Ancient Answers


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Lights of God rise in the darkness

Over a hundred years ago (in 1915, to be precise) the great German theologian wrote the following, in an essay called “The Righteousness of God”:

What is the use of all the preaching, baptising, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, the counsels of ‘applied religion’….the efforts to enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God?… Are we not rather hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will?

Not exactly a feel-good passage for someone like me who is involved in “preaching…religious moods and modes, applied religion…monthly church papers” and other forms of “modern ecclesiasticism”! Am I and the people with me waiting for the “critical event that ought to happen” but “probably never will?” What is the “critical event”?

Elsewhere in this same essay, Barth wrote:

We make a veritable uproar with our morality and culture and religion. But we may presently be brought to silence, and with that will begin our true redemption.

In the reflection I posted early this morning about the Orthodox celebration of the Elevation of the Cross I ended by proposing a different form to the ritual of the elevation, a form that would shift the focus of the church from inward-looking to outward-looking. The Cross of Jesus Christ – of Jesus Christ, not something other that any of us might call “my cross”! – is the most perfect expression of God’s righteousness. And it is the Cross that we should present to the world, not the “uproar” of “our morality and culture and religion”! And the Cross does’t need an uproar or words and slogans. The Cross asks us to be silent, empty, in order for the Cross to reveal Christ to the world.

Barth wrote this essay over a hundred years ago, in the midst of the First World War. We today are not in the midst of a world war, but we are in a war nevertheless. Once again, I call upon Karl Barth from his European vantage point of 1915. Perhaps things are not much different. Only the guns of war have changed.

There seem to be no surer means of rescuing us from the alarm cry of conscience than religion and Christianity. Religion gives us the chance, beside and above the vexations of business, politics, and private and social life, to celebrate solemn hours of devotion – to take flight to Christianity as to an eternally green island in the grey sea of the everyday. There comes over us a wonderful sense of safety and security from the unrighteousness whose might we everywhere feel. It is a wonderful illusion, if we can comfort ourselves with it, that in our Europe – in the midst of capitalism, prostitution, the housing problem, alcoholism, tax evasion and militarism – the church’s preaching, the church’s morality, and the ‘religious life’ go their uninterrupted way…A wonderful illusion, but an illusion, a self-deception!

In the midst of the unrighteousness Barth names – and how contemporary they sound a hundred years later – the church takes comfort inside our walls, surrounded by our holy icons, repeating age-old rituals (while not even probing their spiritual meaning). As our pews empty, we take comfort that the ‘faithful’ still come. Meanwhile, hordes are leaving for other religious fixes. And then there are the ones in our midst who resent the changes going on in the church: they resent that the church today is not the church of their fathers and mothers! I hear that from men and women in their 40s and 50s.

How do we reach men and women in their 40s and 50s who want nothing else than the church to be the church they grew up in, when the church was little more than an ethnic club? I imagine that the words of Karl Barth are completely incomprehensible to people who live in an imaginary past, when America was GREAT, when the church was GREAT!

The Orthodox Church relies on its traditions and liturgical wealth to ensure its existence and durability. We baptise infants, we trust that the sacraments and sanctifying acts of the church will plant the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our people. And I fully believe that we are right in making these claims. I believe that God acts in the lives of people through the sacraments and the various sanctifying acts of the church. God acts through the sermons that are preached with the sacraments. God acts through the community bonds that Christian fellowship engenders. But only if we allow the righteousness of God to be revealed; only when we don’t see our own righteousness as the measure of faith; only when we allow ourselves to be silent so God can speak.

We will not fill our pews with smarter programs and entertaining music and feel-good sermons. Mega churches do those things and pack them in by the thousands every Sunday. Good for them. Though they claim to be ‘evangelical’, Karl Barth would probably have a hard time recognising them as Christian. Programs, ‘relevance’ and ingenious efforts at Christian entertainment were prevalent a century ago when he wrote his essay “The Righteousness of God”, and they have been brought to new levels of ingenuity in our technological age. But they are not the mission of the church. Relevance is NOT the mission of the church! Relevance to what? Facebook, short attention spans, social media, materialism, the politics of race and division, our therapeutic fixations?

Barth’s magnum opus was his multi-volume Kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics)

No, the church represents – or should represent – the presence of God’s righteousness, which is why I proposed that the Cross could be more appropriately elevated outward on Sept. 14th, so it could face outward from the church. The Cross of Jesus Christ is our emblem and we should live as the Cross teaches us. Then and only then can the church escape the dead ends of relevance and power. Let us face the world with the Cross of Christ – not as a trinket around our necks, but as the force that shows us how to live as the righteousness of God in the world. Is the Elevation of the Cross merely a ritual? Or does it bring us closer to the “critical event”?

I conclude with more words by Karl Barth:

In the midst of the old world of war and money and death…Lights of God rise in the darkness, and powers of God become real in weakness. Real love, real sincerity, real progress become possible; morality and culture, state and nation, even religion and the church now become possible – now for the first time! One is taken with the vision of an immortality or even of a future life here on earth in which the righteous will of God breaks forth, prevails, and is done as it is in heaven.

There is the “critical event” so far as I can make out without reading the entire essay. There is the “critical event” that has not happened yet and probably never will in Barth’s own words: When God’s righteousness prevails “and is done as it is in heaven”! But can we at least aim to be lights of God in the darkness? Can we rise from our lethargy and allow the Cross and the Holy Spirit to guide our walk through life, this life?

I don’t own a copy of Barth’s essay “The Righteousness of God”. All the above passages are as quoted in the book “Church as Moral Community – Karl Barth’s Vision of Christian Life, 1915-1922” by Michael D. O’Neil, published in 2013 by the Paternoster Press in England.


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The church knows only one totality

In a previous post I outlined some thoughts Karl Barth offered at a gathering in 1962 and which constitute one chapter of the book, Barth in Conversation. He was asked to say something about the church in a totalitarian state, such as existed in 1962 in East Germany and other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Barth had experienced totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s and had opposed it in his sermons, writings and church activism. So it was perfectly reasonable for that 1962 gathering of Protestant book dealers in Switzerland to ask him such a question. In my previous post I shared his thoughts on totalitarianism in general and I drew a connection between his thoughts and what Paul called the powers and principalities that rule our lives. I offered the example of social media and the internet as contemporary manifestations of the powers and principalities. But let’s return to Karl Barth and see how or if he answers the question about the church in a totalitarian society.

Barth was asked about “possibilities” for the church in a totalitarian state. Barth turns to the question by first rejecting the term possibilities in the plural.

For the church in a totalitarian world and in a totalitarian state, there is only one possibility – one alone, but it is a genuine possibility. And I would now like to describe it simply with the word in the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel: “And looking around at those who sat about him” (Mark 3:34). The Latin text of the New Testament puts it in a remarkable way: circumspiciens ad eos, qui erant in circuitu. I believe that this word circuitus is actually the proper word for “church”. The church is those who are around Jesus and whom he looks at around him. And that the church be this circuitus, and so simply be church in the totalitarian world – that is its “possibility.” (Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, page 242)

Barth quoted the verse in Latin probably because it was more accessible to his listening audience. But the Greek original is just as powerful: καὶ περιβλεψάμενος τοὺς περὶ αὐτὸν κύκλῳ καθημένους. The church is only church when it is κύκλῳ. κύκλῳ (around) whom? Christ Jesus! When the church is κύκλῳ, the “circle” around Christ, Barth likens it to a wall – but “a completely different one from Mr. Ulbright’s”, and here Barth makes reference to a man associated with the building of the wall in Berlin; or, in 2018, Barth might say, a wall “completely different from Mr. Trump’s!”

The church knows that all the totalities of the world and society and also of the state are actually false gods and therefore lies… Whenever the church takes these lies seriously, then it is lost. With all calmness and in all peace, it must treat them as lies. And the more that the church lives in humility and knows that “we too are only human, and there are also many lies in us,” then it will know all the more surely that “God sits in governance” over and against the lies that are in us and over and against the lies in the world and in the state and wherever else they may be. And in that case the church, regardless of the circumstances and no matter how entangled and difficult the situation, remains at its task and knows itself to be forbidden to fear for its future. Its future is the Lord. He, not the totalitarian state, is coming to the church.

But, of course, the church must believe that. The church must be in its place. The church must get serious about what it proclaims… (Ibid., page 243)

I don’t need to quote any more of Barth’s comments. It’s plain to see his approach in dealing with matters of political and spiritual urgency. He always comes back to the original vision of the Scriptures. He does not rely on any historical experiences of the church because he knows that the church easily fell and falls into lies. He saw the German church capitulate to the lies of Hitler in the 1930s. He and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were the most prominent spokesmen against the lies of Nazi racist ideology. But almost all German church leaders preferred to listen to the lies of Hitler than the warnings issued by Barth and Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer and other courageous Christian opponents of Hitler paid with their lives and became martyrs for the faith in the murderous hands of the Reich.

The execution grounds at Flossenbürg concentration camp, where Bonhoeffer and others were executed on the morning of 9 April 1945

Memorial to those executed on 9 April 1945 (click to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barth refused to give allegiance to the powers and principalities, whatever form they took. Standing firmly on the Scriptures, he was able to see through the lies and deceptions. That is the church’s greatest task in every generation. We are not here to adapt the Christian message to any social movement or moment. As another recent Christian activist put it, Jesus Christ did not bring about the kingdom of God by “christianizing the social order” (John Howard Yoder, as quoted in The Wisdom of the Cross, edited by Stanley Hauerwas et al, page 199). The patristic era of the church is often invoked as a time when the Roman Empire was indeed “christianized”: pagan practices, rituals and temples were replaced by Christian analogues. Barth would have none of that. The temptation is too great, and the church never mustered the spiritual strength to withstand the allure of prominence and success in the eyes of the world.

So yes, there is nothing outdated in Barth’s opposition to Hitler in the 1930s or the comments he made in 1962 in the face of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe. The church must always be κύκλῳ, around Christ. He is the only totality the church should recognize. And I love that word, totality, that Barth uses. We always have and always will live in times of totalities: entities that command our full attention and allegiance, that drain our attention spans, that make it impossible for us to be challenged by the Scriptures in their full force.

Barth was born (1886) into a world where the integrity of the Scriptures was questioned. How could the Bible still be called the Word of God when scholars had proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the Old and New Testaments were written by fallible human beings over the course of many centuries? Barth’s confidence was not shaken by these developments. But neither was he a fundamentalist. He saw that the writers of the Bible were completely, passionately absorbed and transformed in the message they were communicating, and by their writings they transmitted this message to anyone who is prepared to be similarly affected.

The Scriptures are a message from God. True, spoken and transmitted indirectly through human words and understanding. But that does not take anything away from their power to transform human lives and to guide us through difficult times. Indeed, acknowledging the human element only strengthens the Scriptures: in addition to being God’s message to us, the Scriptures are also a response to God’s message. And we also must stand in our own time and respond to God’s clear message. Jesus Christ is the only totality I as a Christian should accept in my life. When I don’t, I capitulate at least part of my affections to the powers and principalities that lurk at every corner. I will never be a Karl Barth. But I know from experience that I am strongest in my resistance to the fallen powers and totalities when I place myself under the government of Scripture.


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Our Totalitarian Lives

I stand in awe of Karl Barth (1886-1968), generally acknowledged as the greatest theologian of the 20th century and one of the greatest of all time. My awe is not simply at his theological depth and understanding of Scripture; I’m awed at the sheer quantity of what he wrote and published. His greatest contribution to Christian theology is undoubtedly his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, a multi-volume work of over 9,000 pages (in its original German). When I consider this huge work and the countless other books and papers that he contributed to a deeper understanding of our Christian faith, I cannot help but think how meagre our own efforts are. Today, with all the tools that technology has given us to make research and publication so easy, what theologian produces one-tenth or one-hundredth of what Barth produced with only a typewriter and printed books at his disposal? As I said, I stand or sit in awe of Barth – and other men like him of bygone eras who produced books for the ages instead of idiot tweets that our own era will be known for.

The recently published book, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, contains precisely what its title signifies, transcripts of various public “conversations” in which Barth participated and in which he answered questions posed to him by a variety of people – not just professional scholars and clergy, but also journalists and even prisoners! Barth was very fond of visiting prisons and having group conversations with prisoners. When he toured the United States in 1962, he insisted on visiting some major prisons, including San Quentin in California. The greatest theologian of the century was no aloof elitist.

One of the most fascinating conversations in this collection is one that took place on June 24th, 1962, with Protestant book dealers, in the Alpine village of Flims in his native Switzerland. One of the questions posed to him was as follows: “What possibilities do you see for the existence of the church in a totalitarian state?” Certainly an important question to ask at that time, when Europe was divided between a totalitarian East and a democratic West, but also an important question to ask in any modern era; very much including our own. Barth’s answer was long. A few quotes are worth sharing:

“Totalitarian” – that somehow refers to something whole, comprehensive. And when one says “totalitarian state,” one apparently means a state that demands something in its entirety from humans….that they place themselves without reservation at the disposal of its teaching and its will and its purposes. The total state is a state that says, “You shall love me with your whole heart, with your whole mind, from the entirety of your soul, and from the entirety of your strength” (and here Barth is clearly alluding to God’s command in Deuteronomy 6:5 as being demanded by the state). And there we have the mystery: the total state, even when it poses as being atheistic, is a state that arises in the shape of a deity and wills to have from humans that which only God can will to have from humans. That is the imposing thing about such a totalitarian state: it is, so to say, a caricature of God. Even when it wishes to be atheistic, it somehow has to represent God in a distorted form on earth….a curious contradiction: the godless atheistic state that presents itself, reveals itself, and represents itself as divine.

Is it clear to all of us that not only the Communist state and also not only the Hitler state, but rather every state has something of the totalitarian state in it, that every state, even the finest and freest and most democratic, thus resembles a large cat, which has fine paws to be sure, but whose paw has claws stuck in it somewhere? And the claws in the cat’s paw – that is the totalitarian element in every state: and one can never be entirely certain just when that totalitarianism will appear. As I say, in every state!

After giving a couple recent examples in Swiss history, he goes on to some startling statements which should give us pause to reflect on our own habits.

You know, that’s how it is with the totalitarian spirit: it doesn’t begin with the state. Human society, if you will, is totalitarian as such. Society around us automatically demands certain things from us. It doesn’t make much noise, as long as one goes along with it. But when one doesn’t go along, when one swims against the stream, things get nasty….What “they” believe and think and do – this “they” governs “in the air” (reference to Ephesians 2:2 and Paul’s teaching about powers and principalities in Ephesians 6:12). Without police! No one lands in prison. But everyone has to do and has to approve what “they” do and approve….Because society is always based on this “they”, there is also occasionally a totalitarian state, and then its claws become more or less apparent….

Now, you see, something much larger stands behind the totalitarian society and then the totalitarian state. I would say it is a totalitarian world. Yes, what the Bible calls “the world” is a being full of totalitarian demands. When the apostle Paul spoke of it, he spoke of those powers and authorities that rule. He named them “thrones, principalities” and so on. And that is not mythology. That is the truest reality. (Further passages in Paul that explain what Barth is referring to: Romans 8:38, 1 Corinthians 15:24, Ephesians 1:21, Ephesians 3:10, Colossians 1:16, Colossians 2:15)

You can guess what this is leading to: Barth’s itemization of some of the social constructs that define our lives: fashion, media, sports, money. He even makes a humorous reference to his experience in the United States in the previous months:

Or take something else, what we now call “traffic”. Take a look at our streets with all these cars! I have just had this experience in America….four cars next to each other in one direction and four in the other direction! And nonstop, day and night. You ask yourself, what’s going on here? What are they all rushing to? Yes, they must rush. Things are in a hurry, yes, in a hurry. And so they hurry along. And then to realize that cars like this are rushing and racing all over the world! We wouldn’t have it any other way. No, we wouldn’t have it any other way. It must be so. But when something must be so, then it is something totalitarian. Modern people have mostly become car people, and to be sure, not in the sense that they govern cars, but rather that cars govern them.

So now it should be evident to you that we live within an entire spiderweb of such powers and authorities, and you have before you what I call the totalitarian world.

If I were present in an audience listening to this methodical exposure of the totalitarian instinct I would have become breathless. How true Barth’s words ring, and even more today than 55 years ago. Because how much further we have traveled down the road of totalitarianism!

What would Barth say about today’s digital world, and especially social media and the power they hold upon a growing majority of the “world”? Hardly a day goes by that we are not reminded of the power social media exerts in our lives, even defining how many of us receive our news, influencing even elections in democracies such as ours. How free are we, truly? The things Barth used as examples of society’s totalitarian instinct are still with us – fashion, money, media, sports – but now we have an even more powerful force in the prevalence of social media. His image of “traffic” and cars applies even more to the digital world that now controls so much of our lives. The Guardian newspaper included a devastating article on New Year’s Day: Take it from the insiders: Silicon Valley is eating your soul.

A pre-Christmas statement by Facebook claimed that although “passive” use of social media could harm users, “actively interacting with people” online was linked not just to “improvements in wellbeing”, but to “joy”. “In short,” the Guardian article states, “if Facebook does your head in, the solution is apparently not to switch off, but more Facebook.” So if you’re not happy, it’s because you’re not using Facebook enough! Don’t be a light user of Facebook and social media, immerse yourself, find happiness online with Facebook!

The former Facebook president Sean Parker warned in November that its platform “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” God indeed only knows – or we will know when it will be too late, after we have created a few generations of robots ready to be assimilated into a Big Brother corporate totalitarian state such as those depicted in movies of dystopian futures. Another former Facebook executive was quoted to say: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth … So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion.” But he still loves the company! So must we all, despite what it’s doing to our brains and our social interactions. One Stanford University lecturer and tech consultant pontificates with statements like this: “For new behaviours to really take hold, they must occur often.” But even this devotee came to realize the truth of what he was promoting and eventually installed a device in his home that cut off the internet at a set time every day. Nice that the elite can have such digital solutions to digital sickness. Most people are not so lucky. Even Steve Jobs, inventor of the iPad, was quoted in 2010 to say that his children do not use the iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” he said in an interview. Again, the elite have options that the majority of the people who will become drones in a dystopian future do not. I’m not exaggerating.

The scariest part of all this and the reason why I want to relate it to the biblical teachings about powers and principalities is that the owners of these companies – Facebook, Google, etc. – do not have control over what their digital platforms are doing. It’s all done by bots – pieces of software that perform automated tasks – and other such digital entities which follow their own rules and probably create or will create their own realities. Tristan Harris recently told Wired magazine: “Right now, 2 billion people’s minds are already jacked in to this automated system, and it’s steering people’s thoughts toward either personalised paid advertising or misinformation or conspiracy theories. And it’s all automated; the owners of the system can’t possibly monitor everything that’s going on, and they can’t control it.” The same Tristan Harris asserted: “Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts.” I don’t care about governments – I don’t trust them – but I do care about religion, especially my religion. So in a sequel to what I write here I want to look at Barth’s answer to the question originally posed to him: “What possibilities do you see for the existence of the church in a totalitarian state?” Can the Christian church have any resistance to the multiple threats of totalitarianism?