Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics by Joshua Mauldin

Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics cover imageSummary: A reappraisal of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s thinking around modernity and politics.

I regularly recommend the Audible Plus lending library, where Audible members can borrow several thousand audiobooks at no additional costs beyond the membership. Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics is a book that has been on my to-read list for a while, but currently, the Kindle version is over $70, and the Hardcover is $66. While I borrowed the audiobook, if I had purchased it, it was less than $10 when I picked it up. I am never going to make sense of that type of pricing disparity.

I was glad I listened to it, even if it may be a book that would be better read in print. It was a helpful book to think about and even had some aspect of discernment (and an ongoing reading project of mine) that I had not anticipated. But I do want to note that I did not love the narration. The British narrator did not pronounce some of the names and theological, philosophical, or political terms correctly. It is not just variations between American and British pronunciations. More importantly, I thought the tone of the narration was just off, but not so much that I didn’t listen to the whole book in just a few days.

Mauldin is concerned about the state of democracy and is using Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s political thought to grapple with how they addressed the changes in Germany. To start, Mauldin looks at the critiques of modernity by Brad Gregory, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Stanley Hauerwas. I read After Virtue recently and have read several books by Hauerwas over the years. However, I did not have any background on Brad Gregory. The introduction to their ideas was thorough enough that I felt like I was clear.

From that introduction, Mauldin explores Barth and Bonhoeffer’s understanding of modernity, progress, ethics, and politics. I have read more by and about Bonhoeffer than Barth. But these are topical areas that I don’t have much background in.

Mauldin was right that, quite often today, Bonhoeffer’s theology and writing are overshadowed by his biography. There is a long history of Bonhoeffer being appropriated for political purposes, and Mauldin does a good job exploring the limitations of modern uses of Bonhoeffer.

Some of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics was above my head, but I think I understood all the main points. I would like to explore more how philosophers and theologians influenced by those continental philosophers think about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and progress and the limitations of knowledge regarding how to think about discernment by individuals and communities.

I was somewhat surprised that there was some overlap in Mauldin’s exploration of how Barth and Bonhoeffer understood the church’s role and how Michael Emerson and Glenn Bracey explored The Religion of Whiteness. In both cases, there is a grappling with what it means to prod the church to a more careful connection between church and politics and what happens when the church begins to follow something more than just Jesus. In Emerson and Bracey’s case, they posit that a significant portion of White Christians in the US are treating Whiteness (the belief in racial superiority and hierarchy) as a type of religion (in the Durkheimian sense of the term.) In Barth and Bonhoeffer’s cases, they were grappling with how Nationalist Socialism and the belief in Aryan superiority also became a type of religion that distracted the church from its proper role in society. The comparison has problems; not everything transfers, and going directly to comparisons with Nazi ideology does violate Godwin’s law. However, in discussions about how to respond either to Christian Nationalism or support of Whiteness (overlapping but different issues), it is reasonable to think about where there are limited overlapping concepts.

After I finished Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics, I started reading Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America. That history is also relevant because, in many ways, the Puritans in England and America were attempting to enact a Christian Nation in terms that are not unlike the way that some current Christian Nationalists want to operate. Again, no history is completely parallel. The Puritans arose out of a desire for a more radical reformation than the Church of England as a whole wanted. The political realities of a monarchy and the congregationalism that arose in Puritan New England that was part of what gave rise to the impulse toward democracy in the United States is just different from the reaction to pluralism that seems to be central to Christian Nationalism today. But still, the parallels that exist can inform our thinking, help us be more humble about the limits of reform, and keep us from utopian thinking.

Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics by Joshua Mauldin Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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