Man in the Context of Life in His World

by Arnd Hollweg


[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].



In the scientific perception of the relation between man and world today there is a double divide: on the one hand man from the world, on the other hand man from himself.  In perceiving this divide man in a way abolishes himself; he turns himself into a function of himself in technological-instrumental thinking, in which the technological-functional perception is transmuted into an objective reality.  Scientific analysis in a way takes man to pieces, and each piece requires its own epistemology and its own scientific method.  In this the anthropological relational reality is gradually dissolved.  We are increasingly unable to find a relation to ourselves as humans in the functional perceptions we have of humans (cf. E. Chargaff, Vermächtnis, 1993; Ernste Fragen, 2002). As long as scientific statements are understood in an empirical and hypothetical way there need not necessarily be a fundamental collision between the epistemologies of natural science and of human science.  This collision is inevitable only when reality as a whole is seen as a mathematical and scientific paradigm.  In that case science, even in its dogmatic and theological form, becomes an alternative faith that is irreconcilable with the Biblical faith.


At the same time a contrary development in physics has been evident for several decades, the consequences of which have not yet been fully understood.  This centers on the questions of quantum theory and its relativity.  The physicist began to see himself as the observer of the process in his sealed laboratory shielded from historic and social reality and from living nature.  Even in an isolated laboratory he remained the only part of the process with the necessary knowledge. It is not only his eyes which registered what happened in the scientific experiment.  They are organs of a human being who sees with his eyes. He can no longer fade himself out as a human being. Physics no longer was a “science as such” but a human science (cf. on this A.M.K. Müller, Die präparierte Zeit, 1973; Das unbekannte Land, 1987).  This insight had far-reaching consequences that so far have attracted little attention in the normal business of science where the separation between subject and object still seems to be an insurmountable barrier.


In the world of human life that we encounter from our birth, everything that we separate in our minds is really connected.  We can build up many isolated theories and thought constructions of an ideological or mental kind about the historic and social reality that we experience and in which we live. We cannot thereby abolish it but in our thinking we simply ignore it by and loose the connection with the reality of our life.   Man knows no other world than this one even if his ability for scientific or theological knowledge could grow indefinitely.  He would necessarily fail when trying to generalize his knowledge in this way, and make it absolute.


Abolishing the split between subject and object.


We do not know that we exist because we think (“Cogito ergo sum”).  Our thinking presupposes that we live.  Everything that happens in our life also influences our thinking. This insight abolishes the split between subject and object.  Subject and object cannot be isolated from each other.  Anthropology and epistemology may have to be distinguished from each other but belong together in the relation of their otherness.  No man can perceive without living, and nobody lives without perceiving.  We even have to go further: no man can do anything without living and perceiving.  But how do we answer the question of who we are as human beings?


In the mental and imaginative world of the sciences we objectify our living body and use it instrumentally like a thing. When the human being turns his living body into an object of his perception, the only thing left of him is a dead object.  In this projective relation with himself the human being only perceives his human life in images of the intellect in which it disappears from his perception. The objectifying and ontologising imaginary world of the instrumental intellect replaces a reality that has been cognitively blended out.  Therefore there is no objective perception, just as there is no human being who is an object or a thing.  We cannot turn the human being into our object if we want to perceive and know him.  There is no reality as such, in separation of which I can live as the subject.


I myself am living in the world that I have been asked to perceive and understand.  I have my place in it.  Therefore I cannot observe it from the outside.  If I did so I would identify cognitive perception with the recognition of myself as a human being in my corporeity and spirituality. It therefore is necessary always to include the anthropological facts into the perception process; otherwise it would loose its relation with the reality of life.


I have a place in the world but am also facing it at the same time. Otherwise I could not be conscious of the reality in which I live. How this is possible can only be understood by way of the human link with transcendence. As a human being I am different from the non-human reality.  I can therefore not derive myself from it (cf. H.G. Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, 1960). Thus the doctor as scientist and the pastor as theologian share a common humanity.


As a human being I do not only live in the world but also at my place in time, in a changing socio-historic reality. In culture and language for instance I can achieve the same in another form, or something different in the same form.  Therefore I must attempt to perceive the phenomena of the socio-historic world I inhabit in their various relations to each other.  I will have to ask in which concrete context a scientific term is used.  Only then can it become clear what it means.  This raises for us the question of how far phenomena are communicated by each other.


The multi-dimensional use of the term “world”.


I would like to illustrate this by way of the multi-dimensional use of the term “world”.  According to its context this can mean the historic world, the social world, the cultural world, the world of human life, the world of the imagination, the world of appearance, the world of illusion, the reality of life, the cosmos and many others. We therefore cannot see the phenomena of reality without the many-layered socio-historic and corporeal context in which we are living as humans in time and in the world.  Therefore we can only state simply that your world is not my world.  I see the world differently. But what does that mean?  I do not see it from the outside.  I have within me an image of the world but this has to be distinguished from the reality in which I live.  This image is a projection of my imagination onto reality.


I therefore will always have to tell other people what I understand by world as a scientific term.  It is difficult to clarify this matter in a dialogue but it is possible to begin to do so.  During his life a person is always involved in such a process of clarification through the ages. As one who knows he is an “I myself”.


Scientific knowledge as the search for power.


No person and no academic discipline, not even a theological one, can explain the world.

In this objectivity it does not even exist for us.  Our attempts at explanations are ideas and images of our intellect through which we try to control the reality in which we live.  We are still living in a tradition that ended with Schopenhauer in his book “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung”. In his discussions with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche considers the religion and culture of his time to be on the way to nihilism, in which the human being denies himself and turns his will against himself.  Thus life becomes void (cf. introduction to Genealogie der Moral, § 5).


We cannot turn back the history from which we come.  In his criticism of the Western thought systems the French philosopher Michel Foucault holds that the scientific and academic discussions of modern times are not at all concerned with the question of truth but only with power.   Scientific knowledge itself is concentrated on power.  It seeks to dominate reality.  Thus at present it enters into competition with the political struggle for power.


Disorientation, arbitrariness and blindness follow. We no longer see and account for what we have immediately in front of us, where we are.  In our imprisonment in theoretical knowledge there ultimately are as many images of the world as there are people on earth.  This leads to a power struggle between ideological and mental powers that rule unrecognized in the human worlds of ideas.


God’s Spirit and the human spirit.


No human being has made life in the world and the reality in which it happens.  Nature and world, human being and the non-human world are the work of a creator unknown to him, whose unimaginable acts he encounters in his world of life on earth. We can only understand what we are able to produce through our human spirit by the work of our hands. Instruments and gadgets designed to replace our hands do not change this fact.  Human hands have produced them also.  Thus we encounter in our world the mystery of the workings of an alien Spirit who at the same time sets a limit to the knowledge of our spirit.  Therefore we must not confuse God’s Spirit in his creation with our human spirit that owes itself to the working of our divine creator. We must distinguish between God’s work and our work, God’s actions and our actions, God’s thoughts and our thoughts.  Although we face Him as His living images we are not equal to Him but are in a relation of otherness to Him. We therefore cannot identify ourselves with Him and act as if the world belonged to us.  We did not create it, nor were we there when it was created. Our perception comes up against an insurmountable barrier in God’s act.


When however we make contact in our spirit with the spirit of our creator in His creation, creation will speak to us.  It proclaims to us the work of His hands.   In it we experience ourselves as being related to Him in everything. This can be expressed in art, in pictures, culture and in religious rites. Our relations as humans with the eternal God are a matter of His living word through which He reveals Himself personally in the socio-historic and physical life context of the history of Israel.  In the communication of His spirit through Jesus Christ He becomes present in our lives.  In Christ, God’s Spirit tells our spirit that we are His children.  We answer in thanksgiving and praise for His acts in our inner and outer lives in history.


Visible and invisible reality.


We see God’s creation in our everyday lives in front of us in living images, in still or moving forms: we see crossing the road, we hear the noise of building or traffic around us, trees line the edge of the road, birds fly through the air, cats and dogs run around, flowers bloom on balconies, bicycles are leaning against the walls of houses, children play in the park. All this is part of God’s creation in which man shares as an active being. But he finds reality and has to react to it. In it he meets his fellow human beings and responds to them.  He gets into different situations and has to react to them.  And yet, what he sees with his eyes as images is not reality as a whole but only its external appearance.  In the different forms quite different things happen; this is expressed by their appearance but remains invisible in them. From what we see with our eyes we cannot say what we perceive in reality.


There is a hidden relation in everything we see with our eyes. Among the multiplicity of impressions we have to distinguish to what, and how, we react in each case. But passive and active ways of perception cannot be isolated from each other.  We cannot see reality as a unity in which diversity is abolished.  That would mean blending out the truth. This today is one of our biggest problems in connection with life, behavior, knowledge and action. In a cognitive way we increasingly reduce our perception of the reality of life to functions of dealing with it, in which we blend ourselves out in our relation with it.  Thus we loose the ability to distinguish between the imaginary worlds and the real world.


Our ideologically and mentally derived imaginary worlds replace the invisible reality in which we live. But this is not identical with the abstract world in our head. This false identification leads us to relate our abstract imaginary worlds only to the external world of appearance that we see with our eyes.  The consequence is a disastrous rupture in our relation with reality as a whole.  We loose contact with it.  Even when we abolish the invisible reality in our abstract imaginary world its otherness remains active in our life and thinking.  Reality does not conform to our perception, rather we have to try and accept it in our perception.  This however presents us with the challenge of how to blend in again what we have blended out, and of whether the fixations that developed can be eradicated. A symbiotic way of thinking with its undifferentiated mixture of terminology cannot be the answer.  It is often confused with spirituality or mysticism.


Man’s question about himself in the context of his life.


In Biblical faith we find the ground of our being in the working of God’s Spirit, not in the imaginary worlds that we try to realize in order to ground ourselves in them.  God’s working always precedes our human workings in its causal connections. For us it is irreplaceable.  Nor can we, as has been misguidedly attempted in the Enlightenment, call Him to the forum of our reason, to ask Him to account for His thinking and His actions.  This means perverting our relation with Him.  On the contrary, we have to be accountable before Him because we owe Him our life in all its contexts as its creator. Through the working of His spirit in our spirit He communicates to us the knowledge of the right use of our intelligence whose activity is necessarily part of our humanity.


When we derive our analytical and causal thinking from ideological or mentally abstract presuppositions we isolate ourselves from ourselves, from our fellow human beings and from God. We have critically to examine these contradictory and antagonistic tendencies of perception in science and faith today and ask how and through what they can be reconciled. If theological thinking, in analogy to and in imitation of, the perception processes, understands itself to be similar to other sciences it would have to be the first to change. In both ways of perception in their relation of otherness from each other we should look for their presuppositions in the reality that precedes our life and thinking. Neither man nor the world nor God is a reality as such.  Every person is a personal whole that can only live in inter-personal relations.


Above all we have to be accountable to ourselves about the way we are sharing in the inter-personal relational reality in our thinking, behavior, perception and actions.  When a person is split in himself he also looses the relation to himself and the relation to the socio-historic and corporeal experiential reality.  A permanent division process sets in that we are suppressing and hiding from ourselves through global technological and functional networking. The human being cannot turn himself into a function of himself.  Basic questions of the human perception of reality arise in the many misunderstandings and conflicts between people, nations and societies, between cultures and religions that dominate human coexistence on our earth.  Whether in our Western society idealistic and metaphysical, dogmatic-theological, mathematical and physical or technological and functional paradigms determine our perception of reality, they all blend out the socio-historic world of the human life in its corporeity and therefore no longer see the human being.


In the relation with ourselves we are dealing with a living, personal relational unity of body, soul and spirit.  In this unity the body is the external side of life, the soul the inner world and the live spirit the link between the inner and the external sides of life. The inter-personal relational reality in its socio-historic context is the earthly world of the human being in which his life is embedded in body, time and world in its affinity with non-human nature.  The trans-personal relation with God is a matter of the inaccessible world of the eternal God who, out of it, transcends us human beings through the working of His Spirit through Christ and includes us in His rule; it is a matter of faith at work.


In this way the human being in his corporeity enters into a new relation with nature.  He cannot free himself from his ties with nature although he may try to split himself off in his perception in order to dominate it.  In the relation to God for which we are freed in Christ we experience ourselves to be no longer imprisoned by nature in heathen beliefs, but sharing in nature and able to react to it.  Through God’s presence in Christ man is called to life in the historic present and must accept it challenges.


The anthropological and theological question


The critical dialogue between faith and the sciences is concerned with the relation between man’s theoretical imaginary worlds and his anthropological practice of life. Theoretical thinking and its application in action have to be included, and accounted for, in the human socio-historic experiential reality. It is a matter of the relation between theory and anthropological world of life, not of the relation between theoretical imaginary worlds in competition with each other.  


We therefore have to return to our human everyday life in nature and in the socio-historic life context that are the origin of our mental images and imaginary worlds.  Here we come to questions about the ground of our human being that are beyond scientific perception. They rather block it when perception tries to claim an absolute role in objectifying and ontologising the human imaginary worlds.  Perception is not an end in itself.


In everyday life we share in very different areas that are increasingly separate from each other, in the advanced division of labor in our society.  The social dynamic that is active in the human relational reality on the other hand has made all areas of life permeable, whether they are geographic regions, scientific and academic disciplines, areas of national sovereignty etc.  In everyday life they all intermingle.  Man is omni-present in them in his living corporeity. In everyday life it is a matter of the power and violence in the inter-personal relational reality in which we live together as people on earth and depend on each other.  There we learn how to react to our fellow human beings, and to discern what we are challenged to do in any given situation.  This is not only true for the individual but for ethnic groups, religious communities, churches, nations and all social bodies where human life takes place. Powers intervene in our life that we are not able to control or understand. This raises the question of the meaning of our life, and the question of the creator to whom we are all related.  This is the place where the ultimate and penultimate questions are linked with each other.  This is where we can learn the holistic and personal thinking needed to complement analytical thinking.


In contrast to animals, God has given our human spirit the gift of language so that we can communicate with each other in our corporeal separateness.  We need this communication with our fellow human beings, with ourselves and with God in order to learn better to perceive and understand what is happening in our life.  God’s miracles in His creation drive us, His creatures, to seek Him in the perception of human suffering.  We, too, have been given His promises in Christ, that He will let Himself be found by those who are seeking Him and who open their spirits to the working of His Spirit.




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