Liberation and Disposition: Mangina and Barth on the Christian Life


By John Drury


Can the liberation of the Christian according to Karl Barth be thought of in terms of affection and disposition? When Barth speaks of the fellowship of action between Christ and the Christian, is he thinking of the development of character? According to Joseph Mangina, the answer to these questions would most likely be yes. Although Mangina does not treat §71.6 of the Church Dogmatics, it is an excellent place to test his interpretation. Barth is certainly dealing with the Christian life and even speaks explicitly of being “affected” (655, 657). But is Barth really thinking in terms of affections and dispositions?


Mangina: Barth on the Christian life


Before testing Mangina’s interpretation, let us first lay out the basic contours of his argument. In two crucial chapters of his Karl Barth on the Christian Life, Mangina argues for the presence of an implicit account of affections and dispositions in Barth. Mangina begins his argument regarding the affections by noting that knowledge in Barth is always self-involving. The Christian does not simply know facts about Christ, but is rather taken in by an encounter with Christ. Christian knowing therefore includes the whole self.


Having identified this starting point, Mangina turns to Jonathon Lear and Don Saliers for a more explicit account of affections as orientations toward the world. Mangina claims that such orientations are present in Barth, specifically in his use of the language of joy and gratitude. Mangina traces gratitude and joy in CD II/2, explaining how they function as witness, include the free subjectivity of the human person, and correspond to divine action. He follows this account by explicating the usage of gratitude and joy in Barth’s discussion of respect for life in CD III/4 and his account of the free necessity of reconciliation CD IV/1-2. The bottom line is that gratitude as affection is primarily active, and that “The active life is the primary means through which we demonstrate our thankfulness to God” (159).


Mangina goes on to ask whether Barth has an appreciation for growth, change and continuity in the Christian life. Is there such a thing as dispositions for Barth? After reviewing the scholarly debate in Barth interpretation, Mangina points to the “existentials” and “policy descriptions” of Barth’s late lectures The Christian Life as candidates for Barth’s understanding of “dispositions or attitudes” (169). The key disposition here is “passion.” Mangina notes how passion operates for Barth in the transition from prayer to action. He notes that Barth’s talk of zeal as human desiring (not just willing) parallels in some measure the account of the passions in Thomas Aquinas (180-81). Barth’s account takes practical shape around his policy recommendations, which follow “an almost Aristotelian pattern of seeking the mean between extremes” (185). The purpose of these dispositions is to make the Christian into a “text” for the purpose of bearing witness (188). According to Mangina, Barth’s account of Christian action, though overwhelmingly focused on the “vertical” dimension of obedience to Christ, has a discernable “horizontal” dimension of growth as the Christian “comes to attain depth and richness of character” (191). Mangina admits that this aspect is muted, but it proves that Barth’s account of human agency does not rule out more Thomistic reflections on character and growth (192).


Barth: The Liberation of the Christian


Barth turns once again to the shape of the Christian life at the conclusion of his doctrine of vocation (§71). Barth here discusses the liberation of the Christian. He notes first that in the Bible, the calling of characters is always primary, but an incidental personal aspect is never lacking. Barth initially explicates this personal aspect in terms of three standpoints. The first standpoint is formal, whereby we see that the Christian is equipped for vocation with a personal knowledge of the content of witness. The second standpoint is more intimate: the called Christian is united with Christ’s being and act and therefore also a recipient of his benefits. The third standpoint is referential: the Christian is called to witness to the reconciliation between God and the world. This reference gives us an outward focus toward God and other humans. Yet this outward focus is precisely our personal encounter with God and therefore our humble and joyful participation in the good news.


Following these initial standpoints, Barth turns to argue for the indispensability of this incidental personal aspect. After quickly reviewing the problem of dry orthodoxy, Barth asks why we even matter in the face of this cosmic event. His initial answer is that God wills to include us in it as his witnesses. Generally, this means that we must be affected by the salvation to which we witness. Barth notes three specific characteristics of witness that imply the indispensability of personal liberation. First, we witness to a relevant fact and thus must encounter its factual relevance in our lives. Second, we witness to a living, radical object implying that we must encounter it as such. Third, we bear witness to good news and therefore must be joyful about it ourselves. In each case, one can see that our vocation to be witnesses would remain unfulfilled if it were not executed with this accompanying personal aspect.


Barth moves on to describe the concrete movements of the event of liberation in our lives. He notes first a formal clarification that the state of being liberated is a moving dynamic history, both on its large scale in Christ and in its analogous small scale in us.  Therefore, the event of liberation has the structure of both freedom “from” and freedom “to,” not merely the static state of being free. Barth then lists seven concrete movements of liberation: (1) from solitariness to fellowship, (2) from omni-possibility to singular necessity, (3) from the forcible dominion of things to the free territory of humanity, (4) from desire and demand to reception, (5) from indecision to action, (6) from morality and immorality to forgiveness and gratitude, and (7) from anxiety to prayer. Clearly, the Christian life for Barth is anything but a static vertical relationship, but rather has a definite historical motion.


Barth concludes his discussion by noting four clarifying characteristics of the event of liberation. First, it is an incomplete event. We are never entirely free from past threats. Second, liberation is an exemplary event. We are liberated in order to point analogously to the actuality of the world’s liberation. Third, liberation is a vocational event regarding its focus. Our experience of liberation should never become a theme of our witness, but only an indispensable instrument. Finally, liberation is a vocational event regarding our personal status. The liberated Christian is not to be concerned with her own liberation, questioning it and doubting it. Rather, she should only ask whether she is fulfilling her vocation to bear witness to the liberation of which she has tasted.


Overall, Barth has a robust yet relative account of the Christian’s liberation. It is robust in material detail, yet always set in relation to the larger scope of vocation in Christ’s service. As the incidentally indispensable personal aspect of vocation, the liberation of the Christian describes the historical events whereby our lives take on a shape analogous to Christ’s liberation of all humanity for the sake of bearing witness to said humanity. For Barth, the Christian life indeed takes on definable characteristics through a genuine human history.


Mangina and Barth I: Congruities


What in Mangina’s interpretation lines up with Barth’s discussion of the liberation of the Christian? First of all, Mangina is right to point out the self-involving character of human knowledge for Barth. Mangina says, “Faith is never simply coldhearted assent to propositions” (128). Barth would certainly agree with this assertion. For Barth, the Christian must be “affected, seized and committed, controlled and nourished, unsettled and settled, comforted and alarmed” (657). Note that in this litany of self-involved participles, the lead term “affected” is the only word not set in a dialectical pairing. One might contend that affection is shorthand for the whole category of self-involvement. Of course, Barth has no need for such a thematic term, since his preferred word for “knowledge” (erkenntnis) already implies self-involvement. Nevertheless, Mangina’s account is a helpful corrective to those who might envision Barth as a proponent of heartless orthodoxy.


Second, Mangina’s interpretation brings to the fore the recurring theme of gratitude in Barth’s theology. Barth claims that his theology includes at every point an account of the human response to divine action. Such human response is characterized by gratitude. Mangina has done a wonderful job of not reading past Barth’s talk of gratitude as a pious throwback or a rhetorical flourish, but rather as indicative of Barth’s whole understanding of divine and human agency. Whether gratitude is best described as an “affection” is debatable, but its place must not be overlooked. Mangina’s account of gratitude as the free human correspondence to the actuality of grace lines up with Barth’s discussion of the liberation of the Christian. Barth speaks of our moving “forward from the forgiveness” to which we bear witness (671). We can “only be grateful” for the fact that we can participate in this forgiveness (671). One can see here how gratitude follows the free establishment of forgiveness, just as Mangina lays it out. Furthermore, as Mangina points out, gratitude is active. Barth explains that the Christian can “be thankful … only by continually taking the next step, by continually moving” (671). Mangina’s overall account of gratitude seems to fit properly in this case.


Finally, Mangina’s discussion of prayer as action fairly represents Barth’s discussion of prayer in this section. Mangina speaks of the lex orandi lex agendi: that the law of prayer is the law of action (177). What we pray for sets the agenda for what we do in the world in correspondence to divine action. Prayer itself is the beginning of Christian action, especially as it takes the form of resistance (184). Barth speaks of our liberation from anxiety to prayer in a manner consistent with Mangina’s account. The Christian is liberated from the anxiety which she still faces on the basis of its defeat in Christ. This liberation is expressed through prayer. Barth concludes, “Liberated for this action he receives and has a real assurance that his liberation from all anxiety in all its forms is in process of accomplishment, so that even in the midst of it he can no longer be one who can and must succumb to it but rather one who strides out of the sphere in which it might become and be triumphant” (673). Note here how prayer is a resistant action that pours out into further human action as Mangina’s interpretation would have us expect.


Generally, by illuminating the self-involving character of knowledge, the importance of gratitude, and the activity of prayer, Mangina’s interpretation helps to counterbalance criticisms that Barth has no room for human action or lacks a robust account of the Christian life. Unfortunately, in his zeal to develop Barth’s understanding of the Christian life along the lines of disposition, Mangina has overlooked important aspects of Barth’s own unique way of speaking of human action. To these incongruities we shall now turn.


Mangina and Barth II: Incongruities


Despite the illumination offered by his interpretation, there are a number of incongruities between Mangina and Barth. There are three in particular that are worthy of note.


First, there is the matter of Mangina’s insufficient emphasis on the category of witness. Mangina more than once notes by way of caveat that the Christian life is characterized by witness (135, 188). However, he does not allow this insight to have the weight that it has in Barth. Witness is not just an aspect of the Christian life. For Barth, witness is determinative of the whole. In his discussion of the liberation of the Christian, Barth uses the category of witness to structure his whole account. The personal experience of the Christian is seen as an incidental aspect of her vocation. It is indispensable, but relative. Thus one should not focus on one’s life and its development but rather on carrying out one’s calling with joy, looking for personal liberation only as it serves this one purpose. Mangina’s lack of a thoroughgoing concentration on witness diverts attention away from the task and on to the Christian, making the very mistake Barth wishes to avoid.


Second, there is the question of the aptness of Mangina’s terms. Is Barth’s term “determination” really equivalent of “affection” (132)? Does Barth’s talk of “existentials” and “policy recommendations” parallel Thomistic language of “dispositions” (169, 186)? Certainly there must be some overlap, as the determination of the Christian includes an affective aspect and Barth’s policy recommendations have an attitudinal thrust. However, there are a number of points where the parallels break down. Focusing for the moment on determination versus affection, note that determination has an unequivocal objective side. One might simply be in state of internal affection, whereas one is determined from the outside. Barth of course does not want to leave the relation between Christ and the Christian at a purely external level. Yet the term determination reminds us that there is someone who is doing the determining and someone else who is being determined. This asymmetrical relationship is never lost. Mangina notes this asymmetry, but in conjunction with the language of affection one is forced to note this again and again because it is not implied. Determination as a term never fails to evoke a sense of objectivity, relationality, and asymmetry – all aspects that are placed in the background in Mangina’s account. With such a significant remainder, it is questionable whether this linguistic alteration “serves a useful heuristic function” as Mangina claims (132).


Finally, Mangina inaccurately describes Barth’s account of divine and human action. In his zealous attempt to bring human agency into the foreground, he has overlooked the peculiar way in which the action of God grounds and sustains human action. For example, note the spatial metaphors used by Mangina in his description of divine action: “the ultimate background of pathos against which the self’s history unfolds is the action of God in Jesus Christ” (190, emphasis added). Divine action is never in the background for Barth. This misses the point entirely. Jesus Christ is presently moving through history, and the Christian is called to participate in this divine action. As Barth put it,

Christ does not find Himself indolently resting at this place, but that in fulfillment of His prophetic work in the power of His Holy Spirit He strides through the ages still left to the world until His return in its final form. Hence we have to understand the Christian’s standing at the point where Christ is as an element in the movement in which he set in fellowship with Christ and which in this fellowship it is his task in his own time to fulfill (663, emphasis added).

This is anything but the divine background to human action. Christ is present and active now, and we accompany him in his present movement.


Another spatial metaphor used by Mangina is the distinction between vertical and horizontal (190). He claims that in addition to the vertical relationship of decision there is a horizontal development of character. He is certainly right that there is a horizontal element to the Christian life for Barth. But Mangina misses that the language of determination and decision is already horizontal. The human agent does not need to develop a horizontal history in addition to his vertical relationship to God. God is already engaged in world history horizontally. Jesus strides through the ages. We are included within this horizon. So Barth’s account does not need to be supplemented with the language of dispositions, because the event of personal liberation already has a historical, horizontal shape. As we partake in this movement, so we take on the character of liberation. A more sustained attention would reveal that Barth does not speak of divine action in a way that would create the very problems which Mangina is trying to solve. Barth’s God is on the move, and the Christian joins God on this journey.


In the final analysis, Mangina’s interpretation of Barth on the Christian life is both illuminating and misleading. It certainly illuminates overlooked aspects of Barth’s thought on human action. But it also misleads by its misplaced emphasis, terminological misjudgment, and material misreading. It can thus be recommended only with caution.