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Theology amidst the Disciplines

May 12th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Milliner has typically astute thoughts on the relationship–it’s a stormy one, where it exists at all–between beauty and the theology of Karl Barth.  In the comments (which are all worth reading), he writes:

But I found that Barthian concerns did not help me when I left Seminary and tried to engage other disciplines.  There is something somewhat solipsistic, bubble-like and self-referential about Barthianism, like a cell that lacks the proper receptors.  Yes, liberalism forced the gospel to submit to foreign standards, but a thelogy that is perpetually driven by the fear that theology will be submitted to foreign standards strikes me as somehow overdetermined by liberalism, and especially ill-equipped to engage other disciplines (compared to say, Milbank’s appropriately entitled Theology and Social Theory which begins by taking a crack at the Barthian “fideistic drift”).

As an analysis, this strikes me as correct.  But count me for one as more suspicious than my smarter counterpart Milliner that engagement with other disciplines leads to liberalism.  Social theory is an interesting field, but its fundamental starting point is one that fits uneasily with revelation.  And “engagement with other disciplines” can often be tantamount to proceeding from their presuppositions and starting points, rather than–as Barth actually does in C.D. III.2–taking a “retrospective glance” at the other disciplines and revising their questions in light of theology.

But there’s a question there about “engagement” with other disciplines, and whether we should let them remain autonomous.  Approaching other fields with explicitly theological concepts–a la Alvin Plantinga and the medieval Christian scientists–can open up fruitful lines of research that might otherwise lay dormant.

But not surprisingly, the Barth scholar John Webster offered a Barthian take on this problem  in his essay on theological anthropology:

Whatever else we may wish to say about the location of church and theology, that, at least, must be said:  church and theology stand in the space between Jesus’ humiliation and his coming in glory.  That space–and not any cultural space, postmodern or otherwise–is determinative of what church and theology may and must be.

Put differently, Christian theology, and therefore Christian eschatology and anthropology, is responsible in its context but not in any straightforward way responsible to its context.

He continues:

The question, therefore, for Christian eschatology and anthropology in postmodernity is not what may still be said by CHristian theology in the postmodern condition:  ‘the possibility of speech about God can be founded on nothing less than God’s own speaking’.  That means that in one important sense, Christian theology in postmodernity must, as Barth once put it, carry on ‘as if nothing had happened.’

In Barth’s case, this was not because nothing had happened; indeed, what had happened in Barth’s context was very grave indeed.  But Barth knew better than almost anyone in his context that what that context required was the service of a theology which was theological to the bone, which did not allow its context, however stringent, to distract it from the task of clarifying the Christian confession, precisely so that it could indicate to its culture the word of judgment and grace spoken to it by the gospel.

Theology’s task, in other words, is neither apologetic nor revisionary, but exegetical and dogmatic, busying itself quietly and confidently with its proper concerns, not in order to sidestep the exigencies of whatever its host culture may be, but precisely so as to be able to address them with the right kind of Christian specificity, determination and hope.

Webster’s point is actually stronger than Barth’s, as the latter does include a (brief) return to the other disciplines, at least in his theological anthropology.  But in that sense, Barth’s thought functions as a caution about a temptation which is ever present and all the more dangerous for its subtlety than for its transparency, which Barth’s contemporaries still managed to miss.