Monday, June 28, 2010

A Barthian Tirade Against Holy Selfishness

Barth can be at one and the same time the most irenic and polemic of debate combatants. In the excerpt below you see him at some of his best. The issue at hand is the trajectory toward individualism in many of our common conceptions of Christianity (and our humanity). I daresay that this individualist bent (not only in evangelicalism but in society as a whole) is what ultimately drives many former church-goers to depart and find their own way, and leaves many remaining church-goers with a Christianity which, for all its talk of depth, is skin-deep through and through.

The following is a longish excerpt, but I think it is well worth a careful read. Basically, Barth calls us on it, big time. (By the way, if it helps with Barth's long-winded sentences, read the bold parts in succession first, and then go back over.)
[I]t is genuinely human and therefore understandable that the Christian should be supremely interested in the goal of vocation from the standpoint of its personal or "existential" relevance to himself. But this merit of the answer reveals also its limitation. Expressing a human insight, might it not be unfortunately only too human?

Can it be so self-evident for the Christian as such to regard the benefit addressed, revealed and imparted to him, his own temporal and eternal salvation worked out and applied to him in Jesus Christ, as the content and even the heart and substance of the Word which calls him? Can it really be the inner end, meaning and basis of my Christian existence, and therefore the goal and end of the ways and words of God to me, that I should be blessed, that my soul should be saved, that I should participate in all the gifts of reconciliation, that my life should be one of reception, possession, use and enjoyment of these gifts, that I should finally attain to eternal bliss, that I should not go to hell but to heaven, and that each of the few or many others who might accompany me should also know the extraordinary exaltation of his human existence mediated in the benefits of Christ, and therefore the satisfaction of his deepest needs and the fulfilment of his most lofty and necessary desires?

Does not this wholly possessive being seem to smack of the sanctioning and cultivating of an egocentricity which is only too human for all its sanctity, of a self-seeking which in the light of what is at stake renders every other form of self-seeking quite innocuous? To be sure, there is a very legitimate and necessary Christian "I" and "mine." But does this mean that it can be made the last word on what makes a Christian a Christian?

It gives us a very strange relationship if on the one side we have the selflessness and self-giving of God and Jesus Christ in which the salvation of the world is effected and revealed, and on the other the satisfaction with which Christians accept this and are thus content to make use of the very different being and action of their Lord.

Can this be really all, can it be the true and essential thing which distinguishes them, that within a world which in all the folly and impotence of its pride, sloth and falsehood already hastens through such indescribably great suffering to its end, there is a handful of men whose particular existence has only the meaning and basis that, called, illumined and awakened thereto by Jesus Christ, they may rejoice in the little faith, love and hope of their being in the light of His grace which He has given them, which is so superior to their prior being, which is so glorious in the surrounding darkness, and in which, snatched from the massa perditionis [doomed mass], they have simply to move on to heavenly felicity?

Did the Son of God clothe Himself with humanity, and shed His blood, and go out as the Sower, simply in order that He might create for these people--in free grace, yet why specifically for them and only for them?--this indescribably magnificent private good fortune, permitting them to obtain and possess a gracious God, opening to them the gates of Paradise which are closed to others?

Can this really be the goal of His calling and therefore of His ongoing prophetic work? Can it really be the goal of the work once and for all accomplished in His death? Can it really be the meaning of His election and sending? Is it legitimate and even imperative for Christians to be content that they may thankfully understand themselves as those who are reconciled, justified, satisfied and blessed because elected from eternity and called in time in Him? Can the community of Jesus Christ--we shall have to take up this question in the next section--really be only, or at any rate essentially and decisively, a kind of institute of salvation, the foremost and comprehensive medium salutis [means of salvation], as Calvin self-evidently assumed and said? Is not every form of egocentricity excused and even confirmed and sanctified, if egocentricity in this sacred form is the divinely willed meaning of Christian existence and the Christian song of praise consists finally only in a many-tongued but monotonous pro me, pro me [for me, for me], and similar possessive expressions?

It can hardly be denied that the piety, teaching and practice of Christianity in every age and place--and particularly in the strongest movements and most impressive champions--has disclosed an almost sinister and irresistible bias in this direction, as though it were really inevitable that man--in this case the experience and existence of the Christian-should be the measure of all things. It is this bias or tendency which make the classic answer to our question so deeply suspect irrespective of whether we explain the tendency by the answer or vice versa. I use the term "suspect" because I do not regard the difficulty of the Christian sacro egoismo [holy selfishness] to which it perhaps unavoidably gives rise as a true, theological reason for rejecting this answer. For after all, egocentricity may not be its unavoidable consequence. If a strict warning is issued against the danger which threatens in this regard, the answer itself may still be acceptable. [In other words, this recurring holy selfishness is not theological grounds to reject the personal aspect of Christianity, but gives rise to a very good question of how the Christian gospel ought more fully to be expressed].

There is a Luxury song that has always stuck in my head which quite morosely closes with the repeated refrain:
I know why the caged bird sings:
It's for me,
It's for me.
I suppose there are various ways to interpret the song, and at best I suppose it is a sort of melancholy song of praise for the goodness that can be found even within the bondages of existence. However, I think at worst it describes the morbid egoism quite common within evangelicalism. This is seen particularly strongly in the "New Calvinism" which seems to me to be intent on perpetuating Calvin's mistaken trajectories rather than his many better ones. For one such example, see this video which combines a certain view of predestination with the "L" in TULIP and reasons that if some are predestined to hell, it must be so that God's glory is known more truly by those predestined to heaven.

This is just one example though. As I eluded above, individualism is rampant not only in evangelicalism but, I suspect, also (and perhaps especially) in much post-Christian atheism and agnosticism (rejecting evangelical Christianity, yet retaining the worst part of it). Obviously, I find it flourishing alive and well in myself too, and I have not found simple deferment of the personal, eclipsing it in the communal, to be an adequate response, theologically or personally. More on that another time I suppose.

(Excerpt from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3.2, 566-568).


Stewart said...

I get Barth on this...excellent commentary on the self serving extremes in the gospel of self giving. I wonder if this is one of the reasons we have lots of "church-hopping or shopping" in evangelicalism. Thanks for this post.

Jon Coutts said...

Yeah, and it is probably a significant reason why a lot of people go to the church they do, and fight for it to stay the way they like it.