Karl Barth: The Word of God and the Problem of Culture (Part 1)

Karl Barth and the Liberal Reaction

Adolf Harnack.jpg

During the course of lockdown I have been reading the work of the 20th century theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968), and found myself, (like many previous commentators), drowning in observations. The following discussion is an attempt to place the insights of my recent reading into some kind of order for the benefit of a curious reader. Over the next two posts, I intend to outline Barth’s theological approach to secular culture and identify some of the conceptual weaknesses of the Barthian stance. While acknowledging that Barth shifted his theological emphasis several times over a long theological career, I want to identify the consistent threads of Barth’s work after his break with Liberal Theology in the early 1920s. I hope such a discussion will be useful, either for those who are unfamiliar with Barth, or seek the rudiments of a considered critique of his work. To begin this conversation, let us outline Barth’s historical context. Mentored by the great liberal theologians of his generation, including Adolf von Harnack, Barth had imbibed the cultural optimism of the world before the great catastrophe of 1914. For the theologians of this fateful generation, the heights of bourgeois culture (Goethe’s Faust  or Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion)[1] were gleaming mirrors reflecting God’s presence. Culture ranked alongside the Cathedral as a terrain of worship. In this generous mould, the glorious achievements of modern poets and philosophers became but another fruitful idiom through which the truths of the Gospel could be proclaimed. Spinoza, Novalis, Coleridge and Schlegel were all possible aids in the task of theological persuasion. Behind this assemblage of cultural luminaries was the outworking of the German Romantic spirit, with its stress on the exaltation of feeling and the unity of the self with nature. It was Friedrich Schleiermacher who had united theology and Romanticism in his definition of God as ‘the feeling of absolute dependence.’[2]

For Schleiermacher, Christianity was not primarily about a system of creeds or prescribed ordinances, but discernible existentially, in the response of each believer. In this vein, dogmas were not really concerned with quantifying the structure of natural or supernatural objects. Rather, they were spurs to the religious emotions’[3]. Every theological formulation concerning Christ, redemption and the Church, ‘give an impulse towards the awakening of a fuller self-consciousness and towards the winning of a total impression of Christ; and only from this will faith proceed’.[4]  Thus, in all cases, religious life sprang from the depths of human subjectivity, not from a venerable record of past spiritual events. Insofar as culture was also nurtured by this same imaginative faculty, Christianity was aided by and in creative kinship with, the insights of verse, music, and drama. Humanism too, in its insistence on human dignity and moral progress reflected the ethic of Christ. These trajectories culminated in the radical secularisation of Jesus and his message. Indeed, for the exponents of nineteenth-century Liberal Theology, temporality was the central fact of the Gospel’s proclamation. Von Harnack, in his survey of the New Testament, dismissed any suggestion that Christ was a transcendent liberator, the purveyor of an exoteric doctrine. The Jesus of the Gospels, the Saviour that taught in the villages in and around Galilee had not sought a life separate from the affairs of the world. He was rooted deep in the culture of his time. As von Harnack reflected:

When he (Jesus) finds to his joy, people with a firm faith he leaves them in the calling and the position in which they were. We do not hear of him telling them to sell all and follow him. Apparently he thinks it possible, nay fitting, that they should live unto their belief. His circle of disciples is not exhausted by the few he summoned directly to follow him. He finds God’s children everywhere; to discover them in their obscurity and to be allowed to speak to them some word of strength is his highest pleasure.[5]

As war approached however, this Liberal Christ was marshalled in defence of the bourgeois culture that had created him. Just as the quest for the historical Jesus had yielded pale reflections of the inquirers’ own hearts, Liberal Protestantism had no life outside its national milieu. At one moment it could valorise the work of the German trade unionists and social reformers, the next, insist on German national destiny. Christ’s secularity had led to the Church’s inability to speak out against the preoccupations of political power. As Barth recounted:

One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wilhelm II and his counsellors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realised that I could not any longer follow either their ethics or dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, 19th century theology no longer held any future.[6]

The Judgement of God

The suspense of the liberal future for Barth heralded the destruction of a whole thought-world. In this moment of supreme betrayal came crashing down a servile theology that had seen itself as the handmaiden of culture. Instead of declaring Christ’s radical message of repentance against a sinful world, Liberal Theology had attempted to baptise it. It was the Apostle Paul who had declared: ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Rom. 1:18). For Barth, this was the rallying cry for a new theological turn that would free Christianity from the standards of the world. Barth was clear that there can be no commonality or kinship between the works of God and the works of human culture. As Barth observed in his commentary on Romans:

There is no magnificent temporality of this world which can justify men before God. There is no arrangement of affairs or deportment of behaviour, no disposition of mind or depth of feeling, no intuition or understanding, which is, by its own virtue, pleasing to God. Men are men, and they belong  to the world of men; that which is born from the flesh is flesh.  Every concrete and tangible thing belongs within the order of time. Everything which emerges in men and which owes its form and expansion to them is always and everywhere and as such, ungodly and unclean. The kingdom of men is, without exception, never the Kingdom of God…[7]

Revelation of God in Christ does not come as a confirmation or a recollection, but a radical rupture with all that is known already. Paul condemnation of those who have ‘exchanged the truth about God for a lie…served created things rather than the Creator’, (NIV Rom. 1:25) is a denunciation of those who have become enslaved to cumulative human ideas and intuitions, in contrast to history-defying event of God’s self-disclosure. To proclaim the Lordship of Christ was to declare ‘the dissolution of history in history, the destruction of the structure of events within their known structure, the end of time in the order of time.’[8] The  implications of this radical dissolution of history in Jesus Christ could not be clearer for Barth. The revelation of God ‘neither emerges from what we know, nor is it a development of it. Compared with our ‘something’ it is and remains always-nothing.’[9]  Here negativity signifies the absolute otherness of God. When revelation enters the confines of time, it displays itself as unlike anything created. The radical strangeness of God means that no activity of God can be said to be co-dependent with ordinary facts. For Barth there is no Thomistic ‘spiritual energy residing in nature; no cosmic force in this earth’.[10] All theological tasks that attempt to ground themselves in some priori store of ‘natural knowledge’ are liable to become captive to human notions and historical fashions, throwing aside the content of revelation. There can be illumination outside the Gospel, no human knowledge able to augment the Word of God.

The Word of God and  Culture

Barth Studies | The School of Divinity, History and Philosophy ...

This position of Barth’s was later summarised as: Belief cannot argue with unbelief: it can only preach to it.[11] For Barth, this stance had profound implications for any serious talk of Christian recovery in Western society. Any discussion of a general revival of Christianity must return to the original revelation of Christ, as revealed in Scripture. There can be no sense in which Christianity can be condensed into some set of cultural, institutional, or intellectual arrangements. It must stand apart from the world. Yet, throughout his life, Barth wrestled with a thorny contradiction bestowed by Scripture itself. While Barth denied the theological significance of both nature and culture, by necessity, he affirmed the God of Scripture, who worked in nature and history. Reflecting on this activity in his old age, Barth observed:

I must oppose the notion of a God who is only in the Eucharist and within the walls of the church, a God who is imprisoned so to speak. Christianity would then be the prison of God. This is not so. God rules the whole world, the whole of our existence, not only when we go to church and partake of the Eucharist. Always we are being asked what is the will of God. We have to listen to the Word of God, which we hear in the Scriptures and in the church, but we have to listen to the same Word when we live outside the walls of the church, if we are to live not only in an act of piety, but also in our daily work and politics.[12]

In opening the route to dialogue between the Church and the world, Barth’s path was inevitably narrow. While Barth sternly rejected the Scholastic notion of a directed analogy between the structure of the world and the nature of God (an analogia entis[13]) he posited the existence of an analogia relationis. Since God’s grace works in the life of human beings, certain facets of this world will come to resemble the gifts of God. The acts of a graceful God will in turn become reflected n the lives of creatures ‘who are destined to be grateful to God’[14]. This ‘common history between God and man’[15] (of giver and recipient), means that moments in time, not sacred or God-given in themselves, can take on a parabolic character. Just as Jesus’ parables illustrated life under the rule of the Father, moments in ordinary time can be potent illustrations of the Word of God. Barth includes the love between self and neighbour and the relationship between husband and wife as potent symbols of God’s intention made manifest in human structures, (a disclosure revealed by Scripture).[16] But as Barth insists, an analogy cannot reveal the original unless we know something of that original, namely through the revelation of Jesus Christ.[17] No prior culture, no human myth, can make sense of the Gospel.  Indeed, for Barth, strictly speaking, Christian proclamation is not a ‘religion’ (some set of cultural and cultic formations), but the address of the Word of God to human beings, that calls individuals from their religious affiliations. As Barth elucidates this position in The Church Dogmatics:

Revelation does not hook-up with the already operative religion of man but rather contradicts it just as religion previously contradicted revelation; revelation sublimates religion just as religion previously sublimates revelation. In the same way, faith cannot hook up with false faith-sublimate it- as faithlessness, as an act of contradiction.[18]

If human religion is pure contradiction for Barth, there can be no question that ‘religion can be true as such, in and of itself’.[19] The only true religion, indeed the only true culture, is the one that has given up its own self-sufficiency. Only the culture that conforms to the negating otherness of God is justified and sanctified.[20] Barth’s only answer to the civic religion of cultural Christianity is the insistence that true religion ‘is a creature of grace[21]. Only a culture which stops striving for itself and its preconceptions can communicate revelation. Any mode of religious life which has itself as its prime preoccupation has sunken into that world of human religion, that crowded cultural sphere of which expresses, ‘the neglect of Christ that begins right at the point where one no-longer allows him to be the one and all, the secret dissatisfaction with his lordship and consolation.’[22]  The cultural Christianity of the late modern West, its emptying cathedrals, the crosses rapped in flags is the eating up of revelation by religion, that creeping idolatry of human stirring, that empties out the Christ of faith.

[1] Ian Bradley, Grace, Order, Openness and Diversity: Reclaiming Liberal Theology (London: Continuum, Publishing, 2010), p. 12

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016),  p. 17

[3] Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016),  p. 81

[4] Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, p. 76

[5] Adolf von Harnack, ‘Ascrticism, in What is Christianity?, trans. Thomas Bailey Saunders, (London: Williams & Northgate,  1901), p. 82

[6] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, (Westminster John Knox Press: 1960, p. 14

[7] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 56

[8] Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 103

[9] Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 102

[10] Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 103

[11] A phrase attributed to  Karl Barth, see Hugo Anthony Meynell, Redirecting Philosophy: Reflections on the Nature of Knowledge from Plato to Lonergan, (London: University of Toronto Press, 1998), p. 125

[12] Karl Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, ed. Eberhard Busch, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), p. 73

[13] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 200

[14] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 201

[15] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 215

[16] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 215

[17] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 216

[18] Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, trans. Garrett Green, (London: T&T Clark, 2006), p. 59

[19] Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, trans. Garrett Green, (London: T&T Clark, 2006), p.85

[20] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p. 85

[21] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p. 85

[22] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p.48

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