Evading the Word, Creating the Gospel: Karl Barth and Michel Foucault on the Power/Knowledge of Sin and the Task of Theology

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-1918-6883
Breckenridge, Gillian, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Jones, Paul, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation began with an observation. The observation was that while the Christian communities with which I had been involved had become increasingly adept at speaking about injustice as a complex personal and social reality, these same communities did not appear to have a language of sin which was equally robust. In particular, their hamartiologies lacked the ability to speak of personal participation in large-scale social structures of sin in a way that recognized the formative nature of this participation, making the person always both the agent and the victim of sin. Furthermore, these hamartiologies lacked a sufficiently integrated account of personal and social sin which was able to speak meaningfully about sin as a reality that was in a constant process of flux and changing manifestation. On both counts, their language of sin lacked the ability to speak of sin as a reality that was deeply complex, formative, changeable, and obscure.

This dissertation presents the hamartiology of Karl Barth, developed through the critical thought of Michel Foucault, as one way of addressing this need. In particular, this project attends to Barth’s third discussion of sin, in part-volume IV/3 of his Church Dogmatics. Here, Barth gives an account of sin as falsehood: as the creative and formative attempt of the human being to present a modified gospel to itself and therefore to evade the encounter with the truth of the Suffering Word in her midst. This dissertation situates this account of sin within Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation and within his broader discussion of sin as the concretization of nothingness, as pride and sloth, and as that which leads to the myth-like formative social realities called the lordless powers. Although this dissertation argues that Barth’s account of falsehood is the essential connecting point between the personal and the social aspects of his hamartiology, it also suggests that Barth does not fully work out this connection. It is into this conceptual vacuum that I suggest Michel Foucault’s accounts of power, truth, and subjectivity can play a constructive role. Foucault’s discussion of the mutually constitutive nature of the subject and their claims to truth as realities that work in and through complex networks of power-relations helps Barth’s hamartiology speak about the formation of the person – and those around them – through their falsehood. This dissertation, therefore, closes with a constructive account of sin that aims to more fully address the needs of the contemporary Christian community. Moreover, this is an account of sin that does not just add depth to Christian accounts of sin, but also essentially challenges the task of theology as a task that is not beyond critique, being inevitably implicated in these formational webs of sin as both an agent and a victim of falsehood.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Theology, Karl Barth, Michel Foucault, Sin, Hamartiology
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