Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Why I stopped reading Barth, and why I started again. (or "I Can't Quit You, Karl")

Unearthing this old blog has been an enlightening experience. I began this blog several years ago as an avenue of exploring the thought of Karl Barth, hoping to draw intersections between Barth and my current ecclesiastical home of Pentecostalism. I have gone through some theological waffling this past year, and it appears to have been the latest incarnation of a struggle that was alive long ago.

Since beginning this blog, and since dropping out of it, I have completed my master's degree in theology and become a dad. A lot has changed, and apparently a lot has not. Even in this last year Barth and I had a break up. But the sly old Swiss has won me back yet once more. I felt it was worth exploring the rockier parts of our relationship in writing, and so I have returned to this old blog.

My apprehensions about Barth appear always to have been centered around fear. Especially in my early days, I distrusted Barth because of his famous rejection of verbal inspiration. Coming from a theological tradition (conservative evangelicalism) for which the verbal inspiration of the Bible, or "inerrancy" as it is usually known in the U.S., is the theological issue, this made Barth feel dangerous. Second to the issue of inspiration was Barth's implicit universalism, which I dealt with early on in my journey here. I have since satisfied myself that one can follow Barth's thought and not become a universalist in the process. In fact, I take Barth at his word that his theology does not lead to universalism, though it does leave room for a very broad hope. With regard to Barth's doctrine of Scripture, all I can say is that it is a high view of Scripture. Evangelical caricatures of Barth's doctrine aside, I do admit that Barth's view is certainly not inerrancy, but it is a high view. The Bible is authoritative for Barth in the best way. It is active witness, alive by the Spirit, true in its testimony. It is "God-Spirited." We do not correct the Bible, the Bible corrects us (to paraphrase Barth). So these two early apprehensions I have more or less laid to rest. So what made me take this latest break from Barth?

In this last year I began to feel, wrongly I think, that Barth's theology carried an implicit gnosticism with relation to the issue of natural revelation. Famously, Barth rejects natural theology, the discipline of determining what can be known - or even "proved" - about God simply by observing the natural world, or by observing human religiosity. Discovering the work of Carl Henry, I wondered at the close equation of natural theology with natural, or general, revelation. While I continued to accept that God cannot really be "proved," I rejected the idea that God does not speak by means of the natural world or even human conscience. Is there no connection between our "insider" reality as Christians and the "outside" world? I began to feel that when I looked at authors I liked who followed Barth, they did not really treat the gospel like genuinely public truth. Everyone is probably saved but not everyone is supposed to believe. "Barthianism" began to feel irresponsible.

As is so often the case with intellectual turns, my return to Barth has not happened in a straight line. I still believe that the text of Scripture is verbally inspired and hold to some form of the classical evangelical doctrine of inerrancy. I believe the redemption won by Christ for all the world is entered into through personal faith in Christ and to reject Christ is to reject one's salvation (a thought that does appear in Barth quite regularly, actually). And I believe that the one, true God can in some sense be known by means of general revelation, even if he is known in negation. But in Barth and his followers there is a calmness and confidence where there is a certain anxiety in conservative evangelical thought. In conservative dependency upon an apologetic type of faith, there is an implicit insecurity - my faith is true, so I have to win this argument...because my faith can't afford to lose this argument. For Barth, the gospel is universal and public truth, but it is a truth known only through special revelation. Christian truth cannot be determined through natural human learning, but natural human learning is set in a new light by Christian truth. In other words, when I look at the mountains and think of a god who made them I am not thinking necessarily of God as he is, but once I have met God in Christ I can look at the mountains and see the God who is.

Something else that appeals to me about Barth is Barth's willingness to let the truth remain myserteous. For all his thousands of pages of writing, one would assume that Barth's project was about eliminating mystery. It is not. Barth expounds Christ, and Christ is the revelation of God. In fact, all of God is revealed in Christ. In other words, there is no other God "behind Christ's back" - meaning we don't have to worry that God is one way in Christ but might be some other way apart from Christ. But that does not mean we master God or the things of God. I believe my latest foray away from Barth was in some ways an effort to eliminate mystery from my faith, to have every duck in the right row. As much as that is a stereotype of conservative evangelical faith (and often an unfair one) I think it was true in my case. I was simply afraid and so ran to a faith that promised to make all my fears go away. But faith is about trusting Christ, not knowing everything, and I realize the only antidote to fear is to trust Jesus. Barth' writings help me do that. Conservative evangelical writings encourage me to trust my system. There was the rub, and that was where I realized I needed to quit running hot and cold with old Karl and make a commitment already.

There were two other things that kept me from turning my back on Barth altogether. First, for me Barth's theology of election is really the only strong alternative to classic TULIP Calvinism. In fact, my waffling has more or less always been between Barth's interpretation of the Reformed faith and a more classical, conservative evangelical Calvinism. While this is the wrong place to get into the details, Barth's unidirectional monergism - leaving sin, death, and damnation as the mysterious shadow cast by God's light, a tohu wabohu - and his doctrine of Christ as the Elect One in whom we are elect is a stronger alternative than a more passive Arminian benevolence, and it is more mysterious, and also less cold and frightening, than classical Calvinism.

The other, and final, reason I couldn't quit Karl was the fact that the two best pastoral theologians I have ever come across - William H Willimon and Eugene Peterson - are Barthians through and through. And while I understood that they are not Barth, Barth is not them, and Jesus is really the point rather than a bunch of old white dudes with book deals, I could not help but realize that presuppositions underlie all thought and action, including theology and ministry, and that the theology I choose and the ministry I perform are intimately connected. The church growth stuff I've been feeding on will create a shallow, pragmatic theology (and ministry itself will be my god). Conservative, fundamentalistic evangelicalism will lead to a ministry that is largely concerned with being right. The ecclesiologically rich, historically aware, theologically deep work of Peterson, Willimon, and those like them, comes out of who they read and the streams they interact with, Barth being a big one. The pastoral ministry I respect is ministry soaked in the work of Barth and his followers. And so, Karl, I can't quit you.

No comments:

Post a Comment