From Mount Athos to Thessalonica and back again: a review of Johannes Hartl’s God Untamed

Read time: 7 minutes

In the Prologue to God Untamed Johannes Hartl tells the story of being stuck on Mount Athos in northern Greece in a ferocious storm. He has spent a few days on this isolated peninsula, in the skete of St Anna, with a friend walking and praying. Now they need to get to Thessaloniki to catch a plane back to Germany, but the sea is too rough and the ferry service has been suspended.

Mount Athos, of course, is a place of prayer, a place of Orthodox monastic and strictly male isolation (even female domestic animals are banned by a 10th century charter), an otherworldly retreat from the frenetic banality of modern European life. In this story Thessaloniki is just an airport, a transit point. The restless, unpredictable sea is an ever present image for Hartl’s untamed God. “I love and fear God, as I do the sea,” he says. “I am astonished by God, as I am by the sea.”

I drove past Mount Athos a few years ago, travelling from ancient Philippi to ancient Thessalonica. I could feel the holy lure of the place, but it was not strong enough to get me off the path of history. Besides, I had my wife with me.

In the “spiritual” journey that I am on Thessalonica is where the apostles were accused, presumably with some justification, of turning the world upside and proclaiming “another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:1-9). It is where pagans abandoned their idols in the firm belief that their world was under judgment and that Jesus would rescue them from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:9-10). They no doubt extolled Christ as the anti-Caesar—the crucified “slave” who would soon be acclaimed as Lord by the nations of the empire (cf. Phil. 2:6-11).

But we cannot live in the past. I was encouraged to read Hartl’s book by the publisher of the English translation, who is a very good friend, and I have done so with the conscious intention of reminding myself that we tell the long historical narrative in order to account for our worship and witness in the present.

These, then, are perhaps the two main “theological” tasks facing the western church: 1) to recover the historical dimension of the New Testament narrative and 2) to recover a credible public faith in, and experience of, the living creator God, who is in any case the God of history. The second task is the subject of this book.

Hartl is an eclectic German Catholic theologian. He feeds voraciously off Otto, Barth, and von Balthasar; he quotes Solzhenitsyn, Goethe and Nietzsche at length. He is a story-teller, a maker of parables, something of a poet, and if not quite a mystic, then certainly a passionate enabler of the informal collective mysticism of the modern 24/7 prayer movement. He is one of the founders of the Augsburg House of Prayer, and it is this which has brought him to prominence.

The book begins with a swift analysis of the western condition. European intellectual history has run from myth to logos. Reason rules. Science explains everything but has driven the human mind to the margins of the cosmos, leaving us adrift. “It seems that only yawning emptiness replaces the old myths. From all modern science comes so much explanation, but no sense” (7). So we are confronted with the ineluctable question about God. “It is time to face the sea.”

We are a thoroughly narcissistic generation, and this narcissism has infected the church. Drawing on the work of the American psychologist Jean Marie Twenge, Hartl concludes that “the Christian churches preach exactly the same glorification of the ego, but with devout vocabulary” (19). Most distressingly we have lost any real knowledge of the creator. Spirituality has been reduced to self-fulfilment, theology to anthropology, worship to social action, prayer to mindfulness. So we need to recover the fear of God which is the beginning of wisdom.

“All worldly questions are trivial,” Hartl affirms, “compared to the question of whether God exists and what he is like” (37). If the church is not entirely forgetful of God, then it treats God merely as an object of intellectual enquiry, of technical reason. So we must learn again to speak of knowing God personally and deeply.

In a chapter called “Glory” we have Hartl’s theory of God, his theo-logy: God is one, he is happy, he is not an egomaniac, he is triune, he is beautiful, he is praiseworthy, he tells a “big, wide-ranging, elaborate story that begins with creation” (59), and so on. Concise and to the point.

But isn’t there a glaring catch? Isn’t the reality that life is nasty, brutish and short? If for many European intellectuals the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 wrecked an already shaky faith in a happy and praiseworthy God, the believing response must emerge from an authentic encounter with the God who is not deaf to suffering. “He himself suffered, he took sin on himself, he experienced meaninglessness and suffering inflicted on his own body” (87).

The solution to the “theodicy question”, Hartl says, is not rationality, it is experience, it is praise, and we come out the other side knowing that God is mysterium tremendum et fascinans, in Otto’s phrase—a fearful and fascinating mystery. God is not arbitrary but holy, wholly other, not relative or contingent or changeable but eternal, not helpless but almighty. God loves with a burning passion, but we must also think of him as angry. “God is angry because he hates that which is wrong. The idea of a god who is left cold, unmoved by murder, expulsion, rape and exploitation, is horrific” (124). Therefore, Hartl says emphatically, God is judge.

The last chapter is called “Exodus”. Moses goes to Pharaoh with God’s demand: “let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness”. The stubborn insistence on worshipping our idols, the work of our own hands, is the root of humanity’s problem. But the untamed God liberates people from their slavery in order that they may worship him… and pray, which brings us finally to the Augsburg House of Prayer. People come for the conferences in their thousands, from all over the world, mostly young people. And what do they find there? “Quite simply, a fascination with a God so wonderful, so glorious and so powerful that it is the most natural reaction in the world to worship him, day and night” (153).

There are some points of disagreement, and I may come back to them. But I read this book not to disagree with it but to be disagreed with. It’s done me a power of good.

We have to understand how the two journeys of “theological” recovery intersect. The Jewish apostle Paul brought good news of another king, who would judge and rule over the nations of the empire for the sake of the glory of the creator God. That journey of history has continued for two thousand years, until we come round to Thessaloniki again by way of Mount Athos and ask again about the presence of the almighty creator God, the good judge of the world, as we career towards environmental catastrophe.

By way of a postscript, I had a long conversation yesterday with a guy overlooking the pools in Wadi Shab, in eastern Oman. He was there to escape the pressures of business, if only briefly. He needed to start to find himself again.

We talked about why religion persists in the modern age—as an unbeliever he finds the phenomenon fascinating, inexplicable. We talked a bit about the historical Jesus and the community of Israel. We talked about why people believe in God. He thought it comes from a need of some sort—to make sense of the world, to bring the unknown under control. I suggested that it arises, more positively, from our capacity for wonder, which is Hartl’s point; and when you emerge from the overwhelming corridor of Wadi Shab, you are right by the immense sea. I will make sure he gets a copy of God Untamed.