Saturday, February 27, 2010

Barth on theological adversaries

A free theologian* works in communication with other theologians. He grants them the enjoyment of the same freedom with which he is entrusted. Maybe he listen to them and reads their books [and blog posts] with only subdued joy, but at least he listen to them and reads them. He knows that the selfsame problems with which he is preoccupied may be seen and dealt with in a way different from his own. Perhaps sincerity forbids him from following or accompanying some of his fellow theologians. Perhaps he is forced to oppose and sharply contradict many, if not most, of his co-workers. He is not afraid of the rabies theologorum. But he refuses to part company with them, not only personally and intellectually but, above all, spiritually, just as he does not want to be dropped by them. He believes in the forgiveness of both his theological sins and theirs, if they are found guilty of some. He will not pose as the detector and judge of their sins. Not yielding one iota where he cannot responsibly do so, he continues to consider the divine and human freedom in store for them. He waits for them and asks them to wait for him. Our sadly lacking yet indispensable theological co-operation depends directly or indirectly on whether or not we are willing to wait for one another, perhaps lamenting, yet smiling with tears in our eyes. Surely in such forbearance we could dispense with the hard bitter, and contemptuous thoughts and statements about each other, with the bittersweet book reviews and the mischievous footnotes [and snide blog posts] we throw at each other, and with whatever works of darkness there are! Is it clear in our minds that the concept of the "theological adversary" is profane and illegitimate?

- Karl Barth, "The Gift of Freedom" in The Humanity of God
(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 95-96.

This is the kind of communication that expresses and sustains community, whether in a local congregation, a university department or within a section of the blogosphere. This is a classic statement of what it means to love those whom we might be tempted to describe as theological enemies due to the disagreements we have with them. Barth is no starry-eyed relativist, who wants us to leave our disagreements behind and get along by being nice to one another. His account of Christian forbearance includes the possibility of opposing and sharply contradicting one another, but places such debate within the framework of Christian fellowship characterised by a refusal to part company even amidst the kind of disagreement that brings tears to the eyes.

How is this possible? By distinguishing between our theological words and the word of God. This has two aspects. First, this means acknowledging the priority of God's gracious call to all of us. None of us are saved by correct theology, only by the prior summons of God to us in Christ. This promise and command comes prior to our attempts to understand it and remains even where such attempts (inevitably) fail.

And so second, distinguishing our theological discourse from God's word to us in Christ involves acknowledging our own fallibility and need of forgiveness (even and perhaps especially for our theological failings where our words are inadequate witnesses to the work and character of God). We are never purely right, just as those we disagree with are never purely wrong.

Therefore, we are to leave each other room to repent in the freedom granted us by the very divine word to which we are both trying to attend. And the space to repent is not a hostile silence in which we condemn one another in thoughts or to third parties, but a hopeful, prayerful waiting. Waiting may be painful; it takes humility as well as patience. It involves the refusal to condemn, to become inquisitor, to write off a fellow human being addressed by the divine word. But this waiting is not without joy, because it also serves to remind us that we both wait upon the same Lord who speaks to us both with grace and truth.
*For Barth, remember that "according to truly evangelical teaching the term 'theologian' is not confined to the seminary professor, to the theological student or to the minister. It is meant for every Christian who is mindful of the theological task entrusted to the whole Christian congregation, and who is willing and able to share in the common endeavour according to his own talents." (Ibid., 89)


Mike W said...

hey byron, thanks for the gentle but needed rebuke

Irith said...

Amen brother, and if theology were the pursuit of the mastery OF God's Word, we can view the path to such Christian forbearance as that of being mastered BY God's Word.

btw, hi Mike!(if that's Mike Wells...)

gbroughto said...

thanks Byron,

I've been thinking about this for a while. Following Jesus way of non-violence is relatively easy for me in terms of renouncing physical violence, harder in the renouncing of verbal violence and most difficult when it comes to my thinking-writing. I have wondered whether there can be such a thing as non-violent academic discourse (anecdotal evidence has prompted me to consider that some of those authors most committed to non-violence aren't very good at writing in that way.)
This Barth quote really helps

Stuart Heath said...

I think this can work in the abstract, or in the world of academia.

But it's hard for me to see how it works in concrete examples in the local church context of discipleship and mission. Some differences call for forbearance as we work together; others seem to dictate that we 'agree to disagree' and begin with pain to work in different patches.

(I am imagining, for example, different doctrines of creation and eschatology — if one person/group is deeply committed to an evangelism-only view of mission (because God is merely going to burn up everything except our souls), and another person/group has a more wholistic view (that is, saving whole persons in a world which God will redeem.)

However much waiting we may be willing to do, there are some points where activity is impossible in the face of disagreement, and where inactivity is disobedience.

Irith said...

This is a particularly pertinent thread for me, as I am in the throes of taking 'time out' from my church due to my inability to live in community in the way I feel God calls us to. I am not spitting the dummy and walking away, but I am conscious of the emptiness of my spirit/mind/emotions to produce a Godly response to the things I find provocative. My first work is to seek God's perception of the situation rather than trust in my own judgement. I think Stuart you are correct in seeing no workable solution if people are committed to different doctrines. Personally I am hoping that doctrine becomes less important and Christ becoming the Author and Finisher of my faith, in particular borne out in the way I treat other people, rises to the fore. I am living a life of poverty of Spirit and it is a great gift. The provocations and behaviours I would judge so harshly in others are a great gift to me, because they have illuminated the dark recesses of my heart and shown the lack of God's sovereignty in my heart. I know this is getting terribly long winded, but I guess what I mean is, if we are dedicated to doctrine we are on a hiding to nothing, if we are dedicated to following the King who washed the feet of his disciples, we might be on to something....

byron smith said...

Geoff - notice that Barth is not saying that there is no need for sharp theological disagreement. He wrote thousands of pages, many of them highly polemical. Indeed, his first major work was famously described by Karl Adams as falling "like a bomb onto the playground of the theologians". But you know all this. I assume then you're suggesting there are ways of expressing intellectual disagreement that are themselves in some sense "violent". Can you elaborate?

Stuart - Two points. First, Barth is writing about Christians as theologians, as engaged in the theological task, rather than in mission.

Second, I also suspect that we need to read his comments about "waiting" carefully. I don't think he means "do nothing" or "say nothing" until there is agreement. I think he is speaking about refraining from condemning a sister or brother for whom Christ died. As he puts it, waiting for those with whom we disagree involves "refus[ing] to part company with them, not only personally and intellectually but, above all, spiritually [...] not pos[ing] as the detector and judge of their sins."

So if we 'agree to disagree' and begin with pain to work in different patches that may itself be a form of Christian forbearance, of waiting, if we continue to give space to the possibility of repentance (on both sides, of course!) and do not also shut down the conversation or the relationship.

Barth was no ivory tower theologian unconcerned with the nitty gritty of daily congregation life. He had been a pastor for many years and continued in active ministry throughout his life. He knew the pain and difficulty of deep divisions and disagreements. I do not find his account of Christianity abstract or theoretical.

In fact, I found this piece very relevant to me not just in my research and "professional" relationships, but especially in the context of Christian fellowship outside an academic setting.

Irith - I understand a little of how things are difficult for you at the moment, and realise that space to reflect and pray can often be an important part of healing. Nonetheless, I doubt that anyone has the ability to live in community the way that God calls us to. So you are in good company!

My first work is to seek God's perception of the situation rather than trust in my own judgement.
Yes this is indeed a very important pursuit, and is really what doctrine is all about! On this point, you have a very Barthian approach. :-)

What I mean is that doctrine (speaking and thinking rightly about God and his work) is not an optional extra or a distraction from Christian obedience, far less an alternative to it. What Barth is here discussing is precisely the impossibility of divorcing theology from ethics, of doctrine from discipleship. This quote comes from a lecture on the foundations of Christian ethics (which he is elaborating from the concept of freedom), and this section is an illustration of the use of the concept in one particular field of Christian ethics, namely, how we go about doing our theologising together. Does that make sense?

PS Yes, it is Mike Wells! You might like to check out his blog too.

gbroughto said...

Yes - the 'bomb' metaphor used of Barth was probably a great metaphor at the time, even if it proved to be a rather unfortunate one given Barth's later response to WWII...

I wonder too, whether, given the professional and personal distance that opened up between Barth and Brunner that was only partially reconciled late in their lives, whether Barth might have responded somewhat differently given his time over?

'Violence' is perhaps not exactly the right word. But can theological disputes ever be a kind of 'lover's quarrel' rather than the UFC - type bloodsport that it often seems to degenerate into.
(apparently academic disputes are always so vicious because the stakes are so low...)

So you're right - I'm not worried about sharp theological disagreement, as you are probably aware. It is more at the level of 'what I hope for' in disagreeing which shapes how and why I disagree.

byron smith said...

Yes, that is well put.