Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the dilemma of modernity: Too much (religious) community, or not enough?

By Marcia Pally

Posted Mon 14 Jun 2021, 10:42am

Karl Barth (1886–1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) witnessed some of modernity’s worst moments — Nazism and the Holocaust — and may have something to say to our present moment. 

https://www.abc.net.au/religion/barth-bonhoeffer-and-the-dilemma-of-modernity/13386982. 

Among the favourite activities of modernity is the critique of modernity. Are we not modern enough — have we not rid ourselves sufficiently of the trappings of the past which maintain racism, sexism, xeno-, homo-, islamo-, and other phobias? Or are we tragically over-modern, having lost community and faith — those things which, in the past, made human life worth living? Is to be modern, as Joshua Mauldin writes in his new book on Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics, “to understand oneself as having progressed beyond the short comings of the past”, or is modernity to be “judged negatively in comparison to previous ages” and “seen not as the beginning of an ever-progressing, glorious future, but rather as a fall from grace”?

The question is an old one — it has been with us since the competing ideas of, say, Jean Bodin and John Locke, and undergirds much of the culture wars, as well as the gridlock and polarisation of contemporary politics, which run deeper than left-right debates. We can’t get where we’re going if we’re divided about where we want to go. Flight from the past, or more of the past? Each option has left-wing and right-wing iterations.

Along with belief in modernity’s progress — which runs through the works of Vico, Voltaire, Kant, Comte, Hegel, Marx, the positivists, and on to neo-liberal economics — emerged the idea that if anything is amiss in modern life it’s the vestiges of the past, when people were under the boot of an oppressive crown and benighted church, both encasing individuals in stultifying communities that hobbled innovation and kept folks in line by top-down controls and conformity pressures which, if abrogated, led (quite literally) to witch trials. We may think of Nietzsche as the harshest critic of past “slave” mentalities, faiths, and their enforcers.

But even as Kant was writing his optimistic call to independence of the mind and to each person’s autonomous moral code, Johann Georg Hamann, Kant’s friend and critic, insisted that people don’t live solely but in overlapping communities, faith-based and otherwise, which inform language, values, worldview, expectations, and desires. The Romantics followed Hamann’s suit, as did critics of runaway capitalism, mourning the loss of the common good, and of “moral decline”. Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Stanley Hauerwas, and, most recently, Brad Gregory may serve as beacons of this view since mid-century. Owing to the long tenure of the more-modernity call to progress, the corrective call to community and tradition has received a great deal of attention over the last five decades.

On this view, if anything is amiss in modern life, it’s what Charles Taylor calls “the malaise of immanence” — the loss of communities, especially communities of faith, that teach values and the importance of the common good, offer a sense of belonging, dignity, purpose, and worth, and provide both aid and the political wherewithal to fight the greedy and powerful.

Joshua Mauldin summarises the situation like this: “For Nietzsche, modern ethics is too close to Christianity; for Gregory, MacIntyre, and Hauerwas, it is too far away.” Do we better society by getting closer or moving further away, down the modern road? If the trouble is that we haven’t rid ourselves of the prejudices of the past, how do we do so without losing the communities that teach us values and give us the benefits of collective effort? If we have lost community and faith to our peril — to anomie, to “deaths of despair”, to the vitiation of institutions of collective effort and thus to populist promises to fight on our behalf — how do we regain belongingness without reproducing group-think and prejudice?

Modernity’s ills

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) and Karl Barth (1886–1968) witnessed some of modernity’s worst moments — Nazism and the Holocaust — and may have something to say to our present moment. Did Nazism arise because of too much modernity or not enough? The relevance of Barth and Bonhoeffer is the contention at the heart of Joshua Mauldin’s recent and most insightful book, a few points of which I’ll recruit for our modernity question but whose discerning analysis should be read in full.

Was Nazism the logical progression of a modernity too much with us, as Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman argues in Modernity and the Holocaust? “The truth is”, Bauman writes, “that every ‘ingredient’ of the Holocaust — all those things that rendered it possible — was normal … in keeping with everything we know about our civilization.” Put another way, was it the unmooredness of (choose your discourse) industrialisation, disenchantment, reification, alienation, rationalisation, or loss of grounding in Sittlichkeit (in community and faith) that made so many vulnerable to the promise of belonging to the Reich and the Aryan nation? Or was modernity not enough with us and adhesion to longstanding notions of das Volk, “us” against “them”, that were animated and deployed for Nazism’s success?

Barth, for all his high Christology and insistence on the priority of relationship with God, did not think either theological emphasis obviated modernity or modern politics. A past modus vivendi is not viable. The solution to Nazism, he held, did not lie in repudiating modern options for older community ways of (religious) life. Indeed, Barth’s objection to modern liberal theology was not that past theologies were per se better; rather, in its attempt to provide theological answers to contemporary political issues, modern liberal theology confused the necessary but imperfect world of human politics with divine vision. This confusion created the dangerous notion that a (messianic) utopia could be created by human collective effort in this world. Thus, the church could too easily be instrumentalised by any number of political groups to bring about their, not Christ’s, aims.

For Barth, this is idolatrous self-deification, wherein we mistakenly interpret the Bible as saying that God created us as part of a particular community, culture, race, and nation. Thus, it is our religious duty to advance that race or nation so that it can usher in the better world, utopia. Enter Nazism. “God himself”, writes Barth, “has become problematic to us because in his place have stood the dubious figments of our own imagination.” On this view, the radical otherness of God and his will are needed against human hubris, so that we do not lose sight of the limitations of our political efforts.

Here we come to a critical point for both Barth and Bonhoeffer. On one hand, communities of all sorts are essential for human living. They are what Bonhoeffer called the God-given “orders” of life (church, marriage, work, government, and so on) that bequeath the values, practices, and worldviews needed to live together in what Barth called “zwischen den Zeiten” (between the times), neither in hell nor in God’s kingdom fully realised. Yet, on the other hand, the radical lessons of God, by which we will be judged, are needed always to measure our efforts — both those to conserve the past and those to change it. “The revolutionary”, as Mauldin argues, “carries the banner of God’s critical No against the status quo and its injustice. The legitimist responds with the naïve Yes, emphasizing the value of the created order under the providence of God. Against theological frameworks that favour one or the other, Barth attempts to uphold both” by recognising human politics as necessary, flawed, and temporary, and the divine vision as its ever-present, never-reachable standard.

By this, Barth and Bonhoeffer mean to put an end to apocalyptic doomsday-saying and utopia-promising. Exit Nazism. Enter human politics, the negotiations of (necessary) groups and communities ever mindful of their limits. In Barth’s understanding of Romans 12-13, Paul’s critique of the Jews symbolises his critique of the church. It was the church that crucified Jesus and that must ever remember its propensity to err, violently and tragically, both as revolutionaries (exiting from the past) and legitimists (reinforcing it).

On Bonhoeffer’s account, the source of modernity’s ills lies not, as Brad Gregory suggests, in the loss of the past, in the Lutheran Reformation as it fractured a unified crown and church, leading first to a pluralism of views and then to relativism which confuses the development of any values at all. To the contrary: for Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran understanding of the Two Kingdoms, sword and church, allows the church to retain its extra-political perch from which to assess political and economic life. As a Reformed theologian, Barth rejected the Two Kingdoms acceptance of the status quo, while Jesus’s message should bring Christians into politics to further Jesus’s vision.

Theologies of resistance

Yet both Barth and Bonhoeffer shared ground when it comes to modernity’s weakness. It yields forms of belief that deify humanity as the creator of utopia. Bonhoeffer saw this as a root of the French and Russian revolutions and Nazism. On one hand, the modern Enlightenment critique of the past and group-think was, for Bonhoeffer, laudable. As Mauldin explains, for him, “even the strongest criticism of the modern age does not warrant nostalgia for a premodern world.” On the other, this modern look to the future may not anoint itself as transcendent. This is precisely, according to Bonhoeffer, what nationalisms and what we now call “communism” dangerously do.

Bonhoeffer’s theory of political resistance is neither a repudiation of the past nor its conservation; it lays out, rather, careful, calibrated steps for when the regnant orders may be resisted. For the church, resistance is called for in failed states, when the government fails to fulfil its functions. The church may help victims of state injustice, question the actions of the state, issue ecumenical proclamations against state action, and develop disciples who go out into the world imbued with the church’s understanding of when and how to critique the state. Individuals, however, may act outside church confines in “free responsible action” to restore the societal orders that provide belonging, dignity, and aid, and that forestall anomie.

When may one take action against the state? Bonhoeffer is cautious. First, as individual “free responsible action” works against the state, it will always be illegal and make one guilty, as civil disobedience does. Yet in dire circumstances, it can be done, and one must accept the consequences of political/legal guilt — as Bonhoeffer did when he joined the plot to assassinate Hitler.

Second, in his Ethics, Bonhoeffer cautioned that without an eye to restoring societal orders, action against the state is merely a negative, aimed at destruction, a freedom without a goal. It lacks a vision of what should be built up. Yet Bonhoeffer also understood that the legitimation that comes only from being already in place — the imprimatur of the past — is insufficient to justify a practice or institution. Critique and change of existing norms and institutions must not be frivolous or aimless, but they must be possible. In “On the Theological Foundation of the World Alliance”, he writes: “Every order — be it the oldest and holiest — can be broken — and must be, when it is locked within itself, hardened, and when it no longer permits the proclamation of the revelation.”

This returns us to the standard that should be used to judge human action, especially collective action. For Bonhoeffer, it is the objectively real and radically different word of God, revelation, that is the eternal measure of our politics and practices. It pre-empts hubristic, self-deified utopia-promising. If that word cannot be heard, society — its groups, parties, communities, including those of faith — has gone wrong. “We must”, Bonhoeffer writes in his Ethics, “loudly protest against an order in which the gospel can no longer be heard, even if it were to be among the oldest orders in human history.”

For Barth, resistance to Nazism grounded in the objectively real and radical word of God is the only resistance that would hold. Everything else — natural law, patriotism, democracy — can be re-interpreted to justify what Hegel called the “slaughter bench” of human history. Where the church may give voice to its lessons, Barth argued:

we will find a legitimate human authority and an equally legitimate human independence; tyranny on the one hand, and anarchy on the other, Fascism and Bolshevism alike, will be dethroned; and the true order of human affairs — the justice, wisdom and peace, equity and care for human welfare which are necessary to that true order — will arise.

Is this enough to guide those who want to move in a more modern way beyond the past (to correct its oppressions) and to keep them from losing important traditional communities? On the flip side, is it enough to guide those who see the best society in conserving those communities, their structures of belonging and shared values, and to keep them from perpetuating past prejudices?

Critics of Barth hold that his faith in the objective presence of God’s radical lesson did not get Barth nearly far enough in condemning Nazism in the 1934 Barman Declaration. The document resisted church “coordination” with the Nazis, but did not condemn them or mention the persecution of Germany’s Jews. In his 1938 letter to Josef Hromádka, encouraging Czech resistance to Nazi invasion, Barth was clearer in identifying resistance to Nazism as a Christian message. In the post-war period, he offered different explanations for the rise of Nazism — emphasising Germany’s unique guilt to the Swiss, Europe’s collective guilt to other European countries, and similarities between modern German and modern American culture to American audiences. Yet he held to the idea that hubris was a kind of idolatry, entrusting humanity (or some white, Aryan humans) to bring about utopia, was a root cause of modernity’s ills in the Third Reich, in nations reliant on liberal theologies, and potentially in liberal democracies.

Inheriting the past

For all that, neither Barth nor Bonhoeffer repudiated liberalism per se, but rather the tendency to self-deification and to heralding utopias, for which all manner of evil may be justified. For these two men, Mauldin notes, liberalism “remains preferable to the revolutionary terror of illiberal alternatives. For Barth and Bonhoeffer, this was clear. Today it is more easily forgotten.” Perhaps we forget today because, in a corrective to neo-liberal economics and loss of common-good thinking, we clamour for more, and more robust, communities, and so the prejudices, rigidities, and oppressions of communities are obscured.

Barth and Bonhoeffer sought a standard by which the modern belief that we in “our” communities can create utopia may be constrained. This standard is the radical vision of God. But this brings us to an acute problem.

What we have of God’s word is text, which must be humanly interpreted. The tools of interpretation are implicitly and explicitly taught in communities, specific in time, place, hardships, technologies, and horizons. So the problem repeats itself. Some want to preserve traditional modes of interpretation for the hard-earned wisdom they bring, risking reification so that our texts cannot respond to conditions unimaginable to their ancient redactors. Others want to re-interpret text in new ways for the possibilities they offer, risking loss of traditional wisdom — including traditions that benefit those whom new interpretations aim to help.

Unsurprisingly, we have not come to a solution, even with the erudition and commitment of Bonhoeffer and Barth. But that problem said, if humanity did take seriously a few foundational theological tenets — the donative lessons of the cross, for instance, or the dignity of each person as she is in God’s image, or the responsibility for others inherent in the Eucharist and the Jewish covenant — one might be forgiven for supposing that the dignity of individual persons and attention to the common good might be further along.

Professor Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and Fordham University. She is a guest Professor in the Theology Faculty at Humboldt University, Berlin, and a Fellow at the Center for Theological Inquiry, Princeton. She is the author of Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality


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