Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Write-Up: The Idea of God and Human Freedom, by Wolfhart Pannenberg

Wolfhart Pannenberg.  The Idea of God and Human Freedom.  Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1973.

This book is a collection of seven essays by theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg.  I had never read Pannenberg before reading this book, but I heard of him over a decade ago, when I was taking a class on the resurrection of Jesus that was taught by N.T. Wright.  One of the options for our final paper was to write about Wolfhart Pannenberg’s view on Jesus’ resurrection.  I decided to check out The Idea of God and Human Freedom about a month ago because it looked deeper than some of the other theology books on the shelf, and yet it looked somewhat accessible to me, as one who has studied some theology, yet (how can I put this gently?) still has a lot to learn.  Plus, I saw that Pannenberg interacted with the thoughts of Hegel, and I saw this book as an opportunity for me to learn more about that topic.

I found the book difficult to understand.  I can see what the book is trying to do.  It’s trying to do what much of Christian theology in the twentieth century tried to do, and that is to argue that Christianity can have viability, even after the Enlightenment has supposedly undermined its reliability and credibility.  I think that I can identify some of the trends that Pannenberg does not like: he doesn’t like for Christians to retreat from the Enlightenment’s challenges into some individual piety that does not interact with the world.  What does he propose, then?  Well, he seems to me to support finding God within society.  He is for studying philosophy, and he discusses Hegel’s view that religion has a social value to society.

The first essay is about the significance of mythology within the Bible, and Pannenberg discusses this in addressing Rudolph Bultmann’s advocacy for demythologization, which (as I understand it) is looking beyond the myths (i.e., miracle stories, etc.) to find existential lessons within the Bible.  I’m not sure what exactly Pannenberg’s view on demythologization is: Is it that myth is such a significant part of the Bible, that one cannot demythologize the biblical writings?  But his first essay is about myth, whereas the rest of the book addresses the topic of the book’s title: the idea of God and human freedom.

So what does Pannenberg believe about the idea of God and human freedom?  Well, he believes that God is the source of freedom and is consistent with freedom, and he seems to be responding to the Enlightenment notion that religion is authoritarian and restricts freedom.  Moreover, Pannenberg responds to the idea that theism constricts human freedom because it makes God out to be omnipotent and omniscient and thus crowds out human initiative.  I do not entirely know how Pannenberg believes that Christianity is conducive to freedom, or how he is even defining freedom, for that matter.  Is it because the idea that God loves us and will win in the end frees us from having to appease society?  Perhaps that’s part of the picture.  But Pannenberg also makes the point that Christianity has facilitated human attempts to harness nature for human benefit.  Does Pannenberg consider that a good thing?  Is that the sort of freedom that he supports?  That sort of notion has been why some people have criticized Christianity as anti-environmental.  And, personally, while I am not a preservationist, I would like to believe that God cares about all of creation, not just human beings.

I can’t say that I particularly liked this book, but I found Pannenberg’s references to arguments for the existence of God to be rather interesting.  There was concern that certain arguments made God’s existence too contingent on nature, and so some sought to defend God’s existence on the basis of the moral law within human beings (Kant), or God’s revelation in Jesus Christ (Barth).  My impression is that Pannenberg is for treating human anthropology as significant in terms of theology.  Against the notion that we should see God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as God’s sole revelation of himself, Pannenberg seems to argue that God’s revelation in Jesus Christ presupposes theism, rather than claiming to be the basis for believing in it.
Pannenberg also made a profound statement in his essay on eschatology, saying that human perceptions of themselves are in flux, and yet the end of the story can give meaning to the earlier parts of the story.  The idea here may be that we can live our lives in light of the positive outcome that Christian eschatology claims to forecast, and I have heard this before.  But I found Pannenberg’s observations about life being in change and flux to be quite profound, since I have been thinking about this topic quite a bit as of late.

I took a look at wikipedia’s article about Wolfhart Pannenberg to see if I was at least in the ballpark of understanding his thought—-I am aware that wikipedia has its share of critics, but I just wanted to see how someone else conceptualized Pannenberg’s thought.  I did not see anything that overlapped with how I was understanding Pannenberg, but I did find something interesting.  The article states: “This focus on the resurrection as the key to Christ’s identity has led Pannenberg to defend its historicity, stressing the experience of the risen Christ in the history of the early Church rather than the empty tomb.”  This stood out to me on account of my disillusionment with Christian apologetics that focus on the empty tomb.

Maybe I jumped into Pannenberg’s book without the necessary knowledge of his thought, and some of the issues with which he was interacting, particularly freedom.  That’s going to happen when I read books: that I may lack some background information!  But I still congratulate myself on sticking with the book and blogging about it.  I apologize if I have misconstrued anything that Pannenberg was arguing.  I may read some of his other works in the future.

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