Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Get Your Mind Out Of The Gutter: Reading Barth's Special Ethics II

As with the previous post, I found a marvelous paragraph just a bit further on that makes clear Barth has little interest either in moralizing or moralizers when it comes to sexual ethics.  On the contrary, after going after his favorite target, Emil Brunner, for overemphasizing the role of sexual ethics within the larger topic of Christian Ethics in general, Barth goes on to say a few things about how we should approach the topic.  Again, a point I've made several times over the years, but has yet to sink in with at least some of those out there who continue to believe there's something especially horrid about human beings having sex (even sex that's approved of).  Also, the "misspellings" of "connection" and "center" appear in the text, translated as they were by British doctoral candidates:
In this connexion, a definite warning must be issued on this particular question of the relationship of male and female, not in opposition to Brunner but in opposition to a widespread opinion.  It is disastrous to suppose, as many,do, that the word morality should be employed almost exclusive, or with an arbitrary and painful over-emphasis, to denote what is considered good and right in the relationship between man and woman, or with even greater restriction in what is called sexual intercourse.  Naturally we have to enquire with the greatest attention what is both generally and specifically commanded and forbidden, obedient  and disobedient, in this sphere.  And the matter has its own dignity and importance.  But we should not act as if God's command began and ceased with what may be included under the seventh commandment in its broader or narrower sense.  If we really wish to do justice to this point we should not treat it as the punctum puncti, being obsessed by it and measuring both itself and all other points primarily and abstractly by it as it were the focus of the whole question of obedience.  The open or secret excitement and agitation with which we usually think and speak of this matter must be quieted.  I do not conceal the fact that I say this with special reference to what is for various reasons a particularly bad habit of man minister and their wives.  The focus of the question of obedience is that of [our] responsibility to the command of God . . . .  From this center there are radii in every direction and therefor in this too.  but none of these radii, let alone of the points on the periphery reached by these radii, can be itself a centre.  This is equally true of the point to which we now refer.  Nor is it only a formal error to concentrate on this question.  A special concern for this matter may well be an evasion of other and much more urgently relevant aspects of the divine command.  This preoccupation may well be only a convenient possibility of justifying oneself to oneself, to others and finally to God in view of a prior or subsequent innocence on this score.  And even worse the preoccupation may well be a radical transgression of this special aspect the commandment.  So much secret dissatisfaction with one'  own conduct in this sphere, so much vexation at defeats which cannot be reversed and seem to cry out for revenge, so much indirect indemnification for virtue unwillingly maintained, so much repressed but in point of fact extremely virulently lust, can find vent in this preoccupation.  Once can be properly concerned about sexual ethics only when one has a clear head and a firm heart.  Given a clear head and firm heart, sex will cease to be isolated and made a false absolute, either in theory or in practice.  It will be understood in its vital connexion with the real centre and with other aspects of the divine command and of the obedience we owe it.  Therefore let it be said as a definite warning that the [person] who in reading or hearing ethics begins to pay attention only at this point incurs the suspicion of being aa doubtful character.  And we can only advise or appeal to [one such] to drop the matter for the time being and to consider how [one] might best come by the clear head and firm heart which will enable [such a one] to give it proper consideration.  A diversion from sexual ethics to the point of departure of all ethics and therefore to God and oneself is perhaps a fundamental requirement for many and even the majority of [human beings] in this matter of sexual ethics.-CD, III, $, pp. 118-119.

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