The rhetoric of decadent Barthianism

I am a great admirer of the work of Karl Barth. I engaged with him extensively in my coursework, and one of my exam areas dealt with him (in connection with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer). I find him to be one of the most consistently creative and surprising theologians in the history of Christianity.

And yet I have often detected certain predictable negative effects that Barth has on his followers. Namely, a certain rhetorical pattern has repeated itself in conversations with Barthians too many times to be a coincidence:

  1. State something that sounds more or less like a familiar Christian doctrine, albeit in more poetic and emphatic form.
  2. Claim that Barth’s articulation of this Christian doctrine differs in a subtle and yet crucial way from the familiar account, such that no standard critiques apply to Barth’s version.
  3. If someone asks for clarification of the difference, do one or both of the following:
    • Claim that explaining the difference would be such a Herculean task that it would be foolish even to begin to attempt such a thing in a conversational setting.
    • Claim that the interlocutor’s presuppositions make it impossible for them to recognize and appreciate Barth’s nuanced wonderfulness.

In short, Barth seems to give some theologians the license to make Christian faith claims while absolving themselves of the duty to answer any critics — or indeed, any questions or requests for explanation.

UPDATE: A Barthian responds! Executive summary: “I know you are, but what am I?”

40 thoughts on “The rhetoric of decadent Barthianism

  1. Agreed. There are useful forms of 1 and 2, given Barth’s debt to Hegel precisely in using strategies of aufheben to speak the articles of faith and yet get around the problems the critiques address. But 3 is unconscionable for the same reason. If you understand the nuanced position Barth argues, you should bloody well understand how it works against precisely the presuppositions most current interlocutors espouse. Or be able to extrapolate therefrom! Barth’s dogmatic theology is beautiful precisely in its ability to play the critics’ games and still espouse the faith respectably.

  2. I feel like Barth fetishism has definitively supplanted Aquinas fetishism as the most dominant theologian fetishization operating on the modern theological landscape. An interesting question is: who is next?

  3. Been reading Barth’s comments on history at the beginning of his Protestant Theology. It seems like he wrote the bloody thing (at least for one reason) to calm down his students who threw out anything that came before “dialectical theology.” Barth is complex in that he criticised those who followed him too closely while criticisng those who diverged too much from his thought.

    As someone doing his doctoral work using Barth as a conversation partner, it is rather frustrating to talk to the Barth guild who oftentimes have told me- you can’t do this or that with Barth or that is not the real Barth there. There seems to be an inherent mood to defend Barth from accusations; I see this in the Yale School, RO and McCormack groups in the way Barth is handled. I’m still working through things but I can’t help thinking he should not have given up on Kierkegaard as early as he did and Bonhoeffer’s criticism does strike home to some extent.

  4. Adam is employing the Talmudic method: stating something obvious, but not for the sake of stating the truth, but to implicitly refute people over at the Karl Barth Blog conference (I am referencing the What is Talmud post, i.e. “The key reason that a rabbi would say something is precisely to refute someone else, and so in order to understand a Talmudic statement, you must uncover the position that the rabbi is implicitly refuting. Hence if a rabbi says that the sky is blue, you have to assume that someone was claiming it was some other color — because it’s not worth saying true things just because they’re true.”)

    Also, can we call #1 “the italicization of theology?” (I am not claiming to be free of guilt here!)

  5. Well you can understand Aquinas whereas Barth is a long winded bastard intent on replacing Aquinas, even to the point of making sure he never completed his summa either.

  6. Perhaps it’s time for a thoroughgoing “buggering” of Barth with Hegel, so as to produce monstrous offspring that allow you to appropriate these same rhetorical techniques of shock and awe (“It is too difficult to explain”/”You wouldn’t get it anyway”).

  7. As someone doing his doctoral work using Barth as a conversation partner, it is rather frustrating to talk to the Barth guild who oftentimes have told me- you can’t do this or that with Barth or that is not the real Barth there.

    This is an interesting point… my sense is that other theologians are more often allowed to be put to creative constructive use (against or beyond their intentions) in a way that Barth isn’t. Maybe it’s just a matter of how recent Barth is… his historical voice is perceived as not yet established adequately… but the extent to which people who use Barth often act as curators seems unique amongst major theological figures.

  8. Evan, That is an interesting point. I’d imagine that the sheer volume of Barth’s writing may be sufficient to produce Academic Stockholm Syndrome in people — it would be a major project to read all of Tillich or Niebuhr, for instance, but not a life-consuming one. I wonder if that might be part of the issue with Aquinas, too, given that the man wrote two systems of everything.

  9. I’ve just completed a dissertation for which Barth was one of two central figures, in a context where almost *everyone* else is (in dogmatics/systematic theol.) is working with Barth in one way or another. I’m wary to even air my opinion of the differences between my context (I’m in Aberdeen) and the *other* functional Barth center (PTS). I’ve learned quite a bit, at times, from the people you’re referring to. But to provide a modest suggestion, as a gloss on Evan’s point about Barth’s relative historical proximity — I’m not sure how much you follow the ever-expanding state of Barth-scholarship, but interpretive lines have started to be drawn in the sand quite forcefully in just the past 5 years. And the major issues center on more- and less-“traditionalist” metaphysical lines. I don’t think I’m being unfair to anyone by saying that — it’s pretty clear to anyone who knows the secondary lit. But perhaps the proximity of some emerging Barthain thinkers to one or another of these interpretive battle-lines has something to do with their sense for what they can and can’t give up, or simply can’t bear to start the argument all over again with persons coming from more-distant interpretative perspectives.

    So I’m just suggesting that the standard conversations those heavily invested in a certain reading of Barth are involved in might have something to do with the points at which the (I agree, less than helpful, in terms of dialogical refinement) claims about what is or is not axiomatic or non-discussable start to occur. But, if so, two points: (1) that doesn’t mean they can’t engage all critics. It just means that, for whatever reason, they think it impossible or not-worthwhile to address your particular critical line. And (2) it must be admitted that AUFS has those trigger points, too. (If not, how would you explain why the exchange between you and Charlie Collier [which I was personally benefitting from] was shut down? In short, it’s not as black and white as your scheme — David/WTM and the other Barth-sympathetic bloggers are clearly not totally incapable of, nor do they normally attempt to absolve themselves from, engaging any critique. And, conversely, it’s not like AUFS-posters aren’t themselves occasionally responsible for shutting a conversation down. (That’s not a critique of you having dialogical standards, or whatever; it’s just to note that I personally have felt what it seems to me unfortunately happened in the KBBC post, here at AUFS, on more than one occasion)

    I expected well beforehand that that particular KBBC conversation was going to shut down the way it did, although I was really looking forward to the exchange between Paul (the P Diddy of Barth dogmatists, as I like to call him) and yourself. I, also, was disappointed when David didn’t want to engage dbarber’s question more directly. But, in my view, the fact that I expected what happened to happen doesn’t totally have to do with them. And again, I don’t intend by that to fault you for any lack of intellectual charity or anything in this exchange. I appreciate the self-conciousness with which you take a more direct, argumentative, (Talmudic or not) approach to blog conversations.

  10. I actually had a member of the clergy go through this exact discourse in one of my ordination process meetings. Almost exactly. The topic? The eternal and necessary punishment of Hell, of course. The defense? “Barth was an evangelical Christian.”

  11. other theologians are more often allowed to be put to creative constructive use (against or beyond their intentions) in a way that Barth isn’t
    I suspect this may be a characteristic of English language Barth scholarship. It would seem strange to accuse Eberhardt Jungel of a lack of creativity. Similarly Kjetil Hafstad in Norway (who’s kind of the Norwegian Jungel) rarely write on Barth, but instead on evil, education, homosexuality. But he’s still definitely got Barth as his starting point.
    Actually, thinking about it, maybe it’s a reformed thing: these guys I’m talking about are Lutherans.
    Graham Ward – who has perversely worked on both A and B – has given us the C. It has to be de Certeau: I could explain to you why we all should be Jesuits, but I’d have to tell you about Loudun first.

  12. As a decadent Barthian myself I think the explanation for #1 and #3 is the fundamentally homiletic style of Barth’s thought. Barth was, of course, a second-career professional theologian as he spent over ten years as a preacher and activist (or community organizer) without any thought of eventually teaching at a university. Just about everything he wrote, from Romans I and II, to CD IV and Evangelical Theology, reads like a long, at times interesting, at times boring, sermon. And, as is well known, there are no Q-and-A sessions after sermons.

  13. Unless they’re “talkback” sermons. But from the Barth I have read my assumption is that his personality is not that you must come to the altar for a conversion at the end of his thought but rather there is a strong invitation to think along with him.

  14. Scott, Thanks for your comment. I am very sympathetic with people who find it exhausting to reargue what for them are old points with newbies — and I’ll admit I’m not a big follower of the secondary literature on Barth and so probably don’t understand the larger forces at work. And I should say that I had much greater appreciation for Paul’s approach than for David’s, as was probably clear by the end.

  15. Yeah, I hear you. And just to be clear — I didn’t mean to suggest that I think the inter-Barthian debate has adequately resolved the problems you (or dan) are raising, and that you’re just not “in” enough to get it. I just meant it as a possible contextual clue to the psychological reflex of not wanting to argue beyond certain limits.

  16. George Hunsinger just weighed in. I always find it bizarre when someone “major” shows up in comments — academic blogging is still in an indefinite enough position that it’s possible to be surprised by who’s reading.

  17. (Yeah — his weighing in what was I was referring to above, with my “And there you have it.”)

    I’m proud I was able to slip some subtle sarcasm past you.

  18. I’m tempted to come out with guns blazing on David’s post about how I’m a fundamentalist, just because it’s so clear that everyone will be profoundly let down when I don’t. There are many forms of suffering in the world, but surely one of the most serious is preemptive righteous indignation that is not vindicated.

  19. After reading David’s post, I had the anti-climactic sense that you could have written the same thing. His point is perfectly fine as far as it goes, but I take it that you’d happily grant that there are plenty of Barthians who wouldn’t fit the criticism you’re making. It also doesn’t seem like much of a concession to grant that plenty of critics of Barth are “fundamentalist” in the way that he is claiming.

    That said, I am reading this and the other post without reference to the KBBC, and perhaps the unreferenced conversations going on there are what make your claim untenable to David and his to you.

  20. Wow, I just read the post up at Congdon’s blog. There are times I wonder just how smug and unself-aware one can be, but somebody always comes along to push the boundaries even further out into the darkness.

  21. Evan — It seems fair to say that David’s post does not provide much analytical clarity. In fact, it’s hard for me to take very seriously and seems like a kind of erudite and detailed name-calling.

    I would also point out that David continues to weirdly misinterpret a methodological question that I asked him about sin and grace with a rejection of both concepts.

  22. Scott, Thanks for fighting the good fight over there. I’m pretty sure you’re hitting the point of diminishing returns, though, as he’s determined to believe that he’s somehow been victimized by me — one of my many victims, really.

Comments are closed.