354 - A Response to William Werpehowski

A Response to William Werpehowski
By George Hunsinger

WE are greatly in Professor Werpehowski's debt. He has offered us a rich, subtle and suggestive account of how Karl Barth uses biblical narrative in doing theological ethics. Having opened with the theme of how narrative relates to history, Werpehowski illuminates this relationship by commenting on an impressive range of Barthian texts. We are reminded of the chapter where Jesus Christ is described as the true conservative and the true revolutionary, who at once accepts, ignores, and transcends the orders of our existence. We are, then, directed to passages which speak of the concreteness of God's command, with its fixed side and its open-ended side, which functions not as a law to which we are slavishly to conform, but rather as a directive to which we are to seek apt correspondence in our lives through obedience to the living God. Finally, we are drawn into a valuable and complicated discussion of suicide, which weaves together generous portions of direct exposition, narrative analysis, and polemical counterpoint.

If I would have any question to pose about Werpehowski's analysis, it would pertain to the idea of "narrative interpretation" as a suitable category by which to elucidate theology and ethics in Barth. In no way do I want to suggest that there might be something wrong with this category in principle. Rather, in the spirit of Barth's theology, which strove always to move from the particular to the general, I simply want to raise a warning flag. Is there not a genuine danger that we will assume we already know what narrative is and how narrative functions, and that we will then apply this category both to Barth and to the Scripture he seeks to interpret in such a way that we will merely find confirmed what we already knew, or thought we knew, on general grounds? In other words, is there not a, danger here to moving from the general to the particular in such a way that we might miss some of the most truly distinctive features of narrative interpretation in Barth's hands? Without trying to be more than suggestive, let me indicate some distinctive features of Barth's theology and hint at how they are related to his narrative interpretation. At the same time, let me follow Werpehowski by focusing on the question of suicide and in particular on the disagreements between Gustafson and Barth.

I

One thing we may learn from Barth's theology is that there are truths which logic cannot contain. There are of course other truths-truths


George Hunsinger is Professor of Theology at Bangor Theological Seminary, Maine. He is the editor of Karl Barth and Radical Politics (1976).


355 - A Response to William Werpehowski

which are crystal clear, truths which are internally consistent. Let us call them truths of reason. From Barth's point of view, such truths, however important and appropriate they may be in certain contexts, are finally small and merely partial when it comes to the larger field of theological discourse. For the great truths of Christian theology, as Barth understood them, are truths beyond our rational comprehension. They are not crystal clear but oceanic in their depths, the light of reason can penetrate them only so far until at last the light refracts into shadows, reason yields to paradox, and perplexity gives way to praise. Absurd from the standpoint of pure rationalism, these great theological truths are, from another perspective, warnings against premature closure, omens of an ultimate reality beyond our control, unnerving reminders that even rationality has its limits. Truths of revelation in Barth's theology are thus not like truths of reason, for as often as not they bring our comprehension to a full stop, whereby we are lost in wonder at miracles and mysteries, undismayed by rationally irresolvable contradictions, for we have come to see they point past themselves to a final and living truth just beyond logical grasp.1

No Christian theology can hope to remain relatively orthodox, as Karl Barth's obviously did, if it does not develop a high tolerance for paradox.2 Conversely, theologies with a low tolerance for paradox are not likely to remain orthodox.3 At a very formal level, the question of


1 For a programmatic statement of how Barth understood the peculiar status of theological rationality, see Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Part 1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936, 1969), pp. 111, especially pp. 7-9. Note in particular that the law of noncontradiction is neither simply accepted nor simply rejected as appropriate to the subject matter of theology. It can be accepted, Barth thinks, only in a qualified sense. Theology, when true to its subject matter, will be unable to avoid making statements which appear to be contradictory. It regards these "contradictions" as apparent but unavoidable. They are merely apparent, because their status is basically noetic rather than ontic. They pertain, that is, to the state of our perceptions rather than to an actually existing state of affairs. The contradictions point to the limits of our capacity for understanding, not to an objectively irrational actuality. Theology's "contradictory" formulations are unavoidable, however, because they cannot be resolved by rational human effort here and now, but only by statements concerning God's free activity (cf. p. 8). The implication is that for us their resolution can only be eschatological. At any rate, the mysteries of Christian theology, as Barth understood them, though incomprehensible to us, are not in themselves irrational.
2 I speak of "paradox" here for lack of a better term, and I am using it in a more nearly evocative than denotative sense. That is, I am using it as a kind of shorthand for the several different types of "contradictory" formulation in Barth's theology. Or perhaps I should say that I am using it rather generically to cover a range of formally similar but materially different instances. These instances would include, for example, Barth's doctrine of the Trinity, his dialectical assessment of religion and culture, his understanding of the relation between God's sovereignty and human responsibility, and, as I go on immediately to discuss, the dialectical pattern of his ethical reflection. My list here is meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive.
3 Both Jeffrey Stout and Alasdair Maclntyre have argued that non-paradoxical versions of Christian theology, at least as we have known them, have more or less ceased to be Christian. Stout more than Maclntyre stresses the connection between paradox and mystery. For Barth "paradox" (in the broad sense just mentioned) is the cognitive indicator or logical emblem of mystery in Christian theology. Although the acceptance of "paradox" may involve Christian theology in the cultural and sociological problems Stout and MacIntyre have indicated, Barth argued that it is not irrational but rational to acknowledge a "paradox" when it arises from one's subject matter, and that there is a certain rationality to acknowledging the limits of rationality, especially in the case of' Christian theology. See Stout, The Flight from Authority (Notre Dame: University of' Notre Press, 1981), pp. 105-176; MacIntyre, "The Fate of Theism" in The Religious Significance of Atheism (New York, Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 3-29; idem, "Is Understanding Religion Compatible with Believing?" in Rationality, ed. by Bryan R. Wilson (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 62-77.


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how far to tolerate paradox is central to the disagreement between Gustafson and Barth. This disagreement can be seen in their respective discussions of suicide. Gustafson is acutely and self-consciously sensitive to discrepancies in logic. His position on suicide is itself a model of internal consistency. His reading of Barth's rather different position highlights precisely this concern. Barth's argument about suicide, Gustafson stresses, is filled with ambiguities he does not resolve. Chief among these would be that while God's command confronts suicide with an unqualified No, suicide, says Barth, is not absolutely to be condemned and under exceptional circumstances might actually be obedience to divine command. "Karl Barth's assessment of suicide," comments Gustafson, "would be maddeningly equivocal to most philosophers."4 Although Gustafson does not fail to appreciate why such ambiguity reasonably follows from Barth's theology, he also makes it quite clear that dialectical to and fro is not for him. But why then should Barth himself seem to thrive on it? What was it that nourished his tolerance for paradox? What could have driven him again and again in his theology to fly in the face of the law of noncontradiction? Is he simply baptizing muddles and calling them mysteries?

II

If we turn from matters of logic to matters of personal and historical experience, this line of questioning becomes even more intense. For Barth's theology not only rests on truths which logic cannot contain. At the same time it rests on truths not shaped by present experience. There are again, of course, other truths-truths transparent to the world and reality understood, truths arising from and conforming to our experience, truths which are based on evidence and therefore capable of being verified or falsified. Let us call them truths of rational perception. Such truths, Barth argues, will claim a status either hypothetical or ultimate. If hypothetical, the claim is modest, provisional, and compatible with Christian faith. If ultimate, the claim is self-involving and competes with Christian faith. It will not necessarily be devoid of truth, but certainly of any proper criterion for truth. It cannot be refuted but only exposed for what it is, an abstraction which mistakes the part for the whole, the visible for the final, and the present for the future. It will point to the truth despite itself.5


4 James M. Gustafson, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Vol. II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 187.
5 See, for example, Barth's approach to non-Christian and Christian anthropologies which he considers to be inadequate as discussed in Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, Part 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960). On the distinction between "hypothetical" and "ultimate," see ibid., pp. 20-26.


357 - A Response to William Werpehowski

By contrast, the great truths of Christian theology, as Barth understood them, are beyond rational perception. They are not inferences from observable evidence. Their function is not to be shaped by, but rather to shape our experience. They shape our experience by contradicting it, and they contradict it by exposing our abstractions. In the midst of ambiguity, they bring existential certainty of a world which observation does not know. They are not explanations but depictions, pertaining not to the world as it appears, but to the world as it is and is to be. These truths bring certitude only within experience already decisively shaped by a prior acceptance of their truth.6 In this life, their experiential validation will never be more than provisional; in and of itself it will always be ambiguous, and it will never be susceptible to neutral or independent tests. Truths of revelation in Barth's theology are thus not like truths of rational perception, for as often as not they bring us up short, challenging critical reflection as well as common sense, with news of a world which does not yet appear as it shall be.7

No Christian theology can remain relatively orthodox without a high tolerance for discrepancies between eye and ear, world observed and world announced, faith and sight. Conversely, theologies with a low tolerance for such discrepancies of perception are not likely to remain orthodox. Again, at a very formal level, the question of how far to tolerate them is central to the disagreement between Gustafson and Barth, and it appears in their discussions of suicide. Gustafson turns out to be no less sensitive to perceptual discrepancies than toward discrepancies in logic. His position on suicide exemplifies a theology from which such discrepancies are removed. Deeply empathetic with those whose despair tempts them to commit suicide, his moral assessment of suicide's possible legitimacy hinges entirely on questions of rational perception. Is despair a reasonable construal of this person's life circumstances or not? Are there or are there not courses of action available which can relieve the person's suffering? "Alas," writes Gustafson, "for all too many persons there are good and realistic reasons for the deepest despair.... To the deaths of such persons by suicide one must consent."8 Note the utter lack of discrepancy between faith and sight. For Gustafson the world observed is the only world there is.

Barth rejects all categorical consent to suicide. His assessment does not hinge on matters of rational perception. His attitude toward those


6 This point is largely what separates Barth's theology from that of Reinhold Niebuhr as Niebuhr develops it in The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 vols. (New York: Scribner's, 1941, 1945). Niebuhr proceeds on the assumption that the truths of Christian theology can be "confirmed" and "made more precise" on the basis of experience or "evidence" not decisively shaped by a prior acceptance of the Christian faith. My point here is not so much Barth's rejection of the need for such independent "confirmation" and "precision" as his more fundamental conviction that there is no evidence for the Christian faith which has not already been decisively shaped by a prior acceptance of its truth. Presumably, Barth might have argued that even Niebuhr's own perception of supposedly independent "evidence" is already shaped by prior commitments, and decisively so.
7 See, for example, Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV, Part 3, First Half (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), pp. 317-318.
8 Gustafson, op. cit., p. 209.


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who commit suicide is compassionate. His openness to legitimate acts of suicide as a remote possibility is characteristic. Yet he refuses to specify a class of cases where suicide would be morally permissible. Indeed., within the limits of Christian charity and faith in the living God, the entire burden of his argument is to establish against suicide the strongest possible presumption. At the very point where Gustafson writes, "If life becomes unbearable there is reason for enmity with God,"9 Barth says instead, "Thou mayest live."10 Unlike Gustafson, he does not turn the rational perception of unbearable suffering into an argument against God's benevolence and beneficence. Knowing full well that there are cases of deep tribulation, Barth refuses nonetheless to abandon faith, but opts instead for a conscious discrepancy between faith and sight. But why should he do so? Why should he deliberately insist again and again in his theology on such discrepancies? Whatever could have generated and sustained his tolerance for them? Was it perhaps a case of obscurantism, obtuseness, or some other related malady?

III

In his book, The Body of Faith, the contemporary Jewish theologian, Michael Wyschogrod, argues that the desire to make theology pass philosophic muster is an essentially gentile aspiration, whereas concern to preserve theology's autonomy from philosophy reflects sensibilities essentially Jewish. "The difference between philosophy and theology," he writes, "is then seen to revolve around the Bible: philosophy looks to reason for its foundation, whereas theology is rooted in the biblical text, to which alone it is responsible."11 The Christian theologian whom Wyschogrod goes on to mention as displaying an eminently Jewish sense of textual responsibility is Karl Barth. "Reading a page of Barth," he writes, "is something like shock therapy because it introduces the reader or listener to a frame of reference that attempts only to be true to itself and its sources and not to external demands that can be satisfied only by fitting the church's message into their mold, a mold foreign to it and therefore necessarily distorting."12

The central reason for Barth's readiness to tolerate discrepancies in


9 Ibid., p. 216. At times it seems that Gustafson retains an attachment to the Christian God as something in which to disbelieve. His own constructive proposal about God's identity, as far as I can see, makes this attachment superfluous. For example, it seems inconsistent to him to say, as he does here, that in circumstances of extreme adversity there is reason for enmity with God. But why should there be reason for enmity toward a God who, by Gustafson's definition, often does not and ought not to have human interests at heart? "If one's basic theological perception is of a Deity who rules all creation, and one's basic perception of life in history and nature is one of patterns of interdependence, then the good that God values must be more inclusive than one's normal perceptions of what is good for me, what is good for my community, and even what is good for the human species" (Gustafson, Ethics in a Theocentric Perspective, Vol. I [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981], p. 96).
10 Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, Part 4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), p. 406.
11 Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith (New York: Seabury, 1983), p. 75.
12 Ibid., p. 79.


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logic and in perception, let me suggest, is simply his loyalty to the world of the text. It is this loyalty which takes startling precedence even over the law of noncontradiction and the assessments of rational observation. The rule which seems constantly to govern his theology could be formulated like this: Adequacy is a higher virtue than consistency. Adequacy for Barth meant loyalty to the world of the biblical text, even at the cost of tolerating logical and perceptual discrepancies. It meant espousing truths which logic could not contain and present experience did not shape.

It was precisely Barth's narrative reading of Scripture, let me further suggest, which sponsored his overriding textual loyalty. As Eric Auerbach has pointed out, "The Bible's claim to truth ... excludes all other claims. The world of the Scripture stories ... insists that it is the only true word, is destined for autocracy."13 Barth's adherence to the force of this claim caused him not to explain away, as had so often been done, the incomprehensible newness of the world depicted in the texts. Truths so new they could not be contained by logic nor shaped by present experience are embedded, on Barth's reading, in the narratives themselves. Though beyond our comprehension, they are not beyond our imagination. The primary function of the biblical narratives, as Barth read them, was to educate our imaginations in these truths of a strange, new world.

It is the utter newness of these truths and the discrepancies they carry with them which we are in danger of missing if we approach Barth's narrative interpretation by moving from the general to the particular. Standard terms of narrative analysis-such as "patterned description," "ordered sequence," "configurations from successions," etc.-are apt to be seriously misleading. Left to themselves, they could easily suppress the sense of rupture which was always so important to Barth. An emphasis on pattern, order, and coherence, in other words, may administer something more like anesthesia than shock therapy.

The world announced in the biblical narratives, as Barth read them, is a world beyond ordinary comprehension and experience, because it is a world in which the very conditions of experience are to be transfigured and made new. It was for him the essence of God's promise, and of God's faithfulness to that promise, that the world's great transfiguration is already accomplished for our sake in Jesus Christ. It is hid with Christ in God-real, hidden, and yet to come. Its hiddenness, Barth urged, does not detract from its real presence, and its present reality does not detract from its future actualization.14 Loyalty to the world of the text thus


13 Eric Auerbach, Mimesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Anchor Books Edition, 1957), p. 12.
14 Barth is often read as though the present reality of the world's great transfiguration does indeed detract from its future actualization, the former seeming to make the latter superfluous. Although there are passages in Barth to support such a reading, I believe it runs counter to Barth's deepest intentions. My alternative reading, which depends on noticing both the strong actualistic quality to Barth's understanding of revelation and the strong sense of mystery Barth takes for granted in the relationship between the "already" and the "not yet," cannot be developed here. For an excellent version of the standard reading, see Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), pp. 50-58.


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engendered a certain skepticism toward a reason in matters of ultimate reality, for reason was not equal to the task.

By trusting in the narrated promise more than in the deliverances of reason, Barth could thus bear witness to what Gustafson systematically excludes: "Yea, though thou walkest through the valley of the shadow of death, and exist in deepest despair, thou mayest live, for I am with thee." "The fact is sure," wrote Barth, "that God constantly turns to us.... But we are sure of this only because God is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is God,"15 only because God's turning to us has its origin, assurance and goal in him. By hearing and conveying what is spoken through the text and not elsewhere, Barth could thus help us to see that however deep our affliction, we are surrounded by an abyss of love deeper than the abyss of our despair.


15 Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. II, Part I (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), p. 319.