By Blair Bertrand
Although I ultimately concern myself with Karl Barth’s theological anthropology in Church Dogmatics 3.2, §45.2 “The Basic Form of Humanity” (hereafter CD 3.2) in conversation with Robert Kegan’s developmental theories as presented in The Evolving Self (hereafter Evolving, 1982) and In Over Our Heads (hereafter Over Our Heads, 1994), I am going to start with a description of a young man named Dylan. I do this to signal that I write as a practical theologian and, as per the conventions of the discipline, I take my cue from a real event that pulls me up short both pragmatically and theologically. Dylan’s employment at a Christian summer camp created pragmatic issues as well as pushed the adequacy of the implicit theological anthropology in operation during everyday encounters. I also start with a story because, as committed Barthians likely suspect, on the surface there is little reason to believe that Kegan and Barth can actually have a productive conversation. Barth’s rejection of psychology and theories of development in favour of theology is well known, appreciated (and possibly exaggerated) by systematic theologians. Therefore, I introduce Dylan because when two parties have little in common except enmity it is sometimes easier to talk about a third thing. Finally, as practical theologians fear, Barth can swallow an essay. Barth’s basic stance concerning revelation assumed in CD 1.1 and 1.2 has discouraged practical theology from seeing Barth as a real conversation partner. Wrongly, I believe, practical theologians feel that Barth leaves little space for human agency in light of the overwhelming priority given to God. If Barth can help understand Dylan then I will, in part, allay these fears. After describing Dylan and his situation, I turn to Kegan as an interpretive lens. Following that, I reframe Dylan and Kegan’s interpretation using a limited portion of Barth’s theological anthropology. This reframing does not annihilate Kegan’s interpretations but limits, guides and grounds them in a deeper and richer theological understanding. Finally, I offer a few observations for both Barthians and practical theologians as to the implications for our respective work because of this conversation.
Dylan is large in many ways. He looks big; at age eighteen he is 6’2” and a muscular 220 lbs. His largeness also comes out in his gregarious nature. Along with his faithful sidekick Dave, Dylan is often heard hooting, laughing, yelling and generally carrying on. Dylan is a counsellor at a summer Christian camp and he puts his whole large heart into serving. All of his colleagues love this fun-loving, party-creating attitude. At the same time, this love and admiration is tinged with fear. Dylan is both the life of the party and the ring leader for any mischief the staff might get up to. At times, however, he goes too far. Normal pranks get carried one step further than everyone is comfortable with. What is fun to start with borders on cruelty or danger by the time Dylan has taken over. In taking risks, he places others at risk both physically and emotionally. The female staff especially struggle with Dylan, wanting to be within his orbit but also tentative about what might happen by getting too close. Campers have much the same reaction. Boys find it exhilarating to be in Dylan’s cabin. They feel Dylan’s loyalty to them as he creates experiences filled with fun and risk. Girls on the other hand like to watch from afar but feel excluded and a bit frightened by such a display of ‘testosterone.’ Senior staff recognize Dylan’s leadership gifts and have spent considerable amounts of time and energy trying to channel them into productive activities. During training it was clear that Dylan lacked critical risk assessment skills, so senior staff attempted to educate the entire staff on proper boundaries. By focusing staff attention on serving campers using the popular servant-leadership model and by using the ministry goals of the camp as the main criteria for determining behaviour, senior staff hoped to shift Dylan from what they viewed as a narcissistic attitude to one of selfless service. Senior staff tried to appeal to Dylan’s heartfelt but largely unreflective faith, a faith that he associates with his own childhood experiences at camp. These experiences serve as his motivation for working at the camp, more so than any abstract understanding of vocation. He wants children to experience acceptance and fun in a Christian setting, just like he did.
On a day off between camps, Dylan finally went too far. Against a specific prohibition in the standard staff contract that clearly stated no parties and no alcohol on site, Dylan organized a party at a remote part of the camp site. Underage staff purchased alcohol through an older member of staff. By the time the party was shut down, more than half of the staff were involved, most underage and many dangerously inebriated. When the first senior staff member confronted Dylan at the party, he ignored her command to stop the party. He saw no reason to stop; the party was in full swing and he was in his element. The next morning, per the direct restrictions in the contract that the staff had signed, senior staff had no choice but to fire all the staff involved in the incident including Dylan. This left the senior staff with a large group of disgruntled teens, a lot of explaining and no staff to look after the camp coming in within hours. In this chaos, Dylan continued to play a leader role. Now he was the prime agent in subverting anything the senior staff tried. Instead of accepting that his behaviour was wrong, Dylan felt aggrieved against. In his, and soon most of the fired staff’s, mind he was the one wronged in this incident. He felt betrayed. In the months to come, only one of the fired staff approached the camp to confess and apologize; it wasn’t Dylan.
Among the many ways that Kegan might help me understand this situation, I am going to focus on the fact that there are at least three different constructions of relationship in this scenario. The campers, Dylan and his peers, and the senior staff are all related to each other, but each group understands those relationships differently. For instance, children such as the campers Dylan counsels largely inhabit what Kegan calls the Imperial self. For them, relationships are something given to them by the institutional structures surrounding them. Family and school primarily serve this structuring role but in the incident above, a residential Christian camp structures the relationships. Children see the relational world through a series of roles that dictate and determine appropriate behaviour. Mothers and fathers, teachers and principals, counsellors and directors all have roles, and the child figures out how they fit within this relational matrix.
Eventually a figure/ground shift occurs where the child is no longer the role-taker but is the relationship between the roles. This is the stage Dylan and most of his peers are in, the Interpersonal. Teenagers “are” their relationships. Teens can exhibit great degrees of self-sacrifice and collaboration within their peer group. Dylan and Dave were fiercely loyal to each other. They have escaped from understanding each other within prescribed institutional roles and can see each other as discrete individuals. What a teen cannot do, however, is step back and determine which relationship and what components of that relationship she wants to have. In some ways, Dylan’s behaviour was dictated by the relational expectations of his peers. He could no more stop being gregarious and risk-taking than he could stop breathing, for both were necessary to his identity. Teens cannot “have” relationships because their connection to their peer group is the way that they see reality.
When the next figure/ground shift occurs, moving the teen into adulthood, from Interpersonal to Intrapersonal, an individual can have a relationship using a larger ideological criterion. The senior staff in this incident was committed to the mission of the camp. They determined their relationships to each other, to the staff and to campers based on this ideological commitment. They could subordinate their own feelings for someone and fire him even though it meant destroying the relationship. A teen could not do that because to destroy a relationship is to destroy the self. Children on the other hand could understand that this is what the situation demanded. The contract clearly stated the rules and roles all were to assume. A violation of role means a violation of the social norms that give meaning to the world and must be punished according to those social roles. In many ways, the contract itself was within the Imperial understanding of the world.
Even this thumbnail sketch is suggestive of the depth of interpretation that Kegan could give to this situation. Two important points emerge from this, other than insights gained on the immediate incident in question. First, it is easy to see that even something as fundamental to humanity as “relationship” changes depending on our developmental stage. Children, teens and adults all are relational, but the character of those relationships changes significantly depending on life stage. Kegan’s work focuses on when there is a mismatch between expectation and on ability. To expect Dylan to separate himself from his relationships, a demand that the senior staff implied in trying to shift him away from his “narcissism” to a more “servant” based understanding of leadership, sets Dylan up for failure and the senior staff for disappointment. As someone within the Interpersonal, Dylan cannot assume an Intrapersonal perspective although he does have relationships. Kegan has much to say on how those in higher developmental stages might help bridge the distance and promote growth, suggestions that may have helped the senior staff before the fateful night of the party. The obvious starting point is that the senior staff needed better interpretive tools in understanding Dylan so that they could help him mature.
Second, there is a moral dimension to this incident that Kegan remains silent on. Kegan interprets the way that we construe the world, in this case relationships, but does not determine norms for those construals. In this case, most blatantly, Dylan was wrong to organize the party. Kegan can explain why Dylan did this but remains silent on whether he should have. This silence is not from ignorance. Kegan recognizes that at some point “no framework that is strictly psychological” can fully justify itself (Evolving, 288). For all of Kegan’s epistemological sophistication, he lacks a grounding axiology or justifying teleology. Why care about Dylan? Why concern ourselves with the nature of the relationships in the first place? What determines what a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ fit between expectations and behaviours actually is? Kegan attempts a partial philosophical answer to these questions but his work begs for a fuller theological anthropology that can give value and direction to the development of the human person.
Contrary to popular opinion among practical theology circles, for Barth “Christology is not anthropology” (CD 3.2, 222). We as humans are not the unique human-divine subject Jesus Christ. At the same time, we are human and so must look to the truly human Jesus Christ to understand what that means. Christology thus plays a crucial role in Barth’s theological anthropology. As we correspond to and have similarity through our common humanness with Jesus Christ, we can have true humanity. As Barth makes clear, “we cannot start with the assumption that there is a known and accepted picture of man [sic] and humanity before which we can pause and from the contours of which we can read off that which corresponds and is similar in man [sic] to the humanity of Jesus” (CD 3.2, 226). In other words, we cannot start with Kegan’s psychological anthropology and end up with a true theological anthropology. We must start with the basic form of humanity revealed in Jesus Christ and then move to interpretations such as Kegan’s to help explain that true form. It is in 3.2 (§45.2) that Barth points out four characteristics of true humanity and, given their highly relational nature, I will use these four to understand what limiting, guiding and grounding a psychological anthropology might in part look like for Barth.
If we want to have real human relationships with each other, Barth would suggest that any time that we consider someone like Dylan, whether it is in day-to-day interaction or in an analytic situation such as the one I have constructed here, we must start with four basic premises. First, true humanity is “a being in which one man [sic] looks the other in the eye” (CD 3.2, 250). We must see each other. Second, only where there “is mutual speech and hearing” is true humanity present (CD 3.2, 252). We must hear and speak to each other. Third, “the fact that we render mutual speech assistance in the act of being” is constitutive of humanity (CD 3.2, 260). We must serve each other. Finally, all of these actions must be “done on both sides with gladness” (CD 3.2, 265). We must delight in each other. To be human is to see, hear, serve and delight with and in each other.
These four basic forms of humanity limit our interpretations. Writing during and after the Holocaust, Barth was keenly aware of the fact that even apparently benign ways of seeing each other can really serve as instruments of evil. We must limit our interpretation using this kind of theological anthropology lest “it might be only a matter of psychology and not the other man [sic], of pedagogics and not the child, of sociological statistics and systematisation and not the individual, of the general and not the particular, which is the only thing that really counts in this respect” (CD 3.2, 252). Just as Barth’s theology in general dynamites pretensions to understanding God through “religion,” so his theological anthropology dismisses any interpretation that blurs the basic form of humanity. Kegan’s attentiveness to individuals within context, seeing who they are, listening to their story, desiring to help them and genuinely caring for them, places him within the parameters established by this theological anthropology. It is less clear that the senior staff saw Dylan as an individual. Certainly things like a standard contract limited the ability of the senior staff to really see, hear, serve and delight in Dylan as they were forced to see him as an employee.
Furthermore, these four characteristics guide our interpretations. In the instance of Dylan the category “relationships” suggests itself given Kegan’s understanding of meaning-making, but also because there is a resonance with the relationality of Barth’s anthropology. Inclusion and agency, community and autonomy—poles that Kegan describes—are constantly present within the personalist-influenced anthropology that Barth articulates. We cannot experience humanity in its truest form outside of neighbour so our interpretations must account for this. At the same time, though, we are to see and hear the distinct individual, suggesting that the relationship between the particular and the universal will always play a role in understanding humans. Interpretations which reduce us to simple structures or atomized biological animals do not take proper guidance from the true humanity Barth presents. Within the limits set by true humanity, Barth’s theological anthropology presents a positive direction by which we might proceed.
Leaving aside debates about Barth’s personalism in this paragraph, his theological anthropology grounds itself deeply within his theology and therefore can undergird an interpretation such as Kegan’s. There are a number of ways of understanding how this anchoring happens, any of which are deeper than not being able to give a justification for understanding or caring about Dylan à la Kegan. As already alluded to, Barth’s anthropology roots itself in his Christology. Similarly, it also orients itself within covenantal history. As God’s covenantal partner humans interact with God in a special and unique way. We depend on God for our being but still have real freedom and agency. God does not partner with a puppet but it is also mistaken to believe that God partners with the autonomous modern self. Our agency finds both its freedom and limits within God’s covenantal grace. Barth’s anthropology is an articulation of how this covenantal relationship occurs. In any case, we can understand Dylan through Christology or covenant and this does not even mention other relevant doctrines such as election, the concursus Dei, vocation or mission. In the end, Barth limits, guides and grounds a legitimate interpretation of human agency.
In the beginning I offered three reasons for starting with Dylan. I recapitulate two of those now in a different key aimed directly at Barthian systematic theologians and my own Barth-allergic field of practical theology. Systematic theology needs to take its cue from Barth himself and loosen the grip of the strictly “theological” for all Christian tasks. On the flip side, by avoiding Barth, practical theology limits its ability to ground its work in one of the most profound theologies of the 20th century.
For both Kegan and Barth, Dylan matters. The camp that Dylan worked at made a difference in hundreds if not thousands of young people every year and as a counsellor Dylan was on the frontline of that ministry effort. Even beyond the instrumental use of Dylan for kingdom purposes, his own development into a full human being matters. Theologians must acknowledge materially in their own work that while Barth may give limits, guidance and grounding for practical theology, he does not have all of the answers. For instance, Barth assumes an understanding of seeing, hearing, serving and delighting largely located in the Intrapersonal. This implicit anthropology makes unreasonable demands of someone like Dylan unless reinterpreted by someone like Kegan. A child or a young person can still see, hear, serve and delight; they just will not do so in the same ways as an adult. To insist on a strictly ‘theological’ interpretation without the help of someone like Kegan disconnects Barth’s theology from any lived reality. Systematic theologians do not need to do the task of practical theologians but they also need to be aware that their thoughts can fund meaningful and significant action only if they consider the implications in lived reality. By denigrating as too philosophical or not theological enough the moments when Barth engages in real world issues, like in this paragraph where he directly addresses issues pertaining to the Holocaust, theologians further distance themselves from lived reality and move into the realm of arid scholasticism.
On the other side, practical theologians need to get over an understanding of Barth that centers on revelatory fideism. Simply because Barth starts with revelation does not mean that there is no place for fields of study that focus on human agency. It should be clear that even secular humanists such as Kegan recognize that there must be further philosophical or theological understanding to limit, guide and ground a field like psychology. That is, psychology does not have all of the answers. Barth’s theological anthropology is too rich to toss out simply because early evaluations of his thought lead to the conclusion that there is no space for human agency. On the other side, Barth grants that other disciplines are “relevant, interesting, important and legitimate” (CD 3.2, 79) and may go a long way to understanding human agency provided that we do not believe that they are describing human reality in toto. Since Kegan doesn’t believe his theories to describe human reality in toto, it does not seem unreasonable for practical theology to embrace Barth as an important dialogue partner.
For Kegan and Barth, Dylan matters. How he sees, hears, serves and delights in the world is specific to his age but universal in its theological grounding. In the end, Kegan and Barth could both discuss Dylan and add significance to understanding him psychologically and theologically with the hope of guiding future actions. Neither needs to be afraid of the other nor should we as systematic or practical theologians be afraid of having interdisciplinary discussion. Young people like Dylan depend on it.
By Katherine M. Douglass
Blair Bertrand provides a thought-provoking essay exposing the challenge as well as fruitful benefit of interdisciplinary dialogue when considering real problems faced in ministry. In response, I will expand on Bertrand’s critique of Barth’s theological anthropology that I believe limits full humanity to a definition that ultimately excludes not only Dylan, but potentially many others. Second, I will offer, a brief alternative portrayal of Barth’s relationship with the field of practical theology.
As Bertrand shows, both Kegan and Barth give attention to the social dimension of what it means to be human. Kegan is concerned with how the quality of social relationships changes as individuals mature and develop throughout a lifetime. Barth is concerned with the social dimension of humans as a uniquely defining characteristic of what it means to be human.
Bertrand poignantly identifies the intersection of tension between Kegan and Barth in his consideration of Dylan. He claims that, “Barth assumes an understanding of seeing, hearing, serving and delighting largely located in the Intrapersonal. This implicit anthropology makes unreasonable demands of someone like Dylan unless reinterpreted by someone like Kegan. A child or a young person can still see, hear, serve and delight; they just will not do so in the same ways as an adult.” It is worthwhile to further consider the implications of Bertrand’s critique and the trajectory of Barth’s theological anthropology for those who may be even more limited than Dylan in their ability to see, hear, serve and delight in others.
As Bertrand implies, Dylan as well as “a child or young person,” is not yet capable of seeing, hearing, serving and delighting in the same way as an adult, and is therefore seemingly excluded in Barth’s theological anthropology due to their lack of ability to participate in the kind of mutually responsive relationship that Barth claims to be definitive of authentically human relationships. Rightly, Bertrand suggests that through interaction with Kegan, Barth’s theological anthropology might be expanded to consider those not yet capable, but with the future potential, of mutual seeing, hearing, serving and delighting.
I would like to highlight that Bertrand’s underlying critique is of the static modernist definition that Barth creates. Barth’s theological anthropology is a beautifully written appeal to those living in Germany during the Third Reich to see, hear, serve and delight in one another based not on religion or ethnicity, but rather in their common humanity. However, as Bertrand has shown, when the attempt is made to universalize this theological anthropology, we run into people like Dylan who fall outside of this definition of humanity. Implicit in this argument is that while Dylan does not currently have the intrapersonal skills necessary for the kind of relationship Barth defines, he will one day have the capacity. My concern is for those who, unlike Dylan, may never have the capacity, or perhaps have lost the capacity, to be in the kind of seeing, hearing, serving and delighting relationship Barth describes.
I agree with Barth that being in authentic relationships is central to being human, however there must be more to these relationships than mutuality because, as was shown through the example of Dylan, not all individuals are able to engage in mutually acknowledging and responsive relationships.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one example of the affirmation of the humanity of a man lying, left for dead, by the side of the road. He is unable to actively participate in a relationship with another, but even so, his humanity is affirmed through the treatment he receives from another. For some, relational participation is limited to passively being seen, being talked to, being served and being delighted in despite their lack of the ability to respond. I believe this further nuanced definition of intrapersonal relationships creates space to include as humans infants and pre-verbal children, those in a coma or with Alzheimer’s, as well as individuals with any condition that challenges their ability to respond to or contribute to relationships.
In fact it was most often the blind, the deaf, the “demon possessed,” and children – those who were considered less than human in the first century world – whom Jesus went to, treating them as fully human and affirming their humanity by doing so. The relationality central to being human is maintained, but further nuancing allows for the inclusion and affirmation of individuals who might not otherwise fit into Barth’s theological anthropology.
Bertrand states at various points in his essay that the field of practical theology is allergic to Barth, and while there are certainly some who fit this description, such as Don Browning, there is an entire Barthian stream in practical theology including the work of Deborah Hunsinger, Andrew Root, Ray Anderson, James Loder and others, who claim, like Bertrand, to bring Barth's theology into conversation with the fields of psychology, youth ministry, educational theory and psychoanalysis. While Barth is not the most popular dialogue partner in practical theology, he is certainly present. I look forward to hearing how Bertrand further elaborates on what seems to be a preliminary critique of Barth studies in practical theology. I additionally look forward to reading his future contributions in this area of the field.
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