Remembering why I like Karl Barth

Karl Barth

Barth writes:

Revelation itself is needed for knowing that God is hidden and man blind. Revelation and it alone really and finally separates God and man by bringing them together. For my bringing them together it informs man about God and about himself, it reveals God as the Lord of eternity, as the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, and characterises man as a creature, as a sinner, as one devoted to death. It does that by telling him that God is free for us, that God has created and sustains him, that He forgives his sin, that He saves him from death. But it tells him that this God (no other) is free for this man (no other). If that is heard, then and not till then the boundary between God and man becomes really visible, of which the most radical sceptic and atheist cannot even dream, for all his doubts and negations. Since the boundary is visible, revelation, which crosses this boundary, is also visible as a mystery, a miracle, an exception. The man who listens here, sees himself standing at the boundary where all is at an end. Whichever way I look, God is hidden for me and I am blind to Him. The revelation that crosses this boundary and the togetherness of God and man which takes place in revelation in spite of this boundary, make the boundary visible to him in an unprecedented way. No longer need he yield to deceptions regarding the cosmos of realities that otherwise encounter him. This cosmos will lose the power to prepare for him either illusions or disillusionments. He knows all about it. Not because he has supplied himself with information about it by intuitive or analytico-synthetic means, but because he has been informed about it. But this information is, that among the realities of this cosmos there is not one in which God would be free for man. In this cosmos God is hidden and man blind. Once more, it is God’s revleation which gives him this information. That it does so is its critical significance. By that very fact, however, the further question is thrust at us: how far is God free for us in revelation?  No less than everything, i.e., no less that the whole of man’s cosmos, seems to speak against this possibility taking place. Even if it is ever so great and rich, as it actually is, how could one of its realities have the power to be God’s revelation to man? Once again, man would have to leave the real revelation of God out of account; he would have to forget that he is informed about God and about himself, if he is to assert boldly the presence of such a power as one of the realities of his cosmos…

If he were looking steadily at the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he could not look in any other direction, neither could he any longer allow talk about such possibilities to pass his lips or to flow from his pen.

-II/1, pp. 29-30

I admit that I haven’t missed the lack of inclusive language, which distracts somewhat (for me, at least) from the text. But I love the way that Barth characterizes revelation: it hides as much as it reveals. As I am preparing to teach on the Incarnation (not till February, I confess), I have been looking for the right passage(s) from Barth, in which he makes explicit this reality of the Incarnation. All is revealed truly, and at the same time all is hidden in Christ. It’s no wonder Barth kept repeating himself (as he himself says elsewhere in the volume): again and again he returns to this center of theological reflection, this singularity, because he knows there is only one place from which we can do theology, and that is the foot of the cross.

Syria and St Augustine

A few weeks ago, my heart turned toward the situation in Syria in a new way. I thought: I don’t know very much about Syria, and I am neither politically nor militarily savvy. But I know that if my kids were fighting, and the stronger one(s) hurt the weaker one(s), my first move would be to attend to those who were hurt and keep the others away from them until I could sort it out. I was really worried about the prospects of a US military strike. On the same day, which just happened to be the feast of St Augustine, Lewis (who is much more knowledgeable about such things) offered the following: ‘…if we were prepared to do the dirty and get lots of boots on the ground and establish protected areas for civilian refugees with decent medical care inside Syria, I would say ‘great’. But this, no boots just bombing the bad guys so the bad guys can take over don’t seem wise. Damn, this is enough politics on facebook for about a year! As you know my attitude toward Turks and the French leaves much to be desired, but let’s hear a word for the Ottomans and for the French mandate after WWI. {Admitting that he isn’t against bombing in every case, he added:]  I’ll own up to the campaign in 2001 in Afghanistan and the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia as examples where (horrific as it of course was) it seemed to do the job. It’s a fallen world folks: Saint Augustine, pray for us.’

I was encouraged: if it isn’t just the mama in me talking, if this ‘looking after the injured’ is something that makes sense to someone like Lewis, well, maybe there is hope. But as the US moved towards a military strike, I faltered. What will become of Syria? and what will happen to the world? Even Jean Vanier, with whom a (nun) friend of mine had spoken last November, echoed what Lewis said: it’s a fallen world; these things happen.

In the most technical and articulate language: bummer.

So when Pope Francis called for prayer and fasting for Syria on the 7th of September, my heart leapt. Yes, I am that sort of person. I thought prayer (St Augustine’s and ours) was a clear and practical step in the right direction. I happened to be on retreat last weekend, which afforded me far greater opportunities for prayer than a Saturday at home would have, from vigils to compline, with an extra hour of adoration after vespers. I’ve no idea what I thought would happen; indeed I had no idea of what would count as an ‘answer’ to prayer.

On Monday, Lewis was in the kitchen criticizing Obama, for having had to change course in the face of Putin’s intervention. Stepping back made Obama look weak. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I did wonder: ‘But doesn’t it make God look strong?’

Maybe it is to the credit of Christians everywhere, who’ve prayed for Syria, and who joined the worldwide prayer vigil last Saturday, that no one is celebrating the triumph of our God. I’ve not heard a soul claiming that this change in the situation is an answer to prayer. But I see hope where before there seemed to be no hope, and in my experience, only God can do that.

I will keep praying for Syria and for the middle east, with hope in my heart, and giving thanks to God.

Deo gratias!

in the kitchen

When I started this blog, I thought I’d be sharing the conversations we have in our kitchen, on those rare occasions when we talk theology like we did ‘in the old days’. But I have found that often, those conversations are not really fit for public consumption. It’s not because they’re trashy (though sometimes the language isn’t what we’d want the kids to use at school), but because they are unformed.

In teaching theology and ethics, I often have to wade into treacherous (for a doctrinally conservative person who works hard at charitable living) waters. Usually I keep my feet on the ground. The classroom isn’t a place where I want to work out what I really think, at the edges of my Christian faith and practice. Nope: that’s what I do in the kitchen.

Theologians and ministers especially, and Christians in general, won’t always have a ready answer to the question of the moment, or the latest news. We need time and space–safe space–to consider, to pray, and to talk with people who know us well enough to help us figure out what to say, if indeed we find we need to speak. That’s my kitchen, and I am glad there’s no webcam in it. Sometimes I realise that what I was thinking is just plain wrong as soon as I have said it. And then I’m really glad only Lewis was listening.