Reading Karl Barth’s Dogmatics.
After a year of stage-serious cancer, I shouldn’t have to give up shit for Lent, for I’d already suffered longer than Jesus did in the wilderness. I theologized. Plus, reading Barth is not penitential at all.
Last week, on a whim, I brandished my reacquaintence with Barth against that most cherished of United Methodist idols, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. Through a Barthian lens, I suggested that the Quadrilateral inevitably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense and that, according to Barth, Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.
But, from Barth’s perspective, that’s hardly the only problem with the Quadrilateral that we attribute to Wesley. Saying, as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral does, that the Word of God can be illumined by our Tradition, Reason, and Experience suggests that Scripture’s address to us is lying there in the text, waiting, for us.
Not only does this construe Scripture as the texts in which God once spoke rather than the medium by which God speaks today, it falsely promises that God’s Word will be heard in Scripture so long as we approach it with faithfully our Tradition, Reason, and Experience.
Or, to put it differently, Experience, Reason, and Tradition are the means by which we get God to speak to us through Scripture.
For Barth, though, Revelation by its very nature- no matter how many prayers for illumination we utter- cannot be guaranteed precisely because Christ is Risen.
God is not dead, and Jesus is a Living Lord; therefor, the Word of God is no less free today than in the pages of scripture. Just as with Hannah and Sarai, just as in Mary’s womb or Christ’s empty tomb, God is always free to surprise and reveal in ways we’re not expecting and, in this case, God is free NOT to reveal in ways we’re expecting.
God is free to show up, as to Moses at the Burning Bush, and God is free not to show up, as in the 400 years preceding the Burning Bush.
It’s no accident that when God condescends to us in the logos, Jesus Christ, we push him out of the world on a cross. The Word of God intrudes upon our world, as almost a kind of violence, and so is not tied to it. It cannot be calendared or calibrated for it never ceases to be grace, a gift we can neither earn nor expect.
Too often the Wesley Quadrilateral implies that revelation is latent within the text of scripture and that our use of Reason, Experience, and Tradition are the keys by which we unlock it. Barth however insists that the God we find pursuing us in scripture is self-objectifying. God seeks after us; we cannot seek after God- any god we discover in our seeking is not God but a god. There’s no such Christian thing, in a Barthian sense, as a Seeker Service. All of us are only and always the sought.
To say God is self-objectifying is to assert, against so much of our liturgical assumptions, that God wills at specific times to be the object of our speech, eating, and prayer, but other times God wills not to be our object, which means a more proper response to scripture in worship is to say: ‘This is the Word of God for the People of God. We pray. Thanks be to God.’
Likewise, the great thanksgiving is not a magic incantation recited by a shaman that guarantees God’s presence in the eucharist. The Holy Spirit is invited to pour out upon the table; the Holy Spirit is not compelled to condescend. The Great Thanksgiving and the Prayer for Illumination are just that, prayers, pleadings, petitions for God to reveal God’s self. They are not methods but practices of faith. Hope and trust.
For Barth, we cannot approach, apprehend, know, or even believe in this God through any means other than God’s own present and ongoing revelation. God must elect to come to us in our speech and bread, as in Mary’s womb it is no less in the pulpit or at the table. God doesn’t always elect to reveal himself to us for when God does reveal it is always necessarily a miracle.
I suppose some might see in this bad news, that revelation isn’t 100% fool-proof predictable, but I think Barth would point out that good news of this free, electing, self-objectifying God is so much better; namely, that God does not consider it beneath God to rest on the lips and in the hands of creatures, like us, of such low estate.