Thursday, February 26, 2015

Gorringe on Barth: The Freedom of Theology vs. the Bondage of Worldviews

Karl Barth has bedeviled myriad interpreters, from existentialist theologians to orthodox Calvinists, with his tenacious and often strident efforts to keep theology free from the miserable conflict of "worldviews".

Timothy Gorringe, in his study Karl Barth: Against Hegemony (Oxford, 1999) helps us understand why the Swiss dogmatician was so resolute on this score. Essentially, as Gorringe reads him, Barth equates worldview with ideology, and theology must be bound only to the Word of God and not to any distorting human intellectual constructs. This does not mean, though, that that the issue is preserving theology per se from the fray of human conflicts and controversies; rather, the question is: Does theological ratiocination bind or loose believers for the concrete struggles of social and political life.

Gorringe writes:

Barth has rightly been described [by Clifford Green] as a "theologian of freedom". From one point of view the Church Dogmatics is a gigantic exploration of the meaning, presuppositions, and actualizations of human freedom. The negative, critical, mode of this exploration is the attack on hegemony, on world views which take over the freedom of the gospel. Further, to a very significant extent Barth believes that God frees us by liberating us from hegemony (p. 3).

Gorringe reads the thrust of Barth's theology, on the whole, as positive: The God of love and freedom emancipates human beings from bondage to sin and falsehood through Jesus Christ, thereby empowering them to enjoy communities of freedom and mutuality. Nonetheless, as Barth often pointed out, a "No" is encompassed within the overarching "Yes" of God to humanity in Christ. Much of the negative work in theology takes the form of ideology critique.

The foregoing point dovetails with how Gorringe (compellingly, it seems to me) interprets Barth's obsession with revelation, especially in the early years of his theological project, not as an enmeshment in the post-Enlightenment crisis in religious epistemology but, rather, as integral to the project of human liberation. He reads the trope of revelation as an arch that unites the Church Dogmatics from the doctrine of the Word of God to the explication of the role of Christ as true prophet within the doctrine of reconciliation. Gorringe writes:

The centrality of revelation in Barth's thought, not just in his early work, or in the first two volumes of the Dogmatics [meaning 1/1 and 1/2] but also in IV/3, means that the negative attack is also positive liberation. How do human beings take up their vocation of freedom? An important part of Barth's answer is: Through the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. But this means the issue of ideology is inescapable, and it does in fact recur again and again in the Dogmatics in the form of the attack on world views.

As Gorringe reads it, this aspect of Barth's thought is meant not to lead to aloofness from the realms of society and politics but, rather, is to serve as a catalyst for speaking truth to power and for mobilizing change. This stance against worldviews or ideologies colonizing theology was contextual and, thus, took different forms throughout Barth's career: In a context still in the throes of Harnackian liberal theology, Barth's protest took the form of a radical critique of religion. Later he attempted to confront the demonic ideology of Nazism with a resolute affirmation of the freedom of evangelical preaching and with a radically re-imagined doctrine of God. Finally, in the post-war period, Barth refused to enable the hysteria of western anti-Communism, offering as a counterpoint joyous treatises on the reconciliation of all people with God and each other in Jesus Christ.



Matthew Frost said...

Excellent. As in Romans, God's No stands against our No as surely as our Yes. Barth refused to engage in the spasmodic twitches of Western cultural self-defense in the 50s and 60s on the same line as the 1930s. Which isn't to say he didn't engage in opposition! But the fight is waged with the gospel, and consequently with the obligations of gospel obedience. There is always time for Christians to act like it!

It isn't so much that Barth is opposed to worldviews, as that worldviews can only be provisional, and must always be tested for falsehood. We must prefer to betray them.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Yes, well said. I agree: The issue is not eliminating all worldviews per se, which is impossible. Rather, the point is to not to cling too tightly too them. Somewhere Barth writes that the theologian is bound only to the Word (that is, the freedom of the gospel) and is free in face of everything else.

W. Travis McMaken said...

The German literature makes a distinction between "world-view" and "world-picture." The latter is inchoate, reflexive, etc. The former is systematic, comprehensive, and the product of sustained attention. So more or less by definition, a worldview is not provisional. The Gospel, then, is the interruption of all worldviews.

I'm fairly certain that Congdon has a detailed explication of this somewhere in his Bultmann tome.

J. Scott Jackson said...

So Weltanschauung vs. Weltbild, As in this little entry?

W. Travis McMaken said...

That seems to treat them a bit more like synonyms, but yes, something like that.

J. Scott Jackson said...

What this discussion brings to my mind is Barth's discussion in 3/3 of cosmologies as provisional world pictures, though I'm not at leisure presently to look it up. Maybe some other DET will pipe in so I can be spared the indignity of being the major commentator on my own post.

J. Scott Jackson said...

* DET reader, I meant to say.

David W. Congdon said...

A few things. First, I do have quite a bit (maybe too much!) in my forthcoming book on this topic. Second, Travis is right about the distinction. More specifically, world-picture is a term that refers to our given cultural context; it is something native and unreflective. We do not choose our world-picture, any more than we choose the location or language into which we are born. A worldview by contrast is an ideology that human beings devise, select, and promote. It takes up the given world-picture into a system that makes sense of it.

Now things get complicated with Heidegger. The article that you cite, Scott, is actually not helpful here in clarifying the two terms, because it only refers to Heidegger's famous essay on the "Age of the World-Picture." Heidegger uses world-picture as a synonym for worldview, which breaks with the earlier and more common understanding of world-picture inherited from Dilthey and others. So while Heidegger's essay is very interesting and illuminating, it does not clarify the term Weltbild in itself.

Finally, as for Barth, his most important discussion of worldviews appears in 4/3.1, pp. 255-57 (293-96 in German), where he places Christ against worldviews. We should also remember that there was a lengthy discussion of worldviews that he removed from volume 3, which you can read now in the archive. In that material Barth draws the comparison: God is to idols as faith is to worldviews. It's very interesting material indeed.

Also, a correction to the original blog post: this rejection of worldviews was not a problem for the existentialists. Indeed, that was where they were most in agreement!

J. Scott Jackson said...

That's fascinating, David. Thank you. So why was this material removed from volume 3?

"A worldview by contrast is an ideology that human beings devise, select, and promote," you write.

Though I readily grant its constructed character, I question the extent to which an ideology is under human control, at least once it has formed and insinuated itself as principality within the socio-political life of a distinctive group. I question the extent to which you or I or anyone else can "choose" to embrace a particular ideology. (Though of course I defer to your expertise in the way the two terms are distinguished in the literature.)

Matthew Frost said...

Travis, I think your distinction between Weltanschaaung and Weltbild misses the point. Of course Weltanschauung "is systematic, comprehensive, and the product of sustained attention." So is a philosophy, so is the Standard Model in physics. And they are all of them, if we know our business, provisional. We made them, and they can and should be falsified where false. The interruption of worldviews is the demonstration that they are provisional at best.

To assert that a Weltanschauung is better than a Weltbild from this perspective seems like privileging the more thoroughly entrenched problem over the one that will yield more readily to persuasion.

Matthew Frost said...

Or perhaps on David's terms, the Weltbild is the one least likely to be shaken. Certainly that distinction makes these two things very different entities, more along the lines of Nietzsche's first natures and second natures in On the Use and Disadvantages of History for Life. There is hope for the surpassing of the limitations of one's world-picture in the construction of a worldview. On the other hand, every successful worldview will become another generation's world-picture.

W. Travis McMaken said...

I don't think it is helpful to speak of overcoming Weltbild limitations through developing a Weltanschaaung. The point is that the former retains an openness that the latter has lost precisely through development. Yes, our philosophy of science is different these days but, in building a Weltanschaaung, one does not build-in provisionality. That would seem to be besides the point. If one builds a Weltanschaaung, one intends for it to last, be comprehensive, etc.