Toward the Heart of the Matter

by Eberhard Jungel

Eberhard Jungel is professor of systematic theology and philosophjy at the University of Tubingen.

Toward the Heart of the Matter was translated by Paul E. Capetz, July 15, 1990. This article is one in a series from the Christian Century magazine: "How My Mind Has Changed." Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It remains an urgent task to travel the road toward a theology of the religions — which would have to include atheism among its concerns — in such a way that the christological particula exclusiva would not be misused in order to make a claim for the absoluteness of Christianity.

Have I changed? I hope so. Changelessness (immutabilitas) would not be a compliment even for God, and the old metaphysics was badly advised when it thought it had to pay this compliment to the divine being. No historical being -- and the God who has come into the world in Jesus of Nazareth has, no less than a human creature, a history -- can become himself or herself without changing. The less fundamental question remains, therefore, How have I changed? On that score good friends and perhaps even candid opponents could give a more precise account than I. After all, who knows him- or herself? I know myself rather poorly, and I of all people am especially eager to learn exactly -- at least on that good old Judgment Day -- "how my mind has changed."

There is, however, a series of unforgettable situations, encounters and experiences that has perceptibly influenced and molded me and without which -- if I am not completely deceived -- I would not be the person I am today. I shall restrict myself here to my "theological existence." It is, to be sure, virtually identical with my daily life. But even in the life of a theologian there is more than what is of public interest. For example, that I have become over the course of time a more or less adequate cook has an explicitly political cause. That fact, however, is unlikely to interest even my guests, provided they don't have to suffer any bad results of my culinary skills. The view, which is gaining more and more currency even in Europe, that everything in the life of a human being is of general interest and, for that reason, is open to public reporting I take to be a dangerous misperception (presumably originating in Calvinism) of the personal dignity of the human being, who is more than what deserves to be published about him or her. Individuum est ineffabile. Thank God.

The event or, more exactly, the chain of events which has moved me more than anything else recently is the collapse of "realized socialism" in the countries of the former East bloc, including my own homeland. I happened to be in the U.S. (for the first time, by the way) when the great 1989 demonstrations in Leipzig took place which finally brought about that "gentle revolution," as a consequence of which the partition of Germany has now come to an end. The careful reporting of the exciting events in distant Europe by the American media and the lively interest of my colleagues there certainly contributed to the fact that, in the middle of Texas and then in Chicago and New York, the time of the building of the Berlin Wall and the even more distant time of my youth in Magdeburg began to speak to me in a new way. I became aware how deeply experiences long ago had left their mark upon me. And so, considerably more than is usually the case in this series, I must return to my beginnings as I attempt to review my theological existence in its identity and in its changes.

In my parental home religion was not discussed, and my desire to study theology met with the concerned astonishment of my mother and the resolute refusal of my father. To be sure, my mother had taught her children to pray, but she feared that the choice of the pastoral vocation would not exactly open up bright prospects for the future in the socialist society of the German Democratic Republic. We lived in Magdeburg on the Elbe, which even though it was conquered by the American troops in 1945 was handed over to the Red Army camped on the other side of the river. And my father had nothing but ridicule for the Christian faith. That I nevertheless held fast to my intention and finally even realized it certainly cannot be explained merely as the adolescent rebellion of a son against his father's authority.

There was, however, one experience that affected me even more deeply than had my experiences at home, and which was decisive for my choice. It continues to shape me even now. That was the discovery of the church as the one place within a Stalinist society where one could speak the truth without being penalized. What a liberating experience in the face of the ideological-political pressure that dominated in school! Friends were arrested, I myself was interrogated more than once -- only because we dared to say what we thought. Immediately before the Workers' Revolt in 1953 I was denounced, together with other young Christians, as an "enemy of the republic" and expelled from school before a full assembly of teachers and students expressly convened on the day before the university entrance exams. Our fellow students were ordered to break off all contact with us. As I left the hall named after the Humboldt brothers -- but dominated by a completely different spirit! -- the upright among my teachers turned away in helpless silence. It was a scene pregnant with symbolism, in which the truth of the Ciceronian maxim (a maxim that had been pounded into us by the very same teachers) suddenly dawned on me: cum tacent, damant ("when they are silent they cry loudest"). In the Christian church, however, one was free to break through the silence and the pressure to lie that was growing stronger all the time. Here one dared to bear witness to the truth of the gospel in such a way that its liberating power could also be experienced in very worldly, very political terms.

If one begins to analyze why "realized socialism" finally failed -- now that the entire system has collapsed like a house of cards -- one should seek the decisive cause in its objective untruthfulness. Although far from espousing antisocialism in principle, I nevertheless cannot shut my eyes to the untruthful way in which the socialist ideals were implemented by a kind of power politics. One can argue about the ideals of socialism. But that also entails the possibility of arguing against them. And precisely this was not allowed.

Hand in hand with the ideological control of thought was a corresponding distrust of every deviation from Marxist dogma and its official interpretation by the Central Committee of the party: a total distrust that necessarily brought about the totalitarian surveillance state. Its hallmark did not consist chiefly in the fact that the dominant political class deceived itself along with the oppressed citizens. Rather, the monopoly on truth claimed by the Communist Party and implemented by governmental force was directed against truth itself, as is every claim to truth implemented by violence. It produced a perversion of thinking to which even the perpetrators had to fall victim. The pressure to deceive oneself along with the public dominated all aspects of the society, even economic decisions. Therefore, it must have been tantamount to a revolution when Mikhail Gorbachev began to demand glasnost. His courage to look reality in the face and to break the ideological taboos remains an act of political greatness, even if -- God forbid -- his politics of perestroika should, in the final analysis, fail.

What does all that have to do with my theological thinking? At least this much is clear: on the basis of these experiences in which I encountered the church as an institution of truth and, for that reason, as an institution of freedom, I decided to become (my father's veto notwithstanding) a theologian, and to this day I have not seriously regretted that decision. When my dear colleagues Johann Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltmann later initiated the project of a "political theology" and developed it with great impact, I insisted on the basis of those experiences that the political relevance of Christian faith consists, from beginning to end, in its ability and obligation to speak the truth. The political activity required of the church aims, above all else, to assist the cause of truth.

At first I pursued more far-reaching proposals in the European context with a certain restraint, because I feared a renewed political interdict (a clericalization of society from the left, so to speak) in any program that would bind all Christians theologically to a particular political course or even elevate "revolution" to a theological principle. On the other hand, the adherents of "political theology" appeared, in my eyes, to be much too abstract when it came to the concrete situations of life. They seemed to feign concreteness by all kinds of activism. At any rate, that's how the issue looked to me at first, at least in the European context. But the significance that "liberation theology" assumed, both in the context of the scandalous social injustice of the so-called Third World and in the context of South African racism, taught me better. The immeasurable shame that I felt as a white person in South African townships has completely persuaded me that the Christian is permitted, indeed commanded, to work against an unjust system, not only with thoughts and words but even with deeds. To be sure, the person of faith must assume individual responsibility for that decision. And in no instance should anyone be coerced theologically to take up violence.

To this day it irritates me that in this regard something like a liberation theology for the oppressed people in the world of "realized socialism" was apparently never considered. Even in the headquarters of the World Council of Churches on the Genevan route de Ferney, where injustice in other parts of the world was so courageously identified by name and resistance movements were energetically supported, one feigned blindness to the conditions in Romania, for example, right up until the end. That is an ecumenical scandal. And one can only hope that this dark shadow will not darken the undeniable achievements of ecumenism.

However much the political realization of Marxism-Leninism in the "socialist brother nations" failed to impress me positively, still the atheism to which Marxist theory and its adherents are committed posed a challenge that continues to engage me. It should give one pause to consider that people in the GDR apparently allowed themselves to be more impressed with the atheistic option of Marxism than with its political and economic form. At any rate, the great number of Germans living on the other side of the Elbe who don't belong to any religious community speaks for itself The encounter with atheism, quite apart from all statistics, has consistently stimulated my thought since the beginning of my teaching career.

Apropos my teaching career: I became a theological teacher literally overnight on account of the building of the Berlin Wall. When Erich Honecker, under orders from Walter Ulbricht, raised the wall, thereby cementing the division of Germany, the seminary students who lived in East Berlin were cut off from their professors who lived in West Berlin. In order to ease the academic emergency, Kurt Scharf, who would later become the bishop of Berlin, appointed me to a teaching position. Just a few weeks before I had received my doctorate in theology. (A few months later police headquarters in East Berlin wanted to take the doctorate away from me.) As a consequence, I was very poorly prepared. Thus I began to burn a lot of midnight oil. Often on the evening before I still didn't know what I would lecture on the next morning (yes, academic nights are long).

The theology that emerged in this fashion would today perhaps be called "contextual." It was contextual insofar as I asked myself how the language about God that the biblical texts empower us to speak can demonstrate its truth in a situation shaped by atheism. It seemed to me too cheap simply to demonize atheism or to unmask it as a pseudo-religion. I felt myself obligated, rather, to understand atheism better than it understands itself, and I tried to go into the heart of the matter. It soon became crystal clear to me that what manifested itself in the Eastern bloc in an extremely intolerant way completely determines the modern and postmodern world in a much more subtle way. Upon closer inspection I realized that not even religion and atheism must be mutually exclusive -- a paradox. The atheistic character of the age seems, therefore, to be something different from the "religionlessness" foretold by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Had not Schleiermacher already commented that "a religion without God can be better than one with God"?

The newly awakened religiosity of the past few years -- in Europe it has to do largely with a vagabond form of religion -- should not, therefore, be celebrated by a hasty apologetics as the overcoming of atheism. On the contrary, I have been and continue to be concerned with discovering a moment of truth in atheism, a moment which is at least as important as that to be found in a theistic metaphysics. Is it merely an accident that the young Christian movement was charged with atheism in its religious environment? Did not the radical negation of the ancient world of gods by the Old Testament prophets and by the Word of the crucified Son of God prepare the ground upon which modern atheism could thrive? Did not Nietzsche recognize, more clearly than many theologians, that the proclamation of the crucified God threatened to become a negation of Deity? The answer to this question is certainly not to be found in the "death-of-God theology" that aroused some interest in the U.S. a quarter of a century ago. But the fact that the expression "death of God" has a Christian origin should give us something to think about. I have thought about it, and I can conceive of the God who overcomes death only in such a way that God himself is nothing other than the unity of life and death on behalf of life. As such he bears the marks of our godlessness within himself: a godlessness the overcoming of which was and is his concern, not ours.

It goes without saying that I resolutely reject any old-style or new-style theological apologetics that denounces atheism as a deficient mode of human existence. What gives us the right to suppose that the atheist is less a human person than the pious Jew or Christian? On the basis of such religious propaganda the proclamation of the justification of the godless can hardly flourish. Whoever wishes to advocate the overcoming of godlessness through God would do much better to take the atheist seriously as a particularly mature specimen of homo humanus.

In my efforts not only to understand the truth of the gospel but also to assume personal responsibility for teaching it, it proved to be an invaluable aid that a friendly providence placed noteworthy teachers of very different orientations in the student's path. As I began to study Kant intensively with Gerhard Stammler and as I familiarized myself with both classical logic and symbolic logic, warnings were being issued about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. At the same time, however, I was being exhorted to study the texts of Heidegger by the New Testament scholar Ernst Fuchs, who put me in touch with his teacher Rudolf Bultmann. In an "illegal" semester spent outside of the GDR -- moving back and forth between Zurich, Basel and Freiburg -- I finally heard the master himself. At the time, Heidegger was "on the way to language" (unterwegs zur Sprache).

Toward the end of his life I had a conversation with Heidegger about the relation between thought and language, and I asked whether it wasn't the destiny of thought to be on the way to God (unterwegs zu Gott). He answered: "God -- that is the most worthy object of thought. But that's where language breaks down."

Admittedly, this was not the impression I had received during that memorable semester. At the time, Gerhard Ebeling in Zürich had introduced me to the thought of Martin Luther, while Karl Barth in Basel was making me familiar with his own thought. Barth's theology, flowing like a broad stream and suffering from an excess of argumentation, didn't exactly give the impression of a language breaking down. At first Barth looked upon me as a sort of spy from the Bultmann school and greeted me with unconcealed skepticism. But when I dared, in an unforgettable meeting of his group, not only to contradict the Basel criticism of Bultmann with a vehemence born of youthful audacity but also proceeded to interpret one section from Barth’s anthropology to his satisfaction, I was invited for a late-night dispute over a bottle of wine. And a few days later the entire Church Dogmatics stood in front of my door with the dedication: "To Eberhard Jungel, on the way into God's beloved eastern zone."

A few years later, when I myself had to offer lectures and seminars in dogmatics and was looking around for some helpful guidance, I immersed myself again in this magnum opus of my teacher. And behold, in the midst of a theological discussion that was increasingly losing all perspective I saw that I had encountered in Barth the thought of someone who truly believed in his subject matter. Barth's theology was autochthonous. From it one could learn that substantive concentration upon the truth to which the Bible bears witness is the best prerequisite for keeping faith in the present world. I gained a new acquaintance with the tradition, in relation to which there was neither a disrespectful criticism nor an uncritical respect. Thereby an ecumenical horizon opened up for me, without which I simply cannot conceive any future theology.

Above all, I was challenged to think about God from the event of his revelation, and that means from the event of his coming into the world: hence, as a God to whom nothing human is foreign and who, in the person of Jesus Christ, has come nearer to humanity than humanity is able to come near to itself. The Augustinian interior intimo meo ("nearer than I am to myself') became something of a hermeneutical key, not only for the correct understanding of God but also for the correct understanding of the human being, whose subjective godlessness is mercifully anticipated by God's objective humanity. In short, in contrast to the sterile Barth-scholasticism that dominated Germany at the time and that had built around the master's dogmatics a Chinese "Great Wall" not to be penetrated, in my case something like a "new frontiers" mentality grew out of my encounter with the person and work of Karl Barth.

It is no wonder, then, that it never occurred to me to settle down in the so-called Barth school. Nor in the Bultmann school either, for that matter. It didn't even occur to me to suppose that the Reformers always had the deeper insight and the most adequate solution to all theological problems. I say this with all due respect for the unusually incisive theology of the Reformers, which has not even yet come to the end of its historical influence. But the truth of theology is richer than that of its schools of thought. That is why to this very day I have steadfastly refused to succumb to the temptation to make disciples of my own. To be sure, students are undoubtedly eager for that sort of thing; and not a few of my listeners have pressured me to orchestrate something like a theological school.

But, according to the measure of my insight, a theological teacher can have "disciples" only in the sense that he teaches them to immerse themselves more thoroughly in the lifelong school of Holy Scripture, in order that there they may find the criteria for the training of their own faculty of judgment. The pastor, by the way, has an analogous task with respect to the congregation. Evangelical (i.e., Protestant) theology is at least in this respect the heir (perhaps even the mother?) of the Enlightenment, because it gives us the courage to use our own understanding as it has been trained by the hearing of God's Word. Only in this way is the consensus of believers in a common confession before God and before the world worth anything at all. In this sense theology must, I am convinced, pursue enlightenment in the light of the gospel -- beyond neoorthodoxy and neorationalism, but also beyond collectivism and individualism. In this way I have tried since 1961 to make theology both appetizing and obligatory to the students entrusted to me: as a theologia viatorum, a "theology of pilgrims," who are "on the way to the heart of the matter" (unterwegs zur Sache) and who must always keep widening the boundaries of their insight. "New frontiers . . ."

When I finally moved from East Berlin to Zürich and then to Tübingen, it was a step forward into new territory -- in a quite different sense, but no less momentous. I vacillated for a long time over whether to accept the invitation of a Swiss university and to leave "realized socialism" for the ostensibly capitalist world of the West. In the end, two conversations, one with Johannes Janicke, bishop of Magdeburg, and the other with Barth, played a crucial role in my decision. Quite independently of one another, they both gave me the same advice for the same reason: in Zürich I would be free of the fixation on the "dictatorship of the proletariat" that was unavoidable in the GDR and the corresponding danger of intellectual paralysis.

In fact, as I sought to orient myself in the colorful, sometimes too colorful, Western world, I noticed how in every respect life behind the iron curtain was in danger of becoming one-dimensional. In body and soul and with every fiber of my being I felt the dreary grayness of that walled-in world beginning to fall away from me. The intense love of truth that had hitherto determined my theological existence was now matched by a passionate love of life.

Perhaps that's the reason why faith in the Creator has increasingly occupied my theological attention. Previously the powerlessness of the crucified one had claimed my thought and challenged me to conceive of the doctrine of God, as much as possible, apart from metaphysics. Now, however, my concern was learning to think about the creative omnipotence in such a way that it proves itself to be divine power precisely in its capacity for powerlessness (even to the point of death on a cross). In direct contrast to the sweeping denunciation of the concepts power, dominion, achievement, etc., which is growing stronger in the Christian churches, it seems to me, rather, that theological clarification of these terms is called for. Neither the being of the Creator nor that of his creation is even conceivable apart from the exercise of dominion and power. I was provoked by the peace movement and the ecological crisis not to forgo the denounced terms but to determine their correct use.

In this regard the impetus my thought had received from Heidegger proved helpful. It became clear to me that the exercise of dominion and power ought not to be for imperial designs of one's own but must be understood as Dominium for the benefit of what exists, for the "saving of the phenomena." Therefore, dominion is only legitimate as dominion over oneself That holds true not only in the interpersonal realm but also in relation to the nonhuman creation. The mandate Dominium terrae given to the human being by the Creator (Gen. 1:26f.) is not obsolete, but its misuse is. Long before it had become fashionable, Heidegger had exposed the metaphysical origins of this misuse. His own "thought about being" (Seinsdenken) already implied something like an ecology at a time when people who would later become ecologists ridiculed him for being a romantic.

My encounter with this thinker, however, has proven to be of enduring significance in many respects, not least of which is that it prevented me from an anthropomonism in the doctrine of creation. I made a mental note of his statement: "Philosophy perishes when it has become anthropology." Mutatis mutandis, the same holds true for theology. We human beings must learn to understand ourselves as relational beings instead of as subjects in the center of things. We must learn to conceive of being as a being-together instead of as substance. Then and only then will the usurped Imperium become once again the Dominium terrae that the Creator entrusted to his creation.

The recognition of the perversion of the Dominium terrae into an anthropomonistic Imperium, visible in the contemporary crises that have been precipitated by the misuse of scientific knowledge, has made me newly aware of a philosophical and theological deficiency: we lack a gradation of evil. I stumbled onto this for the first time as a result of the attempts -- which, to be sure, have hitherto failed -- to locate the place of theology "after Auschwitz," and then again in the face of the political terrorism and the "terror of virtue" that became apparent in it. Even the Christian doctrine of sin seemed to me to be deficient, either in spite of or on account of every imaginable scholasticism regarding sin. It is high time that we expose the common reduction of evil to a mere infringement of the moral law as a trivialization from which evil profits. A gradation of evil, yet to be developed, must certainly proceed from this insight which, to be sure, is given only on the basis of the experience of reconciliation: anything that renders problematic being as a being-together deserves to be called evil. The tendency toward a lack of rationality, beginning in a misuse of the relational richness of life, finds its terrible consummation in death's perfect lack of relationality.

As a countermove, so to speak, to the demand for a gradation of evil, my interest has for some time been directed toward eschatology, which I interpret as the definitive being-together of the Creator with his creation and of the creatures with one another. Is there anything like that, at least in a preliminary way, before the last day? Can we implement in the world earthly analogies to the kingdom of God, at least in a fragmentary way? The answer to this question affects not only my concept of a political ethic but also considerations for a theology of the religions, the necessity of which Wolfhart Pannenberg and Hans Küng have vividly set before me. How can the being-together of the religions succeed when the Christian faith insists that Jesus Christ is the salvation of all people? Can theology and the church disavow that without losing their identity? I admire those of my colleagues who frankly admit that in this respect they have crossed the Rubicon and bid a resolute farewell to Solus Christus as an intolerant claim to absoluteness. But I fear that they have confused the Rubicon with the Halys . . .

Nonetheless, it remains an urgent task to travel the road toward a theology of the religions -- which would have to include atheism among its concerns -- in such a way that the christological particula exclusiva would not be misused in order to make a claim for the absoluteness of Christianity. The trinitarian being of God, which I understand as a community of mutual otherness, could be an incentive to develop models of earthly being-together: vestigia trinitatis, as it were, in which creatures would be enabled to exist in communities of mutual otherness (this could also be relevant for political ethics). To be sure, the kingdom of God wouldn't thereby be brought about. But in spite of that, the earth would be protected from becoming hell.

In a very concrete way I have been presented with the task and the opportunity to help build an earthly community of mutual otherness. Beginning this winter semester I will be a guest professor at Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, in addition to keeping my teaching responsibilities in Tübingen (to which belongs, by the way, the office of the dean of the Tübingen Stift, where once Hegel, Schelling, Holderlin and other magnificent minds went to school). This will not simply be a return home -- although it touches me in a homey sort of way that among those who learned something in my classes in Berlin are a few who are counted among the new politicians of the GDR, specifically among the realists (Realpolitiker). Indeed, there waits for me in Halle a new generation. And working together with students who have been raised very differently in what was formerly the GDR certainly poses once again a new frontier in my theological existence. I anticipate that this will be one of the most beautiful redrawings of a border.