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.

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Response by Andrew Dole on Spiritual vs. Social Gospel

Professor Andrew Dole, a friend of mine who teaches religion at Amherst College and a Schleiermacher specialist (sorry, had to wipe the saliva off the monitor there), has written a nice response to my earlier piece on the Spiritual Gospel vs. the Social Gospel. He has allowed me to post it. It is more of a concern regarding the limited definition of "social gospel" that evangelicals like me have inherited. Giving "social gospel" work this broader definition I think reiterates the point that we cannot bifurcate the two.

"Dear Chris,

Since I've just finished teaching a course in which the Social
Gospel figured significantly, I do have a comment to make about
this. Basically, Stott's grasp of what the 'social Gospel' entails
seems pretty thin. In its classic forms it went far beyond simply
'helping people with daily needs'. Those who argued, in the early
20th century, that the primary social task of the church was 'helping
people with daily needs' were saying something very different from
the social Gospel types, and not infrequently were trying to resist
what they were up to.

The social Gospel movement concerned itself not simply with
alleviating the suffering of the unfortunate-- that was widely seen
as an important task, but one that was too limited. What the social
Gospel people addressed themselves to were the societal causes of
suffering: structural features like wage inequality, flagrant labor
exploitation, militarism, nationalism and the like. They were
interested, to cite the title of a book by Rauschenbusch, in
'Christianizing society'. This took various forms: advocation of
child labor laws, unemployment insurance, and minimum/living wage
legislation; activism on the side of workers' rights to organize and
participation in labor-capital negotiations; advancing Socialist
party policies and candidates; advocating pacifism; and preaching
against racism, greed, traffic in the sale of alcohol, and rampant
nationalism. In comparison to this kind of aggressive social/
political program, those who called for the church to do no more than
engage in charitable relief were often trying to restrict the scope
of the church's activities.

Barth's relationship to this tradition was an interesting one.
Overall he's seen as a political quietist: one who thought the
church had no business meddling in politics. But it's become clear
since his death that he was passionately committed to socialist
politics in his private views, and there are those who have argued
that his theological work is shot through with a pro-socialist
program (this is a highly contested claim).

You'll be learning far more about this over the next few years, of
course, but I wouldn't want you to start your seminary education with
such a thin notion of such an important Christian movement.

Take care, Andrew Dole"

I'll respond later on Barth's political life, particularly his relationship to socialism, and the contentious debate surrounding how much CD is filled with this. I invite anyone else to add their say on this issue, or simply respond to the general problem of social/spiritual gospel.


Anonymous Mark R. Lindsay said...

Greetings from Melbourne, Australia!

As I was wandering through the web, I happened upon this site and, in particular, this post regarding Barth's 'take' on the so-called 'social gospel' question. Can I just make a small comment? Very simply, I agree with Andrew Dole that since Barth's death in 1968, debate has raged over the extent to which there was/is a clear nexus between Barth's theology and his political praxis. The debate, of course, was sparked by F-W Marquardt's 1972 thesis 'Theologie und Sozialismus'. No one seriously doubts Barth's socialist political allegiance - the question has been whether his theology informed his political alignment, or whether (as Marquardt seemed to want to claim) it was his politics that gave shape to his theology.

One thing that has tended to get lost in all of this, though, is Barth's actual political praxis in the cut-and-thrust of everyday life. We must not, for example, forget that:
in Safenwil, he rallied to the side of the unions against the local industrialists;
in the 1930s argued forcefully for the Confessing Church to take seriously the political implications of the Barmen Declaration (especially with regard to the persecuted Jews, and especially from 1935 on);
actively involved himself with underground resistance movements (e.g. through Gertrud Staewen and the Grueber Buero);
sought to mobilize foreign governments in an effort to halt to deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in 1944;
urged reconciliation with Germany post-1945; and
tried to ease Cold War tensions by encouraging western Churches and governments to take a more moderate stand vis-a-vis Russian Communism (which, of course, sparked intense criticism of him by Brunner, R. Niebuhr and others).

In other words, there is ample evidence to suggest that, theological writings aside, Barth was self-consciously and deeply involved in political activism.

For what it's worth, I do think there are suggestions of why he thought this was a theological imperative embedded within the CD and his other theological writings (e.g. The Knowledge of God and the Service of God).

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I discuss this in much more detail in my book 'Covenanted Solidarity' (2001), and also in my forthcoming book 'Barth, Israel and Jesus' (2007).

Kind regards to all,
Mark R. Lindsay

8:43 PM  

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