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.

On How To Read Barth or: Why The Tamed Cynic Is Wrong

Back in February of 2013, Jason Micheli (The Tamed Cynic) proposed an invitation to read Karl Barth’s writings over the following two years. Throughout this time Jason periodically reflected on what he read for the whole world to read on his blog. I like Jason a lot. I’ve written about him here on the blog, I’ve used him as an example in a number of sermons and devotionals, and I genuinely believe he is one of the most faithful followers of Jesus I’ve ever known. Because I like Jason, and I grew up listening to his sermons, I like Karl Barth.

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Barth is most well known for his writings in the theologically shattering Epistle to the Romans and his dialectical approach in his Church Dogmatics. Reading his work over the last few years has profoundly shaped the way I understand what is means to be a Christian and how to read scripture.

When Jason invited me to start reading Barth from afar I was already familiar with The Epistle to the Romans, I had read sections from Church Dogmatics, and had read a number of his sermons from other compilations (Deliverance to the Captives and The Early Preaching of Karl Barth). Though relatively familiar with Barth’s style and larger project, I was excited to read Jason’s “Tips for Reading Karl Barth”:

  1. Barth is the opposite of the social media, fast food age. Read slow. Barth’s thought frequently unfolds in long clauses and sentences that double back almost like music. It’s better to focus on a page or a long paragraph and understand it than try to read everything I’ve scheduled in the given week.
  2. Barth uses the term “being” a lot. IT’s a freighted philosophical term that would be better translated for you as “character.”
  3. Whenever Barth speaks of the “Word of God” he’s usually referring to Jesus NOT scripture. This will be obvious in the next sections.
  4. The footnotes. Skip over them. You can read them if you want but don’t let them slow you down or intimidate you.

 

Jason’s “tips” are on point when the daunting task of reading Barth is open on the table. Barth’s Church Dogmatics is divided into fourteen volumes and takes up the entirety of one of my bookshelves. I fully agree with his first three “tips” but I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree with the fourth: “The footnotes. Skip over them.”

If theology is like jazz, then Barth’s footnotes are his greatest improvisational work over the larger melody.

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Reading Barth is challenging and requires patience. There are times when you will come to the end of a long paragraph and have no recollection of what you just read. There are times that you are sure you know what he is driving at only to have him turn the whole topic upside down and address it from a different angle. But it is in his footnotes (or excurses) that he exegetes the biblical texts that brought him to the conclusions in the rest of the text. The excurses are where Barth does the true work of theology.

For example, in part III.1 The Doctrine of Creation, Barth makes the claim that “Creation is the external basis of the Covenant.” He breaks down arguments for the watchmaker analogy as if God created the Earth like a watch and is not sitting back and watching the hands go round and round and instead posits that God, as the divine creator, created freely in love and is forever bound with creation. This is all good and true, but it is the long excurses on Genesis 1 that the brilliance of Barth’s theology comes to light.

In it he goes through the scripture with a fine-toothed comb and provides reflections on each day of the creation story. He looks at the presence of light and darkness: “The best analogy to the relationship between light and darkness is that which exists between the elected and the rejected in the history of the Bible: between Jacob and Esau; between David and Saul; between Judas and the other apostles. But even this analogy is improper and defective. For even the rejected, even Satan and the demons, are the creation of God.”

He spends a great amount of space analyzing the power of created water and its relevance throughout the entirety of scripture: “The Old Testament ranks a sea voyage with desert-wandering, captivity and sickness as one of the forms of extreme human misery; of the misery from which it is the gracious and mighty will of God, which we cannot extol too highly, to redeem us. It is thus the more note-worthy that the most striking Messianic deeds of Jesus are His walking on the sea in royal freedom, and His commanding the waves and storm to be still by His Word.”

All of this and much more can only be found in the places that Jason suggested skipping over. The more I have read Barth, the more I am convinced that the most important parts to read are his footnotes where he dives deeply into the strange new world of the bible.

Therefore, over the next few weeks, I will be posting reflections on some of my favorite excurses from Church Dogmatics including Barth’s thoughts on Creation, the Tower of Babel, and the Doctrine of Election.

Jason’s proposal to read Barth was a great challenge, and I am grateful for his “tips”, but the ripe fruits of Barth’s work should not be skipped over.

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