God Here and Now (1964) is a collection of addresses and essays that explore fundamental tenets of Christianity from a Protestant theologian’s point of view. Covering the gospel, faith, grace, the Bible, the Church, ethics, and humanism, it poses questions on what it means to meet God in today’s world.
Religious Studies, Spirituality, Christian Theology, Theology, Christianity
Introduction: A beginner’s guide to some of Karl Barth’s big ideas.
Many consider Karl Barth to be one of the most important Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. His writings have been characterized as brilliant and creative, and they continue to influence religious thinkers today. On the other hand, he’s also been deemed contradictory, verbose, and frustrating; his unfinished magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, has over 12,000 pages!
This summary, though, looks at one of Barth’s much shorter works: God Here and Now, a collection of seven essays and addresses on the gospel, faith, grace, the Bible, the Church, ethics, and humanism. It attempts to distill his complex ruminations into a simple, clear message on what it means to meet God today. We had to look into the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth occasionally to understand some of the ideas that Barth shares quite implicitly.
In this summary, you’ll discover:
- an exploration of God’s otherness;
- how the Enlightenment challenged theology; and
- the role revelation plays in Barth’s thought.
“God is the wholly other.”
Let’s start at the beginning. What is theology?
Look up the word in a dictionary and you’ll learn that it consists of two parts, both of which are Greek. The first is the noun theos, meaning “God.” Then there’s the suffix, “-logy,” which refers to a body of knowledge. Just as sociology is a body of knowledge about society, theology is a body of knowledge about God. There’s the first part of our answer.
But we can dig a bit deeper. The root of that “-logy” suffix is the Greek verb legein, meaning “to speak.” So there’s the second part of the answer: theology is the act of speaking about God.
And that’s pretty much how the Swiss theologian Karl Barth – the subject of this summary – defined it. Theologians, he said, ought to talk about God. Ought, though, presupposes that one can talk about God. As a young man at the beginning of the twentieth century, Barth wasn’t at all sure that was possible. Why not? The long answer is, well, long. Unpacking it will take us to the heart of Barth’s theology – and the end of this summary. But here’s the short version.
God, Barth insists, is der ganz Andere – “the wholly other.” God and humanity are entirely different, and the gap between us and the divine is a vast chasm. Simply put, God is heaven – and we are on Earth. We strive to know God, but God is the great unknown. God is neither a substance we can grasp with our worldly senses nor a metaphysical entity alongside other such entities. God stands outside everything because he is the origin of everything that isn’t God.
So where does that leave theology? As Barth saw it, lots of theologians had dodged the all-important question of how flawed humans can talk about a perfect, unknowable God. That dodge usually took one of two forms. They either fell back onto orthodoxy and argued that God was simply knowable through scripture, especially when it was interpreted by experts – theologians. Or they argued that humans had an innate capacity to understand God – a kind of spiritual sixth sense.
Barth rejected both those ideas. Scriptural orthodoxy, he thought, had been dealt a fatal blow by the Enlightenment. Of course, scripture was at the center of Christianity, but it wasn’t the hotline to God which many conservative believers claimed it to be. And as for that spiritual sixth sense – well, that suggested that it was humanity which reached out to God. For Barth, that was exactly the wrong way around. We’ll come back to that, though.
Let’s start, instead, by taking a closer look at how the Enlightenment challenged traditional Christianity and what Barth made of that challenge.
Immanuel Kant cast a long shadow over Protestant theology.
Thought is historical – it responds to ideas and problems that exist at certain times and in certain places. To understand a thinker like Barth, then, we have to recover the context in which he developed his ideas. And to do that we have to rewind back to the nineteenth century.
Barth was born in Switzerland in 1886. The Barth family was pious and philosophical. His father, Fritz, was a Calvinist theologian, and Karl grew up surrounded by conversations about the great religious debates of the day. In Protestant, German-speaking Europe, those debates were shaped by the legacy of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher whose name was synonymous with the Enlightenment. Kant’s work loomed over Protestant theology, and he was also a formative influence on Barth.
So why was Kant so important to theology? To answer that question, we have to take a brief detour through his ideas. More specifically, we have to take a look at Kant’s theory of knowledge.
What is knowledge? Kant argues that we can’t access reality itself – there’s a world “out there” which we can’t know directly. But we can experience it through our senses. If we only had our senses, we would experience that world as nothing but a chaotic medley of sounds, smells, and sights. But we also have reason, which gives us access to concepts like space and time. When we filter the empirical data from our senses through those concepts, we can make sense of the world. That’s knowledge.
But, Kant continues, the sensory and cognitive tools we use – our senses and our minds – determine what we can know. The laws of physics, for example, are knowable because they can be experienced and because they conform to concepts in our minds like space and time. Newton watched the apple fall and worked out what was going on using those concepts, which are accessible to all humans. If something can’t be experienced and doesn’t conform to such concepts, though, it can’t be known.
For Kant, this second category covers all metaphysical entities, including God. A divine being doesn’t conform to our concepts of space and time – God, after all, is everywhere at all times. Nor do our senses allow us to experience God: we can’t touch or smell the divine. Without such empirically verifiable experience, Kant concludes, dogmatic claims about the existence or nonexistence of God have no rational basis. We can’t know God; we can only believe in God.
Of course, we could also choose to believe in Bigfoot – another idea which can’t be an object of empirical knowledge. But Kant isn’t advocating relativism. God is unknowable, he says, but the idea of a merciful God who commands us to love our neighbors is a useful idea. Unlike a belief in Bigfoot, which is an arbitrary opinion, it’s rational to believe in such a God. His commandments are identical to the moral laws our reason allows us to discover.
To take just one example, reason says an action is only permissible if we can accept that everyone acts the same way. If we can’t accept that, we have encountered a contradiction, which is reason’s way of showing us the limits of moral behavior. The same idea occurs in scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that the essence of divine law is that we do to others as we would have them do to us. For Kant, these are two routes to the same destination – both reason and religion lead to us morality.
Barth accepted one of Kant’s most important ideas – and rejected the rest.
Modern theology, Barth said, started with Kant. What he meant was that theologians after Kant had to reckon with the German philosopher’s ideas.
So what was his legacy? Barth believed Kant had convincingly shown that God can’t be known like other things. That we can’t see, hear, feel, touch, or perceive God. Not because he is invisible or pure spirit, but because he is God. God is the subject – the active creator of all that exists. For that reason, he escapes our grasp and our attempts to make him into an object of knowledge.
In short, for Kant, God is the wholly other. We can’t make substantive claims about God because he can’t be put in a box and defined and analyzed by human reason. Where did that leave theology?
Broadly speaking, there were two camps of post-Kantian theologians. The first said that if we can’t talk about God, we should simply be quiet. To show proper reverence to God, they argued, one ought to stop discussing and arguing and interpreting, and instead ponder the divine in silence.
The second camp took a different approach. Kant, they said, had provided an accurate philosophical system, but he had missed something essential. They called it the religious feeling. This view was associated with liberal Protestant theology and its leading thinker – Friedrich Schleiermacher.
Schleiermacher agreed with Kant that God can’t be an object of knowledge. But we don’t need to know God because we can experience God. How, though? Schleiermacher argued that all humans have a kind of intuitive sixth sense of living in the presence of the divine. Of the absolute. This sense doesn’t have anything to do with cognitive ways of knowing the world. It’s more like the inspiration which seizes an artist when she engages with that world. Every object, and every moment, is a potential source of revelation. We don’t have to be able to make substantive claims about God, then – to seek God is to cultivate this “God-consciousness” and to be completely open to God’s presence.
Barth was deeply influenced by Schleiermacher, but he ultimately rejected this argument. Let’s see if we can determine why using an analogy.
Imagine describing a glorious sunset to a friend. In one sense, you’re talking about all the complex chemical and psychological processes that took place in your eyes, optic nerves, and brain. But to describe the sunset in this highly scientific way would kind of miss the point. What’s really interesting is the reality of the sunset, not your experience of that reality. It’s the real sunset you’re actually trying to talk about. In Barth’s view, Schleiermacher had missed the real thing. He was trying to talk about God but ended up describing the human experience of God.
Put differently, he’d put the cart before the horse. That, Barth thought, was a typical error of liberal theologians. So he parted ways with Schleiermacher. But he didn’t think silence in the face of an unknowable God was the answer, either. Nor could he accept Kant’s view that the ultimate truth of Christian doctrine could be discovered by reasoning humans – that, after all, seemed to imply that humans themselves could directly access the divine. What, then, was his answer?
To get into that, we need to look at the special role revelation plays in Barth’s own theology.
Revelation makes the impossible possible.
Let’s stay with that sunset for a moment. Schleiermacher has just given us a vivid description of all the chemical and psychological processes that occurred in his body as he watched the sun set.
OK, Barth says, that’s also how I feel when I see a beautiful sunset. But where do those feelings come from? We could say that we all have an innate sun-consciousness which attunes us to the movements of that star. But isn’t it simpler, and truer, to simply state that the sun itself provoked that experience? Isn’t that what we actually mean to talk about?
By analogy, isn’t it simpler, and truer, to say that faith – the experience of God’s presence – is provoked by God? For Barth, this is of course a rhetorical question. The answer must be, “Yes!”
Faith, then, comes from outside. It isn’t a human matter – it’s God’s way of making himself known. If theologians like Barth dare to talk about God, it’s only because God has spoken to humanity and compelled us to speak. There is nothing in us that leads us toward God – neither reason nor our sense of the divine can bridge the chasm between us and him. God is the wholly other, but he can choose to reveal himself to us. More to the point, he has already chosen to reveal himself to us in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s the miracle to which scripture bears witness.
Barth the Kantian continues to insist that we can’t know God. But Barth the Christian and theologian also insists that the impossibility of knowing God is suspended in revelation. In revelation, God becomes both the object of our knowledge and the subject who makes that knowing possible. He enters into us as the Holy Spirit and creates the faith. Revelation, then, is a relationship between God, who allows us to know him, and humanity, which receives the capacity to know.
That the impossible becomes possible through faith is at the heart of Barth’s understanding of Christianity. When we ask ourselves as humans what is possible, we run up against the limits of our natural understanding of the world. In this world, everything is finite and sinful and there are few grounds for hope. But God’s revelation bursts that apart. The impossible becomes possible; the dead can be resurrected. The impossibility of knowing God, Barth argues, needs to be understood in that light. It becomes possible when the God who raised Jesus from death wills it to be possible.
Here, we return to Barth’s core theme: the limits of humanity. We can’t will revelation – only God has the sovereign freedom to reveal himself to us. Scripture bears witness to the fact that this has already happened at different times and places. Faith means remembering this fact and trusting God’s promise that it will happen again in the future.
God reveals himself in the here and now.
At this point, we can circle back to an idea we looked at earlier – the idea that Christianity contains a kernel of universal truth wrapped in a husk of arbitrary doctrine. That was Kant’s position, but it was also a position embraced by many Protestant theologians.
This idea holds that the truth of Christian doctrine can be expressed in many ways. Scripture is just one attempt to grasp such truths. The Bible, then, is a historical document – an attempt to translate universal truths into a language that certain people at a certain time could understand. That means there are other ways of expressing those truths – ways more suited to the rational modern world.
Barth refuses to accept this argument. You can’t strip away the historical husk of Christianity and get at the timeless kernel of truth, he says. That’s like trying to teach someone Chinese by having them read German translations of Chinese books. The essence of Christianity – that which makes it what it is – can only be found in its concrete history. Why is that? To answer this question, we need to dig a little deeper into Barth’s understanding of revelation.
How does God reveal himself? Barth identifies three sources of revelation: Jesus the man, scripture, and preaching. But these aren’t independent and equal sources of revelation; they follow the order in which we’ve just listed them. Let’s break that down.
Barth once said that all his thoughts revolved around a single point: Jesus Christ, who is God revealed in historical time. It’s worth repeating that last bit – in historical time. God has already revealed himself to humans. Humanity’s existence revolves around this point, which divides history into a before and an after. All theology, all scripture, and all preaching by the church exist in that after, too. Christianity’s essence, in short, is the act of bearing witness to this real, historical miracle.
Everything points back to this revelation. When we hear the gospel being preached, the words that fill our ears aren’t the final point of reference. The gospel points beyond itself, to a higher authority, which is the ultimate source of its power. What it points to is the moment God acted for humanity’s salvation in the life, death, and resurrection of his son – Jesus Christ. All revelation, Barth insists, begins with Jesus. Scripture bears witness to this miracle, and the church’s preaching has to orient itself around scripture. All of Christianity’s truths are bound to this revelatory history.
That doesn’t mean that revelation must be spoken of in the past tense, though. Scripture and preaching point back to Jesus, but they are God’s way of speaking to us through living humans.
Here, God, in all his grace, mercy, and power, ceases to be the wholly other. God, Barth says, shows that he is so much God that he can also be not-God. He can descend from his unknowable heights and become something else – something that we can see, hear, feel, touch, and perceive. That “something else” takes three forms: Jesus, scripture, and preaching. Taken together, Barth calls these forms of revelation God’s secondary objectivity – the way in which we can know him.
And this is the miracle of revelation. God assumes the form of something inherently fallible and sinful – something human – so that we can know him. This is God’s way of speaking to us, here and now.
About the author
Karl Barth (1886-1968). Protestant theologian, born in Basel, who has been described as ‘the Einstein of twentieth-century theology.’