Welcome to The Karl Barth Society of Amherst, Massachusetts - a local chapter of the The Karl Barth Society of North America. This site is maintained by Chris TerryNelson. Please let me know how I can make this page a better resource for you. Email me, view my profile. You can also visit my new personal website, Disruptive Grace.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Barth and Brunner on Natural Theology Part 2

Continuing with the account of their correspondence by John W. Hart in For the Sake of the World: Karl Barth and the Future of Ecclesiology, edited by George Hunsinger:

Later, Brunner returns to Switzerland from a sabbatical at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Barth attends one of his church services to hear him preach. He debriefs Brunner rather critically, telling him that he had preached “cheaply, psychologically, boringly, churchly, without distance, etc.” In a letter following up on their visit, Brunner sees problems with Barth’s dialectical expressions, and offers a parable to show just how radical and unhelpful Barth’s dialectical method in its emphasis of the ontological distance between God and humanity. Brunner writes:

"[You have confused] the dialectical No with the critical No. Dialectics is, as is well-known, Hegelian, not Kantian philosophy. For Kant, the No is critical, like the watch-dog who barks at everyone except for the owner of the house. But the dialectical watch-dog barks at everything in principle. You maintain the distance as a dynamic – and thus an unlimited – principle; there is no stopping it, as little as with the Law. The dialectical watch-dog will tear apart anyone who dares to approach God . . . the Gospel ultimately means something positive . . . The question is not whether something positive appears (the dialectical No), but where it appears (the critical No): Christ appears in time, the kingdom of God grows in time together with the weeds, we have this treasure in earthen vessels, faith justifies proleptically and forensically . . . For me, this entire development is an excellent proof that I am correct when I maintain that . . . knowledge and experience, the objective-material and the subjective-personal . . . form an insurmountable polarity."

Brunner clearly does not understand Barth’s radical dialectical method. However, soon after reading Barth’s second edition of the Roman’s commentary, Brunner makes a startling turn by admitting that he finally understands “the encompassing significance of the scandal,” which is the radical distance between Creator and creation and its accompanying comprehensive judgment on humanity and humanism in all its expressions. But he does not continue in Barth’s direction, since he is also reading Ferdinand Ebner’s The Word and Spiritual Realities, adopting Ebner’s “I-Thou,” “divine summons/human response” philosophy. Instead of adopting Barth’s “dialectical No,” Brunner continues looking for divine/human continuities under the concept of “dialogue” rather than “dialectic.”

One can only imagine what it must have been like to preach with Barth in the audience! And then to have him (and Thurneysen, apparently) tell you that you preached "cheaply." Yet, instead of interpreting this as a "cheap-shot," I sense a deep and pastoral concern for truth, one that tempers and disciplines those of us who would become teachers.

Although I have no understanding of the history of dialectics within German philosophy (Kantian or Hegelian), let me instead offer further words by Barth on the distance between God and humanity. They come from the Gottingen Dogmatics which were lectures given by Barth from 1924-1925. This section in on pp. 76-77, "Man as Pilgrim." Barth elucidates how humanity contradicts the Word of God, and that 1.) this contradiction is not just some apparent spoke in the wheel of God's great plans for the world. 2.) This contradiction is not just regarding the relation between God and man, but really exists in us. 3.) Therefore, it is not simply our fate to be sinners, i.e. contradictors of this Word, not just spectators of this sinning, but actual participants in it and therefore responsible for it. 4.) Finally, we are left with no human possibility for hearing God, let alone loving or "being with" God. Only he has possibility and actuality to be "God with us."

1. "Why cannot the Word of God be written very generally, spanning the whole harmoniously like a rainbow? Why the historical contingency of the Deus dixit? Again, why is not that which the Word of God is meant to restore something general and orderly and planned? Unlike speculative thinkers in every age, from Origen by way of Zwingli to Schleiermacher and Hegel, we must not view man's alienation from God as a stage in God's will that man necessarily had to go through, as a process that could not have been different. It is instead the very epitome of the particular that cannot be reduced to a system. It is an episode. Man is not understood, at least in a Christian sense, if his being is as it were sanctioned by theological or philosophical systematizing, even though the concept of God's glory stands at the head of the system, as in Zwingli. God is not glorified by our using the concepts of creation and providence to sanctify that which from a Christian standpoint at least is unholy and has to be overcome. Even as the Creator and Ruler of All Things, God can be praised only by calling upon him in our need. And need means that the thesis and antithesis of the contradiction are not balanced like the arms of a scale. Otherwise it would not be a need and we would not have to call upon God. This leads us to the next point.

2. From a Christian standpoint the definition of man as a pilgrim is a definition of existence, not merely of thought. There is no reason why it should not have also logical, epistemological, and dialectical significance. The whole history of philosophy shows this. But the decisive point for the Christian understanding of this feature is that what is understood thereby is first of all the real dialectic of life. Pilgrim man stands between Scylla and Charybdis [Wikipedia:
Scylla and Charybdis are two sea monsters of Greek mythology situated on opposite sides of a narrow channel of water, so close that sailors attempting to avoid Charybdis will pass too close to Scylla and vice versa. The phrase "between Scylla and Charybdis" has come to mean being in a state where one is between two dangers and moving away from one will cause you to be in danger from the other, and is believed to be the progenitor of the phrase "between a rock and a hard place". The phrase "Caught Between Scylla and Charybdis" has also become synonomus with a popular song title], between two truths that make each other, and man as the third thing between them, impossible. Even in his family and nation and church and culture, man is truly uprooted, no matter how strongly or weakly this may be apparent. He may reflect upon his path, he may find pleasure in the tireless self-movement of the idea, he may erect a system of paradoxes, he may be very comfortable in his humanity. He can do these things, but he is not a pilgrim man as he does so. We reach here a point at which Kierkegaard once thought that he should vindicate the intersts of Christianity against Hegel. The relation of Hegel's dialectic to the real dialectic seemed to him to be like that of Leporello with his record to his master Don Juan, who in contrast himself drinks, and seduces and enjoys life, and hence himself goes to hell. The "himself must be asserted. The Christian concept of man becomes unambivalent only when it ceases to denote a mere relation and begins to denote what happens in the relation, when man is not the subject of mere discussion or clarification but the participant in a battle report who has just emerged from the fray. We may compare this definition, the existentiality of the human contradiction, with that of revelation, which I have called address. God's address is to pilgrim man himself, not to his philosophical shadow.

3. With this is connected the third point. Man cannot view the disorder in which he is entangled as his fate. He must view it as his responsible act, his fault. The element of fate that all of us, parents and children, are human, and that we are thus implicated in the contradiction, in the alienation from God, is beyond dispute. But this consideration cannot be our final one. The rift goes through our existence because we cause it ourselves and are not just spectators of this tragedy. In defining revelation, we stressed the fact that God's address is a miracle, not a marvel. It is an act of God, not a manifest givenness of the divine. In the same way we are not to view in natural or material or static terms the situation of the man to whom this address relates, the hiddenness of God for us if he did not address us, our nonseeing and nonhearing of God were he not himself both eye and ear. Man must not meet God's grace - as we may best describe his action - with a mere insight into his own relativity, finitude, creatureliness, etc., with a mere assertion that he is merely a man, but with shame that he is this man. "Fools and slow of heart" [Luke 24:25] - this is what we are with our nonseeing and nonhearing. Sighing at the plight we are in, if we see things aright, must go deeper and become pain at our sin, without which we do not see that the alienation of pilgrim man is really alienation from God. The final point follows at once.

4. From a Christian standpoint, the human situation is seen to be a final one apart from divine possibility. The contradiction cannot be overcome. This follows from the fact that man msut always view it also and primarily as his own act. Overcoming it would mean removing the subject that causes it, the subject in which it continually has its origin. In keeping with this is the truth that in revelation we always have to do with the fact that God becomes the subject. God overcomes the contradiction by himself becoming man and by creating faith and obedience in us by his Spirit. But because this is exclusively his possibility, to say this is to say that man has no possibilities in this direction. In this final definition we tear up by the roots all the optimism to which people so readily yield in modern theology. It will not do to accept the contradiction and then to give the assurance that something which transcends it, a third and higher thing, a synthesis in which the antitheses can come to rest, presses upon us so ineluctably that we cannot avoid positing it as real and thereby overcoming the contradiction. It is we who (rather boldly) dare to do this. And it is we who still engage in the contradiction as we do so, for in so doing how are we in any position to do anything but posit a new contradiction? Nor will it do to accept the impossibility of overcoming the contradiction and then to make it all the object of a dialectical reversal, attaining in this way to the saving position of making a truly radical negation and then promptly altering the sign, and securing a happy ending, on the ground that because a contradiction that we cannot remove is one side of the equation, its overcoming is its conceptually necessary counterpart. Certainly we can and must think this, but we can only think it. Thinking the possibility that is the opposite of an impossibility does not alter the finality of the impossibility. On the contrary, it confirms it. The signthat we have altered says no more and no less than everyting we do. What hands have built . . . [hands can throw down." - F. von Schiller].
In my view, it also will not do that after perhaps renouncing the two above procedures, at the last moment, when all other lights have been put out, we try to retrieve the lost situation by brining in a visible historical entity, Jesus of Nazareth, in which the contradiction is supposedly overcome. I am not contesting, of course, the material signficance of this final attempt at a solution. It points to the divine possibility of a solution that announces itself in revelation. But we should not introduce this reference as a final human attempt, as obviously happens when an emphasis on the historical entity Jesus approvingly recalls its presence in our own sphere, and an emphasis on the visibility approvingly recalls our own ability to grasp it. As though this entity were not thereby brought into the dialectic of our contradiction! As though by being made an instrument of the human attempt at a solution it could be made to serve an apologetic purpose and be a solution, an overcoming, an answer! As though it would not instead confirm the finality of the judgment thatstands over all things human!
When I say that the contradiction is final, I mean that no word that man speaks as subject is the world of reconciliation, not even the word "Jesus Christ," which is not a magic formula. There is room for this word only when God as subject makes room for it, when he takes it up and speaks it. Only on this presupposition, to which we should not have resort only at the last when we can do nothing else, but at the very outset, only thus is the reference to Jesus Christ anything better than an evasion. In the place which God creates, as God's own Word, this Word can in fact be the Word of reconciliation, of overcoming, of homecoming. But if it is to be such a Word on our lips, we must first learn radically to renounce its compromising use as a Deus ex machina, as a final resort in a not quite hopeless situation.
I hope that you will at least agree with me to the extent of seeing that if we put the concept of revelation at the head, the concept of man necessarily demands with all strictness this final definition, the definitive nature of his being out on the street. It will not have escaped you that with what we have said in subsections II and III we have touched on the basic features of what will call for treatment in dogmatics proper as the doctrines of the fall, original sin, and the bondage of the will."


Blogger D.W. Congdon said...

Great site. I look forward to your arrival at PTS and the possibility of forming our own Barth reading group. Prof. Hunsinger already leads his own Barth Reading Group on Monday nights, but I have not been able to attend due to class and work conflicts. I'd love to brainstorm.

Also, have you had a chance to read Bruce McCormack's book, Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology? If not, do your best to read it as soon as you can. It's very expensive, so you may find it in your best interest to wait until you arrive here and can check it out from the library. McCormack addresses a number of issues you raise in your thesis -- which I like very much. It's a great topic.

10:12 PM  

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