Thursday, May 15, 2014

In defense of modernity: a response to Matthew Rose

Matthew Rose has charged Karl Barth with a great failure. The story Rose tells goes like this:
  1. There was once a classical consensus about the powers of human reason to attain knowledge of God.
  2. Modern philosophy denied these powers.
  3. Liberal theology reconstructed Christianity to abide peacefully within the constraints of modern philosophy.
  4. Karl Barth rejected the liberal reconstruction but provided a new one in its place.
  5. Barth is, thus, in fact a modern theologian.
Reading this story, one might be forgiven for a little head-scratching. Is that really news to anyone? Apparently, it was to Rose. His piece sounds like it should have been written twenty years ago, back when this might have been an interesting claim within Barth studies (and then, only within Anglophone Barth studies).

Indeed, it is highly telling that the only Barth scholar he cites to support his contention that Barth is understood as “an opponent of modern thought” is John Webster. Here is Rose: “According to British theologian John Webster, Barth is ‘a central figure in the break up of the modern tradition,’ a theologian whose ‘vigorous critique’ of modernity exposed ‘its fatal weaknesses.’ Barth achieved no such thing.” These lines are taken from Webster’s essay, “Introducing Barth,” from the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth that he edited in 2000. (The whole section is repeated almost verbatim in Webster’s 2000 volume, Barth, in the “Outstanding Christian Thinkers” series. It’s clear that Rose was using the Cambridge version based on the lack of a hyphen in “break up.” And using some simple text-critical skills, it seems clear that this is the earlier version, since the Continuum book expands certain sentences with additional clauses and paragraph breaks.)

This is ironic on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that Webster would probably agree with Rose today. But things are more interesting when we look at the context of these lines. Rose conveniently does not quote the entire passage. Here is what Webster actually says: “Barth is certainly a central figure in the break up of the modern tradition in its theological expression” (emphasis mine). Notice that Webster is specifically highlighting the theological version of modernism, not the modern tradition as such. Indeed, Webster goes on to say: “What is less often discerned is that Barth was also in important respects heir to that tradition, and that even when he argued vociferously against it, it sometimes continued to set the terms of the debate.” If it was “less often” noticed in the late 1990s, it is a commonly recognized fact by this point. Rose is putting forward a charge that, to the community of Barth scholars, must elicit little more than a yawn. But perhaps the notion is still a surprise to readers of FT. Hard to say.

There are a number of problems with Rose’s presentation of Barth, but I only want to focus on one aspect. Rose claims on several occasions that Barth essentially surrendered to modernity on the issue of reason’s limitations. As he says, “Barth yielded to modernity’s most pernicious idea, which took aim not at belief in the supernatural but at our rational capacity for knowledge of it.” This is false, not because Barth did not deny such rational capacity, but because he did so on his own theological terms. There was no “yielding” to modernity, as if Barth simply conceded to what is made out to be a pernicious, self-defeating idea. On Rose’s reading, it becomes very hard to sustain the opening line that Barth is “the greatest theologian since the Reformation.” Unless that is meant as an instance of damning with faint praise: there has been nothing remotely good since the Reformation, and so Barth is the best almost by default!

Here is my thesis: Barth’s rejection of natural theology is grounded in the theological conviction of the justification of the sinner by grace alone. This is not an especially novel claim, and I have made it elsewhere, but it is worth repeating. Barth is a Protestant, and as a Protestant he is convinced that God is the sovereign saving agent of the world. God justifies the ungodly and gives life to the dead sinner. Barth’s dialectical theology is based on the conviction that what holds for soteriology also necessarily holds for epistemology (and, later, for ontology). Why does he think that? The short answer is that he finds strong biblical support for the notion that to know God is to be in a right relationship with God; to know God is to be known by God (Gal 4.9). We can say more about that another time. If we apply this reformational soteriology to epistemology, we find that just as salvation is by grace alone, so too knowledge of God is by grace alone, by revelation alone, by God’s word alone. And this means that natural theology is denied from the outset on the grounds that it compromises the very nature of God.

Now this claim has some interesting implications, the most controversial of which would be that modernity is actually more faithful to the gospel than not. And indeed, that is precisely the claim I, along with others, want to make. Here I am drawing especially on the work of Gerhard Ebeling. I think there are two main ways in which modernity is itself theologically grounded. First, though, we need greater clarity about what modernity actually means, intellectually speaking. Rose defines it as the idea that human reason does not have speculative power to reach knowledge of God. But this is only a part of the picture.

Modernity can be defined more accurately as the rise of historical consciousness. The rise of historical consciousness names the replacement of the old metaphysical and teleological interpretation of the world—what Hilary Putnam calls a “ready-made world”—and our existence in it with a historical interpretation. Whereas a metaphysical interpretation understands God, the world, and human existence in terms of an eternally fixed and unchangeable cosmic order, a historical interpretation understands them in terms of a historically situated and ever-changing nexus of forces. Whereas a metaphysical interpretation posits timeless essences underneath the contingencies and complexities on the surface of history, a historical interpretation denies that there is anything behind or beneath the historical that could stabilize and secure human existence in advance. The rise of historical consciousness thus coincided with the rise of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics presupposes that truth is elusive, but truth is only elusive when our existence is subject to myriad interpretations and possibilities. Modernity is the age in which the safe and stable explanation of life was called irrevocably into question. It is no accident that the Vatican and Protestant scholastics both sought to find ways of securing authority, with doctrines of papal infallibility and biblical inerrancy becoming central in this period in a way they had not been before.

The question before us is why this historical consciousness is a genuinely theological event that the church should welcome. There are two reasons.

1. First, according to Ebeling, Christianity “stands or falls with the tie that binds it to its unique historical origin.” Christianity identifies a particular historical event as revelation, as God’s unique self-disclosure to humankind. In a certain basic sense, therefore, the contingencies and complexities of history are internal to Christian faith, since they are internal to the very identity of God. This is the antidocetic essence of Christianity. While Christianity betrayed this essence in numerous ways throughout its history, it remains the bedrock to which we can and must always return.

2. Second, as I have already indicated, the doctrine of justification requires that we radically rethink revelation. Here I quote Ebeling at length:
The sola fide of the Reformation is directed not only against justification by works and thereby against a legalistic exposition of scripture, not only against mysticism and against multiplication of the revealing reality in the form of saints and against materialization of the revealing reality in the form of sacred objects. But the sola fide has undoubtedly also an anti-sacramental and an anti-clerical point. To the sola fide there corresponds solus Christus. Revelation and the present are separated from each other in such a way that only one bridge remains: the Word alone—and indeed, lest any misunderstanding should arise, the Word interpreted as salvation sola gratia, sola fide. All other bridges have been broken up. The whole system of Catholicism has thereby collapsed. There is no such thing as a simple, matter-of-fact presence of revelation. (Word and Faith, 35–36)
The sola fide rejects every means of controlling our access to revelation—whether rational, sacramental, or institutional. The only available means is entirely outside of our control, namely, an encounter with God’s word within our historicity. We are radically dependent upon God in all things, including knowledge.

Put plainly: modernity is Protestant, so to reject modernity is to reject Protestantism. Perhaps that is the underlying message of Rose’s article. Barth finally fails, because he remains, at the end of the day, a theologian of the Reformation.