The Apostle Paul, Feuerbach, and Bonhoeffer in Convo: On a Crucified Knowledge of God

“For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” -Galatians 1.11-12

“God did not, as the Bible says, make man in His image; on the contrary man, as I have shown in The Essence of Christianity, made God in his image.” – Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion

The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit writes the aforementioned; the philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach writes the aforementioned under the inspiration of the Spirit of antiChrist. Nevertheless, both identify important aspects about ultimacy, or as Christians we might say: God! Paul understands that knowledge of God is not based on philosophical speculation; whereas Ludwig reflects a person who takes philosophical reflection to its logical conclusion. Philosophical speculation, as it programmatically starts with the self can only end with the self. Thus, Feuerbach concludes that God is only a human projection; a projection of what the self would like to imagine itself to be. Ironically, the self under Feuerbach’s machinations ends up relying on classically understood divine revelational categories, or philosophical categories, and imagines that this is in fact representative of what humanity actually is in se. This is ironic, to me anyway, because Ludwig helps to illustrate just what a god imagined under the constraints of philosophical reasoning naturally reduces to; viz. it reduces or collapses the classically philosophical categories for divinity into the human being as the ultimate terminus for who and what ‘God’ is. I can agree, as a Christian, with Feuerbach. If our notion of God is based upon philosophical speculation, and the subsequent imagining that this speculation fosters, then this God, indeed ends up being a God who “man … made . . . in his image.”

Contrariwise, as already alluded to, the Apostle Paul doesn’t know the God that Feuerbach, or the philosophers in general have imagined. Paul’s knowledge of God is purely based on God’s confrontation of Him, quite literally, on the road to Damascus. Paul’s theological schooling, post-first-encounter, is given to him directly by the risen Christ. Paul doesn’t claim to imagine or construct his notion of God based on philosophical speculation, but he bases his knowledge of God in the category of revelation. Revelation, for Paul, is based on God’s irruption into the world, in and through the risen Christ, and in an ongoing way, as the risen Christ actively and event-ually continues to confront him, and all Christians (and all would-be Christians) through personal encounter; and thus, the disruption of Grace for the world. Paul’s God, clearly, is grounded in a Hebraic understanding, such that God just is the One who freely has chosen, and continues to choose, to confront us with His life of new-creation for the world in Jesus Christ. This notion of God cannot be reduced to a mode of human projection, precisely because it definitionally begins in a question proposed to us from without rather than from within us. Ben Quash gets at it this way as he develops the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to think God:

[T]he opening up of a ‘third term’ in the confrontation between the recipient(s) and the medium of revelation is something that all good theologies of revelation in the modern period have had to attempt in different ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has left us with what is arguably one of the most suggestive and fruitful, with his affirmation of the penultimate (the rational, empirical, social domain) in its intimate closeness-in-distinction to the ultimate. The ultimate opens up within the penultimate in the form of a question, as we confront and examine the phenomena of our earthly existence. It is not our own question—it is given to us. And although it is given to us phenomenally (in the penultimate), its answer is not. The question is “Who Is Jesus Christ for us today?’ (Bonhoeffer 1966: 30: 1971: 279). This question draws us along the way of the cross into dispossessive relationship with one who is the non-circumscribable ultimate of existence. We find him incognito, ‘hidden in empirical history as empirical reality, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3)’ (Janz 2004: 220). He is the definitive revelation of God by allowing himself to be pushed out of the world onto the cross, in this way showing us the God who is not an agent in competitive relation to other agents in the world—not just one who makes particular differences—but one who makes all the difference, in but not in addition to all the differences that there already are. [Ben Quash, 342.]

This, in my view, represents the genuinely Christian way for thinking God. It isn’t something that we construct, but something we are proposed with, actively, as our very capacity for thinking God is put in its rightful place. The Christian way for knowing God is, we might say: staurological (that is, it is a crucified knowledge). The Incarnation and cross of Christ itself shows us that the human animal, left to its own abstract self, can only arrive at the reality that God is us. This is what we see finally in Feuerbach, and the sort of theological modernity he represents. An uncrucified knowledge of God can only be one that starts and ends in the circle of the self; this, ironically, is the pronouncement of the cross of Christ. The cross of Christ, the ‘wisdom of God’, takes Feuerbach, and the spirit he thinks from, to its ultimate conclusion; it shows how the humanly conceived notion of God finally has an end. It is out of the ashes of this projected god that the living God rises victoriously, and in and through recreation of humanity, in Christ’s resurrected vicarious humanity, human beings have come to have the capacity to think and know God as God genuinely is in Himself for us.

One cash out of the aforementioned, from my perspective, is that what is implied is that any notion of God that is based on our own inner-desires, rather than being based on the One who confronts us from outside of ourselves, even from within ourselves in the humanity of Christ, is as Barth says: the No-God (Isaiah says this too). And so, many unbelieving Christians end up counting on a God who indeed represents a projection of the God that they want God to be. This God allows them to live in any variety of sin that we could imagine; this God, this Jesus Christ, smiles on and affirms them in their sinful lifestyles. This God does not contradict or confront them, or tell them to repent. I would suggest that this is the God who largely funds the American religion known as evangelicalism, progressivism, and mainlinism.