One of the chapters that I want to highlight from Bender’s volume is chapter nine, “Karl Barth and the Question of Atheism.” Atheism isn’t exactly an untouched topic here at DET. We’ve had a letter To my deconverted friend, an answer from Paul M. van Buren to the question “Is God dead?”, reflections from Gollwitzer on Christianity, Atheism, and the Existence of God, and even a post about Barth that addressed the question “Is atheism evil?” In this chapter, Bender takes up a number of the themes that appear in those posts and weaves them together by thinking about what “words” that Barth’s theology might speak to atheism.
- The first “word” is “The Word of God in Jesus Christ” (p. 272). This has to do with Christian particularity. Bender reminds his readers – by way of Barth – that any Christian response to atheism must be properly Christian, and not vaguely theist: “Theism may appear as a proper response to a growing atheistic secularism, but for Barth, such was fool’s gold. Theism may be an appealing alternative to a generic secularism for those who lament the loss of so-called Christian culture, but generic theism is helpless before a true idolatry” (p. 273).
- The second “word” is “A Word of Judgment” (p. 273). Here Bender draws on Barth’s criticism of religion to make the point that atheism is “but a new form of religion, which is itself a very old form of idolatry” (p. 273). This is why the proclamation of Christian particularity is the only proper response, i.e., because a programmatic apologetics “always takes unbelief more seriously than it takes revelation and faith” (p. 276). Bender is quick to note, however, that rejecting programmatic apologetics is most definitely not the same as rejecting “a hearty polemics within the dogmatic task” (p. 278).
- The third “word” is “A Word of Grace” (p. 278). Barth’s doctrines of election and christology, whose consequences reverberate throughout Barth’s thought, mean that there is a “Yes” to be spoken to atheists by God and attested by Christian theology insofar as atheism “is not left to itself to decide its own meaning” (p. 278). Rather, “God has eternally chosen to be with humanity in Jesus Christ and thus to be God for us despite our unbelief and rebellion” (p. 278).
Bender’s chapter concludes with some helpful clarity on Barth’s stance vis-à-vis atheism, especially as expressed in society through secularism:
Barth . . . did not see secularism so much as a threat but as a clarifying reality of postwar Europe that forced the church to confront the problems created by its having become wedded to culture and serving as its handmaiden. . . . For Barth, secularism was the shadow side of the church being the church, the lesser of two evils, the greater one being the conflation of church and culture. Therefore, as with atheism, Barth was less threatened by secularism than his contemporaries. . . . The great threat in Barth’s estimation was not the secularization of culture but the secularization of the church, whereby the church sacrificed its unique identity in merging with the society around it. (p. 280)