Modern Theology And The Dialectic Of God, Part 4 (Kelly Maeshiro)

The following is the last of a four-part series. The first can be found herethe second here, the third here.

The Barthian Revolt

Barth’s theology is in many ways contiguous with Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Though there are some substantive differences, Barth’s project is more or less identical to Kierkegaard’s from the point of view of the specific topic we are investigating, viz., the manner in which God’s relation to humanity is conceived. If the general thrust of modern liberal theology was to assert a conception of this relation which stressed God’s immanence and the identity of divine and human nature, then the characteristic which unites Barth and Kierkegaard is precisely a reaction against the general development of liberal theology, a conception of God’s relation to humanity which stresses not God’s immanence, but God’s transcendent otherness, not the identity of the divine and human nature, but an “absolute difference.”

On this point, Barth adopts most of Kierkegaard’s major themes. As Dorrien writes, “[a]ll of Kierkegaard’s major theological concepts were there” in Barth’s theology — of particular interest for us: God’s absolute otherness, God not human beings as the active agent of knowledge of God, fideism, and an anti-philosophical posture.[1] Where Kierkegaard spoke of God as “the absolutely different,” Barth spoke of God not as “a thing among other things,” but as the “Wholly Other.”[2] And Barth, like Kierkegaard, stressed that the active agent of revelation is not the human being, but God. In one sense, Barth simply gave Kierkegaard’s major themes more systematic form and expression.

For Barth, the need to reject the basic idea of liberal theology was more historical and personal than for Kierkegaard. In August 1914, when Barth witnessed all of his liberal teachers rallying to the Kaiser’s call to war, Barth, we’re told, “read the manifesto with revulsion … The spectacle of seeing his mentors promote the Kaiser’s militarism … and their failure to even raise the question of national idolatry made him doubt the integrity of their theology.”[3]

We might pause to notice the non-sequitur here. Liberal theologians’ support for a war in no way necessarily implies anything one way or another about liberal theology itself. To presume so is to presume some necessarily relation between what one believes and what one does, which fails to distinguish between an idea and what people who believe it happen to do. This isn’t to suggest that there is no relation between what one believes and what one does; I’m not a radical cynic. Of course some ideas lend themselves to certain kinds of actions more than others.

But the relation between what one believes and what one does is hardly automatic. It has to be argued, and in the case of liberal theology, it’s not an easy case to make, if only because there have been many theological liberals who do not support militarism, Nazism, or any of its variants. One can easily think of Rauschenbusch, whose theology is deeply liberal, or of Martin Luther King, Jr., who, according to Cone, “thought of himself as a liberal, philosophical theologian who opposed [both] the narrow ‘fundamentalism’ of his Baptist upbringing and it’s more sophisticated expressions in the neo-orthodox theology of … Karl Barth.”[4] This isn’t to say there is no relation between the substance of liberal theology and support for militarism on the part of liberal German theologians, but rather that a case needs to be made, which can only come by way of a theological critique.

For Barth, liberal theology had failed to recognize God’s transcendent otherness, having stressed instead God’s immanence and the knowledge of God possible through subjectivity, through the knowing subject. “Liberal theology made the human subject the subject of theology and turned Christ into a mere predicate; therefore it had to be replaced.”[5] Liberal theology, one Barth scholar writes, replaced “a radical account of God’s connection to humanity with a merely relational one.”[6]

And Barth’s argument against this position seems to be that it is not consistent with the view expressed by the Christian scriptures, scriptures which do not stress the human creature’s active knowledge of God, but God’s “utter subjectivity as the one who manifests himself in grace.”[7] Scripture thus assumes a special importance in Barth’s threefold theological system as the record of the unique self-revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and Barth himself acknowledges that his view of scripture is akin to what he calls the “venerable doctrine of inspiration.”[8]

Here the question naturally presents itself: on what external basis is scripture to be taken to be the unique and authoritative revelation of God? Barth’s answer is characteristically fideistic: scripture is it’s own proof, and does not therefore require any other demonstration. As Barth writes, “By the Spirit scripture bears witness that it is God’s Word. It needs no other arguments, and there is no possibility of doubting it, because in it … God the Spirit bears witness to himself.”[9] For Barth, the “meaning of scripture is knowable only in faith through the power of the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of the Bible.”[10] For Barth, then, the authority of scripture ultimately rests upon an implicit theological basis, viz., that it is God’s self-revelation.[11] A proper analysis of Barth’s theology, then, requires an investigation of his conception of God’s self-revelation.

For Barth, the error of liberal theology consisted in its subjectivity, in its procession from the subject of knowing rather than from the object of its apprehension, i.e., God. Kant’s Copernican shift had shifted focus from the known object to the knowing subject, as he argued that metaphysics always presupposed some kind of fundamental epistemology, i.e., that that in our attempts to know some metaphysical object, we are already implicated as subjects. Liberal theology followed Kant, and Barth tried to reverse it, returning essentially, to a kind of pre-modern metaphysics which was characteristic not only of Reformation theologians like Luther, but also of third-century theologians like Origen.[12]

Barth attempts to avoid the Kantian critique, but in the final analysis, he fails. He attempted to “spell out a properly Christian sense of the objectivity of God, with the aim not so much of meeting the Kantian challenge head-on as subverting it by refusing to be trapped within its categories,” Webster writes.[13] He replaces the Kantian dualism between the unknowable noumenon and the knowable phenomenon with a distinction between God’s primary and secondary objectivity. If for Kant the noumenon is mediated to the subject by the categories of experience, for Barth, the incarnation is what mediates God’s primary and secondary objectivity.

As Dorrien writes, “If Kant was right about human knowing, which Barth did not doubt, God must make God’s self known as phenomenal if God is to be known … In Christ, Barth reasoned, God becomes present to human knowing as the subject of human knowing, not its object.”[14] Here, Barth, like Kierkegaard, maintains fundamentally Kantian assumptions, and turns Christ into the knowable phenomenon of a noumenal God. But insofar as Barth is properly Kantian in his assumptions, all of Hegel’s valid criticisms of Kant apply, and we might ask, along with Hegel, on what basis the noumenal God, Barth’s equivalent of the Kantian in-itself, is posited in the first place, since, being by definition unknowable, one cannot, as it were, get “behind” it.

Here, Barth, unlike Kant, does have an answer, but insofar as he provides an answer, it violates the Kantian proscriptions. On what basis, we ask, does Barth posit a noumenal God (or God’s primary objectivity) in the first place? For Barth, it is God who bestows Godself in secondary objectivity, and establishes the ground for asserting this. But this is an unwarranted predication of the noumenon, or God’s primary objectivity, and is as such beyond the possibility of experience, subject once more to the Kantian limitations.

Here we can see the manner in which Barth is epistemologically stuck, as it were, between Kant and Hegel: to the extent that he evades Kant, he is blocked by Hegel, and to the extent that he evades Hegel, he is blocked by Kant. Barth attempts to address the Kantian critique by making Christ the knowable phenomena (God’s secondary objectivity) of a noumenal God (God’s primary objectivity), but in order to evade the Hegelian objection (to the postulation of the in-itself, or God’s primary objectivity), he blatantly violates the Kantian critique of dogmatic metaphysics.

Barth, then, gets a little farther than Kierkegaard. In a sense, Barth merely gives the principal themes of Kierkegaard’s philosophy more systematic expression, but he does not progress much beyond Kierkegaard, and Kierkegaard’s philosophical problems are Barth’s as well. To the extent, then, that Barth recycles Kierkegaardian concepts as well as their errors and inadequacies, we can criticize Kierkegaard’s philosophy and Barth’s theology as one.

Contra Kierkegaard, Contra Barth

If the movement which characterized the general development of modern theology was a movement toward a recognition of God’s immanence, the most powerful dissent against this development was expressed by Kierkegaard and Barth, both of whom emphatically asserted God’s “infinite qualitative distance.” The general movement of modern theology is thus discernible not only in its positive historical development, but also in the strong reactions against it.

Even the protest against modern theology defines itself in relation to what we have suggested was its central development, the idea that divine and human nature are one, only it defines itself negatively in relation to this idea — and it is substantial proof in favor of our thesis that it is this idea rather than some other in relation to which such dissent is defined. Because Barth was so strongly influenced by Kierkegaard and to a considerable degree merely systematized his chief concepts, both can be taken together to represent substantially the alternative posed to modern liberal theology. But the alternative, which is characteristic of what is called neo-orthodox theology, is inadequate on several counts.

Against liberal theology’s turn toward the subject, toward the human, Kierkegaard and Barth in a sense stressed a return toward the object, toward God. If liberal theology was characterized by a certain emphasis on subjectivity, then, we might say Kierkegaardian philosophy and Barthian theology were characterized by a reassertion of objectivity. The problem with this return to the object is that it is self-defeating, that it simply begs all of the questions — precisely the questions which liberal theology sought to question. It leaves as much in need of explanation as it ostensibly seeks to explain. It was precisely this in which Kant’s major contribution to philosophy consisted, as he well understood, comparing it to Copernicus’s revolution in the sciences.

As Kant grasped, the knowing subject is always already implicated in every act of knowing, and there is no way around this fact. A pure and simple return to the object therefore gets us nowhere, because the knowing subject is already implicated, even in the very construction of so-called “objective” knowledge, and every objective metaphysics always already implies a kind of subjective epistemology. For Kant this was an unavoidable fact. It’s not as if one could simply avoid the subject or epistemology; these are necessarily implied whether one wants it or not, and these assumptions are present whether one is aware of them or not. On this basis, an account of so-called objective truth (or an account for which the truth resides in the object of knowledge) simply begs the (subjective) question. From a Kantian point of view, then, a simple return to the object is not so much incorrect as it is naive, and inadequate.

From a Hegelian point of view as well, an account of so-called objective truth (for which the object is the essence of truth) always already implies a subjective account of truth (for which the subject is the essence of truth). The move away from the knowing subject, from subjectivity toward objectivity,  is a definite philosophical position, which Hegel calls “sense-certainty,” the lowest and most simplistic form of consciousness which Hegel examines in the course of the Phenomenology.

As Hegel writes in the Phenomenology, “One of the terms posited in sense-certainty in the form of a simple, immediate being, or as the essence, [is] the object; the other however, is posited as what is unessential and mediated, something which in sense-certainty is not in itself but through an other, the ‘I,’ a knowing which knows the object only because the object is, while the knowing may either be or not be. But the object is: it is what is true, or it is the essence.”[15] But the very experience of sense-certainty reverses this relation between subject and object. The very act of knowing discloses the manner in which the “objective” content is mediated by the knowing subject and has meaning only through the subject who gives it meaning. As one commentator writes, “This, then, brings about a reversal of roles in regard to the essential and the inessential. it is no longer the object which is essential and the knowing the inessential; what is essential is what one means, and the object is not essentially an object until it is meant …”[16] Here, Hegel was merely restating Kant, with whom he basically agreed; only he felt that Kant never got past this position, for reasons we have already explored.

Hegel and Kant, the, both grasped the fundamental inadequacy of accounts of truth which proceed from the object. Kierkegaard rightly grasped that the only way around this criticism, i.e., the only way to return to the object, was through some kind of anti-rational fideism. Barth tried to get around Kant. But as we saw, he failed, and in fact got no farther than Kierkegaard, leaving us, on Kantian grounds, with no option but Kierkegaardian fideism, which Barth shared, as the only compelling alternative to Kant’s formulation of faith. But anti-rational fideism is uncompelling for its own reasons.

There is a very simple reason I cannot endorse anti-rational fideism of the sort Kierkegaard and Barth espouse, viz., that it violates the most elementary principles of rationality, not least the principle of universality — the notion that we should apply the same standards to ourselves that we apply to others. Suppose for instance that I told you that some deity called the flying Spaghetti monster reveals himself through grace to me. Not only do I not think any rational person would pay much attention to me; I doubt any Barthian Kierkegaardian would, which would suggest that these fideists hold standards of rationality for others that they do not hold themselves to — what’s known in the technical theological literature as “pure hypocrisy,” which is, in my view, the basic problem with any kind of fideistic position.

To reject the idea that we should apply the same standards of rationality to ourselves that we apply to others is to reject the most elementary principles of rational discourse, to annihilate the possibility of rational communication, and thus, as Hegel writes, to “[trample] underfoot the roots of humanity. For it is the nature of humanity,” he explains, “to press onward to agreement with others; human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds.” The basic posture of Kierkegaard’s and Barth’s fideism was well described by Hegel, who criticized those who, in the place of substantive philosophical inquiry, content themselves with “revelations from heaven” — in this case literally — as philosophically simplistic, appealing “to an oracle in his breast, he is finished and done with anyone who does not agree; he has only to explain that he has no more to say to anyone who does not find and feel the same in himself.”[17]

Anti-rational fideism is also inconsistent with the logic of Incarnation. The chief significance of God’s self-revelation through the Son consists in the fact that God, depicted in the form of the Father, is only known through the Son, who is fully human — but if the Son is fully human, then this means that every aspect of the Son is human, including his faculties of cognition, and it follows therefore that God is known only through human reason. God the Father is known to Christ through Christ’s fully human faculties of cognition, which are, inasmuch as they are fully human, the same as every other human being’s faculties of cognition.

But insofar as this conception was expressed in the terms of traditional theism, it was logically contradictory. Kant showed that the God of traditional theism could not be known through the faculties of cognition because as the unconditioned as such, this God ipso facto lacked the conditions of possible experience, and was as such, not cognizable. If the Christian assertion that God was fully revealed through the Son was to have any veracity, then, it would be necessary to re-conceptualize God. This was the only logical alternative: either the Christian God would have to be reconceptualized from its traditional theistic form, or else the Christian claim that God revealed Godself through the fully human Son was false. The development of modern theology, then, represented an effort, consummated in Hegelian idealism, to do the necessary work and reconceptualize this God. Fideism of the sort that Barth and Kierkegaard advocate, then, is not only inimical to reason, but also, as I see it, to basic Christian principles, like applying the same standards to oneself that one applies to others, and striving for a common community of minds, as well as the logic of Incarnation.

Kantian idealism, then, represents a more compelling account of faith than the anti-rational fideism of Kierkegaard and Barth. But so far we have only dealt on Kantian grounds. We have not even spoken of Hegel (except insofar as Hegel takes a Kantian position) in relation to Kierkegaard and Barth because, in one sense, it is not even possible to. Here it is not even possible to speak of Hegel. It would be senseless to compare the merits of Hegel’s absolute idealism with Kierkegaardian philosophy and Barthian theology because Kierkegaard and Barth never even got past Kant. If Hegelian idealism represents a more compelling philosophical account than Kantian idealism, then it makes little sense to compare Hegelian idealism with Kierkegaardian or Barthian fideism, which did not even get past Kant. It would rather be like comparing Michelangelo with someone who hasn’t yet learned how to draw faces, or to paint in more than two colors.

It is not as if Kierkegaard and Barth provide less compelling answers to the same questions Hegel deals with, but rather that they do not provide any answers at all. Not being able to get beyond Kant, they simply ignore the questions which Hegel, who did get past Kant, grappled with. Kierkegaard and Barth did not even provide answers to Kant’s questions (especially as they relate to the subject’s role in the construction of knowledge), still less those questions posed by Hegel which even Kant did not grapple with, viz., those questions of the metaphysics implied in epistemology, specifically as they relate to the questions of the metaphysical dualism implied in Kantian idealism. Hegel is so far ahead of Kierkegaard and Barth, and they are so far behind him, that it is not even possible to compare them. In the range of issues Hegel even addressed, Hegel is so much more philosophically sophisticated than Kierkegaard and Barth that there is not even some common standard by which to make such a comparison.

It would be senseless, then, to attempt to compare Barth and Kierkegaard with Hegel because he is so much more philosophically sophisticated than they are. Kant is more philosophically sophisticated than Kierkegaard and Barth, and Hegel is more philosophically sophisticated than Kant. Where Kierkegaard and Barth are philosophically behind Kant, Hegel is philosophically ahead. Where Kant represents a philosophical development of the position which Kierkegaard and Barth represented, Hegel represents himself a philosophical development of the position which Kant represented.

From this point of view, Kierkegaardian philosophy and Barthian theology represent forms of theological consciousness which are chronologically posterior to liberal theology, but logically anterior to it. Barth’s so-called negation of liberal theology is typically misunderstood. Logically speaking, Barth’s infamous “NO!” was therefore not so much the negation of liberal theology as it was the expression of liberal theology’s negation of the traditional theological worldview which Barth’s theology represented. The very attempt to reverse the course of liberal theology in a way demonstrated its logical necessity and philosophical validity.

If Barth rejected God’s immanence with an emphatic “NO,” and, contra Hegel, conceived of God as a “pure negation” rather than a determinate negation of the world, Kierkegaard similarly replaced Hegel’s concept of contradiction with his own concept of paradox.[18] Where a dialectical relationship of God and humanity conceives of this relation as mediated, a paradoxical conception of this relation conceives of this relation without mediation, of God as totally separate. But insofar as the fundamental premise of dialectics is the finite nature of human knowledge, it is more consistent with the Christian conception of human beings as finite and sinful.

This, I think, is what is fundamentally at stake not only in the difference between a dialectical conception of the relation of God to human beings, but also in the difference between the liberal conception of God generally and the Kierkegaardian and Barthian alternatives to it. Kierkegaard and Barth both conceive of knowledge of God as fundamentally proceeding from God. The essence of Christianity is precisely that it is, for them, of God and from God, and given by God. The error of liberal theology was to have reduced Christianity to a merely human construct. Barth thus protested the idolatry implied: genuine theology is the Word of God, but liberal theology had reduced theology to the Word of Man.[19]

Now, if Barth is right, then he does seem to have a case for criticizing the subjective or transcendental idealism of liberal theology for its idolatrous worship of human intelligence. But if, as I have argued, Barth (and Kierkegaard) are wrong, his own theology is idolatrous. If Barth is wrong, then all theology is the “Word of Man” and he merely conceits theology with being the Word of God. From this point of view, both Barth and, say, Tillich, write “Word of Man” theologies, but Tillich at least has the modesty to admit it, while Barth conceits himself that he is doing something different. The fundamental conviction of liberal theology, following from its own secularization of theology, is that the attempt to know God is a human and therefore fallible enterprise.

As someone once put it to me, theology is “not a divine word, but a human word about the divine.” If this is true and Barth is wrong, if all theology is only really a human project, then Barth, in suggesting that theology is a divine enterprise, the self-revelation of God, in effect simply divinizes and idolizes human intelligence about God. This is especially consequential and doubly ironic if we consider the practical implications. Barth protested that liberal theology was fundamentally idolatrous, which led it to support a demonic political regime. Quite aside from this being predicated, as we have seen, on a logical non-sequitur, it is not only wrong, but nearly the opposite of the truth.

If what we have said about Barthian theology and Kierkegaardian philosophy is correct, then it is not the rational attitude of liberal theology but the anti-rational fideism of Barth’s and Kierkegaard’s position with the idolatry involved in it which so often lends itself to demonic regimes. From a practical point of view, the the fundamental difficulty of maintaining a Kierkegaardian or Barthian kind of fideism, indeed of maintaining an anti-rational fideism of any sort, is that one has to explain even how the most vile dictator would disagree with it’s basic premise, “revelation.” What dictator would not smile at the fideistic incantation, ‘suspend reason, trust me’?

Kelly Maeshiro is a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary. His work falls into two broad categories: practical and speculative. In his practical work, which draws heavily from political economy, especially Marxist political economy, Kelly is focused on a theological critique of capitalism as a form of religion corresponding to a definite historical form of idolatry. Drawing on Origen, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Niebuhr. His speculative work is focused on the theoretical foundations of rational theology, incorporating elements of both philosophical theology and liberation theology, with the aim of synthesizing the valid claims of both rationalism and radicalism within a rigorous theological framework.


[1] Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, p.468.

[2] Barth, qtd. in Dorrien, op. cit., p.463.

[3] Ibid., p.456.

[4] James Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare?, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, p.132.

[5] Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, p.505.

[6] John Webster, Barth, London: Continuum, 2000, p.26.

[7] Ibid., p.31.

[8] Barth, qtd. in Webster, Barth, p.30.

[9] Barth, qtd. in Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, p.476.

[10] Ibid., p.475.

[11] See Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, p.478.

[12] See Origen, On First Principles, trans. Frederick Crombie, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1895;  Robert Berchmann, From Philo to Origen: Middle Platonism in Transition, Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984.

[13] Webster, Barth, p.77.

[14] Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, p.566.

[15] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p.59.

[16] Quentin Lauer, A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, New York: Fordham University Press, 1976, p.48.

[17] G.W.F. Hegel, Preface to Phenomenology of Spirit, p.43.

[18] Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, pp.282-3.

[19] Ibid., p.467.

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