Saturday, November 21, 2009

Karl Barth, Christian Humanist

I’m afraid I’ve been spreading a vicious lie about my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, for several years now, and I feel I need to clear the air a bit. I brought it up on the very first episode of The Christian Humanist Podcast (TCH if you’re me; the CHP if you’re Nathan Gilmour or teach at Bethel University), and I go into more detail in this post from two summers ago.

The lie: Karl Barth did not believe in what Calvinists call “general revelation,” and more specifically, that he distrusted Christian humanism and thought it a quest at best quixotic and quite possibly heretical. Turns out, this may not be true.

I should admit straight out that I have not read as much Barth as I should. I’ve been through Helmut Gottwizer’s 260-page selection of the three-kabillion-page Church Dogmatics several times, and I’ve read The Humanity of God and Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Hardly enough, it’s true, to make me an expert. (It may not even be enough for me to call him my favorite theologian, but I’m going to anyway.)

I think I make a pretty good case for my position in the post linked to above, both defending my position that he mistrusts natural theology and, in the sequel, giving a few historical reasons why that might be the case. I may only have half of the story, however, as I’m realizing as I make my way through Ralph C. Wood’s The Comedy of Redemption. Wood seems to have read every word Barth ever wrote five or six times and devotes two full chapters in his book on American novelists to the other great Swiss theologian, and he says I’m wrong:
It is a commonplace to say that Karl Barth’s work is Christocentric. It is even more conventional to dismiss his theology as antihumanistic. The aim of this chapter is to show that, while the former is incontestably true, the latter is demonstrably false. Barth’s theology of culture, far from being misanthropic, has a profound regard for humanity and all its works. Yet it is not built upon our native longing for God. Barth makes a radically evangelical estimate of human creation, rooting it in the Gospel’s own unapologetic claim that God in Christ has shown himself to be ineluctably for us rather than against us.
As usual, I have overstated the case, though it’s good to know that I’m at least following the crowd in my misreading of Barth. The major counterexample is Barth’s deep love for Mozart. He apparently began and ended every day by listening to a Mozart record, and “Barth’s study contained a picture of Mozart that was hung—as Barth always pointed out—at a slightly higher level than Calvin’s.” The theologian saw Mozart’s music as a major signifier of God’s grace and wrote what is apparently a very famous essay about him. According to Barth, the composer
heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow.
(To which I say, whatever. I’ve never liked Mozart very much, even though he appears to be the official composer of Christian existentialism, between Barth’s adoration of him and Kierkegaard’s long essay in Don Giovanni in Either/Or. I still like Beethoven, Chopin, and Erik Satie better.)

It is important that Barth is talking about Mozart and not, say, Bach. (According to Wood, in fact, Barth believes that “Mozart . . . is content to play while Bach is determined to preach. The angels may perform Bach when they are before the throne of God . . . but when gathered unto themselves it’s always Mozart.”) Finding theology in Bach would be easy; his music is full of theological themes. But not Mozart, who “did not intend his music, at least not his secular work, to resound with the praise of God’s prevenient grace.”

So Barth is finding echoes of faith in a work meant for a secular audience and written by a person who (by all accounts) was thoroughgoingly secular. This is, in fact, the task of the Christian humanist as I define it—to “demonstrate[] what surprising echoes of the Gospel can be heard within human creation whenever it is not made the basis for faith in God.” Barth’s trouble comes when we start with the secular work and try to move toward the Bible; this cannot be because “Only by first hearing God’s unique and saving Word spoken in Christ can we later catch its worldly resonances.”

This explains Barth’s antipathy for what he calls, in the Church Dogmatics, “Christian humanism.” The Christian humanist moves from the world to the Gospel instead of vice versa and is thus in danger of building Towers of Babel. Wood calls Barth “a humanist Christ rather than a Christian humanist. In the latter formulation, the noun always overwhelms the adjective.” (I disagree, incidentally, which is why the podcast is still called TCH instead of THC.)

But Wood’s final thoughts in the chapter are worthwhile to anyone who considers him- or herself a Christian humanist or a humanist Christian or whatever else:
Hence Barth’s refusal to set a so-called Christian humanism in opposition to scientific, existentialist, Marxist, or other humanisms. Because they are all abstract programs, says Barth, Christian faith must not seek to compete or to compare itself with them. The Gospel, Barth insists, differs from all humanisms not in degree but in kind. It “is neither a principle, not a point of view, nor a moral philosophy. It is spirit and life, a good message of God’s presence and work in Jesus Christ. It does not form some Front or Party either, not even for the sake of a certain conception of man. It forms congregations, and these exist for service among all men.”
Wise words from Barth, as usual—words that all Christian scholars in the humanities should take to heart to avoid moving in the wrong direction. Sorry for the confusion.

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