Trying on Karl Barth

Sometimes reading theology feels like trying on new clothes.  I pick up a promising garment off the rack of ideas and I see how it fits.  Is it worth the cost?  Does it add (or replace) anything in my current wardrobe?

Between May and mid-June, I am reading through not one, not two, but three books by Karl Barth.  Spoiler alert: I’m no fashionista, but so far I think Barth’s pieces look hideous.

Who is Karl Barth?  Barth was the kind of theologian and pastor who Joe Biden would call a “big f’ing deal.”  Barth was one of the few Christians in Germany to vocally resist the rise of Hitler, he captivated a generation of Christian thinkers, he’s been called the most important Christian theologian since John Calvin, and he offered a Christian alternative to Roman Catholic, liberal Protestant, and fundamentalist ways of thinking about God.  (To dip your toe into the water, check out this Wikipedia page!)

For me, reading Barth is a lot like reading the Apostle Paul.  Both Barth and Paul passionately make outlandish claims that shock and offend.  If they weren’t regarded so highly by so many people, both could be easily dismissed as naive or borderline insane.  Both often leave me asking How can you expect me to believe any this?! or even How can you believe any of this?!  It’s a beautiful struggle that always leaves me changed.

According to Barth, in the Bible (and ultimately in Jesus), God freely shows us who God is; God gives us the ability to believe this revelation.  We can only learn about God when God shows up and reveals God’s own identity directly to us.  All you can do is believe (or not) what God says about “Him”self.

But can we interpret the self-revelation of God incorrectly?  If God shows up, can we get it wrong?

It does not seem as though this is a possibility for Barth.  At the end of the day we have to trust whatever God seems to tell us in the Bible.  God intersects our world with the Kingdom of God, a “strange new world” in which God reigns, where the solid reasoning of the old world no longer applies.  We can only accept God when we stand within the Kingdom, leaving our doubts behind in the old world.  Once we are brought within the Kingdom of God, God seems to personally guarantee that we get an accurate glimpse of the divine.

Is Barth right?  Does faithfulness to God really require us to uncritically accept the “self-revelation of God” in Scripture?  Is good Christian theology really tucked away in the Kingdom of God, safe beyond the reach of the pesky philosophers, scientists, and historians of the world?

I’m not convinced.  Barth’s basic motion seems to be inward and upward: into the Church and up to God, protected from any meaningful criticism outside and below.  Yet it seems to me that the basic motion of love moves the opposite way: out to the world, down to humanity, legitimately vulnerable to worldly criticism.

I have 300 pages of Barth left before I move on.  Can he (or God?) convince me to leap off the cliff of this world into the abyss of the Kingdom, leaving my pesky, worldly doubts behind?  We shall see.

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