24 July 2007

of barth & evangelicals 3

On Tuesday, 26 June, the Barth conference continued with a stimulating paper from John Hare of Yale University, “Kant, Barth, and the Predisposition to Good.”

Hare's talk was quite challenging and, given my lack of expertise in Kant (and especially the recent re-readings of Kant on religion), I'm not sure I followed all the details of his presentation.

The topic of Hare's talk was the relationship of Barth to Kant, in light of both contemporary re-readings of Kant and evangelical critiques of Barth as a kind of Kantian. Hare pointed to the anti-Barthian arguments of Cornelius Van Til, Carl Henry, and James Buswell, all of whom read Barth as a Kantian and did so with a particular understanding of Kant that is hostile to orthodox Christian faith.

In particular, Van Til said that Kant taught that things in themselves are ruled by chance and brute factuality, manifest to us as phenomena, and that human beings in a wholly autonomous fashion determine reality through categories. Thus, for Kant on Van Til's reading, God is reduced to a limiting concept, regulative rather than constitutive, with no claim to actual existence and Christian belief, in turn, is reduced to fit this philosophical paradigm.

Hare argued, however, that this is serious misreading of Kant, let alone any affinities to Kant in Barth, though perhaps it is an excusable misreading in the context of late 19th and early 20th century readings of Kant, particularly by liberal theologians. In particular, Hare noted that while the existence of God is merely regulative for Kant in the context of theoretical reason, it is constitutive in practical reason. That's to say, Kant limits the possibilities of human theoretical reason to build an intellectual ladder up to God while, at the same time, God objectively reveals himself to us in our ethical sensibilities.

I'll skip over Hare's re-reading of Kant at this point, since I don't feel competent to reproduce it accurately. From his own re-reading of Kant, however, Hare turned to Barth's reading of Kant and notes that Barth is interesting in this regard.

On some points, Barth reads Kant in ways that anticipate current re-readings of Kant (e.g., on Kant's view of knowledge of God). But in other ways Barth significantly misreads Kant, for instance, seeing Kant as making man the measure of all things, which leads, in Barth's view, straight to Ritschl. Hare outlined seven ways in which Barth misreads Kant, ways of misreading that, interestingly enough, all have analogues in Van Til. Thus Barth turns out to repudiate Kant in light of Christian faith as strongly as Van Til does and in similar ways.

Hare's conclusions were complex.

First, evangelicals need to re-read Kant themselves and realize that the kinds of readings of Kant that have dominated orthodox Christian appraisals are largely mistaken. Kant is not the enemy of evangelical faith that many have taken him to be.

Second, when it comes to critiques of Kant, Barth and Van Til are strong allies, rather than enemies, and thus much of Van Til's own critique of Barth as Kantian is simply wrong-headed. Unfortunately, both Barth and Van Til significantly misread Kant in similar ways.

Third, where Barth is more open to Kant, he remains so based upon better readings of Kant than Van Til or Carl Henry deployed. In this way Barth anticipated contemporary Kant scholarship.

Hare's talk was followed by Clifford Anderson who spoke on “A theology of experience? The transcendental argument in Karl Barth's early theology.” I stepped out for part of Anderson's talk and, upon returning was a bit lost, so my notes are incomplete.

Anderson began with a quotation from Torrance in which he states that scholastic Romanism (probably meaning Hans Urs von Balthasar) and scholastic Protestantism (likely a jab at Van Til) both see Barth as a Kantian subjectivist, but that this is the opposite of the truth. Anderson, however, suggests that this underplays Kant's influence on Barth's theology, though may also indicate a different reading of Kant from that of Barth.

Anderson focused in on the possible use of transcendental argument by Barth in his mature work, though not in the sense of a precondition, synthetic a priori, for the possibility of experiencing God. He situated his discussion in the context of the neo-Kantian revival represented by the Marburg school, which saw transcendental argument as Kant's big achievement.

Among the Marburg thinkers, Hermann Cohen's commentary on Kant suggests that the proper understanding of Kant is that he provides a new concept of experience in which the act of knowing does not have to do so much with epistemology as it does the object of knowing. Thus Cohen focuses upon scientific experience as the goal of transcendental method.

Anderson suggested that Barth's reading and use of Kant was more indebted to the Marburg school than to Kant himself, at least in Barth's early work, as evidenced in his 1910 "Notes towards a sketch of philosophy of religion." In his later work, Barth speaks of the conditions for the possibility of proclamation, using a transcendental sort of argument to elucidate categories of theological science.

In the afternoon breakout sessions, I attended the one given by Kevin Hector. He gave a great presentation entitled “Ontological Violence and the Covenant of Grace: An Engagement between Karl Barth and Radical Orthodoxy.” Given my interest in Radical Orthodoxy (RO), I found Hector's talk of particular interest.

Hector's basic argument was that, while RO rightly wishes to root its account of reality in the Christian narrative in order to valorize an ontology of peace, it's own manner of criticizing any who are not RO nonetheless seems to reveal an inherent violence within RO. Hector offered Barth as an alternative way of upholding ontological peace.

As Hector summarized RO, he noted its particularism and commitment to harmony, maintaining that the Christian faith has its own account of reality centered upon the Trinity, incarnation, and resurrection as keys to understanding everything. Thus Christian belief and practice provides a uniquely peaceable view of the world, the infinite involving a harmony of associative difference. Thus only the Christian alternative can overcome nihilism, totalitarianism, and so on.

Beginning with original ontological harmony rooted in the eternal harmony of the Triune life of God - unity within difference - RO sees creation as partaking of this original peace and directed towards the superabundant infinite as its end by participation.

What then, according to RO, accounts for the discrepancy between this original peace and the existing disharmony? Here RO provides an account of evil as privation, wrongly directed desire. All is good insofar as it exists at all. Genuine human harmony exists where our wills are directed towards God as the object of desire, so that unbelieving secular parodies of peace cannot succeed. Salvation involves the inauguration of a different kind of community, with God as its end, so that the church remains the goal of salvation.

The common complaint against RO is its tendency towards an all-or-nothing approach that situates all non-RO accounts as implicitly nihilistic. But if RO's ontological harmony comes at the cost of relegating all non-RO views to non-being, Hector asked, isn't this itself a kind of ontological violence?

Hector went on at this point to give several examples of ways in which RO seems to treat alternative viewpoints unfairly or to misrepresent them in order to dismiss them as incipient nihilism. The most interesting and challenging example, I thought, was the way in which Milbank and Pickstock misrepresent Davidson's views in the opening chapter of Truth in Aquinas and then Hector's subsequent argument that Milbank and Pickstock's own positive account of truth fails to accomplish what they criticize as failure in others.

Hector, nonetheless, went on to note an ambiguity in RO's perspective. When it speaks of the human will desiring God, as the sole basis for peace, is that desire objective or subjective? That's to say, does the person so willing need to be subjectively aware that it is, in fact, God whom she desires? Or might that will be objectively directed towards God even if the person is unaware?

Even if the latter, Hector noted that such an objective referent of desire would still, for RO, embody some kind of historical connection to Christ and the church, either by way of anticipation or effect. Still, if the latter is the case, then oughtn't RO be more accepting of the possibility of finding amenable elements even within non-RO views?

After his analysis and critique of RO, Hector concluded with a positive sketch of a Barthian alternative in which, by situating God's will for the entire creation in the person of Jesus Christ, Barth can affirm good wherever it may be found as revelatory of Christ.

The Q&A period was extensive and fruitful. I agreed with Hector that some figures within the RO movement are uncharitable towards those they criticize to the point of misrepresenting others' views in order to paint them as nihilistic. This is clear to me particularly in how Pickstock and Milbank handle postmodern thought (especially Derrida), the magisterial Reformers, Duns Scotus and Ockham, contemporary philosophical figures such as Davidson, and even Barth.

Other RO figures have different, more charitable assessments: Jamie Smith on Derrida, Graham Ward on Barth, and so forth. Even Milbank himself can prove to be both "for and against" Hegel and Marx (in Theology and Social Theory), can see the Enlightenment as in many respects a positive outgrowth of the gospel (in "The Gospel of Affinity"), and can say positive things about Luther (in "The Theological Critique of Philosophy in Hamann and Jacobi") and Calvin (in "Alternative Protestantism: Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition").

So, the question for me is whether RO's "violence" towards certain positions and figures is inherent to RO as a system of theological thought, or whether it says more about the personality and temperament of a curmudgeonly guy like Milbank.

On the issue of whether the desire for God, in RO, is to be construed objectively or subjectively, I suggested that, it seems to me, that the objective reading is better. Milbank and Pickstock quote Aquinas repeatedly that "in every act of intellect and will, God is implicitly known and desired." Moreover, in his comments on de Lubac and von Balthasar in Theology and Social Theory, while rejecting Rahner's "anonymous Christianity," Milbank appears to approve an account of how even subjectively unbelieving thought may be positively and objectively related to God as its final end.

None of these points correct the infelicities and misconstruals perpetuated by RO figures in their treatment of others' views, but they do, I think, provide a context in which these acts of hermeneutical violence can be seen as not inherent within an RO perspective.