Friday, June 20, 2008

Karl Barth and I Make Nice

If Barth had not been placed in a certain era and culture, would his views on general revelation have been more magnanimous? The ferocity with which he attacks it was spurred by a particularly sinister historical and theological event:
The Evangelical Church in Germany was unambigously and consistently confronted by a definite and new form of natural theology, namely, by the demand to recognise in the political events of 1933, and especially in the form of the God-sent Adolf Hitler, a source of specific new revelation of God, which demanding obedience and trust, took its place beside the revelation attested in Holy Scripture (Church Dogmatics II.1)
Then again, that demand has been a near-constant in the history of Christendom, from the divine right of king to George W. Bush's implications of God's mandate on his presidency.

So does general revelation, as Barth suggests, necessarily demand preference over specific, that is, Christological revelation? It makes sense to me. Christianity does not come naturally--that's what Christ means when He says the road is narrow. The beauty and the beast of Christ's calling is that it goes completely against our nature. We don't want to surrender our (illusory) control over our lives; we don't want to turn the other cheek or carry the cross or love our enemies or do any of the things we're commanded to do. In fact, Barth argues that we can't do these things, that God must do them for us.

General revelation, however, is our attempt to maintain our control over the universe. If reason (and I'm particularly concerned with reason here) is an expression of and avenue to God equal to His Word, Christ, then we don't need Him, or at least we need Him less. Most evangelicals, I suspect, would be loathe to put any sort of general revelation above the Bible, but so-called "natural theology," in its attractiveness, adaptability, and popularity, almost has to take precedence over biblical theology. Our instinct is to seek the easy way, and general revelation can pave eight-lane freeways.

We see this most evidently in the evangelical co-opting of rationalism. My Bible-college alma mater sponsors a so-called "Philosophy Club" message board, though I suspect more theology than philosophy is discussed. A frequent topic of conversation is logic's role in theology and the universe. For reasons I don't understand at all, the majority of the amateur philosophers on the board maintain that the Lord must operate within the bounds of reason--after all, our universe is subject to logic, and God made our universe. Sounds like a non-sequitur to me; I'm a Barthian and therefore believe that God is Wholly Other, that we can know nothing about Him that He does not reveal to us.

And so maybe I overshot my criticism and conflict with Barth. I certainly agree that logic--the most basic form of natural theology--can't really tell us anything about God and, furthermore, that this type of logical theorizing demands privilege over specifically Christian revelation. And yet I'm uncomfortable discounting non-Christian thought entirely. I wonder if God has not revealed Himself beyond the strictures of Hebrew theocracy and the life of Christ. Such a thought is far more liberal than Barth, who's more conservative than his evangelical critics assume.

But more on that tomorrow.

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