The Point of a “Non-dialectical dialectic”

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Those somewhat familiar with the secondary literature on Karl Barth know that at least since the mid-1990’s (and especially in the English speaking world since the publication of Bruce McCormack’s ground-breaking work) he is commonly understood as exhibiting a “thoroughgoing dialectical theology.” Now, for those who may scratch their heads at what exactly a “dialectic” is, I would suggest that the two poles of a magnet provide a good analogy.  That is, there is no magnet without both a North pole and a South pole. You cannot ask, “Which pole is more important–North or South?” (Well, I suppose you can ask it, but sometimes there are wrong questions!) This is because you can’t reduce a magnet to either pole; its nature as a magnet depends upon upholding the reality of these supposedly ‘opposite’ ends. (I would say that another a good example of a dialectic is the nature of humanity, which consists of both male and female; you can’t reduce humanity beyond this irreducible minimum of the male and female gender. Human is to be male and female, different yet indivisibly one.)

The more you read Karl Barth, the more you see this “dialecticism” at work throughout his thought, and one is in danger of misinterpreting Barth if one fails to see how consistently Barth upholds two sides, two perspectives, two poles, etc. on many given issues. Consequently, works like the “pre-McCormack” book by Charles Waldrop (Karl Barth’s Christology: Its Basic Alexandrian Character) ultimately fail to convince because of a failure to see Barth’s thorough going dialecticism. (Waldrop asks whether Barth’s Christology is more Antiochene or more Alexandrian in character, and concludes in favour of the Alexandrian. But as Hunsinger points out, “When Barth’s theology has been classified as other than Chalcedonian, it is alleged that he succumbs to one or another of [the Antiochene or Alexandrian] extremes.” (Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace, 134))

But as “predictable” as Barth’s dialecticism may be, there are times when Barth concsiously seems to be grasping to find other ways to speak of these “double elements.” An example of this occurs in CD IV.3.2. Barth points out that traditional scholastic discussions distinguished  between vocation (or more accurately, “calling”) as “internal vs. external,” “mediate vs. immediate,” or “once-for-all vs. continuous.” He then goes on to say that these distinctions, while perhaps helpful to an extent, cannot be allowed to be separated in the unity of vocation as a unified, single work of God. To speak of an external calling isolated from an internal is empty; to speak of a mediate calling apart from immediate sets up an extra level of mediation apart from the one mediator. But especially when it comes to the “once-for-all” vs. the “continuous” aspects of calling, Barth is adamant that both are true. Yes, there is a time in the life history of a human in which he or she is awakened from the slumber of death, and yet it is also true that this awakening continues throughout that person’s life. Both are true, and denial of either element, or favoring one over the other, leads one down an errant path. Yet, as Barth says, “To call them paradoxical or dialectical does not help to clarify them” (CD IV.3.2, 520). It is as if, Barth says, that we are dealing with a case of “non-dialectical dialectic” (which, come to think of it, is an unusual kind of dialectic in itself!).

But why is this “dialectic” non-dialectical? It is because, Barth says, vocation–calling–has to do not with our experience of being called, but with the One who calls.  Yes, it is true that we can differentiate and “put into tension” (as we are so apt to say) the once-for-all moment in time of our calling in our history with the ongoing process of being called again and again in our lives. But this differentiation, Barth says, is no tension at all. It is not a “dialectic” nor a “paradox.” This is because vocation is, first and foremost, about the one who calls more than the one who is called: “The living Lord Jesus Christ in the power of His Word and therefore in His Holy Spirit is the Subject who acts in this event” (CD IV.3.2, 519) And, as Barth concludes,

Whether or not we call these statements paradoxical and dialectical, this whole mode of calling . . . is obviously necessary once we consider, and do not cease to consider, that we are concerned with the vocation which is nothing other than the function and work of Jesus Christ in His prophetic office” (CD IV.3.2, 520).

So what is  Barth trying to say when he refuses to call this “dialectic” a “dialectic”? What is the point of a “non-dialectical dialectic”? I think there are two things (of course!) that Barth can help us  to understand:

1) Endless focus upon theological tensions may be an indicator that we have become overly anthropocentric in our outlook. In other words, just because something seems to us as humans to be a tension, a paradox, a dialectic, does not mean that it actually is. In essence, for Barth to point to the limits of dialecticism is to point to our own anthropological limits. Our perception and comprehension of an issue can never be the arbiter for what is ontologically true.

2) But anthropological limits need not be understood simply as something “fallen” or coming about as a result of sin. After all, it is not that we fail to see the “sides” of the issue; indeed, we have often graciously been given revelational glimpses into both sides of an issue, and for that we can be grateful. Rather, it is that we simply cannot grasp the two sides of a dialectic in a single moment of knowing or comprehension. And I contend that we need not blame sin for this limitedness, but simply that we have not been designed, from the beginning, to be able to uphold a dialectic in a non-dialectical way! Nor will we ever be able to do it, even in the eschaton! In other words, our anthropological inability to uphold what appears to be two apparently contradictory (dialectical) ideas together in unity is by no means proof that one must decide for one side or the other.  On the contrary, our inability to uphold a dialectic non-dialectically speaks to our built-in Created need to be reminded, again and again, that our limits have less to do with fallenness or evil, but more to do with what God has created us to be: creatures who are not to live in accordance to our own understanding, but rather creatures who are created to trust and lean upon God’s Word (Cf. Prov. 3:5-6). Eve fell, in other words, when she tried to reconcile how fruit, which was beautiful to the eye, (Gen. 3:6) could be something that God had said was not to be eaten. How can both of these be true?! But of course, both were true, even though Eve couldn’t comprehend the unity of their truth. Thus,  Eve’s failure was to allow one “side” (the beauty of the fruit) of the dialectic to overturn the other (the prohibition to eat of the fruit). Likewise, our failure is not in our inability to overcome the “dialectic”; indeed, we are not created to overcome it in the first place. Rather, we fail when we refuse to allow the dialectic to be an instrument by which we are turned toward, and worship and rely upon, the One in whom Truth is fully unified.

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One thought on “The Point of a “Non-dialectical dialectic”

  1. Tyler

    If I understand you right, then dialectic itself is the perspective with which we were designed to see a portion of a too-large thing at a time, rather than the whole at once- much like our vision only allows us to see one side of a physical object at once. So as when two people look at a cylinder and see either a rectangle or a circle, the problem arises not when we perceive something different, theologically, but when we insist that what we see at the moment is the whole truth. Thus a pietist sees piety as truth, an experientialist sees experience as truth, an academic sees understanding as truth, they are all correct (as long as their piety, experience, and understanding correspond to reality), but if they insist that their truth is the only, or only correct, or most correct, then they are all wrong.

    It brings to mind rather sharply the heresies revolving around the Trinity! Every problem in understanding it seems to be rooted in emphasizing the nature of God as either one or three, over against the other. Or the nature of Christ as God and Man, or Man as perfectly created and flawed by sin, or- well, I suppose there’s quite a lot of examples.

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