Thursday, January 17, 2019

On denying God

In The Christian Life (p185ff.), Barth notes that there are three ways of being ignorant of God, all of which are to an extent wilful, incur guilt, and are bad.  However, "within the badness proper to all of them we can think and speak of the bad, the worse, and the worst."

The merely bad, "the most primitive form of the ignorance of God in the world", is theoretical atheism. This atheism has always existed - it is not a unique fruit of modernity, not is it essenitally related to the growth of scientific understanding.  It is, as the Psalmist notes, foolish.  For Barth, the interest of atheism lies in the fact that it brings into the open the world's denial of God, which is concealed in the other forms of its ignorance.  It is also interesting because in atheism we see that the world cannot state its denial of God with nearly so much seriousness as it would like.  "The atheistic negation applies to a "God" who, if he exists, must do so in the same way as the data of other human experience or the contents of other human reflections exist for people."  (Think of Dawkins: God is a scientific hypothesis or nothing).  But such a negation does not touch the true and living God, who "is not a 'datum' of ours.  He is his own 'datum'."  So much for atheism.

The worse form of ignorance of God is religion.  Religion is worse because it conceals what it is really about, masking the denial of God with a "positive substitute".  Religions may be theistic, or they may be avowedly secular (there is no reason why secular things should not be venerated, promoted, in a religious fashion); either way, they represent a denial of the true God.  "In all religions, even the highest ones, or what are usually called the spiritual ones, we simply have surrogates in whose invention, use, and enjoyment the world thinks it can help to safeguard itself against, and to offer satisfaction to, the present God who is not known to it."  Religion represents ignorance, not knowledge of God, because it is always an attempt to avoid his self-revelation.  Idolatry is the essence of religion.

The worst form of ignorance of God, however, is "the attempt of the world to exalt its own cause as God's or, conversely, to subject God's cause to its own, to make it serve it."  Barth calls this the "nostrification" of God.  Rather than deny God, as in atheism, or seek to serve and thus avoid him, as in religion, we can identify ourselves with him, and therefore him with us, so thoroughly that we can throw ourselves into life with absolute zeal, confident that whatever we will, God wills, and whatever we do, God does.  "When the world is really shrewd, as it is not in atheism or idolatry, it tries to help itself in this way over against God."  The world finds itself much more secure here, having, if you like, co-opted God.  Objectively, of course, God stills stands over against the world, but subjectively he is subsumed within it, the world-God.  And so he is safe.

I would only add to Barth's analysis, that the most terrible thing about the nostrification of God is that it is the most prevalent form of God-denial, of the unhallowing of God's holy name, to be found within the bounds of the church.  And for that, we can only repent.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The known and unknown God

As is relatively well known, for his whole life (at least from 1921) Karl Barth carried on a running battle with natural theology, most concisely expressed in his reply to Emil Brunner on the subject, published under the title "Nein!" - which is in itself fairly clear.  But what is the natural theology which Barth rejects, and what does it mean to reject it?  I've been enjoying reading the posthumously published work 'The Christian Life', in which Barth explores the Lord's Prayer; under the petition 'Hallowed be your name' he sheds a great deal of light on what he is saying.

First of all, Barth acknowledges that God's name is hallowed in the wider, non-human created sphere.  "It may well be that the universe in its movements (besouled or not?) - from those of the heavenly bodies to those of the red and white blood corpuscles in our veins, not to speak of the infinitesimal units out of which everything is constructed - hallows the name of God infinitely more seriously than everything that comes into consideration as hallowing of this name among and by men."  And Barth is clear that this glory of God in creation may be seen.  So whatever it is that Barth is rejecting under the title of natural theology, it is not the idea that God's glory shines in the heavens.

Within the human sphere - in the world at large - Barth says God "is indeed well known, and yet he is also unknown..."  He means that human nature, and each individual human being, is ordered towards God; this is true because God is the Creator of each person, and so (quoting Augustine) "his heart is restless until it finds its rest in Him".  So God is known, necessarily known.  But all the structures of worldly life betray the fact that God is unknown - humanity as a whole has perverted the relationship to God which goes with their creation, such that human beings per se do not know the God who is so well known to them.  It's a paradox, which Barth eventually boils down to the difference between the objective and the subjective: objectively, God is known, in that each person is oriented towards the true God; subjectively, God is not known, in that this God is not acknowledged, his name is not hallowed.

It's worth noting here that Barth is not talking about a generic idea of god which is known in the world.  No, it is "the one true and living God who is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" who is so well known in the world and yet totally unknown.  And humanity, and each human, stands guilty before God for not knowing what is so well known.  "Man, not God, is at fault if a subjective knowledge of God on man's side does not correspond to God's objective knowledge."  God continually hallows his name in the world, even where human beings deny his name.  "Is not his name holy in every blade of grass and every snowflake?  Apart from us and even in spite of us, it is holy in every breath we draw, in every thought we think..."

So here is the ambiguity.  Humanity as such stands in the position of knowing God and not knowing him.  It knows him because objectively his name is continually hallowed in the world around and in each human life.  It does not know him because it is wilfully blind, will not acknowledge him, and is therefore plunged into ignorance.  This is real ignorance for Barth; it is not that everyone really, deep down, knows God.  The muddle is deeper than that.  To the depths, the sinful human being does not know God, just as to the depths they are continually confronted with the knowledge of him.

Now here comes natural theology.  Sometimes God overcomes our blindness.  Sometimes in the world God's name is hallowed effectively, the knowledge of God shines through, even in the most avowedly non-Christian places.  Far from wishing to deny this in his battle against natural theology, Barth insists on it.  "God the Creator does not contradict the contradiction of his creature for nothing".  God hallows his name.  But here is the thing: we cannot make a theology of this.  We cannot take these brief flashes of insight and systematise them, as if they were the basis, or at least a possible basis, of an understanding of God.  It cannot be so.  The objective knowledge may be there - the real hallowing of God's name in creation - but is the subjective acknowledgement of God present?  Not as it should be.  Not as it must be.  For Barth, the problem with natural theology is not that we do not have an object for knowledge in creation; the problem is that we do not have a subject.  The known God (really known) does not meet with a knowing humanity (not really knowing, in the sense of acknowledging, hallowing).  And so natural theology is impossible.

"As we search for a knowledge of God in the world that is unequivocally achieved both objectively on God's side and subjectively on man's, as we look for a point where his name might be clearly and distinctly hallowed on both sides in and for the world, we can think only of the one Jesus Christ."  And so he has to be a starting point.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

So, that was 2018 then

Just a brief retrospective from me this morning.

Personally, 2018 has held a number of challenges.  Many of these have been related to my position at Cowley Church Community (although on balance this continues to be a joy!), on which see below.  The year ended with a bit of a shock, as I had a curious episode which has been diagnosed as a probable transient ischemic attack (TIA) - essentially, a mini-stroke.  The episode was very brief, and no harm done, but it's certainly a shot across the bows from my own mortality.  So, roll on the statins, roll on the low-dose aspirin, roll on the 'lifestyle changes'.  I can report, having been forced to take a closer interest in such things, that all the food you like eating is poisonous, and that it is a sad business to have to moderate one's cheese intake over Christmastide.  Most fundamentally, I'm happily surprised to find that I really do look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come; one never knows, it seems to me, how much one really believes something until pressed a little to put some practical weight on the belief.  I am reassured.  However, I hope and intend to be with you all for a long while yet.

In terms of ministry, 2018 has been a mixed bag.  I continue to feel the fragility of our little church in Cowley - we are too small to be sustainable, and that comes with a degree of financial uncertainty - but on the other hand I see spiritual growth in so many of those who gather with us regularly.  The year has hit many of our church members with really hard things, and in the midst of them it's been a privilege to minister the gospel and see the Lord supplying faith, and with faith comfort and the ability to endure.  But whilst genuinely rejoicing at God's work amongst his people, can I be honest and express frustration with the slowness and difficulty of our evangelistic efforts?  Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?

In wider culture, I think one of the most important currents of 2018 surrounds the transgender debate.  It is striking that the elimination of the Christian doctrine of creation, having wreaked havoc in the sphere of human sexuality, now seems to be eroding something more basic: the idea of gender as a given, and thus human 'nature' at its most foundational level.  David Robertson at the FIEC Leaders' Conference opined that Satan may have over-reached here; certainly the reaction is interesting, and places biblically-oriented Christians in odd alliances with radical feminists and others.  One thing to note about the wider cultural debate is the effort to create an ideological space for those (particularly feminists) who disagree with the transgender agenda (so to speak) but do not see themselves as 'transphobic'; one wonders whether a similar space might not have been created in the sexuality debate, except that it was not politically expedient at the time for anyone to allow it.  We will see whether there is greater success here.  For the church, it is important to distinguish the wider debate - into which we must be free to speak boldly - from the pastoral response to gender difficulties which will inevitably crop up in a fallen world.  The church needs to learn to speak at two levels, but with one essential message.

Politically, 2018 has been a depressing time to be a British subject.  It is hard not to feel that the Lord gives us the leaders we deserve.  The interminable negotiations around Brexit seem to have reached a conclusion which is designed to aggravate all parties, and meanwhile much bigger issues (like domestic poverty, or the need to respond to a changing balance of global power) are ignored.  Personally, I've gone and joined a political party, for the first time since my teens.  (I think I recall then briefly being a member of the Conservative party, although I may be mis-remembering).  The SDP is looking to push its way back onto the political scene, and I felt inspired to join up.  The reasoning?  Well, it seems to me that when everything in politics is going to pot the responsible thing for concerned folk to do is not to disengage but to lean in, to put a shoulder to the wheel.  I don't think it's appropriate for a Christian minster to make too much of party politics, but I'll just take this opportunity to suggest you read through the SDP's New Declaration and see what you make of it; for me, the explicit rejection of intersectionality/victim discourse, coupled to the effort to find a sensible and pragmatic economic model, is compelling despite my doubts about some other elements (I remain, for example, unconvinced about PR).  But if not this party, could there be a party that you might join, and seek therein to have an active influence?

One thought I have going into 2019 is the importance of relating the passage of time to eschatology.  That is to say, to explicitly recognise that the sands of time are sinking; whether we're talking about personal endings or the grand ending of all history, each passing year (and month, week, day, hour...) is another step towards the breaking in of that dawn of heaven.  It is not in the past, nor the present, nor even the conceivable human future that we find our hope, or solutions to the great problems and issues of our times; but our hope is in the "fair sweet morn" of Christ's appearing.

Dark, dark hath been the midnight, but dayspring is at hand;
And glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel's land.

Friday, December 21, 2018

This particular God

Approaching Christmas, I'm pondering again what it means that God is revealed and known through the child in the manger.  I come back again and again to the particularity of it all.  The Christian claim is exactly this: that at a particular place and time, in principle a place which could be mapped and which stands in proximity to all sorts of other places which do not have this significance, and in principle a time which could be indicated on a clock and placed on a timeline with other moments, God the Creator was personally united to his creation in the person of Jesus Christ.

If the significance of that seems obscure, let me try to unpack it a bit.

When we say 'God' as Christians, we are not talking about a universal truth but a particular one.  That is to say, the meaning of 'God' is defined from this particular moment - with the human life which it began.  There is no generic god behind this event, no universal god, not even a god who - as one of the things which he decided to do - became incarnate at this moment.  No, God means this particular God.  No other.

That means that our knowledge of God must begin here, at the manger.  It's a scandal, because it means that knowledge of God is not generally open to everyone everywhere.  Knowledge of God is found in the face of Jesus Christ, as he lies in the crib and hangs on the cross.  There is no other way in.  Knowledge of God means knowledge of this particular history.  No other.

The implication is that God is a factor in our world.  The true God is not some sort of spiritual substrate, not a universal presence per se.  The God who exists is God-with-us, God in the particular history of Jesus Christ and therefore God in the particular history of my life and yours.  Living in the presence of God means living this particular life.  No other.,

But then there is also the fact that this particularity excludes other particularities.  A generic or universal god might be compatible with everything and anything, but this particular God excludes.  He is born in Bethlehem, and not elsewhere; the King of the Jews and not a generic monarch.  That means he excludes Augustus, and Herod.  His particular 'yes' is also a particular 'no'.  It means that justification before God means unity with this particular Saviour.  No other.

Monday, December 17, 2018

He must maintain and defend it

We tell our Lord God plainly, that if he will have his church, he must maintain and defend it; for we can neither uphold nor protect it...
Thus Luther, Tabletalk, 368.

It is a common theme of my musings on Sunday nights and Monday mornings that if God wants to have a church, he is going to have to step in and work.  Whether the Sunday service has gone well or poorly - and I am often a bad judge of that - there is still the realisation that nothing we have done is sufficient.  Nothing we have done can bring it about that spiritually dead people will come to life; nothing we have done will lead by necessary consequence to the strengthening of faith; nothing we have done is adequate to defend those who know the Lord from the attacks of world, flesh, and devil.

Indeed, the church is a very fragile thing.

One of the most helpful applications which I take from the Advent season is simply this: not only does the world need Christ to come to redeem his creation on the last day, but the church needs Christ to come to save his people every single day.  Because God wanted to save his world, he sent forth from the heavens his eternal Word, to become a baby, frail and human.  If God wants to keep his church, he must send forth from the heavens his eternal Word, again and again and again, by his Spirit.  If God wants to grow his church, he must open up the heavens and show forth Christ.

It is a humble but impertinent prayer:

Lord God, you have shown us that we can do nothing without you, either to maintain your honour, display your glory, preserve your church, or advance your kingdom.  In truth, we are nothing unless you send your Word in the power of your Spirit.  And so, we turn to you.  If you desire to have a church, if you desire to draw a people to yourself, if you desire to be glorified in all the earth - you must do it.  Will you do it, please?  Amen.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Advent makes Christmas

This comes with the usual qualifiers: you don't have to celebrate Christmas, and you don't have to observe Advent.  For various reasons, I think both are useful things to do.  But I'm happy that I can observe the season to the Lord, and you can abstain from observing to the Lord, and all will be well.  What I'm really talking about here is the concepts, or the realities, represented by Christmas and Advent - though I confess I don't know of any better way to keep them in the mind than the liturgical observances.  Anyway...

The Christmas story is constantly exposed to two great dangers.  On the one hand, there is the danger that it might be reduced to mere myth.  For those of us raised in Western culture, even in its post-Christian guise, the story is extremely familiar, and we were mostly exposed to it as children.  Thanks to the phenomenon of the nativity play, or the school carol service, the Christmas story has taken on a childish feel; all little donkey and no crying he makes.  Throw in some fantastical elements - angelic choirs, virgin birth - and you've got a myth.  A story of enduring significance, of deep meaning, perhaps even in a sense of great truth - but ultimately not challenging.  Not challenging because myths arise out of human experience, and can at the end of the day very easily be cashed out as something very human.  The Christmas myth tells us that, in a way, God dwells with all of us; the Christmas myth expresses the hope of universal brotherhood and peace on earth.  Annually we tell ourselves the story to remind ourselves of these deep realities.  We can live with the myth, even be enriched by it.

On the other hand, there is the danger that the Christmas story might become for us mere history.  This is more of a danger for those of us who take the biblical accounts seriously, who claim in some sense to 'believe' the Christmas story.  In a culture which largely reads the Christmas story through the lens of myth, we feel the need to stand up and say 'no, this really happened'.  There was an actual baby, real shepherds, wise men (not kings, it doesn't say they were kings!) with tangible gifts.  At the end of the day, I think this approach also strips the Christmas story of its challenge.  The birth of Jesus becomes simply one thing - albeit a fairly remarkable thing - alongside all the other things whic have happened.  We mark it every year by asserting its historicity, quibbling over any legendary elements that might have crept in over the long years of re-telling, establishing the core of 'what really happened'.  But it's still just a thing that happened, in the past.  Past occurrences don't confront or challenge me.  Of course events in history may have shaped the present world, but they are themselves trapped, back there and then.  We can live in the knowledge of this history, perhaps informed and enlightened by it.

The emphasis of the Advent season is not, despite popular perception, on counting down to Christmas.  It's actually about waiting for something more significant than an annual celebration: it's about waiting for Jesus.  Advent reminds us that he is coming, and that the one who is coming is the one who previously came.  It puts us in an eschatological frame of mind.  That is to say, we're thinking about ultimate things, the end, the final judgement, the redemption and restoration of creation.  And it turns out that is the best frame of mind to approach Christmas, because according to the New Testament the incarnation of the Word of God is not merely myth - a universal truth of humanity - or merely history - an important event in the series of world events; rather, the Christmas story is the story of the end of the ages.  It is a genuinely new thing, the first really new thing there has been since the creation of the world, not contingent on anything that has gone before, not arising out of the human condition or out of human history.  It is eschatology through and through.

And that is challenging, because it means that Christmas calls us, as we consider the baby who came, to also look to the horizon and see the King who is coming.  It tells us that the world is changed, whether we can see it or not, and that we are called to live in the tension of the salvation that is fully accomplished but not universally seen, the now and the not yet.  It confronts us with the fact that the child in the manger is our contemporary, that he is now on the throne of the universe.  He is not merely a factor in our being as human, or a factor in our history as a race, but he is the factor in our present being, the One who determines who we are and what our world is about.  He is the Lord.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Barth on infant baptism

Karl Barth makes clear that the main problem with the Reformed case for infant baptism is that it fails to distinguish sufficiently between the people of Israel and the Church of Christ, and it does so because it fails to see that in Christ the history of Israel is fulfilled.  This fulfilment, far from kicking off a new era much like the old, but with the role of Israel now played by the Church, brings in the end of the ages.  It is an eschatological reality, not a merely historical one, which forms the foundation of the church.  And seeing this gives Barth the opportunity to make the following sarcastic comments about infant baptism, which I share for your delectation.  His conclusion is that many of the problems in the church in the West can be traced to the fact that so few can remember their baptism and therefore really see their identity as grounded in Christ himself in his death and resurrection.  I tend to agree.
Instead, [the Church] began to act as if it were a natural community continuing from generation to generation and bound by ties of kith and kin.  It identified itself (on the plea of what was later euphemistically described as "Christianisation") with a whole succession of genuinely natural communities, and finally with the whole of the West, which came to be thought of as the "Christian West".  The freedom of the Holy Spirit, the freedom of the divine election and calling, the freedom in which Christ awakens faith in Himself and in which the Christian Church alone can be constituted, was no longer respected...  It was thought to be known in advance who would become Christians, members of the Church and members of the body of Christ, i.e., all children who find themselves within the sphere of the Church and are born of ostensibly "Christian" parents.  Were not the male children of the Israelites circumcised on the eighth day and thus separated as participants in the covenant?  And are the children of Christians to be deprived of a privilege enjoyed in Israel?  So the argument ran, forgetting the tiny detail that now that the covenant has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, it is no longer possible to foresee and arrange and anticipate the divine separation of participants.  With the generous inclusion of girls, all children born in a Christian environment were regarded as potential Christians, as though the Church were a natural and historical entity like Israel.  And since they could not be asked about their desire for baptism and required to make a profession of faith, they were baptised without making this question and therefore baptism a matter of personal responsibility commensurate with the freedom of the Holy Spirit.  They were made Christians by millions in their sleep and over their heads as it were...
CD III/2, 586