Eccentric Christianity: Part 2, The Eccentric God, Transcendence and the Prophetic Imagination

When Karl Barth published the second edition of his famous commentary on Romans in 1922 it is said to have landed "like a bombshell on the theologians' playground." Why? Because Barth proclaimed the radical transcendence of God. God was "wholly Other."

The observation I'd like to make is how eccentricity is a great metaphor to describe the Otherness and transcendence of God. The eccentric God is always experienced as "outside" the system and status quo. God approaches us from "the outside" of our current arrangements and understandings. Consequently, when it comes to God the community of faith has to adopt a receptive posture, waiting upon the initiative of God. And while all this is often described with the language of "transcendence"--using a higher vs. lower metaphor--it can also be described by the eccentric metaphor, an inside vs. outside distinction.

Specifically, God is Other but the eccentric metaphor sees God as less "above" us than "outside" us, less "over" us than unable to be "captured" by us. The eccentric God cannot be "bounded," "encircled" or "delimited" by human experience, social arrangements, systems, or dogmas. Thus, I think eccentricity is a helpful metaphor for those who want to speak of the transcendence of God but who also want to locate that Otherness immanently rather than hierarchically.

Consequently, because of its ability to speak of God's Otherness immanently rather than hierarchically--rather than God existing "high above" us we speak of how God cannot be "captured" or "bounded" by the status quo--I think progressive theology would be attracted to the metaphor of eccentricity in speaking about God's transcendence.

But why is it important to preserve the Otherness of God?

Given my reference to Karl Barth, his story in relation to Nazi Germany is a good place to start in on an answer.

The reason why Barth's commentary on Romans was a "bombshell" was that it attacked an impulse within liberal German theology that was locating and even reducing God to human experience. In many ways that impulse within liberal theology is, in my opinion, an extraordinarily healthy move. Personally, I think it's a very biblical move. "God is love" being the best summary of this theological  inclination. To say nothing of the Incarnation and texts like Mathew 25.

And yet, this is a very fragile business and it rests upon a critical assumption, an assumption that is the great weakness of liberal, humanistic and progressive theology. Specifically, identifying God with human concerns and affairs assumes that human experience and social life will tend toward the virtuous, that people are naturally good and loving. When liberal theologians deconstruct the transcendent God to identify God with love the assumption at work is that human "love" will naturally and inevitably--two huge, huge assumptions!--tend toward the light.

Simplistically, the vision behind liberal theology is a sort of moral optimism and utopianism: Identify God with what humans think is loving and good and trust people to get those things right because people are awesome.

The trouble with this, obviously, is that there is a lot of darkness in humanity. In theological terms, the problem with progressive and liberal theology is that it lacks a robust theology of sin. Consequently, when humans are left to define for themselves what is right, just or loving things can get twisted pretty quickly. When God is defined immanently God just is whatever humans say God is. And if humans are pulled into darkness "God" is also pulled into darkness. God is used, in fact, to justify the darkness.

This was Barth's point about liberal theology and how it enabled the rise of Nazism. Specifically, by so closely aligning the voice of God with the voice of human experience liberal theology lacked the prophetic resources to critique human experience when the human experience in Germany turned toward Nazism. The relationship between human experience and the divine had grown too intimate, chummy and cozy. Thus, the German church was not equipped to speak a prophetic Nein! to Hitler. Some did--Barth, Bonhoeffer, the White Rose, the Confessing Church--but by and large the German church folded in the face of evil. There were not enough prophets in the land. There were not enough people who saw daylight between God and the swastika.

This is a story that has been told before. But to be honest, I think liberal theology gets thrown under the bus a bit too quickly in this telling. Because its not like conservatives have a great track record on this score. For example, in America today it is the religious conservatives who struggle seeing daylight between God and the American flag or God and the free market.

Psychologically speaking, I think everyone--conservative and liberal theologians, creedally orthodox and heterodox theologians--is tempted to align the voice of God with their own voice.

To be quite candid, I don't think Trinitarian theology protects you from wickedness. Trintiarian theology isn't a moral talisman that you can wave to ward off the devil. Nor do I think, to be fair, that process theology or liberation theology is a moral talisman that you can wave to ward off the devil.

The only thing that reliably wards off the devil is the cross, kenosis and loving self-giving for both friends and enemies. The cross is the only protection from wickedness and evil in the world. 

So there is this problem that we all face, liberal and conservative alike. There is a chronic and constant psychological tendency to see God as aligned and identified with our group, our interests, our values, our nation, our way of life, our choices, our worldview, our economy, our church, our theology and our PhD dissertation.

This is why we need the eccentric God, a God that cannot be bounded, encircled or delimited to our group, our interests, our values, our nation, our way of life, our choices, our worldview, our economy, our church, or our theology. God is "outside" all these mental, social, economic and political containers.

Phrased another way, the eccentric God is free.

The wholly Other--the eccentric God--cannot be captured, contained, circumscribed, co-opted, cordoned off, chained up, corralled or cooped up.

Alliteration, baby!

And because of this there is daylight between human experience and God which creates the imaginative capacity to envision God speaking a No! against us. Walter Brueggemann calls this capacity the prophetic imagination. I talk about this in the last chapter in The Slavery of Death.

Let's have Abraham Heschel sum it up:
[T]here must be a counterpoint to the immense power of man to destroy, there must be a Voice that says no to man, a voice not vague, faint and inward, like qualms of conscience, but equal in spiritual might to man's power to destroy.
There must be a Voice that says No to humanity, a Voice equal in spiritual might to our power to destroy.

This is the reason we need the eccentric God.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

9 thoughts on “Eccentric Christianity: Part 2, The Eccentric God, Transcendence and the Prophetic Imagination”

  1. Blogs with racing you make your blog a candidate to win the promotional prizes. With the support of our sponsors from blogs are organizing events within the first round of our competition. Add your blog and get involved. You refer to your blog. You can find detail information on our website. Thank you for your interested-in.

    Cell: +441269200450

  2. 'Identify God with what humans think is loving and good and trust people to get those things right because people are awesome.'

    I don't know if you have seen The Lego Movie yet, but as soon as I read this I started singing 'Everything is Awesome!!" in my head. ;p

  3. Thank you for your Heschel quote. A giant in heart, soul and mind. I wish more Christians read him. There is another thought by him that I believe fits your post:

    "The prophet speaks to the moral state of a people. Few are guilty, but all are responsible".

  4. Let God be God and every person a liar! Wonderful insights about the weakness of both liberals And conservatives. Humble our hearts, O Lord, to see ourselves as we really axknowledge Your awsome Otherness!

  5. Richard, I think you would like the work of Christos Yannaras. I have read "The Freedom of Morality" and "Elements of Faith" and most of "On the Absence and Unknowability of God" (a comparison of Dionysius the Aeropagite with Heidegger). "Freedom" really helped me understand the unboundedness of God, and much else. "Elements" is as concise a "systematic theology" as can be had outside the Orthodox Liturgy and prayer services, but more "academic" than a basic introduction. Yannaras is a philosopher who can actually integrate his philosophy into O. theology, and write readably about it.


  6. Since Google is only giving me this site, can you share where that Heschel quote comes from?

  7. God's truth came through his Son Christ Jesus our Lord

Leave a Reply