Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bultmann to Barth, and the rest of us

I’ve been slowly making my way through the Barth/Bultmann correspondence, or at least the English edition. My close friend, colleague, co-editor and – let’s be honest – co-conspirator has been generating a consistent buzzing in my ear about Bultmann for some time, so I figured I should pay at least a modicum of attention. The following passage is from a letter from Bultmann to Barth. I’m not clear as to whether the work of Barth’s to which Bultmann responds in the Göttingen dogmatics cycle, or the Münster. This doesn’t really matter since I’m interested in what Bultmann says for material reasons, rather than solely for questions of Barth interpretation.

Without further ado, here it is: from letter 47. Bold is me:
[Y]ou have failed to enter into (latent but radical) debate with modern philosophy and naively adopted the older ontology from patristic and scholastic dogmatics. What you say (and often only want to say) is beyond your terminology, and a lack of clarity and sobriety is frequently the result. You have a sovereign scorn for modern work in philosophy, especially phenomenology. What point is there in saying occasionally that the dogmatician must also be oriented to philosophical work if the presentation finds no place for this orientation…? It seems to me that you are guided by a concern that theology should achieve emancipation from philosophy. You try to achieve this by ignoring philosophy. The price you pay for this is that of falling prey to an outdated philosophy.



It is right that dogmatics should have nothing whatever to do with a philosophy insofar as this is systematic; but it is also right that it must learn from a philosophy that is a critical (ontological) inquiry. For only then does it remain free and make use of philosophy as a helper of theology; otherwise it becomes the maid and philosophy the mistress. There is no alternative; it must be either maid or mistress. Your planned ignoring of philosophy is only apparent. Naturally lordship or servanthood applies to the forming of concepts. But if dogmatics is to be a science, it cannot avoid the question of appropriate concepts.

This correspondence is interesting because it shows Barth working through some central methodological issues, with Bultmann’s help, at the moment when he was turning to constructive (positive) dogmatic work. Bultmann’s warning here has as much force for us today as it did for he and Barth back then, and I think the story of Barth’s theology is of trying to do justice to this concern. Different interpreters might well have different answers to whether or not Barth finally succeeded (same for Bultmann, for that matter). But both this concern to speak for today, and this danger of falling unwittingly back upon a previous and philosophically outdated metaphysics / ontology / epistemology / what-have-you must be consistently held before our eyes. As Barth said decades after this letter from Bultmann, “even the slogan ‘Back to the Reformers,’ cannot promise us the help that we need to-day. ‘Back to…’ is never a good slogan.”

20 comments:

Matt Frost said...

He's quite right about the point you've highlighted, whether or not it entirely applies -- and I think you're right to say that it doesn't matter whether it's the Göttingen or Münster cycle. But I wonder to what extent this is addressed in the course of the mature dogmatics. It has regularly seemed to me, doing both Barth and the first-half phenomenologists/structuralists/linguistic philosophers, that Barth manages regularly to nod to them while shaking his head. That the odd Hegelian performance of Aufheben as a dogmatic technique is aimed more or less in that direction.

I wonder, not to simply make excuses, how much of this is simply an extension of the problem he wrote about to Thurneysen in the 20's -- of the self-educating pastor not having gotten all he needed the first time around, and filling in the gaps only a bit faster than he fills in the students. He obviously went back to fill in his Reformation history gaps, and then his Patristic gaps, and the bursts of insight from those studies are evident. But in my work so far I haven't seen the results of any back-and-fill work in philosophy, save for doing my own "genealogy of ideas" work. Where, when and what it was is a big question!

David W. Congdon said...

Matt,

I think you raise some good points, and I basically agree. I do think you see Barth trying to fill in his philosophical gaps, not only in his lectures on theology [and philosophy] in the 19th century, but also at various points in the CD. For example, his fascinating discussion of Heidegger and Sartre in CD III, and of course the "hegeling" that goes on in CD IV.

But I agree entirely when you say: "I wonder to what extent this is addressed in the course of the mature dogmatics." I wonder as well, and I intend to wonder out loud in my dissertation about it. I do think Barth failed to address it fully or adequately at a number of points, confirming Bultmann's criticisms (at least some of them). I say this in agreement with someone like McCormack, who reads Barth against Barth in order to bring out the best of Barth's own insights. My work does something similar, just using Bultmann to prod Barth in a direction that I think he ought to have (and maybe would have) gone.

W. Travis McMaken said...

I largely agree with all this, especially the bit about Bultmann's criticism applying more to the earlier / middle Barth, and less to the later Barth - even if still applying to some degree. That just gives the rest of us - or, specifically, David - something to work on. ;-)

That said, I wonder whether Bultmann's exegetical work put Barth off some of his more theological ideas. Just a thought. One could imagine Barth thinking something like, "Well, if this leads to THAT..." I have nothing to base this on - just thinking.

David W. Congdon said...

Yeah, Travis, that's probably correct. I'm sure that thought is in Barth's mind. Also, his concern about a kind of neo-pelagianism w/r/t salvation issues. He never did understand what Bultmann meant by faith as "self-understanding." At least Ben Myers has cleared that one up.

Matt Frost said...

David, I have to agree (and I look forward to reading your dissertation in some form someday!) -- I've seen the work "peek out" in spots in the Church Dogmatics, too. But I see classes from the early professorships filling in gaps; it seems easier to follow early Barth's voracious reading by his output. But if it was all that easy to follow, where would we be, eh?

Also, I'll see Travis' "if this leads to THAT," and wonder along whether there isn't a bit of political opposition there, as well. How far do we go in what we think are the consequences of a line of thought? As much as he seems to be reclaiming the articles of the Christian faith in new forms, he may well be fighting the Kirchenkampf on the same line: weeding out unpleasant consequences as he goes, as often philosophically as theologically and exegetically. As Travis quoted, he can't go uncritically back, which forces him to go critically back. And that puts us in the weeds of "Barth's method."

David W. Congdon said...

Let's not forget that Bultmann was on Barth and Bonhoeffer's side in the Kirchenkampf. He was part of the Pastor's Emergency League, out of which the Confessing Church grew. Bultmann has some remarkably bold things to say against the Nazi regime in his writings in the 1930s. In 1933, he has the gall to write in his theology lectures about the problem with trying to make Germanism into some kind of criterion. He then states, baldly: "There are also German abuses."

Matt Frost said...

Oh, I don't mean to conflate them! But I see in Bultmann the same fight, and in so many theologians of the period (and also not, as among certain groups in my own Lutheran tradition); and I wonder how much the ideology of German reclamation of the classical tradition and of German philosophical leadership in the modern period pushes Barth away from explicitly *doing* philosophy, even as the Dogmatics grow to address more of it.

David W. Congdon said...

That's certainly likely. It's an interesting thought.

Bros. Jimenez said...

You guys ever get a chance to read Jeffrey Robbins Freedom and Thought? He claims that both Heidegger and Barth lead philosophy theology down the wrong path because of their concern to limit their field to their own object of study. In short, Barth "neglected" philosophy because he relied on a pure yet veiled Word of God and thus theology. I think this is a little overstated because Robbins's aim is to have a Levinas styled open theology (not dogmatic).
Anyway, I agree with all of the above. I like how someone like McCormack or Graham Ward have taken the best of Barth and then pushed him to be more in conversation with people like Derrida or fixed his sometimes wrong opinions of people like Hegel. As someone trying to push Barth into conversation with thinkers like Deleuze and Zizek, I am definitely saying a Yes to pushing Barth's thought into weird areas but also saying No to others who I think read Barth in a way that makes him only neo-orthodox, neo-calvinist, etc. That's what is good about a little dialectic... By the way, I love seeing Bultmann as a continuing conversation partner (I grew up hearing he was the devil)...

Nathaniel Maddox said...

Information for information's sake: The *Dogmatics* Bultmann is referring to in this letter is from the Muenster cycle -- *Dogmatics in Outline.*

Travis, it would be interesting if Barth is more exposed to Bultmann's criticisms in his early dogmatic cycles and early CD rather than his later CD, considering the (sometimes downright aggressive) "conversation" he has with Bultmann throughout IV. I wonder what this says. Do you think its just more evidence of a snowballing misunderstanding or something else?

As for the issue with philosophy, even with Bultmann's emphasis on philosophy in this letter, it still seems to me that what Bultmann really has a problem with is Barth's hermeneutical approach (theological, exegetical, what have you), one that practically and methodologically isn't as "suspicious" as Bultmann's.


It seems to me that this is the same criticism Bultmann had against Barth in 1922, just manifested in a different form and occasion.
Bultmann's material criticisms of Barth's philosophical knowledge are really of secondary importance. For Bultmann, the material criticism is simply another occasion for addressing a deeper (and recurring) hermeneutical problem.

Now as to whether or not this "problem" lingers on into IV, I haven't made up my mind yet.

As an aside though, I've always heard that Bultmann was an unfriendly and detached character, but I find him to be rather kind and intentional in the *Letters.*

Bros. Jimenez said...

Oops. It is Robbins Between Faith and Thought.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Jimenez Bros: it seems to be the trend these days to make Barth talk to odd little corners of intellectual discourse, but I think he would be very pleased to see that development - provided that we keep our feet grounded. ;-)

Nathan: I think what we find in CD 4 is Barth attempting to address what he thinks is right in Bultmann's criticisms. He doesn't necessarily tell you when he's doing this. So the picture you get is of Barth staving Bultmann off at critical junctures - well, me thinks he doth protest too much. Certainly Barth really disagrees with Bultmann on points, but I suspect that this is less often or less radical than the average reader might expect.

Of course, David's project is to show that Barth should have disagreed still less. I still have my questions of Bultmann, not having yet been able to undertake a good study of him, so I'm waiting to read David's (what will surely be a) tome.

David W. Congdon said...

Nathan,

You're right to see in Bultmann's comments a hermeneutical point. That was always his concern, and I think rightly so. But I don't think it has anything to do with being "suspicious." Unless we mean suspicious of the confusion of the gospel with a set of cultural-historical presuppositions and prejudices.

If you guys want to see Bultmann's mature criticism of Barth, read the final section of his well-known 1950 essay, "The Problem of Hermeneutics." In the letters, he actually asks whether Barth's read it, because Barth never explicitly responds to it.

I'm not as optimistic as some that Barth has taken Bultmann's criticisms to heart and is trying to address them. That might be true in a couple instances. But much of CD IV reads like Barth mocking Bultmann more than anything else. He'll use key words and phrases and claim them for himself without any critical dialogue or just dismiss them outright.

Take the start of §59 in CD IV/1. On p. 160, Barth writes: "This is the 'act of God,' the 'eschatological event of salvation,' to use our modern jargon." He doesn't use Bultmann's name, but he's taking over his terminology, almost with a playful wink in his eye. But it's also a bit dismissive of what Bultmann is trying to say. More dismissive is the statement on p. 163: "It is not a Christian conception of Him, and to that extent not the Christian kerygma, but He Himself..."

But the most pointed blow, at least within these early pages, is the small-print on pp. 166-67. This is a punch to Bultmann's face, or at least it's intended as such. Again, no use of Bultmann's name. He writes: "On the contrary, in its decisive factual statement concerning what took place between God and man it definitely resists translation into a statement about an event which did not take place at a specific time and place, and therefore takes place at all times and in all places." For one who knows the debate, this could not be any clearer. But it's also a bit of a misunderstanding of Bultmann, at least when he's understood correctly.

All this is to say, I think CD IV is more or less hundreds of pages of this. Certainly Barth does a better job at times to take Bultmann seriously. But by and large it seems to me that he's poking fun at him. Barth always thought that Bultmann was far too serious. That may be true. But I think he had good reason to be serious, and perhaps Barth should have been more serious himself.

Nathaniel Maddox said...

Travis, I find that there are places in IV.1 where he takes up Bultmann's terminology and emphases (from the little I know of it!) in a favorable light. Then, he often seems to follow up with one of his "of course, we also have to say" statements. It would be interesting to track these.


David, Yes, I meant suspicion along the lines you set up (objectification of the gospel through (un)intentional identification with a cultural current or form). I was using the word as a catch all -- more or less as a reference to the admittedly vapid term, "hermeneutic of suspicion."


I have been reading the last
paragraph of III/2 and IV/1-2 for a project this summer. Bultmann's name is strewn throughout my annotations, always with a question mark and sometimes an exclamation accompaniment. But, I need to read a good deal more of Bultmann before I "get" the conversation, I suppose.

W. Travis McMaken said...

There is, of course, also the question of how Bultmann was represented to Barth by his (Bultmann's) students, who often visited Barth's classroom (if the letters give us a accurate impression). Oh could imagine that Barth's reading of Bultmann (which I suspect was at least somewhat limited) was colored by such interactions.

Matt Frost said...

(Just for clarification, Nathan - you mean the Entwurf, called Christian Dogmatics in Outline, not the postwar Grundriss, just called Dogmatics in Outline, correct? And thank you!)

I do so enjoy the characters we find in the letters, the reasonable Barth, the concerned and conversational Bultmann, the eager and frustrated Brunner -- not the public faces painted on these theologians by their disagreeable positions over time. But it seems like it was always, at some level, aggressive conversation -- about method and the points at issue. Always to some extent hammering out answers. One joy in the letters is that you see also the kindness and intentionality that contextualizes the professional hammering. The longer they disagree, the less kind and more pointed it gets, and Barth is renowned for the hammering he gives Bultmann a bit less than he is for the hammering he gave Brunner. I think the relationship between them just lasted longer! Bultmann as the interlocutor who couldn't be written off, perhaps.

Nathaniel Maddox said...

Yes, Matt. I meant *entwurf* not the later one. We do not have an English translation of this one but I suspect if bears many similarities to the translation of the *Goettingen Dogmatics.*

W. Travis McMaken said...

It has similarities to Gottingen, yes, but it develops as well (as far as I can tell) so that it looks a bit like CD 1.1. Of course, Barth has famous comments about how much he has changed in CD 1.1...

Anonymous said...

Bultmann's right. So we should listen to philosophy as theologians. So why are we reading Barth, whose non-classical "actualism" is now outmoded at some of the best philosophy programs, who seem to think that the philosophy Bultmann eschews is the bee's knees?

I mean, who's to say Barth's metaphysics isn't as outdated now as some Barthians seem to think that of the fathers is in a post-Kantian world?

W. Travis McMaken said...

You sound very much like a good friend of mine, Anon, although he would have used his name (unless he was unable for some reason).

In any case, it seems to me that it was Bultmann more than Barth who tied his theology to a particular theological moment. Furthermore, it is one increasingly quested by analytic folks - not that I personally put much stock in that.