Thursday, January 03, 2008

German Theologians

I don't like admitting when I don't understand something. I'm fine with admitting that I'm not exactly the greatest person in the world at a lot of practical stuff, but if I don't understand something, I either blame it on poor explanation or on the concept itself not making sense. So with the plot of Transformers or the intellectual coherence of Marcus Borg's thoughts about Jesus or the assumptions underlying much of modern source criticism, I'm happy and reasonably confident saying that the emperor does indeed have no clothes. By contrast, with modern particle physics, I was convinced there was something I didn't get, and I went away and worked at it (even after messing up an exam) until I realised that I was assuming that quarks actually existed in a real sense and once I realised that they didn't exist in the same way I had thought they did, it all made sense.

On one hand, I don't want to throw away almost the whole of German-language theology since Kant in the late 1700s. (Added for clarification - up to the publication of Barth's Commentary on Romans in 1919, but still with a lot of rubbish since then.) It's got to mean something, and probably something useful I can learn from. But on the other hand, almost every time I read something theological which was originally written in German, my gut reaction is that it's meaningless overly verbose drivel resting on an absence of underlying logical thought processes.

I don't think it's the theological ideas per se. I can understand Hume and Dawkins and Sanders and Borg and Edwards and Pascal and Calvin and Luther and Wright and even Mowinckel. I don't agree with all of them, and some of them are hard work, but I can at least understand their ideas and see where they are coming from. But anything originally written in German from Kant onwards just seems to make virutally no sense. The same also applies to some English writers who have been heavily influenced by Germans - Torrance, for example.

And it's only with theology. I'm fine reading Thomas Mann (in translation). Just about the only exception is Bonhoeffer...

This leaves me in a bit of a quandary. I think I have the following options:

  • German as a language is fundamentally unsuited to theological thought (but this seems ludicrous - I'm fine reading Luther or Melanchthon, but maybe that's because they did lots of work in Latin). And I know other people who are generally sensible who seem fine reading German theology.
  • There's either some mental deficiency in me or some important underlying concept I haven't grasped or been taught from roughly the time of Kant or earlier.
  • German language theologians, or their translators, look down on Rowan Williams because they think he is too populist and clear. Obscurantism is seen as a virtue.
  • Kant, or someone, made some fundamental mistakes which dramatically undermine his intelligibility to someone who thinks fairly scientifically (which I do). These have been perpetuated since.
  • Monty Python were right

Here's an example of what I mean, from a book originally written in German which is meant to explain modern theology clearly to people who don't already know it.

But Kant immediately adds "we have here to deal with a natural and inevitable illusion," with a dialectic "inherent in and inseparable from human reason". Hence we are not dealing with illusion in the ordinary, purely subjective sense but with an epistemological and anthropological necessity; one might almost say with an existential element of existence. Pure reason simply cannot avoid producing transcendental ideas which have no starting point in observation. Indeed, it cannot but think of itself (as soul), of its object (as world) and of all objects of thought in general (as God). Of these pure "objects" of thought we have no knowledge, "but a problematic concept only." "The transcendental (subjective) reality, at least of pure concepts of reason, depends on our being led to such ideas by a necessary syllogism of reason". Kant struggles with the language in order to grasp these syllogisms, "rather to be called sophistical (vernunftelnde) than rational (vernunftschlusse)" in both their positive and negative implications.

H. Berkhof, Two Hundred Years of Theology, p2

I think I understand some of what it's saying, but it reads too much like the output of the postmodernism generator for me to be sure...

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