Faith and Reason: Non-Competition in #KBCDIII

Barth is killing some sacred cows in Church Dogmatics III, and one of the biggest is the presumed conflict between faith and reason. It's fair to say he's been doing this from the very beginning, but since CD III.1 opens Barth's attempt to write a workable theological metaphysics for anthropology, it comes up again in exactly the place we always presume there should be conflict. The world vs. God. Creation myth vs. verifiable science. Two great magisterial canons, set up to fire at one another. And for what?

Objects of Study

As adamantly opposed to natural theology as Barth is, he isn't opposed to natural anthropology, natural cosmology, natural history, or any of the other natural sciences. Remember, theology (as its own proper science) is not competing with physics, chemistry, biology, history, etc. God may not be an object of Naturwissenschaft, but the visible world certainly is, and we are part of it. The world is one vast non-God sphere, heaven and earth and everything in between. Barth accepts that empirical natural science is right, as far as it goes, and must be allowed to go as far as it legitimately can. In his own introduction, Barth goes so far as to predicate the necessary autonomy of theology on this equally necessary autonomy of the natural sciences.

But don't for a minute think that Barth is claiming some sort of Wolffian compromise, making a kind of "non-overlapping magisteria" claim between religion and science. Barth concedes nothing to religion. Religion deserves no autonomy comparable to science. Theology, on the other hand, deserves autonomy precisely as a science. It deserves a functional autonomy from the natural sciences because, and to the extent that, it studies an object autonomous from theirs. (This is a two-way street!)

Creation, for Barth, is not a place to allow spillover between two separate and clearly distinct objects: God, and the non-God creation. The idea of causation is no excuse for bad theology. God is not a world-cause, and world-causes are not God. It's not appropriate to let metaphysics flow into theology here; metaphysics must flow from theology if we are to understand creation correctly. (Metaphysics always flows from physics, higher abstractions built out of generalization on the basis of the particular. When it does not, when existing metaphysical systems prove inadequate, we fix them so that it does.) The fact that the created world is not determined by God in its historical existence will have its own coverage later, but for now it's enough to clearly separate these two objects. We speak of them in relationship, but we should never speak as though there were an identity, equality, or necessary reciprocity between them.

Separate Disciplines

Because of this clear separation between their objects, Barth concedes no theological points to the natural sciences. God is not natural, much less supernatural. Natural and supernatural objects, earthly and heavenly creatures, all stand on one side, parts together of the total creature. On the other side, there's God. The natural sciences speak of nature in its own terms, nature as it shows itself. Nature (at best) as it is ... though not as it ought to be, or what it means. The theologian, on the other hand, speaks of God ... and if not in God's own terms, then at least in terms dictated by the study of God as God shows Godself.

To the extent that we also speak of nature as theologians, we speak about it in terms of how it is revealed to us before and by God. This shouldn't lead us to contradict the evidence of our senses in favor of a false historicization of the story. It should also not compel us to stop speaking about nature as theologians rather than natural scientists. Natural and theological sciences have different approaches to the same natural object. That said, there is no reciprocity with science here. The scientist may not speak of God as nature reveals God, because nature has no such power. The natural scientist has no equally valid approach to God. This isn't an incapacity of reason, as though God were incomprehensible. It isn't even really a question of access, as though God were located far beyond the world. It is a question of knowing the object of our study in the ways it gives itself to be known. The natural sciences simply do not study an object that gives them access to make claims about God. Only God reveals Godself. Barth does not believe that God gives Godself to be known through nature, though we'll get to that in more detail later.

Of course, God's actions do appear in history and nature. God does act in the world. God is in the world, the Creator ever present to the creature. And when we are confronted by God, when God gives Godself to be known directly by us, we know it. However, God's actions are not products of history or nature, nor can they be threatened by any attempt to understand natural history, or any other aspect of the world, in its own terms. Nor, for that matter, does Barth believe that our scientific understandings of natural history are in any danger from the creation saga ... but again, that will get its own treatment.

Sciences, not Magisteria

There is no conflict here between faith and reason, because they are not properly opposites. One had as well say of the physicist as the theologian that faith precedes and directs the intellect, that understanding of the object follows from exposure to and reliance upon the object. Anselm, in Barth's hands, becomes the ground for a deeply and unproblematically Modern approach to theology. It is the tradition, the history across which we have developed various theological paradigms, which stands to be judged as fruitful or unfruitful in the face of its object.

Magisterial authority is simply a non-starter here. Barth does not concede that the tradition is ever right because it has said something, however long or with whatever vigor it has done so. Nor should he! Theology is never defensible in its own terms, defensible on its own (really, our own) authority. In the face of its object, it either works, or it doesn't. Barth seems pointedly unwilling to prop up theologies that do not work. He insists that scientists must be free within the limits of the study of their object: the theologian free before God in the study of God, just as the physicist before nature in the study of nature. Unwilling to be bound by irrelevant objects, and only willing to be bound by the history of the study of this object as far as that history proves true.

In other words, Barth treats the church's magisterium the way scientists treat their own: critically. Something we make on the way to understanding. Something that records our past (mis)understandings. A completely mixed bag of good and bad, yet something we try to surpass as faithfully as possible. Something with which we break freely, but with good reason, when and where it does not work. (And if that sounds like I waited a very long time to respond to Matthew Rose, let's say I wasn't in a hurry to blog about it.)


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