Friday, January 15, 2010

Barth on Fridays

Barth made me mad today. That’s a good thing, because it means 1) he’s making me question some basic things that I most likely have uncritically assumed, and 2) some of my thoughts are beginning to gel re: these important issues. In today’s reading, from IV-3-2, pp. 568-76, Barth takes on Quietists, Pietists, and assorted others for whom I have come to have a great appreciation (not least of which is Zinzendorf, whom I think Barth seriously misrepresents in this passage). As long as he was bashing existentialists and liberals, I could follow along, but now he’s cutting too close to my cherished assumptions. (First, I should say that I agree with his main point, which seems to be that Christianity is more about Jesus Christ than about my experience of or relationship with him.)
I’m afraid I dominated the conversation this morning with my strenuous objections that Barth is mistaken in looking (particularly in scripture) for the one main thing—in the good word that Allen used in deconstruction of my claim, a foundation—that characterizes true Christianity. (I’d just finished Kathryn Tanner’s Theories of Culture and I was ready for a fight, not least because of my disappointment that in the end she reverts to “obviously, the only tenable position is mine.”) I said this morning that scripture gives us instead a many-faceted picture that in its coherence portrays what it means to be a Christian. I came to realize this evening that my objection can be formulated in terms of what I’m trying to say in my thesis. One of the main things I see in Torrance is his insistence that relationality means holding things sufficiently apart to allow for distinction-in-relation and thus avoid dualism or the collapse of one into the other (or both into some kind of monad). Applied to Barth’s contention that the one thing that being-a-Christian is about is witness, I think it makes better sense to see that as only one side of a complementary relation. I’ve begun working through Kelso and Engström’s The Complementary Nature and, although they may be overly enthusiastic about their formulation, I think there is a lot to be said for their claim of complementarity’s ubiquity, and I have even begun to use their style of designation in my notes to self, with the tilde (~) expressing the relation between two contraries/complementaries: as in being “called to witness ~ called to belong.” (Leonard Sweet is on to something, I think, in his “MRI” (missional, relational, incarnational) in So Beautiful.) In fact, drawing on Jamie Smith’s contention in Desiring the Kingdom (does Jamie know that amazon is attributing his work to someone else?) that worship is more basic than either reason or belief, I think the complementary call to witness ~ to belong should be set under an even more “fundamental” designation gleaned from differing translations of Rom 8:1—present your bodies in spiritual worship ~ reasonable service.
There’s something further, though, and it’s the focus on conversion that I’m taking from Lonergan. I agree with Gelpi that it needs expansion—I’d say by way of what Jesus came preaching—and I’d express it as being called to repent ~ to respond (follow-in-allegiance). That, I think, requires another complementary pair, often expressed as movement from below ~ from above, and I think what bothers me in Barth is that he’s so vehement about the priority of the latter and the disequilibrium and non-reciprocal nature of the relation that he comes across as dismissing anything that “begins with” the Spirit’s work in our hearts. OK, I feel better now.