Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wherefore Anselm?

There's just something about Anslem (1033–1109), that early Scholastic theologian and archbishop of Canterbury who gave us, perhaps, the ultimate rejoinder to the "new Atheists." For many Christian thinkers today, his most famous essay, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human) is a foil for debates about substitutionary atonement. But, as important as such questions are, they are not what's vexing me right now.

Philosophers of religion, I think, mostly know Anselm as the source of a curious defense of the existence of God known as the ontological argument (See this article for an overview). This argument, as best I can summarize it, goes like this: 1) It is impossible for the mind to conceive anything greater than God. 2) If God is conceived as nonexistent, then an existing entity is greater than God, but that contradicts principle no. 1. 3) Therefore, God must exist: A denial of God's existence is impossible. This kind of theistic proof has been roundly trounced by philosophers and theologians ranging from Thomists to Kantians to postmodernists. (You can read a clear and concise exposition of the argument by Peter Kreeft here, no. 13 among his 20 types of arguments for God's existence.)

Karl Barth thought Anselm's argument in the Proslogium I-V was fundamentally important for Christian theology. And if Barth's reading is correct -- my understanding from Professor Bernard McGinn and other folks is that medievalists tend to find Barth's interpretation kind of weird -- the philosophers are missing the main point of this treatise. The key issue here, one might say, is not the elaboration of an abstract argument for God's existence but, rather, the particular character of the understanding of the divine reality that stems from the nature of faith itself. A conceptual grasp of God's reality, if that's the right way to put it, is preceded by and determined by the believer's invocation: Lord, please help me know you. In other words, Anselm is explicating God's existence from within the inner logic of faith itself rather than trying to present a convincing argument from some supposedly neutral standpoint.

Barth, in fact, claimed that his own book on Anselm (1930) was pivotal to how he came to understand and elaborate the Christian knowledge of God in his Church Dogmatics. The tendency of earlier Barth interpreters (including, famously, von Balthasar and Thomas Torrance) was to stress this study of the Scholastic thinker as the pivotal point in Barth's transition from a more "dialectical" theological method to a more "analogical" approach -- from a way of negation to a way of affirmation in claims about our knowledge of God, if I may be allowed to oversimplify a bit. Barth's own comments on the matter abetted this older reading of the genetic development of his thought. Nowadays, in the wake of revisionist scholarship from Germany that masterfully introduced into Anglo-American Barth studies by Professor Bruce McCormack, interpreters tend to see the real story as a bit more complicated than Barth himself and his earlier interpreters would have it. (A fairly recent book by Keith L. Johnson, discussed over at the DET blog, apparently deals in some depth with Barth's reading of Anselm. The book has gotten some pretty good press, but I admit -- alas! -- I haven't read it yet.) But now I'm starting to get a little far afield.

My main point is this: There's something about Anselm's "ontological argument" -- something that Barth found quite important. But just what is that? And why is it so easy for contemporary thinkers to misunderstand what the great Scholastic thinker was trying to do? These are the questions stirring today in my quasi-caffeinated brain. Barth's Anselm book, despite its deceptive brevity, is actually a pretty difficult text to analyze (at least I find it so), and I have never worked on it with the care it deserves. In part this is because the argument clings very closely to the primary texts, which he quotes copiously, and (alas) I don't (yet) read Latin.

But...aha...I do have fine English translations of Anselm's works, so maybe I can start there and try to sort out some of these questions afresh for myself. The Proslogion does strike me as a pretty unusual text. But I had better save my thoughts on this for later.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Powerful Trio

Was Karl Barth the father of contemporary theologies of the principalities and powers? Perhaps he was, from a certain perspective, and quite literally so.

Let me explain.

First, (for anyone who doesn't follow these things) there is a strand of thinking in recent theology, biblical studies and social ethics that seeks to retrieve the language of "principalities and powers" found throughout the New Testament and relate it the social and political realities of our current context. According to this way of thinking, institutions and ideologies are more than just the products of human individual agencies: They have a reality all their own. They have, in some sense, a "spiritual" reality. Or better, they just are spiritual realities as incarnate in concrete social, political, economic and ideological structures. Probably the most famous proponent of this highly influential line of thought was the late Walter Wink, who passed away just this past year (You can read Professor's Wink's obituary in the Sojourners blog here.)

Wink acknowledged his debt to the earlier work of the Episcopal lawyer, activist and theologian William Stringfellow (1928-1985). Stringfellow, it's hard to deny, is the fountainhead of the theology of principalities and powers.

So now I've been reading Anthony Dancer's book on Stringfellow, An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow. In chapter 6, I'm learning some fascinating things about Stringfellow and the development of his mature theology. If you've read Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, which is primarily the fruit of lectures he gave in his trip to the United States in 1962, you might recall that Stringfellow gets a shout-out in the preface. Famously, when Barth spoke as part of a panel at the University of Chicago, he admonished the audience to "listen" to the spirited young lawyer. Stringfellow, alone among the panelists, had no credentials with an ecclesiastical or academic institution, and in the 1950s he had given up prospects for a more lucrative career in order to live, practice law and advocate for the poor and oppressed in East Harlem. Stringfellow's affection for Barth is evident in the younger theologian's writings.

What I knew nothing about, however, before reading this book is that Stringfellow had a close friendship with Barth's son Markus, who himself became an eminent New Testament scholar. The two had a lively correspondence which has never been published but can be found in the collection of Stringfellow's papers (which I've never seen) at Cornell University. Stringfellow credited the younger Barth -- especially his Anchor Bible commentary on Ephesians (1-3) -- with giving him keen insights into the principalities and powers. (Stringfellow's friendship with Jacques Ellul is also quite significant).

So you see, one way or the other -- like I've always said -- preacher's kids inevitably cause trouble. This seems to be especially true when they pay close attention to the Bible, the most dangerous text that's ever been published.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


I'm sort of a collector of books by and about Karl Barth, and I've done pretty well. I especially like ones that I can find used. Or some of the old ones that I can steal...um...borrow from church libraries (Trust me: Nobody else is going to want to read these particular ones.) My wife, Leah, has a keen eye for scope out used bookstores and uncovering gems. (Going to used bookstores is no longer any fun for me alas. For by the time I make it through my first shelf, she's ferreted out all the good stuff. All she wants to know is how much money will be left in the bank account after the rent and utilities are paid and the groceries are bought. Well, you can always use the powdered milk and save four more bucks.)

Here are some of the gems she has scored from the used bins: Berkhouwer's Triumph of Grace; The Word of God and Theology (the old translation: two copies, one of which has long since disintegrated); Evangelical Theology (one paper and and one cloth, thank you very much!); The Faith of the Church; The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (That one is a riot, in which Barth plays a cruel but brilliant joke on the Gifford Lectures committee: They invite him to discuss "natural theology", a topic which he dispenses with curtly in one paragraph, and then he goes on for the rest of the book give a very un-Gifforidian exposition of...wait for it!... the Scot's Confession).

And then there's the so-called Shorter Commentary on Romans, Barth's third attempt at a complete commentary on the epistle, in which he finally gives up his stunningly brilliant and creative earlier attempts and tries to write about what Paul, perhaps, was actually trying to say.

There have been moments of heartbreak, as well. Once, when we moved, a precious copy of Küng's Justification disappeared mysteriously. The night before, I had made a desperate trip to what we called the "magic yellow box" -- a mystical receptacle at the Seven-Eleven where one could deposit one's...ahem... "donations" for the "needy." I don't want to think about what might have happened, the hours of reading pleasure I might have squandered.

And soon enough -- but I'm going to make you wait for it! -- I'm going to regale you with some short reviews of some dusty old secondary Barth studies that, I can pretty much guarantee you, you will not see discussed anywhere in the blogosphere.