David Haddorff, Christian Ethics as Witness: Barth’s Ethics for a World at Risk (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010), xii + 482. $54.00

Reviewed by J. Scott Jackson (April 18, 2011)

How can theology speak to a world facing the effects of globalization, economic injustice, rampant militarism and ecological disaster? What guarantees the theological character and authenticity of Christian ethics, thus distinguishing it from secular social and moral theorizing? How may theological ethics avoid the pitfalls of modernist subjectivism without succumbing to a crippling postmodern relativism and without closing off vital conversation with non-Christian resources? David Haddorff, associate professor of theology and ethics at St. John’s University in New York, sets out to answer such questions in a broad and ambitious foray in constructive Christian ethics with Karl Barth as his guide. Barthian ethics, as Haddorff’s construes it, is decidedly post-liberal and more anti-modern than postmodern, but still seeks to “eavesdrop” upon the best insights that secular social theory and ethics can offer.With Barth’s occasional and dogmatic writings on ethics and politics in tow, Haddorff engages a wide array of social philosophers, ethicists and theologians. Barth tends to trump his competitors within this constructive interpretation. Whether or not he is entirely fair to the concerns of Barth’s critics, Haddorff does give a good summary and exposition of Barth’s theological ethics and a helpful overview of key trends in postmodern theories of risk society, the main options in Christian ethics today and some ways these spheres might interact fruitfully. Haddorff admits that his account runs the risk of over-generalizing, but this does not diminish his constructive argument about the character of Christian witness in the world today.

Haddorff depicts Barth, persuasively, as a dialectical thinker, formed by a Chacedonian theological anthropology that integrates divine and human agency within the covenant of grace. Barth the ethicist, then, is able to employ his a priori theological framework creatively in ethical discourse without becoming mired in rigid ideologies. Christian behavior in the individual and social spheres should seek to correspond in faithful witness to God’s prior gracious acts in Jesus Christ rather than to objective divine commandments per se. According to Haddorff, such transparency to the logic of divine agency, understood in trinitarian and christological terms, guards Barth from falling into ideological extremes – for example, of state-planned Marxist economies vs. free market capitalist ones, or unbridled militarism vs. absolute pacifism. This does not mean that Haddorff simply portrays Barth as an ethical and political centrist in all cases; rather, the main point is to keep central theological claims as fundamental to all ethical proposals. Dogmatics should set the agenda for anthropology, and thus also for Christian ethics. This notion of witness proves to be a fruitful trope for reading Barth’s ethics, though Haddorff affirms it is impossible to reduce the complexity of Barth’s work to a single formula. A confessional commitment to the concreteness of the divine-human covenant partnership distinguishes Barth and his followers from ethical theorists who base their systems upon universal rules (deontology), outcomes (teleology) or abstract virtues (aretology).

In Haddorff’s reading of Barth, to live authentically means to mirror God’s grace and love as each concrete situation requires. In a Chalcedonian pattern (Haddorff draws upon Hunsinger here), the divine initiative in Christ establishes true human freedom rather than subsuming creaturely agency within an arbitrary divine command schema, contrary to what some of Barth’s critics have claimed. Response to divine command always remains dynamic and relational, empowering and liberating humanity to engage openly with ethical challenges as they arise. “By shifting the focus away from ‘universal reason’ and toward the church’s witness, individual Christians can further rediscover their vocational identity as individual witnesses in their discipleship, while living out God’s promise of faith, hope, and love in a world at risk” (7).

The book is divided into four parts, which roughly trace the development of Barth’s theology and ethics chronologically from 1916 to the 1960s, although the parts are relatively discrete within the overall argument and are more thematic than strictly chronological. Haddorff situates Barth’s ethics within the Swiss theologian’s own sociopolitical contexts, from the critique of liberal theology in the wake of World War I, to the early ethics lectures, to the essays addressing the German Church struggle, to the ethical sections of Dogmatics vols. II and III, and finally to the lecture fragments on the ethics of reconciliation (The Christian Life). Curiously, there is no discussion of Barth’s socialist writings during the Safenwil pastorate. The main thrust of the argument is not a historical or genetic survey but, rather, mines Barth’s corpus for its contemporary constructive relevance. “Barth is important for Christian social ethics because he not only takes theology and God seriously, but he also takes society seriously” (2). Haddorff intersperses the expository sections of Barth with critiques of modern and postmodern social theorists and ethicists, including both secular and Christian thinkers.

Part one traces the conceptual crisis, begun in the Enlightenment and continued in much postmodern thought, that divorces ethics from theology. According to Haddorff, Barth’s rediscovery of divine otherness drove him to reject an ethics rooted in universal human reason (Kant) or pre-thematic religious experience (Schleiermacher). Haddorff rehearses a familiar narrative of Barth’s shift from anthropocentric foundationalism to a particularist theocentric account rooted in revelation. This account does not really address recent scholarship (from McCormack and others) that explores the nuanced ways Barth remained in critical conversation with such formative modern thinkers throughout his career.

In a wide ranging critique that echoes Milbank, Haddorff worries that the marginalization of basic Christian claims in contemporary intellectual circles drives many Christian ethicists to lay their foundations in ostensibly neutral social sciences and theories. Such secular frameworks, he claims, bear an indifference or even hostility to theology that prompts many Christian ethicists to forfeit the resources of the theological tradition. Christian ethics divorced from orthodox theology becomes another form of the modern preoccupation with anthropology. In other words, some religious ethicists imbibe too uncritically the “methodological universalism” of modernity, with its obsession with “clear” and “distinct” ideas; or alternately, they get too caught up in a postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion that derails all meaningful God-talk from the outset. Whether or not his critique of recent thinkers is persuasive, Haddorff does show the appeal and relevance of Barth’s contribution. “Theological ethics begins with God’s covenantal relationship to humanity, as unveiled in Jesus Christ, which then opens up space for personal moral responsibility in response to God’s gracious action” (27). Consequently, “Emerging from this theological framework, Christian ethics concentrates on the actual personal circumstances and actions, in which persons seek to act in responsible ways corresponding to overarching reality understood by theological ethics” (ibid).

Part two paints the broad landscape of contemporary social theories. Haddorff contrasts “deconstructionist” theorists whose postmodern skepticism leads toward a stifling relativism with “reflexive” theorists who, more modestly, appropriate late modern criticism in service of a chastened sense of moral realism that recognizes its own limitations. Between these two approaches, Haddorff prefers the latter as more practically useful. Still, in his view, both responses fail to provide an adequate basis for discerning the true nature of the good. This failure comes from the vacuum caused by lack of a belief in God. Thus, reflexive late modern thinkers offer a realist and pragmatic program for ethics that avoids the extreme skepticism of deconstructionists but fail to ground their search for the concrete good in a theologically founded notion of the good. This critique strikes me as a bit unfair: central to a reflexive standpoint is a chastened view of human knowledge that accepts the limited character of its own formulations. If Haddorff is commending a dialectical and open-ended ethical paradigm on a specifically Christian theological basis, what is to prevent other thinkers from doing so on a non-Christian basis?

Part three fills out the exposition of Barth’s ethics further under the rubric of witness. More specifically, the grace manifest in election and covenant constitutes free agents who can respond in love to God’s prior action. This two-sided aspect of Christian life – free divine initiative and free human response – mirrors the Chacedonian pattern that characterizes the Church as a whole (again, Haddorff follows Hunsinger here). Haddorff contrasts this dynamic notion of witness with a stifling casuistry framed by abstract principles. Such a stance empowers believers to resist the powers that afflict humanity – which Barth names (in The Christian Life) as leviathan (political absolutism), mammon (economic determinism), ideology and the chthonic powers of human creativity run amok.

According to Haddorff, Christian ethicists seek to ground their ethics in some general anthropological paradigm such as a notion of the reflexive moral self. Notions of divine agency tend to be eclipsed by anthropological claims, he argues. For example, Gustafson and Lovin have accused Barth of walling off theological ethics from a broader scrutiny that employs publically accessible notions of the common good. Some Christian ethicists, by contrast, risk reducing the presence of the work of God in Jesus Christ to the Christian community and its distinctive practices. In this latter vein, Haddorff suggests that such theologians as Hauerwas and Milbank, who have more affinities with Barth than his more liberal critics, risk their own form of anthropocentrism by framing Christian ethics too exclusively within the realm of character-forming ecclesial practices. Both approaches, taken to extremes, risk reducing the realm of ethics to the human and missing the dialectical character of ethics that Barth upholds.

In part four, Haddorff weaves together his readings of Barth to address key areas of constructive inquiry in contemporary society. This is the most interesting and cohesive part of the book. The structure follows the three parts of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation in Church Dogmatics IV/1-3. First, in the political realm, Christian witness is set against leviathan’s overweening pretensions as a manifestation of the sinful pride overcome in the incarnation of the Son of God. Barth faced the power of leviathan in the rise of National Socialism; now in the wake of (very real) threats from terrorism in the post-9/11 age, we see disturbing trends to extend American imperialist aims under the guise of national “security.” In response to such challenges, Haddorff commends the power of faith as the church’s public witness against pride. This includes a realistic civic faith in the possibilities for promoting peace and justice within a liberal democratic society that avoids the extremes of tyranny and anarchism. Second, in the economic sphere, Christian witness promotes love and care for the other in the face of the sin of sloth that pits individuals against each other in a competitive consumerist economy. Haddorff names the power of sloth in the public sphere as mammon, which represents not wealth per se but, more generally, the human tendency toward self-seeking gratification. As forces of greed disrupt and polarize communities along socio-economic lines, Christians bear witness to the power of holiness and community that Christ brings as the exalted human being for others. Under postmodern conditions, mammon rears its head in an indifferent and relativistic attitude. By contrast, Christian love is expressed, politically, in the quest for economic justice in solidarity with the poor and oppressed that avoids the extremes of unbridled capitalism and an ideologically rigid state socialism. Third, in terms of environmental witness, the truth of Christ counters the human sin of falsehood that makes humanity easy prey to ideological manipulation. A renewed sense of Christ as font of all truth means that creation is not an indifferent sphere but is the theater of the divine covenant of grace. Embracing this truth, human beings as covenant partners are freed to work toward constructive proposals for ecological renewal and sustainability.

Haddorff’s work may not be the ideal text to use as a general introduction to Barth’s theological ethics. Exposition of Barth is interwoven with discussion and critique of a wide range of contemporary perspectives in social theory and ethics, and complex issues are sometimes treated in a cursory manner. Moreover, in my view, the most significant omission is that Haddorff does not discuss Barth’s early activism in socialist politics, nor does he explore whether these early radical commitments shed any light on Barth’s mature work and vice versa. No text preceding Barth’s repudiation of liberal theology in 1916 is discussed.

Christian Ethics as Witness is best read as an often insightful essay in constructive theological ethics. This work would be of interest to scholars who work in the area of Barth’s ethics or of Christian ethics more generally. Whether or not one agrees with Haddorff’s specific constructive proposals, he suggestively offers a creative model for drawing upon a major theologian to address some of the urgent needs that riddle a world at risk.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.