From Schleiermacher to Barth

The history of the engagement between theological inquiry and the concept of "culture" should begin with Schleiermacher's attempt, at the end of the eighteenth century, to engage those he called the "cultured despisers of religion" in an argument about the cultural necessity of religion. His understanding of culture was crucially Romantic: cultures are homogeneous and hegemonic - or at least can be heuristically so understood. Fully "cultured" individuals participate in the paradigmatically religious experience of unity with the cosmos which - though it is the essential experience from which all "positive" religions take their start - is manifest in radically particular explicit forms, as determined by individuals' cultural and historical setting. While Schleiermacher employed different strategies for his apologetic (in his Speeches on Religion, 1799)

and dogmatic (in his Glaubenslehre, 1821-2) theological projects, his account of theology's relation to its cultural setting remained fundamentally stable. In general, the theologian details a perspicuous presentation of a culture's expressions of its religious faith, in order to show their interrelations, thereby deepening the community's expressed piety.7

Today Schleiermacher is criticized most often for not being cultural enough, particularly in his overly de-historicized transcendental account of religious experience (see Proudfoot 1985); ironically, however, such criticisms speak to how much his approach to theology convinced theologians to begin from local experiences of faith. But in fact his thought is if anything too cultural, too fixed on the determining power of cultures over individuals, to permit much genuine theological creativity to function. Theology does not offer culture an external critique, but rather an internal organization (which may entail some accidental critique); it cannot speak prophetically to some cultural configuration, or highlight its radical contingency.8

As the nineteenth century wore on and Romantic disaffection with industrializing societies became accommodated in the structures of feeling and intellect (simultaneously institutionalized in certain structures of resistance to it, such as universities, and also nostalgized as charming stodgy technophobia), the critical leverage of Schleier-macher's apologetics was lost, and his dogmatic analysis of religion within determinate cultural forms increasingly anchored all theology. This was reinforced by the increasing sophistication of historiography: the German "history of religions" school increasingly confirmed the deep connections between an era's intellectual achievements and its cultural and historical conditions, and its lessons were appropriated in constructive theological work, so that later nineteenth-century theology, culminating in Ernst Troeltsch, emphasized culture's determination of theology (see Troeltsch [1923], 1979). (Troeltsch's work so emphasized this determination that it attracted the epithet Kulturprotestantismus, "culture Protestantism.") The disastrous end of this mode came in the German intellectuals' infamous declaration (in August 1914) of their support for the German Reich in World War I, along with its ugly echo in the "German Christians" of the Nazi era.9

It was Troeltsch's sense of culture's determinative power over theology that the so-called "Dialectical" theologians rejected by claiming that theology possesses a source transcending all cultural structures, either via the transcendental/existential conditions of human subjectivity (as in Bultmann) or, more famously, via the absolutely other and transcendent Word of God (as in Barth). Such theologians acknowledged the cultural determination of "religion" as a human construct (thus Barth's famous delight in Feuerbach, and his treatment of him as the greatest "liberal" theologian); but they thought theology was not about a culture's religion, but rather about the Word of God, which negated the cultural codes of the day, and created the grounds for its own reception. For the "Dialectical" theologians, at least in their extreme formulations, holding a theological discussion of culture is not something theologians can do; it is only something they can report, as having already been done, and announced, by the Living God. Theology always works against the cultural status quo of the time.

While the "Dialectical" theologians' approach to the question of theology and culture was a profound and well-warranted corrective to the earlier and more sanguine

Kulturprotestantismus, it was limited largely to negations of the cultural and theological givens of the time. Once this negation had had its desired effect, there was little that the "Dialectical" theologians, qua theologians, could say. Not only could they not offer more positive guidance - that was, after all, to be found in the Word of God - but also, because they eschewed altogether the positive voice, they could not even detail how the Word of God works in order to help us inhabit our cultural situation. The "radically other" God was so other that it seemed hard to see God's positive relevance to our lives. If Barth was right in saying, against Schleiermacher, that one cannot say "God" just by shouting "man," it could equally be said against the early Barth that one cannot say "God" just by shouting "no."10

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