Tag Archive | Karl Barth

How To Read The Bible Or Why Creationists Aren’t That Bright

Perishing with commencing time, in the light which was created by God, by the second day, the infinite waste of waters is revealed as the absolute antithesis of the ordered world of “heaven and earth,” as an enemy of all life, as the death of every possibility of life. It is this power as such which is radically broken by the creative work of the second day. What is basically secured by thisw ork is the theatre of life, and therefore of man. In precise correspondence to the announcement made in the creation of light, it consists in the establishment of a boundary. The delineation of this boundary will be continued in the work of the third day. Its commencement consists in the radical crushing of the sovereignty of the element of chaos; in the liquidation of its finality, form and structure; in a division in to “waters above” and “waters below” in which it can no longer speak a fina linimcal and moral word, but can only be a last threat which cannot make man and his world impossible and thus destroy them. It is separated. It can exist only in this separation. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol III, Part 1, p.133.

St. Jerome receiving some Divine assistance translating the Bible to Latin

St. Jerome receiving some Divine assistance translating the Bible to Latin

The other day I mused on the possibility – or even the need! – for a so-called “theology of the natural sciences”. My reason for these thoughts are my current reading of Vol III, Part 1 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, in which the great Basel doctor pays careful attention to the two creation stories in Genesis. It occurred to me today, after reading Barth’s careful work on Gen. 1:6-8, the work of the Second Day of Creation, that a careful look at how Barth reads just these two little verses should be a demonstration both in how to do theology (Biblical exposition), and how different are the questions it asks and the answers it offers from those of the natural sciences. This is an object lesson in why Christian Doctrine, particularly the doctrine of Creation, have nothing at all in common with astrophysics, cosmology, or quantum mechanics. It also demonstrates just how stupid creationists really are.

By way of some general observations, Barth’s strengths moving forward are a focused dedication both to the text as text and his prior methodological principle of the priority of such a focused reading always being done through the lens of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the real revelation of who God is and what God has done and is doing. I doubt such a careful and thorough theological hermeneutic will or could exist in the future; relying as it does on a certainty that the particular narrative of the Christ-event defines how we approach the entire canon of Christian Scripture, living in a time when such meta-narratives, even as a functional device, are no longer tenable, such dedication and clarity and thoroughness are no longer either possible or desired.

This particularity of focus, however, gives Barth the power and authority to declare both that the events in the first two chapters of Genesis are real history and to set aside any conflict with a scientific account of the creation of the Universe as a primary misreading of the texts in question. Yet it is precisely here at his boldest that Barth’s weaknesses become most apparent. He spends an inordinate (to this reader at least) amount of space trying to define the Creation-event both as historical and outside the ability to research using proper historical (or one could add scientific) methods (pp.59f). Part of the confusion here stems from the tortured use of a weird German distinction between two kinds of history, reflected in the development and growth of meaning of two different words English translates as “history”. One refers to History with a capital “H”, History as meta-history, the overarching movement of forces – either metaphysical (Hegel) or theological (Barth) – that determine, define, and provide meaning for what most of us think of as “history”, that ebb and flow of events, of names and dates and places and events we usually consider history. Even knowing all this, even vaguely, Barth’s attention to this point is both labored and tortured and – dare I say it? – smacks of more than a little bit of apologetics.

The other weakness, and here we encounter Barth in discussion with his contemporaries in Old Testament studies regarding literary styles, is a curt discussion of “saga” (pp. 42f). By attempting to define an understanding of the text by defining the literary style, Barth is yet again – gasp! – sneaking an apologetic concern through the back door, as it were, of his stated disdain for apologetics. Which is not to say that our reading of the Bible should ignore matters of literary form and style. It is only to suggest that, in this particular instance, Barth’s arguments are both rather weak (which is rare enough) and seem, in the end, to be beside the point. Historical or just historical, saga or myth or something else entirely, Barth’s focused discussion on each word, each line, each phrase, each day of Creation sets these matters aside almost completely.

In any event, it is the event of Day 2 – the setting of the firmament in the heavens to separate the waters above from the waters below – that, for me, show both how powerful and distinct a theological reading of the Bible can be as well as how little any of it has to do with contemporary scientific questions regarding cosmology. It is also precisely here that creationists – ideologues who use the Bible as a hammer against others – show themselves to be very poor exegetes. First, those “waters above” and “waters below” were once unseparated, those waters over whose face the Spirit shone just before the first creative act. While both the Church Fathers as well as Protestant Dogmaticians of the 16th and 17th century claimed these “waters above” were clouds and mists, Barth uses evidence both from other parts of the Bible as well as the particular description of these “waters” from the opening lines of Genesis to show this is not at all what the author of Genesis had in mind.

On the contrary, the “waters” over which the Spirit hovered is the primordial chaos against which God’s good creation stands both opposed and victorious. Like the darkness that is broken by the creation of light (not a pre-scientific description of the Big Bang), the setting of a firmament separating the waters below – rivers and seas and rain and clouds – from the waters above – the primordial anticreation – these first two events of creation, by setting specific barriers against and separation from those forces and things (darkness and the primordial chaotic waters), creates the space and time and conditions under which the rest of the creation called “good” can proceed. Only by splitting darkness with the creation of light, which creates day, and the First Day, is that darkness that opposes the light created by God defeated and set in its proper place. Only by separating the waters with a firmament, keeping away from God’s ordered creation the chaos whose depths reflected the Spirit and are defeated by it.

The first two days of creation, rather than talking about particular specific acts that can be dated and fixed upon a timeline, offer a theological view of what creation entails: It is the defeat both of darkness and chaos, their subjection to the creative love of the God who wishes ours to be a world both of order and  fitting for God’s very good creation, man and woman. We are not in the realm of “saga” (always a poor word choice to describe the literature of Genesis 1) or “history” at all. Barth’s setting aside such matters once he picks up the cudgels of theological exegesis demonstrate how little such discussions and definitions have to do with understanding the events of Genesis 1. While it is certainly true enough it is possible to read in Genesis 1 an account of events that actually took place on particular dates that can be discovered a la Bishop Usher, such a reading strips the text of their meaning and import. Anyone using this particular part of Scripture to defend a particular ideology robs them of the richness and fullness they actually contain.

Ours is a God of prodigal love who has chosen not to be alone but rather to create an Other to love that would seek God’s glory in return. Ours is a God who saw the original darkness and chaos and banished them, forcing them either to become part of God’s good creation or separating them entirely from Creation because their very existence as what they were posed a threat to the creation God was even then beginning. Ours is a God who would not have us creatures face the terror either of endless darkness or all-powerful chaos. Rather, ours is a world of order, discernible and discoverable, an order that provides space and time not just for survival, but for life, abundant life. We learn about our God, first, and our world and what kind of world it is God has created for us, second. Anything else the text might or might not say is less than unimportant.

As for Creationists who would continue to insist these texts give us a “real” history of “real” events that took place at a particular time, all I can say is by stripping the text of its theological depth and import, they have left nothing behind from which a reader can learn about God, or about the kind of creation in which we live, or any relationship between these events and the Christ event, the light that shines back offering the believer a particular perspective from which to understand the God of love who is the Father of Jesus Christ. Creationists aren’t really concerned that much with Christian faith as much as they are with having power over others by forcing a particular unBiblical and certainly unChristian reading upon others.

Is A “Theology Of The Sciences” Even Possible?

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philisophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God. – Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, p. 175


Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.  Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. – Sam Harris, “An Atheist Manifesto”


[Creationist Ray] Bohlin managed to recruit state board members to join in his quest, even going so far as to claim that removing any mention of creationist opinions in science would somehow prevent students from being able to ask questions in classes. (A false claim). He further claimed the majority of the committee was engaged in “a quick and concerted effort by the majority of the committee to remove the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).”

“I don’t advocate for any kind of creationism to be taught in the school. That does not belong in the TEKS. I’m simply concerned about the fair representation of the evidence for evolution,” said Bohlin. – Sarah K. Burris, “Creationists attack Texas education board for trying to eliminate junk science from school textbooks”, Raw Story, October 5, 2016


The theological principle which I accept without a rival has made it almost compulsory that I should first present the doctrine of the work of the Creator as such in the old-fashioned form of a radical exposition of the contents of the first two chapters of the Bible. This exposition is the kernel of the present book. I realise that it is in many ways strange, for I had not myself expected that this would be the result of a closer consideration of these passages and the problems involved. It will perhaps be asked in criticism why I have not tackled the obvious scientific question posed in this context. It was my original belief that this would be necessary, but I later saw that there can be no scientific problems, objections or aids in relation to what Holy Scripture and the Christian Church understand by the divine work of creation. Hence in the central portion of this book a good deal will be said about “naive” Hebrew “saga”, but nothing at all about apologetics and polemics, as might have been expected. The relevant task of dogmatics at this point has been found exclusively in repeating the “saga”, and I have found this task far finer and far more rewarding than all the dilettante entanglements in which I might otherwise have found myself. There is free scope for natural science beyond what theology describes as the work of the Creator. And theology can and must move freely where science which really is science, and not secretly a pagan Gnosis or religion, has its appointed limit. I am of the opinion, however, that future workers in the field of the Christian doctrine of creation will find many problems worth pondering in defining the point and manner of this twofold boundary. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine Of Creation, Part 1, pp. ix-x

Michaelangelo's The Creation Of Adam, detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Michaelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam, detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

The central faith-claim of the Christian Church is the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. This particular claim is perhaps the most radical statement ever made: It says everything there is to know about God, who God is, what kind of God this God of Jesus Christ is, the state of humanity in its relationship to God and its mutual interrelationships, how best to live one’s life, and whether or not death is to be feared or considered part of our broken yet healing creation. The claims of the Christian Church are, quite literally, life and death for those who make them. Far too comfortable in our middle-class “religion” of reassurance, we forget that, in the words of the late Rev. Dr. William Homes, “to live is to risk”.

The bulk of the Christian proclamation should remain focused upon this particular point. It must stress the grace and love that is the beating heart of that proclamation. That this is both confessional and pastoral should be obvious; it is confessional because this is the God to whom we give testimony, and it is pastoral because this beating heart gives new life to those who hear it and believe. The whole liturgy of the Church focuses upon grace and love, and we who go forth from worship have this new heart beating within us.

And yet . . .

Buried within the central proclamation is the confession that this “world” – really everything from quasars to elementary particles, gas giants circling other stars and your pet cat – is the product of the creative act of love of our prodigal God. This faith statement – God created the heavens and the earth – seems both pretty simple and straightforward. Alas, as the natural sciences have pushed further and further what is theorized concerning both the beginnings of our Universe and its constituent properties, that simple faith claim sounds as if it is in direct conflict with our best theories concerning cosmology and the origin and development of life here on Earth.

And yet . . .,

Here in the United States (of all places) scientific knowledge is under attack on an unprecedented scale. Everything from medical science, genetics and food science, through the physics and chemistry of the earth’s atmosphere and climate, to those perennial arguments over the theory of evolution is questioned, has groups organized to protest both the reality of scientific understanding and the growth both of that understanding and various technological benefits from genetically engineered foods and vaccines to the teaching of evolution in public schools. The nation that has both pioneered and benefited from scientific research and the application of that research to technologies that benefit us routinely ridicules basic research, denies scientific theories that have yet to be disproved even in some small detail, and now even has an anti-science advocate – “Dr.” Jill Stein – running for President. These attacks upon the most successful method we humans have yet developed for figuring out how the world works and helping us live better, healthier lives should be of concern to anyone who continues to benefit from all that science and technology has offered us as a species.

We in the Christian churches should be as concerned as the rest. One of the first things we should acknowledge is that the ability to figure out our world and how best not just to survive but thrive on it is indeed a very good gift from a loving God. Just as we recognize the entirety of Christian Doctrine exists within the central proclamation of the churches, we should also acknowledge that “good gift” of understanding is part and parcel of the particular Universe in which we find ourselves. A Universe capable of the kind of relatively stable biochemistry capable of becoming alive would, it should be obvious, endow that life with the ability to understand that Universe and so survive within it. Our rationality, that particular habit of considering evidence in order to grasp particularly important information regarding our world, is a direct result of the kind of Universe in which we live.

For there to be some kind of conflict between science and Christian faith, one would have first to deny that we are creatures endowed with the ability not just to understand but to act upon an understanding of the world so that we can thrive and grow in it. To deny scientific theories, whether it’s about global climate change, the Big Bang, the chemical theories regarding mental illness that have produced successful drug treatments, or the theory of evolution, is to deny that God has made us as we are – as creatures able to learn stuff and use that learning. A denial of science at any level is, at heart, a denial of faith in the God of Jesus Christ.

And yet . . .

Science’s success has led some scientists (and non-scientists) to come to accept it not just as the best method yet of figuring out our world and how best to live in it; they believe the very existence of science both as a method and as a body of knowledge excludes other ways of understanding. Not just religion in general and the Christian faith in particular (because both Christianity and science are European phenomena what points of contention exist between the sciences and “religion”, by and large, involve Christianity), but a  kind of scientific reductionism across all sorts of human activity from patriotism through individual behaviors and deviance to romantic love can be encountered. Which isn’t to say that science doesn’t have something to say about why it is we human beings prefer the company of those more like us than not, say, or why it is we not only fall in love but some cultures persist in enforcing life-long pair-bonding over and against what seems a far more likely serial mating among the best candidates available. It does have things to say, and should say them.

The problem is, they aren’t the only things that can and should be said about these and other phenomena. When it comes to religion in general, and the claims of any particular faith, science should recognize, first and foremost, that the claims of believers are not and by their nature cannot be addressed as science addresses such matters. This isn’t just a question of “falsifiability”, as only those questions to which a negative answer is at least potentially possible were the only questions worth asking. It is precisely because science and religion, in fact, do not inhabit the same sphere at all. They do not address the same specific questions; they do not attempt to answer them using the same tools; they do not offer answers that can be stated interchangeably in the vocabularies of science and religious faith. At heart, the efforts of some scientists and some people of faith to fan the flames of conflict is fundamentally to misunderstand that we are dealing with two distinct vocabularies developed to address distinct issues and problems and offer solutions to those problems in terms that exist wholly within the distinct vocabularies used.

The Christian faith has nothing much to say at all about “the reality” of the Big Bang, biochemistry, or the evolution and development of life. Science has nothing much to say about the revelation of the God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, the salvation of our broken Creation, and the promise of New Life and New Creation to come. In the first case, the only thing Christian theology should do is give thanks to God both for a Universe in which scientific knowledge is possible and that we are creatures so endowed in order to grow and thrive. The only thing science should say about Christian proclamation regarding Creation is that it answers questions that have nothing at all to do with what science teaches us. To do other than this is, in the end, to devolve into arguments that are, for all intents and purposes, like one German speaker and one Danish speaker arguing with one another in their own languages over which language is better.

So is a “theology of science” even possible? I’m not so sure it’s as much a question of its possibility – for surely we humans are ingenious enough to come up with all sorts of things that sound convincing – as a question of its scope and place within the larger concerns of Christian proclamation. At best it is and should always be considered a peripheral matter, sitting at the edge of the proclamation of creation. Recognizing both that science both as a body of knowledge and a way of coming to that body of knowledge exist should be yet more reasons for praising our good and loving God. Beyond that, however, I guess I’m not sure what more can or should be said.

I Didn’t Go To Church Yesterday; Here’s Why

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgement goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings. – Hosea 6:4-6

—–

It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Karl Barth

—–

This is how we greet God in worship when there is no true confession

This is how we greet God in worship when there is no true confession

The first time I spoke out publicly against the United Methodist policy regarding sexual minorities was 1988. To say I was in a distinct minority would not only be accurate; it would perhaps demonstrate my embarrassment at my earnestness and honesty. Nonetheless, in the 27 years since I have not changed my position. I have not deviated from my firm belief that our lesbian, gay, other-gendered, bisexual, and queer/questioning brothers and sisters are of right and ought to be full persons within the life of the church. Our church has no business denying ministry and pastoral care to any of our members because of bigotry or blindness rooted in faile devotion to alleged Biblical injunctions or the arcana of church law.

I have allowed myself to continue being and worshiping as a United Methodist for all these years because I watched as we struggled and argued and charged and counter-charged. I saw our country opening itself to the possibility of full inclusion to sexual minorities; surely if our secular, godless society can be so open and accepting, a denomination that is rooted in an understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy can’t be far behind. All the arguments have been made and positions both well rehearsed and firm. We as a people seem to have been moving on to perfection in love on this matter.

Then came the widespread news of a woman from Western Michigan who, after receiving “ordination” from an online “church” not only was removed from candidacy for the diaconate; she was removed from membership in the United Methodist Church all together. Both actions were taken without the specific actions outlined in our Book of Discipline. There was no meeting with her District Committee on Ordained Ministry. Her local pastor did not meet with her, or research the charge thoroughly before writing “Withdrawn” after her name on her local church membership roll. Summarily cast out, she was for all intents and purposes excommunicated from our denomination for the crime of being audacious. She loved her clergy so much that rather than put any of them at risk, she received a barely-legal certificate – recognized only by county clerks around the country; something many people do to perform weddings for friends or family – so that two men she supported could be married surrounded by their friends and supporters.

Her removal was prompted from a complaint not made by anyone in her local church. It wasn’t made by another clergy member from Western Michigan. Three men from different jurisdictions wrote a letter to her District Superintendent. Three people who knew nothing of the facts, nothing of the people, nothing of the actual circumstances of the matter have managed not only to destroy a woman’s hopes for serving the United Methodist Church. In their zeal to uphold one part of our Book of Discipline, they prompted actions that violated other, far more important and central parts. In their desire to punish anyone in the United Methodist Church who might seek to be in loving ministry to sexual minorities, they have rendered our denomination a laughing stock. Not a laughing stock for the Gospel; this is no stumbling block for the earnestly faithful or foolishness to the wise. This action shows the world the hollowness of our alleged commitment to the expansiveness of God’s Grace and Wesley’s first rule: Do No Harm.

And so we arrive at yesterday. Angry and hurt, I prayed about how I could worship in truth and humility when I would be in a place that had not only committed this horrid act of injustice; I would be doing so in the full knowledge that there are people in our denomination who would not see any need to confess this sin and seek to change their lives so that no such thing would ever happen again. I would be approaching the table set before humanity by a prodigally loving God knowing full well that some in our denomination believe and have acted in such a way as to restrict access to a table that isn’t ours to begin with.

I wrote my thoughts on Facebook and many insisted that I should attend anyway; that all of us are broken and sinful; that we have unclean lips in a land of unclean people. All of which is true, of course, but also beside the point. Our worship is not about me or any other individual. It is about all of us. It is about us in our local congregation. It is also about all of us as we are connected through the Holy Spirit. The confession we make is not about how many times we’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain or looked upon another with lust in our hearts. Our confession is our failure to be the Church of Jesus Christ incarnate in the people called Methodist. We are all tied together in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; I can no more separate myself from other United Methodists around the world than I can separate myself from my arm or leg. The actions taken by those three men; the subsequent actions taken by the District Superintendent and Bishop in Western Michigan sit upon all of us. If not, then our profession as a connectional people is hollow and our confession of the communion of the saints is a lie.

That our church is broken is beyond question. I have told myself we have been moving slowly, inexorably, toward healing. The arc of history bends toward justice, even if that arc does indeed move slowly. I could not, however, worship in Spirit and Truth when I knew that I was part of a corporate body that had acted so cruelly, prompted by just a few people who sought punishment for others not because of who they are or what they did but rather because these three men consider themselves arbiters of who and who should not be a United Methodist. They would see no need to confess their sins. How, then, would our worship as a body be true? How would the sacrifice we offer – ourselves as a living sacrifice – be acceptable when we have not only permitted but participated in such injustice?

We will have much for which to answer. We’ve always known that. For the moment, however, it might yet be an excellent idea if we remembered that ours is a God of justice, not morality. Ours is a God of mercy, not arbitrary and punitive excommunication. When we gather and offer our confession to God, all of us no matter where we are, need to repent for being part of a body that would allow this action to take place, and seek repentance not only by preventing such a thing from ever happening again. We should actively seek to right this wrong. Until then, we show we don’t have love, and all our words are noise, the clanging cymbals of a faithless generation.

Not An Immediately Impressive Character

Mozart always had something to say, and he said it. But we should not complicate and spoil the impact of his works by burdening them with those doctrines and ideologies which critics think they have discovered in them but are in face an imposition. There is in Mozart no “moral to the story,” either mundane or sublime. – Karl Barth, “Mozart’s Freedom”, in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, p. 51

—–

Mozart’s music, like the teeming drama of the Bible and like good crisis theology, gives us permission to live. “With an ear open to your musical dialectic, one can be young and become old, can work and rest, be content and sad: in short, one can lice”; thus Barth speaks directly to Mozart, in a tone of profound gratitude. Those who have not felt the difficult of living have no need of Barthian theology; but then perhaps they also have no ear for music. – John Updike, “Foreword”, Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, p.12

—–

Karl Barth began each day of his very long theological career listening to Mozart on his phonograph.

Karl Barth began each day of his very long theological career listening to Mozart on his phonograph.

I felt I would be remiss, commenting as I have been on Barth’s shorter writings, if I didn’t at least mention the tiny collection of four essays on Barth’s favorite composer. Reading through the pieces, ranging from just a couple pages to a dozen or so, the most delightful feeling I had as a reader was encountering a Barth one hardly imagined existed. The combative, serious, elder statesman of European theology is transformed in to . . . a fan. I use that term pointedly. There is a joyous, childlike quality to Barth’s writings on Mozart – as he points out again and again, the same qualities expressed in Mozart’s music – that would be impossible to find in his theological writings. He sheds his theological cloak and is just Karl Barth, the now-old man (the four pieces were written when Barth was around 70 years old) who still remembers the joy he felt as an eight-year-old, hearing his father play on the family piano just a few lines of Mozart. To be captivated and captured this way – Barth’s description is similar to those we read from people talking about love at first sight – is a special gift. Barth clearly recognizes this, celebrating all that Mozart has given him over his long life.

I would also be remiss, however, if I did not note that themes that appear in Barth’s theological writings appear in these essays. Along with them, of course, is the kind of blindness, or at least myopia, Europeans then had about classical and symphonic music over and against both folk music and non-Western music. To say, for example, that Mozart’s music is “universal” is to make a claim that just cannot be justified. Despite its beauty and power, I would hazard a guess that non-Westerners might hear it and enjoy it, yet also find it lacking something their own music offers them. Which is not a criticism, but an observation. That Barth was famously against making such statements about the universal nature of theological language, hard pressed as he was to emphasize again and again that theology only says one thing, one specific thing, and then falls silent. In much the same way, despite calling Mozart’s music “universal”, Barth says in the quote above that Mozart says what he says, and only what he says, then moves on. In other passages, he talks about Mozart’s utter lack of interest in political or religious controversies of his day; his ignorance of art, literature, and poetry; his supreme dedication only and ever to his music, even to the detriment of his personal life.

At the same time, Barth says that all the eighteenth century is on display in Mozart’s music. Not just the music of the times – Barth notes that Mozart studies everything from older contemporaries like Haydn and Handel to folk and bourgeois tunes – but the times themselves. In the midst of his personal ignorance, Mozart’s ear was so attuned that he expressed life without preaching. The best music, of course, always does this. The Beatles, for example, were always their best musically, socially, and politically when they weren’t playing their instruments from a soapbox. Marillion, a band contemporaneous with U2, is far more interesting theologically than the a-bit-too-twee U2. Tool’s songs are far more interesting social commentary than anything from Rage Against The Machine precisely because Tool isn’t revolutionary. The best music contains politics, religion, and social commentary without being self-aware. In this way, Mozart’s music transcended the limitations of his own ignorance, offering listeners all of life without ever shouting about it. In the same way, the complaints that Barth’s theology was thin on the ground when it came to ethical and political matters misses the point that, for Barth, all theology was ethical and political. It just didn’t scream it in people’s ears; like the revelation upon which it reflects, theology deals with the one thing. That one thing, however, contains all the most needful things, as does our human reflection upon it.

In much the same way, Barth remarks upon Mozart’s freedom as a composer, yet a composer free always within the musical and compositional constraints of his time. No revolutionary despite his commitment to Freemasonry, Mozart rather used the discipline of the imposed constraints as boundaries within which he could fly. Freedom is an enormous theme of Barth’s theology. God is defined as the one who loves in freedom. Grace in the form of the Incarnation is the free choice of the Son. Faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, is the acknowledged freedom to love God. Unlike the Divine freedom, however, human freedom as the gift of our loving God is always a freedom limited and constrained by the content of the revelation of who God is. Thus, as Barth is at pains to define in Church Dogmatics, Vol II, Part 1, God is the one whom we may freely love because must fear God. Our love for God only truly free when it springs from the necessity of our fear of God. Our proclamation of our faith in this God necessitates as a presupposition our fear of God; our proclamation, however, is always free precisely because this God we fear is the God whom we may freely love. Human freedom is neither absolute, nor able to be our free faith unless it is bound by the God to whom it testifies, in the necessary fear of this God who chooses to reveal the Divine Life to sinful humanity.

For Barth, then, Mozart’s music – setting to one side Mozart’s far too short life of dissipation, naivete, and carelessness in matters of life and love – is an exemplar of the kind of freedom Christians have in the Church. As such, Mozart serves as a witness to how we are to live in the Church, doing the one needful thing because it is the one thing we can do. I don’t believe these observations are accidental. Nor do I believe them to be a case of Barth reading in to Mozart that which is not there. It demonstrates, rather, how powerful a tool music is, offering the devoted listener the possibility of insights to all areas of human life and endeavor. One need not be a lover of Mozart to recognize the power music has to shape how we think and believe; to reflect back to us our highest hopes and deepest despair, sometimes at the same time. For Barth it was Mozart, sine qua non.

If nothing else, these short essays offer a possibility. In the church’s ongoing life, there are all sorts of resources at hand that have a theological voice to which we should – perhaps – give a closer listen than we might. Whether it’s Mozart or Mos Def or Metallica, paying closer attention might offer rewards we hadn’t known were there before.

The Fullness Of God Was Pleased To Dwell

[Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. [Jesus Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile . . . all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1:15-20

—–

But did it not appear to escape us by quite a distance that the deity of God – and we certainly wanted to deal with [the living God]  – found its meaning and its power only in the context of [God’s} history and of [God’s] dialogue with [humanity], and thus in [God’s] togetherness with [us]? Indeed – and this is the point back of which we cannot go – it is a matter of God’s sovereign togetherness with [humanity], a togetherness grounded in [God] and determined, delimited, and ordered through [God] alone. Only in this way and in this context can it take place and be recognized. It is a matter, however, of God’s togetherness with [humanity]. Who God is and [God] is in [God’s] feity [God] proves and reveals not in a vacuum as a divine being-for-[God], but precisely and euthentically in the fact that [God] exists, speaks, and acts as the partner of [humanity], though of course as the absolutely superior partner. [The God] who does that is the living God. And the freedom in which [God] does that is [God’s] deity. It is the deity which as such also has the character of humanity. . . . It is precisely God’s deity which rightly understood, includes [God’s] humanity. – Karl Barth, “The Humanity of God”, in The Humanity Of God, pp. 45-46

—–

Matthias Grunewald's altar piece for the hospital chapel at St. Anthony's monastery in Alsace. Along with Mozart on the record player, Barth had this triptych in front of him while he wrote.

Matthias Grunewald’s altar piece for the hospital chapel at St. Anthony’s monastery in Alsace. Along with Mozart on the record player, Barth had this triptych in front of him while he wrote.

In a day I’ve jumped from reading some of Barth’s earliest theological reflections to those offered at the end of his long life and career. Time-jumping like this can be a bit overwhelming, particularly if the reader isn’t at all familiar with the course of Barth’s thought over the decades. Here, at the end of all important things for Barth, he confesses both the zeal and blindness of the beginning of what was then “a new direction” in European Reformed theology. In the manner of St. Augustine’s Retractiones, Barth’s “The Humanity of God” is a mea culpa not only for youthful over-enthusiasm, but actual blindness. In so doing, Barth offers a model for all who are on the journey of faith. It is one thing to celebrate not only what one learns; it is yet another to consider oneself the bearer of some kind of revolutionary message, a message that sweeps away what is patently old and, in many deadly ways, failed; it is still another, however, to come to the conclusion that some, at least of the baby was tossed out with the bathwater.

Among the adjectives one could assign to the Swiss Doctor, “humility” is not one that comes to mind. For example, there was little of the grace of which he wrote so voluminously in his rejection of Emil Brunner’s attempt at a rapprochement at the end of Brunner’s life. Barth’s silence in the wake of pleading from the Hungarian Reformed Church for support during the 1956 uprising against communist rule, something that Reinhold Niebuhr for example called him out for, showed both political naivete and – dare I say it? – theological cowardice on his part. For each of these acts, however, Barth not only did not back down; he defended with his usual vigor actions that to many lacked the kind of nuance and attention to ethical seriousness with which he offered his Church Dogmatics. To find, then, this instance of an apology for what was, in many ways, a very important and necessary course correction in European theology is all the more stunning considering the background sketched above.

Yet apologize – or more properly retract as St. Augustine did – is precisely what he does. For all that so much of late European liberal theology had become – let’s not guild any lilies – tiresome, expositions upon human feeling rather than Divine action, and too silent on the ethical task of the Church; for as much as Barth himself saw the shallowness and weakness of his German teachers, in particular the great historian Adolf von Harnack, who actually wrote the defense of the war Kaiser Wilhelm II gave in Berlin (in a picture of the crowd at that speech, a very young Adolf Hitler can be seen all too clearly, his eyes alight with just a tad too much joy), he now almost half a century later admits there was a recognition of the immanence of the Divine/human encounter that was cast aside far too briskly. Perhaps, indeed, with a bit too much contempt.

Over the course of his long theological journey and academic career, Barth not only rediscovered the theological history of the Scriptural witness. He also highlighted – as did his great late adversary Friedrich Schleiermacher – the centrality of the Incarnation for any beginning of understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to God. That Barth and Schleiermacher understood and defined that Incarnation in very different terms; that later liberal/romantic/ethical theologians and historians of religion would emphasize more the sense of religious feeling than the objective reality of the Divine life encountered in Jesus Christ was, perhaps, a symptom of bourgeois comfort, something Barth acknowledges, rather than any drift toward a Christian humanism. A close reading of Barth’s Dogmatics offers readers a glimpse of this gradual change over the years, as Barth more and more places the reality of the Incarnation and its implications at the center of his thought.

In the epistle to the Colossians, we read a beautiful hymn to the Incarnation. It’s center is the declaration “in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile . . . all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” So much of our subsequent doctrine and theology, our prayer and worship, our teaching and our mission, flows from this powerful statement. All of us, I think, who feel compelled like Jacob to wrestle with the angel during our endless night, would do well not only to remember that even someone as influential and important as Karl Barth could admit an error – not just of love but of pride – and see fit to make clear the character of that error and offer a way back toward integrating what came before with what is now. In this Colossians passage we have the best Scriptural guide to remembering ours is a faith in which transcendence and immanence, the glory of the Father and the self-emptying of the Son, death and life all come together, existing not in tension but in mutual giving and taking. It is a reciprocity rooted in the same Spirit that is the love that binds Father and Son, humanity to the Triune life, and the Church to its Head.

Rather than arguing over abstruse theological matter, or demanding doctrinal conformity, perhaps we need to return to the Bible as the young Barth and his friends did. Perhaps we need to remember that no matter how fully we believe we have discovered something True and Beautiful, we might yet not have discovered the Truth. As Barth himself said, we must always live as if we know the truth. We must never, however, claim to have the truth. In that way lies our humility, a willingness listen rather than speak, and an openness to both new and old movements of the Spirit within our midst.

Assailing The Church With The Gospel

People naturally do not shout it out, and least of all into the ears of us ministers. But let us not be deceived by their silence. Blood and tears, deepest despair and highest hope, a passionate longing to lay hold of that which, or rather of him who, overcomes the world because he is its Creator and Redeemer, its beginning and ending and Lord, a passionate longing to have the word spoken, the word which promises grace in judgment, life in death, and the beyond in the here and now, God’s word – this it is which animates our church-goers, however lazy, bourgeois, or commonplace may be the manner in which they express their want in so-called real life. – Karl Barth, “The Need and Promise of Christian Preaching”, in The Word Of God And The Word Of Man, p.109

—–

The only source for the real, the immediate, revelation of God is death. Christ unlocked its gates. He brought life to light out of death.

Out of death! The word cannot be spoken significantly enough. The meaning of God, the power of God, begins to shine upon the [people] of the Bible at the boundary of mortality, . . .

The human correlate to the divine aliveness is neither virtue, nor inspiration, nor love, but the fear of the Lord, mortal fear, the last, absolute, perfect fear. – Karl Barth, “Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas,” in The Word Of God And The Word Of Man, p.77

—–

A proper theology makes no compromises. That is what distinguishes it from church administration and leadership. And to the extent that it makes no compromises, theology performs a critical function in church leadership. As a theologian, Karl Barth performed this function in many ways. The whole of the Church Dogmatics is to be read as a textbook of church leadership. It is therefore an eminently critical text, for it measure the reality of the church against the criterion of evangelical truth, namely, the person of Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is thus an aggressive science, but not in the sense of a fractious, querulous, pseudoacademic, or obscurantist attachment to the status quo. The Church Dogmatics assalt the church (and not only the church) with the gospel. That is what makes it of service to the church. Barth’s theology is a deliberate assault  with the gospel. Hence it is not only an uncompromising theology, but also an uncompromising theology.Eberhard Jungel, Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy, p.127.

—–

My wife always said the first task of any minister is to love the people. Sometimes, though, that love needs to be expressed in the starkest reality of the life offered us in Christ, through the Spirit, for the glory of the Father.

My wife always said the first task of any minister is to love the people. Sometimes, though, that love needs to be expressed in the starkest reality of the life offered us in Christ, through the Spirit, for the glory of the Father.

Yesterday, our daughter had to undergo a long procedure to correct a dangerous arrhythmia. It was a very long day, and to keep myself from going completely crazy, I took along a book to read. For some reason, my wife thought I was a bit odd taking the collection of some of Barth’s early lectures (pre- and concurrent with The Epistle To The Romans), entitled The Word Of God And The Word Of Man. I haven’t read these in decades; approaching them was like reading them for the first time. It was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, like reading something so familiar, my own words from another’s mouth, written almost a hundred years ago in another language in another time against a backdrop of a very different krisis for the Church.

People find it difficult to fathom that, from beginning to end, Barth was a theologian first and foremost dedicated to the business of the local church preacher in the pulpit. Coming as he did from the Reformed tradition, the sermon was understood as the heart of our Sunday worship; the preacher in the pulpit occupies a point that separates those longing people in the congregation of which Barth writes above and the Bible open on the pulpit. For Barth, this moment more than any other made true or false the call of the minister of God. Barth’s love for the Church was always tempered by an absolute commitment to the Gospel, a message that not only offered Good News and hope, but also offered judgment, a judgment of death, upon our all too human, all too preposterous presumption to do this task with anything more than inadequacy. Success for Barth was not the number of faces looking up from the congregation; in one lecture, given in Germany in 1922, Barth notes that many churches may have just one or two “old ladies” that are the congregation, a situation not too far from our own reality today. For Barth, success was how willing the preacher was, in and at that impossible moment, to be open to the Spirit to make those human words in to The Word of God.

There is much rending of clothing over the place of doctrine within the United Methodist Church. I’ve been a part of that discussion. I think it is important to remember that doctrine is a servant, not a master; it is a teaching, not a revelation; it is our identity at any given time, but always changing precisely because it is time-bound. While I certainly can’t agree with everything Barth says, I have always admired his militancy regarding the centrality of the Christ event; that this event is not only a reality “in time”, but a reality for us, here and now, our job being to declare it; and that this reality, always present with us, stands over and against any and all human attempts to capture it, tame it, domesticate it, and have a final word about it. It is humbling to remember that the life of faith is just that – a life. We – most especially me! – have a lifetime to be faced with the ever-present revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and along with declaring it trying as best we can to understand it. This is what we are called to do; this is what we will never accomplish with any satisfaction. The reality of the Gospel assails all our all-too-human attempts at clarity and profundity, reminding us just how far we always have to go.

This morning, I had what I consider a fruitful and important exchange with someone with whom I have disagreed, yet celebrate as someone on this same journey of faith as so many of us. I admire, and share, the desire to get it right. Our biggest difference is that, each day, I remind myself that I don’t completely agree with some things I may have said yesterday or last month or ten years ago. Not because I was wrong, but because time and place and circumstances have changed. I have changed. The one thing I do believe, however, is that God’s grace is with me in the midst of all this. That I feel compelled to speak and write of the salvation offered the world in Christ does not permit me ever to believe I have found a place of quiet rest in the midst of it all. Rather, the Gospel, the ever-present reality of the revelation of God in the Incarnation, is there telling me just how wrong I have been. We should always allow ourselves to be assaulted by the Gospel in order to leave ourselves enough room to do this impossible possibility without ever thinking we have found some key to the Kingdom. The Kingdom, you see, is there around us. We stand within the midst of it. It lies before us, our hope, our goal.

And always always always that which stands in judgment over our sinful belief to have it right.

Why Theological Education Is Necessary

Few things are as challenging as the demand to think the faith.

Few things are as challenging as the demand to think the faith.

The guy would come to the bookstore every once in a while. Elegantly dressed, he was Senior Pastor at a large Baptist Church in the DC area. I was always intrigued by the fact that in a Seminary bookstore, he would talk down a Seminary education, even calling Seminary “Cemetery”, as if a place to educate and nurture future church leaders was really a place faith came to die. Doing this all the while buying books . . . it made my head hurt.

I sat in on a couple class meetings of a Seminar led by our then-Academic Dean, Dr. M. Douglas Meeks. The class was reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Volume IV, Part 1 and during the very first meeting, a student asked the relevance of something as dense as Barth’s theology in the local church. Doug turned to me and offered me a chance to answer, as I had, by this time, spent time as a clergy spouse in a local church. My answer was simple and clear: Because this is what people in our churches hunger for. They may not have the technical vocabulary, but folks in the local church demonstrate a need for ways to think through and speak their faith. They look to clergy to help guide them. To be able to do that, a minimal understanding of the vocabulary and movement of Christian God-talk is necessary. That’s why there are classes on Systematic Theology, advanced classes on Biblical theology and Seminars on particular theologians. Not only is clarity of exposition necessary; knowing why our particular theology as heirs of John Wesley is distinct from Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, and other theologies helps congregations understand who they are.

I recently got all technical with Rev. John Meunier over the matter of “truth”. Just yesterday, he published a piece about “saving souls” being the primary business of the church. Again, I am not picking on Rev. Meunier (I’m really not!!!). Still, I think it is necessary to highlight why theological education is necessary, particularly when it comes to such technical matters as questions of theological truth, the matter of “souls”, what salvation means, etc. I am going to assume, for the moment, that Meunier has, at the very least, the basic theological education, including Systematics. Continuing one’s education beyond this most basic class – really a historical and doctrinal survey class more than anything else – becomes important, particular when it comes to discussing matters of import about ministry, mission, and the nature of the Church’s proclamation. Clarity is impossible without understanding that the words we use are hardly simple or have one clear definition. One need not be involved in contemporary technical philosophical or theological discussions but still should understand that writing, say, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth?”, begs far more questions than it would seek to settle. To insist that “saving souls” is the business of the Church without being clear about what “salvation” means, about what the author means by “soul”, leads both to confusion and further questions.

The United Methodist malaise is due in no small part to our inability as a connection to have a coherent theological discussion in which all parties accept the terms of debate, from “doctrine” right up to “evangelical” (a word hijacked by particular factions in a denomination whose very identity is evangelical; thus so much of our “discussion” becomes a debate over who can call themselves such when all United Methodist, clergy and lay, are in the business of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ). At the very least, we need to accept that the particular vocabulary of theology might well use everyday words whose commonsense understanding just doesn’t work within the context of serious God-talk.

So, to all those clergy and laity out there who think all that theological and philosophical mumbo-jumbo has nothing to do with being Church, remember: If you can’t articulate not only what you believe, but why you believe it, in ways that do justice to the specificity of the Revelation of the Trinity in Jesus Christ, then, perhaps, you need to reevaluate why you’re in ministry in the first place.