Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Karl Barth and "Wonderment"


Hemblington - All Saints [Link]

© Godric Godricson
For Barth, the ‘study of God’  inherent in the term ‘theologian’ is not enough to define his own specific perception of what it is to be a  ‘theologian’ and I want to say something about Barth and his view of "Wonderment".
Theology is ‘real’ for Barth and framed within the human experience of time and space rather than being a purely dry or dusty academic pursuit. Theological study is not some ‘fantastical’ pursuit or  the study of some heroic fable set in some remote and mythological time. Unlike the story of Gilgamesh or mythical stories from the Middle East, the history of Jesus is real for Barth and what may be described as the ‘Risen Christ’ is to be discovered and pursued in both an historical period but also in humanities  continuing encounter with the mystical reality of God. Barth is not describing a new 'Osiris', a death cult or anything other than the 'Risen Christ'.
The normal tools of the theologian in the study of the reality of God are not enough for Barth who tries to step outside of human experience and  who presents the concept of theological ‘wonder’ as a central feature of how the theologian may conceptualise  God and perhaps then go on to encounter God through Jesus as the second personality of the triune God.  Barth has a very clear conception of the role and nature of theology, defined in opposition to totalitarian oppression, that may be at variance with more usually accepted conceptualisations in a more liberal and ‘humanistic’ tradition . 
Hemblington - All Saints [Link]

© Godric Godricson
Barth may be seen to define ‘ wonder’ occurring “when someone encounters a spiritual or natural phenomen that he has never encountered before”.  
However, Barth indicates that the pursuit of theology  and  theological ‘wonderment’  leaves an indelible imprint on the theologian  and this is for Barth is expressed in terms that sound similar to descriptions of an ordination in that unspecified ‘indelible’ changes occur. The person who studies theology and experiences theological “wonderment” is said to be “afflicted” by theology. It is clear that, for Barth, there is an intensity involved in the study of theology and one suspects that in the ideas of Barth there is a personal cost involved in the pursuit of theology. Barth is arguably stating  that there is a cost  to the individual in encountering the Risen Christ that cannot be found in other study and research? Intense and committed; as the ideas of Barth undoubtedly are, how do we analyse Barth’s arguments and evaluate them? Certainly, Barth is correct in seeing that the Old Testament as pointing to Jesus as the fulfilment  of God’s plan, however, is Barth’s ‘other worldliness’ always helpful in an understanding of the nature of God and Revelation?  Does Barth diminish too much the role of humanity in his wish to describe the centrality of God? Hpw does death and seperation become defined for Barth?
Hemblington - All Saints [Link]

© Godric Godricson
Barth  introduces biblical stories about ‘wonders’ as evidence of the smaller lights that lead to the larger light. We may perceive the image of a finger that consistently and irrevocably points towards Jesus in a specific historical epoch. The signs and symbols of Biblical events are merely that; signs and symbols, all of which point like a finger to the divinity of Jesus and the cosmic significance of Jesus. Barth goes into depth about the manner in which Jesus fulfils scriptural accounts about the Messiah. Using the metaphor of “lights”;  Barth expands the concept of ‘clues’ that are there laid out and to be found by the theologian, all of which point to God.
The concept of theological “wonderment” is one which implies a single minded focus on the study of God to the exclusion of all other areas and in some ways Barth advocates a single minded focus on God which is commendable but which may also restrict thought and development. 
An evaluation of Barth and “Wonderment”  should consider the thought of Barth himself who in “wonderment” emphasises the eternal and unapproachable ‘otherness’ of God and how God (as the eternal creator) mystically points to Himself through Jesus rather than through the experience of humanity.  In his work; Barth points to the centrality of the Word of God rather than the actions of humanity. At Cana; human beings are the extras, or perhaps the little lights, that point to the centrality of Jesus and the greater light  made evident there. 

Hemblington - All Saints [Link]

© Godric Godricson
Struggles within pre-war German theology  influnced Barth and we must generally question  the effects of German National Socialism on German religious observance and the challenges presented to Christianity of all persuasions and ‘confessions’ by Nazism. Similarly, translation from the German langauage  may have to inadvertent emphasis on certain aspects when compared and contrasted to a more ‘Anglo-Saxon’ approach to theology. 
Barth appears to contain a particular intensity that springs from the German experience and which may not be applicable to other experiences of Christianity. Barth may not have relevance to others ‘theologies’ and in any attempt to place tradition at the centre of faith he may also restrict thought and change. Tradition is hardly likely to be sympathetic to ‘liberation theology’, ‘feminist theology’, ‘black theology’ or even ‘Queer theology’.
In essence, Barth’s works fit into a German speaking post war epoch when german theologians tried to exorcise the ghosts of their own past. Some of the ideas presented by Barth are part of this intellectual and historical process. Equally, Barth’s views are perhaps focussed on an overly traditional ‘other worldliness’ that reduces the need to consider the human response to God and the natural world.

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