What if encountering the living God fills us with doubt?
Of course, this is not how God is often imagined. Afraid of death? Afraid our sense of “right” and “wrong” might just be relative human inventions? Afraid that life is meaningless? God is often invoked to relieve those fears, adding support and safety to our lives. Sometimes God is applied like a cozy blanket to our shoulders, giving us security and comfort, a thin barrier between us and our existential doubt.
But according to Karl Barth, the most influential Christian thinker of the 1900’s, God is more like a live grenade than a cozy blanket.
Barth thought that against the backdrop of God’s perfect goodness, our purest moral striving appears woefully inadequate. When God actually shows up, we see the futility of our efforts to “patch up” our moral intuitions through religion; our only hope is for God to completely re-make us.
Some believers try to reason their way to the existence and nature of God, supposing that we get a glimpse of God by imagining the sum of moral perfection. But when God actually shows up, we find that these human projections were nothing more than idols that distract from the real thing. According to Barth, God does not protect our moral intuitions; God threatens them.
Likewise, we modern people can never shake the fear that life might be meaningless after all. Some believers combat this doubt by believing that our sense of goodness and beauty come from God, the supernatural stamp of approval upon our values. But according to Barth, when God shows up, our sense of meaninglessness initially gets even worse. The vast glory of God reveals our idealized values to be tiny and incomplete, even less secure than we initially feared.
If you’ve spent any time watching “theist vs. atheist” debates on YouTube, you’re probably familiar with popular arguments for the existence of God. Religious believers tend to present God like an essential theoretical foundation for our shared sense of goodness and meaning.
But as we have seen, this might be a big mistake. If Barth is right, we can never reason our way from human intuition to a God beyond. We cannot rely on a God who adds a supernatural stamp of approval to our intuitions. As God comes near, our doubt about what we thought we knew of goodness and meaning only grows stronger. The gospel (the “Good News”) is that in Jesus, God shows up and turns out to be unbelievably good, revealing that our intuition-based notions of God are tiny, lifeless idols – and thankfully so!
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