Veiled and Unveiled Others: Revisiting Karl Barth's Gender Trouble
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CitationBodley-Dangelo, Faye. 2016. Veiled and Unveiled Others: Revisiting Karl Barth's Gender Trouble. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Divinity School.
AbstractKarl Barth is frequently named as the poster-child for modern patriarchal and heteronormative theologies. In Church Dogmatics he secures a binary, hierarchically-ordered, marital relationship between a man and woman as the norm for conceptualizing not only sexual difference but all inter-subjective relationships among human beings. Human beings find in the opposite sex their paradigmatic human “other,” and marriage to someone of the opposite sex provides the occasion in which one is able to most fully realize the sort of being-in-encounter that conforms to the self-giving, self-revealing, aid-lending relationship that Christ has established with the Christian community. The asymmetry of the relationship between Christ and his community translates into the super-/subordering of the relationship between the sexes, wherein women are lead, directed, and inspired by men. Barth applies this “ordering” beyond marriage to all interactions between the sexes. Many critics have argued that Barth’s ordering of the sexes exposes a systemic structure of domination and submission instantiated in the many relationships that comprise his theology. Others have sought a corrective to his ordering in his doctrine of the Trinity, but a corrective that demands a reconstruction of his innovative reformulation of the doctrine of election along with his christocentric theological anthropology. Until recently little critical attention has been given to his heteronormative framework.
This dissertation advances a fresh approach by shifting focus from the question of the function of “order” in Barth’s theology to Barth’s christocentric understanding of human agency itself. Through contextualized close readings in Barth’s ethics, doctrine of creation, and theological anthropology, I argue that his methodological, dogmatic, and ethical commitments lead to an account of the human agent that is carefully detached from naturalizing and scientific discourses and crafted after the aid-lending, self-revelatory activity of the incarnate Christ. Constituted as a response to the divine address, human beings are called into existence as morally responsible actors and set on the path toward lending aid to and receiving aid from their human neighbors.
I mobilize this account of agency to resist, unsettle, and reconfigure Barth’s androcentric and heteronormative construal of sexual difference for the purpose of securing Barth’s Church Dogmatics as a resource for theologies that resist the reduction of all inter-human differences to one overarching hierarchical model of difference. First, I argue that when Barth attempts to order the relationship between the sexes, he turns his christocentric model of agency, along with its ethical impulse, into a male prerogative, and he leaves a truncated and unlivable version for women to appropriate. By foregrounding the self-revealing and critically corrective features of the human agent’s encounter with the other, I argue that Barth’s model of agency, if fully appropriated by women, secures a site for the sort of feminist critique that Barth attempts to quash: a critique that challenges the prerogatives and positions of power that Barth presumes are proper to men alone. Second, I show that Barth’s effort to integrate the Gospels’ figure of the unmarried Christ into his heteronormative framework exposes the tenuous grounds on which he attempts to secure the centrality of sexual difference within his broader christocentric project. As a corrective, I turn to Barth’s discussions of Christ’s relationship to ethnically differentiated others. Here I locate a far more open, fluid, and flexible way of thinking about the self’s relationship to other human beings, which is inclusive of a wide variety of relationships and communal organizations. Finally, while Barth configures sexual difference as an oppositional division that must be carefully policed and maintained, Barth calls for a critical and performative appropriation of the norms, customs, and social mores through which the sexes are differentiated. This appropriation opens up space within Barth’s heteronormative framework for performances that unsettle, subvert, and transgress the reputedly unambiguous dividing line between the sexes that such norms instantiate.
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