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As for Heidegger, Jens never ceased to wrestle with him, taking what he found useful. But he never failed to get in the comment that Heidegger was evil, one of the theorists behind Nazi nihilism (a fact affirmed by the publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks).

Theology as if the gospel were true

Jens once told us—with his typical audacity—that a proper theologian was a cannibal, eating and digesting whatever ideas and concepts one could find that would serve to elucidate the story of Jesus Christ. This is just another way of saying, “all truth is God’s truth.” But Jens’s shocking turn of phrase makes the principle unforgettable.

That was the sort of teacher and writer Jens was. He made things clear so they could hit home—sometimes too much so. In speech and prose, he could be so direct and terse that we often had to beg him to embellish things, to say it again by saying more. Jens delighted in saying things plainly and directly. If he has a literary analogue, it is Hemingway: short, to the point sentences, formed as though all the adjectives had dropped out of the English language.

After our first year with Jens, he suggested that the three of us needed to learn some philosophy. He proposed that we engage in a survey of the history of metaphysics—among many other things, I learned a new definition of the word “survey.” We began with Heraclitus and Parmenides before moving to Plato, Aristotle, Proclus, and Plotinus. Next we read the Patristics, then the Medievals, Early Moderns, and Idealists. We finished, a year later, with Heidegger, Dorothee Sölle, and Barth.

Jens described Barth’s Church Dogmatics as “the first grand system· of Western metaphysics since the collapse of Hegelianism, but a thoroughly revisionary one … an all-encompassing, flexible, and drastically coherent Christological interpretation of all reality.” Jens disagreed with Barth along with the others we read, and he made sure we knew it. But Barth, he told us, missteps aside, had the right idea. All created existence finds its meaning and purpose in the person of the crucified and risen one, Jesus Christ.

The reason why Jens insisted that we make our way through the history of metaphysics was because he insisted that Christian theology be performed fearlessly. Christians can—indeed must—stand boldly shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Aristotle and Hegel. We need not be wowed or cowed by the wisdom of the world. We ought to learn whatever there is to be learned from the world, but we do so with a purpose: to better point to and tell the truth, the story, and the promise that Jesus is.

Jens’s contribution to theology and church could well be described as an answer to the question: What if the story and promise of the gospel are true? By “true” he meant, “true in the dumb sense,” the sense in which we use it in day to day speech.

This exemplifies Jens’s theological method, an approach that goes against the grain of much of modern theology, which assumes that much of the Christian faith’s truth claims are only apparently or at best figuratively true. Jens suggested that it just might be possible to rethink everything—not just theology, but philosophy, culture, art criticism, etc.—on the basis that the eternal, infinite Word of God is Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel. His work, taken as whole, is such an attempt.

November
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Christianity Today
Because God Is: A Tribute to Robert W. Jenson (1930-2017)