Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Barth On Introspection and the Illusion of Self-Transcendence

Combing through my notes from the fourth volume of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, I am reminded of just how wonderful his writing is (once you get the rhythm of it), and how poignant and illuminating it can be. I'm not sure how much my brief excerpts have been able to capture that in the past. Excerpting Barth is a lot like giving 30 second samples of Mozart symphonies. Nonetheless, here's a couple pages that had me totally engrossed, once again, this morning.

First time I read this was one of many moments reading Barth where I felt like I had personally emerged from a fog and finally seen Christianity -- like a familiar landscape standing strangely before me, waiting to be explored for the first time.
Our concern [as it concerns the place of introspection] now must be with Jesus Christ, and with myself, ourselves, in Him. This seems to be a purely critical clarification. It is critical, but it has a supremely positive significance. To achieve it involves an incisive renunciation. For it is not self-evident that we should turn away from this figure [self], that we should look away from the one whom we not unjustly describe as our closest neighbour. But if we really do it, is not this a liberation? The great anxiety which introspection inevitably involves is not perhaps ended when we look away [from self], but it is at least relegated to its proper place. Its problem still arises. It still continues. But it is not now before and above us, but behind and below us. It is no longer the great thing to which we continually look and must always move. It is no longer the steep incline that we have always to climb.

To know ourselves is to know ourselves at the place, and to come to ourselves is to come to it, where the desire and also the burden of this anxiety are taken from us. Thus our thinking about what we really are in Jesus Christ misses this reality, and is purely illusory, if it is not a thinking which promises liberation, but is pursued in a lower or higher form of introspection, and involves a continuance at a higher or lower level of this anxiety with all its desires and burdens. . . .

But we must now be more precise. We really look away from ourselves, and therefore know ourselves genuinely and freely, only as we really look to Jesus Christ. We do not do so merely as we look formally away from ourselves and beyond ourselves, in a purely formal negation of that figure "the self," to an empty beyond. It is not the case that we can tell ourselves that we are something that we are not. To do so is merely to think of our death, and to do this with the absurd notion that we can regard our death as our life. To lose one's life is not of itself to find it. Nor is it to our salvation to think in this way, let alone to try to practise it, to achieve our own negation and loss.

In a purely formal sense no one, not even a Spanish mystic, has ever really looked away from himself and beyond himself, let alone transcended himself in a purely formal negation. If we try to do this, looking into an empty beyond, we are really looking quite cheerfully at ourselves again, however solemnly we may pretend that it is otherwise. What we see is only our own frontier, and we see this only from within. We do not see it as it is really drawn. Nor do we see ourselves in the freedom which is beyond our self-contemplation and the great anxiety which it necessarily involves.

We cannot lose ourselves. But this means that we cannot find ourselves either when we try of ourselves to lose ourselves. We are still the old man within the frontier which we see from within. We can only imagine that we are able to transcend ourselves and have actually done: no matter how certain we may be of this empty beyond; no matter what extraordinary measures we may take-even to the extreme of suicide -to take this step and therefore to find ourselves. The look away from and beyond ourselves can take place only when it has an object which irresistibly draws it; when it is a look which has a definite content; when this beyond is not nothing but something or Someone; when this Someone is the frontier which is actually and positively drawn for us from without, to see which is not merely a question but the answer, and to cross which is not merely supposed but genuine loss, and not merely imagined but real gain in loss; when in this Someone as our beyond we really and finally encounter ourselves.

How else but from a superior, genuine position can we achieve genuine negation, let alone that which has the power of a position? How else but from the place where there is genuine gain, and it is therefore to be sought and found, can we achieve genuine loss, let alone that which is gain? The only No which has power as such, let alone the power of a secret Yes, is the No which is spoken in and with a superior, genuine Yes. We have to hear this superior, genuine Yes. But we hear this superior, genuine Yes, in which even the unavoidable No is valid and effective, only when we look away from and beyond ourselves because we see something confronting us, and this something as a Someone, and in this Someone ourselves, so that in Him, in this Other, we are summoned and irresistibly impelled to seek and find ourselves. . . .

We have the old man behind and below us when we have Jesus Christ before and above us, and in Him ourselves as the new man who is elevated and exalted to fellowship with God . . . . If He is seen, and we in Him, it is not the kind of seeing of which we ourselves are or ever will be capable. We have no organ or ability for it, nor the corresponding will and resolution to use it. This seeing is not a possibility of our own. It can be a reality, not in the actualisation of a potentiality that we ourselves possess, but only as it is given us in pure actuality. It can only take place, in a way which is quite incomprehensible to ourselves, that we do actually know Him, and in Him ourselves.

(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, 283-285, emphasis and paragraph breaks mine)


Stewart said...

I can see why you love this so much...such insight. I think i get it...dying to self is not something we do as a "works" thing...the grace of God is integral in this process. And if we don't allow the process to do its' complete work (ie. going to Christ, living in Christ) then it can have nasty ramifications. Am i close to the point here, do you think?

Jon Coutts said...

well, i don't know. its not a process that we somehow know the end goal of, to which God is then integral -- its a way of being, directed and decided from without