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Reading the Church Dogmatics 17: The Dynamics of Repair

[D]ogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and the prophets said, but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 16.

In the previous post, I picked Nick Adams’ pocket in order to describe the ‘reparative logic‘ that drives Barth’s dogmatics.  In Barth’s exposition of the necessity of dogmatics (pp. 13–17) it seems to me that he describes two contrasting dynamics that shape the work of repair.

FIrst, there is the meditative dynamic.  Having described the church as finding itself ‘challenged to know itself, and therefore . . . to ask, with all the seriousness of one who does not yet know, what Christian utterance can and should say to-day’, Barth provides a small-text paragraph on the relationship between faith and understanding in Augustine and Anselm.  He cites Augustine’s description of the need to seek understanding of what we already know by faith, and then Anselm’s description of faith’s search for intellectus fidei, a ‘genuine intus legere [inward reading] of Scripture and dogma’ (p. 16).  He even cites with (qualified!) approval, Anselm’s ‘remoto Christo‘ method in Cur deus homo – that is, Anselm’s desire to understand, of any given component of the faith handed down to him, and in the light of the whole structure of that faith, why that component stands where it does.

Anselm’s method is nothing more than an extension of monastic lectio – a lectio that is explored by meditatio. I have written a little about this elsewhere:

To say that Anselm’s meditatio is a practice of articulation, then, is to say that it provides the passage between reading and composition, between the texts of lectio and the articulated texts of the Monologion, the Proslogion and the rest. And the tools of such meditatio are ‘the rules of logic and grammar’. They allow Anselm to ask of a difficult text, ‘Why this word here?’, and ‘How does this go with that?’ They provide a set of techniques and vocabularies of conceptual distinction and connection, by which the unruly, disorganized materials discovered by lectio can be categorized and strung into chains of connected argument.

A Theology of Higher Education, p. 27, quoting R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm

Such meditatio takes the jumble of truths yielded by patient reading of Scripture and dogma, and seeks to order them, to see how they hang together.  In Anselm’s description of the composition of the Proslogion, it is clear that

The . . . disorder of his earlier conclusions distressed him, and he sensed or hoped that a further articulation—a more articulate articulation— of the fruits of his earlier meditation might be possible. Its birth was not without its labour pains: a ‘restless anxious mood’ of the kind that Carruthers says ‘was regarded in monastic circles as a common, even necessary preliminary to invention’—that is, to the drawing together of the materials sorted and stored by memoria into an articulated composition. The driving force of the meditation that gives birth to the Proslogion is this restless desire for unity, for economy or elegance in articulation: ‘one single argument’.

A Theology of Higher Education, p. 27, quoting Mary Caruthers, The Craft of Thought

The meditative dynamic that is visible here is a dynamic generated from within the materials of the inherited faith, as they seek to settle into a more economical configuration.  The meditative dogmatician is the servant of this settling.

This is not dogmatics in the Barthian sense, however, even if it might be the seedbed for a Barthian dogmatics, and the labour involved might be a precondition for a Barthian dogmatics.  The meditative dynamic to which Barth alludes in this small-print section (and which can make sense of much of what he says in this section, up to p. 16) is contained within a different dynamic – one that, for lack of a better phrase, I’m going to call a contextual dynamic.  Given the many uses of the word ‘contextual’, this is potentially very misleading, but I am simply trying to do justice to the word ‘to-day’ in the phrase ‘what Christian utterance can and should say to-day’.

The energy that drives a Barthian dogmatics is only secondarily the delight of articulation, of meditative exploration of what has been received.  Before that, the primary energy is the energy of judgment – the discovery today, in some particular context, that the church stands under judgment – that the source to which it points stands over against it and calls it into question.  Barth’s reparative endeavour begins with the discovery of a problem, a failure, a contradiction.  It begins by hearing (fallibly and partially, of course) a word of judgment.  Perhaps it would be better, instead of calling this the contextual dynamic of dogmatics, to call it the penitential dynamic.


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


Reading the Church Dogmatics 16: Reparative Logic

Dogmatics is possible only as theologia crucis, in the act of obedience which is certain in faith, but which for this very reason is humble, always being thrown back to the beginning and having to make a fresh start.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 14.

‘[B]eing thrown back to the beginning’ cannot mean that dogmatics involves clearing the table of all our inherited clutter, so as to start again with a clear and distinct foundation securely in our grasp.  In the next section of small print, Barth is going to expand on the point he makes here by expounding Augustine’s idea that ‘credere must precede intelligere‘ – that dogmatics seeks to explore and order what it has received; after that he will deny that dogmatics can take the dogmas of the creeds as its inviolable starting points, or that its real concern is ‘merely to assemble, repeat and define the teaching of the Bible’ (p.16).  This ‘back to the beginning’ is not a denial of the place of dogmatics ‘in media res‘, discussed in an earlier post, because the ‘beginning’ in question is not where we began – the original simplicity of our faith, or our initial religious experience, or our secure possession of the scriptures.  The beginning is Christ, and to be thrown back to the beginning is to be called to test all our faith against the criterion to which our faith points.

The logic here is reparative (to borrow some language from Peter Ochs via Nick Adams).  That is, Barth is not operating with a logic that starts from scratch, or starts from epistemologically secure foundations. For such a ‘from scratch’ logic, the existing network of our understanding can be dismantled until all that is left is the secure starting-point. The ‘start from scratch’ dogmatician can turn his or her back on the tradition – the ongoing history of negotiation – that precedes him or her, in order to begin again, with zealous purity.

With a reparative logic, however, the dogmatician begins (and can only begin) with what is in front of him or her, and then explores the level and kind of alterations that might be required in order to solve the problems that arise from within it – the ways in which, by pointing to its source, it contradicts itself or calls itself into question. The alterations that result might end up being quite small-scale – or they might eventually require rather dramatic reworking of the whole landscape of one’s belief. They may in time amount to transformations so thoroughgoing as to fool a casual observer into thinking that the dogmatician has indeed adopted the ‘start from scratch’ strategy, after all. A reparative approach, however, remains fundamentally different in its approach from a ‘start from scratch’ approach.   The dogmatician is repairing a raft on which he or she is floating – where the materials available to plug the leaks, and the tools that he or she can use to manipulate those materials, all have to be prised from the raft itself.

Barth’s line about being ‘thrown back to the beginning’ means, I think, both that dogmatics always turns to measure the church’s present language against the source to which it points, and that there is no telling in advance how deep the resulting repair might be.  Nothing, in principle, is ‘withdrawn from further enquiry’ (p.15).


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

Men’s brains, women’s brains, and complementarianism

Let’s suppose I believe that God has made men and women biologically different, and that this simply and directly fits them for differing but complementary roles in society and in the church.

I don’t believe this. I really don’t. But let’s suppose I did, just for the sake of argument.

So let’s suppose, purely in order to give this idea some handy labels, that I believed that God has made men for focusing, and women for multitasking. (Feel free to substitute whatever other labels you prefer, that name the supposed biologically-derived differences between male and female aptitudes, that supposedly fit them for different roles.)

And then let’s suppose that I think that giving men social (and ecclesial) roles that require focus, and giving women social (and ecclesial) roles that require multitasking, is justified precisely because it does justice to the different biological constitutions that God had given them.

And let’s even suppose that I believe that there is something natural, something fitting, about pairings of men and women, above all other kinds of pairing, precisely because it means the bringing together of God-given focus and God-given multitasking – the bringing together of the complementary expressions of the God-given biological differences between men and women.

And then, finally, let’s suppose that I believe that the kind of research recently splashed all over the headlines – research showing the differentiation in brain structure between men and women – is true in an unproblematic way, and that it identifies precisely the kind of differences between men’s and women’s biological make-up that I have been talking about, and demonstrates that they are real, in a scientifically verified kind of way.

If I were to think like this, I would (I think) be well on my way to coming unstuck.

What the research appears to show, after all, is that men’s and women’s brains tend to differ. Even if we take it at face value, all this research shows is that on average men will have brains better fitted for certain kinds of cognitive task than women, and on average women will have brains better fitted for other cognitive tasks than men. Even if we took it on face value, this research would only allow us to talk about tendencies, about averages, about overlapping bell curves of likelihood.

Take any given man, and unless you happen to have picked the most extreme of the extreme, at the deeply eccentric far end of the male spectrum, you will be able to find women who are more focusy and less multitasky than this man. Similarly, take any given woman, and unless you have once again managed to hit the nether regions of the female twilight zone, you will be able to find men who are more multitasky and less focusy than this woman.

In other words, if I did think that people should be given different roles in society and in the church, and that the reason for this was that God had given different biological constitutions, and that these differences were the kind of thing captured by this research – if I did think, in effect, that people should be given different roles in society and in the church according to whether they were more biologically focusy or more biologically multitasky, this research would suggest that my ‘more focusy’ roles should go to both men and women and my ‘more multitasky’ roles to both women and men – just that the proportions of men and women would be likely to differ in each case.

And if I really did think that there was something fitting about pairing a focusy human being with a multitasky human being – that these pairings were for this very reason natural in a way that focus-focus and multitask-multitask pairings could not be – if I thought, that is, that they were natural because of the natural complementarity of the focusing and multitasking roles – well, this research would suggest that my ‘natural’ focus-multitask pairings were likely to come in male-male, male-female, female-male, or female-female varieties – just that I might expect somewhat more of them to fall into the male-female pattern than fell into the other three patterns.

I don’t think any of this, of course. But if I did, I think my views would be well on the way to unravelling.

* * *

What do I really think?

Well, in a discussion on Facebook with Ian Paul, I first commented on the way the research had been presented as identifying essential differences between men and women. I said, ‘Let’s take a large sample of people, divide the sample roughly in half, systematically treat one half very differently from the other from birth onwards in ways that we know will alter the connections their brains develop, and then see whether their brain connections differ at the end of the process… Well, what do you know!’

Then, when Ian asked whether I denied any ‘essentialist element to gender identity’, I said, ‘Amongst the many differences that shape the development of our identities, biological differences associated with sexual differentiation are bound to be important. But I do think you would have to be very brave to say we could reliably isolate those effects from others; and I do think that, given the ways in which our societies (and our churches) are still afflicted by disastrously simplistic nonsense about the different roles and treatment appropriate to men and women, I think we could probably do with exercising some caution in this area.’ [Quote corrected slightly for clarity]

I should perhaps add, given that I’ve just dropped his name into this post, that am not at all claiming that my thought experiment above captures what Ian Paul thinks. I’m pretty sure he has a considerably more complex view than the one I set out here.