Thursday, October 13, 2016

And Now, A Word from Dr Karl Barth

Barth and MLK, Princeton, 1962
It's hard to find something quotable from Barth's Dogmatics because of the way the book works.  It's not just an exposition of a series of loci like a traditional dogmatics - it is more that each locus (doctrine) is used to tell the story of all the other loci from the perspective of that locus.  Or think of a vast, interweaving web of stories like Tokein's Silmarillion (multiplied by about 25 times in length).  The effect of the whole work just is in the interweaving and circumincession of the different themes - and quoting a little piece hardly seems to do justice to that.

Still, there are some nuggets and one of my favorites comes at the end of volume IV.2 - that is the tenth volume (if I am counting correctly) and we are on page 837 of this enormous work.  There are still three volumes to go but there is a sense that the end is approaching - not the end of Barth's ideal Church Dogmatics, which famously would have included a series of volumes V.1, V.2,... about pneumatology, but of the work as it actually stands, limited by Barth's declining health and ability to continue.  Right at the end of IV.2, which takes as its focus "Jesus Christ: The Servant as Lord" (preceded by "Jesus Christ: the Lord as Servant" in the volume before - see what I mean about his style)  Barth gives an extended exposition of the "love passage" in I Corinthians 13.  He concludes by vamping on "Love never fails" (verse 8).  Let me quote (at length, but still abbreviating significantly)

There is a particular emphasis on the "never"... ουδεποτε πιπτειν means that it [love] is the one form of Christian action which does not require and is not subject to transformation or absorption into a higher and future form, and to this extend to destruction.  In virtue of love there is already in the temporal existence of the community and Christians a υπομενειν [verse 7] - a persistence in the face of hostile forces....Love is the connecting link between now and then, between here and hereafter.  In the famous sentence of Troeltsch, it is "the power of this world which already as such is the power of the world to come."
You see what Barth is up to here? Perhaps it helps to know that one of the primary distinctions that drives the whole Dogmatics is that between God's redemptive action in Christ and "religion" - there is even an early section entitled, IIRC, "The Word of God as the End of Religion".  So the idea that there is something in human life that makes a "connecting link" in the sense that Barth describes here - after 8,000 pages - is quite a surprise.  Of course the point is that love is itself a gift of God, the highest gift.  There are many things of which we religious humans are quite proud, of which this cannot be said.  Read on...

[Verse 8b] "But whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away."  The futures [that is, future tenses] are references to the end and goal of the present age.  Prophecy, tongues and knowledge will then be subject to the relativization to which they are already subject as determined and seen from this standpoint... "We shall all be changed" - this is the future which already determines its present.  In the eternal light to which we move, prophecy, tongues and knowledge will be taken up into a new and higher form.   Their present form will certainly be destroyed.  Prophets will have done their work, and those who speak with tongues will no longer need to deliver their ecstatic utterance because the extreme case will one and for all have become normal.  And Paul definitely says of knowledge in v12 that it will not be set aside or abolished but will take place in a new and more perfect form: επιγνωσομαι... Theological research and instruction will then be outmoded. Demythologization [a long-running theological feud between Barth and Bultmann] will no longer be required. There will be no further scope for the investigation of a correct hermeneutics and debates concerning Law and Gospel, etc. No more volumes of Church Dogmatics will  be written.
 Don't you love the way this guy can laugh at himself and at his life's work?
Not because these things are vain and futile, not because they are ashes or wind,  but because they will all be genuinely real only in their telos or perfection, which includes the fact that their worth and worthlessness will all be weighed on the eternal balances, that the wheat will be separated from the chaff, that they will all pass through the refining fire of 1 Cor 3:12ff in which it will be shown whether the building is of gold, silver or precious stones or wood, hay and stubble, and there will be surprises in both respects for all theologians, both small and great, both regular and irregular, both orthodox and heterodox.   This wholly salutary relativization is the πιπτειν to which love is never, never exposed even there and then.  And when the Christian loves he [or she, Uncle Karl!] does something which is not exposed to this relativization but abides absolutely.  Even in the best of cases this cannot be said of [his] prophecy, tongues and theology in themselves and as such.
There are three more pages but I'll have to urge you to read them for yourself!  Here is the final piece.

(Thus) love is the "greatest of these".  It is the future eternal light shining in the present. It is that which continues. Whatever else may be revealed, one thing is certain, and that is that love will never cease, that even then the love which is self-giving to God and the brother [or sister], the same love for which the Christian is free already, will be the source of the future eternal life, its form unaltered.  Already, then, love is the eternal activity of the Christian.  This is the reason why love abides.  This s the reason why we had to say previously that it is love alone that counts and love alone that conquers.   This is the reason why it is the way.
 Okay, I've always loved this particular chunk of Barth (and I probably get more out of IV.2 than out of the other volumes I've endeavored, not very successfully, to read).  But with a diagnosis of metastatic cancer, it comes back to me anew.  Firstly, the surprising words "wholly salutary" referring, if you remember, to the Day of Judgment.  That ties up to my experience right now.  I find myself resonating with the Psalms which look forward to that Day.  Whatever is revealed - whatever surprises may be in store, whether good or bad - I am glad that my life will be open to the Righteous One, the Healer who does not have to rely on blurry images from X-rays or CTs or MRIs but who knows for sure where the malignancy is and how (and at what cost!) it can be removed.  Second, I feel a great reassurance in the "Love alone endures".  As people's lives come to an end, they ask "What of all of this will last?"  (See Being Mortal by Atul Gawande).  I know that over the past years, one of the key choices that Liane and I have made has been love for our child Eli.   And, yes, I do believe and trust that this will last when much else is lost; that this love for which God set us free will endure, "its form unaltered". What that means I cannot imagine.  But it is worth looking forward to.

1 comment:

Daniel Falk said...

Beautiful! This is a wonderful exposition of judgment as not a negative, but a positive confirmation of the worth of our lives to God. It makes me think of my doctoral viva. It was nerve-wracking and grueling, but yet the preceding years of blood, sweat and tears demanded it: it would have been anti-climactic to submit my dissertation and that is it. The testing affirmed it mattered. It was worth examining.