Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Worst Thing in the World

In the same Barth Q and A mentioned in the previous post there is a question about the relationship between Christianity and other religions. Based on the text in Acts 14 where it says that God did not leave the nations without witness or testimony, the student asks Barth whether there is revelation in religions outside of Christianity. Barth's response? "The answer is 'No'" But what then of Acts 14 and these "testimonies" given to the nations?

Barth explains this by drawing a distinction between revelation and what he calls "signs." Certainly, he says, the world is full of signs of God's presence. Paul also talks about this in Acts 17 and in Romans 1. But these signs of God's presence are not revelation, that is, they are not God's self-disclose, His own speech concerning Himself.

Returning to other religions, he notes that in the Bible the other religions surrounding Israel (and later, the Church) are not dealt with as revelation. On the contrary, the relationship between the people of God and other religions is always agonistic (though it must be said that the relationship between the people of God and the people of other religions is not always so). Indeed, Barth summarises the story of Scripture as the fight between God's revelation and what is called religion. "The worst thing in the world," claims Barth, "is religion." One hesitates to conclude that this is mere exaggeration. Indeed, Barth returns to his first answer - there is no revelation in other religions - and adds that one can and must include Christianity in this Nein insofar as Christianity has become a religion. What initially looked like "religious intolerance" from Barth becomes something much more interesting: the call to abolish all religion, including the Christian one.

"God's speaking in the Gospel - now there is revelation over against the whole Christian and non-Christian world!"

The "Thus saith the Lord" is therefore not the word of a pious man, or the theological insight which has arisen form the human heart. It is, for Barth, the Word which is strange and new, graceful and helpful. In other words, revelation is apocalyptic all the way down. If we follow Barth, we might say that the extent to which Christianity fails to conform to this apocalypticism is the extent to which it becomes the worst thing in the world.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Do the Barth Man

If you go to this website you can hear Barth deliver his lectures on evangelical theology in Princeton in 1962, as well as some Q and As. I especially recommend the latter, since it gives you a chance to appreciate Barth's wit and self-deprecation. One exchange in particular stands out,

In the Q and A with students, one of them quotes to Barth a sentence he wrote in The Resurrection of the Dead (from the mid 1920s), and asks Barth is he still agrees with this sentence, and if he does, is it not problematic? Barth comments that that book was written a long time ago, and that there are certainly sentences which he can no longer uphold. But he asks the student to read the quote again slowly, and says "I will look into what I can make of it." So the student repeats the quote from Resurrection: "Exactly in the place of that which makes me a man, the human soul, is placed that which makes God God."

In the recording you hear a sort of confused pause by Barth, followed by silence, and then laughter from the crowd. Barth himself seems to be laughing. As the laughter stops, Barth asks: "Can you tell me...what I may have meant...!?" Barth is laughing again by the end of his question, and the students follow suit.

From another theologian this question could come across as patronising and arrogant, as if to say: well of course I know what I meant, but I want to check to see if YOU know how to interpret me. But here it is a genuine question from Barth, a question which seems to be mocking the obscurity of the original quotation. For all Barth's giftedness as a theologian, his best characteristic is perhaps his refusal to take himself seriously. He is not precious about "his" theology. From the very beginning of Church Dogmatics he insists that dogmatics is not mastery, but service. This, sadly, is a characteristic often absent from Barthians, who would do well to pay as much attention to the spirit of Barth's theology as to the letter.

If you want to hear the exchange for yourself, click here and go to minute 10:30