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).

Friday, June 25, 2010

C&MA Ordination of Women Forum Open

To my friends in the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada. This is just a heads up that the online forum for discussing the ordination of women is now open here. You will have to register to take part, but it is an open invitation, so please do. Also, I have a blog page dedicated to the subject here, and hereafter access it from my sidebar to the right. Thanks. Ephesians 4:15.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Church as Fellowship of the Confessedly Being Reconciled

Much of the anxiety about the identity of the church in relation to the world, both within the church and outside of it, stems from a misperception of the people in the church as a group of people who are "in" or "forgiven" or "holy" in contrast to the world which is "out" or "unforgiven" or "unholy". As I've been reading Karl Barth I've been seeing how exactly this is not quite right.

Certainly, the church considers itself a people set apart by God for a certain kind of communion and mission, but it is not set aside in virtue of some static possession or settled condition, but as a people who are on a certain way, given a certain direction, and who receive it again and again and again. Humanity has been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. This is accomplished. It is history. But as the history which enfolds our history, it concerns our experiences and our life-living as a decidedly ongoing history.

So, since both the world and the church are definitively and decidedly reconciled with God in Jesus Christ already, the best way to describe the church in relation to the world on its way to the final revelation of this is that the Church is a people who are confessedly being reconciled with God--and thus with themselves and each other and the world. It is finished, but they are not. They are on the way. You see this playing out in Barth's description of God's sanctifying activity in the lives of His followers:
One can be righteous before God, the child of God and heir of eternal life, only by the pardon which one can grasp in faith alone and not in any work, and which is that of the grace of the God active and revealed in Jesus Christ-a grace which consists in the unmerited forgiveness of sins.

It thus follows that there is no one--even the doer of good (or the best) works, even the most saintly--who does not stand in lifelong need of the forgiveness of sins and therefore of that pardon, and is not referred wholly and utterly to the faith which grasps that pardon. . . .

It follows further that because we in the sequence of one's works, each of one's works, as well as one's self, stands in need, as the work of a sinner, of justification, and therefore of forgiveness, and therefore of the unmerited recognition of God. . . .

Finally, since it is only in faith and not by direct perception or appropriation that we can seize our righteousness and that of our works (as the forgiveness of our sins, even of those which we commit in the best of our works), the final word concerning our right and wrong, and that of our works, is reserved for the universal and definitive revelation of the judgment of God-a revelation which we now await but in which we do not yet participate.
Quoting Church Dogmatics IV/2, 587 (gender neutral language mine)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This was my favourite book as a child and it has never really slipped from that special spot in the world of my mind. I thought the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was quite disappointing, and have heard better of Prince Caspian but haven't seen it. I am torn whether to be excited about this one or not. I think I look forward to it, despite the perils involved.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

TV Dads, Family Ties, and Scrabble

Father's Day 2010: I woke up wishing I were more like Cliff Huxtable.

Funny. Calm. Nurturing. Wise. Unreal.

Then I wanted to reassure myself a bit. Thought of Dan Conner (from Roseanne) and Homer Simpson. Left me wishing again for a (TV) model.

Then I remembered Steven Keaton.

I think if I could be a TV dad it would be him. All of the above Huxtable, but in realistic doses, sporadically intertwined with personal neuroses, occasional freakings out at life, and regular returns to grace. (Seriously, I remember them "making up" a lot on that show.)

The sound is bad on this video, but it is the most classic Family Ties episode of all time, and it endures in my memory as one piece with memories of my own Dad and my young hopes (strangely enough) about the kind of father I might grow up to be.

And to top it all off this morning, my five year old, unprompted, asked me to play Scrabble today. Unreal.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Further Comments on "The God of Atheists and Theists"

I don't usually do this, but my most recent comment on the last thread so ridiculously exceeded the character restrictions that I'm carrying it into a post of its own. If anyone wants to pick up the back-story, give the last post a read and check Trev's (and tonytanti's) comments.

Incidentally, I tend to enjoy "hiding" some of my more off-the-cuff remarks in the comments rather than publishing them outright, but heck, I'll put this comment on here as is and see if this thread has any more life in it or not. No requirements in that regard though, Trev. And I sincerely hope you don't mind me dragging your comments out into broad daylight a little further here. (If you do mind, just say so and it will be deleted). Okay, so here you go:

To my question about God revealing Godself to us beyond our five senses, Trev said: "I don't know what "beyond the five senses" would look like! Nobody does (to the best of my knowledge).... Jesus was a man, encountered by other men and everything he said/did could've been empirically demonstrated/replicated.... Wouldn't pointing to a physical, tangible human being and calling him god prove that he ISN'T god?? Isn't that what Barth is saying?"

In a way I think that is what Barth is saying, yes, but with emphasis on the "calling him" part, and perhaps light on the "prove" part. I think what we're doing when we (meaning theologians like Barth and wannabes like me) talk like this is taking seriously Jesus claims about himself [things he said and did and connected himself to and commissioned and promised] and we're asking ourselves what it might tell us about God, rather than measuring everything by some idea of what God is; or would or would not, could or could not, should or should not, do. So, you're exactly right. Who could come in with an idea of God and then based on sensual experiences say for sure they'd found something that fit the bill? On the other hand, if someone came along and did and said and perpetuated the things the Jesus said/did/perpetuated, could we take seriously that particular claim about God and its ramifications for our very view of God to begin with? [And wouldn't one of those ramifications be to say the very things I'm saying about knowledge of God?]

Thus, to your question: "So who is (and why are they) calling him god?", I guess my answer is: People who believe that He is. Because of the compelling nature of His presentation of Himself as such.

You said: "everything he said/did could've been empirically demonstrated/replicated". Really? I can see how they might be explained maybe (i.e., the resurrection could be chalked up to some kind of mistake or trick or something, albeit against the flow of existing evidence), but replicated and demonstrated? How exactly would you (to choose one example) bring a 4 days dead Lazarus out of a tomb before the eyes of his hostile mourners ? Again, I think you could explain the existence of that story, but demonstrate and replicate it?

I feel bad that I'm being confusing. Let me address some of the things I think you are hearing me imply, that I'm not sure I want to say. You talked about what seems like an injustice, that "a lucky few who were on this earth in the right place at the right time 2000 years ago." I agree that they were lucky, in a certain "wow-it-would-have-been-awesome-to-have-been-them" kind of way, but I don't think they had any advantage over us in terms of being convinced empirically that Jesus was God. Thomas put his hands in the nail-holes and was still called to believe. Granted, it would be different for those who hadn't even seen it for themselves, but Thomas had to have faith as well. [And in Jesus' mind it seems that the difference would be that those who believed but hadn't seen would be "blessed"!] I think it is arguable that we have the advantage of years of reflection, whereas Thomas could easily have doubted every day whether he was getting it right, whether he was caught up in something unreasonable or temporary, or whatever. In fact, many saw and did not believe.

But you are right, it can't be explained empirically now any more than it could then. All that is left for you is to doubt or believe. You can't prove or disprove a resurrection like that. [Mind you, had it not happened, you likely could have proved that.]

Your comment continued: "And my only shot at knowing if god is communicating with me is by not really knowing, because knowing means proving, and proving means it's not god". And to that I ask: Why does knowing = proving? If that's the case you never know anything. All proofs, even modernity's five-sense empirical ones, come on the backs of some kind of theory or premise. Go back far enough and you'll find it. Descartes' "I think therefore I am" is not a proof, it is a statement; a starting point; (dare I say it?) a belief. I'm don't think I'm being facetious either.

When science explains how the neurons and synapses fire and respond to stimuli to create the feeling of "love" it has not told us what love is or what it means or what its about. It has just given further refinement to our understanding of the physical processes involved in this crazy complex thing called "love" that we're trying to understand. Scientific study of such things is awesome, but you are importing belief in the modern standards of "knowledge" if you think that once these chemical brain functions have been described, we've figured it out and should go no further.

The last thing you asked had to do with wanting God's self-revelation to be to just you. You obviously don't mean that in an exclusive or selfish way, but are in fact implying that God should self-reveal to everyone personally and privately and directly. Fair enough. I think that is a good desire. I share that desire. I'd almost call it an angst, actually. However, I don't think we can rule out from the get go the possibility that God intends such a longing to be met in the future, and has some other mode of self-revelation (and plan) leading toward that.

You asked: "How did he reveal himself to the whole of mankind? Did he visit every continent and every person in 33 years?" Well, if we take Jesus' claim seriously that He would be present by His Spirit where the testimony about Him was read and where two or three were gathered, then I'd say that maybe not in 33 years but by now He has been revealed on every continent. But it would seem not to every person. Not by a long stretch actually. Not yet anyway.

This is problematic, though, isn't it? Especially (and perhaps only) if we believe that God is loving and just! The question is: Why should I have heard and not others? That bothers me a lot, to be honest. We could talk about that for a long time. But I can probably address that briefly by clarifying that as a Christian I've come to understand and accept that if Jesus is God, then God wishes to self-reveal in space and time by involving people not only as recipients but as vehicles and participants in that self-revelation.

Further, I should mention that I, too, have questions about how that interacts with what Jesus seemed to say about such finalities as hell and justice and election, but I have come more and more to trust Jesus to be just, in the end -- and this more than I trust the renditions of hell and justice and predestination that have so coloured our feeling and thinking on such matters. (Here is where my comment to tonytanti comes into play as well).

Now, having said that, I must say that I do see a certain value in going forward with the traditional views on those doctrines -- weighing them carefully against Scripture and our nagging questions -- but I certainly am not so attached to the evangelical versions of those doctrines within which I was brought up that I would sooner reject belief in Jesus as God than investigate them further from within the Christian faith. That's the place I've come to with that. I'd love to share that place together. I'm still thinking about those ones and should probably open that horizon up on the blog someday.

As for whether there are other "Messiahs" besides this particular one: No I don't think so. But the reason I don't think so is because I take it from what Jesus said and did that He is not simply a vehicle of God's self-revelation but is the very bridge between God and humanity. God becomes an actual human being, with a human history like everyone else. And yet unlike -- because in the unfolding of this God-man's history all humanity finds its reconciliation with God (both already and yet to be fully known).

Thus while I resonate with the desire to have God's revelation be more "universal" than "particular", I have come to understand and appreciate why it is so.

So I'm not with you in "assuming God must have an alternate, personal-revelation plan for those that won't hear about him through the christian pipeline", although I'm not sure I can say what the Christian pipeline is exactly. I'm not sure it is as narrow as we think. Nor do I think God is a prisoner of it. What I do have is a call from God to participate in His ongoing work of self-revelation, and to do so with special attention to the provisions of Scripture and Church.

Frankly, however, I do tend to get bogged down by the enormity of that responsibility and the nagging questions of God's justice for a world insufficiently served (it would seem) by the church in this regard. But lately I've been intrigued by reasons to hope that God is the One who graciously bears the brunt of that, and not us.

I'm trying to give honest answers here. Thanks for the opportunity to try to articulate some of these things. I certainly don't mean to make an example of your questions. I might as well be posting them as my own, I've asked them myself in more or less the same words myself, many times. Some of the ways I've come to understand these things are pretty new (and liberating) for me, and it is good to have to try to share them and "test" them.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The God of Atheists and Theists

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach knew Christianity quite intimately, and famously asked the question which sent many people reeling: If God is (so conveniently) for us, how do we know we haven't simply ascribed to God our greatest desires? Leaving aside the fact that Feuerbach overly caricaturized Luther's view of God's promeity ("for-us-ness"), we do have a good question here -- especially if our view of God fits the caricature.

This is the sort of question which begets apologetics; which causes Christians to hit the books and airwaves to solve or satisfy. I have always had a heart for apologetics, and still do, since I believe that if there is a true good God then reason and faith will not in the end be exclusive terms. However, I was quite taken aback this past fall when I first read Karl Barth's response to Feuerbach's question, which was to say that to attempt to solve the question would be simply to affirm it. For what measures would we use to show God unascribed? If a humanly conceived god is not God, how is a humanly proven god God?

This question has bite not only for the overly-confident apologete, but also the overly-confident atheist. When I read this the first time, I scrawled the following in the margin of page 82 of my copy of Church Dogmatics IV/3.1:
To prove God is simply to disprove the thus-proved God.
To disprove God is merely to disprove one's notion of God.
In other words: If God were provable (empirically, emotionally, or otherwise), addressing Him as God would be utterly meaningless. But this seems to be the only God that atheists (and agnostics) would be willing to "believe" in. Thus, the notion of God has been rejected as a result of presupposition, not proof.

Frankly, however, this also seems to be the only God that many theists want to believe in. The one who stands at the end of human progression or who is reachable through human thought or feeling or faith decision or moral action.

If the "God"of such atheists and theists existed, there would be no qualitative difference between human and divine---the usefulness of the label would be null. "God", as such, would be simply our name for the furthest reach of humanity.

If there is God, this God must be self-revealing; and this self-revelation must be able to reach into humanity without losing divinity. And, as Barth concludes, this God would be the one asking the questions, not us. Were divine self-revelation to meet us, it would ask us in faith to know God on God's terms. This might sound like an open door to the most ethereal of religions, but not so. It is the denial of religion in both its atheist and theist forms.

Where does this leave atheism and agnosticism? With little to say about God, and better off admitting to a constructive humanism, in my opinion. What to believe about humanity is another question (and a highly debatable one at that).

Where does this leave Christianity? Well, it is a faith. But, since we believe God true and good and loving according to Jesus Christ as God's self-revelation to (and of!) humanity, it is a call to a certain faith -- a faith seeking understanding, seeking the good of humanity, and seeking reconciliation in the world. The constructable gods of atheists and theists can only bow if God takes on flesh.

Sunday, June 06, 2010


Have you ever seen Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo? Incredible. Maybe one of the most ambitious films I've ever seen. I certainly love the fact that instead of using special effects, they actually dragged a massive boat over a mountain. This was a visual treat and a brilliant epic.

I am eager now to see the film about the making of Fitzcarraldo, called Burden of Dreams.

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)