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11 Struggling Together toward Human Being: Sobornost and the Ethics of Karl Barth Ashley John Moyse Si quis dixerit hominem esse solitarium, anathema sit. —Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2 To be means to communicate dialogically. When dialogue ends, everything ends. . . . A single voice ends nothing and resolves nothing. Two voices is minimum for life, the minimum for existence. —Mikhail Bahktin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics Fr. Thomas Hopko inaugurated his essay “Orthodox Christianity and Ethics” with these words:1 1. This essay reflects much of the work completed for Ashley John Moyse, Reading Karl Barth, Interrupting Moral Technique, Transformining Biomedical Ethics (New York: Palgrave, 2015). Yet 311 According to [St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary’s] “oral tradition” Fr. Georges Florovsky would begin his lectures in Christian Ethics with the sentence: “For Orthodox Christians there is no such thing as Christian Ethics.” Having hopefully caught the attention of his students with this opening, he would proceed to make his points. Fr. Florovsky claimed, we are told, that human behavior is rooted in a person’s relationship with God. Human beings act according to their personal knowledge, faith, experience, maturity, conditions, commitment and community—for all of which they become, at some point, fully responsible. Ethical behavior, in this perspective, is never simply the application of formal principles or rules. Orthodox Christians accept certain rules of behavior as normative and binding not because they consider them as universally applicable to human beings regardless of their beliefs and conditions, but because they believe them to be commanded by the living God who acts in their lives and to whom they are indebted and responsible. And since Christians are factually in different stages of belief, understanding, commitment and spiritual growth, their behavior will differ in different times and conditions (see Lk 12:47-48, Jn 13:17, Rom 2, Jas 4:17).2 Considering this oral history to be accurate, I might reiterate such a sentiment in respect to the ethics of Karl Barth. For Barth, understanding what we do, what we can do, and what we ought to do is to be discerned in the company of the other—where ethics is realized as a social task. In an open social exchange, we learn to attend to the particularities of the other, rather than to the order of a determinative moral construct to be followed as reason demands. In this way, ethics becomes a response to the concrete demands of mutually responsible human lives. The encounter with our neighbor(s), both near and far, nurtures a practice of ethics around this essay reflects a more nuanced conversation between Barth’s ethics and that of the Russian Orthodox tradition, specifically guided by the living word sobornost. 2. Thomas Hopko, “Orthodox Christian Ethics,” from Orthodox Education Day Book (Oct. 7, 1995), accessed January 6, 2015, CORRELATING SOBORNOST 312 radical sociality—rather, after the freedom, which is a permission, to be one with and for the other. In such an exchange, humanity might collectively struggle against dehumanizing powers, which subjugate human freedom and diminish human being. This freedom to be with and for the other, however, remains simultaneously a yardstick for volition. Barth writes, “When genuine human freedom is realized [in encounter and communion], inevitably the door to the ‘right’ opens and the door to the ‘left’ is shut.”3 In this way, Barth’s ethics precludes any entrapment of divine and human agency in static and programmed moral categories, principles, or rules. Accordingly, Barth is able to insist on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s vision of what ethics is not: “An ethics cannot be a book in which there is set out how everything in the world actually ought to be but unfortunately is not, and an ethicist cannot be a man who always knows better than others what is to be done and how it is to be done.”4 Instead, the impossibility of human endeavor, especially in relation to knowledge of God and of the good, is what is championed in Barth’s Epistle to the Romans—the righteousness of God condemns humanity’s efforts to claim the kingdom of God by its own endeavors through ethical formulation and action.5 All such human striving is hubris—all such modes of moral discourse cannot escape the divine judgment, “No!” An awareness of this constitutes the krisis of Barth’s Romans commentary. But, for Barth, those who are aware of the “no” and yield to its...


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