Barth's Grenzfälle and Normative Social Ethics

Oh, the joys of AAR! (And SBL, too.) Synergy of papers coming together from different places. Last night at the Barth Society meeting, we had Matthew Puffer's paper on Barth's ethics of war -- really a paper on the right interpretation of the Grenzfall, both as term and as reality. Which had implications for me in both Jessica DeCou's paper on finding and interrogating "true words" and "natural lights" eschatologically, as well as for this morning's paper in the SBL Pauline section from Judith Gundry on celibacy and suffering in 1 Cor 7.

Now, all of this was deeply conditioned by Nate Kerr's and Peter Kline's provocative and controversial Theology and Apocalyptic paper. So you could say I was already in an eschatological frame of mind for talking about ethics -- which is never a bad thing, for a Barthian. But that delicious piece of Kierkegaardian performative rhetoric deserves justice I can't give it here. So I'm going to play the changes here on the Grenzfall in Barth's ethics, and eschatological situations. As such, what follows is not by any means objectively reportorial -- it's collaborative. It's jazz, to the extent that I can do it in theology.

So: Barthian ethics. Barthian ethics is a pain in the ass, to most ethicists. It has left a wake of confusion through twentieth-century scholarship, even among disciples. Barth simply doesn't do normative social theory. He lets it develop as a consequence of the church's right speech about God. And since dogmatics is the shop where we do maintenance on the church's speech to keep it functioning properly, it is the same place where we calibrate that speech toward just ethical action. To that end, Barth also doesn't do codified sets of rules or formal analysis of cases -- these are prescriptive tools, and they produce generic human commands. We have no moral justification for obeying (and no business proclaiming) human commands -- only the command of God, which is permission to be right creation before the creator. To become what we were made to be, created good. And our sure knowledge of that divine command comes to us strictly because -- to borrow one of Bruce McCormack's favorite tropes from election -- the commanding God and the commanded creature are one in Jesus Christ. The divine command and creaturely obedience coincide in the one creature in history who is both commanding God and obedient creature in action.

So there is one command of God -- we speak as of eternity, in which there is one God. The first key to Puffer's paper is to separate situations from that command. The command of God, in its unity, is not a new command for each situation. It isn't, therefore, an act-deontology, a situation ethic. But if the command of God is one, as God is one, it is salutary to remember that the creation is not one. Situations in time and space and history are irreducibly plural. Since Puffer's paper leans heavily on section 55 in CD III.4, I feel perfectly comfortable saying this on the basis of Barth's subsequent discussion of freedom in limitation. I think it belongs to the spirit, here. God's command is one, but human lives are always parts, each part standing in irreducible distinction from every other similar part in history. My ethical necessity is my own because I am who and what and where and when I am, and I know the things given me to know because of that. Your ethical necessity is always different from mine. And so God speaks the one particular command always to different particular creatures under different situational necessities. (Which is how God has created and provisioned us, and so is good!)

Normative social ethics (or, in Barthian terms, "sin") gets along in the world by generalizing our specificities. Which would be fine if they were accidental differences, or if they were results of the Fall or some such -- if we created them, in other words. Now, Barth isn't this far, I think, because he's still fighting normative ethics in terms of normative ethics. And so when we get to the primary discussion of the Grenzfall in section 55, Puffer makes an apt analogy. The "borderline situation" makes good sense in terms of a soccer field. The majority of the field is green. The thick white line that demarcates the field of play, in soccer, is part of the field of play. The border line is in bounds, as is any play that has not totally crossed beyond the border line. Since Barth is speaking here under the rubric of "freedom for life," the third constitutive freedom in the set of four "orderings" of the creature before the Creator, the Grenzfall in this section has to do with killing. Situations where killing is not murder -- even though all killing takes place either on the border line, or outside of it.

And so we return to the separation of the situation from the command. We are not casuists -- to call something a borderline situation, a Grenzfall, is not to presuppose what action corresponds to the situation. And so the command, as it impinges upon the situation, does not become an Ausnahme, an exception to the rule. The command of God is not othered by the situation. The situation does not excuse, let alone justify, disobedience. And yet the command of God the Creator that impinges upon us as permission, as freedom for life in this case, is also not an absolute rule about the inviolability of all life. How do we get out of this bind? Puffer does a beautiful thing here: he reminds us that we have stopped looking at God, stopped speaking to God, stopped listening to God, at the point where the situation is our primary question. "When we receive an exceptional command, we know we are in an exceptional situation." The command of God illuminates reality -- not vice versa! And so we know we're in normal situations when the command of God results in obedience that respects life without killing. On the other hand, we know we're in a borderline case when we discern God's command toward obedience, and our freedom for life momentarily involves permission to kill. And finally, we know we are playing out of bounds when the command comprehends no such permission, but we kill.

In other words, the permission for action contained in the command of God as we prayerfully receive it in the course of our work -- ora et labora -- is the only justification for non-categorically-imperative acts. Without such justification, the act is categorically wrong.

Now, because in section 55 we are talking about killing and the constitutive creaturely freedom for life, Barth wants to be sure that we know that the Grenzfall is both real and rare -- because killing is real and should be rare. The unpleasant alternative is a sort of moral exceptionalism in which the rules are for other people, and the exception is mine. Which is hubris! And so for Barth the unity of God's command corresponds to at least a categorical normalcy of the vast majority of the situations in which it is received. Most of the field is green, and we should treat the border line as though it were out of bounds until we are commanded to play upon it.

A similar problematic shows up in Jessica DeCou's paper (hooray for fellow Chicagoans!). Just as we are too apt to focus on the Grenzfall and interpret it as command, so also we are too apt to focus on secular culture and nature and attempt to interpret them as truth. Here, we're talking about section 69 in IV.3.1. What we wind up with, properly and not idolatrously considered, is a focus on divine truth and creaturely humility. Christ is again the proper context -- the truth of all other things is only properly understood in terms of this one Word of God, however derivative or distorted the resonance. What this should do for us, in Barth's corrective terms, is profoundly continuous with the Romans commentary -- the resonance of divine truth in creation is the possibility and the reality of truth outside of the church. Very much in line with "if these should keep silent, even the stones would shout!" Nature and culture will take up the truth of God even when we fail to do so -- and yet the resonance is not the place to find the true pitch. We do not trust the creaturely resonance -- we trust the Word of God, and Barth already has a thick threefold framework for that. The event of self-revelation, the witness to that revelation, and the proclamation of that revelation. And so, just as our preaching is only the word of God when it bears witness to God's own self-revealing, every other creaturely resonance of God's truth is best measured in terms of God's truth.

Ah, and there's a second delicious bit, because DeCou goes into Mozart (a bit more respectable for AAR than the comedy of Craig Ferguson). And here we get back to the Grenzfall -- because we are also far too inclined to interpret artistic truth in theological or religious terms, as the price of permitting it to reflect divine truth. And this, too, is hubris! We have drawn the boundary here. We have declared that divine truth belongs to a religious field of play. And yet obedience to command is obedience to command -- the command of God is not a religious command, nor is it only validly received in religious situations. Art does its completely secular work, and yet is creative as the creature-at-play while remaining the creature before the Creator, without having to be at any point religious. The truth that resonates in nature and in culture -- whether generally secular or specifically religious -- is one truth. The resonance is plural as the resonators are many, but the truth of God's self-revelation is one.

And the final resonance on the idea, today, came from Judith Gundry's presentation on whether celibacy actually saves you from trouble, in Paul's terms. And out of her discussion of thlipsis and anagke and marriage and childbearing, I wound up with another Grenzfall. And this time, it's Paul pointing out the borderline situation: the impending eschaton. Which makes perfect sense -- if the field of play is time and space and life, eschatology is the discussion of the boundary line outside of which all returns to God. And in Gundry's presentation, it became clear to me that sarx, the flesh, isn't pejorative. It simply belongs to the green part of the field of play. Marrying and giving in marriage, begetting and bearing children -- all of this is profitable for life in green situations. (Yes, there's a play there with liturgically Ordinary time -- consider me making it.)

So all of this is kalos, essentially good. But it is good during situations in which it is part of the indefinite extension of life. In which children are borne toward life, and will have their own time in which to beget and bear their own children toward greater life. When marriage and childbirth runs up against the border line, and all of this becomes living-toward-death, what is generally good is exceeded by what is situationally better. It is better not to marry, not to bear children, because the end is near. Because, in the repeated witness of scripture, bearing children only to watch them die is horrifying. Its profitability for life becomes the greatest of liabilities. If you don't have to marry, don't pretend to yourself like getting married and having children is an asset when the eschaton is staring you in the face. You've got better profitable work to do than that, work that is a better representation of your freedom for life than trying to have a normal family. But, of course, if you do have to marry, if you are not made for continence in celibacy, do not remain unmarried as though it made you virtuous -- when in fact it will drive you to sin! Get married, if it helps you. Use marriage, in view of the eschaton, because it is no longer and not yet a time when all may generally enjoy marriage.

Paul, in other words, speaks of the Grenzfall, and the special obedience that belongs to the command discerned in that special time. Time in which freedom for life ceases to be permission to indefinitely multiply and revel in and be delighted by living. Time in which, instead, freedom for life requires a different work. Time in which what is normally delightful must be carefully used. Because we are still permitted to live, to marry, to have children -- but work presses in upon us such that blithe delight in the everyday and the ordinary is out of place.

And so I'm left asking some questions. Surely there are more borders and less normativity than we are tempted to believe in. Surely the true eschaton is rare, and the field is large. Is the field green? Is it one? Should we live under eschatological pretense, if we don't actually see the eschaton? How much of this ultimate border is there, and where is it? And how, then, do we develop an ethic of ordinary life, rather than of exceptional situations?


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