The Theological and the Political in Christianity, Socialism, and Modernity


Gary Dorrien

Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were theological titans of the twentieth century who naturally wrote mostly about the interpretation of Christian doctrines. That they remain relevant to social ethics and political theology cannot be assumed; such a claim must be defended. Both theologians might seem to be prime candidates for the verdict that too much has been written about them already. Neither had a profound critique of racism or settler colonialism beyond what he said about Nazi racism. Neither conceived white supremacy as a structure of power based on privilege or interrogated his complicity in it. Neither was remotely a feminist, much less an eco-feminist or a critic of hetero-normative shaming. But if Augustine, with all his toxic hang-ups and influence, can be retrieved for contemporary theology — as Robert A. Markus, Oliver O’Donovan, Charles Matthews, and Eric Gregory have shown — it should be possible to make a case for the enduring relevance of Barth and Bonhoeffer. So does Joshua Mauldin argue in his judicious, thoughtful, and admirable book, which focuses on the ways that Barth and Bonhoeffer assessed the modern world they inherited.

Mauldin approaches social ethics with an historical bent without making claims about historical causation or taking a position on whether ideas or economic forces are primary. He owns up to two philosophical commitments. From Hegel, Mauldin takes the concept of Sittlichkeit (ethical life), which registers how individuals and communities make sense of the world they inhabit. The ethical life of a society is the constellation of actual norms and practices by which a society lives. From the James-Dewey tradition of American pragmatism refashioned by Richard Rorty and Jeffrey Stout, Mauldin conceives economic structures as human practices that carry implicit or explicit moral norms. Barth and Bonhoeffer, though highly critical of modern culture, were mindful that they were products of it and operated within it. In their time, “modern” conveyed the regnant belief that the pre-modern past had been superseded by an enlightened, progressive, scientific, individualistic, democratic culture. Barth and Bonhoeffer reflected theologically on this belief and the events of their time, making arguments that Mauldin commends as relevant to “the contemporary malaise of modern politics.” (4)

Mauldin approaches social ethics with an historical bent without making claims about historical causation or taking a position on whether ideas or economic forces are primary.

Malaise is very much the issue, which Mauldin sets up by invoking three explainers: historian Brad Gregory, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, and theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Gregory contends that the besetting evil of modernity is “hyperpluralism” and the culprit of it is the Protestant Reformation. Ever since the sixteenth-century Reformers destroyed the Catholic religious unity of Europe, the West has been set on a path leading to the hyper-fragmentation and meaninglessness of our time. Postmodern culture, Gregory judges, has no broadly accepted moral values, except more-pluralism and more-diversity, which are self-devouring. In the 1980s, MacIntyre won academic renown by making a similar argument from the standpoint of the history of ethics, contending that the Enlightenment harmed modern society by discarding Aristotelian ethics. First the Enlightenment thinkers cast off narrative understandings of human purpose. Then they lost the virtues too, subsuming virtues under deracinated theories of autonomous moral rulemaking. MacIntyre famously compared modernity to the dying gasp of the Roman Empire, calling for new communities of moral virtue in which good lives might be lived in defiance of the decadent, bureaucratic, secular, amoral world of modernity. A crowded field responded to MacIntyre’s call. Hauerwas stood out within it by making a celebrated case that Christian churches should embrace their colonized exile under modernity, practicing the strange, biblical, counter-cultural politics of Jesus. Mauldin rightly judges that Hauerwas’s pacifist-communitarian interpretation of the gospel engages the wider society more constructively than anything in Gregory or MacIntyre. Still, Mauldin observes, it is remarkable that a theologian as contemptuous of liberal democracy and the modern age as Hauerwas won very considerable prominence in theology.

Mauldin rightly judges that Hauerwas’s pacifist-communitarian interpretation of the gospel engages the wider society more constructively than anything in Gregory or MacIntyre.

The famously anti-liberal and anti-modern Barth comes off as much less of both compared to the three table-setting critics with whom Mauldin begins. Mauldin observes that Barth and Bonhoeffer insightfully addressed the modern political problem quintessentially described by Hegel: The modern commitment to equality and democratic participation creates a homogeneous society that cuts off individuals from traditional communities of memory, belief, and practice without replacing these communities as homes of identity. Hegel said the modern state usually tries to fill the void by whipping up patriotic gore or militant nationalism. The various socialist movements of the nineteenth century that succeeded Hegel offered another answer, usually without a state, though not in Germany. In Germany, state socialism came early and progressive Christian socialism barely existed, fatefully in both cases.

Barth joined the Swiss Christian movement for religious socialism in 1911 during his pastorate in Safenwil, Switzerland and remained a democratic socialist for the rest of his life. Mauldin records this fact in three sentences, rushing past the entire subject of socialism, Christian socialism, how Barth became Barth, and why he remained a socialist, but not a Christian socialist. This is a considerable loss for what might have been the book’s argument, for Barth found his theological path by making a decision about his relationship to Christian socialism.

Barth became Barth by tacking back and forth between the two lodestars of Swiss Christian socialism, Herman Kutter and Leonhard Ragaz. Both were spiritual disciples of Christoph Blumhardt, the eschatological German Lutheran socialist who destroyed his clerical career by joining the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Kutter was a Reformed pastor who preached that God worked through the Social Democrats because only they cared about the things that God cares about. The church, he said, was utterly corrupt — too trivial and bankrupt to offer anything that God might use. Only the Social Democrats dared to oppose the idolatry of money, so God worked through them. Kutter voted for Social Democrats, but didn’t belong to the party or any party, and he didn’t believe in social activism. The only revolution he cared about was God’s.

Ragaz disagreed about social activism, ethical idealism, and party politics, so there were two schools of religious socialism in Switzerland. Ragaz was a pastor, theologian, and social activist who poured himself out for democratic socialism, anti-militarism, feminism, and other social justice causes. He preached that God is the liberating power of hope and the future, and won an academic chair, but later gave it up to concentrate on social justice activism and theology. Ragaz condemned militarism, while Kutter quietly cheered for a German victory in World War I. The moral argument favored Ragaz over Kutter, but Barth’s friend Eduard Thurneysen cautioned Barth that Kutter’s emphasis on waiting for God contained a deeper spiritual wisdom than Ragaz’s earnest activism. By the fall of 1915, Barth agreed with Thurneysen that Christians needed to wait upon a God who does not validate human plans. The kingdom of Christ is a new world breaking into the existing world that challenges everything human. This was the crucial turn in Barth’s twisting and turning path to a neo-Reformation theology and an academic career. If Kutter was better than Ragaz, Barth had to start over, waiting upon a Wholly Other God of grace and glory.

Politics is essentially about the struggle for power, and the gospel is opposed to power politics, but there is an overlap between Christian faith and the political struggle for justice.

Ragaz did not conflate the gospel faith with Social Democracy, though Barth repeatedly misrepresented him on this issue. Ragaz described religion as idolatry, the consecration of a corrupt social order, contrasting the kingdom of God with it. He identified the gospel with the promise of a divine new order without identifying the kingdom with movements for social justice and peace. Ragaz persistently described peace and justice movements as signs of the kingdom. He acknowledged that he didn’t know exactly where to draw the line between Christian faith and social justice activism. Politics is essentially about the struggle for power, and the gospel is opposed to power politics, but there is an overlap between Christian faith and the political struggle for justice. Socialism is a moral ideal and a form of community based on the principle of solidarity. It does not belong wholly to a political box. Ragaz said the socialist movement he experienced was partly political and partly religious in the Christian prophetic sense of the term, because both movements sought to replace the old order of domination with a new order of justice and solidarity. Socialism, he reasoned, is a low-medium form of prophetic religion. Being political, it has no chance of reaching the kingdom level, but it is about the same things that the kingdom is about. Ragaz said that democratic socialism and Christianity would never coincide, but he prayed to see them come closer together.

That was not where Barth wanted to land. He said it scathingly at Tambach in 1919, imbued with his recent discovery of Pauline eschatology. Barth warned the social activist Christians gathered at Tambach not to drag Jesus into politics. He also warned church officials not gathered at Tambach that reestablishing the church as a foundation of the establishment would be a disaster for the church. This is where Mauldin picks up with Barth — after Barth had thrashed out his relationship to Christian socialism and set upon his theological path. Mauldin lingers over Barth’s 1922 address on “The Problem of Ethics Today.” Worrying about society, Barth observed, was no longer the domain of politicians, activists, and policy specialists. The war threw all Europeans into a moral crisis in which all were compelled to ask what they should do. Barth said their moral efforts would make little difference. The war exposed the unbridgeable abyss between God and humankind, confirming the Pauline/Reformation message that only God’s grace for justified sinners is saving. Mauldin rightly stresses that by accentuating the chasm between the reality of God and the human practice of religion, Barth interpreted the signs of the time theologically, not religiously as in liberal theology.

The war exposed the unbridgeable abyss between God and humankind, confirming the Pauline/Reformation message that only God’s grace for justified sinners is saving.

Crisis Theology, the first name that Barth’s theology acquired after World War I, was an explosion of eschatological dialectics proclaiming that God is hidden, holy, and Wholly Other, not an aspect of the world process. Mauldin rightly observes that Barth’s powerful eschatological emphasis inoculated him from leftwing utopian ideologies, rightwing nationalist ideologies, and romantic ideologies of the left and right. In 1919 Barth exhorted the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) to take the narrow path between the Communist Party and the sellout SPD that rolled over for the war. The following year, however, half the USPD joined the Communist International, the SPD confirmed that it was willing to join coalition governments of the Weimar Republic, and Barth withdrew from all political activism. Throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s he told theological students not to waste their time on social justice causes. Their vocation was to concentrate on theology and be faithful to the church’s gospel. After the Nazis took over in Germany, Barth was the leading theologian of the Confessing Church’s resistance to Nazi interference in the church’s worship and governance. But the Confessing Church resisted Hitler only in a narrow and self-interested fashion that did not rebel against the Nazi persecution of Jews. Barth was complicit in the selfish narrowness, much as he also bitterly criticized it.

Bonhoeffer is famous mostly for being the person who helps Christians feel better about the craven Christian cowardice and evil of the Nazi period.

Bonhoeffer is famous mostly for being the person who helps Christians feel better about the craven Christian cowardice and evil of the Nazi period. A ringleader of the Confessing movement, he was executed in 1945 for working as a double agent in the German military intelligence, plotting to assassinate Hitler. Secondarily, Bonhoeffer is famous for being a highly gifted theologian, the most creative in the Barthian line. His story is by far the main source of his fame, and is heavily chronicled. Mauldin puts these points more gently than I just did, notes the vast literature on Bonhoeffer, and makes a claim: The story and cult of Bonhoeffer the martyr have blown away any recognition of the Bonhoeffer who keenly analyzed the meaning of the Nazi episode and its relevance to modern political life.

To get to Bonhoeffer, Mauldin glosses the decline story told by Richard Rorty, who lamented in 1998 that the U.S. American Left in which he was raised barely exists anymore. The Old Left was based on economic justice, trade unionism, and Social Democratic politics. The New Left of the 1960s yielded a dominant Cultural Left in the 1980s that quoted Foucault, fixed on identity politics, made its home in the academy, and by Rorty’s lights, ruined the Left. He said he was astonished to feel so alienated from what became the American Left. The postmodernized academics of the cultural Left conceived political agency as an academic spectator sport far removed from ordinary people and the political struggle for power. Instead of focusing on how to stop neoliberal capitalists from racing to the bottom of the global wage market, the cultural Left focused on identity grievances and taking over the English Department. The upshot was a principled nihilism that gave the capitalist class carte blanche to do whatever it wants in the real world, lacking any substantive progressive-socialist opposition. Mauldin says Rorty’s critique applies more broadly today, when left-progressives struggle even to articulate their moral hopes, “which tend to be more progressivist than we like to admit” (65). Postmodern academics, though steeped in historical pessimism, also purvey moral revulsion toward holdover attitudes and beliefs of the very recent past. Mauldin employs “we” language in referencing this group. We dare not profess a belief in moral progress of any kind, lest we dishonor the victims of the Nazi Holocaust and other modern genocidal atrocities. Yet we hold fiercely to the moral conventions of our time, swiftly judging others by them.

Bonhoeffer anticipated this situation by reflecting on the meaning of the Nazi phenomenon. Was it an outgrowth of the original hopes of modernity, a terrible warning against anti-modern reaction, or somehow both? Bonhoeffer, Mauldin argues, employed a flipped version of the decline story told by conservative Catholics: The Western fall from grace did not begin with the Reformation and was not caused by the Reformation. It began with the corruption of the Reformation message, specifically, the Lutheran two-kingdoms doctrine. Bonhoeffer said Luther was right to distinguish between the kingdom of the gospel and the Spirit (the Church) and the law and the sword (the State). Each kingdom exists under the providence and rule of God and is judged ultimately by God. The Church must be free to be the Church that lives by the gospel, and the price of its freedom is the complementary right of the state to operate freely in its own realm by the norms appropriate to it.

Mauldin follows Michael DeJonge in contending that most Bonhoeffer scholars over-compensate on this subject, overly anxious to absolve Bonhoeffer of the baleful legacy of two-kingdoms doctrine. Since there is a legacy of Lutheran capitulation to nationalism and militarism to overcome, and Bonhoeffer is the hero of the anti-Nazi story, he must be dissociated from the two-kingdoms doctrine. But that was not Bonhoeffer’s tack. He sought to overcome the acquiescence legacy by retrieving the best version of the two-kingdoms doctrine, which he attributed to Luther. Bonhoeffer reasoned that the Reformation opened the door to secularization for the sake of a greater good, securing the freedom of the Christian. He accepted secularization per se; what he opposed was the tendency of secularization to create a substitute religion that deifies humanity or a utopian ideal. The people to worry about, he was fond of saying, are those who vest penultimate things and beliefs with ultimate significance.

Bonhoeffer reasoned that the Reformation opened the door to secularization for the sake of a greater good, securing the freedom of the Christian.

Many have described a Bonhoeffer who closely resembles their own theology and politics, so Mauldin has a chapter that chronicles the range of options and parses Bonhoeffer’s ambiguous concept of divine mandates, his revision of the Lutheran orders of creation. Just as I would not accept Rorty as an authority on the Left, since Rorty denigrated identity and recognition as major aspects of the struggle for justice, I do not put much stock in the mandates discussion beyond Mauldin’s compelling point that Bonhoeffer paid attention to the assumptions and norms of existing social institutions. The discussion seems to flag just before Mauldin turns to Barth’s stunningly relevant essay of April 1945 on what it means to build a culture of atonement, “How Can the Germans Be Cured?” Barth gave no quarter to arguments that blamed a few bad leaders, or any such thing. He insisted that the German nation as a whole was responsible for the Nazi catastrophe. The only cure for Germany, Barth said, was for Germans to learn to be responsible for their thinking and acting. Political freedom would have to be imposed upon them, and they would have to accept responsibility for driving the world to another monstrous war, something they stupendously refused to do after World War I.

Wasn’t that a straightforwardly modernist diagnosis and prescription? Mauldin acknowledges that Barth negotiated the modernist question differently depending on the audience. On some occasions, especially the “Cured” article, he described the Nazi phenomenon as an outgrowth of Germany’s longstanding failure to cultivate a liberal democratic ethos. On other occasions he said that Germans could hardly be blamed for spurning the hollow, sinking, inwardly dead democracies they beheld in neighboring nations, notably Switzerland. Sometimes he threaded the needle between these arguments. “Liberal,” Barth argued, is a word meriting a certain judicious respect in every sphere — except theology. The Germans got liberalism exactly wrong, proudly developing liberal theologies that opened the door to a vile, pagan, homegrown, natural theology — Nazi Fascism. Meanwhile they lacked the institutional restraints of liberal politics, teaching successive generations to love German nationalism and militarism, while casting aside Jesus Christ, substituting natural theologies of their own making. Politically, Germany needed to repudiate the entire blood-and-iron legacy of Bismarck, a betrayal of 1848 that led straight to Hitler. Theologically, the German Church and every church needed to adhere to the Word and faith of the (Reformed) Reformation.

Mauldin acknowledges that Barth negotiated the modernist question differently depending on the audience.

Barth pressed this position so stringently that it set him against every kind of liberal theology, natural theology, natural law theory, and his own less-stringent allies in the Dialectical Theology movement. He warned that all arguments based on natural law lead to the misty twilight, paganism, and Munich-style appeasement, not to clear decisions and Jesus Christ. Lutheran two-kingdoms doctrine, he judged, yielded a similar result by dichotomizing too sharply between the political and Christian spheres. The upshot of two-kingdoms doctrine was that Christians were walled off from entering the political sphere as Christians on Christian terms. Barth insisted that centering on Jesus Christ propels Christians into the political sphere. He claimed he had never said otherwise; it wasn’t his fault if people constantly misunderstood him. During World War II he was stridently political, while puzzling over Bonhoeffer’s secretive behavior. Mauldin drives poignantly to the later Barth poring over Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer for clues to Bonhoeffer’s last years. Clearly, two-kingdoms doctrine had not thwarted him from taking the courageously faithful path. Clearly, Bonhoeffer believed that Christ impels Christians into the political sphere, at least in emergency circumstances. But Barth gave all the credit to Bonhoeffer and none to two-kingdoms theology.

Mauldin makes his case that Barth and Bonhoeffer engaged the world of their time without lapsing into utopian fantasies about creating a new world or reactionary fantasies about recovering a lost golden age. They criticized the modern world while living fully in it, persuaded that good theology enables one to do so. Mauldin might have made a stronger case by taking an interest in Barth’s socialism, which would have shown, better than Barth’s occasional responses to political events, how Barth’s theology related to the politics he held.

Mauldin makes his case that Barth and Bonhoeffer engaged the world of their time without lapsing into utopian fantasies about creating a new world or reactionary fantasies about recovering a lost golden age.

In 1931 Barth joined the SPD after taking what he called a ten-year moratorium from political engagement. The Nazis were gaining, and Barth said he sought to make it clear with whom he would like to be hanged. He added that he joined the SPD because it was the party of the working class, of democracy, of anti-militarism, and of judicious patriotism. He stressed that these were concrete reasons. Barth did not claim an intrinsic affinity to Marxism as such, nor profess socialism as a religious worldview, the mistake, he believed, of religious socialists like Paul Tillich, and ostensibly, of Ragaz. To Barth, joining the SPD was strictly a practical political decision, an exercise of his God-given freedom to make political decisions.

Barth was a socialist because the concrete goals of socialism had strong affinities to the kingdom of God. He did not think in terms of party discipline or ideology, so the party directives of the SPD did not apply to him. To him the crucial relationship was between the gospel and socialism, not between theology and socialism. George Hunsinger puts this point aptly: To Barth the crucial relationship was between the freedom and love of God and socialist praxis. He took no interest in proving that theology and socialism are logically related, or in proving any Christian doctrine. Theology is the explication of revelation — secondary reflection on God’s concrete reality as proclaimed in the gospel. Socialism is relevant to theology only to the extent that its goals conform to God’s goals for the world. To Barth, theology clarified the goals. It does not relate to socialism as theory to theory, but as theory to praxis.

Barth floated above politics except when he did not, and he claimed not to be ideological when he made exceptions. He was far more radical than the school of followers he inspired, except for Helmut Gollwitzer, Paul Lehmann, Frederick Herzog, and a few others. Gollwitzer recognized that his friend was volatile, inconsistent, and complex, especially in this area. He knew that Barth’s anti-capitalism and anti-militarism ran very deep. Barth came from the generation that witnessed the disgrace of the SPD, which went on to represent social democracy as something prosaic, shopworn. He had reason to feel that he was more anti-capitalist and radical than the Socialists, but Barth also deceived himself on this subject, doing far less for social justice than he might have had he not spent so much of his career acting above-it-all. That, too, is a major part of the legacy of the twentieth century’s greatest theologian. ♦


Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, which won the PROSE Award in 2013, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, which won the Grawemeyer Award in 2017, and Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, which won the American Library Association Award in 2019. His most recent books are In a Post-Hegelian Spirit: Philosophical Theology as Idealistic Discontent (2020) and American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion, and Theory (forthcoming in September 2021).


Recommended Citation

Dorrien, Gary. “The Theological and the Political in Christianity, Socialism, and Modernity.” Canopy Forum, June 15, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/06/15/the-theological-and-the-political-in-christianity-socialism-and-modernity/