On the Impossible Possibility of Karl Barth or: Why God is God

Many years ago, Karl Barth was invited to give a lecture on theology during his visit to the United States. After waxing lyrical in his high-pitched Swiss accent, he spent some time answering questions and mingling with those in attendance. A young man who was able to snag a chair in the back mustered up the courage to walk to the front and shake the hand of the man who he believed had changed his life. After waiting and waiting he finally reached out his hand and said, “Professor Barth I want to thank you for all that you’ve done. I’ve read everything you’ve ever written and it has changed my life.” Barth looked inquisitively at the young man, took his hand and said, “Son, not even I have read everything I’ve written.”

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Or so I was told long ago. Stories about Barth are like great myths that you can never really prove, but they wonderfully add to what we imagine he was like. That simple story of his interaction with a young man was my first introduction to Karl Barth prior to purchasing my copy of The Epistle to the Romans. From the story, and from my first reading, I quickly learned that to read Barth’s work is work. He held a long time motto that what really matters is “to say the same thing again and again in different words.” This is true of his writing, his preaching, and his influence in the world of theology today.

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In The Epistle to the Romans there is a great passage where Barth juxtaposes the law with faith: “The truly creative act by which men become the children of Abraham, by which stones are transformed into sons, does not lie in the possible possibility of the law, but in the impossible possibility of faith.”[1] His expression of the impossible possibility of faith is one that, I believe, is indicative of Karl Barth’s greater contribution to theology. His writing is some of the most difficult to comprehend but, like Joyce’s Ulysses and Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it will change you.

About a month ago I set out to write a number of reflections on what I consider are some of Barth’s best exegeses from Church Dogmatics. In preparation I pulled out my heavily earmarked and notated copies of the different volumes and dove back into the strange new world of dialectic theology. To do theology dialectically is to think in unresolved contrasts. It means that Barth can write, “God is God” which looks like a sentence that is an explanation, but it actually really does not explain anything at all. Barth, unlike so many theologians, rejected the temptation to explain, and thereby limit, God. Instead, Barth leaves it at “God is God.”

This kind of theology is powerful and it is frustrating. We are so conditioned to expect explanation and clarity that when reading Barth we are left reeling and waiting for the notes to resolve, but they don’t. Like any great jazz improvisationalist, Barth leaves us wanting more because the work of theology is never finished.

Just as it is hard to read Barth, it is hard to write about Barth. When I first read his reflections on Creation, the Tower of Babel, the Doctrine of Election, and the Strange New World within the Bible, it fundamentally changed me as a person and as a Christian. When I returned to those works over the last month I experienced the same excitement of transformation once again but when I opened my computer to write, I stared at a blank screen for a long time. How could I adequately reflect on explaining the unexplainable? How could I limit a 44-page exegesis to a 2,000-word blog post? How could I share my thoughts on something that gives me theological whiplash (in the best way)?

Writing about Barth’s writing is difficult precisely because Barth is impossibly possible.

God is God. Three words that say everything and nothing at the same time. God is God; an impossibly possible statement. To say, “God is God,” is to affirm that we cannot control God. We cannot start with “God is…” and fill in the blank with whatever we want God to be. God is what God is, and we are not. (Hence the instruction to Moses: “Tell them ‘I Am” sent you.”)

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“God is God” in its frustrating impossible possibility, reminds us that God can only be known through God. This does not mean that God is somehow hidden from creation, or completely unknowable, but that God is revealed to us according to God’s will. We cannot go digging for God throughout the bible, we cannot go out into the peaceful wilderness to find the divine; it is God who finds us. Or, as Barth puts it, “[the grace of God] is like an arrow from the other side of a shore on which we will never set foot, yet it hits us.”[2]

What Barth’s impossibly possible theology sets forth is a theology that is never finished. Like the shorter ending to the gospel according to Mark, we are left in God’s great ellipses. We are now part of God’s great story being told until God makes all things new. There is no end to the work of theology because there is no end to God. Faith, similarly, never concludes because every moment is a new opportunity to be met by God and to be transformed over and over again.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 138.

[2] Ibid., 98.

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2 thoughts on “On the Impossible Possibility of Karl Barth or: Why God is God

  1. I appreciate this thoughtful reading of Barth. And while the impossibility points to the movement for God on the other side; it is the same impossibility that allows us to do theology with audacity. It’s this truth about theology that must never be lost. Too many Barthians are so captured by Barth’s emphasis and corrective to the problems of 19th century theology that they fail to appreciate the true task of theology. Thanks again…

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