Thursday, February 17, 2011

Barth: Cannibalistic v. Communion-based Theology

In the personal notes that follow I think we get a great insight not only into Barth's personality but also into his approach to theology as an open and communal endeavour. I'll come back to some of the more telling lines in that regard below. In the meantime, enjoy these (by now rather famous) remarks from the pen of Karl Barth, first from the 1955 preface to volume IV/2 of his Church Dogmatics, and then from a 1961 letter written to one of their translators, Geoffrey Bromiley.

As I hurry to the end of this Preface, I must not forget to make some necessary amends. I am not referring to the strange (but not entirely novel) confusion which caused me (somewhere in IV, 1) to transport the land of Israel to the western shores of the Mediterranean. I am thinking rather of the fierce attack which I made on Dutch Neo-Calvinists in globo in the Preface to III, 4.

The wrath of man seldom does that which is right in the sight of God, and never when it is in globo. I have to acknowledge this now that I have come to know the great book on myself and the Church Dogmatics by a representative of that group, G. C. Berkouwer (De Triomf de Genade in de Theologie van Karl Barth, 1954). For all its reservations and criticisms this work is written with such care and goodwill and Christian aequitas [fairness] that — in the hope that there are others like its author — I should like to withdraw entirely the generalised and therefore ill-founded words which after many years of provocation I then suddenly unleashed.

There are obviously “Fundamentalists” with whom one can discuss. Only butchers and cannibals are beyond the pale (e.g., the one who summarily described my theology as the worst heresy of any age), and even they only provisionally, for there is always hope that they will attain to a better mind and attitude. Those who were wounded then can take comfort in the fact that I myself have now come under the charge of “Fundamentalism,” and indeed of an “existentialist Fundamentalism” (whatever that may be).

And if in the future they do not say any more unseemly things about Mozart, they need have nothing to fear from me (CD IV/2, xii).

Five years later, Barth was contacted by his friend Geoffrey Bromiley with a request from Christianity Today that he respond in the pages of their magazine to some of the charges that had been levied against him by prominent evangelical theologians (one of them the heresy-hunter referred to above). As it turns out, the harshest critics of Barth's theology were going to be given the last word. Again, I find Barth's letter of reply as insightful of his approach to theology as it is of his personality.

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put. To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed.

Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the C.D. where they might at least have found out — not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. — where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions.

I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness.

Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to CD IV/ 2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.”

These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

With friendly greetings,
Karl Barth

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today.

Although I read these for the first time a year or two ago, now that I've spent some time deeply considering Barth's approach to Christian community and the theological endeavour, at the risk of making too much of these off the cuff remarks I do wish to utilize them in highlighting some things that I think are pretty indicative.

  1. There is a difference between expressing "reservations" and making "criticisms". In either case one should be "fair" and with "seriousness" try first to understand the other person and second to communicate one's critiques clearly.

  2. By his own confession Barth considers the words of his prior "generalizations" to have been "ill-founded". Time might have told whether his generalizations would have rung true, and so perhaps Barth isn't apologizing for them. But he leans toward a more cautious approach when he withdraws those comments and mentions that he only levied them after much provocation. Even then, of course, he confesses that they were "unleashed" more on a "sudden" impulse than a thoughtful desire for mutual edification. This is pretty relevant today, where we love to characterize "the church" or "evangelicalism" or "conservative" or "liberal" in globo rather than speak about the issues at hand. I've been guilty of this myself and have been consciously trying to be more pointed than blunted.

  3. The reason Barth will not respond to the questions lobbed at him is because he feels they are hand grenades and not communiques. The critiques from these prosecuting attorneys, these protectors of the truth, have shown that they have been more intent to deal with Barth under predetermined "superficial" labellings rather than actual interaction. To be fair, in cases where we don't understand each other we probably have to come at each other with our prior categories open on the table. But if we aren't listening to the way the other person wants to explain things, we are head-hunting rather than truth-seeking together. Barth might recommend we be willing to work through such blockages if the context is our own local church, but in this case he is too tied down locally to play this game with those people across the pond who have shown no willingness even to meet him halfway.

  4. Even the harshest fundamentalist can be considered "beyond the pale ... only provisionally, for there is always hope that they will attain to a better mind and attitude." By this Barth does not mean we talk to them again once they share our point of view. He is referring to the lack of openness to discussion. While there is no writing anyone off completely, sometimes for the sake of discussion one must actually end the discussion. The first thing one has to do when one is in a pretended discussion is call a spade a spade and ask that the person come back when they are willing to actually discuss. Until this is confronted, "neither an angry nor a gentle answer" will be much help.

  5. When Barth calls for people to be open rather than closed, is he simply a pluralist preaching a shallow gospel of wishy-washy tolerance? What would he think of Chesterton's adage that the purpose of an open mind is to close it on something solid? I think he'd agree that there is at the goal of thought and dialogue a certain conviction about what one considers true. However, here Barth isn't talking about an "open mind", he is talking about people being closed to other people. This is about a posture for discussion that actually allows someone to speak and actually endeavours to understand and seek commonality.

  6. 6. But how can there be such a thing when we have no reason to believe we will find commonality? Is such openness merely naive? Perhaps this is the case under other belief systems (or lack thereof), but it should not be so in Christianity. Our discussions stem from a common faith that there is a "truth that is greater than us all" and that He actually wishes to be sought! Barth made quite famous the old phrase about Christian theology as "faith seeking understanding", but here I think we get a window into the fact that he really believes in "communion seeking understanding". One can take the "faith" platitude quite individualistically, thus easily taking "the stance of those who happily possess" understanding and are simply "proving to themselves" that they are on the right track. But Christ calls people into communion in order to seek truth together. With the Word in the church the Spirit guides us into truth together. And since the Spirit can be heard in the world we are best to be listeners. Christians do not believe that understanding establishes peace, they believe in a peace that surpasses understanding and guides us into truth from that peace which is already there. It may be this peace and not some shirking of the question which leads Barth in his P.S. to entrust to his friend Bromiley the "suitable" communication of his answer.

  7. And though I've used a picture of Daniel in the lion's den to depict this, it is interesting that Barth chooses the metaphor of cannibalism. This isn't a redrawing of battle lines on an in/out distinction, but the recognition that it is possible within a false unity to begin to eat our own.


blogos asarkos said...

Hear hear.

jonkramer said...

Another good one.

Point #1 is particularly helpful to me. It's not just semantics either - but it's a subtle shift that really gets at the heart of the kind of dialogue I want to have with people in the church. I'll file this one away for sure.

On a related point, this post reminds of of another shift I've been trying to implement: dialogue instead of discussion. I like the idea of "speaking through something" with people rather than getting into an exchange that shares its origin with "concussion"

I'm still thinking on #3 though. I wish sometimes that I had the luxury of stepping away from the hand grenade tossers. Also, how do you get hand grenade tossers to realize that they're throwing hand grenades? How do you get them to stop? (I guess this kind of reveals that I'm struggling with #4)!

Jon Coutts said...

I know Jon, that's when it's tough, when you can't walk away. But then again there can be real breakthroughs there that might not be had when the luxury makes us miss out on the rewards of patient forbearance and careful conflict. I really think finding a way to name what is going on might be the first way through to a dialogue. Often hand grenade tossing is a feigned confidence. Sometimes it is downright brutish. Either way, maybe best to clear the air sometimes.

Tony Tanti said...

what a great post, I'm sure Barth's critics twisted it to their own predetermined judgments of him but kudos to him for refusing to throw stones back.

I go back and forth on the hand grenade tosser analogy, I think the wise thing to do is ignore them and let their grenades lie unexploded. Usually I throw one back though, not sure that helps.

It's the old adage, do you want to change minds or be heard? It's easy to do the latter and no hand grenade ever changed a mind.

But at what point when someone is hitting you are you allowed to hit back? What I like here is that Barth managed to show he wouldn't put up with the abuse while still ignoring the actual BS claims, well played Karl.

Jon Coutts said...

Well played indeed. I love Barth's letter.

I really don't think there would be a guiding principle in all this. It probably largely depends on one's place, and voice, in the community having the 'conversation'. Even then one could be an outsider and the issue could be important enough to stick one's nose in.

I don't think retreat is a great general option though. I think if one retreats one must make it known why that is, and with an olive branch rather than a scolding stick. I really highly value naming the elephant in the room. It is awfully off-putting when people want conversations to be full of sub-text, and certainly one doesn't want to be a witch hunter in every conversation, looking for the sub-text and rooting it out even when it isn't there. You have to let stuff play out a bit and trust people to work it out. Everyone comes off like a hand-grenade tosser at times. Even the best of times. We need a lot of grace to get past that and then have the discussion.

But, yeah, naming it when it is there. That seems important.

Tanti, I'm not sure it is easier to be heard than to change a mind. I'm not even sure our agenda should be to change minds. I feel like being heard (as in, being understood) is really hard. And an agenda of changing minds can be a real discussion killer. But we're probably thinking of different scenarios. ?

Tony Tanti said...

What I mean by being heard is simply literally being heard. Loudest voice or squeakiest wheel...

A great example would be the G20 protesters in Toronto who vandalized, they actually managed to distract from their own message and unify people against them who would have otherwise been indifferent and open to a reasonable criticism of the summit. In the end they changed no minds but were certainly heard.

And I think if you're passionate about your position on a subject and feel it's defendable then changing minds should always be the goal.

I'm not trying to say that you give up on a relationship if you never change the mind of the other person though, and I suppose one should also try to be open to having their mind changed as well.

Jon Coutts said...

I aspire to aim for a changed mind, but I just think we're better off when we believe there is a truth of some kind that we together should be aiming for - even as we argue vigorously and thoroughly for 'our own' positions. It probably depends on the issue and the situation how long I will defend 'my' position, but at the end of the day if my only goal is to change minds then I have not entered a discussion or even a debate but an address. And we should at least call that for what it is.

Tony Tanti said...

Good point