Theology and Politics

Barth was determined to be political only through theology - and he argued that being a theologian gave him something distinctive and useful to offer in politics, though that was not the reason for doing theology (Barth 1939: 82). Theology was true only as obedience to the Word of God. In 1933, urged to respond to Hitler's new Reich by taking a political stance, he declared that, in view of the unclear situation, he would carry on with his students in Bonn, doing "only theology as though nothing had happened"(Barth 1984: 26; emphasis added). This phrase has often been quoted, to chide him for irresponsible political evasion (Barth 1954: 113) and to confirm the judgment, derived (mistakenly) from his Epistle to the Romans and the path he had taken in the 1920s, that his orientation on God as the "totally Other" made him dangerously indifferent to human potential (Barth 1967: 33). Barth, on the contrary, always argued that doing theology seriously, in its integrity, would be a real, decisive, if indirect, contribution to politics. He admitted later that he had been too slow in responding to the political situation in the later 1920s, but he did not concede that he should have politicized or given up theology in order to speak to the "situation." When his critics demanded political "realism" Barth reminded them that God in Christ was the source and measure of reality.

From the late 1920s he was clear that dogmatics was not a "free" science (as a university discipline is conventionally thought to be), but one "bound to the sphere of the Church, where and where alone it is possible and sensible" (Barth 1932: ix). Barth valued secular order, and on that basis resisted interference with academic and other freedoms; but his ultimate theological opposition to the Nazis' forcible incorporation of all parts of German society into their total project was grounded on theology's total commitment to the true Lord, who was not Hitler or the Volk or any similarly human authority. (We do not speak about God by speaking about humanity in a loud voice.) Freedom was not from external restraint, nor even for self-determination, but freedom in the service of the Lord of freedom (Barth 1971: 68). In binding theology to church, Barth was not putting theological scholarship under the control of unlearned church rulers, but requiring theologians to work as members of the community of faithful obedience to God, rather than as freewheeling intellectuals. To take the church more seriously than it took itself implied a commitment to building up the church, thus saving it from religious politics and political religions (Burleigh 2000: 4-14) while fitting it for sober secular politics. He introduced the first of 13 volumes of the Church Dogmatics by protesting that for lack of adequate theology many preachers and faithful people were left to find "religious insight in their intoxication of their Nordic blood and their political F├╝hrer" (1932: xi).

Barth worked primarily in Switzerland and Germany. Both states traditionally wanted to be "Christian" in some sense and so they recognized churches as public corporations. Theology in public universities was an intellectually lively and popular discipline, with close, if sometimes conflictual, relations with churches. Christendom creaked, but had not yet collapsed. Throughout the period of Barth's life, some were simply at home in the ambiguity of the situation, exploiting what the tradition gave, while it lasted. Others valued it as a social and cultural inheritance under attack and in danger of being lost; so they fought for its restoration. Barth, though historically learned and appreciative of the past, provocatively took another view. The church could not rest on its past, but was the church only in the present hearing of the living Word of God. In the "church struggle," some made adherence to the sixteenth-century confessions the criterion of the true church, but Barth struggled for a church that was given its true being ever afresh, as a Bekennende Kirche, a confessing, rather than a confessional, church. Bonhoeffer's famous question, "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?" was also Barth's. Barth respected inherited confessions of faith and often lectured on them; but quoting a past confession, rather than speaking out of actual faith now, was not merely dead, but deadly.

The political task of the church was not to shore up Christendom. Barth recognized that the historical performance of Christianity was imperfect. Socialists had been quicker and more accurate than most of the church in recognizing, analysing, and attacking the injustice of poverty. The church had held on to privilege in traditionalist hierarchical societies, rather than showing freedom to serve. After 1945, like his Czech colleague J. Hromadka, Barth thought Christians should accept communist expropriations as an historical penitence (West 1958: 73, 252). Renewal was more than progressive improvement; it required repentance and new creation.

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