Faye Bodley-Dangelo. Sexual Difference, Gender, and Agency in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (London: T & T Clark, 2019), 208 pp. $130.00 (hardback).

Faye Bodley-Dangelo’s Sexual Difference, Gender, and Agency in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics is deeply researched, well-argued, and poignantly relevant. This work demonstrates breadth and depth in research, both in terms of its critical engagement with primary and secondary literature, and its precision in argumentation. Bodley-Dangelo notes that while existing scholarship has addressed the implications of Barth’s non-foundationalist approach, the field has yet to sufficiently wrestle with “Barth’s sexist and heteronormative conception of sexual difference” (1). In Sexual Difference, Bodley-Dangelo carefully and critically analyzes this aspect of Barth’s theology by illuminating the tensions between Barth’s Christological account of human agency, and his ordered, male-oriented version. This is expressed specifically in the contrast and inconsistency between Jesus Christ (celibate) as the True Human and Barth’s centering of heterosexual marriage as an ordered, necessary relationship of male initiative and female response. The problem in Barth’s account is his bifurcation of human agency apart from Christ into “male” and “female” agencies (176). Bodley-Dangelo’s book offers a compelling argument that corrects these problematic aspects of Barth’s anthropology with Barth’s Christology and in so doing, moves the conversation forward with clarity and grace.

In chapter 1, Bodley-Dangelo begins where Barth does: reorienting theological methodology. His refutation of natural theology and nineteenth-century theology means the reorientation of the theological/human agent; one is neither a collaborator with God, nor self-sufficient, but instead, the human person stands in humble receptivity to the Word. Here, “Barth preserves the freedom and mystery of the divine address from human control and manipulation” (30). It is this freedom of the divine agent that later ensures true freedom of human agents. Bodley-Dangelo draws on both Church Dogmatics (hereafter CD), especially CD I §15 and §22, and Barth’s concurrent Advent lectures in The Great Promise to show how his proposal of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1 are models of this receptive and responsive methodology also opens the way for the subversion of gender conventions as a form of freedom for human agents. Chapter 2 shows how this methodological reorientation shapes Barth’s understanding of an “ethically oriented intersubjective model” of human agency (37). Focusing on §18 and Barth’s treatment of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Bodley-Dangelo shows how Barth’s work in CD I/2 anticipates his Christological anthropology in CD III. The difference is that in §18, Barth’s approach explicitly rejects the orders of creation and any theological move that would set (heterosexual) marriage as a necessity for humanity. Instead, the “neighbor” is seen as paradigmatic and is given ethical significance as a creaturely medium for the revelation of Christ. Similar to the orientation towards the task of theological reflection, the human person must encounter the “other” with humble receptivity as one through whom we may encounter Christ. Bodley-Dangelo helpfully notes that this aspect of Barth’s argument (the receptivity towards the other as receptivity to Christ) stands as an indirect critique of the racist Nazi party at the time of CD I’s writing; to exclude or denigrate the “other”, the “neighbor” is to do so to Christ. It is this subversive quality that Bodley-Dangelo carries into her critique of Barth’s doctrine of creation.

Bodley-Dangelo continues with Barth’s critique of Nazi ideology in Chapter 3 regarding his doctrine of creation, though here Barth runs into problems. Where before he used the parable of the Good Samaritan to affirm the humanity of all persons, regardless of race or ethnicity, here Barth’s anxieties about Nazi myth and maternal imagery in creation leads to “anxiety about female fecundity” (81). Bodley-Dangelo points out that Barth sees maternity as a potential for what he argues are the problematic aspects of natural theology (creature as collaborator with rather than recipient of God), which undermines “divine potency” (64). The main point of this chapter is to demonstrate Barth’s uneasy and unclear relationship with “female” humanity, which plays out concretely in the next chapter.

Following Barth’s uneasy relationship with “female” humanity, chapter 4 argues that the key problem in the anthropology of CD III is Barth’s ordered male-female dyad, which leads to two distinct kinds of human agency: male agency, which is characterized by active initiative towards and on behalf of the other, and female agency, which is subordinated to and only ever in response to male initiative. Bodley-Dangelo highlights the inconsistencies in Barth’s account, including how he makes Eve “inanimate” in Genesis 2, only to try and “reanimate” female agency by pointing to the Song of Songs (88). Here Bodley-Dangelo asserts her unique contribution to the debate in Barth scholarship regarding the male/female dyad in CD III (Bodley-Dangelo names works by Frykberg, Fraser, Rogers, Ward, and others [84]). Where other critiques of Barth’s views of gender start with his analogy of relations (e.g. the Trinity) or focus on the ordered male/female dyad without regard for the broader project in CD III, Bodley-Dangelo argues the materials necessary to correct what she calls Barth’s “truncated” female agent are available in CD III itself; the resources for “unsettling and re-imagining the patriarchal heterosexist features” are already present in Barth’s discussion of Genesis 2 (89).

In chapter 5, Bodley-Dangelo continues to problematize Barth’s claim that heterosexual marriage (the ordered male/female relationship) stands at the center of human agency by addressing Barth’s relegation of a celibate Christ whose sex/gender does not regulate his interactions with others to the margins of what it means to be human. In order for the tensions of reciprocity (§45.2) and order (§45.3) in the male/female relationship to be resolved, Christ must be at the center. By starting with Barth’s account of Christological human agency, Bodley-Dangelo shows how Barth “imposes order (along with sexual difference) retrospectively” (135), “tacks it on” to his Christological account of human agency, and does so by relying “on readers’ assumptions” about sexual difference (145). 

Even so, Bodley-Dangelo argues in Chapter 6 that it is precisely Barth’s attempts to avoid natural theology and the orders of creation that open the way to destabilize his assumptions about a strict male/female sexual binary; his insistence on divine freedom/agency in CD I make way for genuine human freedom/agency in CD III. By re-centering anthropology in Christ, difference between (among!) the sexes is relegated to the realm of all other differences. Because Barth refuses to associate the male-female binary with any creaturely aspects (his nein! to natural theology and orders of creation), these categories of identity necessarily become dynamic and non-essential. Here, Bodley-Dangelo draws on the work of feminist scholar Judith Butler, who argues for the “performative” nature of gender. Just as Butler “unsettles” gender, so Bodley-Dangelo unsettles Barth’s heteronormative and patriarchal account of human agency and reorients it around Barth’s Christological account of human agency. In so doing, Bodley-Dangelo not only resolves this problematic tension in the CD, but also shows how Barth’s Christological account of human agency is a resource for understanding human agency and the significance of difference in all relations. This opens the way for a more fluid and contextually meaningful account of difference, including sex, gender, and sexuality. Bodley-Dangelo’s corrections to Barth result in truly Christologically-rooted, mutual human agents in encounter with each other across all differences (174). 

This is a strong, academic work that is concise, critically engaged, and compellingly argued. Bodley-Dangelo lists the central problems of Barth’s account as “heterosexism and androcentrism,” but predominantly addresses the issue of female agency in Barth’s dogmatics (176). There is reference to the expansion of Barth’s corrected Christological anthropology to include non-heterosexual partnerships throughout, but the main focus is re-orienting the conception of human agency regarding Barth’s male/female dyad. This is not a weakness, as the work Bodley-Dangelo does to highlight the problem of Barth’s truncated female agent is what makes way for the possibility of queer inclusion, but it is worth noting that this book primarily addresses the question of human agency with specific reference to female (and therefore, human) agency (in response to Barth’s own terms).

Overall, Bodley-Dangelo’s Sexual Difference, Gender, and Agency in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics is important not only for Barth studies, but for the ongoing conversations regarding the significance of otherness, difference, and agency in theological anthropology. Anyone seeking to understand the issues and assets within Barth’s own account, interested in engagement with existing secondary literature, and looking for a compelling correction to and relevant re-reading of Barth’s Christological anthropology need look no further than Bodley-Dangelo’s work.

The Rev. Dr. Taylor Telford, Whitworth University

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.