Monday, June 14, 2010

A Word from Barth to Our Political Situation

As I noted in the first ever post on this blog, “my grandmother always taught me not to discuss religion and politics in polite company, and since I’m discarding the bit about not discussing religion, I’m going to try to stick to not discussing politics.” My track record has proven that I wasn’t kidding.

Today, however, I feel compelled to fudge things just a little bit. This post isn’t about politics per se, but it is about what Christians – or, at least, one Christian (Barth) – could say about political reality. For my own part, it seems to me like our contemporary political reality is a particularly striking demonstration of the keenness of Barth’s insight. So, without further ado…

Church Dogmatics 4.1, 446-7:
To live as a man means in effect to be at some point on the long road from the passionate search for a standard by which to judge our own human affairs and those of others, to the discovery of such a standard, its affirmation in the conviction that it is right, the first attempt to apply it to ourselves and to those around, the first successes and failures of this attempt, the hardening of the certainty that this and this alone is the real standard, the more or less happy or bitter experience of the unavoidable conflicts with others and the standards that they have discovered and applied, perhaps the partial triumph of our own law, perhaps partial or total defeat in the attempt to put into it effect, perhaps a final tolerable satisfaction with what has been achieved, perhaps a more or less noble resignation or a more or less conscious skepticism, but always the question whether it has really been worth while, whether we can really and seriously be satisfied with ourselves as the judge of ourselves and others that we willed to be and have been. Again, human life in society, whether on a small scare or a large, means the emergence and conflict, the more or less tolerable harmony and conjunction, of the different judges with their different rights, the battle of the ideas formed and the principles affirmed and the standpoints adopted and the various universal or individual systems, in which at bottom no one understands the language of the others because he is too much convinced of the soundness of his own seriously to want to understand the others, in which, therefore, what will be right as thought and spoken by one will be wrong as received by the others. The battle is between what is supposed to be good and what is supposed to be evil, but in this battle all parties – how can it be otherwise? – think that they are the friends of what is good and the enemies of what is evil. Therefore, quite contrary to the purpose and intention of those who take part in it, the more seriously this battle is waged, the more certainly it will lead to pain and tears and crying, so that at the end we have to ask seriously whether the upshot of it all is not a fresh triumph, not for a supposed evil, but for one which is very real.
Sorry for the length, but it is worth it. I tried to highlight some of the more critical sections, but found that more was highlighted than not – which, of course, defeated the purpose.

10 comments:

Bob MacDonald said...

Definitely Barth at his funniest!

W. Travis McMaken said...

Thanks for stopping by, Bob, but I'm not at all clear on how Barth is being funny here.

Bob MacDonald said...

What's funny is the accuracy and the repetition of detail in the ways in which humans conflict over 'law'. The lack of perspective on the present 'other' highlights the foolishness of the self's narrow view. The Gospel provides the solution but only through the death of the law-maker.

That's my sense of his humour - he achieves the effect through the repetition of the trope.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Much more perspicuous. :-)

JKnott said...

Great quotation. But is it only or even primarily aplicable to our "political" situation? Why not our religious situation, familial, social, etc. situations? This is quite apart from whether Barth himself meant it only to apply to politics. Furthermore, this raises quite well a question I've asked myself, namely, what is Barth's ontology? This seems to rule out a (Milbankian) "ontology of peace." My own view is that Barth's later ontology, particularly in light of his doctrine of election, breaks with Milbank's binary opposion of ontologies and represents an ontology of triumphant suffering.

W. Travis McMaken said...

It is clear from what Barth says that he has politics in mind, but I think you are right to point to broader application.

As far as the ontology question, I'm not the guy to ask. I know that Kevin Hector gave a paper on the topic (Barth's ontology interacting with Milbank's) a few years back at the PTS Barth conference. But, I don't know if it is in print anywhere. Perhaps another reader can help us on this.

JKnott said...

I would love to read Hector's thoughts on this, or at least hear a synopsis of them.

David W. Congdon said...

Hector's essay will appear in print in the forthcoming volume, "Karl Barth and American Evangelicals," edited by Bruce McCormack. It should appear sometime in mid-2011. Sorry it has to be such a long wait!

In the meantime, I'd be happy to provide summary details of his thesis. In short, he offers the most substantial criticism of RO to date, showing that it's purported "ontology of peace" is really an ontology of violence in that it renders all positions other than its own to be mere versions of nihilism. This is evidenced in the very violent rhetoric with which it dismisses all other viewpoints. Barth, Hector argues, provides a covenantal ontology rooted in the fact that the covenant is the inner basis of creation. The result is that Barth is able to establish a covenantal space wherein myriad positions can freely dialogue in true peace.

Bob MacDonald said...

What, please is RO?

W. Travis McMaken said...

Shorthand for 'Radical Orthodoxy' - Milbank's camp.