Friday 24 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.


Ben Myers said...

As a footnote to this review: Some of you might especially be interested in Clough's engagement with John Howard Yoder's critique of Barth (especially in chapter 7). Clough disagrees with Yoder's critique of the "borderline case" (Grenzfall) and with Yoder's defence of casuistry; but he agrees that Barth's view of warfare is inconsistent with the whole dialectical structure of Barth's ethics.

In particular: "[Barth's] recommendation of routine preparation for war means that Barth cannot support his contention that war is an opus alienum of the state: it has clearly become the opus proprium he rejected" (p. 97). Precisely because (in Barth's view) war is a borderline case, Christian engagement in warfare cannot be regarded as a serious possibility: "Christians cannot support preparations for the exceptional case," and thus the hypothetical possibility of war cannot have any meaningful implications for "the rest of the existence of the Christian" (p. 98).

In other words, Clough argues that Barth allows the dialectical structure of his own ethics to be dissolved as soon as he treats preparation for war as a genuine possibility.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Its been a while since I read Romans -- but didn't Barth in his preface eschew the term dialectical. And also critical.

Thing is he's so dialectcial he doesn't wnat to be lumped into a school called dialectical.

Mind you I read this 10 years back -- I just recall it becasue the prof was so adamanet that Barth was a dialectical theologian.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting, Ben, that the bottom line of both Clough's and Yoder's critiques is that Barth is inconsistent: for Clough, with the dialectical structure of his ethics; for Yoder, with his doctrine of revelation, with the fact, Yoder argues, that at this point in his ethics Barth abandons its dogmatic infrastructure for pragmatic considerations. Barth would seem to be wedged between a rock and a hard place!

Ben Myers said...

Hi David: yes, you're right. Barth became increasingly sceptical about the value of the "dialectical theology" movement, especially the Lutheran wing of that movement (i.e. Gogarten and Bultmann).

So as time went by, he increasingly felt the need to distance himself from "dialectical theology" -- thus, for instance, he distanced himself from the Romans commentary; and then in the 1932 prolegomena to Church Dogmatics he distanced himself from his 1927 prolegomena to Christian Dogmatics.

But Bruce McCormack's achievement was to show that Barth himself is often a very unreliable guide to his own development. Barth often exaggerated the discontinuity between his later and earlier work; whereas the continuities are really much deeper than any discontinuities.

And McCormack also suggests that the single most significant turning-point in Barth's theological development is in fact the doctrine of election in CD II/2 -- i.e., the major turning point comes not before the CD, but within the CD!

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Although I love Barth's theology and agreed with most of the conclusions of his ethics (his refusal to fully embrace pacifism aside), I have always had trouble with his aversion to rules and general principles. I am no legalist, and certainly agree that narrative and context play their part, but rules and principles are clearly part of the biblical record--a large part. Barth's extraordinary gymnastics in attempting to make the command of God ALWAYS direct and occasional (which inspired Fletcher's situationism) are quite fantastic and not worthy of his usual vigor as an exegete.
In differing ways, Bultmann, Brunner, and Bonhoeffer all share this extreme rule aversion and it is an achilles' heal to all their ethics. It can make for an abstract approach to discipleship. Paul Lehmann, the only person who attempted to be consistently Barthian as a theological ethicist had many strengths but still the same weakness, I'm afraid. Hauerwas does somewhat better because of his appreciation for Catholic casuistry and because, for better or worse, he was also a student of Paul Ramsey. Also, his attention to the factors that mold character, at least show us the kind of person a disciple would have to be to rightly hear the free Command of God as Barth sees it.
It's better, like Yoder, or the NT scholar Richard B. Hays, or like James Wm. McClendon, or my own teacher, Glen Stassen, to acknowledge the role(s) of rules and principles, but show how they fit larger narrative paradigms.

I will be interested to read Clough, as I was to read Ford on Barth's ethics. But I approach this topic with more critical or even skeptical leanings than with most other Barth-related matters, I'm afraid.

Petter Ö said...

Did Barth have an "aversion to rules and general principles" or an aversion to fit in our understanding of God and God's command with our rules and principles? I think rather the later is the case.

To me "dialectical theology" seems to mean so many different things, so depending on this, that, or a wholly other definition, Barth could be called a dialectical theologian or not. It's hard to get anywhere with this, and I think perhaps Barth saw that.

I think in the sence that "dialectical theology" means the dialogue where we try to let God have the first and last word, Barth pretty much was dialectical "von Haus aus" and remained so.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter Ö.

I think it was precisely because he had an aversion to the subjective commandeering and cultural reductionism of God's commands by human beings, as part of our perennial project of self-justification, that Barth opposed not only rules and general principles but systematic ethics as such.

But observe that Barth does not even admit rules and principles proffered by the Bible; even divine commands in scripture cannot be taken "neat". Why? Because they were illic et tunc, not hic et nunc, in the contemporary encouter of the divine "I" with the human "thou". Controlling Barth's entre ethical enterprise is the freedom of God, which lies behind his insistence on "borderline" or "exceptional" cases. And it is true that God's freedom gives Barth's ethics its majestic wings, confronting the moral reflector and decider with the transcendent will of God. However, one can rightly asks whether it also constitutes a bit of an albatross.

I'm with Michael on the supplements needed to advance the post-Barthian discussion of theological ethics: the re-visiting of casuistry in aid of concrete moral deliberation, and of narrative and character in aid of the shape and continuity of the good life. In additon to the theologians Michael mentions, two rather good books, appreciative yet not fawning, on the ethics of Barth himslf are:

Nigel Biggar, The Hastening That Waits: Karl Barth's Ethics (1993)

John Webster, Barth's Moral Theology (1998)

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

What Kim said. Whenever I read Barth on God's freedom vis-a-vis God's commands, I always think that God is NOT free to act in ways contrary to WHO GOD IS. God's freedom is limited not just by God's will, but by the divine nature, the divine character of holy love.

Particular commands of God to people NOW must be consistent with the God we know IN JESUS CHRIST or it is not THAT God commanding. Thus the need for having our characters formed in Christian community in order to have the practices and virtues that can correctly discern the free command of God from other words by other gods.

I've read and greatly enjoyed Nigel Biggar's work, but have yet to get to Webster's. (So many books, so little time!)

Petter Ö said...

Kim, thanks, but I'm not sure I fully understand. Do you mean that Barth opposed rules and general principles, or that he refused to make them part of Christian doctrine?

What do you mean with "neat"? I've thought, from my very little Barth reading so far, that
God's command is the shell of evangelium and the evanglium the core of God's command, taking one form illic and another hic, one form tunc and another nunc. Do I confuse command with law perhaps? And what's an albatross picturing (except a bird unable to land)?

Michael, I think God in his full freedom and power has made this decision, this connection with us, being God in the human person of Jesus Christ. This shouldn't be understood as a limitation but a fulfilment. I think we shouldn't say that God is unfree to be someone else than he is, or to act in this or that way, but rather that he is who he is in action because he's decided to be him before the foundation of the world, and will be him with us till the end of times. He is this decision and promise, free to be somenone else, but isn't because of his grace.

I fully agree on your books/time analysis!

Kind regards

David W. Congdon said...

Ben: Thanks again for a wonderful review. Anyone interested in Clough's book will also want to check out Matt Aragon-Bruce's review posted on the website for the Center for Barth Studies here at Princeton Seminary. Matt wrote a fine review which is worth checking out. He points out that Clough never deals with the posthumously published lectures on Ethics from 1928/29 or the 1929 lecture "The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life." Both are important documents and leave a fairly large gap in Clough's otherwise very fine analysis of Barth's ethics.

I would also like to register my recommendation of Webster's book on Barth's moral theology. I think it is Webster at his best, in terms of Barth scholarship.

Ben Myers said...

Hi David: Thanks for the notice about this review by Matt Aragon-Bruce. I really enjoyed reading this -- although I thought Aragon-Bruce was a little unfair to say that Clough should have discussed the other ethical works from 1928/29. Clough is very clear about the fact that he's not attempting to trace Barth's development: he's just aiming at a straightforward juxtaposition of Romans II and the CD, in order to provide a sharp comparison/contrast between the "earlier" and "later" Barth.

Naturally I agree that the 1928/20 Ethics and The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life are of great importance for understanding Barth's ethics -- but if Clough had engaged with all this material, he really would have been writing a different kind of book altogether.

On another note, I'll add my voice to the recommendation of Webster's work -- Webster is definitely unequalled as an interpreter of Barth's ethics. As well as Barth's Moral Theology, his earlier book is a must-read: Barth's Ethics of Reconciliation (Cambridge UP, 1995). And I'll soon be posting a review of another recent study which is deeply indebted to Webster: Archibald James Spencer, Clearing a Space for Human Action: Ethical Ontology in the Theology of Karl Barth (Peter Lang, 2003).

Also, for the social-political background to Barth's ethical thought, I'd recommend the little book by Frank Jehle: Ever against the Stream: The Politics of Karl Barth, 1906-1968 (Eerdmans, 2002).

Anonymous said...

Hi Petter Ö.

Sorry about my obscure English!

"Neat" refers to taking drink (alcohol, spirits) undiluted, particularly malt whiskies (mine's a Laphroaig, please!).

To refer to something as an "albatross" means that it is an encumbrance (an allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).

I hope that clarifies what I am trying to say.


Petter Ö said...

Kim, are you talking about the relation between spiritus and letter or are you suggesting that I drink to much while reading the Bible? Ready for a duel!?

Kidding, thank you, the fogs have cleared away.

Anonymous said...

I look forward to seing the review of my book.

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