Friday, March 18, 2011

Not Just Natural Theology for Barth and Brunner: A Problem at the Start

Been speed reading through John W. Hart's Karl Barth Vs. Emil Brunner: The Formation and Dissolution of a Theological Alliance, 1916-1936 the last couple of days. The thesis behind the book is that there were methodological problems between the two theologians before the major break over the doctrine of natural theology.

Now I always understood the break in its historical context (unlike many people who simply think Barth overreacted). Barth's Nein! was motivated in reaction to the German Christians utilization of natural theology in backing up the Nazis as a religious event (this is all around the early 1903s in Germany). In some sense, Brunner's essay was simply bad timing and that is why Barth pounced on it. Nevertheless, one should not think it was just this context that led Barth to utterly despise natural theology. He already came to the conclusion that it was bankrupt and in opposition toward his theology of revelation.

Hart's book shows how Barth had always suspected that Brunner did not really understand him and that they were always somewhat at odds. One example is over the handling of Schleiermacher (who I have learned to respect as a thinker on his own merits). Brunner attacks Schleiermacher in a triumphalist sort of way. Barth, on the other hand, has a weird love/hate relationship with Schleiermacher's thought, but loves the man. One of the arguments between Barth and Brunner are over Schleiermacher's sermons. Barth says you will not understand him really without diving into his sermons, but Brunner does not buy this option.

The other thing featured in the book is just how needy Brunner is and how Barth is a little bugged by it. Here is great quote by Barth: "Do I have to write a commentary to every postcard? Dear friend: take everything in humor and innocence in which it was meant. And above all: don't take me-and yourself-so bloody seriously."

Finally, I actually read "natural" theology through a more poststructuralist mode. In short, there is no such thing as "natural" for us the human viewers. Everything is seen through symbolization. When I get to this part of the book I will post on what I consider Barth's aversion to both natural theology and humanism-which I am currently trying to find links in Zizek's thought.

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