Teaching Barth at a Progressive Methodist Theological School at the Beginning of the 21st Century

The Center for Barth Studies asked Dr. Chris Boesel, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at Drew Theological School, to share his syllabus from the course he teaches on Barth. He also offered his reflections on the issues that motivate his course and his students in their engagement of Barth. Dr. Boesel is the author of Risking Proclamation, Respecting Difference: Christian Faith, Imperialistic Discourse, and Abraham.

Dr. Chris Boesel
Dr. Chris Boesel
The general goals of the course are to introduce advanced seminary and PhD students to the theology of Karl Barth by providing historical context and focusing on key methodological issues that are gateways into understanding what he was trying to do theologically, and why, throughout his career. My approach to Barth assumes that there is a fundamental continuity that runs through his work in terms of both method and content. Taking the lead from his own essay, “The Humanity of God,” I see the differences between the commentary on Romans and the Church Dogmatics in terms of differing emphases due to both maturation and changing context rather than as a fundamental change in method, e.g., from dialectical to analogy. I see Barth’s fundamental and unchanging convictions about the unequivocal and uncompromisable goodness of the Gospel and the multi-faceted dangers of what he calls “natural theology” as through-lines of his life-long career that function as primary evidence of this continuity. There are three more context-specific emphases that determine the shape and content of the course, in response to the primary theological and ethical themes and concerns that drive the theological conversations in the particular theological school context of which I am a part. First, the course tries to address what I feel is the very common but lopsided view of Barth as a theologian of the “wholly other,” or of “divine transcendence,” who stresses the unknowability of God. This is a point that needs clarity in my context given the recent emergence of the theme of a postmodern apophaticism, which raises the prospect of a certain resonance with a Barth of the “wholly other” while simultaneously critiquing that Barth for locating divine unknowability in traditional notions of divine transcendence. This view of Barth as a theologian of the “wholly other” is a short-hand summary of the indelible impression made by the commentary on Romans, but I believe it is only half—and ultimately not the most important half—of the story for Barth. Barth, both early and late, was a theologian of divine revelation and action—in the concrete—which is to say, of (the unknown) God’s self-giving communication to the human creature to be known for the sake of a particular, concrete loving, reconciled covenant partnership. This resists and complicates both a too cozy resonance with a postmodern apophaticism and that very discourses critique of Barth as a non-relational theologian of divine transcendence. At the same time, however, as a radically contingent event of free divine action, God’s giving of Herself to be known in revelation for loving, covenant relation does not, for Barth, result in a knowledge of God that renders God a possession within human hands, in our controlling grasp. This (the qualified resonance with a postmodern apophaticism) resists and complicates the presumptions of more traditional notions of theological knowledge that sees orthodox doctrine as propriety knowledge of the true God, privileged possession of which separates its possessors from and over-against the neighbor. The primary framing of the course, then, presents Barth as always, on every point, “cutting both ways,” critiquing progressive and liberal theology on the “left” and traditional, orthodox theology—whether Roman Catholic, Reformation Orthodoxy, or Pietism and fundamentalism—on the “right.” On both sides of this double-edged critique is what Barth understands as “natural theology.” Whether on the right or the left, “natural theology” occurs when the human being, whether progressive or conservative, attempts to turn the free and redeeming (and judging) Word and act of God into a human possibility and possession. And when one understands it in this way, one sees that “natural theology” is whatalways occurs (including any instance of “Barthianism.”) In this light one can see why Barth never shuts up about it.

My second emphasis—as a key to understanding Barth’s primary conviction and animating motivation from the first word of the Romans commentary to the last word of the unfinished Church Dogmatics—focuses on Barth’s fundamental belief in the unequivocal goodness of the gospel news. Readings of Barth will always be shallow, partial, or distorting if they do not take into account that everything he says, every critique, every polemic, every distinction made, every positive assertion, is intended to be for the sake of—and in joyful response to—what he understands to be the goodness of the news about Jesus. Now, we may legitimately believe he is mistaken about this at various point, or at all points, and/or be suspicious about the purity of those intentions—Barth was just as much a sinner as anyone else, and just as fully subject to and complicit in the destructive and oppressive social, political and economic structures and forces of his particular context. But we do not understand what he is trying to do theologically, and why, if we do not see this animating conviction at every turn, however broken, distorted or unfulfilled at any given point.

I invite students to consider, then, that Barth’s incessant critique of the multiple forms of “natural theology,” whether on the “left” or the “right,” is—from Barth’s point of view—for the sake of the goodness of news: not to “protect” it (since it is not in our power to protect it; that is God’s job), but to witness to it as best we can, in the midst of all our brokenness and complicities. As Barth understands it, “natural theology” does not name a particular theme or tradition or even starting point of theology that is bad or evil in itself (he admits that one can even begin with theological anthropology, if . . .), but only those ways in which anytheme, tradition or starting point can—and do—turn the free and living Word of God (as Barth understands it) into a human possession and thereby diminish the goodness of the news. Another way to put it: “natural theology,” for Barth, can never be good enough, can never speak a divine or human word to and for us as good—as radically, irreversibly, unequivocally for us—as the Word God actually has and does speak to us in Her unrestrained self-giving in Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

The third emphasis of the course, then, has to do with the extent to which the unequivocal and uncompromisable goodness of the gospel news, as Barth understands it, can be considered ethical good news as well as theological. It has been my experience that, for progressive readers of Barth, his theological assumptions and assertions are problematic primarily because they are seen to result in unethical and unjust material relations to “the other,” to employ the current language. These critiques must be taken seriously, and I do not presuppose that Barth has a satisfactory answer to any or all of them. The course attempts to invite students to consider the ways in which concrete material ethical obligation necessarily follow from Barth’s theological assumptions and convictions, obligation that can often be seen to resonate with a progressive ethic in certain particular contexts, e.g., resistance to oppressive forms of human power and control, particularly religious power and control, and a corresponding concern for the material well-being of the neighbor (“the other”). At the same time, the course tries to make clear that, for Barth, all ethical obligation, progressive or otherwise, always and only necessarily follow from theological assumption and conviction, e.g., from a particular hearing of what Godhas concretely said and done in Her self-revelation in Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit, and how, consequently, this irreversible theological logic runs contrary to the fundamental progressive assumptions about the relation between the theological and the ethical. That is, while certain consequences of Barth’s theological assumptions and methodological moves can be seen to resonate with certain progressive ethical issues and concerns in certain contexts, there is no question of a progressive ethical justification for Barth’s theological assumptions and major methodological moves: they can only be seen to constitute an originary, one might say, Kierkegaardian breach of the ethical (Fear and Trembling) according to certain progressive assumptions about the ethical as such and its relation to theology and faith. I do my best to organize and teach the course in a way that keeps this resonance with and resistance to progressive concerns on the “left” open and unresolved, while doing the same in relation to traditional issues and concerns on the “right.” I then invite students to read for themselves, in transparent awareness of the their own theological assumptions, “left” or “right”—including the radical contingency and historicity of those assumptions—and to move toward their own conclusions.