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Is Barth on my Side? Barth and Formation

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A post in an occasional series reading through Barth’s early Sermons:

In my quest to keep my theological reflection from turning into a dull instrument not even useful for slicing butter, I occasionally pick up a little Karl Barth. Not Dogmatics yet, still just some of his early sermons. But still, Barth.

My strategy is very well-thought out and systematic: read from cover to cover.

Today, Barth’s homiletical jumping off point is 2 Peter 3:12a: “Wait for and hasten to the coming of the day of God!” I honestly had no idea where the young Karl might take this particular passage, but I found myself nodding along with his points throughout.

The reader is set up with the questions all of us ask ourselves: Who am I? What am I to do? What should I do with or in my life? At this point, it feels more like a self-help book than a sermon. But, pressing on.

For Barth, these questions arise when we are no longer content to muddle through our work or schooldays. When the cycle of wake-work-eat-sleep-repeat just isn’t cutting it anymore. So what should we do?

We belong to God, so whatever we do (wait and hasten, or otherwise), this is our identity, our center of action. The problem happens when we seek to do whatever we do apart from God. The sin that has run through humanity since the Fall is not trying to be like God, rather we “wanted to be like God [cf. Gen. 3:5]–without God, against God” (29).

This desire to be like God without God means we will now face the judgment of God, yet still God’s grace is in the judgment.  For the day of God is that day when we will acknowledge that all we have and do are possible only because we belong to God and have been gifted so by God. God will offer a “No” to our attempts to run ahead of God, but the “Yes” of God will still remain, for we belong to God.

And the conclusion of this work? We should be amazed not at ourselves or what we do, but at God and all God does in and through us (31).

I’m still nodding at this point. I took a Barth class at Duke Div and throughout I wrestled with the connection between Barth’s theology and spiritual formation. At the time, I was anticipating a job at a spiritual formation institute, and now I am working in that job.

So, when I perused Barth’s sermon this morning, I was encouraged, even emboldened. Not only is God on my side, but Barth is too! Bring out the fattened calf!

But, then I read Will Willimon’s commentary on the sermon.

And reality hit like a thud. The experience was not unlike reading the headline to one of those viral links–“Eat all the hamburgers you want and live to 100” or “Doctors discover no exercise is actually better for you”–having a moment of ecstatic joy, and then realizing it’s completely without merit.

Willimon crushed my dreams by recounting how this early Barth was shaped by one of his teachers Willhelm Herrmann, who taught the only experience of God is possible in the encounter between God and the individual. Historical study cannot give us adequate knowledge of God.

Hermann and Barth were rightly suspicious of the attempts to reconstruct the historical Jesus. In exchange Hermann opted for this kind of subjectivisim, in which we experience God and gain knowledge through the indwelling of Christ. In other words, it’s all about the relationship between me and Jesus.

Willimon rests his case by quoting the later Barth: “‘human experience and human perception end where God begins'” (35).

So, turns out Barth wasn’t actually on my side. But then again, I’m not completely sure which side I’m on. I work in formation and am part of the Wesleyan tradition so I have a deep sense of the journey of sanctification and an experience aspect to the life of faith. But, I’m also challenged by Barth’s thinking and the deep confrontation at the heart of the meeting between God and humanity. God has offered us a “Yes” in the Incarnation, but there is also a “No”.

Is this “No” a no to spiritual formation? I’m not sure about that, but I do think it could be a helpful corrective to an overly individualistic view of formation that neglects the community/church.

I’ll have to keep reading.

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9 thoughts on “Is Barth on my Side? Barth and Formation

  1. If God arrives between Godself and an individual, why is history not an indicator (if not witness) to that event?

    • Good question, and one that is honestly above my level of reflection thus far. I’ve got a pinky toe at best in the vast body of water that is Barth’s theology so I’m not sure on that side.

      Is your question in regard to the comments on the historical Jesus or the post in general?

      Following Barth (I think), I believe history is a witness to the extent that the Incarnation, and therefore revelation, is an event that takes place within the constraints of time and space.

      • I would agree, and would hope that even the search for the historical Jesus might give some reflection upon that revelation, in varying degrees.

        To Barth, if history is merely witness to the Incarnation and Revelation as only in time and space, is Jesus limited to Time and Space, since he is the same yesterday, today, and forever? In other words, do we relegate Jesus (and therefore God) to finite history, or do we expand ourselves to the possibility that Jesus is the full Revelation of the Godhead, and therefore history is of the utmost importance instead of handicap.

      • I think Barth would agree that Jesus is the full revelation of the Trinity, but we do not have access to the fullness of that revelation. The event of revelation is still veiled. So, you can have it both ways to an extent, God has taken on flesh and so is in time in some sense, but Christ as the revelation of God Whois the one who is, who was, and who is to come.

      • I think my point should have been, when we talk about the historical (small h) Jesus, we talk about space and time and the limits and identity of being human, but when we talk about Jesus in Trinity, we talk about him in ethereal, eternal, and otherly ways. My point is that Jesus in history should be the full revelation of the Trinity.

  2. Barth is never on “our” side, but struggles to speak toward a theocentric theology at all costs. I don’t think he is speaking a “no” toward spiritual formation, but rather toward our ability to think that we can be spiritually formed without God’s action.

    Also- Willimon’s commentary in the collection of early sermons is at times helpful, but also comes off a little pedantic and reminiscent of his lectures.

    • Thanks for broadening my perspective. I have a tendency toward tunnel vision. And you’re completely right about the no toward an inherent human ability.

      Also, thanks for the reminder about our dear professor. “Okay…”

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