Dealing with the Problem of Language for Faith

An Assessment of Arnd and Astrid Hollweg’s book [1]


by Dietrich Braun


[Editor’s Note: The Journal of Global Issues & Solutions presents academic and scholarly papers covering a broad range of disciplines, including Theology. This paper is oriented toward the Christian faith and the Editor welcomes additional papers discussing other faiths for publication in this Journal].


Arnd and Astrid Hollweg have used the weekly watchwords of the Church Year as the basis opportunity for writing an impressive meditation on each of them. Unlike the customary linguistic usage in the church they use the word “meditative” for a mode of thought that is deliberately different from analytical-theoretical thinking. Whilst the latter starts “with the fading-out of everything that is not part of a definition of terms”, their meditative thinking “is based on the blending-in of whatever is a constitutive element for recognizing what is happening in the reality of human experience and human relations”.  They hold that meditative thinking brings together what is separated by the mental act of analytical thinking. The authors want to provide an introduction to the procedures of such a meditative practice in working with the Bible.  They maintain that it is obvious that the Biblical message challenges us to realize that out life between birth and death happens “in the relation between transcendence and immanence, between the outer and the inner world, between spiritual and sensory experiences on the basis of our physical existence”. Equally the encounter between Christian faith and modern consciousness always leads us first to the reality of elementary experiences, to our historic and social every-day life where we find ourselves even when we follow the instruction to blend it out mentally. The happenings in this every-day world can in fact not be discussed by using the methods of the objectifying thinking of analytical science. What science usually considers as belonging to human consciousness the authors therefore have tried to place into the comprehensive “structures of meaning” that are revealed to the believer in the context of the Biblical message.


This sums up Arnd and Astrid Hollweg’s concern: they want to enter into dialogue with Christians as well as with non-Christians; they want to start a conversation that is to show how things threatening to fall apart today really belong together – a conversation about reality.   What is actually real, and what is appearance?  The Bible confronts us with the historic reality of experience.  Where the meditations do this as well, based on the Biblical texts, they want to call to critical vigilance.  They hold that scientific and philosophical ideas of reality or lack of reality in fact continue to raise again the old question of what is real and what is appearance.  The introduction states in a matter-of-fact way that we live in a culture “which is characterized by the fact that the religious questions are blended out in the sciences and academic disciplines and separated from human consciousness in its relation to reality”. The thought models of the mathematical and physical sciences based on the separation between human being and the world have been made absolute and projected onto reality as a whole.  This ignores the fact that the relation between scientific and religious experience, perception and understanding of the human person are part of the unity of the person and are fundamental for our behavior and our actions in the world.  Within the earthly reality of experience in which we live the question of truth arises when it comes to religion, just as in our scientific work since both, religion and science, share the operation of human intelligence. Therefore we must be ready to ask, and in all honesty always ask ourselves, what we are prepared to be led by in each case. The authors demand that modern science must not be content to turn religion simply into an object of research. The religious question in research always appears as the ontological question about its relation to reality.  This makes a “change of horizon” essential. The reasons for this are so weighty that Arnd Hollweg does not fail to recall them for the readers in a lengthy “after word”. In the form of a critical and theoretical discourse he shows what implicitly had already been made clear in the meditations: his own epistemological presuppositions for a discussion with the sciences and academic disciplines, and therefore also for the questions that arise from it concerning the relation between the Biblical faith and modern consciousness.    



“Through the Bible we gain access to something that is happening throughout the whole world at all times.  The Bible is the testimony of the history of God’s Kingdom on earth, of God’s actions in the lives of individuals, of groups and communities who witness to His presence in the world and who place their individual lives and their living together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit “. These are the first sentences in the after word.  It represents a short summary of the basic insights that the author has gathered both from his experience as a minister and pastor of an inner city congregation and from many years for participating in epistemological research in human, social and natural sciences and in the relevant ongoing theological discussions. Important publications on the subject have since made his research internationally known.[2]  In the same context it continues that, as Christians from heathen nations our only access to God’s history with the world is in Jesus Christ. But this history does not start with him.  Through Christ we others simply gain access to the history which has begun before us in Israel.  But the importance of this fact has only been fully realized again in recent times. The holocaust had clearly disproved the idea that Christianity had simply replaced Israel and thus negated its existence.  This substitution had found its intellectual expression in the fact that in early Christian times already the Biblical history as a whole was replaced by a non-historic, metaphysical and ontological understanding of the God-event in Christ – an understanding that logically abolished the independence of Israel’s history according to the Old Testament.  In later times access by heathen peoples to the one God in Jesus Christ and Israel’s access to God’s Old Testament covenant became increasingly irreconcilable.  In the author’s opinion this state of affairs represents, in church history, the original form of the later modern substitution of the metaphysical and ontological understanding of the God event by theoretical and practical interpretations of the world that led in its ideological form to the holocaust, and in its pseudo-scientific shape to the loss of reality and to the danger of the self-destruction of all culture and civilization in modern times.


Arnd Hollweg is a Reformed theologian and therefore at home in the Puritan tradition, and feels himself to be close to a mainly Old Testament-based covenant theology. The revision of the understanding of Israel, the reinstatement of the Old Testament‘s independence and dignity for him is closely linked with a turning towards a way of thinking based on experience that – structurally similar to the thinking of the Biblical witnesses – had once been deliberately developed by Anglo-Saxon philosophers of Calvinist origin. He is therefore convinced that, despite the historic distance in time and the different conditions, we are living today in the context of the same human history as the Biblical witnesses: in the same world and before the same God.  He says that what we have in common with them, and what differentiates us from them, looks different in the context of the reality of experience than in that of epistemological and logical systems in which “knowledge is derived from knowledge” because these systems lack the relation to the contexts where human life is lived.  For A. Hollweg this is the reason why they are not able to help seekers to find the way in a world in which experience and knowledge ultimately cannot be separated.  Like a doctor the author therefore makes several attempts at diagnosing the situation of human beings who today are in acute danger of being entirely captivated by a self-made world of abstract, disparate intellectual knowledge although everything depends on their remaining closely and very consciously connected with the reality of historic experience – i.e. that other original world in which we have always been, which cannot be derived from any scientific epistemology but rather transcends them all.  Although the author admits that modern sciences can study the phenomena that we have in front of our eyes he demurs that “we have no access to the reality in which we live” because it cannot be placed in front of us like an object.  Experiential and epistemological access to it are different. Man can easily turn himself into an object of his own intellect or into a function of a technological and operational process.  However this would ontologically not turn him into what he is making of himself.  If he were to stop differentiating in this way, and to start identifying himself and reality with what he is trying to make of them he would abolish the relational reality in which he lives and acts.  A world of objects, functions and things would take its place.


In fact the human being of late modern times is not far from such forgetfulness of being. Irrespective of the fact that the more recent situation in scientific theory shows some pluralist features, the scientifically operational intellect is still dominant.  According to Hollweg it has developed the technological and industrial society whose functional structures still dominate and shape our everyday life. The mental problem of mathematical and physical thinking therefore does not lie accidentally in “in its inherent process of making itself absolute following its separation from experienced reality.”  On the quiet so to say, we turn our self-created functional world into the horizon for all our thinking and find it extraordinarily difficult to recognize the reality we find.  In truth we see ourselves  “only in the light of our own work” and therefore succumb to the obligation of having to adjust to its structures. The original “world of relations” is replaced by a ”world of functions” that isolates human beings and reality from each other by a “world of gadgets”. If this is correct a “symbiosis of man and gadget” will evolve which will subject the laws of human movement and perception to the functional contexts of society.  No wonder therefore, according to Hollweg, that the individual perceives the world as something that “only exists for him as a function of himself”.  Mentally he may feel all-powerful but in reality he gets progressively more deeply entangled in his personal, social and ecological relations.  “Lack of commitment, depersonalization, frustration, randomness of thinking, nihilism, problems of addiction, behavioral disorders etc. show the growing deracination of human beings from their own relational reality.” The desire to be all-powerful proves to be an “expression of his powerlessness” from which the knowing human being flees.  He simply projects it onto God whose power he denies, and who doesn’t even appear any more in his worldview.  For Hollweg the consequence is obvious: the anthropological, theological and ontological questions have been abolished although each of them deals with the context of the epistemological and scientific theoretical question. The operational intelligence today therefore is challenged to find a new relation to “what has turned it into a non-reality”. Since the human being cannot do this by himself the question should not be avoided, however, of whether theology might be of some help.  But the author’s answer is rather sobering. Here, too, he first explains his basic conviction and with self-critical and reformatory intentions speaks of an “impasse of Western theology”.


This is not the place to enter into an inner-theological debate with Arnd Hollweg concerning this view of matters.  If one has carefully taken note of the reasons for his critical comments about the intellectual situation in general and the theological situation in particular one will be prepared for the answer by which he shows a way out of this crisis. The author is a theologian of mediation.  Therefore it is clear to him that the thinking of the Biblical witnesses is related to experience and that, on the other hand, a way of thinking based on experience can show that the authors of the Bible were witnesses of a concrete relational thinking.  Against the horizon of the Bible all human life is embedded in the basic structure of “separating from each other in order to face one another in a relationship “. Since, unlike in paganism, man’s relation with the world changes when it is mediated through his inalienable relation with God, the Bible has been able to incorporate into its essential monotheistic relation of transcendence and immanence many different systems of thought and understanding from the different historical contexts.  Since its witnesses were living in constant mutual inter-dependence with their contemporary historic, religious, scientific and philosophical contexts it means that we now have to enter into discussions with present-day science and philosophy because, as the authors stresses repeatedly, we are living in spite of the historic distance in time “in the context of the same human history, in the same world and before the same God”.


The “openness for the God who is beyond” is the crucial characteristic of the relational structure into which human life is embedded with its experiences, understanding, behavior and actions; human beings cannot detach themselves from it. In spirit the human being may be able to leave his body and face and perceive himself but he will always remain linked to it. The author deems that this does not exclude the possibility that the human being can, in his spirit, experience himself as being related to a reality that is not identical with the world in which he finds himself bodily and sensually. This experience will rather make him search for an answer that can be neither secular nor human but transcends both.  In contrast to this, the answer given through the Biblical revelation is described as follows; “Christian faith comes about in the experience of the working of God’s Spirit, in which He reveals Himself to our spirit through his word”.  When the human being meets God Himself in Christ, “his self-transcendence” changes in this event of God’s Spirit “into the opening of himself towards God in whom he finds his ultimate destiny”. When God, the self, one’s neighbours and the world are brought to face each other in this way and enter into relation with each other we begin to share in the history that is determined from within by the event of God’s Kingdom and its powers.  This is to show that even the apparently religiously neutral, technological and operational processes in which we share are concerned with the relation between faith and work.  The author further maintains that Christian life and action – according to Paul the “walking in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16; 25.  Rom8: 4) – have to be understood “as the context of the activity of the instrumental intelligence”.  In any case the “I” of faith that is under the rule of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ must not surrender itself in its turn to the domination of an intelligence formed in such a way but must resist it with determination for the sake of God, for the sake of itself and its fellow human beings and for the sake of the experiential reality.  It must not be forgotten that, because through the work of His Spirit God’s love, truth and peace want to be at work in the relations of our life we are “in a struggle with other personal and spiritual powers in us and in the world.  Lies, deception, enmity etc. lead to perversion, entanglement and destruction of the relational reality and thereby into death.” Therefore this struggle of faith is always concerned with our answer to God’s call and with our responsibility in the secular contexts since the present historic and secular reality of experience is our allocated place “where the eternal, other God comes to us in the event of His Spirit so that we shall live in the world in relation with Him…”



The meditations by Arnd and Astrid Hollweg are an impressive witness that the event of God’s Kingdom mentioned in the Bible also happens in our lives and requires to be continued there.  Since in our professional education we were mainly trained in analytical thinking which, as has been mentioned, is characterized by a “blending-out” of everything that is not part of the definition of a term, meditative thinking clearly needs “conscientization and strengthening”. In it the action of the spirit with which we perceive is linked to the use of the analytical intelligence.  Therefore it is necessary – against the horizon of Biblical faith – to include into our thinking “what happens internally in our souls” as well as “the history in which we live at any given moment”.


This is not the place to discuss in detail the individual meditations.  Each of the reflections on a Biblical text represents a unity in itself and should be understood as such, regardless of its particular place in the Church’s year. However these positions could nevertheless help the reader, over the course of a year, to become familiar without too much trouble with the basic questions of the Biblical message against the background of the more recent theological scholarship.  All together the 66 meditations contain an astonishing wealth of knowledge and insights, directions and thought impulses designed to help in a multitude of troubling questions, and to show the way out of doubts and tribulations of different kinds.   Arnd and Astrid Hollweg link both personal experiences from their encounters with people in the framework of pastoral care and church work and insights gained from discussions with representatives of disciplines like philosophy and natural science as well as with ecumenical partners, as well as numerous memories of their different but ultimately shared personal histories, lived and suffered in their trust in the presence of God’s Spirit, with the exegesis of the different texts.  Therefore these texts begin to speak to us as if they had not been written two thousand years ago but were being addressed to us today.  In the exposition of the Biblical message it proved to be particularly helpful that, by stressing their relation with contemporary life, the authors kept their eyes on the theology of the different Biblical authors.  In this they were guided by the insight that the weekly watchwords of the Church year cannot be adequately understood if they are not considered in their Biblical context.  Arnd and Astrid Hollweg assure us that they have meditated on the text in this context, and want to encourage the readers “to do likewise and open the Bible in order to do so.”


There certainly are also questions that one would like to put to the authors.  Where they arise we must not forget that the merits of this book lie in the fact that it frees the readers from the difficulties of language for faith and wants to encourage them to rethink the Biblical message in the context of modern consciousness and, in order to do this, to enter into discussion with those who mediate it, i.e. the contemporary scientists and philosophers.

[1] Arnd and Astrid Hollweg, Biblischer Glaube und neuzeitliches Bewusstsein: aufgezeigt und enfaltet am Leitfaden der Wochensprüche des Kirchenjahres .Frankfurt a.M. Berlin. Bern. New York. Paris. Wien 1999

[2]  A. Hollweg,  Theologie und Empirie, Stuttgart 3. Edition 1974; ep. Gruppe, Gesellschaft, Diakonie, Stuttgart 1976.

[ back to "Publications & Special Reports" ]
[ BWW Society Home Page ]