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.

 

Reading the Church Dogmatics 15: Theological Certainty and Academic Freedom

[Dogmatics] does not have to begin by finding or inventing the standard by which it measures.  It sees and recognises that this is given with the Church . . . .  It stands by its claim without discussion.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 12

It sounds like dogmatics begins with a denial of academic freedom – a ‘get out of criticism free’ card.

The first thing to say is: well, if it does, it does.  That wouldn’t mean we would have to abandon dogmatics, though might mean that it could not find a home in certain kinds of academic institution.

The second thing to say, though, is that it doesn’t.  If dogmatics is an investigation of the discourse of the church, measuring that discourse against its own criterion, then the existence and importance of the endeavour as an academic discipline is not dependent upon a demonstration of the truth of that criterion.  Indeed, the existence and importance of such a discipline could even survive a demonstration of its falsity (supposing such a thing to be intelligible).  The discipline does not earn its place in the academy only when it has convinced its academic colleagues from other disciplines that Jesus truly is Lord, still less when it has convinced them that they should accept such a claim without discussion.

What the discipline of dogmatics could not easily survive is the demonstration that the church it envisages did not exist, or that the discourse it pursued was not recognised in the church.  (The discipline itself might still survive, I suppose, as a form of prophecy – the imagining of a non-existent church in the hope that it might come into being – but it is hard to see how it could then find a home in academic institutions.)

In other words, what Barth says here about the ‘certainty’ of dogmatics’ criterion is not an illegitimate academic claim – because he is not using the word ‘certainty’ as it lives in the general discourse of higher education as a term bandied around between disciplines.  This is an intrasystematic proposal: an argument about how certainty should be spoken of in the church, in relation to faith.

 

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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 14: In Media Res

Dogmatics as an enquiry presupposes that the true content of Christian talk about God can be known by man.  It makes this assumption as in and with the Church it believes in Jesus Christ as the revealing and reconciling address of God to man.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 12

Theology begins in faith that we have received the promise of God in Jesus Christ, that this promise is truly made to us. That is not a conclusion; it is not a judgment – it is simply the basis upon which Christian theology works. Barth does not ask here (indeed, he shows no interest here in asking) how we come to take this as our basis. If we do so take it, we are doing Christian theology. If we do not, we are not.

Barth is not interested in asking whether or not this is the right place for the church (and dogmatics with it) to look for discipline and judgment; he is not interested in asking whether or not the truth has really been given here. He does not, after all, think that we have anywhere to stand if we do want to ask those questions.

So when we say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and go on to ask whether we say it well, we are not asking, ‘Is it really Jesus who is Lord, or might we find another?’ Rather, we are seeking to be more faithful to the conviction that founds theology. That is (I take it) at least part of what it means that this standard is ‘given with the church’ (12): the church is, precisely, the communion founded on this promise.

I do not, however, want to describe ‘Jesus is Lord’ (or ‘Jesus Christ is the revealing and reconciling address of God to man’) as an axiom of our theological system.  I don’t want to suggest that this first claim (‘Jesus is Lord’) is fully in our grasp, and that our dogmatic task is to see what else it implies.  It is not, in that sense, a starting point.

Dogmatics does not have a starting point.

It always begins in media res, in the midst of things.  It begins its work in the midst of a church that already says ‘Jesus is Lord’ (and says it in some particular way – or, rather, a whole range of particular ways).  And it seeks to measure that church against the standard to which all that saying points.

Yet Dogmatics is only necessary at all because the church says this ‘Jesus is Lord’ inadequately – which means that the measuring work undertaken by dogmatics must be similarly inadequate.

All that dogmatics can do is take its stand on the church’s current ways of saying ‘Jesus is Lord’, and on the ways in which this speaking places the church under discipline, and then see what refinement and repair of the church’s present speech is demanded by that discipline.  To the extent that this leads the church to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ differently, it will also alter the form of discipline to which that speech points, and so alter the work that dogmatics has to do.  In other words: Dogmatics can only work with what the material it finds around itself; it cannot conduct its work of measurement with its feet planted on any foundation that could guarantee the accuracy and relevance of its work.

It would be tempting to say instead that the pursuit of dogmatics simply involves the trust that this process forms not a vicious circle nor a random walk but a spiral: that by means of this iterative asking and re-asking of the dogmatic question, with each iteration by itself inadequate, the speaking of the church can nevertheless be brought slowly but surely to more and more adequate ways of saying ‘Jesus is Lord’.  Yet, as I noted in an earlier post, even saying this would be saying too much, for Barth.  To use the language I used in that earlier post, theology takes place not just under discipline, but also under judgment – and therefore Barth can say that dogmatics must be ‘a laborious movement from one partial human insight to another with the intention though with no guarantee of advance‘ (12, emphasis mine).

 

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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 13: The Possibility of Dogmatics

In this initial approach we may simply say that when we describe the true content of the church’s talk about God as the object of human work or investigation, we presuppose that it has both the capacity and the need to serve as an object of human enquiry.  In other words, we presuppose that the “science of dogma” is both possible and necessary.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.11–12

In this subsection of the Dogmatics, Barth treats both the possibility of dogmatics (the fact that ‘dogma’, the true content of the church’s speech about God can be known) and its necessity (the fact that all our ways of grasping, ordering and knowing that content are inadequate, and stand in need of correction).  We should’t go overboard on describing this as a paradox or as a dialectic, as if Barth is giving with one hand and taking away with the other.  Rather, both sides of this argument assert the same thing: that it is God who is to be trusted.  We may trust that God has indeed, in Jesus Christ, revealed and reconciled – has drawn us into truth.  But our trust must remain fixed on God as the one from whom we receive and go on receiving this, and not shift to our own occupation or possession of that truth.

It is also important not to be misled by what Barth says about ‘certainty’, because it could all too easily be taken in a way that twisted this trust away from its true object.  Barth says that the standard by which dogmatics does its measuring of the church’s speech about God, ‘is given.  It is complete in itself.  It has the certainty which a true standard or criterion must have to be the means of serious measurement’ (12).  And he says that ‘What is or is not the true content of such talk about God is clear at once and with complete fulness and certainty in the light in which we are here set.’  But this is not an epistemological comment, a comment about any stage of the process of knowing from ‘intuitive apprehension to formulated comprehension’; it does not involve measuring the certainty of this theological knowledge on a scale of less certain to more certain sciences that might run from sociology through biology to physics and then mathematics.  He is not talking at all about the reasons we might have for being certain – the reasons we might have for making a judgment about this and putting it in the ‘certain’ rather than the ‘likely’ or ‘unlikely’ or ‘impossible’ column.

An epistemological claim to certainty would be a claim that placed us in the position of mastery.  Certainty would be our attribute, not the attribute of the true object of theology.  It is not in any way at all a claim about my self-certainty: a confident ‘I know all the answers’ kind of attitude.  That would, in fact, be a direct denial of what Barth is claiming: that it is God who is to be trusted.

So what is he saying?

Think of it in terms of a promise.  We have been made a promise. The one who has promised is utterly trustworthy, and his promise is sure. The certainty Barth speaks of is the certainty – the utter trustworthiness – of the promiser and of the promise.  Everything we do in response can and should be measured against that promise. Does this or that action of ours, this or that claim that we make, actually express trust in this promise?  The answer to such questions is not a foregone conclusion.  We may well, as we ask them, discover that our ways of trusting – or what we think of as our ways of trusting – actually hold something back.  We may discover that they have a hidden element of defensiveness, a reserve, and that we need to become more fully trusting. The complete certainty of the promise does not mean a complete certainty about the current quality of our trusting; indeed, it means quite the opposite: it means that our trusting is subject to judgment; it is called to account.

The church is that community that says ‘God has promised’ (or its equivalents, like ‘Jesus is Lord’). This can only be said in faith.  It is the first and foundational thing that faith says.  To have faith is to say, ‘God has promised, and I will trust to that promise; I will take it as my starting point.’  It means accepting a criterion by which whatever else one says (including everything that one might say in exposition of this basic claim) can be tested and measured.  However falteringly, however self-deceivingly, however inadequately the saying of it, what is said is that the promise has been made, and that we entrust ourselves to the one who made it.

Precisely because it is trust in the promise and in the one who promises, we can’t turn this trust into trust in our own knowledge of the promise, trust in our own understanding.  Do we ‘know’ the promise? In one sense, yes: the promise is made to us in Jesus Christ. But all our ways of describing and expounding the promise, all our claims to know its meaning and implications, are – precisely because it is the promise that is certain, and not us – to be tested against the promise itself (because this is about ‘divine certainty’ not ‘human security’ (12)).

What Barth offers here, then, is not a demonstration of the possibility of dogmatics, therefore – a demonstration that this sort of thing is possible in general.  It is, rather, an indication of what dogmatics must take to be true in order to function at all – what we can see to be its ground, its enabling assumption.

 

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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 12: The Rules of the Game

The existence of other sciences, and the praiseworthy fidelity with which many of them at least pursue their own axioms and methods, can and must remind [theology] that it must pursue its own task in due order and with the same fidelity. But it cannot allow itself to be told by them what this means concretely in its own case.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.8

Let me have another go at the idea I was discussing in the previous post. I have a mathematical background, and it makes perfect sense to me to think that one might conduct a rigorously academic investigation in which one simply takes as read a given set of ground-rules, and sees what kind of mathematical object, what kind of system, those rules generate. The results of such an investigation take a hypothetical form: If these rules, then these conclusions – but that hypothetical form does not make them academically suspect. They are made rigorously academic by the forms of care with which the arguments from assumed axioms to conclusions are made.

One way of seeing dogmatic theology as an academic discipline – as a ‘science’ – would be to see it as taking such a hypothetical form. It begins with a set of group rules that, from the point of view of the academy, must be regarded as assumptions, and then it asks what follows from them. In order to pursue this academic investigation, one needs to learn the rules of this game (including rules about how contradictions are handled, about what counts as evidence, about what kind of inferences are possible), and follow them with fidelity, and the investigation is not made one whit more academic by substituting the rules of some other game. I’m not suggesting that this is anything more than an approximation to the way that dogmatic theology works as an academic discipline – in particular, I don’t want to get too carried away with the idea of theology as having the same form of rigour as a deductive mathematical system – but I think it is nevertheless a useful approximation.

Playing this academic game would still count as ‘academic’, and would resemble other academic games, not because the rules followed were the same, but because ‘like all others [i.e., other ‘sciences’] it treads a definite and self-consistent path of knowledge’ and does so ‘in due order and with the same fidelity’ (8). It resembles other academic games, in other words, in the very idea that it involves learning and following a set of rules. Furthermore, the rules that it follows can be made public – not in the sense that they can be made to resemble, or to follow from, the rules followed by some other discipline, but simply in the sense that they can be made explicit: ‘like all others, [theology] must give an account of this path to itself and to all others who are capable of concern for this object and therefore of treading this path’ (8). There is nothing esoteric about theology: it is a ‘human concern’; it involves no ‘ontological exaltation’ above other disciplines; it is ‘only a science’ (my emphasis) and is therefore a ‘secular’ endeavour (11).

One caveat. The game taken up in dogmatic theology is one which, ultimately, has something to say about everything. And quite early on it has something to say about the very ideas of fidelity, discipline, rules – and about the appropriate demeanour and attentiveness of the theologian. It might, for instance, deprecate the picture of theological science as a form of patient constructive labour set in a context of increasing knowledge, and instead want to speak of it as, say, a form of repentance in the light of sin. What may begin as the subsumption of ‘dogmatic theology’ under the heading ‘science’ may lead to a rethinking of the nature of ‘science’, at least in theology’s case and perhaps more generally.

 

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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 11: Theology as Science?

If theology allows itself to be called, and calls itself, a ‘science’, in so doing it declares 1. that like all other so-called sciences it is a human concern with a definite object of knowledge, 2. that like all others it treads a definite and self-consistent path of knowledge, and 3. that like all others it must give an account of this path to itself and to all others who are capable of concern for this object and therefore of treading this path.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, pp. 7–8

Barth asks why ‘theology allows itself to be called, and calls itself, a “science”‘ (7). In the light of my discussions above, the answer seems to be clear. Theology is, on the account he has been giving, a form of discipline – a disciplined handling of intellectual or conceptual content. It is a disciplined investigation of Christian practice insofar as it speaks of God, in the light of the primary criterion to which that practice points – so its object and standards are not necessarily the same as those of other disciplines. Nevertheless, it resembles other sciences simply by being an intellectual discipline.

Barth is also right, however, that ‘there are good grounds’ for theology refraining from calling itself a science (7). Theology’s existence as a discipline is qualified by its existence under judgment – and so (at least in principle!) by a lightness of touch that knows itself to be incapable of securing its ends by its own labours. It is a discipline inherently sceptical of the power of discipline.

 

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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 10: Theology and Religious Studies

Within the sphere of the Church philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, or pedagogics, whether individually or in conjunction, might take up the task of measuring the Church’s talk of God by its being as the Church, thus making a special theology superfluous.  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.

Karl Barth, Church  Dogmatics I/1, p.5

In one sense, theology’s subject matter – the material with which it works – is not esoteric. It is not invisible to normal human eyes. It does not become visible only by means of some peculiar technique. Theology’s subject matter is there for all to see. Theology works with and on the practice of the church, and that practice is visible to ‘philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, or pedagogics’ (5). And theology measures this subject matter against criteria that are visibly pointed to by the practice itself: it pursues ‘criticism and correction of talk about God according to the criterion of the Church’s own principle’ (6).

In one sense, then, faith (the faith of the theologian, that is) is irrelevant to the theologian’s ability to pursue this task. Theology could even be seen as a branch of religious studies, taking off from religious studies’ multi-disciplinary description of the visible practice of the church, its identification of the language that the church audibly speaks and of the criteria for judgment acknowledged within that practice. Theology would simply be the form of religious studies that emerged when its practitioners took the decision to see what happens when one measures the church’s practice ‘according to the criterion of the Church’s own principle’ – in other words, to see what happens when one takes the faith of the church seriously in its own terms.

That does of course mean taking seriously the church’s claim that its speech is speech about God, and the ways in which the church’s speaking is practiced as a speaking under discipline and under judgment. If, in one sense, theology’s subject matter is Christian practice, and is there for all to see, in another sense it is Christian practice only insofar as that practice speaks of God, and so theology’s real subject matter is God. Barth can therefore also ask ‘what good theology will include its subject matter in the “reality accessible to us”?’ (8).

So, to the extent that theology takes the practice of the church as its subject matter, it does not in principle need to have a distinct existence over against religious studies, but might simply be part of religious studies. Such religious studies would, however, need to be open to the decision, discussed a couple of posts ago, to treat the practice of the church, not as an irreducibly fragmented collection of discourses, each fragment to be explained only as a contribution to its own specific social and intellectual context, but as an ongoing conversation with a common subject matter. And I am not sure that the claim that the church is an ongoing conversation with a common subject matter could itself emerge as a secure conclusion simply from attentive description of Christian practice. It seems to me that, if approached from the direction of a descriptive religious studies, such a decision could only rest upon the recognition that the church included its own practices of intellectual inquiry, within which that decision (however implausible or ungrounded) was habitually made – that is, that something like dogmatic theology already existed as an ecclesial practice, and that it was a practice whose internal dynamics and possibilities were worth understanding.

Barth’s main point when he introduces the relation of theology to other disciplines would then be that these decisions, to treat the church as possessing something like a coherent intellectual tradition, and to examine the self-criticism of the church possible in the light of this intellectual tradition, do not imply a move from exoteric to esoteric – from a sphere visible to the natural intellect to a sphere only visible to the eyes of faith. And it is only because religious studies does not take this form that theology is, in practice, distinct from it. The corollary of that would seem to be that there is no reason in principle why religious studies might not take a form in which it was open to the pursuit of investigations in which ‘the theme of theology’ (10) was taken up – and, in the light of what I have said above, I think that might be true even if in religious studies has not taken up that theme in general as its own governing criterion.

In other words, there is something here approaching an argument commending theology to the practitioners of religious studies. It is true that Barth is not going to allow us to make that argument glibly. To travel far down this route might seem to involve fitting theology neatly in as one discipline amongst others in precisely the way that Barth warns against (as mentioned in the previous post), and we would have to ask whether in the process theology’s own proper criterion was in fact being subordinated to some other, alien criterion. That’s a proper caution, but I don’t think it is a killer. If religious studies takes as one of its tasks understanding the internal dynamics of the religious communities that surround us, including the criteria by which those communities seek to criticise themselves, then it need not enter into a ‘conflict of will’ with theology – provided only that a church exists that does indeed seek (in whatever complex ways it deems appropriate) to ‘take up the theme of theology’. And it seems to me that this is not simply a theoretical point about what is possible ‘in principle’, but a real practical possibility, even if the existence and power of other visions for religious studies means we would be unwise to treat it as a stable and dependable reality.

 

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

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.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 8: Practical Theology

Hence theology … as practical theology [is] the question of the goal … of the distinctive utterance of the church.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, pp.4–5

What is practical theology? Here, it is defined as that form of theology that asks of Christian practice, ‘Does it lead to Jesus Christ?’ – a question about the goal of the distinctive utterance of the Church (4–5).

Barth says nothing more about the nature of practical theology here, but one further thought strikes me. I said in an earlier post that, for Barth ‘The life of the individual believer … is a form of embodied speech – it is de divinitate … sermo, “discourse on divinity” – a living sermon, if you like. And the life of the church together, similarly, is a form of communication – and not simply in its preaching, but in all its activity’. If we take that seriously, we’ll have to treat questions about the audience of that communication, and about the ways in which this communication might work for that audience – questions, as it were, of rhetoric and of semiotics. Is that what practical theology involves?

 

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