Eberhard Jüngel on Heidegger, Barth, and Other Teachers Who Shaped Him

Eberhard Jüngel. Image source: bilder.bild.de

Eberhard Jüngel is another one of those theologians whose works have long been on my “to read” list, but I haven’t gotten around to just yet (that list does not seem to be getting any smaller, because I keep adding new names to it!). I was pleased to be introduced to him via his contribution to How I Have Changed (edited by Jürgen Moltmann). Below are a couple paragraphs where Jüngel reflects on the teachers who shaped him, including Bultmann, Heidegger, and Barth. Heiddeger once told Jüngel that God is much worth thinking about but that language fails us. In contrast, Barth’s Church Dogmatics (CD) manages to use human language to talk about God for some 8000+ pages, about which Jüngel is elsewhere famously quoted as saying “the truth can’t be as long as that”. Here Jüngel speaks with deep appreciation of what he learned from CD when he returned to it years after his early encounters with Barth. By engaging with CD, “one could learn that a concentration on the truth attested in the Bible is the best presupposition for giving the present world its spiritual and worldly due and keeping faith with the earth for the sake of heaven.”

Now a few remarks on the teachers who shaped me. There was a philosopher who instructed me in logis and logistics, Gerhard Stammler. There was my New Testament teacher and doctoral supervisor, Ernst Fuchs, who brought me and Rudolf Bultmann together and stimulated me to study Heidegger. In a semester spend ‘illegally’ outside East Germany, commuting between Zurich, Basel and Freiburg, I then heard Heidegger himself lecturing in Freiburg. At that time he was ‘on the way to language’. Towards the end of his life I visited him once again and at the end of a long conversation asked him quite openly whether the condition of thought was not that of being ‘on the way to God’. Heidegger replied, ‘God – that is what is most worth thinking about. But here language fails….’ Now I certainly didn’t have this impression myself. At that time Gerhard Ebeling had introduced me to the thought of Luther, while at Basel Karl Barth made me familiar with his own thought. And Luther’s concern for a new mode of theological language, and also Barth’s theology, which flowed broadly from there and suffered more from an excess of argumentation, did not exactly give the impression of a language which was failing. At first Barth regarded me as a kind of spy from the Bultmann school and for weeks viewed me with undisguised scepticism. But when in an unforgettable session of his small seminar I not only dared passionately to refute his criticism of Bultmann with the audacity of youth but at the same time interpreted a section from Barth’s anthroplogy to his satisfaction, I was invited to another dispute in the late evening over a bottle of wine. And a few days later the whole of the Church Dogmatics appeared on the doorstep of my student lodging – with the dedication ‘For Eberhard Jüngel on the way in God’s beloved East Zone’.
There, in the German Democratic Republic, some years later, when I now had to give lectures on dogmatics myself and was looking round for helpful stimulation, I once again steeped myself in this magum opus of my great teacher. And lo and behold, here within a theological discussion which was becoming increasingly short of breath, I discovered the long breath of a thought which expected something. Barth’s theology was autochthonous. From it one could learn that a concentration on the truth attested in the Bible is the best presupposition for giving the present world its spiritual and worldly due and keeping faith with the earth for the sake of heaven. A new involvement in the tradition opened up for me, which was one neither of disrespectful criticism nor of uncritical respect. And as a result of this I also developed an ecumenical breadth without which I cannot imagine any future theology. Above all, however, I was stimulated to think of God in terms of the event of his revelation, i.e. the event of his coming into the world, and thus of a God who leads us ever more deeply into the world – a God to whom nothing human is alien and who has come closer to humankind in the person of Jesus than humankind can get to itself.
How I Have Changed, p. 9-10

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