Retrieving a Radical Barth: Gorringe's Reading

Recently I've been reading, marking and inwardly digesting Timothy Gorringe's excellent contextual study, Karl Barth Against Hegemony (New York, Oxford Press, 1999).
Copies of this book tend to be pricey, but my wife tracked down a copy -- from somewhere across the pond, I think -- for about $30.

The book, part of the Oxford series Christian Theology in Context that Gorringe edited with Graham Ward, offers a genetic-historical overview of Barth's theological development from his student days to his final dogmatic writings in Das christliche Leben (The Christian Life). Rather than focusing on paradigm shifts in Barth's thought (as Bruce McCormack does, for example), this text book presents Barth's theological work as, on the whole, exhibiting a more or less unified trajectory. In this vein, Gorringe draws heavily, though not uncritically, from the provocative interpretation of Barth proffered in the early 1970s by the German socialist theologian Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt.

In brief, Gorringe reads Barth as sort of proto-liberation theologian whose polemical and positive dogmatic claims were shaped by the Swiss theologian's profound commitment to human freedom and were aimed at fostering emancipatory praxis. According to Gorringe, Barth's commitment to freedom, expressed negatively as opposition to all hegemony and oppression, was forged in deep conversation with key socio-political events and crises of the 20th century -- the heady early days of European religious socialism and its demise during World War I; the creatively fertile yet ultimately disastrous period of the Weimar Republic; the wrenching German Church struggle and World War II; and the struggle for the soul of the post-War church during the Cold War. In the final chapter Gorringe draws connections between Barth's theology and the emergence of early Latin American liberation theology in 1968, the year of Barth's death. A challenge of this reading is that Barth's practical political views and engagements are not usually explicitly articulated in his dogmatic work; hence Gorringe seeks to draw those connections to the fore.


More exposition of the text will be forthcoming in future posts. For now, here is a teaser to whet your interest: A summary statement from the preface, which show's that Gorringe's intent in reading Barth this way is constructive and not merely historical:

[W]ith others who have attempted to read Barth "from the left" the study is is undertaken not primarily because of the intricate fascination and beauty of his theology, which I do not deny, but because, like Barth, I hope one day for a society which has escaped from capitalist hegemony. The Christian gospel is a vision of a society beyond all hegemony. Perhaps the situation where it is from each according to their ability to each according to their need is the kingdom, and we all know that no political programme is identical with that (p. ix).

The point I have highlighted in bold is, it seems to me, a crucial caveat. Gorringe continues:

Nevertheless, Barth insisted vehemently that provisional political goals, in which hegemony is resisted and overcome, were essential. And the great theme of his theology from start to finish, is that the reality of God, and faith as response to that reality, is not a prop for the infirm, an opiate for the masses, nor an optional extra in the culture of contentment, but an essential aspect of liberation, that without which human liberation cannot be achieved (p. x, emphases mine).

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