Hefner: Relocation of the God-question

I just finished reading an older article by Philip HefnerRelocation of the God-question.: EBSCOhost, first published in Zygon, in 1970. The article is interesting because Hefner argues why theology should take (evolutionary) science into account. First, he discusses Paul Tillich‘s way of framing the God-question. Through his methodology of “the ultimate concern“, Hefner explains, Tillich was able

to lay bare an ultimate concern at the heart of cultural expressions or personal reflections in such a way as to give profound sense to life.

Several criticisms were raised to this. Hefner lists them under three categories, the most important of which I think is the third, namely that of theological totalitarianism. Tillich’s critics claimed that he actually imposed a theological Procrustes-bed on questions of ultimate concern, interpreting these questions as God-questions regardless the intention of whoever is actually posing the question. Hefner points out that this kind of criticism was in general expressed by theologians, not by the artists or other dialogue partners whose work Tillich discussed. Furthermore, Hefner adds:

Nor did Tillich impose his religion cheaply upon his nontheological sources. Rather, he learned from those sources and let them speak to him so that there was always a reciprocity between what he brought to those cultural products in which he saw the God-question and what they gave to him.

Hefner identifies three strands in theology, building on Tillich’s work. The first is what he calls ‘futurist theology’, focussing on hope as the locus of the God-question. The second might be labeled ‘existential theology’, as Hefner indicates Heidegger as a main influence. This strand of theology sees the God-question expressed in intersubjective relations. The third category regards the God-question as an implicit assumption whenever people undertake meaningful action. Hefner points to Shubert Ogden as a main proponent of this category. But Hefner thinks the God-question emerged elsewhere:

The questions which I refer to pertain to the trustworthiness of the processes of evolution upon which man(sic) depends, including the evolution of both the inorganic world and life forms as well as the processes of human life itself.

He goes on to say that these questions have two dimensions: our very survival as a species, and our relation with our environment.

In his further development of this idea, Hefner points to a particular feature of this new location of the God-question: its uncertainty. The answers we, as a species, give to questions of survival and to questions of how to relate with our environment could well indicate that either

there is no God or that the Christian tradition has not pictured him satisfactorily.

Although this idea is not alien to Christianity – negative theology belongs to the oldest currents in Christianity – it is, as Hefner argues, all too often ignored. The most interesting quote I draw from this article is a paragraph that I read as a program for theology today:

In other words, the reality and the nature of God will be unfolded in the course of our probing the nature of the world processes in which we live and move, and as we seek to understand man’s relationship to those processes, their trustworthiness for or hostility to human life, and the question of man’s survival within the milieu which those processes have engendered. This is so because such probing moves through the array of empirical data to the most fundamental considerations of man’s nature and destiny, as well as to the reflection upon the ultimate nature of the ambience of the world reality in which we find ourselves. The theologian will, of course, bring his heritage of Christian tradition (and the perception that has been shaped by that tradition) with him to the probing of these questions, and he will interpret what he finds with reference to that tradition. But he will also have to become familiar with and sensitive to the structures of reality and thought that are distinctive to these questions—and which may appear strange to his inherited categories. In coming to terms with these new structures, he will gain genuinely new knowledge of God and of the significance of Jesus Christ. The process of bringing these new structures into relationship with the Christian tradition—a process of reciprocal amplification, critique, and synthesis—will be an exciting and risky theological adventure.

This is precisely the kind of adventure my research is about. Some would argue that this means theology gives science decision rights on what theology (still) can say. I would not agree with such criticism, since Hefner clearly indicates the importance of Christian tradition. Others might argue that science is not interested in such an adventure, and, therefore, they would question the validity of the endeavor. Again, I would disagree. Perhaps we should be more clear about the fact that the science-religion dialogue is foremost a theological program, rather than a scientific one. Through dialogue with science, theology is capable of offering the world some pearls of wisdom, showing a possible future. Attracted by this vision, scientists could very well strive to offer us knowledge on how to act in our concrete context, in order to help realize that future. But that’s another story, and not for the theologian alone to dictate.

Slightly discomforting is the fact that Hefner quoted this paragraph in his book The Human Factor, adding his reflection that

It has taken me more than twenty years to gain a beginning recognition of what these words mean.

This is rather sobering, since I have only one year of research left…

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