Secular Dogmatics? (Continuing thoughts on Fanon as Theologian)

At the beginning of his enormous Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth argues that theology can and should consider itself “a science.” As someone shaped by interdisciplinary studies, I found myself a bit suspicious–who cares if it is “a science?” Nevertheless, Barth clarifies what he means in a helpful way: theology as a science has a definite object, has a specific and consistent approach to knowing this object, and it can explain and teach this approach to others (I/1, 7-8). He then immediately says that its status as “a science” isn’t vital but there are some practical or basic concerns that lead him to classify theology as a science. One of them is relevant to my previous post:

Finally, in grouping itself among the sciences for all the radical and indeed indissoluble difference in the understanding of the term, theology shows that it does not take the heathenism of their understanding seriously enough to separate itself under another name, but that it reckons them as part of the Church in spite of their refusal of the theological task and their adoption of a concept of science which is so intolerable to theology. It believes in the forgiveness of sins, and not in the final reality of a heathen pantheon (p. 11).

Theology, precisely as a science, does not need to erect a barrier to protect itself from “other” or “outside” (“heathen”) voices. Its truth does not depend on its internal purity or consistency, and therefore, this truth or reality can be encountered outside of its dogmatic, ecclesial language. As Barth says, “the decision as to what is or is not true in dogmatics…is always a matter of the divine election of grace” (21), that is, a matter of the forgiveness of sins.

We can include these “heathen” sciences in the church not because theology is the “queen of the sciences”–hovering above, and therefore including and properly ordering all other sciences. On the contrary, it is the insufficiency of our own science that leads us to this inclusive vision of theology. If “we always seem to be handling an intractable object with inadequate means” (23), then the acceptability of our own thoughts rest solely on the will of God.

In Christ, we see that God is merciful and therefore it does not surprise us if God chooses to elect dissident voices as adequate responses to God’s revelation in Christ. The possibility that our own theological reflections will be found acceptable presupposes the possibility that secular reflections, even anti-theological reflections, might be chosen as more adequate and pleasing to God. This should be especially clear to us, as Gentiles worshipping a failed Jewish Messiah: our approach or “path” towards God is not one we can walk or even claim as our own.

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