I can’t retrieve enough high school German from the cobwebs of my memory to know if it’s a matter of translation or not, but sometimes reading Karl Barth can feel like the theological equivalent of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
I imagine someone as self-effacing as Barth would take a dim view of someone as self-serious as Tom Wolfe; nevertheless, reading Barth can frequently feel… trippy.
Barth’s playfully meandering rhetoric, his flights of exegetical fancy, his abiding abstraction (an elusive God should lead to abstraction)- it can all quickly feel as intangible as a puff of smoke. Unmoored from the ordinary everydayness of life.
Barth is clear, for example, when breaking down the doctrine of the 3-Fold Word of God. It’s sometimes less clear though what Barth thinks the actual Christian life looks like.
In §18 of the Church Dogmatics Barth turns precisely to this question when he considers how, as redeemed children of God, the Christian life is a life of love and praise.
The gravest temptation for the Church in America, at least, is neither fundamentalism nor liberalism but sentimentality.
As Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, most sermons in most churches tell us how Christianity is really just about how we’re to be loving to one another and ‘that’s just bullshit…there’s no reality behind that.’
It’s clear in §18.2 that Hauerwas gets his stubborn realism from Barth, for in §18 Barth insists that we refuse to let our own vague and sentimental ideas of love to be our definition for the love to which God calls us.
Rather- and this is exactly what lies behind Hauerwas calling bullshit on so much of Christian piety- we take our definition of love from the drama of salvation. And it’s in the drama of Christ’s Passion that we discover the necessarily cruciform shape of love.
Saying we love we ought to love one another sounds nice but it’s only truthful if the practice of such love might get you or your children killed.
Both Barth and Hauerwas reject platitudes about ‘the loving Jesus’ that seem to exhibit amnesia about Jesus’ love getting him strung up on a cross.
Any definition of ‘love’ has to make it obvious why people would want to kill Jesus.
Barth goes in §18 to show what many skeptics and liberals forget: that a rigorous commitment to the moral and ethical life (ie modeling Jesus’ life) goes hand-in- hand with a high Christology (a high view of Jesus as the 2nd Person of the Trinity, 100% God and 100% Man). The love revealed to us as ‘for us’ in Christ’s Cross is a love that precedes the Cross. It’s a love that is eternal in that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; therefore, God is love before the first day of creation.
Because the love revealed to us on the Cross is a love that is eternal and constitutive of God’s very identity, what it means for Christians to love is more than simply to receive the grace offered through the cross.
It means more than personally, passively, individually ‘accepting Jesus into your heart.’ It means to embody and enact the cruciform story of Christ in community, for the love we find in the cross is a love that first comes from the community that is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
To be ‘loving’ then can never be anything but cruciform. Suffering love isn’t for Jesus only because the love we see revealed by the cross is the Love in whose image we’ve been made.