Saturday, 25 November 2006

David Clough: Ethics in Crisis

David Clough, Ethics in Crisis: Interpreting Barth’s Ethics (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), xix + 143 pp. (with thanks to Ashgate for a review copy)

When Bruce McCormack published his great work on Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology in 1995, the whole field of Barth scholarship was decisively altered. Previously, it had been accepted that there was a sharp divide in Barth’s theology between an early “dialectical” method (as in the commentary on Romans) and a later “analogical” method (as in the Church Dogmatics). But McCormack demonstrated that there was no such divide, and that Barth’s theology was in fact consistently dialectical.

In this recent addition to Ashgate’s excellent Barth Studies series, David Clough seeks to build on McCormack’s work by uncovering the deep continuity between Barth’s earlier and later ethical thought. The structure of Clough’s book is simple but effective: he explores the dialectical character of Barth’s ethics in the commentary on Romans (1922), and then he compares this with the more elaborate ethical material in the Church Dogmatics (1932-67). In particular, Clough focuses on three main ethical themes in both Romans and the Church Dogmatics: first metaethics, then love and community, and finally war and revolution. And in each case he argues that Barth’s ethics can be understood properly only when its dialectical character is observed.

Clough demonstrates that some of the recurring criticisms of Barth’s ethical work rest on a failure to perceive the dialectical structure of his ethics. Barth has, for instance, often been accused of occasionalism, or of failing to specify in advance exactly how we hear God’s command. But Clough points out that Barth did not simply “forget” to address such problems – rather, to establish definite principles in such areas would be to “resolve the oppositional tensions in Barth’s ethical thought, close up the openings to the divine command they create, and enact the system he rejects” (p. 114). By situating ethical problems between opposing dialectical statements, Barth seeks to clarify the space in which God’s command may be encountered, rather than prescribing any specific forms of action.

As Clough notes, then, the question to ask is “not whether we should be more systematic in our ethics, but whether we may be” (p. 118) – whether as humans standing before God we can in fact aim for anything more than “to make ethics open to God’s command” (p. 132). For Barth, ethics should never aim to be too systematic; it should never attempt undialectically to describe in advance what God’s command will look like. On the contrary, the task of ethics is more modest and yet more challenging: not to be prescriptive, but to bear witness “to the One who is other than we are” (p. 12).

All theological ethics is thus caught up in a dialectical tension, in a situation of crisis. On the one hand, we are never able to say in advance what God’s command will be; and on the other hand, it is our responsibility to reflect on God’s command, so that we can be ready in each new situation to hear and obey. Ethics, therefore, is “a profoundly problematic but nonetheless inescapable task” (p. xv). It is always precarious, unstable, “set on the edge of a knife” (p. 14).

Clough concludes his study by bringing Barth into conversation with contemporary ethics. Barth’s dialectical ethics, he argues, can offer a way forwards beyond ethical absolutism on the one hand and postmodern ethical relativism on the other. As Clough notes, absolutist ethical models remain deeply entrenched in parts of the Christian church today. In such models – whether appealing to the Bible or to spiritual experience or to ecclesial authority – Christians claim to have “a certain … knowledge of God’s will for how human beings are to live” (p. 123). In contrast, relativist ethicists rightly perceive the “complexity and indeterminacy” of ethics, but merely throw up their hands at the possibility of the whole ethical enterprise (p. 124).

A dialectical ethics, however, offers a way beyond this impasse. Such an ethics offers not a complete system that can resolve all ethical problems in advance, but only a specific way of approaching concrete ethical problems. It is neither prescriptive nor merely critical; instead, it seeks “to remind us of the space in which Christian ethics must exist” (p. 131). This space is opened up by the crisis of all ethics: we must respond to God’s command, and yet we cannot guarantee in advance what God’s command will be. By situating our ethical reflection within this space – within this crisis – we wait for “encounter with God’s living Word,” in openness “to the unexpected grace of God” (p. 137).

David Clough’s Ethics in Crisis offers both significant contribution to the interpretation of Barth’s development, and a sharp and suggestive proposal for our contemporary task of reflecting theologically on the nature of human action and the will of God.


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