...

TagKarl Barth

suffering and not triumph

Are we then to deduce that we should forget God, lay down our tools, and serve men in the Church – as though there were no Gospel? No, the right conclusion is that, remembering God, we should use our tools, proclaim the Gospel, and submit to the Church, because it is conformed to the kingdom of God. We must not, because we are fully aware of the internal opposition between the Gospel and the Church, hold ourselves aloof from the Church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility, and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it. — I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Ghost, that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart. This is the attitude to the Church engendered by the Gospel. He who hears the gospel and proclaims it does not observe the Church from outside. He neither misunderstands it and rejects it, nor understands it and – sympathizes with it. He belongs personally within the Church. But he knows also that the Church means suffering and not triumph.

— Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

Karl Barth to his critics

Wesley Hill posted this recently. It’s a brilliant letter, and below I am going to put in bold the most important passages — and the ones that are most relevant to an age of social-media boundary-policing.

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put.

To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed.

Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the Church Dogmatics where they might at least have found out—not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. —where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions.

I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like [G.C.] Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to Church Dogmatics IV/2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.” These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

With friendly greetings,

Yours,

KARL BARTH

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today

It seems to me that far, far too many disputes among Christians — especially (God help us) on social media — resemble the approach American fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals took to Barth. What seem to be questions are usually veiled accusations (though often enough the accusations are explicit); the questioners have not worked to discover what the person they suspect really thinks; they (therefore) neglect actual quotation in favor of tendentious and inaccurate summaries in the form of what I call “in-other-wordsing”; and they show no signs of “seeking the truth that is greater than us all,” but rather seem merely to want to declare other people wrong in the name of doctrinal boundary-policing. There is no way to have a conversation under such terms, and no one should even try.

Christians and the academic humanities

This post, describing the experience of a friend of my friend Rod Dreher, makes universal judgments about the world of the humanities based on a narrow and particular set of experiences. Take, by contrast, another friend of mine, Chad Wellmon, who commented briefly on the story here. Chad is a straight white Christian man, married with children, who, while not a conservative, has even written for the Weekly Standard — and he’s flourishing in the humanities at an elite public university. He’s not looking over his shoulder; he’s not afraid of persecution. Rod’s friend says that “the academic humanities, as a whole and at their highest levels, just are not interested in what would have been recognizable as quality scholarship even two decades ago”; okay, well, take a look at Chad’s book on the German university in the age of Enlightenment. I’ll wait.

Now: Does that look like something other than quality scholarship to you? It’s a book based heavily on archival research in a language other than English — in short, just the kind of philological scholarship that would have been recognized as such by Erich Auerbach, for heaven’s sake. But according to Rod’s friend, Chad’s kind of career ought to be impossible.

You might reply that that’s just one example of academic tolerance. Indeed — but then, Rod’s friend offers just one example of academic intolerance. Which one is the norm and which the exception? Do you think you know? If you do, does your opinion rest on any evidence?

I’m not exactly a pollyanna about these matters. I have said over and over again that, thanks to my long career at a Christian college and the specifically Christian character of much of my writing, I am almost certainly unemployable in my field (English literature) outside the world of Christian higher education. And there’s bigotry at work there — no doubt about it. On the other hand, I have been able to publish at some of the best university presses in the world, which also shouldn’t be possible if Rod’s friend’s account of the academic humanities is accurate.

What my experience — and that of several of my friends, not just Chad — tells me is that the state of the humanities in the American university is far, far more complex and variable than Rod’s friend thinks. Look at how universal his judgments are, how often he speaks of “all,” “every,” “no one,” “always.” These statements are simply incorrect. I know first-hand many exceptions to his universal judgments.

Generally speaking, Christians in the academy have a pretty tough go of it these days. But there are, occasionally, open doors for people who have the wit and the strategic nous to get through them. Rather than throw up our hands and walk away, I think we should redouble our efforts to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. There are some good examples out there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.


One further comment: after decades of reading screeds about the turgid impenetrability of academic prose, I am somewhat bemused to learn that the real problem with scholarly writing today is that “professors of English and Sociology are able to read it.” One of the interesting thoughts that might occur to someone making a mental survey of the greatest humanistic scholars of the past hundred years or so — A. E. Housman, Karl Barth, Erich Auerbach, J. R. R. Tolkien, Fernand Braudel, Charles Norris Cochrane, Leo Spitzer — is how elegantly many of them wrote, and often in more than one language. So elegantly that even professors of English or sociology might be able to enjoy them. Perhaps they weren’t such great scholars after all.

Giles Fraser on Karl Barth

It will be a century this coming summer that the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth began his revolutionary commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. A quiet and studious man of simple tastes, Barth was an unlikely revolutionary. He listened to Mozart, smoked his pipe and read the paper: “Theology is done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” he said. But mostly he sat and wrote. His Church Dogmatics is more than six million words. And no, I haven’t read it all. But his considerably shorter Epistle to the Romans, written earlier, was the decisive turning point in 20th-century theology. It was a book that dropped a bomb on the comfortable assumptions of German liberal thought. And it’s a bomb that needs dropping again – but this time much closer to home.

Which brings me to David Cameron’s message of Christmas cheer, that we are a “Christian country”. Given the rapid decline in the number of church-going Christians, and given Cameron’s sketchy relationship to faith, what he probably meant is that we are a Christian culture; that the ethos of Christianity is woven into the warp and weft of British institutional life. Oh, what a slippery word “ethos” is – Christianity in homeopathic doses. Barth would not have approved. For what is frittered away in this mutually back-slapping accommodation between faith and the state is the ability of the church to stand up to the state’s propensity for war. Indeed, the point of saying that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar isn’t. Neither Caesar nor his armies nor his civilising institutions. Which is why Christians should always call time on their religion being used as a deodorant to mask the stench of war and death.

Giles Fraser. This post comes at an interesting time, for me!

Karl Barth and The Thing Itself

In speaking of God, human logic characteristically ignores both His nature and the fact that, when the reference is to Him, the argument from operation to cause is inapplicable, since He is not a known thing in a series of things.

— Karl Barth, making a point that he makes often. In so doing he almost always means to show the necessary absurdity of Christian apologetics, but it’s worth noting that it’s a point equally relevant to the New Atheists, as David Bentley Hart points out in his powerful book The Experience of God: “Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo. And he is a god who made the universe ‘back then,’ at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God.”

But then many proponents of Intelligent Design don’t either. Here’s a long but vital passage in which Hart shows what the two sides have in common:

[Stephen] Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. He clearly thinks that talk of God’s creation of the universe concerns some event that occurred at some particular point in the past, prosecuted by some being who appears to occupy the shadowy juncture between a larger quantum landscape and the specific conditions of our current cosmic order; by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe, whose job was to nail together all the boards and firmly mortar all the bricks of our current cosmic edifice. So Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary if there were some prior set of laws — just out there, so to speak, happily floating along on the wave-functions of the quantum vacuum — that would permit the spontaneous generation of any and all universes. It never crosses his mind that the question of creation might concern the very possibility of existence as such, not only of this universe but of all the laws and physical conditions that produced it, or that the concept of God might concern a reality not temporally prior to this or that world, but logically and necessarily prior to all worlds, all physical laws, all quantum events, and even all possibilities of laws and events. From the perspective of classical metaphysics, Hawking misses the whole point of talk of creation: God would be just as necessary even if all that existed were a collection of physical laws and quantum states, from which no ordered universe had ever arisen; for neither those laws nor those states could exist of themselves. But — and here is the crucial issue — those who argue for the existence of God principally from some feature or other of apparent cosmic design are guilty of the same conceptual confusion; they make a claim like Hawking’s seem solvent, or at least relevant, because they themselves have not advanced beyond the demiurgic picture of God. By giving the name “God” to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could some day genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems. The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.

Reading this passage, I find myself thinking of Hart’s title and asking: What might it be like, then, to have an encounter with the real God, the God beyond categories and logic, the God who is “experience as such,” whom we encounter as sat, chit, ananda? It’s a question Adam Roberts asks too.

The Thing Itself is all kinds of amazing, and very hard to describe: if you imagine a mashup of The Thing, Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Kant’s metaphysics, you’ll … not quite get it. Just read it, please.  Among the many things that Roberts does here, one of the most intriguing is to ask whether Kant’s antinomies — which attempt to address some of the same limitations in our language and thought that Barth and Hart also point to — might be a key to unlocking, even in computational as well as experiential terms, the mysteries of the universe.

Adam and I have been corresponding a bit about these matters, and lo, as I am trying to wrap up this post I see that he has just put up a post of his own about Karl Barth! Wonder of wonders! But he the atheist and I the Christian are finding some significant points of common interest here, points that I hope we will find ways to explore further.

For now I’ll leave you with these questions, which have been turning and turning in my head since I read Adam’s book: What if we thought of our current debates about God, our current confrontations between theists and atheists, as the inevitably sorry by-products of a failure to grasp what Hart argues, what Barth argues, what Kant says when he presents us with his Fourth Antinomy? And what would happen to our conversations if we took seriously the possibility that we don’t have any real idea what we have been arguing about?

And with that, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

reading Barth on Romans (2)

No other possibility is open to me except the possibility of being a man of the earth – O wretched man that I am! We have seen at last the reality of religion; we have recognized what men are. How vast a gulf separates the nineteenth-century conquering-hero attitude to religion from that disgust of men at themselves, which is the characteristic mark of true religion! – But Jesus Christ is the new man, standing beyond all piety, beyond all human possibility. He is the dissolution of the man of this world in his totality. He is the man who has passed from death to life. He is – what I am not – my existential I – I – the I which in God, in the freedom of God – I am! Thanks be to God: through Jesus Christ our Lord I am not the wretched man that I am.

— Karl Barth, from the magnificent peroration of his commentary on the seventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Before I go any further with these reflections, let me just note that I am not a theologian, not a biblical scholar, not a Barth scholar. I’m just a reader (though I admit that I am going to be teaching this book, very unprofessionally, in a Great Texts class next term). I have no doubt that professional Barthians have already said everything I’ll be saying here. I’m just posting about this extraordinary book in order to force myself to think more clearly about what I’m reading.

The passage quoted above is about as perfect an example as you could find of Barth’s dialectical method, in which every affirmation gets followed by a counter-affirmation and the tension between the two is (usually!) left to stand as a witness to … well, various things, including the human incapacity to comprehend the things of God, the inevitable constrictions of theological language, and sinners’ relentlessly clever determination to twist every affirmation (even the affirmation of their own profound corruption) to their advantage. Scholars usually speak of Barth’s “dialectical theology,” but what’s going on here is dialectical exegesis — and Barth exegetes in this way not simply because he has a preference for it but because, as he insists repeatedly in the prefaces to this book, he does not mean to comment on Paul but to read and think with Paul. “True apprehension can be achieved only by a strict determination to face, as far as possible without rigidity of mind, a tension displayed more or less clearly in the ideas written in the text.” In this sense Barth, though in so many ways a critic of the theology of Schleiermacher, strives to live out Schleiermacher’s insistence that the interpreter should strive to understand an author better than the author understood himself.

So in reading Romans 7 Barth strives to mimic in his commentary what he perceives to be the dialectical character of the text. But it strikes me that chapter 7 is by far the most dialectical part of the letter; other passages do not have this back-and-forth, this yes-and-yet-also-no character, at least not nearly so pronouncedly. So it seems that Barth has taken chapter 7 as the hermeneutical key to the whole letter, the part that expresses the character of Paul’s argument most fully, and then deployed that method in commenting on the rest of the letter as well. This strategy reminds me of the usual way that the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is defended: the obscure parts are to be interpreted in light of the clear parts. Barth seems to be saying: The rhetorically mixed parts of this letter are to be interpreted in the style of the most rhetorically pure part.

Which is defensible. But it makes me wonder what a commentary would look like that took the eighth chapter as its methodological model.

the origin of the great errors

There can be no doubt that all the great errors which have overtaken the preaching and theology of the community in the course of its history have had their true origin, not so much in the studies of the well-known errorists and heretics who have merely blabbed them out, but rather in the secret inattention and neglect, the private drowsing and wandering and erring, of innumerable nameless Christians who were not prepared to regard the listening of the community to the Word as their own concern, who wanted privacy in their thinking, and who thus created the atmosphere in which heresy and error became possible and even inevitable in the community. Conversely, there can be no doubt that the revivals and quickenings continually granted to the preaching and theology of the community have had their basis, not so much in the bearers of the great names which have come down to us in Church history as representatives of these movements, but effectively, if secretly, in the community from which they sprang, by which they were surrounded and as the mouthpiece of which they spoke, and therefore again in the innumerable nameless Christians for whom the question of correct doctrine was a burning one which they tried to address to the right quarter, and who then quietly if inarticulately found and espoused the relevant new and better answers until someone was found to bring them to expression.

— Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III:4

Is it true, this talk of a loving and good God, who is more than one of the friendly idols whose rise is so easy to account for, and whose dominion is so brief? What the people want to find out and thoroughly understand is, Is it true?

— Karl Barth, “The Need and Promise of Christian Preaching” (1922)

hidden

God is not hidden to us; He is revealed. But what and how we shall be in Christ, and what and how the World will be in Christ at the end of God’s road, at the breaking in of redemption and completion, that is not revealed to us; that is hidden. Let us be honest: we do not know what we are saying when we speak of Jesus Christ’s coming again in judgment, and of the resurrection of the dead, of eternal life and eternal death. That with all these there will be bound up a piercing revelation―a seeing, compared to which all our present vision will have been blindness―is too often testified in Scripture for us to feel we ought to prepare ourselves for it. For we do not know what will be revealed when the last covering is removed from our eyes, from all eyes: how we shall behold one another and what we shall be to one another―men of today and men of past centuries and millennia, ancestors and descendants, husbands and wives, wise and foolish, oppressors and oppressed, traitors and betrayed, murderers and murdered, West and East, Germans and others, Christians, Jews, and heathen, orthodox and heretics, Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans and Reformed; upon what divisions and unions, what confrontations and cross-connections the seals of all books will be opened; how much will seem small and unimportant to us then, how much will only then appear great and important; for what surprises of all kinds we must prepare ourselves. We also do not know what Nature, as the cosmos in which we have lived and still live here and now, will be for us then; what the constellations, the sea, the broad valleys and heights, which we see and know now, will say and mean then.

what one thing

Ah, so big a question! That is the whole question of theology, you see! I should say, I hope that during your studies you have visited yourself earnestly with the message of the Old Testament and of the New Testament. And not only of this message but also of the Object and the Subject of this message. And I would ask you, are you trained to visit not only yourself now, but a congregation with what you have learned out of the Bible and of church history and dogmatics and so on? Having to say something, having to say that thing. And then the other question: are you willing now to deal with humanity as it is? Humanity in this twentieth century with all its passions, sufferings, errors, and so on? Do you like them, these people? Not only the good Christians, but do you like people as they are? People in their weakness? Do you like them, do you love them? And are you willing to tell them the message that God is not against them, but for them? That’s the one real thing in pastoral service and that is the question for you. If you go into ministry to do that work, pray earnestly. You’ll do difficult work but beautiful work.

But if I had to begin anew for myself as a young pastor, I would tell myself every morning, well, here I am; a very poor creature, but by God’s grace I have heard something. I will need forgiveness of my sins everyday. And I will pray, God, that you will give me the light, this light shining in the Bible and this light shining into the world in which humanity is living today. And then do my duty.

Karl Barth, answering the question from a student, “What one thing, sir, would you tell a young pastor today if you were asked, is necessary in this day and age to pastor a Church?” Best advice I’ve read in a long time. (via wesleyhill)

© 2018 Snakes and Ladders

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

css.php