Yes and No: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics
Elisabeth Rain Kincaid
Beloved author J.R.R. Tolkien survived the First World War’s trenches, confronted the intellectual challenges and questions of modernity, and then wrote his epic works of high fantasy, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, during the horrors of the Second World War. After the perils and high heroic deeds of their quest to destroy the ring of power detailed in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Samwise Gamgee, and the other hobbits return home to the Shire. Rather than the peaceful domesticity they are anticipating, they find one final task lies before them. In their absence, the Shire has been invaded by the evil wizard Sarumon and his henchmen, who have corrupted the Shire with the malaise, disease, and dirt of modern industrialization. The returning hobbits must restore right order among their neighbors before they can settle down to cultivate their gardens and raise their families.
Our contemporary America is far from Tolkien’s bucolic Shire. And despite the attractions of its humble joys, the Shire is far from being a place where most contemporary Americans would desire to live. However, the problems confronting the hobbits mirror in many ways the problems of today. Specifically, their confrontation with the diseases of modernity elicits the evaluative judgment of what must be destroyed and what must be retained — the same question we currently face.
In Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics, Joshua Mauldin turns to the work of two theologians writing contemporaneously with Tolkien and asking many of the same questions. Mauldin uses the lens of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s confrontation with National Socialism to raise important questions regarding their responses to the challenges of modernity. In this retrieval, Mauldin seeks to go beyond the myth of Barth as heroic resister and Bonhoeffer as saintly martyr challenging the unthinkable evil of the Nazi regime.
Mauldin traces how Barth and Bonhoeffer’s reflections on modernity began in the aftermath of the First World War — an era marked by a sense of “sickness unto death” in western society. Through the Second World War and (for Barth) into the post-war era, both Barth and Bonhoeffer repeatedly returned to consideration of the sense of “groundlessness” and “shaking of the foundations.” What, if any, points of moral, spiritual, cultural, and even epistemological certainties remained upon which a flourishing or even sustainable moral life could be erected? Mauldin argues that for both Barth and Bonhoeffer, National Socialism was not an anomaly of pure and aberrant evil but rather stemmed from clearly identifiable struggles of modernity. Bonhoeffer pinpointed this failure to the eruption of the violent will of a nation constrained by neither the reason of the Enlightenment nor the received institutions of the past, an existential struggle he traced back to the French Revolution. Mauldin therefore argues that in confronting the moral questions arising from National Socialism, Barth and Bonhoeffer also confront the problems and potentialities of modernity which continue to bedevil us today.
While acknowledging the moral collapse of the age, neither Barth nor Bonhoeffer sought a solution in a nostalgic return to a perfect past. Bonhoeffer, for example, viewed the conservative impulses of the French Revolution to be as dangerous as the revolutionary ones. Barth upheld the greater moral clarity of the revolutionary who points out the failure of institutions to achieve the ideals of justice.1Mauldin, Barth, Bonhoeffer & Modern Politics (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021), 58.
However, both also rejected the idea that a constructive (albeit always temporary) solution could ever be achieved through the cycles of endless critique and utopian revolutionary thought constitutive of certain strands of progressiveness. For example, Mauldin describes Bonhoeffer’s fear of this endless critique which rejects all institutions in similar terms to his fear of the power of the will behind national socialism: “Insofar as rational autonomy is unmoored from any given social intuitions it slides towards a kind of ‘absolute freedom’ which can only critique and overthrow, providing no constructive alternative.”2Mauldin, 95. Both Barth and Bonhoeffer reject the concepts of a “right side of history” and the inevitability of historical progress through modernity. Rather, both saw the retreat from and rejection of the institutions of the present age as a rejection of God’s work in the world.
As Barth describes it, the role of the Christian is to determine how to speak both the “necessary” no and the “naïve” yes to engagement with the world. Only this dialogical approach to political problems allows the Christian to engage in politics within the proper eschatological horizon which avoids “the twin dangers of utopian radicalism and pessimist apolitical sectarianism.”3Mauldin, 51. Both Barth and Bonhoeffer seek to describe how, even in darkest moments such as the regime of National Socialism, human life takes place between the times of God’s reconciliation with the world, and its final redemption beyond history. “Therefore, we do not despair, whether in the modern age or any other.”4Mauldin, 52. Rather, the work of Christians today, as it has always been, is both “imbuing modern life with value even while working for a better society through societal change.”5Mauldin, 51. In other terms, both Barth and Bonhoeffer articulate the Augustinian awareness that even in the modern age, the Christian shares in the life of the City of God still on pilgrimage — a life of the now and the not yet.
In Mauldin’s reading, the site of both this “no” and naïve “yes” for many Christians exists within the institutions of the present age. For Barth, the “problem of ethics” lies below the surface of the sustaining social institutions, prompting the key ethical question of what happens when the basic social institutions seem no longer to be functioning.6Mauldin, 37. This awareness of the importance of institutions is not simply an unthinking conservative preservation. Critique is always necessary, but always includes its own necessary limit. In fact, the revolutionary is doomed to ultimate failure if the goal is revolution alone, because “the revolutionary power of absolute critique precludes the capacity to construct institutional structures and to value them once they exist.”7Mauldin, 59. Rather, the revolutionary always is parasitic upon the very institutions which make revolution possible — insofar as the revolutionary needs these very institutions as an object of her striving.
While both Barth and Bonhoeffer uphold the importance of institutions, it seems as if they significantly differ in their understandings as to the resources which provide the appropriate grounds on which to engage in this critique. What tools of evaluation are left after the winds of modernity have stripped away the value of cultural appraisal and norms and have shaken the foundations of religious convictions? For Barth, in his rejection of natural law, the tools of critique are limited. Reams of academic papers have been written regarding the perils and promises of Barth’s rejection of natural law. Rather than focusing on these extensive debates in limited space, I will close this essay by considering the promise inherent in Mauldin’s description of Bonhoeffer’s theory of the mandates for constructive critique of civil law in our own uncertain and shaken age.
In his theory of the mandates, Bonhoeffer identifies certain natural and enduring human institutions which provide sites for concrete ethical reflection and action. These mandates, grounded in creation and known experientially by all humans, were enhanced by the “liberated ratio…the good side of the enlightenment, what gets us human rights.”8Mauldin, 73. For Bonhoeffer, modern reason therefore can supplement the natural mandates. However, when it articulates rights on an abstract level separated from the lived experience of the mandates, modern reason can miss out on the “importance of thymos, the sense of honor and respect human beings demand, which is irreducible to economic satisfaction or to the fulfillment of bodily desires.”9Mauldin, 79. The abstract claims of reason separated from the reality of human existence will only, according to Bonhoeffer, result in an upsurging of the untrammeled will, which can easily become a regime of demagoguery and terror.10Mauldin, 79. Rights illuminate the mandates, but are also incomplete if they do not take seriously the basic needs of the human person which go far beyond the material goods which reason alone can indicate and secure. Only the mandates and the enlightened ratio taken together actually create a site in which thymos is possible.
How do these theories translate into our own dilemmas as we seek to avoid both the dangers of the endless critique and of preservationist complacency? To return to the question I posed in my reflection upon Tolkien’s shire, how should we seek to confront the challenges and failures of our social and moral instability? How can we seek to overcome the dangers of the untamed will for blood and the eruption of violent nationalism without being trapped in the ultimately failed project of endless critique?
While Mauldin does not directly answer this question in his own work, his helpful framework and direction to Bonhoeffer’s mandates provide some compelling points of reflection. Given the importance of the mandate of government in Bonhoeffer’s theory, law — taken at its most basic and communal — provides a useful site for just this type of reflection.
As the long and painful history of civil rights activism in this country demonstrates, laws must be critiqued in order to move them towards the standards of justice which are necessary for their existence as laws. While perfect justice is unobtainable on this side of the eschaton, new eras bring new challenges and new insights. To ignore these challenges and questions in favor of clinging to the past simply because it is the past is not to stand fast (as Bonhoeffer will ask in his letter “After Ten Years”: “Who stands fast?”) but to refuse to acknowledge the realities of the groundlessness of the modern age and the failures of the past.
The act of critique, as both Barth and Bonhoeffer acknowledge, always creates what Martin Luther King describes in his last work, Where do we go from here?, as a necessary “tension” across the surface of communal discourse.11Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here? (Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 2010),96. However, if this tension only occurs on the abstract level of rights talk — separated from the local embedded realities of the mandates — it will fail, as King points out, to expose the moral failures in the hearts of the citizens which made the legal flaws possible to begin with. That exposure of founding sin is essential in order to achieve the positive change necessary to make more just laws and to create a citizenry capable of upholding those laws.
However, there is always a danger that a cycle of endless critique alone can only destroy, not create. If Bonhoeffer is right, there is a continuing value to institutions which goes beyond either the valorization of the past qua past of the legitimist, or the blind faith in the inevitable power of historical progress. This value ultimately does not lie in the institution’s naturalness. There is, for example, nothing natural or necessary about our contemporary legal system. Rather, institutions provide the site for the possibility of change and moral actions. It is not against, but rather through the institutions themselves — the humble and simple instruments of the law such as administrative codes, municipal courts, even buildings and tax codes — that change can come and greater justice might be achieved.
To return to my opening illustration of the Shire, the scourging of the Shire is necessary, but not in order to return the Shire or the hobbits simply to the past. Both the Shire and the hobbits are changed, as is the whole world of Middle Earth. However, the change does not destroy the importance of Sam’s gardening — his actions within the Shire’s institutions — but rather helps us understand its value. The necessary “no” and the naïve “yes” remain equally important. ♦
Elisabeth Rain Kincaid, PhD is Assistant Professor of Ethics and Moral Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. Her research and teaching focus on virtue ethics, business ethics, and the intersection of law and theology, drawing upon Aquinas, the Spanish Scholastics, and contemporary philosophy of law.
Kincaid, Elisabeth Rain. “Yes and No: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics.” Canopy Forum, June 16, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/06/16/yes-and-no-barth-bonhoeffer-and-modern-politics/