Saturday, May 21, 2016

"Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): No Real Resemblance to Marcion (excursus 1a)

Okay, back to real Barth work. We're about to breach the first excursus of section 41 in CD III.1, so it's time some non-Barth sources came to the front. After all, that's what Barth uses the excurses for: sourcework and commentary. (You'll see the commentary come to the fore in the next post.) Now, it ought to be reasonably common knowledge that the younger Barth was compared repeatedly to the early-church heretic Marcion of Sinope. What seems less often explained is why he was compared to Marcion.

The familiar problem with Marcion has to do with his division of one God into two: the Old Testament creator-demiurge responsible for the ordered world, and the New Testament messianic redeemer responsible for salvation. That grounds his revisionist canon of scripture, and his thoroughly-edited versions of the NT texts he kept. But Marcion's guiding virtue in all of this was consistency, not a special animus against Judaism. It's very hard to find non-supersessionist beliefs in early Christianity! The Patristic communities were practically unanimous in their polemical opposition to Judaism, a resentment produced by competition and fed by the belief that these Christian communities bore no debts to Jewish people for their faith. Read Chrysostom's sermons if you don't believe me. Or Justin Martyr. Marcion was unique in that he insisted on rooting out the resulting antitheses, instead of appropriating Jewish cultural realities through a supersessionist insistence upon the Christian possession of their real meanings.

None of Marcion's approach to this religious conflict is Barth's problem. In section 40 he made Jesus Christ the unity of the two testaments, and we're about to see evidence of his near-ubiquitous identification of the Creator and the Redeemer as one and the same God. And in point of fact, Barth's critics generally acknowledge that Barth doesn't have Marcion's famous problems, while still comparing him to Marcion! Why? Because their real problem is that Barth at least nominally shares Marcion's observations about how crappy the world is, and how much of a problem it is to say that the Creator is responsible for its orders! It's the very common association of apocalyptic with gnosticism, especially when paired with an insistence that the world is not a valid theological source.

But if you're with me at all so far, you've already accepted the diagnosis Barth's critics reject. The world is not just a little bit wrong, just in the places where it doesn't conform to our best ideals of cultured behavior or natural order. It can't be fixed by virtue ethics, even as we need a functional system of ethics more in such a world. The break with God goes all the way through everything, fracturing every one of us and every one of our systems, turning us away from our image and likeness toward a defective self-incurvature, even as it does not change our being as God's creature. And so the solution has to come from outside, from the God who created and will redeem us, and who in between those moments seeks to reconcile us back to right covenantal relationship.

So: on to the text, and Barth's explicit solution: the necessary unity of the Creator and the Deliverer.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Thinking and Praying as a Barthian, with Beads

Quite a while back, I tweeted something about making a "Barthian rosary"—the proper generic term being chaplet, which is the class of which the nigh-ubiquitous Marian rosary is a member. My wife exercises an aspect of her devotional life using an Anglican chaplet, with four sets of seven beads instead of five sets of ten, and in our shared prayer life it was inevitable that I was going to see the usefulness of such a thing for concentrating the mind.

Beads are good. Giving the hands something to do, using a strand that helps track progress through an ordered series of exercises in prayer and thought, makes it easier to keep the mind in prayer. And having something tangible and directly associated with a pattern of prayer helps keep the mind anchored to that practice, settled into it instead of drifting randomly. And yeah, that drifting still happens anyways, and some mornings or evenings I can't settle down, and some days or weeks it just sits on the dresser, but the benefit of a practice embedded in an object is that I don't lose it. I can always find my way back into it again.

And so, if you're curious, I'm going to explain what I've done—idiosyncratic as it is. I made my own practice, worked out just on my hands in the beginning, and then worked out in beaded form twice now, adjusted to make the beads fit the timing that seemed more appropriate for my mind. And I'm explaining it not so much to propagate a pattern of devotion for others, as to suggest ways you might fit your own studies into a prayerful mode and get the rudiments more thoroughly "under your fingers," as we used to say in instrumental music. Because what I've done is encode the Church Dogmatics in a beaded form for meditation, as a form of thinker spirituality. I've made it so I can walk through the whole thing, and forced myself to grasp the whole of it and its individual parts in greater detail. It's not done yet, I'm not done yet, but being done isn't the point. Engagement is the point.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Nothing is Ever "Locked from Inside" in Soteriology

I despise mentions of Lewis in soteriology, most of all when people think of him as a theologian. His fiction is tendentious at all times, even where it is enjoyable, and it is so because it belongs to his œuvre as a moralist. He belongs in the same bin with Reinhold Niebuhr, who wouldn't know how to cite a work of theology if it bit him. Lewis' sole virtue is that he is mildly subversive—but one should graduate from his school into greater subversion, not (as so often happens instead) into a traditionalist conservatism that has been custom-adjusted for the individual. And why does that happen? Because he says what people think, just slightly off angle, and cleverly. He is so incredibly well-read, and has such a knack at the common touch, but all of his subversive twists are oriented toward making Christendom Christian again, and that is such an easily-misapprehended thing. I'd rather you read Kierkegaard if you want it done well, because it's impossible to imagine that he wants to make you a better version of yourself, and so to save the you that should be left behind.

In other words: Lewis is a Modern church father, something like Origen reborn. He deserves exactly as much respect, and is about as well read by the people who most reverently cite him. Much as apokatastasis is termed an Origenism, the idea that "hell is locked from inside" is often understood to be a Lewis-ism. But if you think that, you're doing something horribly wrong, especially if that idea stands in service of a fundamentalist insistence that the Bible doesn't believe in universalism.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): No Mere "First Cause" or "Final Dependency"

We've come to the last paragraph before Barth's first small-print excursus in this subsection, and that means we've hit the point where Barth tees up on the argument he's about to have with his source material. Which will come back around in the first paragraph after the excursus, too—but that's because you could (at least notionally) read straight through the CD without the excurses and still get the idea. You just wouldn't have the proof. Or most of the real debate. (I am, obviously, going to walk you through it and show you where everything comes from and where it goes in the following two posts.)

What he's got in his sights here is going to be unfamiliar to an American audience, and there's a tendency to map it into our history of church conflicts. We sit atop a colonial history of missionary and isolationist factions who came to the Americas convinced they couldn't be wrong, and that undergirds the basic fundamentalist/modernist problem that makes taking Genesis stories as literal empirical history (Historie, as opposed to Geschichte) a sticking point in our culture. But none of that is even close to the issue here! Nobody in this conversation thinks Genesis might be historisch; the question is what its geschichtlichkeit as a set of stories means for us. And to that end, Barth is setting up to take the texts of Genesis with far greater literal seriousness than any of his interlocutors, without ever leaving the domain of Modern critical scholarship.

This isn't a science-and-religion conversation; it's a philosophy-and-theology conversation. Barth is synthesizing a very different Pietist/Liberal dialectic, in a context in which the radical conservatives have already been marginalized—some by coming here, others by simply failing to be relevant to the larger conversation. So what Barth's dealing with is a very mid-Modern European abstraction of the doctrine of creation, replete with philosophical adaptations that don't so much stand at odds with scripture, as progress beyond it on lines presumed to be compatible. And it's that presumption of compatibility that Barth is going to sink, by using Sachkritik to demonstrate what a truly consistent abstraction from these particulars looks like.

So for us Americans there's going to be something of a "strange new world of Barth's dogmatics" to be taken up in the coming material, much in the same ways as he referred to the "strange new world of the Bible." And, as usual, Barth isn't taking sides or promoting a "third way"; he's redrawing the landscape in a way that will let him claim what works in all of it—remembering, of course, that "all of it" doesn't remotely include our dumpster-fire American fundamentalism, and neither should we. It's all Modern Liberals and Pietists having serious arguments using the Bible, tradition, and reason from here on in!