Thursday, April 8, 2010

Karl Barth (1886 to 1968)

Karl Barth, a Swiss Reformed Theologian, though Protestant was described by Pope Pius XII as the most important theologian since Thomas Acquinas. As a country pastor during WWI he found that the 'liberal' theology of the day made little sense in the bombs and suffering that was occurring around him. This lead to a new theological path sometimes called 'dialectical theology" because it stressed the paradoxical nature of divine truth – eg God is both Grace and Judgement.

He has also been associated with the "theology of crisis". The 'judgement' of Jesus on the cross is without understanding in human terms, to come to terms with it, one must have a 'leap of faith' and literally 'surrender' to God's divinity in acceptance. To quote Barth, "Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He himself is." It is when one truly surrenders and turns to the grace of God in all human endeavours on a daily basis, seeing the cross in all our personal struggles that resurrection becomes possible. This is living in the presence and ever experiencing the sacred.

I find this most interesting as it's the thread that had been picked up so strongly by early AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) thinkers who insisted that only through great suffering by loss, illness or addiction could one find the humility to truly say, "thy will, not my will, be done.'

Barth insisted that the Church rely fully on the divine and criticized the formulations that make God and theology appealing to the 'cultured' and 'refined'. Liberal theology appealed to the sensuality of man and was sanitized. Equally though, Barth considered Jesus' death on the cross as central and was called 'neo-orthodox' by his conservatives critics who objected to his arguing that those insisting on the 'inerrancy' of the Bible were putting forward another lord. This was a kind of 'book idolatry'. For Barth, Jesus Christ was the sole Lord of Christianity.

Barth who was associated with the Christian socialism movement said, "To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of the uprising against the disorder of the world." Barth was the principal author of the Barmen Declaration which rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity and himself refused to sign allegiance to Hitler. He argued that the church's allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ should give it the power to resist allegiance to other lords such as the Fuhrer. This lead to the founding of the Confessing Church which saved countless Jews during WWII. Christians sacrificed their lives daily by hiding Jews and when the collection basket was passed around putting in their identity cards so these could be used to forge ones for Jews. Bonhoffer, Barth's contemporary in the Confessing Church, was just one of the untold thousands of Christians who died to save the Jews from Nazism.

Barth strongly believed in Christian political action and felt pacifism, unchristian, in face of the horrors of Nazism, arguing that Christians who did not take action at this time, 'were not only sleeping on their Bibles but on their newspapers as well". He would later be associated with 'christian socialism' though argued against the forces that called themselves 'Communist' and those who called themselves 'anticommunist' considering both of those forces during the Cold War as intrinsically evil.

His watershed work was "Epistles to the Romans' and later his unfinished life time work "Dogmatics" continues to provide new insights for theologians and students alike.

In my own life I first heard of Karl Barth from Dr. Karl Ridd, my first theological teacher at University of Winnipeg, whose life and thought so touched my soul. He made me want to be a better man. I would later reflect that my Christian teachers like Dr. John White, Dr. Phillip Ney and Dr. Willie Gutowski would have this effect on me. Not only would I want to be a better student but I'd want to be a better man. The surgeon Dr. Ross whose teaching I was most thankful for and who I so admired would say 'it's in the way you hold the flesh that affects the healing' and I knew he was speaking not in technical terms but in the most human way where the sacred and secular connect.

At the time I followed my calling into medicine I'd been reading Albert Schweister, the Christian missionary doctor to African. I had also been studying the 8 fold path of Buddhism reflecting on it's insistence that individuals chose 'right action' in terms of career. I'd been a bar tender and thanks to my study of Buddhism at the time felt that this was not 'right action'. As Jesus was a healer being a doctor was a safer bet.

Later Dr. James Houston would discuss Barth with us in his Christian Spirituality courses at Regent College. Jim would agree and disagree with Barth but always admire the way Barth shone the light on some aspect of thought that brought us closer in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Barth is certainly the theologian to be considered around the time of Easter, this cross roads of history and calendar.

1 comment:

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