What really is at stake when we contrast the Gospel and Religion? Do Barth and de Lubac differ in their respective understandings of Religion? And given that we live in an era dominated by the seemingly radical yet bathetic sense of “spiritual but not religious,” how are we to understand the contrast?

First Barth. Religion stands at odds with the Gospel. It is a human construction and as such needs to either be abolished or at least sublimated by the [punctiliar moment?] of revelation. It is then no small step to Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity.” In short, Religion represents our propensity to build walls around the gospel in order to keep ourselves insulated, thereby keeping the truth of the Gospel out. Rather than Religion, we need the pure unmediated presence of God.

Perhaps it’s fair to say that when Barth hears “Religion” he thinks “Feuerbach.” When de Lubac hears “Religion” he thinks Aquinas: desiderium natural visionis dei. Different understandings of the term Religion will therefore follow.

Like Barth, de Lubac was keenly aware of modernity’s propensity toward idolatry, he knew firsthand the horrors of Nazism and he was painfully aware of the Church’s failure of witness against the powers. But de Lubac saw the Church’s compromise stemming from a genuine loss of Christian humanism, the sense of mystery and an overall “disappearance of the sense of the sacred.”

Certainly Barth was also concerted with such religious elements as the sacred, mystery and so on. But de Lubac never felt the need to posit “Religion” as the culprit. Perhaps this is because de Lubac carefully defined religion, particularly the Catholic religion, stating that, “Catholicism is religion itself” (Catholicism). “A man is religious to the very degree that he recognizes everywhere these reflections of the divine Face, that is, that he lives in a sacred atmosphere” (TH, 231). As de Lubac saw it, it was the loss of the Christian religion or a genuine religious spirit that perpetuated modernity’s ills.

What of the difference then? With a little bit of clarification, might de Lubac and Barth eventually find common ground with respect to Religion? Maybe. But more seems to be going on. The issue in part has to do with de Lubac the historian. The Surnaturel thesis traces the genealogy of modernity to “a radical heterogeneity between nature and the supernatural” (TH, 231). Modern dualisms stem from the eclipse of Aquinas’ natural desire for the supernatural, if not the entire eclipse of a genuine Christian anthropology – proleptical anticipations, the Praeparatio evangelica, the scattered seeds of the Logos and the sense of abyssus abyssum invocate.

Once the separation was firmly entrenched the supernatural was regarded as sentimental and superfluous to the more pressing demands of commerce, politics and economics. Revelation became extrinsic and a loss of sacramental ontology resulted. God remains on one side of an ontological divide while humans passively wait for a discrete moment of revelation on another.

And herein lies the crucial difference between Barth and de Lubac regarding Religion: if revelation is one side of an artificially constructed divide and human response on the other, it is then that we have the creation of Religion. In a footnote de Lubac quotes Gustave Thibon: “Too often, Christians, instead of impregnating the world with God, restrict themselves to superimposing God on the world, and, as a result of this split between the secular and the sacred, the things of heaven, deprived of concrete ties, slide over the surface of formalism or of dreams, while the things of the earth, cut off from their eternal source, find themselves handed over to all the ravages of corruption and anarchy” (232, fn. 1). Religion is what happens when a state of pure nature is posited, thereby imagining a secular realm to which the divine or the Church touches, but only as “a tangent touches a circle” (Barth) rather than seeing that “all is sacred by destination” or that grace seizes nature from within in order to elevate it (TH, 231; TF 212). In other words, Religion is what happens when revelation, the Church, and its practices are seen as extrinsic to human nature rather than the mediating presence of the Spirit, incorporating persons into the Trinitarian life.

These are some broad brush stokes and surely there are further nuances to both Barth and de Lubac. For instance, the varying political and historical set of circumstances in Germany and France surely helped to augment the different understandings of Religion. Still, I think de Lubac’s historical analysis has the upper hand.

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