Negative Theology And Its Problems: Barth And Marion, Lecture 3 (Johannes Zachhuber)

The following is the third lecture in an eight-lecture series. 

I have described in last week’s lecture how, during the 19th century, some serious challenges arose to theological thinking about God. I have not included in this account cases of pure materialism or atheism which consist in little more than a denial of traditional claims about the existence of God. The four major figures I looked at (i.e. Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche) all have this in common that, while criticising some crucial elements of traditional theology, they can be read as directing Christians away from theological misconceptions and towards a more appropriate, somehow purer conceptualisation of their notion of God.

At least since the Reformation, European Christianity had been familiar with the idea that it was part of the job of the theologian to expose and correct long-standing errors that had crept into theological usage as a consequence of neglect, of pagan influence, or simply as a result of human sinfulness. This idea of such a cleansing or purifying task of theology is a major driver in modern theological developments.

Sometimes, modernising theologians are introduced as though they had been particularly keen to betray the essence of Christianity to its opponents or, at least, as a kind of appeasement politicians who believe that the appetite of the Beast can be stilled by feeding it with a limited amount of traditional doctrine without seeing that each single concession will inevitably make it more aggressive. I am not denying that there may be some justification for this criticism, but more importantly it misses out on the motivation behind much of modernist reforming theology, which is the willingness to accept that the pre-eminent critics of Christianity point out something that exists within it and should, in Christianity’s self-interest be excised from it.

In fact, this interest exists not only in liberal or modernising theologians, but is a driving force behind more conservative theologies as well. I shall, today, look at two thinkers in particular, who in many ways are quite different: Karl Barth and Jean-Luc Marion. The former lived mostly during the former half of the century, the latter is still alive and working; the former is Swiss and Reformed, the latter French and Catholic; the former is a dyed-in-the-wool theologian, the latter by training a philosopher.

In spite of these differences, they offer a similar reply to some of the challenges I described last week. This reply can, in a first attempt, be characterised as the answer of ‘negative theology.’ It is then taking up a long-established tradition within Christian God-talk. Yet we shall see very soon that the appropriation of this tradition (which in Barth is largely unacknowledged while Marion is happy to see himself as part of it) within modern theology has its own problems and ultimately its modern context may tell us more about the concerns of both these authors than their ties to more traditional lines of Christian theology.

Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God in His Dialectical Phase

We start with Barth and look at him here primarily in his early role as the major figure in a movement that is often called ‘dialectical theology’ (roughly from 1918 until 1930). The word ‘dialectical’ is here used idiosyncratically: it refers neither to Plato’s intellectual technique nor to that of Hegel, but merely to the tendency within this theological movement to emphasise to the extreme the distance between God and creation, between human beings and their creator.

Barth stated this view categorically in the preface to the second edition of his landmark commentary on Romans, ‘If I have a system it is limited to a recognition of what Kierkegaard called the ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ between time and eternity, and to my regarding this as possessing negative as well as positive significance: ‘God is in heaven and you art on earth.’ This in a nutshell is the foundation of dialectical theology – that theology ought to start from the recognition of (to use another famous Barthian phrase) the ‘infinite qualitative distance’ between God and world.

We can easily see, first, that this is an important attempt to think about God in the 20th century; second, how this responds to some of the critical challenges you heard about last week; thirdly, that this harks back to the more traditional problem I discussed in my very first lecture as the transcendence/immanence fault-line.

First, it is clear that Barth’s major concern is God. One might say that, in spite of all the changes and all the developments of his thinking over his rather extended academic career, this is the one remaining cornerstone of his theological thinking. He had been brought up in a theological atmosphere where most of his theological teachers were willing to grant to Kantian philosophy the impossibility of thinking about God; the consequence they would draw from that was that theology had to engage instead with the human basis of religion. Barth came to disagree with this approach to theology radically and fundamentally.

Theology, he would urge, is not theology if it does not think God. We can see here, incidentally, the issue I had brought up last week as the major challenge from Hegel’s philosophy. Barth probably wasn’t aware of Hegel during his early, dialectical phase, and when he read him he realised that he had not done full justice to his stated aim of thinking God. Why not? By merely emphasising that God was different he had in a way again let go of him. We shall come back to this problem.

Second, for the moment it is more important that even the dialectical Barth saw thinking about God as the task of theology. Yet the way he conceived of that task was almost entirely formed by the terms of Kant’s critical epistemology. Barth completely agreed with the emphasis of the Critique of Pure Reason on divine transcendence and the impossibility to reach God through the means of our own cognition. Consider the following quotation from Romans:

Being what we are, human beings in the world, we cannot hope to have escaped the ‘religious possibility.’ […] We may storm from one room into another, but not out of the house into the open. We may understand, however, that even this final, inescapable possibility [i.e. religion] is, even in its most daring, most acute, strongest, “most impossible” variants a human possibility…

There are three statements contained in this quotation, and these may be said to be pure Kantianism: first, human beings cannot get beyond the limit that is set to their cognitive capacities. Secondly, we therefore have to confine ourselves to the realm of experience. But thirdly, we are able at least to appreciate that this is our situation, we are, that is, capable of an epistemological critique of our religion. Barth’s theological reappraisal of the need to bring God back into the centre of theology is, then, in its first form strongly influenced by Kant’s epistemic challenge to theology.

And it is precisely this Kantianism that stands epistemologically behind Barth’s celebrated (or notorious) theological critique of religion. Religion, for him, is any human attempt to cross the border between the realm of our own experience and the transcendent realm of the divine. This is an attempt that must fail, and for this reason revelation, God’s own intervention to bridge this gap, is the only alternative. Barth saw here a stark contrast:

One cannot say of the obviously existent religious capacity of man that it is, as it were, the general form of human cognition, which then receives its proper and true contents in revelation and in faith. On the contrary, we are dealing with a contradiction: within religion the human being rebels against, and cuts himself off from, revelation by obtaining for himself a substitute for it, by taking for himself what should be given to him by God through revelation.

It is quite interesting to reflect at this point the relevance of the Kantian challenge for theology. It is often seen as encouraging a hyper-secular theology that avoids any reference to God. Barth’s dialectical theology, however, is a good example of its potential for precisely the opposite conclusion. To emphasise the utter transcendence of God underlines the need for his revelation. This is Barth’s theological bottom line. It comes out in his life-log obsession with what he called natural theology (once again, you may remember my mentioning this in first week: Barth thought this was the invention of the anti-Christ).

Third, there can be but little doubt that Barth’s dialectical theology ushered in a new wave of theological debate about the transcendence-immanence problem in Christian theology. Barth’s own position, at least initially, is as clear as anybody could want it to be: the task is to think of God as the other, and the temptation is to identify him with anything that is part of creation. We should not forget, of course, that a major factor in his own development was the experience of WWI and war theology with its uncanny willingness to employ biblical and theological ideas to bolster the national war effort. Barth felt that the only antidote against this was a complete ban on any such use of the notion of God. He came to realise later on that there were ethical and social issues that made theological intervention desirable or even necessary, and that not least for this reason his ‘ban’ needed qualification.

The question arises of course whether not Barth’s early theology is simply a new version of negative theology. Interestingly, Barth himself denied that. In his important paper ‘The word of God and the task of the ministry,’ he addresses the dilemma of the preacher who is charged to preach the word of God while at the same time understanding that this must be impossible for any human being. Barth then goes on to sketch two traditional strategies of avoiding this problem. One was orthodox doctrine, the other ‘mysticism.’

The former relies on the assumption that revelation has made available to human beings a certain set of doctrines which can then be used as though they contained knowledge of God. Yet this, according to Barth fails, because it does not sufficiently recognise the sovereignty and otherness of God. In traditional dogmatic theology the living God becomes, as it were, locked up in a prison of folio-bound volumes.

The mystical approach fails as well, Barth argues. The reason for this is that while it claims to be purely negative, in reality it is making positive statements. There is a way, Barth thinks, that the mystic believes that while doctrine may fail to deliver us knowledge of God his own religious experience can. Thus, he makes the same mistake as the dogmatician did, only at the individualistic level. He believes access to God is interior and private, but the point is, according to Barth, that there is no man-made access to God, but that God himself needs to open up to us, and that this has happened in revelation through Jesus Christ.

Is what Barth here criticises the same as negative theology? I think we can safely say that Barth’s picture of a mystic who insists on private knowledge of God may be truer for some popular forms of 20th century mystical piety (consider the people who like to buy books about medieval mysticism today!) than for the tradition of negative theology. The apophatic tradition would insist that all conceivable knowledge of God is denied, not just the public and official theology of Church doctrine.

Barth’s own rejection of the mystical path to God then doesn’t really count against the view that his dialectical theology is really negative theology. We see clearer where the difference lies, if we remember again Barth’s emphasis on revelation. What he means by this is not, of course, any revelation God could have given to humankind, but more specifically, his one revelation in Jesus Christ. It is important for Barth that this is the only way to God. He rejects negative theology insofar as he thinks it contains even the germ of the possibility that God could be reached in any way other than through Christ.

It is this element of his thinking that offers some justification for his rejection of the ‘mysticism’ label. For Barth seems to think that the full and bleak truth about the godlessness of this world can only be faced in the light of divine revelation. Only through knowledge of the Christ event are we at all enabled to confront the radical dichotomy of God and world under the condition of sin.

This is, for him, why Feuerbach and Nietzsche are, at the same time, right and wrong. They are right in that they see that a world without revelation is the world of nihilism, governed by the will to power; they are wrong not only by not accepting the truth of revelation, but also by failing to see that the full force of their own insights is inevitably missed in an atheistic perspective.

This is because the utter horror of a world without God cannot be borne by human beings on their own. It can only be perceived where there is at least a glimmer of hope, an indication that this separation may not be the final word. Much more than that is not offered to the reader of Barth’s early works.

Barth’s early position then is negative theology only in a limited sense. Barth agrees that language about God is ultimately impossible and to some extent uses negative predicates to press home this point. Yet his use of the tradition of negative theology is ultimately controlled by his response to modern challenges to theology. He felt that the force of the secular argument could only be countered by introducing a strict juxtaposition between natural theology and revelation. Natural theology was any attempt by human beings to ascend to the level of the divine. This, according to him, is bound to fail dramatically. Only God himself can give us a glimpse of his own being. Such a dichotomy, such an either-or is unheard of in pre-Kantian theology.

The tradition of negative theology still presupposes what has often been called the ‘great chain of being,’ a continuous hierarchy of visible and invisible beings connecting our own world with the abode of God. To know the latter was impossible because he existed at the far end of this chain, he was extremely far removed and therefore inaccessible. Barth, however, presupposes a world that is, to use the word famously coined by Max Weber, disenchanted. It contains nothing transcendent other than God, but he is precisely not part of the world of our experience. Within this worldview Barth’s acceptance of the fundamental premise of negative theology, that we cannot know God, leads him to a radical dichotomy of natural theology vs. revelation.

Jean-Luc Marion’s Postmodern Version of Negative Theology

The same difference comes out equally clearly, I think, in a more recent contribution to the debate about God. Jean-Luc Marion’s book God Without Being is unashamedly Barthian, but unlike Barth, Marion is quite happy to see himself in the tradition of negative theology. We shall see, however, that in his case the same qualifications apply.

Marion’s background is, in many ways, very different to that of the early Barth. Not least is he a late 20th century figure writing against the backdrop of postmodernism. His work engages some of the leading philosophical thinkers within the postmodern movement, notably Jacques Derrida who has, however, politely declined Marion’s theological interpretation of his ideas. As a matter of fact, Marion himself is overall more a philosopher than a theologian. The majority of his books are on strictly philosophical topics; he sees himself as contributing to the phenomenologist school that has its origins in the years after WWI and has, over the past twenty-five years, seen an impressive revival in France and the US. Marion inhabits both these worlds and has held, for many years, university appointments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Marion’s book is rather complex, so, for the purposes of this lecture, I focus on what may be the most important strand for us. In many ways, its centre is Marion’s distinction between what he calls ‘idol’ and ‘icon.’ The two types of image, typical for the Hellenistic world on the one hand, Christian Byzantium on the other, become for him paradigmatic for two ways of interacting with the world and with God. The idol is essentially beautiful, and because of its beauty it attracts our vision. It becomes the focal point of all attention, the object of admiration and even of worship. This is not least because we rediscover ourselves in it; in this sense the idol is also reflecting back to ourselves who and what we are.

All this would not necessarily be bad; the problem of course is that the idol is supposed to be an image of something else; in reality it is anything but. To think therefore that idols are a way for us to approach anything beyond them, that they are signs pointing to reality transcending them, is a tragic mistake. Rather, they only reflect back to ourselves what we projected into them. At the same time, because of their beauty and attractiveness, they are constantly and inevitably mistaken for the reality they are supposed to represent – this is precisely why they become ‘idols’ in the pejorative sense of Jewish-Christian parlance. They thus obscure in a systematic way the difference between themselves and the things they supposedly represent, they make it, as Marion puts it, invisable.

And yet, for Marion this is not really the ‘fault’ of those images but the problem lies with ourselves. Ultimately, idol production is something we do habitually because we are dominated by the will to power. Through our identification of idols, which are essentially our own projection, with reality we are able to govern it. By producing idols we take possession of the world around us and also, ultimately, of God.

Clearly, while Marion here speaks about images what he has in mind is not restricted to the realm of art. The most pervasive and the most dangerous idols certainly in our Western culture and, more specifically for philosophy and theology, are concepts, ideas. Like those artistic representations of the divine they are our own projections that allow domination of the world by subduing the unruly, unclassified plurality of things.

It becomes obvious at this point how neatly Marion’s typology fits in with some of the major strands of 19th and 20th century critique of religion. Feuerbach, after all, had argued specifically that God is merely a human projection and, we might say, in a Kantian epistemology he could actually never be anything else than that insofar as he is an object of knowledge. And for Nietzsche, the various gods of human culture are all essentially expressions of the will to power; notably, this rings true for the ‘moral God’ the production of ressentiment in Platonism and Christianity.

Marion (like Barth before him) would reply to each of those that they are fully right – and yet wrong. They are right in critiquing what passes for religion; they are right in rejecting traditional philosophical and theological notions of God by pointing out that they are quite different from what they pretend to be. Yet they are wrong in thinking that by showing this they have actually removed God – in a sense they have alerted Christians to something they ought to have known all along had they only read their Bible – namely that these supposed gods are idols and that Christians are not allowed to worship idols.

Yet this is not all. For Christianity, according to Marion, has also developed a theological tradition that is not idolic and that needs to be defended in the face of the dominance of different traditions, but also now in the face of the radical critique of religion. This alternative tradition Marion finds ultimately in apophaticism and especially in the pseudo-Dionysius; yet it may be crucial that he refers to it primarily through another term taken from the realm of art – the icon.

Unlike the idol, the icon is not ‘beautiful’ in an obvious sense, and it therefore does not in the same way attract and captivate our attention. Rather, its aim is it to become transparent for something else, to direct our attention to something that is beyond it, that is not contained in it. It does not make the invisible visible, for this is impossible, but gives room for our appreciation of something that is not contained in or represented by it.

We see that Marion, unlike Barth, is happy to be associated with the mystical tradition. Yet ultimately, he is much closer to Barth than to those pre-modern theologians. Both presuppose the critical impetus of 19th century thought, from Kant to Nietzsche. Both therefore, think of the world as per se devoid of transcendence. For both, there is an alternative between a bottom-up and a top-down approach to God, which arguably it had not been previously.

What we then find in the early Barth and now in Marion is a 20th century, modern version of the tradition of negative theology. Both emphasise God’s transcendence as a means to escape the charge of anthropomorphism. Yet the question of their relation to the theological tradition is not the only one that is relevant.

Equally important is the question of how satisfactory this line of defence is? True, it provides an argument against the charge that religion is merely anthropomorphic by urging that anthropomorphic images or concepts of God are fully objectionable from a theological point of view. Yet what is the next step? If there is no way to move from this ‘negative’ task towards an affirmative one, from a critique of inadequate notions of God to an intellectual engagement with him, then this would only restate the case of the critics in different words.

For, is not ultimately the difference very small, between a denial of the existence of God and a defence of it which, however, excludes for all practical purposes the possibility of an experience of him? It is with this doubtful question that negative theology leaves us at this point.

Johannes Zachhuber is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford. He is a Fellow of Trinity College. He earned his DPhil from Oxford in 1998 and obtained a habilitation in systematic theology at Humboldt University, Berlin, in 2011. His areas of specialisation include the history of Christian thought in late antiquity and the nineteenth century; secularisation theories; and religion and politics. He has authored or co-authored five books and edited or co-edited nine. He has written many articles and book chapters in all his research specialisations.

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