Category Archives: Karl Barth

Welcome to the Working Weak

Here’s what I’m saying:

  • Robert Langdon is a great symbologist. This is a field that doesn’t actually exist, so perhaps his ascent wasn’t as competitive as it could have been, but never mind. He’s at Harvard, lecturing to a bevy of nubile strippers, I mean, co-eds, and he gets a call from the CIA: “We need you in Paris.” He doesn’t want to go.
  • Augustine drops into a church in a North African town called Hippo to attend mass. He’s a good Christian by now, planning a life in his hometown of Thagaste, 45 miles away, as a monk and freelance writer. Being realistic about the writing career, he’s taken a vow of poverty. But the bishop in the region has heard of Augustine: he starts a movement, during the mass, to get him to stay in Hippo as a priest. He doesn’t want to do it.
  • Indiana Jones is a great something. He’s also at Harvard, although he doesn’t know Robert Langdon, because Indy lives 60 years earlier, and they are both fictional. The U.S. government conscripts him to go find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis. He doesn’t want to go.
  • Karl Barth is pastor of a small parish in Safenwil, Switzerland. World War I has ended and the crushing treaty of Versailles makes German-speaking Europe gloomy. Barth has a reputation based on a few books and lectures, and he’s offered a honking post as Professor of Reformed Theology at the University of Gottingen, Germany. This is kind of like some bitter management consultant getting a TV series made out of his pain. He’s reluctant.
  • Gideon is some kind of poor farmer in the time of the Judges, before 1000 BCE, and he’s hiding some snacks in a wine press when an angel appears, calls him a “mighty warrior,” and tells him to lead the people of Israel in battle against the Midianites.

Gideon’s response is kind of funny. It can stand for all these examples: unlikely, talented people forced to do extraordinary things against their will. Gideon says:

“Please, sir, how should I be the one to save Israel? My clan is the poorest in Manassah, and I am the least in my family.” (Judg. 6:11-15)

We’re talking about themes of It: what God, if It exists, seems to want. One is for us to live in the Now! Another seems to be to do things we don’t want to do.

But why?


Karl Barth: Man Crush

Hello, kids! We just flew back from a trip to the East Coast for our little brother’s wedding, and let me tell you more than our arms are tired. It was an aggressively secular wedding, among over one hundred remarkably successful Americans, and God was not on the guest list.

Or was It?

We were in a minority of one on the way out and back, since we were trying to understand Karl Barth. And let me tell you, there are certain characters in religious history we here at TGPDotNet find very appealing. One of them is Paul, the relentless apostle most likely to have secret super-powers. Another is Teresa of Avila, the Pamela Anderson of mystics. Then there’s Karl Barth.

Barth was a German Protestant theologian who died just before the Summer of Love, writer of the 13-volume Church Dogmatics, and all around intellectual stud. We admit to a posthumous bromance.

That very, very few of us have heard of Barth says more about a decline in the mainstream cool factor of intellectuals than any kind of fustiness. Most of us know about as much about Barth as we know about George Balanchine, the towering figure – the Stravinsky, Picasso or Einstein – of 20th century ballet choreography. Yes, I’m saying theology is about as stylish as ballet.

Meaning: Very.

There will be more to say about him in time, but I’ll honor the still, small voice inside and spend a moment on one shocking thing I think I learned about Barth in the Dulles International Airport while waiting for our flight to Minneapolis.

Now, Barth reacted violently against the dominant so-called Liberal theology of the 19th century that stressed the importance of personal feeling and intuition in relation to God, as against  the calculating logic of a chilly genius like Kant. What Barth thought was that the Liberals had completed the Enlightenment project of turning God into Man, with a louder voice.

Barth said, famously: Nein!

Since we’re looking for God here, we should define our terms. Barth brings up an option: God is absolutely other than people; there is no point of contact between us. We can not feel or even reason our way to belief. God reveals himself to us through his Word, but that Word is not a guidebook but an event that we encounter, like we’d attend, say, a wedding.

We can’t feel God. We can’t understand It. We can only have faith. Which is:

“. . . the rendering of a knowledge which no man has procured for himself or ever will; which is neither native to him nor accessible to him by way of observation and logical thinking; for which he has no organ and no ability; which he can in fact achieve only in faith; but which is actually consummated in faith; i.e., in the reception of and response to the divine witness.” [CD III 1:3]

Barth gives God all the power.

Reminded me of the Book of Job, Chapter 38, when God loses it: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”

One outcome for The God Project is that we will cross all human history and discover that we can not understand.


A Brief History of Skepticism, Backwards (Part I)

There’s the New Atheists and the Evangelicals and you and me. God dies on the cover of Time magazine in 1966. Liberation theologians and feminists. Existentialists, who seem to turn people into God; who give people the power to control their own fates through their decisions. Of course, I’m misunderstanding. Right?

Monkey pondersAnd the great Karl Barth. Enraged by the breathtaking spinelessness of his former theological idols in Germany, who supported World War I, Barth makes a riveting, very Protestant case that God is unfathomably, utterly Other than us; that the so-called reasonable, liberal theology that had us all in its monkey paw from Schleiermacher in 1805 until well into the 20th century – that it trivializes God into an intuition.

Just like the Book of Job: Barth says it’s not our, um, job to understand God or to get it – our, ahem, job is to submit with faith to the grace that God bestows. And this is not passivity; it’s reality.

And then Karl Marx calls religion a Machiavellian smokescreen obscuring the boot-heel-grinding tactics of the ultrarich, an “opiate” about as real as any drug-induced hallucination. And Freud, on the other flank, saying faith is an immature adaptation to conflict of no use whatever in the process of growth.

We come to the 19th century – and Zionism, and some unbelievably reactionary Popes, such as Pius IX, who not only declares himself infallible in some circumstances, but issues a proclamation stating that modernity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, none of it happened.

Nietzsche announces “God is dead – and we have killed him.” Could not have been talking about Charles Darwin, whose The Origin of Species is not about how men descended from apes. Darwin’s just observing that individuals who are more suited to their environment are more likely to breed. What’s so deadly about that?

There’s the beginnings of the critical study of the Hebrew Bible, the identification of four or five different sources for the Pentateuch, which may not have been written by Moses after all.