Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Quick Sketch: Barth's Dogmatic Solar System

There's a definite sense in which the world of Barth after Bruce McCormack's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, and in the course of his theological career, is a world of election, a world of God's own divine eternity as the sphere upon which all things rely and in which all things happen.

This is as much as to say that, when we realized Jupiter's character as a body and learned about its role in the heliocentric model, we discovered a deep and far-reaching insight into the causes of the particular motions of the minor bodies of the inner solar system. The inner system is the way it is because of the necessary contribution of Jupiter.

But it must also be said that a solar system like ours with only Jupiter at its periphery would look quite different. There are more massive bodies orbiting out there beyond the belt, and without the rest of them there, the orbital mechanics cannot be calculated correctly. The heavy gravity of the outer system, in its complex pull against the gravity of the Sun, gives the environment in which Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars exist in the ways that they do. If it were different, if it were more or less, the inner system in which we live would be a quite different place.

Election, as visually obvious and massive and functionally essential as it is for describing the situation of our Christian existence in daily life from a Reformed perspective, is not sufficient to that description. It requires creation, that less-visible but still quite massive and influential body in its own right, and redemption, too. And, when we have accounted for these bodies, it is very likely that we will realize that this obvious Jupiter is not as heavy or as influential as we had thought it must be in the math, though it is certainly essential if we are to account for the way things are. Nor is it unaffected by the others, itself.

The work to be done is to slot the remaining massive bodies in, to describe them as thoroughly and emphatically, and when we have done so, we shall grasp our life before God, as Barth describes it, so much the better. And this, too, is the way beyond Barth on the same path.

God is Not a Predicate

This was a running theme in all the Barth-related sessions I went to this AAR—even Alan Torrance's crypto-Barthian "Second Annual Analytic Theology Lecture," to whose characterizations of their project Michael Rea and Oliver Crisp nodded, even when perhaps they were simply being polite. But the official Barth materials were better than this. Frankly, the whole conference was quite genuinely theological, for AAR. But no insight I got from the conference was more important than the angles on the simple fact that God is not a predicate. God is not a conclusion, a result from data, something that can be rationally reached second from some first thing.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On Testimony and Eyewitnesses

(à propos of Richard Bauckham, et al, and as on-topic and strictly attentive to the ideas as I can get...)

When we say that the gospel texts are witnesses, we may mean several things. The first concept that idea raises is that the gospels are witnesses to the events they report. That is to say, that they give testimony about a specific set of historical events, standing in some relationship to eyewitnesses of those events. That their authority to speak is the authority of eyewitness accounts, and that we trust them because (even if by some custodial chain) they were there.

There is an alternative, of course; it is not necessary that the texts were written to witness to the events. The events may have been told in order to witness to something else. This is the nature of early historiography—and of most history in scripture. An explanatory history is constructed well after the fact in order to describe the past for the sake of a present circumstance. Which is, in many circles today, a very unpleasant idea to contemplate, in spite of all of its critical usefulness for the texts we actually have. It doesn't fit the canon by which we understand non-fictional history as the validity of "truth."

In fact, it often seems like this idea works against the idea of eyewitness testimony, and that, to accept it, we need to defeat this eyewitness idea. The problem, of course, is that there is nothing wrong with the desire for eyewitness historical accounts; we have been trained by modernity to prefer them. The real problem is the lengths we are tempted to go to make the evidence fit the idea. So, instead, let us attempt to prove this idea according to its own canons of evidence, which will do much of the work.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Justifying the Priority of the "Ought" Over the "Is"

(Further updated—I know how Melanchthon felt about the Augustana now.)

I've come to the conclusion lately that Barth's "actualism" is none other than the quality that led Bonhoeffer to call his theology of revelation a positivism. And also to the conclusion that I love it, as an approach. There's an advantage to not having to justify what exists, which is that you then get to talk about how it works, what its effects are, and what it means. And, after all, modeling systems is the only real science of modernity. Metaphysics is always posterior in such a light: theory based on the model of reality.

But when it comes to ethics, we all run smack into what Hume called the "Is–Ought" problem. Whenever we attempt to model ethics on any empirical basis, we find that there's no ground; it's human action all the way down, and all the way out in every direction. This is a serious meta-ethical problem! Where does one stumble upon a reliable moral touchstone in this sea of human existential relativity? What grounds any claims to "ought," in this moral morass of "is"?

This leaves us with an ought-not from an is-not, namely that since there is no non-arbitrary moral basis in evidence, we ought not pretend as though there were. All moral bases are arbitrary. I'm cool with this; I've even managed to think divine command theory in accordance with it. And I'm pretty sure Barth has, too, or at least he's where I got the idea. But one of the best things about Barth's "actualism" here in ethics is that it lets him call foul on both idealism and empiricism as grounds for Christian ethics. And for more on that, I've been working my way through Barth's staple 1922 lecture, "Das Problem der Ethik in der Gegenwart," or "The Problem of Ethics in the Present Time." It says some very cool things, even right at the beginning, that touch on the problem.