Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Collecting Manna: Johann Georg Hamann

Who? Centuries before "theological aesthetics" became an easy pathway to acceptance in top doctoral programs, the Lutherans were already there, and perhaps one of the great forgotten figures of 18th-century Lutheran philosophy is Johann Georg Hamann. In this lovely excerpt from the third volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord, the great Roman Catholic theologian recounts an exchange between the Pietist Hamann and his friend, Immanuel Kant, as an illustration of the centrality of the divine kenosis (God's self-emptying condescension - think Philippians 2) to Hamann's understanding of God's relationship to humankind:

If faith is to be possible, offence must always be possible. God has emptied himself so he could write a children's book for us, and Hamann is fascinated by the thought that his friend Professor Kant should be commissioned to write a physics book for children; he gives encouragement and instruction in two magnificent letters: 'To win oneself praise out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! - to share in this ambition is no mean task, and one must not begin by stealing brightly coloured feathers, but by divesting oneself of all superiority in age and wisdom of one's own free will and renouncing all vanity. A philosophical book for children would therefore have to appear as simple, foolish and tasteless as a book written by God for men...the greatest law involved in the method for teaching children therefore consists in condescending to their weakness. However, nobody can understand this practical principle or put it into practice unless, to use a vulgar expression, he is crazy about children and loves them without really knowing why.'

Thus, in the simpleness of childish stammering, the simplicity of God becomes visible and comprehensible, although of course, only for an understanding that through kenosis of itself in the simple act of faith, has itself become a suitable organ for the divine simplicity. (The Glory of the Lord, Vol. III: Studies in Theological Styles: Lay Styles. trans. Louth, Andrew, et al. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986, 253.)

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