Karl Barth on the groundless nature of theology

Perhaps this has something to add to the discussion about the ‘diasporic’ nature of theology?

“Theology cannot lift itself, as it were, by its own boot straps, to the level of God; it cannot presuppose anything at all concerning the foundation, authorization, and destination of its statements. It can presuppose no help or buttress from the outside and just as little from within. If theology wished to provide a presupposition for its statements, it would mean that it sought to make them, itself, and its work safe from any attack, risk, or jeopardy. It would presume that it could and must secure them…Precisely in this way theology could sell its birthright for a mess of pottage. Theology can only do its work. It cannot, however, seek to secure its operation. Its work can be well done only when all presuppositions are renounced which would secure it from without or within.”[1]


[1] Barth, Karl. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, p. 50

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7 comments on “Karl Barth on the groundless nature of theology

  1. Kampen says:

    I would definitely say that this resonates with what I’ve been writing and reading on diaspora. My only caution would be with the last sentence: “Its work can be well done only when all presuppositions are renounced which would secure it from without or within.” And yet this renunciation itself is the continuous work of theology, i.e., theology would replicate a foundationalist attitude once again if it somehow thought that it could renounce all its presuppositions in order to do it’s appropriate work – a kind of quest for purity only in a different modulation. But yes, there are definitely resonances here and one can see where/how Yoder might have inherited his sense of the ambiguous identity of Mennonites/Christians/the Church from his teacher Barth.

  2. Zac says:

    Interesting that you picked up on that because that was the one tension that I felt as I read it, and yet the majority of the quote still rings so true. The reason Barth thinks he can say this, and this is where his project continually receives both praise and criticism, is that he thinks that theology is at its best when it is done while not advocating a worldview. Thus, Barth basically prioritizes revelation as being the word over against our words and then proceeds to affirm the limited authority of Christian speech on the basis of its conformity/subjection to that revelation. But, for Barth it is important to remember that revelation always has an independent justification and freedom that is apart from those that receive and proclaim it — this is why Barth can say that theology can be done “well” at all. For when Barth says “when all presuppositions are renounced which would secure it from without or within” he is trying to say that purity is never attainable for the theologian — purity is only ever received in the encounter with the only one who is truly Lord. In the end then, theology can be done well, but it can never be pure because only its object is pure.

  3. Marc Regier says:

    Zac,

    You said that Barth “thinks that theology is at its best when it is done while not advocating a worldview.” Yet Eberhard Busch has Barth saying in a recorded conversation, “Of course we all have some kind of ontology or world-view in our heads. And that is not prohibited…” (Karl Barth, p.466).

    If what Barth is saying is indicative of his own self-understanding (and I think he himself knows himself better than you or I), than either he does not believe there can be such a thing as “theology at its best” because everyone has a world-view, or he believes that there is such a thing as “theology at its best” even in the very midst of a world-view. Can you supply proof for your comment from his own writings? I think Barth actually has no problem with world-views, and my evidence is the above quoted words.

    Another thing I fail to grasp is how an insecure theology, a theology which is continually in jeopardy, has any necessary relation to diaspora. There are many forms of tangible diaspora which are not in the least “in jeopardy,” or without settled world-views and presuppositions. If you observe the lifestyles of our Mennonite forefathers at the turn of the century, SCATTERED across the steppes of Ukraine, the Krimea, Siberia and the Ural mountains, you will be hard pressed to see cultures “in jeopardy” or lacking in settled presuppositions.

  4. Zac says:

    Marc,

    Thanks for your response. The quote from Barth would have been more helpful here had you actually provided the rest of it:

    ““Of course we all have some kind of ontology or world-view in our heads. And that is not prohibited…But when we read the Bible we are not to think that we are dealing with an ultimate authority which has to put itself at our disposal…What we have to do, rather, is quite simple: we must see that we keep the doors and windows open. We must not keep to a room which is “after the flesh”, even if this “flesh” seems pious and rational flesh. No, we are in this room, but: “Open the windows!”, “Open the door!” so the wind can come in.”

    So, of course Barth acknowledges that as humans we have a worldview, but he is PRECISELY concerned that OUR worldview does not obscure (through closed windows and doors) the object of theology: God (who enters through the windows and doors of our “perspectives”. I am surprised that, if you have read Barth at all, you would not have had this understanding of his project at the forefront as it is something that he communicates about his project throughout his writings. His aversion to Natural Theology is one of the more famous examples of this. But, perhaps I have misunderstood your criticism.

    That being said I want to be a tad more generous to your criticism and assume that your primary attack was at my strong language of Barth being wholly against worldviews as such. I should probably repent of that. Perhaps it would have been better to say he in some ways could care less about worldviews as, while they evidently exist and function usefully in language, they do not in the least actually define anything about God — nor does Barth think they are somehow inherently appropriate as a means to talk of God. As an example of this logic, Barth argues that the creation accounts can use a myth or saga (thereby adopting a “world-view”) from the Babylonians, but by doing so subvert them, making in their place a statement of faith from a revealed truth rather than a statement of perception from a human world-view. For a more detailed view of Barth’s move here, see his CD III/1 and the sections titled “Creation as the Externial Basis of the Covenant” and “Covenant as the Internal Basis of Creation”. In CD III/2 he gives the Babylonian example among others.

    Further, here are some texts from the range of Barth’s corpus to confirm Barth’s general aversion (a word I think still appropriate) to world-views and his strong insistence that theology is born out of the address we have been given in revelation:

    “The men of God know that belief is faith only when it is the product of no historical or spiritual achievement. They know that faith is the ineffable reality of God, that clarity of sight is no system, no discovery of research, but the eternal ground of perception.” — Barth, Second Edition to the Epistle to the Romans, p. 58.

    “The Gospel is not a truth among truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge. The man who apprehends its meaning is removed from all strife, because he is engaged in a strife with the whole, even with existence itself. Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel — that is, Christian Apologetics — is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome.” Barth, Second Edition to the Epistle to the Romans, p.35

    “In dogmatics the Church has to measure its talk about God by the standard of its own being, i.e., of divine revelation. Its talk about God, however, is that of the intrinsically godless reason of man which is inimical to belief. At ever point, therefore, dogmatics is a struggle between this reason of man and the revelation believed in the Church…Its interest is not in exhibition of a point of contact for the divine message to man but wholly and utterly in the divine message itself as it has gone out and been received.” Barth, CD, I/1, p. 29

    “It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us…” Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 43

    “The knowledge of God is not a possibility which we may, or at worst may not, apply in our search for a meaning of the world; it is rather the presupposition on the basis of which consciously, half-consciously, or unconsciously all our searchings for meaning are made.” Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 52

    Anyhow, I hope this has helped clarify what I was trying to say in response to Kampen.

    Zac

  5. Zac says:

    Two more for good measure:

    “The reason why there is no revealed or biblical world-view characteristic of and necessary to the Christian kerygma is that faith in the Word of God can never find its theme in the totality of the created world.” – CD, III/2, p.8

    and

    “In so far as faith itself is true to itself, i.e., to its object, and in so far as its confession is pure, its association with this or that world-view will always bear the marks of the contradiction between the underlying confession and the principles of the system with which it is conjoined.” – CD, III/2, p.10.

  6. Marc Regier says:

    Hey Zac,

    I like your selection of quotes, yet none of them seem to overtly or even remotely contradict the words that Barth uttered in conversation about the- shall I say inescapability- of worldview. Your more gracious estimations were correct, I was merely trying to test the strength of your assertion that Barth thought “theology is at its best when it is done while not advocating a worldview.” This is something quite different from your later retraction: “So, of course Barth acknowledges that as humans we have a worldview, but he is PRECISELY concerned that OUR worldview does not obscure (through closed windows and doors) the object of theology: God (who enters through the windows and doors of our “perspectives.”

    But you still might be right. It might be the very inescaple nature of worldview which makes “theology at its best” a pipe dream. In other words, your criterion as an interpretation of Barth might be fully correct. Barth even remarked more than once in his 2nd Edition commentary on Romans that all theology, even his own, even the Romerbrief, is placed under the Krisis of God’s wrath and is revealed to be only a tower of Babylon. If you want me to supply the quotes, ask nicely. I’m too lazy today to dig through that delightful volume.

    As for your rhetorical questioning as to how well I truly know Barth, please, if we ever continue interacting, keep questioning and doubting my knowledge of him. As a rule, I will not admit to “knowing” or “understanding” the fellow until I’ve read his church dogmatics twice in the actual german. Until then, I remain nothing but a thoughtful english questioner.

  7. Tony Hunt says:

    One might even here quote another quite different author:

    “The Christian God can no longer be thought of as a God first seen, but rather as a God first prayed to, first imagined, first inspiring certain actions, first put into words, and always already thought about, objectified, even if this objectification is recognized as inevitably inadequate. This practice which includes images of, talk about, addresses to, actions toward “God,” can in no way be justified, nor be show to be more rational, nor yet, outside its own discourse, as more desirable, than nihilism.” Milly, Postmodern Critical Augustinianism #7

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