, , ,

So I’ve finally gotten around to reading the posts from the Barth Blog Conference, and I was especially intrigued by the essay by Paul Dafydd Jones on Barth’s relationship to the Zizek/Milbank never-ending cash-cow of a debate, and Adam Kotsko’s excellent, all-cards-on-the-table, “let’s pick sides and do this” response, “A Modest Plea for One-Sidedness.” Since you should probably read the two essays themselves (which will only take around three hours), I’ll simply summarize by saying that Jones concludes that neither Zizek nor Milbank is quite “monstrous” enough in their Christology – precisely the place where Barth presumably is (i.e. in Barth, then, the determinative term is the person of Christ, whereas for Zizek and Milbank it is Hegelian dialecticism and neo-Platonic participatory ontology, respectively). In response Adam rightly points out that the negative charge of “pre-existing conceptual schemes” is a spurious one, as absolutely anything bound by the parameters of history and thought may fall under this charge. Kotsko then states his case for the Zizek/Hegelian view clearly as follows:

“The upshot of this position is that God really puts Godself at stake in the Incarnation, that God holds nothing of Godself in reserve—a point that the doctrine of the Trinity, insofar as it has often winked and nudged so as to imply that only the Father is really God, has historically obscured, as Žižek rightly points out. Even so, its logic has led, fitfully but inexorably, to the Hegelian position that the divine kenosis is real and irreversible, affecting everything that God was and is, which means that unlimited divine sovereignty and plenitude simply cannot be maintained in light of the cross.”

At the very least, both sides are correct as to the methodological issue: while debate is most certainly possible on this terrain (similar terms and a partially overlapping field of resources and traditions is more than enough for shared communication), these two sides are incommensurable at this very point. Either the inauguration of the person of Jesus Christ as God himself is an irrevocable and radical act on behalf of God that affects God as such a radical change would affect any other being, or else it doesn’t. For the latter, God can be salvaged from this radical discontinuation by the logos asarkos, or the immanent trinity, or a modified doctrine of immutability, or any other host of conceptual moves which have been the trademark skill of theologians for centuries. For the former, however, a different principle is at stake: namely, the univocity of being. What makes Kotsko’s position so scandalous for the Christian tradition, what is this incommensurability in a nutshell, is that God is affected ontologically by that which is outside Godself, a theological exo-relation, a risk. The real question therefore is: where does Barth land on this axis? Unfortunately, my answer is: both sides.

Barth played on both teams. In much of CD I/1,2 and IV, Barth seems to suggest continuity with the classical Christian tradition regarding the nature of the trinitarian relationship (as has been duly pointed out by Hunsinger and Jones and others). However, others have suggested that Barth instead identifies the immanent trinity with the economic, producing a historicized account of God much like that of Hegel (hence, the “little bit of Hegeling” to which Barth admitted). Kotsko even hints at this in the comments:

“I’m saying that the cross represents God’s No to God (as indeed Barth’s doctrine of election would suggest!) and that the Hegelian reading of Christianity maintains that this has to be a full and irrevocable Yes, that there can’t be some “extra” God hiding behind the scenes that isn’t affected by this No. The Yes of resurrection would then continue to be a No to God, a No to a transcendent big Other or master signifier, thereby making it a Yes to humanity and this world.”

So does Barth allow for “risk” in the nature of God, conflating the immanent and economic trinities, or does he wiggle his way around the radical and become the great expositor of the tradition? Well, again, both. Barth was, like anyone who might compose a 6 million word series of tomes, inconsistent. At one point, Kotsko points out that theological history tends to revolve around points of tension and contradiction. Hence, the importance of understanding Jew-Gentile relations in Paul’s writings, and the trinitarian discourses of the fourth century. He recommends admitting to the obvious contradictions between the dogmatic positions of the biblical authors concerning the nature of God (let alone everything else), and to simply move on, do it better.  Might we do well by admitting the same of Barth? Can Barth be seen, much like Hegel, to have a disunified progeny? Much like the Young Hegelians, are there not then Young Barthians, those who (much like Altizer) self-identify as students of Barth, yet consider themselves to be moving past Barth as much as they are moving with him?

In a less than recent post, I argued that we should utilize Meillassoux’s understanding of necessity and facticity to reconceptualize God out of the role of the big Other. Assuming that the existence of God is factical rather than metaphysically necessary, and thereby importing the univocity of being into direct theological discourse, we can work out a somewhat unique position in the doctrine of God which is as indebted to Hegel as it is Barth (not to mention others). Like Kotsko, I think Barth’s doctrine of election suggests exactly this kind of a move, whether or not he himself saw to its fulfilled potential. Therefore, my plea is for one-sidedness with respect to Barth: either appoint Barth as a prince of the Christian tradition, the principal expositor of an ultimately unified faith, or engage him as a great teacher with unbounded potential for a radical, modern theology and politics, needing only students who would dare challenge him on his own turf regardless of the boundaries of ortho- and hetero-doxy.  I’ll take the side of the latter.

Post-script: My master’s thesis engages this very topic using Zizek’s reformulation of Lacanian sexuation qua metaphysical doctrine as a tool for interpreting Barth’s doctrine of election in the aforementioned terms. In essence, this involves understanding the being of God within the bounds of Lacanian Incompleteness where the Christian tradition generally tends (and this is a very weak claim) to necessitate the wholeness of the constitutive exception. Hopefully I’ll get around to posting bits and pieces as the blogosphere works through these issues.