Friday, January 24, 2014

Is God Dead? - Paul M. van Buren’s “Austin Dogmatics”

An important book appeared in 2012. It comprised the late 1950s lecture cycle of one of Karl Barth’s most promising students, Paul M. van Buren. “Barthians” these days don’t have too much time for van Buren, and this for a handful of reasons:

(1) After his dissertation under Barth on Calvin’s doctrine of reconciliation (Christ In Our Place, I highly recommend it), van Buren worked as a pastor and seminary professor. This pushed his interests toward the problem of communicating the gospel in the contemporary world. These concerns lead him to publish The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, which Barth did not care for. There was something of a falling-out.

(2) In large part because of Secular Meaning, van Buren was labeled as one of the “Death of God” theologians. This further alienated him from Barth and “Barthians.”

(3) In his later career, van Buren worked intensively on the relationship between Christianity and contemporary Judaism. Until more recently this was not a topic that tended to excite “Barthians.”

All of this is to say that van Buren is due for some reconsideration, and the publication of his Austin Dogmatics lays the groundwork for that reconsideration. These lectures go some way in helping to explain how one gets from Christ In Our Place to Secular Meaning. Perhaps if they had been published in the time-period that they originated some of the misunderstanding of his work could have been avoided.

In any case, Ellen Charry – who edited this volume, van Buren having given the lectures to her – and others work to undermine the notion that van Buren was a “Death of God” theologian. But I’ll leave the full(er) argument to them. For the time being, I’ll leave you with two block-quotes from van Buren himself on the issue.

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, (Cascade, 2012), 358.
The “God is Dead Movement” is an invention of imaginative journalists seeking sensational slogans. It certainly is not a phrase I am given to using myself, its meaning being exceedingly ambiguous. My own work has been focused in recent years, not on the old question of the existence of God, but on the far older question of man’s puzzling language about God. By exploring various ways of taking this language, I am seeking and testing interpretations of religious faith that would not be wholly incompatible with the understandings of life that are characteristic of the age in which we live. That this complex and constructive work has been interpreted by poorly informed journalists as simple and negative is a matter I regret but over which I have been able to exercise no control. When the sensationalists have tired of this game and turned to other matters, the deep and important questions of human faith and life will remain. Until that day, it is a time for a sense of humor and patience on the part of those who care about the human spirit.
And, on being called a “God is dead theologian,” . . .
Well, the expression is logically absurd. It is a contradiction in terms, strictly to say that God is dead. One might argue that there never has been a god; or one might say that the way in which Christian theology has spoken of God is such as to lead one to suspect it does not refer to anything; or one might say that the way Christian theology has talked about God has been misunderstood by those who think it refers to something. In any case, that about which theology has spoken doesn’t fall into a category in which being dead and alive seems to apply.
Van Buren’s lectures are an engaging run through basic systematic theology from a Barthian-Episcopalian angle. They are worth the price of admission to encounter that interesting combination alone! I’ll be doing more posts on this volume, and I heartily recommend it to you.

Update: It has come to my attention that the sarcasm in my reference to "Barthians" (scare-quotes intended) in this post may not have been sufficiently obvious. It is necessary to note for the record that folks like Gollwitzer, Klappert, Marquardt, and Weinrich were very interested in - for instance - the relationship of Christianity and Judaism. There is a strand of theology done downstream from Barth that English-language Barth-reception has been a bit soft on, that van Buren was (perhaps) closer to, which (perhaps) played a part in van Buren's marginalization. Thankfully, this lacuna in English-language Barth-reception will be addressed in part at the next Princeton Barth conference, which is on Barth and the Jews.

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2 comments:

PaperRocksScissors said...

"Well, the expression is logically absurd. It is a contradiction in terms, strictly to say that God is dead. One might argue that there never has been a god; or one might say that the way in which Christian theology has spoken of God is such as to lead one to suspect it does not refer to anything; or one might say that the way Christian theology has talked about God has been misunderstood by those who think it refers to something. In any case, that about which theology has spoken doesn’t fall into a category in which being dead and alive seems to apply."

This entire comment, or opinion, based on trying to dissect a meaning of this persons philosophies or theories, and then turning them around to solidify your objective thoughts, is disgusting. The only reason why I stumbled upon this site at all is because I looked up my dead fathers name.

He taught me at the age of 10, in front of a full series of basic philosophical books, that no one should be trusted and that the opinions of others were meaningless. Every thing is completely subjective and to be my own person i was to trust what anyone said, even him. I was to question everything for myself. We went to church every thursday and at the age of 10 we stopped going because my father told me that the only reason we went to church was to that i would learn what morals and ethics were. I did learn that, but i had so many more quesions. Was god real? Was there really a man in the clouds watching every move I made? Was he responsible for the kids who picked on me to pick on me and make me feel worthless and wish i had never been born? If there was a god, wasn't he the one who gave me the good and the bad and who was responsible for where I went when I died?

After going to a roman catholic french immersion elementary school and pretty much being told that i was no longer attending church and to think for myself, everything changed. I went from feeling like i was always being watched and judged to feeling like i was always being watched but that my actions, good or bad, were being assessed and anyalized and that no matter what bad things i did, i would live through that. But I never did bad things. Not things that would damage people or fuck with their lives. I've done shitty things. But I have grown and no matter how angry I am, I won't fuck with anyone. I have always thought that I was on a Truman show. Thus I was always on my best behavior. But now, i don't even care. But i still think that if i don any wrong, it will come back to me. But I dont believe that there is a god or higher power that is in control of this. We all have free will and human nature and the will to decide to do what we want. We have the choice to choose if we do something bad that will negatively affect someones life or to not even go down that road. I've thought about so many ways that i could have fucked up someones life but i havent done it. You know why? Because I am afraid of the consequences. That is why I haven't done so many bad things that i think about. It's not worth that consequences. Also I was taught to be strong and to not let drama interfere in my life and my goals. I disagree with half of the opinions written in this article and I feel that most of the things that Paul Vanburen said were completely taken out of context to benefit the writer.Which is not what he wanted and not what he wants. He wants open minds and detests organized religion. So it's sad to see his name thrown around in such a subject by someone who doesn't know him and who has misinterpreted his words for their own personal agenda.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Hi there,

Thanks for stopping by. I'm sorry that the post elicited such a strong negative reaction for you. I would simply point out that the text from PMvB that the post is working off is from the 50s, before he made his "death of God" turn with Secular Meaning of the Gospel, a text which I happen to appreciate a great deal. That said, I'm not sure there is anything contradictory here with reference to his later position, although he certainly expressed himself differently and took different emphases later on. In other words, I tend to see his later work as built on the sort of position expressed in these earlier lectures rather than departing from them decisively. But that's a matter of interpretation and I may well be wrong. :-)

Cheers,