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Karl Barth and Liberation Theology

By John Mason Lock

In June I attended a conference at Princeton Theological Seminary on “Karl Barth and the Future of Liberation Theology.” This paradoxical pairing for a conference theme upended many assumptions I had about Barth and liberation theology. My seminary training tended to belittle liberation theology as Marxism parading in theological garb. We assumed liberation theology is radical in its presuppositions and its conclusions tend to jettison theological orthodoxy. On the other hand, the theology of Barth, with its emphasis on the Christ in whom all humanity is elected and saved, would seem to undercut the claims of a contextual theology that takes its cues from the experience of finite ethnic, social, or gender groups.

I was skeptical coming into the conference, but I left being impressed by the appeal and rigor of the speakers who put Barthian theology in conversation with liberation theology. Paul Jones argued that Barthian studies should be “orthodox, modern, and liberative” — and the conference seemed generally to conform to this paradigm in its variety of perspectives and voices.

That said, there were certainly moments of tension. Luis Rivera-Pagán, emeritus professor at Princeton, noted that he had not read Barth in years, and identified himself as a liberation theologian in the line of Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose book A Theology of Liberation (1971) has become a touchstone of the movement.

Andrea White, a self-identified womanist theologian, explained that she often has to explain to her feminist and womanist colleagues why she reads and studies Barth at all. Despite some speakers’ unease, a sustained effort was made to engage Barth seriously.

Most provocatively, Brian Bantum of Seattle Pacific University admitted that he not read much of Barth in years, and asked the rhetorical question Why should we read a dead white Swiss man?Bantum argued that the future of Barthian studies should be hinged on the aesthetic qualities of The Commentary on the Romans and Church Dogmatics. In such a hermeneutic it is not the dogmatic explication of Barth that is to be sought, but rather a plastic interpretation of Barth and his theology that reads him more like a novel or a piece of art and thus opens a space in the reading of Barth for the subjective, contextual voices that are trying to be elevated in liberation theology. “We follow Barth,” Bantum said, “by not following him at all. … The future of Barthian studies is not in the explication of dialectic but in laying the groundwork of liberation.”

Other speakers were decidedly more interested in the content of Barth’s theology than in its aesthetic or literary value. Hanna Reichel took up Barth’s characterization of the atonement being the judge judged in our place, and applied it to the problem of what she called “otherization,” by which she meant all the ways in which ethnic, social, and gender groups define themselves in opposition to some other group. Such thinking, argued Reichel, is foundational to colonialism, racism, and androcentrism.

Reichel suggested expanding Barth’s understanding of the atonement to include the idea that Christ became the “otherized” object in this passion: he was set at odds with and vilified by various social and religious groups. As the victim of otherization, Christ has the power to exalt those who are contemporary victims, and in his resurrection can offer a path of true reconciliation in which there is no defining of self in opposition to another. Reichel was careful to qualify this suggestion by noting that it would not be a sufficient doctrine of atonement in excluding other views.

Many of the talks reflected on the theology of the late James Cone, who died this past spring and who was pivotal in black liberation theology. Often vilified by those who quoted him out of context, Cone had in the early part of his career been attracted to the theology of Barth, but he objected to those he believed had co-opted Barth’s theology to support racial and colonial hegemonies.

Willie Jennings of Yale University dedicated his paper to Cone, and advanced the idea that “another knowledge of God is possible.” Jennings cited Barth’s doctrine of the knowledge of God, which states unequivocally that God is known only through God, and that we are not masters of this knowledge but objects of it. While Barth sits squarely in the colonialist, masculinist, European perspective, Jennings said, his understanding of God’s knowledge and the limits of human knowledge can be used to undercut the self-assured European epistemology that commodifies knowledge (as it does everything else). Barth’s rejection of natural theology cuts through many positions of human power, giving room to listen to the victims of poverty and violence in the overall project of liberation theology.

Paul Jones of the University of Virginia spoke on the provocative topic of “Liberation Theology after Charlottesville.” He reflected on the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville centered on the removal of Confederate monuments. Frightening as the visibility of white supremacy is in this country, Jones said the counter-protesters consisted of both secular “nones” and religious leaders. At one point, alt-right protestors looked as if they were going to assault the counter-protesters. The secular counter protesters formed a human fence to protect the faith leaders who had explicitly espoused the nonviolent methods of Gandhi and Dr. King.

Jones was deeply moved by this sign of sacrificial love and care, and his paper asked a question: Could Barth’s broad conception of the Church be used to formulate an understanding of the Church “in the margins,” as in the gathering of protesters affirming our democracy? Jones concluded that in these and other assemblies, we can see what Barth called a “parable of the kingdom” as well as an external sign of the reconciliation of Christ.

In the final two papers, there were close readings of passages from Church Dogmatics that were used to criticize Barth’s deficiencies in the areas of feminist theology and racial reconciliation. Faye Bodley-Dangelo, editor of the Harvard Theological Review, argued that Barth’s description of the Incarnation in Church Dogmatics §22 suggests that Mary played no part in redemption. It is her passivity, according to Barth, that makes her exceptional. Bodley-Dangelo conceded that Barth affirms women in other places, but worries that this conception of womanhood embodied in Mary could be used to justify “unsolicited assault.”

Similarly, Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Christ Church, Oxford, gave an excellent paper on the history of liberation theology in South Africa. He noted that liberation theologians mostly draw on Dietrich Bonhoeffer when they look to European theology. However, Barth’s understanding of reconciliation might be useful in further developments of liberation theology in South Africa, though again Ward was concerned that parts of Barth stress too much that we can only be recipients of this reconciliation. He worried that if this theological perspective of reconciliation were applied to the political forms of reconciliation in South Africa it would simply become a “religious placebo” in which the consciences of the offenders would be soothed and the wounds of apartheid’s victims ignored.

I wonder whether it is fair to Barth to read passages from his works in isolation from the wider scope of his theological writing. Or is the problem, as someone commented, that Barth simply wrote too much? Personally, I am sure that isolated passages from my sermons and columns could be used unfairly to misrepresent my true views. On the other hand, the warning of Bodley-Dangelo, Ward, and others was clear: Barth’s writing (or any other religious text) could be weaponized to support racism, colonialism, and a host of other evils. The key is a spirit of discernment to recognize when Barth is being co-opted and when his thought is being used creatively to reckon with complex theological, social, and political issues.

Videos of the presented papers are available  be found on the YouTube page for Princeton Theological Seminary’s YouTube page.


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