Monday, May 30, 2011

Barth's Tirade Against 'Holy Selfishness'

I recall promoting a spiritual gifts discovery program in my church with the Willow Creek mantra that this was the way to be all you can be in Christ. Only as an aside did I mention that this was to be to the benefit of the community. I have read countless books that spoke of the miracle of forgiveness as something firstly meant for the forgiver. I have stood through myriad worship songs which, if we were lucky, tagged on and "us" and a "we" at the end of five minutes of "I" and "me".

Don't get me wrong, in my own life I am also mainly focussed on these things, so this only strikes me as odd when I compare it to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Thus when it comes to describing Christianity (rather than my own desires writ large), I think there are some challenges to be issued. Consider Barth's tirade toward the end of the Church Dogmatics:
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 themassa 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?

(Barth, Doctrine of Reconciliation IV/3.2, 566-568)

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