Barth on Jerusalem and Athens (Sect. I)

I have a certain kind of system for organizing evidence when I want to make claims about God, a kind of “christian epistemology,” if you will. I take the bible seriously but not ultimately seriously. That some proposition is asserted in the bible is only prima facie reason for thinking that it is true. Next up on the evidentiary totem pole is what is reasonable or rational to believe. And finally, the final say on some matter, the epistemological trump card is the burning bush, the experience of the Divine dictating some truth.

(This christian epistemology clearly doesn’t make sense for establishing God’s existence in the first place. But barring that issue, this is how I conduct my epistemic affairs.)

Today, I picked up Barth to try again for the 5th time to understand what the junk is going on in his massive Church Dogmatics. Surprisingly, I found his message clear and thought provoking. And his message essentially challenges my christian epistemology as I’ve outlined it above.

For Barth, talk about God (theology) has its own distinctive method and its own distinctive content. The method and content of God-talk is informed entirely by Jesus Christ. He determines the “basis,” “goal,” and “content” of our theological endeavors. Theology, thus, explains itself to no one:

“It does not justify itself before [any other science or philosophy]…as regard to method, it has nothing to learn from them.”

Barth’s view of theology, then, seems to just repose Tertullian’s question, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Athens and its scientific-philosophical method and conclusions ought to have no bearing on God-talk.

What’s today? Monday? On another day perhaps, I would balk at such a statement. I would be much more on board for my way of doing God-talk, a way that I see as more holistic and more realistic. It is a way that says that “whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is beautiful” should be claimed by the Christian. And more importantly, it is a way that says that the method of determining what is, in fact, good, true, and beautiful can itself be found wherever, including outside the Christian tradition. It says that God is bigger than Christianity.

But today is Monday and so, Barth’s suggestion has a certain appeal. Its a suggestion that is not unlike Kierkegaard’s. Kierkegaard sets up the same dichotomy between Jerusalem and Athens. More than that, he sets up an irresolvable and fundamental tension. The claims of faith will fly in the face of Jerusalem – and that’s the point. If Athens can make sense of God, then you aren’t talking about the kind of Thing-That-Transcends-Us anymore.

Even though (apparently) I’m having a Kierkegaard-Tertullian-Barth kind of day, there seems to be a problem with this proposal. The problem is that in our Christian texts, there seems to be a mingling of Jerusalem and Athens. Here’s an example:

30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31  but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Here we have a substantive epistemological presupposition: that miracles ought to engender belief in Christ. And as soon as your start presupposing things like that, you start doing philosophy, you start appealing to a standard that is not itself informed by Christ. And soon as you appeal to such a silly philosophico-epistmological standard, you, in this case, just invite David Hume to come in and wreck that standard.

Thus, if Barth is advocating that we take our texts as defining the basis of our God-talk, he also advocating that we take the (philosophical) standards that are appealed to in our texts as the basis of our God-talk. These standards, as Hume showed, cannot stand up to scrutiny.

But there’s no reason to interpret Barth this way. His claim is not that the texts be our basis but that Jesus be our basis. And this, perhaps, insightful, for it suggests that there’s a difference between paying attention to John’s gospel and paying attention to Jesus. It suggests, moreover, that the question that Tertullian should of asked is not “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?,” but rather “What does Jesus have to do with Athens?”

(And maybe that’s what he meant anyway. I’ve not actually read any Tertullian. It just seems like when people appropriate Tertullian, they do not make this distinction.)

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