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Reading the Church Dogmatics 9: Theology among the Disciplines

When the Church puts to itself the question of truth in its threefold form in a way which is objective and not arbitrary, its self-examination acquires the character of a scientific understanding which has its own place alongside other human undertakings of the same or a similar kind.  It is this particular science, i.e., theological science.  Naturally, however, it is only in practice and with reservations that we can claim for it either its character as a science or its distinctiveness among the sciences.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.5

Barth turns briefly to the question of the relationship between theology and other disciplines – though not to those questions about ‘interdisciplinary’ that loom so large in much recent discussion. In part, he is talking about other disciplines insofar as they are used to analyse and describe the church (‘philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, or pedagogics’ working ‘[w]ithin the sphere of the Church’ [im Raume der Kirche arbeitend] (5)). In part, he seems to be talking about other disciplines more broadly: ‘Philosophy and secular science generally do not have to be secular or pagan’ (5), he says, and the quote he then provides from Augustine’s City of God reminds us that all things come from God, and that to understand any thing fully must therefore include understanding it in relation to God.

I think the former strand – attention to other disciplines insofar as they focus on the church – is actually the more important strand here, but let me for this post focus on the latter. If to understand any reality fully means understanding it in relation to God, that must mean, for Barth, understanding it in relation to God’s revealing and reconciling action in Jesus of Nazareth. To say that philosophy and secular science generally ‘do not have to be secular or pagan’ must therefore mean that each discipline could ultimately take a form in which it participated in understanding the world in relation to that revealing and reconciling action.

It is tempting to run with this idea at this point. In my own writing about universities, I have suggested that to know any reality truly is to know how to live graciously with that reality. As a Christian, I can’t see how to avoid saying, therefore, that the horizon of all our knowing is knowing how to live graciously in the world together as the body of Christ, before God. From such a perspective, all academic disciplines, to the extent that they are oriented towards true knowledge, help us explore some aspect of how we might live together graciously with creation; all disciplines therefore properly operate within this horizon of the body of Christ. And I think I can say this without denying other disciplines their integrity, and without claiming to know in advance or to know better than their existing practitioners how they should operate.

To say all this is not to offer a classic natural theology. I am not claiming that this vision of the body of Christ as the horizon of their knowing is something that any or all of these disciplines would or could arrive at under their own steam. With Barth, I can simply say ‘There might be such a thing as a philosophia christiania‘ – and insist that it is only because the disciplines do not have that form and that unity that theology emerges as one specific task with a problematic relation to others.

Were all disciplines to orient themselves (in their various ways) in relation to God’s revealing and reconciling activity, there would (Barth says) be no separate place for theology. Theology cannot ‘regard its own separate existence as necessary in principle’ (10). However, the other disciplines do not order themselves in this way. They are, from the theological point of view, disordered, having lost sight, on the whole, of how they contribute to wise living in the world, still more of how they might contribute to holy living. We therefore cannot fit theology neatly in amongst them as one discipline amongst others, its place allowed and defined for it by some schema not itself shaped in relation to God’s revealing and reconciling activity. ‘Any attempt of this kind must founder at once upon the conflict of will whether or not to take up the theme of theology’ (10).

It would be possible, therefore, travelling down this route, to find here in Barth’s words hints of a vision of a Christian academy, a harmonious collection of disciplines all oriented toward Christian truth, to set over against the disordered secular academies within which we presently work

It would be possible – but, I think, mistaken.

To travel far down this route would leave us in danger of missing Barth’s point. Barth’s claim that ‘the asserted independence of theology in relation to other sciences cannot be proved to be necessary in principle’ (5) is not, I think, made primarily in order to say something about those other disciplines, but in order to say something about theology: ‘Theology does not in fact possess special keys to special doors. Nor does it control a basis of knowledge which might not find actualisation in other sciences. Nor does it know an object of enquiry necessarily concealed from other sciences’ (5).  That’s the point I want to turn to next.


This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.