Welcome to The Karl Barth Society of Amherst, Massachusetts - a local chapter of the The Karl Barth Society of North America. This site is maintained by Chris TerryNelson. Please let me know how I can make this page a better resource for you. Email me, view my profile. You can also visit my new personal website, Disruptive Grace.

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.

Prayer Request

Rebecca, Craig & Trish's middle daughter (3 years old), has pneumonia and has been in Bay State Hospital since Tuesday night. She is getting worse, the pneumonia has spread to her second lung and the doctors can't find an antibiotic that works.
Please pray for God to heal her illness, and to comfort her family and friends.

The Next Barth Meeting

Hello Friends.
We shall be meeting at my house in Amherst at 7:00pm instead of 7:30pm. Our friends Matthew Palardy and Tim Koch from the Berkshires shall be traveling an 1.5 hours to meet with us, and I would like to afford them suitable time to get home at a reasonable hour.
We are in the middle of reading "The Speech of God as the Mystery of God," starting on p. 174. I have readings here already. Look forward to seeing you all!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Barth at Marburg (1909)





Karl Barth, at the age of 23, is ordained but decides to stay at Marburg to assist Martin Rade in editing Die christliche Welt ("The Christian World"). Later this year he returns to his homeland in order to pastor an assistant minister, and preaches in the same hall as John Calvin did in Geneva.

Monday, April 24, 2006

A quote from today's reading

In The Speech of God as the Mystery of God, on p. 168, Barth says the following, which made quite the impression on us tonight, and coincides nicely with what he has to say about "Secular Parables of the Truth" in CD IV/3:
"One is not to think of the secularity of the Word of God as a kind of fatal accident or an inconvenience which will some day be set aside either totally or at least in part. This secularity, this twofold indirectness, is in fact an authentic and inalienable attribute of the Word of God itself. Revelation means the incarnation of the Word of God. But incarnation means entry into this secularity. We are in this world and are through and through secular. If God did not speak to us in secular form, He would not speak to us at all. To evade the secularity of His Word is to evade Christ. Even though it dawns on us for the first time what is meant by the fact that we are flesh and therefore not God, that we have no organ or capacity for God, that we are in enmity against Him and powerless to be obedient to Him, nevertheless, what seems in the first instance an absurd obstacle that God Himself has put in the way is in fact His real way to us, and consequently a necessary way and a good way. It is not as though we could see why it can and must be so. We are not above God or ourselves. Hence the only sentence we can pronounce on the necessity and goodness of the relation in which God has set Himself to us is one that seeks to reproduce the actuality of this relation. But we have nothing else to reproduce, and therefore we must repeat the fact that just as surely as God enters into relation with us through His Word, so surely His Word must be as it is, i.e., secular, a Word spoken in twofold indirectness. It is not, then, that God was concealed from us by some unfortunate disturbance and that He revealed Himself by removing the concealment. If this were so, the attempts of man to help God by forcing his own way into the mystery would be understandable and excusable if not actually necessary. This truth is, however, that God veils HImself and that in so doing - this is why we must not try to intrude into the mystery - He unveils Himself. It is good for us that God acts as He does and it could only be fatal for us if He did not, if He were manifest to us in the way we think right, directly and without veil, without secularity or only the innocuous secularity that can be pierced by the analogia entis. It would not be love and mercy but the end of us and all things if the Word were spoken to us thus. The fact that it is spoken as it is, revealing its concealment, is a decisive indication of the truth that it has really come to us instead of our having to go to it, an attempt in which we could only fail. In its very secularity it is thus in every respect a Word of grace.

The Pointing Hand of John the Baptist




Over the writing desk of Karl Barth hung "The Crucifixion" by Grunewald. Barth always saw the task of the theologian to be that of John the Baptist: to point toward Jesus in the distance, and say "He must increase, but I must decrease." The pointing hand served as a reminder throughout his life of theological writing, preaching and teaching that he should not glorify himself, but Christ crucified.

And the little drummer boy turned 25 . . .

Here's a fantastic birthday card I just had to share with you. I pray my first child can strike this pose.

Last night I had the privilege of having my surprise birthday party at our little apartment. Scott and Leah, as well as Matthew (who travelled all the way from the Berkshires) were there. As Matthew said, "Let's just hope the fire-marshal doesn't show up." I counted about 30 people in all! It's truly amazing to see God's children, who come from so many different walks of life, all convene together because of one person's existence in this world. Thanks to Anneli, my wife, for gathering the peeps! And Mom and Dad, for excellent dining at Northampton Brewery and great gifts!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Barth's definition of a "Generous Orthodoxy"

Over at Generous Orthodoxy ThinkTank, a Princeton student named John L. Drury has posted on what Professor George Hunsinger thinks a good mission statement of a "generous orthodoxy" could be. I'll give you a hint: it has to do with someone whose picture is on this website.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Review of David Clough's Ethics in Crisis: Interpreting Barth’s Ethics



At the website for the Center for Barth Studies, a new review of David Clough's Ethics in Crisis: Interpreting Barth’s Ethics has just been posted. This Ashgate series continues to exemplify the kind of close reading that Barth scholarship sorely lacked in earlier years.

Where Did Barth and Bonhoeffer Meet For the Last Time?


My friend Stephen Broyles over at the Andreas Center sent me this picture with the following description:

"[This] is picture of a friend of mine sitting at a checkpoint on a
footpath between Switzerland and Germany very near and convenient to Basel.
I have wondered whether they met in some such place as this
."

Pictures of Barth's Study in Basel

Ben Myers at Faith and Theology has posted some beautiful pictures of Barth's study.
Check them out!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Barth Meeting At Amherst Coffee Tonight!

Hey guys,
Barth will meet at 8pm at Amherst Coffee downtown, following the Holy Eucharist service at Grace Episcopal Church (which starts at 7pm).
Please come by. We'll be finishing the section entitled "The Speech of God as the Act of God" starting on p. 143 in CD I/1.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Site update

Dear folks,
I'm currently learning how to update blogger with some better resources and nicer images. Hopefully I'll have 'er lookin' purdy in no time!
Until then, please take the time to visit the new links listed on the side.
Cheers,
~Chris

Site update

Dear folks,
I'm currently learning how to update blogger with some better resources and nicer images. Hopefully I'll have 'er lookin' purdy in no time!
Until then, please take the time to visit the new links listed on the side.
Cheers,
~Chris

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Last night at Dead Sea Cafe I gave a 20-minute summary of Barth's understanding of the phenomenon known as "secular parables," found in the first half of CD IV/3. Here we see Barth explaining more fully how it is that "God may speak through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. (CD I/1, p. 55).

Please email me if you would like my powerpoint presentation and notes for this lecture.