‘Feeling’ and ‘knowing’ - David Jenkins’ Guide to the Debate about God

In 1966 David Jenkins (Bishop of Durham from 1984 to 1994 but in 1966 Fellow and Chaplain of The Queen’s College, Oxford) wrote a brief Guide to the Debate about God, exploring the historical perspective as well as appraising developments following the publication of Honest to God in 1963. I’ve just re-read Jenkins’ book. At the time of publication, it helped re-establish my conviction that the theology explored in Honest to God was congruent with my own direction of travel. Re-reading the Guide now has helped to illuminate some of my questions about what happened to the debate that opened up fifty-four years ago but was effectively abandoned by the 1990s.

Jenkins admits that there has always been a debate about God, not only about what He is like but about whether He exists at all. He wanted to explore whether theism really is on the way out and whether any hope of believing in God has to be abandoned as a result of the ‘new theology’. He writes from a personal belief that the God in whom Christians believe truly is God and the debate he explores is about God who must be entirely relevant to everything or not exist at all. I wholeheartedly agree with his conviction.

Jenkins’ second chapter, Science, Reason and Faith – sources of data for our attitude to the world is the most extensive and sets out the markers for his exploration. He chose to contrast the approach used in commending the Christian faith by Joseph Butler (who was Bishop of Durham when he died in 1752) and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).

Joseph Butler had gained fame for writing on morality and in defence of the Christian conception of the world. In May 1736 he published his Analogy of Religion. In it he wrote:

“It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted, by many persons, that Christianity is not so much a subject of enquiry, but that it is, now at length, discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treated it as if in the present age this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals, for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world.”

Reading this, I was reminded of the mirth and ridicule occasioned by That Was the Week That Was consumer’s guide to religion, broadcast by the BBC in 1963. It would seem that the furore created by the publication of Honest to God was predated in Butler’s time, two hundred and fifty years earlier.

Butler: the authority of reason and revelation

Butler’s argument appeals to authority from reason and revelation, directing the attention of reasonable men (sic) to reasonable arguments relating to the nature of the world, the nature of men, and the nature of men’s life in the world, to show that something may be discovered and known about the existence of God and even to some extent about his nature. Reason and Revelation are the two sources of data which can supply the actual content of Christian belief. God takes the initiative in making Himself known and this has resulted in His being known and understood in a way which even the deepest insight into natural data would not open up to men. The data so received and perceived is set down in the Bible. At this point, Jenkins comments that modern believers may already wish to throw away his book with the protest that this sort of thing does not touch the heart of modern Christian believing at all. He begin with Butler because he thinks that unless we unravel the historical developments of the argument a little, we will probably not be able to avoid being prematurely confused by popular and frequent allegations about what is (and presumably, isn’t) ‘thinkable’ about God.

Jenkins moves swiftly on to Schleiermacher, a German Protestant theologian who became Professor of Theology at the University of Berlin. In contrast to Butler, Schleiermacher didn’t believe that you could reasonably go from the givenness of scientific data to see that reason and revelation provide a basis for religious faith. If his belief is correct, says Jenkins, then the question at issue about God may well be seen as whether the data of faith identified by Butler based on the authority of reason and revelation are in any sense real data.

Schleiermacher was exploring questions and ideas which were taken up by John Robinson (developing the work of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). My own, puzzled, dissenting teenage mind had already begun to explore these questions and was developing ideas which I suspect the church would still prefer to leave unexamined.

Schleiermacher: The data of science and the data of morality

For Schleiermacher there are two distinct types of data, the data of science (knowing) and the data of morality (doing), and that is all there is. Religion must look elsewhere for the basis of its data about God and there must be some human activity other than those of knowing and doing which is the source of religion. This other activity, of the human spirit, was the activity of feeling. Schleiermacher describes this as ‘immediate self-consciousness’ to differentiate it from that sort of self-consciousness in which we are aware of ourselves as objects to ourselves. Immediate self-consciousness is not the accompaniment of feelings associated with a state like joy or sorrow but the state itself. They just are – feelings – direct, immediate, an independent activity of the human spirit, a wholly inward experience.

Butler proposes the ‘data’ of cognitive evidence (reason) and the witness of the Bible (revelation) as justifying the Christian conception of the world and of faith in God.  Schleiermacher locates the basis of religion and faith in pure subjectivity, in human feelings and experience in contrast to scientific data. Feelings, for Schleiermacher, did not mean any and all kinds of feeling but ‘immediate self-consciousness’. For him, this meant the direct experience of the state itself, wholly inward, not observed by the mind, let alone assessed and judged. The feeling or consciousness is direct and self-authenticating.

I understand Schleiermacher to be describing the state I experience when I am in my contemplative mode (mine, because I am unsure whether other people share the experience). It is a state of profound presence within my body, immersed in feelings and energies that are both deeply within me and beyond me in the infinite, unconditional, utterly gratuitous environment of creation.

Piety and the feeling of absolute dependence

Jenkins introduces two ideas with which I have great difficulty. He says that in Schleiermacher’s judgement, religion is best referred to by the term ‘piety’ which describes the attitude of the religious person to life and the world at large, and the essence of piety is the consciousness or feeling of being absolutely dependent. Jenkins latches on to this phrase. He thinks this ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ is rather near to what Paul Tillich calls ‘ultimate concern about the ground and meaning of our being”. I don’t think that’s what Tillich is attempting to describe at all. I have never had a feeling of being absolutely dependent on anything or anyone, let alone God, who always remains properly elusive. Any absolute dependency on God seems to me to be a false dependency on what therefore has to be a false experience of God.

In seeking to describe the ‘feeling of absolute dependence’, says Jenkins, Schleiermacher is making his contribution to the most difficult and most central question of the whole debate about God: What do you mean by ‘God’? Where do you get the experiential and experimental material which forms the basis, or is the nucleus, of your idea of God, your meaning for the word ‘God’, your ‘placing’ of God in relation to your overall understanding of and approach to the universe as a whole? What is that area of human experiencing in which awareness of God is to be found? Schleiermacher’s answer is that your feeling of absolute dependence is the basis.

The ‘existence’ of God

Jenkins comments that Schleiermacher was making an understandable but potentially disastrous mistake by fixing on this ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ as the necessary, sufficient and only possible basis for any real knowledge of God, a mistake which, he says, is still very much alive and productive of effects in the current debate and absolutely central to the debate. Jenkins now introduces another deeply problematical idea, that “If God exists and if He is God, then the only ‘thing’ which in the long run can establish that God exists is God Himself. How do we establish that any ‘thing’ is ‘there’ i.e. really exists? We are back to the question of data.” But this is a futile question. If God is God then does not ‘exist’ in any way that anything else in creation can be said to exist. The impossibility of God ‘existing’ as an object in creation is a most basic theological error, and one of the reasons why Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer and Robinson were exploring alternative linguistic possibilities in the mid-twentieth century.

Jenkins pursues his idea about data to prove God’s existence. He says it may or may not be the case that reasonable reflection on ‘the way things are’ produces some sort of impression that in some sense or other there ‘is’ ‘More than’ just thing-like things. He concludes that the ‘More than’ cannot be established as existing – and leaps from that conclusion to ask what the difference is between that and saying that God does not, in the ordinary sense of the word, exist. But God indeed does not ‘exist’.

Let’s pursue Jenkins’ exploration further. “If God exists and if He is God, then the only ‘thing’ which can establish that God exists is God Himself.” Through liberal use of inverted commas, Jenkins explores the challenge presented by the impossibility of establishing the ‘More than’ experience of God as real and authentic. He concludes that with so many inverted commas in use, there are grounds for doubting whether God can properly be said to exist. Even then, Jenkins doesn’t give up because he wants to convince himself (and presumably us) that God in some way does exist because only a God that ‘exists’  can reveal God’s self to us, which is what God has done in Jesus and in the Biblical record, to Jenkins’ satisfaction. He’s on his way to becoming a bishop, so perhaps he has to think like this.

Now for me, to accept that God cannot be proved to ‘exist’ is a very healthy and very traditional conclusion to have reached (following the path of the mystics and Desert Fathers and Mothers and apophatic theologians and the Via Negativa). Tradition says it is indeed impossible to ‘prove’ that God exists. That is why we live by faith and why the debate about God erupted in the sixties, because people had either decided the kind of God believed in by the church couldn’t exist, or were unaware in their minds that such a challenge was traditional, orthodox and acceptable. I suspect that this is still a critical, unexplored dilemma for many in every congregation (and if not in every congregation, then in the College and House of Bishops and among the members of General Synod).

God does not ‘exist’ as John Caputo says repeatedly – if God does anything God ‘insists’. Process theologians might describe faith as that which we encounter in the process of living and experiencing. To ‘have’ faith is to make a decision to live ‘as if’ God exists, “maintaining a living knowledge of God which has in it the essential element of self-authenticating directness [by facing] the questions with directness and openness in order that the question God is posing is encountered, so that God is looked for to establish himself.” Says Jenkins, “the real question to which you have to address yourself is not so much ‘How do you know there is a God?’ but rather ‘What do you know when you are knowing God?’ or ‘What is it to know God?’ I quibble with his use of language. I think to conceive of the challenge as ‘knowing’ God is to remain at the level of facts, dogma, and intellectual belief - and a very traditional but less and less tenable construct of faith.

The fault line

I think the interface between experiential ‘knowledge’ of God and empirical data about God, which is what the Bible and Jesus are traditionally understood to represent is the key fault line explored in Honest to God, a fault line which I have been attempting to navigate ever since my mid-teens. It is the fault line that divides those who believe that the Bible and Jesus provide clear teaching about God (and the place of women and LGBTI people in church and society) from people like me. The fault line is often located in the wrong place. It is not between ‘revisionists’ and ‘traditionalist orthodox’ types, let alone between evangelicals and liberals or radicals, but between those who admit experience and feelings to their exploration of God and those who define their faith solely in terms of dogma and belief. We are not acknowledging, let alone exploring, this division in the church, being forced instead to spend years arguing about dramatically conflicting understandings of gender and sexuality and what God will (or will not) ‘tolerate’ in ‘His’ creation.

Schleiermacher’s line of approach assumes that such God-consciousness or ‘feeling for God’ is, as a matter of fact, a universal feature of any consciousness that can properly be called human. This awareness, once kindled, reflects back on the whole of our lives and in some very powerful and decisively valuable way transfuses and transforms them. So an immediate awareness which underlies all experience is an awareness of God. This awareness has the value-effect of unifying and fulfilling, “found in the last existential analysis just to be there in one’s awareness. Comments Jenkins, this appeal to the religious experience of the feeling of absolute dependence on faith in God can only work if everyone as a matter of fact can be brought to an awareness of this feeling in themselves, and if this feeling does always have built into it a unifying sense of supreme value. Even if this were so, why should we assume that this is awareness of God?

Schleiermacher, says Jenkins, abandons traditional natural theology for a theology of experienced feeling which must equally be described as natural but which is wholly inward, subjective and arising from a particular form of self-awareness. There is a grave danger of this being the beginning of the end of Theism (a warning he repeats several times in the book).

Jesus exemplifies God-consciousness

For Schleiermacher, Jesus Christ is the supreme example of that immediate God-consciousness which he holds to be the very essence and basis of religion. Jesus in some way overcomes the sin which keeps people from enjoying and responding to the fullness of God-consciousness in themselves and is thus in some way the source of the evocation of the perfecting of God-consciousness in others.

Jenkins says that the terms chosen as descriptive of Jesus Christ by Bultmann (the occasion of authentic existence), Tillich (the New Being), and Robinson (the Man for Others), are determined by the way in which people do and must think today as distinct from the mythical (and untenable) terms of the Bible or the metaphysical (and untenable) terms of the Christian tradition. We must understand Jesus Christ in terms that are wholly congruous with the current authoritative understanding of the world. The result is to put to an end the notion of Revelation. The only possible procedure is to begin from the question about Jesus - and there will still be questions as to how Jesus is, and is known to be, central and crucial to the question of God.

The twentieth century debate about God turns on the question of data and the appeal to experience rather than on the citation of authorities which are above the debate, whether they are authorities of reason or of revelation. This is a debate which ought to be thoroughly congenial to a believer in the God portrayed in the Bible, for this God is nothing if not involved in the affairs of His world and His people, and His method of revelation might well be crudely described as that of ‘getting Himself experienced’.

Jenkins thinks Schleiermacher has logically put God at the mercy of man by positing that we can only ‘feel’ about God – and how far is ‘feeling’ about anything a genuine source of information? But God does indeed put himself at the mercy of human beings – and yet somehow does not leave Himself without witnesses. How, if God does this, can we possibly know or even guess that he does it? The scales seem loaded against God. Looking ahead to his final witness, Jenkins says Bonhoeffer’s answer is that Jesus makes it clear.

The dichotomy of evidence and experience

Perhaps the dichotomy between the need of some to live with an ‘evidence-based’ faith and others to live with an experiential, emotional, contemplative, apophatic faith is one that will never be resolved. The preference of human personality types to be drawn in one direction or the other is inevitable. But the debate about God of the nineteen sixties opened up the possibility for people with my kind of personality to let go of the guilt felt at not believing in the approved way. This freed me to deepen my contemplative, emotional, experiential faith. Lacking the capacity to explore further the debate about God, the Church of England fell hostage to the conflicts about gender and, primarily, sexuality, that erupted at the end of the last decade of the twentieth century. The conflicted process inaugurated by the House of Bishops which will result in a new teaching document on human sexuality shows that the bishops are still allowing themselves to be held hostage.

Schleiermacher identified the possibility that God can be encountered in the state of ‘immediate self-consciousness’, when emotions and a sense of presence and energy and unconditional love can flow, often with an intensity that I interpret as ‘God’, the divine, holy, sacred, creative, utterly other. This awareness of God is not known through knowledge and empirical data because I don’t believe God can be ‘known’ this way. I have returned to David Jenkins’ Guide to the Debate about God this week because he identifies core issues of faith and the ‘experience’ of God with which I have been engaging for over five decades and which I believe are now essential for the Church of England to re-engage with if it is ever to recapture people’s imagination and open hearts and minds to the experience of unconditional love.