In my Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century class, we’re reading, back-to-back, passages from Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism (1920) and Karl Barth’s 1922 lecture “The Word of God and the Task of Theology” (reprinted in this excellent collection of writings by Barth, edited by Keith Johnson). It’s interesting to compare these two vital figures, because their tasks are in some ways quite different but in other ways very similar. 

It is noteworthy, first of all, that Maritain and Barth, born just four years apart, grew up in a generally liberal Protestant world, a mild environment in which pietism and evangelicalism were either embarrassing or totally unknown, and Catholicism known but alien and unthinkable. 

Barth’s lecture was given in response to critics of his great commentary on Romans, and is basically a defense of his “dialectical” method against the gentle anthropological pieties of liberal Protestantism. He wants German Protestants to realize that their project is doomed: it is neither fish nor foul, neither fully Christian nor fully secular; it is mealy-mouthed, tepid, timorous. Nietzsche had made the same point several decades earlier in his evisceration of David Strauss, but Nietzsche wanted the pastors and theologians to cast aside the last vestiges of supernaturalism and move forward boldly into a world freed from the “slave morality” of Christianity. (This move forward is also a move backward in the sense that Nietzsche wants to draw on the energies of a long-marginalized paganism, a paganism ripe for renewal and a final victory over Jewish and Jewish-inspired thought.) 

Barth also wants theology to move both forward and backward: forward fearlessly into a modernity which has no time for warmed-over moralism, and backward to reclaim the radical and essential insights of Luther and Calvin. We have to be as fearless as Luther and Calvin, he thought, if we are to speak convincingly to the watered-down world liberal Protestantism had (largely inadvertently) created. 

Maritain’s challenge to his readers is similar in that he believes that figures from the Christian past, especially Thomas Aquinas, speak to modernity more powerfully and effectually than any self-proclaimed “modernist” theologian or priest possibly could. But in another sense he has a very different problem than Barth — and the problem arises largely because Maritain is interested in the renewal of art

Once he became a Catholic, Maritain entered a church that for the previous century had not been following the liberal Protestant line of cultural accommodation — reconciling itself to its cultured despisers — but rather had been doing something like the opposite: insulating itself, protecting itself, from modernity. Thus the famous last item in Pio Nono’s Syllabus of Errors: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” (Pio Nono: Nope.) 

For Maritain this is in one essential sense vitally correct, indeed necessary to the survival of Catholicism. But Maritain knows that however necessary such self-protection may be, it can lead to a generalized prejudice against the new and different. So in this little book he takes pains to insist that even by the standards we acquire through the study of medieval Scholastic thought, Stravinsky and Satie are outstanding composers whose music is worth our most serious attention. (He struggles a bit with certain visual artists, and I may do a post on that.) 

So, in short: Barth wants to lead liberal Protestantism away from an accommodationist tendency that had become sheer cultural capitulation, while Maritain wants to lead orthodox Catholicism away from its tendency to mere reaction against the new, to reflexive revulsion. But both of them think that the cure for the intellectual diseases of their ecclesial communities is: Ad fontes! Back to the sources!