Karl Barth: The Word of God and the Problem of Culture (Part 2)

The Apologetic Task of Theology: The Dialogue of Known and Unknown

Do we need Karl Barth's help with ethics? | PsephizoIn the previous post Karl Barth: The Word of God and the Problem of Culture (Part 1), I outlined both Barth’s objections to Liberal Theology, and his corresponding emphasis on the supremacy of the Word of God, (as communicated through Scripture). In this post I want to offer a tentative critique of this stance, that tips the balance back towards the earlier generosity of theological Liberalism. Let us begin by dissecting the consequences of the Barthian disinclination to dialogue with culture. In our age, when Christianity is again being used to bolster rhetorics of ethnic distinctiveness, the humanitarian and the cosmopolitan liberal may find an unexpected friend in Barth. In his shattering insistence on divine otherness, Christianity is taken out of the realms of society and state altogether. The revelation of Jesus Christ is not an appendage to any worldly powers but sits in judgement over and against the fashions and obsessions of the age. No government, party, or political programme can ever personify or speak for the Word of God. This proposition was confirmed for Barth by the second great catastrophe of his lifetime, the rise of Adolf Hitler. In the Nazi attempt to incorporate the German Churches into a politics of racial destiny, Barth saw the logical outcome of a theological method that prioritised culture over the radical judgement of revelation. Whatever retrieving Christianity means, it cannot entail the expansion of nations, or the sanctification of national myth. But Barth’s insistence on the radical rupture represented by Jesus Christ comes with an epistemic cost. Barth’s insistence on the negative otherness of the Gospel renders Christianity an island to itself, approachable only through its own claims. Yet, by treating the Gospel as a transcendental criterion, Barth ignores the fundamentally dialogical nature of Christ’s revelation. Any sense of the Word of God coming from above, must be balanced by Scripture’s own acknowledgement that culture (the matter of precisely who is being addressed) is central to what is understood. This is true, even if the interlocutor is hostile or baffled by what is communicated. The notion that the content of knowledge is the work of the communicator and the hearer is given vivid expression in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Reflecting on the mimetic quality present in meaningful conversation, Proust’s narrator observes:

A powerful idea communicates some of its strength to him who challenges it. Being itself a part of the riches of the universal Mind, it makes its way into, grafts itself upon the mind of him whom it is employed to refute, slips in among the ideas already there, with the help of which, gains a little ground, he completes and corrects it; so that the final utterance is always to some extent the work of both parties to a discussion. It is ideas which are not, properly speaking, ideas at all, to ideas which, founded upon nothing, can find no support, no kindred spirit among the ideas of the adversary, that he, grappling with something which is not there, can find no word to say in answer.[1]

Paul In AthensPaul preaching in the Areopagus | Works of Art | RA Collection ...

In Luke’s account of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31), Proust’s account of communication is richly demonstrated by the motif of ‘the unknown god’. This shadowy presence is intended to draw the hearers into the thought-world of the Gospel. In his speech, Paul draws his listeners into the realm they know in order to subvert their knowledge. First Paul speaks in the accent of the Stoic poet Aratus: ‘For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill’ (17:28-9). Here Luke shows, Paul using the Stoic conception of the transcendent Fatherhood of God as a ‘hook’, to draw his audience into the strange kerygma of Jesus Christ: “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead”’ (NIV 17:30). In this mode, the Gospel is not displaced by culture, rather it is a necessary ingredient to its final articulation. Thus, Luke via Paul introduces us to a third way between Gospel supremacy and cultural co-option. The proclamation of Christ is not an indisputable axiom which proves itself. It finds proof ‘to hand’, not by descending from some place of unintelligibility, but by making strange the world the hearer already knows. For his part, Barth insists that far from being an example of cultural-specific apologetics, Paul’s preaching to the Athenians is roundly dialectical.[2] Instead of mixing Jesus Christ with ‘the Greek, or other ideas about God’[3], Barth thinks Paul stresses the need for repentance and a turning to Jesus Christ. Barth completes his reading by suggesting that we must judge Paul’s intention by judging its results. During a podium discussion in 1962 at the University of Chicago, Barth observed:

This story has often been used by Christian and other theologians as an example of good apologetics; but if then, Paul was an apologist, there in Athens, he was a failure, because they laughed at him. When they heard him speak of Christ risen, then they walked away, saying as we may say this very evening, “Let us here something another day” [cf.Acts 17:32], perhaps tomorrow.[4]

But this interpretation of Paul’s proclamation on Mars Hill fundamentally distorts the text. So eager is Barth to distance himself from the cultural hospitality of Liberal Theology that he overlooks the structure of Luke’s narrative. Firstly Paul’s preaching is not a failure. While his appeal to ‘the unknown god’ fails to convince his Stoic and Epicurean observers, we are told: ‘Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others’, (17:34). This suggests precisely what Barth denies, that Paul’s address is an apologetic one. Convincement was the aim, in the case of some present, the definite result. But the incident reveals something else. There is no proclamation without an audience. To be ‘heard’, the essence of what is proclaimed must attend to cultural reality. No narration proceeds as it were from the clouds, nor is a proclamation understood any other way than from the world at hand. If Paul is not concerned with the cultural world of his hearers, why does he begin his proclamation with the cultic life of Athens? This points to a second deficiency of Barth’s account. The New Testament record of the evangelical endeavour does not presuppose anything akin to telepathy or some hidden precognitive sympathy to convey a timeless message. Scriptures assumes two categories of communication only, symbolic acts and explanatory speech. Since there can be no such thing as a private language and the communication of symbols assumes shared knowledge, the Gospel can never be other than a cultural event. As Schleiermacher observed on this question of proclamation: ‘The whole work of the Redeemer Himself was conditioned by the communicability of His self-consciousness by means of speech, and similarly Christianity has always and everywhere spread itself solely by preaching.’[5] However, to acknowledge that the Gospel exists within the structure of language, (a form of historical memory), as Schleiermacher does, is not a defeat for its timelessness. To treat the Gospel’s temporality as a distortion, is to confuse its form with its significance. When Paul says: ‘I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some’ (1 Cor 9:22), he is not arguing that the Crucified Christ is a mere cultural artefact among others, but as an evangelist, he knows that communication rests upon the thought-world of those listening. It is on this basis that we can rescue something of the analogia entis which Barth had rejected. As Paul Tillich expressed this retrieval:

If the knowledge of revelation is called “analogous” this certainly refers to the classical doctrine of analogia entis between the finite and the infinite. Without such an analogy nothing could be said about God. But the analogia entis is in no way able to create a natural theology. It is not a method for discovering the truth about God; it is the sense analogia entis, like “religious symbol”, points to the necessity of using material from finite reality in order to give content to the cognitive function in revelation. This necessity, however, does not diminish the cognitive value of revelatory knowledge.[6]

The Truth in Untruth

Barth’s refusal to sufficiently interrogate these cultural dynamics of proclamation leads him invariably into a corresponding blunder, the connection of human culture with radical error, and error with the forces that ultimately oppose the Gospel. But Scripture possesses a much more nuanced account of error than Barth’s dialectical theology allows. Even where culture appears to block a fully coherent rendition of the Gospel, such misunderstanding can itself reveal the deep structures to which the Gospel must attend.  This hidden dimension, of truth in untruth, is lucidly observed in the evangelical mission of Paul and Barnabas as recounted in Acts. After healing a man of lameness, the apostles are confronted with an adulated crowd:

 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices in the Lycaonian language: “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates, hoping to offer a sacrifice along with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul found out about this, they tore their clothes and rushed into the crowd, shouting, Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them’ (NIV 14:11-14).

Let us note where the crowd is in the wrong and where they are in the right. Paul and Barnabas do not face a crowd of materialists but encounter a culture that already expects the divine to heal the afflicted. By dubbing Paul and Barnabas Zeus and Hermes, the spectators had in mind the ancient stories of divine epiphany, of gods garbed in the form of strangers to test the hospitality of a city. Here the Greek cosmos dovetails with the Jewish world of Paul and Barnabas, of the angelic vitiation to Abraham, and by degrees, the risen Son of God who takes on the aspect of dilapidated stranger. Here one clearly sees the double aspect of revelation. The lightning bolt of Christ illuminates the darkness of error, but it will not burn away those structures of imagination and perception that nurture its clarity. The crowds’ misidentification of Paul and Barnabas both confirms a world they already comprehend, but unwittingly draws them into the experience of an unknown god.

The risen Jesus is both a departure and an echo of what has already been mythically glimpsed. The Gospel comes to potency when what is known and unknown, time-bound, and timeless meet. Given the dialogical structure of the evangelical task, what is left of Barth’s thesis of cultural capture? The social imprisonment of the Gospel is indeed a perennial reality, equally illustrated in Barth’s own life, and our present anxieties concerning Christian identity. It is all too easy for Christianity to be flattened into a cause, a system, or a political stance, instead of a portal which unveils God in Jesus Christ. What is most valuable in Barth’s account is the sense that Christianity, to possess substance must intrude on our sense of the world. However, the weakness of Barth’s account of revelation is in its very transcendence. Like the Zen practitioner who seeks a sudden flash of enlightenment, for Barth there is no slow approach to the reality of Christ,  no gradations of appreciation that might keep elements of our old selves intact. To confront the radical Other of Christ Jesus, is to be shattered on the wheel of salvation. Newness comes as a disorienting stranger, un-anchoring human lives from a false centre. If ‘religion’ is the source of idolatry, Christ is the breaking of idols, by setting human life on a fresh course.  Nonetheless, this description leaves unexamined the dialogical dimensions of proclamation. As much as Scripture speaks of a Lord who breaks open our culture-bound personalities, it also affirms a God who has fallen in love with time. The Father of Jesus speaks from the centre of people’s lives, as they are. What they might be, he leaves to the process, the contingency of a given encounter. One thinks of the Roman centurion commended by Jesus for his faith, (Matt 8:5–13; Lk 7:1–10). Christ does not demand that the man gives up his old cultural life, (one assumes of Roman paganism), nor his profession of soldiery, nonetheless his old life, scared by the falsehoods of the world, shines with an instant recognition of Jesus’ power. Remaining in his old life, does not prevent the New Life of Christ being responded to. Indeed, Jesus tells his hearers: “I tell you; I have not found such great faith even in Israel” (NIV Lk. 7:9).

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This incident, as with the others, should impress upon us one inescapable fact, one that Barth himself concedes. Revelation sets the rhythm of the world, but it also ‘swims’ in the tides of history. It is soaked in the affairs of things. For all of Barth’s insistence on the alien quality of divine activity, he cannot wholly ignore the human field in which God self-disclosure takes place (the ‘divine content in a human form‘[7]). As Barth reflects on this ‘given’ context in Church Dogmatics: ’[Revelation]…does not reach us in a neutral state but rather in an act which stands in a quite definite, relationship to it as the coming-to-us of truth. It reaches us namely as religious people, that is, it reaches us in the midst of that attempt to know God from our own point of view.’[8] Barth’s acknowledgement that revelation always meets us in, and through, our human situation, provides us with a valuable means of repairing Barth’s excessive disavowal of the human element in the sphere of divine action.  If revelation must always exist in co-relation with the human world, (as something revealed for a time-bound other), the problem of Christian captivity must be rethought. Revelation is obscured not by culture per se, but when the human domain of the known refuses to meet the unknown, when what is grasped attempts to place itself in the position of the un-grasped. When Christianity ceases to be a boundless gift, but a quantifiable given, then cultural capture complete. The task of theological then is not to eschew or ward off culture, but to clasp hold of cultural currents that enable us to speak the Gospel faithfully and vividly. Yet, Barth’s theological method offers us a sharp note of caution. Each cultural artefact, humanly selected, carries the risk that we proclaim our presuppositions and ignore the Gospel. In fixating on what we think we know in advance; God’s revelation can be discarded in the name of cherished preconceptions. As Barth muses on this problem:

We are most certainly…to try to know and define and evaluate man and his religion as it were in advance by itself- in another existence than as belonging to Christ, in another realm than his kingdom, in another relation than ‘under him’- in order then, taking it seriously in this autonomous form, to bring it into relationship with God’s revelation. For by so doing we would have been saying from the outset that Jesus Christ is not his Lord…and that he does not belong to Jesus Christ. [9]

If we seek to speak of culture, religion, or humanity before conceding the ground to revelation, we will, thinks Barth, be ‘speaking about…a postulate or an idea. What one is then really and truly talking about is not revelation but rather what came before; man and his religion, about which he already knew so much’.[10] How should we respond to such a formulation? Barth is surely right about what is wrong, but wrong about what is right. By insisting on the otherness of revelation, Barth justifiably builds a wall between the world-shattering power of revelation, and those who would clothe Christianity in the garments of culture, making the Gospel a mere adjunct to purely human ends. But these stern fortifications, seemingly so needful, do not protect their landscape, they scar it. Inherent in Barth’s theological dialectic is the fallacy of totality, either we accept in whole or reject in whole. Culture is always the domain of co-option, which must be resisted entire by those who hold fast to revelation. While the New Testament does declare a stark choice between the old world and the new, sin or repentance, it does so to humans, with all their histories, partial perceptions, and intuitions. The dynamic of sin and redemption does not warrant the identification of sin with  what lies outside the orbit of Christ’s self-disclosure. The refusal of any straightforwardly dualistic reading of Church and world is mandated by Christ himself on account of his ministry among the ordinary, as observed by Adolf von Harnack. Christ addresses us through the natural and material conditions of his audience, his parables the distillation of divine truth in everyday apparel.  What is known before hand, is the basis for truth yet grasped. If revelation is the use of the known by the unknown, we must revisit Barth’s decision of 1914.

The failure of Liberal Theology was not the use of bourgeois culture, but the abuse of such usage. The issue is not the dominance of this or that worldview in the interpretation of the kerugma, but rather establishing a principle of evaluation, which allows us to ascertain with reasonable clarity what will aid the articulation of the Gospel. The New Testament offers such an axiom in Christ’s pragmatic observation that: ‘By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit’ (Matt 7:16-20). Put hermeneutically, we may express this apt principle of selection as follows: If a given cultural matrix renders the Gospel powerfully strange, if it wakes Christian conviction from the slumbers of familiarity and confirmation, it can be said to serve the Gospel. Such a judgement is implicit in Paul’s encounter with the Athenians on Mars Hill. Luke thinks it worth distinguishing the Stoics and Epicureans from the crowd, because he wishes to identify the character of those who will not respond to the Gospel. They are system-builders and materialists, to which Jesus appears as just another strange god. Yet, there are others who do and can respond; they are orientated to respond. The word that is received falls on ground capable of receiving it. And since that soil is cultural, we are invited to distinguish between cultures hospitable or inhospitable to the task of proclamation.  In this vein, we may justly talk about an orientation of reception, which precede any revelatory moment.

Transformation: The Sad Sin, Of A Great TheologianAn identification of these orientations, as Luke-Acts does by pinpointing the spirit of the Athenians philosophers, is admitted in the New Testament more generally, as the distinction between those who follower and those who do not, those who respond, and those who pass by. Thus, any proclamation is invited, not merely to displace ‘religion’, but to evaluate what precedes it. Any Evangelist must know on what ground she preaches and consider how her words will be heard. However, if the Gospel is not the condemnation of culture, what does it mean for the Gospel to be heeded? Its first dimension is grasped subjectively. A worldview, concept, or symbol, we be said to possess evangelical potency if it shakes us out of our habitual patterns of thought, leaving the path clear for radical newness to break into our lives. By making the familiar strange, the human self can be orientated towards the supreme strangeness of Jesus Christ. The Gospel becomes alive for us when it takes on the character of a question. When we are propelled by the question, into a world that we could not have presupposed.  In the second place, the Gospel becomes a lens to perceive outward happenings. One’s collective and personal history is at once understood through the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ. Events take on the depth of parable. Here culture does not do the work of revelation, nor can it be said to possess an autonomous status compared to the activity beyond revelation. What is prior does not signify precedence. Divine knowledge is merely bound to the life of the listener, the one who can know. We must not be lulled by Barth’s rejection of apologetics into the impression that such a theological evaluation of human culture is a novel practice. What is being recovered in this post is what the early Church defined as praeparatio evangelica. When the faith of Christ washed up on the shores of Greece, it was asked: Where was the Creator of the world in the lives of those who did not yet believe’? How could a God of saving love be absent, even from states of error? The answer is that he was there all along, working through the thoughts and culture of those who did not yet believe.

[1] Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way. Within a Budding Grove. The Guermantes Way, Volume 1, (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 428

[2] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p.176

[3] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 176

[4] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 176

[5] Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, p. 77

[6] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology: Volume 1., (London: The University of the Chicago Press, 1951), p. 131

[7] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p. 35

[8] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p. 57

[9] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, pp. 50-1

[10] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p. 51

One thought on “Karl Barth: The Word of God and the Problem of Culture (Part 2)

  1. I know nothing and have no knowledge of Barth, but I do think that much of what is described as “gospel truth” is couched in the language of Plato’s cave; that one needs to have a special switch flicked inside the head to understand that the flickering shadows in the cave are reflections of a deeper reality.

    I don’t think much about the written gospels these days as little of it moves or speaks to me – but one thing that does still resonate is the idea of truth/kingdom as treasure in a field, waiting to be redescovered over a long time or as yeast slowly permeating throughout a dough.

    Truth, it seems to me, will come out in the end. It will eventually be uncovered from the soil. It will eventually permeate the yeast. Part of being a believer is not so much in consciously trying to make other believers as in persevering in the belief that things can and will change.

    To use a hackneyed phrase, it is more about the journey than reaching the destination

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