Transcendence and Immanence, Prayer and Hymnody

A very common theme in Christian hymnody is the connection between God’s transcendence and his immanence.  I’m reading through Oscar Cullmann, Prayer in the New Testament,* and he discusses the difficulty some have in believing God can answer their prayers, because they see human atrocities and ask ‘Where was God in this?’  In this connection, there is a particular hymn that was specifically repudiated by one Dorothee Sölle in 1965 with these words: “I do not know how after Auschwitz one is to praise the God who rules all things so gloriously” and “there is no way back to the father of children who gives way and course to clouds, air and winds.”

Cullmann answers Sölle  by arguing that the transcendent God has also come near in Christ and in the Spirit; he is not an absent God or an uncaring one: “the answers to different problems to be inferred from the New Testament presuppose faith in God who is in heaven and yet at the same time is near and cares for us.  This is the ‘theistic God’ who nowadays is often tabu, the God who, as the hymn puts it ‘gives way and course to clouds, air and winds, [note God’s transcendence here, and then we move to immanence:] and who helps us in all distress.'”  Then Cullman quotes Helmut Gollwitzer’s response to Sölle, and I found these words to be good and thought-provoking:

Have [the words of this hymn] become untrue through false usage?  How is there no way back to them?  If they are untrue today then they were also untrue earlier, even during the atrocities of the Thirty Years War, which contradict what these hymns say no less than the atrocity of Auschwitz . . . Was the excess of believing in the promise “I will be there” in the midst of atrocities less then than it is today?  . . . As if such hymns of former centuries, as if the talk of divine guidance, rule and fatherhood, owe their rise to naive optimism!  They are prayed in extremis, in the hardest tribulations; they know the situation of Job; they speak in the face of the godforsakenness of Golgotha.

It is true that we get the impression from some Christian songs (I’m thinking here of certain gospel songs) that the life of faith is a constant stream of happiness.  Such a perspective is ill-informed.  But some of the best and most enduring hymnody has come from believers whose faith in God triumphed over his seeming absence in their immediate circumstances — I think here the personal circumstances of William Cowper (“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”), the loss of family of Horatio Stafford (“It Is Well”), the wartime atrocities experienced by Martin Rinkart (“Now Thank We All Our God”) and by Paul Gerhardt, who wrote around the time of the Thirty Years War the hymn Cullmann references.  I reproduce here an English translation of Gerhardt’s hymn (German), “Thy Way and All Thy Sorrows” — and it seems that verses nine and ten provide an answer to Dorothee Sölle:

1 Thy way and all thy sorrows,
Give thou into His hand,
His gracious care unfailing,
Who doth the heav’ns command;
Their course and path He giveth
To clouds and air and wind;
A way thy feet may follow,
He too for thee will find.

2 On Him be Thy reliance,
As thou would’st prosper well;
To make thy work enduring
Thy mind on His must dwell.
God yieldeth naught to sorrow
And self tormenting care;
Naught, naught with him availeth;
No power save that of pray’r.

3 Thy truth and grace, O Father,
Behold and surely know,
Both what is good and evil,
For mortal man below:
And whatso’e’er Thou choosest
Thou dost, great God, fulfill,
And into being bringest
Whate’er is in Thy will.

4 Thy way is ever open;
Thou dost on naught depend;
Thine act is only blessing,
Thy path light without end.
Thy work can no man hinder;
Thy purpose none can stay,
Since Thou to bless Thy children
Through all dost make a way.

5 In vain the pow’rs of darkness
Thy will, O God, oppose;
High over all undoubting,
Thy pleasure onward goes.
Whate’er Thy will resolveth,
Whate’er Thou dost intend,
Its destined work performeth
True to its aim and end.

6 Then hope, my feeble spirit,
And be thou undismayed;
God helps in ev’ry trial,
And makes thee unafraid.
Await God’s time with pleasure,
Then shall thine eyes behold
The sun of joy and gladness
His brightest beams unfold.

7 Arise, arise! thy sadness,
Thy cares send far away;
Away each thought afflicting
That on the heart doth prey.
Not in thy hands the guidance
Of all events doth dwell;
God on His throne o’erruleth,
He guideth all things well.

8 Leave all to His direction;
In wisdom He doth reign;
Thy wonder far exceeding,
He will His course maintain;
So He as Him beseemeth,
With wonder-working skill,
Shall put away the sorrows
That now thy spirit fill.

9 Awhile His consolation
He will to thee deny,
And seem as though in spirit
He far from thee would fly;
Awhile distress and anguish
Shall compass thee around,
Nor to thy supplication
An answ’ring voice be found.

10 But if thou ne’er forsake Him,
Thou shalt deliv’rance find;
Behold all unexpected,
He will thy soul unbind.
He from thy heavy burden
Will soon thy heart set free;
Yea, from that weight no evil
Hath yet befallen thee.

11 Thou child of truth, how blessed!
A conqu’ror soon shalt be,
With songs of glad thanksgiving
A crown awaiteth thee.
To thee the palm triumphal
By god’s own hand is giv’n,
Thine, to His name who saved thee,
To sing the songs of heav’n.

12 Give, Lord, this consummation
To all our hearts’ distress,
Our hands, our feet, O strengthen,
In death our spirits bless.
Thy truth and Thy protection
For evermore we pray;
With these in heav’nly glory
Shall end our certain way.

* Oscar Cullmann, Prayer in the New Testament, Overtures to Biblical Theology (trans. John Bowden; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 131, 180; trans. of Das Gebet im Neuen Testament (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1994).

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