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.

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