Reclaiming Existential Theology: Part 5, More Than Swallowing Horse Pills

As I hinted in the last post, the reason I think we should revisit and recover existential theology is that I think existential theology can be a resource for evangelism in an increasingly post-Christian culture. But let me be clear about what I am saying and what I am not saying. 

Here's what I am not saying. I'm not saying we reclaim the original goals of existential theology, replacing ontological beliefs about God with experiential substitutes. For example, I don't want to replace the resurrection of Jesus with a warm glow in your heart. Nor do I want to replace the existence of God for our search for meaning in life. I don't want to demythologize all the supernatural stuff in the Bible.

And yet, as I shared in the last post, existential theology has done a good job of mapping the existential and experiential terrain of human experience as it relates to God. Again, existentialism points to our Augustinian restlessness. You can't live without God and not have that impact you in some existential way. We have a natural desire for a supernatural end, and that desire will always be left existentially unfulfilled until it finds rest in God. Existential theology does a great job at describing and evoking both this desire and its lack of fulfillment. 

What I'm suggesting here is this: Existential theology is a great tool, perhaps the best tool we have right now, to begin a conversation about God in an increasingly post-Christian culture. As doubt and disenchantment grow, direct talk about God will be a leap too far from many. Too religious. Consequently, from the perspective of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, we need to start conversations about God with human experience. Bald appeals to Scripture or Tradition will be too much and too implausible for our post-Christian neighbors. But the goal here, in starting with Experience, isn't to replace Scripture with Experience, but to use Experience as a pathway toward Scripture.

This is the argument Bonhoeffer made about Barth in his letters and papers from prison. Recall, Barth rejected existential theology and eradicated any element of human experience from the conversation about God. Talk of God was 100% Scripture and Tradition, fiats from the Wholly Other God. And while Divine Fiats were helpful in speaking a prophetic word against Hitler, Bonhoeffer began to worry that this approach would struggle in a "world come of age," our increasingly post-Christian culture. As Bonhoeffer described it, when you only use Scripture and Tradition to talk about God evangelism becomes a "lump it or leave it" proposition. Here's "the Truth" and you have to force it down, swallowing it like a horse pill. Here's Creedal Orthodoxy, open and up and take your medicine. Bonhoeffer called Barth's "lump it or leave it," swallow-the-pill approach "positivistic," because the truths of Christianity were being stripped of any and all plausibility structures, any resonances with human experience, and thereby divorced from our Augustinian restlessness.

Reclaiming existential theology can help us here. By taking human experience seriously, existential theology helps us make connections between our existential experiences and the ontological claims of faith. We aren't forcing horse pills down people's throats like Barth. We are, rather, drawing attention to our fevers and ailments to prompt a visit to the doctor and the seeking of a prescription. 

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