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Astonishment. The Beginning and End of Theology

by Werner Neuer, Ivan Illich & Eugen Drewermann
Debt relief is absolutely essential. Making persons morally liable who are materially in debt is a mistake. Condemning the helpless and broken is completely wrong. They urgently need help. Forgiveness of material debts and moral offenses is one and the same for Jesus. Human existence is crucial.
Astonishment. The Beginning and End of Theology

by Werner Neuer

[This study presented on 11/25/2016 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet, http://www.academia.edu. This was Werner Neuer's farewell lecture at a theological seminary after teaching systematic theology for 16 years.]

Studying theology is an astonishing voyage of discovery where great discoveries enrich one's life and the lives of other persons enormously!

I know every Christian does not feel this way. Apart from the Christians who even see the study of theology as a danger for faith, some regard the study of theology as only a limited training phase and as a later necessary and possibly useful activity in God's reign. Is theology a lifelong voyage of discovery or a limited period in life? True theology presupposes a lifelong learning process that never ends. The institutionalized study of theology is only the beginning of a cognitive journey with every new astonishment. My core thesis is that true theology has much to do with astonishment, with the readiness and capacity for amazement.

The Reformation whose 500th commemorative year we experience underlines the fundamental significance of astonishment for the Christian faith. Martin Luther's astonishment over God's boundless mercy enabled him to understand God accepts the sinful person and gives eternal life if he or she simply accepts the accomplished redemption as a child. The astonishment and jubilation over God's bottomless love was the impulse that made Luther into a Reformer and generated a new consciousness of God's self-revelation in the word, a new consciousness in Europe and the world that fundamentally transformed the form of theology and the church in the sense of the biblical gospel!...

One doesn't have to be a Christian to learn astonishment...

The world of faith or the world has infinitely many reasons for amazement that give all of us reason to stop and gain deeper knowledge of the world and faith in God!

This analysis will concentrate on three steps:

I. The loss of astonishment in the modern age
II. Astonishment and the beginning of philosophy and science
III. Astonishment and the beginning and end of theology

I. The Loss of Astonishment int he Modern Age

The Protestant theologian Oswald Bayer correctly criticized: "Our age is characterized by an inability to be astonished." (1990) The Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper made a similar diagnosis in his treatise "On Astonishment":

"Astonishing things do not happen anymore. Persons cannot be astonished. The dull square or petty-bourgeois finds everything obvious. But what is obvious? Is it obvious that we exist? Is seeing obvious?"

A philosophical axiom impressed me as a high school student in Heidelberg: "Nothing is obvious in the world." This sentence seemed immediately clear at that time and seems immediately clear today.

What has caused the modern inability to be astonished? 

In his famous address "Science as a Calling" at the beginning of the 20th century, the famous Heidelberg sociologist Max Weber blamed the inclination of modern persons to the intellectualization and rationalization for the loss of astonishment. 

"The increasing intellectualization and rationalization - Max Weber said - has led to the notion that "no mysterious incalculable forces come into play. Rather, all things are calculable. This means the disenchantment of the world."

Thus, the "demystification of the world" provoked by the rule of the sciences caused the modern incapacity for astonishment. The Hamburg philosopher Ekkehard Martens agrees with Weber:

"In this demystified world, isolated moments are left for lovers, poets, pious souls, simple thinkers or crackpots and children for goal-free amazement. On the other hand, nothing can dissuade the realist or man of the world. Coolness for youths is a sign of adult existence and for perfect self- and world-mastery... We are astonished about many things in everyday life that we did not expect, cannot understand or imagine in the past, about tremendous records in sports, new wonders from science and technology...But we are seldom amazed by everyday life: the frozen lake, the dawn and setting of the sun, the vast landscape, the towering mountains, the starry skies, the blossoming flowers, the newborn child and the laughter of a person. Astonishment could make us stop and reflect about the meaning of the world and our existence has hardly any place in our everyday, it seems, except for the dumb and children.

What conclusions can be drawn from analysis?

Is the loss of astonishment really a loss we must regret? Or isn't it a sign people have become more rational and "enlightened"? Everything suggests this is a genuine loss, a real loss in humanity.

The astonishment of children is one example (and the astonishment of parents and grandparents over a child's development). Every child discovering the amazing world is part of healthy development! This discovery of the marvelous world is joined with the necessary questioning "Why?," with reflection and research about the nature of things. Thus, astonishment is an impulse to the rational exploration of the world and not a naive renunciation on reflection.

A child experiences this exploration of the world as joy and happiness! The Greek philosopher Aristotles declared almost 2500 years ago: "Joy comes from astonishment" (Aristotles, Rhetoric 1,2). The Middle Ages followed Aristotles when it emphasized: What excites astonishment brings about joy: "Omnia admirabilia sunt delectabilia" (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica I, II).

The loss of astonishment is a loss in thinking, joy and happiness - a loss of genuine humanity!

Astonishment is an expression of human existence, something specifically human, something that distinguishes persons as livint beings from animals or plants. Astonishment "is an essential part of human existence," the philosopher Martens said. Neither animals nor machines can be astonished! Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said astonishment was the meaning of human existence: "I exist to be astonished."

As a result, the loss of astonishment is bound with a loss in humanness!... Like the great Russian author Dostoevsky, Albert Einstein went in the same direction: "Whoever cannot be astonished and love himself in awe is already psychically dead."

Astonishment is a specific human quality that helps to the joyful discovery of the world while loss of astonishment, visible in the modern age, represents a considerable loss in humanness, an intellectual -mental blunting or hardening that should be deplored. 

II. Astonishment and the Beginning of Philosophy and Science

Astonishment was the prerequisite for the genesis of western philosophy... Mystery belongs to the reality of the world and cannot be rationalistically dissolved. The world can only be "disenchanted" when human reason presumes on principle to explain and understand everything... The philosopher and physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker declared: "Physics leads to deeper mysteries and does not explain away the mysteries of nature." In their book "How Astonishment came to the Universe," the astro-physicist Harald Lesch and the biologist and philosopher of nature Christian Kummer said "What is known and understood leads to astonishment or misunderstood mysterious phenomena."

In summary, the intellectual presuppositions for discrediting astonishment dominant in the rationalistic modern age cannot survive critical examination and should be rejected as a malformation! Regaining amazement as a basic attitude promoting discovery and research and stimulating the sciences and philosophy is vital! Amazement plays an important role for the unity of science and literature, art and music...

III. Astonishment - The Beginning and End of Theology

Astonishment is key for the Advent- and Christmas narrative of the evangelist Luke, that narrative of the incarnation of God's Son with which Christian faith begins. The announcement and preparation of Jesus' birth according to Lk 1,21 and 1,63 is greeted by contemporaries with amazement. People reacted with amazement to the appearance of angels and to the naming of John the Baptist. This continues in the Christmas story from Lk 2, 18-33. The shepherds showed great astonishment according to the Luke account... Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas oratorio begins with an ecstatic choir "Rejoice, rejoice!" Since then, Christian theology has been proclaiming with ever new astonishment the grateful joy of redemption, the jubilant adoration of the Trinitarian God revealed to us persons in Jesus!

Astonishment over the amazing reality was the starting point for Christian theology, philosophy and the sciences. The protestant systematic theologian Eberhard Juengel exclaims: "Christian faith comes to life with astonishment."... God's creation is treated in philosophy and the sciences. God's glory and goodness in the world can be known despite the human neediness for redemption. In their discoveries, philosophy and the individual sciences are involved with God's world even if they ignore the knowledge of God for methodological reasons. Philosophy and the sciences always have reason for inexhaustible amazement since the creation reflects something of God's being and endless glory (Isa 63)!

However this glory - in a world marked by evil, death and suffering - is only a weak reflection revealed with the baby int he manger, the coming of Jesus Christ, God's eternal Son who could say "I and the Father are one!" In him, God turned his face graciously to us humans once for all! This makes Christmas, Easter and Pentecost into jubilant feasts of accomplished redemption year after year. Every Sunday the week begins with the joyous certainty to the resurrection and the indestructible hope for God's new eternal world...

The event of Jesus Christ's incarnation and redemption gives Christian theology a unique and special place as a discipline, not a place for pride or arrogance! This special position is always an occasion for humble astonishment, permanent joy and thankful worship. Like every discipline, theology is marked by effort, exertion and struggle, as Luther rightly emphasized. Astonishment, joy and worship are essential for theology. This should permanently define our faith and perception, our study and our research as Christian theologians! With passion and development, we draw conclusions that deepen and enrich our life for time and eternity...

God's revelation in Jesus Christ is the theme of our study and determines our life in the present and is not only an event in the past. Therefore, Christian theology is a discovery of the present God who promises to continue and perfect what began in Jesus. The great Swiss theologian Adolf Schlatter who tirelessly referred to the inalienable significance of history for the Christian church and theology underlined the present-ness of salvation history...

The work of God is eternal and not past. The divine work is present to us with the present God... The central theme of our theology is the living Christ who is present to believers in the Holy Spirit and guarantees a perfect eternal future to his community.

We have occasion to be astonished about Christ's presence in his church, in the world and in the sacraments promised to us and experienced anew again and again and not only about a unique revolution history! Christ is and remains present with his forgiving, comforting and rectifying love! "Behold, I am with you always to the close of the age" (Matt 28, 16). Christian theology is a living, present-referring discipline and not a mere guardian of a glorious religious past. The catholic theologian Lothar Lies SJ rightly admonishes that theology atrophies to a mere religious study when it forgets astonishment over Christ's presence in the life of the church and believers.

Our meditation about the significance of astonishment for Christian theology is incomplete if we ignore the future promised by God. Theology is based on the future promised by God and not only on an amazing past in Jesus' incarnation and redemption and on the no less astonishing presence of the Lord in his word and in the sacraments. The future will make small the suffering of our earthly existence in a way that is unimaginable now. One of the most daring sentences of the New Testament is a statement of the Apostle Paul in Rom 8, 18 who experienced immense suffe4ring in his life: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."

We should be amazed about this statement. One day we may be astonished about the reality of this promise. Then our amazement or wonder will be complete and joined with eternal joy and eternal love int he everlasting community with Jesus Christ, with our heavenly Father and with the Holy Spirit. Then the often arduously contested earthly form of theology will be ended and transformed into a contemplation of God's glory and the new humanity created by God and ruled by love. We find the incredible promise toward the end of the biblical revelation" "God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be any mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former thins have passed away" (Rev 21).

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Ivan Illich: Society Caught in the Fangs of the Need-Makers

by Manfred Bundschuh

[This article posted on 4/11/1977 is translated by Marc Batko from the German on the Internet in Scheidewege, vol 7.]

Correctly naming an epoch helps to discover the possibilities in that epoch. I propose the middle of the 20th century be called "The epoch of the decay of expert rule."

In their games, children mix up the gibberish now polluting our language with the jargon of chief robbers and cowboys. Now they are called "president" and "director" and not "chief" or "watchman" any more.

In the schooling period, the young were trained in the first third of their lives to develop needs according to rules while in the other two thirds they were only the customers of skilled sellers who defined their lifestyles. Predicting whether the epoch will be remembered with a laugh or a curse would be reckless. I hope it will be remembered like a night when the father drank
away the family's wealth and forced the children to begin again. Very likely this will be a time when our rapacious hunt for wealth when all freedoms were up for sale and politics was organized violence.

I would like to describe five myths on whose ground we became the slaves of experts. First, we must make clear that the groups of specialists who decided over the production, recognition and satisfaction of needs represent a new kind of cartel. They are established more firmly than the guilds. They are more international than any union and more stable than any party. They have more powers than any clergy and control those to be protected more tightly than any media.

The expertocracy is one of many forms that have control over work. Unions and professional associations decide who should work for how many hours and at what wage. They determine how the work should be done and by whom. The experts go even further. They decide what should be manufactured and for whom. The experts tell us what we need.

Fast transportation systems make persons passengers for 17% of their waking hours...

The first myth enslaving us is the theory that persons are destined to be consumers and that all their goals can be reached by acquiring goods and services.

The second enslaving myth creates a license for expanding corporate rule out of all technical progress. This deception says instruments inevitably become more complicated and inscrutable when they become more efficient for a certain goal and therefore must be used by people who are better trained and who can be trusted.

The third similarly paralyzing myth is that useful tools must be tested by experts before lay persons can use them.

The fourth paralyzing myth is that experts must set growth limits. Whole populations were trained to need what was prescribed to them and now expect rules about what they do not need.

The fifth enslaving myth is radical abstinence. These myth-makers now babble about self-help like the prophets of the 1960s blab about the excesses of development assistance.

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"The Bible refutes everything sold to us as true in capitalism"

Interview with Eugen Drewermann

[This interview posted on June 11, 2018 is translated from the German on the Internet, Aktuelle Artikel by Marc Batko. Eugen Drewermann is a theologian, therapist, church critic and author.]

What significance can the Bible have in the 21st century if it is not merely handed down as a document of a long past epoch? In analyses over decades, the German theologian and psychoanalyst, Eugen Drewermann emphasized the existential dimension of the biblical writings. At the center is a God proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth who makes possible trust in life and enables persons to oppose injustice and violence.

"A camel can pass through the eye of a needle easier than a rich man can enter God's reign." In the gospels, we find this answer from Jesus to the question of the rich young man about eternal life. Can this story give us an orientation on wealth and poverty and what we should do in light of an unjust economic system?

The story of the rich young man has often been interpreted as a call to moral asceticism. Give away everything! No one can do this. Jesus warns of money more strongly than of the devil. In the 6th chapter of Matthew, he says we must choose: We cannot serve God and mammon. The rich young man is presented as someone who fulfilled all the commandments. Then he broke down...We think the money in our bank account is our earnings which may be true from a middle-class perspective. This impression is completely wrong in Jesus' eyes. Nothing belongs to us, not even our life. The prerequisite for being able to work is sour health. We only have a slight influence on that. If we define such happiness as a gift from God's hands, money is never a possession, a claimed right or property. It is God's loan.

This story is directed to everyone. Isn't the Bible a book written from the view of the suffering and for the suffering, for the poor and excluded? How do we as the well-to-do and privileged have a connection to this?

What Jesus said is directed to all people. It is Paul's discovery that Jesus' redeeming message that liberates from all the pressures of civil existence is necessary for every person everywhere in the world and at every moment of time. That the Bible sees the world from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized is a wish of theologians. Jesus adopted this perspective. While the theme money is a basic existential problem, Jesus emphasizes persons. When he sees them first as sufferers, it is as persons who live in contradiction with themselves on account of their anxieties, guilt-feelings and estrangement. Whoever wants to help an individual person who is mentally ill, for example, should put the power systems in question that exploit and estrange him. The structures of power are objectively in the background. Jesus changes reality by overthrowing the value order, not with violence and insurrection.

Where is this seen in the Bible?

This is brought to a finale in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Jesus' last parable turns around the question what will happen when God comes to judge our life. The Son of man will not ask how rich we are or how we climbed the career ladder. The questions are simple. What did you do to relieve the distress of the persons in your life who were naked, in prison, sick or suffering hunger? These social questions can obviously be translated inwardly. But if we only hear "I was a foreigner" from Jesus, then the migration problem of our days is seen in a new way. In Europe's screening of millions of people, blocking boats, rescuing refugees in distress at sea hindered by Italian and Libyan military, Europe does everything to screen itself ever more - against a distress for which it is the economic cause.

But isn't the Bible past?

The Bible is an archaic book with a history of around three thousand years. It is anchored in an Oriental legal system that must lead to unbearable and inhuman conditions if interpreted literally in our days. Reading the Bible ahistorically as happens in fundamentalist and Zionist circles is very dangerous.

That we have something like a "filter" in the person of the man from Nazareth is important. He taught us to read the Bible - his holy book only understandable in his person - with the eyes of love, a love trusting in God in the absolute sense. Jesus filters out violence, possession of power, oppression and extermination of foreign people often shown in symbolic form in the conflict with oneself. In the Bible, Jesus explains how to accompany persons from fear to trust, from aggression to mutual aid and from vengeance to forgiveness.

What does the Bible mean to you very personally?

For me, Jesus' message is the foundation for living in this world. The words and actions of the man from Nazareth in the gospels allow light to stream through the prison walls and make me believe there is another better world outside. I will not stop believing even if failures are more likely than a real great breakthrough in what we call history.

In the early 1920s, the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote a text that has remained a fragment: "Capitalism as Religion." Benjamin was convinced that capitalism was an "essentially religious phenomenon" and not only a religiously-informed creation. In your 2017 trilogy "Capital and Christianity," you support Benjamin's thesis and go beyond this saying capitalism is a "religion without God and without grace." How do you make your argument?

"Capitalism is a religion without grace" by Benjamin can be read on the Internet. Benjamin opposes religion as it was in the past and as it tried to bring about a kind of human debt relief with sacrificial practices. This drives people intentionally and necessarily into ever greater degrees of indebtedness. It causes war instead of preventing it. It is the realized apocalyptic.

Capitalism is the poisoned and developed fruit of a degenerate Christianity.

Benjamin underrated the history of Christianity. Church and state, earthly power and God's rule, have been "pressed together" since 312 A.D., Constantine's Battle at the Mohavan Bridge to the present in such a way that it is hard to see clearly w2hat is religion today. Capitalism is the poisoned but developed fruit of a degenerate Christianity. It is the perversion of all redemption claims and promises in Jesus' message.

But many churches are more critical today toward the state and the economy.

This comes too late when they remember we have an obligation to the poor. The churches sit in the middle of the financial tower that they cannot leave without wrecking everything they built. A fresh start is vital. Luther tested this a half-millenium ago in his indulgence theses and his criticism of interest usury. Unfortunately, he missed attacking the military and the state authority. Instead, the whole Reformation movement was split in the armed resistance of Thomas Munzer in the Peasant Wars and the reactionary answer found by Martin Luther. We need an inner
synthesis. Then we would have Jesus again - healing people by questioning the outward systems of oppression. That would be the right sequence.

The financial crisis of the last years made clear that financial debts and moral culpability are very near each other. For example, the supposedly "lazy" Greeks are blamed for the rotten credits taken by the economic leaders and bank manager. The weak and powerless need debt relief. That is a deeply Biblical theme!

Debt relief is absolutely essential. Making persons morally liable who are materially in debt is a mistake. Condemning the helpless and broken is completely wrong. They urgently need help. Forgiveness of material debts and moral offenses is one and the same for Jesus. Human existence is crucial. For Walter Benjamin, human debt relief occurs in the religions through sacrificial acts. This idea is connected in Christianity with Jesus' crucifixion. But in reality, Jesus was crucified for rejecting the whole sacrificial praxis in the temple in the hands of the high-priests. Jesus taught a God who did not require sacrifice to forgive persons who did not need any preliminary works to be forgiven.

What is Jesus' alternative attitude?

Jesus contrasts trust to this praxis - to accept without preconditions, to hope and rely on forgiveness under all circumstances. Therefore, he starts an argument with the high-priests in the temple, the so-called temple cleansing. This is the reason for his recourse to the prophet Jeremiah. In the New Covenant, God forgives without any condition. The temple was destroyed under Nebukadnezar III, 587 B.V. There was no place to bring sacrifices any more. If all this is true, forgiveness is a basic condition for living rightly, not something we must negotiate on economic and moral planes. The whole money-economy first arose out of the sacrificial practices of the priests...Money without culpability is not imaginable; interest is only the expression for that. Breaking with all that would be the end of the capitalist money economy from the foundations of human existence.

You emphasize the necessity of a radical transformation of the state. The state should serve humanity and no longer capital. At the same time, you ask how persons are transformed and who should carry out the transformation of the state. Transformation in your sense and according to Erich Fromm means becoming free from the "fear of freedom." How can this happen?

The answer is rather clear when you cite Fromm or psychoanalysis generally. Overcoming fear implies a trust enabling a person to be consistent. This is a long process that cannot be commanded from the outside or gleened from demonstrations that cannot be organized in large groups. Transformation happens in individuals. The normal form of overcoming fear is collectivization, the surrender of personal freedom to the mass, the desire to be guided in an authoritarian way. That is the history in which we find ourselves. We have a state that promises us security inwardly and outwardly. We are being rearmed with gigantic sums of money. This does not promote security but creates an alibi for the hegemonial strategies of the US. In addition, the state today is no longer only a power machine with a military will of self-assertion for the economic control of jobs, resources, exploitation and sales routes worldwide. We face a regulation-. disciplinary-, and control-authority in the genes of every individual. Everything is stored so the market has access to the data.

Can we really only change this system from within in slow individual processes? Must not people be organized to stop the wheel of today's world order? Is there no collective that can be defined positively?

We can only change something when we as individuals stand up for our convictions in freedom. Otherwise, we threaten to become dependent on money, influence, media and the general public. This rearmament removes us from ourselves and is a real danger. It is discussed in the New Testament. In chapter 4 of Matthew, the devil offers Jesus rule over the whole world. He only needed to fall on his knees and worship Satan. One sells one's soul and instantly has an abundance of money and power.

Proletarians of the world, unite! This ancient dream is unlikely but urgent.

Whoever sees what helps people is obliged to publically support this transformation. Psychotherapists could say unanimously: we need a pedagogy that prevents a great number of people from becoming mentally ill wen their mental illnesses, addictions and personality weaknesses are exploited. What is first analyzed in individual conversations is announced to the public to change the political reality. Physicians act this way. How much does anxiety eat into our bodies? How do we deal with sick persons? How do we resist sickness and death by car accidents?

Here is an example. We have huge industrialized large-scale animal husbsandry whose slaughterhouses can only be kept going when animal physicians collaborate. What would happen if they revolted together?... Animal torture must be prevented...

The ancient dream, Proletarians of the world,m unite! is very unlikely but urgent. That the lower class itself will rebel is illusory. Rebelling from a position of weakness is hardly conceivable...

Believing in the message of life is the most important form of returning to humanliness and not believing in death any more. The basic feeling of worthlessness and frailty stands in the background of all anxieties. The natural philosophy worldview makes us competitors. Who is the best, the most diligent, the most productive and the most successful - in the struggle over life and death? Only the winners get everything. Second place is the same as destruction. In this merciless world, Jesus' message has saving significance. There is more to fear than death. That we don't live rightly should be feared. To live rightly, we need the confidence that we will be in God's hands and death will not be the last word about our life.

There is more to fear than death. That we don't live rightly out of pure fear should be dreaded.

Leaving this world means returning to God's hands and seeing everything with God's eyes. Resurrection is the key word of Easter. Those who killed Jesus only showed the power of organized sadism. What was said at the Sea of Genesareth is true. Happy are those who can still cry in this world. Happy are those who dare to be defenseless. Happy are those who know and recognize their poverty. Only they are capable of truth, peace and common interests. These words refute everything served up to us as true. The orientation of our life depends on this leap across seventy-thousand fathoms of water (cf. Soren Kierkegaard).



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