Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Is Barth's God Too Transcendent? It depends...

...on which Barth you're talking about.

There are a number of stock criticisms made of Barth’s theology. Chief among them is the claim that his emphasis upon Jesus Christ and God renders his theology one-sided in that it leaves no room for the rest of us, for creation. In other words, the claim is that Barth’s God is too transcendent, so much God without us that there is precious little room left for God with us. Consequently, so the argument goes, the God we meet in Barth’s theology is fundamentally a God against us rather than for us. Amy Marga describes this worry in her book, Karl Barth’s Dialogue with Catholicism:
[A] doctrine of God in which God is wholly separated from creation can bring no hope to a broken humanity. An utterly transcendent God brings no peace. God must be both above all things but also in all things…Guilty of this kind of imbalance were none other than the dialectical theologians [ed. note, with KB in the van]. They…reverted back to a doctrine of God that originated in Luther, and put forth an imbalanced view of God’s Gegenständlichkeit (objectivity) that lay at the heart of Reformation theology. It…signal[ed] a ‘genuine rebirth’ of Protestantism. Theirs is a God who alone is real, and who alone effects and brings all thing to pass, without any role played by creation. This is a God without creatures, a God who acts and dwells in a space that is hidden from creation. This God’s Yes is a Yes to God’s own being, not a divine Yes to creation. In fact, God’s own objective positivity was expressed by the dialectical theologians as a diametrical opposition to all that is creaturely, and the immensity of God’s own Gegenständlichkeit leaves no option for the creature to be anything but God’s No (72).
This is part of Marga’s description of the criticism leveled against Barth and the dialectical theologians by none other than Erich Przywara, and it is a penetratingly telling one. He hits the nail on the head in a number of ways. But, it is important to note that he made this criticism in 1923. Marga’s argument is to show that Barth learned from this (and other similar) criticisms, and developed his theology in such a way as to render them unnecessary with reference to his later theology. One need only to look at this excerpt from Barth’s 1956 essay on “The Humanity of God,” where Barth reflects on his early work:
We viewed this 'wholly other' in isolation, abstracted and absolutized, and set it over against man, this miserable wretch - not to say boxed his ears with it - in such fashion that it continually showed greater similarity to the deity of the God of the philosophers than to the deity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...Who God is and what He is in His deity He proves and reveals not in a vacuum as a divine being-for-Himself, but precisely and authentically in the fact that He exists, speaks, and acts as the partner of man, though of course as the absolutely superior partner (45).
The point of all this is to make clear that such criticisms of Barth as those mentioned at the outset do not in fact land against Barth’s mature theology. They landed against his early theology, and he moved to address them. For my money, there are two reasons why we keep hearing such criticisms, and I’ll conclude with this:
  1. Anglophone theology knew little more than the early Barth for a very long time, and so its reflexive picture of Barth is often built on his earlier work. Consequently, criticisms of his early work are repeated as though they pertain to his work as a whole. All this we might describe as the “neo-orthodox captivity” of Karl Barth’s theology.
  2. When Barth moved to address this and other criticisms of his earlier work, he did so in a way other than the way his critics wanted him to. So, even though Barth addresses the concerns of these critics, they remain unsatisfied because he did not simply drop what he was doing and go running into their arms. Barth was too creative a theologian for that, and many can’t be bothered to spend enough time with him to understand how he addresses their concerns. This is why books like Marga’s (and Keith Johnson’s, while we’re on it) are so important, namely, because they endeavor to clarify Barth’s theology and show how it addresses such criticisms.

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10 comments:

Bros. Jimenez said...

Great post. Well said...

Joshua H. said...

Travis-

Do you think Barth's mature theology makes room for human subjectivity? (I have Kierkegaard in mind) If so, what sections of the CD's come to mind?

Matt Frost said...

@Joshua, I'm doing quite a lot of work in CD III, which is the doctrine of creation, and I know you'll find human subjectivity there, set in its proper creaturely context. And then also in CD IV, set in its proper sphere of reconciliation -- in which the church happens. In both, set in terms of God's actions and their effects, and our responses. But human subjectivity is also treated along with divine subjectivity and objectivity in volume I, because it is the church that speaks and acts, and dogmatics is the diagnosis of that human speech and action in terms of its principles. The end of I.2 illustrates that most clearly.

The trick is that CD II is practically the only place where I see this criticism capable of landing in the mature theology -- and it can only alight there, because not only does volume II move from speech into ethics, but it also moves on ahead into volume III! It is, in fact, hard to find any whole piece of the Dogmatics where human subjectivity is not at least structurally included, even where it is not treated directly. We are one of the presuppositions of the change in method from the Christliche Dogmatik to the Kirkliche Dogmatik.

If I had to point to one exemplary piece, both to counter the "too transcendent in His asiety" critique and to demonstrate human subjectivity in the dogmatics, it would be III.4. Barth builds out the rightly-ordered set of relationships that make the creature properly the creature before God and among other creatures. And that is in turn built on III.2, in which we very clearly see right human subjectivity modeled on God with us, because Jesus is the model of true humanity.

Bobby Grow said...

Yes, intriguing post! You know Barthians aren't well liked out there, Travis ;-).

W. Travis McMaken said...

@Joshua - Like Matt, I think human subjectivity is addressed throughout CD and, where it is not specifically elaborated, the possibility of such elaboration is nonetheless included.

@Bobby - Out where?

Joshua H. said...

Thanks guys!

Your comments are very helpful. I am working out some ideas for Th.M thesis right now. I am looking at the concept of revelation in the theologies of Karl Barth and Soren Kierkegaard. I hope to bring out the subjective dimension in Barth's thought. On the other hand, I hope to highlight the objective aspect in Kierkegaard's thought. If Barth suffers from a 'Transcendent" reading of his work, then Kierkegaard has suffered way too long at the hand of radically existentialist readings.

Bobby Grow said...

Out where I live still; in the "Evangelical" mainstream. Including faculty members at "Evangelical" seminaries (like the one I attended).

in said...

Take heed who you listen to is good advice - still.

Matthew said...

I think we can add that Anglophone theology knew only part of Barth's early theology, namely, his commentary on Romans, which alone does not constitute the whole of Barth's early theology. It was missing a swath of material like his early lectures. I am halfway through John Webster's book "Barth's Earlier Theology: Scripture, Confession and Church" (2005). In it Webster shows that many aspects of Barth's mature theology have at least their seed in his early theology. One of those aspects is the relation between God's transcendence and human subjectivity. Webster shows that this was a concern for Barth in his early lectures on Zwingli. In essence, Barth learned from Zwingli that God's transcendence is the ground of human subjectivity. God's transcendence allows for a sphere of human activity. This isn't to say that Barth didn't at times overemphasize God's transcendence to the detriment of creaturely subjectivity. He owns up to that, as you note, in "The Humanity of God." But at the very least, even Barth's early theology has resources to draw upon in order to address this criticism. That's what I gather from Webster at least. I have yet to look at Barth's Zwingli lectures, though. I will have to learn German before I can do that.

W. Travis McMaken said...

That's a very important point, Matthew.

Also, from rumors that I've heard, a translation of the Zwingli lectures may be on the way.