What's Wrong with Apologetics: Barthian Compromise (Part 3)

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Barth's ideas resulted in a movement known as neo-orthodoxy, sometimes called dialectical theology, theology of crisis, or simply Barthianism.

It's hard for today's Christians to understand the profound effect theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) had on twentieth-century Christian thought. Reviewing Barth's commentary on Romans, Karl Adams famously declared that this book was a bomb dropped on the playground of liberal European theology. Barth's ideas resulted in a movement known as neo-orthodoxy, sometimes called dialectical theology, theology of crisis, or simply Barthianism. Barth challenged theologians to start talking like theologians, instead of simply offering a parody of secular thought.

European theologians viewed Barth as a kind of fundamentalist, since he failed to pay attention to the ostensible progress theologians had made since the Reformation. Meanwhile, in evangelical America, he was often viewed as a stepping-stone toward liberalism.

This is because, on the one hand, he spoke like a relatively orthodox Christian; but on the other hand, he did not oppose modernist biblical criticism. This meant that, in America, his thought provided an avenue for seminary and university theology and Bible professors to affirm institutional statements of faith and confessional oaths, while also employing current methods and theories espoused by liberal and non-Christian scholars.

Eventually, many wary conservative scholars began to suspect that many American neo-orthodox professors were actually liberals in disguise. Sure, they might play according to the language games of an evangelical context in class, but they could also fit right in with liberal peers when they discussed biblical texts at professional conferences. This was not true of all; some of course adopted the entire theological perspective of neo-orthodoxy and were not duplicitous. Others had come from liberal backgrounds and saw in Barth a way back to Christian faithfulness.

Whatever the case, neo-orthodoxy provided many American Christians a sort of intellectual truce. They could avoid being mocked for their beliefs in professional settings, and avoid getting canned by heresy hunters in their places of employment. But the subject of apologetics suffered in the process. Why? Because the apologetic task violated the Barthian truce.

Neo-orthodoxy provided a way of defending the right of theologians to do their thing in the public square, but their thing was restricted to their theological "reservation." They were allowed to speak theologically within the church, but weren't able to speak about the church's truth as if it were true for all humankind. The truce made things relatively comfortable. But it also rendered theologians quaint.

We should remember that there have always been several tolerated, but largely irrelevant, religious traditions in America. For example, Americans feel good about letting the Amish do their thing; it would seem almost obscene to push them to adopt iPads or e-cigarettes. At the same time, few feel the need to reckon with Amish teaching. We leave them in their primitive habitats and observe them like endangered birds in a nature preserve.

Likewise, many folks enjoy hearing creation narratives recounted by Native American storytellers at the local cultural center. But most don't feel compelled to grapple seriously with the cosmological content of such stories. Folks tend to be glad that someone remembers these traditions for new generations. But we can ultimately dismiss them as unscientific, so long as we don't do so loudly or directly.

No, Americans know that all traditions must be respected, albeit in a condescending manner. But allowing Scripture to be interpreted in secular ways without reconciling these readings with church doctrine doesn't really protect theological turf after all. It only permitstheology to exist while theology is rendered thoroughly irrelevant.

While Christianity puts its faith in a person—Christ—and not an epistemology (the theory of how we know what we know), there are unfortunate side effects to Barthian epistemology. To illustrate this problem, allow me to concoct a little parable about a fictional town called Karlton.

The Story of Karlton, USA

A few years back, developers built an American town that comprised ten square miles of pleasant real estate. (If you are a European reader who is confused about this premise, it is important to know how we do things in the good old USA: sometimes when we are bored, get uncomfortable about the "diversity" of our urban neighborhoods, or have extra capital to throw around, we build new, pristine towns, with artificial lakes.) In the first year, everything was going well, and scores of smiling families rolled their moving vans up to new, homogenous houses.

Things became uncomfortable, however, because the Christians started booking all the public spaces. They kept using the public amphitheater to hold concerts, lectures, and festivals. This annoyed the buskers, farmer's market organizers, and car show enthusiasts who couldn't get their events scheduled.

So, one day, all five of the Karlton subdivision homeowners associations voted to ban Christians from owning homes within their borders. They were welcome to visit the events that would be planned in the public square, but they couldn't own any property.

Off the record, some of the homeowner's associations members cited the Christians' weird superstitions and quarrelsomeness as something they would be glad to live without, thank you very much. (If you are European, you might be wondering how this story seems to ignore the American Constitution's protection of religion. For the sake of the plot, you should note here that homeowners associations resemble micro-fascist governments. The state usually allows them to go around wielding their petty authority, so long as they remain small-scale operations and refrain from arming the neighborhood watch. If the constitution applied to homeowner's associations, I suppose my last home would have had red instead of beige trim.)

In any case, the Christians didn't want to leave their new homes. So they called a town hall meeting and proposed a plan that might help them all live together harmoniously. They would agree to limit their conversation about Christianity to only one square mile of Karlton. In this neighborhood they would establish their own Christian homeowner's association.

Like other associated homeowners, they vowed to combat oil stains on the streets and assured everyone that they would ban teens from playing basketball in the cul-de-sacs. This Christian neighborhood would build and operate their own schools, bookstores, and churches. Moreover, they swore that they wouldn't even talk about religion or moralize about the goings on in the other nine square miles of Karlton.

A decade later, everyone agreed that things were nice. I don't mean ideal. They were boringly, monotonously, uninspiringly nice. People were cordial, but no one had any meaningful conversations other than to ask whether it might rain during the car-show-weekend.

Then, one day, a feisty young Christian gal turned 21 and decided she wanted to move out of her parents' house, so she could live closer to where the cool bars were. She told anyone who asked that when she did this she would maintain her faith and maybe even talk about it, if the occasion was suitable. That's when both the Christian and non-Christian homeowner's groups got together and decided they would buy the young lady a one-way bus ticket to Rhode Island.

The end.

This is not an allegory that mirrors the rise of neo-orthodoxy. Such a suggestion would be uncharitable and inaccurate. In the case of Karl Barth himself, he and his kindred spirits opposed immoral theologians. They weren't disengaged in that way. They opposed Hitler and the Nazi theologians.

No, this allegory is meant to illustrate the state of things if we accept the compromise. All sides might feel that strict divisions on the map contribute to a peaceful existence. But it is not a human one. It does a disservice to both sides. It allows the Christian neighborhood to become an intellectual ghetto on the one hand, and impoverishes the conversations within the other nine tenths of the town.

In the town, a Christian is allowed to travel all the boulevards and frequent all the boutiques, so long as they pretend that they are traveling through neutral territory. In the end, they can talk like Christians within their own limited domain, but must talk like secularists everywhere else. Worst of all, when someone tries speaking about a theological topic as if it were true in the public square, they become an annoyance to the Christians and non-Christians alike.

So, what's wrong with apologetics for Barthians? It rehashes an old conversation that many Westerners hoped they could leave in the distant past: the question of whether Christianity isn't just true for a quaint community, but true-true. True for the whole world.

I often worry that those who are afraid of such things are cynically admitting to themselves that they think Jesus is Santa Clause for big people, that it makes them and their families happy to pretend it is true when things become existentially frightening, but that there's no reason to go bother others about their particular form of wishful thinking.

What Barth Got Right

Why did Barth reject apologetics in the first place? Because he distrusted natural theology. There are several different definition of this term, but for our purposes, let's define natural theology as the attempt to know something about God through pure reason, or through the observation of the empirical world, apart from revelation.

Barth looked around liberal Europe and realized that theological liberalism had nothing to say to those who suffered during World War I, and had no backbone to oppose the Nazification of the church in the 1930s. Moreover, liberal theology, by seeking to understand God though nature, apart from Christology, was unable to do ideological battle against Hitler's wolves in sheep's vestments. Thus, he wanted none of that.

And neither should we. There is a sort of natural theology that is both enriching and appropriate, and I'll not address that here. What matters is that Barth rightly understood that theology, apart from Christ, produces monstrous results. Unfortunately, however, he didn't realize that arguments about the historical reality of the Resurrection take us down a very different path than we are offered by theistic proofs for the existence of God.

Barth believed in a radically transcendent God. That is, God was conceived as being very, very different from us humans. He was so different that there was not even an analogous relationship between humans and God. Thus, Barth rejected Thomas Aquinas' so-called analogy of being.

But we at 1517 don't have much time for all that philosophical theism anyway. It might or might not work philosophically, but if it does, it only produces a monstrous creator who remains unknowable, or looks a lot like a devil, given all the suffering in the world.

No, we are with Barth that 1) protestant liberalism was a waste of time, 2) natural theology that remains separate from Christ and revelation gets us nowhere, and 3) the Nazis were naughty. Nonetheless, the truce that many Barthians established, being content to carve out a little protected space for sacred doctrine within a great big secular world, is a compromise we cannot affirm in good conscience.

If Christian revelation isn't true in any real sense, let's spend our Sunday mornings bike riding, or sleeping off Saturday night binges. If, however, the content of the Christian faith is true, we have an obligation to mention that fact, even in the public square.