Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Divine No Containing the Yes: Barth's Experience and Crisis Theology

With Barth, there was a deep sense of celebrating the JUDGMENT OF GOD. There is a sense of being shaken to the core by a reality beyond us but somehow concerned with us. It was an awakening to sanity, a deep realization of our creatureliness, and a confession that we were not the "masters of our fate," nor free to command on the earth. For Barth, it was a profound experience of the Otherness of God and the reality of that otherness as something that could be experienced both in prayer, thought, and deed that changed his course in life, and changed the course of many in the 20th century through his influence.

And, in contrast to Nietzsche who took any signal that human beings were not the gods of the earth as movement against life, Barth received this message of judgment upon human arrogance and presumption with gladness. Having gotten used to standing on the shaky plank of human wisdom and learning, Barth rejoiced as the plank had broken and he found himself falling into the deep waters of God's grace. Waters chaotic and powerful, but waters that were commanded by the One who ruled wind and waves.

For Barth, God had unveiled the falseness and emptiness of human wisdom, presumption and confidence. And, to receive this judgment put a man or woman in a crisis of the soul, because there was no going back to a vision of life that was not broken, no going back to a world in which human learning and science would get us through.

I have almost always experienced God's judgment as redeeming, as good news. It may be hard, but it is real and restores life and a sense of reality. In my next post I am going to back up a little, and trace where I came from religiously before encountering this new word from Barth and the existentialists, especially Kierkegaard.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Living in the Faith of Jesus, the Christ: listening to the early Karl Barth

In this post I am continuing the reflection about what it means to share the faith of Jesus. That may sound a little different to you as you might have expected me to say: "what it means to believe in Jesus as the Son of God," or "what it means to be a Christian." I certainly could have used either of those other phrases, but I purposefully choose "what it means to share the faith of Jesus, the Christ."

And, it will take me some clarification to say what I mean by this phrase. First, by share the faith of Jesus, I mean to "participate in the faithful response of Jesus to God, but also to participate in the faithful response of Jesus to humanity on behalf of God." It is this two way faithfulness of Jesus that creates the reality that we participate in, which we call "faith." In several parts of the New Testament, Paul writes that our reconciliation with God and our redemption from destructive forces depends on the faithfulness of Jesus, and our participation in that faithfulness which begins with complete dependence and trust in God's faithfulness towards us and in the miracle of Jesus' human faithfulness to God (and, humanity). Somehow,Jesus, whether acting for humanity towards God or acting for God towards humanity, is the revelation of true God and true humanity. What Jesus opens up for all people is a pathway to a deep communion between God and human beings. What human beings come to share in is the relationship between the Father and the Son. It is like humanity is being adopted into this close and genuine communion between the Father and the Son, with human beings being the adopted brothers of Jesus.

This sounds less like science fiction, or if it still sounds like science fiction, it has such a sense of family and intimacy that it begins to feel very "close to home" for us human beings. Maybe it just begins to sound "too good to be true." For, now we are talking about the Creator of the Universe treating small, limited creatures like us 'like family.' From outside the community of faith, and maybe also from inside, this might sound delusional, or at least like the imaginings of humans who greatly exaggerate their importance in the cosmic scheme.

But, this familial language really gets to the heart of the experience of faith. Paul says that we no longer have a spirit of bondage and fear, but that God's Spirit cries out from within us, "Abba, Father!" expressing the ecstatic love of a little child for his or her Daddy (or Mommy). This is written in Romans, chapter 8 in the New Testament.

But, in the early days of neo-orthodox preaching and writing (at the end of the First World War), this biblical image of the profound experience of unity between God and humanity was emphasized to reveal (expose) the depths of alienation that we experience between ourselves and God. And, this existentialist emphasis on alienation went further to describe the alienation between human beings and the alienation even within individual human beings from their own self. I think Heideggar(not a theolgian, but existentialist philosopher) used the term "thrownness" to describe the consciousness of 20th century human beings in the West. Thrownness is something like finding yourself on the ground in a strange place, not knowing how you fit in, how you got there, where you are going or how you really relate to anyone or anything around you or how to understand yourself.

For Barth, and the early 20th century existentialist thinkers, whether Christian or not, it was this deep sense of alienation that we all shared in the depths of our beings. For them, the confidence in modern science was shaken, the confidence in traditional religious orthodoxies was shaken as well. And, Barth thought that the sense of alienation was experienced in an even deeper way when a person caught a glimpse of this profound unity and meaning expressed in Paul's preaching about God's gracious embrace of humanity in Jesus, the Christ. Because, as Barth said, this profound sense of meaning and unity is exactly what we don't have in modern life, within or without the Church. And, Barth experienced and believed that it was in facing this existential crisis or truth of our existence that the way towards "faith" was opened for us.

As I have studied more about mystical writers in Christianity, and as I have become more and more drawn into the tradition of apophatic theology (deep emphasis on the experience of "unknowing," and of being "undone" and entering into a darkness of thinking and knowing and believing as the way of faith), I feel more and more that the early Barth was really giving expression to a deep "apophatic" experience, and that he was clearly and faithfully in the old sacred "negative theological experience" in the Church, but living it out in a new age.

When the young Barth spoke of this deep sense of alienation as it related to faith, and as the expression of a faith that so many 20th century human beings could relate to, he protested against the prevailing theologies of his day. Barth's position was overagainst the confident academic liberal theologians who felt their beliefs fit comfortably within the modern scientific culture, and overagainst the dogmatic and somewhat less academically secure conservative theologians who felt that their beliefs, though not well accepted by scientific culture, were nonetheless true to the old tradition, whether that tradition was found relevant or not by the modern world. And, Barth's position clearly arose from a powerful sense of the reality of God in conflict with the modern age, but also deeply in conflict with the Church in the modern age. And, there was no retreat from this reality of God, either by hiding out in some worn out orthodoxy of days gone by or by hiding out in some new orthodoxy of the contemporary culture. For Barth, who was shaken by his experience of the living God as he "reread" scripture and re-experienced what it was to live before God and with his fellow human beings, there was no avoiding this earthshaking, soulshaking reality of God's presence. And, the first thing Barth heard from God to himself and the modern world was a profound 'NO," a NO to human arrogance and presumption that had thought it was above God, or at least, thought it was self-sufficient. What Barth saw in the 20th century was at the very point that human beings thought they had conquered the mysteries of the world through science, human beings were on the verge of destroying themselves. In the most cultured, scientifically advanced country on earth had arisen the greatest enemy and evil of humanity, the Nazi regime. Barth's theology arose out of this experience as he was teaching in Germany at the time, and as he was exiled from Germany for his teachings against the way of the Nazis.

This extreme sense of alienation (thrownness in Heideggar), was an expression of life in the modern western world, and was an important part of how Barth and neo-orthodox theologians were finding their way to an authentic understanding of faith that they were communicating to people both within and outside the Church.

I'll continue these ramblings later in a third part, and with the next part I will try to say how Barth experienced the great "NO" of God to himself and humanity as the beginning of meaning in the modern world, as the beginning of a new creation from the ashes of the old.

If you have time to look on the internet, see if you can find a copy of Barth's sermon which reflects on the sinking of the Titanic. It was around 1916, I think,and he was a young pastor at the time.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus, the Christ?

I am thinking now about how we live out our lives and don't take the time to examine the meaning of our lives. One part of the meaning of our lives that is extremely important is what we believe about the universe, human beings, the reason and destiny of both. As I think of these things, I think from the experience of faith.

But, what is this faith that I feel a part of as it is a part of me? As I start to explain, some images come to mind: Jesus, the prophets of the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, and a long line of witnesses to a living faith that began with holy experiences on earth. But, how do I know about these holy experiences on earth? What is the source of my knowledge? There is certainly a living tradition that has been passed down in the Church, written and oral; there are the Holy Scriptures that are at the core of this tradition, but represent a norm to guide the tradition; and there is my individual and communal experience of "the Holy One." The Holy Scriptures speak of foundational events such as the Creation of the Earth, the creation of a people out of Abraham, the redemption of the Hebrew people from their bondage in Egypt, the calling of prophets and the witness that they bore before the people about the truth and will of God on earth. And, with the books written about Jesus and following his witness on earth in Judea around 2,000 years ago, we hear of a creative act of God of a new sort, the calling of a prophet like the old, but also unlike those who had gone before, and then we hear of the destruction of Jesus by the authorities of his day, but this destruction/execution/death becomes the revelation of God and the unveiling of a new relationship between God and human beings. The resurrection of Jesus is celebrated as the dawning of a new age, as God's Spirit comes to the earth among human beings in a new and personal way.

For someone listening to all of this from outside the religious tradition, it might sound a lot like science fiction. Someone might think: "this sounds a lot like some of the ancient mythologies . . . can a person in our day really believe that this "holy history" describes reality?"

In the 20th century, there were two basic approaches taken among Protestant theologians who responded to questions like these. One approach was the approach of liberalism which was to apply the tools of modern historical research and literary criticism and discern the kernel of truth in the ancient traditions and documents from that tradition. Often, all that was left was some moral teachings, with no real claims to truth about the basic core of reality. The other approach was that of neo-orthodox theology, which arose out of liberal theology but in protest against it, relying on a new dynamic way of reading the scriptures. This theology had its precursors in both the Reformation and in an existential type of theology like that of S. Kierkegaard in modern times, which rejected liberal theology while not reverting to a fundamentalist type conservative theology. To understand neo-orthodox theology, you need to read Karl Barth's writings, especially his early ones like his first edition of his commentary of Romans or some of his early essays like 'The Strange New World of the Bible,' and you also need to study some about the political and social circumstances out of which this neo-orthodox protest arose. Liberal theologians in Germany actually provided support for the Third Reich as did the conservative theologians, whereas neo-orthodox theologians formed subversive movements seeking to undermine the Nazis and remain true to the way of "Jesus, the Jew," as they called him in protest and claimed that this Jesus was the unparalleled revelation of the very being and truth of God and the truth about humanity as well. But, later in the movement when it came to explaining their beliefs to those outside their religious community, the neo-orthodox answer that Barth gave was that none of it made any sense until you had taken the "leap of faith" and were standing within the tradition. You either take that leap or not, but no one can give you any assurances or guarantees about truth before you face this crisis in your own soul, a crisis about the depths of existence, both within and without you.

However, I really think that the early Barth was talking to the world both within and outside the Church in the same way in the beginning when he spoke of "Crisis Theology," as an existentialist theologian (although he later distanced himself from existentialist thought). And, I want to go back to his early writings and the holy history of this movement of neo-orthodox or crisis theology in the early 20th century. Because, in those days, Barth bore witness to an emptiness of meaning in human thought and life, and he bore witness to it in such a powerful way that something holy was opened up - a new way was opened between the human and the divine, a new way that was a very old way, grounded in the troubling claim that God was not just involved in some way, but had revealed the Divine Self and Character in the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

The power of Barth's early language and protest was so strong that it convinced many that his critique of modern thought and life came from "The Truth," from God. I am convinced of this too, and was stunned when I started reading Barth in college, along with the reading of Kierkegaard. There is something in the modern soul that feels a genuineness and a freedom in Barth's protest. I don't know how to discuss belief in our day without talking about Barth's thinking and preaching.

Well, to bring this to a close for now, I had meant to say that the neo-orthodox answer to explaining faith to those outside the religious community was that the neo-orthodox just quit trying to make sense of faith to the world. But, as I was about to write that, I remembered that early on there was some real and earnest communication going on with those within and without the Church about the foundation of what it means to be human and what it means to live before God. So, I want to start with this, when I continue to speak of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the Christ in the next post.

Liberals, Conservatives and the Bible in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

I have never felt like a liberal, at least as far as theology goes. Because, for me, the liberals were always too much like the conservatives: they really weren't committed to the truth,but were more interested in their religious/political ideology.

I will have to say that I end up on the liberal side of most debates in the political realm in our day, but it doesn't bother me to be on the other side.

In terms of the views within my denomination, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., I clearly fall on the liberal side of things, but tend to have some real understanding and fellow-feeling for some of our conservative members who really are serious about understanding the Holy Scriptures. Because our liberal Presbyterians often fail to acknowledge some basic understandings expressed in scripture that are, well, very conservative if applied directly to our day.

I am very thankful to have the Bible, because even though some of it needs some serious reinterpretation by the Holy Spirit at work in us in our time, the Bible in general has so much room for freedom of understanding. When I have been involved in debates over the meaning of scripture in my denomination, the liberals just don't seem very interested. I wonder about this, since I know that many of the liberal Presbyterians are quite intelligent. I wonder, at times, whether liberal Presbyterians have not quit reading their Bibles, because they think they have got it all figured out. That is, they have it all written down in their ideology, and don't need scripture any more. Nor do they need the Living Word of God which is certainly above scripture as Jesus was above John. The conservatives in my denomination don't understand that the Word of God is above scripture, pointed to by scripture, but not contained in it. But, I can't fault them any more than the liberals, since neither group in its stronger elements knows what it is to stand before the Living God and feel a sense of nothingness. "Be still and know that the Lord is God." That is the advice I have for liberal and conservative Presbyterians. Enter into the "cloud of unknowing," in order that a knowledge might be born anew from the Spirit of God.

Thinking on a Sunday Morning

As I prepare for our worship service this morning, I am thinking about people who are trying to find their way to peace and a real experience of God, but just don't see the Church as any help in that holy quest.

These are generally people who stay away from about all religious assemblies. Now, there is another large group of people in our day who leave churches that are somewhat unclear in their teaching in favor of churches that lay it all out in black and white. Those who are looking for a church/pastor that is confident to the point of arrogance, and those who are looking for someone to tell them what to do are not the people I am thinking about this morning.

No, I am thinking about those whose spirits are alive and seeking understanding and seeking a way of reverence and celebration in God. And, what they hear coming from our pulpits and writings in the Church just doesn't ring true for them anymore, if it every did. I identify with these seekers, because in many ways I am one of them. For me, the ring of truth comes in worship and at Bible Study at times, and in conversations about faith and life at times, but for much of the time, what we do at church doesn't have the ring of truth for me. And, by saying this, I am saying that often what I say and even teach doesn't have much living truth in it - but, sometimes it does, but those times are just not often enough.

As I think on this, the "ring of truth" comes when we start admitting that we don't know much about God's ways and that we don't know much about our fellow human beings and how they experience God. Somehow, in this experience of not knowing, which is a genuine inner humility, a light comes on inside, and a living way of thinking and feeling returns. I believe that what happens is that our spirits become open to the Spirit of God who begins to breathe life back into us, from inside out.

And, it is this very experience of "not knowing" that opens the doors of our hearts and our churches to others. Because, when people see that you really want to know truth and live in truth, they want to join with you. When people see that you care enough about what is really true to admit that you don't possess the truth, then people begin to feel their burdens ease around you. Because the people of this earth who are seeking what is true and who are sick of falsehood (including their own) are tired of arrogance and deception and pretense in human life.