Tuesday, November 30, 2010

2010 KBBC: Week 3, Day 1

On the Monstrosity of Christ:
Karl Barth in Conversation with Slavoj Žižek & John Milbank

By Paul Dafydd Jones


For a while, I hoped to frame this conversation in terms of a dramatic interchange – something along the lines of “A Slovenian philosopher, a British theologian, and a Swiss dogmatician walk into a bar…” Alongside an eye-wateringly hip assemblage of cinematic references, literary allusions, and comedic scenes – my early favorites being when Barth imagines a young adult novel, entitled Are you there God? It’s me, Žižek, and when Milbank waxes poetic about the Twilight movies – I wanted to engage some topics that would likely receive attention, were the authors to meet for drinks. Primarily, I envisioned an intense discussion of the logos asarkos and the logos ensarkos, with Milbank talking up the former category, Barth emphasizing the latter, and Žižek asking whether recent debates are but symptoms of secret puzzle, embedded in the Church Dogmatics – a puzzle that later generations were tasked to solve, with only Barth knowing that it is by definition unsolvable, a symptom of the Real. There would then follow remarks on the orthodoxy/heresy binary as it relates to theology and contemporary Marxism; comments on materialism, new forms of transnational religious militancy, and globalization; a discussion of the church, in which Barth and Žižek would speak up for a politicized ecclesiology, and Milbank and Žižek would ask Barth some difficult questions about the Eucharist; and, finally, a cameo for a discerning bartender, who, having challenged each thinker to speak frankly about sexism and heterosexism, finds herself appalled by their awkward responses. Of course, this interchange would not provoke much laughter. While Žižek’s and Barth’s prose has genuinely humorous moments, and while Milbank’s hyper-seriousness would provide an amusing contrast, there is little chance of this writer viably impersonating the thinkers, and no prospect of his penning a winsome script. Still, a contribution of this sort – that is, one that resembles an actual conversation – could in principle show what a profitable exchange between authors should look like: a frank exchange of ideas, with each thinker refining his or her best insights, appreciating the legitimacy and cogency of others’ views, and recognizing that the truth can only be approximated, by the grace of God, in provisional and halting ways.

However, given my inferior skills as a dramatist, a relative unfamiliarity with Žižek, and an inability to inhabit a “radically orthodox” outlook, I am reduced to offering a more prosaic, and rather less evenhanded, contribution to this conference. Using The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? as a point of departure, my goal is to imagine what Barth might say about a conversation that is already underway. My principal suggestion is this: Barth would urge both Milbank and Žižek to take the monstrosity of Christ rather more seriously than they do. In Barth’s judgment, as I understand it, neither contemporary author proffers a sufficiently robust Christology; further, both promote viewpoints in which Christ is fitted into a preexisting theological or philosophical scheme, as opposed to being treated as determinative for thought as such. Barth’s coordination of Christology, the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of election, on the other hand, is more theologically viable – that is, more intellectually compelling, more attuned to the scriptural witness, and more pertinent to the political moment in which we find ourselves – than either Žižek’s brand of neo-Marxism or Milbank’s celebration of plenitude, paradox, and participation.

Before elucidating this partisan thesis, three caveats are needed. First, I would ask readers’ indulgence for neglecting an number of important issues – for instance, Milbank’s assessment of medieval theology and its legacy in the modern West; Žižek’s synthesis of Lacanian and Hegelian insights, as well as his forays into popular culture; both authors’ treatment of Chesterton, Kant, Schelling, Kierkegaard, and others; and both authors’ views on scripture, tradition, faith, reason, and providence. A short essay cannot provide anything close to a comprehensive analysis; I only hope that my commentary is not too superficial. Second, in what follows I do my best to avoid polemics, even granted the contemporary authors’ fondness for brash overstatements, dubious generalizations, and idiosyncratic modes of argumentation. For sure, Milbank (to some degree) and Žižek (to an impressive degree) would defend their employment of hyperbole, just as Barth would defend the rhetoric of Der Römerbrief. In fact, hyperbole is probably unavoidable when two authors engage in “the intellectual equivalent of Ultimate Fighting” (p. 19) – although I’ll refrain from wondering overlong as to why Creston Davis, who edited The Monstrosity of Christ, believes that this academic exchange is comparable to testosterone-fuelled displays of violence, staged to entertain teenage boys. Still, in this context there is no need for me to rehash critics’ concerns about unchecked exaggeration. My goal is otherwise: to take both authors as seriously as possible, and to imagine how Barth might respond to them. Third, I would note that this essay is hampered by the absence of a counter-counter-response: constraints of space mean that I cannot turn the tables, and imagine what Žižek and Milbank would make of Barth’s sed contra. And this is a serious failing. It forestalls any critical consideration of Barth’s Christological concentration (is it a live option for Žižek or Milbank?); it risks supporting uncritical and fawning readings of Barth, reflective of a worrying nostalgia for “neo-orthodoxy”; it deflects attention away from the benefits that accrue when Barth is criticized from diverse theological, philosophical, and political positions. Still, I expect that others are better able to indicate how Žižek and Milbank might respond to a “Barthian” perspective, so as to correct, refine, and perhaps improve it. I leave this task for them.

Monstrosity diminished

While Žižek claims to tender a “modest plea for the Hegelian reading of Christianity” in The Monstrosity of Christ, readers will be unsurprised to learn that there is nothing remotely modest about his petition. What he offers, for starters, is a thoroughly materialist interpretation of Hegel: a perspective that twists Hegel from side-to-side, turns him upside-down and downside-up, until all references to “transcendence” are utterly dialecticized and utterly de-substantialized. Any construal of Geist “as a kind of meta-Subject, a Mind,” then, is deemed a bad faith attempt to make Hegel “a ridiculous spiritualist obscurantist” (p. 60). It erroneously supposes that finitude can be treated as a passing stage in the career of Geist; it fails to think about Spirit, mind, and matter in terms of their elemental co-implication. Obscurantism of this kind, moreover, proves existentially and politically debilitating. Only as we inhabit a fully materialist perspective, which accepts finitude in all of its agonistic and negative complexity, do we become vehicles of Spirit and catch sight of a new kind of politics. Why so? Well, when we reckon seriously with nullity, when we stare into the “abyss of the Spirit’s self-relating,” we no longer aspire to “regain the lost innocence of Origins” (p. 72). We abandon reliance on either a theological “big Other” (a transcendent deity who controls our destinies) or a political “big Other” (the Party which, dependent upon a conveniently self-accrediting philosophy of history, presumes to occupy the vanguard and represent the proletariat). Instead, we consider truly emancipatory courses of action. Dispossessed of a false totality and invigorated by a belief in “the ontological incompleteness of reality” (p. 240 [emphasis removed]), we move towards subject positions that recognize and, still more importantly, hold open the “void” that gapes before us. We discover new ways to contest global capitalism.

What does this curious brand of neo-Marxism have to do with Christianity? More than one might think. Žižek’s philosophy of history – which, in good Hegelian fashion, is also a philosophy of human subjectivity – identifies Christ’s life and death as a decisive occasion for individual and collective maturation. Žižek believes, specifically, that the incarnation of the Son, understood in terms of the Father’s exhaustive kenotic finitization, negates the possibility of thinking about a transcendent deity who governs the course of history and controls our destinies. Because of Christ, we need no longer suppose that our relationship to God qua Father defines what we are (alienated) and what we may do (not much). We are emboldened to consider a future of our own devising. Concomitant with the negation of the Father, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ gives birth to the community of Spirit. Our alienation from ourselves is negated; we are afforded the opportunity to seize the power that we had mistakenly ascribed to the Father. Thus it is that the “universal God returns as a Spirit of the community of believers” (p. 61 [my emphasis]) – a community that recognizes materiality as irreducible, but knows also that this totality is neither deterministically defined nor insusceptible to revolutionary change. Political action, in short, takes its bearings from Christ’s life and death. The incarnation of the Son means the death of the Father; the death of the Son means the advent of the Spirit; the advent of the Spirit means an existential and political condition oriented towards a post-capitalist future.

One finds here, then, a bold reworking of the old adage, O felix culpa! The fall is no longer construed in terms of Adam and Eve sinning against God; it is conceived in terms of the Father translating himself, without remainder, into the concrete life of the Son, whose death – the negation of negation – inaugurates the community of the Spirit. And redemption is no longer something done to and for us; it is, rather, a possibility that must be humanly realized. Still more audaciously, Žižek is proposing that the Christian tradition become an integral part of the left’s theoretical world. A radically historicized construal of the Trinity and an appeal to the basal fact of the incarnation is an invaluable provocation for thought. It reveals, in a unique way, a revolutionary freedom that lies beyond belief in the “big Other,” whether that “big Other” be construed as a hyper-transcendent Nobodaddy, faith in the inexorable march of history, or the disgraceful beauty of hyper-capitalism.

So what would Barth make of this? He would accept, first of all, that Žižek operates with some entrenched convictions, the likes of which cannot be broken down by frontal assault. That is to say, Barth would probably not open proceedings with an attack on Žižek’s supposition that human beings shape the course of history, denouncing this as “works righteousness” and a symptom of sinful pride (so CD IV/1, §60); nor would he spend time bemoaning Žižek’s willful heterodoxy or his creative handling of the scriptural witness. He would also grant, I think, that Žižek’s avant-garde materialism has a prima facie cogency. Materialism of this sort may not be theologically desirable, but it is not logically impossible, intellectually incoherent, ethically insufferable, etc., and cannot be summarily dismissed. (It might even be deemed a “secular parable of the kingdom”: it seems more philosophically interesting, and more politically vital, than anything that the “new atheists” have conjured up.) Should Barth wish to be critical, then, he would perhaps begin with an immanent critique. He would pose a simple question, consonant with his own style of thought. Is Žižek sufficiently dialectical in his thinking?

The answer, to my mind, is: probably not. As Milbank points out, Žižek’s frequent recourse to the category of “nullity” is reminiscent of a flatfooted natural theology: it ends up “deriving all subsequent rationality in an ordered series from pure nullity—as from pure divine simplicity—in such a way that all reality can be logically situated with respect to this nihil” (p. 158). For sure, this is not quite correct. Milbank draws a too-hasty parallel between God qua “first cause” and a nullity that, for Žižek, is by definition not simple (or, for that matter, complex). But he is on to something, and Barth would press the point. Nullity does function as an irreducible “given” for Žižek; it marks the point beyond which an anti-reductionistic materialism may not go. But have we really avoided reductionism, then? Is Žižek able to imagine what it might mean to continue the dialectical process, and to negate the “negation of the negation” that is the (unclosed) materialism of the spiritual community? The query is a bit cute, but it’s not unfair. While Žižek claims to propound a new kind of materialism, and while his appeals to Christ’s life and death as that which holds open the possibility of the “void” are intriguing, the dialectical negation that he does not truly consider is one brought about by an unforeseeable act of God – that is, the intrusive working of a divine love that cannot be preemptively thought, that happens outside of the stifling binary of negativity-versus-positivity, and that confronts, judges, and redeems humankind. In fact, this subtle constriction of the dialectical process raises the prospect of setting Feuerbach to work. Barth would ask: is Žižek promoting religiosity or doing theology here? Certainly, it might be the latter (a theologian should beware of absolute denunciations; she does not speak sub specie aeternitatis). But it might also be the former. Such religiosity may not be akin to that of the cultured Prussian, quick to support military ventures and eager to extol the glories of nation, blood, and soil. It may be a religiosity of a new kind: one that objectifies an internally felt hollowness, nurtured by frustrated revolutionary aspirations, the uncanny ebbs and flows of desire, and the baffling transience of life in the first world. And might such religiosity be most vividly expressed when Christ is figured as a clown – an image that surely tames the monstrosity that Žižek otherwise acclaims? Could this figure, in fact, reflect nothing other than Žižek’s own professional identity – one that, to some degree, has been foisted upon him by an academy that hankers after an alternative to mainstream liberalism, but lacks the stomach for genuinely disruptive politics? Indeed, what else can we imagine but the moderately subversive amusements of the circus, when the Real is consistently trapped in the interstices of an ascendant capitalist regime?

Milbank’s response to Žižek is characteristically uncompromising. He detects here a style of thought that gained currency in the late middle ages, and which continues to afflict theology today: a “univocalist, voluntarist, nominalistically equivocal, and arcanely Gnostic” (p. 218) vision that distorts Christianity’s best insights. As an alternative, Milbank commends a participatory metaphysics, anchored in the abundance of the Holy Trinity. Against dialectical conflict, he favors an acclamation of paradoxical harmony; against the givenness of materiality, an order saturated with transcendence; against Christ as a “vanishing mediator,” a living Word who enlivens the sacramental life of the church; against Protestant atheism, an “authentic Middle Epoch” (p. 218) in which faith and reason unite, and “catholic” societies anticipate God’s peaceable kingdom.

The way Milbank elaborates this position is intriguing. On one level, he appeals to a “transgeneric vision” (p. 172) that delights in the underlying harmony of creation. He argues, specifically, that since our common experience is not a matter of “random and aporetic contingent finitude” (p. 115 [emphasis removed]), there is no warrant for Hegel’s ontologization of contradiction. Žižek’s identification of the “Real,” by extension, is wrongheaded (and, to repeat, a misplaced endorsement of a mode of reflection inaugurated by Duns Scotus et al., sustained by the reformers, and ingredient to much German idealism). The world in which we live, while complex and dialectical in certain respects, invites a different assessment; its “pleasing harmony” (p. 164) adverts to a “framing transcendent reality” (p. 166). One finds here, in other words, a reading of experience keyed to God’s creative work: an updating of the opening of the Summa and a philosophical commentary on Ps. 19 and Rom. 1:20. On another level – and at this point Milbank indicates that while reason and faith are congruent, their relationship is of an asymmetrical sort: the former being suggestive, but insufficient; the latter being authoritative and abundant – Milbank argues that God’s revealed, triune identity enables us to know who sustains creation and moves it toward a glorious end. Indeed, since the Christian knows that the Father, Son, and Spirit enjoy a paradoxical relationship of unity-and-difference (“paradoxical” in the sense that this relationship gloriously exceeds anything that kenotic and/or dialectical rationality can conceive), she can avoid Hegel’s mistakes and engage the world as it truly is: an “embodied plentitude” (p. 138) that awaits our fitting responses.

The incarnation of the Son makes such engagement with the world a live option. Although sin disorders desire and warps perception, Christ graciously reveals the God who precedes and defines all things. Christ’s work, more particularly, has both cosmic and moral dimensions, for “the entry of the infinite into the finite and the paradoxical identification of the infinite with the finite” (p. 212) enables clarity of sight and heals wills for the purpose of forgiveness and peacemaking. What about the cross? Against Žižek, it neither discloses divine self-emptying nor provides a point of departure for a materialistically bounded political community. No, the cross is the glorious conclusion of Christ’s revelation of harmony; it is the crowning moment in the life of one who orients finitude towards the triune God. Yet it should not be fetishized. It is because of the whole of Christ’s life – “one specific finite moment…of absolute infinite significance, beyond all human imaginings” (p. 215) – that we know that God has committed himself to us and will bring about our salvation. We know, too, that a community’s political labors are coextensive with that community’s participation in God’s work, the principal mediation of which is the Eucharist. For when the Christus praesens is truly acclaimed, the divine order is made manifest, the giving of gifts has no end, and the church anticipates an eschatological joy that the prophets of nihilism cannot possibly foresee.

Without doubt, Barth could respond vigorously to this proposal. Should he be inclined to criticism, he would dispute some of Milbank’s historical judgments, offer a strong defense of the magisterial reformers, ask probing questions about scripture and the analogia entis, and (I hope) worry greatly about Milbank’s remarks about paternalism. However, I want to keep touch with the criticisms directed at Žižek, and pose only one question at this point. Is Milbank’s statement in The Monstrosity of Christ also susceptible to Feuerbachian critique?

I think it is. Although Barth would grant that a “catholic” attempt to correlate faith and reason is, in principle, defensible, he would deem Milbank’s account of the “paradoxes” of experience a dubious resource for theological reflection. At certain moments, in fact, Milbank’s remarks seem ready-made for ideology critique. It all seems a bit too intoxicating. A Hopkins-esque description of a car journey by the River Trent, undertaken alone, in which “[e]verything is univocally bathed in a beautiful, faintly luminous vagueness, tinged at its heart with silver” (p. 160), in which the mysterious interplay of a river, roofs, spires, and a winding road delight author and reader alike… Do we really want experiences of this kind to inform dogmatic inquiry? Do we not find here a rhapsodical universalization of a particular standpoint – a quintessentially “Anglo-Saxon” one, to boot, albeit of a romantic and decidedly middle-class sort – that distracts attention from the scriptural record that ought to direct theological inquiry?

Barth’s concerns would compound, were he to consider how Milbank’s experiential reflections dovetail with his treatment of the incarnation and God’s triunity. On one level, Barth would note, perhaps somewhat mischievously, several points of connection between Milbank and the early Schleiermacher. Certainly the “founder” of modern Protestant theology, at least in his early writings, did not see “Christ’s human existence [as] entirely derived from the divine person of the Logos by which he is enhypostasized” (p. 210). But he, like Milbank, supposed Jesus to be the one who reveals to us, and thereby makes thinkable and experience-able, the coincidence of finitude and infinity. He, too, was reluctant to construe Christ’s death-in-abandonment as the all-important culmination of his identity, the decisive pivot around which salvation turns, preferring to view “the ‘perfect suffering’ of the Cross” as “but one aspect of an entire action whereby the finite is restored to full existence in time through its paradoxical conjunction with the infinite” (p. 212 [my emphasis]). And he, too, thought primarily in terms of the exemplary life of Christ transforming our religious consciousness, invigorating our sense of creation’s harmony, prompting the formation of intensely relational church communities, and spurring progressive political activity. (I am much, much fonder of Schleiermacher than these sentences suggest, but the point holds).

On another level, Barth would ask: what vision of the Trinity is invoked here? Milbank’s account of the divine life – a “realm of fantastic pure play” (p. 186) in which love circulates and dialectical agonism has no place – definitely has its moments, and cannot be dismissed lightly. It is a brilliant reworking of insights drawn from Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and (to a lesser extent) Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa; a doctrine of God that fits snugly with an understanding of creation organized around the categories of harmony, relationality, plenitude, and gift. Could it be, however, that just as Žižek cannot look beyond nullity, Milbank is stuck with an understanding of God that is controlled by all-too-human presumptions about impassibility and transcendence? Is it not possible that Milbank writes so lyrically about God’s “infinite relating” because he projects the (apparent) harmony of creation onto a theological screen, as opposed to thinking about God in light of God’s self-revelation? Further, could it be that this very projection leads Milbank to dissociate, in a rather crude way, God’s “immanent” relating from the hard realities of Christ’s life, suffering, and death? This last question is particularly important. While Milbank’s God participates in the world to a glorious degree, this God does not really open himself to the ambiguity of the creation of which he is Lord. At every point, God remains serene and untroubled: the infinite is “in” the finite, but at no point does any portion of finitude affect the time and space of God’s infinite relating. Consequently, God’s solidarity with us, realized through the life and death of Jesus Christ, is downplayed to a worrying degree. Milbank will not allow even the slightest “particula veri in the teaching of the early Patripassians” (IV/2, p. 357). He does not imagine a doctrine of the Trinity that, in a radical way, takes it bearings from the incarnation (and therefore the particulars of the gospel narratives). He does not think in terms of God freely determining himself, as Son, as one who suffers with us and on our behalf. As such, he cannot conceive of what Barth would adjudge to be truly monstrous: the divine Son becoming and being flesh, submitting himself to the rejection that sinners deserve, electing himself to be Christ crucified.

Monstrosity rethought

Thus far, Barth’s imagined contribution to the Žižek/Milbank debate has been fairly critical. With respect to Žižek, I’ve suggested that Barth might develop an immanent critique and ask whether “today’s forms of radical scientific materialism” really “keep the spirit of infinity alive” (p. 242). Žižek’s own materialism, it seems, is only open to a modest degree: a fascination with nullity effectively rules out a dialectical negation of materialism, and blocks any thought of the intrusive, liberative work of God as the “One who loves in freedom” (see here, especially, II/1, §28). And this, in turn, raises a crucial question: Is Žižek’s materialist Christology less a way to think novelly about the Real, more the projection of a subject allured and frustrated by the unassailable ascendancy of global capitalism? With respect to Milbank, Barth would dispute the appeal to experience and worry about the metaphysical vision that accompanies it. Moreover, if Žižek fails to think beyond nullity, Milbank fails to imagine a theology that avoids an unhelpful binary: either an immanent Trinity of “pure play,” wholly untouched by the world, or a completely historicized and materialized economic Trinity. He therefore never considers the possibility that God establishes some kind of “real relationship” between God and creation; he never explores the idea, more specifically, that God sovereignly intends that the economic history of the Son be constitutive of the Son’s eternal being. And, perhaps not coincidentally, given his reluctance to dwell on the unlovely reality of Christ crucified, Milbank ends up with a fairly “modern” account of the atonement. He focuses less on what P. T. Forsyth memorably styled the “cruciality of the cross,” more on Christ’s restorative exhibition of the (paradoxical) relationship of creature and Creator.

Put bluntly: neither Žižek nor Milbank offers statements that describe Christ in especially monstrous terms. Both fit their Christologies into preexisting schemes of thought (a neo-Marxist reading of Hegel, on the one hand; a “radically orthodox” metaphysics, on the other). And these schemes of thought, beyond being susceptible to Feuerbachian critique, effectively limit what might be said about God, Christ, and radical politics.

What would it mean, then, to take the monstrosity of Christ seriously? Since Barth does not pose this question, we do now enter the realm of conjecture. It is also important to note straightaway that my account of Barth’s theology – which, as will become clear, focuses on Church Dogmatics II/2 and following – depends on some interpretative judgments that require a lengthier defense than can be provided in this context. However, since neither Žižek nor Milbank want shrinking violets for conversation partners, and since I have offered a fuller statement about Barth’s theology elsewhere, there is little need for reticence. Barth’s positive account of Christ’s monstrosity, I want to suggest, would likely involve three moves: (a) a postmetaphysical account of the Trinity, developed in light of Christ’s concrete history, that supports a flexible theological materialism; (b) a political theology that focuses on human “being in becoming”; and (c) an understanding of atonement that presents Christ’s death as central to our salvation, and symptomatic of that which we often want to deny – the tragedy of sin and the victory of grace.

To consider the Trinity in light of Christ’s concrete history, so far as Barth is concerned, requires that the theologian do more than draw connections between discrete dogmatic loci, so as to signal compatibility between her account of God and her description of Christ’s person and work. At issue here is the belief that the actual history of Jesus Christ – that is, the life, death, and resurrection of the rabbi from Nazareth, narrated in the canonical gospels – should have a direct bearing on one’s understanding of the being of God qua Son. This is what it means, in fact, to say that Jesus Christ is the “electing God” and the “elected human” (so II/2, §33). God has sovereignly decided upon an identity, as Son, that is irrevocably bound to, and in some way constituted by, the lived history of Jesus. This, I hurry to add, is not a decision that God is required to make. It is also not a decision that, à la Hegel and Žižek, “collapses” the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity, with the result that God’s being is controlled by historical events. The point is rather that God assigns himself an utterly specific identity. God is Lord over God’s being to the point at which God’s freely deciding to become the enfleshed Word coincides with the Word of God being enfleshed, for all eternity. To think along these lines might be metaphysically dizzying, but that’s no reason for undue caution (think what would have happened if the early church had been circumspect when thinking about Christology and the Trinity!). There is here a starting point for a highly actualistic, postmetaphysical doctrine of God: an attempt to think Exod. 3:14, Jn 1:1-18, and Acts 2:33 simultaneously.

Think now what this means for the Žižek/Milbank debate. Generally, one need no longer treat the immanent Trinity/economic Trinity distinction as an unyielding binary. For sure, the distinction has value. It identifies the priority of God’s being; it signals that God’s life is (infinitely) more than God’s relating to humankind; it underscores that the incarnation has as its condition of possibility God’s unlimited sovereignty. But the distinction ought not to be reified to the point at which God’s freedom to define Godself is underrated or obscured. In fact, if one disavows a crude disjunction between the immanent and economic Trinity, one is freed up to posit an ontologically significant connection between the history enacted by the incarnate Son and the being of the Son. To draw on Jüngel’s phraseology: for all eternity, God determines to become and be, as Son, the concrete person of Jesus Christ, vere deus vere homo. The logos asarkos is always becoming and being the logos ensarkos.

More particularly, one hereby gains the foundation upon which a christologically defined theological materialism can be built. Because of a sovereign decision, made “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), the embodied history of the man Jesus is now a permanent feature of the divine life. The fullness of divinity and the fullness of human physicality coincide in time and in eternity; by the grace of God, these opposites, separated by an infinite qualitative difference, are held together (although not confused!). By extension, materiality as such, and more particularly the life of each human, receives a new kind of dignity. Given that the “obedience of Jesus Christ as such, fulfilled in that astonishing form…is a matter of the mystery of the inner being of God as the being of the Son in relation to the Father” (IV/1, p. 177), we are able to “correct our notions of the being of God,” even “reconstitute them” (IV/1, p. 186). We think beyond the “pure play” of the divine persons; we discover a divine perfection defined by God’s opening Godself to the lived history of the Word. And because the “atonement is history” (IV/1, p. 157), we know that the openness of God to the concrete person of Christ is paired with Christ’s openness to humanity. Christ accepts us as we are; he, the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) envelops the people whose head he is. Consequently, humanity as such – that is, humanity in all of its wondrous and awkward embodiment – is now set before God the Father as a sanctified and redeemed creation. And Christ’s intercession carries in its wake an affirmation of materiality, an unsublatable dimension of the creation that God wills to save.

When one begins to think in this way, some interesting political possibilities also arise. Our point of departure, unsurprisingly, is the fact that each human being is determined by way of his or her relation to Jesus Christ. On a general level, because Christ is God’s definitive statement about the value of human life, and because we are charged to live as responsible members of his body, it follows that Christian ethics includes a forthright affirmation of human rights. The rhetorical forms used by a theologian will perhaps differ from those employed by some of her “secular” peers, but the content of her position will be welcomed: since God has affirmed the preciousness of human beings, we must do likewise. On a more particular level, because God reveals Godself as a “being in becoming” who is open to ontological difference (that is, the difference of the human Jesus), the Christian is emboldened to affirm various forms of human “being in becoming.” Situated in and defined by a Word who becomes, the Christian is given a new kind of liberty, and begins to recognize and delight in difference and transformation – even in certain forms of individual and collective experimentation. The theologian, moreover, discerns a key element of what Milbank rightly identifies as fundamental for radical politics today: a theological ontology, supportive of anti-capitalist theory and praxis. Admittedly, a loose analogy is at work here. There is a huge difference between the self-constitution of the divine Son and the “opened” horizons that accommodate diverse forms of human flourishing. Yet there is no need for a strong analogy (and, incidentally, no reason to suppose that a progressive political theology requires the support of a neo-medieval metaphysical scheme). My contention is simply that the obvious plasticity of human life, productive of an ever-expanding array of individual and collective identities, is comprehensible – or, better, affirmable – when one accepts that we are made in the image of the God who, as Son, freely transforms himself, becoming and being what he need not be. More: while Barth sometimes fails to think radically about what it means to say that the human being is “set in motion from its very center by the act of the Subject who exists here” (IV/2, p. 29), we have an opportunity to correct his mistakes. We can update the indirect but insistent democratic socialism of the Church Dogmatics with a fuller understanding of oppression – one that, among other things, complements Marx’s insights about economic injustice with an analysis of sexism and heterosexism and brings Barth into conversation with those who struggle for women’s rights and the rights of the queer community. Žižek’s worries notwithstanding, the “politics of identity” – that is, mostly laudable attempts to expose and overturn discriminatory conventions – can and should go hand-in-hand with critiques of economic injustice.

Does this exhaust what might be said about the monstrosity of Christ? Not yet. Thus far, we have only what is “monstrous” for the doctrine of God (a God who determines himself, as Son, in terms of Christ’s concrete history) and what is “monstrous” for a politically charged theological anthropology (an understanding of the human that recognizes that we, too, are “beings in becoming”). Barth presses us to take one more step, and to recognize Christ’s monstrosity in terms of his burdening himself with the atrocity of human sin.

God’s love for humankind, Barth believes, means more than the Son becoming human. It means the Word becoming flesh, disposing himself as one who will undergo judgment. It means, even more dramatically, that Christ freely takes upon himself the wrongdoing of others, even as his own conduct proves utterly irreproachable. As Christ sets his face towards Jerusalem, as his disciples forsake him and the elites of the day conspire against him, his solidarity with sinners becomes ever more intensive, ever more thoroughgoing – so much so that his being made “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3) culminates in his being the one who “bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Pet. 2:24). His life is therefore both kenotic (as Žižek wishes it to be) and glorious (as Milbank wishes it to be). It is kenotic because Christ does not maintain his distance from his enemies, holding on to an identity that stands aloof from their sinful machinations. Instead, he opens himself to the hateful schemes of those arrayed against him. He allows himself to be defined by others; he accepts their wrongdoing; he exposes our sinfulness for what it is – an attack on God as such. (He “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself…and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” [Phil. 2:6 and 2:8]). Christ’s life is glorious because, in the same moment that he is subjected, without reserve, to the wickedness of his enemies, he endorses God’s judgment upon sin and releases anew God’s boundless love. Because he disposes himself as the true representative of sinful humankind (one who takes our wrongdoing upon himself) and the sole substitute for sinful humankind (one who endures the punishment that we deserve), that which obstructs God’s love is now finished. Because he “made our sin His own” (IV/1, p. 241), because he offers what must not be to God, God is able to do “that which is ‘satisfactory’ or sufficient in the victorious fighting of sin.” God brings about a “victory” that is both “radical and total” (IV/1, p. 254); God kills off the sin that we commit, in order to raise us to new life. As God says no to sin, accepting the awful sacrifice of God’s only-begotten Son, God’s yes to humankind is spoken with unparalleled force and clarity.

The monstrosity of Christ crucified, then, cannot be thought apart from the monstrosity of sin. Our unfailing faithlessness, our petty and not so petty falseness, our abiding cruelty, our intolerable sloth and boundless stupidity: this is what we behold when Christ dies. And this, alongside a refashioned doctrine of God and an invigorated theological ethics, forms a crucial element in any “Barthian” response to the proposals advanced by Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank. As we look upon the figure of the crucified rabbi, we are brought face-to-face with sin. We learn about its deathly wage; we discover it to be that which God does not tolerate. Or, to frame the point in a way that Barth would surely approve: the outstretched finger of John the Baptist, powerfully depicted in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, accuses me, just as it accuses you; it reveals God’s rejection of our hate-filled efforts to impede a love that makes all things well. Yet this disclosure of wrath is complemented by the mournful praise offered by Jesus’ mother, by Mary Magdalene, and by John the Evangelist. These figures, positioned by Grünewald on the other side of the cross, bear witness to a grace that cancels sin, acquits us of guilt, and assures us of a joyous redemption. Christ has “borne the consequence of [our] separation” from God in order “to bear it away” (IV/1, p. 247). It seems unbelievable, but it is a truth that Barth will not and cannot repress: monstrosity does not have the last word.

Works consulted

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, trans. G. W. Bromiley. London: T&T Clark, 2009.

Žižek, Slavoj and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, ed. Creston Davis. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009.

Forsyth, P. T. The Cruciality of Christ. Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock, 1997.

Jones, Paul Dafydd. The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. London: T&T Clark, 2008.

Jüngel, Eberhard. God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth, trans. John Webster. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Kotsko, Adam. Žižek and Theology. London: T&T Clark, 2008.

McCormack, Bruce L. Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Milbank, John. Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon. London: Routledge, 2003.

O’Regan, Cyril. “Žižek and Milbank and the Hegelian Death of God.” Modern Theology, vol. 26, no. 2 (2010): pp. 278-86.

Pound, Marcus. Žižek: A (very) Critical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, ed. Richard Crouter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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Response - A Modest Plea for One-Sidedness
By Adam Kotsko


I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to Paul Dafydd Jones’s engaging and witty Barthian intervention into the debate between Žižek and Milbank as represented by The Monstrosity of Christ. (The hypothetical young adult novel, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Žižek, was alone worth the price of admission.) In his final response in Monstrosity, Žižek puts forward a kind of tongue-in-cheek account of the possible responses when a dialogue runs into an irreducible impasse at the level of fundamental presuppositions—of course preferring the “truly Hegelian approach” of denying that one’s opponent even has a position to put forward (235)—but Jones enacts another option, somewhat akin to the early church’s decision to solve the problem of the relationship between the Father and the Son by throwing in the further complication of the Holy Spirit: when the dialogue reaches an impasse, introduce a third option.

For Jones, the choice of Barth as the third party is far from arbitrary—just as the introduction of the Spirit into the trinitarian debate helped to clarify the stakes in an unexpected way, so also does Barth provide a special insight into the stakes of the Žižek-Milbank debate and the ways that both fail to meet the challenge they have implicitly set themselves. This is because, as Jones argues, Žižek and Milbank are each too one-sided, Žižek on the side of the negative and Milbank on the side of divine plenitude. Barth is able to unite these two moments in a productive way, and while Jones is not a “Barth fundamentalist,” he believes that Barth is pointing us in the right direction.

The reason for Žižek and Milbak’s one-sidedness is that “both promote viewpoints in which Christ is fitted into a preexisting theological or philosophical scheme, as opposed to being treated as determinative for thought as such”—the latter being characteristic of Barth’s thought, above all because it is “attuned to the scriptural witness” and particularly “the life, death, and resurrection of the rabbi from Nazareth, narrated in the canonical gospels.” In sum, a Barthian perspective allows one “to take the monstrosity of Christ rather more seriously than they do,” and ultimately to recognize that “monstrosity does not have the last word.”

Where I would begin my challenge of this view is with the question of who is operating within “a preexisting theological or philosophical scheme” rather than allowing Christ to be “determinative for thought as such.” I could obviously go in the direction of arguing that Barth was just as susceptible to “preexisting theological or philosophical schemes” as any other thinker, as indeed the contemporary scholarship continues to demonstrate, particularly as regards his debt precisely to Hegel. I want here to make a more radical claim, however: what we should take seriously is the possibility that the Hegelian reading of Christianity is our best picture of what it means to allow Christ to be “determinative for thought as such,” while the warmed-over Neo-Platonism put forward by Radical Orthodoxy represents the ultimate “preexisting theological or philosophical scheme” from which Christian theology at its best has always been trying to escape.

Jones is right to point out that the incarnation and death of Christ often feel tacked-on in Radical Orthodoxy and that the machinery of divine plentitude and creaturely participation could proceed just as well without any need for the Cross. What I would ask, though, is how in Jones’s reading Barth escapes this very same accusation, insofar as the divine plenitude—the famous “yes” that always ultimately overpowers the “no”—always has the last word. Jones insists throughout on the identity of the immanent and economic trinity, the logos asarkos and the logos ensarkos, but it is unclear to me how the incarnation can be a real and decisive event in the divine life if divine sovereignty remains always intact, if divine victory is always guaranteed.

For instance, Jones says that if a Barthian position is taken seriously: “one need no longer treat the immanent Trinity/economic Trinity distinction as an unyielding binary. For sure, the distinction has value. It identifies the priority of God’s being; it signals that God’s life is (infinitely) more than God’s relating to humankind; it underscores that the incarnation has as its condition of possibility God’s unlimited sovereignty.” To my mind, though, this misses one of the deepest levels of the motivation behind the patristic insistence on what would come to be called the “immanent trinity” alongside the economic trinity: the insistence that God reveals God, that the persons we experience in revelation really are Godself and not some mediator that ultimately underscores our separation from God.

The upshot of this position is that God really puts Godself at stake in the Incarnation, that God holds nothing of Godself in reserve—a point that the doctrine of the Trinity, insofar as it has often winked and nudged so as to imply that only the Father is really God, has historically obscured, as Žižek rightly points out. Even so, its logic has led, fitfully but inexorably, to the Hegelian position that the divine kenosis is real and irreversible, affecting everything that God was and is, which means that unlimited divine sovereignty and plenitude simply cannot be maintained in light of the cross.

In this perspective, one can see that Barth’s position is the last-ditch effort to save divine impassibility, to save divine transcendence—just as Barth’s doctrine of election is a last-ditch effort to save double predestination and his theology as a whole is a last-ditch effort to figure out some way to read the disjointed and mutually contradictory set of documents we have collected as the Bible as a unified whole.

It is a worthy ambition, to be sure, a task demanding enough to be worth the labor of a lifetime—and the fascination it continues to exert is entirely understandable and deserved. (I myself feel that fascination!) And yet one could wish that Barth had more fully exercised the freedom with regard to the tradition that he claims for the Protestant theologian and—rather than providing the most rigorous and impressive epicycles ever introduced into the tradition’s attempt to squeeze the gospel into the cultural common sense of the Hellenistic world as represented above all in Neo-Platonism—had given up on the Hellenistic concept of God once and for all. Indeed, one could wish that Barth had finally given up on the Protestant principle of sola scriptura and—rather than forcing coherence on a body of documents developed by a variety of individuals and communities who were scrambling in the wake of disaster after disaster, from the Babylonian exile, the death of Christ, and the destruction of the Temple all the way to the rolling disaster of the Roman principate, and rather than granting an exaggerated historical authority to a set of narratives that are more about negotiating the boundary between Christianity and Judaism than about providing a coherent or historically plausible picture of Jesus of Nazareth, much less the incarnate God—had once again dared to know “only Christ and him crucified,” to know a God who truly puts himself at risk and only thereby empowers humanity finally to come of age, to put off its bondage to futility and learn to live finally.

This is what the Hegelian reading of Christianity, now advanced by Žižek, gives us access to. Barth represents perhaps the greatest attempt to take seriously the divine No within the terms of the divine Yes of sovereignty of plenitude. Where Hegel and the stream of modern theology that follows in his wake goes further is by recognizing that in Christ God says No to God, God says No to holding a Yes in reserve. The Cross is the No that becomes its own Yes only insofar as it remains an irrevocable No—and thereby sets us free.

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59 comments:

Scott Jackson said...

Thanks to both of you for these fascinating posts.
I don't know Žižek, but from your essays, it seems to me his Hegelian take on Christianity seems very similar to Altizer's construal of the death of God. Do you (or any other reader of this blog) think Žižek is making a new theological contribution here - perhaps in connection with his Marxist slant on Hegel?

Adam Kotsko said...

Zizek has admitted his similarity to Altizer and last year appeared in a joint session with Altizer at AAR. (In fact, he told me that he stumbled on Altizer's work more or less at random after he'd already done a lot on Christianity and was distressed to find that Altizer had already done much the same thing decades ago.) I draw out the parallel in my book Zizek and Theology, where I conclude that the political element is an area that Zizek makes an advance on Altizer.

Peter Kline said...

It seems to me that one way to frame the (imagined) debate between Zizek/Kotsko and Barth is with the resurrection of Jesus. Zizek/Kotsko want to read the resurrection not as an overturning of the divine No of the cross, but as a radicalizing of that No into a community of utter solidarity with the poor and dispossessed. Kotsko, at least as I hear him, thinks that Barth overturns the No with the Yes of Jesus' resurrection, that the resurrected Christ in some measure ceases to be the crucified Jesus. Adam, do I have you right here?

Adam Kotsko said...

Your characterization of a Zizekian perspective on the resurrection sounds correct to me, but I'm hesitant to embrace the notion that "the resurrected Jesus ceases to be the crucified Jesus" because I know that Barthians would absolutely jump down my throat for that. I do think Barth does a better job than most of making the No a serious and meaningful No while still encompassing it within the Yes. I'm not necessarily accusing him of getting rid of the No with his Yes -- I suppose you could say that I want to get rid of the Yes altogether.

Peter Kline said...

And is that because you think any Yes will ultimately be bound to an ideological vision of community?

Adam Kotsko said...

Yes, the traditional transcendent concept of God is the ultimate "master signifier" or "big Other."

David W. Congdon said...

Adam,

I'm sympathetic to your position, but why does the Yes have to be a top-down, supernatural, transcendent authorization from a Big Other? Why can't it be an interpersonal Yes within the sociality of the community? And why can't this Yes occur precisely as the Yes that Christian faith describes by the resurrection? Is not this exactly what Hegel (rightly, in my view) proposes? It seems to me that when someone like Bultmann speaks of the kerygma as the resurrected Christ in our midst, he is getting at precisely this point -- viz. that there need be no competition between the No and the Yes, because they are one and the same event.

Adam Kotsko said...

When I say "get rid of the Yes," I'm talking about getting rid of the transcendent master signifier God. The Yes to the human community in solidarity with the poor is precisely the kind of outcome I'm going for. And I don't see how that can possibly be compatible with a strong account of divine transcendence. When people talk about the need for transcendence to ground a truly radical politics, etc., I literally have no idea what they think they're saying.

David W. Congdon said...

The question is what you mean by "strong account." If it's some sort of infinite deity that stands over against the world as an idea or object "above us," then I would simply say that's of no concern for us. That's Hegel's "bad infinite." And if that were the only conception of transcendence available to us, then I would agree with you completely. But it's not. And I'm afraid that you are working with a rather impoverished conceptuality, as if Zizek and Milbank constitute the only two options.

I'm quite happy to say that most theological conceptions of transcendence are guilty of precisely this reified Big Other. Milbank and RO are perhaps the biggest offenders in my view. If Zizek and Milbank are the only two options, then I'll choose Zizek every time.

But the problem is that there is something called sin and something called grace. That dialectic of No and Yes constitutes for me the absolute sine qua non of all theological discourse. The question is whether you want to say that what theology calls "grace" is simply a possibility naturally latent within the individual or community that we have the power to actualize out of our own resources. If so, then this is the point at which we part ways. But if "grace" is not a possibility simply given within the immanent continuum of human history, then we have to speak of it as something that comes from outside of us. It is this "beyondness" of grace that constitutes transcendence, that constitutes God.

In short, I prefer Badiou to Zizek precisely because I find in him a way of conceptualizing the beyondness of grace without invoking supernatural agencies. Though I would insist, against Badiou, that (a) God is beyond both finite and infinite and thus is not ruled out simply by ruling out all metaphysics, and (b) the incorporation of our bodies within the traces of the event is not something that we can actualize on our own apart from a word of forgiveness that comes to us from outside.

Adam Kotsko said...

How is what you're saying different from the traditional transcendent God? I understand the tradition to be maintaining that it's precisely God's transcendence and self-sufficiency that enables the gift as gift. Starting with the notion that there must or should be a gift or grace just gets you back to divine transcendence, as your comment illustrates. But what's so good about a gift?

David W. Congdon said...

It's only good if one acknowledges the absolute need for such a gift, the dependence upon grace (in the encounter with the neighbor) for true human existence.

I could rattle off ways in which this understanding of transcendence differs from the tradition, but it would be pointless unless we are in agreement about the need for something outside of us, something beyond, even if this beyondness is immanent in the neighbor.

Darren said...

Adam,

I don't take David to be saying that there 'must' or 'should' be a gift, but rather that there is a gift. Of course, you could counter that there is no gift, but I cannot imagine any such view that is distinguishable from the hubris of individualistic 'self-made' men (sic). Moreover, such a view seems to contrast with your own social ontology in Politics of Redemption.

Adam Kotsko said...

I don't think the alternatives are either "self-made man" or "gift-recipient." To me, both of those remain within the framework of possession. In the last chapter of Politics of Redemption, I put forward the notion of enjoyment as the real way out of possession -- and I contrast it explicitly with the gift in an essay on Augustine's De Trinitate that you can access through my CV at AUFS.

I really strongly distrust a lot of the discourse surrounding the gift in theological circles. One of my long-term goals is to write a book-length critique of the concept of the gift.

David W. Congdon said...

The language of possession is ambiguous. I don't care for gift-talk because I don't believe grace ever becomes a possession. The "gift" of grace is radically non-given; it never becomes ours. However, I would say that in the "gift" of grace we understand ourselves as claimed, or possessed, by God — again, insofar as we confront the claim of the neighbor. Faith coincides with love, and justification coincides with justice.

Adam Kotsko said...

Why is it good for God to possess but not for us to possess? And why can't we just directly respond to the neighbor without reference to God or transcendence? And how do you know there's such a thing as sin and grace? I'd venture to say that no one would've ever figured out they had a big problem called sin if Christianity hadn't come around to tell them.

David W. Congdon said...

I never said that we have to respond to the neighbor "with reference to God." I only said that Christian self-understanding recognizes by faith that the encounter with the neighbor is the encounter with God. God does not enter in as a third party. That's the metaphysics I reject.

As for the sin/grace issue, as I said already, that's the rub. And I appreciate you making it so clear how and why we disagree. That's very helpful. But I don't think we'll be able to move beyond that impasse, so I won't bother debating with you about it. It's not something one can prove or disprove; it's an axiomatic decision of sorts, albeit one rooted in the scriptural witness.

pauldafyddjones said...

My apologies for coming to this conversation a bit late -- this morning I was writing a lecture on Kathryn Tanner, and I've just had the joys of office hours.

Straightaway I should say that I'm very grateful to Adam for providing such a interesting and important response to my essay. While we're coming from different starting points, I love this type of exchange. It gives us a chance to get at some fundamental theological issues, it helps me understand the value of Barth, Kotsko, AND Zizek, and it makes me think ever more seriously about the crucial relationship between theology, materialism, and politics.

A few thoughts on his post, and on some of the comments:

pauldafyddjones said...

(1) An initial qualification: I would of course grant that Barth was affected by the late modern context in which he works. One can't read Barth without wrestling with his debts to Kant and various forms of neo-Kantianism, to various forms of Hegel, to dialogical personalism, and so on.

The question, however: what controls theological discourse? Barth's hope is that his theology isn't *only* a function of context but rather a commentary on the ever-new event of God's revelation, received in faith. To make sense of this event, Barth certainly "appropriates" philosophical resources. However, he hopes that these philosophical resources don't set the terms for dogmatic inquiry. What sets the terms for dogmatic inquiry is rather the act of God, in Christ, before the Father and with the Spirit received in faith.

pauldafyddjones said...

And this is significant point of disagreement between Barth and me with Zizek and Kotsko. I understand that Barth's view of theology in response to God's self-revelation is a nonstarter for some -- either because they don't accept Barth's account of God's "transcendent" action upon the theologian, or because they ultimately operate from a naturalistic perspective. However, I'm unsure why I should accept that the "Hegelian reading is our best picture" of Christ's significance. "Best" on whose terms? One of the concerns I have with Zizek's work is that there is -- to borrow from one of Barth's contemporaries -- a "like it or lump it" recourse to a dynamic form of materialism. He's so allergic to something he identifies with "transcendence" that it seems self-evident that any talk of God acting upon the world from "outside" the world is nonsensical. I'd just ask: is this fair? Isn't this a closing of thought that we ought to worry about? Why not accept that theology might begin with the surprise of God's action? Why is this necessarily a "last-ditch effort" to save transcendence, as opposed to a first, halting, attempt to respond to something that one could not have anticipated but which has happened?

pauldafyddjones said...

(2) I don't agree with the claim that Barth holds fast to "divine sovereignty" in such a way that "divine victory is always guaranteed." I think this is too quick. In fact, it's somewhat reminiscent of the claim that Berkouwer leveled at Barth in *The Triumph of Grace* -- that grace is a principle. But there's plenty of evidence against this in the *Dogmatics*. Grace is not a principle but a person -- namely, the person of Christ. And because grace plays out in the actual *history* of Christ, it seems wrong to view God's victory as a snap of the proverbial divine fingers. Grace has to pass through the straits of a human life -- it has to be enacted and realized by the man Jesus. There is a *genuine* confrontation between God and sin in the life of Jesus Christ, and a *genuine* decision on the part of Jesus to do the will of God in order to bring about the fulfillment of the covenant. The fact that things end with a victory don't mean that Barth lapses into a *theologia gloriae*; rather, the glory of the resurrection needs always to be thought in light of Barth's strong (and often v. Lutheran) *theologia crucis*.

pauldafyddjones said...

(3) I'm not sure that the abstract, catch-all word "transcendence" is useful when it comes to reading Barth on God. Barth doesn't fetishize "transcendence" in terms of a Big Other who infantilizes human beings. Barth's understanding of God is grounded in the relational fact of God's triunity -- a doctrine which actually complicates the meaning of "transcendence" in the first place.

I'm also not sure why God's unsublatable alterity -- the fact that God gives Godself in Christ, but doesn't give Godself away -- needs to be given up. I feel very relaxed, for the record, about people treating Hegel as the new Aristotle for theology. I actually think that most Anglo-American theology is too defensive about Hegel. He's a Christian theologian -- not a modern heretic. But I don't see why his claim that God moves wholly into the world, by way of the cross, is one I should accept. Specifically, I don't see how this can be squared with the objective fact of God's graciousness -- a graciousness that isn't the work of an infantilizing Big Other, but the starting point for thinking that the world isn't left to its own devices.

pauldafyddjones said...

(4) Finally, an impossible question: given that Barth and I, on the one side, and Zizek and Kotsko, on the other, have what appear to be some incommensurable differences -- how does one have genuinely productive debate? Are we dealing with non-negotiables here -- say, regarding the being and act of God, and regarding the "principle" of sola scriptura -- or is there a theological middle ground that we might occupy?

Thanks again to Adam for such a good response. These thoughts may be a bit scattered and a bit rushed, and I hope I'll have a chance to comment in a more leisurely way later in the day...

Adam Kotsko said...

Paul, I think you're misrepresenting what I'm saying in your last comment, with regard to the Hegelian reading. My rhetorical strategy is to strongly counter your claim that Barth is presenting theology starting from Christ and without extraneous presuppositions, etc. Here you soften your stance somewhat (and that makes sense since your initial claim was made to rhetoricall emphasize the difference between Barth and Zizek/Milbank, both of whom have very up-front philosophical commitments).

What I'm trying to question is not just why we take Barth at his word when he says he's starting only from Christ, etc., and why can't we take seriously the possibility that Hegel is starting from the cross rather than applying some pre-fab philosophy to it. And in the remainder of the post, I try to make a forceful case that Hegel really is taking the cross seriously in a way the Christian tradition often doesn't and that Barth, for all his nuance, etc., is still working within that traditional framework. So as strange as it probably seems to you, I'm really trying to meet you on the same ground and say that we need to take seriously the possibility that the "death of God" theology really is a kind of raw response to the Christ-event -- not that it's best according to some kind of outside standard (such as it being most properly materialist or something like that).

Adam Kotsko said...

Re: 4 -- Let's skip the meta question of "can we have a debate" and actually try to have one. I bet that if we say what we think and try to respond to each other the best we can, something worthwhile will emerge. I'm really tired of people jumping straight to the "incommensurable presuppositions" issue. We're both human beings who speak English, and we can have a conversation.

dbarber said...

Paul and/or David: How is "unsublatable alterity" anything but transcendence? How is it not a "big Other"?

David W. Congdon said...

Dan: Those two questions aren't the same. You can have transcendence that's not a Big Other, but only if you are willing to accept that there are different kinds of transcendence.

Adam: I agree with you that the appeal to incommensurable differences is often an excuse for not engaging in a rational conversation. But in this case, I know your position fairly well. It's not that either of us are really confused about the other, at least I don't think so. There are just axiomatic differences between us that cannot be surmounted by simple conversation.

pauldafyddjones said...

Hi Adam,

The reason I'm talking about "incommensurable presuppositions" has mainly to do with the view of transcendence that Zizek and you seem to be operating with. The claim that you seem to be making is this: the reality of God as a self-sufficient reality is no longer viable in light of the cross; the death of Christ exposes that the "Big Other" need no longer run the show; human beings can now exalt in the basal fact of finitude and articulate divinity in a wholly immanentized way. More simply: unsublatable transcendence is a fiction, let's move on.

But I don't see it that way. I simply don't buy the claim that God exhaustively finitizes Godself on the cross, and renders Godself wholly immanent to the world. I don't see why "unlimited divine sovereignty and plenitude simply cannot be maintained in light of the cross."

Why not? Well, not because I'm stubborn. It's also not because I think that Zizek's materialism is incoherent. It's rather because I have compelling reasons for believing that the event of the cross doesn't tell us the whole story about God, even though it is a crucial part of it. The "whole story" about God, such as we know it, involves the creation of the world from nothing, the calling of Israel, the raising up of prophets, and incarnation, and -- very significantly -- the resurrection and Christ's active superintendence of the messy, complex reality of the church (and a bunch of other stuff which, for me and I think also for you, has lots to do with a truly progressive politics). So while I agree with Barth *and* Zizek in saying that God really does hazard God's life on the cross, and God is in some way deeply affected by Christ's suffering and death...I want also to insist on an additional claim. While God gives Godself, God is still *more* than the cross -- thus the resurrection, thus the possibility of Christian life, thus the possibility of a radical politics.

pauldafyddjones said...

So here's why I'm raising the question of incommensurability: isn't the Hegelian move that Zizek and you encourage actually one that shuts down conversation about what God is and what God is doing, since what is ruled out, definitively, is the new action of grace? It may be that you're frustrated by talk about "incommensurable presuppositions." I'm sorry if that's the case, and I'm not trying to stall conversation. My point is simply to dramatize a deep concern: might Zizek's mode of theologizing actually be a conversation-stopper, actually be a *closing* of thought, given that the one thing that is rendered unthinkable for him is the fact that God is not controlled by the cross, that God might be something *other* than what human beings are and do?

You say at the end of our response that God's self-giving on the cross "only thereby empowers humanity finally to come of age, to put off its bondage to futility and learn to live finally." I really like that sentence. But I think that "living finally" is a *covenantal relationship* between God and humankind; not humankind's awareness that God's fate is in the hands of human beings.

Adam Kotsko said...

I don't know if Zizek's theology counts as a conversation-stopper if we're still talking about it -- and somehow it's always the Barthian who's reaching for the "incommensurable claim" card...

As has been the case throughout this conversation, I'm really unclear as to how your position differs from a straightforward traditional Christianity -- in which, for example, humans can only be happy by freely remaining in their place on the ontological hierarchy (below God). It seems as though there's always a claim that the nuance Barth introduces changes everything in such a way that any straightforward critique (for instance of divine transcendence) somehow doesn't apply any longer, and yet at the end of the day it seems like Barth is saying basically the same kind of thing the Christian tradition has generally said.

Also, I don't understand why you think divine transcendence is the best or only foundation of radical politics. Certainly I don't see very many historical examples of that playing out in practice, and I also don't understand the logic behind the claim. I don't want to seem disrespectful, but I can't really parse the claim beyond the level of "divine transcendence is good, and radical progressive politics are good, so the two must go hand in hand."

dbarber said...

Ok, David, you say: "You can have transcendence that's not a Big Other"

How is this the case? Perhaps it is, but rather than asking me to accept that you can have various transcendences, could you just explain why this transcendence is, in fact, not a Big Other? (that would actually demonstrate that there are various transcendences.)

pauldafyddjones said...

Hi Adam,

First, I'm not sure what counts as "straightforward, traditional Christianity." I just don't know what that means, given that the "tradition" is so diverse. I'm not being snippy here; I just don't think that essentializing is helpful.

Second, I *don't* think that it's self-evident that "humans can only be happy by freely remaining in their place on the ontological hierarchy (below God)." I get it that people might argue that an immanentized view of God is more liberating and fruitful for human life. My point is rather that *this* Christian has good reasons for thinking that human life is dignified by a relationship with God, understood in light of scripture, and that *this* Christian finds a kind of curious moment of non-dialecticality in Zizek's thinking, because I find here a refusal to consider a negation of materialism.

To put it a bit differently: I really appreciate what Zizek is doing, I love the way he reads Hegel, and recognize the plausibility, coherence, and importance of his statement. But I want to promote an internal critique, which then opens things up for my own theological statement, which is indeed guided by Barth.

David W. Congdon said...

Dan:

The "Big Other" is any necessary entity posited for the sake of holding together the social order, the ego, etc. The emphasis is on necessity. To borrow from Meillassoux, metaphysics or ideology is that discourse which posits precisely this necessary entity, whether it's "God" or the "State" or whatever.

So the question comes down to whether we can conceive of a transcendent God that is not a "necessary entity." Put differently, can we speak of a transcendent God who escapes the logic of necessity posited by the ontological argument and the law of sufficient reason? And I believe we can. Moreover, I think Eberhard Jüngel has already done precisely this in his work, God as the Mystery of the World, but I think we find the crucial elements of this conception of transcendence in Barth, Bultmann, and the later Bonhoeffer.

The question then is whether you are willing to accept the notion of a God that is radically contingent and beyond necessity, and thereby also transcendent.

pauldafyddjones said...

Third, I don't think that talk about an "ontological hierarchy" is helpful. On the one hand, it's at least plausible to say that God is not part of a "hierarchy," since God is qualitatively different from all things in time and space -- and not a bigger and better version of human beings. On the other hand, "hierarchy" loads the conversation in a certain way. It risks suggesting that God is an all-controlling, imperious authority, and human beings are cowering before "his" will. I'd prefer to talk about God as the one who loves in freedom, and who establishes a covenant relationship with humankind. There is a basic asymmetry between God and humankind, and a definite precedence to God, but this needn't be associated with a Lord/Master paradigm that Hegel works with. It can be understood in terms of human beings participating and conforming themselves, in freedom, to God's gracious and liberative covenantal project. I approve of that kind of super- and subordination, and ultimately would say that it is what relativizes human structures of super- and subordination (man/woman, rich/poor, white/black, etc.).

Fourth, I don't think it's self-evident that transcendence is *necessarily* and *obviously* the right basis for radical politics. I just think that Barth's understanding of God is, for me, a compelling starting point for radical politics. That doesn't make me a "Barthian" by the way. It just means that I think he offers a really promising starting point for theological thinking.

Best,


Paul

christiancollinswinn said...

I hesitate to ask this question because of it's simplicity, but nominalist that I am I'll follow Ockham's guidance and go ahead:

I guess I'm wondering how is the cross significant without the resurrection? It seems to me that the significance of the yes for Barth is not so much as a short-circuiting of the tragedy of the cross, but rather that it is that light which irradiates the cross from within; it's the light that makes it speak, which in turn makes it--at least potentially--productive of the kinds of materialism and progressive politics that many seem to be interested in here.

So, I guess this question is for Adam. Why this event? Why this particular criminal execution? What is it that allows one to leave the argument of historical contingency regarding the admittedly problematic documents known as the bible and to ascribe such weight to this particular event? Is Jesus just illustrative of some deeper pathos within the cosmos? If so, how is this any different from the basic arguments of protestant liberalism and thereby susceptible the critique of Feuerbach and the truly radical critique of Nitszche? And if so, if we should just ascribe to Jesus illustrative status, attractive because of the historically contingent thing called Christianity which has fetishized this person, then how is this not parasitic on the pure accident called Christianity? And if it is, how is progressive politics not simply parasitic on tragedy? Perhaps this is the argument of Zizek and others, but I guess it would be helpful to know.

dbarber said...

David, you say: "So the question comes down to whether we can conceive of a transcendent God that is not a "necessary entity."

Ok, well, can we? You drop a bunch of names, but don't say how would this work. Could you say something of what it is that Jungel, Barth, etc. are doing, such that they have a God that is radically contingent?

David W. Congdon said...

Dan: It would be rather impossible at this point to attempt to summarize the works of the figures I mentioned. I would suggest reading them and then perhaps we could go from there. Jüngel's book is the place to start. The entire work is an assault on the entire Christian tradition's notion of God as a necessary being. And he draws heavily on Hegel, arguing for the death of God in a way that should appeal greatly to followers of Zizek/Altizer, but in a way that reconfigures and rehabilitates the notion of a transcendent, living God in a very interesting way. I just don't think there's any responsible way to turn that book into a blog comment. It would only be an injustice to his work.

dbarber said...

David, that sounds like a cop-out. I mean, obviously it would be unnuanced, etc., but you're telling me you can't summarize the claim / argument?

jridenour said...

David,

I'm interested in reading more about Jungel. I've read God's Being in Becoming, but I was wondering if there's an article that does a good job of summarizing his position on God as radically contingent. One day I plan to read God as the Mystery of the World, but it's quite lengthy and dense.

David W. Congdon said...

Dan: It's a cop-out only in the sense that I don't have the time/energy to try to figure out how to summarize the argument of the book at this moment. The one-sentence summary is simply that the dead Jesus is the event which identifies God as the "unity of life and death for the sake of life." It's the "for the sake of life" bit that's missing from Zizek/Adam in the rejection of the Yes, but which has to be understood as totally contingent and unnecessary, as "mehr als notwendig."

David W. Congdon said...

Jeremy: The best work available (pretty much the only one) is Paul DeHart's book, Beyond the Necessary God. He does a good job of explicating many of these aspects in Jüngel's thought, though I think a lot is left unsaid or unexplored. Sadly, there is very little secondary literature, most of it isn't very good, and none of it (besides DeHart) really addresses this problem.

Willie Bell said...

Hm...didn't know Adam was an atheist.

David-How does a good Barthian like yourself claim that God is not a "necessary being" if God wills his own essence plus your affirmation that God's freedom does not consist in alternativity? This is a tangential question to the matters being discussed here but I am intrigued to hear your response.

Adam Kotsko said...

If I can't generalize (not essentialize!) about the Christian tradition, then you may be right that discussion is impossible. I'm pretty sure that the qualitative distinction between God and creation is one of the closest things to an absolute constant in the Christian tradition, and although Barth talks about it in a complex, nuanced way, it seems obvious to me that he strongly emphasizes divine transcendence. Indeed, the whole "humanity of God" angle relies on radical divine transcendence to make God's condescension to us meaningful, surprising, gratitude-inducing, etc.

I just wrote a post about how we should just admit that we're not enjoying a particular conversation, and I think I've reached that point. Thanks for your patience with me.

David W. Congdon said...

Adam: You misunderstand Paul and me. It's not that we are trying to "persuade" you or don't think we can have some kind of conversation. It's that your presuppositions simply do not allow for a conversation. You operate with the absurdly simplistic axiom: transcendence is bad. You call for shades of gray in your AUFS blog post, but it's precisely the total lack of any shade of gray in your axiomatic presuppositions that results in the total shutdown of all meaningful conversation.

So I'm calling you out here. The silencing of conversation is on your side, not on ours.

Adam Kotsko said...

Yeah, definitely not enjoying this exchange. Thanks for confirming, David.

Eric said...

The exchange between David and Adam confirms for me a long-held suspicion. In the AUFS world, despite all the emphasis on reasonable exchange and making oneself clear, there are some things that one just does not talk about. To an outsider the impression is left that perhaps he has missed all the decisive arguments where such ideas have been refuted. But one searches in vain for such arguments. They've not occurred; rather, they have just been ignored by a crew of scholars who agree on their irrelevance.

Of course, Adam makes clear (through the AUFS comment policy) that he is not blogging for any outsider's benefit. Fair enough. And because he admits this, it is also understandable that said comment policy also notes: "If we are saying something that goes against the conventional wisdom, assume that we know the conventional wisdom already and have reasons for rejecting it (i.e., the reasons for adopting our alternative position)." That is, people who want to be part of the AUFS conversation can do so as long as they don't press for reasons on a point that the contributors clearly reject. Odd as it may seem for a bunch of scholars who want to be honest and courageous in their philosophy and theology amid the mire we are *all* in today to willingly box out people who may have similar concerns as they, but who also still accept things like transcendence, this is tolerable too I suppose, given the point of AUFS.

But AUFS' jurisdiction is limited, so it is quite absurd to take the same stance of 'assume we have good reasons' into the wider world. So when Adam places a piece out into the public realm outside of AUFS, is challenged to present reasons for one of his presuppositions, and then simply absconds on the pretense that he is tired of people trying to 'persuade' in conversation and therefore he no longer enjoys himself, one must wonder whether AUFS has not become just as much of a thought bubble as the Christian blogs (e.g. those that fetishize church) that Adam so rightly derides. As Yoder said, the 'wider world' upon closer inspection, is just a different provincialism.

Adam Kotsko said...

Well, the part with Paul was more enjoyable, and I might even enjoy it if Paul could explain briefly how a Barthian sense of transcendence could ground a radical politics. I'm glad you've clarified that you don't think it's the only way, etc., but I still need some explanation of why you think it's a way. (This is similar to Dan's request that David demonstrate that he's advocating a form of transcendence that cannot be classified as a big Other, and I hope answering it is not similarly impossible.)

Scott Jackson said...

@ No one in particular

Perhaps these conversations have spun themselves out. But I have only a couple of comments.

One can theorize and engage a "radical" poltics (or a "reactionary" politics) on the basis of Hegel, Marx, Barth, Aquinas, Niebuhr, Augustine, anyone - it depends upon how the particular thinker is employed within specific contexts. Perhaps certain theological paradigms (stressing various versions of radical "transcendence" or "immanence") may have "elective affinities" (Weber's term) with certain kinds of ethical and political stances, and of course theological paradigms often have very real world implications. But such relationships are contingent and not strictly necessary, and we can argue endlessly about their propriety, as many of us like to do.

This issue for me is my conviction is that human beings inevitably worship some one or some thing (I follow Calvin's Institutes, Bk. 1 here). I can't prove this but just take it as axiomatic (but it does make a lot of sense of history, current events and personal experience). The question that drives me is - just who or what will I (or should I) worship (that is, what is the "object" of my "ultimate concern") - myself, the world (or some process within it), humanity as such, or "God" (however defined). Speaking from personal experience, I would say, if that object of worship is not in some sense radically Other or "transcendent", I'm pretty likely to end up worshipping one of the other key contenders. If Marx, Nietschze, Feuerbach or Freud want to chastize me for slipping into idolatry in the process, they're welcome to come alone for the ride. They're saying something I already know. Fortunately, though, I don't think the issue out of this dilemma depends upon me in the slightest.

Nathan Maddox said...

Adam, I am unclear with regards to your understading of the big Other and the "human community of solidarity with the poor."

You mentioned earlier that Barthians would "jump down your throat" if you were to say that the "Yes" of the resurrection is some way voids the "No" of the crucifixion thereby suggesting that what the death of God is a nice verbal trick, but carries real no frieght. You seem to understand the resurrection to always in some way be a "No" to the "No" by being inundated by the "Yes."

It would seem to me that you have left out the possibility that the "Yes" of resurrection is not so much a denial of the "No" of the cross (and what it is to say about the nature of this Other) but an affirmation of it -- As David mentioned earlier, what Jungel calls "the unity of life and death for the sake of life" can hardly be lumped in with Milbank or classical theists.
If the resurrection of Jesus is nothing other than the confirmation that God's being/character exists in this particular way (what the cross represents for Barth and Jungel), why does it *have to be* a recourse to a big Other comparable to, say, what Milbank or Thomists are after?

In short, can you explain your claim that resurrection and the transcendance it implies -- **no matter the stripe of its material expression** -- always resorts to a big Other?

It seems to me that when you agree with Peter Kline that the "Yes" always leads to "an ideological vision of community," only to turn around and say that you support a certain kind of "Yes" -- a "Yes" to the human community of solidarity with the poor -- you either are not entirely conisistent OR not entirely clear.

Given your reason for not accepting ANY form of "transcedant" deity because it will inevitably lead to a big Other, can the same not be said of your "Yes" -- that it too will always recourse to a big Other -- a political ideology? If not then why is this characteristic endemic to the Barthian perspective and not yours?

Adam Kotsko said...

People don't seem to be understanding what I'm doing with Yes and No here. I'm not against Yeses in general. I'm saying that the cross represents God's No to God (as indeed Barth's doctrine of election would suggest!) and that the Hegelian reading of Christianity maintains that this has to be a full and irrevocable Yes, that there can't be some "extra" God hiding behind the scenes that isn't affected by this No. The Yes of resurrection would then continue to be a No to God, a No to a transcendent big Other or master signifier, thereby making it a Yes to humanity and this world.

It is possible that a big Other with "good" content, such as the idea of a God dedicated to justice for the poor, might be a good option. Yet the structure of the big Other is always, at bottom, going to be authoritarian because the big Other/master signifier's authority is always tautological -- in the hypothetical case, justice for the poor is good because God says so. Ideological orders are not all the same and some are better than others (the US is better than Nazi Germany, etc.), but I still think overthrowing ideology is a worthwhile goal, because it seems to me that relying on the big Other is a failure to take responsibility -- a failure to grow up. It seems to me that for many theologians, the desire to grow up is itself the problem, because we were made to submit to God (hence my references to hierarchy, which I maintain are appropriate and clarifying) -- but the vision I take from Bonhoeffer and from liberation theology (for instance Gutierrez's On Job) seems to me to be more appealling.

David W. Congdon said...

"The Yes of resurrection would then continue to be a No to God, a No to a transcendent big Other or master signifier, thereby making it a Yes to humanity and this world."

Adam: This is Jüngel's position – and, understood rightly, Barth's as well. The only difference is that this continuing No to God is the Yes. In rejecting God's own self, God affirms Godself and affirms the world in its freedom.

David W. Congdon said...

And, Adam, your appeal to Bonhoeffer is both agreeable to me, but also confusing. For surely you realize that Bonhoeffer does not reject the transcendence of God but instead radically reconfigures it. So that in his outline for a book in his prison writings, he can speak of transcendence as the ethical encounter with the neighbor - the beyondness of the neighbor in our midst. But if you accept this account, then you have no basis upon which to reject my previous comments because they are born from precisely Bonhoeffer's insights in those letters and papers.

Daniel said...

Adam --

This may be dove-tailing hopelessly off topic... I haven't read much Bonhoeffer, but his work is often deployed to correlate with and confirm much of Barth's thought, whereas your suggestion is that he takes things in a different direction than Barth. A) Any comments on these differing interpretations? and B) What would you recommend reading of his that relates to your concerns?

Thanks.

pauldafyddjones said...

Hi Adam,

The question of how Barth's theology grounds a radical politics is one that I'm really, really fascinated by. I've touched on it here and there in some of my stuff, published and to-be-published. I'm interested both in the question of how to interpret *Dogmatics* in terms of its political import and in the question of what a political theology might look like in the present day.

A couple of quick thoughts:

(1) Whereas the Anglo-American academy has often been negligent of "Barth's politics" -- that is, the political import of Barth's dogmatic writings -- German scholars have been more forthcoming. What I take from the German scholarship is this (and I'm adding my own commentary here): Although the attempt to read Barth's dogmatics as a function of his politics isn't convincing to me, to suppose that his theology is apolitical is a pretty severe mistake. That's why I write about the "indirect but insistent democratic socialism of the *Church Dogmatics* in the original essay. What I'm trying to say is that while the rhetorical form of the *Dogmatics* doesn't sound political, the rhetorical *effect* of the *Dogmatics* is that of generating a sensibility in which Christian life includes an imperative to conform the world, ever-more closely, to the covenantal condition that God desires. I write about this a bit in my book.

I'll admit straightaway that many people don't read Barth in this way, but I think it's an idea worth exploring. My sense is that Barth's rhetorical strategy intensifies the demand for political action of a progressive sort. Quite what *forms* this action will take is left, tantalizingly, under-determined -- although we do of course know that Barth was an ardent socialist, and the occasionally explicit political comments in the *Dogmatics* make it clear where his commitments lay.

pauldafyddjones said...

(2) More constructively, I'd promote the idea that there might be a *human* being in becoming, just as there is a *divine* being in becoming. It's a loose analogy, but it's one that I've played with in a couple of places -- in some forthcoming stuff, as well as in a contribution to *New Perspectives for Evangelical Theology*. The idea here is this: just as God is a being in becoming, radically so in terms of God's second way of being -- for the logos asarkos is always becoming the logos ensarkos, drawing into God's own life the concrete life lived by Jesus -- so human beings are released from debilitating forms of essentialism. My view here intersects with Kathryn Tanner's stuff on "plasticity" in *Christ the Key*, as well as various forms of feminist theology. It's a loose analogy between divine being-in-becoming and human being-in-becoming but, again, I think it's worth exploring.

This second point does, of course, go some way beyond Barth! But I think that's a good thing, even though I'm relying on set of dogmatic presuppositions borrowed from Barth. What I'm after, I suppose, is trying to consider how Barth's theology might be connected with a politics fitted to the present day -- and how Barth's theology might fund *new* kinds of political theology.

Best,

Paul

Adam Kotsko said...

David, I really don't know how to respond to you.

Daniel, I'm thinking of the prison writings, where he is very critical of Barth.

Paul, Thanks for the response -- I'm interested to see where your pursuit of this question winds up. I'm particularly interested in your suggestion about human being in becoming. If I had one quibble, it would be with the notion that God's No to God denies and also affirms Godself -- but only to clarify for those watchin at home that you and I are still saying different things on that point.

David W. Congdon said...

"If I had one quibble, it would be with the notion that God's No to God denies and also affirms Godself -- but only to clarify for those watchin at home that you and I are still saying different things on that point."

For the record, I believe that was my point, not Paul's, though I suspect Paul would agree with it.

Adam Kotsko said...

Sorry to mix the two comments up.

George Hunsinger said...

If I am certain of anything from my roughly 40 years of studying Barth, it would be that he does not see God's eternal being as in any way dependent upon, or "constituted by," God's intervention for our sakes in history.

The identity of the eternal Son is in no way "constituted" by "the lived history of Jesus." Absolutely in no way.

There is a crucial difference between God's "determining" God's own being to be for us, and God's "constituting" God's being in that act. This distinction is crucial in II/2.

God's being does not need to be, and cannot possibly be, "constituted" in this way. The divine essence is fully constituted, fully perfect and fully abundant in and for itself as the Holy Trinity to all eternity.

The God who is full and complete in himself is free to determine himself to be also God for us in a repetition of the triune being in time. Everything hinges on this also.

“It is not that it is part of His divine essence, and therefore necessary, to become and be the God of man, Himself man. That He wills to be and becomes and is this God, and as such man, takes place in His freedom. It is His own decree and act. Nor is there anything in the essence of man to make necessary this divine decree or act” (CD IV/2, 85).

The divine essence that remains unchanged in this act "is the free love, the omnipotent mercy, the holy patience of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it is the God of this divine essence who has and maintains the initiative in this event. He is not, therefore, subject to any higher force when He gives Himself up to the lowliness of the human being of the Son of God” (CD IV/2, 86).

Thee are many passages along these lines in vols. III & IV of Barth's Dogmatics.

It belongs to the "monstrosity" of God, it one wants to make use of this facile term, that God is fully God, fully the Holy Trinity, without us. Nothing in creation and nothing in redemption, for Barth at least, is made in any sense to "constitute" the triune essence of God, including the essence and identity of God the eternal Son.

Adam Kotsko said...

It sounds like Barth might embrace divine transcendence after all!