Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Karl Barth

I read R. R. Reno’s charitable words on Karl Barth with great interest (“Karl Barth,” May) and would like to offer my own remarks as a ­supplement. At the Protestant Theologicum in Tübingen (1974–5), I spent a year sharing an office with Reno’s mentor, Ronald Thiemann. Ron’s background was Missouri Synod Lutheran, mine Dutch neo-Calvinist Christian Reformed. We were both working on our dissertations there and discussed Barth and his critics daily, with great enthusiasm. While I understand George Hunsinger’s Reading Barth with Charity—and have come to learn that most scholars ought to be read in such a way—for the sake of honesty in scholarship, the damaging side and influence of Barth’s work should not be ignored.

My dissertation was on the ­theology of Gustaf Wingren, a vocal Scandinavian critic of his colleague Anders Nygren and other representatives of Christocentric thinking, including and especially Barth. As a doctoral student at St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto, I was distressed by Barth’s phobias about “natural theology.” As a follower of Herman Dooyeweerd’s “­Philosophy of the Law-Idea,” I was also unaccepting of Barth’s strong criticisms of “creation orders” thinking and his rejection of the idea of Christian philosophy. Finally, I resisted intellectually Barth’s undermining of the biblical narrative of creation by interpreting it as a narrative about “saving responsiveness” with a nigh nonsensical and lengthy excursion on God’s struggle against the primordial threat of the power of “nothingness” (which, dialectically, he regarded as “something”) in the creation of the cosmos. Wingren frequently referred to these matters as the “eclipse” of creation in modern Protestant ­theology. Though friendly with Barth, even substituting for him at Basel on occasion, Wingren claimed that Barth was “the ­spiritual father” of the flight from creation and that “all others are secondary and have grown up in his shadow.”

Of course, Barth had his reasons in his time and place. The support of National Socialism by many of his former teachers in the German Church Struggle was one. Apparently the “socialism” part of the politics was not as much a problem for Barth as the nationalism and “fascism” part. Elert, Althaus, and Hirsch made much of the “orders of creation” way of thinking philosophically, as did my favorite Dutch neo-Calvinist thinkers, such as ­Abraham Kuyper and his successor, Herman Dooyeweerd. Barth’s dismissal of the fundamentality of creation in much Christian thought was rejected even by one of his supporters, George Hendry, as “Christological Unitarianism.” In Theology of Nature, ­Hendry criticizes Barth’s refusal to take up conversation with natural scientists over connections with the theology of creation, later corrected by the work of the Barthian scholar Thomas Torrance. Professor Hendry was my teacher of systematic theology at Princeton Seminary in the heyday of Barth’s influence there.

Moreover, Barth appeared to be rather oblivious to how no thinker can do theology without a philosophy. There is Barth’s ­occasionalist view of creation as the place in which the alleged “real” story of God’s eternal, pre-creational election of Jesus Christ becomes temporally manifested. There is also Barth’s interpretation of the Scriptures not as Word of God but as the material, linguistic arena (occasion) through which the “encounter” with the real Word, ­Jesus Christ, is made possible. I would suggest that there’s not enough appreciation here of the ­influence of Martin Heidegger’s “encounter” existentialism. When I first ran into this aspect of Barth’s theology in conversations with Ron Thiemann, I was reminded of the structural similarity of this way of thinking with American fundamentalism. In fact, I have sometimes uncharitably referred to Barth’s seemingly evangelical “encounter” thought as “high brow, European fundamentalism.”

I leave it at that. As a Calvin University believer in the necessity for all disciplines (including theology!) of Christian philosophy, my reservations about Barth’s polemics have been long-standing and deep-rooted.

Henry Vander Goot
grand rapids, michigan

I couldn’t help but smile (ruefully) at the thought of Carl Schmitt giving lessons in morality and ethics to Karl Barth. Schmitt divorced his first wife, a divorce not recognized by the Catholic Church, and was excommunicated for marrying his second wife. A case of the pot calling the kettle black?

But it is in the public square where the moral abyss between Carl and Karl manifests itself so clearly. Schmitt was an enthusiastic member of the Nazi party, and it was he who “koshered” the infamous Enabling Act of 1933 that solidified Hitler’s takeover of the German state. Yes, he made some fundamental contributions to political theory and public law, but some of his writings display a similar attachment to National Socialist ideology, though in the contemporary adulation he receives from both left and right they are conveniently forgotten. His insistence on “homogeneity” as a prerequisite for democracy may seem innocuous enough. But Schmitt himself was able, in the climate in which he wrote, to avoid euphemisms and spell out, unadorned, the implications of this construct. Thus, in his Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus, we find: “Zur Demokratie gehört also notwendig erstens Homogenität und ­zweitens—nötigenfalls—die Ausscheidung oder Vernichtung des Heterogenen” [­Democracy therefore ­necessarily involves first ­homogeneity and ­secondly—if ­necessary—the elimination or annihilation of ­heterogeneity]. No less.

The next step follows naturally. Referring approvingly to, inter alia, Turkey’s expulsion of its Greek community, Schmitt legitimates what today we refer to as “ethnic cleansing”: “Die Politische Kraft einer Demokratie zeigt sich darin, dass sie das Fremde und Ungleiche, die Homogenität Bedrohende zu beseitigen oder fernzuhalten weiss” [The political power of a democracy is shown by the fact that it knows how to eliminate or keep away the foreign and the unequal].

The final step, in which theory and praxis combine, is no surprise either. Reichsgruppenwalters ­Staatsrat Schmitt convened a conference in 1936 of leading figures in the legal world to discuss “Das Judentum in der Rechtswissenschaft” [Judaism in Legal Science]. In the concluding address to the conference, Schmitt, at least, does not shy away from the implication of the theoretical construct: The cleansing begins with books (“Säuberung der Bibliotheken”) but inevitably moves to demonization of their authors: “Der Jude hat zu unserer geistigen Arbeit eine parasitäre, eine taktische und eine händlerische Beziehung” [The Jew has a parasitic, a tactical and a mercantile relation to our spiritual work]. As such, that particular heterogeneous element is defined as a “Todfeind” [mortal enemy]. The logic of Schmitt’s final statement is unassailably pure. His concluding words, unchanged, speak for themselves: “Was wir suchen und worum wir kämpfen, ist unser unverfälschte eigene Art, die unversehrte Reinheit unseres deutschen Volkes. ‘Indem ich mich des Juden erwehre’ sagt unser Führer Adolf Hitler, ‘kämpfe ich für das Werk des Herrn’” [What we seek and what we fight for is our own ­unadulterated kind, the untainted purity of our German people. “By resisting the Jew” says our leader Adolf Hitler, “I am fighting for the work of the Lord”]. Like his fellow traveler, Martin Heidegger, Schmitt never ­uttered a word of remorse for his Nazi past until his death in 1985.

It was painful to read about the moral failing of Barth in his private life (though not many would dare cast the first stone), but Schmitt is in an altogether different league.

J. H. H. Weiler
new york, new york


Over the past year, Gary Saul ­Morson has put out a number of wonderful essays in First Things on Russian literature and history, and his most recent piece, “The Greatest Christian Novel” (May), is no exception, exploring the strange and masterful significance of Dostoevsky’s ­Brothers ­Karamazov. Morson’s analysis of the chapters “The ­Brothers Get ­Acquainted,” “Rebellion,” and “Grand Inquisitor” is particularly insightful—it’s hard not to agree with his assessment that, “sharpening Job’s indictment, ‘Rebellion’ offers the strongest case against God ever made.”

Ivan’s indictment of God in this chapter centers on the suffering of innocents, specifically innocent children. Like the sufferings of Job, Ivan’s charge cannot be answered directly. And yet, just as God answers Job indirectly with a series of questions (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”), it seems that Dostoevsky provides his own indirect answer to Ivan later in the novel.

That answer lies in Alyosha’s account of the stories told and lessons taught by Fr. Zosima during his last day on earth. The theme of these recollections and exhortations—from Zosima’s consumptive older brother’s conversion to the ailing monk’s reflections on the power of Scripture—­signifies the unbounded power of God’s grace to redeem.

Despite the obliqueness of God’s answer to Job, the latter seems comforted by the response. As G. K. Chesterton said of the exchange, “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” For this reader, when faced with Ivan’s despair, Zosima’s testimony brings the same comfort.

Nat Brown
south bend, indiana

I have been teaching Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in Philosophy in Literature classes at Boston College for over forty years; and after reading dozens of books and articles on it (some of them astonishingly off-target), I have never found anything nearly as comprehensive, compelling, clarifying, and creative as Gary Saul Morson’s “The Greatest Christian Novel.” My future students thank him in advance for the best (and shortest) of Cliffs Notes to the greatest of novels. I also thank him for saving me months of work; I was planning on writing a whole book on The Brothers Karamazov, but he has said in seven pages almost all that I would have said in two ­hundred.

Peter Kreeft
boston college
chestnut hill, massachusetts

Gary Saul Morson replies:

I am more than grateful for Nat Brown and Peter Kreeft’s generous responses. Here as elsewhere, ­Chesterton is illuminating; his ­Father Brown also ­resembles Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in Crime and Punishment.

I think Dostoevsky’s answer to Ivan is indeed indirect. Novels of ideas usually examine theories not in terms of logical coherence, as philosophical treatises do, but by showing what it means to live by them. One cannot just memorize a theological doctrine; one has to live in the right way, by what Zosima calls “active love.” Then one will sense the meaning. In describing how Alyosha discovers meaningfulness, Dostoevsky is not simply showing him learning a doctrine; he is describing what the process of discovery, which each person must undergo, looks like.

For Dostoevsky, as for the other great Russian fiction writers, novels are not just forms in which ideas are expressed. They are themselves ­philosophical instruments.

Ars Memoria

I endorse everything Dan Hitchens says about the importance of memorizing poetry (“Learning by Heart,” May), for there is no better way to understand and appreciate the art.

Many years ago I interviewed ­Anthony Burgess. At one point, I asked him what the ideal literary education was. He replied, “Memorizing as many poems as possible.” I can’t speak for the importance of this method for aspiring novelists, but it certainly applies to poets—and to the common reader.

For two generations now, memorization has been dropped in American schooling—from elementary to graduate education—and has been replaced by critical analysis. Poems are presented as conceptual problems to solve, which has transformed poetry into an intellectual subject. Students write papers rather than memorize, perform, and hear poetry.

For ten years, I taught an introductory course at the University of Southern California and required students to memorize and recite ­poems from the beginning to the end of the semester. At first, they were shocked and intimidated. Most of them had never memorized a poem at any point in their education. But once they mastered the first short ­poems, their attitude and appetite for poetry changed remarkably. Each year I was astonished by the speed of the change. They learned the art from the inside.

A significant number of students memorized more poems than I required. One student memorized a twenty-page poem voluntarily; another learned an entire book of ­Paradise Lost. I also observed that students who weren’t necessarily good at analysis thrived in having another avenue into the art. My class clowns were often my best performers.

When poems are memorized and recited, it becomes obvious to both the reciter and the listener how small a part abstract ideas play in a poem’s impact. The emotions, images, and physical sounds all carry meaning. Poetic language is human language: It is holistic and experiential. Ideas, emotions, intuition, and physical intelligence all communicate together without asking us to separate them—just like everyday speech, but raised to a higher level.

Learning poems by heart, if we trust the truth of the traditional metaphor, means bringing poetry into the center of our being. Memorization and performance synchronize the crafted rhythms of the poem with the natural rhythms of the body. 

Memorization and recitation aren’t the only ways to teach poetry, but without them, none of the other ways will work. They should be the foundation of any curriculum. After all, the goddess Memory is the mother of the Muses.

So three cheers for Dan Hitchens, all of them iambic.

Dana Gioia
sonoma county, california