with feeling and will, he now posits a human will and desire directed not toward God but toward the maintenance of man's superiority over nature; so he interprets the value of God to man through man's evaluation of himself as this appears in his self-comparison not with God but with nature. Ritschl did not do what many value-theorists do -- abstract the concept of value from the relation of man to other persons or things in which desiring man finds value or disvalue. But having said that the relation of man to God is a value-relation he posited a prior value-relation -- man in opposition to nature. In relation to nature man values himself; he can without too much difficulty regard himself as the crown of natural development; he values nature as that which serves his own worth; it is instrumental to him; it is something he dominates. So Ritschl approached God not from the point of view of Christian faith which values God as infinitely superior to man and the source of whatever real value man himself has, but rather from the standpoint of man's confidence in his own worth as superior to nature. Hence the deity Ritschl began to speak of was again not the God of Christian faith but the being or beings which support man's confidence in himself as a supernatural being. This deity was an instrument, not an end; it was the counterpart of man's sense of freedom not of his sense of absolute dependence; it was the reality -- whatever it might be -- which supported man's sense of his own intrinsic value. Such faith was directed not toward the God of Christianity but "toward the supernatural independence of the spirit in all its relations to the world of nature and to society."

The sources of Ritschl's value-scale can be traced back infinitely far into history. Greeks, in their classic no less than in their Sophistic thought, made man the measure of all things and always used the value-scale derived from a comparison of man with so-called lower animals for the measurement of all other relations. In Ritschl's case the immediate historical source was evidently Kantian philosophy. But it is unnecessary as well as unavailing for theology to make Greek thought or philosophy its constant scapegoat. The inversion of faith whereby man puts himself into the center, constructs an anthropocentric universe and makes confidence in his own value rather than faith in God his beginning has occurred over and over again in the past and will doubtless occur many times in the future. It is often accomplished with the aid of philosophy but it can be accomplished with the help of Scriptures, as when in interpreting the account of creation in Genesis man's dominion over nature is put prior to his dependence on the Creator. It can be accomplished with the aid of some revealed law or gospel; occasions differ but the tendency is universal. What led Ritschl to his departure from his professed standpoint of Christian faith in God and so to inconsistency in his theology and the misdirection of Christian life was, as the context of his argument indicates, a desire to justify Christianity as the best religion. Schleiermacher's inversion also seems to have been largely due to his desire to defend religion as an important element in human spiritual life. Ritschl, at all events, though he began with the endeavor to help Christians become good Christians and the church a good church allowed himself to be diverted toward the wholly different effort to prove that Christians, as Christians, were somehow better than other men and that Christianity was the best religion. This he could not do save by reference to some element which Christianity seemed to have in common with other faiths and in which it excelled; so he dropped the standpoint of Christian faith which makes the God of Jesus Christ the measure of all things and took up the standpoint of faith in man as a being superior to nature; in this faith man is the measure of all things. It was defensiveness and the desire to prove the worth of Christianity otherwise than this might be proved or disproved by the fruits of Christian faith that tempted Ritschl to relinquish the standpoint of faith in God and to accept the point of view of pagan confidence in man.

The consequences of the Ritschlian aberration are well known, though again it is with doubtful right that theological children blame their fathers for having eaten sour grapes. Ritschl with his double point of view saw double. Christianity was for him not a circle centering in God but an ellipse with two foci -- God before whom man is a forgiven sinner, who is for man the beginning of all things, and man who, confronting nature, regards himself as beginning and end in a kingdom of ends. For Ritschl's successors Christianity often became an affair of two exclusive circles, one of religion so-called and one of so-called ethics; and sometimes it became a single circle centering in man's spiritual personality, God or an idea of God being somewhere at the circumference. What was worse than the confusion this brought to theology was the uncertainty it imported into the church which was placed in the strange dilemma of becoming either a kind of special institution for the cultivation of religious sensibilities or an ethical culture society for the promotion of man's dominion over nature, human and otherwise.

Schleiermacher and Ritschl cannot be blamed, of course, for all the consequences which have followed from the inconsistencies of their faith-theologies. In part they were but representative men who illustrated in their theories tendencies which were more pronounced in the actual life of the church than in the theories. Moreover Christianity seized on the opportunities offered by the leaders of thought to abandon the standpoint of Christian faith and to take up another point of view. Christians were tempted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, perhaps more than in most previous times, to consider themselves first of all as members of national and cultural societies rather than of the church and to turn Christian faith into an auxiliary of civilization. But the temptation and the tendency to anthropocentrism are universal and one may be very sure that any new theology -- the theology of revelation for instance -- will be subject to the same perversion and will not fail to offer opportunities for it. For faith in the God of Jesus Christ is a rare thing and faith in idols tends forever to disguise itself as Christian trust.

Our present concern, however, is not with the religious and moral consequences but with the theological aspects of this situation. Consistency in theology is certainly an ideal to be espoused, whatever difficulties may stand in the way of its realization, and consistency here as in every rational inquiry means adherence to a single point of view. Furthermore, theology has been taught by many sad experiences that the only point of view from which the God of Christian faith may be understood is that of Christian faith itself. The situation is not a strange one in human knowledge. The sciences of nature have learned that if they are to proceed with their proper work it is necessary for them to be single-minded, directing their attention to their objects, developing methods corresponding to those objects, and not diverting attention from nature to super-nature or changing their standpoint from single-minded observation to the interested-ness of men concerned about the value of science itself or about the victory of some proletarian, democratic or religious cause. A theology which abandons the point of view of faith in God does not do so, as the examples of Schleiermacher and Ritschl indicate, because that point of view is too interested but because it does not permit theology to follow another interest -- the defense of the value of Christianity itself or of religion or of civilization or of man. Whatever be the case in other human inquiries there is no such thing as disinterestedness in theology, since one cannot speak of God and gods at all save as valued beings or as values which cannot be apprehended save by a willing, feeling, responding self. Theology may try to maintain the standpoint of Christian faith, that is of an interest directed as exclusively as possible to the God of Christian faith; or it may take the position of faith in some other being, that is of an interest directed more or less exclusively toward religion, or toward the moral consciousness, or toward man's own worth, or toward civilization. When it follows one of these latter interests it does not become more disinterested and objective than when it takes the point of view of Christian faith; it simply becomes primarily interested in something that faith in God must regard as too narrow and finite to be a substitute for the Father of Jesus Christ. And when such theology turns to the latter being from the point of view of its dominant faith in another valued entity it does not really turn to the Christian God at all as Christian faith knows him, but rather to some instrumental value which serves its major interest. The god who is primarily a helper toward the attainment of human wishes is not the being to whom Christ said, "Thy will, not mine, be done."

The recognition of this situation, as it has developed out of theological self-criticism to a large part, requires modern Christian theology to begin again with the faith of the Christian community and so with revelation. It is necessary to begin where Schleiermacher and Ritschl began for the same reasons that prompted them and not to begin where they left off with the acceptance of all their inconsistencies. To be sure, no modern theologian needs to deceive himself about his ability to evade that rule of original sin, the tendency toward idolatry, which has manifested itself in all the theology of the past; but if he begins with the particular sins of the past and does not make the resolute attempt to start in and with faith in God there is no hope for him and his endeavor.

The theology of revelation as it is developing in our time is the consequence of this understanding of theology's religious relativity as well as of its understanding of historical relativity. If the historical limitations of all thought about God demand that theology begin consciously with and in an historical community, its limitations as an inquiry into the nature of the object of faith require it to begin in faith and therefore in a particular faith, since there is no other kind. Because God and faith belong together the standpoint of the Christian theologian must be in the faith of the Christian community, directed toward the God of Jesus Christ. Otherwise his standpoint will be that of some other community with another faith and another god. There is no neutral standpoint and no faithless situation from which approach can be made to that which is inseparable from faith. Whatever freedom the Christian and the theologian may have, there is no absolute freedom for them in the sense of complete uncommittedness to any supreme value. Neutrality and uncommittedness are great delusions where God and the gods of men are concerned. Men must raise the question about revelation today because the religious as well as the historical bondage of theological reason has become evident again, but also because the freedom of inquiry that is present in this bondage is very real.

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