When Dialectics is Disobedience
October 31, 2008
I’m currently reading von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth. Highly interesting, to say the least. I’ve read the last part of the book before — his constructive, Catholic response — but not the actual study of Barth. The bulk of the critique so far is similar to that found in Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism and is bringing to the fore of my mind a lot of what Bouyer was criticizing in Protestant thought but I didn’t quite comprehend the significance of before. Bouyer was using a realist-vs-nominalist critique that was not quite as compelling (to me) as von B’s realist-vs-existentialist (or analogy-vs-dialectic) critique. Barth’s Der Römerbrief, according to von B, starts and ends with an existential negation which serves as the paradigm for critiquing the human (incl. scripture, church, theology, spirituality, philosophy, etc.) instead of beginning with the Incarnation and making Christ the paradigm for critiquing the human (with the possibility of divine affirmation of human projects). Once the latter shift is made in Barth’s thinking, we have room for a minimal but real correspondence between finite and divine categories. Here is the core of von B’s criticism of Barth before his Christological concentration:
The experiment of the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans was to try to push dialectics to absurd limits, until dialectics rendered itself void for dialectical reasons. But this only resulted in the great irony that dialectics — which took itself to be the proven method — was not only not better than dogmatics and criticism but decidedly inferior to them. In its radical infallibility (as radical fallibility!), it actually betrayed its own self-imposed mission: to speak only of God and not to call attention to itself. It’s loud avowal, “I cannot,” is actually disobedience. As if it were making its relativity an absolute, as if it really were not relative!
The Epistle to the Romans is the very thing against which it itself raged and thundered: a pinnacle of human religiosity. Its insistent cry of “Not I! Rather God!” actually directs all eyes on itself instead of on God. Its cry for distance gives no room for distance. Perhaps, shuddering at the dreadful pain of its flagellations, we could admit that it is right — a hundred times right! But the very blow tells us of its guilt. The real scandal is the mystery of God, which cannot be evaluated in language, even indirectly. There is no suitable method for describing the “infinite qualitative difference between God and man,” even if only negatively. Dialectics cannot replace theology. It must be content to serve merely as a corrective. As the moment of indirection, it can itself be only indirect.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth (Ignatius Press 1992), p. 84.
The “disobedience” line is particularly striking. It’s the same attack von B uses against Luther and Kierkegaard in The Christian and Anxiety, and, in a way, is a sum of the Catholic critique of the Protestant use of simul iustus et peccator.