A Critique of the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Society: For, I think the Third Time

I really like how John Webster describes Barth’s understanding against the Liberal Protestantism of his day. Ironically, I think, that the way Barth understood the Liberal Protestants of his day, could (should) be the way (by and large) that we understand American Evangelicals of our day [please note: I am speaking in generalities, there are obviously many exceptions to this amongst American Evangelicals, just as there was exceptions to the Liberal Protestants in Barth’s day]. In fact, I think this dovetails nicely with the post I just posted on Occupy Wall Street. It gets to the question of how it is that “good” honest hard working (even Christian) people can be duped into thinking that the aformentioned attributes serve as the garb that justifies their place in society (i.e. as good honest hard working folk). There is always room for conviction and self-“criticality;” I know we don’t like this, and I know that much of this ultimately bothers our sensibilities; but we are Christians, people of  love and truth (insofar as we participate in God’s life in Christ).

As I’ve already alluded to, the following is Webster commenting on Barth and his critique of the Liberal Protestants (which I am lifting and applying to American Evangelicals). This is intended to decenter our trust in ourselves, and instead cause us to throw ourselves at the mercy of God in Christ. This is intended to turn our lights on so that we can more critically see how what counts as Christian and Ethical (in America and the West), probably is not as ethical and Christian as we think. This is intended to highlight how it is that “we” so easily become the standard for what is good and right in the world instead of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

[A] large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6]

The ‘Human culture building itself up’ was the German one (for Barth) that ultimately expressed itself in German bourgeois society, and ultimately Nazi Germany. For Barth, for the Liberal Protestant, because of the collapse of the Christian self into the self as the moral self; there no longer remained space for Christ to break in and speak a fresh word of holiness over and against the established norms of what the Liberal Protestant had come to already think of what counted as such. In other words, Barth was against a What Would Jesus Do? society.

I am appropriating this critique from Barth (a la Webster) for the American Evangelical in particular. We have come to think that what counts as moral is captured by the symbol ‘Conservative’. It is this absolutized ‘Conservative Self’ that presumes that what it means to be moral, and Christian is to ask, simply, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This perfectly illustrates Barth’s critique of the German Liberal Protestant. For them, as for us, to be Christian, was to be nationalist, exceptional, and normal. It is this posture that negates any space for the Word of God to break in on all of these norms or the status quo; since the status quo is synonymous with being Christian. And it is this self-evidential situation which allows for atrocities to take place in the name of Christ; through the “absolute self.”

Is what I am getting at overstated?

*Yes, I have reposted this numerous times … it is just that I like this post so!

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