Okay, so I need a better title for it. But here is my proposal for my Master of Divinity thesis. I was given approval to begin working on it. Questions, comments, critiques, resource suggestions, ad hominem attacks, or title suggestions are welcome. Especially that last one. I’ll never get this thing on the New York Times bestseller list without a catchy title.
Karl Barth’s theological location of the church vis-à-vis the political has special relevance for contemporary theology. I believe that his approach, offering the dialectic of divestment and investment of the church in the political, opens up an alternative to the dominant and emergent traditions of Christian theological reflection on the political as described by Daniel Bell. Despite the benefits present within both traditions, both are hindered by their placement of the political before the theological. In the dominant tradition, this tendency manifests itself by the susceptibility of theology to ideology. In the emergent tradition, this tendency is manifested by ecclesiological idealism and a latent nostalgia for Christendom. For the sake of space and clarity, Jürgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas are taken as representative of the dominant and emergent traditions, respectively. I argue that the primacy of Christ within Karl Barth’s theological project allows for a third option regarding the theological location of the church vis-à-vis the political. This primacy of Christ within Barth’s theological understanding of the church as well as the world results in a theological politics capable of safeguarding the church from being co-opted by ideology on the one hand and an idealistic ecclesiocentrism on the other hand.
Daniel Bell, Jr. notes that the greatest division within contemporary theological reflection on politics and the church is not, as one might expect, between conservative and liberal political ideological commitments.1 Rather, Bell argues, the division is actually the result of significant theological difference between those theologians who see the church as fundamentally apolitical, entrusted with the safeguarding of abstract values and limited to political action through the avenues made available by statecraft and those who see the church itself as irreducibly public, rejecting what they see as the anemic politics of statecraft. The former category, which Bell labels “the dominant tradition,” is by far the most common perspective in Christian theology in the 20th century and encompasses the various types of political theology, liberation theology, and public theology. The latter category, termed “the emergent tradition” by Bell, is a smaller group of recent theologians loosely identifiable as postliberal. I contend that these traditions are at a theological impasse and the resources for navigating and overcoming this division are not readily available within either tradition. To argue this, I take as representative one theologian from within each tradition and critically survey their position before offering a reframing informed by the theology of Karl Barth.
Jürgen Moltmann is one of the best articulators of the dominant tradition in recent theology. Through his voluminous writings, Moltmann consistently offers an impassioned plea for the church to engage with the world by calling the world to justice, liberation, and environmental stewardship. Moltmann has been a staunch advocate for Christian engagement with political structures to accomplish this aim. While many of his works contain these pleas, his two most sustained dealings with the theology that undergird his understanding of Christian political engagement are two of his lesser known works, the 1984 essays On Human Dignity and the 1997 book God for a Secular Society. I primarily focus my analysis of Moltmann’s political theology to these two works.
Stanley Hauerwas is undeniably one of the most able proponents of the emergent tradition of Christian political engagement. He posits a radical distinction between politics of the world and the politics to which the church is called. This is evidenced in his oft-repeated claim that the “first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.”2 Hauerwas holds that the concrete embodiment of the gospel in the practices of the church is the church’s political engagement. The church’s politics is not in need of being translated into a neutral, secular argot. Indeed such a translation is impossible both philosophically and theologically. Hauerwas’s favorite form of writing is the occasional essay. This makes the necessary task of narrowing his substantial corpus for the sake of a clear analysis in a limited space somewhat difficult. My attention is primarily focused on his 2000-2001 Gifford lectures published as With the Grain of the Universe and several other select essays.
Karl Barth’s position of the church’s relationship to the political does not fit neatly within Bell’s typology. It is for precisely this reason that his project is relevant today. While Barth’s position is not without its shortcomings (indeed both Moltmann and Hauerwas have helpful critiques to make of it), it has within it resources for navigating past the impasse between the dominant and emergent traditions by challenging the assumptions of both regarding what is foundational. Substantial engagement with Barth in a study as limited as this demands that his massive oeuvre be narrowed. I draw primarily upon two distinct sections of Church Dogmatics, § 36 “Ethics as a Task of the Doctrine of God” (II/2 pp. 509–551) and § 72 “The Holy Spirit and the Sending of the Christian Community” (IV/3.2 pp 681-901), though I supplement this material with additional texts (primarily essays).
1Daniel Bell Jr., “The State and Civil Society” 423-438 in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William Cavanaugh (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
2Stanley Hauerwas, A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2000), 157.