Human Nature as Purely External?

I've been reading through Webster's Barth's Moral Theology—I'd say "re-reading," except that's pretentious. It's one of those books that I've picked up before, but I'm only now paying proper attention to. God only knows why—it's very, very good, and deserves far more than the skimming I gave it the last time.

What strikes me most, as Webster writes about Barth's Ethics, is how much Barth manages to fight "orders" theology while at the same time insisting that our nature as creatures can be described in purely external terms, rather than in terms of our inwardness, our psychology, our mental and rational capabilities. Rather, especially, than our self-consciousness and moral awareness.

And that lines up markedly with the Augustinian analysis of sin as a disease of the will, but it also lines up with providence as a component of the doctrine of creation, and with Barth's account of Genesis 1 in III.1, under "Creation as the External Basis of the Covenant."

It also gives a bit of leverage, if the observation can be upheld through a close primary-source reading, as to why Barth screws up sex, gender, and sexuality in III.4 under his discussion of fellow-humanity. Because it's always seemed like a mistake to me that a man whose moral theory seems so grounded against natural moral orders should opt to bias human reality so that violation of the male-female pairing is not only sin against community tending toward the destruction of the fabric of society, but also idolatrous pursuit of self-relation rather than accountability to the existential Other.

The problem sits squarely in his analysis of Genesis 1. Now, of course Barth is talking about God's order as opposed to the orders of the world. And the key piece for humanity is the sixth day, in section 41.2, running from 176-206. He's gone through the creation (and taxonomy) of the non-human animals, and when we get to talking about the creation of humanity, there are some key differences that Barth highlights.

Now, I was recently talking with my father about some forum threads he had sent me on Barth and sexuality, and among the comments there was a claim that Barth's heteronormativity, built out of Genesis 1, was countercultural. I'll tell you flat out that any claim that heteronormativity is countercultural in any place and time in human history is unsustainable. I mean that. It may be counter-countercultural, at best. But it lets me talk Barth, so we'll have that discussion elsewhere.

So I spent a bit of deep time in this piece of III.1, and while I do find that Barth does some very countercultural things with the creation of humanity, the gender binary is not one of them. Heterosociality is not only traditional, but normal and unquestioned when Barth brings it up. It is, in fact, the sole commonality between humanity and the animal creation made on the sixth day and the days before. That's an emphasis on the absence of other differentiation, not an emphasis on the existence of gender difference.

What is countercultural, both in its original setting and in Barth's interpretation, is Barth's key point from this piece of Genesis 1: humanity (unlike the animals) has no races, no peoples, no groups internal to it as does the animal creation. (That will be accounted for in the Fall, as a product of sin and tending to the dissolution of creation.) There are genera and species of animals, natural and even hierarchical structures basic to all other animal life—but no taxonomy of humanity. The only structural differentiation within humanity is gender, and it is not a hierarchical differentiation.

According to God's creative will, humanity is one in Genesis 1. This stands in radical contrast to most national genesis myths, which stress autochthony: each people grows out of its own soil, and shares its nature. This is the dominant cultural mythos that explains the existence of multiple peoples, nations, etc. And so the absolute counter-cultural point of the text is that, unlike in Babylonian mythology, we and all living things are direct creations of God. We are made of earth, and we will return to it, but the earth did not make us.

This is important for Barth, for whom humanity, der Mensch, is the creature at the heart of creation, placed on earth and under heaven, and the key to the unity of creation as a whole made according to God's will. A creature like every other creature, but given standing and a role for the sake of the whole creation—which role Adam fails, but Christ fulfills. This is a crucial and consistent touchstone in Barth's anthropology, top-to-bottom, in volume III.

And so, having said that the gender binary is our sole internal differentiation as humanity, Barth goes on to assert that the gender differentiation of humanity is a reflection of the inner communal life of God Himself. That der Mensch is an "us" of male and female basically as God is an "us" of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the I-Thou placed within humanity, and it is the imago Dei, both. And so der Mensch is two in its kind but one in its nature, so that the basic unit of humanity is male-female, and we have the image of God as male-female, but also we represent to one another, male to female and female to male, the image of the Other. Gender is the manner in which humanity is reciprocally I-Thou.

So, in defining human nature, Barth has done away with what we might understand to be the worst ideological problems enabling the Nazi regime. Nationalism has no created basis. Racism has no created basis. There is no true "other" in humanity but the opposite gender, and that wasn't exactly a pressing problem at the time, or at least not one that troubled Barth. We may attempt to subordinate women to men, and commit violence against women, but that can be taken care of by properly structuring the gender binary and the nature of society.

The question is, why is such an arrangement in any way superior to an anthropology based on our human moral interiority? Why not do away with all external, physical differentiations? Why not develop a cognitive, or rational, or moral ideal of human nature? Why not abstract human nature from the animal altogether, rather than leaving us bound to our gender-divided flesh?

You can see, in modern discussions, why leaving the gender differentiation as an order of creation still leaves us with a mess. We're inclined, in some parts of the theological spectrum, to take our ideas of gender hierarchy and gender roles and reverse Barth's analogy between the three persons of one divine nature and the two genders of one human nature. Of course, it doesn't work that way, but that doesn't stop us from writing our destructive efforts onto God, and it never has. If God cannot be a national or racial god any longer, why, He can certainly still be Male and patriarchal, can't He? Oh, and straight, too. That's the other issue with the largely philosophically-inclined way that Barth has written out the I-Thou of male-female relationship as analogous to God. It is the other way in which we are still bound to orders of creation which are not properly opposed to sin-towards-nothingness with respect to human community. In fact, Barth still leaves us with plenty of territory in which naming sin according to the orders of creation left to us remains damaging and destructive of human community all by itself.

(I have a story, which is not mine, about a graduate student giving Martin Buber a ride to the airport. Said student finally stuck the courage to ask, "Your book, I and Thou, has a lot more traction with Christians than it has among your own people. Why do you think that is?" Buber though for a moment, and said, "Jews are smarter.")

So: why not do without it? Why not, as Existentialism does, understand that every human is Other with respect to the Self, and ineradicably alien? Why not define human nature in terms, not of biological and external creaturely differentiation, but in terms of what we are as mind, as psyche, as thinking beings? (In the Cartesian sense, why not go with what truly does separate Man from the animals?)

I think that, for Barth, it's still safer to avoid the notion that the mind, in all its malleable nature and all its squirrelly manifold ways, is what makes us good creation, and that we can build an idea of God's order of the world on the basis of our most disordered part. But it still leaves us with a problem.

And yet Barth gets us so much closer than any theologian I've read, to a properly universal humanity set properly within the total creature, the creation. And this, I am convinced, is the ground of his incipient universalism: a humanity that is one in nature without arguing over the qualities of our inwardness. A humanity that is one in nature, and only one in nature, according to God's good order. A humanity that is sexually differentiated, but ought never to be divided against itself. A humanity that truly was created one, and in the end will be redeemed as one. A human nature that can be exemplified as one, in the One who is wholly God and wholly human.


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