Reading Karl Barth is like chewing sunflower seeds. It’s salty and hard and it cuts you in little ways that hurt and linger for days. The past couple of weeks I’ve posted some critical reflections on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. The church that first made me a Christian was Wesleyan, United Methodist. The theologian who made me a nominally interesting Christian, however, was not John Wesley but Karl Barth.
I’ve taken some shit for those previous posts from other Methodists wondering why I’m exalting Barth at Wesley’s expense. It’s true they make queer (don’t worry, I don’t mean gay!) theological bedfellows; in fact, Barth had Methodism particularly in mind when he brutally attacked the pietism of his day. Nonetheless, I think Barth is a helpful voice for Methodists in the 21st century as Barth’s eyewitness stand, in both World Wars, against the dangers of cultural Christianity makes him a prescient guide in post Christendom. What’s more, Wesley himself looked well outside of his own Enlightenment Anglican tradition. Those of us who just parrot Wesleyan theology and stay within our particular denominational stream are doing something very un-Wesleyan.
Still, if there’s a discontinuity between Barth and Wesley on anything it’s the fourth vantage point of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Experience. I hardly need to link to any stories about the issues presently dividing the larger church and point out how Experience is given a priority in negotiating those debates. Experience is often the primary perspective at odds with Scripture and Tradition. Beyond these debates, for many in our post-everything world our personal experience is the only authority to which we’ll submit. The primacy of Experience is undisputed in our world today and in Wesleyan theology it’s validity is unquestioned. Barth however would challenge us to consider whether our Quadrilateral should not instead be a Triangle, doubting that our personal experience is even an appropriate vantage point from which to receive revelation, the Word of God.
Barth takes a dim view of Experience in general, believing that the subjective turn to the individual’s experience of God obscures the objective, once-for-all, reality of Christ. We believe in Jesus Christ, Barth says over and again, not in our experience of Christ. Our experience is not salvation; salvation has been achieved through cross and resurrection quite apart from any experience we may have of it. It’s true- you’re saved, in other words, whether you ever believe it and experience it personally or not. This, I digress, is what allowed Barth to have such a hospitable and non-anxious presence towards unbelievers.
Barth does not share the sunny Wesleyan assessment of Experience, for it implies, more generally, that an encounter of God is somehow given in human nature, that we are, as creatures, wired to apprehend our Creator. For Barth, it’s true we’re predisposed to long for and apprehend the divine and, to him, nothing could be more idolatrous. Barth nods along to Fuerbach’s critique that most of our theology is only anthropology. Our ‘experience’ of God, Barth judges, is most often only an experience of ourselves projected onto god; therefore, the only true experience we can have of God is the experience God gives to us. Experience of God is received it is not self-derived.
And this is where it gets tricky for the Quadrilateral because, as scripture attests abundantly, the experience God gives us of God frequently contradicts our personal experience of the world.
Think Saul on the way to Damascus or Peter receiving a mystical Spirit-given dream that upends his religious categories.
Our experience in and of the world is not a reliable means of discerning and illumining revelation because revelation is most often received as an intrusion upon our world. Grace does not confirm our experience of the world; it disrupts our experience of the world, and because we’ve made a world that pretends Jesus is not King that grace is most often felt as a kind of violence to our world and our experience of it.
The Spirt seldom confirms our personal experience of the world; it instead convicts it and sometimes condemns it.