Friday, September 14, 2012

Why I am not not a Barthian

The double negative is intentional.  This post is to be followed up (when I get up the nerve) by a post titled "Why I am not a Barthian." My goal here is to briefly signal several significant and common critiques of Barth that, to my mind, are either off-base or, even if legitimate, are not necessarily fatal to his project as a whole.

Three caveats, first.

First, Karl Barth is my favorite theologian. Augustine and Luther are not far behind, but I've been obsessed with Barth, especially, since my early 20s.

Second, attempting to write about Barth is the third hardest thing I've ever tried to do -- and, to be honest, I'm not sure how successful I've really been at doing it.

(The first and second hardest things I've done have been trying to raise a child and going out for junior varsity football in 9th grade after being almost completely sedentary for most of my childhood).

I do not brag, in the least, that I've "mastered" Barth. This comes not from false humility but from a genuine sense of being overwhelmed. But I have been trying to read think about his work for a while now. We've seen more than two decades now of some first-rate Barth scholarship being published.

By the way, if you've never read Barth, several bloggers have given helpful suggestions about how to read Barth (see herehere and here, for starters). If you do want to read Barth yourself, this is the approach I would recommend: Take something, anything, and just start reading. And keep reading. And then read some more.  Reading Barth is more like training for a marathon than winning the lottery (I don't imagine I'll ever experience either of these things).

If you're more of a browser, that's okay too: You might try Clifford Green's book. (There, I've done it: I've blurbed an anthology. That's probably enough for me to be blackballed from the Barth studies guild forever.)

Third, I'd welcome critical feedback from anyone. Please keep in mind that this is just a blog post and not a peer reviewed journal article. These are lines of inquiry, perhaps, for my to explore further. Reading Barth, you might have guessed, is not inlcuded in my day-job description.

Now, several reasons I'm "not not a Barthian."

1.) Barth writes some very troubling things about women and gay people.

I take this criticism of Barth quite seriously, especially with all the misogynistic and homophobic rubbish that is out there today. If Barth's attitudes on gender and sexual orientation are a deal-breaker for you, I respect that decision. But I think it is quite possible to find much in the main line of Barth's argument that can be used to bolster a liberationist agenda.

I have not studied too closely these aspects of Barth's ethics, but what I've gleaned suggests some rather severe limitations in Barth's perspective. Is he worse than other similarly situated white male academics and churchmen of his time? I'm not qualified to answer that.

Nonetheless, while I don't these issues lightly, I hope these passages might be excised from Barth's overarching theological project. That Barth can still speak something to us that helps to free rather than bind is, in my anecdotal experience, borned out by the significant number of social progressives who fruitfully engage Barth's work.

2.) Barth's theology, in its mature form, sidesteps the thorny questions of politics.

At the height of the Cold War, Reinhold Niebuhr criticized Barth as being a political quietist because he refused to enter the lists against Soviet-style Communism. Some have claimed that Barth's silence on Communist totalitarianism was inconsistent with his more activist stance against the "German Christians" in Nazi Germany. From the other side, some left-wing political folk fault Barth, during his academic career, for stepping back from his earlier activist work as a Socialist.

I won't get into it too much here, but I think the criticism of Barth as apolitical is unfounded. In fact, the German thinker Friedrich Marquardt argued that socialist commitments shaped Barth's dogmatic theology as a whole. (George Hunsinger edited a really fine book about this controversy. Timothy Gorringe and others have also examined Barth's political theology, and it is becoming a serious research interest of mine.)
James Cone, in his early work in black liberation theology, put Barth's doctrine of reconciliation to good use, no matter what flack he caught for it later.

Barth, in my reading, tries to engage political questions without having his theology completely subsumed by them. That's a fine line to walk. As he puts it in the preface to the first volume of his dogmatics, he thinks the dogmatic enterprise per se is necessary to give some true grounding to political engagement. Does it really work that way? I'm not sure. At any rate, I don't think it is Barth's intention to exempt theology from the rough and tumble of the real world.

3.) Barth's account of divine sovereignty leaves no real space for genuine human freedom.

I think this charge is just plain bunk, and John Webster's work should have put it to rest once and for all.
Barth stands in a long line of Christian thinkers -- Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers come to mind --who seek to articulate a non-contrastive account of dual causality that upholds both divine and human agency without explaining away this great mystery. Kathryn Tanner, my former teacher, has written some very good stuff on this topic. If you uphold what philosophers call a "libertarian" notion of human freedom -- that is, freedom as an indeterminate choice between alternatives -- you aren't probably not going to accept how Barth tries to frame freedom within the Christian story. But that is not the same thing as saying that Barth's account of divine sovereignty pushes a genuine creaturely freedom out of the picture.

(By the way, if you're a hyper-Reformed monenergist, please read Susan Schreiner's book on Calvin's creation theology and then let's talk.)

4.) Barth's theology sidesteps the challenges of inter-religious dialogue.

It is true that, for Barth, inter-religious dialogue is in no way constitutive for his theological project. He is not a pluralist in the contemporary sense of the term, and he doesn't engage in what we now call the "theology of religions." But this is not really a fatal problem for me.

I think Islam and Buddhism are fascinating, and I've enjoyed learning about even and trying to teach (very inadequately, I think) some things about the major world religions. But I don't expect the Christian theologian as such to try to speak for Muslims and Buddhists: Barth's notion of theology, like it or not, was very confessional. He accepted the risks that such a stance entailed

(Barth does discuss sometimes discuss other religions in the Dogmatics, especially in the excurses. Somewhere -- I forget where -- Barth does offer a brief reflection on the soteriology of Pure Land Buddhism. Sometimes when he talks about non-Christian religions -- as in a discussion of Islamic monotheism in CD II/1 -- one is inclined to wish he hadn't done so).

Overall, Barth was very ecumenical -- a pioneer in ecumenical dialogue, really, as I understand it -- and very interested in the humanities too (the hard sciences not so much). And I also understand, from reading Busch's biography, that Barth did read fairly widely in the field of religious studies. If this topic interests you, there was a whole conference in Princeton about "Karl Barth on Religion and the Religions" several years ago.

5.) Barth's uncompleted(!) Church Dogmatics is just too long.

Yes, it's probably true.

If you care enough to read Barth, you just have to get over it.

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