A Review of “The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law” (Part 1)

The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law, edited by Leonard V. Kaplan and Rudy Koshar, is a set of papers from a conference held at UW-Madison in the fall of 2008 (Lexington Books, 2012). Many of the papers will be of direct interest to readers, most notably perhaps the set dealing with Karl Barth. Here I want to point out some of the more important observations and analyses that surfaced during the discussions (full disclosure: I attended and have a paper in the proceedings).

The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law, edited by Leonard V. Kaplan and Rudy Koshar, is a set of papers from a conference held at UW-Madison in the fall of 2008 (Lexington Books, 2012). Many of the papers will be of direct interest to readers, most notably perhaps the set dealing with Karl Barth. Here I want to point out some of the more important observations and analyses that surfaced during the discussions (full disclosure: I attended and have a paper in the proceedings).

“Weimar” of course has become a byword for an incandescent but premature experiment with modernity, in its full cultural (film, radio, theater, publishing), technological, artistic, architectural, urban, political, and yes, secular dress. Readers may be familiar with surveys like Peter Gay’s gripping portrait. My own initiation as an undergraduate consisted of intensive reading courses in Thomas Mann, Martin Heidegger, and German history. But my most vivid impression is the movie adaption of the Broadway play Cabaret (itself inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories), which left indelible images of an entire society doing the dance of St. Vitus on the edge of the volcano.

The conference had as one of its goals the revision of this received picture of a failed experiment in modernization that instead issued in apocalypse. In particular the planners wanted to put religion back into the picture, and as something more than just the vanishing ghost that endowed political reaction with a necessary but fleeting tincture of legitimacy. This was a fine if surprising ambition. Finding religion and real theology at the heart of a conference on Weimar law and politics was not what I expected from an event planned principally by the law school, history department, and sundry research centers of a major state university.

I might not have been so surprised had I known more about the research interests of the conference planners and co-editors of the present volume. Leonard Kaplan, since 1974 a law professor at Wisconsin, has a long-standing interest in the intersection of law and society. Besides his law degree, he holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Chicago. He also serves on the Steering Committee for Religious Studies, and is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of a journal, Graven Images: Studies in Culture, Law, and the Sacred, which is now a book series with Lexington Books (the present volume is appearing in the series). His two contributions to the proceedings, particularly “The Political: from Weimar to the Present,” are virtual keynotes that try to integrate the disparate themes, ideas, issues, and dominant personages, of whom he singles out Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt for special treatment. Since two of these three are among the most prominent conservative political thinkers of the twentieth century and sworn enemies of liberalism (Arendt is a more complicated case), this may send a misleading signal about the program. Kaplan is an unabashed liberal, but one of those who recognizes some of the dilemmas facing the liberal state – he wants to face up to the same conceptual and practical difficulties that preoccupy Paul Kahn, whose new book Political Theology was the subject of a blog symposium this past fall. Kaplan owes his title, of course, to Schmitt: Kaplan wants to claim that “the political precedes the sacred/secular divide” (187, 205), and his paper examines the contrasting ways in which each of his three figures negotiated the sacred/secular divide in their efforts to ground “the political”. (I have to add that, helpful though the paper is in laying out some of the thinking that inspired the conference, his allusive and ruminative style can leave the reader at times searching for the point of it all.)

Several of the Barth papers were of exceptional interest. Gary Dorrien spoke with authority about Barth’s overall legacy, which he presented by putting Barth into conversation with virtually every major Protestant theologian over the half century of Barth’s long and productive career. Particularly illuminating for us non-Barthians was his focus on the dialectical method itself and its implications for Barth’s attitude to politics and society. Recognizing that he risked treating Barth as the primum mobile of all of modern Protestant theology, Dorrien was refreshingly honest about Barth’s less attractive intellectual and personal qualities, though even these were often but the obverse of his virtues (230-231). In the end, Dorrien says, Barth “failed to bring together the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ of his dialectic”, which was “paradoxical but not relational” (236). Theology, he concludes, cannot be content with being a “church-based explication of a self-authenticating revelation”, which is the situation in which Barth left it. That sobering assessment also applies, I should think, to political theologies which in one form or another still look to Barth as a founding inspiration. Would that include readers of this blog? I’m new enough to the neighborhood to be unsure about that.

Christophe Chalamet’s paper on Barth and Weimar politics effectively rebutted the efforts of the so-called “Munich” group to portray Barth’s assault on religious liberalism as a simultaneous undermining of political liberalism — with the result that Barth could be made to share the blame with all of those whose failure to support “the unloved republic” weakened its defenses against its authoritarian and reactionary enemies. Says Chalamet:

Barth’s thorough relativization of all human institutions and authorities, including the church and the state, two penultimate realities which will no longer be needed once sin is abrogated, should not be interpreted as a delegitimization of these institutions but as an attempt at theologically ordering the various authorities in the civil and the Christian community. (251)

For those unfamiliar with the story, I recommend his account of Barth’s sterling intervention in the celebrated “Dehn” case. Despite reluctance born of his being a Swiss national and not a German citizen, Barth spoke publicly in defense of embattled university theologian Günther Dehn, whom student vigilantes were harassing mercilessly because of his refusal to equate Christian sacrifice with the death of German soldiers (253, along with the vivid quotations in the notes on 263-264).

Yet another key Barth paper was Rudy Koshar’s “Demythologizing the Secular: Karl Barth and the Politics of the Weimar Republic.” As the title suggests and his first several footnotes verify, Koshar is indebted to the secularization critiques of contemporary theologians like John Milbank and Bill Cavanaugh. Koshar, a co-planner of the conference, has been campaigning for several years now to put religion and theology back into the intellectual history of twentieth century Europe (a propos of his project, see his 2008 article, “Where Is Karl Barth in European History”?). When he writes that “Weimar-era political theology should not be characterized primarily or exclusively as a process in which dire threats to Western parliamentary traditions appeared with unprecedented force and seriousness”, his point is that “political-theological thinking” could also provide resources for stability and for re-construction. In other words: Carl Schmitt should not be allowed to dictate the explanatory narrative. Koshar concludes: “Instead [sc. of Schmitt’s all-embracing definition of “the political”], Barth offered revelation and in doing so became a theologian of freedom — of God’s above all, but also thereby of mankind’s” (330). Of Barth’s response to secularization, Koshar says:

Against the tides of secularization, against the pluralization and individualization of theological identities, against the diverse political uses of God’s Word, against Christian pride and church arrogance, Barth attempted to re-situate Christian dogmatics in a manner that restored the proper relationship between the civil community and the Christian community. This was less the attempt to create a “counter-world in itself” than it was the effort to reinterpret and expose modernity in an entirely new way (323).

Part 2 will be posted Wednesday, March 7.

Michael Hollerich
University of St. Thomas

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