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Rock bottom

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 27 November 2015


C S Lewis said of the Oxford philosopher Harry Walton that "He believes that he has seen through everything and lives at rock bottom." Living thus has now become almost mandatory. Indeed, to admit anything else is to come under a tirade of accusation from those who regard themselves as seeing though everything. Faith is accounted as immaturity. Welcome to a world of bottom dwellers.

Such destruction of belief systems is not new. Early Christianity did a hatchet job on Greek and Roman religion. The French Philosophes attempted a similar job on Christianity. English academics like David Hume and Bertrand Russell assured us that faith was now impossible.

Away from religion, evolutionary biologists showed us that the family was just a machine for the delivery of the next generation and that our affection for our children was part and parcel of that machine. We are programmed for sexual attraction that we mix up with the idea of love.

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Sociologists have learnt that the nation is just a larger tribe that provides the necessary huddle for survival, so patriotism now seems silly.

All things have been corroded by our insistence that everything can be seen through. We need not go into postmodernism in which grand narratives are deconstructed and can no longer act as a repository of meaning and purpose. All relations are power struggles. In other words all is dissolved in the acids of modernity and we look in vain for some hint of what life is all about.

The seeing through of religion has been a profound movement that cannot be simply dismissed. The anti-theologians of the nineteenth century proposed serious objections to Christian faith and theologians of the present day cannot dismiss them. Some may think that the new atheists of our day pose a serious problem for the Faith but they are amateurs compared with the likes of Nietzsche and Feuerbach. Let us take the latter as an example.

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) had a single thesis, that theology was really anthropology, that men projected their own goodness onto a non-existent deity while retaining for themselves the less attractive attributes of humanity. His program was to go through examples in which he exposed the attributes we give to God as human attributes. In his "The Essence of Christianity" he often used the words nothing but as in "Consequently, the belief in god is nothing but the belief in human dignity" or "The omnipotence to which man turns in prayer is nothing but the Omnipotence of Goodness" or "Heaven is nothing but the idea of the true, the good, the valid, - of that which ought to be; earth, nothing but the idea of the untrue, the awful, of that which ought not to be."

Karl Barth, in an introductory essay to the version originally translated by the English novelist George Eliot, writes that Feuerbach was on the money when it came to German theology of the nineteenth century. This suffered from the "turn to the self" that placed human subjectivity at the centre. Christianity was reduced to fine religious feeling, the feeling of absolute dependence. The objectivity of Christianity was lost in a romantic swell of emotion. Christ as the objective basis for Christian faith went missing. This truly was religion at the service of men in which human spiritual need was satisfied. We see the same thing today with religion understood on our own terms, rather than something that can stand over and against us.

The authenticity of Christianity stands or falls on whether it is a projection of our own hopes and fears or whether the transcendent exists, i.e. a reality that we have not chosen which has been revealed to us rather than discovered. This reality must at once be humane in that it addresses our situation and also be strange to us; something we could not know out of our own resources.

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It has been held, perhaps by most Christians, that this transcendent, this "not us" exists as a divine and supernatural being who has created all things and holds all things in His hands, who has given us law and sent his Son to be our saviour. Alas, we must now admit that such a framework is no longer tenable. Indeed, Nietzsche has warned us that this god is dead and Kant has told us that there is no way we could know about such a being. The first led to the unappealing notion of the "overman", the superman whose only reason for being is the will to power and the second turned all theology into ethics.

We stand in a time in which supernaturalism; the belief in a transcendent being has become impossible, at least for serious thinkers. Many in our time have assumed that this is the end of all religious notions and that we had better put our head down and make the best of our bottom living situation. We turn to the comforts of family and friends and work.

There is another way of doing theology that is not supernaturalist and Karl Barth was at the forefront of such a movement. He did so by taking the theology of the Triune God seriously, not as an addendum to theology but as its starting point. We begin with acknowledging that we know God as Father Son and Holy Spirit and out of these three we begin with the Son who as the Word made flesh and who dwelt among us. Jesus is the objective realty from which faith springs, the one we have experienced, whom we know, have heard and seen. Such knowledge can be described as empirical: "We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eye, what we have looked at and touched with our hands , concerning the word of life." (1John 1). Theology thus begins with Christology and the other two persons are known through this primary knowledge.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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