Sunday, January 8, 2012

Karl Barth and Oppression.

I am often rather perplexed at the common impression within academia that Barth's theology has little relevance to suffering among the oppressed and marginalized. I have encountered many individuals who caricature Barth as a typical western, white, male theologian who has no concern for anything but theology as a pure intellectual exercise that is entirely detached from the needs and concerns of humanity. In God of the Oppressed, James Cone doesn't offer the same caricature by any means of Barth's theology but he asks this rather haunting question: "What could Karl Barth possibly mean for black students who had come from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, seeking to change the structures of their lives in a society that had defined black as nonbeing?" (5) There are many other respected and revered theologians in addition to Cone who find little relevance within Barth's dogmatics to address their particular context of suffering and marginalization.

Sometimes when I read questions like those posed by Cone in relation to Barth's theology, I am tempted to think that Cone has the final word about Barth. The theology and ideas in the Church Dogmatics really have nothing of critical import for the suffering among the black community, oppressed women, and the struggling poor in Latin American countries. What does this mean for how Barth did theology and how should theologians living within the twenty-first century seek to correct Barth's woeful neglect of such critical concerns? Is the problem with Barth's theology per se or a lack of influential engagement within Barthian studies as a whole to parse out the connection between Barth's dogmatics and oppression within humanity?

These questions have really been on my mind all the more as I took a liberation theology course this past semester. I kept wondering what Barth could ever say to the countless voices I heard throughout the semester of individuals and communities who write theology from their context of poverty, oppression, discrimination, marginalization, and otherness. Then over Christmas break, I was really thankful to open up Eugene Rogers' Sexuality and the Christian Body to find a different understanding of Barth's theology than I usually found in my own experiences. Rogers laments the popular disconnection between dogmatics and various social issues: "...only too rarely do Christian ethicists connect doctrines like incarnation, election, and resurrection with race, gender, and orientation" (18). This quote is followed by a footnote that notes Karl Barth as an exception to the rule of such binaries. I stared at this footnote for quite some time wondering if I had read it correctly.

In short, I think Rogers is really onto something and he approaches the problems and questions surrounding the issue of sexuality from a dogmatic standpoint. I read the tremendous fruit that came from Rogers' methodology in this respect and wonder how much more could be done for the issues of oppression when they are informed by Barth's dogmatics and his revolutionary understandings of certain doctrines.

All of that is to say that I hope to write a series of blog posts over the next few weeks (if I can find enough time) to explore the connections I've made between Barth's dogmatics and various issues I've encountered and questioned this past semester. Most of these connections will be made through Barth's christology and how his particular understanding of the communication of attributes can critically and helpfully inform issues such as feminism and disability. It will be interesting to see what comes of it.


Rod said...

James Cone did his doctoral dissertation on Karl Barth's theological anthropology. I think it would be fair to say that Cone, at least back then, was quite Barthian, and he admits as such. That's part of the criticism of Cone, whether it is true or not.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

While it is true that Barth does discuss matters related to sexuality and gender within the context of his dogmatic presentation of the faith, I for one cannot see anything fruitful coming from such studies. To say he is disdaindful of women would be trite, but also correct. He dismisses homosexuals as confused, and attacks eros with rather large rhetorical hammers in both hands.

Which is not to say he is either right or wrong. It is to say, I think, that while Barth does have some positive things to say about human sexuality, it is limited by a kind of myopia for which, perhaps he can be forgiven. I would be interested to read what you have to say on these matters, with specific references to Barth's CD.

Kait Dugan said...

Rod -- Cones says as much in GotO and that is why he taught Barth in the first place but then began to question Barth's relevance for the lives of his students. I think he mentions his dissertation in the famous Bill Moyers interview but I can't remember.

Geoffrey - There is no denying that Barth's conclusions in relation to women and homosexuals is quite exclusive and discriminating. But that doesn't mean that Barth's conclusions are a necessary outworking of his other theological commitments. This is an occasion to read Barth against Barth.

Matt Frost said...

Looking forward to this!

I've studied under two of Cone's students, womanists and deeply indebted to Cone for the freedom of their academic voices. And they have encouraged me to use Cone as a trajectory from Barth to justice -- without having to abandon Barth. Their question to me has been Cone's question: how does Barth apply? Of what use is the tradition for real preaching in this context? (And after all, isn't that also Barth's question?)

Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation were sourced deep in Barth and Bultmann and the Kirchenkampf. The question from God of the Oppressed may be haunting, but James Cone is a father of those who struggle with it. I've never read it as a dismissal; the next sentence says the same thing using Nicaea and Chalcedon. What Barth and the councils said does not preach gospel to the heart of the U.S. context of racism. It can't -- because these words were spoken to very different problems. And the bigger obstacle is that these words are spoken today as though they were unquestionably white. So how does a white theologian -- and he had been trained as one! -- preach gospel to blackness? How do we get around the hypocrisy of preaching gospel right up to the edge of our (white; German; you name it...) Christian culture, and then stopping, and waving sympathetically and wringing our hands about what happens "out there," while others of us go right on oppressing and supporting oppression?

The question "What could [the Christian theological tradition] possibly mean for black people in this context" is also Malcolm's question -- and Malcolm turns to Islam because Christianity is ontologically white. Malcolm's answer to the question is "nothing but oppression!" And King doesn't answer the question -- he's an integrationist. I'm not sure the question appears for him. But Cone lives between them. He can't uncritically choose the black church and discard his training in historically dominant orthodoxy. He can't critically discard the church in either aspect. I see in him a very Barthian trajectory, though it leads to places Barth could never have gone in his given span of life. He has to walk from his training to his pastorate, and tailor what he has been taught to what the truth of the gospel is on the ground. Hence much of Cone's discussion of becoming ontologically black.

Long story short, don't just take Rogers' creative reading of Barth -- Rogers can ride over his problems with Barth by altering a few points, just as you and I can. Let Cone have his word on Barth, too. This will certainly be hyperbole, but for the sake of being a Barthian and reading Cone, think of Barth as Schleiermacher. There are plenty of black theologians who prefer to dismiss him, a la Brunner. Whose answer to Cone's question reaches toward Malcolm. And much of the flack Cone received for his first two books was of that sort. And you could not justly call Cone a Barthian, any more than you could call Barth a follower of Schleiermacher. But for all of my reading, I don't see him abandon Barth. He has something very important to say about using him.

Kait Dugan said...

Sorry -- major typos in the first comment. Reposted with edits.

Matt, thanks so much for your helpful comment. I wasn't intending to sound dismissive of Cone. I respect him more than I can possibly verbalize. Even though he does appropriate Barth in a certain way, his question still rings haunting in the ears of anyone who engages with Barth's dogmatics. And I would like to see if Barth's christological commitments, specifically some dogmatic connections made by McCormack, have something particular to say about issues like gender and disability. Cone and Barth do part ways in their methodological commitments not to mention their views of Scripture and revelation (Cone offers this amendment to his views of both in the 1975 preface of GotO). But I think that Cone's concerns are so important and remind any reader of some of the most important reasons and motivations for doing theology -- the suffering and oppression of the world. I would simply like to engage these issues from a particularly Barthian orientation.

Matt Frost said...

Agreed. I don't so much mean that you sound dismissive of Cone, as that I heard you reading Cone as dismissive of Barth. And it's easy to do -- it's taken a lot of reading and teaching to bring me to a place where I can hold them together. There's a lot of pressure on Cone to dismiss Barth. And it's hard to follow him and try to do what he does, and still keep the good name of "Barthian". But it helps that Barth can speak along with Goethe's caricature of Werther and say "Be a Mensch and do not follow after me."

I look forward to reading more of your engagement with these issues from a Barthian orientation. :) It's one of the best games in town.

JKnott said...


It may or may not interest you to know that my dissertation will deal with the gender and sexuality material in CD III/4. I know this is difficult material to engage with from our historical context, and I by no means intend to issue a blanket approval of all he says. Nevertheless, from where I'm standing, the reactions to what he says--those of which I am aware--fail to engage with the material moves he makes in any detailed or comprehensive manner, and thereby fail to understand what is really going on there. If I may propose a hypothesis on why this is the case, I would suggest that Barth's thought is wrongly inserted into a dichotomous understanding of the possible approaches to gender and sexuality, in which one is forced to choose between two alternatives, neither of which really fits his thought in general or in the specific case in question. In short, though I think there are problems with Barth's treatment of the issue(s), I don't think it's as bad as (almost) everyone seems to think. It should go without saying that what I've said here is by no means exhaustive, and I certainly don't consider it the last word. Which is to say, I'd love to continue this conversation, knowing I still have a lot to learn.

Jon Coutts said...

I definitely think you are on to something here. The fact that there is work to be done from Barth's material can be taken as a negative or a positive. On the one hand, there is work left to be done by this material, on the other hand, there is very promising work that can be done from this material.

lucysky said...

Although quite critical of Niebuhr in his latest book, "The Cross and the Lynching Tree," Cone makes this distinction between Niebuhr and Barth. "Niebuhr takes his starting point for Christian realism as 'the facts of experience,' . . . This starting point has significant implications for the question of race. When one begins with the facts of experience and not, as in Karl Barth's theology, with God's revelation, the conversation must confront the brutal realities of racial injustice: slavery, segregation, and lynching. White Barth's theology starts with the Trinity, with a focus on the Word of God, Niebuhr's theology and ethics start with an emphasis on self-interest and power."

Cone then take Niebuhr to task for, among other things, finding great empathy with Jewish suffering but ignoring lynching and other black struggles.

Matt Frost said...

@lucysky, Reinhold always did have potential, and he was one of the few white theologians at the time who really spoke to the problems of race during his Detroit pastorate. That American pragmatism Barth never had, and Reinie always took him to task for it. Never could grasp how Barth did ethics, from his writings -- but he loved Bonhoeffer, whom he got to know in person. Ultimately his Christian Realism still only made a receptive point of contact for King and the integrationist movement. Pragmatic approaches raise great hope -- but they fail when the pragmatist in question isn't inextricably subject to the problem that needs fixing.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has recently started reading Barth, these sorts of questions have definitely been at the front of my mind.

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