Tuesday 4 May 2010

Jacob Taubes, Karl Barth, and St Paul

For this year's Karl Barth blog conference (coming up in July) I'll be doing a piece on Barth and Jacob Taubes – I'm also writing up a full version for publication. Here's the extended abstract:

Karl Barth and Jacob Taubes: apocalyptic theology and political nihilism

The Jewish intellectual Jacob Taubes (1923-87) is surely one of the most eccentric figures of twentieth-century philosophy. A political thinker of the far left, Taubes’ greatest intellectual debt was to the arch-conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt. An ordained rabbi, his work was driven by a penetrating engagement with Christian theology, in an attempt to lay bare the roots of modern political power. With Schmitt, Taubes believed that in today’s world everything is theological (except perhaps the chatter of theologians). He began his career with a doctoral dissertation on the secularisation of Christian apocalyptic – a vigorous response to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on the same theme – and ended his career, just weeks before his death, with lectures on the explosive political impact of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

At the centre of all Taubes’ work is an attempt to rehabilitate radical Paulinism in the interests of a Jewish apocalyptic politics. In this connection, he returns again and again to Karl Barth, and his reading of Barth is as profound as it is idiosyncratic. In Taubes’ view, Barth’s interpretation of Paul is ‘perhaps the most significant contribution to the general consciousness of our age’; like Luther, Kierkegaard and Marcion, Barth is a true interpreter of Paul who unflinchingly pursues the ‘heretical’ implications of Paul’s dialectic of law and grace. In Barth’s interpretation of Paul, Taubes finds a recovery of the ‘nihilistic’ impulse of apocalyptic politics. The illegitimate nomos of the world is passing away. Neither quietism nor revolutionary zeal counts for anything; what the world needs is neither conservation nor reform, but annihilation and recreation.

But although Taubes appropriates much of Barth’s political theology, he argues that Barth’s thought finally remains snared in the tragic aporia of all Christian theology. Dogmatics presupposes the existence of a Christian tradition, and the church’s institutional tradition necessarily erases the footprints of its own apocalyptic origins. There can be no theological resolution (since theology is itself the symptom) of the conflict between apocalyptic event and ‘the brute fact of a continuing history’. Although Taubes’ critique rightly describes the judgment under which all theology is carried out, Barth’s entire theological project can be read as an attempt to destabilise the self-evidence of the church’s existence, and to suspend the Christian community in a precarious apocalyptic moment ‘between the times’.

Taubes’ political appropriation of Barth/Paul should therefore also be modified: what his political nihilism lacks is a good dose of ecclesiological nihilism – or in Barthian terms, the (politically charged, but never secularised) concept of witness. The church’s witness to divine action is always simultaneously a gesture to its own provisional status, an acknowledgment of the abyss of judgment over which it is suspended – and thus also a witness to that strange anarchic grace by which God’s people are gathered into being out of nothingness.


Shane said...

Needs more John Rawls.

Adam Morton said...

I think the label "arch-conservative" obscures rather than illumines Schmitt's political views. Call him a Fascist or a Nazi, and then let the reader decide whether his significance to certain thinkers on the "far left" is paradox or a natural fit.

Unknown said...

Funny. I was going to say (predictably!) that theologically it needs more Kierkegaard. With Kierkegaard you get the paradox of annihilation and recreation that is at the heart of Der Romerbrief, but also a way, via repetition, of thinking "tradition" that does not obviate that dialectic but intensifies it with regards to the so called "ecclesiological nihilism" (I like that phrase, by the way) Taubes is calling for.

(And Kierkegaard's notions of repetion and God as wholly Other -- Barth is still using the term "wholly Other" in CD IV -- are operative all throughout the CD.)

Anonymous said...

What do you mean, Nate, by the "paradox of annihilation and recreation" with respect to SK?

I certainly wouldn't want to attribute such a paradox to SK, regardless of whether it applies to Barth.

Unknown said...


Actually, I think that the paradox of annihilation and recreation (the apocalyptic paradox) is a dynamic that is not so foreign to Kierkegaard as one may think. One of the places that this happens is in Fear and Trembling. The way Kierkegaard thinks the dialectical relation of eternity to time there in such a way that the double movement of faith is an annihiliation of the world as property just as as it is the giving of the world and time as an event of gift -- every moment itself being a "new creation on the strength of the absurd." If one reads this through the Lutheran dynamic of the theologia crucis that is at work in later writings such as Practice in Christianity, where everything about being a discipleship in seen in light of the dialectic of cross and resurrection, you see how Barth's intensification of the motif in Romans is one that follows upon his understanding of the Kierkegaardian idea of the infinite qualitative difference between God and the world, and the way in which that difference happens for faith in the moment of apocalyptic annihilation and recreation. Ecclesiologically, this logic plays itself out in The Moment in addition to Practice in Christianity. Of course, all of this hinges on the Lutheran dialectic of cross and resurrection being read in this apocalyptic way and as being as important to Kierkegaard's work as I'm suggesting it is (which I think can be sustained by a reading of a number of Kierkegaard's writings, but most notably his Journals and Papers.

Anonymous said...


That's helpful, thank you.

I disagree about Fear and Trembling and with what I think you mean by the "annihilation and recreation" bit. The theologia crucis theme I am well familiar with, having studied SK with the guy who did (I think) the best work on Luther and Kierkegaard in English.

The "cross and resurrection" bit, though, I think is profoundly wrong. Also dubious is your attribution of texts like Fear and Trembling directly to SK. The "Lutheran dialectic" in SK (whatever it means in general) is not between cross and resurrection but between, in the theologia crucis, veiling and unveiling, hiddenness and manifestation (this, it seems, Barth also got from SK/Luther).

The issue about infinite resignation and regaining all things in Johannes de Silentio, which he treats inadequately because of his location in the authorship, has nothing to do with "annihilation and recreation." That phrase, at any rate, is highly misleading for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its importing an actualistic (sounding, at least)schema into SK and Johannes de Silentio which is not present. Moreover, the issue of property is not in any way a central feature of the issue with Johannes is dealing, even if it's arguably an (very) indirect implication.

It sounds, frankly, like SK is being read backwards from Barth and others (e.g contemporary theologians), which is a common problem in theological readings of SK, although it's much better than some alternatives (e.g. not realizing he's a theologian).

Perhaps we can chat about all this another time in a different context. A blog is not the place for such detailed and complex disputes.

Thanks again for the clarification.

Anonymous said...

"Ecclesiological nihilism." I think you just gave Milbank a heart attack. Good job.

Unknown said...


I agree that the details of the discussion of texts, etc. needed here exceed the bounds of a blog conversation. I will say this, though: I think we should have no problem with attributing Fear and Trembling directly to SK himself. Point of View for My Work as an Author commits me to doing so. I also think that not to understand the annihilating critique that the notion of "world" as "property" is undergoing in Fear and Trembling is the real mistake of not reading the text rightly within the authership -- that is, I think Kierkegaard is to be read backwards to forwards. And so I take the argument of Fear and Trembling to be "repeating forward" the explicitly Christian dialectic of the later works. The way SK describes the Double Movement in Fear and Trembling is not without its "annihilating" elements, at least as regards to the world as property. Even Abraham says, in sacrificing Isaac, "now all is lost," and only in that saying -- in one and the same mo(ve)ment -- does the "re-turn" happen. There's also some stuff on the etymology of "repetition" and "return" here that indicates "new creation" interpreted as a kind of eschatological future breaking in on and overturning the past is the fundamental axis on which the double movement turns. I agree that the actualistic determination of this dialectic is a Barthian twist, but it is not without its Kierkegaardian roots.

But I'll grant that all of this is an idiosyncratic reading of SK. And that, for me, SK is being put to use in helping me eventually to say something that is not entirely "Barthian" either.

Who did you study with? I'd like to know more and converse further. Feel free to email me at: nathan.r.kerr@gmail.com

Chris Grataski said...

Mr. Loncar!

Good to see you on here!

Paul Tyson said...

Nice piece so far Ben – keen to see the whole thing. And great to see SK in the thick of this conversation. My sense is that you are on track with this Nate, but I hope you and SJ Loncar don’t go too private on your friendly scholarly disagreements here – I have found the interchange between you most interesting thus far; and your discussion is only just warming up!

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for the very interesting comments. The discussion of Kierkegaard is food for thought, especially since Taubes was obsessed with SK. And for what it's worth, I don't think Taubes was guilty of a retrospective Barthian reading of SK — if anything, it's more the case of a Kierkegaardian reading of Barth. (And of course there are problems lurking here: Bruce McCormack has demonstrated that Barth greatly exaggerated his own indebtedness to SK.)

Anonymous said...


I'd think that's exactly backwards: my hunch is that McCormack has seriously undervalued the influence of SK on Barth in order to emphasize the influence of neo-Kantianism and close some of the gap between Barth and liberalism by downplaying the "neo-Orthodox" reading and the significance of SK for Barth.

I can't argue this (certainly not here), but a friend of mine is, writing a dissertation to that effect at Edinburgh. A preliminary version of his thesis was presented in his Masters work, which you can view here:

I can't remember who my friend is working with (maybe Nimmo, I'm not sure), but I'll let you know if/when I hear more about the state of his work. I think he should finish it this year or the next, and I assume he'll publish it.

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