Princeton Barth-Aquinas Conference: Recap part 1

I don't tend to do the "event coverage recap" genre here, but I have to deal with my handwritten notes somehow, so here we go.  I'm at the Princeton Barth Conference this year, and the topic this year is an ecumenical convergence of Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas.  Each day has been divided into two two-lecture sessions: one by a Protestant Barthian, and one by a Catholic Thomist.  And honestly, it continues to feel like the Barthians have the home court advantage.

First up, on the nature of God, were Robert Jenson and Richard Schenk, OP.  And honestly,  Jenson blew me away, so I'm going to spend most of my time on him for this piece.  Jenson's has so far been the most on-target of the lectures, in terms of fitting the topic assigned.  I had gotten my lectures out of order, and initially expected him on Trinity, but this way we were only subjected to a few recitations of "The name of God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit."  It was a seated, profoundly conversational lecture.  And conversationally profound, if I can flip that around.  Having taken a hiatus from Barth, Jenson had to pick up Barth fresh, and re-learn him.  It seems that after a while, Barth doesn't say the same things you remember him saying.  And so, with the caveat that "discoursing on God's being is perilous," he dove into CD II.


God's being is God's identity -- essentia, the subsistent definition of God.  And Jenson gives us Barth's threefold explanation of that essence: God is Ereignis (event), Ich ("first-person person"), and Entscheidung (decision).  And then he turns to the title of the section containing this, which is "Die Wirklichkeit Gottes."  And here the common language of his fellow students in Germany is informative: ""Wirklich?" "Ja, wirklich." "Wieso?""  ("Really?"  "Yeah, really."  "How come?" -- as in "She's marrying himReally?")  The reality of God is seen in Christ.  "Really?"  "Yes, really."  "How come?"  It runs against the grain [perhaps a small poke at Hauerwas, there] that God's nature isn't hidden by virtue of being epistemologically unavailable, but by virtue of being ubiquitous.  The last thing the fish thinks about, is water.  It is hidden in plain sight, by being utterly available.  And so the reality of God, the essential nature of God, is both independently given and knowable.  We complicate it with language, but as an event, it simply is.  It is given -- Gott als Gegenstand in Christ.  And from the standpoint in which we confront that object, er steht gegen.  God stands with us in Christ, but also over/against us, standing firm as the object of our knowledge.  [It is, as the Muslim will say, bi-la kaifa.  It is, and we must say that it is, without confusing the how of our faithful search for understanding with that factual is-ness.  Because it remains so, whatever we say of it.]

And so Jenson takes us back to Barth's threefold definition.  God is event in revelation, because God is event in Godself.  What God reveals is always only Godself (shades of the deus dixit).  This bit comes up in some other lectures, the idea that God subsists in Godself because of the act of self-creation in the incarnation.  For God, the doer and the act are the same -- God has no essence/existence conflict, no Sartrean bad faith.  And as the doer, God is a personal agent, a "first-person person."  For God as doer to be the act is for God to do the event of God's being.  This routes around to self-consistency.  God's being is God's being in that his action is the event of his existence.  Shades of Thomas' actus purus.

And here we bridge into Ich und Du territory, as seems to be a perpetual danger.  God as I introduces Godself to us, and never stops addressing us.  And we respond, and we speak of God, but it is only true speech when God takes up our speech.  Otherwise, it is a contest, the Thou struggling against the I that addresses it, endeavoring to subordinate God into a Thou role and become the speaking agent.

This is where Jenson brings us to the third piece, God as decision.  It is God's will, God's decision, to be irreducibly "I" and also the subject of our discourse.  God wills to be God, distinguishing Godself in freedom by the sheer act of decision.  God eternally decides to be God.  [I'm minded, reading III.1, that eternity needs a little definition.  And David reminded me today that Barth's sense of it changes across the first three volumes, but I like the sense I see in the opening of Creation: that eternity is not some realm outside of time, not some timeline separate from time, not even a no-place apart, but part of God's having access to all time, being in all time.  It is access to and presence in every time.  And so it is one to say that God eternally decides, and that in every moment God decides, to be God.]

Now comes the trinity bit one expects from Jenson: God's eternal decision is to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We have the formal definition in event, first-personhood, and decision, but not the material content that makes this God particular.  God is this named I, this event (or these events), and this decision.  God is God as God is in Christ; God is the one who loves in freedom, and becomes Christ and the Spirit in free self-determination.

And here is the last piece, with nod to Thomas: God's simplicity, if we wish to talk of it in Barthian terms, is not simply the Islamic/Aristotelian necessity of non-composition, but is derived from the fact that this God is the living God, and has a self-consistency as a living being.  (Albeit one with no essence/existence conflict, as has already been touched.)  God's choices as a living being are coherent, as already expressed.  That God chooses to become incarnate in Jesus Christ is constitutive of God's identity and personhood.  Christ is God's Ich, and no other.  So it isn't as though we know only those things about God that are revealed in Christ, and there remains a vast dark land of unknown God-nature which is not in Christ.  God chooses eternally to be Christ as our savior, choosing in this event to be the same self as in all other choices made by this first-person person.

And all that said, I think the reason it hits me so strongly is that it applies so well to creation and volume III.  The bereshit bara of Genesis and the kaine ktisis in Christ -- the creation and the new creation -- are one and the same, or are self-consistent actions taken in eternity.  This is the rightness of John 1, that all of creation is conditioned by God's being in Christ, and that the logos is the logos of creation.

And after Jenson, we had Fr. Schenk, who had what seemed to me to be a fairly simple point with a great deal of apologetics to get there.  Not an obvious point, but a simple one.  The grounding question was, "what form must theology take today, in order to keep theodicy an open question?"  Schenk used Ebeling's analysis of Thomas to get at a "Thomistic, theodicy-capable theologia crucis."  As a Lutheran, I'm all for that, but I'm not sure he got there.  Where I did hear him go was through anthropology to petitionary prayer.  The "problem of evil" is a matter of us asking "God and [x]" questions where [x] is some created reality.  In faith before God we ask why God permits this, or why it happens -- what the logos is behind it on the assumption that it is God's logic that grounds everything in creation.  [I'm not sure that's a just question, coming perilously close to denying human agency and sin, but it is certainly a faithful one.]

Schenk's analysis of Thomas, and his use of Thomas' last writing, the responsio ad Bernardum, makes me wonder about the role of death.  It wasn't the point, I think, but if we're asking about theodicy in relationship to the theology of the cross, it comes up.  For Thomas, certainly death is an evil.  It is a privation of life.  And so the question Thomas answers is why, if God foreknows, all things that happen to a person are not simply foreordained by God knowing them in advance.  Death being, of course, the most unfair of the misfortunes of human life.  So does God knowing our death cause our death?  There's a problem I see here, which is the same reason I don't think the theodicy question is just -- in creation there are always two agents, typologically: the creator and the creature.  For the creature to be so over-determined in this way removes all agency.  For that matter, perhaps it even removes the need for existence -- why watch a game unfold in realtime when you a) know the way it plays out, and b) have rigged the whole thing anyways?  If it doesn't remove the need for prayer -- and it probably does -- it certainly removes the desire to pray, as a piece in this game.  It also removes our responsibility for the actions in creation, including the myriad proximate and remote human causes of our own death and disadvantages.

And so I turn to Barth, for whom death is not a privation, but a boundary to the span of life, one given terminus bracketing life along with birth.  The span of life is a gift, the gift of a unique time and place and scope for both knowledge and action (III.4).  Means of death, certain kinds and causes and ways of death, may be evil, but death as the brute, inescapable fact simply is.  And here, therefore, Barth would answer Bernard differently -- because the language of the problem dictates how the reality is viewed.  And yet say the same thing: "Those things that happen to a human being, do not come about by necessity."  Death is subject to divine providence, and in Barth exceptionally so.  But time is a realm of that which changes -- for Thomas, that which is in the process of being changed, informed from formlessness to perfection, and which may resist but ultimately not halt or reverse the divine progress of the creature toward ordained perfect ends.  And for Thomas death is by no means an end, in the teleological sense.  Even if you take your own life, you cannot negate your existence.  You can only extend the necessary purgation before you are fit to your perfect end in God.  For Barth, death is an end, but it is also therefore reditus, the return to God that is Thomas' perfect ordained end.

I think ultimately, that the unfairness of the theodicy question is well seen from both of the lectures from this first session.  It is certainly so that Christ's logos is the rationale behind creation, and behind new creation in every moment in which we experience it.  But we declare that God is God as Creator apocalyptically, as the ratio Christi is revealed to us as the ubiquitous logic of all creation and every act of creation.  This is not to say that, ubiquitous though it is, the Christ-logos is the only rationale evident in the world.  Here is the natural theology problem.  If we attribute, as Aquinas seems to and Barth fears, every created rationale to an origination in the divine rationale, we let the rationales of sin and evil, or less polemically of disconnected and striving autonomous created being, set themselves up as claimants to the divine rationale.  We make God the author of evil, the director of sin.  And here is the apocalyptic nature of the creation narrative, precisely that it tells the story of God's self-creation and all consequent creation in the face of its apparent non-self-evidence.  We ask the theodicy question because we believe, but misunderstand.  And we ask it because we trust the creator, but are confused about the creation as we see it.  Asked this way, it may be answered simply by the demonstration of the dikaiosunen theou.  And that justice of God, which is the nature of God, is demonstrated in Christ.  Wirklich.

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