Karl Barth’s Theological Account of Evil as Das Nichtige

Much Ado about Nothing:  Karl Barth’s Being Unable to Do Nothing about Nothingness
6a00d8341c1bf053ef0133f4b63811970b.jpgOften a source of concern to commentators about the adequacy of Barth’s theology is his treatment of evil, in particular Church Dogmatics III/3 §50 with its depiction of evil as das Nichtige (the nothingness). Against the impression that Barth has little time in his systematic  theology for doing justice to evil it is worth attempting a reading that indicates the importance of this section and what it seems that Barth is doing with it.  Das Nichtige  belongs to a conflictual and dramatic account, and talk of its, for Barth, ‘absurd’ ‘existence’ belongs there. The dramatic flavour of this discussion further impresses that there is more to be said about ‘Barth on evil’ than any focus on the paradoxical and negative language used to depict it could express – this ‘more’ should come specifically through ethics. 


Available at academia.edu


Donald Mackinnon: extraordinary theologian of the ordinary

Philosophy-and-the-Burden-of-SDL112898409-1-04665.jpgDonald MacKinnon

It has been often remarked that Donald MacKenzie MacKinnon (1913-94) has been one of the most influential twentieth-century theologians in the United Kingdom – in England in particular.  In fact, in his tribute to MacKinnon, Fergus Kerr regards him as having been “by far the most influential British theologian of the twentieth century”.[1]  Yet while it is the case that those who have learned directly from him reads like a veritable theological ‘Who’s Who’ of British theologians, he remains both relatively ill-read and little studied.[2]  Given his unsystematic approach and his preference for the essay, the occasional paper, and the book review, this lack of study of MacKinnon may well be an appropriate testimony to what George Steiner terms “Donald’s genius”.[3]  These papers are themselves stylistic expressions of MacKinnon’s refusal to engage in providing simplistic systems.[4]  On the other hand, the dearth of critical attention is equally misplaced.  When his name is mentioned it is frequently in order to amuse with the legion of weird and wonderful stories of eccentricity of a larger-than-life character.  Nonetheless, paying attention to his writing might still yield discovery of a method of inquiry that sharpens one’s own intellectual investigation and encourages the kind of intellectual reasoning and conversation that many find all too rarely occur in the contemporary West with the increasing particularisation and professionalization of discourses, and the reduction of public discourse to the banal, trivial and shallow.  The testimonies to his genius endorse MacKinnon’s deep erudition, his penetrating engagement with the particular, his concern with matters of social and political justice, and his almost tortured sense of honesty and examination.  This is MacKinnon’s extraordinariness.

[1] Fergus Kerr, ‘Remembering Donald MacKinnon’, New Blackfriars 85 (2004), 265-9 (266).

[2] André Muller’s recently completed first part of an intellectual biography may begin to address that problem [‘Donald M. MacKinnon:  The True Service of the Particular, 1913-1959’, PhD thesis (University of Otago, 2010)].

[3] George Steiner, ‘Tribute to Donald MacKinnon’, Theology 98 (1995), 2-9 (2).

[4] In their own way they are testimonies of a sort to the prevention of “the frozen certitudes of the dogmatic, the inertia of the canonic”, to adapt Steiner’s description of Søren Kierkegaard’s style [No Passion Spent:  Essays 1978-1996 (London:  Faber and Faber, 1996), 253].

Paper available at Academia edu

and  Donald MacKinnon Intro


‘Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and the Subjectivity of the Object of Christian Hope’


Christian hope is not best conceived as a specific instance of a more general category of ‘hope’; rather, within Christian theology, the nature of hope itself is transformed by the things hoped for. The Barth–Brunner debate of 1934, although not specifically about hope, provides resources for exploring the radical nature of Christian hope.  

Available at


or draft version Barth, Brunner Hope

“Openness to the World”: Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology of Christ as the Pray-er


What is at stake in accounts of “prayer” is reflection on a practice that cannot be readily spoken of free from the most important considerations of God, world, human identity and the shape of its performance. Instead, if prayer “inot to become a harmless game and an endlessly babbling chatter” (Karl Rahner), attention needs to be paid to the god or gods that practices of so-called “prayer” encounter, and it may be that much of what moves in the name of the God of Jesus Christ is, in Barth’s terms, no-god.  For Barth not only has the knowledge of the practice of prayer, in a sense, been taken out of our hands in its Christ-grounding, but its Christ-shaped performance involves the determination of Christian life and its self-reflective thought in the pattern of the new life that might be characterised as the properly orderefreedom of self-dispossessing obedience. 

Available at


Manuscript Completed for 2nd edn. Gospel According to Star Wars

gospel-star-wars.jpgMy many thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for the invitation earlier this year to revisit and update my 2007 book The Gospel According to Star Wars:  Faith, Hope and the Force.

I have substantially rewritten the Introduction, added new material to the first Chapter and the Afterword.  The substantial difference is the addition of a lengthy final chapter on matters of gender, race and violence in The Force Awakens.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer & ‘”Hospitality” at the End of Religion’

An article published in 2013, published article available from academia.edu, draft version available at Bonhoeffer Paper


So much has been written about the theologian from central Europe Dietrich Bonhoeffer as prophet, martyr, priest, that one of the challenges is to find something new and interesting to say about him.  Too much passes the lips of hagiographers again to be in any way valuable in its right, slipping into an overextending of his life and work in what one might well call a hagiographic hubris – even a hagiographic hamartia.  For too much writing he is made banal and sentimental, tamed by the emotivism that surrounds talk of him as something of a heroic white knight who rides in to save the day as a deus ex machina when the darkness is about to fall.

Much of the commentators’ attention has been focused on “religionless Christianity”, a claim made in the always enigmatic and usually allusive late Letters and Papers from Prison.  Such claims tend to give comfort to those who have moved post-institutionally in their Christianity, or who pay attention to Christianity only from the perspective of being spiritually-minded ‘seekers’.  In this regard, Bonhoeffer’s claims might appear timely and provocative, a challenge to churches to move with the spirit of the times.  In many ways I want to deflate this understanding, or at least the ease of this use of his work, one that has largely been the product of the reception of J.A.T. Robinson’s populist Honest to God.  By giving Bonhoeffer back his bite to a Christian environment slipping more and more into trite and sentimental forms of spirituality might mean making him appear somewhat less attractive initially, but such for Bonhoeffer would be the cost of identifying one’s way as a disciple.  The claim is that his theology performs an interrogation of personhood, providing a challenge that is ontologically deep, with the effect of forming an ethic of persons-in-relation – in relation to God in Christ, our Neighbour.  Bonhoeffer’s primary value, then, may well lie not in his consoling words so much as in his dislocating of us from modes of constructing personhood that are namable as idolatrous.  This is to locate Bonhoeffer, even at the end, very much in terms of the costliness of witnessing to the Gospel of the crucified Saviour.  In other words, to use a phrase from Matthew Boulton, the healthy theological consideration of Bonhoeffer can function as part of “a kind of spiritual detoxification process”, weaning us off our delusions of grandeur which effect unjust abuses of others, or off the quietistic forms of endurance of highly contingent suffering and pathological dependencies, and off our habituations to “fear, guilt, [and] selfish ambition”.[1]

My paper hopes to put Bonhoeffer into service, reflectively critical service, in that his work is utilised to fruitfully bear on identifying certain contemporary conditions.  The conditions are those of the dis- and re-enchantment of the world, to use Max Weber’s scheme.  Where Bonhoeffer may best help is in putting to us questions of value, desire and power by reconceiving the human as a christically contoured performance of hospitable sociality.

[1] Matthew Boulton, God Against Religion, x.