The “Apocalyptic Theses” and the preferential option

Via a pingback from Todd Walatka — which highlights a concern Brad once raised about the need for low-church ecclesiology to be taken seriously — I find this interesting insight on Nate Kerr et al.’s “theses”: namely, the liberation theology language feels tacked on. They quote Sobrino to the effect that the church’s mission to the poor preceeds the church itself, but as Todd says:

Saying that the preferential option is at the center and heart of the church’s mission (and is the mission) seems overstated within the general flow of the theses. It seems that the most basic mission of the church in the theses is to witness to the apocalyptic transformation accomplished by God in Christ, which may include the preferential option, but is not identical with it.

He then goes on to point out the specific lack of continuity in terms of liturgy:

Thesis 4 is indicative of the differences here. In this thesis, the danger of liturgy is to see a direct correspondence between our work and divine work, to see it as our (successful) seeking after God. The danger is an idolatrous misconstrual of our place in the event of God’s grace. Liberation theologians also offer very strong critiques of ritual and liturgy (see, for example, Segundo’s The Sacraments Today) but in a different key, and one that flows directly from the preferential option as the mission of the Church. Their central critique is not that liturgy raises our action too high but rather that it devalues human action by ideologically focusing our attention on the reconciling action of God in liturgy and away from the demand to build the Kingdom beyond the liturgy.

Thinking in more specifically theological terms, I wonder if what is at stake is a different concept of God’s freedom in Barth and in liberation theology. Where Barth’s concept of divine freedom is always thought in terms of divine transcendence, it seems to me that the liberation theologians — as represented by Gutierrez’s brilliant On Job — see God’s freedom as a kind of contagious freedom, one that drives us to take responsibility for our actions.

The freedom of transcendence is perhaps always a hierarchical mode of freedom, where God is free to be God and we’re free to acknowledge how unworthy we are of God (which then is supposed to have good effects, though the logic here seems reminiscent of the South Park “underwear gnomes”) — by contrast, the liberating freedom is a “flattening” freedom that empowers human action instead of just inexplicably forgiving it.

23 thoughts on “The “Apocalyptic Theses” and the preferential option

  1. It seems to me that Barth was arguing against the type of divine freedom as transcendence that you’re ascribing to him here. But he would probably put the argument in terms like God’s ‘freedom from’ or ‘freedom for’ creatures, and inasmuch as God’s freedom is always God’s freedom for his creatures, then it doesn’t seem as if Barth’s theology of the divine action or freedom is opposed to that of liberation theology. Indeed, the later Barth simply cannot speak highly enough about human freedom and responsibility (which goes some way to explaining his thoughts on infant baptism). Here, however, he is simply being a kind of reformed humanist (indeed, God as sovereign does run rampant throughout his works, but usually not at the expense of creatures).

    The interesting questions will then be what God, in his divine freedom for creatures, actually does for his creatures, which will mean discussing where and how the divine freedom manifests itself, would could easily be cashed out in acts of resistance to empire.

  2. That’s not how I understand Barth. He’s arguing within the terms of divine transcendence, which then makes his “inbreaking” all the more miraculous. He may move in a different direction in his later work, but in Romans and the early CD, it’s divine transcendence all the way.

  3. What I described above is basically the CD, or the rest of Barth’s works, from CD II/2 onwards.

    I’m still not sure that transcendence is the best way of framing what Barth is after in Romans II and the early CD (which I think is better put as something like divine sovereignty, hiddenness, and God’s lordship over everything, even over knowledge of himself), but the tendency you see is there.

    But even so, and this is more relevant to what you’re getting at in this post, but I don’t think his focus is primarily metaphysical, but first and foremost ethical and political, as he is trying to disentangle God from Kulturprotestantismus (whether conservative or liberal/socialist) and to remove any sense of an inherent divine approval felt by Teutonic Christendom. So even here I think that Barth’s focus on ‘transcendence’ is a kind of political, tactical move on his part, one that I think we are not in any way obliged to repeat should different demands be made of us.

  4. And I should say, I understand the later, more “human” Barth to still be working within the framework of divine transcendence — that’s what makes it all so surprising and paradoxical!

  5. (My second comment cross-posted with yours.)

    Sure, it’s a political, tactical move — but it seems to be a tactical move that achieved absolutely nothing. I don’t know what would’ve “worked” in that situation, which was obviously pretty extreme, but I’m pretty sure that writing harsh polemics against Emil Brunner wasn’t going to affect things one way or another.

  6. I’m with Ken on not recognizing the antipathy between Barthian ‘transcendence’ and liberation theological concerns here, although I resonate with the other point of the post — namely, I’m unsure precisely how a kind of preferential option conceptually fits with the rest of the apocalyptic theses. I think I can intuit some ways in which Nate et al might want to do this (via an account of apocalpytic transcendence as Christ’s disruption of unjust power[s]), but I feel that the heavily rhetorical feel of these piece leaves much to be desired in terms of logical clarity and precision, and that this affects what it means to say the church is a church of the poor.

    Back to the Barth point, however — perhaps it’s just my ignorance of what may be a regular topic here, but I am confused about the basic claim that transcendence itself is hierarchical. I resonate with Ken’s impulses that for the mature Barth, ‘transcendence’ is operative in a very particular, christologically grounded way, in my view mostly simply as an affirmation of the contingency of all reality, and more importantly as naming the freedom of God to speak a new, challenging word (to reveal Godself, etc.) to creatures who tend to fashion gods and make the world over in their own image. In other words, I think insofar as it does function for the later Barth, it does so primarily as a claim about the centrality of the divine Word as a “verbum externum”, which isn’t a negation of immanence per se (as seen in how this concept has functioned in Lutheranism in ways deeply tied to a kind of metaphysical kenoticism), but a way of affirming the priority of grace, and the ongoing ability of the divine to disrupt various forms/patterns of worldly order. This gets at what I believe Barth’s polemic against Brunner actually did accomplish — which was in significant ways an alarm-cry that the gospel itself (it’s particular version of “transcendence”, if you like) was compromised by the traditional Protestant concern to reify certain forms of socio-political “order” and stability through appeal to another divine word, which had become immanent or intrinsic to creation (the whole “orders of creation” tradition, which is actually ethically fundamental to the conservative revivial in Reformed neo-scholasticism). You may well disagree, but is it clear how, in that theological context, an account of radical transcendence (as a particular construal of both divine and creaturely freedom) would not be opposed to basic liberationist concerns? In my reading of Barth, in these minimal ways a christological “transcendence” may actually fund a theological account of why the church is constitutively a church of the poor.

    At any rate, I look forward to being enlightened on the real constrast between (Barthian) transcendence and the liberationists’ divine freedom, which from what I know of both seems, initially, a bit forced. I see no reason Barth couldn’t affirm a kind of “contagious freedom” that orients, empowers, etc., in the manner you described.

  7. To clarify, at the end of my first paragraph above, the “heavy rhetorical feel” and consequent ambiguity I was referring to was directed at the original “theses”, not your post here.

  8. Thanks for clarifying. (I assumed that was what you meant, but others might not.)

    I doubt that I’m going to be able to satisfy you on this Barth point, but I will note that in your own comment, you’re repeating the basic characterization of God’s work that I use in my post — namely, it tends to disrupt human idolatry, etc. Perhaps you can also see how that could work toward a “contagious freedom” model, and I won’t deny that it could, but that almost never seems to be where Barth is, in my reading. It’s basically always God striking down human pride.

  9. Yes, I’m certainly not trying to deny that aspect of his thought, and I don’t think he worked out the connections of that line (“disruption” of idolatry) to the other one I’m claiming (freedom for co-humanity, as solidarity with the poor) as clearly or helpfully as he could have.

  10. Well, it’s hard for him to work those connections out when humanity, even humanity as redeemed by Christ, is constitutively an idol-factory. It seems like this is a point where the Roman Catholicism of liberation theology is beneficial to building up the this-worldly consequences of the gospel.

  11. I think on that score my reading would depart ways with your reading, again — which perhaps means with the account of Barth underlying the new apocalypticists. I don’t read Barth as holding that humanity is “constitutively” an idol-factory, precisely because I think he’s attempting to work out an account of being-human (indeed, being-creaturely) that is what is only “in Christ.” This is, I think, the apocalypticist’s point about “extrinsic” constitution — if what we are (as humanity) is fundamentally determined by a reception of and attention to what we are not (as God), idolatry can only be “constitutive” of a refusal of what we are. This is, of course, a (more-apocalyptic) version of the privative tradition, and it is not to deny that Barth sees this “other side” of humanity (the history of idolatry, or rebellion) as becoming perversely constitutive of human history. My point is simply that it’s a misreading of Barth to think that it’s not perversely, and therefore only contingently, “constitutive” of human being. I don’t know anyone who thinks humanity “as redeemed by Christ” is constitutively idolatrous, and I can’t really fathom what that would mean.

  12. I don’t know anyone who thinks humanity “as redeemed by Christ” is constitutively idolatrous, and I can’t really fathom what that would mean.

    That was poor wording on my part. I suppose what I was trying to get at is that even Christ’s revelation in history doesn’t leave us any less idolatrous and in fact just becomes another occasion for idol-building. I think that’s great insofar as it cuts against Christian triumphalism (although…), but it doesn’t leave us with many options, does it? The overwhelming emphasis in Barth is always on the divine initiative, to the point where God doesn’t even leave any durable traces.

    I don’t know if it’s a matter of a particular “reading” to point out these commonplaces that anyone would take away from Barth — the difference in our reading seems to be that I take this basic thought-structure to move in a less helpful direction than you and to leave less room for a positive responsibility to follow in the wake of God’s “no.” (I know that Barth does talk about responsibility, etc., but the fact that he talks about two things doesn’t mean that they’re brought together in a coherent way.)

  13. I do think that it is an issue of ‘reading’ and of which Barth texts one finds most attractive or compelling for what one is trying to do with him within theology.

    For instance, as for your own concerns, which Barth might place under sanctification or vocation, or within his theological anthropology, I think it better to look at CD IV and III/2 for a better picture of Barth on responsibility, freedom, and growth, etc, as opposed to Romans II or the Barth-Brunner debate (which I find very unhelpful for getting a good picture of Barth when compared to something like Theological Existence Today!). If what you’re after is melting the world, then Romans II is going to help you out more.

    Yes, I know that there are substantial amounts of continuity amongst all these pieces, but there is still a great variety of accents within his ouevre. So if I wanted to understand Barth on divine freedom, human freedom, responsibility, and the potential for living non-idolatrously, then I would look at The Christian Life, The Humanity of God, CD IV/2, and the ethical sections of the CD as well. And it is in these works that I think it hard to justify the kind of reading you’re offering regarding transcendence, freedom, humans and idol-making etc.

    This isn’t supposed to be a ‘but if you’ve never read CD IV then you will never understand Barth’ type comment, or a defense of Barth’s thought as whole (which has a number of objectionable elements) but a suggestion that other texts might be more helpful for assessing what you think is lacking or deficient in Barth.

  14. Ken, Your distinction is a fair one. I have read large chunks of the later Barth, which really is better on these issues — and there’s no need to assume the earlier stuff cancels that out.

    Returning to the topic of the post, however, it seems to me that the “theses” are using precisely those aspects of Barth that I am emphasizing, i.e., the apocalyptic Barth.

  15. I think you’re right about that, and I think what you might be picking up on is a particular strand of Lutheranism (then combined with what Przywara would call ‘eschatologism’) that might be at work in some of the earlier dialectical theologians.

    I wouldn’t go to the mat on this, but it has been suggested to me that the early dialectical theologians were far more Lutheran (of a particular kind of course) in outlook than Reformed (which is very much what Barth becomes as the years roll on, as a kind of humanist). I’m still not sure what to make of this observation, but on some points it seems to make sense.

    I know that the dialectical, eschatological Barth never goes away, but there are clearly some differences in tone and material that emerge once Barth gets going.

  16. Okay, we may be getting somewhere. If I may take the liberty of schematizing, we seem to be agreed on the following points:

    1. There is a more strictly “apocalyptic” Barth that is mainly found in his earlier writings but never totally goes away.
    2. There is also a more “humanist” Barth in the later writings.
    3. The latter is seemingly more compatible with liberation theology than the former.

    Points of disagreement:
    1. Whether the early and later Barth are coherent in such a way as to render the apparent contradiction between the early Barth and liberation theology moot.
    2. Relatedly, whether the early Barth, taken by itself, is even all that incompatible with liberation theology after all.

    Does that seem to be the state of play, Scott?

  17. I just received today from Amazon the brand new translation of some of the essays of Jacob Taubes called From Cult to Culture. Among the essays is his 1954 English-original “Theodicy and Theology: A Philosophical Analysis of Karl Barth’s Dialectical Theolgy.” The themes are precisely those sketched out in this thread. The essay, and I the book as a whole. reveals the thing that Taubes does best, namely, unpack the deep structure of theological reason in terms of both historical situation and transhistorical motifs. But I think that Adam and Ken and the other participants here have done a no less impressive job of explicating the tensions in Barth’s dialectical theology. You may find it interesting, nonetheless, to take a look at the Taubes essay. Particularly nice is Taubes’s reflections on the place of Mozart in Barth’s CD: “Mozart’s music is, according to Barth, a great theodicy. He knew about the goodness of creation in its totality in a way in which neither the church fathers nor the reformers, neither the orthodox nor the liberals, nor those who believe in natural theology or those who are armed with the ‘word of God’–and surely not the existentialists–have known it. Mozart found peace with God in the dark problem of theodicy, a peace that is higher than all praising, vituperating, criticizing, or speculating of human reason. Mozart lets us ‘hear’ in his music what we will see at the end of our days: the fugue of coordination, the world in joint.” Taubes then quotes CD III, 3, 327ff. (in the German pagination) that expresses this Barthian appreciation of the goodness of creation.

  18. I’ve also found Taubes’s ‘Dialectic and Analogy’ (Journal of Religion 1954) to be a fairly interesting piece and worth reading (the whole question of Barth’s reception amongst Jewish thinkers and philosophers, including Buber and Hans Jonas, is one that still needs to be explored).

    As for Adam’s two further points of disagreement, I’ll address the second question. On the one hand, the early Barth has a decent amount of ‘red cred’ given his activities in Safenwil (although surely a bit naive and perhaps conscending at times) and his interest in religious socialism in the middle to late 1910’s. Yet in the late 1910’s and early twenties Barth becomes fairly nervous even about religious socialism, for it repeats the gesture of Kulturprotestantismus inasmuch as it is able to identify fairly easily the contours of divine action within history and claim divine favor undialectically. So he emphasizes the difference between the kingdom and the church or Christian state in a kind of levelling gesture. So while Romans I has a kind of progressive movement towards the kingdom not unlike 19th cent. liberal Protestantism, Romans II becomes more diastatic and critical.

    So which early Barth is more helpful for liberation theology? The religious socialist/’red pastor,’ or the advocate of the divine No towards everything for the sake of the Yes? Does one want sedimentation or permanent revolution? The answer surely depends on local, contextual circumstances, and whether one is making policy or at a protest (or even writing a manifesto). In either case though, I think that we have moved, and helpfully so I think, the issue of liberation theology and Barth beyond just the issues of freedom and transcendence.

    I think that the dialectics here would also play out in terms of the earlier-later disctinction that we´ve been drawing. Do we want responsibility and spiritual maturation or to commit everything to the flames?

    I do think that Barthians tend to forget that Barth was continually reacting to his situation, and that he was a fairly revisionist kind of theologian, and so Barthians should be and should be doing the same.

  19. I think the points outline above are historically fair, picking up on clearly detectable trends in Barth’s thought, and I do agree that the “later” Barth is in general more explicit about a positive role for human action in relation to divine action. The points of potential disagreement are also salient, however — because I’m really not sure about the root issue of apocalypticism (with its divine judgment / idol-smashing) being at odds with liberation theological concerns. This is clearly the case on one level — if you just talk about God’s otherness all the time, and God shows up mainly as Judge, you could very well denigrate what must be said positively of God’s humanity and what Barth will later discuss positively under the category of creaturely “witness”. But I understand the “maturation” of Barth not to be a decreasing apocalypticism as such, but that over time the christological content of all divine apocalypsis (“revelation”) comes to take center-stage. I think you can read the coherence of Barth as at all points being concerned with divine initiative, the ongoing need for revelation and grace (which, importantly, is tied just as much to our creatureliness as to our sinfulness and need for “disruption”), while noting the clear shift in tone and emphasis from a more negative role for creation/humanity itself to a a more positive. I’m just trying to add that, in my view, the shift is primarily a move from christological formalism to Jesus coming to have a more substantive role in the doctrine of God and the divine economy, not apocalypticism to humanism. (Also on that point, I find the III.2 and III.4 parts, where human responsibility and freedom are discussed at length, to actually be way less helpful in terms of moral/political insight, and in danger of a still-too-abstract ontology and even christology. I think this goes to show that the key issue is not talking more about humanity and less about God, but about how one talk about God and therefore how humanity appears before one’s God.)

    One final point, back to the relation of apocalpyticism and liberationism: it still seems quite plausible to me that a strong apocalyptic theology could fund liberationist concerns quite forcefully, simply by connecting idolatry-critique and ideology-critique, and having enough clarity about what God stands over against to say with force why the church must always be in solidarity with the poor, or is a church of the poor tout court. It seems reasonable to think that an Idol-Smasher God would lead to a highly critical ethical sensibility, driven fundamentally by the desire for liberation, as long as the theologian working in this vein has enough sense about why and how economic injustice is fundamentally idolatry. I’m totally with you, Adam, that Barth was never very explicit about these connections, although there is still the Marquardt thesis: his early political involvements (during the Romans period) give evidence that he always had a sense of how divine judgment was enacted precisely for human liberation.

    Perhaps the real issue with a Barth-inspired apocalyptic theology is not its anti-humanism, but whether it could ever sit well with Roman Catholic liberationism, insofar as the role of the poor for the latter conceptually depends upon a kind of sacramentalization or deification of certain kinds of human actions.

  20. Okay, so how can you have the contagious freedom without also having something like a sacramental outlook? That is, how would the notorious Barthian “occasionalism” fit into a framework that would make it possible to build something good, something that wasn’t just an idol?

  21. I think that Scott’s hesitations about the apocalyptic-humanist trajectory are clarified in response to this question. I don’t think that the catastrophism of Romans II (which I think Scott describes well as apocalpyse without Jesus) can support the kind of free, joyful, and spontaneous human service that Barth’s wants in the later CD (which I’m calling the humanist Barth). I think there is a difference in this regard, and while Scott glosses it as primarily related to Christology, I also think that stronger notions of election and vocation help Barth move away from some of the more pernicious aspects of eschatologism.

    As for contagious freedom, Barth would establish such a thing not through a sacramental outlook, but through ontological correspondence between divine and human acts and the similarity between the humanity of Christ and our humanity. That Barth moves the discussion towards ontology might unease some (I guessing Scott and maybe Nate), but I think Barth’s intention to establish humanity as as free and fit partner of God is clear enough, even if we want to move the focus to history and away from metaphysics.

    As for the occasionalism, I think that this aspect of Barth’s thought is usually over-emphasized at the expense of things like covenant, election, vocation, and the life and work of Christ, event and things which can guide us as to where and how the divine freedom is at work.

    I think that this later humanist Barth would respond to Adam’s question by saying that too great of a focus on idol building over-estimates sin and under-estimates grace, which doesn’t necessarily advance the discussion, but does give a hint as to how one might take Barth further in the directions that Adam would like.

  22. I should’ve pre-empted that question, which is of course the right one in respose to my suggestion. I think an apocalyptic liberationism could still have a kind of sacramental outlook, it just wouldn’t be one that deifies certain forms of human action, and therefore renders them insusceptible to corruption/ideology critique. It would require an account of how the one Word/Sacrament is consistently present in human history, confronting us in different ways in different contexts, but always with and for the poor and thus always demanding certain kinds of responsiveness and engagement.

    I agree occasionalism is a huge problem, and I think it’s fairly clear neither Barth nor apocalpytic theology generally will give you much by way of “moral progress”, growth in vritue, etc. But, again, I think all this could be a benefit, tied to human humility, dependence, self-critical ability, etc., as long as one had an account of the eschatological content of God’s ongoing work in history — what the inbreaking word “reveals” — fecund enough to talk coherently about where and how socio-political life (institutionally, systemically) is embracing of that word, and where and how it is resistant to it. This would seem to me to introduce some contextual criteria for what needs to be affirmed and what needs to be resisted. (And I do think, to get such an account, you can’t just rely on Barth.)

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