Tayloring Christianity

From the December 2014 Print Edition

Why was it once virtually impossible not to believe in God, while today many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?” The question is Charles Taylor’s, and his nine-hundred-page answer has arguably been the academic event of the decade. Seven years after its publication, A . . . . Continue Reading »

Karl Barth’s Failure

From the June/July 2014 Print Edition

Karl Barth was the greatest theologian since the Reformation, and his work is today a dead letter. This is an extraordinary irony. Barth aspired to free Christian theology from restrictive modern habits of mind but in the end preserved the most damaging assumptions of the ideas he sought to overcome. This does not mean he no longer deserves serious attention. Barth now demands exceptionally close attention, precisely because his failures can teach us how profound the challenges of modernity are for theology—and show us the limits of a distinctly modern solution to them.My own interest in Barth was inspired by a conventional religious crisis and followed a recognizable script. As an undergraduate I was anguished to discover a conflict between the creed I was reciting in church and the arguments I was reading in Descartes, Hume, and Kant. Although my grasp of their arguments was imperfect, it seemed to me obvious that the Enlightenment philosophers posed a lethal threat to Christian belief. I found nothing alarming in their shallow accounts of the life of Jesus, the authority of the Bible, or the possibility of miracles. These I dismissed. But the modern consensus, involving thinkers of otherwise diverse views, that human reason could not attain genuine knowledge of God had become a source of debilitating dread.Descartes instructs us to doubt everything except clear and distinct ideas, which turn out in the end to be few in number. Hume counsels that we restrict our knowledge to sense impressions of a material world whose causal regularities were largely imagined. Kant wants to transform speculative aspirations into an analysis of the knowing subject. Learning these things, I judged that modern philosophy imperils biblical religion not by elevating the power of reason—histories claiming so are gravely misleading—but by impairing our ability to reason properly about God. For if human knowledge is indeed limited to physical sense experience or to the categories of understanding imposed by the mind, one cannot speak credibly about the God of Christian doctrine. Continue Reading »