Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics
- ISBN: 9780198867517
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: March 2021
In the pithy formulation of W. David Buschart and Kent Eilers, retrieval is a mode of theology that looks back in order to move forward. Viewing historical conflicts as a source of potential wisdom, retrieval attends to their particulars and asks hard questions of their participants. It seeks not only to record the past, but to reframe it as an aid to reflection.
Joshua Mauldin’s new book Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics adopts the mode of retrieval for a somewhat different purpose. His animating question is not how to reform some contentious doctrine or improve some aspect of church life, but how to think clearly and critically about the crisis facing the modern political settlement. And for this task—which surely has become more urgent in the United States over the last twelve months—Mauldin looks back to the political theologies of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
What, specifically, does Barth have to offer? Mauldin draws attention to an important essay from 1916, where Barth lays the groundwork for a scathing critique of religion. There is for Barth a fundamental difference between humanity’s highest endeavors and the transcendent goodness that characterizes God alone. No moral crusade (however ambitious), no campaign to transform society into the kingdom of heaven (however far-reaching), can be conflated with God’s own, proper work in the world. No human piety can be said to approximate the righteousness of God. And if this is true, it follows that the “god of the ever-progressing Christian West is but a projection of its religious and cultural self-righteousness” (45). What Barth opens up, according to Mauldin, is the possibility of social critique without despair. If the turn to religion is not the answer to the problems plaguing modern life—indeed, precisely because religion in all its forms is not the answer—ordinary citizens can go about their lives freely and joyfully, secure in the knowledge that saving the world is not required of them. The gospel message invites those who hear it to become witnesses, not warriors, for truth.
The two chapters on Bonhoeffer may be read as a thoughtful, scholarly response to the recent, popular trend of viewing Bonhoeffer through the prism of right-wing political resistance. From this viewpoint—the martyr-hero paradigm, if you will—a new totalitarianism lies close at hand. Bonhoeffer’s struggle against Nazi tyranny, and in particular his participation in the Valkyrie plot, offers a script of sorts for Christians who long to live out their faith in a dramatic and consequential way. To this way of thinking, Christians are justified in undertaking morally dubious actions, if doing nothing would allow evil to flourish.
In Mauldin’s analysis, this viewpoint is deeply problematic. For one thing, it presupposes a conveniently simplistic view of Nazism. “Because this regime is viewed as an other-worldly, demonic power, it is safely distant from us even in its horrific perversity” (66). Also, it amplifies one distinctive feature of Bonhoeffer’s biography while downplaying those elements of his theology that might complicate the picture. It overlooks, for example, what Bonhoeffer has to say in his Ethics (Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1949) about acting in extraordinary circumstances; far from providing a platform for self-justification, Bonhoeffer proposes that radical action, even if necessary and responsible, entails an acceptance of guilt. Perhaps most fundamentally, the martyr-hero paradigm neglects one of the great gifts of Bonhoeffer’s theology, which was the courage to cast a critical eye on his own Protestant tradition.
Given the widespread perception that liberal democracy is on trial, this is a timely monograph with several notable strengths. The writing style is crisp, the summaries deft, the quotations judiciously chosen. It is refreshing to see the author tap a number of not-very-well-known sources, such as the circular letters Barth wrote during the Second World War. Perhaps the chief virtue of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics is (as the title implies) to bring the work of these two vital theologians into conversation with contemporary political theorists such as Charles Taylor, Francis Fukuyama, and Jeffrey Stout. The effect of this encounter is to see again with new clarity how even secular political aspirations are founded on theological and, indeed, eschatological assumptions.
The book also has a few—not shortcomings, exactly, but missed opportunities. For example, the author alludes in one place to Barth’s negative view of Luther’s conception of law and gospel; this would have been a propitious moment to consider how Barth reversed and reworked that pairing in his final address to a German audience, prior to being deported. (Mauldin makes a similar move elsewhere, showing how Bonhoeffer revised Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” doctrine in order to make sense of secularization). Neither of the two books Bonhoeffer published in 1937 (The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together) receive much attention, which may strike some as odd and unfortunate. Does faithfulness to the gospel entail some degree of estrangement from the surrounding culture? The answer in these works is a qualified yes—which would bring Bonhoeffer closer, presumably, to theorists that the author characterizes as holding a pessimistic view of modern politics (e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre).
Overall, though, the book succeeds in showing how “theologically inflected answers” may have a wider application (4). Its central claim—that Barth and Bonhoeffer both point the way toward a political theology free of nostalgia and utopia—is persuasively argued. Left to its own devices, theology aims to communicate knowledge of God. Here, it serves as a rich resource for thinking anew about the state of modern politics.
Bo Helmich is an independent scholar.Bo HelmichDate Of Review:November 2, 2021