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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Barth and Brunner On Natural Theology Part 1

Here's an excerpt of the work by John W. Hart at Oxford on the early correspondence between Barth and Emil Brunner. It was presented at the 1999 Barth Conference, and printed in the collection of presentation essays, entitled "For the Sake of the World," edited by George Hunsinger, Eerdmans 2004. I have yet to read Hart's longer work, but a review of it is posted at John McDowell's website. I wrote my honors thesis on Barth and Brunner on natural theology, and Hart's translation of these early letters proved most useful to my research. These letters were deeply moving, as I have heard both their voices in my life. How should we think about the "object of theology," namely God Himself? And how might we describe this God in lieu of the whirling subjectivity within which we are always confronted?

Barth had been asked to preach a sermon at the Aarau Christian Student Conference in 1916, which he entitled “The One Thing Necessary.” The point of Barth’s sermon was that instead of doing all kinds of possible things, we should do the one thing necessary. As he says:

We should begin at the beginning and recognize that God is God . . . As academics, we obstruct the way to God by, first of all, requiring definitions and concepts: “Who is God” “What is faith?” Let us respect our logical needs, but let us not let them fuel our fatal natural instinct to persist in our questions about the definition of God rather than making our decision for God. We will always walk around the circumference and never arrive at the center so long as we refuse to begin at the beginning before our definitions are set.

At this point it is clear that Barth is making our conceptual understanding secondary, but secondary to what? Notice that it is secondary to making a decision for God. Is this decision a leap of faith? Surely one must know the God whom one decides for. More importantly, is this decision for God a response to the special revelation of Christ or a general revelation found in creation? Or is it a precondition in order for revelation to be received in the first place?

Brunner responds to Barth by letter, showing honest difficulty in his own experience. He writes:

As often as I have attempted “to let God matter, to let Him speak,” it has not helped me forwards. Naturally, I am to blame for this, and I know that . . . you are nevertheless right . . . I probably preach the same way as you . . . – but often only with a half clear conscience . . . This is my experience: Either I will completely be at the center . . . : God lives, let God matter. But then I soon find that all I have in my hands are four letters [G-o-t-t] . . . , an abstract thought, with which I can neither understand nor master my life. I can say, Let God matter. But, in reality, what matters is not God but my thought that “God should matter.” . . . Or, on the other hand, depressed from this experience, I . . . fall into the other extreme: “God should matter” [becomes] “The Good should matter,” [faith mixed up with] a moral-cultural lifestyle, a system of ethics, that, up to a certain point, shines through one’s life, but naturally (as little as “the law” in Paul) has no power. . . . I’ve always had the feeling – and my moral experiences confirm it – that I have still not yet penetrated to God, that my faith has produced nothing. . . I need first to become a different person in order to have faith; but I have to have faith in order to become a different person! With kind regards, your still somewhat-fallen-short companion on the way.

Barth, upon hearing this, responds immediately with pastoral care, only to repeat the sermon for its practical input into Brunner’s situation. Barth writes:

"I understand you very well. It is exactly the same for me as it is for you, at every point. . . . I really experience the same things – you are in no way a “fallen-short companion on the way.” This you must believe . . . It really becomes clearer and clearer to me that this religious labyrinth has no exit. . . . It is a question of God, and why do we marvel if He is not found in the psychological labyrinth of our religious experience? “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). . . . We are not Pietists; we can know and really know that faith in no way consists (neither positively nor negatively, neither optimistically nor pessimistically illuminated) in taking this whole psychological reality as serious and important. Rather, with our eyes closed as it were, we hold on to God . . . Does not the entire misery of our situation exist simply in that, again and again, we turn back to ourselves instead of stretching out to the Objective? Don’t we fail – due to some kind of pride . . . – to give our obedience and trust to God as God, God above all in his objectivity? . . . I cut off these thoughts the moment I notice the trap being laid. . . . Then I wait until joyfulness, faith, enthusiasm, etc. return (sometimes they don’t return for a long time). And this objective hold on God as God is always more important to me compared to the previous unfortunately unavoidable variations of the inner life. I believe that here unfolds the constant which I (as well as you) have sought in vain in my subjective faithfulness . . . For my part, I do not believe in your unbelief."

It is this view of taking "God as God," or more precisely, letting God describe Himself to us, that has been so enriching to my own spiritual life. Yet, I can completely empathize with Brunner's thoughts. As I have embraced "God as God," it has been on shaky ground. "How do I know I'm not simply fooling myself with this objectivity business? What about my obedience?"
In Barth's reply I find freedom. It is pastorally sensitive and yet uncompromisingly truthful to name our overly skeptical mind and anxious/pious heart as a hidden lack of obedience to God. How prideful even our confessions can be! While Barth is certainly not condemning Brunner for his thoughts (since he admits to having felt very much the same), it stands to bear the last statement ("I do not believe in your unbelief)" as a warning not to dwell on these thoughts as though they might lead us to the truth, i.e. to the Word of God.

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