Martha L. Moore-Keish and Christian T. Collins Winn eds. Karl Barth and Comparative Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 288 pp. $75.00 (hardback).

Reviewed by John Sampson (April 1, 2021)

What might it look like to bring Karl Barth in dialogue with a non-Christian religion? How might his theology enrich or be enriched by a thinker from another religious tradition? These are the questions taken up and explored in Karl Barth and Comparative Theology. Editors Martha Moore-Keish and Christian Collins Winn introduce the volume by outlining its twofold purpose. On the one hand, the book intends to show that Barth can make an important contribution to comparative theology. On the other hand, it “offers a novel trajectory for engaging and thinking with and beyond Barth into the reality of religious pluralism in the twenty-first century” (7). The editors and contributors explore how Barth might serve as a constructive thinker for doing comparative theology, which moves beyond attempts to categorize or theorize about religious pluralism and instead seeks to learn from a different religious tradition without downplaying respective religious commitments. Comparative theology usually begins with the careful reading and comparison of a discrete set of texts or rituals from various traditions and culminates with the theologian returning to his or her own “home” tradition having learned something new or different. In the forward, Francis Clooney, a leading voice in comparative theology, says he has come to respect Barth more over time, but admits that Barth’s theology is still not “fully adequate to a Christian interreligious openness” (xii). Nonetheless, the contributors go on to engage Barth in a variety of ways in conversation with Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and African Traditional Religions. These make up the five sections under which two different contributors interact with Barth and their respective tradition in a comparative dialogue. Each section is followed by a response from a theologian from that tradition itself or with intimate knowledge of the tradition being discussed.

A dialogue between Barth and Judaism is taken up at the outset, adding to the growing body of literature on the topic. Randi Rashkover argues that Barth’s theology is insufficient in itself for comparative Jewish-Christian learning, because, according to Barth, God’s eternal electing activity in Christ “echoes” within the ecclesial community but cannot be measurably and effectively attested therein (26)

James Farwell engages Barth and Buddhism, seeking to enrich Barth’s thought in conversation with the 13thcentury Japanese Buddhist thinker Dōgen. He argues Barth’s understanding of the relationship between religion and human effort can be illumined by an analogous approach Barth himself peremptorily dismisses in §17 of Church Dogmatics I/2, namely Zen Buddhism, exemplified by Dōgen. Farwell shows how both thinkers illumine each other’s understanding of “true religion.” Dogen’s nondualism, moreover, can help Christian theology give a better account of Christian practice than can Barth’s dualism. Pan-Chiu Lai compares Barth’s ambivalent position on universalism with Mahayana Buddhism, identifying similar features in Barth’s thought with the Mahayana Buddhist vision for universal salvation. Lai attends to the early and late developments in Barth’s thinking and shows how from a Mahayana Buddhist perspective Barth’s theology can be understood as a species of universalism. Barth’s view also comprises several distinct strands of doctrine which can be resolved within a Mahayana framework, especially the doctrine of skillful means (upāya) (97).

With the help of David Burrell’s comparative hermeneutic, Joshua Ralston brings Barth’s dialectical theology of revelation into comparison with the Islamic thought of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Ralston argues Ghazali shares Barth’s belief that to speak rightly of God means to speak in accordance with God’s own speech. Barth’s focus on particularity and belief that revelation constitutes its own “proof” are shared with Sunni Muslims. Both Barth and traditional Sunni Islam, “claim that divine revelation is largely self-authenticating and nonfoundational” (124). Analogies of being as well as uses of human reason are for both Ghazali and Barth shaped first and foremost by the particularity of revelation, and this enables both thinkers to mutually enrich each other’s thought without blurring their differences. Kurt Anders Richardson argues that there are many parallels between Shi’a Muslim Messianic theology and Barth’s eschatology. There can be found a similar understanding of “double Parousia” in the Christologically centered eschatology of Barth and the messianic expectation of Islamic Mahdism. Double Parousia refers to the expectation of the return of a messianic figure as well as the palpable sense of their hidden presence in the here and now.

Focusing on Barth and Hinduism, Marc Pugliese argues that Adi Śankara’s Advaitin’s reading of Kena Upanisad (KeU) affirms Barth’s claim that ultimate reality is nonobjectifiable, even though the two thinkers articulate this idea in different ways. Barth argues that God is the acting subject of revelation and never becomes an object for us. Sankara’s Advaitin (nondualistic) reading of KeU sheds light on how the innermost self (ātman) is ultimate reality (brahman) and that this leads to a non-objectifiable awareness. Pugliese then shows how Sankara’s Advaita reading can help support Barth’s understanding of God’s inalienable subjectivity in response to critics—such as Jürgen Moltmann—who charge Barth with modalism.

Victor Ezigbo examines Barth in dialogue with African Traditional Religions. He argues that there are parallels in Barth’s theology of the written word of God and Christopher Ejizu’s understanding of ofo in the indigenous religion of the Igbo people of southeast Nigeria. Ezigbo illustrates how ofo can be understood in many ways, but in the thought of Ejizu it as an “object of communication with the divine and the entire supernatural realm” (219). The parallels between this understanding and Barth’s view of Christian Scripture can be seen with the respective human origins of ordinary objects that mediate both divine action and the experience with God as well as the divine freedom that resists human attempts to limit God’s activity. Tim Hartman also explores different theological insights through a comparison of Barth and African Traditional Religions (ATR hereafter). Three categories frame his comparative dialogue and shed light on commonalities between Barth and ATR: creation, disobedience (or sin), and destiny (or salvation). Both Barth and ATR affirm a sense of God’s otherness from what God has created, while acknowledging that God has made himself accessible. As it relates to disobedience (or sin), both Barth and different voices from ATR “claim that when humans become aware of their separation from the Divine, they long for that connection to be reestablished” (236). This connection, according to Barth and ATR, has noteworthy comparisons and contrasts that mutually enrich one another when brought in conversation.

Karl Barth and Comparative Theology offers an impressive range of engagement with Barth’s theology in conversation with different religious traditions. Some contributors and respondents are far less optimistic about what Barth can offer comparative theology (e.g. Rashkover, Rambachan) while others engage in creative comparative dialogues by interpreting or defending Barth with the help of another religious tradition (e.g. Lai, Pugliese). The volume as a whole, therefore, does not offer a singular “Barthian” vision for doing comparative theology. Instead, it remains deeply ambivalent over how Barth can (or cannot) contribute to learning across religious borders. No doubt this is one of the volume’s intended purposes, to bring together a diversity of scholarly opinions to reflect on where Barth’s theology sits in relation to comparative theology as a discipline itself, which, as the editors say, is “undergoing a total reconceptualization.” (1) But with such a variety of contrasting positions laid out in the chapters and chapter responses, how it is that Barth actually helps reconceptualize comparative theology is not altogether clear, and the volume is weaker for it. One reason for this may be related to a concern Paul Knitter raises in his response to the chapters on Buddhism, stating that the “theological payoff” of the comparative dialogues is lacking (106). This criticism may well apply to the volume as a whole. Many if not most of the comparisons made between Barth and another religious tradition are rich and thought-provoking, shedding tremendous light on similar points of emphasis and shared ways of thinking about ultimate reality. But it is difficult to say in what ways these comparisons further theological understanding, enabling Christians to learn something they did not previously know about God and Christian faith as a result of the dialogue. Granted, this touches on a deeper concern surrounding comparative theology as a mode of theological inquiry itself, one which is meant to be separated from theologies of religion (although in what ways this is actually possible is something scholars continue to debate to this day.) The volume thus attempts to take Barth in an entirely new direction, seeking to more than theologize about religious pluralism in general, which is what scholars like Sven Ensminger have done in Karl Barth’s Theology as a Resource for a Christian Theology of Religions. In contrast with the wealth of existing literature on Barth and theologies of religion, Karl Barth and Comparative Theology strives to get particular, by entering into actual dialogue with particular religious thinkers and traditions in order to further interreligious understanding as a result. Even if the theological payoff of these dialogues may be lacking, the volume will no doubt serve as an important conversation starter on how, with Barth’s help, we can think about and practice interreligious learning in our ever-increasingly pluralistic age.

John Sampson, Ph.D. Candidate, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto

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.