Saturday, 21 July 2007

Mark R. Lindsay: Barth, Israel, and Jesus

Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (Barth Studies Series; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), xx + 124 pp. (review copy courtesy of Ashgate)

In his remarkable History of the Jews (1978), the American writer Chaim Potok stated: “The Jew sees all his contemporary history refracted through the ocean of blood that is the Holocaust.” The central argument of Mark Lindsay’s new book is that Christian theology must likewise be “refracted” through the horrors of the Holocaust – and so he interrogates Karl Barth’s theology to find out whether it meets this fundamental requirement.

For Lindsay, the Holocaust is a theological criterion in the strict sense. Christian theology as a whole has been “decisively ruptured” by this historical event (p. 2), so that it is impossible to carry on doing theology in the same way as before the Holocaust. The book thus locates Barth within the context of post-Holocaust theological discussion and recent Jewish–Christian dialogue.

Interpreters of Barth have tended to be sharply critical of his theological understanding of Israel and the Jewish people. In her influential work, Katherine Sonderegger has argued that Barth’s theology is underpinned by a deep supercessionism and anti-Judaism. But Lindsay marshalls substantial evidence to rebut this claim. For instance, in the 1940s Barth “was intimately involved with resistance efforts from Switzerland on behalf of Jews and Jewish-Christians” (p. 33) – indeed, within his own household, his secretary Charlotte von Kirschbaum was co-ordinating the assistance of Jewish and Jewish-Christian refugees.

But the most interesting question is whether Barth’s dogmatic theology was altered in any way by the horrors of the Holocaust – whether, that is, Barth became more open to the possibility of divine revelation through events in world history. Lindsay himself believes that there must indeed be a natural theology of the Holocaust, so that this event becomes “determinative for doctrine” (p. 55). He notes with regret, however, that Barth’s critique of natural theology was never withdrawn, and that he was not willing “to embed the lessons of the Holocaust deeply into his theology” (p. 38).

But although Barth never retracted his insistence on the absolute distinction between revelation and world history, his mature dogmatics includes a recognition that some events in history can have theological significance. In CD III/3, Barth described certain “signs and witnesses” within history which stand in a special relationship to revelation. The four signs and witnesses, he said, are the history of scripture, church history, the history of the Jews, and human mortality. It was in this connection that Barth famously described the Jewish people as “a riddle” – and interpreters have generally assumed that this terminology reflects Barth’s supercessionist outlook. But Lindsay convincingly argues that this is a misreading: it is not because of any commitment to supercessionism that Barth speaks of the Jews as a “riddle”; rather, Jewish history is a riddle precisely because it bears witness to God’s secret lordship in history. Indeed, for Barth, “the Bible, the Church and the limitation of human life are riddles in exactly the same way” (p. 75).

In short, although Barth at times succumbs to a form of “allosemitism,” i.e., to an abstract idea of the Jew as “a radically different other” (p. 81), he must nevertheless be credited “with an unambiguous repudiation of secular and theological antisemitism, a thoroughgoing endorsement of the Jews’ continuing status as God’s chosen and beloved people, and a realization of the necessity of [Christian] solidarity with them” (p. 83). In Barth’s own words, in order to be elect, we ourselves “must either be Jews or belong to this Jew,” Jesus Christ (CD III/3, p. 225).

Further, Barth criticised the notion of Christian missions to Jews. He perceived that the possibility of fellowship with God is wider than the walls of the Christian church, and he insisted on a fundamental soteriological continuity between Jews and Christians. The church can exist only as “a guest in the house of Israel.” To evangelise Jews is to misunderstand the Jewish–Christian relationship entirely, since we are the ones who have already received everything from them (p. 103). In Barth’s view, there is therefore a continuing dialectic between church and synagogue. His point is not merely (as Sonderegger has argued) that the synagogue depends on the church; it is also that “the Church has no independent existence as the people of God apart from the Synagogue” (p. 105). (In passing, it’s worth noting that Hans Küng’s immense labours in Christian–Jewish dialogue were first inspired by the discovery of this Barthian dialectic.)

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Lindsay’s book is his analysis of Barth’s political view of the state of Israel. I myself was surprised to learn that Barth was strongly supportive of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. And according to Lindsay, it was precisely Barth’s theology which “formed the basis of his political support for Israel” (p. 85).

Lindsay himself is clearly also supportive of the state of Israel – and his political understanding of Israel rests on the explicit basis of his theological conception of the revelatory character of the Holocaust. To my mind, this raises a whole cluster of questions. In the first place, is it possible to speak of the state of Israel without addressing, in the same breath, the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people? And, more importantly, is the church authorised to supply direct theological validation of any geopolitical entity? Formally speaking, is not Lindsay’s natural theology of Israel only a hair’s breadth away from the form of natural theology which the “German Christians” embraced during the 1930s?

Lindsay’s profound concern to foster Jewish–Christian dialogue is admirable, and his wide-ranging command both of Barth and of recent Jewish theology is impressive. But I’m left with the niggling concern that the development of this new natural theology might in fact undercut Jewish–Christian dialogue, rather than bolster it. Is not the distinctiveness of the Christian message itself one of the basic resources needed for a rich mutual dialogue with the Jewish faith? And is not the problem with natural theology – as Barth saw – precisely that it erodes this distinctiveness?

These are, however, questions rather than answers! Lindsay has offered a remarkably fresh challenge to the Barthian stricture on natural theology – and, most impressively, he has presented this challenge in the context of a warmly sympathetic reading of Barth’s own complex (and often conflicted) understanding of the significance of the Jewish people. If Lindsay’s own proposal leaves me feeling uneasy, it is only because he is raising questions that are of fundamental importance – not only for Jewish–Christian dialogue, but also for the way in which the Christian community understands its own identity and calling in a post-Holocaust world.

6 Comments:

scott said...

A terrific review. Thanks for posting it. You're worries about that kind of political support seem exactly right to me.

Shalom.

kim fabricius said...

A review that stands as a brilliant little essay in its own right - and you certainly ask all the right questions. Many thanks, Ben.

Shalom - and Salaam

Jason Goroncy said...

Many thanks for this fantastic review Ben. How do you think we ought to situate and assess this particular volume in the series of which it is a part? What do you think of the series itself? I've only read Lauber's volume on the Descent into Hell and bits of Dawson's one of the Resurrection - both of which I found quite helpful.

Ben Myers said...

Jason: I've read most of the volumes in the Barth Studies series -- and I'd say this is one of the more creative and more mature books in the series. (Of course, most of the books in the series are doctoral dissertations -- whereas this is Mark Lindsay's second book on Barth.) And did I mention that Lindsay is also a fellow Aussie?

j. k. said...

Kate Sonderegger also mentions Barth's support for the state of Israel. But I wonder if his views would have been any different if he had lived to see some of the militarized forms of Christian Zionism in recent history.

WTM said...

Thanks for this review, Ben.

I've heard that Eberhard Bush will be publishing something on this topic in the near future.

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