Ours, Will Willimon likes to say, is a loquacious God.
He calls Abraham. He puts words on the lips of prophets. It’s his word, scripture says, that was with God in the very beginning and it’s the Word that kicks in Mary’s pregnant belly.
We can only speak of God because God has spoken.
If God had not spoken, then we could say nothing about God- even if God still existed, we should remain silent.
Our words could never hope to capture even a hint of truth about God had God not spoken.
But because God has spoken our speech about God does correspond to something real and objective.
Our knowledge of God is knowledge of God, and not of ourselves, because God acts, God speaks, and God enables us to hear and to receive.
This is the lynchpin of Christianity for Barth, not the resurrection or the incarnation or the atonement. It’s whether or not ‘…and God said…’ is true. If God didn’t speak, then everything else collapses like a house of cards.
‘…and God said…’ is the lynchpin of contemporary skepticism too.
Consider this excerpt from T.M. Luhrmann’s editorial in the NY Times about evangelicals’ experience of God in prayer. She’s an anthropologist, who recently released a book, When God Talks Back, on the same subject.
I soon came to realize that one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.
One way to see this is that the books teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals. For instance, the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” one of the best-selling books of all time, teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones. That is more or less what Warren invites readers to do. He spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose.
Granted she’s an anthropologist so this is the angle you’d expect her to take (and I share her assessment of The Purpose Driven Life), but notice: her initial presumptions are:
A) God doesn’t actually speak and
B) Religious experience originates not in God but in us.
This is exactly what Barth is trying to say no to in his heavy-footed, dense, wordy way.
Barth would say no to T.M. Luhrmann who can’t imagine that ‘and God said…’ could true.
For Barth, just as the words of scripture aren’t the word of God until God chooses, in freedom, to make them so, our experience of God is also dependent on God’s freedom to act or not act upon us.
Sometimes, you go to God in prayer and God is silent.
Dark nights of the soul happen.
This has to be the case for Barth because God is never under our control, not in the pages of scripture and certainly not in our religious experience.
And, Barth would caution, just as in scripture we enter ‘a strange new world’ not like our own, when God enters our experience and self-knowledge- through prayer- it’s equally strange.
Back to Luhrmann:
In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.
Barth would respond to this by opening up a great, big can of NEIN.
Nein: prayer isn’t a back-and-forth conversation with a therapist who’s always in his office, waiting for you.
For Barth, God is more like Jacob on Lost, sometimes he’s there.
And sometimes he’s elsewhere.
But he’s always worth searching after.
Barth would say, nein: if the God you experience in prayer is like the one above, a benign therapist, it’s a god you’ve created in your image- it’s not the God who created you in his image.
Only the God who sometimes doesn’t speak back to you in prayer is the real God. Only the God who sometimes scares, startles, upsets and judges you with what you hear is the God of the Bible.
Barth for Dummies Summary:
The Bible is not a magic genie lamp.
Prayer is not a magic genie lamp.
God is free to act- or not- as God wills.
Were it not so, prayer would cease to be an act of faith on our part.
And it would cease to be grace, an unmerited gift, on God’s part.
And when God does act in our lives, just like in the bible, what God wills seldom corresponds to what we want.