Tuesday, November 25, 2008

2 theses on Barth's Romans Commentary

I'm going to cheat and get an easy post out of my coursework. This is from Kevin Hector's class on modern Christian thought. Each week we work with a significant text of a thinker, and seminar discussions follow a lecture. A student presents a few theses on the week's reading to guide discussion. This past Monday was my week to offer some thoughts on Barth; below are the two (out of four) theses that we actually got through discussing- these I think lay the groundwork for what Barth was trying to do with some epistemological dilemmas of theology, and they are as such directed towards the 19th century thinkers that we had been reading leading up to Barth.

1. The problem of Lessing’s ditch, which had hung over much of modern philosophical theology, (“that contingent historical truths can never become a demonstration of eternal truths of reason, also that the transition whereby one will build an eternal truth on historical reports is a leap”*) is utterly critiqued, dismantled, and refashioned by Barth. Historical truth is posed not as a possible demonstration of eternal truth, but rather as an actual demonstration of the inaccessibility of eternal truth based upon historical knowledge. The "leap" from historical knowledge to eternal truth is thus not taken, but rather the KRISIS of God's faithfulness is posed against the meaninglessness of history as an inbreaking of eternal truth into history.

a. “As Christ, Jesus is the plane which lies beyond our comprehension. The plane which is known to us, He intersects vertically, from above. Within history, Jesus as the Christ can be understood only as Problem or Myth. As the Christ, He brings the world of the Father. But we who stand in this concrete world know nothing, and are incapable of knowing anything, of that other world.” (29-30)

b. “There is no fragment or epoch of history which can be pronounced divine. The whole history of the Church and of all religion takes place in this world. What is called the ‘history of our salvation’ is not an event in the midst of other events, but is nothing less than the KRISIS of all history.” (57)

c. For Barth, history is not a basis for eternal truth; rather it teaches the basic inability and unwillingness of humanity to attain this truth (85-86). Those who have the (historical, empirical) law have it as "the impression of divine revelation left behind... a burnt-out crater disclosing the place where God has spoken... a dry canal." (65) "No road to the eternal meaning of the created world has ever existed, save the road of negation. This is the lesson of history." (87) As such, and only as such, "history itself bears witness to resurrection, the concrete world to its non-concrete presupposition, and human life to the paradox of faith which is its inalienable foundation." (116)

2. The death of the sinner with Christ reveals the positive basis upon which God's negation of human sin stands. Righteousness is an impossibility for the "old man", so that the sinner's recognition of sin must come from outside (198). In dying with Christ, the sinner faces the negation of sin in faith and from the resurrection. This new identity in Christ offers a radical critique of those conceptions of subjectivity which constrain or determine the possibility of human knowledge and understanding (Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Kierkegaard), the coherence of historical meaning (Troeltsch), or the terms upon which God encounters the creature (Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Kierkegaard). The resurrection is the "centre from which the KRISIS proceeds" and the "standard of impossibility by which visible human possibilities are measured." (203)

a. "By faith the primal reality of human existence in God enters our horizon… We believe that Christ died in our place, and that therefore we died with him. We believe in our identity with the invisible new man who stands on the other side of the Cross. We believe in that eternal existence of ours which is grounded upon the knowledge of death, upon the resurrection, upon God. We believe that we shall also live with him." (201-202)

b. "The reality of this life of lusts is not surprising. What is surprising is that I should authorize a definition, in terms of such lusts, of what I am under grace; that, failing to recognize the relativity of this life, I should obey it and ascribe to it transcendent reality, that- employing a metaphysical term- I should 'hypostatize' it, transmute it, dedicate it, and pronounce it to be holy and religious." (210)

c. "under grace, we cannot admit or allow grace and sin to be two alternative possibilities or necessities, each with its own rights and properties. For this reason, the Gospel of Christ is a shattering disturbance, an assault which brings everything into question. For this reason, nothing is so meaningless as the attempt to construct a religion out of the Gospel, and to set it as one human possibility in the midst of others. Since Schleiermacher, this attempt has been undertaken more consciously than ever before in Protestant theology- and it is the betrayal of Christ." (225)

*Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, vol. 1, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 93.


  1. Summarize for me why historical truths can't be used to infer eternal truths?

    I only ask because this is the whole business of inferential statistics, so it strikes me as odd that you would just a priori assume this is not possible. Obviously we're looking at different issues - so I'm not challenging you as much as I'm just asking for more detail.

    I think the essential point of inference is that you just have to qualify your conclusion with (1.) your degree of confidence in what you infer (you admit there will be some natural variation in the exposition of eternal truths in history), and (2.) your ability to control for the "contingencies" that you mention.

    But aside from that I don't see an obvious reason why this kind of inference isn't possible.

  2. But it's the qualifications that you mention that make it problematic. Considered as an Enlightenment framing of the issue, we're talking about a need for absolute certainty... this sort of certainty isn't perceived to be necessary for historical truths, but eternal, absolute truth requires this sort of ground of certainty for it to be true knowledge. I think the mindset is just categorically different than in statistical inference- and that's not to dismiss what you're saying. Inferential statistics could be seen as just as much of a response to the problem of "Lessing's Ditch" as Barth's theology of revelation and faith is. But as it's stated, the attainment of eternal truths can't admit a relative degree of confidence.

    ...having done a quick wikipedia search on inferential statistics, I'm curious... could we band together for a paper on Thomas Bayes?! We have so much trouble looking for common ground for research, this could be one of those points where we could find some!

  3. Well - I'm not so sure of that. We put confidence intervals - degrees of expected error - on any statistics we produce.

    Theologians may not LIKE to talk like that, but you better believe that every single theologian out there has a degree of uncertainty about what they're saying, just as much as I have a degree of uncertainty about effect sizes that I produce. I see nothing incongruent between "true knowledge" and degrees of certainty. There are just people out there who are afraid to admit how uncertain they are.

    Granted, what it all comes down to is whether you're more afraid of a false positive or a false negative - and we've discussed this before. Statisticians are generally more afraid of false positives. This is why people say that science is inherently conservative.

    This is essentially Pascal's Wager. When eternity and the infinite are at stake, the cost of a false negative is far, far greater than the cost of a false positive. So theologians have the opposite inferrential impulse of scientists - BUT, it doesn't mean that they're not doing inferential work as well. Their confidence in their results is simply much lower (which I guess is what leads Barth to call it a "leap").

    Think of it this way - if there are dire, dire consequences to a false negative (as there often are in theological quesitons), it will not take much to convince you to accept the positive. If the costs of a false positive are what are high (as it often is in science), it's going to take a LOT to convince you to accept the positive.

    So this is interesting - I don't really know where to go with this. Certainly both camps are relying on inference - but perhaps theology is using something else to draw conclusions as well to make up for the abysmally low evidentiary standard implied by Pascal's Wager? I imagine they are, just not sure how to conceptualize that.

    Bayesian statistics isn't held in high regard, and it's supposed to be really weird. I'm not exactly sure why that is, though, so I shouldn't be too harsh on it personally. Professors just say "oh Bayesians? They're weird. Not many people do that. Don't worry about it." That statistical modeling blog I have linked on my blog is written by a Bayesian. I know there are a bunch of bayesians in our Statistics department at GW too. Anyways - perhaps. I just don't know much about it.

  4. I really feel guilty about knocking Bayes. We do use bayesian statistics whenever we do maximum likelihood estimation (in many situations its better than the classical linear regression model).

    Chief among my uses of maximum likelihood is for all that trajectory analysis stuff - that's very Bayesian, because the computer basically searches for a solution by trying a bunch of different options out. And I rely on that, so I can't really knock Bayes too hard!

  5. I think you can't group "theologians" as a whole under one way of looking at this, either.

    -Lessing is famous for bringing up the dilemma, and it's more a way of thinking about this issue... like any other issue that has been a point of discussion for modern philosophy- the finite and the infinite, the ability to know "things in themselves", objectivity in history, etc.

    -The idea that only a "leap" is available across the ditch isn't particular to Barth. Lots of people saw this (and tried to avoid it). Kierkegaard embraced it. Barth followed Kierkegaard- sort of- but laid the stress much more on God bridging the gap than on us bridging the gap in an epistemological "leap" of faith.

    -Lessing posed this problem, but it's not as if it wasn't critiqued. Some would look at it and declare that thus we couldn't know anything meaningful about God, or that there was no God. Some would look at it and attempt a reconciliation by idealizing or divinizing history so that history could bear the weight of eternal certainty. Some would do the opposite and bring God down to history in a sort of religious humanism or historicization of the divine. So other people had answers to this to- it's not as if theology was paralyzed by this throughout the modern period. It might be better to look at Lessing's ditch as a theme- as a way of stating a central aspect of systematic thought about absolute truth.

  6. Well - it's not the "leap" so much that bothers me. It's the idea that in every case we're leaping into the abyss.

    I think the point I'm trying to make about inference is that we can judge the distance of the leap based on what we know. And some leaps will be cavernous and existential. Others will be quite trivial leaps that we have more confidence in.

    I guess I'm just saying that you will never have absolute certainty (no leap), and in most cases you will not have absolute uncertainty (a sort of existential leap?) - you're going to be somewhere in between in your certainty and exploring the extent or vigor of that uncertainty seems like a reasonable exercise to me.

    Not that you have to run hypothesis testing on your evidence. It's just not comparable - but rather than declaring the leap completely certain or completely uncertain, it seems that we can plumb the depths.

  7. It's also questionable whether the "leap" is a solution to the "ditch" in the first place, at least the ditch as Lessing frames it. You'd certainly have to define "certainty" in a particular way (I'm thinking along the lines of the doctrine of assurance of faith).

    Which is why most modern philosophers saw the leap as a non-starter, I think.