Monday, February 15, 2010

Becoming Acquainted with Barth IV: Catching Up and Forging Ground

As I've been pursuing my research question in the pages of Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation, there have been many times where I have come across new questions or salient points and have wondered if anyone has asked them before. These are the questions I take to my supervisor. So far, pretty much every time the answer is that, yes, they have been asked before (and, remarkably, usually by him). So I suppose I'm on the right track, even if I am playing catch up.

Last week wasn't much different. I had been reading Barth's "The Act of Love" in Church Dogmatics IV/2, and was perplexed to find that Barth seemed to restrict love of neighbour to love of those within the Christian community. That's pretty alarming, not only for people familiar with the Bible, but also for those familiar with Barth. It seemed out of character. I wasn't sure if I was reading it right.

Of course, in the section as elsewhere, Barth balances this with emphasis on the importance of loving indiscriminately, and with deconstruction of the very notion that we can definitively know for ourselves who is in or out of the Community. But Barth was a bit vague on this in the section on agape love, so I asked about it.

Turns out this, too, has indeed been asked before, at a Barth conference and then subsequently in print. For quotes below, see Caroline J. Simon, "What Woundrous Love is This?", For the Sake of the World: Karl Barth and the Future of Ecclesial Theology, 2004. Turns out my supervisor wrote the response to her article himself. Not only does his response get to the heart of what Barth was saying, but it charts an important trajectory for the way I am going to continue to pursue this and the related questions.

I post an excerpt here as a way of: a) further introducing Barth's theological approach for those less familiar; b) bringing further clarity for those who are quite familiar; c) sharing what I think to be an important theological point, and; d) serving as a window into my research experience.

As it concerns the latter, I must say that as I read my supervisor's response this morning I was simultaneously: a) reassured that my inklings and questioning were not way out in left field; b) mildly disappointed that I wasn't actually breaking new ground with my research (yet, at least!), and; c) spurred on to dig deeper into the ramifications for my particular project and my whole outlook on the fabric of Christian community. Here's an excerpt, from the response of John Webster to Simon's article, pages 162 -164:

"First, for Barth the neighbour is not simply the person in need, but rather the person who does good to me. On Barth’s reading, in the parable of the Good Samaritian it is the Samaritan. . . . [who, as neighbour, is] the "bearer and representative of the divine compassion" (cf. CD I/2, 416). . . .

It is this which presses Barth to assert that the Christian is my neighbour as the representative human being, humankind on its way to becoming what in Christ it has been made. The stress on the Christian as neighbour is not driven by sectarianism (indeed, both by temperament and by theological conviction Barth was in many respects a secular person, for whom the internalities of Christian culture held little attraction). The limitation of the term “neighbor” to my fellow believer is a rejection of the idea that there is any reality we might call “humankind as such,” humankind considered in abstraction from the gospel. The Christian is my neighbour because, as one in whom life in Christ is especially manifest, the Christian refers me to Jesus Christ, the bearer of the mercy of God. . . .

To love the other as a latent Christian is not to do violence to his or her integrity; still less is it to set up barriers to compassion. It is nothing other than a matter of affirming the other’s teleology, to treat the other as what he or she already is in Christ. My neighbour is “ordered” to be the witness to me of Christ’s mercy; that mercy is confessed in the church, and therefore it is the members of the church who are the especial realization to me of neighbourliness."

Because Jesus is the true human, then, when someone, anyone, is in need, "I may not pass by on the other side." Furthermore, "because he is true, I must learn to find my neighbour in my fellow members of his church, and then in all who do not yet know that he is their neighbor who presents to them the mercy of God.”

Whether this is a proper read of the Good Samaritan or not, this made a lot of sense of the passage in Barth that I was having trouble reading. Barth does not promote an in/out mentality or an introverted ecclesiology (as Webster calls it) at all. What he does is define everything in his theology in light of the first principle of Christianity which is that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. Thus his theological anthropology is Christology and his definition of humanity is not driven by the negative conception of its evident neediness but the positive revelation of its proper goodness.

Barth keeps to this "first principle" with a dogged determinism that has both frustrated and delighted readers. But he calls this true form of theology the "happy science." It is a science because it allows its object to shape the methods and the findings of the study. It is happy because the object, Jesus Christ, is the bringer of good news to the world.

But readers of Barth know that this happiness has a note of melancholy burdensomeness too. For Barth was frequently running across places where this Christological reading was exposing our failure as Christians to remain properly fixed upon our object; upon the author and perfecter of our faith. And yet the happiness resounds, for ours is a good and merciful Neighbour: the God who meets us here and has reconciled the world to Himself, in Christ.

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