Saturday, December 31, 2011

Barth For Dummies by a Dummy

I'm only beginning to delve into the theology of Karl Barth. When asked to sum up his contribution to theology and how his legacy is felt today in two thousand words, this is the best I could muster up. I'm quite confident it has holes and misunderstandings, but if nothing else the labour behind these words got me excited about Barth, so the journey toward understanding will continue. In fact as of tomorrow my scheduled reading of Church Dogmatics begins! Anyway, while this is child's play for anyone familiar with Barth, it might give those of you who aren't a small taste of what this colossal figure has to offer the church today.

1. Introduction

1.1 Barth In Overview

“Theology is thinking what to say to be saying the gospel.”[1] That Robert Jenson could write these words at the end of the 20th century is a testament to the contribution Karl Barth made to theology from the beginning of that same century to his death in 1968. Though uninterested in mere repetition,[2] Barth was not seeking to say anything new. In fact the vanity of such newness was precisely what Barth fought against, understanding as he did that new theology would inevitably find ways to co-operate with ‘Third Reichs’. Rather, Barth’s contribution to Christian theology was to “begin again at the beginning”[3] – that is, to begin again with the revelation of God in Christ; to begin again with the only given we have: the gospel of Jesus.

Barth saw his role -- indeed the role of all theology -- as that of John the Baptist: simply pointing once again to Jesus.[4] His contribution was to direct theology back to the “theological subject”: the theos that gives theology its origin, content, and telos. In light of the context in which he found himself, this “is one of Karl Barth’s greatest achievements.”[5]

1.2 Barth In Context

Identifying and appreciating Barth’s contribution to theology entails an understanding of his context. Barth describes the dominant Protestant theology of his time as follows:

To think of God meant for them, with scarcely any attempt to hide the fact, to think of human experience, particularly of the Christian religious experience. To speak about God meant to speak about humanity, no doubt in elevated tone, but once more and now more than ever about human revelations and miracles, about human faith and human works.[6]

That being said, it was not so much the theology of the time that led to Barth’s break with his liberal heritage, but rather the disobedience of the church to which this theology led. In Barth’s own words, it was “the failure of the ethics of modern theology at the outbreak of the First World War” which played a “decisive role” in his turn from Protestant liberalism to “dialectical theology”.[7] A contextual reading of Barth must appreciate that Barth, first of all, saw the need to change the church’s obedience. He then saw that the only way to do this was to change the church’s imagination by pointing her once again towards “the image of the invisible God,”[8] to whom our talk and our lives must conform.

Stanley Hauerwas says that, “Barth rightly refused to separate our knowledge of God from how we are to live if God is properly acknowledged.”[9] This was the motivation behind Church Dogmatics: to properly identify and acknowledge God as God, and thus bring about the obedience of faith. For Barth, this meant talking about God extra nos and God pro nobis – God outside us and God for us. Contrary to his theological contemporaries, Barth understood in a fresh way that the latter cannot be understood without the former, and vice-versa.

2. Theological Contribution

2.1 God Extra Nos

“The Gospel is not a religious message to inform mankind of their divinity or to tell them how they may become divine. The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from men.”[10] Barth took God’s otherness with utmost seriousness. At a time when Feuerbach’s thought found empirical proof within Protestantism, Barth sought first to listen to and then speak of a God who is “the pure and absolute boundary and beginning of all that we are and have and do; God, who is distinguished qualitatively from men and from everything human, and must never be identified with anything which we name, or experience, or conceive, or worship, as God.”[11]

God extra nos means not only that God is not derived from something in human nature, but that He is not bound to any reality we might call “the nature of God”. Barth stressed relentlessly the utter freedom of God. God is free to choose the kind of God He wants to be, and in so choosing He is that God and none other.[12]

Theology, for Barth, was discourse about this theos, who could never be our own creation or a projection of our perverted desires. But how can we know such a God? Barth would describe such knowledge as an impossibility. But it is an impossibility made possible by this God’s self-revelation, which is at once a veiling and an unveiling; a gift that cannot be grasped or possessed, for as mystery – as Trinity -- it remains outside of us as the frontier of a new world.[13] Our knowledge of God is “our inclusion in God’s self-knowledge,”[14] yet even in this inclusion there is exclusion until the eschaton when God will be all in all. Revelation has been given extra nos, and revelation awaits extra nos. As William Stacy Johnson writes, “[F]or Barth the event of revelation in Jesus Christ is not simply a ‘given’ to be possessed or described but an event that is still unfolding, a dramatic ‘giving’ of God the Creator, Reconciler, Redeemer, which invites a dynamic, constructive response.”[15]

2.2 God Pro Nobis

The remarkable contribution that Barth made to theology was his emphasis on the otherness and unknowability of God extra nos in the face of human arrogance and potential. But the majestic contribution of Barth to theology was to describe how this God extra nos is also God pro nobis in a way that does not diminish his God-ness but rather reveals its true shape. Green says that, “the centre of Barth’s theology is the freedom of God acting in love toward humanity in Jesus Christ, which sets us free in all spheres of life – politics, art, economics, science, and especially theology and church – for a life of co-humanity and the praise of God.”[16]

John 1:14 plays a decisive role in Barth’s theology. “The Word made flesh” is not just the means that the God extra nos decided to employ in order to reveal Himself to humanity. That God really became man in Jesus of Nazareth gives character, shape and content to this word “God”. In a passage from his lecture ‘The Humanity of God’, Barth says,

How should God’s divinity exclude his humanity? For it is God’s freedom for love, and therefore his freedom to be not only in the heights but also in the depths, not only great but also small, not only in and for himself but also to be with another who is different form himself, to give himself for this other, since there is room enough for it for community with humanity.[17]

God extra nos is utterly free and utterly decisive. His free decision is to be God pro nobis. Yet God is for us not as the One who safeguards or guarantees the future that we decide. Rather, He is for us as the One who poses our future;[18] indeed, as the One who is our future. Barth’s theology was headed towards the time when God would be all in all. The God outside of us will have no future outside of Himself. He will have no history without us because He is for us – for us in a way that only He decides, because He is for us not only as our reconciler but as our Lord.

God pro nobis means that God wills not to be God without His creatures. We know this because He has become a creature like us – “at a definite point in space and time there lives and dies a human being like us all. In this human being God’s Word is revealed to us.”[19] The unity of God extra nos and God pro nobis is found in Jesus Christ. Revelation is the event of God’s history breaking into human history in the particular form of this God-man. Everything must now be seen in light of Him.

In an address delivered in 1949 on the subject of “A New Humanism”, Barth says, unapologetically, “the Christian proclamation is the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”[20] Indeed, Jenson remarks that, “The Kirchliche Dogmatik is an enormous attempt to interpret all reality by the fact of Christ.”[21] Such an attempt was revolutionary in a time when the theologians of the Church were looking to ground reality in things other than the Christ given to us in Scripture and in the proclamation of the Word – the Christ who reveals the God extra nos and pro nobis. Barth sought only to follow the command of God to the disciples in the face of Jesus’ transfiguration: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”[22]

3. Barth’s Legacy: Past, Present and Future

3.1 The Ethical Telos

As mentioned above, Barth aimed to contribute not only to the orthodoxy of the Church, but to her obedience which flowed out of her thinking about God. Barth’s desire was for the Church to be the Church. This could only happen as the Church listened to the Word spoken by the God outside of her and corresponded to the actions of the God who is for her – indeed, for the whole world:

Confronted with the mystery of God, the creature must be silent: not merely for the sake of being silent, but for the sake of hearing. Only to the extent that it attains to silence, can it attain to hearing. But again, it must be silent not merely for the sake of hearing but for that of obeying. For obedience is the purpose and goal of hearing. Our return to obedience is indeed the aim of free grace. It is for this that it makes us free.[23]

Barth was not a contributor to dead orthodoxy. His concern was for the glory of God and the salvation unto obedience of humanity, which he saw not as two things but one.[24] Our end is not only to think after God but to obey Him. Indeed, such thinking and obedience are inseparable, which was a reality embodied by Barth himself.[25]

It was the disobedience of the German church that caused Barth to begin again at the beginning; to be silent in the presence of God’s Word. His silence led to hearing afresh the Word of God spoken through His Son, and it was his goal that not only he would hear, but that the Church would hear and obey this Word which has given itself to the Church in love and freedom, and which in this giving has summoned the church “in the same instant to faith, obedience, gratitude, humility and joy.”[26]

3.2 Present and Future

The extent to which the above seems obvious is to extent to which Karl Barth’s legacy is still felt today. Daniel Hardy writes that, “The influence of Karl Barth has been so extensive as to be virtually coterminous with the history of theology during and since his lifetime.”[27] Hardy may be overstating the case, however. John Webster makes note of how Barth has been largely ignored by evangelicals in North America and Britain, who have been absorbed with issues not at the forefront of Barth’s theology: “It has thus proved easier for English-language systematic theology to work in relative independence from Barth’s corpus.”[28]

As regards Barth and Catholicism, a deeper understanding of the interactions with Catholic theologians that shaped Barth’s theological trajectory can potentially generate fruitful ecumenical discussions today. Keith Johnson divides Barth’s theological history into four stages, showing that while stages 1 and 3 find Barth in sharp conflict with Roman Catholic doctrines, stages 2 and 4 contain “interesting points of contact between Barth’s mature theology and Catholic theology.”[29] This bodes well for the future of ecumenical dialogue.

There is ongoing conversation to be had about reading Barth’s work as congenial towards postmodernism. Gary Dorrien writes that, “Barth thought about Christianity in a way that often remarkably prefigured the insights of Thomas Kuhn, Alisdair MacIntyre, and various postmodern critics of the Enlightenment quest for universal reason.”[30] In our postmodern context, Barth’s theology demonstrates a way of speaking about God – and therefore ourselves and the world -- that does not rely on our individual pure reason abstracted from any story or tradition, but relies only upon the mysterious gift of the Word of God, given to us in the story of Jesus. Webster writes that, “One of Barth’s chief legacies is that he offers an example of one who told the history of thought and culture, and, therefore, the history…of theology, from the perspective of gospel, church, and faith.”[31]

Yet while Barth’s theology is at home in postmodernism, it remains also a stranger carrying a message from the “strange, new world of the Bible”. Barth was postmodern enough to know that “isms” are often blatant or latent ideologies, including postmodernism. In line with Barth, therefore, the gospel cannot be heard today as an optional truth in the world of postmodernism, but only as the truth that calls all other truths – including the truths of postmodernism – into question.[32]

In the end, Barth was not too concerned about whether his work was adhered to by later generations. He had no desire to create a thing called “Barthianism”.[33] And he was certainly unconcerned about whether his theology would fit in with the philosophical traditions of the future. The legacy which Karl Barth sought to give the church today – indeed, the church of every day – was to cause her to turn again and again to the “theological subject”, i.e. the triune God revealed in Christ.[34] His theology was never intended to be an end, but only another finger pointing to the Alpha and Omega who must have the first Word, and who will most assuredly have the last.






[1] R.W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Triune God, 32
[2] Cf. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, 16: “[D]ogmatics does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets.”
[3] Cf. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, 868: “[I]n dogmatics strictly speaking there are no comprehensive views, no final conclusions and results. There is only the investigation and teaching which take place in the act of dogmatic work and which, strictly speaking, must continually begin again at the beginning in every point.”
[4] Clifford Green tells of the painting ‘Crucifixion’ by Grunewald, which hung over Barth’s desk: “In it John the Baptist points with elongated index finger to the figure of Jesus on the Cross.” C. Green (ed.), Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, 11
[5] Jenson, Systematic Theology, 60n100
[6] Karl Barth, from a lecture entitled ‘The Humanity of God’, quoted in Green, Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, 48
[7] Ibid., 49
[8] Col. 1:15
[9] S. Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe, 142
[10] K. Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 28
[11] Ibid., 330-1
[12] Cf. Jenson, Systematic Theology, 140: “According to Barth, God’s being is most decisively construed by the notion of decision. God is so unmitigatedly personal that his free decision is not limited even by his “divine nature”: what he is, he himself chooses. But that must be to say, God is the act of his decision. Thus the doctrine of election, of God’s choice “before all time,” is for Barth the center of the doctrine of God’s being.”
[13] Cf. Barth, CD 1.1, 371: “God gives Himself entirely to man in His revelation, but not in such a way as to make Himself man’s prisoner. He remains free in His working, in giving Himself.”
[14] K.A. Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions for North American Theology, 131
[16] Green (ed.), Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, 11
[17] K. Barth, ‘The Humanity of God’, quoted in Green, Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, 48
[18] Cf. Jenson, Systematic Theology, 16: “[Israel’s] God is not salvific because he defends against the future but because he poses it. 16
[19] Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2, 36
[20] K. Barth, God Here and Now, 4
[21] Jenson, Systematic Theology, 21
[22] Matt. 17:5 (NIV)
[23] K. Barth, CD II/2, 30, quoted in Richardson, Reading Karl Barth, 169
[24] Cf. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, 228
[25] Cf. Johnson, ‘Barth and Beyond’, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2146: “In a number of little-known addresses and letters, Barth had proclaimed as early as 1933 that one was not preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in Germany if one was not also preaching specifically against the persecution and disappearance of the Jews.”
[26] K. Barth, CD II/I, 550, quoted in Richardson, Reading Karl Barth, 155
[27] D.W. Hardy, ‘Karl Barth’, 39
[28] J.Webster, ‘Theology After Barth’, 250
[29] K.L. Johnson, ‘A Reappraisal of Karl Barth’s Theological Development and his Dialogue with Catholicism’, 23
[30] G. Dorrien, The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology, 12
[31] J. Webster, ‘Barth, Modernity and Postmodernity’, 13
[32] Cf. Barth, Romans, 35: “The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths….Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel – that is, Christian Apologetics – is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome.”
[33] Cf. Barth, God Here and Now, 124: “…all words ending in “ism” are inappropriate in serious theological language.”
[34] John Webster writes that, “What Barth expected of his readers…was that they should take with ultimate seriousness, with a kind of joyful earnestness, not what he himself had to say, but rather the object of his testimony, which was none other than the name of Jesus Christ, the sum and substance of the gospel, and beginning and end of the works and ways of God.” J. Webster, ‘Barth, Modernity and Postmodernity’ in Karl Barth: A Future for Postmodern Theology?, 1-2

A rant on MI:4 that is, apologetically, all over the place

Here is something of a post-match analysis of the latest film in the Mission Impossible cash cow. I strongly disliked Ghost Protocol, with one of the main reasons being that I simply didn't care about the central crisis of the story: a madman who is intent on blowing up the entire world. On the surface it would appear that there could be no more wicked act than the extermination of all of humanity, but the reality is that wickedness is most truly wicked when it is particular. If the madman was intent on exterminating every female from the face of the planet, or every Muslim, and it showed his brutal treatment of these particular people, then that would be something to get enraged over. But to simply want to get rid of everybody is a perverted form of equality.

In pains me to say it, but the James Bond approach to crisis in action films -- a madman hell bent on world domination -- doesn't work any more. This might go some way to explaining why the last three or four Bond movies have been quite dreadful. In our age of globalization, we need something particular to care about. It is this narrative of the particular -- and not the fight choreography that the latest Bond film shamelessly imitated -- that makes the Bourne action series work. It is one man's search for his true identity in the midst of a very sinister side to U.S. foreign policy (Chomsky might argue that that's the only side). We learn that Jason Bourne is a pawn in the hands of powerful American bureaucrats who are playing a game that "ends when we've won" - a game that costs the lives of innocent civilians. They have named Jason Bourne like they have named everything else, and they have used that power to serve their own political and economic ends. Foucault talked of power as knowledge - those in power declare what the facts are, what constitutes knowledge; those in power get to name things "Jason Bourne" and "good" and "axis of evil".

In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and James Bond, the bureaucracy and their pawns are actually the good guys. The evil that they will do anything to stop -- even if it requires evil means -- is some entity that they get to name as "mad" or "evil" or "terrorist" or "threat", and we're given nothing that would bring such labels into question. This idealogical narrative worked on the back of the particular conflict that got named World War II -- a conflict where the line between the good guys and the bad guys was reasonably clear -- but it works no longer because that narrative has been exposed as a fallacy weaved by powers more intent on world domination than the powers they are trying to stop in the name of "good". U.S. collaboration with Nazis post-war blurs any kind of line that had been previously drawn.

Except of course maybe the narrative does still hold credibility and appeal, because Ghost Protocol has a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Smooth action sequences get you a long way these days.

Perhaps my initial statement is wrong. Perhaps MI:4 is deeply flawed not because it deals with a world domination/destruction that is too big and too general to care about, but because it completely fails to see who is most likely to bring such a scenario about.

Not Only Eastern Europe

The second major competitive bloc is based in Europe and is dominated by Germany. It's taking a big step forward with the consolidation of the European Common Market. Europe has a larger economy than the United States, a larger population and a better educated one. 
If it ever gets its act together and becomes an integrated power, the United States could become a second-class power. This is even more likely as Germany-led Europe takes the lead in restoring Eastern Europe to its traditional role as an economic colony, basically part of the Third World. 
Noam Chomsky, ~1993

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Things I Liked - Things I Didn't Like

Some things I liked this year, and some things that I didn't:

Films:

I liked The Tree of Life. In fact I liked it so much that I bought it as a present for someone else, partly so that I could watch it again. I've written about it here already, so all I will say is that it is a beautiful film that captures childhood memories in a way that I thought they could never be captured outside of our internal imaginations. It is two hours of imagination-on-screen, which is what the art of film is all about.

I didn't like The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Granted I'm not well versed in the mythology of the series, but I thought this film was flat, contrived, and rather pointless. To call the human characters one dimensional would be generous, therefore it didn't matter how good the ape story was. For the story to work, it required caring about what the humans were doing, and the film failed to evoke such care.

TV:

[Since I can't think of any new television shows I watched] I liked The Wire. I watched the first season again for about the fourth time, and it never fails to leave a new impression. Its deconstruction of institutions is remarkable, as is its narrative about who the real targets are: The mid-level drug dealers, the drug kingpins, the suppliers, the politicians who are knee deep in drug money, the international terrorists. If The Wire is ambiguous about who the bad guys are, it's not because all of the bad guys have some good in them. It's because in the present arrangement of things we're given little choice but to be bad, and what is badness when there is no choice involved?

I didn't like Rev. The second season has made me question the first season in the same way that the second Matrix film made me wonder if I was blinded to the flaws of the first.

Books:

I liked Hannah's Child. How could you not?

I liked Gilead. If Gilead was a film, it would look something like The Tree of Life. It's full of beautiful snapshots and thoughtful reflections that are soaked in grace. That I enjoyed this novel even more than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Road is a testament to its quality.

I liked What Uncle Sam Really Wants. A short book that left me open-mouthed on several occasions. I couldn't believe what I was reading, which makes me believe that what I read might just be true.

I didn't like Love Wins. Al Mohler -- who would cause me to change my mind for the sole purpose of disagreeing with him -- called this book a "theological striptease". I couldn't agree more. Sex sells, and this book did precisely that and little else.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I Like My God Like I Like My Books

I used to think that books existed primarily to make me smarter. Then five minutes ago I read this:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, at a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe. - Franz Kafka

Walter Brueggemann invokes this image of an axe to describe the work of the prophets who speak the Word of God. That he does so is fitting, because before Kafka there was the author of Hebrews, who used words similar to Kafka's to describe the work of God's words - the work that makes them necessary hearing:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

A good book does not confirm us in our present state, but confronts us with an alternative reality that evokes a new way seeing and hearing and feeling and thinking. So must a good God.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Peaceable Christmas: The Glory of Incarnation

In the grandest of all the Christmas narratives, God's way of peace amidst human hostility is prefigured, waiting to be fleshed out as the story of Jesus is told.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory...

A simple description of incarnation is: glory. Unique glory "as of the only son from the Father". Incarnation, therefore, does not name what we see when we see a human being behaving like God. Incarnation names what we see when we see Jesus. Compared to this seeing, all other seeing is blindness. By the grace of this seeing, we see everything else in the light of the glory unveiled. By the grace of this glory, we too are called to share in it. What is this glory?

Christ’s moment of most absolute particularity – the absolute dereliction of the cross – is the moment in which the glory of God, his power to be where and when he will be, is displayed before the eyes of the world. (D.B. Hart)

In short, the cross of Christ is the glory of God. It is on the cross that the narrative of violence is once-for-all confronted by the narrative of peace. Here light shines in darkness, and darkness cannot overcome it. Here glory is seen as the Giver who is himself the act of giving and the gift itself. This is what it means to say "incarnation". This is also the story of God's peace - it is relentless offering, relentless giving, relentless sacrifice for the sake of even the worst other. It ends in death - but it begins again with resurrection, by which Jesus is announced as the true lord and form of all creation and by which all creation is made new. Hart can thus say,

The resurrection – far from liberating Christ’s otherworldly essence from the servile form in which it has hitherto been hidden – vindicates and imparts again the whole substance of Christ’s earthly life, the shape of its particularity, which is, precisely in its humble and slavish form, an overcoming of earthly powers. His is a pattern that sinful history cannot accommodate (which is why pagan critics from Celsus to Nietzsche can find no way properly to account for the figure of Christ or for the force of his presence in time), but this is not to say that he must in consequence withdraw from history; rather, he initiates a real counterhistory, a new practice and new form of life that is – as it happens – the true story of the world.

The peace promised at Christmas only makes sense in light of the peace that Jesus breathes over his disciples after his resurrection. Or to quote the best thing I've read about Christmas in a while, "the real meaning of Christmas is Easter."

Yet the story does not end there. The peace pronounced by Jesus is followed by a commissioning; by vocation: "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." In once sense, it is finished. In another sense, it has only just begun. The church is not incidental to the peace made possible by Christ. The church is a witness to what is already true and to what will be even truer in the future. But such witnessing does not take the form of an idle spectator. It is -- it must be and can only be -- the witness of participants:

The church exists in order to become the counterhistory, nature restored, the alternative way of being that Christ opens up: the way of return. (Hart)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Peaceable Christmas: Only The Beginning

In Luke's Christmas narrative, angels announce peace on earth. In Matthew's Christmas narrative, the king of the Jews slaughters children in Bethleham in order to do away with Jesus. The violence of humanity is confronted by the peace of God, but the violence does not disappear. Rather, it intensifies. Perhaps this gets us to a meaning of Jesus's mission statement that he came not to bring peace, but a sword. He knew that his way, his politics, would not simply cause enemies to disarm themselves, turning their swords into plowshares. Instead, his way was a threat to enemy authority and rule, and the only way they knew to deal with threats was death. Violence is the empire's weapon, death is the empire's solution.

At Christmas there is an attempt on Jesus's life. It might seem a somewhat crude question, but it just occurred to me -  if Jesus were killed in Herod's Christmas massacre, would his death have had the same effects as the death he suffered in his thirties? Judging by the Apostle's Creed we might posit that it would have -- though we would have to substitute 'Pontius Pilate' for 'Herod the Great' -- but surely not. Surely Christmas wasn't enough. Surely the death of God incarnate wasn't enough. (There's a sentence to quote out of context if you want to get me in hot water!)

The fact that Jesus was spared by God at Christmas is a sign that Christmas is only the beginning of the story of God's peace on earth. It is only a hint of what is to come. In Matthew and Luke's narratives, it is hinted that the powers that be will not be pleased with what God is up to. He will not support their violence, as well intentioned as it might be. He will not sanctify it. He will not justify it. He will grieve it:


And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes."

Christmas is not the good news of a new metaphysics. Incarnation does not name a static reality that is salvific in and of itself. It names the story of God with us in this particular way, in this particular child who would grow up to be a king unlike all the other kings of all the other nations. Incarnation names the story of the things of God that alone can make for peace: Love of enemies, refusal to repay evil with evil, forgiveness of our debtors, dinner with strangers.

Ultimately, Incarnation names the passion narrative, the definitive confrontation between our violence and God's peace. God will not support our violence. He will not sanctify it. He will not justify it. He will weep over it, but not only that - He will forgive it, because He justifies by resurrection the One who,


"when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Peaceable Christmas

Incarnation in Matthew is not the news of a unique metaphysics that the world did not know. It is the announcement of a political and ethical counter-reality that the world refused to know. 'Emmanuel' names the divine decison that human violence is to be confronted by the peace of God.

It is promised to Joseph that this gift of a son "will save his people from their sins." What kind of salvation will this be? That question can be answered by asking a prior one - From what kinds of sins will this people be saved from?

Commenting on Micah 1:13, James Mays says that 'the chariot is the chief sin' of the people of Israel. Their militarization, their excessive accumulation of weaponry to secure their "vital interests", is a direct affront to the way that Yhwh would have them walk. In Isaiah 2, the prophet says that Israel's God has rejected his people because "their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots." Israel's desire to be like the nations around them extended to their resolution to violence. Like all of us, they were determined to keep what they had and regain what they once had, and would use force as the chief means of doing so. It is in this force that their trust lay.

Jesus is given to save people from such trust. He is given as a sign that there is an alternative way to live in a world that has been ubiquitously "reinvested with the truth of violence". He is given as the embodiment and teacher of that way. He is that way, and those who read and hear this gospel are called to follow him.

Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

These words were originally spoken to King Ahaz, mentioned already in Matthew's gospel as a descendant of David and therefore an ancestor of Jesus. Jerusalem was under threat, yet in the face of Syrian violence the people of Israel were told to trust not in their military might but in their God, whose presence alone could make for peace. The people of Israel quite rationally refused such risky trust, yet their commitment to the way of violence caused them to suffer the violence of various empires. "They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind."

It is into a sea of violence that Jesus is plunged. The salvation that he will secure for his sinful people can only be constituted by a parting of this sea by the peaceable hand of God.

The Way formed by this parting is where Jesus is, and it is where the church must be too if she is to live and preach the salvation that is meaningless without discipleship.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What They Love


Jamie Smith says that in order to know a person don't ask them what they believe but rather what they love. One way to determine what someone loves is to see what gets them excited; what event they look forward to.


I'd be lying if I said that I didn't just get excited upon reading that David Bentley Hart has a book coming out early 2012. It's called The Devil and Pierre Gernet, and it's a collection of stories.

Why would an eminent theologian decide to turn his hand to narrative? Because...

God is no more likely (and a good deal less likely) to be found in theology than in poetry and fiction.


Whose Freedom? Which Religion?

Civil religion begins and ends with the freedom of human beings:

"There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment...and that is the force of human freedom..." - George Bush

That is why atheists are right and rational to call "God" into question: they understand that the underlying premise of civil religion with which they agree -- that is, absolute human freedom --  has no need of God.  In fact, what they know and what the Christians engaged in civil religion don't is that this underlying premise would work better without him. (So called "New Atheism" is far more practical than it is philosophical.) Atheists are not trying to turn Christians into something different - into atheists. They are trying to turn Christians into better versions of what they already are.


True religion begins and ends with the freedom of God. This is a freedom that atheists and Christians cannot be free from, because it is a freedom for them. If there is a centre to Barth's theology, Clifford Green says it is this:

the freedom of God acting in love toward humanity in Jesus Christ, which sets us free in all spheres of life – politics, art, economics, science, and especially theology and church – for a life of co-humanity and the praise of God.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Theologian of Freedom

God sends him – from the realm of the eternal, unfallen, unknown world of the Beginning and the End….God sends him – into this temporal, fallen world with which we are only too familiar; into this order which we can finally interpret only in biological categories, and which we call ‘Nature’….God sends him – not to change this world of ours, not for the inauguration of a moral reformation of the flesh, not to transform it by art, or to rationalize it by science, or to transcend it by the Fata Morgana of religion, but to announce the resurrection of the flesh; to proclaim the new man who recognizes himself in God, for he is made in His image, and in whom God recognizes Himself, for He is his pattern; to proclaim the new world where God requires no victory, for there He is already Victor, and where He is not a thing in the midst of other things, for there He is All in All; and to proclaim the new Creation, where Creator and creature are not two, but one. 
- Karl Barth, Der Römerbrief

While David Hart's criticism that Barth is insufficiently Acts 17:28ist may stand (I have no idea if it does or not), passages like this demonstrate the work of theology as a joyful work, as Barth thought it ought to be. 

Barth was -- in more ways than one -- unapologetically Christian in his theology. If that sounds like an obvious thing to say about a Christian theologian, it is largely because Barth endeavoured to make it so.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Classic Memory

There is, for all intents and purposes, only one match in the football calender. It is Barcelona versus Real Madrid. It's the only game I care about, because Barcelona embody everything that I love about football, and Madrid embody everything that I hate. I love Messi, I hate Ronaldo. I love Guardiola, I hate Mourinho. I love proactive football, I hate reactive football.

Needless to say, I would quite like it if Barcelona win tonight, though I fear the worst.

In view of El Clasico, here is my favourite moment from the last few in memory.

It is the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Madrid -- having begun their pre-season early in order to lay down a marker right at the beginning of the season -- are losing 2-1 in the Nou Camp, and 4-3 on aggregate. Mourinho decides to introduce youth team product Jose Maria Callejon to the cauldron. He is young, impish, and eager to make an impression in the biggest game of his life up to this point.

In the middle of the park, Iniesta has the ball at his feet, shielding it from the new arrival. Rather than accept his fate, Callejon decides instead to kick the back of Iniesta's legs a few times, just to let the old guard know that there is a new kid in town, and he's not to be trifled with. Iniesta wins a free kick, but sets aside his calm demeanour for a brief moment as he squares up to his opponent. Callejon appears to have gotten under his skin. Feathers have been ruffled. Mourinho is impressed. Nothing further happens at present, but a history has been formed between Spain's World Cup hero and a Spanish unknown. What kind of fireworks will their next encounter produce? A few minutes later, this happens:



Beautiful.

Iniesta and Callejon share an apology and an embrace in the end. 

There are some players you don't want to mess with because they'll batter you. There are those special players you don't want to mess with because they'll nutmeg you.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Barth and Universalism

From the little of Karl Barth that I've read, here is a crash course on Barth and universalsim - the belief that every human being will be saved.

Nein! Why? Because a grace that must save all people could not be free grace; it could not be the grace of a God who is free.

And yet, as Barth asks, "would it be God's free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that?" It would not, and so to reject the possibility that every human being will be saved is to reject the nature of God's free grace; indeed, it is to reject the freedom of God to be and do what He wills. Barth says unequivocally that "there is no theological justification for setting any limits on our side to the friendliness of God towards humanity which appeard in Jesus Christ".

Barth has a timely word for those of us who are so antagonistic towards universalism. Listen to him:

Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God's grace might prove to be all too free on this side, that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might some day prove to be empty!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Political Cross

In light of the cross, does all suffering take on significance and meaning? In separate works, David Bentley Hart and John Howard Yoder have a bit of a go at popular pastoral theology that seeks to understand the trials of life as our cross to bear, or as all part of the grand narrative that God is weaving behind the scenes, and if we could only see the big picture we would rejoice in our sufferings as we are exhorted to do.

But what does it mean to suffer with Jesus? For Yoder, this is nothing other than a political suffering; the suffering of one who belongs to the kingdom of God and is therefore violently opposed by the kingdom of this world.

The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him, like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated free choice; and he warns his disciples lest their embarking on the same path be less conscious of its costs (Luke 14:25-33). The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfilment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society. Already the early Christians had to be warned against claiming merit for any and all suffering; only if their suffering be innocent, and a result of the evil will of their adversaries, may it be understood as meaningful before God.

The cross, therefore, is not the symbol of suffering in general, nor does it give meaning and redemptive quality to all suffering. The cross is a concrete form of suffering that is vindicated by resurrection. What is that concrete form? Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

What then of other types of suffering? What of the death of a child? What of the natural disasters that have wreaked havoc on the world? What comfort does the cross hold out to those who know such suffering?

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy…We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”