the unattainable divine What

Dealing with the great problem at the heart of his proposed solution, Karl Barth speaks of the reception of divine revelation as the How. “This How is the attainable human reflection of the unattainable divine What. Our concern here must be with this reflection.”

Concern indeed! Barth’s radical rejection of natural theology, because—I think—he wants a solution to the problem of liberalism’s contradictory anti-supernatural theology (and so whenever I read him protesting natural theology, I supply instead anti-supernatrual theology and what he means then makes sense to me), Barth’s rejection of any natural theology makes his reception of divine revelation problematic. And, I think, modern, as opposed to pre-modern.

I cannot read Barth and believe his god is anything but a god of becoming. It seems to me that that is the modern dilemma: there are no modern theologies in which there is an immutable God. The problem is not simply a denial of classic theism, it is a denial of the corresponding intellectualism. Intellectualism is only possible with language that is analogical or univocal. The anti-supernatural theology of liberalism with its immanent-but-not-transcendent god represented a univocal intellectualism, and Barth reacts to this. But if there is no analogy, which voluntarism essentially denies, then all you have is equivocation. And a god about which nothing can be asserted is conceptually no different from a god of becoming. For all practical theological purposes, all voluntarism, it seems to me, has to involve a god of becoming. Barth’s Trinitarian thought can be reduced to a serial, uninterrupted modalism, which is to say, he has a god of becoming. The stability of the unchanging God of such utter perfection that he is pure actuality is exchanged for the instability of the god of ineffable dynamism, a sheer untamed and indescribable power with no other dominant quality. The problem for Barth, then, is not simply that the Immutable is revealing himself in the realm of the mutable, it is that the unattainable divine What offers no point of reference himself. He has reacted to univocity by affirming equivocity, rather than reverting to analogy.

I am beginning to wonder whether the rejection of natural theology is a position incompatible with pre-modern assumptions. I wonder if you have to be modern or post to accept it. Is it, in short, an innovation subsequently read back into theology and Scripture?

Essentially, you can accept the analogical intellectualism of pre-modern theology, the theology of classic theism, or you can go with the theological manifestation of philosophical nominalism, which is voluntarism, a radical skepticism about our ability to know what is transcendent. You can either deny transcendence by only speaking in terms of exalted human experience, or you can effectively deny transcendence by denying any point of contact whatever. If you want to argue that it is not that simple, I am open to persuasion. At this point I just can’t see how an argument against what I’m saying can be made. The argument for what I’m saying is that of continuity with the assumptions on the basis of which theology was done, of the palpable affinity between nominalism and voluntarism, and of the trajectory we see devolving from both the philosophical and the theological assumptions that are nominalism and voluntarism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s