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.


  1. As an atheist I was fascinated and surprised to see this ranked as least bad in your list! Where do you put agnosticism/indifference (e.g. someone who never thinks about God and, if asked, would say they've never really thought about whether or not He exists and it doesn't matter anyway)?

    1. I'm not sure where Barth would have ranked the agnostic. Perhaps he would have classed the person you're describing as an atheist - after all, the question can only be of no importance if God doesn't exist, so in practice if not in theory it boils down to atheism.

      I'm afraid that being least bad does not, in Barth's thinking, come close to being good!