Thursday, March 31, 2011

Adorno and Potential Questions for Barth's Positivism

The influence of the nineteenth century thinker Soren Kierkegaard was extremely important for figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. Barth uses Kierkegaard's thought, which places a humongous gap between God and humanity, as a context for speaking about revelation coming in from on high to interrupt and judge human knowledge. Now the dynamic attitude of this is like Theodor Adorno's concept of constellation where critical thought allows sudden insights of different phenomena; Adorno was famously pessimistic about the rationalization behind much human thought. However, Adorno's has a immanent critique that would actually distrust Barth's move (see Brittain's Adorno and Theology).

Because, for Adorno, any talk of God as a wholly other betrays the divinity as an abyss. In short, Barth and other dialectical theologians escape from history and concrete analysis by keeping the traditional terms of theology intact. This even led Walter Benjamin to claim that Barth is hiding behind the language of Kierkegaard's existentialism to thus return to the "enchanted circle" of idealistic thought in the language of a positive revelation.

On the other hand, Kenneth Surin in his The Turnings of Darkness and Light (see pages 180–200) in a chapter entitled "Contempus Mundi and the disenchantment of the world: Bonhoeffer's 'Discipline of the Secret' and Adorno's 'Strategy of Hibernation'," sees Barth's move as a potential positive especially against Bonhoeffer's move to see a connection between revelation and saved creation. Barth, of course, sees a disjunction.

Surin claims Barth's theological deconstruction of human thought matches up with Adorno's historico-philosophical deconstruction. Adorno's negative dialectics keeps a diastasis between reality as it seems and what its potentiality is which fits with Barth's own diastasis with revelation versus the world. Surin notes how Adorno had criticized or would even critique Barth's somewhat naive understanding of positive revelation, yet Barth's diastasis makes Barth a thinker of suspicion in line with Adorno and actually against Bonhoeffer's somewhat ambiguous and naive correspondence theory.

Still, in light of this study and others, I am really wrestling with the "positive revelation" from transcendence that touches down here. I am mulling over critiquing this idea in some way through Delueze or some other thinker especially as it regards Barth's ethics.


  1. Hello,

    Just stumbled across your blog after a quick Google search on Adorno and Theology.

    Great post! I share your same questions around positive revelation. I'm curious: have you made any headway with Delueze/Barth?

    For my part, I find Barth wholly unsatisfying in this regard and Adorno has been helpful in highlighting the problems of positive revelation (though, I look forward to reading Surin's book - thanks for referencing). But this is probably because I'm more in the camp of the Nouvelle theologians, which seem to focus more on mediation vs. revelation across some divine abyss.

    At any rate, thanks for the post. The blog as a whole looks great as well.



  2. Robb, thanks for the kind words. Yeah, most Deleuze readers that I have spoke to have serious issues with Barth. So I am trying to steer clear of that for the time being and focus more on Barth's Hegelian roots to challenge his reading of Hegel in the light of Zizek and Gillian Rose. Within that project I might look at those thinkers who challenge Deleuze's reading of Hegel as well. I think Deleuze has great promise...