Archives For Barth Reading Group

rp_rainbow-cross_april2.jpgEarlier this week I posted a reflection regarding my frustration that my denomination, the United Methodist Church, is so reticent to ameliorate its stated position on homosexuality.

Like guns, drugs and electric chairs, the Book of Discipline states that homosexuality ‘is incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Part of my frustration that we cannot affirm the basic humanity of homosexuals is due to my belief that we should already be on to other topics as it relates to homosexuality.

Namely, ordination.

Ministry.

Our baptismal summons.

Allow me to elaborate by way of my hero, Karl Barth.

rp_images1.jpegIn the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,

Barth reiterated the fact:

there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.

More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.

In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.

Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.

I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.

rp_barth-224x300.jpgAs my sympathies with Barth’s criticisms suggest, I would caution that too often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.

We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.

We baptize to build a new polis, a new society in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.

What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.

This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.

Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.

Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.

This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.

If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.

I’m not suggesting we refuse homosexual persons baptism.

I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of baptism changes the stakes of what is otherwise a tired cultural debate.

Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines. At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.

rp_barth_1_3-300x250.jpegOnce we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’

For, as James KA Smith says,

‘baptism smashes open our families of birth and ‘opens us up to the disruptive friendships that are the mark of the Kingdom of God.’

Perhaps this sounds sweet to you, but the early Church took it quite literally, raising children in their parents’ stead if those birth parents failed to live a faithful Christian life. Even today, if taken seriously by Christians it would bear difficult ethical implications. I’ve written elsewhere how baptism, not questions of individual rights and choices, is the proper lens through which Christians should confront an issue like abortion as Christians. If more Christians took seriously the baptismal stipulation that we are now members of one another, then there might be fewer women left vulnerable and alone in a situation where abortion seemed a necessary choice.

I remember when Ali, my wife, and I began the adoption process for the first time. In an initial interview, the social worker asked us why, when we had no known biological need to do so, we were choosing to adopt.

Our answer was quite sincere and it’s one I recall every time I preside at the font: that, as Christians, we believe in baptism and baptism suggests that adoption is just as ‘normal’ a way as biology to constitute a family.

Because of baptism, so to speak, water is thicker than blood.

barth_in_pop_art_5There’s something fragile, foolhardy and yet frighteningly beautiful about the vantage point that ministry offers upon the faith of ordinary believers and their extra ordinary, in the pejorative sense, priests and pastors.

On more than a one occasion, I’ve sat through a pointless church meeting or an inane clergy gathering and been struck by this realization: the very testimony to which we respond every Sunday ‘The Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God’ was written by believers who, in all likelihood, were every bit as sinful, ignorant, and only partially faithful as the people gathered around me right now.

Prefixing the author of Luke with ‘Saint’ lends him beatific hues. Thinking of the author of Luke as the chair of your Church Council, however, might give you pause before you chime in ‘Thanks be to God’ next Sabbath.

And yet ministry also offers a glimpse into the mysterious depth of an ostensibly ‘simple’ faith. Alongside the regular dosage of bitter reality, ministry also provides concrete confirmation that, in spite of ourselves, the living God can be known and, even more remarkably, the unknowable God can be witnessed to by people like us who don’t know nearly as much as we pretend.

Now, there are Christians for whom those initial sentences constitute not just a couple of paragraphs but heresy.

For them, scripture is a miracle on par with the incarnation itself. Some many Christians would describe the miracle of scripture as ‘inerrancy;’ that is, God has miraculously kept the Bible free from any error. The Bible’s power and authority then derive from its being devoid of any historical mistakes (worldwide census in Luke 2), theological inconsistencies (Mark’s Gospel vs John’s), or scientific problems (Genesis). Indeed many Christians treat the ‘Word’ as though it fell from heaven, printed and bound and translated in to the King James; therefore, it must be without error.

Such a ‘high’ view of scripture, however, comes with much risk, for if scripture’s power and authority derives from its inerrancy then even the most inconsequential of historical, scientific, or theological errors threaten to undermine the whole.

When the authority of scripture is based not on God but on a particular doctrine about scripture, confidence in God can easily unravel.

The recent debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and that idiot creationist from Kentucky is but one obvious example. At stake in that particular debate was neither science nor faith in God but in one particular doctrine of scripture.

The same is true of the debates around same-sex marriage. At their most base, in both senses of the word, their debates about scripture’s authority.

One of features that first drew me to Karl Barth was how he charts a fresh, vigorous way forward through the stale liberal-conservative divide over scripture.

According to Barth in §19.2, the “miracle of scripture” is not its inerrancy- the groundless supposition that God kept the Bible free from humanness, especially human fallibility and sin.

No, the miracle of scripture is indeed a subset of the miracle of incarnation:

God makes himself known through what is human, always limited and partial, and frequently mistaken:

… the prophets and apostles as such, even in their function as witnesses, even in the act of writing down their witness, were real, historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their action, and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word.

To the bold postulate, that if their word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same scriptural witness, being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word.

Around Christmastime, Christians make a lot of hay out of the fact that in Christ God takes flesh- and not any pristine, idealized flesh but the very ordinary stuff of our lives. As the ancients believed: ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’ In other words, for our entire fleshly selves to be redeemed our entire fleshly selves are somehow mysteriously present in the Incarnate One.

Seldom however do we make the same hay out of scripture’s incarnational nature, yet the miracle is the same. God can use the most human of mediums for revelation and grace. In a certain sense, for Barth, to wish the Bible were something other than what it is (a fallible, human witness) is akin to wishing the Incarnation were less human and more spiritually sanitized than it was:

If God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition… but adopted and made use of these expressions in all their fallibility, we do not need to be ashamed when He wills to renew it to us in all its fallibility as witness, and it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible.

That is, to ground the Bible’s authority and power in something other than God is to unwittingly long for a God other than the God we have: the God who reveals himself through corrupt, finite, sinful things.

For Barth, biblical inerrancy is a rejection of grace: it rejects the gift God has given us (an unmerited, incarnational text) in favor of something we deem, through our doctrine, to be better.

But ‘better’ is not an appropriate category when speaking of grace.

barth_tagungIn §1.15 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth riffs on his distinctive emphasis on the unique, particular revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

All Christian speech about God must begin and end with Christ, Barth insists. Not, it should be added, with us. Not with the human experience. Not with natural law. Not with universal reason.

The latter alternative options only lead to us making Jesus into a savior after our own image.

§1.15 also shows Barth arguing for the absolute necessity of the Son’s participation in our sinful humanity.

Jesus’ flesh was sarx, says Barth, participating in all the world in its sinful rebellion against God.

To confess as the creed does that Jesus was “very man” is to profess his participation in the world’s rebellion–even while we also confess that Jesus is “very God” which is but to profess that Christ is without sin.

Indeed many of the church fathers would continue by insisting that Christ was without the possibility of sin.

But I wonder.

If by ‘very God’ we mean that the Son is fully, completely, without deficit God, that everything God is so is Jesus, then should not ‘very Man’ imply that everything we are, fully and completely, Jesus is?

Can Jesus be said to be ‘very Man’ if what is an everyday, all the time experience for us, namely sin, is an impossibility for him?

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading Barth alongside the Gospel of Mark, a Gospel that almost willfully resists accommodation to our theological categories, but I wonder if the creedal notion of a sinless/unable-to-sin Jesus jumps the Gospel shark.

Mark consistently makes it clear that Jesus sins, at least how ‘sin’ was conceived in Jesus’ first century context. He violates the word of God by touching a leper. He violates the word by usurping Temple authority for himself. He uses words I wouldn’t let my boys use about the Syro-Phoenician woman.

As the eldest son of a widowed mother, Jesus breaks the ‘honor thy’ commandment by leaving home and trading his family for his ministry.

All of which leads me to go back for a second thought:

to what extent does Jesus need to be sinless/incapable of sin to be our savior?

It’s true that a ‘lamb without blemish’ is a necessary component for a particular interpretation of the atonement, but that’s only one interpretation of many and it’s an interpretation not without problems of its own.

What about rival atonement theories?

Is it possible, I wonder, that Jesus did sin in his life, was capable of sin, nevertheless his obedience unto the cross defeated the power of Sin and Death?

Is it possible that Jesus did sin in his life, was capable of sin, yet the sum total of his life unwound the story of Sin and recapitulated God’s new creation.

Is it possible that the virgin birth has less to do with the transmittal of original sin and more to do with Jesus being the start of a new creation?

Is it possible that, like a vaccine requires your body to take in germs for you to be immunized, the healing of our human nature required the incarnate one’s body to know sin as well as holiness?

 

barthWell, if you read into Church Dogmatics §1.2, you’ll notice that Karl Barth thinks so.

For the uninitiated, ‘apologetics’ is the fancy word that describes the attempt to rationally account for- and prove- the faith claims of Christianity. Better put, apologists are those who try to convince skeptics and nonbelievers that Christianity is ‘true.’

Think: CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity

What’s the requisite ingredient for good apologetics?

Surprisingly, it’s not God.

It’s ‘common ground.’ 

My friend Jesse rightly noted in § 1.1 that it seemed Barth would disavow any sort of rational justification of the faith. Despite being a Baptist, Jesse is evidently a good, perceptive reader.

In §1.2 Barth is convinced that there is no “being” that is a larger category within which to make sense of God. That is, as Stanley Hauerwas likes to quip:

if there’s a larger, universal category of Truth with which everyone can appeal to and agree upon…then you should worship that Category, don’t worship the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. 

Put another way, we can’t step outside of the category ‘God’ and rationally evaluate it because ‘God’ is the infinite, overarching category in which we live our incredibly finite lives.

Barth insists, therefore, that we take our own Christian faith as our starting point any time we give an account of our faith. We best explain our Christian language by speaking Christian. The Christian language can only be learned by immersion.

We must never pretend, Barth confesses, that our faith can be cast aside in the effort to find ‘common ground’ with the unbeliever and thereby reason our way to God.

Just as an aside, anyone who’s actually spent time with people of other religious traditions- talking about their religion- will know how elusive is this notion of ‘common perspective’ and thus how naive and dismissive it is to presume such a thing exists.

Maybe Sherlock Holmes could reason his way to the hounds of the Baskervilles but we can never hope to reason our way to cross and resurrection.

No, Barth insists that whenever we slide into apologetics and accept the existence of ‘common ground’ in articulating our faith, we deny that one crucial article of our confession that makes us distinctly who we are:

I believe in the forgiveness of sins. 

Barth will not have us engaging the world if it means accepting the terms of a world that doesn’t believe sins have been/can be forgiven.

This is where Barth parts ways with all you Catholics (and Baptists). Barth will have nothing to do with natural theology.

For Barth, Jesus is absolutely singular. Looking to the natural world around us for insights or a path to God is not even a beginning point because its a beginning point that will never end up at Easter.

For Barth, God’s freedom will not allow the event of revelation and of faith to become captive to an institution or rationality.

We believe that God has revealed. That means revelation is the only grounds upon which we think through our faith–either of the church or of the mind.

Sorry, Jesse, but what Barth is doing here is what first made him appealing to me.

Much like how Joel Osteen makes me want to vomit in my mouth, I’ve always believed I’d rather have no answer to a faith question than a shallow, contrived, BS answer in the name of Jesus.

And, let’s admit it, that’s exactly what a lot of apologetics amounts to: backing up the bible by pimping out partial scientific assertions and Natural Philosophy for Dummies.

It’s not just academic for me. 

I came to faith against my will at a time when I thought I was the smartest person in the room- okay, I still think I’m the smartest person in the room.

My point is that I should’ve been ripe for an intellectual demonstration of the faith. But it never interested me. I came to faith by….what?….the Holy Spirit?

Whatever you might call it, it left me convinced that when it comes to God, just like any other love, reason is not the road to the heart.

Or to faith.

Stay Tuned Barth Fans: I’ll post more reflections on section 2 later this week.