Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blogging with Barth: CD 1.2 §17.1 "The Problem of Religion in Theology" pp. 280-297

The Leitsatz (thesis statement) for §17 states: "The revelation of God in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the judging but also reconciling presence of God in the world of human religion, that is, in the realm of man’s attempts to justify and to sanctify himself before a capricious and arbitrary picture of God. The Church is the locus of true religion, so far as through grace it lives by grace."

In subsection §17.1 ("The Problem of Religion in Theology"), Barth takes one of the pressing concerns of his early theology: the relation between revelation and religion. The section title is "The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion" - but as many commentators note, the translation of the word Aufhebung as 'abolition' is potentially problematic. Here's how Garret Green in his essay "Religion" in The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth frames the issue:
By the time he began work on the CD in the 1930s, Barth's critique of liberal religion had developed into a sophisticated and subtle theology of religion, presented in its most systematic form in CD I/2:§17. Unfortunately, its central concept, Aufhebung, was misleadingly translated as "Abolition" in the CD, that is "The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion," ignoring its dialectical meaning and leaving the utterly false impression that Barth simply rejects religion out of hand and thinks that Christianity is not a religion at all.... What Barth has done is to borrow a technical term from Hegel's idealist philosophy and adapt it to his own theological purposes. The new translation employs sublimation for Aufhebung but no single English term can capture the multivalence of the German verb aufheben whose literal meaning is "to lift up," while having two other, seemingly contradictory, figurative uses. On the one hand negatively to mean: "suspend," "annul," or "abolish." On the other hand, however, aufheben can be employed positively to mean: "preserve," "save," or "store up." Hegel seized on the ambiguity of this common German expression to capture the dialectical logic of what he calls the "negation of the negative," in which the negative or the antithesis of a particular thesis is itself negated in such a way that the sublimated concept both includes and overcomes its own antithesis. Barth finds the concept ideally suited to express the theological relationship of religion to revelation... (180).
With that in mind, we're ready to dive into today's reading. Barth articulates what he calls the "problem of religion in theology in this way":
...revelation is in fact an event which encounters man. It is an event which has at least the form of human competence, experience and activity. And it is at this point that we come up against the problem of man’s religion. The revelation of God by the Holy Spirit is real and possible as a determination of man’s existence. If we deny this, how can we think of it as revelation? But if we do not deny it, we have to recognise that it has at least the aspect and character of a human phenomenon. It is something which may be grasped historically and psychologically. We can inquire into its nature and structure and value as we can in the case of all others. We can compare it with other phenomena of a more or less similar type. We can understand it and judge it according to that comparison. But the sphere to which this problem introduces us is the sphere of religion. On their subjective side, too, we have tried as strictly and logically as possible to expound the reality and possibility of revelation as the divine reality and possibility. But how could we do that without having to speak no less definitely and concretely about an encounter and fellowship between God and man, about the Church and the sacrament, about a definite existence and attitude of man in the presence of God? And in speaking about these things we have spoken about things which are human. They are singular, perhaps, but not unique. They are astounding, but not inconceivable. And they are not unparalleled elsewhere. From this aspect what we call revelation seems necessarily to be only a particular instance of the universal which is called religion. “Christianity” or the “Christian religion” is one predicate for a subject which may have other predicates. It is a species within a genus in which there may be other species. Apart from and alongside Christianity there is Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism and every kind of animistic, totemistic, ascetic, mystical and prophetic religion (280-281).
It is difficult to find any time or place when man was not aware of his duty to offer worship to God or gods in the form of concrete cults: by occupying himself with pictures and symbols of deity, by sacrifice, acts of atonement, and prayers, by customs, games and mysteries, by the formation of communions and churches. It is difficult to find any time or place when it was not thought that the voice of the deity had been heard and that it ought to be asserted and its meaning investigated. The Veda to the Indians, the Avesta to the Persians, the Tripitaka to the Buddhists, the Koran to its believers: are they not all “bibles” in exactly the same way as the Old and New Testaments? Are not at any rate the elements and problems in the basic outlook of all religions the same as those of Christian doctrine: the world’s beginning and end, the origin and nature of man, moral and religious law, sin and redemption? And even in its supreme and finest forms, although it may be at the highest level, is not Christian “piety” on the same scale as all other forms of piety? And what are the criteria by which the highest place is necessarily accorded to it? (282).
So, is revelation just one among the world's many religions? Does it fit that same category?
To allow that there is this whole world apart from and alongside “Christianity” is to recognise that in His revelation God has actually entered a sphere in which His own reality and possibility are encompassed by a sea of more or less adequate, but at any rate fundamentally unmistakable, parallels and analogies in human realities and possibilities. The revelation of God is actually the presence of God and therefore the hiddenness of God in the world of human religion. By God’s revealing of Himself the divine particular is hidden in a human universal, the divine content in a human form, and therefore that which is divinely unique in something which is humanly only singular. Because and in so far as it is God’s revelation to man, God Himself, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and therefore the incarnation of the Word, can be seen from this side too, in the hiddenness which is obviously given to it along with its true humanity as a religious phenomenon, as a member of that series, as a particular concept within general observation and experience, as one content of a human form, which can have other contents and in which the divine uniqueness of that content cannot be perceived directly (282-283).
We do have to admit of course that in one sense Christianity is but one of many species of religion present in the world. But how is religion to be understood in the light of revelation?
If we do not wish to deny God’s revelation as revelation, we cannot avoid the fact that it can also be regarded from a standpoint from which it may in certain circumstances be denied as God’s revelation. In fact, it can and must also be regarded as “Christianity,” and therefore as religion, and therefore as man’s reality and possibility. In this section we will have to show what exactly we mean by this “also.” But first we have to see clearly the question which it poses, and the basic elements in the twofold possibility of answering it. The question raised by the fact that God’s revelation has also to be regarded as a religion among other religions is basically the plain question whether theology and the Church and faith are able and willing to take themselves, or their basis, seriously. For there is an extremely good chance that they will not take themselves and their basis seriously. The problem of religion is simply a pointed expression of the problem of man in his encounter and communion with God. It is, therefore, a chance to fall into temptation. Theology and the Church and faith are invited to abandon their theme and object and to become hollow and empty, mere shadows of themselves. On the other hand, they have the chance to keep to their proper task, to become really sure in their perception of it, and therefore to protect and strengthen themselves as what they profess to be. In this decision the point at issue cannot be whether God’s revelation has also to be regarded as man’s religion, and therefore as a religion among other religions. We saw that to deny this statement would be to deny the human aspect of revelation, and this would be to deny revelation as such. But the question arises how the statement has to be interpreted and applied. Does it mean that what we think we know of the nature and incidence of religion must serve as a norm and principle by which to explain the revelation of God; or, vice versa, does it mean that we have to interpret the Christian religion and all other religions by what we are told by God’s revelation? There is an obvious difference between regarding religion as the problem of theology and regarding it as only one problem in theology. There is an obvious difference between regarding the Church as a religious brotherhood and regarding it as a state in which even religion is “sublimated” in the most comprehensive sense of the word. There is an obvious difference between regarding faith as a form of human piety and regarding it as a form of the judgment and grace of God, which is naturally and most concretely connected with man’s piety in all its forms. That is the decision which has to be made (283-284).
Older orthodox theologians - Aquinas, Calvin, etc. rejected the idea that revelation should be expounded in the light of - or by the criterion of - religion. However, liberal Protestantism took a turn at the beginning of the 18th century and began to make religion the criterion of revelation, rather than the other way around. Barth dubs this the heresy of religionism. Barth continues...
It ought not to be fear of that reconstruction of dogma and biblical doctrine, as it was carried through in the 18th century by an application of the criterion of religio naturalis*. It ought not to be fear of Kantian moralism or Schleiermacher’s theology of feeling, of Feuerbach’s illusionism, of the Bible criticism of a D. F. Strauss or an F. C. Baur, a Harnack or a Bousset, of the relativism of the history-of-religion school, etc. Of course, all these and much else are possible and actual consequences of that reversal, and they are still active to-day in spite of its relatively respectable antiquity. But we cannot be afraid of the consequences and repudiate them unless it is perfectly clear that we are not co-operating in that reversal of revelation and religion. To put it concretely, we are defenceless against the “German Christians” of our own time, unless we know how to guard against the development which took place in van Til and Buddeus, and even earlier: as early as König and Quenstedt, Wendelin and Burmann (291-292).
For Barth, an orthodox theology which remains true to its Object, which is Jesus Christ, would never commit the heresy of religionism:
If we are to try to explain that historical development, then—with all the caution and reserve which a judgment of this kind demands—we have to say that Protestant theology would never have conceived of reversing the relationship between revelation and religion if it had not shared with the whole Church of the time in a widespread vacillation concerning something which the Reformers had so clearly perceived and confessed. This was that the decision about man has been taken once and for all and in every respect in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is now his Lord, and man belongs to Him, and lives under Him in His kingdom, and serves Him, and therefore has all his consolation in life or death in the fact that he is not his own but is the property of Jesus Christ. Of course the Neo-Protestant theologians have said this. In fact they have usually left the confession of the Reformation “untouched.” But the older Protestant theologians did not leave it untouched. They made use of it, i.e., when they pursued theology they thought or at any rate tried to think in accordance with this confession. They reckoned inflexibly with the fact that things actually are as they said in the confession, and they did not reckon with the fact that in part they might be otherwise. That is why the theology of the Reformers, and at bottom of all the older Protestantism, was a free investigation of truth. For it meant that their theological thinking as such could always be free, free for its own inexhaustible object. It meant that having that object, it would remain true to itself. It did not need any other attractions or distractions or enslavements from alien points of view. Their theological thinking had the freedom of unconditioned relevance; the freedom of faith, we must say, because this unconditioned relevance was none other than that of faith (292-293).
Thus Barth states:
It is always the sign of definite misunderstanding when an attempt is made systematically to co-ordinate revelation and religion, i.e., to treat them as comparable spheres, to mark them off from each other, to fix their mutual relationship (294).
So Barth summarizes:
To sum up: we do not need to delete or retract anything from the admission that in His revelation God is present in the world of human religion. But what we have to discern is that this means that God is present. Our basic task is so to order the concepts revelation and religion that the connexion between the two can again be seen as identical with that event between God and man in which God is God, i.e., the Lord and Master of man, who Himself judges and alone justifies and sanctifies, and man is the man of God, i.e., man as he is adopted and received by God in His severity and goodness. It is because we remember and apply the christological doctrine of the assumptio carnis* that we speak of revelation as the abolition of religion (297).
Readers who are interested in Barth's development away from liberalism would do well to consult Bruce McCormack's excellent intellectual biography of Barth titled Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936.