The theological critique of Nazism

I posted this as a comment to Ben Myers’ latest post, but since it’s somewhat off to the side of the post’s topic, it seemed appropriate to turn it into a fresh post of its own:

I say this as a great admirer of Barth, but I’ve always found the “theological” critique of Nazism to be weirdly disconnected from reality. For instance, Barth’s self-congratulation that the church somehow did the right thing insofar as a small sect of it rejected natural theology in the midst of Nazism strikes me as downright chilling. The test here is that you could take it the opposite direction: for instance, the lack of a viable natural theology produced a disconnect between the gospel and the world, which led to the unlimited rise of technological instrumentality that was then ultimately turned against the human race itself most horrifically in Nazism, etc. Or you could say that the artificial either/or of Christ or nature led necessarily to the embrace of natural “paganism,” etc. Or basically you could make up any “theological” cause you like and congratulate yourself for bravely coming down on the right side of the debate, but that doesn’t make what you’re saying relevant. If anything, wouldn’t it have been more immediately relevant and more obviously connected to Nazism if the church had staked its identity on the opposition to anti-Semitism rather than the somewhat obscure point of natural theology?

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8 Responses to “The theological critique of Nazism”

  1. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    I entirely agree with Adam and I would trace the problem back to Barth’s eschatological political theology and also his anti-Judaism. The anti-Judaism is something that comes across pretty clearly in Romerbrief, and his eschatological political theology is widely known. Barth’s opposition to the racialization of the church is well and good, but it has no bearing on whether he as a citizen of Germany was opposed to the Nazi racial laws. To stand up against anti-Semitism when one holds a strongly anti-Jewish theology is what one would expect of a citizen committed to the principle of natural rights and equality before the law, but it would not flow from theology. So with Barth, the failure to speak against anti-Semitism is doubly determined from his theology: first, from his radical (eschatological) contempt for natural law, and second from his radical contempt for Judaism. So Adam is right: Barth had the courage to resist the racialization of the Church on theological grounds, but that should not be confused with the courage to resist Nazism.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So you’re saying that Barth basically had to “gerrymander” his theology around the anti-Jewish element in order to reach the desired conclusion of opposing the racialization of the church?

  3. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    An “Aryan” church is, to any orthodox theologian, a clear desecration of the church’s mission to be the body of Christ in which ethnic difference is transcended, in which there is neither Greek nor Jew. Any theologian who defines the church in racial terms has abandoned this fundamental teaching and is guilty of the heresy of “paganizing”, the equivalent heresy of “Judaizing”, that is, reintroducing Jewish ceremonial practices (circumcision, etc) as essential for salvation. No theologian ought really to be praised for resisting racialization of the church, it is jun to be the body of Christ in which the difference of st the most basic aspect of Christian theology’s evangel. Not so essential to Christian theology is anti-Judaism. There have been and will be Christian theologians who respect Paul in Romans 11 on the “mystery” of God’s continuing relation with the Jewish people and his use of their rejection of the evangel to bring the gentiles into the covenant. These theologians will not espouse Barth’s unabashed anti-Jewish interpretation of Romans. They will remain open to the mystery, perhaps even allowing a bi-covenantal path towards God as what Paul is proposing until the eschaton resolves the duality. Now Barth did not see any need to gerrymander his theology around his anti-Judaism to arrive at his opposition to the racialization of the church. Anti-Judaism and opposition to a racialized church are the default positions in orthodox Christian theology. The two things are perfectly consistent with one another. An orthodox Christian can say with perfect consistency that his church transcends race and also that Jews as a separate people are no longer in a covenantal relation with God and only through baptism can each individual Jew transcend his or her ethnic separateness and join the post-racial covenant. Now, normally, this default position does not prevent a Christian from opposing anti-Semitism for the same reason that he or she would oppose racism against African Americans: no one should be singled out for persecution because of his or her ethnicity or religion. But when the Church itself becomes anti-Semitic (identifying the only Christians as Aryans), then it might seem like the important thing is to oppose this theological error. However, and Adam this is your point and I agree with it, the theologian who stops there and does not oppose the persecution of the Jews is blameworthy both a human being and as a Christian. What went wrong with Barth is that he so radically privileged theology over politics that he thought that by standing up against a racialized church (which any Christian should do) he had fulfilled his responsibility before God. It would have helped if he had either not so radically denigrated the sphere of politics or if he had not so radically denigrated the covenantal role of the Jewish people.

  4. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    is jun to be the body of Christ in which the difference of st the most basic aspect of Christian theology’s evangel.

    read: “it is just the most basic aspect of Christian theology’s evangel.”

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Okay, I understand what you’re saying now, and I agree. The fact that resisting a racialization of the church should have been so basic makes me wonder why a theological innovation like the total rejection of natural theology was necessary in Barth’s mind. I suppose it seemed like too much of a consession to “pagan” thought — and this anti-paganism is consistent with his anti-Judaism insofar as he seemed to paradoxically turn the Jews into the ultimate “pagans” (if paganism is defined as ethnic particularity).

  6. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    Barth’s gnostic tendencies left him with a particular disdain for anything “natural,” I think. And yes, it seems ironic that the Jew should be an exemplar of the pagan.

  7. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    Barth’s rejection of natural theology always struck me as overdetermined; all sorts of Barthian commitments push one to reject natural theology. Hatred for the “God of the Philosophers” runs pretty deep in Barth. The “German Christians” thing was just an opportunity to further denigrate something Barth already wanted to see dead. If the German churches had all been “confessing churches” Barth wouldn’t have been any friendlier to natural theology; he just would’ve found some other way to tie it to all that’s bad in the world.

  8. theologien Says:

    I don’t know if I necessarily agree with the above comments. I’m not the greatest Barth scholar, but I do know that after the war, he did express real regrets about his lack of action and proper response to the Nazi threat. Plus, Barth, like so many others, honestly did not see the full dimension of the Nazi threat until too late. He realized ex post facto that he had been too tame on the issue. Anyway, that’s my opinion.


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