The Maranatha Coastline: My Tribute to Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

pdf_image-000Wolfhart Pannenberg has passed away.  It is strangely fitting that he should do so the last semester of my artificially long stay in Seminary, for he was the original reason I switched to Biblical and Theological studies in my undergrad.

As an Evangelical (loosely considered), my interest in Pannenberg is perhaps not unusual, for he is frequently added piecemeal upon the bricolage of scholars arguing for the historical demonstrability of the resurrection.  In fact one of Pannenberg’s students, the philosopher William Lane Craig, studied under him for precisely this reason.  This zeal for the resurrection’s (demonstrable) historicity has been passed on to one of Craig’s friends and students, Michael Licona, who wrote a 718 page work on the Resurrection rivaling the length N.T. Wright’s monster, The Resurrection of the Son of God (who likewise, though somewhat too dismissively, deals with Pannenberg).

Of course this is not the only reason.  Stanley Grenz and Millard Erikson are perhaps the two most famous Evangelical names associated with Pannenberg, as both studied under him at Munich (his students generally had a much happier relation to Pannenberg than Pannenberg had with one of his former teachers Karl Barth: “I learned that . . . Barth did not like criticisms from his students,” as he put it). This undoubtedly had more to do with Pannenberg’s cool and uncompromising resistance to anything he equated with “fideism,” than Barth, who treated others quite well (Eberhart Jüngel recalls that even though he was initially considered a “Bultmannian interloper” in Barth’s seminars, Barth was quite warm with him)  And though both can be considered to follow Pannenberg’s specific theology only loosely (especially in Erikson’s case) they both, for their part, attempt to embody Pannenberg’s exhaustive approach to research.   Grenz in particular is a wonderful example of Pannenberg’s interdisciplinary spirit, even if Grenz’ constructive theology strays from its rigor.  And the encyclopedic nature of Pannenberg’s learning is perhaps on display in another of Pannenberg’s students, Roger Olson’s recent textbook on Modern theology, which is an update on both his and Stan Grenz’ classic, 20th Century Theology.

As Phillip Clayton in his obituary for his doktorvater noted, Pannenberg had utterly ridiculous standards for himself: when he was writing his Anthropology in Theological Perspective he was reading 1000 pages a day!  This number is audacious, yet in another sense when Pannenberg reaches nearly 1100 footnotes in a single chapter of the third volume of his Systematic Theology it is less difficult to believe.  This voracious appetite for reading is expressed in an anecdote in his Metaphysics and the Idea of God, where Pannenberg noted his great embarrassment arriving  as a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago, because he had only vaguely heard of Alfred North Whitehead and Process Philosophy, abuzz in the States at the time but which had had very little impact in Europe.  He spent the next semester reading everything Whitehead, Hartshorne, and others like John Cobb jr. had written to ameliorate this. “I saw that Pannenberg was able to encompass the entire range of knowledge within his own mind,” said John Cobb jr. once, “realizing that I could never match this achievement, I decided it would take a lifetime of working with my doctoral students to cover as many topics.”

What is perhaps more unusual is the emotional and spiritual comfort Pannenberg’s theology gave in my own idiosyncratic experience.  Clayton in his eulogy (linked above) rightly reminds us not to forget that however rigorous and rational Pannenberg’s theology may have been, his conversion came from what only can be described as a mystical experience:

“On January 6, 1945, on my way home from music lessons, a long walk from one town to another, I had a visionary experience of a great light not only surrounding me, but absorbing me for an indefinite time. I did not hear any words, but it was a metaphysical awakening that prompted me to search for its meaning regarding my life during the following years.”

This did not lead him immediately, or even inexorably into Christianity.  Indeed, thinking it primarily a work on music as a teen Pannenberg picked up Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, a book that initially set him on a much different path than following the crucified God.  But the conversion experience abided, and I would argue (perhaps a bit loosely) that it echoes in the whole of Pannenberg’s works, from his concept of ecstasis to the part/whole relation, to the Trinity, and the totality of history.

David Tracy once noted that there are at least two ways to describe the corpus of great thinkers.  Some, like Karl Barth, are like great cities, with many different back alleys, avenues, and coffee shops, so that each visit, even to seasoned travelers, offers something new, something quaint, something unexpected.  Other great thinkers like Pannenberg are like mountains to climb; the journey is difficult but there is a single destination, with a great vista to perch upon and survey the stretch of the world that now lay unobscured (however distant).  These analogies of course, break down at certain points.  Barth may be city-like but not all towers in Barthlandia are of the same elevation or centrality; and like many mountains there can be different summits, or even different ways to reach the same destination.  I make no rigorous claims here, but I humbly suggest Pannenberg’s conversion experience is one way to summit the mountain.

Dostoyevsky once wrote that he was haunted by God.  In my moments of self-conscious spirituality I think this somewhat dark and elusive phrase is the only one that will do: God haunts me; like a shadow that has turned a corner, or a story that lingers only ever on the edges of words.  As a Christian I acknowledge that to know who God is one looks to Christ (“there is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ,” as Barth puts it) but Christ himself often speaks in riddles, evades those who attempt to grasp him much as he slips from the grasp even of those who would forcibly make him king.  Faces, as often as darkness, represent enigmas rather than solutions; solutions as enigmas.

All of this will sound like a strange tongue to those versed in Pannenberg’s idiom; the structure of Pannenberg’s work does not seem very open to mysticism (indeed in his Systematic Theology vol.1 he gets downright cold toward it, saying prior content in the concept “God” dictates the experience, rather than vice-versa, the private experience revealing God).  Indeed, such is the intricately structured whole of Pannenberg’s work even over the course of his lifetime, many commentators like Colin Gunton (and to a lesser extent Eberhard Jüngel’s early comments on Pannenberg in God as the Mystery of the World) miss that the entirety of Pannenberg’s major works are themselves structured with an eye toward their completion in his Systematic Theology.  Much of this is excused, of course, by these comments coming out before the Systematics, yet their claims linger in many textbook examinations of Pannenberg’s thought.

Hence when Gunton chastises Pannenberg’s “from below” Christology in his own work on the same topic, Yesterday and Today, he misses that the “from below” moment is only provisional, and has no unilateral control on the “from above” moment but is sublated and transformed by it; and the same can be said for Jüngel’s criticism that Pannenberg begins his theological topics remoto Christo, that is, on an apparently philosophical basis apart from distinctively Christological categories.  These “moments” in Pannenberg’s works (such as Jesus: God and Man, or Theology and the Philosophy of Science, and Anthropology in Theological Perspective) cannot be frozen in time as fully discrete statements of Pannenberg’s position, but all are doing work to later expose their latently theological dimensions in the Systematic Theology (I have written at length about this elsewhere).

Such rigor seems to douse any mystic flame; this seems far and away from Pannenberg’s experience of “great light,” (to which, we might add, he never refers to in his theological works).  There are glimmers of a sort of mystical or “transcendental” component, however.  Rich indeed are his suggestions in What is Man and its fuller elaboration in Anthropology that human individuals by their very nature have been “irreversibly confronted by the experience that [they] are able to always ask beyond every horizon that opens to [them].”  Details will be avoided here, but this ecstatic character of existence, the fact that our very orientation to the things of the world relies on and presupposes an orientation to a prior infinity that “places” every finite thing like a horizon frames the sky (the “religious thematic” where finite objects gain any meaning at all only from “the presupposition of an infinite backdrop from which they are ‘carved out'”) does not serve as a “proof” of God in the traditional sense, but “neither do [these claims of exocentricity and basic trust, etc…] inhabit a realm of purely imaginary possibilities, since they are concerned with the implications of a fundamental phenomenon in human behavior.  They show that the theme of ‘God’ is inseperable from the living of human life.”

The living of life.  And here my elliptical tribute gains its bearing.  I am haunted by God.  The ambiguity: I am haunted by something, but only ever in hints and whispers.  In fact in a real sense my theological life seemed to begin when my ordinary life stopped.  If I may be forgiven an intensely personal interjection into this tribute, at the beginning of my undergrad doing theology, I had been broken down in ways I only now barely begin to understand, when my wife left me for someone else after an equally tumultuous and heartbreaking last year of our marriage.  But where she found comfort in another, I didn’t know much else but to drown myself in a flood of words, hoping, perhaps, to find some to keep for myself.

Pannenberg was perhaps the last place I should have been looking;  God knows his prose is as dry as a desert, and his sentences are about as vast as one.  But when my life was disintegrating around me Pannenberg gestured to the whole that was Christ.  In the introduction to the Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann recounted Jon Sobrino’s story, reported to Moltmann in a letter that after a Jesuit priest had been murdered in Latin America, when the killers were dragging some of the other victim’s bodies back into the building, they knocked into one of the bookcases there. In doing so, a copy of the Crucified God fell, and became stained with martyr’s blood.  I can offer nothing so poignant and dramatic as that to Pannenberg. It is perhaps the oddest and highest personal compliment Pannenberg could receive from myself, however, that in the sad and awkward days after I left the courthouse, where the only legally recognized sound of heartbreak is the click-thump of a notary stamp, I clutched Jesus: God and Man in my hands (and, incidentally, the book of another theologian close to Pannenberg, the second volume of Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology) and then immediately drove to the coast and devoured both.

I was confronted in the face of Christ, says Pannenberg, by that which my soul longed for in moans too deep for words; by that orientation beyond all things in the world that nonetheless made the world appear; by the end of history Who entered into history to make it whole. When my soul wished it could pull the very beauty out of the Oregon coastline and bathe in it like it was something tangible, this was a proleptic hint of Christ “bringing all things into himself” (Eph. 1:10).  “The infinite is not that which stands opposed to the finite…the infinite is only truly infinite when it is not thought of as merely the opposite of the finite, for otherwise it would be seen as something only in relation to something else, and therefore finite … strictly speaking God is infinite in his holiness, which stands opposed to the profane, penetrates it, and makes it holy.”

I had no experience of light in those moments like Pannenberg did as a child.  In fact I did little but curse God, futilely, madly waving pieces of my broken heart about like so many little blades.  And when I got no response except a few scattering gulls, I cursed all the more.  But, little by little as the years have crept by, I realize that in part Pannenberg gave me the words to understand now what I could not then.  For in that moment cursing God on the coastline, metaphysics aside, I felt the full weight of Pannenberg’s words “that in a restricted but important sense, God does not yet exist.”  When I did not know what to pray, my angry shouts at the coastline were secretly all Maranathas.

Come, Lord.  


Wolfhart Pannenberg has passed away, into the future that is God.  Into eternity.

In a no way limited, but completely important sense, Pannenberg now exists.

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