If I am mathing right, we are now in our fourth week of Atheism for Lent 2023. As I wrote yesterday, we’re now delving into the thinkers who — let’s see if I get this right, too — negate the negation of the negation of the negation of the affirmation. Or somesuch. At any rate, we’re starting out with Swiss author Karl Barth, “arguably the most influential theologian of the 20th century” (Rollins, AfL’23).
Karl Barth belonged to the the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), which opposed the Nazi goal of a pro-Nazi German Evangelical Church. His Barmer Erklärung (Barmen Declaration), which he mailed directly to Adolf Hitler, rejected the influence of Nazism on the church and served as one of the Bekennende Kirche’s founding documents. He considered the fight against Nazi forces a Christian cause.
In his The Epistle to the Romans, a commentary on the Pauline letter, Barth emphasizes that our only knowledge of God is actually a knowledge of our own ignorance. (Sounds pretty mystical to me.) “God is the Personality which we are not,” the “hidden abyss” that calls us to faithfulness. “God” belongs to the invisible universe in which the visible, tangible, concrete universe has its Origin. To Barth, viewing the physical world and seeing God’s fingerprints on it is just common sense and should inspire “the fear of the Lord” in us.
Moreover, says Barth, the only way we can approach God is “the road along which Job travelled”; if we don’t walk that road, our concept of God remains ever superficial. The refusal to walk this road leaves us and the world “fugitive” and “soulless.”
Our except from Epistle to the Romans is fairly short, so I don’t know how Barth continues to expound. Peter Rollins, our fearless final guru, offers this observation:
For Barth, any ‘theology from below’ (meaning, any theology that arises from our observations of the world or from pure reason) inevitably reflects and endorses human values and political systems. Any theology that is not based on the absolute otherness of God will ultimately be a reflection of our own image…. For Barth, atheism is here a tool of theology in that it correctly rejects all our religious notions as nothing by conceptual idolatry.”–Dr. Peter Rollins,
Atheism for Lent,
From what I’m understanding, Barth’s work is part of “death of God theology” in that here, reasoning for God’s existence dies. We can’t use intellect to arrive at proof of God or comprehension of God’s nature; so really, I guess what dies is actually reason and not God? AfL’23 participant Grant points out that in “death of God theology,” we have to ask: does it mean God is dead? the idea of God is dead? the pagan notion of God is dead? God the Father as “reflected” in Jesus is dead? Most likely, the answer to all of these questions is “yes, AND.” It’s all pointing toward “the God beyond God” of Paul Tillich’s conceptualization, which we’ll get to later in the week.
In considering death of God theology, I can’t help but think Barth was taking aim at the “God” proposed by the Nazis. Whether directly or indirectly, the Nazis advocated a God who wanted the church to support Nationalsozialismus, a God of human politics who would serve Nazi interests at every turn. If you believe that your God approves a specific politic party, then it’s a no-brainer that you should support the formation of a church to worship this God. It’s a highly effective way of controlling a populace. And it’s a matter of course that Barth would have opposed it.
It’s still worth opposing today, some 90 years later. And as far as I’m concerned, Indiana Jones’s method of resisting fascism remains highly effective.