Religious Reasons in Public Debate: A Conversation with Karl Barth

Christianity and Democratic Dialogue: Part One

Need we suspend our faith for the sake of conversation?

Western Democracy has given Christians religious liberties that few throughout history have enjoyed, while also saving the Church from the shame of statecraft. Foundational to these democratic systems of government is a form of civil dialogue that seeks to include all reasonable voices in the conversation. However, secularization in the Western world has lead many, both atheistic and theistic, to exclude religious reasons from these conversations. Over the course of this series I will explore–from a Christian perspective–the place of religious reasons in democratic dialogue, arguing that the inclusion of religious reasons in democratic conversation is preferable to adapting those reasons into a set of secular premises that atheists can agree with.

In his piece, “Religion as a Conversation-stopper,” pragmatist Richard Rorty makes clear that he sees no role for religion in the discussion of public policy. In his view, religion is a wholly private enterprise that ought not inform issues that might affect other’s lives. Rorty makes his position clear as he compares religion to practices that a non-religious person, like himself, might engage in, “The poems we atheists write, like the prayers our religious friends raise, are private, nonpolitical and nontrivial. Writing poems is, for many people, no mere hobby, […] The search for private perfection, pursued by theists and atheists alike, is neither trivial nor, in a pluralistic democracy, relevant to public policy.”1 In light of this privatized view of religion, Rorty sees its inclusion in the discussion of public policy, or any issue that affects the greater public, as out of place. When religious reasons are brought up in such discussions, Rorty’s immediate response is “So what? We weren’t discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don’t bother us with matters that are not our concern.”2 Rather than just a mere annoyance, Rorty sees the use of these out-of-place religious reasons as a threat to the progress of the discussion, because both the religious and non-religious are typically so firm in their beliefs, or at least perceived as so, that participants will stop conversation due to the width of the ideological impasse.

For Rorty, religious people need not remove themselves from public conversation. Instead, they ought to simply discuss public policy around shared premises. While there is no definitive definition for what makes up these shared premises, it can be assumed that they are premises that both the religious and non-religious can agree with and argue from. In his response to Rorty, Jeffrey Stout points out a possible problem for the religious participant, in that Rorty’s model does not allow the possibility that a reason for holding a position on matters of public policy is genuinely religious. Stout argues that this leaves the religious interlocutor with only three options, “(1) to remain silent; (2) to give justifying arguments based strictly on principles already commonly accepted; and (3) to express their actual (religious) reasons for supporting the policy they favor while also engaging in immanent criticism of their opponents’ views.”3 For those who value democratic dialogue, option one can quickly be discarded as unworkable, while the choice between options two and three, on a large scale, leaves the church in a balancing act of commitments. Public theology is tasked with communicating the Christian faith to the non-Christian public, and maintaining commitment to genuine revelation all while avoiding the simple secularizing of the Church.4 While considering these commitments throughout this series,, I will agree with Stout and argue for the third option as the only viable way to communicate genuine theological premises without tipping the balance toward the secularization of the Church.

The Viability of a Shared Premises Approach

Rorty argues for a version of Stout’s second option, in which public interlocutors appeal strictly to natural premises. He goes on to point out that “this requirement is no harsher, and no more a demand for self-destruction, than the requirement that we atheists, when we present our arguments, should claim no authority for our premises save the assent we hope they will gain from our audience.”5 However, the exclusion of one set of premises, the supernatural or religious, versus the inclusion of another, the natural, seems to imply the very sense of authority that Rorty is so quick to deny. Despite this, various theologians, such as Paul Tillich and Emil Brunner, have attempted to conform to similar conversational restrictions by communicating religious reasons through shared natural premises in what is referred to as natural theology.

Perhaps more than any other theologian, Karl Barth argues that genuine knowledge of God cannot, in fact, be communicated by appealing only to natural premises. Barth’s rejection of natural theology lies in his understanding of revelation; for Barth, God reveals himself directly through the person of Jesus Christ. Revelation does not confront the world with information about God, where more information is to be discovered later. Instead, as Joseph Bettis notes, “The Gospel of God’s love brings God to men immediately.”6 With Jesus as the fullness of God’s revelation to man, Barth argues that the voice of the church ought to center on that very revelation.7 This Christocentricity, which defines Barth’s conception of revelation, will largely inform his rejection of any attempt to communicate knowledge of God that does not start from what God himself has revealed.

Those in favor of Stout’s second option might respond that while God reveals himself in Jesus Christ, God simultaneously shows himself through the whole of creation. While this may be the case, Barth holds that we are wholly unable to conceive of or contemplate him absent the direct revelation of his Son.8 Consider the starting point of those statements that argue from natural objects as a means to know, describe, and communicate truth about God. In the process of finding God through the natural the individual thinker asserts her own mastery and control as a means to demonstrate God or theological truth to another. Barth points out that this is in direct contradiction to God’s essential nature as both hidden and completely other. He goes on to say, “God does not belong to the objects which we can always subjugate to the process of our viewing, conceiving and expressing and therefore our spiritual oversight and control. In contrast to that of all other objects, His nature is not one which in this sense lies in the sphere of our power. God is inapprehensible.”9 The mere idea of communicating knowledge of God through natural premises entails conceiving, comprehending, and controlling God as an object of knowledge; for Barth, this is an impossibility.

While it has been demonstrated that the nature of God—as incomprehensible and uncontrollable—creates problems for those who desire theological truth to be communicated through natural premises, humankind’s own capacities ought to be called into question as well. Although we may strive for knowledge of God, we only gain that knowledge through faith when it is revealed and given to us; even in our knowledge of God, our relationship is one of complete dependence.

For even when we are occupied with God’s revelation, […] we are still not capable of ourselves of having fellowship with God, and therefore viewing and conceiving Him, and therefore realizing our knowledge of God. At this very point it emerges that although the knowledge of God certainly does not come about without our work, it also does not come about through our work, or as the fruit of our work. At this very point the truth breaks imperiously and decisively before us: God is known only by God; God can be known only by God. At this very point, in faith itself, we know God in utter dependence, in our discipleship and gratitude. At this very point we are finally dissuaded from trusting and confiding in our own capacity and strength. At this very point we can see that our attempt to answer God’s revelation with our views and concepts is an attempt undertaken with insufficient means, the work of unprofitable servants, so that we cannot possibly ascribe the success of this attempt and therefore the truth of our knowledge of God to ourselves, i.e., to the capacity of our views and concepts. In faith itself we are forced to say that our knowledge of God begins in all seriousness with the knowledge of the hiddenness of God.10

If it is the case that our relationship to God is one of complete dependence, in which our only knowledge of him is that which he reveals, then Stout’s second option of communicating that knowledge through natural concepts and premises will prove unworkable. While many have pursued this endeavor, attempts to communicate theological knowledge apart from what is revealed through Jesus Christ result in the creation of “a reality distinct from God” that represents more an idol of our own glory than it does any genuine theological knowledge.11 Barth sees this risk of idolatry and the rejection of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as a natural result of any effort toward a natural theology. He states, “A natural theology which does not strive to be the only master is not a natural theology.”12 For Barth the task of theology is strictly bound up in revelation; the theologian is not tasked with explaining how she comes to knowledge of that revelation, but instead the task is revelation itself.13 When theology becomes a product of, or is more concerned with, man’s reason than it is with revelation, then “the sphere of the Church is abandoned and “another task” is indeed substituted for the task of dogmatics.”14

It is worth noting the context in which Barth writes. Much of his rejection of natural theology comes in response to Protestant liberalism which, in his view, allowed for the rise of the Third Reich in Germany. Barth holds that by allowing fields outside of the church a voice within the church, the German church lost any ground for rejecting the voice of nationalism as a shaping force within their congregations. Once it was determined that Christ is knowable through means other than revelation—reason, philosophy, nature, etc.—then the christ of German nationalism became only an additional mode of revelation to be combined with other available forms of revelation.15 As German nationalism eventually took leadership of the church, the atrocities that followed, and the inability of many German Christians to hedge against them, were a direct result of this error in source.16

In light of this context, Barth sees dishonesty and a desire for mastery as core to the project of natural theology. Theology demands that one present herself completely to understanding and engaging how the God of love has revealed himself to us. Barth’s sees natural theology as an artificial circumvention of this; attempting to engage God through natural theology dishonestly avoids the revelation of Jesus Christ, in which God confronts us directly, in favor of an “arrogant” engagement with concepts that can be mastered.17 Barth holds that revelation demands people to engage in the fullness of who they are rather than from a compartmentalized position “as a scientist” or “as a sociologist.”18 When theologians speak from compartmentalized positions they speak with an “inauthentic schizophrenia in which one wants to say something from one position and then something from another position.”19 While Rorty will argue that Stout’s second option does not force the religious interlocutor into compromising her religious commitments, the way that such a strategy for dialogue forces the Christian to approach God serves as justification enough to warrant abandoning such an approach.

It should be noted, that while Barth does reject natural theology as a means of communicating genuine theological knowledge, he does not exclude the possibility of theological truth “actualizing” in fields outside of theology. In his view, because paganism is not an essential part of philosophy or the natural sciences, “there might be such a thing as philosophia christiana.”20 The prospect of the natural order testifying to the Lordship of Christ only demonstrates the centrality of Christ to that order. The blindness of the worldly kingdom to Christ does not preclude the possibility of reaching “objectively correct insights.”21 With this in mind, the Christian need not avoid the discussion of natural reasons for a position simply because those reasons aren’t theological in nature; it could be the case that natural reasoning ends at the same conclusion as religious reasoning. Barth’s word of warning is only that the Christian ought to be sure that the reason given is truly a natural reason rather than a religious one translated into natural terms. Whereas the first follows a path to a conclusion, the second follows a path of revelation to a conclusion only to be rerouted to a more acceptable entrance. The question is one of honesty regarding the nature of an interlocutor’s reasons. Rorty’s solution requires that Christians dishonestly represent their views in a way that simply cannot accurately communicate truth about the God that lies at the heart of their religious reasons. In order to do that, religious language from the unshared premise of revelation is necessary.

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Creighton Coleman

Creighton Coleman

Creighton is a Wichita native currently pursuing an M.A. in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University (SLU). Prior to SLU, Creighton completed a B.A. in Political Science at Wichita State University (2012) as well as an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University (2013), in the Los Angeles area. He enjoys sports, trying new food, and re-watching The West Wing.

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