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A Letter from Karl Barth to Karl Rahner

February 18, 2011 3 comments

I was using the Karl Barth Digital Archive this morning and decided to search for “Karl Rahner” out of curiosity. I came across this letter (I only wish I could listen to the sermon or see Rahner’s reply if he made one):

To Prof. Karl Rahner
Münster, Westphalia
Basel, 16 March 1968

Dear Colleague,
 
Last Sunday I heard you on radio Beromünster, at first with pleasure, expressing by lively gestures to those listening with me my approval of individual statements. In the end and on the whole, however, I was completely stunned. You spoke much and very well about the “little flock,” but I did not hear a single “Baa” which was in fact authentically and dominatingly the voice of one of the little sheep of this flock, let alone could I hear the voice of the shepherd of this flock. Instead, the basic note was that of religious sociology and the other favorite songs of what is supposed to be the world of modern culture. In the way you are speaking now, so some fifty years ago Troeltsch was speaking of the future of the church and theology. Get me right: I am not speaking a word against the seriousness of your personal faith and what I write is not even remotely meant to be an anathema. But take it from me, our Neo-Protestants were and are in their own way pious and even churchly people. To spend a few hundred years in eternity with their father Schleiermacher (whom I never think of as excluded from the communion of saints) would please me very much should I myself get to heaven—so long as I could have a few thousand years with Mozart first. But with such addresses as that you gave on Sunday, which lack spiritual salt—or “spirituality” as you like to say in Catholic terminology— you are not building up the church in time and on earth, as is our common task, nor building up “the church for the world.”
 
With sincere and fraternal greetings,

Yours,
 
Karl Barth

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J. Kameron Carter at Notre Dame—on Barth and DuBois

October 7, 2010 5 comments

I just came out of a really excellent lecture given by J. Kameron Carter here on campus, whose visit was orchestrated by Andrew along with one other colleague, Steven Battin. The title of the paper he presented was “An Unlikely Convergence: W.E.B. DuBois, Karl Barth, and the Problem of the Imperial God-Man.” Even with quite a few sections edited out for time, the lecture ran a full 90 minutes and spanned a massive range of material, so there’s no way to say everything again. Still, I thought a few of you would find a brief summary interesting.

The point of the paper, as the title indicates, is to identify a substantial if oblique alliance between W.E.B. DuBois and Karl Barth with respect to a certain diagnosis of the post-WWI political situation. Both of those thinkers were concerned to perform a theological diagnosis of the modern west—that is to say, a diagnosis of the problem of the modern west as a theological problem. More specifically, Carter wanted to say that they both diagnosed the problem of the modern west to be located at the level of a kind of “theopolitical anthropology,”* with the west bearing at its heart an image of an imperial man (for DuBois, an imperial white man) that gets identified with the God-man.

The opening section of the paper lays out a kind of theoretical framework, dependent especially (as he was in Race) on Etienne Balibar, that could explain the idea and function of a theopolitical anthropology in the formation of the nation-state. This was a thick and fascinating section—too thick, really, for me to have captured all the nuance that makes it work for him, especially not knowing Balibar. The basic idea was that at the heart of the national personality, the national Geist, that produces a people and binds it together as a singular nation, is an idea of the ideal citizen, a concrete universal citizen, a persona ficta that must be imitated and even integrated into oneself in order to count as a real member of the polity. The bulk of the process of nation formation, according to Carter, happens at the level of the political unconscious, in the realm of what he was calling imagination or fantasy. So nation-formation is not something that only happens through institutions and laws; it happens within the individual subject. So too this persona ficta has to be taken within oneself, not only imitated (though certainly that) but also embodied in the process of nationalization. Balibar apparently identifies this whole process as analogous to the process of conversion to Christianity and integration into the church, and Carter plays on that analogy quite a bit: the persona ficta becomes the imago Dei of the nation, who is to be imitated as Christ and even “eaten” as in the Eucharist. In fact, he says, religious and national formation aren’t merely analogous; they are “a singular Janus-faced social process.” Thus the possibility of a theopolitical anthropology that mediates national unity.

The second section, which Carter worked through very quickly, tries to show these processes at work in post-WWI Germany, above all, to give context for Barth and a picture of the 20th-c. west. He summarized the changing contours of the German nation in that period, whose persona ficta is a virile, racially white, bourgeois missionary-warrior—in short, a Germanized Christopher Columbus (who becomes the subject of a great deal of cultural activity in 19th-c. Germany, apparently) or, more proximately, von Humboldt. (There were some really interesting hints here about the way gender played into Germany’s self-understanding, with the loss of its colonies experienced as “feminizing,” but Carter didn’t have a chance to spend much time on that.)

That stage set, he tries to show it as a necessary backdrop to Barth’s early work, focusing on the Römerbrief. He argues that Barth’s concern from the beginning was with the way that German piety had taken its nation-form within itself and vice versa, so that his main task was to demystify the “de-formed Christian world” shrouded in German self-perception. This is the lens through which one has to read Barth’s critique of the “anthropologization” of theology—which, he thinks, is secretly enthroning western, imperial man in place of the God-man—and of abrogating the infinite qualitative difference between time and eternity—which he thinks is a way of making Europe the byway and the end goal of history, making Europe its own salvation and its own eschaton. In Carter’s terms, Barth is diagnosing the ways that the process of nation-formation has been co-implicated in religious formation, with the consequence of perverting Christianity and absolutizing the German imperial form.

DuBois accomplishes much the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic, except that he’s able to see farther than Barth to the global and racial dimensions of the modern, western, imperial man. DuBois too thought that a failure of Christianity lay at the heart of the western project: Carter quoted him talking about “the religion of whiteness on the shores of our time,” and saying that “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, amen.” The analysis focused mostly on DuBois’s book Darkwater, the structural center of which is a short story entitled “Jesus Christ in Texas.” Carter’s argument was that DuBois’s Christ, like Barth’s, constituted an interruption that directly challenged the nation’s persona ficta. So in DuBois’s case, that meant (among other things) that Christ is depicted as racially ambiguous (though dressed in Jewish cloth) and non-conquering.

This spun out, at the very end, into the beginnings of a constructive Christology that built on this idea of interrupting the nation’s mediating personality, but too much time had left us at this point and we got only the most general of gestures. It was interesting to hear, in the (very brief) Q&A that followed, just how Barthian he takes himself to be. On the constructive side, he seemed ready to follow Barth a great deal of the way—wanting to add, of course, quite a bit onto the end about the things DuBois saw that Barth never did.

So there’s a summary—long, I know, but so was the talk. Carter certainly proved himself as one to keep an eye on.

* I can’t remember if Carter actually used that phrase, theopolitical anthropology, but it’s the kind of thing he would say, I think. It’s possible that he just talked about a theological anthropology that grounds the political order.

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, The Obedience of Jesus

March 1, 2010 1 comment

In an earlier post I outlined the provocative position of Barth and Balthasar that the obedience of Jesus vis-à-vis the Father is revelatory of the very life of God.  This was grounded on the same fundamental position with which Tanner begins her Trinitarian theology: the life of Jesus reveals the trinitarian relations within God. In her earlier book, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, she says it exactly as Barth or Balthasar do: “Jesus relates to the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, in the mode of existence of the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, made human” (32-33).

Nevertheless, she rejects the further move of Barth and Balthasar to see this as revelatory of God in a strong sense (although in Christ the Key she only names Balthasar).  All three theologians note that we do not have in Jesus the simple unveiling of the divine nature (for Tanner, see 180, 244).  We see the trinitarian relations of God “translated” through the human nature of Jesus.  According to Tanner, the obedience of Jesus is one of the aspects that must be attributed to the “translation” of trinitarian relations within a world of sin and death.  With most of the tradition, Jesus obeys the Father only as human. But Jesus’ obedience still does reveal something about God: “Corresponding to the apparently subservient relationshp that come about because the Son is sent on the Father’s mission is the fact that the Son is of and from the Father, the fact that the Son arises out of the Father’s own substance to be the perfect divine exhibition of him” (183).  Furthermore, passages which indicate obedience (“I do as the Father has commanded me”) are primarily intended to affirm Jesus’ “exception character among men” (184). She also argues that, united to the Word, Jesus’ human nature is not obedient as to an external legislator (as it may be for a will impacted by sinful inclinations); the will of the Father is “the teaching of his own heart” (185).

This disagreement raises a fundamental question. On what grounds do we posit some aspect of Jesus’ existence as merely economic? For Tanner, obedience means subservience and thus inequality (244).  Barth, in contrast, argues that the Son reveals himself as the Son of God precisely in his (divine/human) obedience (CD IV/1, 208-209).  Some aspects of Jesus’ life seem to be more economic (“translated”) in character (i.e. his prayer to the Father); but the Son’s obedience to the Father in his mission from the assumption of human flesh to his ascension into heaven would seem to point to something more immanent in God.

The Obedience of the Son

February 16, 2010 11 comments

We find various images for the Triunity of God throughout the Tradition.  Many are biblical and liturgical (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and other are not (root, tree, fruit).  Each image tries to make sense of how we can affirm threeness and oneness at the same time, generally emphasizing the three (lover, loved, love) or the one (memory, understanding, will).  One dominant modern image for the Trinity is a communion of persons, with an emphasis on the positivity of otherness and the inherently social character of a “person.” But on what grounds do we construct such images, especially ones which go beyond a general attempt to bring together “three” and “one”?  In particular, how are we to conceive of the relations between the three persons?  At the most formal level, the Trinitarian relations are known only through the economy of salvation.  Philosophical reflection may be integral to Trinitarian theology, but the ultimate foundation is God’s self-communication in creation, covenant, and Jesus Christ.

I would like to explore one way of moving beyond this formal level; a provocative way taken by (later) Barth and Balthasar.  Both argue that the ultimate ground for Trinitarian theology is the concrete relationship between Jesus and the Father as it is depicted in the New Testament.  Both further claim that the fundamental characteristic of this relationship is obedience. Balthasar again and again says that the New Testament (particularly John but not exclusively) depicts Jesus as the one who is sent by the Father and who does the Father’s will.  This shows us who he is. Bringing together Maximus the Confessor and Ignatius of Loyola, the Son’s very “mode of being” is this receptivity to the will of the Father and the mission given to him.  Barth is particularly insistent that we must see Jesus’ obedience as revelatory of the Trinitarian relationship between Father and Son: to ascribe the obedience of the Son exclusively to his “mode of appearance” in the economy would be a form of modalism. Barth and Balthasar push this point quite far. Barth will go so far as describe this as a relationship of “superiority” and a “subordination,” while at the same time affirming the equality of Father and Son.  Balthasar uses the Son’s obedience as the jumping off point for his (sometimes quite imaginative) descriptions of the inner relations of the Trinity as mutual self-giving and self-surrender.  And although Balthasar will be much more comfortable using human analogies and images to understand the Trinity, both of their theologies are ultimately grounded in the affirmation that God is truly revealed in the concrete existence of Jesus Christ.

Analogy universalized

December 5, 2009 3 comments

I have just finished reading one of the best books I have read in a long while: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth (Ignatius, 1992; originally 1951).  What makes this book so enjoyable and intellectually satisfying?  A number of things.  First there is the treatment of Barth’s theology, which is sympathetic and yet not uncritical.  Second, there is Balthasar’s equally charitable and yet scrutinizing summary of the prevailing trends in Catholic theology at the time.  Finally, there is the brilliant rapprochement which he achieves between the two, without settling for easy irenicism.

Balthasar begins with Barth’s early “dialectical” period–focusing primarily on the first and second editions of the Letter to the Romans.  On the one hand, Balthasar respects Barth’s use of dialectics as a “corrective to remind theology that it is speaking of God in Christ” (76).  On the other hand, Balthasar worries that the dialectical approach, when taken as a comprehensive theological strategy, and hence as more than a corrective, may actually obscure the real content of Christian theology by unwittingly superimposing “a very unbiblical philosophical pantheism (or more precisely, theopanism)” (84).  Theopanism is a theory in which the whole of things are seen as constituted by means of an identity with God and anything that is not unified absolutely with God is understood strictly to be nothing, pure contradiction.  Barth’s dialectical phase tends in this direction by emphasising both that creaturely existence is dominated by the nothingness of sin and that grace means a return to union with God.

However, Balthasar is perceptive of the dynamism in Barth’s thought, which takes him beyond this early dialectical formula and ultimately (especially in the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics) to a comprehensive theological vision, in which dialectics remains as a corrective, but the overarching paradigm is analogical: analogia fidei.  This is a wholly theological and Christocentric understanding of analogy, for it is the graciously revealed and faithfully received knowledge of God in Christ that, in order to be expressed, must be expressed analogically.  Balthasar’s assessment of this mature Barthian position is twofold.

(1) Balthasar affirms Barth’s theological use of analogy and the importance of its Christological event-character, arguing, however, that many (though not all) Catholic theologians have formulated something similiar (e.g., Aquinas, Rahner, Guardini, and Balthasar himself).  Nevertheless, he thinks Barth’s insistence on this point is something valuable for Catholics and Protestants to reflect upon.  Balthasar also affirms that there is room within this theological analogy to speak of being, and hence of an authentically theological analogia entis. This speech will be determined from the beginning and finally by faith/revelation but nevertheless include the creaturely experience of being among its terms.

(2) Balthasar holds on to the Catholic tendency to think, in addition to this theological analogy there is a legitimate philosophical version which the encounter with God in Christ necessarily presupposes, if only as a formal possibility not necessarily realizable in the concrete.  Concretely, the created world of being which philosophers study is already shaped by God’s gracious activity in Christ; hence, de facto, a philosophical analogia entis will be, at some level, crypto-theological; and yet, de jure, its possibility must be presupposed because although grace is not something owed to nature it is nevertheless meant for it and makes no sense without it.  In Balthasar’s mind, this idea of a presupposed formal concept of nature (analogically related to God) is something which Barth accepts in his doctrine of creation but which he does not think through to its logical (philosophy-affirming) conclusions.

Balthasar’s chapter on “The Concept of Nature in Catholic Theology” is a tour de force, which should probably be required reading for anyone interested in questions of nature and grace.  Essentially, it shows how the disciples of Przywara and Marechal who have pursued a philosophical account of the analogia entis nevertheless did so with theological ends in mind; whereas Henri de Lubac and his intellectual inheritors authentically express a theological sense of analogy closely in line with what Barth proposes.  The chapter also includes a very helpful account of the context and significance of Vatican I’s use of the term “nature,” in its decree that God can be known by the natural light of reason.  Balthasar contends, once again, that this possibility must be held on faith as a formal possibility, which does not imply that in the concrete world of sin and grace it is permissible to abstract oneself absolutely from the event-character of the human encounter with God in Christ and seek satisfaction in a self-sufficient philosophical system.

All in all, I am rather impressed by this text.  I suggest that its subtitle could have been “analogia omnis“–in the sense that, what Balthasar attempts to affirm is a maximally inclusive use of analogical thinking with reference to God, which could proceed from being (in explicitly theological terms or crypto-theological philosophical terms) or from relationality or faith or–and this is the point–really anything.  After all, everything in the created world reflects the glory of the triune God who created it.  So long as a Barthian dialectical corrective is included as part of any of these reflections, bringing us back into a concrete relationship with Christ, then every analogy is formally permissible and God may be sought in all things (Ignatius of Loyola).

All of this, it would seem, is nothing other than another way of expressing the authentic doctrine of Dionysius the Areopagite–who, despite some problematic ideas about necessary mediation!–does pass onto the church a very clear sense that everything in the created world has some (let’s say, analogical) capacity to lead us back to God.

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