Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Assumptions And Prior Commitments: Reading Barth's Special Ethics I

To those who understand anything about theology, to admit I'm reading III,4 of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics in a desultory way might seem, at the very least, an odd statement.  After all, would one confess to reading Crime and Punishment in a lackadaisical fashion?  Being offhand in perusing Sense and Sensibility?  The fact is, however, it has never been easy to find snatches of time to do more than read a few pages at a time of any particular book. The benefit in regards reading Barth, however, is it gives me time to consider what I've read.  Neither casual nor concentrated reading render much in the way of genuine reflection on some works.  Plodding can be a help.

This and the next post are little more than quotes, offered to echo points I've made many times, but with Barth's inimitable style and pizzazz.  In this case, at the beginning of Section 54, on the special ethics regarding the relationship between man and woman, and especially as it relates to matters of marriage and human sexuality, Barth begins straightaway making clear there are definite theological presuppositions to what is to follow, presuppositions without which the entire enterprise of theological ethics (in this, as in any area) a hopeless muddle.  He has already made this point many times and places throughout the massive volumes he's already written.  That he finds the need to do so again can only mean, to this reader, that the point cannot be stressed enough: We don't do theology and it's related discipline of Biblical exegesis, like children who have never encountered something new.  As members of the Church, we are already in a variety of relationships - with God, with our fellow Christians, with the life and history of the Church as it has existed and will, we hope and believe, continue to exist - that determine our reading, interpretation, and understanding.  These prior realities shape must shape our reading and understanding, or we're just babbling, making of any particular passage of Scripture or doctrine of the church an idol, rather than doing our work thoughtfully, mindful of the grace we have already received and in which we are doing the work of theology.

I've made the same point many times myself over the years.  You can't read the Bible or talk about theology outside of these realities; yet, many people continue to believe they can point to various verses of the Bible, whether they have to do with human sexuality, or marriage, or social life, or whatever, and repeat them as if their meaning were simple and clear enough outside the larger framework within which they need to be considered.  Not just historical, mind you.  Historical criticism and its variants are only useful if done within the even more concise and mindful and faithful understanding that doing Christian theology means doing Christian theology; that is, doing it as people of faith.

So, anyway, without further ado, here's the Doctor from Basel on doing Christian sexual ethics as a Christian.  I will attempt, by the way, to correct the sometimes confusing tendency Barth has to reduce references to humanity and God using the male pronoun:
That [human beings live] in response to God [the] Creator was the first of these lines, and in veiw of this we have attempted in the previous section to understand the command of of as the command to fulfill this responsibility and therefore to be free before God and for [God].  A second principle with regard to {humanity's] being is now to be distinguished from the first, namely, that [humanity], in and with . . . creation, and therefore as [humanity] may exist as [humanity], is destined to be the covenant-partner of God, and that this determination characterises [humanity's] being as being in encounter with . . . fellow [human beings].  {This] ordination to be in covenant relations with God has its counterpart in the fact this . . . humanity, the special mode of [our] being, is by nature and essence a being in fellow-humanity.  And so we must view the command of God the Creator with special reference to this natural manner of [human] existence.  As God calls [us] to [God], as [God] summons [human beings] to serve [God], [God] also addresses [humanity] concerning [our] vocation to be a covenant-partner with [God], and therefore concerning this natural correspondence, concerning . . . humanity.  And that means in concrete terms that [God] directs [us] to [other people].  [God} wills that [our] being should fulfill itself in the encounter, the relationship, the togetherness of I and Thou.  [God] commands [us], invites [us] and challenges [us] not merely to allow . . . humanity as fellow humanity to be [our] nature, but to affirm and exercise it in [our] own decision, in action and omission.  [God] commands [us] to be what [we are].  But this means that [God] takes [human beings] so seriously in [our] vocation to be in covenant with [God] that [God] calls [us] to freedom in fellowship, i.e., to freedom in fellowship with others.  [God] calls [human beings] to find [ourselves] by affirming the other, to know joy by comforting the other, and self-expression by honouring the other.  We have now to understand the divine command as the call to this freedom - the invitation to humanity.  Humanity, the characteristic and essential mode of [our] being, is in its root fellow-humanity.  Humanity which is not fellow-humanity is inhumanity. For it cannot reflect but only contradict the determination of [humanity] to be God's covenant partner, nor can the God is no Deus solitarius but Deus triunus,  God in relationship, be mirrored in the homo solitarius.  As God offers [us] humanity and therefore freedom in fellowship, God summons [us] to prove and express [ourselves] as the image fo God - for as such [God] has created [us].  This is the deepest and final basis on the form of the divine command which we have not to consider.-CD, III, $, pp.116-117.
As usual with Barth, he buries the lede.  Which is why that entire paragraph had to be transcribed to demonstrate the point. 

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