Thursday, May 14, 2009

Barth on the Church

In light of recent discussions on this blog about the church, I found the following stuff from Karl Barth (as quoted and summed by Eberhard Busch) very timely. I'd have loved it if he was there to say some of this at my denominational district conference the last couple days too. His statements may have stopped us in our tracks, methinks:

"For Barth . . . . 'To be awakened to faith and to be added to the community is one and the same thing . . . there is no legitimate private Christianity.' That people are connected with each other by cultivating some common conviction certainly does not make them a church. What makes their gathering a church is only that Jesus is in their midst. . . . Barth can speak about this in drastic terms:

'It (the church) may become a beggar, it may act like a shopkeeper, it may make itself a harlot--as has happened and still does happen, yet it is always the bride of Jesus Christ. . . . What saves it and makes it indestructible is not that it does not basically forsake Him--who can say how deeply and basically it has often enough forsaken Him and still does?--nor is it this or that good that it may be or do, but the fact that He does not forsake it, any more than Yahweh would forsake His people Israel in all His judgments.' . . .

The only way for the church to be the one visible church is for believers, each in their own place, to struggle in repentance to be the church of Jesus Christ. . . .

But there are two dangers in which she finds herself (even though she will face them both 'in the name of Jesus'!): sacralization, in which she is immersed in a self-glorification before the world that has a different orientation than she has, or secularization, in which she adjusts to the methods of worldly powers and fashions. . . .

[The mature church enjoys] a freedom to 'live in contact, solidarity . . . with God, but also with men . . . as companions in the partnership of reconciliation.' . . .

The difference between Christians and other people is not that those within the church have salvation and those outside her do not have it. The only difference is that members of the church have heard and recognized that which remains or is again hidden from others. . . .

In her missionary service, the church is not imposing something unfavorable on her fellow humans, for the Word of God became human--not Christian--and in him, Jesus Christ, God reconciled the world to himself. . . .

The church is called to be God's witness within her own times. But she can only be a witness and not the mediator of salvation. She cannot bring about the self-mediating reality of the world's reconciliation with God. God brings it about."

(Barth quotes taken from the Church Dogmatics, Vol IV, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, emphasis mine)


Anonymous said...

,,,and therein lies the rub: what is God's part and what is our's? When we try to do God's part in reconciliation we attempt to "draw" others to God which is only a work of the Holy Spirit. When we fail to do our part (i suggest proclaiming and living the truth)it breaks down as well. Oh to stay on the road and out of either ditch! Stu.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Barth said,

"The difference between Christians and other people is not that those within the church have salvation and those outside her do not have it."
"The only difference is that members of the church have heard and recognized that which remains or is again hidden from others. . . ."

They sound pretty much the same to me.

Barth wrote,
"...the Word of God became human--not Christian..."

It's an elegant sentence. Truly. But it's like saying Marx became a political philosopher--not a Marxist; it's meaningless. Jesus didn't become Christian? Come on.

Most of Barth's words were a little too subtle to hold anything up. That's what I thought.

Barth wrote,
"She cannot bring about the self-mediating reality of the world's reconciliation with God. God brings it about."

So the church isn't doing it, God is. The trouble is I don't see any more evidence of God in the world than I do of him in the church.

My thoughts are a little scattered here. Sorry.

jon said...

Matthew. Fair enough. They are excerpts, and so I just offer them as windows. And some of it is pretty provocative stuff. I don't know if you (or I) want to get into it here or not but it does raise the question what you would consider evidence of God in the world or church. Another way to put it might be what your perception of God is that He would have to fit in order to be convinced He is doing something. Anyway, you don't have to answer that. But it raises the question.

Stu: I agree. And yet something about the ditch analogy no longer sits right with me. Not sure what it is. I've used it before, but I think there needs to be a better picture. I think Barth would want us to emphasize that we are freed for works of witness and service, not given a narrow road to try to walk like a tightrope walker.

joel said...

The problem here Jon is the same one as before: if one needs or wants God to be visible then God (evidence for God, workings of God and so forth) will be found. If you have no need or do not want to see God then you will find next to nothing. Sure you might find some current unexplainable stuff (the bread and butter of Religion) but you will not find God.

To be more explicit, if you do ‘find’ God, you will find it to the same extent that all other religions and other faith groups ‘find’ their God(s). This is why the evidence of other religions is so damaging; if you take your faith path, evidence description and canonical scripture seriously you have no reason to choose Christianity over another large and serious religion. In fact, unless this choice is made for you (at a young age, due to your demographic, ethnicity or geographic location in space and time on Earth) most people consider religion as a secondary aspect to their identity.

If I sit down and read the Quran seriously and then look toward the world, I will ‘see’ evidence for God, evidence which proves that Islam is the most reasonable religions and I will ‘have’ religious experiences during prayer and worship so forth!

How is this possible? How is it possible in every religion? Many religious people will say it is not possible, or as possible or should not be possible in other religions (you, yourself have expressed scepticism of the reality of miracles in other religions- even then suggesting that if they exist outside of your religion it will be due to the god of your religion that they exist there).

All of these ‘religious’ things are possible in most (if not all serious) religions; it is as clear as it can be to one who honestly compares their (or any) religion with all the others.

It is possible because at the core of all religions is the personal desire to construe a faith.

That is the heart of meaning in all of its forms: they make it real to themselves. This is why miracles occur in all religions; this is why there is always ‘evidence’ backing a faith. The scriptures are not really convincing the religious individual, nor is the argumentation, nor the church or the community; all that comes secondary after or working towards the individual simply wanting that religious reality to be real.

That desire is the most powerful thing we humans have; religions call it ‘faith.’

To those who have a willingness to open their eyes and see the larger picture though, realize that although it has monumental powers for the human individual it also steals any real validity religion might bring forth.

For you, as the religious person, will never be able to fully speak about anything but yourself because of this (meaning: since your personal desire for God to be real, your ‘faith’ as it were) is so central to your reality, worldview, morality, choices and so on; that this topic: ‘faith’ is all you can really talk about because it is all you are really doing, considering and working out.

This is why the religious conversation can be so frustrating at times and so amazing.

It is no longer about ‘what would you consider evidence of God’s work in the church,’ it is about realizing what every religion is doing simultaneously and questioning why they are doing what they are doing.

As you have shown (if not proved, along with Gordon) the Church, Christianity, if not all other religions at some time or another, provide all kinds of really wonderful things for its members. The reason why religions are still around is because they ‘work’ or rather, they can ‘work’ towards various purposes.

But they ALL work! And therein lays the biggest problem. How is this possible?

It is possible because they all ask for the same initial (fundamental) and most powerful thing: faith; which is in my opinion, the personal willingness to pick something no matter what occurs. It is fitting that religions speak about obedience all the time, hold to some kind of Holy Book which they claim is near perfect or is just the same as it was when originally given, always given by a divine source etc.

If you accept these things before thinking and then always think after this; you will become the most powerful religious person you can be.

If only one could realize just how hollow such an achievement truly is.

jon said...

but it is exactly the same with atheism. you find exactly what you start out looking for.

and i would strongly disagree that the religions (atheism included) are all equally credible and helpful when explored.

atheists start with a theology; a pre-conceived notion of what GOD would or should be if GOd existed. when God does not live up to it they conclude that God does not exist. but if God existed shouldn't we precisely expect that for us to know it God would have to reveal Godself.

you can believe or not believe that Jesus Christ is the revelation of God, but there is no religion (atheism included) that makes quite so audacious (or productive for thought and living!) claim as this: That GOd went so far as to reveal Himself in human flesh.

And, as I'd expected, you have addressed the question put to the atheist by turning around and merely critiquing the theist (by blending him first of all into a caricature of all theism as if there is no qualitative difference).

but i'd suggest that this is because there really may be no such thing as atheism. Atheism really breaks down into two things: Negatively, it is simply Anti-theism (or decided Skepticism), and positively it is Humanism (or some form of it).

I'll continue to use the word atheism, but let's face it: When it comes down to mostly all atheists are doing is acting out of a decided anti-theist presupposition. That's your free right to start from there. I'll respectfully argue against it, but I value your freedom to believe what you want to believe. But let's call it what it is.

But when atheists are asked to produce positive statements of their own position, it usually comes down to some form of humanism, does it not? Which, again, is fine, but let's call it what it is. At least then you could take something like the Humanist Manifesto, or whatever you want, and we could pick it apart for all its pros and cons.

And I'd say there is more credibility and hope and productivity (for thought and life) in the orthodox Christian version of human history and future than in the Human Manifesto.

But I didn't intend to start a discussion on atheism here. Just think it might be beneficial to call a spade a spade.

As it regards the post about the church, there is a lot of content in those words that is quite relevant, not only for those of us who attended district conference, but for those involved in that last discussion about the church.

Barth wants us to admit we are, along with the world, a work in progress, given freedom but also addressed by God in Christ as part of the plan of reconciliation (the redemption of all creation). We are a work in progress, and should not view ourselves as the Saved (as in finalized) vs. the Unsaved from a position of the holier-than-thou (this is a heavy critique on the church of this century); rather we should recognize ourselves for what we are: The people who witness to what they believe they have met in Jesus Christ and who strive to represent it for the (questioning) world and to live in light of it.

Thanks for your interaction. I kind of hoped the Barth post would rile up the church folk moreso than the atheists, but that's fine! Probably most of my church-going readers are already on a similar page as I and so aren't particularly pressed by what Barth has to say.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Yeah I don't think I do really want to get into the atheism debate here -just 'cos it feels like we've beaten this dead horse a few too many times, but your question is a good one.

I will add an amen to what Joel has written. I'll let him respond for himself though.

One thing I enjoyed about what you wrote above is that it is the clearest you've ever been in laying out what you think Atheism is. That's a nice thing to read; to just have an idea of exactly where it is you are coming from.

I don't think Atheism equals humanism. But you're right, it makes no positive statements. It is a neutrality.

I don't know enough about Skepticism to comment on that.

And, I will say briefly that, what I would consider evidence of God in the world or church, is

a) something empirical and clear
b) some new, previously unthought-of thing which does not require faith.

I think faith is bad.

But we've all said all of this before.

Jon, I respect your religious views a lot. You know that. You're a Chestertonian Christian -which is my favourite kind. And I know you have some respect for Atheism, and I'm glad.

I enjoy commenting on your theological posts. It's fun to participate as a complete outsider in a world I used to be very familiar with.

But I don't want to get sucked into another big atheism/theism conversation. Not now.

jon said...

yeah, despite the tremendous fodder in your a) and b) premises above, i may not have time for a dragged out debate myself right now...

amazing to think that after all the words we've passed in either direction this is the clearest i've been. that's sort of disheartening, while also being incredibly relieving!

i have great respect for you as well and feel privileged for our friendship. i think atheists ask some very good questions. i just wish you were asking them in church! so i like that you step into my theological posts, even though (by nature) they are probably aimed more at church-folk for the mutual refinement of our faith.

Trev said...

"Atheism" is as much my religion as "not collecting stamps" is my hobby.

Matt mentioned how atheism is a neutral position - I'd like to take it one step further; it's a default position - it's what you are until you have a theology.

I don't want to get into a big debate either, but Jon, I think you're above using the cliche tactic of calling atheism a religion.

It almost sounds like you're saying anything and everything can be chalked up to being a religion, in which case - why bother having such a word? There has to be something that is NOT a religion Jon. And if "atheism" isn't it, than what is? And can you please tell me the word?

If there's a word for "I'm alive, not by choice, and am going to deal with it the best way I can" I would love to call myself that.

jon said...

ok i should have used the word worldview. regardless, surely you can see that my my point wasn't that it is some kind of practicing religion in the same way as others, rather, my point was in the very things i actually did say about it.

Tony Tanti said...

Still thinking about the idea that faith is bad, and of Matt's a) and b) which to me are wildly impossible due to my belief that nothing is experienced without subjective belief affecting it.

Matt and Joel, your atheism is unique in that it comes from a rejection of religion after having experienced religion. I hear what you're saying about all religions making similar claims to having evidence and experience etc... but isn't that exactly where your belief system comes in? I've heard one or both of you say that reason is how we find truth, how do you seperate reason from experience or experience from truth? With how you've described your feelings about religion I'm surprised you aren't just universalists or agnostics. How does a person see multiple religions experiencing God and chalk it all up to being fake and proof of no God? Maybe you'd both prefer no label.

Jon, "Word of God became human, not Christian." Great quote. Matt, I'm not sure Jesus was a Christian or Marx a Marxist. Those are belief systems that evolved and changed over years of being affected by how people implemented them. Jesus and Marx both had ideas and followers, whether their followers became something they would join themselves is only for Jesus and Marx to decide. I don't think Marx would be proud of what some people did with Communism just as I'm sure Jesus isn't proud of what some people do in his name.