Friday, October 30, 2009

Karl Barth and True Practical Theology

I used to sit in a Karl Barth reading group in seminary and not infrequently be heard to ask (with some frustration): "But when is Barth going to get around to talking about our part in all of this?" Our professor was pretty patient with us. Emerging us in the text semester after semester he trusted it to reveal to us its true shape. And, well, I'm still reading.

Indeed, as it turns out, one of the things Karl Barth gets knocked around a bit for is what seems to be a lack of practical application to his theology. Not a lot of how-tos. Some would say no "ethics" to speak of, just a whole lot of what God does. My current professor disagrees--not only with this assessment of Barth's focus but with the common either/or between what God does and what we do--and I'm starting to see why, for two reasons.

The first reason is a pretty philosophical one which I won't go into in detail right now. But it is becoming clear to me that Barth's whole theological project can be described from one aspect as one massive challenge to modern notions of freedom and agency, being and knowing. I may have to come back to that another time, but one way to put it would be to say that whereas we've been spoon fed since the Enlightenment on the notion of freedom as freedom from; Barth is defining it in Christian theology as freedom within, and freedom for.

Never mind that the notion of freedom from is illusory. That's an argument for someone else. Barth's point is that if we want to think Christianly, we should get over this idea that there is a huge either/or between God's action and ours. Proper Christian action is precisely that action which is done by God in humans. So when we think Barth is talking just about what God does, well, he is, but as he rolls on with it page after page we ought to see that the whole time he has been talking about what the Church should be doing as well.

The second reason I'm looking to the Church Dogmatics more and more for its practical theology is simply because of the life experience and motivations that seem to have stood behind its writing. In Eberhard Busch's biography of Barth, His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, it becomes pretty clear that a driving impetus for Barth's theological career was his early experience as a pastor working with the people in everyday life, work, politics, family, and so on. He said himself that it was those years that changed his mind and altered the course of his future thought (61).

As a pastor Barth led a congregation through the first World War as well as through the civil tensions of socialism and capitalism among the workers and manufacturers sitting in the pews each week. Though he undoubtedly felt the pressure to pacify and moderate, to find the "radical middle" one might say, Barth would more often than not choose a side, and yet from within that side also prove to be a bit of a thorn for the other side.

For instance, in the worker's struggle against the manufacturers, Barth supported socialism because he thought it right at that time and place, but he did so without letting anyone around him actually believe in it as a system. At one point, in around 1913, Barth looked at Kutter on one side of the aisle and Ragaz on the other and “was prompted to look for a way to overcome their differences. ‘Isn’t it better to strive for the point where Kutter’s ‘no’ and Ragaz’s ‘yes’, . . . come together?” (86). This wasn't about finding a middle road, but holding together two ends of a magnet like live wire.

This just sounds like one of those defining moments to me. Maybe I recognize the impulse in my own restlessness regarding the (often largely self-imposed) pressures of pastoring. Whatever the case, Busch says Barth “now found extremely questionable the ‘religious workshop in which one is forged as a pastor’. Indeed he even occasionally complained, ‘If only one could be something other than a pastor.’ He was especially annoyed at the ‘universal spoonful of tolerance which especially in our local church is proclaimed to be the supreme good’” (86).

One can see all throughout Barth's life traces of this deep-seated desire to avoid spooning up sentimental truisms to keep the "peace". This is a conviction he articulates pretty clearly during the time of his first commentary on the book of Romans, when he realized that too often:

Everything had always already been settled without God. God was always thought to be good enough to put the crowning touch to what men began of their own accord. The fear of the Lord did not stand objectively at the beginning of our wisdom; we always attempted as it were to snatch at his assent in passing. Thus the greater the zeal for God, the greater would be the reluctance to submit to God’s real demands . . . .

From God’s standpoint that is more of a hindrance than a help, since it continues to delude people about the need for the coming of his kingdom. Our ‘movements’ then stand directly in the way of God’s movement; our ‘causes’ hinder his cause, the richness of our ‘life’ hinders the tranquil growth of the divine life in the world . . . The collapse of our cause must demonstrate for once that God’s cause is exclusively his own. That is where we stand today” (99-100).

Anyone recognize the current church crisis in those words? If not, read them again! But I digress. Listen, further, to what Barth said in reflection on the angst he felt at being a preacher:

“These two factors, life and the Bible, have risen before me . . . if these are the source and destination of Christian preaching, who should, who can, be a pastor and preach? . . . Why, I had to ask myself, did those question marks and the exclamation marks, which are the very existence of the pastor, play really no role at all in the theology I knew . . . ?” (90).

Barth had wrestled deeply with practical theology and found both Church theology and Christian practice wanting; basically unrelated. But he also felt that they could not be properly related unless the action of God took precedence over the actions of people. There had to be this asymmetry or else one was not speaking or following God anymore. Thus the tone of his Dogmatics. But let's not forget for a second that they are the Church Dogmatics. Its theology for people who wish to follow the living and active God in the world.

The joke sometimes goes that "practical theology" is an oxymoron, but Barth would say the exact opposite. Impractical abstractions are for others. Christian theology is about God reconciling the world to Himself in Jesus Christ; who is God made present to humankind and humankind properly made present to God. Like Barth said while writing his Romans commentary:

Knowledge of God is not an escape into the safe heights of pure ideas, but an entry into the need of the present world, sharing in its suffering, its activity and its hope. The revelation which has taken place in Christ is not the communication of a formula about the world, the possession of which enables one to be at rest, but the power of God which sets us in motion, the creation of a new cosmos. A divine shoot breaks through its ungodly casing . . . There is work and struggle at every point and for every hour” (100).


Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to write.
It makes me so glad that YOU have taken this step in education - you're a real gift to me and the church.
Also, I'm really starting to grasp what you see in this Barth guy.

Also, also - after "There" where would you suggest I go next with Joel Plaskett... and where to start with the Great Lake Swimmers?

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks JOn! I'm glad he's coming thru.

Re: Joel Plaskett:
You can't go wrong, but start with La De Da. As an Elliot Smith fan you may really love his solo album "In Need of Medical Attention". I LOVE it.

Re: Great Lake Swimmers:
Probably "Lost Channels". A little more varied. But "Ongiara" flows like a concept album and is quite beautiful.

stewart said...

good stuff this. re freedom: yes, exactly...reminded of Galatians 5:1 "It was for freedom that Christ set us free"'s not the right to do what we want but the power to do what we should ie. bring glory to God. Re the current church crisis: the moment we make the mission of the church our continual focus we are in danger of "visioning" (my word) ourselves to death, unless by mission we mean the glory of if we overemphasize "doing" at the expense of "being" then something is lost. Both doing and being are important but only in the right order and in balance. What think ye?

Jon Coutts said...

stewart: I've never really got that verse. Maybe cuz it always was used in singing context to loosen people up. What a horrible trivialization that is!

I don't know if doing vs. being is the thing, nor do I think "balance" is that important, unless it is meant to depict the kind of living where one is standing with one foot on each side of the teeter totter and is able, as needed, to go heavy on either side. But some sort of yin/yang balancing act between principles like being and doing or love and truth or fill in the blank---I think that's someone else's religion. I realize that "balance" is probably being used for shorthand for something other than that though.

"'Visioning' ourselves to death" -- good one! I just saw a blog somewhere called the Gospel-Driven Church. I think titles like that are always a little presumptious and arrogant sounding, but the back-slap to Purpose-Driven on that blog is pretty clear!

I guess, Stewart, I think we even have to question whether it is ours to give glory to GOd at all. Can we really do that? Does he need us to do that? I think we can only point, only confess, that which we believe and have encountered. Glory for God can only really be produced by Godself. I like not having to worry about that so much. Just "testify". (To reuse and old old word). And by "testify" I basically just mean be up-front honest about Life as we know it. I think all the "practical theology" church manuals and pulp-fiction on Christian bookstore shelves are making it all out to be more than it is. Just live. Think straight and live. That's good enough to me.

d. miller said...

I like this because it reminds me of Paul: “Barth's point is that if we want to think Christianly, we should get over this idea that there is a huge either/or between God's action and ours. Proper Christian action is precisely that action which is done by God in humans."

Mind if I quote you in my Romans class tomorrow?

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

"...we should get over this idea that there is a huge either/or between God's action and ours. Proper Christian action is precisely that action which is done by God in humans"

I'm sure you can guess where the atheist in me would like to go with such words. But actually, I like this very much. If the church began taking on the character of Jesus I'd like it much better than I currently do.

Jon, this Barth guy continues to intrigue me.

Jon Coutts said...

D. Miller. Sure!

Matthew: Well, I'm glad you are intrigued because you'll probably hear lots more about him here.

(By the way, no offense, but Barth has a really funny way of decidedly not caring what the atheist has to say about god. But all throughout I think ironically this makes him more engaging and even credible. Hopefully I can say more about that sometime, or at least it will show itself over time)

Anonymous said...

I've been reading through this one and the comments a few times over now, and I want to get your thoughts on one question that I've been stuck on since last night.
At present, I'm taking in the pastor's retreat at Banff - and I'm really wrestling with this concept that "God's action and ours are the same".
On the one hand, I really do believe this - and think it's a healthy way of thinking about what it is that we do.
But at the same time, isn't it this very notion that's lead us into this "current church crisis" that you're speaking of? Isn't this part of why you hear so many pastors treating the words "Jesus" and "church" as interchangeable things? (ie: "The local church is the hope of the world" as opposed to Jesus Christ being the hope.)
I'm struggling how we can embrace this kind of theology without allowing it to morph/mutate/be co-opted into supporting our movements.

Also, "Testify".
Such a great word - one that I've been trying to dust off and repurpose in my own ministry. It's what comes to mind every time I try to preach. What else can I talk authoritatively about but my own life and God's interaction within it? TESTIFY!