"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt III): Barth, "God Here and Now"

Karl Barth, God Here and Now (London: Routledge, 2003) (First Edition, 1964)

As important of a theologian as Barth was—one of the most important of the Twentieth Century—I’d never really read his work. This isn’t Church Dogmatics, his multi-volume “magnum opus,” but it was a nice introduction to his thought. He writes a lot about God's revelation and how we know what we know, the doctrine of the Trinity, paradox in Christian theology, and God's faithfulness toward humankind.

Here are three samples: the first seems to be a dialectical for-and-against argument concerning the possibility of universal reconciliation; the second concerns the powerful effect an encounter with God’s grace can have; the third is an attempt to capture the “essence” of the Church.


1) “Who knows what sort of ‘last’ ones might turn out to be first? The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. The restoration of all things? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God’s grace.” And then: “But would it be God’s free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? 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 someday prove to be empty!” (41-42)

I sense this sort of “playfulness” is characteristic of Barth. What I hear him challenging in the first part is the way universalism can kind of “obligate” God to do something, and I think Barth is uncomfortable making any claims that limit God’s freedom to do whatever God feels like doing.

Even though we think of God as constant and reliable, not really like a moody child, I think many have this problem with Christian universalism—that it doesn’t allow for the freedom of God, nor human freedom. Then again, if God promises to do something, we tend to count on God to do it, right? Maybe it means God isn't as much whimsical as a good promise-keeper (no reference to the famous men’s movement intended).

The second part seems a jab toward those who appear to want people in hell, to prefer that not all people get the same reward or meet the same end. I’m sure for most of us this isn’t the case; many believe in hell because they think that’s the way things really are. But I suspect some do drift into that sense of entitlement or a desire for “fairness”—attitudes Jesus seemed to critique in the parable of the prodigal.


2) “The message of the free grace of God…is of such a nature that even when proclaimed in a stupid manner it has a way of producing, suddenly and anew, now here, now there, (people) who are in fact free, that is, nimble, humble, questioning, seeking, asking, knocking (people), and in this sense free Christians…” (53)

What I love about this is how one’s encounter with God is expressed as a beginning, not an end. I don’t believe anyone can ever really say “well there, I found God, it’s finished...glad I got that taken care of.” Rather, I think life with God means endless discovery, endless learning, endless fascination with the ways God can be discovered in all facets of our lives today and for the rest of our lives.

That God is “for us” is profound to me, and makes me eager to spend my life finding more and more about this God. Because of the imago Dei—the image of God in every person—I’d say the person next to me is a good place to start. (Not my wife…she’s not here right now…the closest person to me at the moment is probably my downstairs neighbor who always seems to cook with a lot of garlic.)


3) “The essence of the Church is an event in which the community is a light shining also in the world…this community, in the midst of the world, distinguishes itself from the world and thereby inevitably becomes offensive to the world in a particular way…(it is a community that should be) opening wide its doors and windows in order to truly share not in the fraud and especially not in the religious and moralistic illusions of its environment, but in the real concerns, needs, and tasks, that it may represent a calm center of lodging and reflection in contrast to the world’s idleness, and also in order to be, in this context, the source of prophetic unrest, admonition, and instigation, without which this transitory world can never endure. ” (81)

So much that is interesting in this quote. But I want to highlight the "offensiveness" of the Church. This is a complicated issue for me; I often feel like I'm navigating a fine line between being offensive to one group of people or else another. I know there are some who read this blog that don’t identify as Christians; and I would have to imagine that, as generous and gracious as I try to be, some of the exclusive claims I make about Jesus and his significance have got to be at least a little offensive, especially at a time when tolerance, pluralism, and acceptance is so valued.

Yet I'd guess that some Christians are probably offended as well by things I’ve said at times...ways that maybe I’ve seemingly (to those offended) distorted the gospel, or been an advocate for a cause they don’t agree with, or been overly critical of Christians in ways that make it seem like I either need to lighten up, or maybe chill out, or maybe just stop talking out of my butt.

I would be really curious to know—and may begin to ask some of my non-Christian friends about this to really research it—from those don’t consider themselves part of the Christian Church:

  • What do you find offensive about the Church?
  • And, do you think the Church should be offensive in those areas, or should make adjustments to be less offensive?

In other words, is there a good kind of offensiveness the Church possesses that you see as valuable for the health of the world? Or is the Church mostly offensive in that it often seems foolish, or pretentious, or narrow-minded, or judgmental, or hypocritical, or some other thing?

I also love how Barth here expresses a desire for the Church to be a place of peace and rest, while also being outspoken about the ways society and culture are committing evils or living destructively. I find the challenge of what exactly the Church should be outspoken about interesting, but one that has really been present for some time and looks different between the liberal and conservative sides of Christianity (e.g., condemning cultural greed or condemning abortion)

I do believe the Church has a voice, and should be outspoken. And I guess that, whenever you make a statement that challenges another’s way of life and presents the possibility that they might have to make some kind of change in their views or their habits and activities, you’re bound to be offensive.

Knowing what right I, or we, have to be offensive in this manner is tricky for me.

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