Monday, January 31, 2011

Karl Barth, False Peace & Church Decisions

I was struck by these words from Karl Barth on the dilemmas that face congregations and their opportunities to either avoid the issue or discuss it under the peace of Christ which passes understanding and enable courageous dialogue. He speaks about the importance of making a thoughtful but "concrete decision of faith and obedience ... which entails a distinction of word and act at a specific time and in a specific situation," and then presents the tempting alternative (with a bit of sarcasm, you'll notice).

In spite of all its profundity and eloquence, at the point where it ought to do this [i.e., make a "concrete decision"], it will come to a halt and become an inarticulate mumbling of pious words. There will be talk of inward regeneration by faith, of the struggle for a new awakening by the Spirit of God, of the solemn prospect of a distant "world of Christ," but there will be no demand to grasp the nettle and to make a small beginning of this regeneration and awakening in a specific act of will here and now.

There will be prayer for peace, but prayer committing no one. When the time comes for steps to peace which commit anyone, there will be quick withdrawal into neutrality, into a safe avoidance of the fatal problems and the even more fatal freedom from problems of the existing present, followed by a new and powerful and sincerely meant but blunted and generalised and therefore impotent assurance that Jesus Christ is risen, that He will come again at the last day and put everything right, and that faith in Him is the victory which overcomes the world.

The community which wants to adopt this attitude will never be at a loss for practical reasons in its favour. The questions in relation to which it has to pronounce a clear Yes and No as it follows Jesus Christ and attests His living Word are always questions which humanly speaking are not at all simple or easy. They are very difficult and complicated questions which must be answered in terms of reason, though of a bold and enterprising reason in the case of the Christians. The more urgent the questions are, the more true this is.

The arguments may often seem to be confusingly even, so that in answering them the bold reason of the community which listens to the living Word of its Lord may often seem to be very isolated and even foolish. It thus has many apparently convincing reasons for either remaining neutral or keeping to generalities. In this or that specific matter, no unequivocal word is given to it, and therefore it must humbly wait instead of speaking. Again, in the burning topics of the hour, even in the community there may be different and sincerely represented views whose champions are summoned to mutual respect and forbearance in love and cannot therefore force or constrain one another by appeal to the common faith.

In such a situation, serious though it may be, regard must be had above all else to the preservation of the unity and peace of the community. [A]ccount must be taken of the purity of the Gospel. Its universally valid declaration is not to be contaminated by admixture with all kinds of attitudes which do not readily commend themselves to all believers as Christian. What is required to maintain this purity is a wise and safe restriction to the sphere of a general, abstract and neutral Christianity which never compromises itself and is therefore always right.

How solid and even illuminating these reasons seem!

But would it not be better if, when at what is perhaps a critical moment for the world and therefore for itself the community finds itself in the disturbing position of not knowing what to say or what not to say, or of being divided on the point, it should at least refrain from regarding itself as excused or even justified for these reasons? Dare it ever make Him responsible for the fact that it obviously does not hear Him, as though to-day He had unfortunately broken off His prophetic work, as though to-day He were either not present at all or only silently within it, as though He had become a dumb Lord in relation to the present time and situation, as though obedience to Him demanded either a respectful silence or the accompaniment of the Yes by an interwoven No?

Assuming that it does not dare to blame its necessity on Him, ought not such an attitude to give it a very definitely disturbed or bad conscience which will not allow it to persist in its neutrality but will impel it rather to become a new and perhaps more attentive hearer of the voice of the Good Shepherd? It is this disturbed conscience, however, which it does not seem to have so long as it can find such good reasons for its neutrality, its empty generality, and the consequent blunting of its word, of its supposed attestation of the Word of Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3.2

"'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace."
Jeremiah 6:14

"The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation"

2 Corinthians 5:18

Do we ever miss peace by contriving it? What holds us back from real community? I can think of a lot of things, none of them really unique to church people, per se -- fear of losing people, distaste for instability, lack of commitment, unbuilt trust, misplace notion of "unity", and so on -- but as far as the church is concerned I think a lot of it comes back to a poor ecclesiology. In other words, maybe sometimes we gather (or don't gather) for some wrong reasons.


P. Smitty said...

Well said, and a not so subtle jab at the state of some debates in our own family of churches.

Jon Coutts said...

I'm trying not to take subtle jabs or be passive aggressive with my blog. But yes you are right to not that this is highly relevant to our denomination right now, in my opinion. So I don't mean to drag our denomination out in the public and I trust my non C&MA readers will trust this to us, but let there be nothing subtle about it if you are a reader in the C&MA in Canada: I think we need to think about this in our congregations and in our "movement" as a whole.