Bruce McCormack on Why Barth is Orthodox and Modern: 2 Parts
As I begin work on my Comprehensive Exams, one of the main figures under review is the work of Princeton's Barthian scholar Bruce McCormack. His work has been crucial in my own understanding of Barth's theology. One of the main things I am studying is the historiography of Barth's interpreters.
One term McCormack challenges about Barth's interpretation is the label "neo-orthodox". This term seems to be the one given to Barth and other diverse thinkers like Tillich, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer by North American readers trying to place these figures somewhere between conservative (or orthodox) and liberal (or modern) theology. What this term does not take into account is that Barth's theology is "working under the conditions of modernity" or that his is a "variant" within the framework of modernity. For example, McCormack makes the point that many take it for granted that Barth works with a Kantian epistemology and a Hegelian ontology (while adding his own theological spin).
Modernity, for McCormack, is the time period in Western society when a "historical consciousness" was on the rise. This went along with Kant's critique of pure reason and its limits and the eventual rise of the romantic movement. What this means is that the turn to history and the social-cultural setting as context meant the rejection or at least the suspicion of classical metaphysics (including Christian ones). This is meant to include the reasons for natural theology.
From as early as Barth's Romans, Barth's actualistic understanding of revelation (dialectic of unveiling/veiling) and then ontology followed a Kantian framework (based, for example, on the neo-Kantianism of the early 20th century from thinkers like Hermann Cohen). Barth's actualism moved him to historicize the being-act of God in his doctrine of election. McCormack writes that "God's eternal election of himself to be God 'for us' in Jesus Christ is an act in which God constitutes his being as a being for historical existence." Here Barth is close to Hegel except that "this act of Self-determination was a free act on the part of God, not a necessary one."
What McCormack illustrates is that Barth worked under a modern framework with his basis in history, ontology and rejection of classical metaphysics. Even when he wrote against Schleiermacher, Kant and Hegel it was on the level of modern concepts and not a total postmodern rejection. I am finding that the more I understand the 19th century thinkers the more I understand Barth. As Barth warned in his later thought, even though he once said No to the19th century, one needs to understand what went awry and not be totally dismissive as seen in some conservative or postmodern readings. I think one of the real weaknesses of American theology is the utter lack of comprehension of modern thought especially in Kant, Hegel, and Schelling (which is why Zizek is important in his rehabilitation of them). Some attempt to make the jump to the postmodern not knowing what the postmodern thinkers are even contending against.
One of my goals in life is to write a historiography book based on this reading of Barth which includes a substantial input from the German idealists, some German-Jewish thinkers of the late 19th century and Zizek.
In the next part I will deal with McCormack's definition of the "Orthodox".