Tuesday, June 19, 2007

First post on Barth class...

The course I'm auditing this quarter - Karl Barth and Evangelicalism - has begun, and if Monday's introductory lecture was any indication, it should be a very interesting class. I've been reading Barth's "Evangelical Theology: An Introduction" as part of the required reading (well, not so much "required" for me, but...) and I'm a bit unclear on Barth's concept of the presuppositions of Christian theology, or lack thereof.

On the one hand, Barth says, "Theology cannot... presuppose anything at all concerning the foundation, authorization, and destination of its statements." He continues, "Were theology to presuppose the power sustaining its statements and itself, then theology would assume power in its own right, superior to that first and fundamental power... the very thing theology seeks would be lost whenever theology attempted to rely upon such an arbitrary presupposition." (p. 50-51)

But later on he states (p. 147) that the "reality of God's work an the truth of his Word" is a truth "radically superior to theology" and "is presupposed for it in the manner of a radical presupposition."

I asked Prof. Burton about this last night and he indicated that what Barth was apparently trying to say was that the only presupposition for the Christian is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For Barth, all theology is founded upon and a response to God's revelation, which is seen ultimately in Jesus Christ.

Now, at this point, my thought was that if Barth saw Jesus Christ as the only presupposition for Christianity, it seems surprising that he didn't attempt to engage more fully in New Testament studies surrounding Christ's life, death and resurrection. But my professor quickly rebuked me for that assertion! :-) Barth was not interested in the "historical Jesus" or any other such evidentiary commitment. He was only committed to the revelation of God in Christ.

But this brings a couple of difficult questions to my mind. The first is whether Barth's insistence on presupposing the revelation of God in Christ without any subsequent presuppositions does not lead him to a sort of fideism that ends in a catch-22. Perhaps Barth would call it a paradox, and Christ certainly is that. But is this all that is left to us? Is there absolutely nothing we can say? Perhaps that is the crux of the matter: Faith in Christ involves being a witness in spite of the fact that you can really say nothing.

The second, and related, question is whether Barth's theology offers any real opportunity for genuine dialogue with other fields and other faiths. My concern is this: If we, as Christians, say that our faith is built upon God's revelation in Christ, and we need not acquiesce to any other inquiry or evidence, then there is no further room for debate. Which is perhaps theologically legitimate, but causes me great concern regarding the witness of Christianity in many cases.

What I mean is, Barth connects theology (and faith) closely with community and ethics. There is a proper sense in which Christians must rely upon the revelation of God to produce the fruit of the Spirit, which will be seen in the ethic of the Christian community. But when - as is very often the case - the so-called "Christian ethic" appears either non-existent or in such disarray that many Christians (to say nothing of non-believers) can make neither heads nor tails of the difference God's revelation in Christ has made in their lives, then what do we have? It seems of little use to stand on a foundation of presupposition-less revelation when the outworking of such a theology does not bear out in actual living. Is some amount of "realism," no matter how dirty that word may be for Barth vis-a-vis Niebuhr, needed?

These questions are bothering me, and I hope that I will gain additional clarity regarding these issues as the course progresses. I think Barth is definitely onto something, and I find much of great value in his theological perspective. I'm just not sure what to make of his intense commitment to presupposition-less theology. More posts to come...


BenMc said...

My knowledge of Barth is so far second-hand (in fact, third-hand if you buy the line that to really understand him you must read him in the original German). I'm with you on not entirely understanding what precisely his presuppositions (or lack thereof) actually are. I'm also with you on having the feeling that he's onto something and is one of the thinkers most worth studying from the last century. Hauerwas addresses some of these points in his Gifford lectures when he tries to relate Barth to natural theology. Looking forward to future posts on this topic!

WTM said...

RE: Your first question

Barth is involved in a certain type of fideism in the sense that faith, if it is to be true faith, must be based upon nothing except God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ as Christ makes it known to us in the power of the Spirit. There is no apologetic that can, for Barth, lead one to a rational acceptance of faith. Faith has a certain kind of rationality, but it is a rationality of a higher order.

Re: Your second question

I would argue that Barth's theology offers much opportunity to dialogue with other fields as faiths. It can interact with other fields because it takes the creaturely form of God's activity seriously in its creaturely form. (It is because of this that Barth need not fear historical Jesus research, and I think that you will see, especially in Church Dogmatics IV, that Barth does give sustained attention to Jesus' earthly life.) It can interact with other faiths because it takes those faiths seriously as 'other' - think about it, do you honor another faith's particularity better by trying to show how all the faiths are really alike, or by recognizing their uniqueness and treating them as other? Of course, treating another faith as an 'other' does not entain slander, manipulation, violence, etc - I'm after recognition of the other's being as 'other' and not as secretly 'same'.

Finally, you keep talking about Barth's 'presupposition-less' theology. I'm not quite sure what you mean. What presuppositions do you think he needs?

Geoff said...

Hey WTM, thanks for checking out my blog... I've really enjoyed reading yours over the past few months.

First, let me say that I'm not certain any presuppositions are actually needed. I just wonder if Barth's view has a tendency to make dialogue with others more difficult than it ought to be, and whether some additional presuppositions might be helpful in fostering dialogue.

For example, when dealing with certain philosophical ideas, one might, at a very basic level, presuppose the existence of the metaphysical without initially explicitly connecting it to God's self-revelation in Christ, not in an attempt to subject Christ or theology to a philosophical system, but simply to find common ground for speaking to another.

I totally agree with your statement that dialogue with another is honorable when it recognizes their uniqueness and allows them to speak. I think that's spot on.

I guess my concern with Barth's view of faith as "a rationality of a higher order" and his single "radical presupposition" of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is that, although I personally ascribe to that "presupposition", it seems to eliminate the possibility of theologically addressing other faiths and disciplines using their own "language."

Now, I suppose that begs the question, 'why do we need to speak with others using their language?', but I would respond that unless the attempt is made, we will only be talking past each other and not to each other. God's Word speaks in freedom, of course, but to communicate as humans we must learn each other's languages.

I think of Paul in the Areopagus (Acts 17), although he was from the start being a witness to Christ and his resurrection, he still took the time to connect what the Athenians believed (the unknown god) to Christianity, without subjecting his witness to that belief.

Barth may have rightly criticized Tillich for doing philosophy, not theology, (and clearly Tillich drifted far from orthodox Christianity in his later years), but I still think Tillich was at least trying to speak to people who understood a different language. Maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part, but I think our theology should similarly engage others, and I'm just trying to figure out whether Barth makes that easier or more difficult. Hope that makes some sense.